Sunday, May 25, 2014

Change and Growth ~ Acts 17:21-35 ~ Sixth Sunday after Easter

Image courtesy of dan /
After several months of working at the bookstore, I noticed a strange phenomenon: around 5:00 on certain weekdays, the phones would begin ringing off the hook…  Every bookseller would be searching frantically for a particular book, for which we probably didn’t have many copies…  I realized that this was the time the Oprah show was ending.  Very often, Oprah would host these authors as guests on her show.  The subjects varied from health, dieting, and alternative medicine to finance and spirituality—but the one common thread was that she promised that these books would change your life…

And boy, did the public respond…  Many of these little-known authors would be skyrocketed to the bestseller lists.  Some, like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil would go on to lasting fame.  Others would fade back into obscurity.  One author’s autobiography was found to have been fabricated[i]

But don’t we all want to learn or experience something that’s going to change your life for the better, whether we’re Christians or not?

In our first reading for today, the Apostle Paul comes upon a group of intellectuals in the Greek city of Athens.  The Bible tells us that the people there “would spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.”  Paul, for his part, was quite intrigued by what he was seeing.  He remarks that the city is very religious—as evidenced by all the idols.  Paul’s most curious observation was an altar inscribed with the words “to an unknown god.”

What we see here (and what Paul realizes) is that there is a tremendous appetite for truth among the people.  They are in search of a god that they have not yet found…

What Paul proclaims is that the God they’ve been seeking is already living among them.  God lives and acts in order to be in relationship with human beings.  God does not dwell in articles of wood, gold, silver or stone.  God dwells in human existence.  Paul then proclaims that all persons will be raised from the dead, either to live eternally in God or become subject to judgment.

In the end, some come to faith in Christ—and some don’t.  Paul presented them with a completely different understanding of God than what they had come to believe was true.  To some, Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the dead was downright ridiculous.  To some, it was simply too outrageous to believe that God cannot be embodied or contained in shrines or temples. In other words, Paul’s God did not fit into their “god-box.”  Yet we can be assured that those who listened and believed were dramatically changed.
So how well do we know the living Christ?  Do you “live and have your being” in him?

Even as we worship the risen Christ, we have a great deal in common with these Greeks in that God still remains so much of an unknown to us.  We all hunger for the Divine, just like they do—but who among us can say and testify that we are being radically transformed by Jesus Christ?  Who among us experiences frustration and even anguish because God feels so much as a stranger? 

There are a number of reasons why God remains a stranger—and why our lives feel so much the same as they’ve always been… 

For starters, we do not always like what he has to say.  We aren’t prepared for God’s Word to challenge what we’ve always believed to be true.  We’re not prepared for Jesus to challenge the ways we live—and perhaps dramatically change everything.  We’re expecting Jesus to confirm all our long-held beliefs—and congratulate us on how faithfully we’re living our lives.

How easy it is that we keep Christ at a distance—and allow for our lives to be controlled by our own aspirations; by the expectations others place on us.  How easy it is for fear to take control of us.   We’re not always ready for Christ to challenge what we believe, or how we live; how we give, or how we worship. 
But Christ lives inside each us through faith.  He has since the day of our baptism.  He lives in the ministries of his church; among our neighbors who need him most, and even among those who do not know him at all.

So transformation is never a question of if?”  Only how?”

Jesus is always going to be drawing you deeper and deeper into the Christian faith—so be prepared to be spending more time praying and studying the Word.  Be prepared for God to reveal truths to you that will challenge your long-held beliefs and convictions.  Be prepared for God to send you into the world to proclaim the Gospel and serve others in ways that aren’t comfortable for you.  Be prepared for God to bring changes to this church—in how we worship God and do ministry.   This congregation must be intentional about transformation; to cultivate the presence of the living Christ both within our lives and within our community.

Furthermore, our hunger for peace and purposeful lives should not drive us out into the pursuits and treasures of the world.  We must instead surrender ourselves to the loving hands of Christ who claims us as his own.  We must give God the control of ourselves. 

Change is probably one of the most terrifying words in the English language—but we mustn’t fear the change Jesus brings.  Change brings transformation.  Change brings resurrection.  God transforms us and draws us closer into Christ by comforting us in our distress, challenging us to grow in faith and mission, and then sending us by the Spirit’s power to the works of Christ. 

