Tuesday, May 02, 2006

On judgment

From the most recent Christian Century (dated May 2, 2006), a poem by G. Wayne Glick:

(Matthew 13:47-50)

Many fields, many treasures, many pearls
(One chosen). Here, fish netted, many kinds,
But singularity is not the point,
The point is, good are kept, and bad destroyed.
Are these the gentle Galilean's words?
If so, a strange form of gentility:
The angels throw the evil in the fire,
And there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
O, how we twist and turn and rationalize,
Assured Matthew was victim of his time,
And heaven's kingdom never need be forced,
And "way that leads to life" is easy, smooth.
Shall we amend, then, the Apostles' Creed:
"To judge the quick and dead"? This we don't need.

I'm struck by the wisdom of this poem. The parable of the dragnet, the focus of the poem, reads thusly:

" Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Glick looks at this parable and warns us that "singularity is not the point." The parable is not a celebration of what makes each one of these diverse fish unique and therefore wonderful. The point is, he notes, that "good are kept, and bad destroyed."

The two parables that directly precede this parable, the pearl of great price and the treasure in a field, are alluded to in the first two lines of the poem. Together, these three parables suggest that there is a particular Gospel way of living that is worth pursuing. To miss it is to miss the true treasure, the greatest pearl. To miss the truth is to, in effect, condemn oneself to a self-destructive way of living.

Glick's wisdom shines in the second half of the poem: he sees the amazing way we humans rationalize, always reading through our cultural lenses. We are so assured that Matthew's perspective is so much more limited than ours, that if Matthew had only known what we know, he never would have recorded these parables. And so, even in light of these urgent words from the Savior, we are convinced that his way is not difficult, not worth pursuing in any objective sense. Instead, we are sure that God's way is really our way, and that Jesus and Matthew would say as much if they lived today.

Forget for a second the incredible presumption of thinking, "If only the eyewitnesses to Jesus had lived today, they would have really understood life." Beyond the simple arrogance of that statement, we need to realize that this kind of thinking completely blunts the force of these parables. If we automatically say that because this parable is at odds with our modern mindset, it cannot be so, then we do not worship Christ so much as ourselves. It is not Christ we feel is infallible--it is ourselves and our sense of right and wrong.

The parables--and indeed, all of Jesus' teaching--would be warm arms, enfolding us and keeping us close to our Source of life. When we thoughtlessly cast them off, we are not liberating ourselves from a constricting judgmentalism; instead, we are "freeing" ourselves from the only way that leads to true life. And so, fittingly, Glick titles his poem "Emancipation?" An "emancipation" from the idea of right and wrong is no emancipation at all.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, April 30

Hi all--what a wonderful day for worship yesterday! Hope this sermon is meaningful to you--the text is Acts 4:32-35.

Jill and I were married August 7, 1999, on a perfect summer day in western New York. It was about 78 degrees and sunny, clear, without a cloud in the sky, with a lovely breeze off of Lake Erie. A friend had offered us his family’s cabin on Lake Champlaign for a week on our honeymoon, and the fact that that week was free let us take another week, and so we went over to the little village of Lincoln, New Hampshire to spend another week.

As we drove into town, I began to realize that this was not the first time I had been here. It seemed familiar somehow, and so we drove around for a while longer and I realized that I had been here before on a vacation with my family growing up. I was happy to realize this because I kind of remembered this wonderful hike my family had taken the time we had been there before, a hike up Mt. Lincoln. Mt. Lincoln is in the same mountain range as the more famous Mt. Washington; I remembered it being a tough hike but thoroughly worth it. So I suggested to Jill that we take that same hike because it was so pretty.

So we did. And it was a beautiful hike, a really beautiful day for it. There was just one trouble: I had forgotten how difficult the hike was. And this was before I had started to run, and I weighed a good deal more than I weigh now and was not in good shape at all. And Jill was doing fine, but I was beginning to labor. We got to the top of the mountain, no problem, but as we were coming down, we had to jump down from rocks that were three or four feet high. And all of the jumping really began to take its toll on my legs; and my quadriceps really began to first burn, and then cramp up. We really couldn’t stop because it was getting dark and we aren’t really campers. So we had to keep going, right through the pain.

