The Perplexity of Me

 07.05.20

I vividly remember a friend in high school telling me that her mom was wanting to switch churches.  Since I also attended the same church I was very curious as to the reason.  The story was that her mom was mad at the pastor because he didn’t speak about sin enough.  She especially wanted him to preach about the sin of smoking. I found this amusing as my first memory of church was going to a small town First Baptist Church every Sunday morning and the doorway which we entered in was also the smoking spot for all the deacons.  Mom and Dad would tell us to take a breath and in we went.

Bobby Schuller, pastor of Shepherd’s Grove Church in Irvine, California, tells the story of being a new pastor, and coming up with what he thought was a genius marketing strategy to reach their surrounding area.  Most of the commercial business establishments in the immediate vicinity of their church building were bars, so Bobby thought it made sense to have match books made up with their church name and basic details. The plan was to give them free to the bars and then ask them to, in turn, give them to their customers.  Customers would stick them in their pockets and later, pull  them out and read the cover.  After he handed out several bulk boxes of matches to the bartenders and bar owners, several of his members were  aghast to find the name of their church on the match boxes they were given at the bar. Ironically, it was the effectiveness of his marketing scheme that landed him in hot water with several of church members and leaders.  They accused him of inciting people to sin by giving them matches.

As I have planned out this message, I have attempted to formulate a soften, and possibly humorous, way to announce the theme – However, I have to just be honest. Today we talk about Sin.

There is a high likely hood that even as I say this word, you are thinking of the sins that you most enjoy judging and condemning in other people, or, you are thinking of the sins that you are most ashamed and humiliated by in your own life. 

The apostle Paul makes a very personal revelation as he writes to the churches in Rome:

‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’

Apostle Paul (Romans 7:15b)

Philosopher and theologian, Philip L. Quinn, described the manner in which the three major world religions approach the subject of sin:

‘Sin is the concept of a human fault that offends a good God and brings with it human guilt. Sins’ natural home is in the major theistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These religious traditions share the idea that actual or personal sins are individual actions contrary to the will of God. In the Hebrew Bible, sin is understood within the context of the covenantal relation between Yahweh and his chosen people. To be in covenant with Yahweh is to exist in holiness, and so sin is a deviation from the norms of holiness. In the Christian New Testament, Jesus teaches that human wrongdoing offends the one whom he calls Father. The Qur’an portrays sin as opposition to Allah rooted in human pride.’

(Quinn)

Regardless of our definition, sin is, by all counts, a bad thing, and to be considered a sinner or sinful, is an even worse thing

This was the mission of John the Baptizer, to prepare the people for the arrival of the Messiah –  by preaching a message of repentance from sin.:

Let’s define Sin. 

The prophet Isaiah defined sin this way: 

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, 

Isaiah 53:6a

God sums this up with the word Iniquity.

So, ‘going astray’ and ‘turning to our own way’ is our  iniquity.

‘Straying from God’, ‘turning away from God’, changes what guides our actions, reactions, responses, thoughts, plans, and agendas.  So, ‘Our way’ as opposed to ‘God’s Way’ is what points us in the direction of actions that are right or are that are sin.

Next let’s look at the first Sin to better understand,

Eve, perfect until the serpent tricks her into taking the forbidden fruit, OR, Eve, created with the ability to make her own choices, having already placed herself on the trajectory of taking the fruit as she would sit everyday, eating the the identical fruit as she could get from the forbidden tree, however, the more she stares at that same fruit on the forbidden tree, the more she wants the forbidden fruit.

She has had the choice of which way to look, God’s Way or Eve’s Way.  One way reminds us of truth, the other takes us to a fantasy deceitful world where anything forbidden will taste better.  By looking away from God, Eve has allowed her personal ‘wants’ to take over.

Enter the serpent, his job is pretty easy, he just has to point Eve in the direction of the forbidden fruit, she has already set her mind on it, she has already quit listening for the voice of God in the garden, or even looking his way,  so she can have a better and unhindered focus on this fruit that she does not have, she just needs a little nudge, a little encouragement, a little affirmation, that this bad choice is actually the best choice.

The same way that Eve ended up with a forbidden fruit, is the same was that we end up with forbidden fruit. It begins with our turning away from God, going astray, is a sometimes subtle, sometimes blatantly intentional, choice on our part.  At some point, it is a choice, that often comes in times of stress, boredom, grief, exhilaration, desperation, insecurity, arrogance, self-entitlement, and any other time we are longing for an escape, or we end up focusing solely on me or my cause.

It is then that the action, or inaction, manifests as sin.

And, as Paul states, once actions of sin, manifest in our life, it festers and soon becomes an automatic response.  We become enslaved by it.

Paul explains our sin problem by starting with the law.  

As Adam and Eve, due to their turning away from God, were expelled from the garden, they were separated from God.  This meant that God was no longer there, walking with them, telling them what would harm them and what was good.  This harm would be in regard to their relationship with him, their relationship with each other, as well as their relationship with all of God’s creation.  So, now, on their own, by their own choice, they were without God’s instruction; no rules, no laws – the wild west.

This is how life was for humanity for the next 3,000 to 4,000 years.  They did not know what was harmful, they did not know their actions that were literally killing them, each other, God’s creation, and especially their relationship with God.

They were the walking dead. Digging themselves into a deeper grave with every action and inaction.

Life was chaos, murder, unfaithfulness, deceit, jealousy, revenge, hopelessness, suspicion, hatred, betrayal, theft, destruction, abuse, threats – all without having been told that these things are harmful and wrong.

In our weekly Bible Project we ask questions, a lot of questions, and then we ask more questions.  Then, after we have exhausted asking the questions we begin searching for answers.  The process is often chaotic, especially on zoom, and sometimes overwhelming. It is not a process for every personality.  Since we began with the book of Genesis in January, we have had one consistent question, that has increasingly become a complaint, and most recently an acknowledgement that the lineage of Jesus includes a very shady group of individuals.  That constant, is the horrible actions and relationship of all most everyone we have encountered in Genesis.  They are a mess, they are miserable, they are mean and often vengeful, they are manipulative and calculating, they are dismissive and neglectful, they are bad parents, they are bad spouses,  they are often, very bad people. 

Last Tuesday Mitch Musgrove, in speaking about this issue and the sad state of affairs in the OT,  said,

‘[Throughout the Old Testament] God is painting us a picture of life without God.’    

Mitch Musgrove

So, after three to four thousand years of this misery of existence, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gave them the ten commandments, the Law.  How to live. Much more extensive than just ten bullet points it covered everything.

One rabbinical tradition is that the Law, the details of what is harmful or what was healthy, was offered to all nations – however, with the exception of the Israelites, all other nations said that they didn’t want to know what was wrong and harmful because they wanted to keep doing the things they figured would be wrong. They could already assume the the law was going to forbid adultery, murder, and theft, so they passed. They instinctually kind of already knew the error of their ways, but, without the law, they could claim ignorance.

So, now the Israelites knew what was already killing them.

They were no longer ignorant. 

However, now that they knew, this new knowledge, combined with their freedom of choice, put them on a perplexing journey. Their rebellious nature wanted to partake of the forbidden fruit – just life Adam and Eve,  and their new affirmation of right and wrong countered their temptation, this put them in a perplexing dilemma. 

Theologian C.S. Lewis said, 

‘No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good.’

C.S. Lewis

So, Paul says the same thing that all of humanity has said for thousands of  years and still says today:

‘I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’  (Romans 7:15b)

 The great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, explained our perplexity this way:

“It was the custom of ancient tyrants, when they wished to put men to the most fearful punishments, to tie a dead body to them, placing the two back to back; and there was the living man, with a dead body closely strapped to him, rotting, putrid, corrupting, and this he must drag with him wherever he went. Now, this is just what the Christian has to do. He has within him the new life; he has a living and undying principle, which the Holy Spirit has put within him, but he feels that everyday he has to drag about with him this dead body, this body of death, a thing as loathsome, as hideous, as abominable to his new life, as a dead stinking carcass would be to a living man.” (Spurgeon) 

A. What is Paul’s manner of dealing with this?

First, he stands on the assurance, that, although we may be weak, God is not:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ 

Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:13)

Second, he adopted a life philosophy: 

‘beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. …for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.’

Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:8-9, 11b)

B. The mistake of religious institutions in regard to sin.

First, we have had the audacity to think that we can stop, control, and eliminate sin. Much of this comes from a misunderstanding of sin and the Law, but it has led to training believers (of all faiths) to be the exact thing we are told not to be – Judgmental and Condemning.  Both of which we do not know how to do without also being hateful, arrogant, and condescending.  Our approach has turned us into the opposite of Christlike.

Second, we have failed to truly understand that sin is just the tip of the iceberg, that it is actually something much different, often times something that could be better addressed with compassion, mercy, justice, grace, and love – however, our approach has been to rank sins without regard to the fact that all sin is a result of a deeper turning away from God and going astray.  We have made those sins that rank highest in our ‘most heinous’ list the ones we focus on – we love the word ‘abomination’.  Giving us even more reasons to judge, condemn, hate, chastise, reject, and basically be very unChristlike.

Third, since our sins are less heinous or are more invisible, we have made ‘Being a Christian’ to be an impossible journey, pushing the labeled sinners into the closet.  Once again, making us very unChristlike.

Fourth, we have missed the opportunity to go out on the journey that Jesus sent his disciples on. A journey to free the oppressed, to heal the sick, to cure diseases, and, as we are there, to tell that ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is Near.’ 

C. The Reason for God’s Desire that we Live Right 

Jesus said the reason is:

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly

Jesus (John 10:10b) 

Sin is the killer of right. 

Sin is the killer of mercy.

Sin is the killer of justice.

Sin is the killer of abundance.

God is the perfect father, who desires the best for us.  He does not bait us into sin, nor does he reject us because of sin. He does not desire us to carry around death but, instead, to live in freedom. He want us to live in Joy, that is why he has told us the things that will take away that joy.

Paul, as he explained the law, stressed that our obligation to the law in only until death, in the same way that a woman is obligated to her marriage vow until death of the spouse. So, as Christ died for us, we are not guided by the law, we live in the freedom of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As Christ died, he died our death, therefore we are free.  It is our privilege then to live in the freedom that he secured for us all.

The redemptive nature of grace is not just an eternal thing, it is a now thing.  God’s desire that that we not live in the flux of a perplexing life met with death at every turn.

Jesus is our resurrection from death. Jesus is our life outside of the tomb.

Jesus said to the woman who had been caught in the act of sin,

‘Go and sin no more.’

Jesus (John 8:11b)

He didn’t say this so that she could be forgiven, or acceptable – he said it because he wanted her to have life and to not have to carry that dead body around anymore.

Jesus says the same to us, in order that we too, can live in, and with, that joy.

Our Prayer Together

An expression of gratitude for Love

07.05.20  

God, we thank you for love.  We are grateful that your greatest commandments are all about love.

That make sense as you are love.

We recognize your love in, and all over, your sacrifice of Jesus. You showed us how to love through your actions.

Love always comes out in actions.

We now know that loving others is not a cliche, It is more than a a gooey feeling,

Love calls for sacrifice.

That is what you, O Lord, have shown us through your actions. We now know what your sacrifice looks like,

It looks like grace,

It looks like forgiveness, It looks like mercy, It looks like compassion, It looks like a call for justice, It looks like persevering kindness, It looks like love,

Love extended to all, Love extended for all, Love that is not selfish, Love that is never withheld, Love that motivates our sacrifice, Love that notices others, Love that prompts us to a response of empathy.

Love is Love.

O Lord, there is really no other way to say it,

Love is Love, and, your Love is life. It is the ‘all that I need’ kind of life.

As we adopt your kind of love, we will meet all with your embrace, We will see chaos through your eyes of peace, We will see the needs of a hurting world, We will see the injustice in the streets, We will the pain that precludes violence, We will see the hurt hiding in the shadows, We will see the desperate reaching for any sign of hope, We will see the life you desire that we have, We will see the life you sacrificed for us to live.

God we give thanks for love. O Lord, we give thanks for Your love.

Show us when we are failing to love you, Reveal to us when we are failing to love others.

God, we thank you for Love.

Amen

Here and Far Away

In the second half of the 1800s, Presbyterian teacher, author, and musician, Julia H. Johnston, sat down to pen a hymn that would explain the Grace the the Apostle Paul preached to the Churches at Roman, the words became the lyrics for Grace Greater than our Sin: 

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt! Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, There, where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that will pardon and cleanse within; Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that is greater than all our sin!

Julia H. Johnston

In proclaiming Christ, John said:

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

john 1:15

Grace is a difficult concept to explain no matter who you are speaking with.  The apostle Paul found this to be true as he attempted to teach the concept to the churches at Rome.

Paul was writing to churches that consisted mostly of Jewish believers but a growing group of gentiles (non Jewish believers as well.  It was a difficult concept – receiving something for nothing. It was especially difficult when the learners are accustom to a religousity that sets up many dos and don’t, as well as many gos and don’t gos.  He started was our human condition – using references from the teachings that the Jews would have grown up with: 

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

Romans 3:9b-12

And then Paul expands. 

‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of  the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;  

it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law

Romans 3:19-26, 31

Understand? Everything crystal clear?

Don’t worry it it is all still a little fuzzy, or even hugely fuzzy. It was fuzzy to most of those hearing Paul’s words as well.

Paul, recognized the existing fuzziness, so he illustrated by painting a word picture that most, could identify with.  Ironically, it is an explanatory picture that is possibly even more understandable, and relatable, today.

Paul took the listeners, and he takes us, back to a common figure – Abraham.

Abraham, given the label ‘Father of Our Faith’ by the three major world religions is a difficult individual. Let’s face it, the man used his wife, twice, as a human shield to protect himself.  He gave her away so that his life would be spared.  How is there anything redemptive in a person that would disregard his wife in such a calculated manner.

And, to make this matter more NOT understandable, he is rewarded for doing this – receiving riches from a ruler!

I have to be honest, I spent a lot of time this week trying to redeem the man Abraham, to no avail.

It finally occurred to me, the story of Abraham, is not a story of a saint, it is not  the story of a near saint,  it is a story of a man who needed a lot, I mean a lot, of grace.  It is a story that allows us to see the what grace is and what grace does.

The one thing about Abraham, the thing that puts him into this story, is that he is a man who often sincerely said:

‘Here I am.’

And,  

‘Okay.’

(or at least of verbal or action form of ‘okay’)

That is all that grace needs, ‘Here I am,’ and ‘Okay.’ These are two powerful statement.  “I Am Here’ the opposite of what Adam and Eve said when they hid from God in the garden; the same as what Isaiah said when God called him to be a prophet.  It is a statement of vulnerability.  ‘I Am Here’ just ‘Here’ no where great, and ‘I Am Not Perfect’ but ‘I Am Here.’

It is then, that grace, met by his willingness to say ‘okay’, that God moves him from our ‘Here’ through his own resistance to go to God’s ‘Far Away.’

Grace is not necessary to people who are Saints, it is not needed by perfect people, it is of no consequences to those people who are self sufficient, it is wasted on those who can go through life with a single minded focus that never sways away from God. 

In reality, the raw reality where we all live, none of those people exist, so grace is always needed, always available, and is always the balm that heals our soul.

So, let’s reintroduce ourselves to Abraham:

He gave his wife away to protect himself…..twice.

He owned people, he had slaves. 

He would have definitely have been a target of today’s ‘Me Too’ movement.

He quickly accepted his wife’s hall pass to sleep with another woman.

He sent that ‘other’ woman, and their son, out, surely, to their death.

And, that is just some of what is documented, his first seventy-five years are a mystery.

However,

When his deceased brother’s son needed a new dad, Abraham said, ‘I Am Here’.

When God told him to pack up his family and possessions he said, ‘Okay’.

When God made a ridiculous promise that, in no way, was possible, he said, ‘Okay.’

When he needed to put his own life on the line and risk everything he had to save his nephew, he said, ‘Okay.’

When his son, Isaac said, ‘Dad?’ Abraham said, ‘I Am Here.’

The good does not outweigh the bad by any means.  That is why Abraham gives us the perfect understanding of grace, the grace that he needed, the grace that we need.

