Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mercy in Motion: Psalm 23 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

1The Lord is my shepherd;
  I shall not be in want.
2The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
  and leads me beside still waters.
3You restore my soul, O Lord,
  and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
  for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
  you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (NRSV)

At my high school graduation, I was given, as a gift, a framed picture of a tree-lined pathway, with Jeremiah 29:11 inscribed below:
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Coming Through! by United States Forces Iraq on flickr.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Over the years, I’ve found that certain Scripture passages pair very well with occasions in one’s life.  We decorate our children’s rooms with murals of Noah’s Ark. We read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings, the famous “Love is patient, love is kind” passage…  We hold up signs that read JOHN 3:16 at sporting events. 

And when mourners are huddled at the graveside, we read Psalm 23.

And that is a good thing.  This is one of Scripture’s most beautiful passages; a word of comfort from God when we need it most.  And yet, would you read it at a wedding?  Or an infant baptism? 

In my summer as a hospital chaplain intern, I learned to be very careful with Psalm 23 after reciting it to parents whose son was in trauma surgery.  His mother thought I was telling her that her son was dead (which he wasn’t, he was fine). 

That’s the problem—for God to truly speak to us through this Psalm, we must take it back from the funerals and hospices; from the Hallmark cards and Christian gift shops—lest you lose God’s word to the feelings you have—and that’s not good!

Psalm 23 paints a picture of real life.  There’s scarcity and uncertainty.  Enemies and evildoers are all around.  Death and darkness are closing in.  The sheep go astray.  Their lives and souls are battered and broken.

Surely, you can relate to this!  Nobody knows this better than Christ, our Good Shepherd, who cried out from the cross the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Yet Psalm 23 beautifully reveals the God whom Christ cries out to.  Though there is great trial and tribulation, there is also great trust.  God’s goodness and mercy are stronger than evil and death.

Psalm 23 is a forward-looking, forward-moving Psalm.  After all, a good shepherd must keep the flock moving—leading it toward pastures to graze and waters to drink.  The shepherd leads the flock along the pathways and through the darkest valleys.  The shepherd stays with the sheep. The shepherd keeps the flock together; the shepherd keeps them safe. 

Though the sheep and the shepherd are in motion, the enemies and evildoers are not.  They don’t go in pursuit of God’s sheep.  What does pursue the sheep is goodness and mercy.  The enemies seem to watch from the sidelines as God anoints their heads and their cups overflow.

Faith, after all, is moving forward while trusting in the promises of God.  Had the sheep not known hunger, thirst, enemies, and death along the way—they never would have known the goodness and mercy of the Shepherd.  With Jesus, all roads lead to the Lord—no matter what you encounter along the way.

In these troubling times, we need our faith to be renewed in the promises of Psalm 23; to learn how to be sheep and how to be shepherded. 

Sometimes, it’s not enough for the Lord to be your shepherd!  How do you move forward when you’ve lost a loved one; lost a job; lost your health?  It feels a little foolish to speak optimistically about the future of our church while our membership rolls and bank accounts are shrinking!  How can you even envision a bright future when it won’t look like the glories of old?

It’s hard to follow Jesus when suffering and evil come your way.  If given the choice between following Jesus through suffering or taking matters into our own hands, we’d choose the latter!  You want to be in control.  You want to call the shots.  You don’t want to be shepherded. 

The Christian life is all about living simply so that you can give yourself away for others in need!  Well, who wants to post that on Facebook?  The world has a lot to offer that you don’t want to miss out on!

Do you really want to be part of the flock!  Wouldn’t be so much easier just to look out for yourself?  If Jesus were just your personal Shepherd rather than the Shepherd of all God’s children?

The promise for the sheep of the Shepherd’s fold is life—even in the face of suffering and death.  Psalm 23 paints a picture of the life God wants for you.  Faith is about moving forward into the fulfillment of that promise. 

So what’s holding you back today? 

I believe that the best occasion for reciting Psalm 23 is when tomorrow becomes today—and God invites you to embrace that new day with hope.  If there is something you lack, your Shepherd will lead you to where your hunger and thirst can be satisfied.  If sin and sorrow have shattered your soul, your Shepherd will restore it.  If you don’t know the way, your Shepherd will lead you—even in darkness.  Only goodness and mercy will pursue you; and your enemies will look on as your cup overflows. 

