Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Who are the Gentiles in your life? Who is the Jesus to whom you introduce them?

     Who are the Gentiles in your life?  Take a moment and give that some thought.  Who are the people in your life that are asking you to see Jesus?  Now, think of the Jesus to whom you are introducing them.  Is it the Jesus described in the Bible, or is the Jesus to whom you are introducing them one of your own creation?  Hmmm.  I see some squirming.  Good.  I’ll take that as a sign that I was supposed to be preaching on John’s Gospel this morning.
     Ruth to tell, I was certain I needed to be in John’s Gospel this week.  My difficulty was figuring our collective Gentiles here at Advent.  I did not have any corporate illustrations to share with you this morning, so it made me wonder if I was in the right passage this week.  I made it all the way until Thursday before God started shaping my sermon a bit more toward us here at Advent.
     Thursday night I had just finished riding the bike.  I’d put in 12-15 miles and was really looking forward to the hot tub.  David had finished a bit before me and was already soaking.  I had just peeled off my sweaty clothes when a young man came into the locker room.  He noticed me and then asked if I was that pastor guy that did human trafficking stuff.  I told him I like to think I fight AGAINST human trafficking and that yes I am a pastor.  So he asked, “Why is your God so mad?”  I would like to claim shock or surprise, but Karen had prepared me.  A number of people had been sharing a few Facebook memes that discussed the Atonement in simplistic and dishonest ways.  The memes were claiming that God did not require Jesus to die for our sins, we did; that the “god” of their belief was not the angry “god” of Christianity; and that the “god” of the New Testament was distinct from the “god” of the Old Testament.  This young man had been in some discussions with friends about God, and his questions came out of those discussions.
     Now, I will remind you I was hot, sweaty, aching, and really looking forward to that hot tub, but I had a young adult Hindu who was asking about God.  So we talked.  I asked him to tell me what he “knew” about God.  Most of his knowledge came from friends telling him about their own faith struggles or answers.  He had read a small part of the Bible in a college class on theology, but most of his “knowledge” of God came from the opinions of those in his life.  As he shared with me what he’d heard of God, I started chuckling.  He asked why I was laughing, and I told him I would not worship that god either.
     When spent the next fifteen minutes or so in a serious, but skimming, discussion about God.  We talked briefly about the idea of Atonement and the certainty that love required it—God could not be loving and just and righteous and all those other wonderful adjectives if there was no consequence for sin.  He’d never thought about justice like that before.  Then I reminded him that Jesus was God; so God paid the price for our redemption knowing that people would reject Him, that people would kind of accept Him but lead people into error by mistake, and that people would pretend to accept Him and speak His language and work against His purposes.  In a particularly inspired moment, we spoke of the hubris and temerity involved in evaluating God.  During the course of that discussion thread, I asked him if he ever thought the pottery criticizes the artist for taking them in muddy form and turning  them into the shaped and hardened work of art.  He knew enough of the Bible to understand that was a biblical image, that God shapes and molds humanity to His glorious purposes.  He’d never thought of us, particularly his friends, as being like a finished piece of art that claims the knowledge and perspective to know what was best for it.
     We even chatted a few minutes about the works righteousness aspect of his faith.  He believes that when he dies, he comes back to live another life.  That process is repeated until he gets everything right.  As a young twentysomething in a private conversation, he even shared he wondered whether the cycle never ends.  He’d asked for the meaning of life, and I had shared—telling him I was being a tad simplistic, but intentionally so—that life was the time of our decision-making.  Do we choose God, or do we choose another way?  Do we trust the Potter, of do we think we can remake ourselves even more gloriously?  If the Gospel is true, if Jesus was raised from the dead, we get a choice.  Do we choose wisely?
     Now, I would love to stand here and tell you we had a glorious baptism in the hot tub or pool at the Y Thursday night.  In my mind, that would have been a great ending.  The young guy thanked me for answering questions, for treating his questions the way he intended, for telling him when some of the answers were really much longer than our time would fully permit, and for giving him much to consider.  Then, as he finished changing and was heading out he said, “you know, if more people talked about God and Jesus the way you do, I bet there’d be a lot more in the world.  Too bad there are so many assholes who speak about Jesus more confidently than you.”
     Now, I stopped him as he had picked up his gym bag and was on the way out.  First, I told him, you need to understand I am an asshole, too.  He laughed and doubted it.  I told him if he spoke to people at my church, to my friends on social media, to anybody that had known me for any length of time, I was on the other side of sainthood.  I even confessed that I would have rather been soaking in the hot tub with my son than having such a deep theological discussion in the locker room.  He politely said he doubted it, so I shared some of my thoughts about other encounters at the Y.  In particular, he thought I was justified shaming the guy watching the lady’s breasts on the treadmill.  So I shared what I thought was God’s perspective on shame, and on that specific encounter.  He’d never thought about God like that, that God longs for everyone to choose Him, that God woos us all our life long, even the ones who reject him outright—even men and women like Stephen Hawking.  But I continued on, I told him that there are lots of saintly Christians in the world, nearly all of whom are ignored by those in power, by the press, and by those who listen only to loud voices.  Look around those in your life who are serving, truly serving others at some significant cost to themselves, either in time or resources or prestige.  Ask them why they are doing the things they are doing.   My hope, my prayer for you, is that your eyes will be opened and your ears unplugged, and you will see those whose hearts have been transformed by God and that they, people you have known for some length of time, will point you to the God who is seeking you.