The promise from God was made to him that he would be the father of many people and many nations even though his wife was barren and considered too old for pregnancy; He was promised to have a land, even though he was a nomad; He was promised to be a blessing to all, even though his own house was dysfunctional.

Like most of us, Abraham had his safety net, his backups in the case God needed help with his plan.  He had his long time beloved servant Eliezar – Eliezar could be the heir to Abraham, he could birth many people and ultimately a nation – but God said ‘no’.  He still have his loved nephew Lot, but then Lot left, he wasn’t really interested, he had other plans.  

It was at this point that Abraham began to be stressed and distressed.  His back up plans had been rejected or they had withdrawn from being a option.

In the midst of Abraham’s depression, God showed up.  The promise still held, even without Eliezar and Lot.  Only this time, God specified that the son would be a biological son of Abraham.

Abraham said ‘Okay’. It was crazy, it was impossible, it wasn’t going to happen, but Abraham said ‘Okay.’

Now notice, Abraham says ‘okay’ but we are still not to a perfect, saintly Abraham. But, even with what takes place next, God still credits Abraham’s heart felt, and sincere, ‘Okay’ as righteous.

Promise is repeated, grace is extended, that is what grace is, it is not about our actions, it a gift that we don’t deserve.  God received a sincere heart ‘Okay’ from Abraham, grace was offered, grace was given. Even while Abraham was still painfully imperfect. Grace Goes Before Us

Then, there seemed a loophole had been exposed, it seemed that there was a back up plan that Abraham was unaware of.

The servant of his wife, she could be the biological mother and Abraham could be the biological father! It was genius.  And, the best part of this brilliant plan was that it was first suggested by his wife Sarah. How could this fail?!

So he agreed, Sarah agreed, and, of course, the servant Hagar didn’t have to agree.  It would work, and it did work, Hagar had a son by Abraham who was named Ishmael.

But that wasn’t God’s plan.

‘Sarah will be the biological mother of the Son that you have been promised,’ God said.

Then Abraham swallowed hard, and Sarah laughed.

Abraham didn’t say much – after all,  he did still have a back up – there was his son Ishmael outside playing.

But then, Sarah, probably due to the double rejection by Abraham, not to mention how quickly he had a baby with Hagar, Sarah became jealous. Hagar and their son Ishmael were sent away.

Now, no Son, and no back up plan. No safety net.

But then, as Abraham is without a back up plan, and Sarah apparently is without a viable womb – Sarah birthed a son.  To everyone around it was a miracle, a crazy miracle.  The kind of miracle you read about in the line to pay for your groceries.

To God – it was his plan.  It was the most basic requirement of his promise.  A Son.

Abraham and Sarah now have a son.  Neither needs a back up plan or a safety net, they are the biological parents of this promised son.

There is one more thing, and this thing is about Abraham. It is a necessity for Abraham. 

It was time for Abraham to grow into God’s grace. It was time for him to be a man of Faith and to live a life of faith.

God called on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac 

Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, was fascinated with the story, and person, of Abraham. In 1843, under a pseudonym, Kierkegaard wrote a book titled Fear and Trembling based on Philippians 2:12, ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’. He focused on the inter anxiety, and turmoil, that Abraham must have experienced as he said “okay’ to God’s call to sacrifice the only son he had left and the son that he so deeply loved.  

Kierkegaard, in this book which many thought was an autobiographical account of his own faith, developed the concept of ‘Infinite Resignation,’ which, he says, is the final element in the process of ‘working out your salvation.’  It is the giving up your backup, the one thing that you have held back from God, the one thing that you are unable to surrender to God, the one thing that you withhold from God, the one thing with which you are unable to fully trust God. 

‘Abraham?’

“I am here.’

a conversation between God and Abraham

God knew it was time for Abraham to move from here  to ‘work out his Salvation with fear and trembling.’  He told Abraham that he was to offer his only son, the son that he loved, as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.

We don’t hear Abraham say, ‘okay’, but he did obey.  He got up early and headed to the place, with Isaac, that God would show him.

On the way, as they stopped to prepare, Abraham looked, far away to where he was to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  It was far away.  Far away from Sarah, far away from home, far away from him.  There was no way he was going to get there. However, he still said, ‘Okay.’ 

‘Dad’

‘I Am Here Son.’

‘What will we Sacrifice?’

a conversation between Isaac and Abraham

It was a long journey, far away always is.  The two must have talked about everything, everything except the sacrifice. That was a personal journey for Abraham, Sarah nor Eliezar could share it, Isaac definitely couldn’t.  It was a lonely journey to ‘far away.’

Abraham was ‘working out his salvation’ as he traveled far away, he separated God’s promise and God’s provision.  He asked himself if he trusted God enough, did he have faith enough to trust the promise and surrender the provision?

According to Kierkegaard, ’Infinite Resignation is the last stage before faith, so any who one has not made this movement does not have a full faith, for only in Infinite Resignation does an individual become conscious of his external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.’.

Simply put, one must give up all of his, or her, earthly possessions and must also be willing to give up whatever else it is that he, or she, loves more than God.

Abraham received God’s grace when he said ‘I am here,’ as well as when he said, ‘Okay,’ to God. He received ‘Grace upon Grace.  It was then that he began his journey of faith, a faith that would carry him through life.  Grace was given long before he reached the point of surrendering everything.

It was then, at the mental surrender, he was truly a man of faith, it was then that the world could look at him at the Father of Our Faith

As Abraham was about to plunge the knife into the body of his dear son, an angel cried out, ‘ABRAHAM!’

‘ABRAHAM! ABRAHAM!’

‘I Am Here’

an urgent conversation between angel and Abraham

Abraham, far away at a place that he never wanted to go to, held the knife steady and said, ‘I Am Here.’

Sure, we know that this was a test from God. Isaac was never going to die.  Abraham probably considered the possibility as well, but to even go through the motions, he had to ask the question, ‘Is this for real?’ He had to make the decision the sacrifice would be offered.

In offering his son, Abraham made the sacrifice.  He was now living by faith in God.

The comparison with God’s giving of His son are there, the painful resignation to surrender that which is most valuable is obvious.

We, however, have much to surrender. All of us, if we have said “I Am Here’ and ‘Okay’ are on a far away journey.  We are called to a sacrifice, God is showing us the way. Not only those things that we hold dear, but also those we hold dear. We have been asked to isolate at home and, when we are out, to wear a mask for the health of others.  It was just a preparatory sacrifice as God, now asks us to sacrifice our long held prejudices and judgements.  Our own way of looking at others, especially those who are different from us and that we do not understand.  We are being called to take the initiative, to not only understand, but to love beyond words.  To become uncomfortable with the status quo of our faith in this current reality, to become unsettled with the contradictions seen in our faith and in the reality of the world – to see the disconnect between the life of Christ then and the life of believers now. 

This turmoil that we are in, in a world that cannot control the disease and the disgruntled protests in the street – It is All Part of God Moving Us Far Away – to a place of Sacrifice.

It all seems very far away. But God’s grace took him there.  This was not something great historically about Abraham, we see little else about him after this story.  But, the life he now lived was fully, and completely lived in faith.  

This far away faith journey was for him, it is what Christ meant when he said ‘I came so that you may have life, and have it abundantly!’

God is calling us, are we ready to say, ‘Here I Am’?

Prayer Together for 06.28.20

God, we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are.
 
We are worn out by rising unemployment figures.
We are concerned about surging Covid numbers.
We are already fatigued by political manipulation 
and maneuvering. 
We are weary eyed from staring at our screens.

We are increasingly claustrophobic wearing face masks.
We miss seeing peoples’ faces.
We long for handshakes and hugs. 
We have forgotten what it is to actually go somewhere.

God we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are.
We now know that transformation must take place in each of us.
 
We are recognizing our need for empathy
We are striving to see others with a greater depth
and compassion.
We are realizing that we have taken antibiotics 
and vaccines for granted.
We are beginning to grasp the truth that our health is not just about us. 

We understand that rights are a privilege 
that must not be abused.
We connect that our privileges 
must never be at the expense of others.
We know that Loving God and Loving Others requires sacrifice.
We attempt to fathom that your love for us is why you sacrificed your son.

God we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are. 
We know that transformation must take place in each of us.
We name our gratitude in order to turn our gaze back to you. 

