Generosity

Scripture: 1John 3:16-24

Definitions

How do you define love?

It’s something we are great pleasure in, right? We love music, or camping, or baseball, or books. But somewhere inside we know that there is more.

Love often describes a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. But again, this description is not nearly enough.

One dictionary describes love as “an intense feeling of deep affection”: like how we love our children, or our country, or our friends. But even this does not describe all that love is.

How to define love seems always to be a point of contention, both within the world and within the Church of Jesus Christ. But the fact is: we don’t have to define love; God already did. And that definition of love is offered to us in the first verse of our scripture reading: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1John 3:16 NIV).

Love is when someone or something else becomes more important than yourself. 

When it comes to faith (then), it is no coincidence that Paul says in 1Corinthians 13 that love is head and shoulders above every other virtue, behavior, or action. That among the choices of faith and the world, “the greatest of these” will always be love (1Corinthians 13:13).

If we are believers in the one true God……
If we are followers of the Way, the Truth, and the Life……
If we are disciples of the Christ who taught us the real meaning of love,
then love will be the foundation of who we are.

Applying Love

In these very theological verses of 1John, the author is arguing for a kind of undeniable, all-encompassing, yet very practical application of love in the lives of Christ-followers.

What is the core way we express that love?

Or the reverse of the same question: What is the surest way to demonstrate we have left the path of Jesus?

Today’s scripture lesson sounds the answer clearly: generosity. Generosity.

Listen to v.17 again, this time from The Message translation:

“If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it, but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”

Generosity is a sort of basic kindness—compassion at it’s most rudimentary. Can we—as human beings—as creatures created in the image of a God whose nature is community—can we know that someone else suffers (or even will die!) because of what we have, and yet still refuse to offer them some? Can we still refuse to share what God has shared with us?

The answer of 1John is: “No.”
No we can’t.

At least: we cannot if we have even the most basic, immature, fragile awareness of who Jesus is. Because as soon as Jesus enters the picture, everything changes.

The Radical Change of Jesus

In continuing what God has been doing in the world—in fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17)—Jesus turns everything on its head: “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). As we discover in Matthew 5:

Now, it is the poor who inherit the kingdom, not the wealthy and powerful.

It is those who mourn who are comforted, not the comfortable.

It is the meek who inherit the earth, rather than the selfish and bold.

The hungry and thirsty who will be filled, instead of the gluttonous or rich.

The merciful receive mercy, rather than get taken advantage of.

Those with simple, pure hearts are the ones who see God.

Those advocating peace embody God as God’s children.

And the ones persecuted because they are truly on God’s side will spend eternity in God’s Kingdom.

None of this—none of this—is the way our world works.

In fact, all of it seems to be the complete opposite. Since Jesus is the perfect “imprint of the invisible God” (as Colossians 1:15 asserts), he reveals the true way of things to we who have had our vision manipulated by this world and its powers. It is not easy to lose the blinders that the Enemy has strapped to our brains—impediments that distort our vision of reality and truth. But that is precisely the liberation that Jesus seeks to enable for us: “You have heard it said……but I say to you……” (cf. Matthew 5).

Given the centrality of this radical reversal to Jesus’ life and ministry, we cannot expect anything less regarding the topic of generosity.

As revealed to us through Jesus and the scriptures, True generosity can only come from the intersection of two realizations: (1) that everything belongs to God, and (2) that we are so deeply interconnected that harm/benefit to someone else produces harm/benefit in ourselves.

Let’s take these each in turn.

Everything Belongs to God

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1 ESV). A simple and beautiful reminder that everything belongs to God. So simple and so beautiful, we could almost overlook its expansive reality, were it not intertwined throughout the rest of scripture.

And indeed: throughout the bible, this is the consistent message: everything within creation belongs to the Lord of Creation; everything in our possession is simply entrusted to us as temporary managers.

Thus, ownership as such does not mean what we think it means. The biblical view of ownership does not allow us to believe in “mine.” All things, instead, are “Thine”—that is, God’s. All wealth, all things, even all life, is owned by God and loaned to us to use according to God’s purposes.

Whether we’re encountering the stories of the Abraham & Sarah, reading the Psalms, or watching the Parable of the Talents unfold in the gospels, we are taught that everything belongs to God.

Realizing that the things we have belong to God then frees us to embody God’s generosity in ways that contradict the culture of selfishness around us.

Freed from being possessed by possessions, we can live God’s truth in the world by sharing what we have with others—believing in both the goodness of creation and its sufficiency when treated as God intends.

Interconnected

But there is that second dimension that is also necessary for us to live out true generosity. We can know that everything belongs to God; but if we do not realize our interdependence with one another, we will lack the compassion that prompts true generosity.

What I mean is this: the apostle Paul talks (in 1Corinthians 12 and other places) about the Church as a single organism—a body. We as individuals cannot simply “opt out” (vv.14-20).

Whether we want to or not, whether it is convenient or not, whether we think it is a drain on us or not—we are bound together in a web of interconnectivity. That means—among other things—that when one of us is hurting, the threads of that web drum out an SOS that impacts the rest of us. Paul says:

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1Corinthians 12:26 NRSV).

But it’s not just the Church that works this way; we are increasingly discovering the interconnectedness of all of creation. One of the most fascinating discoveries in the last years has been about trees. Ecologist Suzanne Simard (and others) have learned that different trees are connected in various ways—both physically and (remarkably) by chemical communication.

Roots from different trees fuze together and support one another in lean years.

Related trees adjust competitive behaviors by using underground fungal networks to let one another know of their presence.

Defense enzymes are released underground and through the air that warns nearby trees of attacks by pests like insects……or humans.

Some even release chemicals through the air to attract predators that eat those pests.

We are discovering that when one tree is cut down, other trees suffer, as well as the host of other life forms that depend on that tree and its life cycle.

The Application of Generosity

The point is this: if we cannot learn that the hurt of others affects us as well, we will never be moved (like Jesus) by compassion, and we will never demonstrate true generosity.

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1John 3:17 NRSV)

Take a long, hard look around this room.
Take a long, hard look at our community.
Take a long, hard look at our world.

There is:

So much pain.
So much need.
So much loneliness.
So much hopelessness.
So much grief.

I came not “to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but to save it” (cf. John 3:17).

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17 NRSV).

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV).

These are Jesus’ own words. And there are plenty of other places in scripture—the Old and New Testaments—that speak to the importance of kindling generosity in our hearts. But I’m not sure any others are as clear—or as damning—as what is found in our scripture lesson itself.

Hear the Voice of God, speaking across the centuries, from another translation once again:

“If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? 

My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love” (1John 3:17-18 VOICE).

Prayer

Merciful God,

Soften our hardened hearts.
Instill your mercy in us.
Remind us that though we are individuals,
we are part of something more than ourselves—
that our choices affect others, and theirs us.

Help us hear how others’ experience
is often different than our own.
Teach us to hear
as readily as we want ourselves to be heard.
May we be ready to respond with compassion and kindness
instead of selfishness and self-justification.

