Monday, July 20, 2009

sermon from Sunday, July 19




based on the crucifixion narrative in Mark.

The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is one we more often read than hear sermons about. On Good Friday at our church, we have a simple tenebrae service where we read this story, and a few psalms, and extinguish candles to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It seems foolish, in a sense, to preach about it, because the story itself is so powerful.
I have many memories of hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. I remember going to my grandparents’ church on Good Friday, when I was a boy. They had a tenebrae service too, on a grander scale than ours, but it was dark and spooky, and after they had read the last passage, where Jesus dies and is buried, they sounded a loud gong behind us, designed to shake us and remind us of what happened when Jesus died. That church service inspired me to start a tenebrae service wherever I go, and it is likely the church that we will join when we move.
I remember going to the Methodist church in town when I was very young, just a few years old. They were showing a movie about Jesus’ last days and death, I don’t remember which one. I remember my parents telling me that it wasn’t really Jesus up there, it was just actors; but I remember that it looked to me that the actor was actually nailed to the cross, which really upset me. My parents had to take me outside—I may not have been much older than Grace—because I wouldn’t stop asking about why that man was really being crucified when it wasn’t really Jesus, and was just a show.
I remember watching Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 movie about Jesus’ life which was shown at Easter time. In that movie, Jesus’ death is brought to life again powerfully, and particularly powerful to me when I was ten or so was not the crucifixion itself, but the long walk to the cross. Here, on the walk to the cross, Jesus is mocked and scourged; he looks at the women who are weeping and says, “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children.” And I just remember being powerfully moved at seeing the angst on Jesus’ brutalized face, and still seeing the empathy and love he had for people to the end.
It is a powerful story, to be certain. But sometimes, I think that my understanding of the story was incomplete. It was on the right track, but incomplete. Do you know what the overwhelming thing I experienced in the story of the crucifixion when I was a boy? Sympathy. I looked at that picture of Jesus, all bloodied and bruised, and I thought, “That poor, poor man. What a good man, God in the flesh and no one saw it, no one understood it, and this is what they did to him.” I was overwhelmed by the blood and the gore and the violence and the pathos of it all, and I mostly was just thankful it was him and not me. Seeing a representation of the crucifixion makes you thankful for all that Jesus did on the cross, and it overwhelmed me with a sense of sympathy and appreciation for a God who loved me like that.
To be honest, this way of understanding the crucifixion continues to win the day today. Witness Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the Mel Gibson movie of six years ago. It was a beautiful and violent movie depicting the events leading up to Jesus’ death and the crucifixion. I saw it and was moved and touched, although I wondered why many churches were using it as an evangelistic tool. It didn’t seem to me to be the right choice for that, but nonetheless it was a profound work of art with a particular slant on Jesus’ death.
People’s response to The Passion was similar to how I felt as a child—that it movingly portrayed the love of God who died for us. Even Billy Graham said something to this effect: “I doubt if there has been a more graphic and moving presentation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Christians believe are the most important events in human history. The film is faithful to the Bible’s teaching that we all are responsible for Jesus’ death, because we have all sinned.” For Billy Graham and most others, The Passion was a meditation on the depths of God’s love for us that he took the punishment so we don’t have to.
Now again, I want to be perfectly clear that I believe that, that Jesus’ death for us is supremely important. But there’s a part of me that has come to believe that is not enough. You see, when we view the crucifixion that way, it becomes trapped in history: it becomes confined to one person in one time—Jesus of 2000 years ago. But throughout the New Testament, it becomes obvious that the crucifixion is more than just a one-time event that changed history. It is that, but it is more than that. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection become the patterns for us to live our lives. In short, it is not simply that Jesus took the pain of crucifixion so we didn’t have to. It is that Jesus took the pain of crucifixion because he also knew his followers would have the pain of crucifixion in their lives. Jesus was not only crucified so we wouldn’t have to go to hell; he was crucified and resurrected to help all of his followers who would be crucified with him.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these choice passages. Galatians 2:19-20, Paul is describing what his life is like, and he says, “I am crucified with Christ; I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In that passage, Paul understands his life and changes in his life in terms of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Paul believed that there was something in his life that had to be put to death—not just the bad things he had done, but that he had to completely change his priorities from one thing to another, had to die to one way of life and start living to another way of life, had to let go of one reality and embrace another reality. Jesus’ crucifixion gives Paul the image and the strength and the power he needs to stop being the person he naturally believes he is and to start being what God had called him to be.
