Discipleship, Doubt, Jesus, Matthew, Musings, Politics, Sermon Notes, Sunday

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 28:11-15-“Fake News and the Power of the Resurrection”

I had the joy of being with the Gallery Church Downtown and Riverside Baptist this past weekend to preach. They have been going through the Gospel of Matthew for over two years! This is the second to the last sermon in the series, and I loved talking about the good news of Resurrection the Sunday following Easter.

You can listen to the sermon in its entirety here, but I am posting a most of my manuscript here and the litany/response we did at the end.

——-

Today, we proclaim the good news: because of the resurrection of Jesus, nothing can or will stop the restoration of all things.

Stories are powerful. This is not a new idea for us. We grow up learning some of the most important lessons of life through stories: kids books, fairy tales, passing down family traditions and accounts of days gone by: we are people of stories who are moved by stories. And last week, we retold the central narrative for our shared faith: the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet, in more recent days, we have seen what happens when people have different stories to tell from one another: stories that clash. I’m not just talking about people telling the same story with different details or perspectives, but stories that conflict with one another. I think we see this as more evident than ever in the news cycle, in our social media feeds, in our families, and in the government structures both here and around the world. As soon as a news story breaks, the spin begins. And the spin exists because people know the power of stories and information to influence others to do everything from vote a certain way to buy a certain product. News has become commodified and when it is commodified, it can be leveraged for special interests-to coerce people into action (or inaction).

This is, at best, biased news and, at worst, propaganda. Which leads us to the infamous “fake news”. Fake news is at work in our text today, as we will see. But “fake news” is a phrase which was deemed by Politifact as the Lie of the Year for 2016. Now, contrary to what some (including our president) seem to think, fake news is not simply biased reporting, or even news we disagree with. It is outright falsehoods: made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word. It’s a poplar lie that is popular because people want to believe it and share it.

We will talk about this a little bit more later on, but the point is not simply decrying the reality of fake news (though I could get on a rant about it, for sure!). This phenomenon of fake news, which many think is indicative of our post-truth world, speaks to the prevailing counter-stories we often live in. We are not moved by facts which do not, at some level, also move us emotionally and at the level of our desires. I believe this shows us that there are stories which are not simply untrue, they run counter to the core narrative of the resurrection of Jesus. And we Christians believe them and live from them all the time.

These counter-stories go something like:

“This life as it is, is all there is—and it’s up to us to make it better.” This is the classic modernist story of humanism, or the enlightenment. It is the air we breathe. And it comes out in how we tend to talk about the world around us. We hear it in the political discourse all the time: “We are regressing as a society.” or, on the other side of the political spectrum: “We are returning to the glorious good old days.” This is was never more present than in the two competing slogans of the presidential campaign: “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger together” (or the Democrat’s response to Trump”s “MAGA” was “We are already great. and we are great because we are good”. These slogans, and the parties/candidates which they represent, both share a pretty central assumption: greatness can be accomplished and realized in our lifetime, and it is up to us to make it happen. This is, oddly, what all of American politics have in common, regardless of party affiliation. The story they tell is: We accomplish greatness through the collective power of our own efforts.

If I’m getting your pulse rate up a little bit right now or you are wondering where the heck this guy is going with politics, you are kind of proving my point about the power that these stories have! But there is the other side to this narrative which gets us in further trouble: what if something stands in the way of our greatness, of our desire to be significant? How do we hold on to the power we have? How do we get it from others? This is where fake news comes into play: preying on our fears, manipulating our emotions, and feeding on the powerful motivators of guilt, shame, and greed.

Not only are we drawn to the stories which reinforce our biases, we are moved to anger by the stories which work against our deeply held beliefs. And this is not necessarily immoral. We hear about stories of abuse of power and we feel outrage. We read some of the things being done in our government or around the world, and we cry out for justice.

But there is a subtle turn that takes place: we think we should respond in kind, we are made to be afraid, so we respond with more fear. Guilt with more guilt. Shame with more shame. But this is not the way of the kingdom: this is not consistent with the story of the Resurrection. This is the way of the powers and principalities. This is the way of anti-kingdom. And this is what we see this at work in our text today. (yes, this was all just an introduction!)

Many have said, regarding this text, that as soon as the mission of witness to Jesus begins, a counter-mission begins as well. There is the mission of the women to go tell (and of Jesus to go ahead of them to Galilee) and the mission of the soldiers and religious leaders to discount and explain away the missing body of Jesus. The guards go to report to the chief priests. This is important, because they were the very ones who convinced Pilate that the tomb needed guards in the first place. (notice…the people in power seemed to take Jesus at his word that he would rise again in the three days, more than his own followers!)

So the guards give an account of what happened: not fake news yet, they just tell what has happened—but it is not good news for the religious leaders. So, the chief priests, after hearing the news do what anyone else would do, they hold a committee meeting! And who is on the committee, all the people who stand to lose power and influence, should the real message get out there. It’s here that they devise a plan. More scheming to preserve their power, and they know that the best way to do this is to spread a false story.

Now, this is not a very credible story. For one, Roman guards don’t sleep. They had a vested interest in protecting the tomb, and they are the best of the best. Even the attempt to undermine the news is feeble at best: “While we were sleeping, the disciples came and took the body.” Have you ever heard of someone’s testimony of something that happened while they were sleeping stand up in court? Of course not. Nor does this bode well for the soldiers: sleeping on the job.

But the leaders assuage the fears of the soldiers. They tell them to just spread the story and we will take care of the governor for you (i.e bribes, political power). The counter-mission against the resurrection is often includes the means of money, grabbing power, bribery, lying, manipulation, and appeasing those in power. Good thing this doesn’t happen today anymore! 🙂

This causes me pause. This is a lot of trouble to go through to spread a fake news story. I’ve often wondered that about fake news today: what motivates someone to craft fake news and spread it, beyond it just being a cruel joke? Most often, the motivation was money. And money was surely the motivation for the soldiers, but why the religious leaders? What did they have to benefit? I believe they were afraid. I think that the entire charade of Jesus trial and execution were rooted in fear. And now, the fact that Jesus could, in fact, be raised from the dead, was dangerous to the religious/political establishment. Why?

Resurrection was seen as vindication. It basically would have shown that all the accusations of the people in power in the Temple were lies. It would have stood the whole system on its head. And it would show that Jesus was rightfully the King of the Jews. A king which the religious establishment missed (and dismissed) and that Rome couldn’t ultimately destroy. Now, interestingly enough, Jesus was not the only one to talk like this about resurrection being vindicating. Other revolutionaries, like the Maccabees who tried to take Jerusalem back by military might almost 200 years prior, used similar language to talk about their coming hope in 2 Macabbees 7. Though this is a book not included in the protestant canon of Scriptures, it is historically supported and it captures well the hope the people of the first century had. In 2 Maccabbees, seven sons and their mother were all martyred by the reigning imperial king because they wouldn’t disobey God’s law. And they would exclaim to the king each time, right before their execution, that God would be merciful to them, raising them back to life to show the error of the king’s ways and that God was on their side. Resurrection vindicates the martyred. (My mind is drawn to the incredible example of our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt, who have the power to forgive those who murdered their family members…their hope for resurrection and the example of Jesus forgiving his enemies fuels their faith)

If you’ll allow me, let me give a bit of an excursus on resurrection, as we sometimes tend to conflate resurrection with heaven/life-after-death. St. Paul thought that the resurrection of Jesus was so central to faith (and to what new thing was breaking into the world) that if it were not true, then our faith would be futile, we would still be in our sins, and we would be pitied as people without hope. You can read this in 1 Corinthians 15 (which is one of my new favorite chapters in Scripture) where Paul makes a direct connection between our own coming resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus, which is a first-fruits of that resurrection. What this means is that, because Jesus is alive (though he was murdered), we will also rise as he has. We will rise with real, physical, immortal bodies to enjoy the fully redeemed and restored creation with our God.

This is what N.T. Wright often calls life after life after death. This is why Paul quotes Isaiah, saying “death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” The answer, nowhere. Death is done. Life is ours, in Jesus. And it is a forever embodied life which we get to enjoy in resurrected bodies. Not as angels in the clouds, not as disembodied spirits floating somewhere, but as fully restored human beings, enjoying a fully restored heaven and earth, in fully restored relationships with each other and our King. And Jesus’ resurrection shows us that this is not an empty hope. It has already begun, because he is risen!

We have the more fascinating and beautiful story in the resurrection, but we are so prone to forget it. And we are prone to believe the other stories around us. We often need to take the time to admit where we really are, because many of us give mental assent to the fact that there was someone named Jesus who was crucified and died and resurrected, but we are not believing the powerful story of resurrection. We aren’t living from it. We still fall victim to fake news and to counter-narratives in our own lives.

