Sunday, April 29, 2012

"What is Love?"

John 10:11-18; I John 3:11-18

I opened my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, looked up the word “love” and found it filled four pages and eleven columns. That means the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists almost 880 quotes on this particular subject. 880! No other entry comes close. Shakespeare had a lot to say about love, and not all of it was complimentary. The hopeless romantic Sir Walter Raleigh called love, “The fountain and well where pleasure and repentance dwell.” Later, when rejected by Queen Elizabeth he recanted, suggesting love was, “A substance like the shadow of the sun, a goal of grief from which the wisest run.” Virgil believed, “Love conquered all things” while Samuel Johnson insisted, “Love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise.” My personal favorite is not found in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It is by song writer Guy Clark. “There’s only two things that money can’t buy; that’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”

As one might imagine, the Bible has a whole lot to say about love. The center piece of the Old Testament is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The most quoted words in the New Testament are, “For God so loved the world He gave his only son.” This theme of love and sacrifice is at the heart of the New Testament understanding of the real meaning of love. No where is this better expressed than in the 10th chapter of John.

Borrowing from an Old Testament imagery of God’s faithfulness, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep. Trust me, loving sheep is a lot harder than one might imagine. I had a good friend who raised sheep in West Texas. On more than one occasion I would go and observe the wayward tendencies of these seemingly docile animals. They seldom stayed bunched together in a flock. They wandered all over his land, constantly getting into trouble. They would tangle themselves in barbwire, slide down ravines, and sometimes just lie down and refuse to move, no matter the danger from heat or predators. It would take days to gather the flock at sheering time. Then the animals had to be dipped and cleaned, a process I declined an invitation to participate in. I wondered why anyone would take it upon themselves to raise such a cantankerous animal. But then on second thought, I guess loving sheep couldn’t be much worse than loving humans.

What does it mean to be a good shepherd? Obviously there is a huge difference between being a shepherd and a hired hand. Folks who were hired for a short term had nothing invested in the flock. During the heat of the day, a hired hand was liable to lie down and take a nap. At night, when dangers lurked in the darkness, the hired hand would hide in a safe place. The hired hand was in it for the money and pretty much looked out for himself. And what does it mean to be The Good Shepherd? We need look no further than the 23rd Psalm to get a clear image of the task of the eternal shepherd. Christ watches over us. When we are thirsty we are led to still waters. When we are frightened, Christ offers protection. His rod and staff lead us to safe pastures. In the company of Christ we are secure in the knowledge that we are never out of his sight. We would be foolish to pretend that Christ will protect us from all harm. No one can make that promise. But we rest assured that death has no claim on us for Christ has prepared our eternal pasture.

What a wonderful thought. Christ the Shepherd will lead us through the valley of death to the mountain of life. We often paint this picture of Christ cloaked in simple shepherd’s garb, proclaiming the reign of God, leading his faithful flock along a still creek. Truth is, nothing could be further from the truth. Similar to my friends flock in West Texas, we sheep make it a habit of wandering off into the wilderness, sliding down the ravines, getting caught in barbwire and resisting efforts on God’s part to round us up. We all have our individual agendas. We all desire freedom, even if that freedom separates us from the One who has loved us from the beginning of time. We cherish our differences, our individuality and especially our appetites. If Christ were just another hired hand, he would let us wander off and be eternally lost. But Christ is the Good Shepherd who sees each one of us as a creation of God’s imagination. All are precious in the Shepherd’s eyes. No matter what the cost, we will be gathered together as sheep in God’s flock. God loves us so much no one will be forgotten or left behind. We are rescued even as we fall prey to our wayward schemes.

And there in lies the catch. As we have often learned, few things worth having are free. There is always a cost. God’s grace is no exception. In verse 14 we read, “I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. There will be one flock and one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me because I will freely lay down my life for the sheep.”

Having just celebrated the season of Easter, we are well aware of the sacrifices God made on our behalf. What we often forget is that the God who would sacrifice a son for the sins of the world expects us, the recipients of that grace, to live sacrificial lives as a response to God’s grace. In other words, if you love someone, you would sacrifice yourself for them.

Using a translation by Eugene Peterson, I John 3 reads, “Christ sacrificed his love for us. That is why we should live sacrificially for our fellow believers and not just for ourselves. If you see a brother or sister in need and have the means to do something but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”

Peterson’s translation doesn’t mess around and I am grateful. The responsibility God places upon us to love each other is nothing to mess around with. Unfortunately, like sheep, we do go astray. We become dependent on the sacrifices of others to bring us back into the fold. But how good are we at pulling our weight? While we honor the sacrifices made by others on our behalf, when it comes our turn to share in the load, sometimes we are quick to turn away.

