Sunday, May 26, 2013

Suffering, Character, Hope

Romans 5:1-5

        How often have we been inspired, or at least drawn to the Kleenex Box by stories of great courage.  Against all odds, the hero stood unyielding.  One, who was initially weak became strong, inspiring all those around him, giving hope when any rescue was well beyond reason. 
        As children, many of us were fed the required dose of Kipling, usually in the form of The Jungle Book.  My father felt the core of Kipling’s message was to be discovered not in comical animals but rather in a courageous soul named Gunga Din.  Perhaps you remember the poem.  Gunga Din was a small Indian boy whose only job was to carry water into battle to quench the thirst of the mighty warriors.  Kipling was quick to identify the disdain the British had for Indians in general and this young man in particular.  Yet, through out the battle, this unarmed boy, time and again risked his very being to bring life giving fluids to those who most probably would never see the sun set.  The poem ends with an officer of the British Empire eulogizing this Indian slave with the words, “You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.”   My father would close the book and respond, “That is what heroism is all about.”
        I know, each of you has an equally impressive example of courage under fire.  We were taught, from birth, to honor heroes and aspire to be heroic.  To again quote Kipling,
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. 
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
Or be lied about, but not lie,
Or be hated, but not give to hating.
If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings and not lose your common touch.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
 sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
 what’s more you’ll be a Man.”
What makes someone courageous?  Do we even have an understanding of what that word means?  When I read Paul’s words, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” on this Memorial Day I can’t help but think of those thousands of men who landed on the beaches of Normandy over 60 years ago.  What inspired them to even think they had a chance of being successful against such overwhelming odds?   Their courage could not have originated completely within themselves.  Those who had fought in Africa and Italy knew the obstacles of Omaha Beach. Who were these men, those brave brothers? Far too often citizens of death’s gray land are called to untie a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.  On June 6th, 1944, farmers, shoe salesmen, fishermen and kids barely 18 believed their countries motives were pure and their leader’s words were true.  They fought and they died, because their faith overcame their fear.  Just believing in yourself is never quite enough. The quest to be truly heroic begins and often ends beyond our feeble thoughts.
Paul, probably under house arrest, was writing to folks who understood death. Each morning they awakened to the possibility that this would be their final day. How many of us would consider dying for the right to worship as we please?  Perhaps that is a difficult question in an age where faith is assumed and seldom challenged. Paul wrote to these soon to be martyrs, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope”.  But before giving them this eternal pep talk he began by saying, “since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.”  Like those brave men who charged the beaches of Normandy, actions are often predicated on a belief in something beyond ourselves.
How many times can we go into the darkness of the unknown if we do not trust that there will be a tomorrow?  How is it possible to see suffering as productive if our faith does not assure us there is hope beyond the moment?  When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome he did not say, “Don’t worry, your fears are imagined.” He did not state, “Just believe in Jesus and your life will be spared.”  Instead, he reminded them of God’s eternal sacrifice. “Christ was broken, Christ died and yet God lifted Christ up. This same God will be with you.”   Courage, originating from a less than holy cause, will drive us mad or leave us broken.  So how is it that courage born in brokenness could inspire humanity for 2,000 years?  Before Christ died, he brought us water.  Before he became king of heaven, he was the servant of humankind.  And at his death an officer of the Roman Empire was heard to say, “You’re a better man than I.”
The words of Paul seem so out of place in this modern world.  If we are persecuted by anyone it is those who claim to be religious zealots.  Today, often our modern day band of brothers and sisters lay bloodied in the sand to protect an empire more powerful than Rome.  My father’s generation learned endurance from surviving the depression.  When have I ever been broken?  How can I appreciate what I have always taken for granted?  What have I sacrificed to merit God’s grace?
If we are bold enough to suggest our courage comes from faith, then we must be bold enough to reexamine what we claim to believe.  Then, if we are bold enough to declare our brokenness has been overcome by God’s sacrifice, we need to honestly consider the source of our brokenness is our sin.  When we pray, “forgive us our sins”, do we specifically have something in mind or are we just repeating well worn words? Perhaps we need to be more focused, more intentional when we pray.  Might I suggest the most courageous thing we are ever called to do is admit our brokenness, our sinfulness, as an individual, and as a community and as a nation?  Then and only then will we discover if our courage originate from God’s forgiveness or from our misguided depravity?
Paul wrote to people who were slaves to an empire and he gave them hope.  Can Paul’s words still hold meaning to those of us who are masters of an empire?  Let us return once again to Kipling.
        The tumult and the shouting dies,
        The Captains and the Kings depart:
        Still stands thy ancient sacrifice,
        A humble and contrite heart,
        Lord God of Host, be with us yet,
        Lest we forget – Lest we forget.