Look at 1 Corinthians 15:31, where Paul says, “I die every day, brothers and sisters.” Paul understood the Christian life as a process of being crucified, of putting to death one way of living and embracing another way of life. Jesus himself understood following him to mean this. Remember what he said in Matthew 16: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” Self-denial for Jesus is not simply forgoing the ice cream and eating a salad instead; self-denial means choosing to live your life as if you were not at the center of it, but God’s will was at the center of it. And to do that meant effectively that you had to put to death that self-centered way of living. And so Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, here’s where I’m going: and so if you want to follow me, you grab a cross and come along because that’s what following me means.” It means to put to death everything which would hinder you pursuing God with everything you have.
So the crucifixion, according to the New Testament, is not locked in history, confined to one man and one time. The crucifixion is a reality for anyone who wants to follow Jesus; anyone who wants to follow Jesus must put part of their natural being to death. And the fact Jesus was crucified gives us the strength that we need to be crucified in a world which encourages us to spoil ourselves and enjoy what we can while we can.
The image of the crucifixion is profound in this context, because it changes how we see the story. No longer are we sitting at home clucking our tongues at this poor person, beaten and tortured to death for us. Instead, those images leap off the screens, leap out of the pages of the Bible, and become events where we are not watching but we are participating: and we are either the crucifiers or the crucified. Either we are on the sidelines, actively mocking Jesus or passively pretending not to notice, or we are out there with him, in line, with our crosses, with our instruments of death, prepared to pursue truth and the God-centered life even when the world thinks it’s silly or throws up roadblocks in our way. And so the question we all must face is “Am I crucified with Christ?” Have I approached the Christian life as a series of duties which I have to do, or an attitude I have to take on, or a set of intellectual ideas to believe or a group of people to belong to? The Christian life is all of those things in part, but at its heart, the Christian life is a willingness to be crucified with Christ, to lay aside all that hinders us just as he laid aside all that hindered him for the sake of the glory which awaits us both?
Well, this is a bit of a downer of a sermon, don’t you think? Death sentences are rarely uplifting. But you know what is uplifting? This little thought: the fact that Jesus’ death is a template for our death means that Jesus’ resurrection is a template for our resurrection. As we have been crucified with Christ, we will certainly be raised with Christ. Just as the crucifixion was not simply a historical event trapped way back then, the resurrection is not simply a historical event, but it’s for us to live and experience.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was an enormously fruitful period of ministry for him. Many saw him and were convinced he was trustworthy and so they left everything to follow him—you would too if you saw a dead person come back to life. An encounter with the risen Jesus left people invigorated, excited, and renewed about what God is doing in the world.
Now here’s a question for you. What if the Bible is telling the truth when it calls us the body of Christ? Because this is what that metaphor means, I think: that Christ’s church is made up of people who identify with Christ so deeply that they have become Christ’s presence in the world. “You are the body of Christ,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “and you individually are members of it.” The overwhelming good news of the New Testament is that we are not mere copies of Christ, we are Christ to a world in need of his touch in a new way today.
And just like an encounter with the risen Christ in history left people renewed and invigorated and freshly dedicated to God, that is what an encounter with the body of Christ should do today; seeing you (or more properly seeing the church) should leave people with that same sense of vigor, and renewed dedication to becoming the people God created them to be, living that abundant life that God has for them as a free gift.
In our home Bible study, we read John 14 and 15 the past couple of weeks. That passage is just astounding because it really makes very plain the way that Jesus’ plan for his disciples is for them not just to worship him, but extend the work that he did—in essence, to be him, aside from the whole being God part. Here’s how he put it: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Do you catch how exciting that is? How different it is than most of us live our daily lives? Jesus’ vision is that just as the Father lived in him and exercised his ministry in total partnership with him, Father and Son but one and the same, in that same way, Jesus wants to live in us and for us to exercise his ministry in total partnership with him. And yes, the difficult thing is that his death is our death; but the amazing news is that his resurrection is our resurrection, and the most amazing thing of all is that his ministry of reconciling the world to God has become our ministry. And his presence with us is not just this crutch for us when we are going through difficult times until we get back on our feet again; but instead his presence is this indwelling, palpable reality in which we naturally do what Jesus would do because we are one with him, just as he is one with the Father.