One of my privileges as a minister is to perform weddings. It is my belief that rarely does the couple comprehend what they are getting into when they enter this beloved covenant. They say to each other, “I will love you forever no matter what.” Who in their right mind believes that? And yet that is what people promise each other when they marry.

Remember all the marvelous advice you received when you got married. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” That one has been changed to, “Don’t go to sleep angry.” Or what about, “Always be the first one to say you’re sorry.” How well have you been able to keep those? Barbara Brown Taylor tells her couples the secret of a happy marriage is for both the husband and wife to give 100 percent. What kind of advice is that? No one can give 100 percent all the time. And that is her point. There are times when your grip fails and your spouse has to hold on for both of you. Then you get your second wind and it is your time to hold on while your partner scrambles to get back on board. In theological language, this is called giving ones life for another.

When I was growing up my parents would bring me to Waynesboro and I would enjoy the company of my cousins and my aunt. I didn’t really know my uncle. He worked all the time, even when he was around the house. Avis never had much to say and he never stopped to play with us so I never got to know him. But I loved my aunt. She loved books and encouraged me to read any and every book that crossed my path. When I was about 30, my aunt contracted Alzheimer’s. It was like someone had turned her light off. I hardly knew the person that occupied her body. But during those days I got to know my uncle Avis. He became both my uncle and aunt. I watched as he cared for his wife in ways I could only admire. Then one day, in a tragic yet perhaps merciful event, Evelyn died. Avis was devastated. With his children gone I worried about him living all alone. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Within a year Avis had met someone and asked her to marry him. For a moment I was confused. How could he love someone else? And then I thought, “How could he live without love?”

That is a difficult story for me to tell and for some of you a far more difficult story to hear. We live in a community where none of us are getting any younger. Some of you are living with a spouse who suffers with from a dementia related disease. I am certainly not going to tell you my one story makes me an expert. Nor am I going to suggest there is only one way to respond to this dreaded disease. I only remind you as Christ sacrificed himself for us, we the church, have the opportunity to live sacrificially for others. I suspect Alzheimer and dementia might be the next great opportunity for this congregation to show how we can respond to those who have faithfully and bravely gone before us. This disease is more than any family member can handle by themselves. I suspect the true meaning of love is giving ourselves to those who can no longer give of themselves.

God promises even though we walk through the valley of death we are not be alone. Perhaps God is calling you to be a shepherd, to offer a kind word, to volunteer the services of your car, to sit for a couple of hours, to pray, or just listen. As Christ abides in us, let us find new and unique to abide with and for each other. That is what a loving community is called to do.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Case You Didn't Get It the First Time