Teach us to love our neighbor more than ourselves,
sharing from among the good things you’ve entrusted to us,
giving as freely as Christ gives to us
the forgiveness and grace that lead to abundant life.

And in doing so, we pray
that your love shine brightly through us,
that all others will come through grace into your holy family,
and that your Name will be praised,

through the working of the Holy Spirit,
the love of Jesus Christ,
and the power of you, O God our Father. Amen.

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Everything Is Free Now

A sermon delivered at the Prairie Pastor’s Conference, 17 April 2018. This was written for and delivered to a gathering of pastors.

Scripture

A reading from 1Timothy 5:17–18 (ESV):

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves [their] wages.””

To this we add a reading from 2Thessalonians 3:13 (ESV):

“Sisters and brothers: Do not grow weary in doing good.”

2001: An Odyssey

Sermons/homilies/meditations/devotions–whatever you call them–they come in many forms. Or at least they do for me.

Today I believe God’s given me a story to share. It’s quite different than what you might hear on an average Sunday, were you to darken the doors of the church where I serve. Then again, I’m learning that a preacher is more attuned to the nuances of her own style than the average person in the pews.

What I’ll tell you is this: God started growing this sermon in me over a month before I was invited to speak. I felt it incubating in me as viscerally as the bass-drum of my heart or the sharp inflation of air penetrating my lungs.

It’s a story that I believe God wants you to hear too. But in order to experience this story, we’ve first got to get in our way-back machines and travel to the distant year of 2001.

You remember 2001, don’t you?

Y2K and its threat to make Flintstones of us all is recent yet a distant memory

The world looks nothing like Arthur Clark predicted in A Space Odyssey (though that year the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft did successfully land on an asteroid)

George W. Bush is president

“America Online” effectively dies, following its merger with Time Warner

Wikipedia is born

The 1500 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan are destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan

Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore installs a Ten Commandments monument in a judicial building, sparking lingering dialogue about the separation of church and state

2,977 people are killed in a coordinated terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard United Airlines flight 93

A series of anthrax-laced letters were mailed to several media and political offices, claiming the lives of five

Microsoft releases Windows XP

The first Halo video game is released alongside the original Xbox

Enron files for bankruptcy

PDA means “personal digital assistant”

3G cellular service is launched, paving the way for the coming BlackBerry and smartphone craze that has changed our world

And there’s a lot that no doubt happened in your personal lives too, but I can’t speak to that because Facebook hasn’t yet processed my request for your data.

Do you remember? Are you there? Did I take you back?

Because there is one other thing that was going on in 2001–something you probably missed altogether, yet something so frightening and revolutionary that for many it was more significant than any other event that year, excepting the 9/11 attacks.

It revolved around a lawsuit against a company called Napster.

Napster

Now for everyone here more than five or ten years older than me, I realize you likely have no idea what a “Napster” is. And for everyone younger than me, maybe you’ve got a vague notion that it’s a music streaming service, like Spotify or iHeartRadio.

Back then though, back in 2001, Napster broke the internet–literally. In those halcyon days of the early internet, Napster was the queen bee of peer-to-peer file sharing. In principle, this was simple: two computers connected to the internet could send and receive files between them. In practice, however, it became an ethical quagmire. And it all came to a head over music.

You see, musical artists make money off of record sales. Even those concert tours that you pay big bucks to attend–those hardly break even, even for major artists. Back in the 1990’s and earlier, it was with record sales that a musician would survive or fail.

So what do you think happened when all these punk kids (like me) started sharing digitized music online instead of buying new albums for themselves? (doing what came to be called “music piracy”)

Anyone here could guess it. Record sales plummet, artists struggle to survive in their vocation (and many quit), and the entire industry is shaken to its core. Money makes the world go ’round, and no one knew how to monetize what was happening with Napster.

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch is a folksinger who found herself hurt by this paradigm shift. The world changed out from under her, becoming something other than what she signed up for, so to speak. It was like she agreed to play a game, but halfway through someone changed all the rules.

So in 2001, Welch released a hauntingly beautiful song about trying to come to terms with this complete paradigm shift. It begins:

Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, (they’re) gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay

The song continues as she tries to think of a path forward:

I can get a tip jar, gas up the car
Try to make a little change down at the bar
Or I can get a straight job, I done it before
Never minded workin’ hard, it’s who I’m workin’ for

Through the song she realizes that she wants to keep creating, and that she’s willing to give up “the big time” if it means she can continue to let the music move through her. She can’t just stop, but maybe–maybe?–she can leave the “recording artist” side behind. She thinks she doesn’t need all the hassle; so maybe she just deals herself out, so to speak. She sings:

Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song
But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home
And sing a little love song, my lover, myself
If there’s something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself

But then she finally realizes that she can’t just stop. As much as it matters, it doesn’t really matter if she’s making money or not–she is going to create and release music: it is what she exists to do. So the song ends with this resolve:

‘Cause everything is free now, that’s what I said
No ones gotta listen to the words in my head
Someone hit the big score, I figured it out
And I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay

(Listen to the song here)

Everything Is Free Now

There’s a parallel here for those of us in this room–or at least I see one.

Most all of us here are clergy in one form or another. And the majority of you–if you don’t mind my pointing it out–are older than I am (though that number seems to dwindle every year).

What changes you’ve seen!

How the culture and churches in which we work have shifted!

And our role?–it isn’t what it was even when I started a decade ago.

Someone has moved the goalposts. The rules have changed. Our seminaries didn’t equip us for the world we now live in–in part because they couldn’t have even imagined the world in which we find ourselves.

A world of: Declining church attendance.

A world of: Declining church participation.

A world of: Decreased civic influence.

A world where bi-vocational ministry is the norm rather than the exception.

We clergy used to be a valued part of society. But now–as though in an episode of the Twilight Zone–we have been declared obsolete. Outsourced to YouTube.

Most people I talk with seem to get the majority of their theology from wacked-out programs on the History or Discovery channels.

And pastors I knew in years gone by used to be able to supplement income through the publishing of sermons and whatnot–but now it’s just expected that all that is available in a blog, or on the church’s website–all on demand and without cost.

Everything is free now. That’s what they say.
Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve gotta give it away.

There are plenty of days when I–like Gillian Welch–just want to throw up my hands and quit. Some days, being an ordinary person in the pew, with an ordinary job, and an ordinary life sounds pretty darn swell.

I can get a straight job, I done it before
Never minded workin’ hard,
it’s who I’m workin’ for

Am I right?……

Called

But sooner or later I remember that I don’t do this because I want to. I am a pastor because I am called.

I realize that–like Jeremiah in chapter 20 verse 9:

If I say, “I will not mention [God], or speak any more in [God’s] name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9 NRSV)

I cannot. So like Paul in Philippians 3: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 NRSV).

And I realize that it’s true:

No ones gotta listen to the words in my head.

But for reasons I don’t comprehend, people do–and they do week after week.

And even more mind-boggling than that: they seem to find value in it!

Somehow those random, entangled whispers in my brain become transformed into strong, purposeful tones that sound the heart-strings of those “with ears to hear.”

