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  1. Sermons : God on the Move

    Trinity Sunday

    Psalm 8
    Matthew 28:16-20

    Right out of college my sister signed up for the Presbyterian Church’s Young Adult Volunteer program.  This program – one of the best things our denomination does – sends young adults to sites across the world to work with partner churches, to learn, to meet needs in Christ’s name.  Sarah was sent to the Philippines. Initially eight of them worked together with a site director, learning about the history of that country, about dynamics in play in their communities, the way the church functioned in a heavily Catholic context.  Then she was sent out to a neighborhood north of Manila.  Kalookan is a sprawling poor neighborhood, concrete block and corrugated metal as far as the eye can see.

    Crowded streets that flood knee-deep every time it rains; drowned rodents floating by.  Chickens squawk and the air often smells of trash.  Sarah was led down a small alley, pointed to the block structure of two small rooms where she would live, pointed at the spigot that was that alley’s shower.  At the end of the alley a door opened up into a bigger room, around the size of our parlor.  It was the church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.  Her first Sunday the pastor, Pastor Petz, introduced this young woman who had moved across the Pacific, to the thirty or so gathered.  And he did so in a way that it surprised her.  He said, “Sarah is going to be our missionary  – a missionary from us – back to the United States, and she is here with us for a year of training.”  She was there to learn, he said, and then to be sent back to the States to tell of what God was doing in Manila.

    The disciples trudged up the rocky slopes, following Jesus’ directions.  There were only eleven of them; Matthew is quick to remind us. 1 And they were haunted by that absence, by how the chief priests had worked out a deal with Judas for those thirty pieces of silver.  By how Judas slipped away to summon the guards as they prayed in the Garden.  They had seen him coming with the crowd, to arrest Jesus, betrayed with a kiss.  For a moment they glimpsed his shame.

    They hadn’t seen Judas again, though they heard something of his repentance; about his hurling the money back at the chief priests later on, 2 of his death.  But a lot of that got lost in their agony of Jesus’ suffering, the gut-wrenching grief, the stunned surprise when Mary and Mary ran in that Easter morning and said that He was alive, that they had seen Him, that He told them to go to Galilee, that there they would see Him. 3 And they were so hopeful as they trudged up the mountain, like they had before for sermons and for prayer, where thousands were fed, where a few of them saw Him transfigured. [4.Matthew centers many critical events on that mountain.  That mountain is a place of revelation, of the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27); it is a place of prayer, before he comes down and walks on the water (14:23); it is a place where thousands are fed (15:29ff); it is a place of transfiguration, where they met Jesus with Moses and Elijah (17:1).  This list comes from Tom Long in his WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 325.] They climbed, nervous, praying it was true.

    Best as I can tell, though, it wasn’t all a joyous reunion.  It was cautious, tentative.  Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  I do not take this to mean that, for example, seven of them believed it was him wholeheartedly, and four still held back.  Most congregations are not filled with only two groups – the stalwart disciples and the people who don’t get it.  Most, it seems to me, are like this first Matthean one – filled with people who both believe and doubt at the same time. 4 It is not to angels or perfect believers but to the worshipping/wavering community of disciples that the world mission is entrusted. 5 And they are just there for an instant.  He claims His own authority, and then sends them on their way.  He was never one to stay still, anyway.  Matthew tells about many an episode when Jesus speaks, teaches, and then immediately moves on to somewhere else.  One can almost see, Will Willimon writes, the disciples tagging along behind Jesus, breathlessly trying to keep up with him.  Jesus is on the move and we can’t follow him without moving, too. 6

    For a long time the church did the going part pretty well.  Paul got us off to a great start, planting churches on the Mediterranean coast.  As the church became more established Christians in all nations sent missionaries throughout the globe, trying, desperately, to follow those words, going to make disciples, to baptize all peoples in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And they remembered Christ’s remarkable promise that He would be with them, to all corners of the globe, even to the end of the age.  But the church also made a tremendous mistake.  We thought Jesus belonged to us, was the possession of the church, or whatever government ran the church at the time.  We felt confident Jesus wasn’t out there in foreign lands, that we had him, that he had come to us, and He was ours.  We neglected to attend to the ways Christianity and political power and militarism often became intertwined, and we sent priests and explorers to enslave native peoples, confident our culture was superior to theirs.  David Bosch, in his important book called Transforming Mission, traces Christian understandings of mission from the beginning.  In the introduction he points us to Lars Dahle.  In the year 1900 Dahle, the General Secretary of the Norwegian Missionary Society, compared statistics of the numbers of Christians in Asia and Africa in 1800 and 1900, and produced a mathematical formula that predicted that by the year 1990 the entire globe would be converted to Christianity.  That was the goal.  A few years later a colleague published a book entitled The Living Christ and Dying Heathenism.  The church was baptizing, and thought they almost had the job done. 7

    Bosch reminds us that this text, that the Great Commission is not to be used as a slogan8, as we play our trumpets and head off to convert the world.  Jesus has just told us that all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Him.  As we go ‘in mission’ to Durham, and to the world, we don’t go to convince everyone we meet that He is Lord, we don’t go to try and make everyone believe the exact way we believe.  We must take great care, in Mexico or anywhere else – as I know you have talked about in your meetings – to listen, to honor someone else’s faithfulness, to know that Christ has been at work there before you came, and Christ will be at work after you leave.  We must go with great humility, trusting in the sovereign God, as we seek to bear witness to the ways we see Him as you work side by side or as children sing.