Today we have borne witness to this amazing reality. Today we welcomed Lily Jenks to the realm of baptized believers. We have watched her symbolically be buried beneath the waters of baptism and rising to new life. Lily, in this is a piece of the amazing reality which God has for you; your life is going to be one of crucifixion and resurrection from now on. You have been marked as Jesus’ and you have chosen to take his name, and so you too must die to self and rise to his desires for your life.
And many of us who have been here have today remembered our baptism. And my prayer for us is that like Lily, we will remember that is what life is. In the upcoming time of transition at the church, you will have many chances to exercise your power. You will shape the church with the decisions you make and mostly with the attitudes you show to others. May your life together bear witness to the crucified and risen Christ, living here among you and wherever God’s people are gathered. May your lives individually and together show forth the crucifixion and resurrection that mark you as a follower of the great King Jesus.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, June 21

Having trouble getting the audio up here. Will post when available. Based on 1 Samuel 1:1-11, the story of Hannah.

It may surprise some of you that Hannah is one of the more popular baby names for American girls the last few years. In 2006, it ranked as the 8th most popular girl name, which was actually down from its peak—between 1998 and 2000, Hannah was the 2nd most popular girl name for babies in the US. This was a relatively new development, as Hannah was the 91st most popular girl name in the 1980s, the 475th most popular girl name of the 1970s, and the 905th most popular girl name of the 1960s.
There probably is a reason for the recent popularity of the name Hannah, and that is that people don’t really know their Bible very well. Because to give your kid a name like Hannah is not to wish on them an easy life. Hannah is a name that weighs heavy at times, because Hannah had a very difficult time of it, at least at first in her life.
Hannah was infertile. When I was writing this sermon in the study, I wrote, “Hannah battled infertility.” But that was not true: Hannah did not battle infertility because the Bible doesn’t reveal that there was very much that women could do at that time except for pray. There was no scientific knowledge about how ovulation worked and no options for things like in vitro fertilization. Generally couples who faced infertility would have the man sleep with a servant girl who would then be forced to give the child to the couple. One article I read expressed in these terms: in Biblical times they viewed the womb as a mystery; today we view the womb as something over which we express mastery. Today we view it almost as a right that women should be able to bear children, whereas in Biblical times it was simply understood to be part of God’s inscrutable will that there was a certain segment of women who simply could not. “The Lord had closed her womb” is how this text expresses it about Hannah.
The text of the Bible, which often seems blind to modern sensibilities about women, is surprisingly tender when talking about Hannah and how all of this made her feel. Her husband, Elkanah, also had another wife named Peninnah; Peninnah had many sons and daughters and Hannah of course had a deep rivalry with her. Polygamy was not all that common in those days, reserved for the very wealthy who could in essence afford 2 wives and families. And Peninnah, we read, used to provoke her severely and irritate her; we can only imagine what that means exactly—it could be that she mocked her outright or gave her the cold shoulder, we don’t know. And Elkanah, the husband, saw what it was doing to Hannah and it made him feel tenderly toward her. When they would go up to offer sacrifices to the Lord, of course there was meat from the sacrifices; some of that meat was given to the priests who offered the sacrifices and who depended on the people for their food. But most of the meat from the animal was given back to the family who brought the animal to be sacrificed. And this was a special treat because meat was not all that common in those ancient times, even for some wealthier families. And Elkanah would split it all up among the members of his household, but he used to give Peninnah a double portion, because he loved her so much and felt so tenderly toward her. One of the most poignant and sweet parts of Scripture is when Elkanah sees Hannah so sad, and he says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” And of course, Elkanah doesn’t get it; few husbands really can get this, even today, I think. But his response is sweet and clueless and tender in a way we don’t often see in Scripture.
