Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Meeting Jesus (Again) For the First Time


Matthew 4:18-22 
As he (Jesus) walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.


Last week Matt shared a bit about his experiences in Guatemala in 2013 and 2015. 
I know that he was disappointed that he was not able to go with our mission team on this last trip --- but I was thankful that I could go.

I want to thank Nancy --- and you --- Meridian Street Church --- for allowing me to have this amazing opportunity.

I have participated in dozens of mission trips through-out the years.
But some trips have really stuck out more than others
·         Appalachian Service Projects as a youth was one of the pivotal moments in my life --- and quite possibly one of the reasons that I am standing in front of you this morning
·         Jamaica, as I shared a few weeks ago, as a newly ordained pastor clarified my calling unlike anything I have ever done --- and gave me the strength to keep going
·         Taking a group of youth to Nashville Tennessee and sleeping in an old warehouse in the skid row district wondering how many rats I would encounter each evening.
·         Taking a group of youth to Oklahoma to work on an Indian Reservation, and visiting the Oklahoma City memorial shortly after that tragedy
·         Haiti prior to the devastating earthquakes --- shook me out of my comfort zone in ways that I still have not completely overcome
·         And of course Guatemala

Each of us has encountered Jesus in our lives.

For many of us, that first encounter with Jesus came when we were children.
          Certainly that is true for those of us who grew up in the church

But I don’t think that you can grow up in our society without having some encounter with Jesus.
          Even if it is not very clear or precise

For many of us, that image of Jesus that we claimed as children --- remains intact in many ways as we grow older

·         Sometimes it is held with deep conviction
o   Sometimes with just warm personal devotion  
o   And other times it is tied to rigid doctrinal positions

·         For some --- this image of Jesus that we developed during childhood can become a problem
o   Producing doubt
o   And sometimes leading to indifference --- or even a rejection of the religion (the Jesus) of their childhood
I have seen this in many of my childhood friends

It is as if there came a time in their lives when the childhood image of Jesus no longer made sense.
          Any unfortunately --- nothing was there to replace it

The result is too often a walking away from Jesus and the church

But I have come to believe (and even witness in my own life) that we need an opportunity to meet Jesus again --- almost like meeting Jesus again for the very first time.

The Jesus I follow today is very different from the image of Jesus that I had as a child.

It appears to me that there are two primary (or widespread) images of Jesus in our culture today --- maybe one of these is your image of Jesus

The first image --- what Marcus Borg calls “the popular image” sees Jesus as the divine savior.

This image seeks to answer three questions about Jesus
          Who was Jesus?
          What was his mission or purpose?
          What was his message?

The answer to those questions calls one into a state of believing.
          Who was Jesus?
          Divine son of God
          What was his mission or purpose?
                   To die for the sins of the world
          What was his message?
His message was about himself: his identity as the Son of God, the saving purpose of his death, and the absolute importance of believing in him.

Borg calls this a fideistic image of the Christian life --- one whose primary dynamic is faith --- understood as believing certain things about Jesus as true.

Belief should lead to a great deal more, but believing is the primary quality of this image of God.

The second image, which is only slightly less common, is the image of Jesus as teacher

This is a de-dogmatized view of Jesus

It is held by those who are not sure what to make of the doctrinal claims made about Jesus by the Christian tradition.

Once you set aside those doctrinal claims --- what remains is Jesus as a great teacher

The image that flows out of this understanding of Jesus consists of “being good” --- of seeking to live as Jesus said that we should

Borg calls this a moralistic image of the Christian life.

The problem with both of these images is that they are not only inaccurate but they are incomplete images of the Christian life.

The Jesus of the Gospels is ultimately not about BELIEVING or BEING GOOD.

The image of Jesus of the Gospels is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation.

The question is how do we enter into that kind of relationship with Jesus that will allow transformation to take place?
          Not simply a relationship where we know about Jesus
But a relationship in which we surrender our very selves to the grace that is Jesus

In our scripture this morning Jesus is inviting strangers to come and join him on this adventure.

In The Message, Jesus says it this way:
“Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.

I read that story with incredulity

If that was ME, what would I have done?
          Would I have followed Jesus?
          Would I have set down my life work?
                   Would I have surrendered all that I had and begun this new life?