         We celebrate we are justified by God’s grace.  But let us also stand humbled by God’s mercy, “Lest we forget; Lest we forget.”

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Satire on the Domesticatin of God

Acts 2:1-21

        The prophet Joel wrote, “Your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” I am certain most of you have never read the Book of Joel. It is one of the books of the Bible we unceremoniously call the “minor prophets”.  If something is important, why would we call it minor? Yet there it is, one of the last twelve books of the Bible, stuck between Hosea and Amos. It’s a wonder anyone ever reads it. We are all familiar with the great love Hosea had for Gomer. We all know Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” When we finish Hosea, why not  skip Joel, and go straight to the shepherd from Tekoa?  
        Truth is, we don’t know a lot about Joel. His name means, “The Lord is God”. He probably lived around 400 B.C.  This was after the Babylonian Exile and the Temple of Jerusalem had been reconstructed. The book itself is a response to an agricultural crisis, an invasion of locust. Old Testament prophets never explain a political or economic crisis using the indicators we have come to trust such as, the consumer price index, the interest rate, or the gross domestic product. Their language tended to bit more theological. If there was a crisis the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, usually declared the people were taking God for granted. They came to the Temple only on High Holidays. They prayed only for their personal needs.  They sang songs celebrating creation but seldom used words such as justice or righteousness.  Of course this WAS a primitive people from a primitive society that pretty much worshipped a primitive God. This primitive man named Joel declared the locust and the lack of attention the people gave God to be in direct correlation. If they wanted the locust to leave they had better get on their knees and pray. So this primitive people, who had not yet discovered the wonders of DDT, got on their knees and the crisis was averted. As quick as the locust had come, they were gone. And all the people celebrated before resuming their otherwise unassuming lives.
        But Joel was not finished. In fact he was just getting started. Reaching way back into his theological bag of tricks Joel promised the Day of the Lord, a threat that had been spoken of 5 centuries earlier but never experienced. Joel said, “God’s Spirit will be poured out on you. The day of the Lord is near. It will be both a terrible and glorious day. You will witness the power and justice of God. It will be beyond what you have ever imagined. Your youth will have visions and your elderly will dream dreams and the way of the Lord will be restored.”
        The people of Jerusalem got real excited. They headed back to the Temple. They canceled all the youth soccer games scheduled on the Sabbath and even declared no Saturday tee times before 1:00. People who stayed home from the synagogue had enough sense to hide and not do yard work until late in the afternoon. Fishing licenses carried bold letters that declared no fishing on the Sabbath. This primitive, superstitious people went absolutely crazy because of the dead locust on their sidewalks.  And a few youth and a few more elderly folks began to dream.
        This domestication of God, a process that started shortly after the death of the locust, began to gather steam. By the birth of Jesus, the ritualization of Judaism was less interested in faith and more interested food laws and clean utensils.  There was a scroll in each home titled, A Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior and it was followed religiously. Everything was done correctly. The religious elite prescribed what was kosher and what was not. A good rule of thumb was if you are not sure, it must be wrong. Fewer people dreamed, no one had visions, and God was really no longer needed.
        I was listening to a song by Patty Griffin recently. It was about an old dog that had been the family pet. When the dog was young and obedient she was the family’s best friend. She fetched, rolled over, and played dead on demand. But the dog started to get a little old and slowed down quite a bit. Instead of chasing the ball, the dog preferred to lay around the house.  So they took the dog out into the country and let her go. They loved the dog too much to watch it die.
        Once she was on her own, an amazing transition took place. The dog regained her strength and willingness to live. The family would take rides out in the country and the children swore they saw their old dog running along side the car. They stopped but the dog would head back into the brush and disappear. She had little desire to be anyone’s pet. The first line of the chorus is, “God is a wild old dog.”
        I had to listen to the song a couple of times before I realized what Patty was saying. At first I was shocked, and then delighted. If ever there was a song to be sung during the Pentecost season this should be the one.
        Pentecost is a holy declaration that God’s domestication is over. No more fetching the ball or being a convenient side show when things get dull. On Pentecost, God took a walk on the wild side. God’s Spirit blew into the upper chamber of the disciples hearts and they became dreamers. Dashing out into the streets they began to tell a story Jesus had been telling for three years. You can’t regulate God to only the kitchen and the bedroom. God wants to be part of your entire house. You can’t regulate God to one day out of the week. The One who created the other six days wants to do more than just rest. Perhaps most importantly, God will not be regulated by the desires and wishes of a few. The word of God is there for anyone with ears to hear.
        On Pentecost, folks from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia understood the Word of the Lord. Folks from Egypt, Libya, and Rome understood the Way of the Lord. Arabs and Jews understood the Wonders of the Lord. Men, women, of all racial make-ups heard the Word. Rich and poor devoured the Word. No one was excluded and everyone was invited to respond to this God who would no longer be domesticated.
        And people began to dream. What seemed impossible became probable. Words like justice and righteousness reentered not only the vocabulary but the landscape of the human experiment. Suddenly, God became relevant.
        Now I’m not suggesting that God is only relevant when we declare God relevant, but I do believe we are guilty of relegating God to particular moments and the occasional crisis. We call on God when we need God. We worship God when it fits within our schedules. We like having God around, particularly in the later days of our lives. The problem becomes relegating and dreaming are seldom found in the same sentence.
        That’s why I love Pentecost. First, it is exclusively our day. If you go to Hallmark, you won’t find a single Pentecost Card. Second, it is our day to remember that once, in the midst of the ordinary, a wind blew into the lives of a people trapped by their lack of imagination. A flame ignited tongues and hearts swore allegiance to a timeless vision. Everyone who listened was captured by a wild old God’s liberating promise of grace.
And God, not shackled to any religion, ran free, inviting folks of all creeds and cultures to join in this glorious revolution.
       Imagine being transformed by God’s undomesticated breath.
                Imagine living God’s dream.
Imagine Pentecost,