We trust in you even when we don’t see that you are here.
We trust in you even though we fear what is in the distance.
We trust in you as we follow an unknown path.
We trust in you, because you have always carried us before. 

God we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are.
We know that transformation must take place in each of us.
We name our gratitude in order to turn our gaze back to you.
We trust in you because you are our God, you are our Lord.

Amen

The Grip of Fear

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Luke 4:18-19

After Jesus finished reading these words, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 

Then, from his seat, Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

The religious leaders that were present spoke well of Jesus and they were amazed at his gracious words. However, as the dialogue progressed, the leaders began to feel the sting of Jesus’ words.  He spoke to their lack of compassion, their absence of concern for the oppressed, their failure to provide for the hungry and homeless; Jesus confronted their failure to address the very real social and physical needs that existed among the people of their community. The leaders became increasingly defensive.  In reaction to these confrontative words they did what humans do when we do no have a true defense, when we have heard uncomfortable truth – they turned to hostility, violence, and vengeance.

More than two thousand years later the church is still hesitant to take up his mission.

Jesus stated that his calling, matching the prophecy that pointed to him, was to address the very real oppression, misery, poverty, hunger, homelessness – the pain of existing as marginalized people. 

At the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention, Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, brought forth a resolution condemning alt-right white supremacy.  In committee, McKissic’s motion was denied the approval needed to be forwarded onto the floor of the convention for a vote from pastors and other delegates in attendance.  The much needed proclamation would have been dead if it had not been for some white Southern Baptist pastors, who let go of their own fears, and joined the pastors of color, insisting that this resolution receive a vote.  These pastors knew that standing up to racism was a risk for which they would surely suffer backlash, and probably be blacklisted by many SBC leaders and faithful – they identified and named their fear deciding to take the risks  – it was the right thing to do. It was what Jesus would have done and it was what he was calling them to do in that moment.  Thanks to these that took a risk, confronted their fears and prepared for the consequences, the resolution did eventually get a vote and did pass. 

It is very human for our fears to stand in the way of us living out the call of Christ in our own lives.

Our gospel passage for today comes after Jesus’ experience with the harassed and hopeless – a large swath of humanity,  Jesus prepared his apostles for a mission to address the physical, mental, and social needs of society. He equated the desperate state of the existence which he had witnessed, to that of a person being skinned alive and the skin then being cast away.

As Jesus sent the apostles out, addressing his concerns for the marginalized people and  all of the periphery of humanity – this same section of humanity that he had highlighted back on that day in his hometown. He knew that once the comfortable lives of the powerful and entitled were threatened, there would be an uproar. He was fully aware that his apostles would be confronted with this same human guttural reaction.

The apostles were called to go to their own people, a people that were lost and divided.  A people looking for the Messiah but blinded by their own false prophets, corrupt politicians, and hardened religious institutions.  This was where the message would begin and then, it would go to the world. Ultimately it would brought even to us.

But first, going to their own would be the most difficult.  This group would judge them the most harshly, reject them the most viciously, and hate them the most blatantly.

However, there would be some that would would hear and see – 

Some would be freed,

Some would grab hold of hope,

Some would, for the first time, know love.

Some would finally find peace.

It would be these that would hear, and these that would accept – the words The Kingdom of Heaven is Near.

Jesus set our to prepare his apostles as they were confronted by their own fears.  He named their fears, the worst of the worst things that could happen.  He did not soften it, he did not deny it, he did not diminish it, he honestly named the rejection, the accusations that would be hurled, the fists would surely fly, humiliation was guaranteed – they was fears that could be named, and the names were intentionally verbalized out loud.

The worst of the worst fear – death, was addressed by Jesus as he said, do not be afraid of those that can kill your body but not your soul. 

Naming fears allowed the apostles to identify the worst, to know the extreme realities they will face.  The fears of answering Jesus call – a call of helping the oppressed and hurting, the marginalized, the abused, the neglected, the outcast, the hated. 

Later on, Jesus will name this calling – ‘Taking up our Cross’.  This is what  he was calling on the apostles to do and it is what he calls us to do even now, ..especially now

This term ‘Take up your cross’ would have been understood in the day.  It referred to the marginal people (primarily slaves and rebels) that resided within the Roman Empire who were the targets of the punishment of death on the cross.  These people, due to their social and legal status, were despised, hated, and often feared – their primary offense was that they did not align themselves with, or submit themselves to, Rome’s authority.   And, those who helped these people always knew that they too risked the same fate.  When scripture calls us to love others, care for others, show the compassion that no one else is willing to show to others, there is always a risk.  It always requires us to Take up our Cross. 

‘To take up the cross is to identify with those that threaten the empire.’

Warren Coats

I have a pastor friend, here in Norman, that is in the middle of experiencing the pain of Taking Up His Cross.  Recently, he attended a Black Lives Matter rally here in Norman.  While there, he was asked why he, a white male pastor, was in attendance at the rally.   His response was ‘It is where Jesus would be, it is where God has called me to be.’ He mentioned this experience to his church last Sunday and by the time his head hit his pillow Sunday evening, he had been alerted that four families in his church had already announced they were leaving the church because of his involvement with the movement.  This is painful for a pastor, this is threat to a church, this is the cost of Taking Up Our Cross

Jesus made an odd statement – 

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace’

It would appear that Jesus has a disconnect with his own words where he is announced at birth with peace; peace was the first words to his followers following the resurrection.  These two statements appear to be incongruent, they seem to contradict each other.

The truth is, these two statements are totally congruent and even dependent on each other.  At the time Jesus sent out his apostles, the Jews were still looking forward to the coming Messiah.  Their anticipation was that this Messiah would actually bring a political peace.  Not only would they not be oppressed or attacked, but, that they would become the world power.  The peace would be grounded in that human force of a nation that was the ultimate empire.

In actuality, the Messiah, Jesus, came for a peace for all persons regardless of nationality.  It is, and was, a peace that would be unacceptable to those who did not want to release their power, their control, their status.  Reaching out to, and caring for, the marginalized and oppressed is seldom welcome, advocating for the periphery of society is often a threat.

This was the complaint of the prophet Jeremiah. As he had spent most of his life proclaiming the coming attack and take over by the Babylonians, and some time jail, hated and rejected by even those he consider his friends.  All hoped for his demise because they didn’t want to hear truth God gave him to deliver. But, even as he complained to God he admitted that there was a burning deep within him that called for him to proclaim God’s truth, to go where, God led him to go, to speak the words that God gave to him to speak.  Even though he was gripped with fear, he knew that he had to Take Up His Cross, he could do no less.

This is God’s Highest Calling, to go to those living in desperation, to care for the marginalized, to be the compassion of God to those who have spent a lifetime of being dismissed, despised, abused, and hated.

This is the reason that Jesus pulled his, still fresh and in the middle of learning, disciples, out of school.  He moved them from mere students to the level of proclaimers, to being apostles.  There was an urgency that could not be ignored. 

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.’

Jesus

Jesus was differentiating his call over the hope of an empire of the people.  He was heading off those who would try to rise up and take over.  Push Jesus to act  forcefully. Like Judas did. It is the highest calling, to sacrificially act with the embrace of Jesus, to name our fears and Take Up Our Cross to meet the same world that Jesus called ‘harassed and hopeless.’

It is our Highest Calling. 

The Lord has already told you what is good, and what he requires of you: do what is right, love mercy, seek justice for all,  and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 

While German pastor and theologian, Detirich Bonhoffer, was imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II for his words and actions against the Nazi politicians and their atrocities, a fellow pastor visited him.  Shouting through the barbed wire fence, the pastor asked Bonhoffer why he was there, why had he not just stayed out of the political situation and kept his mouth shut. Bonhoffer responded by asking, “You ask why am I in here, the real question is how is it that you are not in here with me?’

Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, sat on the stage of Passion City Church last Sunday with Pastor Louie Giglio and African American Christian Musician LeCree – to discuss the killing of Rayshard Brooks the day before and the burning of the restaurant where the death took place:  

“We’ve got a real bad situation. We don’t need to let this moment miss us. It has to hurt us. It has to hurt us. And we as Caucasians until we’re willing to just pick up the baton and fight for our black, African American brothers and sisters, which they are as one human race, we’re shameful, We’re just adding to it.  Our silence is so huge at this time.