For whatever tomorrow holds that holds you in dread, there your Shepherd will be. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

God's Moral Order: Acts 3:12-19 - Third Sunday of Easter

12[Peter] addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?13The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.17“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” (NRSV)
Cherry blossom time by Xerones on flickr.  CC BY-NC 2.0 

Every year, the local YMCA branch conducts a survey asking members which stations they want to see played on the three TVs in the fitness center.

I don’t watch their televisions, but I knew what stations I didn’t want: 24-hour cable news.  I go the gym to relieve stress—so I don’t need Fox News or CNN replenishing it.

Furthermore, I learned that a fistfight broke out between two men about something that was being reported on cable news. 

That was the reason for a new policy that only local news programming would be played. 

It makes you wonder—why is this happening?  Why are we so divided?  Why are we tearing ourselves apart over politics?

To me, this says something powerful about the human condition—which we witnessed frequently throughout Jesus’ ministry, and into the beginnings of the early church.

In our first reading for today from the book of Acts, Peter and John have caused a significant public disturbance after they heal a paralyzed beggar they encountered at the Jerusalem temple gates. 

You’d think that people wouldn’t be angry over something like this, but when Peter and John proclaim that it was the crucified Jesus who healed the man, they quickly find themselves in hot water with the religious powers-that-be.

These were men who claimed as their divine right, the authority to speak and act on God’s behalf.  They taught the people what was right and wrong; good and evil.  They hated Jesus because he claimed God’s authority over and against them.  They hated Jesus because he defied the moral order they presided over and that the people lived under.  Think of a moral order this way—when the common people shouted “crucify him” when Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, they were following their leaders.  They believed that what they were doing was right.

You also live your life in a moral order.  A moral order defines your ideal of the way things ought to be.  It defines your sense of right and wrong.  It has leaders you follow and authorities you trust.  Obedience to that moral order keeps you safe and secure.  It prevents chaos in your world.  It serves your interests and meets your needs.  It even gives you power and belonging. 

But it also creates distinct boundaries between who’s in and who’s out; who’s righteous and who’s unrighteous; who’s godly and who’s ungodly… When something or someone violates your moral order, it is your natural instinct to fight back and protect it.  The dissension and the division we see in political discourse and even in the church happens because of the clashing of differing moral orders. 

Ultimately, the showdown between Peter and John and the powers-that-be is a clash between God’s moral order and the world.  But notice how Peter and John respond: they refuse to make this an “us versus them” battle between good and evil (which was happening to them).  They don’t go on the attack against those who were opposed to them.  Instead, Peter and John appeal to the common identity: their belonging to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They remind the people of the prophets’ teaching that God’s Messiah would suffer. 

Peter and John assert that the acted in ignorance when they rejected Jesus, but that God is acting in love by healing the crippled man in the name of Jesus, so that they may see his power and grace and have salvation in him. 

When there is a moral order that keeps you (and others) in ignorance to who Jesus is and the life he comes to bring, Jesus breaks it—just like his tomb was broken open.  Repentance means renouncing the ignorance by which you opposed Jesus and made enemies out of neighbors God intends for you to love—and embracing a new identity and new moral order built around the ways of Jesus.

The “us versus them” mentality of our politicians and cable TV pundits is all about dehumanizing and demonizing “those people” for who they are, what they do, or how they believe.  For them, the best defense is a good offense when it comes to asserting their moral order.

But Jesus is the source of truth: the One who forgives his persecutors; who gives his life away to those who hate him; and yet delights to reconcile all sinners to God and each other.  You don’t defend God’s truth by dehumanizing and demonizing other people; you don’t defend God’s truth by attack and conquest…  True righteousness is all about suffering and giving yourself away for others.  True righteousness is about affirming our mutual and shared belonging to God and each other.

And the reason why this is so important is that a new era is dawning upon our Church.  The ways of doing church and living the Christian life are changing drastically from what they were just a generation ago.  At the same time, there are those who believe that the way forward is for the Church to choose a side in the culture war and fight to the death.  That road leads only to death.