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Acts 16:16-34

        When one reads Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, one can see why this was Paul’s favorite church. The letter begins, “I thank God every time I remember you.”  It was in Philippi that Paul met Lydia.  She took Paul and Silas into her home and it is believed this is where the church in Philippi originated.  But the beginning of the church in Philippi was not without turmoil.  Our text this morning describes the way God works even in midst of our most difficult times. 
        Each time I come to this scripture I am amazed at how each of the components of the story are shackled to a force much greater than themselves.  Let’s start with the obvious.  Paul and Silas are shackled to God.  They had pronounced themselves servants of the most high.  When I read the stories of Paul I know that nothing short of God could have been his inspiration.  He didn’t start out being the “great missionary”.  Truth is he became a missionary because none of the Apostles in Jerusalem trusted him.  He had a hunger to preach the gospel but his own community knew him more as a persecutor than a preacher.  So Paul headed west to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.  Each stop along the way he was an outsider trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ.  He was jailed, beaten, and dispatched from many towns.  But because Paul was shackled to the gospel, he continued to preach.
        The next character in our story was a slave shackled to her vision but even more so to her owner.  She had the gift of fortune telling, a talent which brought a great deal of money to those who owned her.  When she laid eyes on Paul and Silas she screamed, “These men are slaves of God.  They are proclaiming a way of salvation.”  When Paul first encountered this woman, he must have been greatly encouraged by her pronouncements.  Imagine walking into a town, unknown, desiring to gather a crowd so you could sell your product.  Where do you begin?  How do you get the word out?  Suddenly, out of no where, a local celebrity gives you the stamp of approval.  This woman’s word was gold.  She could see the future, and the future for Philippi was to be preached by these two strangers.  Her proclamation instantly raised an audience, making the way easier for the two missionaries.
        Throughout the week Paul and Silas continued to appear at the city square.  The fortune teller would make her daily pronouncement and the crowds would appear.  Only one day, Paul decided he wanted to go solo.  According to the scripture Paul became annoyed with the woman.  He spoke, not to the woman, but to the spirit that both empowered and shackled her and said, “I order you in the name of Christ to leave this woman.”  With that, her ability to tell the future was gone.  She was released from her demon, but not from her owners.   She was still shackled to men who suddenly lost their cash cow.  They were less than amused.  One moment she was the next best thing happening and the next she was completely useless.  Their BMW had turned into a Ford Pinto and they were not happy.  Rather than celebrate the resurrection of a soul, they demanded compensation for their loss.  They brought Paul and Silas before the local judge and charged the two missionaries with disturbing the peace and disrupting the local customs.  Paul and Silas were flogged and, you guessed it, shackled.  They were taken to the local jail and their feet fastened in stocks.  They meet the local jailer who, as it turns out, was more shackled than the prisoners being kept under his watch.
        In one of the truly great stories in the book of Acts, Paul and Silas decide to have a prayer meeting.  It made perfectly good sense.  They had a captive audience.  They began to pray and sing hymns to God.  As the prisoners began listening to Paul and Silas and they began to take an inventory of their lives. Unlike Paul and Silas they could hardly claim to be innocent.  They were shackled to their greed, their anger, their selfishness, their ungodliness or whatever it was that landed them in that jail.  As Paul and Silas began to pray, the Spirit of God manifested itself in that jail.  Prisoners, shackled to their own desires made a commitment to be shackled to God. 
        I am reminded of the story behind the song, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.” The hymn was composed by Doris Mae Akers when she was the choir director of the Sky Pilot Church in Los Angeles.  As was the choir’s custom they would pray together before the service.  On that particular morning Akers asked them to pray again because she felt they had not prayed enough.  The choir began to pray with a renewed vigor.  The prayers began to fill up the whole room to the point that even though they were late for church, Akers was reluctant to stop.  She notified the pastor of the “prayer service” taking place outside of the sanctuary.  Finally Akers said to the choir, “I hate to leave this room and I know you hate to leave but you know we have to go to service. But there is such a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”