The reality is, they had the CHOICE --- they didn’t have to follow --- but they chose to follow
          They could have simply walked away

Every day Jesus is offering you and I the opportunity to become followers --- the opportunity to meet Jesus in a brand new way
          But the truth is --- we can come to church
                   We can call ourselves Christian
                             But remain spectators

          We take in the sights and spectacles
                   We listen to beautiful music
                   Hear great sermons (especially when Matt is preaching)

          But we remain UNCHANGED
                   We don’t surrender all, drop what we are doing and follow Jesus

Every day --- Jesus is inviting us to not be simply a spectator --- but to participate

I just got back from Guatemala
          Today is the first day that I am starting to feel human again
                   They worked me hard
                             Moving and laying concrete block
                             Making cement and moving it bucket by bucket
                   We would be sleeping by 9pm because we were so exhausted
                             But it was a good exhaustion

          We knew we were doing something that was going to make other’s lives better

But in order to do that --- we (I) had to say YES

What I love about mission trips is that, at least for a time, you remember why you fell in love with Jesus in the first place.

Now I know we can’t all go to Guatemala

But we can fall in love with Jesus who (I promise) will give us other opportunities to be transformed

The only requirement is that we can no longer simply be a spectator.

          We must actively engage in ministry through:
                   Prayer
                   Service
                   Justice

I was reminded of a story that I first heard almost 35 years ago when I was a student at Duke.

Fred Craddock, the greatest preacher of his generation, and one that I have sought to model my preaching style on, came to Duke.  During a sermon he shared a powerful story about Albert Schweitzer --- the great explorer, doctor, and organist ---

He shared:
I think I was twenty years old when I first read Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus.
I found his theology woefully lacking – more water than wine.
I marked it up, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds.

I read that he was going to be in Cleveland to play a concert of Bach, dedicating a new organ in a big church up there.
According to the article he would remain after the concert for conversation and refreshment.

I bought a Greyhound bus ticket – (Craddock was living in Knoxville, TN) – and went to Cleveland.

All the way there I worked on his book, laying out all my questions on sheets of paper.

I figured, if there was conversation following the concert, there would be room for question or two.
I went there; I heard the concert; I then rushed into the church fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with my questions.

After a while, Dr. Schweitzer came in
shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, and seventy-five-years old.
He had played a marvelous concert.

You know he was a master organist, medical doctor, philosopher, scholar, lecturer, writer... everything.

He came in with a cup of tea and stood in front of the group.

And there I was, right in front, with my questions.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody, saying, “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me. I thank you for it. I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa, because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying. I have to go.’

Then he added, ‘We have a medical station at Lambarene. If there is anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?’

And what I remember most from that sermon that Fred Craddick preached at Duke was his response.

He said he looked down at his questions and realized how absolutely stupid they were.

And then he said:  I learned what it meant to be a Christian, and had hopes that I could be one someday.”
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Barbara Brown Taylor has written:
“Following Jesus means receiving our lives as gifts instead of guarding them as our own possessions. It means sharing the life we have been given instead of bottling it for our own consumption. It means giving up the notion that we can build dams to contain the bright streams of our lives and letting them go instead, letting them swell their banks and spill their wealth, running full and growing fuller.”

I invite you to meet Jesus again --- maybe for the first time.

You don’t have to Guatemala, but you have to follow and allow Jesus to use you and change you.





Let us pray:
Loving God, when I hear your call for my life, too often I respond that I am too busy, or I want to respond on my terms.  Help me to meet you again.  Help me to begin to build a relationship with you in which I surrender myself to your love --- one in which I allow you to change me.  I love you Jesus, teach me, I pray.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Something to Die For


John 20:1-18

Last year, in early March I found myself in the hospital. 

Nancy and I were on our way to the grocery store and I began to have severe chest pains.  I kept telling her that everything was alright; that I had been having them off and on for a while and that they usually go away after a few minutes.  For whatever reason, she insisted that we go to the hospital rather than the grocery store.

It is amazing how fast you get looked at in an emergency room when you show up with chest pain . . .

Eventually I found myself admitted, a ton of tests given and a very uncomfortable room for the night.

They next day I was allowed to go home and assured that I was not having a heart attack.

But then the fun began . . .

A week or so later, I got this letter in the mail.

