Sunday, May 31, 2015

Birth, Bath, and Beyond: John 3:1-17 - Holy Trinity Sunday

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."  3Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."  4Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"  5Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'  8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  9Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"  10Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
             11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
             16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
             17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (NRSV)

Visiting Amish country two weeks ago, I was reminded of some tourists taking an Amish buggy ride.  One of them asks their Amish driver: “what do you think is the biggest difference between you and me?”

Without a second of hesitation, he asks her, “Do you own a television?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Could you live without television?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says.

“So are you going to go home and get rid of your television?”

The woman and her fellow tourists sat in stunned silence for a moment, until the buggy driver said, “that is the biggest difference between you and me.”

I can’t help but think of that story as it’s now time for Elizabeth and me to renegotiate our cable service.  Every year, we ask, “could we live without it?”  We, too, answer “yes”—but we don’t let it go.  We just keep paying the cable company more and more.  Instead of making one decision that could change our lives for the better, we make the easy decision—and nothing changes (except the cable bill)…

Nicodemus faced the same kind of decision point in today’s Gospel.  Here was a man who reached the top of the Jewish economy.  He was a Pharisee—widely-recognized as the authority on religious truth.  What’s more was that he was a member of the Sanhedrin—the highest legal, legislative, and judicial body of the Jews.  He had it made, and he knew it—until Jesus came along…

Jesus, the man whom John the Baptist proclaims as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus, the man who turned water into wine…  Jesus, the man who drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, during Passover… Jesus, the man Nicodemus knows to be
“a teacher who has come from God.”

But Jesus has nothing for Nicodemus in the way of congratulations for all he’s achieved.  Instead, Jesus drops a bombshell: “no one will see the kingdom if God unless they are born from above.” 

Understandably, Nicodemus questions this.  After all—how can anyone be born a second time?

But this isn’t a bodily birth.  This is spiritual birth—a birth of faith into the eternal reign of God—that comes only by the Holy Spirit. 

This is the most devastating good news Nicodemus will ever hear.  Life in the Kingdom of God is a gift freely given to everyone, including him.  But this great gift—which costs Jesus his life—will cost Nicodemus too.  The truth is that his position and all his achievements within the religious economy aren’t worth bupkes.  Everything he’s ever learned, taught, believed, and practiced, is wrong. 

Nicodemus the Pharisee must die—so the Nicodemus that God created him to be can be born from above.  Jesus has brought him to decision point: will he walk away from Jesus and return to life as he’s always known it?  Or, will he be reborn through Jesus into a completely new life?

Jesus brings us all face-to-face with the decision points such as these—where we’re choosing between the easy, familiar, and predictable life we’ve always known, versus a life of complete dependence on God’s grace. 

Truth be told, we’d all rather live the kind of life where we can choose what’s good for us—and what’s not.  We choose our priorities—and we choose how to accommodate God in our lifestyle.  Control is the idol we covet more than anything else—to have total control over our lives, our relationships, our careers, our destiny…  You name it…

But we only fool ourselves—and here’s the proof: how often do you say “I’m busy?”  I’m amazed how many times I’ve said those words in the past week.  I’m willing to bet, that for most of us, this is the number one reason we leave Jesus’ gift of new life on the table… 

But the truth us, the life we live is not the life God desires.  We are not in control of our lives, our circumstances, or our destiny.  We can’t control God. 

But new birth happens when we embrace this one spiritual truth: apart from God, we’re nothing.  We’re sinners worthy of hell.  We’re mortal.  All is lost. 

This is a very vulnerable place to be—but this is where grace begins. 

I’m absolutely positive that our exhaustion, our frustration, our anxiety—is our hunger for new life.  Today, Jesus is here—that you may receive it.  He’s here to wash you anew in the waters of your baptism, to cleanse you of sin and all that draws us away from him. 

And there are two powerful ways you’ll see this new life.  First: look at your pocket book, your schedule book; the things you need to have and do to be happy and feel in control?  If you walk out of here today thinking that nothing in your life needs to be changed, all fine and good—but new birth will stay far off.  But when you let go, you’re letting God be in control—letting God work in you that which you could never do yourself. 

Rebirth also comes in those moments of taking on.  Because God’s in control—we are free to take on the commitment to discipleship—that is serving, sharing, and growing.  Sometimes the things that are most difficult to do are the things through which Christ will transform us in the most spectacular ways.