     Now, I share that story as a reminder that we all have Gentiles in our lives.  They just are not as easy to define or identify as they were, perhaps, in the days of Jesus’ ministry on earth and of the Apostles.  My Gentile this week happened to be a young adult Hindu who, like many of the college youths raised in the Church, is beginning to decide for himself what he thinks is true.  Yours may be someone with whom you golf, play bridge, or drink a martini.  Your Gentile may be someone in your family, someone in your social or professional club, or a co-worker.  Heck, your Gentile may be someone whom you serve in Christ’s name.  We all have Gentiles; it’s just a question of discerning who they are and doing our best to point them toward Jesus.  That’s part of the madness behind the method of our Lenten program this year!  We have been doing spiritual autobiographies in some different ways—by the way and by way of commercial interruption, this week we will look at how God shares His story of redemption and identify ways in which He is using us in that story—to remind us of our experiences and our stories.  A couple Adventers have already shared their excitement that they had done this Lenten program and been asked to share the story of their faith.  They have shared with the Gentiles in their life their love of God for what He has done in their life, even when they were more prodigal than saintly!
     Who are the Gentiles in your life?  Those of you on Facebook saw that I had lunch with the now retired bishop of Ethiopia yesterday.  In a prior life I had a difficult relationship with Bishop Grant.  Grant taught exegesis at seminary.  Under his tutelage, I translated most of Mark and most of First Corinthians.  I hated it at the time, though I now appreciate the work he made us do—many of us have instructors who were rather good-for-us task masters.  That also means that Grant was the professor who would not allow some well-planned hijinks to come to fruition (yes, he’s the professor of Grape Ape and nymphos).  Anyway, as we were talking about the passage, I was reminded of a presentation by George Gallup.  I have shared several times that George (Jr. or III or whatever) was a Board member at school and quintessentially Anglican.  In his conversations with us students, George would discuss the data they were collecting at Gallup and our likely task if the data was truly a trend.
     One such group of Gentiles was only then beginning to be understood.  Gallup had asked people about a decade prior to identify themselves in one of four categories: Religious but not Spiritual, Spiritual but not Religious, both, and neither.  Sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s, when this self-identification study began, people overwhelmingly identified themselves as Religious but not Spiritual.  Let that sink in for a second.  Religious but not Spiritual.  People were coming to church; they just were not really interested in growing in their relationship with God.  When George spoke to us, the future leaders in the church, his pollsters were noticing a disturbing trend: the numbers were shifting!  It was almost as if people were self-identifying themselves more and more as Spiritual but not Religious.  They wanted to think of themselves as good people, basically on the side of God, they just were disinterested in the offerings of organized religion.  This, George warned us, was the milieu into which we were being sent.  He was looking forward to future studies, but he wondered whether we should be surprised that children who were raised by Religious but not Spiritual would produce future adults who were totally disinterested in church or, at best, unable to see its value in a world that was shrinking because of the internet. 
     Fast forward fifteen years or so.  The numbers have completely flipped.  How many of us know people who identify themselves as Spiritual but not Religious?  How many of us, were we to self-reflect upon ourselves and discern our behavior fifteen to thirty years ago, were parents or friends who fell into that Religious but not Spiritual group and have produced Spiritual but not Religious friends or children?  Think back on this place three or four decades ago.  No doubt some have left because our Lord called them home.  How many, though, have drifted away though they still live in the area?  How many still think of themselves and call themselves Adventers yet find themselves anywhere but here most days of the year?  Maybe we used different language to identify ourselves, Country clubbish to use one that was popular around here, is a good example.  What is the value of church, of religion to use the words of the study?  Why do we gather as we do, sacrificing time, sleep, the opportunity to do other things?  What makes this gathering important to us? 
     How do we identify the Gentiles in our life?  Look at the passage.  There are Greeks going up to worship at the festival.  Right away, John is telling us that these Greeks already know God.  Why else would they have journeyed to Jerusalem?  Why else would they be going to worship?  So they ask Phillip, one of the Apostles, to see Jesus.  We are not told why, by Phillip tells Andrew and Andrew, we are told, tells Jesus.  How does Jesus answer Andrew and Phillip, and by extension, the Greeks?  This is where that “which Jesus do you direct others to” becomes really important.  Jesus begins to speak about the kind of death he was to die.  He reminds his likely agrarian audience about the nature of seeds.  Unless the grain falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain.  But if it falls to the earth and dies, it grows and bears much fruit.  It makes sense, right?  Unless we plant seeds, there is no fruit-bearing plant.  Jesus’ death, to extend the comparison, will result in plants that bear much fruit.  Hopefully, you and I are numbered among those plants!
