Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Worship this Sunday, February 26

Hi all--looking forward to our worship together this Sunday.

The theme of the service is forgiveness and restoration--most of what we will do and say will focus around these important themes. I'll be preaching from Mark 2:1-12, the story of Jesus healing a paralytic. Our hymns will be "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" and "The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases." The first two are written by Charles Wesley, one of the three most important hymnwriters in hymnody still sung today. Read through and see how many allusions to Scripture there are, how well Wesley knows and lives his Bible. We should long to have Scripture written on our heart so clearly! The last song is a more modern song reminding us of the never-failing love of God.

Take some time and memorize or meditate on the Scripture for this Sunday, as well as writing the songs on your heart. You'll be surprised at how much more the service means to you when you know what's coming ahead of time!

God be with you all today.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, February 19

Hi all--here is the sermon from yesterday, Sunday, February 19. It was intended to be preached on the 12th, but when church was canceled, it was moved to yesterday.

Would really treasure feedback or thoughts--feel free!

There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul is known as a prickly character. We often think of Paul saying exactly what he thinks. And indeed there were times when Paul did speak harshly. He tells the Corinthians in one of his letters that they should obey his warnings by letter so that when he came, he wouldn’t have to "be severe" in using his authority on them (2 Cor 13:10). In the Galatian church, there was a big church argument about whether men had to be circumcised or not; Paul believed they did not have to be, and in the book of Galatians Paul says "I wish those people who insist on circumcision would just go the whole way and castrate themselves!" (Gal 5:12) Now there’s a verse of the Bible you don’t hear preached on enough!

But at the same time, perhaps we make a little bit too much of Paul’s prickliness. After all, he didn’t rub everyone the wrong way. He didn’t usually speak this way; indeed, he didn’t speak this way very often at all. In fact, the explosion in Christian popularity was due not to Paul being offensive, but the way that he could make sense of the gospel to people who had never heard it without offending many of his listeners. The growth in Christianity largely due to Paul’s amazing ability to speak across cultures, and the way that his intellectual strength commanded the attention of every person he came across. In a very real sense, we are only here today saying what we’re saying and doing what we’re doing because of Paul’s amazing ability to communicate the gospel to a non-Jewish audience.

The way Paul could move across cultures is reflected in today’s passage. Here, Paul says, "I am free with respect to all." Paul was a Roman citizen, a rare treasure in that day. In that day, of course, the Roman Empire was dominant; the Empire had conquered land all over Europe and the Middle East. And people who lived in the lands that the Romans had conquered did not have many rights. For example, they did not have the right to vote in Roman elections. For another example, a Roman soldier could go up to a conquered person and force them to stop whatever they were doing and make that person carry their bags. A Roman citizen, on the other hand, had most of the rights that you and I enjoy today. When Paul says, "I am free with respect to all," he’s saying, "I’m a member of the highest class, I am a Roman citizen." But then look what comes next: "I’m of the highest class, but I have made myself a slave to all people, so that I might win more of them." We get a picture here of what made Paul so great: even though he has all the advantages in life, even though he has the status, he gives that away in order to "win" more of the slaves. He chooses to not be the Roman citizen he has the right to be, but to be a lowly slave so that he can have more influence among them for God.

Paul goes on. He talks about the Jews next, and he says to them he became a Jew, in order to win Jews. The law, God’s written word to the people of Israel, was so important to the Jews–it taught them how to order society, how God would have them to live. And so Paul says, "Even though on my own the law does not have supreme importance, when I’m with them, the law is important to me too. Because it is important to them, it is important to me." Then Paul goes on to talk about the Gentiles, those who are not Jews. And they don’t have the law in the same way. And so Paul says, "Even though I know that I do have to live by Christ’s law, when I’m with the Gentiles, I live as a person outside the law." By this he does not mean he doesn’t have rules to live by; by this he means that his first step is not to judge them for not having a law. Paul says, "I have become all things to all people, that I may by all means save some."

There is a tendency to scorn Paul in our culture today. People say that this attitude of Paul’s means that he was a phony: that he didn’t really love or value people, but that all he really cared about was people converting, and then he’d move on. In our culture, trying to be "everything to everyone" is not a virtue, but a problem, and so many people dislike Paul’s attitude. Want me to act like a Jew? Sure, I’ll act like a Jew if it means you’ll accept Jesus. Want me to act like a Gentile? Sure, I’ll act like a Gentile if it means you’ll accept Jesus. I’ll do whatever you want me to do, be whatever you want me to be, if you’ll accept Jesus. Our culture doesn’t like that–we value people who are straight shooters, who tell you exactly what they think.