I John 3:1-3; Acts 3:12-19

        There is an old joke about a minister preaching his first sermon to a new congregation.  He worked on the sermon until he had it just right.  Then he laid out his persuasive words to the eager ears.  After the service everyone came up and proclaimed it was the best sermon they had heard in years.  The next week the congregation enthusiastically anticipated a repeat of the previous effort.  And that is exactly what they got.  The new minister delivered the same message, word for word.  This happened the next three weeks.  Finally a group of elders marched into the minister’s study and asked for an explanation.  The minister looked up from his desk and said, “When you respond to the first sermon I will move on to another.”
        Our text this morning is Peter preaching his Pentecost sermon ….. again.   On Pentecost, Peter had stood in the middle of Solomon’s Portico and addressed the same folks who had murdered Jesus.  A day later he preached practically an exact replica just to make sure the folks listening really got the message.  This is an amazing transformation of faith. The same Peter that denied Jesus, the same Peter that had failed to show up at the crucifixion, the same Peter that had hid out hoping to find safe passage back to Galilee, now, completely filled with the Holy Spirit, described his conversion, not once but twice.  Peter was bold in his pronouncement.  He accused the crowd of “rejecting the Holy and Righteous One, of killing the author of Life.”  I am sure  when Peter finished speaking he expected the crowd to haul him off to a field and stone him.  But they didn’t.  We are told over 3,000 folks begged to be baptized.  So the next day, Peter preached the exact sermon with similar results. 
        Amazing!!!  What was it that Peter said that captivated this crowd not once, but twice?  He began with a not so simple question, “Who was Jesus?”  Peter was speaking to people who woke up every morning praying for the Messiah to come.  Of course they probably felt like the chances of him showing up were less than the Cubs going to the World Series.  The desired it, they longed for it, but it was pretty much thought it was a pipe dream.  Then Peter stood before them declared, “The Messiah was here and you not only ignored him, you killed him.  But that’s OK.  He conquered death and he can conquer your suspicious hearts if you but give him a chance.”  Can you imagine the buzz that was going through that crowd?
        You folks at Rockfish are a pretty sophisticated bunch.  If I were to stop right now and break you into small groups and ask, “Who was Jesus”, imagine how many different answers would be articulated?  Some, perhaps the majority, would state Jesus was the Son of God, sacrificed for the sins of the world.  Another group, a smaller but vocal contingency, would focus on the humanness rather than the divinity of Jesus, using him as the primary example of what we might become.  Some would try to unravel the mystery of incarnation, others would honestly say, “I’m really not sure.”  Once lines and divisions were formed, I would ask a second question.  Regardless of your understanding of Jesus, how does that understanding impact your life?
        The writer of the first Epistle of John wrote, “See what love God has given us, that we should be called the children of God.  The reason the world does not know us is that it does not know him.”  Who is Jesus?  Who are we?  How does our understanding of Jesus define our understanding of our own identity?
        The past couple of months I have spending some time with our young people.  We have had some interesting and revealing conversations and I have had a great time getting to know them.  In our initial conversation, I asked them to draw a self portrait.  When finished, we hung them on the wall.  Then I asked them to draw a picture of God.  It was amazing how similar their pictures of God resembled the pictures of themselves.  I was not surprised by this.  It is amazing how many folks see themselves as gods.  I had them open their Bibles to the Old Testament and introduced them to a formula for God which is used over and over again in the Psalms.  God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and steadfast in love.  They looked at me strangely but since I was the teacher they gave me the benefit of the doubt. 
        The next week we talked about who they thought Jesus was.  They came up with some great answers but when they finished I asked them, “If Jesus is a child of God, how might God in Jesus best be understood.”  After a few moments someone said, “Jesus would be gracious, merciful, slow to anger, steadfast in love.”
        The following week we begin to talk about the concept of sin.  Admittedly, this is a tough conversation even for adults.  Once again your kids began to scratch under the surface and engaged in a very mature conversation.  At first stealing, lying, and gossip seemed to be the three wrongdoings that concerned them the most.  Then, with a little help, they defined sin as that which is contrary to what God desires us to do and be.  Finally one youth said, “God wants us to be gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love.  We need to act like God acts.” 
        Bingo!  Proceed directly to GO and collect your 200 dollars.   Our kids nailed the concept of being created in the image of God.  What they also revealed was the extreme complexities that evolve from this revelation.  Ronald Cole-Turner writes, “Jesus was misunderstood by nearly everyone around him and Christians must learn to expect the same.”    In other words, if Jesus is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and steadfast in love, and if we as a community of faith believe we are called to be gracious, merciful, slow to anger and steadfast in love, how will the world perceive us?
        Did you check out the headlines or watch CNN this morning?  They might serve to remind you we live in an age that seeks security through violence and greed rather than solidarity and forgiveness. We live in a society which finds personal identity through social networking rather than spiritual transformation.  But perhaps most challenging is we live in a world that trusts failed experiences over the promise that grace, mercy and love might show us a more profound truth.
        I love history.  What better place to live if one is a history buff.  When I was in the 4th grade most students learned the story of Paul Revere.  As a Virginian I was much more interested in Jack Jouett’s horseback ride from Richmond to Charlottesville to warn Jefferson and other members of the Virginia legislature that Cornwallis had dispatched Col. Tarleton to capture the revolutionaries.  Thanks to Jouett, the legislature escaped, and thanks to stories such as this I have always been interested in examining the ebb and flow of various civilizations.  Challenging a premise by George Santayana, I believe no matter how much we study history we continue to repeat the same mistakes.   Experience counters everything else even if it was a bad experience.  What is so radical about Peter preaching in streets of Jerusalem was that we was offering a new direction, a new answer, a new solution to life’s age old problems.  He had the nerve to suggest despite all the accepted evidence God’s promise trumps our experience.
        You folks know this. Despite all the varying hypothesis concerning who Jesus was and who Jesus continues to be, the very heart throb of this congregation is founded on the Godly principal of being gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love.  
        One of the wonderful things about my job is I get to go out in the afternoon and visit with you folks.  This week I was sitting with one of you who said, “Louie, in your experience, are all churches like this one?  What makes us so different?”  Before I could speak he answered his own question by saying.  “Gracious, look at the time.  Please excuse me but I’m a CASA volunteer and I need to pick-up my student from school.”
        During another visit the same day a very complicated conversation found closure when the person I was sitting with said, “I think life comes down to one truth.  The ability to forgive defines the very essence of who we are.”
        Recently another couple said to me, “We go as far away as Waynesboro to Square Dance because it allows us to meet folks different than us.”  Another one of you said, “Hop in the car and I’ll show you another side of Nelson County.”  My favorite response might be,, “We can find plenty of pine.  But we only give away hard wood.  It doesn’t clog their chimney.”
        What makes this church unique is that you truly love each other and the community that surrounds us. You understand that each day, through your acts of mercy, graciousness and steadfast love, you are ignoring what the world has taught and are clinging to an ancient promise that there is a better way to live our lives.
        Marilynne Robinson in her new book, When I was a Child I Read Books, writes, “The great narrative to which we Christians are called to be faithful is a story of a man whose purpose was to render holiness and reveal the way of God to humankind.  This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any self interest or be overwritten by any lesser human tale.  Our Reverence should forbid it being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear.”
        Again, you folks understand this.  When I walk into this sanctuary on Sunday morning I am reminded of that wonderful song by Doris Akers.  “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord.”  This is a place that understands, above all else, the Spirit has called us to be gracious, merciful, slow to anger and steadfast in love.  This is who God is.  This is who we strive to be. This is who the children of God desire to be.  
        Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, steadfast in love.
                                Say it with me.
        Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, steadfast in love.
                                One more time.
        Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, steadfast in love.
                        This is a sweet, sweet, place.       