While infertility is a uniquely difficult issue, and not all of us have dealt with it, I think there is something in Hannah’s life that strikes a chord in all of us. Unlike modern approaches to infertility, Hannah’s sense was not that something in her body was not working properly. Hannah’s sense was that there was a wonderful blessing out there somewhere that for some reason—some inscrutable, unexplainable reason—was not destined for her. She would never know the joy and blessing of parenthood not because there was something fixable that no one could find but because God had closed off those joys and blessings by closing off her womb. And this is something which we all can appreciate.
We all know what it is like to have something beyond our reach and have absolutely no way to get to it. We were out to lunch last Sunday with our little boy, Jack. And I felt so bad for him because here we all were eating these greasy beautiful cheeseburgers up at Red Robin—and he couldn’t have any! And not only that, when I got out the baby food to feed him, he started smacking his lips because he was so hungry, but of course, he doesn’t know how to get the tops off of jars, and so he just sat there smacking his lips because he couldn’t get the baby food open. His yummy food lay just beyond reach, but he couldn’t get to it. He just couldn’t.
We all have experiences like this in our lives, where we feel unable to obtain something we desperately want. Sometimes in our shallower days, that something is a literal thing, a big-screen television or a fancy new home. But more often, those things that we feel unable to attain that really bother us, that really get under our skin, are deeply painful sorts of things. We want to be able to create a new and different life for ourselves but lack the tools to do so and lack the money to get the tools we need. We see one of our grown children on the wrong path in life, and we want them to take a different path but they will not. We want a cure for a disease that threatens our lives or the lives of those we love. In each of these cases, we cannot control the outcomes. We cannot make money appear out of thin air to go back to school and get a new degree. We cannot make our grown children (or even our children who are still at home) choose a different course in life. We cannot snap our fingers and conjure a cure for cancer out of thin air. In all these things, we may feel a bit like Hannah—for some reason God has marked us for a particular burden to bear in life that some people get marked for. We don’t know why it was us, it is beyond us why this would happen that way. And just like Hannah had no weapons in her fight against infertility, we feel that there is nothing that we can do to change this.
And yet Hannah did do something. She got up after eating and she went and presented herself before the Lord, and she prayed. She prayed, “If only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will set him before you as a nazarite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” A nazarite was a special sort of person, or maybe an ordinary person consecrated to God in a special kind of way. If Hannah were favored with a son, this son would be specially devoted to God; he would not get mixed up in drinking, and his hair would remain uncut as a testimony to his status as a special servant of God.
There are three things I want you to notice about this: two things that Hanna did and one thing she did not do. First, I love that phrase that Hannah “presented herself before the Lord.” There is a lot of honesty here; there is no pretense. Often we bring ourselves before God with pretense, pretending that we’re better off than we are. We say pious sounding things like, “If it’s your will God, make this happen. But if not, help me to cope with your good and gracious will.” Hannah doesn’t do this. She presents herself to God totally as she is, and I think God values that kind of honesty, that says this is where I am right now, God, this is what I feel is right, God, and this is what I want you to do, God. Hannah doesn’t hide herself behind pious language or sentimental words, and she doesn’t give God ultimatums. She just presents herself, just as she is.
And how is she? miserable. If you will only look on the misery of your servant, if you will only remember me, God, and if you will only give me a son. That’s where my heart is right now, that’s what I think I need, what I think I want the most. That’s honesty, that’s real, and God apparently values that sort of speech. After all, consider for a moment the situation from God’s perspective: he created humans with the capability to hurt. He created us with the capability to feel pain on behalf of others or even when something in our lives reflects brokenness. That’s often a very valuable thing; he created us to feel like he feels, he created us that our hearts would break with the things that make his heart break. Would he really then want us to always be hiding our real feelings? Hannah presents herself honestly to God.
Then I love how Hannah offers her desires to God. “If you will give me a son, I will give him back to you.” How often we fail to pause and consider why we want the things we want. It’s easy to see this with financial desires or things that we want. For instance, if I were to get a big-screen TV, I really doubt that I would use it for much good. I mean, I would enjoy it, and I’d have friends over to watch games and things, but I don’t think God’s Kingdom would really be advanced by me having a big-screen TV. I’d just like it. It would be fun to have it.