    But it must not come at the expense of our proclamation.  Too often churches like ours who seek to be sensitive, who don’t want to be lumped in with our brothers and sisters who go overseas or downtown simply to try and save souls, are too slow to speak of our faith.  If Jesus Christ has transformed our lives, and informs our living, we must not be ashamed.  We must surely listen before we speak, but we need not remain silent.  Presbyterians traditionally do a really poor job of evangelism, of speaking the Good News we know through Christ.  But the best way that conversation begins is not by quoting bible passages, but in the power of our service.  As we hammer nails, as we lead children at VCS this week, as we stand in airport security lines on the way to Mexico, might there be something about the way we serve, the joy with which it comes, the patience and humility in our voices, that leads people to wonder – what is it that has gotten into those strange people? There is something about them that has weight, and power, that draws people to us, that sends us out, in courage and in faith, to go all sorts of odd places, where people are hungry and hurting and left behind, to meet needs, to serve a hot dog and some chili at Urban Ministries which you can sign up for today, by the way, to gather up the road at Montreat with 1200 other Youth to talk about things that matter, as much as anything can matter, about God’s work even in those darkest places.

    Week before last I went to Montreat for a few days to see some good friends.  A clergy couple like Carrie and I, she was leading recreation for 2 weeks, and he was there to write a sermon and hang out with their four year-old son and play golf with me.  As we sat on the porch one evening he told me about a guy he had met that day, on the planning team for weeks One and Two of Youth Conferences.  This guy gets 2 weeks of vacation for the entire year, not counting federal holidays.  He is giving those entire two weeks to be in Montreat, to be on planning team, to work and never sleep and run around and be exhausted and have people complain to him about silly stuff.9 All of his vacation.  Because he knew that God doesn’t stay still.  Because he knew that church isn’t just a place you come and consume the religious good and services and leave feeling vaguely satisfied.  He knew we are called out into the world, over and over again, as our youth and adults head out this summer, as we are relentless in our movement out into the world, to try and catch up with Jesus, to track Him down on the road, seeking out all those strange and dirty and mysterious places He tends to hang out.  Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t ascend, doesn’t disappear off into heaven.  His last words are a promise of his continuing presence with the church.10 As we head off on trips, as we call a pastor today, as we seek Gods’ great future to be a part of.  He remains with us always, even to the end of the age.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. This insight, as well as a good bit of the angle I take here at the beginning, comes from ‘Living By the Word,’ by Tom McGrath, in the May 6, 2008 edition of The Christian Century, page 21. 
    2. Matthew 27:3-10. 
    3. Matthew 28:1-10. 
    4. Boring and Craddock, 103. 
    5. Boring and Craddock support this exegesis in their “The People’s New Testament Commentary,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 103. 
    6. William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 39, No. 2, year A, April, May, June, 2011, p 54. 
    7. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991.), p 6. 
    8. Bosch 57.  Bosch’s chapter on Matthew, pp 56-83, informs much of my reading of this text, and is well worth one’s time! 
    9. I am grateful to the Rev. Pen Peery for this story.  I was reminded of it by a similar story of one of Willimon’s coworkers in Pulpit Resource, 55. 
    10. Boring and Craddock, 104. 

  2. Sermons : Filling Up the Ordinary

    Pentecost Sunday

    Acts 2:1-21
    I Corinthians 12:1-13

    We are defined by our differences.  There are those who have, who are mostly folks like us, and the many who don’t.  The US now has the widest gap between rich and poor since the census began counting.  The top 1/5 of Americans, earning over $100,000 per year, earned half of all income in the US last year, while the bottom 1/5 made just 3%. 1 Those nationwide distinctions remain in place in Durham.  In 2008, 12.8% of Durham County residents lived in poverty – a family of four making less than $22,000 per year.  That number grew to 17% in 2009.  One-fourth of children in this county under 18 live in poverty. 2

    As Winnie Morgan cited last week in the Sharing Our Mission, 1 in 3 African American male babies born in 2011 will have the probability of going to prison in their lifetime. 3 These differences sort themselves out all over the place, from the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we go to, the clubs we are or aren’t a part of so, the places we go to vacation, or not.  Without even thinking about it sometimes we compare and contrast, sizing up what we are doing and what others aren’t.  We do it in our professional lives; we do it with our kids.  Ella Brooks’ kindergarten assessment is this week, and we’ll begin swimming in our educational system that can’t help but define and categorize.  These differences define when we retire, how we struggle through health care options as we age.  These differences shape how we see almost everything.  We live and die by these differences.