     Jesus goes on to teach those around him that whoever serves Him must follow Him.  In modern language, we refer back to the idea that we will bear crosses to His glory.  We, you and I and all who call themselves Christians are called to serve others, not Lord ourselves over them.  It is a strong testimony against those “Christians in power,” those who have the bully pulpit and attention of the media, that young men like the gentleman who grabbed me Wednesday, find the idea of servanthood an anathema to modern Christianity.  I wonder, were Billy Graham still alive to read some of the articles regarding his life and work, how he would respond to some of the headlines.  Billy Graham: the last great non-political evangelist.  Billy Graham: the last evangelist who crossed party lines.  I’m certain he point the authors of such articles to look for servants in their midst.  There are lots of servants crossing political party lines.  There are innumerable Christians bearing crosses to the glory of God; the press just is not interested in talking about our brothers and sisters who work in prisons, who shelter the homeless, who, like Courtney today and the folks at Second Harvest, feed those who hunger.  It’s not sexy work.  It doesn’t cause people to click on an article.  And, truly, where is the glory in such work?  I mean, how could God ever know that meaningless stuff is happening, let alone the people who are doing it?  He’s on the side of the rich and powerful, right?  I mean, He needs to pick His tribe carefully and make sure the hoi polloi are not included, right?
     Listening to the teachings and pontifications of some “christian” pastors or their flock, sometimes all I can do is offer up a prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  I find myself snorting derisively, and sometimes more angrily, when a pastor claims God does not want him flying commercial because his work is too important to be bothered by people in an airport or on an airplane.  I find myself wishing I had the power of Holy Fire like my dwarf priest in Wow when some “pastor” claims he or she needs the mansion to escape the trials and tribulations of the world each day, rather than living among the flock he or she has been given by God to tend.  I find myself enraged when some “pastor” advises those in power that God accepts, encourages, or demands that, in His name, we exclude others, we burden others, or we devalue others.  And do not get me started on members of their flocks!  That’s when that total depravity of which I warned my young Hindu friend really comes out.  But it does so knowing that God is dishonored every time we mislead someone.  God is besmirched each and every time you and I or others participate in the dehumanization of others in His Name, exclude others in His Name, or think ourselves more worthy of love and mercy and grace in His Name.  And listening to the public voice and face of Christianity, I am in wise surprised that many in our society are put off by Christians.  Were the only Jesus I knew the one from television and newspapers and internet memes, what would my faith be in?
     If you are struggling bit today with how much Jesus knew about His purpose, notice a couple important statements besides the imagery.  First, there is the wonderful rhetorical question in verse 27.  Does Jesus want to die?  No.  Does He know it’s His purpose, His reason for coming down from heaven?  Absolutely!  Jesus teaches His Apostles and us that it for the events of Holy Week and Good Friday that He has come to this time!  Better still, in verse 32, Jesus hearkens us back to the story of the fiery serpent on a pole that we read last week.  When He is lifted up, He will draw all people to Himself.  It may seem a crazy way to go about salvation to us.  How can the death of Jesus atone for all my sins, let alone yours and those of the rest of the world?  To those not yet grafted into His vine, it seems as crazy as looking at a snake on a pole that we might survive a snake bite!
     One struggle which I bet many of us are not having is Jesus’ response.  Have you ever noticed that Jesus does not tell the Greeks yes or no?  Jesus neither agrees to meet with them nor tells them to go away.  Instead, He launches into this teaching about His death, about His expectation of cross bearing on the part of His disciples, and about His promise that those who serve Him will, in turn, be glorified by the Father.  Why?  Jesus is already instructing His disciples that we will be the ones who point others to Him.  We will be His hands, His feet, His Body in the world.  It will be left to us to point others to Him through the work and ministry and crosses He has given us to bear or to do.  You and I need to hear with His ears and see with His eyes.  We are the ones who will be given opportunities to give directions to Him.  To whom will we point them?
     What does that Jesus to whom we are called to point others look like?  What does that God whom Jesus calls Father teach us about Himself?  So often, those in the world around us think that we seek to call ourselves Christian because we want to hope that we will be in heaven while they find themselves separated from Him for eternity.  There’s a certain tribalism, a certain “us against them” mentality that is behind the words and actions of those who forget the Jesus described here and elsewhere in Scripture.  In truth, God is drawing the world, everybody we meet, to Himself through the work and person of Jesus Christ, His Son our Lord.  It is Jesus who incarnates kingdom life in our midst.  It is Jesus who reminds us that we can love others as ourselves, that we can lay down our life in the service of God-called service to others, certain in the knowledge that, just as we share in His death by virtue of our baptism, we are promised a share in His Resurrection in the life to come!
     More amazingly, and in a point I probably over hammered home with my young friend Thursday evening, we serve a God who loves us, who delights in us, who wonderfully made each and every one of us and all those whom we encounter.  We do not serve an angry or volcano god, as some would teach and preach.  We do not serve a God who tries to trick us into making bad choices or who willy nilly ignores the hurt or pain of anyone.  We don’t even serve a God who makes us pass an exam to get in, apart from choosing to follow Him in this life!  We serve a God who delights in those who seek Him, who is gracious to those who repent, and who, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, longs to see each and every one of us choose wisely.  We serve a God who delights in demonstrating strength through weakness, who has the power to call new life from death, and who marvels us with His mercy and grace when we repent of our evil.  We serve a God who delights in taking many tribes, many peoples, many cultures, and uniting them in His Son!  We serve a God who takes the foolish idea of His Son dying on the Cross and turns it into saving wisdom!  Is that the Jesus whom you serve?  Is that the Jesus whom you call Lord?  Is that the Jesus to whom you point others?  In the end, my brothers in sisters, it is that Jesus who came not to condemn but to save, and it is that Jesus whom the world, Gentiles and Christian alike, needs to meet through us.  Pray that as we transition into the events of Holy Week and Easter, and the Gentiles who may join us at that time, it is that Jesus that we are bringing to those in the world around us!

