Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Spirit of the Lord

Luke 4:14-21


The beauty, and also the danger of the gospels is that each book is written from a contrasting viewpoint. If you are looking for one consistent story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John you will be sorely disappointed. Each writer brings not only his own particular perspective, he is writing to a people who have been shaped by different cultural experiences. Each writer takes on the task of converting this distinctive community through a unique telling of the story which he hopes will capture their hearts and minds. These differing perspectives are exposed in the opening chapters of each of the gospels.

In Mark, the shortest and oldest gospel, the writer shrouds the telling of the story in mystery. The goal is for the reader to discover who this man Jesus is. Clues are given along the way and we are encouraged to race through the gospel believing eventually the truth will be revealed.

The writer of John has no such desire to hold secrets from our hearts. From the very first verse we are told Jesus is the Word and the Word is God. Each chapter builds on our knowledge of God and Jesus being one.

Matthew wants to accomplish more than just the telling of the story. Matthew wants his gospel to instruct a Jewish audience on how to build a worshipping community. It is a story which begins with wise men seeking a child and ends with the children of God seeking a long promised truth.

And then there is Luke. This gospel was initially presented to a group of illiterate slaves and women who had little designs of ever being considered human beings. They desired a savior who was born among them and a God who would respond to their cries with a word of hope. 

I have observed in my years as both minister and educator that adults gravitate toward the Gospel of John while writers of children’s materials depend heavily on Luke. The reason is obvious. The majority of the parables of Jesus are found in Luke. Luke introduces Jesus through the stories Jesus told. In John we learn about Jesus through a series of discourses identifying our savior as the good shepherd, the bread of life and the light of the world. John was a theologian who dealt in absolutes. Luke was a storyteller who allowed a little more room for saint and sinner.

Luke begins the ministry of Jesus with a story. The reputation of Jesus as a teacher had spread throughout the countryside. People were amazed by his words. Then one week-end Jesus decided to pay a visit to his hometown. His reputation preceded him. On his arrival at the synagogue  Jesus was asked if he would offer a lesson from the prophets. Jesus selected Isaiah 61 and began to read.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.

        God has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor;

        God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,

        Recovery of sight to the blind,

        And offer freedom to the oppressed.

        I am to proclaim that this is the year of God’s jubilation.

        Luke is the only gospel writer to record this event and the reason is obvious. From the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the original audiences were told Jesus came to liberate the poor, the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden.  This was their hope and prayer. In the midst of their afflictions, they were assured that God did care for them.

        In contrast, the ministry of Jesus in John’s gospel begins with Nicodemus, a man of distinction and a leader in the religious community. Jesus and Nicodemus engage in a powerful discourse in which Jesus introduces the concept of being born again and ends with, “For God so loved the world, God gave his only son for the salvation of humankind.” This is powerful and inspiring stuff. It speaks to inquirers looking for words of truth beyond their own individual journey. But what if more than just your soul is hungry? What if more than just your heart is imprisoned?

        In 1986 I traveled to Nicaragua, a country in the midst of a civil war. I was intrigued that many of the leaders of the Sandinistas were Roman Catholic priest.  During my stay I met the poet Ernesto Cardenal and asked how he justified his calling as both a priest and a revolutionary. Very quietly he confesed, “As a priest, I taught my people about the love of God. We sang the songs and broke the bread together. At the cathedral, the rich and powerful broke the same bread and sang the same songs. But they never did anything to exhibit the love of God. When I would read, “God so loved the world he gave his son”, my people would nod and go back to their painful lives. But when I read, ‘Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, and free the oppressed’, my people were given hope.”

        What I brought back from my Nicaraguan experience was a dramatic understanding that not all folks interpret the Bible the same way. When Jesus read Isaiah 61 some listeners heard it as an unfulfilled promise of the past, some had their hopes raised and the majority wondered how that particular text impacted them at that moment. When Jesus sat down, all eyes were fixed on him wondering why he would choose such a passage. Jesus responded by adding a footnote, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your reading.” That is when a riot broke out. This text about the poor and the captives was fine as long as it stayed in the past tense. Everyone in that synagogue knew about The Day of the Lord. They all prayed for the time when a Messiah would come. But they weren’t necessarily anxious for it to happen. The folks in the synagogue were the leaders in the community. They were the shopkeepers and merchants. Even the father of Jesus had an established business. The Messiah would radically change their lives and change was not necessarily part of their agenda.