It was addressed to the Family and Friends of Steven Conger,

Dear Family and Friends of Steven Conger,

On behalf of the (name of hospital) team, I want to express our sympathy for your loss of Steven Conger.

We consider you to be an important part of the care team, and wanted to reach out to you to express our condolences during this difficult time. . . .

With deepest sympathy
Your Care Team at . . . Hospital

What made it fun, is my bills were then sent to a collection agency. 

I called the hospital to express my concern about my passing, and they asked me who was calling --- I told them --- the late Steven Conger
         
          They didn't seem amused

          Have you ever tried to convince somebody that you were still alive?

It took months to get it straightened out. 

It was almost enough to give me a heart attack!

So I want you to know --- that I feel exceptionally qualified to speak about resurrection since I have already experienced it!

I wish I could say that this story is just an April Fool's joke, but I can't

As I prepared this sermon, with this being not only Easter, but also April Fool's Day, I kept being drawn to a poem written by Emily Dickenson.

This poem seems exceptionally appropriate for a day like today. 

How does one tell the reality of the resurrection in a fashion that we can understand?

The poem is: Tell all the truth but tell it slant 

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Dickinson says that we should tell the truth – the whole truth – but tell it indirectly, in a circuitous fashion.

The truth, she suggests, is too bright and dazzling for us to be able to cope with it in one go.
          We can be overwhelmed by it.

The second stanza introduces the one simile of the poem: the way that lightning and thunderstorms are explained to children in kinder terms "eased", so as not to frighten them.

Dickinson concludes by saying that the truth, if shown too directly, has the power to blind us.

In other words, Dickenson is arguing that we humans cannot handle too much truth.
          Borrowing the words of T. S. Eliot: we cannot bear too much reality.

Right after Jesus was crucified; the religious leaders swooped down on Pontius Pilate, the local governor, and said,
“Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore, command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead’” (Matthew 27:63-64).

But Pilate, who was just about fed up with this whole mess, told those troublemakers to use their own guards to secure the tomb.

So they did, hoping that sealing Jesus in a hand-hewn tomb would bring to a close a tumultuous period in Jewish history.

But that didn’t happen.

From that very first Easter morning, people expected Jesus to remain in the tomb.

When Mary Magdalene discovered that the stone door had been removed from the grave, she never dreamed that Jesus had walked away.

She came to the only logical conclusion:
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

We too often want to keep Jesus in the tomb.

Jesus in the tomb is much easier to handle than a risen Lord who makes demands upon our lives.  

We are attracted to:

·         A Jesus who taught about love, but not a Lord who commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
·         A Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor (Mark 10:21).
·         A Jesus who paid visits to the temple, but not a Lord who cleanses and reforms
·         A Jesus who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not a Lord who encourages us to embrace the very people we feel are beneath us (Matthew 11:19).
·         A Jesus who supported family values, but not a Lord who predicts that he will cause divisions in families, father against son and daughter against mother (Luke 12:52-53).
·         A Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not a Lord who challenges us to walk the way of the cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice (Mark 8:35).

We feel much better about ourselves when Jesus stays put in the tomb, only coming out to give support to the ideas and practices and lifestyle patterns that fit us most comfortably.

And while we may be content with a Jesus in the tomb, it really doesn't matter what we want.
          The good news is Jesus is RISEN!

Isn't it time we let Jesus fully live in our lives?

Why is it that while we affirm that Jesus is risen, too often we behave as though he were still in the grave?

The glory of Easter is that Jesus is alive, bursting the bounds of death and running wild and free through human life.

When we try to preserve Jesus as a nice reminder of what a good person looks like, he rips through those limitations as though they were flimsy linen grave clothes.

On the day of resurrection, Jesus laughs at our attempts to limit him in any way, and he leads us into a future that only he can control.

When Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb to see what Mary is talking about, Jesus confounds their expectations by being conspicuously absent (John 20:3-10).

When Jesus stands before Mary, he appears in a form that she does not recognize — she believes him to be the gardener (vv. 14-15).

When Jesus speaks to her by name, and she realizes he is the risen Lord, he forbids her to hold on to him.
He knows that he must move on, always onward, and eventually on to God in heaven.

But before Jesus leaves Mary, he gives her a mission:
“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (vv. 16-17).

What an amazing and unexpected assignment this is.

