Sunday, June 23, 2019

Even When the Lions Roar: Psalm 22:

19But you, O Lord, be not far away;
  O my help, hasten to my aid.
20Deliver me from the sword,
  my life from the power of the dog.
21Save me from the lion’s mouth!
  From the horns of wild bulls you have rescued me.
22I will declare your name to my people;
  in the midst of the assembly I will praise you. 
23You who fear the Lord, give praise! All you of Jacob’s line, give glory.
  Stand in awe of the Lord, all you offspring of Israel.
24For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither is the Lord‘s face hidden from them;
  but when they cry out, the Lord hears them.
25From you comes my praise in the great assembly;
  I will perform my vows in the sight of those who fear the Lord.
26The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
  Let those who seek the Lord give praise! May your hearts live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
  all the families of nations shall bow before God.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord,
  who rules over the nations. (NRSV)
To Mars and Beyond! VBS 2019. Courtesy of Callie Bobo Photography

For several years, we’ve given each of our vacation bible school participants a CD of all the music from the week. The CDs should contain a warning label to parents saying, “resistance is useless.”

The songs are about as infectious as the “rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.” Your children will be singing these songs: in the car, at the dinner table, in the shower… And you, in turn, will be singing them even when you sleep. And that’s a good thing—because this is music with a message: “God can do-oo-oo far beyond all that we could ask or imagine, by his power at work within us.” Can you honestly think of a more effective way to memorize Ephesians 3:20?

And if you’re wondering if Jesus attended Vacation Bible School, let me tell you, “yes he did.” But people would’ve had no concept of a vacation—and Bible School would have been a years-long preparation for his bar mitzvah. We know his song book as the Old Testament Book of Psalms. Being “the word made flesh,” Jesus would’ve known them all quite well. In fact, Jesus cries out psalm lyrics from the cross—the first line of today’s Psalm: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

There are no words that more effectively capture the depth of Jesus’ suffering than these. Jesus knows what it’s like to be under attack by vicious dogs, roaring lions, wild bulls, and enemies bearing swords.

But do we, as Christ’s Body, cry out together in one voice when one of God’s own is trapped in the lion’s den? When you come to church, do you feel free to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Is this church a safe space for you to weep and wail in the presence of God and people who genuinely care about you?

On one hand, I believe such a safe space does exist in our GriefShare ministry. But what about Sunday worship?  If you believe, that when you come to church, it’s expected of you to put on a happy face, demonstrate a strong faith, and not question or complain about anything, have we not turned God’s house into play house to act out what we think the Christian life should be? And if we think being a Christian is about living according to a high moral standard and wearing a faith that never questions, second-guesses, or grieves, what do we need a God for?

There is much going on in the world to weep and wail about. But Ancient Israel didn’t hide its feelings from God. Neither did Jesus. Neither should you. Jesus welcomes you into his house, just as you are right now. You have 100% permission, validated by the bible, to weep, to wail, to complain, to question, and to be angry at God. And your cries will not fall on deaf ears. You will be heard. God’s goodness will carry you safely through suffering and death into resurrection and new life.

And in this Psalm, we witness the people of God crying out with one voice to remind God to be faithful in the present crisis, just as God had been in the past. And the congregation that does this together is one where the suffering individual can have no doubt that God’s love is surrounding them in the sisters and brothers who care.

This is something we did during the past week for the parent of one of our VBS students who was facing a time of terrible crisis: we laid hands on her and prayer with her. It’s hard to see God in the turmoil, but there’s no denying God among the people. We must do that more and more as a congregation.

And we need to make time to tell others the stories of God’s deliverance in our own lives. One of the most effective ways to be inspired in your faith is to hear the people you love speak of all that God has done for them, just like the man who was freed from a thousand demons. After all, God is accomplishing what our world desperately needs. We have a song to sing.

All the world knows what goes into a Big Mac, thanks to the song. People from Western Pennsylvania know that Century III Chevrolet is on Lebanon Church Road in Pittsburgh; minutes from the mall. So let’s be a church that teaches the world to sing the wonders of God’s love. Let’s join our children, who sang: “I will not be shaken; I will not be moved; all my hope is in you, even when the lions roar!”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Banner of Hope: Romans 5:1-5 - Holy Trinity Sunday

1Therefore, since 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. (NRSV)

Relay for Life 2019. Photo by Shannon Kiro
Every year, when the Relay for Life comes around, I always think back to a Survivors’ Walk a few years back. Ellen Toy, the Leechburg High School physical education teacher and women’s Volleyball Coach, was battling a severe form of cancer that had ravaged her otherwise strong body and confined her to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, when the Survivors’ Walk began, she was helped out of the wheelchair and walked the full lap. Even though the cancer ended her life the following winter, what I saw in her was the number one reason to participate in the Relay: to support one another in the fight against this devastating disease. The Relay is an act of hope—and you can’t live without hope. But how is it that so many live a hopeless existence? What does it mean to be without hope?

For starters, you turn to substances, chemicals, material things, and reckless behaviors in order to cope. You lock the door between yourself and the outside world and throw away the key. Your only company is those who indulge in your misery. Nothing really matters anymore; not even life itself.

To make matters worse, there is so much around us that fosters hopelessness: abandoned storefronts and dilapidated homes; rusting mills and factories; crumbling infrastructure; empty pews; the 24-hour cable news cycle, and poverty, poverty, poverty. Every church that closes marks a big win for hopelessness.