        I believe that is what happened in the Philippi jail on that fateful night.  As Paul and Silas continued to pray, their fellow prisoners, observing these two men shackled to their faith, began to pray.  Suddenly in the midst of the prayer service an earthquake rocked the jail.  The walls collapsed, the doors were thrown wide open and miraculously no one was hurt.  Even more amazing was even though the shackles fell from each of the prisoners and they were free to escape, no one left.  Now, instead of being shackled by stocks, they were shackled by the “Sweet, sweet spirit of God.”   No one moved because they had no place better place to be.
        The jailer was not privy to this conversion experience.  He had gone to bed just like he went to bed every other night.  His jail was full but his jail was also escape proof, which was good because his very life depended on no one escaping.  Should there be a jail break, his punishment would range from life imprisonment to death. He went to bed confident that when he awoke everyone would be in their proper place.  Of course his jail had never experienced an earthquake.
When the earth stopped moving, the jailer grabbed a torch and ran to the back of the jail.  He saw the collapsed walls and the opened doors.  He heart sank as he remembered the punishment if anyone escaped.  He drew his sword, prepared to take his own life when Paul intervened, “Sir, don’t take your life.  We are all here.”     
Up to that point in the jailer’s life, he had derived all meaning from his profession.  He was as shackled to his job as Paul had been shackled to the stocks.  The jailer was utterly amazed.  He didn’t know Paul and Silas but he knows the other men.  Why hadn’t they escaped?  What were they doing in the midst of the rubble holding a prayer meeting?  Hadn’t their prayers been answered when the jail collapsed?  Men who days before had been miserable scum caring for no one but themselves sat in a circle lifting up each other in prayer.  These were cruel men who had done horrible things.  These were men whose lives were as twisted as the roads they had traveled. But now these were men whose eyes reflected the radiant light and whose lips sang songs of joy.  The jailer looked at the transformed inmates; he looked at Paul and Silas; then uttered a life changing sentence, “What must I do to be saved?”   
Make no mistake.   The jailer was not asking how he might get to heaven.  The jailer wanted to know how his immediate life might be radically transformed.  With the exception of Paul and Silas he knew every inmate in that jail.  What he saw that night was beyond human reason.  He did not know what Paul and Silas were offering, but whatever it was, he was buying.  He wanted to be saved from being shackled.  He wanted to be saved from his life.  He wanted to be saved from his profession, his oppression, his addiction or his emptiness.  We know nothing about this man except that night the jailer encountered what God’s sweet spirit had done to his prisoners and without question, he was ready to drink the Kool-Aid.
Paul took the man’s hands, he looked him square in the eye and he said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, believe that Jesus died for you.  Believe that God resurrected Jesus for you.  Believe that Christ is in the process of saving you.  Believe that God will transform you, God will redeem you, God will make you part of God’s own story line.  Believe that your life is not the center of the universe but God’s purpose is.  Believe in Jesus and shackle yourself to life, rather than death.
I suspect we are all shackled to something.  The question is are we shackled to that which gives us life or are we shackled to something which is slowly eating away at our soul?  Are we shackled to a weight that drags us under, causing us to use every last ounce of our strength to gasp for air?  Or are we shackled to that which fills our lungs with expressions of joy.   I would like to think we come here each Sunday because we are shackled to a Sweet Holy Spirit. I would like to think, in this place, the Holy Spirit fill us with love and blessings.  I would like to believe when you come here you to be revived, lifted and prepared to confront the other gods that put their claim on you.  Like Dylan said, “You got to serve somebody.” Shackle yourself to the one who offers peace for your discontent, and comfort for your soul.  Shackle yourself to Jesus, and be free.               Amen.