Sunday, June 25, 2017

God's Saving Sword: Matthew 10:24-39 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus said to the twelve:] 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35For I have come to set a man against his father,
 and a daughter against her mother,
 and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (NRSV)
Sword by FilippoL1982.  Creative commons image on flickr

My parents always told me they’d be proud of me no matter what I did with my life.  I’m thankful for that assurance—because I know that they meant it.

But it would’ve been quite awkward if my parents had to say, “our son went off and joined the circus.”  Or, what if I converted to Islam or became an atheist?  What if I married someone of the same sex?

Unconditional love is always easier said than done.  I’ve known people who were disowned by their families because of the person they marry or the vocation they choose.  Families get split apart over end-of-life decision or dividing up the inheritance.  Make one little mistake or one decision that doesn’t conform to the expectations of your group, and you may find yourself on the out

This was an experience shared by most, if not all the earliest Christians.  In Jesus’ day, most people adhered to two religions—the Temple Judaism the Pharisees and Sadducees—or the cult of the Roman Emperor.  In fact, these were the only two religions that were legal. 

Furthermore, your religion was your father’s religion.  Everything from your marriage, your vocation, and your identity were ascribed to you by kinship.  Converting to Christianity would’ve brought great shame to one’s family— because Christianity was new religion that was fundamentally absurd.  Why would anyone want to worship a crucified Messiah who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven? 

So when Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” he is making it clear that when people are drawn into the kingdom of God, those kinship ties are going to be threatened—and perhaps broken. Parents will turn against children and children their parents.  Families will be broken apart.  Those who once knew the love an acceptance of their kin will find themselves put out, with no possibility of reconciliation. 

Because God’s kingdom and its priorities are in conflict with the kingdom of this world, people are going to be divided.  Christians will suffer great losses.

I don’t know any Christians who’ve been disowned by their families, though I do know plenty who’ve been called stupid and ignorant by their own kin.  I’ve talked to plenty of Christians who’ve had to choose between their jobs and their honesty.  They refuse to lie or cheat or steal to keep their jobs. 

But do you remember what got Jesus into trouble?  He loved the wrong people. He blessed the poor.  He ministered among the outcast and unclean.  He befriended the hated.  And—he spoke truth to rich, powerful, and respected people who preyed upon the lowly and vulnerable. 
Jesus’ most vicious enemies believed in the same God—but they called God’s Son the devil.  They were so convinced of their own righteousness and drunk on their power to demand total conformity to their brand of religion—and punish dissenters—that they didn’t see God’s Son in their midst.

Because God’s kingdom and its priorities are in conflict with the kingdom of this world, people are going to be divided.  The sword travels in the wake of God’s kingdom radically transforming this world—and the kingdom of this world isn’t going down without a fight. 

It’s going to slice right through relationships and the security of belonging.  It’s going to separate you from possessions you believe you can’t live without.  It’s going to disrupt your plans and put you into a frighteningly unfamiliar world.   People are going to shun you, defame you, and disown you. 

Understand that Jesus doesn’t want you to shun people who reject your Christian faith, like a cult leader would.  Jesus brings the sword, not you.  Nevertheless, God’s kingdom will cause division.

But Jesus’ sword is a saving sword.  For everything and everyone you lose, Jesus will give you anew.  In losing your old family you gain a new one.  In losing your old identity you gain a new one.  In losing your old life you gain a new one.

What a joy it is to see God’s kingdom already breaking into our reality today.  We as the church express God’s future when we bless the poor; when we welcome the outcast and unclean; when we befriend the hated.  We herald God’s kingdom by speaking out against injustices against and reforming our own behaviors and lifestyles to support that kingdom.  Forgiveness and mercy bind us together instead of mindless conformity and submission.  