The command of Jesus to “go” is significant here, since it is related to the word apostle, which means “one sent forth.”

On a very literal level, Mary Magdalene could be considered the very first apostle, the first one “sent forth” by Jesus to spread the good news of the resurrection!

It is in just such surprising ways that our risen and living Lord moves among us on Easter morning. This Lord:

·         is not one who proclaims a gospel of success and offers himself as a better business partner.
·         is not one who fosters intolerance and small-mindedness.
·         is not one who encourages a focus on the self and a neglect of the world’s needy.

He is, instead, a Jesus who truly challenges our age . . . and every age.

The good news of Easter is that Jesus is not in the tomb.
          Never has been.
          Never will be.

We do not serve a dead Jesus ---- We serve a living Christ!.

Jesus is alive and well and moving among us,
calling us to follow him on new adventures in faith
and to replicate his presence in the world.

He is risen!
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!
Thanks be to God!

Maundy Thursday


One of my Holy Week traditions is to watch the 1973 movie Jesus Christ Superstar
          I remember as a teenager going to see the movie while we were on vacation

I hate to admit this --- but Jesus Christ Superstar has influenced my theology in many ways.  But that is a discussion for another day!

One of the reasons I love that movie is it gives me a chance to see some of the wonderful places of Israel --- since that is where the movie was filmed

One of my favorite locations is used early in the movie are in a bell shaped cave
          It was filmed at Beit Gurvin --- a truly remarkable place

As the disciples join Jesus for The Last Supper, --- as they make their way to the meal they are singing the most ridiculous song.
          Always hoped that I'd be an apostle
          Knew that I would make it if I tried
          Then when we retire we can write the gospels
          So they'll all talk about us when we die 

I always chuckle when I hear this song, because they had absolutely no idea what was about to take place

I want to invite you to join me as the disciples gathered with Jesus for this last meal.

Let your imagination put you in that "upper Room"

Maybe like Palm Sunday, the disciples were in a buoyant, expectant mood,  singing crazy songs ---- while Jesus was mired in a more somber apprehension of what was to come.

No doubt they sang from the Psalms, most likely the collection of Psalms known as the Hillel which consists of Psalms 113-118.

These Psalms are sung for joyous occasions, but especially during the pilgrimage festivals which includes Passover.

Can you picture them singing?
          What did their voices sound like?
          Did Jesus or one of the others lead?
          Did they harmonize?

How do you think "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” or
“This is the day the Lord has made” resonated with Jesus and the disciples?

Can you marvel over what was going on?

When I picture this scene --- I have no doubt but that Jesus must have had a catch in his throat as he stared at the bread and wine ---- knowing what was going to happen to him the next day --- that his body was going to be broken --- knowing his blood was about to be shed

Can you imagine that?
          It is haunting to me
                   But it is also lovely, gripping, and poignant.

When the disciples ate that last supper, what do you think they were thinking?

You understand --- they had no idea about what was going on
          We have the advantage of history --- they were in the moment and filled with     other expectations

Austin Farrer, in The Crown of the Year put it beautifully:

“Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.” 

I like that.

We are mystified, but we know we receive Jesus himself and are thereby committed to him, come what may.

As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”

While we as the church often include or exclude certain people and feel noble about it, Jesus was utterly inclusive; he makes a shrine – a temple -- happen for everybody, even those who don’t believe or have a clue.

As J├╝rgen Moltmann writes in The Church in the Power of the Spirit: 

“The Lord’s supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of ‘the world,’ the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper.”

In a wonderful ON BEING interview last year: Father Greg Boyle, whose ministry with gang members in California is impressive and moving said:
“We’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’ hand and we’ve replaced it with a chalice because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn’t use a chalice?” 

He went on to tell how he asked an abused orphan and former gang member in his program, “What did you do for Christmas?”

The young man said he cooked a turkey “ghetto-style,” and invited six other guys to join him.

When he named them, Boyle recognized them as members of warring gangs.

As he pondered them cooking together on Christmas day, he wondered,
“So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends.”

Come, let us share in this meal --- as friends

Monday, March 26, 2018

By The River We Wept


Psalm 137   (NRSV)
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!


Yesterday morning I joined a dozen or so members of Meridian Street UMC out in the snow and the cold at the March for Our Lives Rally against gun violence.