We cannot be silent. I think before we start to jump into action we need a personal period of contrition and a broken heart. Not just criticize the people that burnt down that restaurant, we got  to have a heart for the Rayshard Brooks and others … We’ve got to have a sense of empathy of what led to this.” 

This is the tip of the iceberg of incredible amounts of frustration and pain that the whole spectrum of the African American community…. most of us white people are just simply out of sight, out of mind. We’re oblivious to it. We cannot let this moment pass.”

Isabel Wilkerson, author, The Warmth of Other Suns , who began calling for empathy in 2016, says:

“We may be clueless and awkward around the subject of race, but we know what the Gospel demands. That we keep working at being better neighbors.” 

The question for us, is how are we going to respond to our highest calling?  How are we going to live out the Greatest Commandment?

How are we going to love God and love our Neighbors as ourself?

In these past months we have seen the best and the worst of humanity. The best and the worst of those who call themself Christian. 

Jesus prepared his apostles by first showing them how God feels about oppression, misery and marginalization – It was undoubtedly a confrontation of their own prejudices and bigotry, then he helped them name their fears, then, they went out.

What will it take for us to have empathy for our fellow humans? What will it take for us to accept the call of Jesus?

Our Sunday Prayer Together

for Sunday, June 14, 2020

 O Lord,  these times have revealed how little control we have, we have seen how powerless we all truly are. We have grasped for hope, as we often grasp for air. 

In this time, we know we are vulnerable targets of lies and deceit.

Our hope is in you, O Lord, our hope is in you. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that, sometimes it is easy to look away.  False prophets shout for our attention, they seek to turn us from you. They sound like they are from you, but they are not, they claim to have your truth, but they do not. 

May gratitude steady our focus. May thanksgiving bring us back. May we always remember your works,  May we always remember your love.

So, today,  in the midst of a world consumed with fear. A world that refuses to see. A world that still cannot fathom our weaknesses.

On this day, we give thanks.  On this day, we give you, O Lord, our thanks. On this particular day, we thank you for fathers, which reminds us also of our gratitude for mothers. For their perfections and their imperfections – for we have learned from them both. For their sacrifices – most of which we never saw.  For their concerns – few of which we ever appreciated. For Fathers and Mothers we thank you. 

We thank you for the scientists,  the health care professionals,  the essential workers. We are grateful for their expertise, their sacrifices, their perseverance through uncertain times. They have analyzed data, they have have studied pathogens, they have guarded the vulnerable, they have cared for the ailing. They have delivered food to our homes, met us at curbside when we are hungry, worn masks to keep us safe,  They have taken care of us as if their own lives didn’t matter.

O Lord, we also thank you for technology. We thank you for the useful applications which have permitted us to be together even though we have needed to stay apart. We give thanks that the frustrations experienced with technology have been countered by the access provided to each other. God, we recognize that you, using technology, have pierced the darkness of our isolation, you have let us see the light of your presence in each other.

O Lord, may gratitude be our path in these strange times. O Lord, may gratitude point us back to you. O Lord, may gratitude guide our emotions, actions, and  reactions. O Lord, may gratitude carry us through our fear.

Amen

Being Loud

Message – Being Loud 

06.21.20

The gospel passage read today is the most passionate telling of a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus Christ.  For in this short passage, using these few words, we see the motivation that propels Christ for the remainder of the gospel of as told by the disciple Matthew.

Jesus, after the beatitudes, and after being amongst the people, sharing in their pains and hardships, witnessed the oppression they were under, he had seen and addressed their sickness and disease, he had seen that which he could not ignore.  The pain of the human condition.

It is surely not an overstatement to say that this had been an overwhelming and exhausting journey that had now been experienced by God in the flesh

As Jesus retreats to the circle of his disciples, he expresses his summation of the the human experience.  

‘The people are harassed, they are hopeless,’ he proclaims.  

Other translations use words such as distressed and dispirited, fainting and scattered (ceased to be a people), carrying problems so great that they do not know what to do, confused and aimless.   

These two verbs, harassed and hopeless, come from the root words skulló (skool’-lo) and rhiptó (hrip’-to), in their raw form  mean to flay and cast aside.  Cast aside we can understand but the word ‘flay’ may be unknown  to you – it basically means ‘ to skin’ so in a verb form would be ‘skinned’.  Think flaying a fish.

While Jesus probably did not mean that flaying was literally taking place, the people would have understood as it had been known to be a practice of torture of living humans as well as a show of disrespect to dead humans.  This practice has been identified as existing as early as 800 years prior to Jesus birth.

The use of theses words, and of combining them together create a very potent and powerful image that represent, by Jesus, the pain and agony he had seen and experienced in his time with the people.

Jesus was devastated and pushed to action.

Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the bible, The Message, describes the countenance of Jesus as ‘his heart was broken.’

It is significant that Matthew would document that Jesus uses these two images combined to present a visual the disciples would understand as he, of all the disciples understood the oppression of the Jews as he had been an employee of the Roman government.  He knew how they used fear to control and manipulate the people.  

It is out of this event, that God led Jesus to a mission of doing and not just a mission of telling.  It is at the point that the ministry becomes as much about now as it does about our life after this earth.  His message is not just doubt God’s act of love and sacrifice being the way to heaven but even more desperately about the way being an avenue to hope, peace, and love now, on earth.  It was the whole of his proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, and for his prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.’

The impression of the human experience, the pain and agony in the lives of God’s people can only be described as pivotal. This revelation, while intellectually not new, but from the perspective of the flesh was seismic. God the father had used this moment to shape the ministry of Christ and to mold his passion.

He was there for the people. Any sacrifice he would make would be for the people.  His life was now being given to the people.

Jesus, now moved the disciples from mere learners to active doers.  For the only time in gospel of Matthew the status of the disciples is changed to apostles, they were now living out what they had seen Jesus do and teach.  Jesus was  sending them to do what he did when he encountered the misery of the human experience.

Jesus sent them out because it was a need that could not be ignored. 

Jesus sent the disciples, now apostles with a specific call, used very specific words and a very specific order.  He used the root word ‘Go’ but in a form that meant ‘As you have gone, also, tell them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.’

You see the ‘Go’ to tell was not their mission, it was a ‘Go to Heal’, and while you are ‘Going and Healing’ , tell them about the Kingdom.  This is significant because it shows us the passion of Jesus for our ‘now’ as much as for our ‘later.’

They had seen Jesus at life, a life of caring, a life of compassion, a life of hope, a life providing peace, a live of love.  When he was in front of the crowds and when he was just with them.

Jesus told them, on their ‘Go’ if they were welcomed in, if they were permitted to do the work of Jesus they were then to bring a ‘peace’ to the house. 

They were called to ‘GO’ and to ‘BE’ the ‘IMPRINT’ of Jesus.

This is our multi-dimensional God, the one who cares for us now, and forever.  

Modern Evangelicalism has made the call of Jesus a one dimension calling.  It is a ‘Say’ calling, tell about Jesus win converts for eternity.  It is easy and quick. 

Jesus statement of the lack of laborers has been used to propagate this one dimensional calling of Jesus.  Other aspects, aspects such as care, compassion, mercy, peace, and even love have all taken a back seat to the ‘tell’ the ‘say’. 

This is the call, to be ‘Doers’ because God is a compassionate and loving God, we know this because Jesus, the election, exact imprint of God, was a compassionate and loving human being.

The ‘Say’ the telling that the ‘Kingdom is Near’ becomes a natural privilege as the compassion and love have already been communicated by our lives. The communicated message then, just ties up the loose ends.

This is an act of living out the great commandments:

Love God

Love Others as Yourself.

Jesus directed his now apostles to go the the lost Jews.  He gave a strict instruction to not go to the Samaritan or the Gentiles.  This was not a slight on either of these groups, they will have their moment with the compassion of God.   Now, however, is the time of need for the Jews.

This time is not just because of the pain of their lives, it is even more needed because their division keeps them from being unified, from the greater power that comes with community.

Much like now they are also divided.  Like now they have slapped labels on each other.  Labels like liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamental, traditional and contemporary, boring and exciting, among just to name a few.  Just like today, these labels kept them from helping and encouraging  each other in their times of need.  They kept them from strengthening each other in their times of misery.