This is true for me way too often. I don’t know about you, but I have real, deep fears. I fear that things won’t get better in the world, when I continue to hear of the increasing violence in our world, whether it is bombings overseas or shootings two blocks from my house.

I also fear that I will be insignificant. I fear that I will never have anything to offer the world. I fear that you all will not find my preaching fascinating or moving.

My wife Kara and I have recently stepped out into a very scary time of life. As many of you know, I was one of the first people to be a part of this new church work in Baltimore, in helping to start the Gallery Church. I’ve journeyed with the Prince family, with Albert and Lauren, for almost a decade. With the Medina family for 7+ years. With many of you for a long time. And I stepped out into something new, feeling a pull and a release. But sometimes, to be honest, I think I was a complete idiot. I struggle with this often: just ask Kara how much of a mess I can be sometimes! I’ve stepped from known to unknown. There has, in a sense, been a sort of death; a loss.

In stepping out in this new season of life, I feel like the Lord has something to tell us and show us, but I’m afraid I will miss it. I’m deeply afraid that I will spend my whole life trying to find something, but will miss it. I’m afraid that things wont be restored or redeemed.

This is not simply fake news: it’s bad news. It’s bad news in desperate need of THE good news.

I need the power of the resurrection, which reminds me that nothing can or will stop the world from being restored. And this restoration, this new creation world, includes you and me.

Notice something interesting: Matthew seems to just sort of simply, calmly, and causally include this story in-between the account of the resurrection and the commission to go make disciples of the the Risen Jesus. He doesn’t combat it with a bunch of apologetic arguments. He doesn’t seem to be wringing his hands, saying, “So I really hope people don’t get deceived here.” He just tells the story: some people are claiming the disciples stole Jesus body: here is how that rumor came about. It almost seems as though Matthew wants this passage to be a bit of a footnote for us. Matthew doesn’t want to give too much space to fake news, because there is a much more powerful and important story to tell which was first given to us, not by powerful leaders and soldier, but by a few scared women: Jesus is alive.

What might it look like if we were to fully embrace the truth and power of the resurrection? What could it look like if you shifted from fear to enduring hope?

As soon as you will be on your way to simply tell what you’ve seen (as the women were), there will be people conspiring to produce fake news about Jesus. It’s not because they hate you. It’s not even really about you that much. It’s about what stories can do for us.

So as you move into the last passage in Matthew about the great commission, may you become emboldened and encouraged that you have the privilege to witness to the powerful reality of the resurrection. It is a powerful announcement which proclaims, in the words of Samwise Gamgee, all that is sad is coming untrue!

Samewise Gamgee: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

How will we respond?

I believe we are at a moment in history where it is absolutely essential for us to recover the beautifully dangerous, subversive, and powerful truth of the Resurrection of Jesus. We have the chance to retell this story by participating in it again and again. And we get better at telling something by practicing it.

Today, I want to lead us in what the poet Wendell Berry encourages us to do: to not simply believe resurrection but to “practice resurrection”.

In a world of fake news, fake claims, and post-truth, we proclaim…

Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise—with all things restored and finally made right. (refrain)

In our lives where we live in fear, isolation, disillusionment, and shame, we proclaim…

In our bodies which face weakness, decay, isolation, sickness, frailty, and death, we proclaim…

In our minds where we fight against the lies of the Accuser and of our own making, where we no longer wrestle with doubts afresh but acquiesce to their presence, we proclaim…

In our hearts, where we want the things which bring us and other harm, and where we struggle to allow ourselves to feel, for fear of more pain, we proclaim…

In our church which is holy yet tainted by sin, beautiful yet tragic, powerful, yet confused by violence, we proclaim…

In all creation, which groans under the pain of exploitation, pollution, human greed, and neglect, awaiting our revealing as daughters and sons, we proclaim…

Though we are taught to be individuals first, to seek our own welfare, our own interests, and our own desires, no matter the cost to others, we proclaim…

Though we face tragedy, loss, injustice, betrayal, derision, abandonment, death and sorrow, we proclaim…

And when we feel like our work does not make a difference, that our words fall on deaf ears, that our efforts are in vain, we take hope as we proclaim…Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise, with all things restored and finally made right!

Alleluia!

Welcome to Eastertide: a most dangerous of the church seasons for all that is fake and passing away—for death has been swallowed by victory and we celebrate the continued and ultimate in-breaking reality of the new creation into this world, and proclaim that nothing can stop the restoration of all things to our King!

Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise, with all things restored and finally made right!

Benediction: 1 Corinthians 15:54b-58

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Sunday Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 “Getting in the Way of Love”

I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at St. Hilda’s Episcopal Church and New Hope Community Church. They are ministry partners in Catonsville, and I was honored to be invited to preach in both of their services. The podcast should be available in the coming days here, but in the meantime, here is my manuscript for the sermon, which I titled “Getting in the Way of Love”. As you think of it, pray for these two congregations, and my friends, Jason Poling and Joe Miller as they serve there.

“Getting in the Way of Love”
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

Love. Never has a word been used more to mean less in recent memory. And never has a word brought more confusion rather than clarity to discussions around faith. When we say we are called to love others, when we say God is love, we feel and see the limits of our language. As Bishop Tom Wright once said, “The English word “love” is trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down and teach it how to delegate.” Where there is confusion or a lack of clarity about what love is and what it can look like, we tend to fall victim to different ways of living. We can follow the ways of power, coercion, apathy, or justification of wrong-doing. It can bring about fear and anxiety. It does subtle work in our midst, moving us off the way of following Jesus.

So, the question arises: what do we mean when we say “love”, and more importantly, how do we align with this “most excellent way”? As a community of people who are meant to be defined as loving, there often seem to be things which get in the way of the proper expression of love: disunity in local congregations and the wider Church, theological squabbles and disagreements, issues of conscience, cultural arguments, and even the abuse or misuse of spiritual and positional authority by leaders in the church. No longer is it “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Nevertheless, I (and others) would argue that the very essence of Christianity is love, not knowledge, gifts, or power.

Today, my concern is to get us to identify the things that often get in the way of love and to invite us to get ourselves into the way of love. The good news for us today is that we have access to this way of love and, together, we can participate and grow in this eternal and powerful way of love right now, right where we are. And Paul’s words here bring us great hope in the midst of this great challenge we see both around us and within us.

The key words which frame our understanding of this passage are how Paul ends chapter 12, “But I will show you a more excellent way.” Paul has been covering a lot of ground in this letter, and I understand that you have been on quite a journey together through it. Discussions about divisions and idols and sexuality…certainly not simple topics to grapple with then or now. I believe this chapter serves as a pause and a bridge, perhaps even a climax of an argument situated between two related discussions in the letter: playing your part in the body by utilizing the gifts given by the Spirit in Ch 12 and proper order of worship in Ch 14.

While we are often used to hearing this passage read in wedding ceremonies, I imagine that Paul would find that a little confusing. As a matter of fact, if Paul wanted to use this passage to talk specifically about marital love, he likely would have put this part of his letter in Ch 7. It is there where he gets “super romantic” about marriage and basically tells people, eh, yeah I guess you should get married if you can’t contain yourselves…but it’s not really ideal. So…sure…go ahead. Or be like me and don’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul is very much interested in the way of love—but he is most concerned with how it plays out in the life of the church. I believe this is the primary context. What we get is not a sentimental picture of love to be embroidered and hung on a wall, but rather a beautiful account of a rigorous, self-giving, long-suffering, rejoicing way of being. This most excellent way of love.

Rather than begin with that happens we don’t have love (in the beginning of this chapter), let me first call attention to how Paul describes love. Starting in v. 4, he describes it both positively and negatively. Love is patient and kind. These connote both its passive and active qualities: it puts up with a lot (endures) and it also moves toward others with generosity, without thought of repayment. Love then jumps into action: rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. (which doesn’t mean that is just sits idly by with “all things”, the phrase speaks more to the capacity of love to bear, hope, and endure regardless of amount or scope of adversity). This is robust and hopeful language. This helps us better define this agape love as Paul sees it: the identification of ourselves with God’s interests in others. A genuine and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

This contrasts with the more negative descriptions Paul uses to describe what love is not. And Paul is less than subtle here, saying that love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful. Love does not insist on its own way or rejoice in wrongdoing. Since you all have been sitting in this letter for awhile now, these words should sound incredibly familiar: they are basically everything that Paul accuses the Corinthian church of being.