As I meditated over this Psalm this seems very appropriate for the youth of our nation who are wondering if they will be next
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.

When they remembered when they could go to school without fear of becoming the next tragedy.

When the litany of school names wouldn't be added to:
          Columbine
          Red Lake
          Virginia Tech
          Northern Illinois
          Sandy Hook
          Marysville Pilchuck
          Umpqua Community College
          Marjorie Stoneman Douglas

There have been four additional shootings at schools since Marjorie Stoneman Douglas happened just 5 1/2 weeks ago

As we stood hoping that we would eventually be able to get into the Statehouse a group of students were marching around the building chanting and urging any who would listen that they wanted action and not just "Thoughts and Prayers"
While at the same time a counter-protester walked around and around carrying a riffle --- and fortunately everyone seemed to ignore him

But the youth seemed to be crying out with the author of Psalm 13 who begins with these powerful words:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

The youth of today are perplexed that we as a society seem (to them) to have forgotten them
and that we have declared that our right to own an assault style of weapon is more valuable than their lives

A United Methodist Pastor who was walking back to his car following the rally shared that he got called "a liberal scum".  I had to laugh when he posted that, because he is far from liberal --- he is a gun owner and hunter who thinks we need sensible gun laws and not the arming of teachers or ushers.

He said they yelled out: "an eye for an eye is in the Bible."

He then replied that Jesus commands us to love our enemy and pray for those who harass us. He told the heckler “I choose to love you”.

The heckler replied” I don’t want your love.” 

Pastor John replied, “That’s exactly why you need it.”

He said the heckler stormed off and he stopped and prayed for him.

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.

As I studied this Psalm I wrestled with the idea of Redemptive Suffering
          Are you familiar with that concept?

It is a concept that is much more familiar with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.

In the Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. explains redemptive suffering:
Its purpose, . . . is not only to expiate wrongdoing, but to enable the believer to offer God a sacrifice of praise of his divine right over creatures, to unite oneself with Christ in his sufferings as an expression of love, and in the process to become more like Christ, who having joy set before him, chose the Cross, and thus 'to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church,' (1 Colossians 1:24).

to unite oneself with Christ in his sufferings as an expression of love, and in the process to become more like Christ

This morning, as I was driving to the church I was listening to On Being on NPR and the guest, Andrew Solomon was talking about depression and how the church often portrays that there is great glory in suffering.

Rick Warren, the Pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life has written:
Your pain often reveals God’s purpose for you. . . .
Redemptive suffering is when you go through a problem or a pain for the benefit of others. . . .
some of the pain in your life is for redemptive suffering. God often allows us to go through a problem so that we can then help others.

The question that begs to be asked is this: Does God cause the evil in the world to mold us and refine us?

Because that is what these ideas seem to suggest.
          Suffering is caused to make us better --- and to glorify God

But I don't buy that --- If God caused the 17 students to be shot at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida so that the young people of the USA will rise up and demand sensible changes --- then I say: God is a jerk

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, in trying to understand why suffering happens offered this explanation.

In a sermon titled “The Promise of Understanding,”  Wesley says we may never know.

He writes,
“[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty”

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,”

Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering.

According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.”

Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God.
          God did not send four nor’easters to punish the wicked of the East Coast

We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and we are part of a system where things go wrong.

For me, the issue is not to see God as causing suffering so that it IS redemptive, but rather to see suffering as a reality and to recognize that suffering CAN BECOME redemptive

Dr. Martin Luther King would say that although suffering itself is not good, it presents an opportunity for redemption

Rev Dr. Mika Edmondson writes about Dr. King and suffering:
(Unearned suffering has) "the power to bring about a redemptive transformation not only in the sufferer but also in the person inflicting the suffering.  It's a power that we see revealed primarily at the cross of Jesus, when Christ himself set an example of not passively accepting suffering but actively and nonviolently engaging injustice and suffering when it came his way."

Our Psalmist struggled because they had been forcibly removed from their homes and deported to Babylon.

How could they sing songs when they were in such a state of pain and suffering?

Finding redemption in the midst of suffering is to do something
          But we cannot dismiss the suffering

But at the same time, we cannot sit passively by and acquiesce in the face of injustice and suffering. 
          We must engage it --- but we must engage it lovingly
                   Just as Pastor John did to his hecklers

As the church, we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend that the suffering of our neighbors doesn't exist or that we're not called to address it.