Believe me when I say that Jesus will be meeting you even today, challenging you to serve, to love, and let go—and be reborn.  Don’t let the status quo be the status quo.  Be washed, reborn—and receive a life that’s beyond anything you’ve ever known.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost Tongues: Acts 2:1-21 -- Day of Pentecost

firebouquet” Creative Commons Image by tofu minx on flickr
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
             5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."  12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  13But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
             14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.  16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
             17'In the last days it will be, God declares,
            that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
            and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
            and your young men shall see visions,
            and your old men shall dream dreams.
  18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
            in those days I will pour out my Spirit;and they shall prophesy.
  19And I will show portents in the heaven above
            and signs on the earth below,blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
  20The sun shall be turned to darkness
            and the moon to blood,before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
  21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' (NRSV)
Early on in our relationship, Elizabeth and I had to get used to how we spoke of some things…  I’m from Western Pennsylvania, while she’s a Pennsylvania Dutch girl.

What I call “hot dog buns,” she calls “hot dog rolls.”

I call people “ornery,” she says they’re “on-ree.”

What I call “chipped-chopped ham,” she calls “not suitable for human consumption?”

And the crown jewel of them all: I drink “pop,” while she drinks “soda.”

Isn’t it funny how language works?  Two people can speak the same words—and mean two different things.  In Western Pennsylvania, you ask for soda, you’ll be given directions to the nearest Dairy Queen.  In Eastern Pennsylvania, you ask for pop—and you’ll be meeting someone’s dad.

That’s the truth about language: it’s born in communities.  It binds people together.  On that same token, if you don’t speak the language, you’ll be lost in a sea of humanity…

On the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, you have a vast crowd of people of languages and ethnicities too numerous to name. 

Here in this vast crowd are people of lands and tongues too numerous to name.  Then, all of the sudden, “tongues of fire” appear on them—and they speak the Gospel in other language.   Instantly, the language barrier is incinerated.  No longer will the Gospel be confined to Aramaic-speaking Jews.  The Christian faith will now transcend the otherwise impermeable boundaries of language, ethnicity, and geography.

This is important because “the Jesus movement” was on the verge of extinction.  Jesus has ascended to heaven.  He’s gone—leaving his disciples and a small band of followers behind, frightened and uncertain over what the future will hold.  There was the very real possibility that they would die for their faith in Jesus—and that the Christian faith would die with them. 

Thankfully, our faith isn’t putting us in mortal danger—but our faith and the life our church certainly is.  There isn’t a single person here who wouldn’t be lost without Jesus Christ.  There is nothing in our lives more precious than him—but as we watch churches close left and right, we can’t help but ask: “will our church survive?”  “Will our faith survive?”

Our church works so hard to serve our community.  We do outreach.  We have youth and children’s ministries.  We have Bible study and Sunday school.  We have great worship.  So why don’t people come?

Then, when you see the megachurches out on Route 28 packed to the doors, you wonder “what are we doing wrong?”

It all comes down to this: how can we communicate the truth about Jesus Christ that people need to hear in a ways that are relevant and meaningful?

The answer is: we need the Holy Spirit.  We can’t do it on our own.  We can flood our calendar with programs, put an LED sign on the front lawn, bring in a professional praise band—but razzle-dazzle doesn’t speak the Gospel.  People do.

The church born at Pentecost was built of relationships.  It didn’t matter the language or the nationality.  The Spirit animated the people with the words and the deeds that in turn bound them to Jesus Christ and each other.  This is God’s work—and God is far from finished.

So our Pentecost begins with this question: Why is Jesus precious to you?  Why is your church precious to you?  In what ways are the gospel promises coming true in your life?  In our stress-filled lives, we don’t take the time to do this—and that’s a shame.  We don’t take time to reflect, to remember, to give thanks.  It is in remembering the God who was that we can trust the God who will be.  Make no mistake—your testimony of God’s works in your life that’s going to be meaningful to your neighbors. 

But that’s not all…  In order to speak the truth, we must live the truth.   We must forgive sins and love unconditionally.  We must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Love and humility speak the truth of the Gospel like no words could ever do.

I think the hardest part of living in the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit is always bring and creating change—and we change about as easily as we learn new languages.  A language of faith that’s meaningful for new generations may be totally foreign to us—while at the same time, the language of faith that’s meaningful to us may be foreign to everyone else.  

There’s a reason why we don’t read King James Bibles in church: people don’t understand it.  People don’t speak it.  That’s how it is for us. 

Do you notice how the Holy Spirit changes the insiders to speak the Gospel to the outsiders, so that they hear the Gospel in their own language?  The burden of change falls upon us—and we need to be ready as the Spirit leads us to new languages that speak the same truth.  I’m talking languages of (1) music; (2) languages of preaching and teaching; (3) languages of publicity and communication; (4) languages of practicing our faith and serving the community.  It’s not for me or anyone else to say what that change will be.  All we can do is get out of the way and let the Spirit animate us to speak in new tongues. 

