Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Acts 3:16

And by faith in his (Jesus’) name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

This verse takes place during a healing of a man in Solomon’s Portico, accomplished by the Holy Spirit through Peter.

The man who was healed was a lifetime cripple who used to sit outside of the Temple every day and beg for alms. The pious folk knew him well, sneaking guilty glances as they made their way to the Temple, sometimes rattling a few coins into his can, sometimes not. And now here he was, “walking and leaping and praising God;” and so all who saw it were amazed at what had happened, for Peter seemingly had done what silver and gold could not: brought healing.

But the text is careful to point us away from Peter. This healing is not Peter’s responsibility: the responsibility lies elsewhere. Rather than any human power, “his (Jesus’) name itself has made this man strong.” Though Peter may have taken the man by a trembling hand and helped him to his feet, Peter did not heal; the name of Jesus put the strength into this man’s legs.

And yet human initiative did play some part in the healing. “By faith in his name,” we read that Jesus was able to make the man strong. The faith in Jesus seems to be some kind of key to healing; while it is not a guarantee of healing, it does seem as if the man’s faith has something to do with the fact he is able to be healed. The last statement seems to strengthen this idea: “the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health…”

I wonder if there is not something here for us to realize in our own lives. First, we should know that we cannot heal all the hurts of our lives on our own. We can’t snap our fingers and make the pain of rejection or loneliness or failure go away. That is something that only God can do.

And yet we are not entirely powerless. It is up to us to live a life of faith in Christ. In a sense, a life of faith in Christ will allow His power to be made more clear in our lives. Like the cripple, faith guilelessly opens the door to the risen Christ and the power of His Spirit, and invites those guests to make their home in our heart. When this happens, we do begin to experience real healing.

This is an important question because it might just lead to our healing: what does it mean to live a life of faith in Christ? If faith is how we open our lives to God’s healing power, how do we live lives of faith?

It is not simply a matter of piety; nor is it just smiling through the pain. Faith is different than that.

Faith is having the unshakeable conviction that this God stuff is more real than the stuff we see every day. Faith knows even in the face of opposition that Christ is God made man, that he was crucified, dead and buried and yet he arose. Faith is, according to Hebrews 11:1, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

How does this assurance heal us? I wonder if we realize how often our hurts are due to our inability to see beyond our world. So often, we hurt because others disapprove of us, or because we are limited in a way we weren’t formerly limited, or because an ambition is thwarted. These are indeed painful, but they also are mired in this world.

For example, consider when you get upset because another disapproves of you. This is rooted in a feeling of inadequacy: we do not believe we are unique children of God, loved with an unquenchable love, even though that is who God says we are. In that moment of pain, we believe we are the loser that other person thinks we are, and that’s what causes us to hurt so much.

The truly faithful person doesn’t fall for this. The faith-full person has an unshakeable conviction that he is not what anyone says he is; he is that unique child of God that God says he is. Though it cannot be seen or verified, the faithful person knows that God’s opinion is what counts and no person’s. So a person full of faith knows healing from the hurts that hold the rest of us down.

And so it behooves us to learn faith. We do this when we practice spiritual discipline, withdrawing from the culture to gain perspective on its flaws and absurdities. We do this when we praise God in the midst of trials, for this reminds us that God is real, not the trials.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

This is how much God loved the world:

He gave.

God did not love the world so much that his heart overflowed. He did not love the world so much that his pen naturally spilled forth poetry. He did not love the world so much that he had to shout it from the highest mountaintops. No, this is how much God loved the world:

He gave.

And this is, after all, the truest measure of whether we indeed love or not. If we say that we love another and yet are not willing to give of our time, our resources, our selves to them, then can we really say we love him or her?

Can we really say that we love our family if we make no investment in them?

Can we really say we love the homeless and poor if we try never to meet them?

Can we really say we love our church as a family if we do not give our hearts to its teaching and mission?

Can we really say that we love anything or anyone if there is nothing tangible behind it, some gift of time, resources, or self?

We try to love in poor ways sometimes, believing that love is a warm disposition or a positive attitude. And yet it doesn’t last like God’s love, doesn’t mean what God’s love does. Though we have been empowered by God's Spirit to share true love, love that sticks and nourishes, this other kind of love falls away and is quickly dissolved. But God's love given straight from Him or through another stays with us and means something.

Because this is how much God loved the world:

He gave.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Luke 3:16

(NOTE: if you are looking for May 28's sermon, it's the next post down. Thanks!)

John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Many of you know that I am a student in Liturgical Studies. I study—and more importantly, deeply love—Christian worship. I love its high church manifestations, the explicit rituals, but I am a product of the free church tradition.

And my tradition has its own rituals. I love its rituals, the way that its music and baptism and preaching and public prayers and giving and Communion have carried me through life. If anyone tells you that’s not true, that free churches have no rituals, just try to move the doxology out of its appointed place after the taking of the offering. Try introducing Taize or Vineyard music to a Fanny Crosby congregation and tell me there are no rituals in free churches.