On the other hand, Jesus is giving us new songs to sing; new ways to serve. Those who’d long been counted as outsiders can finally come home to God’s house.  Certain old and familiar things will be passing away.  Ideas, beliefs, and practices that you’ve always held as sacred may no longer be.  Jesus will take what you once called wisdom and righteousness and expose it as ignorance—and reveal the ultimate truths about who he is, and the new creation he brings.  God’s moral order is about mercy, forgiveness, and belonging.  You’re not fighting for the way things ought to be, but the way things will be as the risen Christ makes all things new. We are the Church so that Christ can reveal his love and grace to a suffering world—and so that all may have life in his name. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Wounded God: John 20:19-31 - Second Sunday of Easter

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31
But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (NRSV)
City Methodist Church - Gary, IN by Mike Boening Photography on flickr.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Today’s Gospel always brings to mind a song I sang in Sunday school:
"Why worry when you can pray
Trust Jesus he'll be your stay
Don't be a doubting Thomas
Rest fully on his promise
Why worry worry worry worry
When you can pray"
I learned that song well—because I worried a lot about earning good grades and making my parents and teachers proud.  This song wasn’t a comfort.  It was a stern lecture; a disapproving finger pointed at me.

It also made me despise Thomas, the doubting disciple.   In my mind, he’s almost as bad as Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.  He refuses to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he can see it for himself.  So Jesus appears, gives Thomas what he wants, and lectures him that it’s better to believe without seeing.  So all you doubters, be warned!

But let’s call our dogs off Thomas for a moment…  Can you honestly say that you’ve never had doubts about Jesus, and everything you’ve come to believe as a Christian?

Thomas saw Jesus arrested, beaten, and then crucified.  This was a soul-crushing trauma that brought his whole world crashing down.  And because of his associations with Jesus, he was in danger of ending up crucified just like Jesus. 

When he hears the news that his fellow disciples have seen the Lord, he’s not ready to believe just on their testimony alone.  He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands; and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

So instead of calling him “Doubting Thomas,” you could call him “Conditional Thomas.”  And let’s be clear: faith isn’t genuine if you are setting the terms of your trust in God.

But here’s what strikes me about Thomas: he needs to see and touch the wounds of Jesus.  You’d think that a resurrected Jesus wouldn’t still bear the wounds of crucifixion.  He should literally be a new man. 

Yet, when Jesus appears to Thomas, his wounds are still there.  Thomas is still bearing his wounds, as well.  So are the other ten disciples, who are still too scared to leave the house even though they’d seen Jesus alive.

The wounded Jesus meets the wounded Thomas, and Thomas becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God.”

Make no mistake about it: the Jesus you worship, the Jesus you pray to, and the Jesus you serve, remains wounded while at the same time being raised from the dead.  The body is still broken, and the blood is still shed, for you.  You eat and drink it at the Lord’s table.

What’s more is that the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t eliminate your wounds or reverse the traumas you’ve suffered.  It doesn’t undo or fix the past.  I doesn’t erase the sins you’ve committed against others, or that others have committed against you.  You remain a sinner, and Jesus loves you anyway.  By his wounds, you are healed.  Relationships and communities are healed.

Because Jesus shares your woundedness, your wounds become birthplaces of resurrection—that comes in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation, restored relationships; healing and wholeness; justice and peace.

The wounded Jesus gives you permission to be honest and upfront about your woundedness.  You don’t have to hide it away in shame anymore.  If you have doubts, own them.  If you’re too scared to face tomorrow, you own it.  If you’ve wounded someone, or someone’s wounded you—own that, too.  We need to own that our congregation is wounded and broken.  The same goes for our homes, our families; our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, government, and culture.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s fact.

I love ministries like GriefShare and AA/NA, because people speak honestly and openly about their brokenness and they don’t judge each other.  The Church must learn to create more safe places for people to enter into the brokenness of Jesus without feeling the need to hide or conceal their own.  It’s not a sin to doubt.  It isn’t a sin to question God or the core beliefs of the Christian faith.  You only sin when you deny your brokenness—and deny others the freedom to be broken without your judgment. 

In your bulletin, you will find a doubter’s prayer.  I invite you to write on the back of it your questions, your doubts, about anything: about God, about the faith, about yourself, about this Church.  Then pass them in with the offering.  We’re going to stay seated for the hymn of the day so that you can do this more comfortably.  You need not sing if you’re still thinking or still writing.  Then, we’re going to put these up on the back window of the church—because the wounded Jesus promises to meet you in your places of brokenness and doubt.  The Holy Spirit gives the gift of faith to see beyond the brokenness and doubt to a future resurrection.  Our wounded healer makes us all wounded healers, as well—living into a new creation made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Why Worry When You Can Pray by Alfred B. Smith, John W. Peterson.  (c) 1949 New Spring   (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.) 
CCLI 77771 under license #11228777.