But knowing full well that Jesus is alive and that the fires of the Holy Spirit can’t be quenched…we can embrace the future with hope.  If the changes happening in our congregation are any indication, we’re on the cusp of a Pentecost that hasn’t been seen for generations.  Put your trust in the Lord, love your neighbor as your self—and we’ll be just as amazed as these first Christians as to what the Holy Spirit can do!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

In Search of Nike: 1 John 5:1-6 - Sixth Sunday after Easter

Spring Orchard by Liz West Creative Commons Image on
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.  2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  3For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,  4for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.  5Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
             6This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
There must be a time in every parent’s life when
their children beseech them for new shoes—and not just any shoes, but the most expensive shoes money can buy…

My request happened when I was ten.  The shoe was Nike’s famous “Air Jordan’s.”  We kids believed these shoes would help you jump higher and run faster than anyone else.

I probably surprised my parents because I’ve never had more athletic talent than a cheese sandwich… or a strong interest in sports. 

My desire was to conquer the school yard and be the envy of all my classmates—because I had the best shoes.

Is it any wonder that the most expensive athletic shoes are called Nike?  Nike is a Greek word that means conquest; victory; winning big

There’s a reason why golf pro Tiger Woods made millions of dollars “renting out his head” to the Nike Corporation by wearing a hat embroidered with their iconic swoosh.  We love winners—and we love winning.

There’s little in life that tastes sweeter than the thrill of victory.  There isn’t a person around who doesn’t covet fame, fortune, and success.  Our heroes are the people who climb the highest mountains; overcome impossible odds; vanquish the fiercest foes. 

Truly, it is as we say: “winning isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing.”

But the irony should not be lost on us that while we name our athletic shoes after conquest; what products get named love?  Diapers!  “Luvs!” “Huggies!” “Pampers!”

Christ teaches us that love does conquer all—but love can be nasty business.  It certainly was for Jesus…  He didn’t conquer death and evil with a sword.  He conquered by giving his life into the hands of his enemies: sinners like you and me.  His humiliation and death were the spoils of their apparent victory.  God had the ultimate victory—but God’s victory demanded his death…

That’s the trouble with love: seldom is it glamorous; seldom is it glorious.  It comes at a cost.  Sometimes it costs you everything. 

All too often, we treat love as a means to an end.  Be a loving person; do loving things—and people will love you back.  You’ll fix problems and make things better.  You’ll feel good about yourself.  But the truth is, love never guarantees the outcome.

True, Christian love focuses on the other—not the outcome.  True, Christian love means giving ourselves away—and leaves the rest up to God.

This is probably why we don’t always choose love, particularly when we’re faced with threats. 

Just consider the way things are in this country.  We have so much wealth, so much power, so many good people—but so little is changing for the better.  The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  Food goes to waste while people starve.  We want to see ourselves as a Christian nation, but what does that mean?  That we take care of the poor and needy?  Or does it mean that everybody believes, lives, acts, and teaches according to the one “American” way?

We all get tired of the silly political attack ads and $10,000 / plate fundraisers—but we’re even more tired of poverty, violence, and the enmity that’s tearing our country apart. 

Ultimately, it is sin that drives to live and act according to what’s right by us.  It’s sin that drives us to see people as threats, rather than neighbors to serve. It’s the sin in us that says, “You’re either with me or against me.”  It’s sin that drives us to do good for others, but only on our own terms. 

But remember: in this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent Jesus to give himself away.  We who were his enemies have been made his friends.  We have been chosen to bear fruit, fruit that will last—but if we abide in his love.  This is love that begins in compassion and humility; without pre-qualifying persons as worthy or deserving.  This is love that is entirely focused on the other—and leaves the victory to God.

Love is a holy trust in God’s victory over sin and death.  We have the freedom to give our lives away because we belong to God.  God owns the victory over evil and death.  We don’t need to spend our lives constantly fighting and fighting back for what’s right by us.  Whatever is of eternal significance—God has it covered.  Make no mistake—I’m not saying anyone should accept abuse.  That’s not what a loving God wants.  Abusers exploit someone’s love for their own benefit.  Christ sets you free to love all, not just one.  Just remember: in Christ we are more than conquerors over every hurt, every evil, and every evil-doer.

The victory begins in you and me—because the kingdom of God comes as our faith is made perfect through love.  The unbelieving come to faith; the lonely find a friend; the hungry are fed; sins are forgiven; enemies are reconciled. 