    That is why it is so important we hear Paul’s word to the church.  Corinth was a vibrant, cosmopolitan place.  A city of about half a million people, it sat in the center of the narrow isthmus (a thin strip of land) that separated the main part of Greece from the southern Peloponnesus.  Corinth had ports on both the east and west sides of the city, with an elaborate system of boats in between.  You could bring cargo to one port, and have it shuttled over to the other, saving you a trip all the way around the southern tip of Greece.  People from all over the known world ended up in Corinth. 4

    Paul arrived for about an 18-month visit (recounted in Acts 18), and found himself swimming in an unparalleled array of religious practices.  There was an established Jewish community with a synagogue, but also cults of Greek gods, Roman gods, mystery cults, temple prostitution, ritual sacrifice.  Religious differences, personal differences, political, moral and economic differences. 5 And these Christians in Corinth were to maintain some sort of coherent identity amidst it all.  And then, to top it off, after Paul left there were different Christian leaders, claiming the same God, saying very different things about what it meant to be faithful.  In the very first chapter Paul frames his letter by mentioning that word had gotten back to him about divisions among them, struggling to follow together.  From Paul to Cephas to Apollos – he says in the first chapter – from television preachers to conservative to liberal Presbyterians, even, different people were hitching their wagons to different leaders, as the community struggled to live into its mission.

    And so Paul’s word to the church is a strong one.  Strong enough that he seems to make up a word in the process.  In this text Paul switches from their favorite term – pneumatikos in verse 1 – translated spiritual phenomenon, to his own.  This word, charisma, found only in Paul and the literature dependent on him, was probably invented by Paul.  It is undoubtedly related to charis, grace, and points the Corinthians back to the sovereign power of God. 6 They were a bit too caught up in those differences, it seems, about who did what and where – even at the church.  That is why Paul needs to be clear.  While different people have different gifts, he says, those gifts, those charisma, all come from the same place.  We can’t brag or judge based on gifts, Paul says.  God gives, and gives to ALL.

    And those gifts aren’t for us, anyway.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  Paul then dives into a list.  Wisdom, knowledge, miracles, prophecy, tongues.  Organizing, listening, encouraging, including others, prayer.  And Paul goes out of his way to make sure we don’t forget where those gifts come from.  “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…by the one Spirit.”  He repeats the Spirit with each gift, then pulls it all together again:  “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”  The same Spirit that burst into the room at Pentecost, that sent those disciples running into the streets to tell their good news, continued to be at work in the church.  That same Spirit was giving gifts to EVERYONE to use for the good of all.

    If Paul is right, then church has something wonderful to share with the world!  We need no longer be identified by our differences.  The Spirit of Pentecost continues to inspire us all.  That Spirit calls to those who sit on the sidelines, who prefer to remain on the periphery, that you have been given gifts, and you must use them.  That same Spirit also says to those who do a lot, who do good and important work and might get a little self-righteous about it sometimes, that while everyone’s work is important, no one’s is more valuable than anyone else’s.  The Spirit serves a great leveling function, calling us out to work, side by side, for the good of God’s great world.  It is a matter of stewardship, the broadest possible sense.  You have all been given gifts, Paul says.  You, me, the person next to you, in front and behind, the person who drives you a little crazy.  Those gifts come from the same place, and work for all.

    So I would like to, in the spirit of Pentecost, give you a bit of a summer project.  This is a season when things slow down a bit, when some programs take a break, some groups don’t meet.  We head to the mountains, or the beach.  Don’t let your gifts take a vacation, too.  Some of you are sharing them by teaching a summer Sunday School class.  There are a few Habitat days left, and we need you.  Sign up to keep the nursery, whether you have young children or not.  Haywood and Rebecca and I are trying to get four tables’ worth of folks to come to a Housing for New Hope breakfast in mid-July.  We want you to come learn how your gifts, our gifts as a community, can be put to work for the common good in those places where people are hungry, where they seem so different from us.  Remain keenly aware in these warm and lazy days that you have been given gifts to use for Christ’s purposes in the world.

    The other thing I want you to do is to encourage someone else in the sharing of their gifts.  Maybe it’s someone you know well who needs a place to fit; maybe it’s someone you don’t know as well.  They only way you can draw out someone’s gifts is by getting to know them.  That is one of the many reasons I have continued something Haywood did in officer training, which four elders-elect and seven deacons-elect began last Tuesday.  Each week they have to meet someone they didn’t know, get to know them a bit, then come tell the group about them on Tuesday night.  You can’t lead if you don’t know the people you are leading.  When you come to dig in the garden, invite someone you haven’t seen in awhile.  When you go to sign up to serve the shelter meal, bring someone along with you.  The person on the sidelines, Paul reminds us, is simply someone whose gifts haven’t been put to good use yet.