  • The jealousy which was feeding the quarrels surrounding factionalism (I’m of Paul, I’m of Apollos.
  • The proud and boastful statement of one part of a body saying to another “I don’t need you!”
  • The approval and rejoicing over sins that aren’t even tolerated amongst the pagans

Paul is laying out love both positively and negatively: here is what love is and here is what it is not and begging the question: which sounds more like you?

So, after describing this love, I want us to begin to see what can get in the way of this love. This is where we can relate back to the gifts which Paul was describing in the beginning of this passage. He says that, if you speak in tongues but don’t have love, you are a clanging cymbal or a sounding gong. This, for sure, makes us think of something loud and annoying, but Paul may be hinting at something else. In Psalm 150, there are injunctions for praising:

1 Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in his mighty firmament![a]

2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;

praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;

praise him with lute and harp!

4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;

praise him with strings and pipe!

5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;

praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Imagine, if in the worship band, there was only a drummer hitting his crash cymbal the whole time while the voices try to jump in. It’s not just annoying…it is comically incomplete and not really helpful. Similarly, when it comes to prophesying, knowledge, or sacrifice, if it does not connect to the needs of others and come from a place of deep love for the interests of others, it is worthless. No, everyone needs to use their gifts in proper proportions and a proper times. And this is love.

The Amish and Old Order Mennonites have a word for a guiding ethic in their communities. It is the German word Gelassenheit (Ge-las-sen-heit). As with many words, they can be hard to translate directly and have a lot of uses and connotations, but one Mennonite describes it this way: a “yielding of self-will and autonomy to the community, believing that true redemption and love is created through the selflessness of yielding my rights to the wisdom of the gathered.” The concept plays itself out in a variety of practices (surrendering of property, submission to the church community in decision-making, rejection of taking pride in one’s own individual work, etc.) But this concept is embodied most clearly and beautifully in the practice of singing, often called Sacred Harp singing. This is a style of a cappella singing in four part harmony. In order for the chords to be complete, everyone must show up and sing their part in the right way at the right time. If they don’t, the worship of God is incomplete and deficient and their communal life is literally and figuratively off key and discordant. This is a picture of a community of love, a community which yields and submits to one another out of reverence for Christ.

To put it most plainly: the gifts you are able to use, those that have been given you by God, are not ultimately for you, they are for others; for building up and equipping the church. When gifts are not used for their intended purposes, when they are used as ends in and of themselves, they can actually work against the way of love. I don’t think I need to prove this point to you. Rarely does a week go by without us hearing of continues schism in the church, of misuse of spiritual authority, of the fall of incredibly gifted and talented leaders in the church, or of hearing the stories of our brothers and sister who have been yet again abused and wounded by those in the church—often done in the name of “holding to the Truth”, or “defending the gospel” or “keeping the faith”. We have lost sight of our prime directive of deep, sacrificial, gritty, and resilient love.

Now, when it comes to a passage like this, and in numerous other places in Scripture, there is an attractive impulse that is often at work in us that I want to name: it is easy for us to hear that we are doing the wrong thing, agree that it is the wrong thing, and then try harder to to the right thing. Paul could have just said to the Corinthians, listen…your speaking in tongues is getting out of hand, or you are way to concerned with prophesying, or you are obsessed with the miraculous…so (in the words of the famous Bob Newhart psychologist sketch) I have two words for you: “Stop it!”. Stop all the tongues nonsense. Stop the signs stuff…you’re abusing it. Stop prophesying…no, Paul doesn’t say this. He actually admonishes the Corinthians to pursue these gifts.

Instead, or perhaps in addition to this command, he invites the Corinthians, and us, to pursue the most excellent way of using these gifts. This is not about simply doing different works or even believing different words. The Words are good (prophecy). The Works are good (giving all we have, giving up our bodies). But these amount to nothing without the way of love, which requires us to also be aware of our desires, our Wants.

Some people say love is a verb, meaning that love means nothing without action (this should make us think of 1 John 3:18, right….Dear children let us not simply love in word but in deed and in truth). Yes, and amen: love must lead to action, or it is not love. But what Paul is telling us is that not every “right” action is necessarily love. In fact, we can say the right thing, and we can do the right thing, and be wrong…if we are not acting from a place of love, a disposition of grace and truth toward others. I have had to face this reality in my own life in preparing to preach today. I could be the best studier of Scripture and the best preacher (of which I’m certainly not), I could give a great sermon, but what is my underlying motivation? Is it to serve you all today? Is it to encourage or admonish you and build you up in the faith? Or could it be to further my own ego, to help me feel adequate, or to simply please other people? I’m trusting that the very act of wrestling with these thoughts and questions is itself loving, and I am entrusting myself to the Lord, knowing that he knows my heart better than I do and that God’s Spirit is at work in my deepest place of need and struggle.

This, then, leads us to the core part of the way of love: We can know how to love because we are known by love. And this is how Paul understands his identity as an apostle of Christ. And he is not subtle here: the words he uses to define love are the same words he uses to describe his own ministry as an apostle: bearing suffering in hope, enduring for the sake of those whom he loves. This is why he can say, in 11:1 “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Paul was, quite literally, showing them a more excellent way in his own life. We see this love at work in Paul, who points us most ultimately to see it in Jesus. Jesus, who emptied himself of all privilege and power to become like us, to lay his life down for us, to submit himself to the will of the Father on our behalf. Jesus knew how to act in love. Take notice of the times where it was appropriate to use the power and influence gifted to him through the Holy Spirit and when it was not. Stones into bread or feeding five thousand. Similar power, only one was done in love, while the other was a temptation to sin. Healing some and not others, waiting to heal others. Knowing when to stay an extra day in one place and when to leave, even while he was popular. Knowing when to speak and when to stay silent. Jesus knew he was sowing into what would endure until the end: love.

Are we giving our time and attention to what will last forever? Knowledge will fade away. Even faith and hope are transitory, as one day what we trust and hope for will arrive. Love is what endures. Love will define our life together. Our calling is to witness to and embody that reality now as the body of Christ.

To get in (or rather into) the way of love is to walk the way together. This is Paul’s climactic point: the way of walking together as a church is to walk in unity, and the way of unity is the way of self-sacrificial love. So, I invite you to consider as St. Hilda’s/New Hope Church, what might it look like for you to walk in this way together? Where can we pause and ask, “Why am I doing this? Is it for love and in love, or does it get in the way of love?” What desires are at work in you? What work do those desires seek to do for you? Allow me to share one possibility for you to consider this week: fear often operates within us at a very deep level. We have heard the verse “There is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear.” I think we can suspect that if fear is at work in us, it is likely doing work in place of love. A question to consider as you seek to evaluate your motives this week: what am I afraid might happen if I don’t _______ ? And what does God want me know about him or me in light of that fear.

Love invites us to consider the words we speak, the works we do, and the “wants” we have, calibrating and considering them together so that we may be about the way of loving. This is the difficult, beautiful call of following Jesus. And, if we are to take Paul seriously, it is the only work which lasts and endures.

Love is not just all we need, it is our beginning, it is our means, it is our end, and in the end, it will be all we have. May God give us the strength, courage, and opportunity to join him in this way of loving the world as God loves us.

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Sunday Sermon: Lent IV- John 9:1-41

I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at Breath of God Lutheran Church in our neighborhood. While I forgot to record it, I am posting my manuscript here. The name of the sermon was “Blind Witness News”. A big thanks to Mark Parker for the invite and grateful to have such an engaged church in our neighborhood.

“Blind Witness News ”
Text: John 9:1-41

I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably spent more time in the last six months absorbing news content than I have in the last 6 years. The political climate in which we live, regardless of your political persuasion, is unprecedented and unpredictable. And with newsworthy happenings in the world come the inevitable spin and questions. It is so easy to get sucked in to the news reports and the arguing and the punditry and the analysis.

As such, perhaps this what has caused me to think of today’s Gospel reading in much the same way: as a news story. Could you imagine if it were recounted by a popular 24 hour news network today? Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to imagine. We have a significant event happening and a lot of people questioning and disagreeing about it. So today, I do want us to follow this story a bit like we would a news story, and try to offer some self-reflection along the way.

The word “blind” is used by John 17 times in his Gospel. 15 of those times are in this passage. This should bring to our mind not simply the topic of this passage, but a theme of sight. John wants us to see something here (pun intended).  We will come back to the disciples question in a bit, but I wanted to focus on the rest of the narrative, as if it were picked up by the news.

Imagine what the local news coverage would have been like for this story. “Breaking: we have some odd reports of a man, apparently born blind, who has been healed with mud, and you won’t guess what it’s made out of. Tonight at 11.” Or further still: “It is unclear as to the true identity of this man who was allegedly healed by a traveling Rabbi. We have someone who claims it was him who was healed, others claim it was just someone who looked like him: you be the judge.”