[i] Wyatt, Edward. "Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny." 10 January 2006. The New York Times online. Article. 20 May 2014.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mighty to Save ~ Acts 7:55-60 ~ Fifth Sunday after Easter

Image by thepathtraveler.
About two months ago, a new church opened near our home in Lower Burrell.

Immediately, one would notice it’s not your typical church.  It doesn’t look like a church.  It’s in a strip mall.

Through the windowed storefront, you can see the coffee lounge, the stage for the worship band, and the children’s rock-climbing wall.  It would appear that they have a lot to offer  to the un-churched families of our community…

Another church, a long-established mainline Protestant congregation, wrote on their sign “Pastor Bob sure can preach!”

A mega-church with thousands of members offers dozens of small group ministries for every need and interest. 
It is the fervent desire of every congregation to be able to offer something extraordinary to draw people to Christ. 

But could imagine a church growing if people’s lives were in danger simply by showing up? 

Today in Acts, we learn of the first major tragedies to strike the early church.  Stephen was a man who was full of the Holy Spirit, doing great wonders and signs among the people and proclaiming Christ with power and wisdom.  But not all people were impressed—particularly those belonging to what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen.  They argued with him.  They accused him of proclaiming that Jesus was going to destroy the Temple and eradicate the Law of Moses.  They stirred up the crowds to drag him out of the city and stone him to death. 

All along, a young man named Saul look on with great satisfaction.  In fact, Saul is now emboldened to go from house-to-house, throwing Christians into prison. 

Today, the Scripture brings us face-to-face with events that are as tragic as they are terrifying.  One would think that this was the beginning of the end for the fledgling church.  Yet, the church continues to grow by leaps and bounds—because apostles and the new converts proclaimed the Gospel with even greater boldness. 

There’s no mistaking the brutality and hatred we see.  But God’s Spirit is even stronger.  Stephen, for his part, will see the heavens opening up and revealing the glory of God as he dies.  His last words are spoken in forgiveness of his persecutors.  If all that wasn’t enough, God will take this most brutal persecutor, and transform him into an apostle who will bring Christ’s name before Jews and non-Jews all across the land, and go on to write much of our New Testament Scriptures. 

It’s hard to believe that the church grew and thrived in such a terrible time, but it’s true.  But today, the Church in this country is declining.  Rapidly.  Thankfully, nobody is breaking down our door to kill us or throw us into prison.  But the Christian faith is most certainly in danger.  It’s terrible to see the hostility towards our faith in the courts and the halls of power in our government.  It’s sad how our culture has taken Sunday, which was a day of worship and rest,  and transmogrified it into a “cram day” to frantically try and accomplish everything that we wanted to do in the other six days but could not. 

But I daresay the biggest threat comes from those who do believe in Christ and call themselves Christian—but simply do not make Jesus a priority.  There’s just too many other important things to do. 

It’s hard to make Christ your first priority when seemingly everybody is making demands of you.  It’s hard to give generously during a recession—and it’s even harder to give if there’s even the slightest doubt that you’re giving to a ministry that’s declining.  It’s hard to go out into the community and do mission if you don’t believe that anyone needs the ministries of the Gospel.  What’s easy is to box up our faith and ministry into something that’s comfortable and convenient and fun.

The truth is that the Holy Spirit has been let loose upon us, starting at our baptism. 

This Spirit took a bunch of ordinary people, most of whom were poor and uneducated, and transformed them into a community that boldly proclaimed Christ, and lived out his Word.  They gave generously and took care of those in need.  They loved and accepted one another in spite of their diversity.  They gave thanks to God in the worst of times.  They forgave sins.  Through it all, they prayed, they broke bread, they taught and learned God’s Word.  The Spirit carried them out into their communities, to bear witness to those who did not yet believe, and the community of Christ continued to grow and thrive. 

This same Spirit lives and breathes within us today.  We don’t need rock-climbing walls or rock bands to thrive as a church.  We have the Word and the Sacraments.  We have each other.  We have people to meet in this community who need our prayers, our friendship, and our gifts.  Even though we’re in a struggling community, it’s full of opportunities for Christian love to meet real needs. 