But sometimes we don’t even know why we want the important things; for instance, why do we want our children on the right path in life? I know that even at 3 years old, I get anxious about how Gracie behaves. But to be honest, my anxiety is mostly about me. I don’t want to be looked at as a bad parent, an indulgent parent, a too-hard parent, or whatever. I want Grace to behave—at times—mostly because her behavior reflects on me. That’s, frankly, not a real good reason for me to want her to choose the right path in life. What would be a good reason? Because I want her to grow up to be like Jesus; because I want her to choose that path for her life because it is the only path that brings real reward, and it is the only path that makes the difficulty and pain of life worthwhile. There are good and bad reasons for wanting kids to choose the right path; there are even good and bad reasons for wanting someone to be healed.
Hannah was commendable because she offered her desires to God; she wanted this to happen, to have a son, but she said, “If you give me this thing I desire, I will hold none of it back from you.” In other words, I will remember that this came from you, that this is a gift, and I will not treat it as something I have earned, and I will treat this boy as yours, not as my own. This is commendable because it is the very definition of a steward, which you and I are called to be. Hannah says, “Whatever is mine is yours, God.”
Prayer is not an easy recipe, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying, “Here’s how to get your prayers answered.” But I will say that I think the reason that many things I pray for do not happen is that I do not always share Hannah’s attitude. It is too easy for me to want things because I want them, not because I want to steward them for God, to use them for his Kingdom. Again, please don’t hear me wrong—I’m not saying that if you build God a good case for why you want something, God will give it to you. To be honest, it probably works the other way: if you become a good steward, if you are growing into God’s image, you are going to start to want the things God wants, and to want them for the right reason. Hannah was just such a person, who wanted what God wanted for God’s good. So I’m struck by that as well as by her willingness to be honest before God.
That’s what she did; now for the one thing she didn’t do that I also think is important. She didn’t try to practice magic. What do I mean by this? By this I mean that she doesn’t try to use human means to manipulate God. She is honest with God about what she is feeling. She is honest about what she wants, and she is sincere in her desire to steward her son rightly. But she doesn’t try to manipulate or trick God. She doesn’t say, “I’ll be extra nice to Elkanah if you give me a son,” or “I’ll stop my backbiting and anger at Peninnah if you give me a son,” she simply says, “If you give me a son, I’ll be a good steward just as I have sought to be my whole life.” Not, “If you don’t give me a son, you and I are through.” A simple statement of what is.
What about us? While likely not many of us are struggling through infertility right now, each of us is praying for something today, each of us is desperately hoping for something. Let’s each of us seek to be like Hannah, who didn’t try to manipulate God, but tried her best to steward what God had given her no matter if she got what she wanted or not.
The story has a happy ending for Hannah—she has a baby boy, Samuel, who she delivers back to God by bringing him back to the temple to serve Eli and the other priests. This may seem strange to us, but for women in that culture, having the child was a sign of blessing, and keeping the child was not quite as necessary. So Hannah was happy to give the baby, and although I’m sure she was somewhat sad to see him go, no one could ever take away her status as a mother.
Will our stories end happily? I don’t know. But I do know that as we give ourselves to God, as we seek to be better stewards of all things he gives us, we will find joy in that we are becoming the kind of people God uses to show his love to the world.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, June 14

Romans 8:18-24. Val Jenks reads Scripture.





This passage has become one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible in the last few years. I’m not sure it’s one that’s real familiar to most modern readers of the Bible, though; if there is any verse in this passage that is famous, it is verse 18, the first verse which was read this morning: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
It’s a nice image, isn’t it? Often in our lives we can feel that we are on a raging sea, just sort of tossed about from one thing to another. We can see that in many ways in our lives right now—this always seems like a busy time of year, for one thing. Kids are finishing up with school, so families need to make plans for how to handle that reality for the summer; there are concerts and graduations and little league playoffs and this and that and that and this.
And that’s just the innocuous things, the little things that are nuisances but don’t really impact us. There are far more serious things that impact the way we think and feel and make us feel like we are tossed on the waves of a raging sea. My grandmother had breast cancer surgery this past Wednesday. I love my nanna but nothing makes you feel quite so much like you’re tossed on a wave and completely out of control like when you or someone you love has cancer. A friend goes through divorce proceedings, another friend has uncontrollable nausea and doesn’t know what’s causing it, another friend struggles with an eating disorder—this is the stuff of life but it overwhelms you. What do I say to my friend who’s going through the divorce? Do it? Don’t do it? I don’t know what he should do, he doesn’t know what he should do—that’s the waves of life, man, and we just feel so small sometimes.