Somehow: before my very eyes–(or more likely: completely out of my own field of view) that rickety scaffolding of a manuscript that I built out of my heart and soul manages to support the construction of a building more true and glorious than anything I can imagine: the church of Jesus the Christ.

Amidst all the chaos, the bait-and-switch, the moving goalposts, and the devaluing and de-monetization of my life’s work, I realized that I am in the same place as Gillian Welch:

I figured it out
And I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.

And I am incredibly grateful……to know so many amazing colleagues……that feel the same way.

Sacrifice & Delight

Years ago I read a book called Sacrifice and Delight, by Alan Jones (an Episcopalian priest). It’s a memoir-ey kind of book about ministry. Somewhere in there, Jones says that no sane person would do what clergy does; that if a person really comprehended what serving as clergy is like, there is not enough money in the world to convince them to do it.

We are all, in that way, God’s fools: hopeful enough–or to use Jones’ words: romantic enough–to fall for God’s dream over and over again, believing it at all costs even as we wrestle with it in all things.

Sisters and brothers:

You are not alone in your task.

You are not alone in your commitment.

You are not alone in your passion.

You are not alone in your struggles.

“Do not grow weary in doing good.” (2Thessalonians 3:13 ESV)

The Practice of Righteousness

Scripture: 1John 3:1-7

Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s a phrase I heard a lot growing up–and one I now hear come out of my own mouth more and more as I parent children of my own.

“Practice makes perfect” speaks to that universal reality that you’ve got to work at something if you want to be good at it. You can’t just swing a leg over a bicycle and expect to ride it without training wheels. You can’t just one day pick up a guitar and immediately play like Eric Clapton or Slash. Nearly everything in life takes dedicated, consistent practice if you expect to become proficient.

Jesus, Paul, and……well……many writers in both the Old and New Testaments stress something like this for those of us committed to following God. Faith is something that requires practice. It is a muscle that needs trained in order to get stronger. Growing faith is (it turns out) a lot like all other kinds of growing. It takes consistent, disciplined action over time.

And so we all have a responsibility as individuals–and as a community–to practice together our faith as we grow in likeness to our savior Jesus the Christ: as we “become like him,” as our scripture reading anticipates in v.2.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice makes perfect” became a kind of foundation stone for much of my life–for my academics, for my faith, for my hobbies–for everything, really.

That’s why it was so surprising back in college when I heard my music teacher claim that the idea that “practice makes perfect” is wrong.

“What?” I asked.

He answered: “Improvement is based on the quality of the practice, not the quantity. You can practice all day, but if you aren’t practicing well, you will never improve–and you may even get worse. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

In truth, this is probably most graphically illustrated in the music world. If you’re learning a piece of music, but you keep playing or singing that one line wrong, then what you’re practicing is doing it wrong; you’re practicing being incorrect. You’ve got to slow down–maybe even ridiculously slow–slow enough that you can play it without error. Then do that again and again and again. And only when you can play it perfectly, repeatedly, do you then gradually increase the tempo.

If you practice doing it wrong, you’ll play it wrong.

If you practice doing it right, you’ll play it correctly.

Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

Practicing Incorrectly

So how does that apply to our lives of faith and today’s scripture lesson?

Well, first of all, we may be practicing our faith incorrectly.

Now, I’m wary of being misunderstood here. There are many practices of faith that do not have a strict “right” way. Prayer is a great illustration: there is no wrong way to pray. If you are doing something that opens you up to God, you’re doing it right.

But sometimes we’re trying to do the right thing, but our focus is off, so we end up practicing the wrong thing. Like how in the last months it seems some are more ready to forgive abusers than believe victims. Forgiveness is a vital and important practice of our faith (Matthew 6:14; John 20:23; Colossians 3:13; etc.). As the embodiment of Christ in the world, we are to extend forgiveness as readily as we have received it.

But in these cases we seem to overlook the fact that God always sides with victims–and the greatest judgments pronounced on our ancestors came about because they were not doing enough to protect those vulnerable from becoming victims.

Sometimes it seems we’ve misplaced our priorities, or we don’t really know how to put first things first. Whatever the reason, there are times that we’ve been practicing incorrectly.

Practicing the Wrong Thing

There are other times, however, when we may be practicing the wrong things altogether.

Our scripture reading mentions those who make a practice of sinning (vv.4, 6). And for centuries this has certainly been a struggle entangling Christians. We get deceived into believing that someone else’s sin is worse than our own, so we overlook the log in our own eye to pluck the speck out of another’s (Luke 6:41-42). Or it may be that certain sins simply become normal in our lives, most often on account of the culture in which we find ourselves.

As an example, there are a lot of harsh words from public “Christians” these days against immigrants. That’s hard to reconcile with God’s instruction to “welcome the stranger” and alien, because that is who we once were.

There’s a lot of “Christian” support for policies that make healthcare more expensive and difficult to obtain. When so many are sick and hurting and dying from treatable conditions, it’s hard to maintain that the followers of Jesus in fact value life.

There are a lot of negative comments from “Christians” about those utilizing government services, but those same voices argue against a fair and equitable wage because they don’t want their Big Mac’s to cost more money. In doing so, they forget that “Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves [their] wages”” (1Timothy 5:18 ESV).

Too often, the public voices I hear claiming to speak for Christianity articulate the ideology of a political party rather than anything approximating “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” freedom for “the oppressed,” or “the year of the Lord’s favor”–which is precisely what Jesus says is his business in Luke chapter 4 (vv.18–21 NRSV).

As indicated in our scripture lesson in v.7, those of us who are followers of Jesus need to make sure we are in fact practicing the right things–what the writer calls “righteousness.”

Practicing Righteousness

But you know, this word “righteousness” can get us twisted up sometimes. I think most of the time I have heard it defined as “right actions or beliefs,” which isn’t really a terrible translation, but it does have some flaws.

First up among the flaws is that “or”–“actions or beliefs.” You see, in the bible, belief and action are not either/or propositions. They are intrinsically bound together, and they flow into each other. Right belief produces right action; right actions grow right belief. It is always both:

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NRSV).

And: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26 NRSV)

Either one–without the other–reveals a lack of faith. It reveals that we never really knew God at all.

A second flaw in defining “righteousness” as “right actions or beliefs” has to do with what we mean by “right.” If “right” means correct, then our faith statements–our beliefs–become a kind of litmus test of faith. Faith means believing the right things. And in the last decades, this kind of right-ness has often been defined among Christians by what one believes about things like:

abortion

homosexuality

the inerrancy of the bible

creation and science

the end times, and so on.

But none of that is what the biblical authors meant  by “right.” The concept of righteousness in the bible is intrinsically linked to the concept of justice; you cannot talk about one without the other.

Justice and judgment in the bible have to do with all things becoming aligned with God’s way. And for the bulk of the bible, that has a lot to do with Matthew 25 kinds of things: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the exposed, visiting the sick, and liberating the captive (cf. vv.31-46). The righteous person–the person who is practicing “right-ness” is the one who does these kinds of things.

