Thursday, September 19, 2013

Meaningful relationships and a joyful people . . .

     As I was reflecting and praying for sermons this week, I was drawn to a couple big discussions I had this week with people outside this parish.  As I shared at Sybil’s funeral, for today I wanted to focus on the outflow or fruit of abiding or grace or discipleship or whatever we want to call it when we are working on our relationship with God in Christ.  It was best reflected in a conversation I had with Archie down at the Community Meal.  Archie, for those of you who help there from time to time, is the man who looks like John the Baptist has stepped out of the Bible and onto the streets in Davenport.  His hair is always wild and way out.  His clothes are usually too big, like he needs a camel hair tunic and a belt.  And, like a good prophet, sometimes he is more understandable than at other times.  This past Wednesday, he was easy to understand.
     As I was pouring chocolate milk, he gave me the “yo, Padre” that made me think he wanted milk.  It turned out he wanted to talk.  “Padre, do you think the Trinity was present in the beginning of creation.”
     “Of course, but why do you ask, Archie?”
     “Well, I started reading my Bible again and I noticed that God says ‘Let us make man in our image.’  I started wondering.  To whom is God speaking?  And who is the we in the ‘us’?”
      I laughed, but told him I found his logic unassailable.
     “Cool.  I just wondered.  After all, if God is unchangeable, He must have been Trinity long before Jesus and Pentecost, right?”
     “Can I ask you another question then?”
     “Sure,” I responded.
     “Do you think the sacrificial system of the Old Testament taught the Jews and others about the need for blood and life to atone for sin?  I guess, putting it another way, do you think we maybe do not understand the sacrifice of Christ because we can’t really appreciate the need for blood to wash us of our sins?  If we still sacrificed, maybe we would better understand what He really did for us?”
     I admit I had to look at Archie again.  The Trinity question comes up with parishioners  and unchurched from time to time.  That last question, though, I have only heard posited by Old Testament scholars.  So I asked Archie, “What exactly have you been reading, Archie?”
     “I told you, Padre, I started reading in Genesis and have made it all the way to Numbers.  It’s going to take me a while, but I’ll get through it.”
     “Well, Archie, I think you are right about us not understanding what Christ has done for us.  I think we have sanitized the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  We forget the mocking and the beating.  We certainly seem not to understand the bruises and blood.  And how can you and I ever understand the sense of loss on the cross?  The ones He came to save make sure He gets nailed up there.”
     “Yeah, I hear you.  It’s like that movie with that crazy guy who nailed Him to the cross.”
     “Mel Gibson?” I supplied.
     “Yeah.  I remember when his movie came out, people were grossed out and offended by it.  I’m betting after reading Leviticus he might have been more right than he knew.  If every time we sinned we slaughtered a goat or a sheep or an ox or wrung the necks of birds, we might realize how much blood it takes to cleanse us.”
     “Maybe, Archie.  It sure would make my job a lot different.”
     “I bet.  Can I ask you one last question, then, Padre?”
     “Can I stop you?”
     He laughed.  “Probably not.  How do you think the Day of Judgment works?”
     “What do you mean?”
     “How does it work, do you think?”
     “Well, Archie, I think His Second Coming will be one of those experiences upon which we will look back and it will make total sense, but before then, we are just guessing.”  Unfortunately, he did not take control of the conversation, so I continued.  “As to the mechanics of the day, I just hope I am sorted into the good side.  I’m not too concerned trying to figure out how it all works or when.”
     “Don’t you have a theory like those preachers on television or in books?”
     “Not really.  Two wiser pastors than me reminded me that predicting the events described in Revelation is fraught with danger.  Prophecy usually makes more sense in our past than in the future, so I am content to live as if He is returning tomorrow, but willing to be surprised by how it all goes down.”
     “You know, Padre.  You are the first clergy never to give me a theory.”
     “Sorry, Archie, but I just don’t know.  I know it’s important to some people, but it just isn’t to me.”
     “Don’t apologize, Padre.  I wasn’t making fun of you or anything.  I am just amazed you don’t have a theory.  Most padres want to impress us by pretending to know something.  You’re just like ‘dude, I’ve no clue, and I’m going to be surprised with you.’”
     I laughed.
     It was then that the guy next to Archie decided to speak up.  “I’m so glad I’m a Mormon and don’t have to worry about figuring these things out.”
     Somebody new had Archie’s attention.  “Man, I am so sorry that someone fed you such a bunch of bull that you bought that Mormon crap.”
     “What?” said Archie’s new focus.
     “Have you never really considered your faith?” he began.  He proceeded to give a winsome defense and explanation of the faith.  His new interlocutor was, by no means, as well versed in his faith as Archie was in ours.  What struck me most about Archie’s explanation was the joy in his voice.  Never once did he put down the man for placing his faith in the wrong god.  Never once did he tell the poor man he was condemned to hell for not being a Christian.  Every time he posed a question, he did so certain that the man had been lied to or misrepresented about God’s love for him.