        Are they much different from us? Our Brief Statement of Faith ends with the pronouncement, “Come Lord Jesus”. Is that really what you want? Some of you are lucky enough to have lived in this beautiful valley from birth. Most of us worked our entire lives just to get here. Do we really want Jesus showing up on our doorsteps and turning our whole existence upside down?  Could it be what we are really praying is, “When I die, come Lord Jesus, and make heaven an extension of what I am now experiencing.”

        Established folks in the town of Nazareth were not excited about the Messiah showing up because they were, for the most part, content with their lives. The same could not be said of the early readers of Luke’s gospel. They desired to be liberated from their economic status and captivated by a faith that offered hope. If we learn nothing else from the gospels we need to understand Jesus comes to us where we are. That is not only OK, it is enlightening.

A recent article in Christian Century spoke about the churches, or rather the lack of churches in Vancouver. At first glance one might think Nellysford and Vancouver have little in common. Thirty years ago Vancouver was a sleepy seaport with cheap real estate.  But with its spectacular scenery it remade itself into place where people desired to live. Soon retirees who loved to recreate flocked to Vancouver. The population grew but not the size of the local churches. Hiking and skiing became a lot more important than church on Sunday morning.

        Most of the churches in Vancouver tried to hold on to their traditional ways of being a church. They vocally attacked the new culture that embraced their city. Most of these churches have now closed. But a few congregations saw this as an opportunity to explore seeing the gospel through different eyes. Instead of condemning the emerging culture, they listened to both the spiritual and corporeal needs of their new community. By not doing church the way they had always done it, these churches have become relevant to a new and changing culture.

        The Spirit of God has always brought the gospel in a way that is meaningful to our particular lives. Nothing new with that thought. But consider this. What if, from the beginning, God understood that we live in a large diverse world? What if, just as the gospel writers brought a different Jesus to each of their communities, we might consider that the Jesus we claim might look a bit different to someone who has not been raised in a traditional congregation? If we can move past the idea that only one understanding of God works for every situation, think of the opportunity that lies before us. The Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring the good news to a world that is not the same audience once confronted by Billy Graham.   To some, like the readers of Mark, the name Jesus is a mystery. To others, like the readers of Matthew, they are folks who left the church and aren’t going back. To many, like the readers of John, they have been in the church all their lives but need to be challenged by the spirit of God in a new way. Then there are those folks like those who first heard the Gospel of Luke, the outcast of society who hunger for a word of hope. There is not, nor has there ever been, one formula for telling the story. And the good news is the Spirit of the Lord has always been leading the church toward new and creative ways to engage others in what for us has been the life changing  truth that God loves us and God cares for us.

        Each gospel begins differently. Each gospel writer tells the story of Jesus in his own way. But each gospel ends with the same command, “Go and proclaim that the Spirit of God is among you.”

This is our unique challenge. We are called not only to speak of our faith but hear perspectives that might seem foreign to both our tongue and heart. No single word can fully embrace the immenseness of God’s grace. No single thought can fully explain the vastness of God’s love. The Spirit of God combines both heaven and earth. The Spirit of God finds intersection within body and mind. The Spirit of God seeks justice, loves mercy and humbly engages in every facet of the human experience. I suspect if we claim to love God with all our heart, mind and souls we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls because God’s imagination is too grand to be limited by a singular human thought. The writers of the gospels knew this. Together they accomplished what one writer alone could never achieve. God is now calling on us to embrace this concept because there is a huge world out there desperate to hear God’s story of grace and reconciliation. Some of them listen to Jay Z. Others still prefer Sinatra. And that is wonderful, unless I think the story can only be told “My Way”.

Spirit of God, capture us with your wild imagination. Then liberate us sing to Your diverse gospel of grace.  Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"I Know You by Name"

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7


How can picking a name be so hard? From the moment Susan knew the life within her would be a girl, she and John had argued over the appropriate name. Their decision would last a lifetime. John was very practical. The child was their first-born, therefore the name must continue the family tradition. Why not Susan Fritz (for his father) Rollenhead? While Susan was flattered by her husband’s intensions, she felt  the name sounded like something that should be followed by a title, such as Attorney at Law. While the thought thrilled Susan, the name did not. She wanted her child to be named after her two grandmothers, Mary Margaret Rollenhead. John said that was a name for a nun.