In fact, throughout scripture, practicing this kind of righteousness is the single clearest indicator of whether or not you are aligned with God.

In Isaiah 58:1-8, God rejects the religious practices of his people, reminding them that it is all worthless unless they care for the outsiders and the vulnerable.

In Ezekiel 16:49, God reveals that the destruction of Sodom came about not because of sexual sin, but because they failed to extend hospitality and share what they had with those in need.

In Zechariah 7:9-10, God pleads with his people to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (NRSV). If they can do this, they will avert disaster. But like so many of God’s followers before and sense, this seems too much to ask.

In Micah 6:8, we are told what is “good” and what God “requires of us”: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (NRSV).

And in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV).

To use language elsewhere in 1John, “by this we know that we are in God,” if we practice this kind of righteousness in the world.

Outro

This season, as we move from the ashes of Lent towards the fire of Pentecost, we are looking at what needs kindled in our lives in order to live out our calling as the Body of Christ.

Today we see that the practice of righteousness is something that needs kindled in each of us if we are going to embody Jesus in the world.

But let us be sure we are practicing correctly, practicing the things of God, and practicing a righteousness rooted in God’s liberating love.

Confession

Scripture: 1John 1:1-2:2

Intro to Series

Way back on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of then Lenten season, we began a series titled “From Ashes to Fire.” Since that time, we’ve been wrestling with the things in our life that need to die in order to be more like the Jesus we claim to follow.

With the resurrection of Jesus, of course, everything has changed. He told us that he came that we might have life and life abundant (John 10:10b). And so it is not only that the sin in our lives needs to die; now also, new life—abundant life–can be kindled. So beginning today and throughout this Easter season—we now ask: What needs kindled if we are to mature into God’s purposes?

Through today’s scripture and reflection, we will see that confession needs kindled in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.

Sinners Welcoming Sinners?

Today’s sermon attends to what should be one of the most obvious parts of our Christian life and faith. Yet it continues to be the one thing we get wrong again and again.

Over and over in scripture, we are told to “in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” as Philippians 2:3 instructs explicitly (NRSV).

Over and over in scripture, we are reminded that God will hold us to the standard we use against others: “with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get,” as Jesus says in Matthew 7:2 (NRSV).

Over and over in scripture we are reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and] they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24 NRSV).

And yet over and over again, we choose to follow a way of faith that looks more like the Pharisee leaders who crucified Jesus, than we do the Christ whose name we take for ourselves (“Christian”).

The church of Jesus Christ should be a haven for sinners, a sanctuary for those hunted and haunted, a safe space for those persecuted. It should be the one place in all the world where anyone came come–regardless of belief, disposition, residency, status, or ability. The church of Jesus Christ should embrace with open arms anyone who stumbles into our midst, recognizing that God brought them to us so we could bathe them in love, bind up their wounds, stand with them against oppression, fight for justice for them, and feed their hunger and sate their thirst. Sometimes these things are literal; sometimes they are not.

But this kind of biblical and Christ-like hospitality has not been the dominant experience of the church of Jesus Christ. Instead, the very people God has led to communities called to embody Jesus have experienced quite the opposite.

They have been told to dress better next time.

They have been looked down on because they are dirty, or they smell funny.

They have been stabbed with judging eyes for their public sins and past failings.

They have been told their children are too disruptive and should be taken out of the service.

They have been talked down to because they didn’t know how things worked.

They have been asked to move to other seats.

Or what is for some the worst of all: they have been completely ignored.

I’m not saying these things normally happen here, though many of you have told stories of them happening in the past.

But the sins of the past continue to infect the present. Those in our larger world who have been wounded by churches continue to be wounded. They do not trust us–and rightly so, for we betrayed the role God gave us to fill. They see the church as harmful–or at best filled with a bunch of irrelevant hypocrites.

Jesus’ words from 2000 years ago sound an awful lot like what those outside the church are saying about Christians:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27–28 NRSV)

1John

Today’s scripture lesson offers a similar warning, but also a promise:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1John 1:8–10 NRSV).

If we don’t acknowledge our sin, “we deceive ourselves.” We can’t blame the devil. We can’t blame God. We have only ourselves to blame.

And more than that: we deceive only ourselves. The world can see through us. We’re not really fooling anyone.

If we don’t acknowledge our sin, “the truth is not in us.” This isn’t some abstract concept either. Jesus himself is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). If “the truth is not in us,” then John is telling us that Jesus is not in us.

As if to underscore the point, John continues in telling us that if we don’t acknowledge our sin, “we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Importance of Confession

Our heritage as Christians is such that maintains awareness of our past and continued sin. Saint Paul himself insisted in 1Timothy 1:15 that he was “foremost” of sinners. He understood that this was to be the identification of all Christians–that we are only able to truly love others as God loves us if we come to believe–truly believe!–the hopelessness of our own sin and our utter reliance on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

That’s why our scripture lesson offers us the hopeful reminder of v.9: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NRSV).

 

Confession is not something that we Baptists talk about a lot. It’s one of those things that we still use to distance ourselves from the Roman Catholic Church from which we Protestants broke away. But the kind of confession talked about here and elsewhere in scripture is not limited to a pastor-parishioner relationship.

At least in theory, we Baptists know that it is God who has the power to forgive. So when we confess our sins, we do so to God. We have a hard time comprehending how God extends forgiveness through us, even though Jesus is explicit in Matthew 18:18 and other places that this is the case.

But confession (I believe) involves not just saying sorry for the things we’ve done wrong. It also involves living with the recognition of failure. Of complicity with violence and hate. Of participating in the destruction of other people’s lives in large and small ways.

And so confession requires an honesty in relationship and action. It opens us up to the freedom of forgiveness, while reorienting us toward reconciliation for others. It opens us up to those places in the world where God’s justice is lacking, where the Body of Christ needs to reach with healing and welcoming hands.

Bonhoeffer & Confession

I’ve mentioned the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer before. He was a lutheran pastor who was martyred during WW2. Among his writings is a little book called Life Together, in which Bonhoeffer sketches his ideas about how the members of the underground seminary he was running can grow into truly embodying the church. One of the things I find most remarkable in his presentation is the role of confession. He argues that confession is the foundation of true community–and by that he means that we confess our sins to each other, spreading our confessing around throughout the church.

And why? Because he believes that it is only confession that strips away our false pretenses and forces us to be truly honest with one another.

Only when we are open about our own failings can we truly welcome other human beings who also have failings.

Only when we do not hide from our identity as sinners can the unbelieving world see the scope of God’s forgiveness and love.

Lilias Trotter

[much from this section is taken/adapted from here, here, and here]

In July 1853, a girl named Lilias Trotter was born in London, England. Her parents were wealthy intellectuals with a humanitarian bent. She was greatly influenced by a movement at that time that emphasized the Holy Spirit’s role in sanctifying us, as we mature from our default position of sin toward embodying Christ more perfectly. When the american evangelist D.L. Moody came through London on a revival tour, Lilias was one of those who met and prayed with and counseled those making decisions for faith.