And in the midst of that verse 18 throws us a lifeboat and offers us salvation. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” And the message is such a relief—we welcome it with open arms—because it says to us that the sufferings of this present time, which seem like an uncontrollable raging sea, are really just a drop in a bucket compared with the glory God is going to reveal to us. And I love the way Paul uses the word “about” here—that any minute now we might just see it, that the glory might just come to us.
Most Christians assume this passage is talking about heaven. We struggle on earth, but we put up with the struggles because one day, one sweet day, we’re going to be in heaven and we won’t have to struggle any more. God’s gonna feed us at his table, take care of us for ever, and we’ll be able to enjoy him and each other without end, Amen. And Amen—this is true! It is exciting to think about a world like that because our world today is just not this way.
This is true. But is it OK to say that some people’s Christianity gets a little bit stuck here? In the old days it was said that people could be too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. In the old days the argument went that people were so focused on going to heaven and what heaven was going to be like that they failed to make any impact here on earth, and failed to live up to the gospel. This is sort of what I mean by people’s Christianity getting a little bit stuck here—so focused on how God is one day going to make all of our problems fade away. And you might think, well, that’s not what I mean, I’m a good modern open-minded Christian. But even modern Christians get stuck on this when we only focus on how God helps us with our problems. Many prayer meetings get stuck in a rut when people start sharing their problems, and it’s one problem on top of another, and people cluck their tongues a little bit when we hear about so-and-so with cancer and so-and-so who’s drinking again, and before you know it, we’re thinking about how terrible the world is and how only God can provide relief, but even he doesn’t seem much inclined. Any sort of Christianity which looks at the problems of the world and is overwhelmed by them and looks to God only for a way out, is what I mean by getting stuck here.
There’s more to this passage. I want to stretch your thinking on this text a little bit today, because the context in which Paul is speaking is very different from this. Paul doesn’t talk about this in a vacuum—talking about our present sufferings and the glory to come is not something that Paul said as one sentence somewhere. It is part of a carefully constructed argument that Paul is making. Look at the next sentence: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Let’s unpack that sentence, and let’s start with the very first word, “for.” “For” shows us that what Paul is saying is connected to what he has just said. We might say, “Because.” I consider that the sufferings we currently experience cannot compare with the glory we are about to receive—because. Because why? Well, we might expect Paul to say that our current sufferings are not so bad because God’s got a really great heaven waiting for us. But that’s not what he says. It’s true, but it’s not what he says. Instead, he says that our current sufferings are not so bad because we are nearing a pivotal point in history, when the children of God will be revealed. We are nearing a time, says Paul, when the children of God will be revealed. What does this mean? Well, as Paul explains it, the whole creation is subject to futility. All of creation, essentially, cannot get out of its own way. All of creation lives with patterns and lifestyles and attitudes and actions which bring death. We know this is true simply by looking around us. What is the richest nation in the world? Our nation. What nation has the most access to information about the health effects of eating poorly. Our nation. And yet what nation is consistently the most overweight nation in the world? our nation. We have access to the information about what are good food choices, and we have access to healthy food, and yet we eat ourselves to death. The creation is subjected to futility, we can’t get out of our own way.
Or take something so simple as our prayer lives. Prayer works, people. And I don’t mean just for medical conditions. Prayer is a reliable spiritual discipline to change our hearts. When I am troubled about a problem in my life, I find that regular prayer—and not just praying about that problem but simply the act of regular praying—changes my heart and prepares me to deal with whatever that problem is in a much healthier way. And yet when I face a problem, my first inclination is to work like a chicken with my head cut off to try to solve the problem. Even though I know I will handle everything far better if I commit myself to regular prayer, in the heat of the moment prayer seems to take too much time or distract me from my work solving the problem. Even though my brain knows one thing, that prayer is valuable, it’s very difficult to recall that and practice it when push comes to shove. Why? Because the creation is subject to futility—we just can’t get out of our own way.