Books were purchased and discarded. Rachel Rebecca Rollenhead? Too many r’s. Samantha Teresa Rollenhead? Too many syllables. Jenny Lynn Rollenhead? Too country. Rickie Lee Rollenhead? Too rock and roll. Finally in exasperation Susan screamed, “The problem is your last name. Nothing goes well with Rollenhead!” John reminded Susan changing their last name might solve the problem but would most likely injure some folks they dearly loved.

Our scriptures this morning are all about names. The writer of Second Isaiah had quite a task. For centuries the residents of Jerusalem were recognized by everyone.  Their city stood in the middle of the known world. If you wanted to go to Babylon from Cairo or Antioch, the road ran through Jerusalem. The centerpiece of Jerusalem was the magnificent temple. The city’s library contained masterworks that reached back to the time of David. But that was before the exile. The mighty hand of Babylon crushed Jerusalem, turning the walls to dust and disassembling the Temple brick by brick. Those not massacred were placed in chains and dragged across hundreds of miles of desert to become prisoners along the Euphrates. Their city was ruined, their culture destroyed and their God discredited. For a generation they sat in utter disgrace. At the end of a generation their names were forgotten. In forty years the Hebrew people had gone from being the center of the universe to a tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women standing on the margins of a hostile empire. To these people Isaiah dared to bring word from Yahweh. “Do not fear, despite what you have become, I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine.” These tender words struck a chord in the hearts of a people who believed they were forgotten. God’s word identified them as more than a particular family, a particular tribe or even a particular nation. They were claimed as part a kingdom beyond flesh and blood.

The exiles in Babylon were chained to an ancient belief in a God who was confined to the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed and the survivors exiled, the relics of the past crumbled. Tribal systems disintegrated because there was no land.  Religious beliefs collapsed because there was no Temple. Even national pride disappeared because there was no Jerusalem.  All they had was the voice of a prophet who sang, “Fear not! You are precious in the eyes of God.”

For many folks three questions haunt us for a lifetime. Who am I? Where do I belong? What makes me worthy? During my ministry I have spent a lot of time listening to folks reminisce their past endeavors. They will begin by telling me the wonderful things they accomplished. But as I get to know them better, and they begin to trust me with their stories, I can hear the doubt creep into their voice. Time after time I hear an ancient voice quiver, “If I had it to do all over again, there are some things I hope I would do differently.” From the moment we are born we search for our name, our identity. From the moment we are born we reach for something that often seems just beyond our grasp. From the moment we are born we grapple to live up to a name, or a reputation, or the expectations of others. But worst of all we struggle live up to our own expectations. Who are we? Where do we belong? What makes us worthy?

What if we changed the questions? Instead of asking “Who are we”, what if we concentrated on “Whose are we? To whom do we belong? Who makes us worthy?” The writer of Isaiah had the nerve to say to a generation with no home and no hope, “Do not remember what just happened and be preoccupied with past failures. Consider this.  I am about to do a new thing! Do you not perceive it?”

The exiles in Babylon got so caught up in who they could have been they forgot to whom they had always belonged. They were created out of a promise to Abraham. “I will make you a great nation.” They were rescued with a promise to Moses, “I will give to your people a new land.” They were inspired by promises sung by David, “I will be your shepherd.” But they forgot the promises and along the way, they even forgot their name. What does one do when you have forgotten who you are?

In 1989 I was serving a church in Virginia Beach but my heart was beginning to wander. I had been a campus minister, an associate minister and pastor of a small church. I felt it was time to make a name for myself. I wanted a big steeple. I wanted to be the keynote at major conferences. I wanted publishers to ask me to write a book. I had big dreams. So that year, with my family looking at me as if I had lost my mind, we packed up and headed to a fairly large church in the middle of West Texas. It was there people would learn my last name was Andrews.

We arrived in January. Have you ever been to West Texas in the middle of the winter? I have no idea why people want to go to the moon. All they have to do is visit Monahans or Pecos, or Van Horn. At least in San Angelo has a lake, and you don’t even have to be Jesus to walk across it. I had never seen such a dry barren land. Then two months after we arrived, Deb decided she wanted to visit a relative who lived in Eastern New Mexico. On that trip I learned why the people in Carlsbad are so proud of their little cave. At least underground it’s too dark to see where they live.

I had had it with wind, sand, and the lack of anything green. I had lost sight of why I felt called to ministry. That is when I discovered  that God remembers our name.