At 26, Lilias decided to commit her life fully to “seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and she gave up many of her own plans and desires for a life of volunteering and teaching. She would canvass Victoria Station for prostitutes she might persuade to train for employable work or to simply spend a night safe at a shelter. And she was so tireless in this that she became exhausted. A rudimentary surgery to “remedy” her chronic exhaustion left her heart permanently damaged.

But her commitment never abated. Slowly over the next years, she began to feel compelled toward foreign missionary work, even telling one of her friends that “whenever she prayed, the words ‘North Africa’ sounded in her soul as though a voice were calling her.” In May 1887 (at 33 years old), Lilias attended a meeting led by a North African missionary, and she voiced what she had known for some time: “God is calling me.”

She applied as a missionary candidate the next month, and was promptly rejected because of her weak health. But money opens doors, and they invented a special category so she could still go to Algeria and serve God.

Despite her passion, Lilias was terribly equipped for the task at hand, and she wrote of the difficult of those first years. She had to learn arabic, she had no on-the-ground resources or contacts, she didn’t know much about Islam, and she had no clue where to begin at all. Of that time, she wrote: “Truly if God needed weakness, He had it!”

Eventually, Lilias realized that children were the key. By befriending and demonstrating welcome to the children of the community, she received access to the heavily secluded women. This proved to be a profitable strategy.

But unlike so many other missionaries of her time, Lilias knew the gospel wasn’t tied to western culture. She rejected what we’d today call the colonial aspects of missionary work, finding ways of inserting it into their existing culture instead of forcing them to abandon their culture to follow Jesus.

But things didn’t go well for those converts. Many were banished and beaten, and Lilias was convinced that some were even poisoned with “mind drugs” in attempts to “erase” their newfound faith. Of course, there were deaths too.

In these circumstances, Lilias penned a short tract titled “Focussed.” It painted a vision (so to speak) of what Christians might look like if we lived “gathered up–focussed lives–intent on one aim–Christ.” She concludes with a challenge: “Turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.”

Back in England some time later–1918, to be exact–a woman named Helen Howarth Lemmel was handed a copy of “Focussed” by a missionary friend. She was struck by the words of this final challenge and later related this experience:

“Suddenly, as if commanded to stop and listen, I stood still, and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with not one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme, or note to note to make melody. The verses were written the same week, after the usual manner of composition, but none the less dictated by the Holy Spirit.”

The song she wrote was published later that year, and contained this chorus:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

While the lyrics of this song don’t explicitly mention confession, we recognize that confession is an integral part of “turning” to Jesus. If we do not recognize and confess that we are sinners, we have no need of a Christ who dies for our sins. If we do not recognize and confess our failings, there is no need for a perfect sacrifice. If we do not recognize and confess that we cannot save ourselves, then we have no need for grace and a savior who offers grace and life to us in abundance.

That’s our invitation today.

To turn our eyes to Jesus.

To invite the flame of confession to burn away the artificial edifices of false perfection.

To allow our fears and failures to fade from view in the all-encompassing light of God’s love.

May God be our help.

Funny Business

Call to Worship: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Scripture: John 20:1-18

Candid Camera

Quite a few years ago, there was a popular television series called “Candid Camera.” Remember it? They would video someone in an unusual scenario to see how they’d react. Maybe it was a desk that wouldn’t let you close all the drawers at once, or a light switch that wouldn’t stay on, or a cashier that insists you buy milk with an earlier expiration date, or something completely inexplicable: like the pens at the bank were on such short chains they could be picked up but not actually used to write.

After a few moments of fumbling around, Allen Funt would walk into the scene and say, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” And the person—no doubt feeling a bit foolish—would smile good-naturedly at the camera.

In some ways, the show’s success ended up being it’s downfall. By the late 90’s, Allen Funt’s line had become a cultural cliche. I remember people in awkward situations literally looking around for a hidden camera and asking (as many did in those later episodes) “Am I on Candid Camera?”

This type of proto-reality tv had to change if it was to survive, and others took up the torch where Candid Camera left off. But they knew they had to up the ante if they were to succeed, so they abandoned the kind of even-keeled practical jokes that were Candid Camera’s stock and trade in favor of more extreme—and in some cases cruel—pranks. Allen Funt’s son and successor Peter spoke critically of these, saying:

“We’ve always come at it from the idea that we believe people are wonderful and we’re out to confirm it. Our imitators and other shows, whether it’s Jamie Kennedy or Punk’d, often seem to come at it from the opposite perspective, which is that people are stupid, and we’re going to find ways to underscore that.” (source)

An Empty Prank?

On that first Easter morning, Mary and the disciples do not feel like they’re on Candid Camera—they feel like they’re on Scare Tactics. They feel as though they’ve been made into the butt of a cruel joke—and at the moment of their deepest grief. There’s some funny business going on, and it’s just not funny. I mean seriously: how twisted do you have to be to steal a corpse just to make someone look bad?

Mary tells the other disciples that the tomb is empty, and some of them investigate. Here are the grave clothes. Here’s the cloth that was over his face. But why……why would those be left behind?

Let’s not forget what verse 9 reminds us: “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9 NRSV). The disciples do not know what’s happening.

They think it’s a cruel prank making fun of how Jesus suggested the grave couldn’t hold him.

Or they think the authorities have taken his corpse to spite his followers and keep them from mourning him.

Or who knows what—but how do you explain it?

Well, the men in the story do what men tend to do: they go back somewhere, circle up with their buds, and try to figure out what’s next.

Mary

But thank God Mary is there.

More than the others, Mary seems to realize that the Way of Jesus involves living in the present, instead of the future or the past.

Mary seems to know that “What Would Jesus Do?” is to grieve, just as Jesus did do when Lazarus died.

Mary seems to be more aware than anyone else of the silent magnetism of this empty tomb, which draws all people to it.

Have you ever thought about how the risen Christ could have appeared to anyone? Any one of the disciples or manifold followers of Jesus could have been the first evangelist—the first to bear the news of our risen Lord. It could have been Peter, on whom Jesus says he will build his congregation. It could have been the disciple Jesus loved—traditionally identified as John. Both of them came to investigate the tomb at Mary’s prompting.

But it was Mary Magdalene who is chosen for this auspicious task.

It was Mary Magdalene who was ordained by God to preach the first Easter sermon.

It is Mary Magdalene who has to teach the Jesus-bros what Jesus meant by “resurrection.”

It is Mary Magdalene who helps them see that this is (in fact) “no joke.”

Proof

Over the years, there’s been a lot of ink spilled trying to prove the resurrection.

There are references to Jewish traditions.

There are complicated arguments about social dynamics.

There are explanations of communal trauma.

There are manipulations of archaeological data.

But for me, none of that really matters. Because there’s really only one “proof” that makes any impact on anyone—and that is the way Jesus’ disciples live.

Clarence Jordan may not be a name you know, but he’s someone worth knowing about. Clarence Jordan was a farmer—and also a Greek scholar. He was instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. Way back in the 1940’s he also founded an interracial, intentionally-Christian farming community in an effort to live a radically Christ-like life.