Well, when the hike was finally over, I was in more pain than I’ve been in ever since. And for the next few days, I walked like a 91-year-old instead of a 21-year-old. I could barely get up the three steps into our cabin. I could barely get down the three steps from our cabin. Thank heavens that Jill and I don’t play real golf, because I could barely walk around the miniature golf course. Jill was very patient with me and she called me her “decrepit husband.” She walked slowly just to walk with me and I’m sure people just looked at this pretty young woman and wonder what tragedy had befallen her husband before his time.

But aren’t honeymoons wonderful? If I were to go through this today, it would be a rather major difficulty, and it would make me so frustrated to have to take everything so slow, and it would bother me to be in so much pain. But when you’re on your honeymoon, you hardly even notice. It’s just so nice to be with your beloved, so good to hear her say your name. When those names, “Husband” and “wife” are new, you wear them with so much pride. Jill may have called me her “decrepit husband,” but it was such a joy to hear her say I was her husband that she could have used any adjective she wanted to describe me and I wouldn’t have noticed, wouldn’t have cared. When you’re on your honeymoon, four days of barely being able to walk around just fades away in the light of love.

In our Scripture today, we find the church, the bride of Christ, thoroughly in its honeymoon phase. They face all kinds of pain, all kinds of difficulties. They are disliked by the Jews and ignored by the Gentiles and their very existence threatens some of the Romans. Wherever they go, they preach and tell about Jesus’ resurrection, and this is foolishness to the Greeks, and a stumbling-block to the Jews and so they face hardship anywhere they look. And yet, from this passage, all we see is that things are going great. They are in a honeymoon phase, and those difficulties just kind of melt away for the sheer joy of the new faith they are cobbling out with the inspiration of God’s Spirit.

Of course, we too are in a honeymoon phase of sorts. We took last week to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus; we got together in church and it was unbelievable. The choir was singing, there were flowers, there was a spiritual charge in the air because of the way that Jesus conquered death. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too can know eternal life, a resurrected kind of life where just like the disciples, we live with the Holy Spirit as our guide and our comforter. And so we just took last week to celebrate.

But the celebration didn’t end last week; it goes on and on; forty days of Lent followed by fifty days of Easter, fifty days to celebrate the good things that God has done in our lives. And so today, in the midst of our honeymoon, we look to the book of Acts, at the early church, in the midst of their honeymoon. Hopefully, we can look at them and learn how to turn our church into a place of celebration in the same way.

So, how did they do it? How did they celebrate? What made that such a special time and place for these ancient Christians? I want to suggest that there were three things that made that early church’s honeymoon blissful, and that these are characteristics that we can copy today in our life together to begin to really celebrate.

First, I think one thing that made the early church so special was that it was a place of unity. The Scripture today starts by saying that “All those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Many people, yet one heart and one soul. The early church’s life together was characterized by unity; despite some diversity in its members, the early church was characterized not by its differences, but by its essential sameness. While people maintained their differences in some ways, there was no doubt that they agreed on the most essential thing: Christ was dead and now was alive and that good news had to be shared with all the world. For everyone in the early church, this was the most important thing in life; and because it was the most important thing to everyone, the result was that there was essential unity, a common purpose in the world, a common reason for living.

I was listening to a friend who went to Penn St. tell about the first Penn St. football game she went to as a student. And she was saying how cool it was to be in a stadium where 100,000+ people were all gathered with a common purpose, seeking to achieve the same goal. It can safely be said that at a Penn State football game on a Saturday, those who gather are of “one heart and one soul.” And it is a wonderful thing to behold, whether it is at a Penn State football game or in the church.

How can we know this today? How can we know the joy of being “one heart and one soul,” as did the early church. How can we make it so that a Sunday morning at church carries the same buzz as a Penn State football game? Not that we’d actually play football–but how can we make it so that we just know that when we gather on Sunday morning, it’s not just something we do, but it is the exciting gathering of souls who are so unified and so close and share the same goal in life, to see Christ glorified and his name proclaimed?

The joy of being “one heart and one soul” is not easily attained. When we diehard Eagles fans get together to watch a game, we can always tell the people who aren’t real fans, those who just don’t get into it like we do. They can’t tell you about the team in its dark days, they don’t know who the seventh-round draft pick was in 1997; they don’t know the latest rumors about who might be joining the team. You can spot them a mile away; they’re just different somehow from the rest of us who “get it.” Now there’s no shame in that–while we were reading the Eagles history books, and reading through endless internet stories about the Eagles, this other person was probably doing something more worthwhile like studying or running or learning a new hobby.