Jesus send the apostles to unify them.  Much like he proclaims his goal of unity in his prayer just before he was arrested.  

 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you  sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17:22-23

They couldn’t help each other because they did not consider themselves brother and sisters with each other.  They had failed to remember the common element of their faith was to look for the promised Messiah and therefore they had missed Jesus.

Their politics, their chosen religious leaders, their own agendas had all kept them from seeing and addressing the pain of all their other same faith neighbors.  They could not see beyond the roadblocks of themselves.


Let explain it through a real life, this week, story.

Illustrative Story of justifying actions of cop and responding with accusation against the cope.  This is the problem – instead of us taking a knee to understand the pain expressed about this incident, we have ran to our own corners to defend our politics and stance.  It is not about Mr. Floyd, it is not about this police officer, it is about centuries of a people in pain that we have refused to make the sacrifice of our own roadblocks in order to cure and heal.

We are in a time where the entire world is sharing in a suffering that we do not have the power to overcome.  I am sure that Covid is not a judgement of God but that God is going us the opportunity to be apostles of God’s compassion, his mercy, and his love. In the midst of this shared struggle we are divided with many even dismissing the reality of the deaths and the pain.

Add to this more of the same racist tragedies have taken place with African Americans suffering unneeded loss and pain.  Our politics and out complacency ha has kept us from responding since the founding of our nation.  This, along with Native American, and many other people groups have been oppressed and persecuted.  The church outside of these communities have said little.  We have gone to our sides, we have said ‘NO’ to Jesus shock at the suffering and pain.

We have refused to consider the pain of the past of the African Americans  forced to come to America resulting in a passing down pain and misery generation to generation. We seldom accept the responsibility for the brutal treatment of the Native American, who also cannot help but down their pain.  When children began arriving at our borders unaccompanied by their parents we immediately complained about parents who would send their children on such treacherous journeys alone without any consideration of how bad their lives must be to permit their loved ones to go. We continue to listen to false religious prophets who lead us from compassion and concern and toward hatred and dismissal of the very pain that led Jesus to transform his disciples into apostles. 

Our call is not to speak but to ‘BE”. Our call is too be appalled at the human persecution of any group of people to such an extent that we cannot help but be appalled and outraged. Our call if to “BE” the compassion and mercy of Jesus revealing his love, peace, and hope to those who are oppressed and mistreated. Our call is to live our life out loud, it is time that we take an honest look and say “this is not right!’.  Our call is to live the life Jesus sent his apostles to live.  A life where our mission is to heal the hurting, to rescue the harassed and mistreated, to show mercy and compassion, to love and bring peace.  It is to let the imprint of Jesus be unavoidably seen in our actions, our heart, and then, our words.

A Prayer for Now

 God, you have called us to joy, but in these peculiar times, we frequently only see misery.

You have called us to love, but more and more, we can only see hate. 

You have called us to gratitude, but often, it seems we can only see entitlement.

You have called us to peace, but everything seems to point to chaos.

You have called us to unity, but we seem more divided with  every day that goes by.

Lord, we pray for eyes that can see beyond the circumstances of our world.

Replace our consistent response of selfishness with compassion and mercy. 

Remind us that gratitude turns us back to you, and that, in turning to you we are able to see the light that is not extinguished by the darkness.

God, may we live in unity even in the midst of separation, may we live in peace even in the midst of struggle. 

Lord, in this time of strangeness, this unprecedented time of division,

We choose to make a joyful noise even when we cannot hear the sounds of others.

We strive to look at others in the same way you look at them, 

We yearn to see beyond the surface to understand what you  know.

We seek to noise heard from our lives to come from an ever  increasing knowledge of you.

God, show us our own hatred, our own self-centeredness, our own bigotry, our own racism, and everything that keeps us from  seeing and hearing as you see and hear.

Give us the strength to lay those things down and, instead, pick up compassion, mercy, love, peace, and especially joy. 

Lord, may our lives be a loud sound of joy before you.

May that sound be heard through our lives, 

May we then be able to speak the words that have been affirmed through the sounds of our lives 

May our isolation, our separation, our fears, our pain, be replaced with those things heard in the life of Jesus.

May our lives be the very imprint of you.

Amen

Broken People in a Broken World

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  

a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 

a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 

a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

It is the time for the church, the time for believers everywhere, a time for those that claim the label of  ‘followers of Christ,’ to speak the words of Jesus.

It is our time to recognize God at work, even when that work does not match up with what we think God should do, when it is different from what those in power have told us God is doing, or what God will do.

As the time of Babylonian exile was nearing an end, as the people were on the cusp of recognizing their own failure to look to, and trust, God, time to quit listening to the false prophets and to listen to the prophets from God –  in this time, God instructed the prophet Isaiah to speak.:   

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:18-19

It is the time to recognize that God is doing a new thing.

As African Americans have suffered abuse, and even death, at the hands our broken law enforcement officers, as Native Americans, once again, experience the abuse of a broken political systems as broken political leaders attempt to divide and destroy, as broken false prophets, hiding behind a false guise of evangelical leaders, abuse and misuse God, God’s truth and our faith, in order to control governmental leaders and the people sitting in the pews and on the screens, as broken believers, broken followers of Christ, have failed to seek and search for truth, as we have settled for the false lies of broken voices, it is time, time for us to see that God is, and has been, doing a new thing.

As we live, and attempt to survive, in a world where, over the past 100 days – the most vulnerable have been the most ignored and abused, it is time.

It is time for us to speak to what God is doing. 

Let’s begin with a truth:

We are all broken people in a broken world.

As the new testament church began, fresh off the excitement of the touch of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this multi-national, multi-race, multi-cultural, multi-almost everything, group was riding high on their new enhanced understanding of God, and relationship with God, each other, the world, and even God’s creation.  The church, this collection of new believers, had been enlightened and had accepted, this realization of this new thing, they were beginning to grasp this fulfillment of the old thing.

Our Acts passage take us within months, maybe days, of that life changing moment when the Spirit had pushed the waiting disciples and apostles out of their room and into the crowded streets.  Streets crowded with those who had come to Jerusalem seeking to celebrate this day shuh·voo·owt (shavuot), a day of celebrating redemption.  They came to celebrate and experience redemption anew.  For those that sincerely were seeking that redemption, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the one that comes along side, met them in those streets.

This group was now tied together by God’s presence, resurrection, life, connectedness to God, unity, glory, forgiveness, justice, mercy were their unexpected bond.   A bond of broken people existing together in a broken world.

Brokenness always brings brokenness.  We know little of Ananias and Sapphire except of their brokenness.  They, for reasons unknot, had become a part of this group of followers of Jesus. Now, we can only speculate the how and why of their presence in this group, it could be that they loved the excitement of the believers but not the commitment, it could be that they were all in on the day of Pentecost but the brokenness of the world got the best of them, or, like Adam and Eve, once they had a look at what they could gain through the use of this group they were unable to look at anything else.

As the Spirit began God’s work in the church, Ananias and Sapphira could see nothing except their own personal agenda.  Even when they were given a chance to look elsewhere, an opportunity to once again see Truth, they didn’t. They were so focused that they were incapable of seeing anything else except self.  

When all you can see is your self, you are incapable of seeing your brokenness. 

Now, in our gospel passage, we return to a time before the crucifixion, a time when Jesus was invaded by a angry mob with an agenda.

‘We caught this woman in the act of adultery!’ The crowd screemed as they threw the humiliated woman at Jesus’ feet.

Jesus didn’t even need to inquire of the woman as to the validity of the accusations. Her countenance made it obvious – she was guilty.

The story, for us in this season, our season, is not about woman, it is not even about the judging and condemning crowds – this story, for us today, is about Jesus.

This was a trap set for Jesus.  A ‘fail proof’ trap, to replace their previous failed trap. Jesus would be forced to say release the woman which would be a violation of the Jewish law, or, he could say, stone her, which would be a violation of the Roman law.

The genius of the plan was the whichever side Jesus took, he was doomed.

Jewish law did say that the woman, as well as the man, caught in the act of adultery should be stoned. Roman law, however, prohibited such a response.