Jordan once wrote:

“The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

This is it for me—this is the proof of the resurrection.

I’ve travelled to Jerusalem; I’ve seen the grave of Jesus—and it was moving.

But it wasn’t convincing. It was just a space. What has been convincing to me has been the Christians I have encountered who absolutely overflow with a love that surpasses understanding. It has been the courageous stands taken by those who do not fear death because they know the grave cannot hold them, just as it was unable to hold Jesus.

As much as I may be an academic at heart, all the words and arguments and logic and supposed evidence in the world is nothing to me, compared to life of a single Christian who follows Jesus with a pure heart. Being true and authentic bearers of the light of Christ’s love proclaims the resurrection more loudly and completely than any social media platform or news station.

This is our greatest evangelistic tool.

This is the key to overcoming the divisions within our families and churches and neighborhoods and nation and world.

This is what truly draws people to Christ, what transforms the very elements of creation, what enables Christ’s Kingdom to come to earth.

Jesus says in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV11). That love is the proof of the resurrection that a reluctant world wants to see.

Will we prove it? Will we put our money where our mouth is, so to speak? Will the world “know we are Christians by our love,” as the song proclaims? Will we settle this “funny business” once and for all, proving with our lives that Jesus is “no joke”?

I hope so. I hope so.

Because this I believe, and this we confess: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.

Does Your Jesus Need to Die?

Good Friday

Scripture: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

 

Scripture: John 12:23-33

Scripture: John 19:17-30

 

“Good” Friday?

On Wednesday at Soup & Sermon, Pastor Paul Kelley challenged us to embody the love that comes from a spiritual maturity. We’re going to need that maturity if we’re to get through the darkness of the next couple days of trauma, death, isolation, and darkness.

These holy days of our Christian Calendar–like Good Friday–are intended to be days of embodiment. Days when we place ourselves into the story and imagine. And finding ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disicples on this particular Friday, I imagine we’d realize there is an inevitability to where we stand today. To where his disciples stand. To where Jesus hangs. And to where Jesus will soon be laid. Put yourself there:

Welp……Today is the day (we might think). We had a good run. No one can say we didn’t try to share the good news of God’s redemptive love. But today is when it all caught up with us. There are social dimensions of following Jesus that proved unpopular. There are political realities that our faith stood in contradiction to. And Jesus……well, you know Jesus never made things easy for himself.

Today is a kind of day of reckoning–when the fruit of all that was sown just piles up against us. So they arrested Jesus. He was run through a judicial system one cannot call “just.” He was tortured, humiliated, and ultimate crucified.

That is what we remember today.

 

So how on earth can anyone call this day “good”? What is so good about Good Friday?

It was most decidedly NOT good from the perspective of the disciples. And many non-english cultures don’t use this terminology at all. In German (for example) the day is called Karfreitag, or “Sorrowful Friday.” That seems to hit the nail more on the head.

All language changes and evolves with use, of course. And long, long ago, “good” was a word that meant something akin to what “holy” means today. So when our english-language ancestors started calling this day “Good Friday,” they really meant “Holy Friday”–because it was a holy day (holiday). Get it?

 

But I do believe that all these years later, we can call it good anyway because we know the rest of the story. Through the seemingly-miraculous powers of hindsight, we know what God is doing. We know that the cross is a kind of giant X-marks-the-spot that indicates when and where everything changed.

That’s why the cross is so foundational to our life and worship. We take communion (as we did earlier) as in remembrance of the cross–the shed blood and broken body of our Savior. As a baptist, I baptize people by immersion–reenacting Jesus’ death on the cross, burial, and resurrection. We sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and “There is Power in the Blood” and “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burdens of my heart rolled away…It was there by faith I received my sight and now I am happy all the day!”

Without a doubt, the cross is at the center of our very identity as Christians–as followers of Jesus.

Need to Die?

Which is why it may surprise you this morning that my theme today–my sermon title–is “Does your Jesus need to die?”

Does your Jesus……need……to die?

Now, let’s get all that “right answer” BS out of the way.

Of course Jesus needed to die because of sin and brokenness,

and the need for reconciliation,

and the impermanence of the effectiveness of the Old Testament sacrificial system,

and the love and mercy of God,

and all those complicated arguments that get used to describe the mechanisms of salvation–as though any of us could fully comprehend what has been done for us here.

We good now?

If we move all that out of the way–if we are forced to be more honest with ourselves and with God than we have ever been before–I suspect we might be surprised with what is left.

For Us?

Sure, we might hear ourselves say. Jesus needs to die. But……

Jesus didn’t really need to die for us, does he? I mean: we’re making our way; we’re not that desperate. We’re here! We’re the choir, so to speak–you know, the one that get’s preached to because we are always there, but we’re not the one’s the message is really for.

Jesus died for them, right?–for the ones the sermons are for. Jesus did have to die for murderers and thieves and adulterers, for drug-abusers and wife-beaters, for the Hitlers and the package-bombers of the world. But……

But that’s not us. We’re better than that. We’ve been pulling ourselves up by our spiritual boot-straps for ages now, and look how much better we are. Look what we’ve overcome. Look what we’ve built. Look what we’ve accomplished. Look how hard we’ve forced the square peg of God’s Kingdom into the round hole of our American political system.

Don’t you think we’re doing just fine without the blood of Jesus congealing and getting our plans all sticky? Without the cross wedging itself into the machinations of our moral crusading? Don’t we wear the crown of our accomplishments more suitably than the impaling thorns of the crown of Christ? Aren’t we so much more effective carrying the Gospel without nail-pierced hands or damaged feet or the stabbing pain of a wounded soul?

No!

No. It only shows how much we’ve missed the point.

One of the most tragic things I’ve ever witnessed as a pastor was a life-long professed Christian insist–to my face and publicly–that they were not a sinner and that they took offense to my suggestion that any Christian was.

I was shocked, and my head pounded for days with 1John 1:10, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and [God’s] word is not in us” (1John 1:10 NRSV).

Two Pray-ers

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of two pray-ers and two prayers. It’s a parable that seems to have even more application today than all those years ago.

One is a good, faithful, church-going fellow–you know, the kind you can rely on for things. Maybe a deacon, or a lay-leader, or a Sunday School teacher. The kind of person who shows up at every event, who stays late to help clean up, who steps up to the plate, and who–quite frankly–is the kind of person most pastors wish we had more of.

The other person isn’t. Jesus says he’s a tax collector. And the rest of the year, maybe I’d need to interpret that for our modern context. But given it is tax season, maybe you can do enough imagining yourself. He is not a righteous person. He is not a faithful church member. He is not a model citizen. He is not someone you want your kids to grow up to be.

Now I already have to pause: The fact that it is so easy for us to identify with the first man reveals how far we’ve fallen from the Way of Jesus.

The good, righteous church-goer prays a prayer of thanks (to God, he believes) that he isn’t one of those deplorable people who don’t follow the rules. He connects his success in life to the diligent practice of his religious rituals, and suggests (by association) that the failure of others–like that tax collector, for instance!–is because they are not as faithful.