 We attended worship that Sunday at the Presbyterian Church in Carlsbad. The minister was away on vacation and the Shannon Webster, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery filled the pulpit. Shannon didn’t look like any minister I had ever seen. He wore a beautiful stole over his open collared plaid shirt. To finish off the ensemble he wore jeans and his Sunday boots. I don’t remember the sermon but I shall never forget his benediction. He grabbed a guitar and sang a verse from a song based on Isaiah 43. It was a song i had sung a thousand times without ever hearing the words.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,

The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

For I will be near thee, they troubles to bless,

And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. 

I went to Shannon, and asked him how he knew I needed to hear that verse. He smiled and said, “Sometimes we all forget whose we are.” 

Remember the Rollenhead family? Well, the glorious day came and a beautiful child was born. Not wanting to forever call her baby girl Rollenhead, Susan and John finally agreed on a name. Four weeks later, the proud parents stood before their congregational family and celebrated their faith at the baptism of the child. The minister turned to the young couple and asked, “What is the name of your child.” Together they responded, “Christina Marie”. The minister took the infant into her arms, dipped her hand into the holy water and touched the child’s forehead. “Christina Marie Child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” The minister then whispered to the child, “Do not fear. I have called you by name, and you are mine.”

Each of us bears the same last name, “Child of God”.  From baptism to benediction, that is our holy epitaph.