There are a lot of fun details in this story, and we can’t address everything, but I just had to pull out this amazing question by the neighbors as they begin by questioning the blind man after he received his sight. They ask him, in v. 12 “Where is he?” and he said “I don’t know.” Come on now…that is funny! This man has literally never seen anything in his life, he is sent by Jesus to go wash in a pool, where he then receives his sight and begins to be questioned, and one of the questions is, “Where is this man whom you’ve never seen?”

Next, the story gets picked up from the local news by the big news channel. Let’s call them PNN (Pharisee News Network). Their headline would look something like this: “So-called Prophet Breaks Sabbath by Performing Alleged Miracle…Sinner performing signs?” On their show, they would invite the blind man and his parents on, along with some expert analysts (pharisees, of course), to talk about this situation.

At the end of their newscast, the blind man turns the tables, even asking the pharisees if they want to follow Jesus because of all their questions. And like good pundits, they stick to the talking points and seek to discredit the man in order show they are the ones who are right, saying “You were born entirely in sins, and how are you trying to teach us?” And they cut the interview off and send him away, feeling satisfied that they got another news story, and maybe boosted their ratings.

Notice, that Jesus is not invited into the Pharisee’s discussion. Instead, Jesus goes to find the man after he hears about how he has been treated. He hears his confession of faith and says to him: you are the one who really sees. You get it, while those who think they have insight into the ways of this world are showing that they are blind. This is the work of Jesus which elicits an important question, not just for the pharisees, but for all of us: “surely we are not blind, are we?” We see things the way they are, don’t we Jesus?

It is here where I want to finally come back to the beginning of the story. When Jesus and his disciples come across this man who has been born blind, the disciples’ first impulse is to ask a question which I would paraphrase like this: “Whose fault is it?” This man is suffering, is it his own fault or the fault of someone else? Or, put even more succinctly: who can we blame for this?

I feel this question on a regular basis when I encounter human suffering, illness, and injustice in our world. My first impulse is to ask: “Whose fault is it?” so I can quickly post something calling them out on Facebook or something (I am only speaking for myself…I’m sure you don’t do this!) Or, it allows me to make a judgment call. “Well, they obviously brought this on themselves.” This helps me deal with the suffering as I see it. It helps me explain it away. It helps me keep things at a distance.

But, Jesus invites us into another way of seeing, altogether. To simply see a blind man as a problem to be analyzed, diagnosed, reported, or blamed is the way of the world. It is the way of the 24 hour news media. It is the way of blindness. Furthermore, to dismiss the work of God in the world when it doesn’t look like we think it should is the way of the religious elite, it is the way of power…basically, it is not the way of Jesus. And it is damaging.

Let me just say, that people have been horribly stigmatized by those who claim Christianity. I work part-time with HopeSprings, an organization which seeks to awaken, equip, and engage the church to bring hope and healing to those with HIV. We are having some focused conversations with other health and faith-based organizations right now to better address how faith informs our engagement with the people most at risk for HIV. This includes people in the LGBTQ community, particularly black gay men, transgender individuals, and IV drug users. Some of the people we have the opportunity to serve amaze me, because they still love Jesus after being treated as subhuman by those who claim to follow him. Many struggle to even think of darkening the door of a church again, though their faith is incredibly important to them. So many have been over-analyzed and scrutinized because of these factors, but people often fail to see God at work in their lives (and oftentimes, God is working in them to work through them to bless others…like us!) Certainly these would be like those whom we would categorize as “blind” today and seek to blame them or others for whatever may ail them. I wonder who else may be treated like they are “blind” today. And I further wonder whether we aren’t, in fact, the blind ones.

When Jesus sees this man, born blind, he sees it as an opportunity for the kingdom of God to break into the world. He sees it as a chance for him to get to work. To literally get his hands dirty, making mud out of spit and dirt. The work which began in Jesus continues on in his body, the Church, by the power of the Spirit. He is the light of the world, and now, so are we.

So, as we move forward today, back into our neighborhood this week, we are invited by Jesus to see what he sees. When we see our immigrant neighbors, will we simply analyze our assumptions concerning their lives, or will we wonder where God might be at work and inviting us to join? When we hear or read of another carjacking, mugging, or break-in, will we seek to blame police, victims, or perpetrators…or will we wonder “How might the light of Christ shine in this situation?” Where is God inviting you to see the world around you differently, as pregnant with possibility?

Jesus’ words in response to his disciples are an apt challenge for us today: We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. So, as long as you are in the world, shine in the world by working in the world, perhaps in the most unlikely places, in order to bring glory to God. May we move forth as people who see. May we look for opportunities for God’s kingdom to come in the situations and people we encounter. May we get our hand dirty in the work of loving and healing others. And may we have our own eyes opened to the reality of Christ.
Amen.

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Discipleship, Matthew, Sermon Notes

(Post)Sermon Notes: What Will You Do With What God Has Given You?

So, we had some volume issues with our podcast posted this week, so I thought it was a good excuse to try to get some more (post)sermon notes up for those of you who like to follow such things. I will be doing the same next week, in lieu of a podcast (or a sermon for that matter!).

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

So, I didn’t manuscript my sermon sermon this week. I just made four observations with questions at the end. I’ll try to link the points the best way I can to the scriptures they reference.

We are all given gifts of great value, though we are not given the same things.

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

 

We are expected to invest what we’ve been given.

16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

This investment means risk and a lack of clear instruction from the master. The servants had to figure out how to put what they had been given to work (or not).

We can tend to justify our inaction/laziness with our own beliefs/theology.

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

Many issues we create can be tied to what we believe about God or ourselves, that is simply untrue.

We will be judged/rewarded in connection with how we put to use what God has given us into the world.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

 

Questions for Reflection:

-What has God given you? (talents, gifts, resources, etc.)


-What are God’s desires in the world/for the world?


-What can you do with what God has given you? What imagination do you have for investment of what you have?


-What is keeping you from acting on it? (what are your fears, hang-ups, questions, doubts?)


-What do you think God be declaring to you, in light of what is keeping you from moving forward? If you are afraid, what do you think God is saying to you in your fear?

I’d love any thoughts you may have, feel free to comment or contact me directly through the site here.

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Matthew, Religion, Sermon Notes

(Post)Sermon Notes: Would Anyone Want Your Life?

So, we weren’t able to get our normal podcast posted this week, so I thought it was a good excuse to try to get some (post)sermon notes up for those of you who like to follow such things. I hope it helps you consider or re-consider what this life of follow Jesus might look like.

Text: Matthew 23:13-15
How many of you are familiar with the movie “The Little Rascals”?
The movie centers around little kids, particularly the boys who have formed the “He-Man Woman-Haters”. This is an exclusive club, with the big rule that you have to hate girls to belong. The two best friends, Spanky and Alfalfa, end up having a falling out because Alfalfa has fallen for Darla, and has been spending time with her in secret.
It all comes out in an epic scene, where, while trying to have a secret date in the clubhouse, Alfalfa accidentally burns it to the ground because of his romantic lunchtime candles. He is punished by the group, and it isn’t until the very end, through a surprise guest, that they realize they were wrong, finally rebuilding their clubhouse and hanging a new sign on the door: “He-Man Woman Haters Club: Women Welcome”. In the final scene, you see them all getting along so well, and even Spanky seems to enjoy the company of his female friends.
In this movie, there was a strict rule that was preventing Alfalfa from pursuing the love of his life. And it was a nonsense rule (and even a dangerous one…we might admit that some organizations would be more honest if they hung a sign like the one at the end of the movie on their doors…). Alfalfa had been sold a bill of goods and he couldn’t do it anymore. It was not a life he wanted. And the damage it caused was extensive.
I know the movie is a silly example, but the Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus is talking to have been doing something similar. They have been laying up heavy burdens on others, they have been seeking to exclude other people and convert people to their cause, and have been blind to the hurt and pain they are causing, not to mention the fact that they were causing themselves to miss out. There is a certain misery in seeking to always police the world and be right all the time. That is what is behind the word “woe”. Jesus is saying: this life you have chosen for yourself…it is not just misguided and destructive, it is sad and lacking.
Woe is me.
We don’t tend to hear the word “woe” often today, but they were used by prophets to name what currently exists in someone’s life. It is a statement of regretful fact with even a twinge of compassion. This is not simply judgment, it is a sorrowful statement of what is happening.
It begs the question: do you really want this life, and would anyone else want your life? This is a key question for us as disciples of Jesus. Of course our lives have challenges and we are not perfect, but would someone on the outside looking in want our life? And if not, why not? This is a time for us to get honest about our own lives as we look at the lives of the Pharisees.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Jesus begins by passing judgment on the scribes and Pharisees for the effect that their hypocrisy has on others. The kingdom of heaven is meant to be attractive and inviting, but the scribes and Pharisees prevent those so attracted to it from entering the kingdom. They do not live as if they have entered the kingdom. because they actually haven’t. But they feel like they have to prevent others as well.
These leaders are so obsessed with holding on to their power and position, that they are trying to trip up and discredit Jesus so that the people who used to follow them (and now follow Jesus) will turn back to them. And how do they do this? Power and coercion. You aren’t following the rules. You aren’t keeping sabbath. You don’t really understand the Bible.
[the best manuscripts don’t include v. 14, so we didn’t look at it. For more detail as to why, or if you are concerned that we are removing things from the Bible, read this and
this to start]