Today is Palm Sunday --- the day we celebrate the counter-revolutionary demonstration that Jesus orchestrated as he entered Jerusalem to protest the power structures of his day.
          It wasn’t just a beautiful pageant of palm waving children
                   It was a calculated political statement

If you read the story carefully, it is obviously that it was a deliberately calculated drama, orchestrated by Jesus to draw attention to the injustices that existed in 1st century Judea

The results, unfortunately were predictable
Jesus was ultimately arrested as a subversive rabble rouser and crucified as a political prisoner

If you look at the criticism of any movement that is trying to change the power structures of society --- the criticism is often very similar
          "Don't mess with my rights"

Remember what the authorities said about Jesus: (John 11:50)
“You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

We need to weep like the Psalmist when we remember the way it could (should) be.
          When we remember the kingdom of God . . .

But we also must rise up and seek to make a difference, even if the cost is high.

Join me, as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem this Holy Week.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Experiencing Life in the Psalms: Going God's Way


Psalm 119:9-16    (NRSV)
How can young people keep their way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
    do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
    so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
    all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
    as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
    and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word.


We live in a time when it is difficult to live a life of purity.
Our world seems to glorify immorality.
Our world seems to applaud and often even reward bad behavior.

To see this all you need do is look at the movies and TV shows that dominate our airwaves --- Heck, all you really need to do is watch the news.
         
(I could use examples of many current politicians on both side of the aisle (Local and national) but if I did no one would listen after this --- they would either hi-five me or scream bloody murder.)

We live in a time that it seems to be increasingly difficult to strive to live a life that is God centered.

I have no desire to bash the evils of our society this morning,
We have a hard time agreeing what constitutes societal ills and how to solve them
My intention this morning is to help us learn how we might begin to live a life that is centered in the way of God

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in our Bible

But it is also rather unique because it was constructed in a very deliberate way --- a way that we often don't recognize in our translations.

There are 176 verses in Psalm 119 and it is divided into 22 sections of 8 verses each.
And what is fascinating each section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse in the section begins with that letter.

So since we are looking at the second section --- each word (in the Hebrew) begins with the Hebrew letter Bet.
          We unfortunately lose this interesting acrostic Psalm in our English translations

I encouraged you to read the entire Psalm --- because every verse (with the exception of verses 1-3 and 115 are directly addressed to God.
          So as you read this Psalm, you find yourself drawn into something profound

In many ways this Psalm becomes a love song --- drawing us into a deep intimacy with God.

The whole point of this Psalm is to draw closer to God through following the way of Torah --- the teachings of God's law.

This section begins with verse 9
          How can young people keep their way pure?

I love that question.  My hunch is that the author is writing about himself and asking this important question.

How exactly is a young person to navigate the multiple distractions and the overwhelming siren songs of our world so that they can live with integrity?

As a person who is no longer young --- I am usually happy to fill in the blanks and tell the young person what they must do.

Not that I think that I should have to do those things --- mind you . . .
          But I have the answers to what they should do . . .

But our passage this morning gives us the real answer
How can young people keep their way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.

I think Peterson in the Message really makes it obvious:
How can a young person live a clean life?
    By carefully reading the map of your Word.

When you read the scholars as they dissect this passage they have two primary ways of looking at the author.

First, he is asking this question in a rather pious self righteous way --- looking at all the sinners around him.

But what if we have here --- not the testimony of a sanctimonious young man but rather the cry of someone who is trying to right themselves after some terrible mess that they have created in their life.

Is it possible that our author knows full well that the only way to real happiness is following the way of God ---
but his life has come off the rails and now is longing to return to the way of faithfulness to God?

I read this section of Psalm 119 and the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke's Gospel comes immediately to mind.

Can you imagine our author saying:
          How do I cope with my sense of shame?
          How do I stop punishing myself?
          How do I let go of the memories that are a nightmare to me?
          How do I forgive myself?

Patrick Woodhouse writes:
"This whole eight-verse section can be re-imagined as words of repentance from the prodigal son to his father, whose words of welcome he has 'hidden in his heart,' and in whose 'way' he takes 'greater delight' that in all the 'riches' he squandered in that far country.