Hopelessness is nothing less than the destruction of the gift of life. It’s cancer of the soul. It’s cancer on community. You know a community has descended into hopelessness when people are blaming others for their problems and turning everything into a war of us versus them. It’s hopelessness that keeps people behind locked doors, because individual survival is the only objective. Hopelessness the devil’s business—and business is booming.

For the Body of Christ, however, hope is our business. It’s the reflection of God in us. But hope does not originate in us. It’s from God.

If it were entirely up to you to get yourself right with God, or “believe God” into giving you everything you think you need for a happy and meaningful life, there would be no hope—because you’re on your own to achieve the goal. And even if you “arrive,” are you not still vulnerable to failure and loss?

Real hope is the direct result of God taking the initiative to seek you, find you, claim you, and redeem you—and there’s nowhere you can go, and nothing you can do, that will put you beyond God’s reach. It is hope, along with faith and love, that bind us to God and to each other. We become people of hope by trusting in God’s power to create promising futures for ourselves and the people around us.

I’m thankful for the mystery of the Triune God—because otherwise, god would be much too small for us.

Consider what it means to be “justified by faith:” God took on flesh in Jesus and personally suffered your rejection of God and the sin you commit against the neighbor—and yet, you are embraced and forgiven. At the same time, Jesus joins you in your suffering, so that it produces endurance, character, and hope! And it is the Spirit of God who breathes the resurrected life of Christ into you, and draws you into the life-giving activity of this Triune God.

Hope begins with this simple truth: Jesus loves you and longs to be in relationship with you. The Triune God is for you—so who or what can be against you?

To claim hope, you first must identify where hopelessness exists. Hope isn’t the Polyanna act, trying to look for good in everything, denying a bad situation, or minimizing it. You call a bad thing what it is. Then, you remember: the Triune God is bigger—bigger than cancer; bigger than poverty; bigger than drugs; bigger than everything that’s changing our world for the worst. Then. You remember: God’s love is being poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit.

So, you get up off your chair. You unlock the door to yourself and go outside. You embrace the new day, ready to receive God’s love as it comes to you. You move forward, trusting that something far better awaits you on the other side of pain and death.

In my opinion, last week’s Relay paints a beautiful picture of what hope can be—because God’s gift of hope is nurtured in community. We give it to each other.

Right now, there are people in your life whom you can help walk the way of hope. You can’t cure their cancer, but you can still help them to be whole. Then, you can join the Body of Christ, carrying the banner of his love and salvation in an otherwise hopeless world. People will witness your hope and they will want to come along. This is why we do what we do: everything from VBS, clothing closet, GriefShare, and the prayer walk: because Jesus is risen. The Triune God reigns. Love wins.

And no matter what, you can pray with total confidence: “your kingdom come, your will be done, TO ME, on earth as in heaven.”

We become people of hope by trusting in God’s power to create promising futures for ourselves and the people around usMove forward, trusting that something far better awaits you on the other side of pain and death.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

A Confirmation Affirmation: Acts 2:1-21 - Day of Pentecost

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] 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)

Confirmation Classes, 1926-1943.

Over the past year, Pastor Ryan and I repeatedly asked our confirmation students: In one word, what is the bible about?

The easy answer would be to say “God,” or “Jesus;” and technically, you’d be right. But you can give that answer to just about any question I ask!

I’m looking for an answer that’s more specific, and here it is: the bible is about relationships. That’s what our Christian faith is all about: not doctrines or rituals, but relationships. That point is clear to understanding what happens on the Day of Pentecost.

You have a whole bunch of people gathered together in one place—because Pentecost was a Jewish festival: the Feast of Weeks, when God’s people worship God for the first fruits of the harvest.

Suddenly, there was a violent rush of wind, and tongues of fire appeared on the people. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Some lookers on say that these people are drunk. And the Pentecost event would be, essentially, nonsense, unless all this had a greater purpose—and the greater purpose is relationship. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit created relationships: with Jesus Christ, and with each another. The Spirit eliminated the language barrier—so that all would hear the Gospel in their own language and come to faith in Christ. And what the Spirit brought about was bigger than just individuals in a personal relationship with Jesus. On the Day of Pentecost, the people became the Body of Christ.

That is what I pray your confirmation will be for you: that you will be established and strengthened in your relationship with Jesus, and embrace your belonging to the Body of Christ. I pray that we have given you the language to understand who God is, what God desires for the world, and what roles God desires you to have in this world.

You may think your work is done. I’m here to tell you that your work is just beginning. Your purpose as a member of the Body of Christ is to both confirm and affirm Jesus’ unconditional love, forgiveness, and acceptance of all people. Living in a time, such as this, where a person’s value is measured by their paycheck, their possessions, and their popularity, you have your work cut out for you. Life as a child of God is not measured by how much you achieve or attain. It’s about relationship—with Jesus Christ among all who belong to his Body. We’re all family here.

Sometimes, we as the Church forget that—and we let our own personal agendas get in the way. Sometimes, we as individuals forget that—and we allow family time with Jesus to fall off of our schedules because we’re “busy” and have “important things” to do. And sometimes, you’ll feel like there’s no relationship with Jesus to tend to. This is why it’s so important for you to stick with your church family, because they’ll be your connection to Christ when Christ seems far away. Just the same, it’s important to stick with your Christ, to help you to deal with the people you love; the people you struggle to love; and the people who make your life difficult.

If there’s nothing else you remember about your confirmation class, I pray you’ll always remember that you are part of a family of faith who loves you very much, and who’s proud of you just for being who you are. Jesus loves you, and so do we. And you are God’s gift to the world. The more of yourself you share, the more people will see Christ in you. It truly is all about relationships! May you be forever blessed to belong.