The woman had clearly committed adultery, the claim made by the accusers, the crowd, was they had caught her in the act.  One may ask, you may ask, ‘If the act was taking place, where is the other person?  Assuming it was a married man, was he just really fast at jumping out of a window, was a a very, very, fast runner? Maybe it had been a strategic deal made with this other guilty adulterer to absolve him of a sentence of death.

But, again, for us, the story is not about the woman, or the accusers, or the other party, or the Jewish law, or even the Roman law – this, for us today, is a story about Jesus.

This is story about responding to broken people, like us, in broken times, like our times.

Twice, as the woman and crowds awaited the response of Jesus, he knelt slow and drew something in the dirt. Preacher, scholars, and experts have long speculated what need so desperately to be written at this moment in the dirt.  

And, again, the story for us today is not about what Jesus wrote, or drew in the dirt. 

It is about Jesus.

It is, however, about the fact that Jesus knelt down twice, and as he knelt his withdrew for a moment from the crowd and from the humiliated woman. As Jesus knelt down, he took a moment to wait.  It was a moment of Wait much like when he delayed his trip to Mary and Martha following the death of their bother Lazarus, it was much like the moment that he followers waited following Jesus’ ascension, it was much like the time the disciples and the women unknowingly awaited the resurrection of Jesus.

Waiting was for everyone involved, the crowds, the woman, and even for Jesus.

This time of waiting was a moment for the crowds to be ready to see their brokenness, it was a time for the woman to see her brokenness.  

As he arose he agreed with the sentence of death by stoning, however he attached a caveat to the who would carry out such a condemnation.

“Whoever of you is without sin, whoever of you has never disobeyed and turned from God,’ will be selected to throw the first stone.

After having made the crowd wait as he knelt down the first time, this was all he said and then he knelt down again, and again he began to write in the dirt.

It might have been that the first time of knelling was a moment of realization of human brokenness, it was his time of consideration and immense sadness for a broken world.  A moment when he attempted to understand why those in the crowd were so quick to condemn in a such a violent manner.  

Maybe, they themselves had experienced an unfaithful spouse, possibly they had grown up in a broken home where they had first hand experience of the devastation of adultery, maybe they were outraged because they had remained faithful and the woman had not, or, maybe, they, themselves, were adulterers as guilty as the woman.  Maybe, just maybe, it was much deeper, possibly the long lasting impact of Abraham’s disregard of his wife, Sarah’s, dignity when he gave her away to Abimelech, twice, in an effort to secure his own safety, – or maybe it was the lingering impact of King David’s infidelity with Bathesheba centuries ago, that resulted in an attempted cover up that cursed David’s household.  Maybe it had become a part of their DNA, to judge and condemn, to repond so quickly with hatred. Maybe they all need to learn to take a wait moment, a moment of Selah, a moment to consider and understand before hateful accusations are made and unretrievable actions are taken.

Whatever the deep reason, Jesus was offering them a chance to see their own brokenness.  A chance to see they were all in need of redemption.

As Jesus stood back up the second time, only the woman remained.

‘Where are your accusers?’ He asked the woman.

This may have been her first moment to recognize that the crowd had dispersed.  It may be that her humiliation and shame had kept her from seeing those in the crowd, one by one, turn and walk away.

However, there still stood one person facing the woman.  The only person who fit the criteria to throw the first stone. 

‘I’m not throwing a stone at you,’ Jesus lovingly said to the woman. “You may go home.’

Many preachers believe that the point of this story was that Jesus followed this by saying ‘do not sin anymore.’  Many make these final words of the story as the point of the story. 

These concluding words were not the point, they were a natural, common, encouragement that Jesus would make.  They were words that would have been said to anyone in the crowd, as they were an encouragement Jesus makes to us all.  They are words of hope not judgement, they are words of life not death, they are words of joy not despair.  

To paraphrase these words, Jesus said, ‘You have experienced what it is to follow the brokenness of this world, you have experienced brokenness,’ he said, ‘Now, experience life, experience it to its fullness, live in joy.  Don’t go back to that, it is no way to live.

The point of this story was not only Jesus’ first time to kneel, the time when he waited in order to understand and empathize, it was also about what took place, there in the dirt, as Jesus knelt the second time.

Jesus knew that it was not his mission to stone the woman, nor was it his mission to lambast the crowd, it was to bring a recognition of brokenness to the crowds in order that they could see their own condition and their own need of redemption. It was to bring transformation not just to a few but to a world.

As Jesus knelt the second time, in the dirt, he possibly wrote the words ‘Mercy’ and “Justice.’  As he remembered the words of the prophet Micah who sought to remind his listeners to the way of God, and the way to be as God desire us to  be –

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? 

Micah 6:8

What words are you writing in the dirt as you face this unprecedented time in our broken world?

The Practicality of Forgiveness

05.31.20

Judaism, like many other religions and faiths, uses the festivals and other times  of remembrance to teach and remind the followers of the events and moments that not only define their faith but also reveal the character and nature of God.   

One series of defining holidays is the Shalosh Regalim (Shall-lah-sh Raw-gal-eim) which involves three significant festival observances.  All three of the these, prior to the destruction of the second temple, required that Jewish believers in Judea to take a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.  All three have a foundational element of harvest gratitude and recognition – all three also have very significant remembrance and recognition elements from the Israelites past. All three concentrate on the start for the Isrealites, when they became a ‘promised people’ and when they officially became followers of the one true God 

Pesach (pee-sock) – Passover -is the most significant of the three holidays.  It is the observance of the release from Egyptian captivity and slavery following the sacrifice of the lamb to protect the first born males from death during the final plague.  It is a celebration of God’s deliverance from slavery, it is a recognition of the physical freedom of the Israelites.  The Israelites officially became a ‘people’ during the time of slavery so this was the first taste of freedom of this ‘people’ of Abraham and Jacob.

Shavuot (Shavoo-ot) takes fifty days after the celebration of Passover giving it the informal name of ‘Pentecost’ meaning fifty.  It is the fifty day period between the exodus from slavery of the Israelites and the day that Moses received the Torah (the Law-Books of Moses, first five) from God on Mount Sinai.  While the Passover recognizes the physical freedom granted to the Israelites, the Shavuot (Shavoo-ot) remembers the moment of Spiritual Redemption.  God gave the law, God made them His people.  

In the study of their religion, Jews commonly rely on the Midrash to understand and comprehend the Torah; the resource that we, in Christianity, have that is most similar is our commentaries that come from learned experts who study and write to enhance our understanding of the Bible.  On Midrash thread of teaching is that God actually offered the Law to all seventy nations of people that were on the earth at this time but only the Israelites accepted it.  Among the main reasons for rejecting the gift from God was that it restricted murder, adultery, and theft

Sukkot (sue – coat), often called the festival of the booths or tents, is a recognition of the time the Israelites lived in tents while wandering in the desert following after the giving of the law and the refusal to enter the promised land up to the moment when the second generation trusted God and entered the land. The significance of this time wandering was the time during which the Israelites learned, and decided to, depend solely on God.  Sukkot (sue-coat) is celebrated at the end of the harvest in an observance of God’s provision of the crops. 

Today, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Shavuot (Shavoo-ot)), Pentecost, forty days after Passover, the last moments of Jesus with his followers until after the cross and resurrection, and ten days after the ascension of Jesus to return to heaven.  Since the 40 days and the 10 days add up to ten, and because the day was already called ‘Pentecost’ or ‘Fiftieth’ we simply call the day Pentecost Sunday.  It was a day when thousands of the faith of Judaism had made the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holiday of Shavuot (Shavoo-ot)).  They were in the streets, at the temple, they were everywhere. And, ironic as it may sound, they were there to remember their redemption with God.

What a day for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to come.

Everyone was in the streets except the 120 followers of the crucified Jesus Christ.  These followers were hidden in a room, somewhat fearful, somewhat joyful, very cautious and hesitant, and totally unaware of what was about to happen.  They were Jesus followers who, at this very moment on this official day of Shavuot (Shavoo-ot)), were doing exactly what Jesus had told them to do prior to his ascension – he had told them to wait.

They were waiting for the promised Paraclete, the helper, the advocate, the encourager, the one that comes along side, the Holy Spirit – they didn’t have a clue how and when this was going to play out, but, since they trusted Jesus – they were waiting.  They had been waiting for days, now, as the crowds in the streets grew, as the noise of the foreigners became more and more loud, 120 now unacceptable people were on the edge of their seats, the anticipation, the excitement that was only tampered by their fear, was at a climax.