    Walter Brueggemann, in the Introduction for this season’s Journal for Preachers, writes: “The long preaching season between Easter and Advent goes by two names.  It is the season of Pentecost, which recognizes that the church is powered and led, given courage and freedom, by God’s own Spirit….but we also call the season ordinary time, the time in between, when nothing special is going on.”  Brueggemann goes on to suggest that this juxtaposition of Pentecost and ordinary is something wondrous for the church.  “It is wondrous because of our shared assumption that it is ordinary for the church to be powered by God’s Spirit.” 7 That ordinary time is not, in fact, ordinary at all.  That it is infused, filled, with the Spirit of grace, charis, who gives every single person in the world gifts, charisma, to use for the good of creation.  So that people might be fed and clothed, so the lonely and sick might be nurtured, so that everyone has a chance to use their remarkable gifts.  Don’t let them get stale this summer, friends.  There is much work to do.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. Data from the 2010 Census, from a report on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, accessed at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/income_09-28.html
    2. “Durham poverty rate climbs,” by Mark Shultz, in the October 3, 2010 The Durham News, 1A.  Also, “The great divide in household wealth,” by Gene Nichol, also in the 10/3/10 The Durham News, 4A.
    3. Statistics Courtesy Winnie Morgan, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Faith Initiative.  http://www.dpfc.net/EarlyChildhoodFaithInitiative.aspx
    4. This background comes from the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich’s immensely helpful paper on this text for the 2011 gathering of The Well in Austin, Texas.
    5. Goodrich again.
    6. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 536.
    7. Walter Brueggemann’s foreward to the Pentecost 2011 Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXIV, Number 4, p 1.

  3. Sermons : Looking in the Wrong Places

    Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension of the Lord

    Psalm 68:1-10
    Acts 1:1-11

    You can’t blame them for being anxious.

    After all they had shared with him, since He had called them from their boats, since they had left everything behind to follow.  And they had fished for people, as the crowds gathered, as he healed lepers and slaves, raised a poor widow’s son from the dead. Through parables told, demons cast out, five thousand fed with a five loaves and two measly fish. 1 Even that terrible week in which He was arrested, beaten, nailed to a cross to die.  And then He was alive, again, the tomb empty, and He appeared to them on that road to Emmaus, showing them hope was real.  Luke’s gospel ends in triumph: “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” 2

    And so you can’t blame them when the scene changes.  Volume one, Luke, ends with the celebrating.  Volume two, Acts, by the same author, opens quite differently.  Luke gives us a few introductory words linking volumes one and two, and in verse four has Jesus give clear instructions: don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait.  Wait for the promise of God, the Holy Spirit, in not too many days, he says.  Waiting is hard enough for the small things, for a ride to show up, for school to end.  Commercials advertise immediate downloads on our fancy phones so we don’t have to wait five whole seconds for a video to play.  What about waiting for that return call about a job, for that pathology report to come back?  And so you can feel the confusion in their question, there in verse six: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Is it now?  Things are getting complicated down here, Jesus, you see how hard things are.  Could it be soon?

    And Jesus doesn’t answer the question.  You will not know, he says.  But as you wait you will be given great power when the Spirit comes, so you can be my witnesses here, and not only here, but in other places, like Judea, like Samaria, people you don’t get along with, disagree with, you will be sent out even to them, to the ends of the earth.  He gives this troubling benediction, and then is gone, Luke says, lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

    One could see how this might not go over well.  Jesus gets them all excited, and then leaves them there, seemingly abandoned, to wait.  And this anxiety builds, and continues to build centuries later.  As families fall apart, as tornadoes blow through, as troops fly off to war and come back in boxes.  As people we know and love, young and old, get sick and die, we want to know.  Lord, what is going on?  Why do these things happen?  Jesus, when are you going to come down here and do something about all of this?  Don’t you SEE?

    And this breeds so much anxiety, that the church deals with in different ways.  One way is by trying to escape.  Someone, like this gentlemen who put all those billboards up that the world was going to end a couple of Saturdays ago, looks through the bible, reading it like a code-book, pulling numbers from Genesis here, Daniel there, some Revelation, spitting out a number. 3 If we know Jesus is going to parachute down and get us out of here, we can hang in there through the hard things, knowing it will end soon.  It also, conveniently, gets them out of working to improve this life.  Why take care of creation, some Christians say, when it’s all going to end soon, anyway?  Every generation since Jesus has had people who have made these calculations.  And in their anxiety they miss that the bible is far more interesting than something you unlock with invisible ink and decoder ring. And that the incarnation, Christ coming into the world, is God blessing the world, warts and all, and calling us to do what we can to improve things down here.

    Others seek certitude through the way they construct their religious system.  Every single thing, they say, is a part of God’s will for each of us.  And while I certainly believe that God is intimately involved, I am troubled by a God who is pulling the trigger on every decision, or that makes hard things happen to me so that I can learning something later.  Many of us have know people who endure terrible pain and come out stronger, who come out with a remarkable wisdom, who were sustained by God in that deep darkness.  But most of them I know would trade all of it, in an instant, to have their loved one back for just one more day.  I don’t believe in a God that has us for little more than entertainment.