In His Peace,

Thursday, March 15, 2018

On snakebites, grace, and the God who delights in surprising us . . .

     What is a great twist to a story or movie or television show that really caught you by surprise?  What is it about unpredictability that causes us some wild sets of emotions, ranging from thrilling rushes to incredible discomfort, depending on our personalities and what we are watching or reading?  Why is it, if we love unpredictability, as some like to argue, do we not love God’s unpredictability?  Conversely, why is it, if we loathe unpredictability and disorder, does God seemingly enjoy taunting humanity with His unpredictability?
     In the lead up to this week, I was really struggling with areas of God’s unpredictability in our life together.  A few 8am attenders offered me some great suggestions, but most were about my own life.  I am often loathe to preach on my own life, as professors warned us in seminary that we are here to make disciples of Jesus not fan clubs of ourselves.  That’s not to say that I will not share those stories, I just prefer them in a different venue than worship.
     I not only struggled with unpredictability our life together as Christians, but even life out there in large.  I thought I had a great one with the Bob Newhart show.  All of us gathered here today, except for the young ‘uns, can probably remember Bob Newhart waking up and telling Suzanne Pleshette,  “I had the strangest dream.”  At the time, it was groundbreaking, and actually funny.  Hollywood, of course, has made it into a trite gadget that, more often than not, we see coming and often only elicits groans.  Surprising dreams were used in Dallas to interesting effects, and then other shows.  Now, that “twist” is not really a twist.  There are competing lists of shows that were ruined by such ridiculous “unpredictable” actions like dreams.
     For those of us of faith, I think, unpredictability is one of those words with which we have a difficult relationship.  On the one hand, we serve a God who is ultimately predictable.  His people will be saved and glorified; those who reject Him will find themselves eternally punished.  We like such certainty; we need such certainty in our life.  On the other hand, we serve a God who is anything but predictable.  This crazy Lord that we serve was “supposed” to be only the God of the Hebrews; yet most of us gathered today have an ancestry of Gentile blood.  The Lord that we serve has promised to redeem everything in our lives, but does He ever do it in the way we want?  Does He ever seem to act according to our timelines?  Thankfully, we are not alone in this tension.  We are not the first to discover that God is unpredictable; and we are not the first to learn that we have great reason to be excited by that unpredictability and to be discomforted by it as well.
     Our reading from the Old Testament comes from the book of Numbers.  The book of Numbers is one of those OT text with which we “modern” Christians have a difficult relationship.  I laughed a bit at Holly’s ordination at the number of parishioners who told me they had never heard a sermon on the book of Numbers before.  Numbers is so named because it is full of a lot of numbers.  There are censuses and lots of other numbers which Moses gathered from his talks with God.  One of my favorite commentators compares the book to that desk where he keeps all those statements he might need later when he does his taxes.  We all have that . . . filing system, right?  We have those statements we might need and loathe to throw away . . . for years and years and years.  Don’t worry, you are not alone in that!   Anyway, Moses had all these numbers he was loathe to throw away, so he wrote this book.  The people being loathe to cast aside anything that Moses wrote, canonized it.  Or so goes the skeptical theories regarding the book.  To many, the book seems disjointed, out of place, kind of a castaway of the Pentateuch.  Once we begin to see the book as a tale of two generations, a book about the dying off of those born as slaves and the birthing of those born free, it begins to be much easier to understand.
     Our story today takes place in a transition time.  The first generation of Israel has made some progress, and they have made some serious mistakes.  In just the last couple chapters, Israel has sought God’s will when it came to doing battle.  When the king of Arad attacked the camp and took some captives, Israel asked Moses to pray to God about rescuing their kinsmen.  God agrees, and the king is utterly defeated.  It may seem a small step, to ask God whether they should do battle, but it was huge in the life of Israel for them, just like for us, to be seeking God’s will in their life.  That’s not to say the sin nature has been left behind.  Less than a chapter earlier, Moses sins against God and finds himself, and his brother Aaron, on the wrong side of God’s judgment.  For their lack of faith and disobedience, neither will enter the Promised Land.  Aaron, in fact, dies.
     All that follows their experience of God in Egypt with the plagues, with His deliverance of them at the sea, with His destruction of the Egyptian chariots, with His ability to provide water, food, and even meat, with His cover of cloud by day and fire by night, and everything else that they have witnessed and heard from God.  Given all that, and still they do not trust God completely. 
     Now, we read that Israel is impatient.  God is leading them on a circuitous route.  For those who like point A to point B direct travel, this journey would drive us nuts.  It’s like Waze has been hacked and leading us through every neighborhood, including a couple cul-de-sacs, to get us to our destination!  What’s worse, why does God not smite the people of Edom like He did the people of Arad?  They offered to pay for what they took in terms of water or food.  They promised to behave themselves.  Why does God not allow them to destroy Edom or at least march right on through?
