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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Daily Office, Musings, Prayer, Scripture, Sunday

Daily Office Reflection: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

If you would like to read through the Daily Office, complete with prayers and hymns, I use this almost every day.

January 27th, 2017

Epiphany III (Ps. 40, 54; Isa 50:1-11; Gal 3:15- 22; Mark 6:47- 56 )

Mark 6:47- 56

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

 

In the midst of adversity, we often assume the worst about any new development in our situation. I call it the “Oh, come ON!” reflex and have found this to be true in my own life. When things are not going well, that is the same day that I lose my keys, stub my toe, miss the bus, and imagine many more things going from bad to worse. Think “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”In fact, it’s all I can usually think about.

What is so telling about this story is that it follows Jesus’ miraculous provision in the loaves and fish. This story was so amazing and did not match with anyone’s expectations. I mean, how could it? So then, the disciples get caught up in a storm. This is bad, but it was fairly common. This was worse than normal. But then they see Jesus walking on the sea. But they don’t see Jesus, they think it’s a ghost. Oh, come ON! First we were going to die and now we are haunted? REALLY?!?

Jesus speaks, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

This speaks to imagination and to our hearts. When we see a terrible situation going from bad to worse, could it be that Jesus is present right in the middle of it? Instead of letting our imaginations run wild with all the possible bad things that could happen (a ghost is pretty imaginative!) could we imagine instead how Jesus might be strolling right in the middle of it all?

As many have said, we are either in a storm, coming out of one, or about to enter one. Where are you? And, more to the point, where is Jesus? Where do you need to hear him speak the beautiful and good news of his presence? And how can you even imagine his presence in the midst of whatever it is you are facing? Jesus is not just with you, he is powerfully at work as well, to help you move from fear to encouragement.

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Daily Office, Musings, Prayer, Scripture, Sunday

Psalm 37: One of My Favorite (and Most Challenging) Psalms-Part 1

I’m not sure if choosing favorite parts of the Bible is like choosing which child you like more, in that it is sort of taboo. As I don’t yet have children, parents will have to fill me in on this as it relates to their kids, but I do know I certainly have favorite passages in the Scriptures.

Psalm 37 continues to be at the top of the list, and it continues to speak afresh to me in different seasons of life. I thought I’d share a few reflections and see if they resonate with you as well.
Here is how it begins:

Do not fret because of evildoers,
Be not envious toward wrongdoers.
For they will wither quickly like the grass
And fade like the green herb.

In light of our new President’s first few days and actions in office, this is incredibly timely for me. I will not mince words: there are several of his actions or words that are not simply controversial or divisive, they are wrong. Torture is wrong and evil, regardless of its “effectiveness”. Denying help to the refugee is wrong, especially upon the basis of religious affiliation. Ignoring environmental concerns for the sake of “expediting development” is wrong. And this is just in the last few days.

For me, it becomes incredibly disturbing and frustrating. And I have been fretting…a lot. The psalm will speak more to those who do evil, but it offers an important positive alternative, and no–it is not, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness*.
Delight yourself in the Lord;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light
And your judgment as the noonday.

Instead of fretting, we are offered the alternatives of trust, dwell, cultivate, delight, and commit.

This verse has been printed out and framed in our house, becoming a sort of mission statement for Kara and I. We see it each time we walk out our front door.

Trust God. Dwell in the neighborhood. Cultivate faithfulness. Delight in God. Commit our lives to God.

When I fret, I am reminded that my calling has not changed. I am still invited to actively trust God by continuing to root myself in the place I live, to be faithful in loving my neighbors, and to take delight in all that God is. This, of course, is not simply a way of ignoring the reality of wrong-doing (there was just a violent incident in our neighborhood last night). This is also not being silent when speaking out becomes necessary. But worrying can keep me from being active from a posture of trust. Worrying fuels my work in a stressing and dangerous way. Fretting can make me very cynical and angry and bitter. Instead, I feel that God is inviting us to use our imagination more positively.

My question today is: How is God inviting me to cultivate faithfulness and to be fully present in the world around me, while also actively trusting him along the way?

*Note: I chose this translation because of this phrasing, though some translations say something more like “feed on faithfulness” or “befriend faithfulness” or even “find safe pasture”; all of which bring up interesting concepts.

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Daily Office, Musings, Prayer, Scripture, Sunday

Daily Office Reflection: The Conversion of St. Paul

If you would like to read through the Daily Office, complete with prayers and hymns, I use this almost every day.

January 25th, 2017

Epiphany III-Commemoration of the Conversion of St. Paul

(Ps. 19; Isa 45:18-25; Phil 3:4-11-2:10)
The readings are a bit different today as we focus on the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus to become Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Philippians 3:4-11

even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul has a certain intensity, doesn’t he? I mean, I find myself reading this passage and thinking, “Woah, Paul…I mean…it’s ALL ‘rubbish’?” He was super credentialed. He not only knew the Law, he was zealous for it. Paul was passionate.

I am helping to lead a training with HopeSprings about how we can do “wholistic” (i.e. concerned about the wholeness of people) ministry, and we talked about passion the other night. We tend to equate passion with zeal and drive, and this is certainly true. However, the original use of the word passion was in reference to suffering (think, the Passion of the Christ).

In Acts 9:16, when the Lord is speaking to Ananias, he says of Saul (about to be Paul) that he will show him how much Paul “must suffer for my name.” Paul’s passion (zeal) was transformed into a suffering for the sake of Christ and others.

When we choose to follow Jesus today, we embrace passion, our passion (suffering) of holding loosely to things which often define us (education, social status, bank account, denominational affiliation, family heritage, etc.) even, by comparision, considering them “rubbish” (a G-rated translation, to be sure) to the value of being in relationship with Christ. When we want to be what JEsus is about, the other things just don’t matter like they once did.

What is God inviting you to reconsider in your own life? In what ways does your own identity inhere within the things many would value? What is God saying to you about who you are, right now?

Imagine what our own callings could look like were we to value connection and relationship to Jesus more than these things.

 

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Daily Office, Musings, Prayer, Scripture, Sunday

Daily Office Reflection: Galatians 1:18-2:10

If you would like to read through the Daily Office, complete with prayers and hymns, I use this almost every day.

January 24th, 2017

Epiphany III

(Ps. 45; Isaiah 48:12-21; Galatians 1:18-2:10;  Mark 6:1-13)

Galatians 1:18-2:10

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me. Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us- we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) -those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

So, this account of Paul’s calling and ministry and how he worked through being received into the community of Jesus, especially considering his past. This seems like a key moment in the movement of Jesus, as they acknowledge that the same God who entrusted a calling and mission to Peter to one group of people (Jews and God-fearing, law-keeping Gentiles) was the same God who was sending Paul to the Gentiles (aka: everyone else!).

Different callings are key to seeing God’s one, great mission unfold.

But notice the one commonality: remember the poor.

 

As my grandfather (a Southern Baptist preacher)  likes to put it, “We all have our rows to work in the vineyard.” Yes, and amen. But let’s remember the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. Perhaps we need to confess that much of our time is spent forgetting, not remembering the poor. What would it look like for us to be eager to remember the poor? Let’s not get so caught up in our callings today that we forget the poor, the one thing all of our ministries should have in common. 

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 23:22)

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