Then something began to happen in the room, suddenly the noises from outside were eclipsed by the noises entering the room.  It was as if hundreds of horses and chariots were rushing towards them, the place seem to shake and then it was as if the room could no longer hold them, they were pushed out into the crowd.

Not only were they now doing exactly what their fears told them not to do – don’t be noticed, don’t be seen. Now, they were even talking, now they were publicly sharing, they talking about Jesus, calling him the son of God, calling him God – the exact things that made you noticeable, the exact thing that could get them killed.

The was also the exact things they had learned and better understood during their forty days with Jesus following the resurrection.  The exact things their 40 day crash course with Jesus had been about – to learn and understand what Jesus had taught them through his words and actions before the crucifixion….the things they had worked to understand and the things they now knew, these were the things they were now sharing.

This was not remaining invisible and unnoticeable, it was painting a large target on their back and yelling ‘Here I am, come and get me!’  Even though they were speaking to foreigners who spoke different languages, it was still a very risky move, and even more risky.

The thing was that they couldn’t help but speak, they were speaking truth, and truth is something that is difficult not to share with others.  This was the core of their lives, they had to share because they not only had truth but they also had experienced love.  That love had taught them compassion and mercy, they cared about the unknown foreigners.  You cannot help but share love with those you love – even when it is dangerous.

It wasn’t just that they were talking, but that this truth and this love they spoke of was visible to the foreigners, not just through words but through their lives.  Love translates in all languages, even if you don’t understand the same words.

There was one more surprise, the foreigners were the first to recognize it, they could understand the 120 excited individuals.  Some in the crowd just wrote the 120 off as drunk, but thousands did understand, it was as if they were speaking this foreign language to the very foreigners that spoke that language.  It was a message that could not be dismissed, it was the truth they had been looking for.  It was the message of redemption on their holiday that observed God’s gift of redemption. 

This was the beginning of the Church.

It was the Holy Spirit who made that loud arrival, it was the Holy Spirit who enable the willing foreigners to understand this foreign language, it was the Holy Spirit that gathered a new community that day, it was the Holy Spirit that enable the truth of love, the truth of redemption, the truth of forgiveness, the truth of God to a people who had been looking and hoping for it on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

As usual, there are significant words through which we can better understand this event of Pentecost, this day that enables us to grasp the truth of our redemption.

Today we have six words:

Fear and Peace

Receive and Filled

Retain and Forgive

Fear and Peace

Let’s go back to that moment in the locked room on the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  The women had not yet made it to the fearful disciples to tell that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was alive – nor had they heard that they had seen and spoke with Jesus.  All they knew was that they had deserted Jesus after he was arrested and now they were being hunted as accomplices of Jesus.  They were huddled in a room fearful for their life.

As they hid in the room, with the door locked, Jesus appeared.  Not a ghost but Jesus – he didn’t need a door.  In the middle of their fear he appeared. As his presence pierced their fears, Jesus said the word ‘Peace’.

He then showed them is wounds and permitted them to touch him to discover that he was indeed Jesus and that he was alive.  It was this moment that the disciples transitioned from being students of Jesus, students who followed him to learn, now they connected the dots….this was the son of God, God himself, their Savior, the Messiah.

This was the beginning of Christianity.

They believed, they accepted him, they embraced him, they trusted them with their life and they trusted him for life.  They still had a choice, being made in the image of God, and they now, each one, made the choice to follow and to trust.

Where as, just moments before, they could only see their fears.  The reality of their situation and circumstances had become a roadblock to see and understand what they understood from their final days with Jesus.  Roadblocks do that, they block your path, they keep you from moving forward.  All they had seen was the large sign that said ‘Road Closed – Go Back’, and now the sign was gone and they could move forward.

Jesus first word to the disciples had been ‘Peace’. The same word that Jesus spoke earlier to the women.  Jesus’ call is for us to all live in peace, regardless of our situations or circumstances.  This is an inexplicable peace that is only possible when Jesus is our focus and our core, he is our stability and balance, he is the anchor we hold to.  Peace is always the only way we can leave the fear of the hiding room and past the roadblock of fear.

Receive and Filled

As Jesus revealed himself, in the security of the locked room, to the disciples, they now believed. Their faith was now grounded on a sincere and full acceptance of Jesus as God.  As they accepted the divinity of Jesus, they also received the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit, too is God.  It was the Holy Spirit that enabled them to have the peace that would permit them to leave the room, it was that peace that, later, will enable them to wait, even as fear is outside in the streets.  In the same way we received the spirit so we, too, can leave the room of fear and move into trust, a trust that goes beyond our circumstances and situations.  It goes beyond the noise in the streets. To believe and to receive is our choice, it is an action choice, Jesus said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

Later, almost fifty days after Jesus breathed the Spirit into the followers in that locked room, we see them once again in a room, with scary unknowns waiting outside.  Their presence in this room is not out of a fear that has them running away, instead this is a presence that is because they are running ‘to’.  This peace, that is not because of their own strength, is only because they now have the Spirit, they are now able to trust and follow Jesus’ words to ‘Return to Jerusalem and wait.’ Scary, sure, but there they are, and soon they are outside.  The Spirit not only ‘comes along side of us’ but the Spirit is also strategic.  On this day, the followers needed power, a very strategic confidence that would not only push them out in the street but permit them to do what they naturally desired to do, speak truth, speak witness, to love and care for others by showing love and compassion through their very existence.  The Spirit enabled them to be seen when their gut said to run and hide, to be invisible.  The Spirit did not, and does not, take them over, they were not now puppets, the Spirit did not take away their ability to make their own choice, even to respond in fear, but the Spirit was along side them, and, in this moment of need, the Spirit gifted them with a power to live like Jesus, to share the truth of Jesus that they had worked to know an understand, and the power to be heard and understood.

Retain and Forgive

Back in the hiding room following the resurrection after the disciples received the Holy Spirit, Jesus intentionally said two other words – ‘Forgive’ and the word ‘Retain’.  It was a word that defined the greatest roadblock, or the greatest freedom, that would exist in their future, in their ability to follow Jesus and to pursue the mission he would place in front of them.  

Jesus spoke to the hurts and pains they had endured at the hands of others, he also spoke to their own weakness and actions that caused them to want to hide and ashamedly desert Jesus. Others hated them but they hated themselves even more, they resented their own actions as much as they resented the crowds.  Jesus told them they had to let go, they had to release, their own painful actions as well as the hurts caused by others.  This was the immediate roadblock they needed to address.  Retaining their forgiveness of self and others, they were holding on those offenses. Whether it is your own offense or those of someone else – the process of retaining, of holding tight, to offenses of self and others keeps us from seeing Jesus and from seeing his peace, his hope and his love – it keeps us from following his call. Retention of forgiveness keeps us from letting the Spirit strategically fill us when we need the filling most.

The opposite of word ‘Retain’, ‘Forgive’ is the most practical of words.  As we let go of our grasp and cease holding back forgiveness, we also let ourself move forward.  As we can see beyond the roadblock of unforgiveness, of resentment and pain, of shame and regret, we can begin to see Jesus, we can live in peace.  Peace and Forgiveness, Love and Hope, are all connected, they work in tandem to permit us to move on and forward rather than to run away and hide, to be able to give and receive love, to see the peace and hope that is there regardless of our circumstances and realities. 

Forgiveness grants us freedom and a path ahead.  No longer do we have to tightly grasp and retain our forgiveness, no longer is it our focus –  as we release we are able to receive the Word that Jesus says before he says anything else – The beautiful and freeing words – PEACE and FORGIVE.

We are living in a time of Fear and Great Unknowns. We hear the problems going on outdside of our locked doors.  Disease, Unrest, Violence, Hatred, Racism, Panic, are all overwhelmingly loud and shaking the buildings where we are hiding.  God is still saying Peace, He is still the God that is Love, He still wants us to see past the roadblock of fear to see Hope, He is still with us in through the Holy Spirit who is still coming Along Side of Us.

What do you need to release?  Who do you need to forgive?  What roadblock is hiding Hope? What voice do you need to listen to?