     In a bad mood, Israel begins to grumble and mutter.  They complain to Moses that they have no food.  What’s worse, the food they have is miserable!  For the first time in history humans complain about the manna, the bread of angels.  You know the taste, it was like bread with oil, but better.  Imagine fresh warm bread with butter, but better.  Now complain to your mom or your grandmother that her warm bread with butter tastes miserable.  I saw the flinches.  It’s ok.  You saw the backhand in your mind’s eye.  That’s what’s happening here.  Some might think the Israelites got off easy with fiery snakes!  Lol
     To Israel’s credit, though, they recognize the punishment for what it is.  All too often God has to spell out His punishments for His people.  He has to say to them “Since you sinned in this way, I am going to punish you in this way.”  God does not tell Israel that the snakes are punishment for their complaining, murmuring, and accusations.  They have learned that lesson in their journey with God!  They have sinned against God and repent.  Of course, just because God does not say that it is punishment does not mean that it is not.  In fact, God’s acceptance of Moses’ intercession indicates that they have discerned correctly.  Israel, naturally, has an easy solution to their problem.  They have repented.  Moses needs to ask God to take the snakes away so that they quit being bit and dying.
     It sounds like a simple thing, and based on their experience with God it is.  Making animals come or go is fairly easy compared to parting water or giving water from rock.  I mean, it seems like it, right?  God, though, has a different solution to their problem.  He instructs Moses to place a bronze snake on a pole and place it in the middle of the camp.  Whenever anyone is bitten, they need only to look at that bronze snake on a pole in the middle of camp to live.  It seems a simple solution in one sense.  But given human nature, I wonder how many refused?  We asked God to take the snakes from us.  Instead, He instructed us to look at that snake.  How many people tried tourniquets; the cutting, sucking and spitting of venom of good old westerns; or poultices of their own fashioning?  How many people tried anything other than what God instructed and died?
     Why, do you think, is this story included for us?  How many sermons have you really ever heard about it?  In many ways, it is a forgotten story.  It’s is a tale in the middle of a book that we tend to ignore.  It doesn’t have a great deliverance story on one hand, and it does not possess the fiery condemnation of God’s people on the other.  And yet, it is the story referenced by Jesus right before He gives those famous words of John 3:16.  Thanks to television broadcasts and tons of sporting events, it is hard for anyone with an electronic device not to be aware of John 3:16.  But before Jesus shares that famous reminder of God’s love and His purpose for coming, Jesus points His audience, and us, to this narrative.  Why?
     I think there are two important takeaways for us today, two reasons why we should always remember this story when we see John 3:16 signs at Tournament games this next month, on the golf course at Augusta, and wherever else it pops up on our screens.  The first is the sheer unpredictability of God.  To the extent that we can study God and that He has revealed Himself to us, we learn a lot about God.  Sometimes, I think in that learning we, to use the famous words of CS Lewis, tame Him.  We set limits on Him.  We teach ourselves what we are certain about what He will and can do.  And in that bounding, in that limiting, we begin to get comfortable and lose our fear.  No doubt such a claim will cause lots of pastoral discussions this week, but how many of us abuse God’s patient nature?  How many of us act as if we have all the time in the world to repent of a sin, to get serious about our faith, or to invite others into His loving embrace?  Hey, He’s been gone nearly 2000 years!  I get it.  You are only asking for another day, another week, another month, another year.  What are those when compared to 2000 years?  And yet we are each called to remember that He can return any minute!  At any time He might return, and then, for all His love and patience, time is up.
     Or take His patient nature with respect to our sins.  How often do we feel like we get away with our sins because His punishment seems absent?  Like many of us, Israel was able to put two and two together equals four because their sin immediately preceded the snakes.  But what if the snakes had happened a few days later?  A month later?  Years later?  Would they have recognized the consequence of their sin and repented appropriately?  I doubt it.  You and I know the punishment for all our sins were born by our Lord Christ; yet how many of us persist in living, if not thinking to ourselves, that we got away with it?  We did.  We do.  But only because He did not.
     The second takeaway today speaks to the foolishness and weakness of God, to use the words of St. Paul.  When I wrestle with God, it is often because I have a great plan.  If He’d only listen to me, things would be so much better.  I know none of you ever have such thoughts, but maybe you can empathize with people like me for a second this morning.  Yes, it is ok to laugh and snort.  I realize we are far more alike than either of us wants to admit.  Brian’s plan to move Advent along was to rent space to a homeschool group, hire an assistant priest with 25 years of youth ministry experience, and to teach Adventers to welcome with open arms the younger families that are missing from our camp . .  er, parish.  Sound like a great plan, right?  61 unchurched families coming through our doors twice a week.  North of $30k in rent coming in each year.  Lots of opportunity for Holly to be Holly.  Was Brian’s plan God’s?  Apparently not.  Why?  Does not God want to reach younger, unchurched families?  Of course He does.  Does God not understand the fatigue of some around here?  Of course He does.  So why not bless that plan?  Why not cause all 90 families to join us, let alone the 60 who are unchurched.  Maybe, and I say this lovingly, maybe we are too much like the first generation of Israel?  Maybe we needed to be reminded of that from which we have been freed so that we respond with the grace, the mercy, the love, and the urgency He wants from His people.  Maybe we need to understand His redemption in our lives so that we can better evidence the joy to which He calls everyone?  In the end, of course, we trust that His desire for us, His plan for us, is better than anything we can ask or imagine, such has been His revelation throughout history, such has been our experience in our walks with Him.