You can win the world and lose your soul—but love is the labor that lasts.  God conquers all through lives laid down in love.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Gospel Through the Grapevine: John 15:1-8 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

Heard it Through the Grapevine
Creative Commons image by Steven Tyler PJs on
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (NRSV)

Monday evening, the world watched in shock and amazement as rioters laid waste to the city of Baltimore following the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.

Thousands took to the streets—looting, setting fires, and hurling rocks at police. 

As the chaos began to escalate, a mother (of six) by the name of Toya Graham watched in horror as her only son hurled a rock at police.  She desperately chases her son into the riot, grabs onto him, and slaps him repeatedly on his head.  Here was a mom who was not about to lose her son to the violence tearing apart the city.

Amid the terror of humanity gone wild, tough love saves lives.

This makes Jesus’ words very fitting—because human beings have much in common with vines.

Vines can be a very powerful force of nature.  Once they’re planted, they’ll grow in every direction—and take over the landscape if given enough time.  Grapes, tomatoes, and beans are all fruits of the vine.  But these don’t happen without a great deal of care.  They need direction; they need support; they need pruning.  Otherwise, the vines grow wild and aren’t really good for anything.

In our Gospel, Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches.  God is the vine-grower. 

This isn’t something that happens by our choice.  This is just the way it is.  We belong to our Creator.  In God, we live and have our being. 

If we abide in the vine, we will bear fruit.  But abiding is more than just what we do.  It’s how we live

The fancy church word for this is liturgy.  Liturgy is the work of the people of God; the work of abiding.  We call our Sunday service the Liturgy of Word and Sacrament—because we gather to put our faith to work: confessing our sins; singing and praising God; listening to God’s Word; praying; receiving the sacrament.

But the liturgy doesn’t end at the door.  We take God’s goodness out into the world and share it with others.

We’re not doing any of this to curry favor with God.  We abide for the sake of what God does for us—and this is where it all gets tricky. 

It’s not in our nature to abide.  It’s in our nature to go wild, in whatever direction we wish. 

Let me give you an example: Elizabeth’s congregation and the congregations of her presbytery are partnered with a presbytery in Rwanda.  Many of these Rwandan Christians are survivors of the horrific genocide of the mid 1990’s.  These brothers and sisters recently learned of controversies presently dividing the church—so they resolved to hold a three-day fast and prayer vigil for their American counterparts.  Participation was close to 100%

It was decided that they would return the favor by holding an 8-hour prayer vigil—and Elizabeth invited me to take part last Saturday.  For thirty minutes, I sat with her in an empty room and meditated on the Word and prayer.  But I soon grew restless.  My thoughts returned to our messy house, my dirty car, and everything I had to do to get ready for Sunday.  As my mind grew restless, my body soon followed.  I started to get hungry.  I actually felt relieved when it was done. 

Jesus says, “Apart from me, you will do nothing.”  I was there to abide in Jesus—but I was accomplishing nothing.

For me, it’s difficult to abide because I feel as though my priorities and commitments are pulling me away from God.  Unlike the Rwandan Christians, there’s so stuff available for us to pour ourselves into.

It’s incredibly easy to break away from even the most basic disciplines of the Christian faith as we get caught up in the vicious cycle of more stuff to do than can ever be done.  Do you honestly think we could get 100% of our members to participate in a three-day fast and prayer vigil?  Such a thing is totally unreasonable by our standards.  But something as simple as going to church can feel just as unreasonable if you’ve become a vine grown wild. 

Abiding in Jesus means pruning.  It demands it—because apart from Jesus, we die.  Plain and simple.  All the world can offer us, in the end, is fear, frustration, and broken promises.  We need God’s pruning—and this demands an incredible vulnerability from all of this, to have God prune or cut out of your life things that you may count as essential to your existence.  It’s a daring thing to live in complete dependence on God—and not ourselves, or anything we can gain.

We who abide in the vine bear fruit: the sweet fruit of new life.  Everything that turned you into yourself is pruned away and gone.  Now you bear the sweet fruit of love.  The Jesus who abides in you lives through you.  God works through you to heal others and meet their needs.  God works through you to bring your neighbors to the faith.  There’s always an abundance of gifts to be shared. 

What’s more is that God gives to you the fruits that nurture your relationship with God.  Forgiveness frees you from the misery of sin.  You can face challenges and difficulties with utmost hope.  All the world can be in trouble, but in Christ you have peace. 

Apart from Christ, there’s nothing—never enough for you or anyone else.  Abide in Christ, and life overflows.  There’s time aplenty to be pruned and made new.  There’s time to be fed and time to feed.  There’s time to learn and time to teach; time to bear witness and time to listen.  There’s time to serve and time to be served.