The other man–a self-acknowledged sinner–won’t even assume the proper posture for prayer, and he simply hopes against hope that his confession and plea for mercy is enough for God.

Of course, as Jesus points out, it is more than enough. Not only does Jesus say this tax collector went home justified, but he tells us that the other man–the good, church-going fellow–did not. “Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, but the one who humbles them-self will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b ESV+).

Sinners

Does your Jesus need to die? According to the scriptures, yes, of course. Because we are sinners. And scriptures remind us that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2 NRSV).

There’s a great line in Alexandre Dumas’s great novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The characters are discussing vices–you know, those bad things that we do habitually, like eating too many donuts during the church coffee time. Anyway, one of the characters says that not having a vice is the worst vice at all. Not having a vice is the worst vice of all.

There’s something to that. When we think we’ve got it all together, everything about faith falls apart: compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, love–it all just evaporates.

You know what else evaporates? Our need for a Jesus who loves us enough to die for us.

Your Jesus?

But even more than that, your Jesus does need to die.

I mean: Your conception of Jesus needs to die–that picture in your head that looks more like you than like a radical, prophetic, dark-skinned, first-century Jewish rabbi who also happens to be God incarnate–enfleshed–Immanuel–“God with us.”

Too many of us have gotten comfortable with a pre-packaged, consumer-friendly Jesus that would himself feel good sitting in our pews, singing our songs, listening to our sermons, and attending our business meetings. But in response to all that–and because of all that–the real Jesus dies on the cross.

Back on Ash Wednesday, we read Isaiah 58 together and we remembered that God doesn’t give two biscuits about our religion. God cares about justice. God cares about the eternal and abiding love of God being demonstrated in the lives of those who slip through the cracks of society. If we are not using what we have to lift up those who are vulnerable, then none of it has anything to do with God: the religion we are practicing, the beautiful structures we preserve, the systems and history that we take pride in, the budgets we sweat over, the successes we pat ourselves on the back for–they are all for naught……

Or more accurately, they are all really for ourselves.

A Difficult Jesus

You see, the Jesus of the bible changes people. He’s not user-friendly. He isn’t going to be popular, though he’s got a knack for generating a lot of buzz. When the going gets tough–and it did and it does and it will with Jesus–he’s going to go places his friends don’t want him to go. He’s going to go places his followers don’t want him to go.

Don’t believe me? Look at Jesus’ disciples. Or better, look at the specific disciples we know as the Twelve. Or still better, look to Peter, the disciple on whom the Jesus movement will rest, according to Matthew 16:18.

In that chapter, Peter seems to finally get who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Yet just verses later, Peter tries to save Jesus from himself, rebuking Jesus–Jesus!!–for suggesting he was going to suffer and die in Jerusalem.

And again just last night, as Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, here comes Simon Peter once again, trying to save Jesus from himself–this time by wielding a sword in armed combat against his perceived enemies (a story found in John 18, Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). Like most of the time when we resort to violence, it is here an innocent who suffers, a servant who has nothing to do with any of the decisions of this night.

The Sword & Love

In truth, I wrestle with this story and with Jesus’ response that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NRSV).

I wondered for a long time whether this story showed that it was possible to love someone too much. You know what I mean? It kind of looks like Peter loved Jesus so much that he just couldn’t let Jesus give himself up. Like Peter loved Jesus so much that he had to protect Jesus at any cost. And that sounds kind of good, right?

But one day God took me and turned my perspective around. I came to realize that it is easier to love than to be loved. It is easer to forgive than be forgiven. It is easier to give than to receive.

I don’t question Peter’s love for Jesus. But I’ve come to realize that this part of the Gethsemane story is a story about refusing love.

Peter is willing to sacrifice himself in armed rebellion against the overwhelming force of the Roman military. But he won’t allow Jesus to love him enough to die for him. He cannot loosen his grip on his attempts to control his life and his destiny–and yes, to control even who loves him. Peter lashes out in white-knuckled desperation, weapon in hand, in order to keep the love of Jesus in check because he knows something we too often forget. He knows that receiving that kind of love changes us.

It alters us. Fundamentally. As if in our very DNA.

And if we are subjected to that most overwhelming force in existence, then all power, all control, all illusion can only fall away.

……Including that carefully constructed Jesus that lets us piously sit in judgment over the very people Christ died to save.

 

Does your Jesus need to die?

Mine does. And with God’s help, I will die too.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25 NIV).

God Takes the Long View

Palm/Passion Sunday

Scripture: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Scripture: Mark 11:1-11

Finally!

There is something about this story that is both thrilling and infuriating. After all these chapters, all these miracles, all these teachings, all these misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Jesus, it feels great to finally be in a place where Jesus is being recognized. That’s what we seem to get here: Jesus enters Jerusalem with this piece of seemingly-spontaneous theater and is hailed as a king. At last. As novelist Truman Capote once said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” Certainly, victory never tastes as sweet as for when it is hard fought.

So after chapters of complications and increasing hostility to Jesus and his message, it feels good to see Jesus finally get the acknowledgment that is due him……Even if it is a bit anticlimactic, since it’s so late that Jesus just gets to scope things out before heading back to his airbnb in Bethany.

Where’d They Go?

But this story is also infuriating for those of us who remember how this week goes. All these people—these crowds:

Where are they on Monday when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the Temple, inciting the religious establishment to conspire towards his murder?

Where are they on Tuesday, when Jesus is offering hard teachings about discipleship and God’s Kingdom, and making predictions of his death?

Where are they on Wednesday, when the web of conspiracy in which Judas becomes entangled is spun with disastrous efficiency?

Where are they on Thursday, when Jesus and his disciples are quietly absconded into an upper room for their Passover celebration, isolated from the threats of the city down below?

And where are they on Friday, as Jesus is arrested under cover of darkness, subjected to sham trials in a gross miscarriage of justice, tortured without any cause beyond amusement, nailed to a cross just outside the city wall, and left like garbage to die?

Where where these crowds then? Where did they go? What happened between Sunday and Friday that caused all those shouts of “Hosanna!” to become the bloodthirsty howls that demanded “Crucify him!”?

What changed?

Short Term Victories

These things we ask because we do not understand ourselves.

I don’t mean that “we ourselves do not understand.” I mean we do not know ourselves: our passions and motivations, our strivings and failures, our successes and our self-sabotage. We are not honest enough to understand ourselves.

If we were, we’d realize that nothing changed between Sunday and Friday, not really. These are simply an expression of the fickle whims of fickle people who seek to be entertained and distracted from their own lives.

That describes us as well.

What happened all those years ago is what too often happens—both then and now: we are so ready for any victory that we are content with any victory. With so many marks already in the minus column, we get ecstatic about a single positive that we stop keeping score. We win one battle and give up the war. We take such a short view of things that we are satisfied with short-term victories, even though they may cost us the very thing we were fighting for.

Church Examples

In churches this kind of thing takes many forms.

Building a church around a charismatic preacher might bring short term victories in terms of rising attendance or membership numbers, but that happens at the cost of building the kind of community that will endure beyond that pastor’s tenure.