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Jesus, in talking about the Pharisees suggests that they are missionaries (and even successful ones), but those they convert are made even more corrupt than the Pharisees themselves. This is the danger of seeking to convert someone to an “-ism” an ideology , rather than to a way of living in deep relationship with the God of all. There is an appeal to fundamentalism and philosophy—it is the thought that we now know fully how to do the right thing and everyone else is wrong. Again, this is the heavy burdens of the Pharisees and the ultra-religious. Even our zeal can be something that becomes anti-kingdom. (Just ask the Apostle Paul about that one)
Some of us have really felt this one. We have been indoctrinated into thinking and acting in certain ways where fear was a big motivator. If you do this, then it will lead to [insert worst-case scenario/consequence here]. The bar becomes set so high that we live in constant fear, shame, and guilt because we cannot measure up. And perhaps, there is even this twisted hope that if I share this enough, I will come to believe it and embody it, and maybe even the person I convert will prove that this is right!
Quite simply put: this is a conversion to a Jesus-less religion. Keep these rules. Do things the right way. Believe the right things. Set yourself apart from those who believe the wrong things. There is nothing inherently wrong with describing our faith in relationship to our faith tradition. Someone will say I am Baptist or Catholic or Episcopal or Lutheran or Jewish or whatever it may be. There is such to be gained by identifying with a certain religious stream. However, when that becomes the thing that is more important than Jesus, we need to be careful and aware.
A side note: this is one of the several times where Jesus mentions religious people being the ones especially in danger of being related to or of hell. This should make our ears perk up a little bit. The question is, what are we attempting to convince people of? A system of belief? A particular set of holy living codes? A specific morality? Or…is our message one that says: the kingdom of heaven is near and you can be a part of it…now.
Pascal once said: “People never sin more grievously than when they act from religious motives.” I don’t feel like I need to convince you of this. So many wars have been waged over religious motives (even within the same Christian faith). Religious motives are fleeting and destructive, not just to others but also to ourselves. There is NOTHING about this way of living that is attractive to our world…and it is often where many people, apart from Jesus are living (and many who do confuse belief in Jesus). There is a better way.
What does your life speak about what you believe about the kingdom of God? Is it an invitational life? Is it an attractive life? Could it be that you are closing a door in people’s faces by the way you are stuck right now in your life? Is God saying “woe” to your life right now, not in a way of judgment but in a way of saying “It doesn’t have to be this way.”? The truth is, the door to the kingdom is open wide for us. Jesus has opened it and he is inviting us in. He is the Door. He is the Way. And to follow him is to lay down our striving, our burdens, our guilt, our shame, our rules, the lies we’ve been telling ourselves and others, the expectations we have or others have. It is laying all of it down and it is surrendering to a life with Christ.
What is preventing you today? What is the bad news in your life, the lies and stories you are telling yourself? What does God want you to know about him and about yourself this morning? What is the truth that makes life in the kingdom a joyful possibility?

I’d love any thoughts you may have, feel free to comment or contact me directly through the site here.

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Matthew, Musings, parable, Sermon Notes

[Post]-Sermon Notes: The Reasons for Parables

Note: I am posting a more manuscript version of my sermon because of technical issues with the podcast this week. This was delivered this past Sunday morning during our 11am gathering. Enjoy!

“The Reasons for Parables”
Text: Matthew 13:10-17

On a Sunday similar to this one, in the early fall of 1946, the English novelist George Orwell stood at the front of a church, honoring the enduring legacy of one of the leaders in the Church of England who had recently passed away. Many don’t know this, but Orwell (his real name being Eric Blair) was a very committed Anglican, his faith influencing his writing.

Before he came into the church, he noticed a large tree out front; one that had just started to show its maturity. Some children were climbing in the branches and playing under the shade.

It caused him to share these words:
“A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut. Nobody does plant them nowadays—when you see a walnut tree it is almost invariably an old tree. If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren?” 

Setting aside Orwell’s loose lips and candor during a memorial service, the truth is a powerful one. We do not think to plant seeds for a future we will not get to experience. We are doing work, planting things which we will not see grow or mature.

I first shared this quote almost two years ago in this very room as we jointly celebrated the 100-year anniversary of Patterson Park Baptist Church (and their final Sunday as a church) and the first official Sunday morning of Gallery Church Patterson Park. It was a beautiful time and we gave everyone a walnut seed as a way to remember that we are both beneficiaries and builders of the kingdom; a kingdom that did not begin and will not end with us.

The disciples in the first century find themselves in a very similar place. The idea of the “kingdom of God” is not new to them. It has been in the collective conscious of the Jewish people for centuries. It is reawakened every generation with people who attempt to bring in the kingdom politically or militarily by force. It is anticipated as religious leaders come to gain power and influence with the occupying government, in hopes that they will one day plan a sort of coup to overthrow their oppressors. Yet, success would always evade them, and the consequences were not just loss, but death and often a tightening of the shackles on the people: more taxes, more oppression, more laws, more military.

The prophetic words of Isaiah have become painfully true for the people of Israel. Isaiah’s call was to go to speak to a people. We love to read Isaiah 6 up until verse 9, because it paints a picture of the greatness of God and the incredible response of Isaiah to God’s call. “Here am I, send me!”. We love to use this to talk about missions and obedience. But you know what comes after Isa 6:8? Isaiah 6:9!

The LORD tells Isaiah that he will be going to a people who would not understand or repent. As a result, they would experience the judgment of God.
(Read Isa. 6:9-12)
Verse 13: “And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Judgment and destruction for a people who would not turn to the God that loved them. But also hope…
(Isa. 10:33-11:2)

So, not only had Isaiah’s words come true (in a not so good way), they were also coming true (in a beautiful way!) in the person and work of Jesus. And the disciples are seeing this, but they want to understand why Jesus is speaking in this very strange way to others.
So their question is this: Why did Jesus speak in parables?
For us to seek to answer that question, we will talk about what parables are and what they do.

Parables are an exposition.

(v. 11)
Jesus is telling the parable about the sower, seed, and soil in order to communicate something that is happening in the kingdom right now. Again, we will deal with this more fully next week as to what this parable reveals, but Jesus says that these parables have to do with the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.

Parables are not simply just nice, cute stories that use something concrete to explain an abstract reality. On the surface they do that, but Jesus is not simply teaching to convey information. He tells parables to do something: to reveal the kingdom and who is in on it.
As we will come to see more next week as we talk about the meaning of this particular parable, Jesus is describing something that is happening right now.

So, I know some of you have struggled a bit this week with the questions I asked last Sunday, because I didn’t answer them for you. Someone asked me, “Are you going to answer all of those questions this week?” I’ll tell you what I told them: not yet, and I doubt I can answer all of the questions for you. Remember, we need to sit with our questions! We need to engage with Jesus teachings and allow them to do their work, not simply be problems for us to figure out!

But our main question is this: what does the parable expose or reveal about life and God and me? If we seek to answer that, we are working within the given framework that Jesus has given us. But parables don’t just expose reality, they also reveal something else.

Parables are a revelation.
(v. 12-16)
I mean this more than just that they reveal something about God and his kingdom (that is covered in the exposition). They reveal something about the hearer (or better yet, they reveal who is a hearer).
Jesus says that this way of teaching helps to fulfill the prophecy (and in some ways, the ministry) of Isaiah. Jesus chooses to teach this way in order to reveal who is really paying attention and who isn’t.
The hidden aspect of the parables’ message is thus both a cause of and a response to people’s unwillingness to follow Jesus.
Simply put, not everyone who hears the words of Jesus will understand them, abide by them, or follow them. And, of course, the disciples have a great advantage, having had the Sermon on the Mount given to them specifically.
But parables in some ways are a very practical tool that allows Jesus to see who is really desiring this kingdom. Those who show interest, who understand the parables are showing that they are a part of this movement. But those who do not, reveal that they are not followers of Jesus or his kingdom.