To God be the Glory.    Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

We are not the Messiah

John 1:1-8

        John the Baptist was the opening act for Jesus.  His job was to warm up the audience so when the main attraction appeared, every one would be excited and ready to jump right into the first song.  Being the warm-up band is a thankless job.  Nobody pays their hard earned money to see YOU.  Only family members and few close friends have ever heard the songs you are about to sing.  And the crazy thing is, if you are actually good, the headliner will get someone else.  Opening acts must never outshine the star.
        So imagine how John must have felt?  He was opening for his baby cousin.  It wasn’t like John couldn’t make it on his own.  He had developed a loyal band of followers who were quite happy to chase him into the wilderness and dine on his peculiar diet of bugs and honey.  Folks came from near and far to hear John preach sermons that only Jonathan Edwards could love.  But the Baptizer knew his role.  He was the opening act.  He was the guy that would forever be known as the one who joyfully proclaimed, “Heeeeeer’s Jesus.”
        I wonder if John ever became confused?  I wonder if he got jealous?  We know John had quite a following.  Many remained loyal to him, even after Jesus arrived. John could have easily started his own movement.  He would not have been the first nor the last to claim the mantle of Messiah.  But John stood firm.  From birth he had been the forerunner.  His purpose was to announce that God’s joy would soon cascade down on a people in darkness.  We could sure use a voice like that today.
        I was with my grandkids for a couple days this week. Grandchildren can quickly move us from the realities of this world into a never-never-land that is really quite pleasant. Siddalee has never heard of ISIS. Austin’s world revolves around Minions and Luke Skywalker wannabes.   But Andy has turned eight. While 90 percent of his thoughts revolve around the plight of the Carolina Panthers, he is becoming very aware of the world that surrounds him. During a break on one of our bike rides, out of the blue he asked, “Granddaddy, if Donald Trump becomes President, will we have to leave America?”
        One thing you can be sure of during a Presidential Election is a lot of promises are going to be made. Some inspire us, some give us hope, some cause us to flinch and then the occasional words are uttered which causes folk older than eight to shake their heads in utter disbelief. Basically every candidate has a different way of attempting to say the same thing. They want us to believe they are the next great hope by promising peace and prosperity to a world dominated by despair. We pick our guy and desperately want to believe he or she is The ONE. Why? Because we long for a word of joy from one who will dispel the darkness. Unfortunately, when we take a long hard look at the folks running for messiah, we know deep down in our heart of hearts no one person can bring an end to the chaos that dominates our lives. We long for harmony, a condition this world has seldom known. We long for stability, a dream only perfected by those who dominate. We long for peace, a concept which finds its way into many songs but is seldom sung by those trusting coexistence over power.  We long for a Messiah with an agenda that fits our eye. But perhaps what we actually need is another John the Baptist, although I am not sure we would tolerate the emergence of one whose favorite word was “Repent.”
        John was born into a world not unlike ours because John was born into a culture remarkably similar to every other culture in any other moment in history. John was born into a world where insurgents desired to overthrow the powerful and the powerful declared the insurgents to be terrorist. John was born into a world in which one percent controlled ninety percent of the wealth and an Empire that had already seen its better days. John  was born into a world of refugees, revolutionaries, reformist, and traditionalist each with a different plan to transform their own particular definition of chaos while never giving an inch to those they feared. Is it any wonder the only word John dared to utter was “Repent.” There could be no hope until there was a new beginning. Furthermore, what good is a Messiah if no one is willing to engage in some serious self-evaluation?
        At my last church we had a children’s after school program called Second Wednesday.   During the Christmas Season, I began the program by gathering all children round an Advent Wreath in the fellowship hall.  Before I lit the candles, I asked the children what we called each candle.  They looked at me as if I had lost my mind. So I gently reminded them that the candles represented Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. I asked them to repeat the words with me, Hope, Peace, Joy and Love; Hope Peace Joy and Love. When I thought they had it, I then lit the candles and asked those small children what we really wanted for Christmas. Right on cue they all said, Hope, Peace, Joy, Love. I knew they were just repeating what they had been told, but I can’t tell you what a sweet song they sung.
After the opening we divided the children by age and they scampered off in different directions to crafts, recreation, puppets or The Bible Story.  The youngest group always did the Bible Story first. I wanted to get them when I had a chance of still holding their attention.  We went into the sanctuary and reenacted the Christmas story.  After the wise men had made their way to the stable, I asked the children what they were going to give Jesus for Christmas.  They gave me a startled look.  One of them even asked, “Why would we give Jesus a gift?”  I responded, “Christmas is his birthday.”   Well if there is one universal truth known among children it is when you are invited to a birthday party, you better bring a gift.  For the next couple of minutes I was given a tremendous list, most of which reflected what they hoped was waiting for them under their tree back home. So I asked them to think of what JESUS might desire. One of the little kings said, “I will give him my gold.”  I asked, “And how much gold do you have?”  He shook his head, a bit confused. One of the other children rescued the awkward moment by quietly saying, “I will give him hope.”  Then another said, “I will give him peace.”  And another added, “I will give him joy.”   Then they all concluded by saying, “We will give him love.”    In those words, the children became John the Baptist, and I was transformed by their proclamation.
My friends, in this season of Christmas, our job is not to be the Messiah.  But we can become one who proclaims.  What proclamation, what gift, might we offer to a world dominated by chaos? Our self appointed messiahs interject solutions that include words like “Bomb”, or “Isolate”, or even “Assimilate”. Are those actions that have found success or desperate measures that insure deeper resentment?
 The language of Christmas begins with the word “Repent”. Without repentance, how can there possibly be any hope or peace or joy or love beyond our carefully framed characterization of what we desire the world to be. Without repentance, how can we possible recognize that we, in some small way, might be responsible for the chaos that causes us such great fear?
The writer of John wrote, “In the beginning was THE WORD.” Imagine typing this and putting WORD in the upper case. On the other hand John the Baptist used words (lower case) to proclaim THE WORD INCARNATE (upper case) Why? Because John was not THE WORD but rather the one who proclaimed THE WORD. And he did this by using the word, “Repent”. 
That might not have been the word you would have chosen. My small friends back in Clinton selected, “hope, peace, joy, and love”. Some of you might expand that list by offering, “compassion, justice, hospitality, forgiveness and reconciliation”. The world needs all these words but who among us perfectly embodies each of them. Remember, we are not the Messiah. But the ones call to proclaim. What if, in this year of 2016, each of us picked one godly word and did our godly best to live up to that word’s godly potential. It sounds impossible, and it is, unless you are willing to give it a try.
Let me offer an example. Let’s say you are a person who always sees the glass half empty or in other words you tend to be a bit of a pessimist. Imagine how you could brighten the world around you by living one year of your life hopefully.
Perhaps you tend to be a bit antagonistic. How would your world change if this year your goal was finding personal peace?
Maybe this year one of you could be a little more forgiving.
Maybe one of you could be a little more joyful.
What if one of you became a bit more compassionate, or generous, or even a bit more hospitable?
My gracious, let’s not stop there. Perhaps one of you could spend less time looking at the stock market and more time interested in economic justice.
Maybe one of you living in Stoney Creek could make a new friend of someone who lives in Afton, or one of you who lives in Faber could meet someone from Stoney Creek?
Pick One Word and make it yours.
Pick One Word and claim it for a year.
Remember, we aren’t THE WORD (upper case).
We can’t save the world but we can pick a word, and embrace the word and live the word and by doing so change who we are. Who knows what might happen next.        Amen.