Such interpretation makes sense in the context of an ancient Jewish world where the religious path was universally valued.

But what of our world?"

While the author asks about young people --- I think the question for today is:
          How do any of us navigate this world of ours and live with integrity?

I saw a commercial the other day for a new TV show --- maybe it can help us to live the way of God.

The show is called Living Biblically and is based on A. J. Jacobs' 2007 best selling book, The Year of Living Biblically.

The premise of the show is:
After the death of his best friend, film reviewer and dad-to-be Chip Curry tries to turn his life around. When he accidentally purchases a copy of the Bible, he decides to live by it "to the letter" much to the confusion of his non-believing wife Leslie and the bemusement of his priest, Father Gene.

I have to admit to you that I read the book a few years ago and my recollection is that it isn't going to help us much.

It will probably make a better TV sitcom than offer us real tools for living God's way.

In 2012 Rachel Held Evans wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood, the description of the book says:
Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn't sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment--a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

It didn't work too well for her either . . .

Maybe we need to look in a different direction
          I invite you to look with me what the Psalmist suggests.

He starts in v 10
With my whole heart I seek you;

The Psalmist suggests that if we want to live in the way of God that the first step is to seek God.

We must have a desire to get to know God

v. 11 
          I treasure your word in my heart,

This morning we are giving Bibles to our 2nd and 3rd grade children.
We want our young people to treasure God's word --- but do we model reading our Bible to them?
Do they see you "treasuring" it

If we want to follow God's Way, the only way to do it is by getting to know God

v. 15
I will meditate on your precepts,
    and fix my eyes on your ways.

Matt has been leading a study on prayer and meditation.
          Are we willing to take the time necessary to meditate on God and God's way?

And finally the author says:

v. 16
I will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word.

Are we willing to become obedient to what God is trying to teach us?

And I don't personally think that means that we need to make a list of the 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible and try not to break them

Most of those laws are outdated and frankly irrelevant today

But are we willing to listen and learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus on his Way?

I came across a wonderful story about a young woman who really wanted to go to college.

But as she reviewed the application, her heart sank when she came across this question.

The question asked: "Are you a leader?"

Being both Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, ''No,'' completed the rest of the application and to be honest expected the worst.

To her surprise, she received this letter from the college:
''Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.''

As Christians are we willing to be followers --- followers of Jesus on his Way to God.

On Jesus’ Way to life that is full?

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Experiencing Life in the Psalms: Wonder


Psalm 139    (NRSV)
To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.


In four months my life is going to profoundly change --- and I cannot even begin to imagine how different it is going to be.

I remember that day 30 years ago when the doctor turned to me and said, Mr Conger you have a daughter.

Now, sometime in July, I will hear similar but very different words.  Instead of being a father --- I will be a grandfather.
          It is hard to even imagine

As I was reading our scripture this morning, I was meditating on this soon to be reality, and Psalm 139 really spoke to me.

It seemed as if God was already preparing me to welcome this new child:
          For it was you who formed my inward parts;
          you knit me together in my mother's womb (v. 13).

And as I continued reading, God seemed to be speaking to me even clearer.  As I wonder how this unborn child can go from a hoped-for dream of her parents to flesh and blood, bones, muscles, long skinny fingers and cute ears. Then I read:
when I was being made in secret . . . Your eyes beheld my unformed substance (v. 15).

And while I am excited and anxious, I know that my feelings are nothing in comparison to Jessica and Sam's.  And that their feelings are nothing compared to God's.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me. (v 1-5)

My hope for this baby, today, and on the day she arrives is that she will one day realize and pray with the psalmist,
          I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (v. 14).

And while the arrival of this grandchild is certainly changing the way that I read scripture, I know that most likely, you are reading and hearing this passage very differently.

As we continue our journey through the Psalms, our theme this week is WONDER.  Each of the Psalms that you will be sent as a part of our Lenten Devotional has to do with Wonder.  Psalm 8, Psalm 104, Psalm 19, Psalm 103 and todays Psalm 139.

As I read and prayed over these Psalms --- one thing kept coming back to me.
And maybe this is a bigger challenge for me than it is for you, but it is certainly something that I struggle with --- WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO WONDER?

Somewhere along the way --- I stopped being as enamored with wonder and became more concerned with certainty.