    Another way that anxiety gets worked out is a combination of the first two.  My neighbor handed me a book called Heaven is for Real. 4 Todd Burpo is a Wesleyan pastor in Oklahoma whose three year-old son Colton nearly died because of an infection from a ruptured appendix.  He comes back and begins to tell his family about his time with Jesus, showing impressive knowledge of things he shouldn’t be able to know about, that, naturally, line up with some verses in the bible about Jesus and heaven.  While I would never doubt his claims or his faith, it is the worldview that is hard for me to swallow.  While they don’t give a date for the rapture, part of what they are trying to do is to prove something that can’t be proven.  Heaven is real, they say.  These bible verses prove we can get there, and experience confirms it.  The assumption underneath is that if you KNOW heaven is real then, surely, you will profess faith in Jesus the way they want you to.  You won’t be able to do otherwise.  Which is not the worst thing in the world, except then, it seems to me, it’s no longer faith.  Faith is not something to be proven, it is something felt, known, much more deeply than old scrolls and archaeological evidence and impressive philosophical reasoning.

    Because faith, trust, is what Jesus is calling the disciples to here.  Anxiety has a tendency to make us close in on ourselves.  Lord, is this the time you will solve my problems and heal my wounds?  Is this the time you will give me strength, prove me right, tie it all up in a bow?  And Jesus promises POWER to them, and to us, to be a part of the in-breaking of His kingdom, and they, and we, are sent beyond Jerusalem, beyond where we live, to those places that are filled with violence and hunger and pain, those places in our lives that scare us to death.  That is where Easter faith works – not where things are going well, but where and when we worry that sin and divorce and regret and cancer might have actually won.  He promises them this power, and flies away, leaving them, standing, mouths agape, filled with fear.

    But one more thing happens.  It is a replay of a scene from earlier.  In Luke’s resurrection account, the women come, in the morning, and find an empty tomb.  Two men look at them and say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but is risen.”  The angels tell them to go find Him in the world.  The same thing happens here. 5 As they are gazing up, Luke says, two men in white robes, angels, tap them on the shoulder.  Guys!  Why are you looking up there?  He will come back, He has promised, and you won’t be able to miss it.  What Luke is doing, again, is pushing us back into the world, back to each other, to the people who are in the pews right next to you, the coworker or the neighbor you really need to love.  In the midst of the excitement of graduations, as one adventure ends and another begins, as families in Joplin dig through the rubble, as turmoil reigns in the Middle East, as we raise our kids and care for our parents.  Sure, He’s up there, the angels say.  His promises beyond this life undergird all things.  But for you, for the church, now, as long as there are people to be fed, homes to be built, as long as there are lonely people in need of care.  The church must be at work in those places.  Bring your heads down they say.  Look around.  Trust here, and now.  Believe.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. Largely from Luke 5-9.
    2. Luke 24:52-53.
    3. Harold Camping’s response is in this Washington Post article:  http://www.washingtonpost.com:80/national/preacher-says-saturday-was-a-spiritual-judgment-day-world-will-actually-end-in-october/2011/05/24/AFid4IAH_story.html
    4. Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo, with Lynn Vincent, (Nashville: Thomas Vinson, 2010).
    5. I was reminded of this connection by Justo Gonzalez, “Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit,” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 24.  “In both cases, what they do is point the disciples in a different direction.”

  4. Sermons : What Do We Worship?

    Sixth Sunday of Easter

    John 14:15-21
    Acts 17:22-34

    Say what you will about Paul the Apostle – and there seem to be some very strong feelings of love or hate for the Paul we get to know from his writings in the letters of the New Testament – but this passage highlights how good Paul was at assessing his audience and applying his message just to them. Paul most often spoke at synagogues or gatherings of new Christians. In this chapter of Acts, he started by speaking at the synagogue in Athens. Those in attendance at the synagogue actually thought Paul was talking about two gods, one named Jesus, and a female god Anastasias (which is Greek for “resurrection”).  And some Epicureans and Stoics began to deride him and debate with him as he spoke.

    Epicureans were atheists, who saw no purpose in any belief in gods, especially in light of all the suffering in life. If gods existed, Epicureans thought they must not think much of humans to allow such awful things to happen. And they certainly did not believe in miracles, like the resurrection. Stoics based their theology around the mind of Zeus, the greatest and highest of the gods, and saw Zeus as reason (or logos, as the Gospel of John calls Jesus).  Stoics saw virtue as the only good, and vice as the only evil. The wise Stoic would be indifferent to pain or pleasure, wealth or poverty, success or misfortune.  They aimed to be self-sufficient and reasonable in any and all circumstances.