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Reacting to the Resurrection

John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-37

This year we spent 40 days in Lent, complete with all those contemplative scriptures and hymns before arriving at Holy Week. Then we celebrated Palm Sunday, followed by a service on Maundy Thursday. Finally Easter arrived. We sang our Alleluias, heard the miraculous Story, gave thanks to God, and then Easter was over. We went home to a glorious meal but by Monday morning most of us were back to our regular routine.

There is nothing really unusual about this. This year was my 60th Easter celebration. When I was much younger, and Easter baskets were part of the deal, I am sure I gave thanks for Easter as long as the candy stash held out. Truth is, these days I usually am more excited about the days after Easter than the sacred event. On Tuesday Dwight and I traveled to Cincinnati to catch a couple ball games. We talked, Dwight suffered through my music and we discussed why baseball is so superior to all other sports. It was a great to do nothing other than argue over who was the greater first baseman, Stan Musial or Albert Pujols.

Of course that is not what happened following the first Easter. The resurrection marked the beginning, not the end of the story. The followers of Jesus were absolutely overwhelmed by the Easter event. Today too many folks view Easter as an event that guarantees our place in heaven once we die. For the early Christians, the Easter event changed their eternal and daily outlook completely. The writer of Acts recorded, “No one claimed any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Stories are recorded of churches becoming the center of communities where the congregations became large families. Each person claimed responsibility for their neighbor both spiritually and physically. Barnabas sold a field he owned, gave the proceeds to the church and allowed the Apostles to share the money among those who were in need. Justin Martyr wrote, “We who once coveted most greedily the wealth and fortune of others, now place in common the goods we possess, dividing them with the needy.” The early Christians took very seriously the Old Testament idea that creating heaven on earth was possible. They took care of their own and created a radical new life together. We are not sure how long the early church operated in this fashion. The Epistle of James indicates that more than one congregation was destroyed by its failure to continue this practice. Perhaps they were able to function this way because they believed Jesus would return in their lifetime. Perhaps it was simply too hard to continue this particular lifestyle for more than a generation. Regardless, large portions of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts speak about economic issues and how God’s greatest competition seemed to come from the love of money.

When we hear these stories we naturally become skeptical. To some it sounds like they were running some sort of idealistic commune. How could a community survive with such na├»ve principals? Surely these were only isolated examples and really didn’t apply to the whole Christian community. That is why our lectionary readings link Acts with the story of the disciple Thomas. I suspect there is a little Thomas, a bit of a skeptic in each of us especially when it comes to what we believe.

You know the story. Jesus suddenly appeared among the disciples. All but Thomas was there. Jesus greeted the disciples with the words, “Peace be with you.” We could quickly dismiss this as just another way of saying hello or we can place ourselves into the panicked lives of the disciples. Their leader had been killed. They were in hiding in fear of being discovered. They had heard rumors that Jesus was alive but the report had come from a group of women whose words seemed less than reliable. They were confused and frightened. The words, “Peace be with you” were exactly the words they craved to hear. They wanted some comfort food. They needed assurances that some kind of normalcy would return to their lives.

From birth I suspect many of us instinctively desire to be comforted. I can remember the good old days when my grandchild lived less than an hour away. Before Zach and Martina “kidnapped” my grandson and took him to Louisiana, I would often have the opportunity to rock Andy to sleep. He knew the routine: bath, bottle, bed. When Andy would visit, my job was to prepare the bottle, sit in the rocker and wait for his arrival. Sometimes his hunger and fatigue put him a little over the edge. He would cry out as his grandmother lifted him into my arms. But like a good grandfather I would feed him, sing a lullaby and promise God’s peace would be with him through the night.