Parables are an invitation.
(v. 17)
This, for me, comes back to the walnut seed. Jesus is exposing the place of privilege and responsibility that the disciples have in being able to see and hear and understand what Jesus is doing.
To me, it is amazing that most commentators focus on this parable and ask questions about the previous verses in relation to the age-old questions of predestination and human responsibility or free will. I will not wade into those waters this morning for a variety of reasons, except to say this. Divine providence/election and human responsibility are both held in tension in the Scriptures. And, at the risk of over-simplifying things, when it comes to divine providence and human responsibility, by definition we are responsible for only one of those things! What I want us to see is that the idea of election: being chosen for a specific task by a specific person (in this case Jesus and his disciples) does not signify simply a privileged status. It is a “blessed status”, meaning, there is a great responsibility place upon you now, because of what you see and hear.
What is most incredible to me about this passage is that Jesus looks at this rag-tag group of followers and says: “You need to understand: your spiritual heroes would have given anything to be able to be in your sandals right now! Isaiah wrote about this ‘shoot of Jesse’ which would spring up out of the burned out stump of a tree of this nation, and you are looking at him, in the flesh!”
Implicit in that statement is a “so what are you going to do about it” sort of question. Will you jump into the story that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, and David is fulfilling now? Will you find yourself in this story and be changed by it? Will you be a part of this kingdom? Will you listen to me so I can tell you what it means?
This invitation is ours today as well. We are inheritors of a legacy not our own; a kingdom we did not build, but we can join in and belong. This is historically significant! Jesus is looking to us and saying, so many people would have loved to be where you are now, but it wasn’t time. But now it is time.
This is how Jesus began his ministry, calling people to him because the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world. That is happening right now, through the work of the Spirit in the church that Jesus started.
So, do we hear this? Do we hear what Jesus is up to in the world? Are we seeking to listen to him? We will be moving from hearing to understanding next week as we (finally) talk about what this parable means.
But let’s just take time to listen to the Spirit of God, right now in this moment.
What is he exposing to you right now about himself and the Kingdom?
What is he revealing about you?
How is he inviting you into his work in the world this week?
Benediction:
May we have ears to hear and eyes to see all that God is accomplishing around us in his kingdom. May we respond to his invitation to join him in his work, and may we realize that we are the inheritors of a past not our own, and co-stewards of a future that God is pulling most wonderfully into the present. May his kingdom come and his will be done, in Baltimore as it is in heaven.
Grace and Peace be with you.

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Musings, Sermon Notes

Sermon and Sabbatical

This Sunday’s sermon was a tough one for me to give. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the text (more on that in a moment), but more the opportunity I took to share my plan for sabbatical this fall.

To admit that I need rest and renewal is a tough thing to do. To admit that I need to have “ears to hear” the voice of the Spirit is even more embarrassing and revealing. I don’t know if “pastors” don’t like talking about these things, but I know its tough for me.

But it really was in preparing to teach this text (Matthew 13:1-9) that I discovered something profound about what Jesus invites us to do as he teaches us. And it will be foundational for me as I move into this next season. He invites us to be good listeners by asking good questions and sitting with those questions for awhile.

It was a tough thing this past week to simply let the parable in this passage do what it does. I wanted to skip ahead to later in the chapter when Jesus explains that this parable of the sower and the soils is not just a lesson in agriculture. I mean, after all, how infuriating would it be to get advice from a carpenter-turned-rabbi about farming?

But if we slow down enough, we come to see that parables provoke questions and feelings in us. And I am terrible at taking time to slow down enough to sit with my questions and feelings. I want the answers (or think I already have them). That’s what the Google is for, right? (Yes, the Google…)

So, beginning in October, I will be taking three months to sit with my questions and feelings. I need to reflect on the past years of ministry. So much has happened in my life in such a short span of time. I feel like I experienced growth spurts but the rest of me needs to catch up. I will be asking God what he is saying and then shut up and listen to him, rather than trying to finish sentences for him.

I will be seeing a spiritual director. I’ll be creating space for this seed of God to take root in me (or maybe even change the soil some). I’ll be investigating some questions I’ve had for awhile. I’ll be visiting some friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I’ll be practicing discernment with others. I’ll be reading and writing for me, not for others (a tough thing to do, for sure).

And, I’ll be shutting off the noise for awhile: social media, blogging, email, etc. In short, I’ll be seeking to have ears to hear.

I’ll be posting a bit more until that time with some more info about what I’ll be doing, but until then, if you are the praying type pray for me. If you aren’t, keep me in your thoughts.

Grace and Peace.

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Authenticity, Musings, Sermon Notes

[Post]-Sermon Notes: Authenticity and Covenant Sunday

Note: This Sunday was incredible! We had kids singing with tambourines, a Shofar being blown as a call to worship, testimony, songs in Spanish and Korean,
authentic clothing from other countries, a parent-child dedication, communion, and a pot-luck lunch! Needles to say, I’m exhausted but my heart is full. A huge thanks to all my brothers and sisters at Gallery Church Patterson Park who helped us celebrate the renewal of our covenant membership to one another. It was beautiful!

Text: Acts 2:42-47
Iif we are to properly covenant with one another, we must understand and commit ourselves to this final value. We have saved it for last, largely because it is key to fulfilling and honoring the others. It is the relational context in which we work through these values together.
We value authenticity. To be authentic is to be who you really are with those around you. It is to be vulnerable, to share yourself with others, warts and all. There are no perfect people, and we don’t want to waste precious time and energy trying to convince others (or even ourselves), that we are better or more put together than we are.
At its best, the early church got this and modeled this for us. As we see in our passage today, we can learn from their authenticity in a few ways. First, to be authentic…

We must be together.
(v. 44a, 46)
This word together, is a phrase of a gathering of people, with the emphasis being on unity. This is more than going to a concert together or working together. It is about fully being with and for one another.
Remember, we talked about the triangle and how our “IN” relational dimension is not in to ourselves, it is in with one another. As Mike Breen says, the indivisible unit of the kingdom is two. We do not and CANNOT follow Jesus alone. We must be together.
And that takes time. More than just a couple hours once a week.
I could say a lot about this, but our lives culturally work against us in some ways. We, through technology, have been given a substitute for community through TV shows and social media. Community is already naturally hard because of rampant individualism, and that is reinforced everyday by how we engage with the world (another conversation for another day).
Community takes time and effort and sacrifice. Some of us will have to think, is it more important for me to spend time with my community or to take that extra trip out of town. Should I go be with that friend or brother or sister or should I just stay in and watch 3 episodes of my favorite tv show.
All I can see is that the early church was drawn to spend much time together. More than 2 times a week. It was a lifestyle of consistent engagement. What could that look like? We will come back to it.
But for the time being, let’s just see at this point that authenticity happens when I chose to be together with others. This is about quantity of time and who you are spending it with. We don’t get to know each other through short, casual interactions.

We must share fully.
(v. 44b, 45)

  • Share what you have and share what you need.

The early church shared their possessions. They even sold things to make sure others had what they needed. Their sharing was based on an understanding of what others need. How did they know what others needed? They told them! They were honest about their needs and did whatever they could to help meet those needs in the family. The big question about generosity and giving to those in need is a conversation about those outside the walls of the church. And this is important. We ask whether we should give to someone who is panhandling or believe the stories of some people or only give away food. These are important conversations and it is important to obey God in these moments.
We receive quite a few benevolence requests from people outside of our church family. People will call the office or stop in and ask for help with rent or food or bills. One of the very first questions I ask is whether or not they are involved in a church. And there is a reason for this: I want to know what their church family has done to help their own brother or sister.
These believers shared what had been given to them in order to meet others needs because they ultimately understood that what they had did not belong to them.

  • Share who you are.