Filling all board and committee positions is a victory for sure, but if those who said “yes” do not have the passion and gifts and commitment to fulfill their position, it will cost the community in terms of burnout, disillusionment, and witness.

Even responding to a local or global crisis through a prayer service, fundraising, or whatever can result in short-term victories that give a community energy. But what happens next? Do we pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next thing? Or do we continue to see the crisis through? How?

Puerto Rico

An example: In the wake of the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico last year, there was a tremendous response from our American Baptist organizations and partners. Churches large and small took up special offerings and collected supplies. Working with those resources, the American Baptist Home Mission Society provided water filters, solar lights and chargers, tarps, propane tanks and burners, and so much more.

But for far too many tragedies, this is where the relief efforts stop; we content ourselves with the short-term victory.

But in this instance Jeffrey Haggray, the executive director of our Home Mission Society, has chosen to follow God’s example in taking the long view. The Home Mission Society launched a three-to-five year project aimed at “Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Puerto Rico.” It’s first goal was to raise a million dollars in conjunction with the America For Christ offering, and that goal was exceeded over a month before the deadline. Volunteers and mission teams continue to be regularly assembled and sent. Denominational representatives travel to Puerto Rico and the rest of the US both to understand the needs of our on-the-ground partners and to raise awareness and commitment to this ongoing initiative.

And I’m glad they’re doing it. I’m glad we’re doing it, because whether you realize it or not, in our American Baptist faith you are the denomination, not some leader in an office somewhere.

I’m glad we’re doing it because the reports from this week indicate that there are still 100,000 or more folks who have been without power for over 6 months now. Reports show that the suicide hotlines continue to take double the number of calls from before the hurricanes, as many as 600 or more a day (link). There are no quick and easy solutions to the problems in play, so to be content with short-term victories only would ignore the deeper realities in which so many are struggling.

I’m glad (for once) our denomination is an example of doing it right.

Our Town

But maybe we should set our sights on things closer to home. There is a brokenness in this city of ours that (for many people) is usually invisible. But every now and then, that trauma breaks through the surface and we all seem surprised and appalled at what is in our midst.

Two teens committed suicide last month. We did a lot of praying in our churches; we did a lot of casting blame and attacking each other and the schools on social media; and we brought a specialist to town for some presentations. But now things have gone quiet. Are we presently content to have “made a difference”? Is this somehow a “victory” just because we did something?

I certainly don’t think so. In the last weeks I’ve witnessed a family in our broader community getting bullied and shredded on social media—even getting threatening calls at home. They are afraid they may have to move. These are adults bullying adults. And this is where our young folk are learning it—in their homes, not in the schools; from our examples, not from each other.

This is one more expression of the same brokenness that led those teens to despair last month, the same brokenness that keeps us divided and isolated and damaged and afraid. The same brokenness that many of us have the privilege of ignoring a majority of the days of the year.

I’ve heard some voice that we have a sin problem, and yes, they’re right. But more than that—more to the point, that is—we have a people problem. We’ve forgotten how to be human, so we’ve ceased being humane.

When pressure builds and this brokenness bursts into our awareness, we tend to do just enough to pat ourselves on the backs—just enough to prove to ourselves and whoever we care about that we are better: better than we were, perhaps; but more often better than someone else. We engage with whatever’s right in front of us, and then we care quite little when it moves out of sight.

Because the goals we work towards are consistently short-sighted, we are quick to find ourselves contented with our results.

Yet this is not the way of God.

God’s Way

God is persistently working toward an end, and is not dissuaded by short-term victories or defeats. If you remember from a couple weeks ago (March 4), Jesus was confronted about causing a brouhaha at the Temple. He responded: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

Is he talking about the resurrection? Of course! But he’s also talking about how God’s purposes will not be derailed, not the least by something so impotent as death. We can try to kill God’s long-term plans—and we might even win a short-term battle or two—but nothing (ultimately) will stop God’s expansive love from overcoming the world.

In the same way in today’s text, I have no doubt that some of Jesus’ disciples ended this Sunday on a high note. Things, they thought, were finally looking up. Jesus is getting the positive attention he deserves, at last!

But in contrast, Jesus doesn’t seem phased by any of it. The disciples are stuck in the immediate, while Jesus has his eyes fixed on eternity. They are thinking about power and prestige and victory in the here and now, and Jesus is thinking about the victory of liberating all people everywhere for all of time.

God takes the long view. And once again we see that if we’re going to look like Jesus, something has to die in our lives. And that something is our contentment with short-term victories. God is persistently working toward an end, and is not dissuaded by short term victories or defeats. Even the apparent defeat of the cross is not enough to dissuade Jesus from the reconciling work that brings God’s future into the world.

Monopoly

A final illustration: the game Monopoly. I’m going to tell you all right here and right now how to win at Monopoly virtually every single time. (no, really…it’s connected)

Step one: follow the written rules. Know them and follow them. There are things you might not realize in there, like a piece of available property that gets landed on must either be bought or auctioned. That’s an easy way to grab property cheaply while your opponents battle it out for the high-dollar pieces.

Step two: Get three houses on your monopolies right away, but never upgrade to a hotel. There are only 32 houses available, and hoarding these keeps your opponents’ rents from going up. This is also why the less expensive properties are good buys: you can do a lot of improvements quickly.

Step three: Hang out in jail once all property is bought. You can still collect rent, but you don’t risk paying any.

You follow these three rules and you will win most every time—as long as you take the long view. This won’t work if you’re playing a quick one-hour game, because that type of playing relies too much on luck for most strategies to be very certain. But if you’re playing a whole game—if you can take the long view—these three rules just flat work.

Winning with God

The rules might be a little different, but there’s an analogy here. When it comes to life and advancing God’s Kingdom, short term results and victories rely on a lot of luck and positioning. To be content with them is to follow a fickle master.

But long term results can be almost guaranteed if we follow a few simple steps. And wouldn’t you know it, Jesus lays those out for us.

“He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40 NRSV)

Step one: Love God.

Step two: Love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s it. According to Jesus, if you fulfill these two things, you’ve fulfilled everything else. As surprising as it might be to realize, following Jesus into God’s future is simpler than winning at Monopoly.

But they both require taking the long view. And sooo very much rests on learning to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Author NT Wright reminds us that

“The royal law – love your neighbour as yourself – is the vocation through which the followers of Jesus are called to reflect into the world the generous love poured out in creation itself, the generous love given up to death on the cross, the powerful love of the Spirit which goes out through the gospel to call rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female alike to live as transformed human beings, as vessels of mercy not simply in the sense of people who have received mercy but in the sense of people who, receiving it, gladly and generously pass it on.” (link)

Certainly, when this generous love of God is poured through us–when the mercy we have received from God finds expression as we share it freely in the world–the very foundations of the earth tremble as all things become new.

God takes the long view. May we as the Body of Christ give up our quick satisfaction with short-term victories, and truly labor for God’s cause—a cause that began before us and will extend well beyond us. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.