     Our story from Numbers is critically important to understanding God’s call on our lives, both collectively and individually.  Like Israel, we have been called to be salt in the world, light in the darkness, ambassadors of His kingdom, and a nation of priests.  Like Israel, how often do we forget His calling on us?  How often do we live as His chosen, holy people for a time, trusting in His wisdom, provision, and will, only to forget or worse, rebel?  In many ways, you and I live in a wilderness every bit as full of death as Israel.  Because we live in Nashville, we may think our wilderness is nearer to the Garden.  But we face countless opportunities to die, and I’m not just talking about the traffic on the roads or the random acts of violence like we saw in Antioch.  How many song lyrics point us to idols or ourselves?  How many companies are willing to risk your life, your resources, or your sanity on their well-marketed or unproven or corners-cut product?  How many of our friends, members of our families, or co-workers have found themselves trapped in the arms of an idol of addiction?  How many have forgotten their roots and God’s call on their lives?  We, like Israel, stand at a crossroads between life and death.  We can choose our own paths, our own idols, to glory in ourselves, but that path leads only to death; or we can focus on the loving God whose mercy and love are constantly at work in our lives.
     Those who hear and now read Jesus’ instruction to Nicodemus likely understood that the murmuring, complaining, griping generation would be dead in just a couple chapters.  There was likely in their minds a temptation to deem God’s action wrathful judgment.  But Jesus reminds those who hear and read that God’s action was one of mercy, in keeping with His revealed character.  God gave that first generation abundant chances.  And although they sometimes “got it,” often they regressed or lived as if they had forgotten.  You and I have now been given that complete revelation.  As crazy as it sounds, as much as it is different from the way you and I would act to save us or others, God allowed His Son to be lifted up, that we might be drawn into His saving embrace.  Had God been wrathful toward us, brothers and sisters, that Cross would not stand at the center of our camp or of our life?  Had the poisonous bite of our sins been given their full reign, you and I would be dead already.  Instead, we have been cured!  We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit to live as He calls us, to bear our Crosses as He calls us, and to glorify Him in our lives for the benefit of those in the world around us!
     Brothers and sisters, where in your life have you tamed God?  Where have you forgotten who it is that calls you, that redeems you, that loves you, that will vindicate you?  Where is the Holy Spirit prompting you during this season of self-examination we call Lent to remember the unpredictable Lord that you serve?  Of even more interest to me, where are you wrestling with God?  What is it that He is calling you to do in His name where you are throwing up all kinds of objections, offering up your “better” plans, or trying to put off until a time that’s more to your liking?  Quit fighting.  Quit wrestling.  Remember that discussion of a young Samuel in Epiphany and the “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”. 
     I am not being na├»ve.  God has a plan for you.  He wants you to glorify Himself in you and your work in His name.  No matter how weak or how foolish you may seem to those around you, God will prove stronger and wiser, if you will just agree and do it.  As one who has had those same wrestling matches, as one who is charged with hatching better plans among you, please hear me.  Whatever great plan you can imagine, whatever strength or resources you think make His will untenable, whatever insurmountable evil He has asked you fight in His Name—His foolish and weak plan is better.  He has demonstrated that over and over, not just in the snake on a pole or His Son on the Cross, but in the lives of all His sons and daughters who have come before and who live among us still!   And even if His call on your life leads ultimately to your death, still you will be glorified in Him and vindicated in the end as one who had a greater share in the ministry of His Son our Lord Christ.  Can you imagine?  What crazy God would use you or me to draw others to Him?  The gracious and merciful and loving God of John 3:16, Numbers 21, and our lives!

In Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ten Words to remember . . . that we are Redeemed, set free!

     Eleven months ago, I had this sermon all planned out.  The clergy of the diocese had spent a few days with Nathan Jennings of the Seminary of the Southwest.  Nathan tried to demonstrate the relationship between the Temple in Jerusalem and the eternal Temple to which we will all one day go.  As a classical studies major, I was having all kinds of “aha!” moments.  Some details deserve some significant discussion, and those who attend midweek Bible studies around here can testify to the fact that I thought some of it really cool!  One of those interesting details that Nathan shared that I had never really caught was the “whipping of blood” by the high priest onto the altar during the Day of Atonement.  I think I have that detail right.  Since I went another direction, I may have days confused.  In any event, during this whipping of blood, the high priest made a specific action which Jesus emulates in our Gospel story today as zeal for His Father’s house consumes Him and He whips the businessmen out of the Temple.  For you all, it would have been a new sermon.  For me it would have been great study.  Alas, God clearly had other ideas.
     The root of today’s sermon is from the First Sunday in Lent.  At the second service that day, a parishioner asked me why we read the Ten Commandments during the Penitential Order.  From his perspective, few of us are idolaters, fewer murder, hopefully none of us steal, and the like.  Why then, he asked, do we remind ourselves about sins we do not commit?  Leaving aside a few of those commandments and whether we break them, I reminded the parishioner of the purpose.  Suffice it to say he was a bit gobsmacked.  As we continued our discussion, though, I tried to remind Him how we should respond, vis-a-vi Israel and what God has done for us, in Christ Jesus our Lord.  He was blown away.  In all his years attending the Episcopal Church, he had never heard the Ten Commandments tied to the work and person of Christ, except for the fact that Jesus was sinless.  Moreover, he had never been challenged to consider how the contemplation of those same words should have been preparing his heart.  He ended our chat with “you really should preach that someday or teach a class on it.”  Lo and behold, the only week during Lent when we will not observe the Penitential Order, today is Morning Prayer and Eucharist as your fumbling around in the red books has reminded you, is the day when the assigned reading from the Old Testament is the giving of the Ten Words by God in the book of Exodus!  Do you think blind Bartimaeus could see where to preach among us this week?