Example of Gen 3 and Adam and Eve hiding from God because they were naked.
When they saw things as they were, they responded by seeking to cover themselves and hiding from God, our of fear and shame.
Who told you that you were naked? Who told you that being naked was a bad thing? God created you that way…
Notice that the reason for hiding is not, explicitly, that they disobeyed God. Their sin, their disobedience, is not the reason they give. They have a completely different perspective on who they are. They are ashamed of who God made them.
Who told you you should be ashamed of who you are?
Kara and I went to a friend’s wedding this past Friday night. It was so much fun. I love people watching, seeing the dancers come out of their shells. There is always that one guy that just owns the floor, right? I mean, he is drenched in sweat and has all the moves. This past Friday, too, there was the flower girl, right in the middle of the floor and she was owning it. And I’m over being a wallflower freaking out about what people will think of me! Many of them were my friends, and many who weren’t my friends were halfway drunk anyway and wouldn’t remember the next day! So Kara and I tore it up!
I think that this is a core part of the result of the entrance of sin into the world; we have this inherent shame about who we are and how God has made us. As a follower of him, you are a gift to this church. The Spirit has empowered each of you with gifts. Those gifts are not for you. They are for the church! And if you allow fear to keep you from sharing who you are, we are missing out on what God has for us. We need you to share all that you are and all who you are!
Which leads us to this last idea…

There is always room at the table.
(v. 46-47)
As the early believers shared themselves, their lives, and their stuff with one another, they found themselves drawn together in worship and in meals.
Here is the thing we can miss: who was at the table.
Acts 2:5-11
Imagine what those meals must have been like! Imagine the foods, the conversations, the languages, the cultures, the differences….but all worshiping together and all eating together.
I guess, in a moment, we won’t have to imagine!
In our context, think of how we would be described if Luke was writing about us and the different people who were there: Mexicans, native-born Americans, Guatemalans, Koreans, Salvadoreans, Colombians, Africans, African-Americans, recovering southerners, Yankees, Balmers, mid-westerners, Californians, Orioles fans, Ravens football fans, Real Madrid “football” fans, and yes, even Steeler’s fans (who we can pray for to be sanctified!).
Jesus wants his table to be diverse, and there is always room for more.
How many of you grew up having family dinner as a kid? We had certain meals that we ate because different people in our family liked them. We also would eat burgers so that mom didn’t have to cook. I like to think of our times together in worship as a family dinner. We are all gathered because we need to eat, but we get to celebrate each other’s tastes. Today has been a wonderful mix of different languages and styles. It is like the meal that we are about to have. I love that! And this is coming from a guy who could eat the same 5 meals every week for the rest of my life! But this is fun! I don’t expect you to like everything that we do here, just like there will be some dishes downstairs that you won’t like. But we will have it as a part of the meal, because Donna made it, and we love Donna and Donna loved making it. We will eat it because we love Lorena and Lorena loved making it.
And this honors God. And it is attractive to others, because it says to them “we value people for being authentic: for being themselves and bringing what they bring to the table.”
And so, we are about to come to the table of Jesus. Jesus’ table is a diverse table. When he first gave us this holy meal, it included the loud-mouths and the nobodies. The self-focused and the swindlers. The betrayer and the “one whom Jesus loved”. The hot-heads and the opposing political parties and the back-woods rednecks. This is what Jesus’ table looks like. Because as different as we are, and as much as we disagree and debate, we come to the table because of one simple truth: we are hungry. We are people who need the sustaining grace of the flesh and blood of Jesus. We are bound together by his blood and his love.

Benediction:
This week, may you say no to fear and shame. May you take time to be “in-with” the family of God. May you share yourself and your stuff with others. And may you seek to expand your table, all for the sake of our King Jesus and His Kingdom. May you be more fully you this week to the people around you.
Grace and Peace be with you…

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Musings, Prayer, Sermon Notes

[Post]-Sermon Notes: Prayer

Texts: Acts 2:42-47, Matthew 6:9-13
(this is a summary of the sermon I have this past Sunday. If you prefer, skip to the bottom for additional resources)
If we’re honest, prayer freaks us out. It feels mystical or magical or strange. It seems like something that is only for the elite. It doesn’t make sense to us. It feels awkward or like our words are bouncing off the ceiling.

I don’t know about you, but I need to be taught how to pray. Jesus’ disciples felt this and it compelled them to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. And he responded by telling them to say the Lord’s prayer.

Prayer begins with direction. It is about relationship

With whom are we speaking? “Our Father, in heaven.”
I know we all approach this idea of God as father from different places. I know it can affect how we see who this God is. For a further piicture of who this Father is, see Luke 11:11-13.

However, the fact that Jesus would instruct his followers to address God in this way was very controversial! “Father” as a title for God was rarely used in the Old Testament (only 14 times I can count) and always used with reference to the nation, not to individuals. Thus, where “father” does occur with respect to God, it is commonly by way of analogy, and not used to directly address Him (Deut 32:6; Ps 103:13; Isa 63:16; Mal 2:10).

In contrast, Jesus Himself addressed God only as Father (some 60 times in the Gospels), never referring to Him by any other name! Virtually all of Jesus’ prayers were addressed to God as Father (except when Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross…my God, my God). So we, following Jesus’ example, get to call the God of the universe Father. The one whose name wouldn’t even be spoken by people for thousands of years, we get call him “Papa”.

When we say that he is in heaven (or rather, the better translation is “in the heavens”), we speak of something I will call his transcendent nearness. So we could pray: “Our Father who is up above, around, and near to us.” God is separate and other while being imminent and present.

So when we pray, we recognize that we are praying to the God of all creation who is our close and intimate Father, right there with us. We don’t have to hope that our prayers “get to God”.

“Hallowed be your name”
Or “may your name be kept holy, special, or set apart”. In the Ancient Near East and in many early religions, the name of a god (or a man, for that matter), was very important. It defined a reality. But men would sometimes use the name of a god to get what they wanted, or would curse them when they didn’t do something right. This prayer is one we participate in. It is saying, “we will seek to maintain the honor of your name”. And this is a difficult thing to do, is it not? We see the name of God defamed all around us, things done in his name, attributed to him. It is the cosmic version of that first bully telling us as a child that our Dad is weak or our mom is not the greatest Mom ever. That alarm that we feel pushes us to fight for the honor of the name of God. The Hebrew people, and even Jews today so revere the name of God, they do not speak or write it. They came up with Hashem, which lit. means “the name” (They ended up giving different names of God-all related to what he has done or his character).

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”
So this is the first thing we seem to be asking/petitioning God for in this prayer. And I know this is where we get hung up sometimes, in the asking of God for things. We have these mental blocks sometimes.
Psalm 139:1-4 and Matthew 6:8 can become problematic for us. If God knows what we need before we even ask him, what’s the point in asking?
This question makes some big assumptions:

  1. That the need we are asking for is the same as the actual need that God knows.

    2. That God’s knowing is the same as God’s doing (just because he knows, does that mean he will act on it?
    3. That it is ok to rationalize away obedience. (if it doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t have to do it) If you have kids, you know this doesn’t work.

Let me say it clearly: prayer changes things. And we are commanded to do it. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
God has, in a mysterious way, chosen to tie his action in the world to the petitions of his people.
(2 Scriptures where God appears to change his mind in response to prayer: Exodus 32 [Moses] and 2 Kings 20 [Hezekiah])

I really like this example and quote from Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy that explains the relationship and differences between the “will/purposes” of God and the “action” of God. Some call this idea of God’s sovereignty his “relational sovereignty”.

“God is great enough that he can conduct his affairs in this way. His nature, identity, and overarching purposes are no doubt unchanging. But his intentions with regard to many particular matters that concern individual human beings are not. This does not diminish him. Far from it. He would be a lesser God if he could not change his intentions when he thinks it is appropriate. And if he chooses to deal with humanity in such a way that he will occasionally think it appropriate, that is just fine.”

And that is the heart of this line in the prayer.
When we pray Your kingdom come, we are asking God to be about his business in ways we know only he can do. We are praying for justice, for the world to be made right, Maranatha! (Come, Lord Jesus!)

When we pray Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are saying we want to be about our Father’s business. It is about our obedience. Just like heaven is the place where God is being obeyed and worshiped all the time, we work to bring that to earth in the way we live.

“Give us this day our daily bread”
There are only two things I wish to highlight here. The first is that the plural part of this prayer is emphasized again. It is truly our prayer. When is the last time you prayed for someone else’s basic needs to be met along with yours?

Second, this is a prayer that places our attention squarely on the present. We are not asking for things for tomorrow. We are focusing our trust on what God will provide today. Perhaps many of our prayers are masquerading as baptized anxieties about the future when God is calling us back to where he is: with us, in the present, providing what we need. (again, sometimes we need to have our perception of our needs realigned with God’s)

“And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors”
There is so much to be said about forgiveness and how it affects our lives. Let me just say that we need a constant reminder of the pity that God has had on us when it comes to our condition. And I use the word pity on purpose, as mercy is a word that may have too much religious baggage to be as jarring. God saw us, way over our heads, upside-down in life-debt. He saw it and took pity on us. He felt for us in our awful state. And then he forgave, the word means to literally send away, never to return.
And this is the way we are supposed to forgive those who have wronged us. This is a transformative side to this prayer that moves us into right relationships. We must be reacquainted with our
“They owe me an apology.” Probably. Cancel the debt, place it on the cross.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
At its core, this is a prayer saying, “God, please don’t let bad things happen to me.” You may think this is too simple or childish of a prayer. Or perhaps its praying “wrong”. After all, doesn’t scripture talk about being called to suffer, to pick up the cross and follow Jesus?
God is a good Dad. He doesn’t willfully send his children into harm like a sadist. And the truth is, he does this A LOT. We tend to focus on the times where he doesn’t seem to, and think that he is being a bad Dad. This is shortsighted.
The idea of being delivered is that we are pulled through hardship, but make it on the other side. It is not praying: pull me out of this. It is saying, pull me through. Jesus, again, modeled this in Gethsemane. “Father, is there a way you can keep this from happening?” And ultimately, Jesus was delivered through and into victory.