And that’s OK—that’s as it should be. Part of what we do when we gather to worship God as groups is that we say there are things that are important for us to do regularly and always in a certain way. The creation and honoring of rituals is part and parcel of Christian worship. In some churches, it’s genuflecting at the cross; in some, the congregation stands one by one during a song of dedication to demonstrate our voluntary individual decision to follow Christ.

For Baptists, our chief ritual is baptism—specifically the baptism of believers and by immersion. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the American frontier was expanding, the Methodists and Baptists did their best at reaching those rowdy pioneer souls. Many chose to become Baptists because of the moving ceremony of believer’s baptism by immersion. It completely rankled the Methodists, so much so that they wrote pamphlet after pamphlet about why Baptist baptism was unscriptural and out of keeping with God’s will. But there is no denying the ritual appealed to the American spirit, an individual decision honored with an emotional, dramatic moment.

In Luke 3:16, we see John doing the same thing. John was baptizing people who had repented. Like baptism today, this was a powerful service and no doubt emotions were flowing as people died to their old ways of living and rose to a new type of life.

The emotions reached a fever pitch, and people began to wonder if this baptizer might not be the Messiah. His response is telling: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.” John was aware his ritualizing, his life of repentance, was good, but wholly without the power that Christ carried. The baptism of Jesus had real and genuine power. One baptized into Christ’s way of living would be set ablaze with new fire: given a completely new life and accepted into a community of real and genuine power through the Holy Spirit. John knew there was a foundational difference between what he could do and what Jesus was going to do. One was just water; but one had fire. Without the fire-power that Christ gave baptism, it was empty.

Liturgical scholars and laypeople alike often love their rituals. And this is OK—rituals help to create community and community is a necessary part of growing as a Christian. And yet we must remember that it’s possible to go through the motions in a way that lacks fire, that lacks genuine power. A Catholic can cross herself and never intend to live under the cross once she leaves that sanctuary. A Baptist can get dunked for the sake of self-actualization and rob that ritual of its true meaning. A Pentecostal can lift up holy hands while holding back the true intentions of his heart. An Episcopalian can open the prayer book and pray, “We humbly pray thee so to guide and govern us by thy Holy Spirit…” while fully intending to follow her own heart’s guidance rather than that of the Spirit.

Our rituals are beautiful, but unless they are lit ablaze by Christ, they will be empty. John the Baptist knew it; do you?

Sermon from Sunday, May 28

Hi all--what follows is the sermon from this past Sunday. The text is from Acts 14:8-20, the story of Paul and Barnabas in the pagan city of Lystra.

One of the first things I’ve learned as a dad is how fickle little Gracie is. Jill and I try to be so scientific with her. If she goes to sleep with the closet light on, the fan set on medium, and some soft music playing, the next night, we turn the closet lights on, we set the fan to medium and we turn on exactly the same song. And of course, the second night, it doesn’t work at all and so we turn the closet light off, turn off the music and turn the fan to high; and that works, so the next night we do all that again, and again it doesn’t work. What she wants one night she doesn’t want the next night.

Those of you that have had babies in your lives know precisely what I mean. Babies defy explanation; they cannot be analyzed and described. They’re just babies; there’s no rhyme or reason to them. Why do babies do what they do? No one really knows. They’re fickle. One day they want one thing, the next they want the other.

I guess though that observing Gracie’s fickleness has led me to be more aware of my own fickleness. Watching her go back and forth makes me realize how often I want one thing one minute and the next thing I want another. Some weeks as a pastor are very busy for me, one thing after another after another, and I think to myself, how many people want a piece of me today? I need some time off, I need to rest, I need some time where I’m not quite so busy. And then, some other weeks as a pastor are not nearly as busy. And I can be sitting in my office, working on a sermon or some other such thing to get ahead, and the whole place is quiet. And in those times, I think, “Why is no one calling me for help? Do people not value my help or my thoughts? Do they not care what I think or do they think I could not help them with a decision they’re facing?” When I finally get free time, I want to be busy! And when I’m busy, I want free time. I guess you could say that if Gracie is fickle, she got it from her dad.

And yet I’m not so sure that I’m alone in my fickleness. I’m convinced that my fickleness has its roots in spiritual immaturity. In other words, part of what God is calling me to in my life now is to a sense of being content in all things. Why do I long for everything except what God is giving me at the present moment? For me, this is a profoundly spiritual question; it has to do with a certain restlessness in my spirit that I am working to address through prayer.