    As we begin our passage, Paul had moved to a smaller, more intimate place, the Areopagus, or marketplace, to continue conversation with the Greek philosophers.  This actually must have been quite an honor for Paul, a rare and unique opportunity.  In verse 16 of this chapter, we find that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  Yet, he had found a way to address that by the time he began speaking at the marketplace, praising them for how “religious” they were with all these objects of worship.  He had seen the inscription, “To an unknown god,” and he used that to proclaim the one God as creator and Lord of all heaven and earth.  He said that God creates humans with the need to search for God.  And, instead of using scriptures that these philosophers would not know, Paul quoted poets they would know, and appealed to the Stoic reasoning in his argument. God commands people to repent in light of the judgment, Paul said, “by a man God has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  He never mentioned Jesus by name, but rather described what God did through this man.

    At this point, the Epicureans, who did not believe in resurrection, may have interrupted Paul, though the text simply says “some scoffed.”  Others, perhaps the Stoics, were willing to continue in conversation at another time.  Some even joined Paul and became believers in Christ.

    Contrast this Acts passage with the John passage, which is just a tidbit of Jesus’ address to his disciples in chapters 15-17 before his impending trial and death.  Paul was addressing an audience of non-believers and those who ruled their lives by reasoning.  Jesus was addressing the people who had gotten to know him best, who had followed and marveled and learned, but who did not understand when Jesus said, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now; but you will follow afterward”  (John 13:36).  Jesus, knowing the course he would take to the cross, said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  He told them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would come to be with them forever, and that the world would not understand, because the Spirit was not something that could be seen or known in a physical sense, but only by faith.  “In a little while,” he said, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:19). This would have been impossible for the Athenian philosophers to understand, and must have been hard for the disciples as well. We understand because we live beyond the resurrection.  The universal language of Jesus’ words here would be, for all perhaps except the Stoics, the language of love.  Jesus appealed to the disciples for their love for him, and, out of his love for them, he promised not to leave them alone even though he would not physically be with them anymore.  We, of course, also accept these promises of love, as we read such passages as Jesus’ followers today.

    But the Acts passage can cause us to reflect upon what, or whom, we worship.  To whom do we erect statues or make idols?  What is most important in our lives? What, or who, rules our lives?

    When I preach on a holiday, I try to research the holiday a bit, and this week, I ran across some editorial cartoons about Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who have died in the service of our country’s military.  “Thanksgiving,” said one, “is a day when we pause to give thanks for the things we have.  Memorial Day is a day when we pause to give thanks for the people who fought for what we have.”  Another showed a family loaded up in a car, with surfboard, tennis rackets, fishing pole, and a cooler.  Mom was assessing supplies, saying, “Hamburgers, hot dogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, beer, soft drinks,…Honey, what are the flowers for?”  The next scene shows the Dad out of the car at the military cemetery putting the flowers on a grave and saying, “To say thanks.”  But the one that really struck me, especially after we have watched a North Carolina boy win on “The American Idol” this week, was one depicting a grandfather, with his military cap on and holding a cane, taking his grandson to the cemetery, where American flags dot each grave, and saying to the grandson, “I’d like to introduce you to a real ‘American Idol.’”

    It is right and good that we honor those who have died in service for our country and for freedom for all peoples.  Honoring, respecting is not quite the same as worshiping.  Go to a Thesaurus to look up “worship,” “honor,” and “respect,” and you will find that “honor” and “respect” list similar synonyms, and each appears in the list of the other.  “Exalt, regard, esteem, recognize, venerate, admire, adore,” and even “worship” also appear in these lists.  “Adore” is also a synonym for “worship,” but there is a word that appears under “worship” that does not appear in these other lists.  And it is “love.”

    So to worship goes beyond to honor or to respect.  Worship goes well beyond the reasoning that the Stoics hold so highly.  To worship means to love.  Worship also describes what we do here, of course, with a worship service, including elements such as prayer and song, Scripture and preaching, baptism and communion.  But we worship because we love God.

    So Jesus had it right, of course.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  And because I love you, he said, I will send the Advocate to be with you in my absence.

    In our busy, busy lives, there is much to adore, to honor, to even pursue. We can adore television and movie stars, or athletes; we can honor our vets and those serving in the military, our President and other world leaders; we can pursue success, wealth, or fame.  When it comes to what or whom we love, we like to “find” love, or to “fall in love,” in some magical kind of way.  But think about those things or people we may love or adore, or even “worship.”  We want to know all about them, either by talking with them or by reading all about them.  We put up pictures or posters of them.  We go to their movies or ballgames, their concerts and gymnastic meets.  We put a lot of time and energy into this kind of love or worship. You do, and I do. We all have things and people we love and adore.

    But hopefully, such a study as of today’s passages makes us stop to think:  Shouldn’t we put just as much time and energy into worshiping God?

    After all, if we look at the John passage, we know that God loves us.  “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus, “I am coming to you….On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you”  (14:18, 20). That is love expressed, my friends.  The Bible is, of course, full of the language of love.  God IS love, the Bible tells us.  So if God loves us, we should also love God.  And to truly love takes work.  As many of you know, marriage takes work to keep it going.  Relationships with our friends take work.  So does our relationship with God.