And Paul argues that this futility is part of God’s plan. Because eventually, we’re going to get frustrated with it and seek a better way. This is what Paul is saying about the children of God. This whole creation, stuck in these unhealthy systems, stuck in these patterns of living that breed death, seeing no alternatives—this creation wants a way out. They are desperately seeking the children of God. All creation longs to see a people who are not stuck in the same old lies as the rest of the world, a people who live different. Paul says that the world is stuck in bondage to decay and desperately seeks free people, people who see the world’s lies for what they are and say, “You know what? Those lies have no power over me, because lies don’t have power.”
Now here’s the rub—that’s us! How awesome—and how scary—is this? The image of the passage is that all of creation, people, animals, stars, planets, all of it, is futile and decaying. And it is just waiting for God to reveal to the world a people who will demonstrate to all of creation what a victorious life in Jesus looks like. It is waiting for a people through whom God will show hope and new life, a people who are not in bondage to decay but demonstrate new life in their every step and their every action. It is waiting for a people who will demonstrate that we are not enslaved to the broken system of these world but that their authority is an empty illusion and any power they have is simply because we choose to give them power. And that’s us! not just us here in Exton, but that’s us, Christians, the people of God around the world throughout time.
When Paul says, “I consider that our current sufferings are small compared to the glory we’re about to receive,” to be honest, he’s not talking about heaven. He’s talking about the glory we receive when we realize that’s who we are! The sufferings that we go through are of little consequence when we realize that we are playing a part in liberating creation from decay; the difficulties we face fade away when we realize that from the very beginning, creation has hinged on this moment, the people of God, taking on the awesome privilege and responsibility of being the people of God in the world, and allowing the world to see what free people look like and live like. He goes on and says that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, until this moment, when finally the church is born, the pinnacle of creation. And our difficulties seem pretty small when we realize that we are part of the pinnacle of creation and that God has made us capable of demonstrating freedom in the midst of slavery, and resurrection in the midst of decay.
This is so different than what we often understand that first verse to say. So often we feel overwhelmed at life’s difficulties, and we feel like we are tossed about on a raging sea. But the point of this passage is not that life is really hard for us poor people and one day we’ll get to heaven and God won’t let anything bad happen to us anymore. The point is that life is hard but because we have seen God in Jesus Christ we are part of liberating people from that life and introducing them to new life in Christ. All of creation has been waiting for a people to be raised up who live with the kind of freedom that only comes from knowing the truth—and they still wait for us with baited breath.
If there is one thing that I burn with as a minister and as a Christian, if there is one message which burns a fire in my bones and I cannot keep inside, it is this: you don’t know who you are. Go to any church and see what they have on their promotional materials. In our bulletin, it says “Welcome to Exton Community Baptist Church! We seek to be a serving, caring loving…(read the rest).” Other churches would say other things, like “We’re a friendly church.” Or “we’re a biblical church.” Or “we’re a conservative church.” Or “we’re a socially active church.” Every church seems to find its niche, and take pride in what they feel sets them apart from other churches. But so little of Christianity seems to get what Paul is saying here. A church is not just a gathering of like-minded people. A church is not a place where we go to hear our preferred kind of music or our preferred kind of preaching. A church is not a place we go to meet people who feel sorry for us, as if Christians were nothing but bottomless wells of sympathy. A church is not a niche to be defined and marketed against other churches.
A church is an outpost of the revolution. A church takes space, makes it sacred as a sanctuary and says, “Within these four walls, the world is as it should be. Within these four walls, we recognize that the systems of this world are broken and within these four walls we begin to live out the Kingdom of God. Within these four walls, we sing songs of the Kingdom of God, we speak the words of the Kingdom of God, we live out the relationships Kingdom people conduct, we exhibit the generosity of the Kingdom of God because creation is longing to see free people living Kingdom freedom. Creation groans in their futility right now and so we must show them what life can be like when you are free from that futility and that decay.”