“Peace be with you” carries with it the assurance that beyond the reality we experience there is hope. It reminds us that God continues to work for creation even when fear paralyzes us. “Peace be with you” is more than a greeting; it is an invitation to claim the healing power of Christ.

At the critical moment in the disciple’s confusion and disillusion Jesus stepped back into their lives and offered peace. Then without saying another word, he showed them his wounds. The words of Jesus, when linked with the wounds of Jesus, amplify the promise of Jesus, that peace is possible.

Frank Honeycutt, a Lutheran minister wrote, “We are wounded people. Sometimes we pretend, even with those we know fairly well, that’s nothing wrong. It is often considered bad form to confess our weaknesses, so when asked we often say, “Everything’s fine”, even though we are lying through our teeth. Jesus refuses to pretend. He says, “Peace be with you” and then he hikes up his shirt. Jesus knows peace only comes when we deal seriously with his wounds, and our own.”

Enter Thomas. The disciples tell him everything was going to be fine because Jesus was back. But Thomas was skeptical. He had heard that sermon where the preacher gets up and says, “Don’t worry folks. It is a sad day today but a better day is coming. This life is just preparing us for that reward once we reach heaven and see Jesus.” Thomas wasn’t interested in tomorrow. He wanted proof that the power of God could change his life now. The death of his friend had broken his heart. He wasn’t interested in heavenly promises. He needed to be healed today. When he saw Jesus, his savior’s first words were, “Peace be with you.” The second were just as powerful, “Touch my wounds.”

Ever have some one touch your wounds? I am not talking about physical wounds. I am talking about the wounds deep in side, wounds that linger, and fester. Every have someone bandage your soul? Ever sat with someone that you trusted to the point you could cry and not be embarrassed?

I suspect each of us, man, woman or child, have wounds that need to be healed. I suspect that each of us, man, woman or child, would like to discover peace in our lives. And I suspect most of us, man, woman or child, fear admitting our wounds because it might expose our weaknesses. Let me share a little secret. The Church is filled with wounded people who are saved by a wounded Lord. Jesus said to Thomas, “Peace be with you and then he showed him his wounded side.” Then Thomas and Peter and John and all the other disciples preached a gospel of peace to the people of Jerusalem, exposing their wounds, exposing their fears but most importantly, exposing their faith. Then they called the new converts to a life of spiritual, intellectual and economic dependency on each other.

You see this faith thing is not just between you and God. It is about the people of God sharing in our woundedness, sharing in our faith, and sharing in our recovery. It is about being skeptical and thinking no one else hurts as much as we do and then discovering we all have to deal with some kind of pain. It is about remembering that the church is Christ’s healing agent and the healing does not begin until the wound is exposed. It is about saying “Peace be with you”, with the conviction of someone who has been wounded and healed. It is about sharing that pain, much as the early church shared their wealth, in order to discover that through Christ our wounds can be healed.

In all of my years of ministry I have never defined my successes in terms of budgets, buildings or membership. It has always been about people who are hurt, people who are lost, and people struggling to find purpose in their life. The church best represents the body of Christ when it visits the sick or the home bound. The church best represents the body of Christ when it embraces the young girl who is pregnant, or is a healing agent after a divorce, or gathers around a family when they have lost a loved one, or offers support during difficult economic times. The church does not turn a blind eye to the downtrodden. The church does not desert the mistake ridden. The Church does not condone sin but neither does it condemn the sinner. The church always remembers that he who was without sinned died for us. Because of Christ’s wounds, and because he has healed our wounds, as Christ’s ambassadors our words, without any reservations, should always be, “Peace be unto you”.

Those are transforming words, but how willing are we to be transformed. In our country one in six children go to bed hungry. That is a fact. In our world 30,000 children die daily of preventable diseases. That’s a fact. In the Presbyterian Church, few congregations spend more than 2% of their budget on local needs. That’s a shame.

Perhaps we need to go back to some of the models embraced by the early church. Perhaps we need to have the courage to wound our pockets a little bit so that when we say, “Peace be to you”, we are willing to give a piece of ourselves to the one who is wounded. Poverty is a huge problem with no logical answer. But I think if an answer is to be found, we “skeptics” who dare to follow Christ are going to have to reconsider putting ourselves and offerings behind the words, “Peace be to You”. It is more than a slogan. It is a commitment to a transforming way of life.

To God be the glory. Amen.