But we also should notice that our culture’s attitude here has a downside. It is a myth that it is always good to express yourself. People in America are so busy expressing themselves that they don’t notice–or don’t care–that their self-expression sometimes hurts other people. We live in a culture that encourages swift, decisive action; and because of that we tend to speak and act before we think and reflect. And then we justify our actions by saying, "Well, I was just saying what I honestly felt; and we need to be honest with each other, right?" Perhaps we usually do. But sometimes when we’re being "honest" with each other about our feelings, we’re not aware that our feelings are not always reliable. For example, husbands sometimes say of their wives, "She just doesn’t love me anymore;" when in reality, the wife loves the husband as much as ever. The problem is with the husband’s receivers; he’s not capable of receiving her love. So when a husband says, "She just doesn’t love me anymore," he is saying something honest but it is not true; and further, it’s not at all helpful when he says it--except that it reveals something about the husband and his emotional state.

Or suppose there is a person who is always comes to you at your job and complains–always negative. This isn’t right and that isn’t right. You need to change this and do this differently, etc.
Just like the husband in the other illustration, you’re not sure when to take that person seriously and when not to. They might have a few good points, but since they’re always negative, you’re not sure when to listen and when not to. The point is that people who always have to tell you exactly what they are thinking usually end up giving you more insight into themselves than they do into what they’re talking about. The person who is always complaining at you about your job doesn’t actually reveal to you better ways to do your job–all they reveal is how negative they are. The husband who constantly complains about his wife not loving him says very little about his wife and a whole lot about himself.

Our desire, as a culture, to always be heard, to always express ourselves, is not healthy emotionally; it’s infantile. Babies scream because they are terrified of being separated from their parents; it’s the only way they can assure themselves of getting the love they need. Just so, our constant need to express ourselves is related to insecurities in our own lives. We live in a culture that encourages us to speak before it encourages us to listen; we are encouraged to assert ourselves instead of making room for others.

I hope that this morning, you are able to see that Paul’s attitude is not phony, but heroic and noble. He is not an unprincipled person, not a huckster doing whatever he can to make a religious "sale." Instead, he is that rarest kind of person, the kind of person we meet very few of in our lives: that person who can get himself or herself completely out of the way to make room for other people. Paul is not buttering people up, or being untrue to himself; on the other hand, Paul must be extremely emotionally healthy because he can lay his sense of self down and then pick it up again.

Now, many of you may be agreeing with me–to a point. Maybe we don’t need to assert ourselves quite as often as our culture says, after all. But some of you may wonder–what happens when we don’t express ourselves in this way? Doesn’t it just fester and come out in some other way? I mean, we all know husbands like the ones who I just talked about, except they don’t tell their wives, "You don’t love me;" they tell everyone else but their wives "She doesn’t love me." We all know people at work who, if they have a problem with the way you’re doing things, don’t tell you about it–they complain to every other co-worker but you. This is what we call being passive-aggressive: wanting on the surface to maintain the appearance of a good relationship while deep down working to sabotage that relationship.

But we don’t see any of that in Paul either. We don’t see him saying, "Oh man, those silly Jews think they have to follow the Old Testament law; where do they get off? That’s so dumb; I mean, I put up with them while I had to be there, but aren’t they stupid?" No–he just says, "the law is important to them, so it was important to me too." We don’t see him saying, "Those foolish Gentiles! They think their freedom means that there are no rules and anything goes. That’s so dumb." No, he just says, "When I was with them, I was as they are." Not only does Paul not have to assert himself directly, he also manages to not degrade them behind their back! Paul doesn’t have to put anybody else down in order to be self-confident.

What I want to know is how Paul becomes this kind of person. Because I know very few people who are consistently like this. Some people can resist asserting themselves in an unhealthy way, but behind your back can be so cruel. And other people never talk behind your back, but can overwhelm you with their need to be heard, and coddled. Very few people succeed in both of these things, in part because our culture is so drunk on self-expression. A person who avoids these twin evils is rare indeed.