Jesus never promised it would be easy.  At times we’ll rejoice in our life in Christ; at other times, rejection, disappointment, and trial will pelt us with stones.  But the power of the Spirit will be made perfect in our weakness and struggle.  This Spirit is stronger and mightier than the courts, the politicians, the atheist organizations, and even those who persecute and kill our sisters and brothers in Christ.  The Spirit is stronger than the recession.  This Spirit is even stronger than our fears and our complacency. 

And God forbid, if you and I find ourselves face-to-face with those who will kill us because of Christ, God will be there to save us just as God saved Stephen.  Our God is mighty to save.  

So lose an hour at Bible study this week.  Lose some comfort and security and share your faith.  Let your priorities be thrown in upheaval by putting Christ first.  Lose your ambitions, your dreams, and even your life itself—and God will show you what life in Christ really is.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

You Shall Not Want ~ Psalm 23 ~ Fourth Sunday after Easter

Last May, I was shopping for a new laptop computer.  I was quite struck by the names the computer companies gave the various models: one of the more expensive models was the Envy.  It was branded as cutting-edge technology, with all the bells and whistles.  One of the least expensive models was called the Aspire; which I’m assuming is the marketer’s way of telling potential buyers “come on, you should want something more than this.”  I settled on a Think Pad, which I assume tells everyone that I think on occasion.  You can ask my wife if that’s true or not.

Whether we realize it or not, we are culturally conditioned to be discontent with our lives and constantly wanting more.  The lie we’re constantly told is that happiness comes only by getting everything you want.
So what strikes us as most outrageous: that money buys happiness?  Or the words of Psalm 23: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”   Which of these are you most likely to believe and then live by?

I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine life without some kind of want.  Now I doubt anyone here wouldn’t enjoy material wealth.  But there is still so much to want that money can’t buy: Health.  Good relationships.  A steady job that pays the bills and gives you a shot at the American dream.  How about peace on earth…  Communities without crime or violence.  Economic and political stability.  A life with no hurts, and no worries…  Most, if not all of us, know the want of at least one of these…

There’s much to want spiritually: a faith like Jesus; the ability to hand over all your cares to God and never worry…   How about the strength to face any obstacle?  The peace that passes understanding…

Trouble is, whenever there is a want, it can become a great obstacle to our faith.  Want creates despair, which is spiritually toxic.  Despair burdens you with guilt for all your bad choices.  It tempts you to despise your life, because others people are happy and healthy and prosperous and you aren’t.  It gives you shame for not being as successful at work or at home as others we know.  It makes you feel as though God has failed you...  One want can be enough to blind us to the reality of everything good that God has given and that God has created us to do. 

But Psalm 23 does not describe some pie-in-the-sky existence that all will seek, but few will find…  It is God’s promise that Jesus is your Shepherd, who loves and cares for you in every need and want. 
It bears keeping in mind that the life in Shepherd’s fold is no fairy tale.  Psalm 23 affirms the reality of death.  It affirms hunger and thirst, weariness and difficult decisions.  It affirms the problem of sin and suffering.  In other words, there will be want.  But that want will not escape your Shepherd’s knowledge.  There is nothing that can happen that will keep you from the care and keeping of your Shepherd.  Even if you die, your Shepherd will raise you up again. 

This is the trust that the devil will be working hard to break—and the devil will exploit every single want to tempt you to believing that God has failed you.  That you’ve been cheated.  The devil will also tempt you to believe that you’re a failure; that your life isn’t worth living; and that you won’t make it through whatever dark trials you’re facing. 

But Psalm 23 is a beautiful song of truth in the face of so many lies told by the devil and the materialistic, self-centered world.  This is God’s Word telling us what the living Christ is doing in our lives, in response to our wants.  And let’s be clear—Jesus isn’t going to satisfy any want that’s going to drive us away from him.  Instead, Jesus will take your wants in hand, and provide for you in ways that will bring you closer to him.  Even if you need Jesus to come and save you from the mess of your own making, he will do that too.  He will forgive you. 