And from my perspective, it seems like it is a pretty typical problem for many of us.

I have a friend who used to be a part-time magician.
We would sit around and he would practice his magic tricks with us.

There was nothing really big about the tricks that he did --- mainly sleight of hand

But I would watch closely and do my best to figure out how the trick was done

I have always loved magicians, and marvel at their skill to trick our brains

But one day, he and I went to see a local magician perform
Throughout the show --- I would turn to Mark and say --- did you see that

Finally, after me interjecting my wisdom at figuring out how the trick was done, Mark turned to me and said --- "Quit trying to figure it out and just let yourself be amazed"

I had lost some of my sense of wonder

Over the years I have encountered many on the Christian journey who suffer from what I call for lack of a better term "dead eyes".

What I mean by that is when you look into their eyes they seem hollow and flat --- as if the very spark of life had been taken from them.

I am willing to bet that we all know people who are just like that

Since I first became aware of this phenomenon, I have asked many people one basic question:
How do you remain fully present, fully-engaged, fully-alive in a ministry that can become mundane, rote, and nothing more than an empty repetition?

I don't just ask this question just to pastors (although we seem to suffer from it more that many) — but also to entrepreneurs, business people, stay-at home moms, empty nesters, retirees, and college students.

I ask because I've seen that ghost-like look in countless eyes regardless of age, socio-economic status, or profession.

The battle is constant.
"How do I not lose myself?"
I ask like a beggar searching for scraps of wisdom.

Over the years I've learned a few things. Most of the advice is pretty simple but also transformative.
  • Work with good people you enjoy.
  • Stay grounded in community.
  • Stay rooted in Scripture.
  • Surround yourself with people who love you enough to say "no."

But there was one more thing I learned.

I was talking about this with a friend and they offered one simple piece of advice --- NEVER LOSE THE WONDER.
          I only wish I had learned it years earlier.

Almost 25 years ago, I went on a two week mission trip to central Jamaica.  I left Nancy at home with three little girls under the age of 5 (and of course it was January).

I went on this trip because I was at a crisis point.  I was almost five years into a new church plant that was consuming my soul.
          We were doing well in attracting people
                   people with great needs
Our average adult age was about 25 or so, and we attracted a huge population of divorced persons

While we had good numbers, we could not financially sustain the ministry --- and it was taking a toll.

While I loved what we were doing (Nancy and I gave birth to this baby church) --- my eyes were getting dulled by the increasing challenge of staying afloat.

So off I went to Jamaica ---
          Oh the stories both Nancy and I could tell (but I will leave that for another day)
I am just thankful that she didn't packed up the car with our three little girls and head back to North Carolina --- not that she didn't think about it!

There were just three of us from the church that went --- we joined a larger group helping to re-build a church in the middle of nowhere. 

The church was located on top of a hill (It seemed like a mountain at the time) and most of the people who came to work would struggle every day just to get up the hill, because the only way up was to walk.

Since we were "young" the three of us were given the job of carting up the materials to the church every day.
So up and down the hill we went carrying bags of cement, wheelbarrows of rock or piles of lumber

I would be lying if I didn't say --- it was the hardest I have ever worked and maybe the most rewarding work I have ever done.
          I had no payroll to worry about
                    Or mortgage to make sure got paid

I went with dull eyes --- but while I was there --- God began to fill them again.

On one of our last nights, I went out for a walk by myself, and sat down on a hillside.

What I remember vividly was that the night was very dark

I was looking off into the distance, watching huge conveyor belts move bauxite that was being mined in the mountains and I sat in awe because I KNEW I was in the presence of God.

I knew that where I was sitting was holy ground.

Psalm 8 began to run through my mind
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

And the 139th Psalm became real to me.

I realized that even though I had gone to Jamaica to flee God, to flee the responsibilities that seemed to be weighing me down --- there was no place that I could go that God wasn't already there with me

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

And in that moment --- I heard the voice of God

Where does God speak to you?
·         In the wonder of creation?
·         When holding a new born child?
·         When offering food to someone who is hungry?

One of my favorite poems was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; And only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

In a few moments we are going to share in the Eucharist

As I go through the liturgy you can try to figure out the magic words.
But I promise you, it will still be bread and grape juice

But, if you are willing to allow your wonder to take over --- it will also be Jesus