A similar thing happened when I went to Jill’s dissertation defense for her doctorate. At her defense, there were some fellow students, and a panel of faculty members. In fact, I and one other person were the only “non-math” people there. And it was obvious that we didn’t quite fit in; why? Well, because we had taken our lives and our education to study other things. And so we didn’t get the inside jokes, didn’t understand most of what was happening, and left thoroughly confused. We weren’t really part of the day like the other people were. If you want to be “one heart and soul” with mathematicians, you gotta work to know the math. If you want to be “one heart and soul” with Eagles fans, you have to devote yourself to knowledge and suffering with the team. If you want to be of one heart and soul with anybody, you have to structure your life to become part of that world. The way you spend your resources–your time, your money, your life–will determine the groups that you can be “one heart and soul with.”

All this is to say is that becoming “one heart and soul” as a church is not easy. It depends on each of us to structure our lives so that Christ is at the center. It depends on each of us to re-prioritize our lives so that our walk with Christ is the one non-negotiable from which all other decisions are made. Decisions about our jobs, our children, our family, our values, our lives, are all made from that center, where Christ rules supreme. When each of us does this in our lives, when each lives with Christ as the center of our lives, not on the fringes, then we will begin to know the joy of being “one heart and soul.” And that is an incomparable joy, so contagious that people coming in see it and want to catch it.

I think that another thing that made the early church so joyous was the fact that the apostles shared their testimony. Verse 33 reads, “The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” At the center of the church’s life together was the way that the apostles told the story. The apostles would share how they had seen the risen Christ with their own eyes, how he had appeared to them in Galilee and on the road to Emmaus. These stories held the community together, reminded them that they were not giving their lives away to a mirage, but that Jesus had really and truly, honestly and completely, been raised from the dead.

When I was growing up, our church had testimony time on Sunday evening. I remember that as being such a wonderful and a challenging time. Sunday evening service at my home church is no longer happening, but when I was going, it was a gathering of usually 25 or 30 folks. The worship leader would take time out for people to share a way in which they had seen God at work in their lives. People would talk about how they had been ill and restored to health; or they would talk about a relationship that God restored; or they would talk about something new they had learned that was making them more like Christ; or they would talk about a friend who had become a Christian. In all these things, just like in the earliest days of the church, we who listened were reassured that we weren’t just chasing after the wind, we were following the God who could do all of this amazing stuff!

Even while we move further into the 21st century, it is important for us to reclaim the practice of testimony. Sometimes it seems old-fashioned but it is exactly what our culture needs. Like the early church, we live in a world that is not always friendly to our way of life. To follow a person hung as a common criminal is never easy; and to pattern our life after a person who walked the earth 2000 years ago is very hard in a world that worships the newest, the fastest, and the most impressive. Just like they survived by constantly reminding each other of the story of the resurrection, we survive when we remind each other, “Hey, this God is real–and here’s where I saw God in action just the other day!” And if we don’t do that, if we don’t keep each reminding each other, centering each other on those sacred stories, guess what will happen? Our real unity will wither away. We’ll talk about how we’re a family and we all love each other, but if we forget to tell each other the stories, we’ll grow farther and farther apart.

But if we remember to tell each other the stories of how God touched us, how he changed us, how he grew us through an experience, our unity will increase. Our life together will start to really mean something and we’ll find ourselves completely rooted in Christ and in each other in a new way.

So–enough from me. Let’s tell the stories! No–I’m serious. Let’s tell each other. Where have
you seen God active in your life in the last week, in the last month, or any time in your life? Is there a story about how good God has been to you that might help to remind the rest of us that God is real? Let’s talk about it–let’s celebrate it! (Take some time for testimony)

Yes, one of the reasons the early church was joyous was that they knew the joy of testimony. And even though we can’t do this all together every week, we should be ready every time we speak to have a testimony, to be ready to say, “This is where I saw Jesus acting in my life.” It should season our conversation, it should never be far from our lips, the good things that God has done and is doing in our lives–not just pastors, but all of us.