     Now, before I begin, this will more along the lines of a homily.  Our focus today is prayer and then the Thanksgiving.  I may only gloss over some items that, in your mind, deserve greater attention.  Perhaps for some of you, I will muddy the waters.  That’s what the rest of the week is for.  Feel free to come to Bible Study or Wednesday Eucharist and chat some more if I raise questions.  Ask me over soup on Wednesday night.  Phone, text, and e-mail work, too.
     How does the reading begin?  Then God spoke all these words . . . There are only six words in English, but they are powerful.  More significantly, they remind us of the context in which the Israelites received the Ten Words.  Then.  In some ways, this word has the most significant meaning wrapped up in it.  It is the author’s shorthand way of say “after all this had happened.”  What has happened?  Everyone here has seen Charlton Heston’s version of the events that immediately preceded this section.  God spoke to Moses from a burning brush and instructed him to go to Pharaoh.  Moses was to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites come to the Holy Mountain, where they are now standing, that they might worship Him.  Pharaoh rejected God’s instruction, and he paid a great price.  You know the ten plagues, you know the eventual sending out of the Israelites, you know the deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh chariots at the Red Sea, and the rest of the story.  After all that, then God spoke these words.  There’s a lot of history in that “then”.  And we are well reminded to consider it as we ponder our relationship with God.
     What happens next?  God speaks.  The distinguishing characteristic of Yahweh from the pantheon of the other ANE gods was the fact that He could hear and speak!  Often, the prophets will mock idolaters for worshiping idols with ears that cannot hear and lips that cannot speak.  One of the great worries for Israel we just read.  Remember Moses comforting the people with the certainty that God will raise up a prophet from among them?  Fast forward to the people’s response to John the Baptizer.  God has been silent since the days of Micah.  When John appears in the wilderness, he is like one of the prophets.  And let’s not forget how God speaks.  Most often, God tells Israel He is about to do something, He tells Israel to watch as He is doing it, and then He reminds Israel that He told them in the beginning He was going to do that thing in their midst.  Speaking is an important characteristic of God.  We are not left to fumble around guessing at what He demands of us.  He tells us plainly.  He tells us plainly and reminds us of the consequence of our disobedience.
     What does God speak?  These words.  In our culture, the words have become commandments.  It’s rather unfortunate, I think, as that understanding helps lead us away from what should be happening as we read these words, especially during the season of Lent.  Commandments are too related to laws.  We associate laws with limiting our behavior.  Those of you who drove up or down I-65 to get to church this morning understand the limiting nature of laws, right?  If you came up I-65 from Williamson County, you could drive at 70mph, assuming no wrecks.  Those coming south on the interstate had to pay closer attention.  The speed limit is 70, then 65, then 55 as you go north.  For Joel and Emily, they really need to pay attention as that speed limit changes a number of times between here and Hendersonville.  What if you were running late this morning?  Could you ignore the limit?  You could, but what happens if a police officer is around a bend holding a radar gun?  That’s right, we pay a penalty.  We think we have a good reason to be in a hurry, but the law tells us that there are other concerns, like the safety of other drivers, and limits the speed at which we travel.  We can ignore that law, but there will be a financial consequence.
     It’s also important to remember that God gives these words.  I know outside the Church and within the Church there is an effort to credit Moses with this legal system, as if he was the Jewish version of Hammurabi or some other author of famous ANE law codes.  There are some significant differences, not the least of which is, if Moses meant to cast himself as some great man, all those pesky details about how he whined at God for making him lead these people, about how he sinned, and about how he was denied entrance into the Promised Land.  I think all of us could do propaganda about ourselves a bit better than that!
     The Jews call these the Ten Words.  And I think that descriptor would serve us better.  Later, the Ten Words will become known as the torah.  Torah has a meaning of law or commandment, but those are secondary, or even tertiary meanings, compared to teaching and learning.  Instruction is a good way for us to render torah, Instruction is hopefully we are getting today.
     How do the Ten Words begin?  I am the Lord your God.  Again, like the very beginning of the passage, these words are deep in meaning.  Chiefly, God is reminding the people of Israel who He is.  He is the Lord.  He has bound Himself to them.  When they are honored and glorified, He is honored and glorified.  When they are dishonored or mocked, He is dishonored or mocked.  When they behave as He instructs, He is glorified and they in Him.  When they ignore Him or chase after idols, He is mocked and dishonored and they will be, too.  It’s an incredible reminder that they are in relationship with the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
     And, while the collective sense is important, there is also a personal reminder.  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  That relationship which exists between God and the people of Israel extends to the personal level.  He is your God.  He is your God.  He is my God.  That binding of honor and dishonor exists both corporately and individually.  Can you imagine?