     When the man responded, “Man, you are really excited about your faith, aren’t you?” and Archie responded “How could I not be?!” I knew they were in for a fun time.
     Our Gospel lesson today in Luke points to the ultimate fruit of our faith.  Yes, as disciples of Christ we can talk in terms of obedience and ministry and service and other words, but the ultimate fruit of all that is found in Christ’s description of heaven and in the shepherd’s discovery of the lost sheep and the woman’s location of the lost coin.  The shepherd, the woman, their friends, and the entire heavenly host are described as rejoicing.  We can all relate to the parables.  In my family, we will spend a long time looking for the remote rather than getting up and changing the channels manually.  And, boy, when we find that lost remote, there is that wonderful “Aha! I found it!”  Similarly, my wife is the keeper of all important documents.  Some are more valuable than silver.  It’s unfair what we do to her, but when she finds that document for which she has been searching, there is much rejoicing on her part!  You can all relate to that joy.  Vern knows it when he realizes that he did not flush his keys down the commode again.  Nicole realizes it when her beloved Cornhuskers win ballgames.  Charlie ought to realize it every moment of every day when he is telling off color jokes and not getting nuked by God or giving marital advice and not getting punched in the mouth by Sherry.  George and Jason realize it when a beer turns out perfectly.  Marshall when he realizes he has time for one more cigarette before services start; Robin when she looks at the Order of Worship on Sunday and realizes it is the same as it was before she hit print on the computer.  You are all laughing, and some of you are praying I don’t name your moments.
     Why are we not, though, this joyful more of the time?  Why are we so grim-faced?  If we know, if we truly know in our hearts that we have been redeemed, why are we not laughing more?  You and I are constantly engaged in reaching the lost for His honor and His glory.  You and I are always seeking to bring others into this huge family He calls the Church.  Why is it we are so serious all the time?  Why is it we have such a tough time seeing past what afflicts us and focusing on the fact that we are found?
     Is there an urgency to our mission?  You bet.  Is our mission one of life and death?  Eternally so.  But the good news, as Archie reminded his new friend Wednesday night, is that the work for our eternal lives has been done for us!  We don’t have to do the heavy lifting.  We don’t have to do the hard work.  Christ has already accomplished our salvation, if we will simply claim Him as Lord.  How can we not be happy at that?  How can we not rejoice?  Better still, you and I and everyone in the Church has the opportunity not just to impact another life, but the wider Body and even heaven itself!  Imagine, you or me, through our work in the name of Christ here in Davenport, can impact not just the one to whom we are reaching out, but the rest of the Body that hears our story, and even the angels in heaven.  Some in the world “want to make a difference” in the world.  You and I have been given an opportunity to make a difference not just in this world, but in heaven itself!  How cool is that?!
     How do we do this?  How do we bring joy to heaven and earth?  By engaging the lost in meaningful relationships.  So many of our brothers and sisters take the call to be “in but not of the world” to disengage from the world.  The shepherd goes searching in the wilderness for one sheep; the lady scrubs her home from top to bottom looking for a single coin.  Jesus came looking for me and for you, and that search led Him eventually to the Cross.  We are called to be working and searching in the world for the lost, but with our focus on the eternal.  Each one of us has been uniquely equipped; each one of us has been through a unique set of circumstances which make us the perfect heralds of His grace.  Like Archie, we should be focused on the hope and promises He has made to each one of us.  For many people in the world who are lost, YOU will be the best sermon they ever see.  How do you face disease and death?  How do you face questions of provision?  How do you face conflict?  How do you face life?  Are you the grim-faced, determined, have-no-fun sort?  Or are you the one overjoyed by what He has worked for you and a blessing to those around you?  The Creator of heaven and earth, the One who fashioned you and me, has tasked us with the job of searching for the Lost on His behalf?  And, brothers and sisters, hear me well: chances are, the very thing which you were praying I would not mention a few minutes ago about your particular joys, is one of those experiences which our Lord will gladly use to begin to forge a relationship between you and the lost.  After all, He is all about rejoicing!  That’s the promise of the Wedding Feast!  What better way than to start with the little joys in our lives, little joys which point to the joy of our salvation and to that celebration He has planned for all eternity.

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