You don’t know who you are. My daughter Grace is the apple of my eye. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a pretty girl save for her mommy. These days, if you call her cute, she says, “Babies are cute. I’m pwetty.” And she is, she’s pwetty, she’s beautiful. I sometimes can’t quite bear the thought of her growing up in this world which plays such havoc with women’s self-images. I love how she’s proud of her tummy and admires it in a mirror, and I can barely stand the thought of it when she’s 13 and thinks she’s ugly because of something some stupid boy said. Woe to those boys. (Hopefully it’s not her brother.) I keep hoping that somehow she’ll be spared that fate and be one of those rare girls with complete self-confidence, but I know that more than likely she’ll come home some day crushed and sure she is not beautiful.
But she will be and on that day, I will tell her what I have told you today—you don’t know who you are. You think you are what others tell you but you’re not. You’re so much more. You’re so much more beautiful than the world can understand or deserve. You don’t know that you are beautiful, not because anyone says it, but because the one who made you sees beauty in you and sees potential you cannot see now.
Oh church, you don’t know who you are. (not just ECBC, but the Church) You pretty yourself up so that somebody who doesn’t care about you or understand you will say nice things about you. But you don’t know who you are. You make sure everything on Sunday morning is polished up nice, and you say things so you don’t offend people and turn them off, but you don’t know who you are. If you knew who you were, you would know that people will see Jesus in you not when you spit and polish everything just right, not when you plan just the right outreach and avoid whatever might seem offensive, but when you show a desperate world that change is possible, that new life is within reach. If you knew who you were, you would be bold, unafraid, like a young woman who knows that she is loved and so can reach for the sky because if she falls someone will catch her. If you knew who you were, you wouldn’t seek to blend in in a boring world but you’d embrace your inner difference, you’d embrace that prophet Daniel who prayed when it was illegal, you’d embrace that apostle Peter who stood up and spoke in tongues til the world thought he was drunk, you’d embrace that John the Baptist who ate locusts, you’d embrace that Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet when there were more important things to do, you’d even embrace that Jesus who said that the way to save the world was to be cramped into a womb, become a homeless teacher and die like a criminal. Then you would be part of a revolution, then you would be the people the world desperately needs even though they don’t know they need you.
Let me close with a story about my dad. My dad doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher. In the house I grew up in, there was not a dishwasher, but when we moved there was one and he never learned to use it. He has lived in that house for more than 20 years! He claims he’s not smart enough. Of course this is not true—he is a lawyer! Now this is a big family joke, and he does actually run the dishwasher on occasion. Why does he say he’s not smart enough to run the dishwasher? Because he doesn’t want to run the dishwasher! He’s perfectly fine with my mother doing it and having a convenient excuse for not doing it!
Many times in our lives it is easier to pretend we are less than we are so we don’t have to risk failure. Too many smart kids have said, “I’m just not cut out for school” because they don’t want to risk academic failure. Too many people with athletic gifts have said, “I’m just not cut out for sports,” because they either don’t want the physical discipline of sports or they don’t want to risk failing at them and feeling embarrassed. When I went to college, there were so many beautiful girls and beautiful boys for that matter, who were lonely because they were afraid of risking a romantic relationship because it might fail.
Too many Christians hear this message in the Bible, that they are part of the children of God, charged with giving the world this gift that is this free life in Christ, and don’t want to be a part of it, because it is simply easier not to. Too many Christians reject being part of a revolution because it is simply easier to live one’s life as a consumer than a revolutionary. It’s easier just to watch Fox News or CNN and parrot what they say than to constantly stand at a critical distance from the world and insist that you have something to offer it that it does not know.
But to those of us who have embraced being revolutionaries, let me tell you, there is no life like it. To you who graduate today, I remind you of this and charge you before God to never be anything less, even when it’s easier. To baby Sophie and her family, I remind you of this and beg you never to settle for less, even when it’s easier. To all of us who dare to wear the name of Christ, I beg you, do not settle for a life less than his, because even though his life led to death, it led also to resurrection. We are the children of God, and the world is waiting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, May 24

Based on the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. Beverlee Everett reads Scripture.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, May 10

Andrew Henry reads Scripture, from 1 John 4.

Jack's dedication

The dedication of our baby son, John Garrett "Jack" Jordan, performed by our seminary intern, Herbert Johnson.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, May 3

Based on Psalm 23. Bruce Reid reads Scripture.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, April 19

Beverlee Everett reads John 20:19-31.