I say I’m not alone in my fickleness because I don’t think that spiritual issue is unique to me. I think many people struggle with the exact same issue as I do. There is a restlessness in our spirit that makes us fickle; there is a struggle deep within the soul that makes us want tomorrow until it becomes today. And when it becomes yesterday, we want it back again. We truly don’t know why we want what we want; one day it is one thing, and one day it is another. And we live in a world that is very much like this, very fickle indeed.

As far as an example of fickleness, it would be hard to be more fickle than the crowd gathered here at Lystra. They are fickle indeed! The city of Lystra was a very pagan city, a city that worshiped many different gods. Last week, we talked about how Christianity branched out from being just a Jewish faith to include the Gentiles. Part of what made this tricky was cities like Lystra. When the Gospel was only being preached to Jews, there was a certain set of assumptions that people already believed. They already believed in one God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel; they already had the Hebrew Bible as Scripture. And belief in Jesus was more or less added on to what they already understood.

But a city like Lystra, largely made up of Gentiles, didn’t know all of that stuff, and so Paul and Barnabas more or less had to “start from scratch” when ministering to them. They waste no time in showing the missionaries just how much they had yet to learn. Paul and Barnabas come into town and set up shop and start speaking in the synagogue. And as Paul is speaking, he sees a man who has been crippled since birth. And Paul perceives that he has faith to be healed, and so he looks at the man and says, “Stand upright on your feet.” And we read that the man sprang up and began to walk.

It is a miracle, of course, but it’s hardly out of the ordinary for the early disciples. Miracles like this happened all the time; people were constantly being healed by the power of the Holy Spirit made manifest through the church. But it was the first time the people of Lystra had ever seen a miracle like this.

And so they see what Paul did and they start to proclaim that Paul and Barnabas are gods become flesh! They called Barnabas Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the one who did the talking. (Hermes was understood to be a messenger or spokesperson of the rest of the gods, and since Paul did all the talking, that’s why they thought he was Hermes.) And so they wanted to honor these humans they believed were gods. So they brought oxen to sacrifice and they brought garlands to put on their heads.

Well, of course, when Paul and Barnabas got what was going on, of course, they protested. They tore their clothes–a sign of mourning–and they “started from scratch” and told them very basic things about God. They said there was only one God who made the earth, and that this God formerly was distant from the people of the earth, but he still gave everyone food, rain and fruitful seasons.” But even so, the people still wanted to treat them as gods and offer sacrifices to them.

It’s quite a scene, isn’t it? People going wild for these two confused disciples, people offering up sacrifices, praising these two people who came simply to help in the name of Jesus Christ. It was rather like a wild party where the guests of honor were trying to get everybody to just calm down.

But then something changes, and we get to see the extreme fickleness of the people of Lystra. We read that some Jews came down from Antioch. Now, please don’t hear anti-Semitism here. These are just described as Jews to distinguish them from Christians. And we read that they won over the crowds; and in fact, they won them over pretty convincingly. So much so, in fact, that the people they used to think were gods, now they thought were criminals worthy of death. We read that they stoned Paul, and then supposing that he was dead, they dragged him outside of the city. Obviously, the crowds of Lystra have set the bar for fickleness pretty high. One minute Paul is a God; the next, he is a criminal on death row.

Being a Christian in a fickle world can leave you pretty badly bruised. Like the city of Lystra, the world does not know much about God anymore. Few people anymore look at the Kingdom of God and say, “I want to be a part of that.” And so like Paul and Barnabas, we are left to “start from scratch.” We are left to speak very basically about God.

And sometimes there are tremendously high times when we act with Christ’s power in the world. There are some very special times we can look at in our own lives where we acted with God’s power and people loved it. Maybe you can remember a time you prayed for someone and God stepped in and healed their situation, and even though that person wasn’t a Christian, they thanked you for praying. Maybe you can remember helping the poor, giving to someone in need, and society thanked you for doing that kindness in the name of another. There are times in the world that Christians come off smelling like a rose, and people love it when we act with the power of God.

And yet there are some times in our lives when people have just the opposite reaction about something you’ve done. They misunderstand you or don’t fully grasp what you mean. They have been hurt by Christians somewhere else and blame you for the failure of other Christians. They have unresolved issues of their own which makes them take it out on you.

Society is fickle about spiritual matters. Sometimes, our culture is kind to Christianity and to Christians, thanking us for some good deed or another. And sometimes, our culture is downright hostile to Christianity because Christianity challenges people to stop worshiping themselves and to seek something greater than themselves. And culture doesn’t always like that. And so we Christians often emerge from the highs and lows of that kind of life something like the Apostle Paul, bloodied and bruised, worn out from the highs and the lows, kind of left for dead.

But, you know, something happened to Paul when he was laying there, left for dead, outside of the city. His friends, his colleagues, his Christian brothers and sisters, the disciples came to see him. And this is what we read: “When the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city.” Before he was surrounded by the disciples, he was a bloody mess, laying on the ground, maybe to lay there forever. But after he was surrounded by the disciples, he got up, renewed, and he walked into the city to proclaim the good news again.