So, this is a prayer we should repeat and a prayer we should model our prayers after.

Because engaging in prayer is like learning how to speak.

Have you ever thought about how you learned to speak? It is an amazing process. It begins with listening. We hear the voices of our parents and those around us and recognize their voices.
It continues with naming who these big people are that feed us. Mama. Dada. Then concrete words like milk, blanky, food. Then abstract like hungry, thirsty, and more. And on we go, putting words together, asking for things, talking about things.
But we can’t speak what we don’t hear. And we have to practice. Because our language changes over time.

Eugene Peterson speaks of 3 types of language that we use in our world:
Language I is primary language, the basic language for expressing and developing the human condition. It is the language of relationship: coos, giggles, gibberish,
Language II is the language of information. Everything has a name. Language II is the major language used in schools.
Language III is the language of motivation. We discover early on that words have the power to make things happen, to bring something out of nothing, to move inert figures into purposive action. This is the language used in advertising and politics.

In our world, languages II and III are the predominant languages of our culture. As we grow up, we tend to put relational language I to the side, it is considered inferior and childish.
We need to relearn relational language. And prayer exposes our deficiency in this language while seeking to change it at the same time!

We need to pray these words of the Lord’s Prayer, again and again. And this is not vain repetition. This is repetition on a mission! It is formative. It helps us learn the language of God! It resets us to speak relationally again.

Ways to engage in prayer different this week:
-Pray the Lord’s prayer, both individually and with others.
-Set times to pray the prayers of others/the Psalms/common prayer. Shoot for once or twice a day. Some great online resources for you: the Trinity Mission, Book of Common Prayer, Mission St. Clare, Daily Office,

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Musings, Relationships, Sermon Notes, Trinity

[Post]-Sermon Notes: Relationships

Guiding Texts: Acts 2:42-47, Luke 6:12-19
I don’t think it would matter who you ask, most people would say that relationships matter. However, we could also all name at least on relationship that has not gone well. Some of us are in the midst of relational struggle right now: a family member, a friend, a coworker…perhaps you are really struggling in your relationships with your neighbors or people in the city. Some of you have become hardened to those in need around you. And maybe some of us are really struggling with our relationship to God. We have questions and doubts. Some of you may be angry with God or feel slighted by him.
So, as much as we would say relationships are important, we would also be quick to say that we have a lot of struggles and room to grow in how we relate.

As we have said regarding our other values, it is not enough to simply say you value something: there is a way in which we must value them. Which relationships do you value? How do you value those relationships?

Our church’s website says this about our value of relationship:

Relationships matter first with God through His son Jesus and then with people. A relationship with Jesus is the only hope for a lost and broken world. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, His response was simple: “LOVE GOD, and LOVE PEOPLE.” We value the image of God in all people. We believe that we were created to live connected with one another: carrying each other’s burdens, sharing our possessions, praying for and confessing our sins to each other, and suffering and celebrating together. It’s in these honest, loving relationships that God transforms us and His Love is brought to full expression through us. The way of Jesus cannot be lived alone.

 

Our model for relationship is always Jesus, so we can use an example from his life as a framework and talk about some other scriptures on the way.
Relationships Exist in Three Dimensions
(the following is adapted from Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture)

UP 

(Luke 6:12)

In fellowship with the Father.
Jesus was in fellowship with the Father as a matter of priority and necessity. He prayed regularly. In this passage he prayed all night He always had sufficient time alone with his Father daily. Jesus was often at prayer before the disciples woke, he went out to lonely places to pray, and says he can do nothing by himself without the Father.
Prayer, praise and waiting on his Father were fundamental elements in the lifestyle of Jesus. Jesus was in constant contact with His Father, whom He spoke of in very personal and familiar terms. We do not get to the point of calling our Father Daddy (Abba) without spending significant time with him and experiencing the love and care that he has for us.
So how do we move UP?
When is that last time you enjoyed God? Not his gifts. Not his words. Not ideas about him. HIM?We immediately tend to think that we need to schedule all of this time and do devotions 7 times a day and read the Bible in 30 days and so on… I encourage you to recognize the fact that, as a follower of Jesus, God is with you and inside of you right now. Right now. And all of the time. What can you do to notice him, to enjoy life with him?
It may mean taking time to get up early. It may mean taking time to get away to hear his voice. We will talk more next week about prayer; how to communicate and commune with God. This is where I have the biggest room for growth. But I know it is necessary to be able to have thriving relationships.

IN

(Luke 6:13-16)
When I say “in” I don’t mean in to ourselves, I mean in with each other. This is about relationships with each other as a church family.
Again, Jesus is our example. If there was anyone who could have gone it alone, Jesus may have been the best candidate. But he didn’t. There was no such thing as “me and the father only” for Jesus.
After prayer (up), Jesus calls the twelve to become his disciples (in). Mark 3:13-14 says that he called to him “those he wanted” “that they might be with him”. Jesus was fully human; a social creature. He needed to be with other people. Jesus did not do life alone! He wanted to spend time and build strong relationships with them, which he did over the three years he lived with them.
Jesus came as a human being and showed us the way human beings are to live out their lives. We are not complete as individuals. We are creatures who need the Inward dimension. We need each other. As Mike Breen says, “the smallest indivisible unit in the kingdom is two”. Jesus never sent out people by themselves. As best as I can tell, the only one who did anything by himself was Judas…not a great example.
This is why the believers didn’t simply hear the message and then continue on as if nothing changed or embrace some sort of “personal relationship with Jesus” that included no one else.. The Acts 2 text shows us more about this communal life. They met together daily. They worshiped in the temple together. They shared meals together. They shared their possessions as each one had need. They sold their stuff and gave the money away to a brother or sister. This is a radical move toward community.
And, in general, we (as people) are terrible at doing this. The largest reason is because we do not know how to be authentic and vulnerable with each other. We struggle to share our lives with one another; our true selves. That’s why we are going to take an entire sermon to deal with this on the 30th. So, please do make time to be here that week. I actually think that if we don’t get the “in” part right, we cannot do mission well.

OUT

(Luke 6:17-19)

Relationships outside the family, as a family (Mission)
After Jesus prayed to His Father (UP), he created a team of people to work alongside him and be company with him (IN). He then moved into and amongst the crowd and embodied the kingdom, proclaiming the good news and healing the sick.
This pattern is revealed in the life of Jesus: in order to be obedient in mission, we first need to be in deep, abiding relationship with the Father, then with one another before being able to move out into mission.

So, moving out: what does that look like?
Acts 2:43, 47 Awe and favor with the people around us.

We do not go out alone. This is disobedience.The call is not to go by yourself. You will get hurt. Jesus sent out his disciples in groups of 2 for a reason!

I had someone say this phrase that really provoked some thought in me. He said, the church exists because God is Trinity. (This is from a lecture by Fr. Scott Detisch on “Communio Theology”)

Our relationships with each other and our mission in the world are rooted in the very nature of God.

If we go back to the triangle, and we will see that the Triune God is active in each one of these dimensions. Up (Father), In (Son), Out (Spirit).

To experience life in these three dimensions is to experience the fullness of the Trinitarian life and mission: a God who is constantly moving within and without. This the THE fellowship: it is the relational life that God creates by virtue of his love. The early church fathers had a name for this: perichorisis: the dance of the Trinity. His mission is to continually bring all that is not God into closer fellowship or communion with him.

So we cannot have relationships working at their best apart from God. We come to understand love and sacrifice and family as we are brought into relationship with him.

Benediction:
This week, may we devote ourselves to the fellowship: the relationships that God has created as an extension of himself. May we move up toward the Father in worship and communion, in with each other as the body of Jesus Christ, and out in mission, empowered by the Spirit to see the renewal and redemption of the entire creation under the Lordship of Christ.
Grace and Peace be with you…

Would love your thoughts and comments!

Recommended Reading/References:
Building a Discipling Culture– Mike Breen/3DM
Perichoresis and Personhood: God, Christ, and Salvation in John of Damascus – Charles C. Twombly
The Trinity and the Kingdom– Jürgen Moltmann

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