    The Epicureans and Stoics whom Paul addressed were far from understanding what it means to worship the one true God.  Paul worked hard to meet them where they were, to appeal to what they would understand.  And we can learn from him as we interact with others who do not think or believe as we do.  Paul left behind his distress, perhaps even his anger, at seeing their idols, to talk with them in ways they would understand.  Paul even left out direct references to God and Jesus.  Yet we knew what he meant because we know God and Jesus.  When we talk with the unchurched, or those of other faiths, we can respect their beliefs and work to address them in ways they might understand, even as we listen to them share their beliefs and thoughts.  When we engage in conversation with those who differ in political or other views from our own, maybe we can take a lesson from Paul as well, to strive to understand them and respect them where they are.

    To prepare ourselves to engage in such dialogues about our faith, though, means that we need to really know the God whom we profess.  Paul, after a startling conversion on the road to Damscus, fell in love with the religion he had been persecuting before that experience.  He fell in love with Jesus, one might say, and he spent the rest of his life teaching and preaching so that others might also know and love the same God. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” he said in I Corinthians (12:13), “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  “There is one body and one Spirit,” says the letter to the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” Eph. 5:4-6).

    All peoples, all faiths, perhaps even those, in some sense, who claim not to believe in any faith, may be seeking and worshiping the same God.  We have different names, differing ways of following, and different forms of worship.  But it is the same God that we all worship.  Our God is not “unknown.”  Our God is love.  Love may be the universal language that makes us all truly one.

    On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who have fought wars to save others, let us also worship the one God who cares for all creation, who asks but that we love God and one another.

    All glory be to God.  Amen.


  5. Sermons : Which Way Do We Go?

    Fifth Sunday of Easter

    1 Peter 2:4-10
    John 14:1-14

    What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth?  Who would be there? What would you say?  What would you do?

    Remember with me back to Maundy Thursday.  Jesus was troubled, John tells us. 1 So many things moved towards this moment, as the disciples made their way to an upper room.  It was that last supper, before His arrest, the beatings, his tragic death the next day.  And it was His last chance.  John sets aside chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 for this farewell discourse, for these things Jesus says to his friends around the table.  He sets the tone early on by taking off his outer robe, wrapping a towel around his waist, pouring water from a bowl over their dusty feet.  He warns them of the coming trials, of one of their betrayal, and offers a new commandment, that they love one another: “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” 2 After that comes the interchange recorded in today’s text.

    And while it is a wonderful one, too often this is a text you hear shouted.  At a gathering last fall a friend of the family sat down, eager to pick the brain of the preacher.  ‘What do you think of the Muslim threat?’ he asked.  When I told him I didn’t feel particularly threatened as a Christian in the southeastern US, and that people of all faiths needed to work together to root out radical elements within all of their communities, a confused look spread over his face.  I had not satisfied him.  And then it came.  ‘Well, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,’ he said.  And the verse just sat there, hanging over us.

    Because everyone is scared.  He knew it, so he begins with words of comfort.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, he says, by your fear, by the guards you know that are coming.  Believe in.  Trust in.  Lean into my strength as the bills mount and the doctor calls back.  In my Father’s house, he says, hospitality abounds, as does grace.  And there are many dwelling places, he says, plenty of room, Lamar Williamson says, for those who find in Jesus the way to God. 3 He reminds them of promises made – that He is preparing a place, that He will come and take us to Himself.  That Christ will gather us all together.  This is welcoming, invitational language spoken at table with his dear friends.  You know, he says to them, you know.

    And then comes Thomas’s question.  Thomas has gained a reputation because of his later questions, after the resurrection, when he needed to know if Jesus was really alive. 4 Thomas knew this was important.  So much swirled around him, violence, economic anxiety, pressure, pressure, pressure.  Lord, tell me.  So much is unclear.  Tell us.  We HAVE to nail it down.  We have to be sure.  We have to know.  This is the point at which I am sure Jesus smiled.  He knew these friends, knew who was going to ask the question, who was going to shy away.  Like the committees we are on – we know who is reliable, who has great ideas but forgets things, who is always fired up about something that no one else worries about.  That’s what it’s like working with people, and we love them, we do.  And Jesus leans in and looks him in the eye.  Thomas, I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.  I have been here with you the whole time.  In what is an amazing statement, He says that you don’t find God any other way, through something different that what you have known of us together.  “There is an exclusive quality to this love,” Williamson says, again.  “Like Israel’s walk with the God who would not tolerate the worship of other gods, and like life together in a faithful marriage whose partners forswear intimacy with all others.” 5 Not everywhere, not anywhere, but here.