What happened while Paul was “surrounded,” there on the ground? No one knows for sure. I’m almost certain he was prayed for; that would be very characteristic of the disciples, to pray for healing, to pray that God’s Spirit would descend and heal this servant who was beginning to do so much for the kingdom. Maybe one of the disciples laid healing hands on him, as Jesus did, to directly communicate the power of the Spirit to the broken body of Paul. Maybe someone physically dressed his wounds, cleaning them and wrapping him up in bandages; in that way, they showed their love and concern for their wounded healer.

They may have done any or all of these things. But I think the most important thing is bound up in that word surrounded. I think the most important thing is that they surrounded Paul. When I was at college, I took a minor in linguistics. One of the courses you had to take to get a minor in linguistics was called language learning. It was a course where you were supposed to practice learning a language by immersion. This is different from books where you learn verb charts and pages of vocabulary words. When you learn a language by immersion, it’s like jumping into a pool to learn to swim. You simply go and hang out only with people who are native speakers of the language. In so doing, you begin to pick some things up.

Now, the only problem was that my college was in the middle of nowhere. But there were an unusual number of Japanese students on campus, so we were to spend three hours a week with them, listening to them talk, asking them how to say different phrases, etc. I had a good friend and we would go together to spend time with them because we were both a little scared to do it.

Japanese is a very foreign language to us Westerners for many reasons. But by making myself be around it and it only, I began to learn bits and pieces of it. If I had stuck with it for more than a semester, I might have actually learned to speak it well!

That is the power of being surrounded. It redefines your reality. When I surrounded myself with only Japanese speakers for three hours a week, during that time, I wasn’t in western New York. I was, for all intents and purposes, in a foreign land, where I was in the minority, where I had to struggle to understand what was going on. And the only thing that was different were the people I surrounded myself with. That had the power to change me.

I wonder if this isn’t what’s going on with Paul. Paul is bloodied and bruised when all he can see are those who misunderstand him and either worship him or stone him. It takes a toll on him, it saps his emotional energy when this is his reality. And yet, when he is surrounded by the disciples, that’s all he can see. All he can see are people who he helped to bring to faith, people who have the right priorities in life, people who wish Paul good and not harm. And so Paul is re-energized by this experience; he is renewed and revived. After being surrounded, Paul has the strength to go back into the city and speak the truth in love. It’s as if being surrounded has reminded him of the strength that God truly had given him.

Perhaps this is a word for us as well. I know that in a previous sermon, I quoted Philo of Alexandria, who said, “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.” And this is true! Those who are around you today, those who are next to you, those who are three rows in front of you, even those on the other side of the sanctuary, are fighting to be Christ in this culture that doesn’t always get it. And so there are many of us who arrive today bloodied and bruised.

That, of course, is sad, but it is not the real tragedy. The true tragedy would be for those bloodied and bruised ones here today not to be surrounded. For this is what we do for each other, this band of disciples. This is what the church does when it really wants to be a church: We surround each other. We gather around each other and we help to redefine reality for each other.

When you are going through something, and you are bloody and bruised, and the church surrounds you, you remember that a world of angry stones and confused worshipers is not all there is. There is a different world, a world that we know in part here and one day we shall know in full. There is a world where the things that God calls right are done, and the things that God calls wrong are no more. There is a world where people are loved not for what they do, but simply because they are created by God who gives them human dignity. There is a world where people have given everything else away in the name of following the adventure that is life in Jesus Christ, and they celebrate with all the joy of people who are living life in the right direction.

When we are surrounded, we remember that we are not just heroes or victims in the eyes of a fickle world; we are so much more than that! We are disciples of the true God, and we are living the ultimate adventure, the God-centered and God-filled life. We are partners with this God in extending His grace to all the world.

And after we get surrounded by the disciples, after we remember who we are, why we’re here, we are strengthened to go back out into the world, to go back to our mission, unafraid of those who would worship us, unafraid of those who would stone us. Why? Because that’s not reality. This–this Christian community, this foretaste of heaven–this is a glimpse of true reality, the reality we will know one day in all its fullness at God’s banquet table.

This is why you hear me harp on church attendance so much. Because we are called on to surround each other constantly. We cannot be simply consumers of a church--seeing it as an opportunity to meet our own needs. Instead, we are conscious that every time we gather, we gather for the sake of others who need to be surrounded. Each time we are together, there are those our culture has left for dead that need our ministry of surrounding.

My prayer for you and for us always is that we never settle for being anything less than that as a church. Let’s never settle for just being friendly, for just being nice, for not being offensive. Let’s be a place that surrounds people, so that when bloody and bruised people come in, they see that they are so much more than victims. Let us be a place that points the ones this world worships and the ones this world stones to a higher reality, to the new life that comes in Christ.