So challenge yourself this week to let this beautiful Psalm be the beautiful gift of truth that it is.  Think of every want in your life, and name them all one by one to God.  Then meditate upon this Psalm.  Read it.  Pray it.  Sing it.  Then when you’re done, think of all the good gifts God gives.  Write them down.  Tell someone.  God will amaze you. 

Pray this Psalm for the world, too—because this world is Jesus’ pasture, in spite of all its many flaws.  There are sheep who know tremendous wants.   Put yourself and the good gifts God gives you into Jesus’ hands, so he can use them to tend to these sheep. 

The way to a life of peace and joy comes not by getting everything you want, but living in the care of our Good Shepherd.   God’s will is for all people to want nothing else, nothing else, because you are loved and cared for by Jesus.  Since this is God’s will, we can all take comfort that God’s will shall indeed be done.  

Friday, May 9, 2014

Wrestling with God ~ Bible Study blog for Thursday, May 8

We continued our discussion of the drama between brothers Jacob and Esau.  When these twin sons were born, Esau was born first with Jacob gripping his brother’s heel.   Jacob proved to be a trickster, scheming for his brother to sell him his first-born right for a bowl of stew, and disguising himself as his Esau to gain his dying father’s blessing.  Esau becomes so angry at his Jacob’s actions that he plans to kill him.  So their mother Rebekah sends Jacob to her brother Laban and his family, where he falls in love with Laban’s second-born daughter Rachel.  It is here that Jacob will get his comeuppance: Laban agrees to give him Rachel’s hand in marriage after working for him for seven years.  When the seven years is completed, Laban gives Jacob his other, first-born daughter Leah instead—and requires Jacob to work for him for another seven years before he will give him Rachel. 

Later, God commands to return to the land of his ancestors—which means that he must face his brother.  Jacob prepares a large gift of livestock and servants to win his brother’s favor—while knowing that Esau may make good on his threat to kill him.  Fortunately, the brothers reconcile.

Prior to their reconciliation, Jacob encounters a stranger who wrestles with him.  When the stranger fails to prevail against Jacob,  the stranger renames him “Israel”—because Jacob has wrestled with humans and with God and has prevailed.  Jacob had seen God face-to-face, and his life was preserved.  Jacob is the only person to ever see God and survive.

The history of God’s people is a history of human beings wrestling with God and other people.  It’s amazing to look back through the Bible, and through entire millennia to the present time, and to consider how greatly people have tried to destroy the People of God.  Egypt attempted to destroy God’s people in slavery; Babylon attempted to destroy them in exile, and later the Roman Empire attempted to destroy Christianity.  Through centuries of persecutions, corruptions within Christianity, and the Holocaust, the world has been unsuccessful in destroying both Christianity and Judaism.  God’s people continue to prevail, by grace.

So much of the Christian life is a wrestling with God.  Our heartbreaks, disappointments, and trials wreak havoc upon our faith.  We sin, suffer the consequences of those sins, and question how God could ever love us again.  Sometimes the pain and fear become so great that faith basically dies.  But by grace, we prevail.  Even if our faith dies, it is not beyond the power of the Holy Spirit to re-create it, stronger and more assured than before. 

We affirmed that God is not the source of suffering—because sin and death are God’s enemies.  But when they strike, God can use the trials they create as discipline—the kind of discipline that strengthens and refines our faith.  Through trials, God forms us into the people God desires for us to be.  By grace, we will prevail against every single one—even death itself. 

As we continue our journey through the Word, we will see God’s people prevailing by grace against unspeakable evils, hurts, and even their own failures. 

Join us for our next Bible study on Thursday, May 22 at 7:00.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

W.I.J.D.? ~ Luke 24::13-35 ~ Third Sunday of Easter

During my teenage years, these WWJD wristbands were showing up on just about everyone who was a Christian—and even many who were not.  These four letters, asking “What would Jesus do?” functioned as a kind of moral compass for living in a world full of temptations.  For once, it was “cool” to love Jesus!

But the question “what would Jesus do” wasn’t really on the minds  of his disciples in the days after his death.   They were simply trying to make sense of the fact that he was now dead.  They were trying to make sense of his teachings, his deeds of power, and their hopes that “he was the one who would redeem Israel.”  So there was no shortage of disappointment and anguish here.  And then, the women came along and told them that Jesus’ body was gone from the tomb, and that angels told them he was alive.  For them, that was just too outrageous to believe.