    We, as followers of this Jesus, are caught in a difficult bind when it comes to texts such as these.  We want, so desperately, to be faithful to what we believe is true, but we also don’t want to shut ourselves off from the world He is even now transforming.  We don’t want to compromise what we believe – nor should we.  But too often Christians have used this text to put up walls instead of to break them down.  I have a hard time believing that the most important thing this text has to tell me is that the Mormon family I sat with at the baseball game on Tuesday, or my Jewish friend from college, or my neighbor who confessed shortly after we moved in that she couldn’t remember ever actually walking in a church, are all destined for eternal damnation.  That is why I will readily proclaim, with the church, that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him.”  But we must also say, right after that, that “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.” 6 We work as hard as we can, and we trust.  This text comes as good, good news, and it is important that we let it be that good news, and not try and make it something it isn’t.

    That is why the rest of the conversation, often left out, is so useful.  After Thomas’ first question, Phillip keeps pushing.  Show us, he says, and we’ll be satisfied.  I have been with you this whole time, Jesus says.  Whoever has seen me has seen God.  And then comes something extraordinary.  Jesus says, even if you don’t believe because I say so, if that is not enough; believe because of what you have seen – of blind healed, of lepers cleansed, of Lazarus walking out of the tomb.  Believe, he says, because you have seen my work, because it is unmistakable, as children sing, as youth ask great questions, as we work in the shelter line and sawing up trees in yards in Raleigh, as we hammer nails for Habitat.  Jesus looks into the disciples’ eyes, and says, “Thomas, you have just seen the way when I knelt and washed your feet.  You have felt the truth in the Spirit at work around this table as we ate together.  You have experienced real life through the words I have spoken.  Phillip, I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  Live like I do, love like I do, and you will experience everlasting life.”

    I don’t know how to explain love to you.  I don’t have the words to describe it.  I don’t know anything about love apart from the way the way my parents cared for me, from the embrace of a good friend, what I know from the feeling that gripped me when I saw my wife begin to walk down the aisle.  When Ella Brooks, then Heath, were placed in my hands.  As far as I know you can’t know love in theory, in any meaningful way, at least.  I wonder if Jesus is saying something similar to His disciples here.  Maybe that is what He is trying to help Thomas and Philip see.  God is not something, someone far, away, Jesus says.  God is here.  I am here.  You don’t get God any other way, out there – God in theory.  That cannot be the way.  God cannot be understood in isolation from the depth of human relationships, as God is, in the essence of God’s own self, love in action, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And this Christ bears fruit among us as we gather together, laughing over meals, clutching each other in hospital rooms or beside the grave.  When we sit together and listen and talk through something hard.  The way isn’t out there, Jesus says.  Look at me.  Hold my hands.  Feel, in your gut, our relationship.  That is love, He says.  And that is God.

    I can think of few better ways that God’s love is made flesh than in the teachers we appreciate today.  Those of us up front tend get all the glory, but it is these folks, on Sundays and Wednesdays, that form the backbone of faithfulness here.  That way becomes real as art supplies are gathered, as behavior issues are tended to, as a teacher sits up late on a Saturday with curriculum and bible, struggling, learning.  I learned of Jesus as the Truth through folks like Gene and Smith Wilson, and Tommy and Ed Hay.  These retired couples sat with me, often the only kid in Sunday School those first few years in Black Mountain.  In 5th grade, and much of 6th grade.  I don’t have any idea what we talked about, but I know of their faithfulness as they kept showing up, over and over again.  One summer, years later, when I was escorting some 6th graders of my own in clubs in Montreat, a car pulled up alongside.  It was Tommy, Ed’s wife.  He had just died.  And she rolled down her window and held out a book, an old Greek Lexicon, well used.  Ed was a retired Presbyterian minister, had taken Greek at Davidson and done so well they asked him to help teach it when he enrolled at Louisville Seminary.  She wanted me to have it.  I think he would want you to have it, she said, and drove off quickly as the tears came.  And we feel this life embodied in those relationships.  I know how much my kids adore guitar man, how Heath looks forward to Daddy and Sissy Ketch, as he calls Susan and Jim, as Ella Brooks sits with Helen and Muff, Julie, Angela and Alice.  These relationships are so meaningful, and they change things.

    “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” He says.  He does not say the church is the way.  He says He Himself is the way.  And He says that the truth is not words, neither his nor anyone else’s.  It is love embodied – love in action – that comes to us, and to the world, most fully in the person of Jesus the Christ.  And through it all, as the unanswered questions grow, I believe that we are still called, each day, to follow.  Not to hurl these words as a dart, not to decide things for others that are not ours to decide.  But to lean into His promises, to trust, to believe.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. I am grateful to Lamar Williamson, who pointed this out in his book, “Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 178.  When his friend Lazarus died (11:33), as His own death approached (12:27), and knowing that one of His disciples would betray Him (13:21). 
    2. John 13:34. 
    3. Williamson, 179. 
    4. John 20:19-31. 
    5. Williamson 182. 
    6. From “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ”, a document commended to the church at the 2002 General Assembly, lines 155-168.  http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/hopeinthelord.pdf

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