There’s one more reason I’m convinced that the early church was joyous. And we find it in v. 32, “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was in common.” Remarkable as it seems to us, the early church lived with a common purse. People sold things that belonged to them for the care of other people. And while we see some examples in Acts of Christians having some private property, there is this sense that “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine, for everything belongs to God.”

Now, I don’t think we are able to do this today, at least not in precisely this same way. Yet I think we should sit with this for a while and let it challenge us. I think the early Christians did this because they recognized the degree to which having control over private property can be addictive and dangerous. Very often, we allow the things we own to own us. Sometimes, we even allow things we don’t own to own us.

Like most of us, I have fantasies of winning the lottery, though something in my upbringing won’t quite let me actually play it. Now, I’m different than the rest of the people who want to win the lottery. I have different reasons–better reasons, holier reasons really. I don’t want to win the lottery because then I’d take on this opulent lifestyle where I’d quit my job, move to the Caribbean, and sip those little drinks with the umbrella in them. I’d like to think my reasons for wanting to win the lottery are more noble. I’d like to win the lottery, just to provide a little security. I’d put away enough for Gracie and any of Gracie’s brothers and sisters to go to college; I’d pay off our mortgage, or maybe buy a house where we had some room to grow. I’d put some in the bank so that if we faced a medical crisis we’d have enough to fall back on. I’d make sure our parents would be well-cared for in their old age, and that we’d be well-cared for in our old age. That’s what I’d do, not just blow it all on fancy cars and vacation homes, etc.

That’s what I tell myself when I dream about winning the lottery; you don’t want it for all this fancy stuff; I just want to have it so I and those I love are secure, so I don’t have to worry.
However, in my better moments, I know how dangerous such delusions are. I am not accustomed to using such strong language, but it is a lie of the devil to believe that my security lies in money. My security rests solely in the Spirit of God, and the community of faith that I choose to hitch my wagon to. Jesus told a parable about this, about the man with an abundance of grain, more grain than his barn could hold. And so he says, “What will I do? I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and then I will relax and enjoy life; I’ll be set!” And God appeared to him and said, “You fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you; and all these things, all this grain, who’s going to have it?”

I believe God has a joyous life in store for us together, and each of us individually. That does not mean an easy life, but it does mean that each of us can know the joy that God is near us in good times and bad. And that is true joy. The early church knew that one of the greatest things that can get in the way of that joy was possessions. Possessions can creep in and possess us, and not just those with mansions and fancy cars; possessions can possess ordinary people, those of us that eat Spaghettios for dinner occasionally and have mortgages and belt-tightening at the end of the month. Possessions can possess us. When we become obsessed with getting the next thing, when we become obsessed with climbing the ladder, when we become obsessed with keeping what we have, we are obsessed with something other than becoming like Christ, and that always makes a mess out of life.

In looking at the joy of the early church on their honeymoon, I see three main things: they were unified (they had common goals), they gave testimony to the risen Christ, and they refused to let possessions dominate them.

There is much talk in our church and in every church about how to grow. Are we growing as a church? Are we reaching out to the community? How can we make ourselves more visible to the community? How can we better care for the community that God has placed us in and calls us to?

The discussion about these questions is quite complex. Trust me–I’ve read and read and read deeply in this area. We focus on what structure the church should take on, what advertising the church should do, what special events we can offer the community, if we should start a second worship service, etc. etc. And these are good and right questions to ask. And yet beneath all of the complicated discussions that happen on one level, there is another, deeper, spiritual level to these questions that must be addressed.

For us to be the people God has called us to be, we must be a spiritually joyous people. We must be characterized by the same joy that characterized this earliest renegade band of disciples, who worked with the Holy Spirit to build a new faith out of nothing. If we know this joy, then it will cover over a multitude of other mistakes we might make along the way; if we fail to know this joy, then we can be the most brilliant church with the best ideas and it will make no impact on the community.

If you wish to help this church become the people God wants for us to be in Exton, there is simply nothing more important than becoming a joyous person. There is simply nothing more important than claiming what is rightfully yours, that honeymoon kind of joy. That kind of joy, the joy that changes lives, comes when we cast aside other goals in favor of the goal of becoming like Christ. It comes when we learn to give testimony about the risen Christ, and it comes when we are liberated from possessions. As we learn to do these things, we will begin to know the true joy God wants for us to know this Easter season.