     And God reminds the people, both collectively and individually, of His relationship to them.  He is a deliverer.  He is a redeemer.  They were slaves in Egypt, and He freed them.  They did nothing to secure their freedom.  God did all the work.  He instructed Pharaoh to free them; they did not ask Pharaoh if they could go worship the Lord God.  He executed the curses in Egypt, thereby signaling His power and the Egyptian gods’ status as mere idols.  He destroyed Pharaoh’s army.  He provided all that they needed—food, water, passable terrain, everything—to get them to this point in their collective and individual journey.  This identifier by God as their redeemer is so important, so significant that the Rabbis considered this the first word of the Ten Words!
     Why does that matter?  We talked a moment ago about laws and commandments and limits and penalties.  That’s not what the Ten Words are!  The Ten Words are a relational affirmation, a reminder of Who it is that they serve and worship and of what He’s done for them!  Put in English, a Redeemed people has learned what life in relationship with a redeeming, holy, righteous, hesed-filled God is like.  They should want to know this!  With joyful and thanksgiving hearts, they should long for this freedom to live in relationship with God.  The Words themselves affirm this.
     We talked earlier about laws and the limitations on our behavior.  If we are caught speeding, we pay a fine.  If we steal, unless we have really good lawyers, we go to jail.  We know the laws and the consequences that come from violation of those laws.  Perhaps for some of us, it is only those consequences that limit our behavior.  Read these Ten Words again.  What is the consequence for failing to live as God instructs?  I heard death.  That’s the correct answer in the fuller revelation of the Lord God who speaks, but is it the answer at this point in the unfolding of His covenant with His people?  No.  There is no consequence for stealing.  There is no consequence for murdering.  There is no consequence for adultery.  Using His name in a vain manner gets a general “will not acquit”, but there is no punishment described.  Even idolatry, idolatry—think of that particular sin in this context of the Deliverer speaking, why would one ever think to worship another God?!—has a vague warning.  The children of those who reject Him will be punished to the third and fourth generation; but the children of those who love him and keep His commandments will be blessed to the thousandth generation.  What will be the punishment?  What will be the blessing?  They do not yet know.  But even in that warning and encouraging word, the people are reminded of their relationship with God.  Now, standing at the foot of that mountain, they are experiencing the benefit of the faith credited as righteousness of Abraham, their however many times great grandfather!  Like them, their future generations will experience blessing because their faith in the Lord God!
     How does all this speak to us in a time centuries later and at a distance of thousands of miles?  Why do we remember the Ten Words each week of Lent and ask of God that He write all these in our hearts?  I would think the answer obvious, but I have noticed a number of expressions today that make me think many of you are considering this event in a new way.  You and I live after the completed revelation of God as found in the work and person of Jesus Christ.  Put in simpler language, we know our Redeemer!  He suffered torture and humiliation during the events of Holy Week.  He was nailed to a tree on Good Friday and died.  On that glorious Easter morning we learned unequivocally that He was God’s Anointed, that He was the means of Grace and the hope of our Salvation.  He was the means by which most of us were grafted into the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their progeny would be a light in the world, a nation of priests.  That inheritance is both corporate and individual.  As a body, we know we are redeemed and have a commission from God to share His love and mercy with all those around us.  As individuals, we know ourselves to be well-loved sons and daughters, princes and princesses in His holy family.  What should be the condition of our heart?  How should we receive this news and promise?  With joy and thanksgiving!
     Brothers and sisters, we are very much like those who came before us and stood at the foot of that holy mountain from whence God spoke these Ten Words.  Week in and week out, He reminds us through His Scripture that He is our God and our Redeemer.  Week in and week out, He reminds us that the appropriate sacrifice is a thankful heart, a generous heart, a loving heart.   Week in and week out He reminds us that He is slow to anger and quick to forgive those who with truly penitent hearts repent of their sin.  Week in and week out He calls us to remember the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of His Son our Lord, whose work made it possible for us to live in communion with a holy, righteous, good, justice and whatever grand adjective you want to add God!  When we gather at Lent and celebrate using the Penitential Order, when we gather intentionally in a season of self-examination and self-denial, we do so as a people cognizant of the fact that we have been freed from the bondage of sin.  We should be called to joyful and thankful expressions of God’s mercy in our lives.  And we should be propelled by that same joy and thanksgiving to share His offer with the world around us, a world that has bought into the myth that this, all this nonsense around us, is all that is.  You and I, brothers and sisters, know better.  You and I, brothers and sisters have experienced far more!  There is a deeper truth, a redeeming truth, a wooing love that seeks not only us but everyone we encounter in the world around us.  If we were really to consider what God has done for us collectively and individually, if His words were truly written on our hearts, how would we be changed?  As individuals?  As a parish?  As a diocese?  As the Church?  If we truly understood what He has accomplished for us, how could we ever keep silent?
     Brothers and sisters, if Lent for you has been a burden, if Lent for you has been a season when you concentrate on the fact that you are a miserable sinner, you have missed the more significant truth.  If you have accepted Christ as Lord, you are already redeemed; you will one day be Resurrected; you are an Easter people!  The Lord God has promised that, in the end, no matter what happens, all His sons and all His daughters will be vindicated and share for all eternity in His glory!  He has promised.  And if we really believe that He has redeemed us, if we really believe in His promises, how can we ever keep silent!  How can we ever stop giving thanks!

In Christ’s Peace,