So, how do we become that kind of person? This is an important question. I have this deep conviction about the church that we ought to be that kind of person with each other. The church ought not to be the kind of place where we treat others like the rest of the world. When one meets a Christian, they should meet a person like Paul, a person who has room for them in their lives; a person who is not so busy tending to themselves that they cannot let another person in. They should meet a person whose very nature is hospitable, who creates a safe place for you to talk and sort things out and to be restored to wholeness. My conviction is that every Christian should seek to be this kind of person, because it is thoroughly in keeping with the Gospel and because the world needs this kind of person. So how do we become this kind of person? How can we become like Paul, able to truly open ourselves up to make room for other people?

The answer, I think, is simple, and it’s a little bit ironic. Paul is able to give himself away because he knows who he truly is. Look at the passage: all throughout, even while Paul is talking about how he is able to be different with different people, there is a consistent picture that he knows who he is. He starts, "Though I am free with respect to all." He says, "I made the law important, though I am not under the law." (Again, a positive statement of who he is.) Then he says, "For some people, I treated the law as unimportant, though I realize I am still under Christ’s law."
It is clear that Paul indeed knows who he is. Even while he is able to change his stripes to be truly present and available to other people, there is a core at his center that cannot be touched, cannot be changed. What is that core, what is that place that no one can touch?

That core is Christ. The reason Paul is so flexible is that he knows his truest identity is a follower of Jesus Christ. That is his identity and nothing else. That is the only title that means anything. The reason he can so freely give away the rest of his social standing is that the rest of it means nothing compared with being a Christian. That is the only title that is important–not Pharisee, not Jew, not Gentile, not law-abider, not libertine–the only title that is important is Christian. And because that is at his core and nothing can take that away, he is free to be anything else he wants to be. Paul doesn’t have to cling to social titles or nationalities for a sense of identity because his sense of identity is solely in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and coming again.

And so we come away from Paul, and back to us. We ask that important question, "How can we be like Paul? How can we give ourselves freely away to other people? How can we treat others as truly important, giving them ourselves, giving away our social standing, giving away everything to love them more fully? The answer is the same for us as it was for Paul:

We must have Christ at our center.
We must have Christ at our center.

If we are truly rooted in Christ, and our identity is in him alone, we will soon find that all other identities are meaningless compared with it. For me, my identity as professional pastor fades away in light of my truest identity as follower of Christ. My identity as a Baptist takes a back seat to it; my identity as an American Baptist, and indeed as an American at all, my identity as a student and a scholar and a writer and a musician, all of these must take a back seat to follower of Christ.

And it is scary to put all of those roles I play into the back seat. I want to be a good pastor and scholar, a good writer, a good musician, a good American, a good Baptist, a good American Baptist. But the only way my life is fulfilling at all is if none of those roles is in the center, but my identity as follower of Christ must be there first and foremost. When my life is ordered in that way, it is ordered rightly. When Christ is at the center, I can take up those other roles when I have to and I can lay them down when I have to. When Christ is at the center, like Paul, I can be a pastor to those who need a pastor, a writer to those who need a writer, a Baptist to those who need a Baptist, because my identity is not in those things I do, but in Jesus Christ alone. Even more amazingly, if my identity is rightly centered in Christ, I can lay any one of those things aside if conscience calls me to, or if my life calls me to. If there comes a day I cannot see to write anymore, or cannot think straight to be a scholar, then that will be difficult, but it cannot touch who I am–because who I am is safe and secure in Jesus.

This is why time in prayer and Bible study and worship is never wasted. Because in prayer, study and worship, we are being formed and reminded that we are most importantly followers of Christ. These things remind us of who we are; even while the world tries to tell us we are what we produce, or we are what we make, or we are the homes we live in, prayer, study, and worship remind us of the truth–that we are first followers of Jesus. And the more we immerse ourselves in a life of prayer, study and worship, the better we know that about ourselves. And the more we know that about ourselves, the freer we are like Paul to become all things to all people, to open our whole lives up so there is room to truly love and be present with all people.

This is my fervent prayer for us as a church: that we will be more rooted in Christ. I pray that there is a remembering that prayer and study and worship are not optional and are not meaningless. On the contrary, they are the practices that shape us into the kind of people the world needs more of. They are the practices that remind us who we are.