Jesus’ saving sword brings us into a life beyond this one—a family living into God’s future, where everyone belongs.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

God's Very Important Persons: Romans 5:1-8 - Second Sunday after Pentecost

1Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (NRSV)

Children Playing In The Ocean At Sunset by Royce Bair.  Creative Commons image on flickr
I needed some customer service.  With my account number at the ready, I call the 800-number, and after navigating the labyrinth of menus I hear the automated voice prompt: “all of our associates are busy helping other customers.  Your call is important to us.  Please stay on the line, and your call will be answered in the order it was received.  Then the on-hold music begins, and I wait.  In my boredom, I count the number of times I hear that voice prompt.  In twenty-two minutes, I hear “your call is important to us” forty-four times.

If I were to take those words at face value, I must be super important—and the CEO of the company would be answering my call.  Wouldn’t that be nice…  But with customer service offering me no resolution to my problem—I know I’m not important.

So how important do you believe yourself to be to God?

Personally, I find this to be one of the most important questions of the Christian faith—because the way you understand your importance to God is going to have a big influence on your relationship with God and your relationships with other people!  And it will have a huge influence on your self-understanding…

So, who are God’s very important persons?

Are they not the most righteous people—who do good deeds and often get recognized for them? 
If you’re important to God, then your prayers are always being answered—and you’re prosperous!  Everything you do, you succeed! 

But who are n.v.i.p.’s, or “not very important people?”  They are the people who’ve committed the big sins.  They have bad reputations.  They are the people you don’t want to move in next door; the people who seem to take from society rather than contributing to it.  They can also be the ordinary and unremarkable people—but especially, they are the less fortunate, who can’t help themselves and whom nobody bothers to help. 

In the end, the devil wants you to believe either 1) you’re worth nothing to God; or, 2) you’re only slightly less important to God than Jesus.  Believe either lie, and the devil wins.  You’ll be imprisoned by shame and fear and hopelessness, or you’ll trample over people to get what you want convinced that it’s okay to do so because you’re so important. 

But this is what God’s word says: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  There is no teaching in the bible more important than this.  It is the greatest truth of who God is.  God in the person of Jesus Christ took upon himself the evil we commit against God and each other, and on that cross, he forgives—and on that cross God conquers death and the devil.  Jesus gave his life for the world—but also for you, in particular: “this is my body; this is my blood—given for you.  With these words, Jesus declares how important you are to him—and there are no conditions, requirements, or restrictions. 

One of the greatest disservices you can do to yourself is to mindlessly brush aside the opportunity to hear those words spoken on Jesus behalf, and eat and drink of the body and blood given for you.

When you believe those words, everything changes!  Prayer takes on a whole new meaning.  You don’t have to question if you’re important enough for God to listen and respond.  God will!  God is not going to put you on hold!

As your importance to the Lord sinks in, your relationships with others will be changed.  Resentment and fear of people is going to go away.  Your self-esteem is going to change.  Instead of striving to be among the “important people,” your sights will be turned to the lost and helpless; the “sheep without a shepherd” as Jesus describes them—the ones who are important to God, but don’t know it because of circumstance and the way people treat them.  A disciple of Jesus is someone who shatters that lie and breaks that boundary-lines society sees so fit to lay down.  After all, you are sent with the Holy Spirit to speak and to do what will make that truth known.

This, I believe, is the supreme purpose of this church—to embody the truth of how much people matter to God.  This is exactly what we did yesterday at clothing closet; it’s what we will do this week at VBS.  It’s not dependent on the clothes you wear or the neighborhood you live; how much money you have or your reputation in the community.  We are sent to the lost sheep of Leechburg and the Kiski River valley. 

But don’t think this is easy.  It takes a lot of love and forgiveness to take someone’s shame away.  It’s not going to be easy or comfortable to serve among people who are different from you.  It’s certainly going to shake up the status quo when you have people coming to church who wouldn’t necessarily fit the mold of “church people.”  This brings as big of a change as would the birth of a new baby or an adoption. 

Importance in this world is about competition.  There are winners and there are losers.  But God doesn’t work this way.  The measure of your importance is in the body and blood Jesus gives for you.  There is no great joy in heaven or earth when a lost sheep gets to hear those words and enter God’s loving embrace, where everyone belongs.