Then, as two of them walked along on the road to Emmaus, they meet a man who asks them what they’re talking about.  It’s Jesus—but they don’t know it’s him.  That is, until Jesus begins to explain what had been written of him in the Scriptures.  Later, they sit down, break bread together, and the instant that they realize that the man is Jesus, he disappears from sight. 

Later on, they go to the eleven disciples and tell them the big news—and Jesus appears again!  Still, they cannot believe what they’re seeing.  It must be a ghost; a spirit; anything but Christ in the flesh  Then, Jesus says, “why are you scared?  Why do you doubt?”

Are we any different from them?  Do we believe Jesus is alive—and just as importantly, do we believe he’s with us?  Closer to us than a bright-colored wristband, or a cross on our neck?  And are we really mindful of him as he walks with us?

There is always, of course, the problem of simply not believing that he’s with us.  Fears and doubts speak so loudly, in the wake of disappointments, heartbreaks, and unanswered prayers.  How often it is that we’re desperate for that “peace that passes understanding” that only Jesus can give, but still we tremble, anxious and afraid.

But there’s another reason why we do not experience his presence.  Look at how busy we are: how much we have to do with so little time we have to do it.   We multi-task just about everything we do, turning our cars into offices and living rooms.  TVs, cell-phones, other portable electronic devices constantly call out for our attention.  We rush about with expectations to meet, plans to keep, and hopes to squeeze what little fun out of life we possibly can.  We simply don’t make time for Jesus. 

So, the real problem here is not the question of whether or not Jesus is with us.  The problem is our mindfulness of Jesus; or rather, or lack of mindfulness of Jesus and his Word.

But this doesn’t stop Jesus from showing up, and making his presence known.  The doubt and disbelief of the disciples was no match for Jesus.  He opened their eyes to see him.  Immediately, they became mindful of how their hearts burned as he spoke with them on the road. 

You see, Jesus doesn’t stand at the door of your life and knock.  Jesus walks right through it, fully determined that you know him and live in relationship to him.  He knows the tremendous power of fear and doubt.  He knows how noisy the world can be.  And he loves us too much to exist as an afterthought or a faint hope.  He is with us to forgive our sins and turn our hearts to God; to calm our fears and bind up our brokenness; and to draw us into the peace that passes understanding.  Jesus is reclaiming this world and its people as his own.  Death and the devil aren’t going to destroy it.

So how can we become more mindful of Jesus?  How can we live so that he’s truly the Lord of our lives and our days?

Surely the question “what would Jesus do” can help to guide us through life’s temptations.  But today’s Gospel calls for a much bigger question than that…  What is Jesus doing?  We know he’s here!  So what is he doing in love for you ad for your neighbor?  What is he doing to reveal his compassion and mercy to the world?

Today, Jesus challenges us all to consider how we can be more mindful of his presence in daily life.  This isn’t easy.  It takes time.  It takes commitment.  It takes surrender, in confessing how desperately we need him.  But Jesus wants to be known.  This can be done.

We have to be people of the Word.  We must read it, learn it, and know it, through and through. 

We must eat at his table—because he reveals himself in the breaking of the bread.  We don’t partake of holy communion each week because it’s tradition.  We come because of his promises.

Thirdly, we must come together as Christ’s Body.  We each have an important role to play in each other’s lives.  We build each other up in faith—which we do as we pray, we encourage, and we support.

But there’s more Jesus invites us to do then these.  We must pray.  And as we pray, we must think back other the day, and ponder the good that he’s given to us.  We must pray with a readiness to do good by him in the future. 

I’m including a prayer I love to pray every night that keeps this in focus—which comes from the Night Prayer service in our hymnal, which goes like this:

Gracious God, we give you thanks for the day, especially for the good we were permitted to give and to receive; the day is now past and we commit it to you. We entrust to you the night; we rest securely, for you are our help, and you neither slumber nor sleep; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

There is always good to do and to receive—because Jesus is with us.  We cannot control of influence how Jesus will show up or what he will do.  But still, what comfort that comes in knowing he’s with us.  Mindfulness of Jesus begins by trusting Jesus—and being prepared to do good in his name when he calls you by yours.