Not From This World

A Sermon for November 25, 2018, Christ The King Sunday

As the editor and writer of Marvel Comics from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Stan Lee published a monthly column entitled “Stan’s Soapbox” which appeared on the last page of the company’s various superhero titles.

Upon his death at the age of 95 on November 12, one of the columns that the legendary creator wrote 50 years ago immediately resurfaced on social media. Published in December 1968, the essay addressed racism in America in the wake of the horrific assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy that occurred earlier that year. The co-creator of iconic characters such as Spider-man, The Black Panther and The Avengers, wrote the following:

Stan Lee with actor Chadwick Boseman who plays T’Challa/Black Panther at the movie’s premiere in January, 2018

Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun.

The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. …He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another.

But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.

Peace and Justice,

Stan

Stan Lee’s words remain relevant today and are reflected in the moral and spiritual messages he weaved into the realistic fantasy superhero universe he helped create at Marvel Comics. Lee also adhered to the principals of love and tolerance in his own life, which is partly what made him such a beloved pop icon.

Despite being agnostic and non-religious, Lee had a great appreciation for the Golden Rule and the power of sacrificial love. As such, he imbued his super heroes with a sense of humility and compassion, and he exposed them to real life issues that would challenge their humanity. The previously mentioned characters and many more, like Iron Man and the Hulk, are flawed super heroes. For decades they’ve struggled with the challenges of everyday life just like the average person: job stress, addiction, depression, fear, prejudice, poverty, war, religious discrimination, illness and death, disabilities, and family relationships. And their powers don’t always save them from their troubles.

But Lee also believed that regardless of one’s flaws, human beings could do extraordinary things to help fashion a better world, which was evident in his super hero stories but also explicitly stated in another Soapbox column from 1968:

“We (at Marvel) believe that (humans) have a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility—the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect…We’ll never rest until it becomes a fact rather than just a cherished dream.”

Considering all of this, the case could be made that Stan Lee likely comprehended (more than many Christians) the theological concept that Christ or God’s kingdom is not from this world, and humanity is called to be a part of this alternative reality.

A certain amount of imagination and faith is needed to conceive a world that is unlike the one we inhabit. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor of Judea, doesn’t have that imagination and faith, which is why he remains stuck in a rudimentary understanding of kings and kingships. Pilate is unable to grasp the idea of a kingdom and world apart from the one he knows. And he is incapable of seeing Jesus as one who belongs to an entity more sovereign than Rome.

Pilate suspects, as does King Herod and the religious authorities, that Jesus is a threat to the power and prestige each of them hold. Pilate is trying to determine if Jesus is claiming to be the king of Israel, the Jewish nation and therefore challenging the authority of Roman Emperor. Pilate views Jesus’ action as a potential global security threat to the Empire.

Jesus’ kingdom, though, is not defined in earthly terms nor is it some heavenly, abstract concept. According to the scriptures and the culture of the time, the kingdom of God is considered an authentic world that is within and beyond our own:  a kingdom that has already arrived; a kingdom that is fully in the present, and a kingdom that will one day bring forth a new heaven and earth.  And it is a kingdom where all belong and are invited to be part of the community of an unconditionally loving God, whose reign transcends any one person or group of people.

I realize this may sound like a Utopian fantasy—a fanciful, pie-in-the sky dreaming that is more suitable for kids who read comic books or watch movies about wizards. Yet it is the foundation of our faith and why we as Presbyterians join Christians around the globe in recognizing today as Christ the King Sunday. As it is stated on the website of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

“The festival of Christ the King…moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. … In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. … As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.”

Jesus never has and never will fit into humanity’s centuries old traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, leadership, power and prestige. Jesus wasn’t a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time, and Jesus is not like any crowned figurehead, dictator or elected leader that has existed in the modern era.

Google Images

Pilate mistakenly identifies him as a meddlesome king, even going so far as to asking Jesus, “What is truth?” when the truth of who Jesus is stands plainly before him. Pilate simply can’t comprehend much less handle the truth, which is that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our lives now and forever.

Jesus is the ruler of a kingdom where God’s love, peace, justice, healing and restoration are experienced. Jesus—this God-in-the-flesh who faces interrogation by a representative of a dominating system of violence and power—is the ruler who enters our world as a small, defenseless child instead of a power-hungry deity seeking to wipe out sinners and rule with an iron fist.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says to an ignorant Pilate.

The truth—that is God’s kingdom of love and grace—is not always easy or comforting to hear. It can be difficult because it means we’re acknowledging that we haven’t quite lived into the reality of God’s kingdom and have remained tethered to an earthly realm (a broken society and culture) that fosters greed, resentment, prejudice and hate. It means that sometimes we’ve become stuck in our own self-serving agendas and rejected Christ’s verbal invitation to be a part of God’s beloved community.

One of my all-time favorite television shows, M*A*S*H, about the 4077th mobile surgical hospital unit stationed near the frontlines of the Korean War, helped me better appreciate the truth of Jesus’ kingship in an episode entitled, Quo Vadis, (Where Are You Going), Captain Chandler?

The episode begins with batch of soldiers being brought into the camp to be treated for the injuries they sustained in battle. Among them is Captain Arnold Chandler, a sheep rancher from Idaho, who believes he is Jesus Christ.

Some at the 4077th think Captain Chandler’s claim is blasphemous and that he is faking battle fatigue to earn a medical discharge. Others are concerned about the man’s mental well-being, and contact the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, for a consultation.

It turns out that Chandler, a decorated pilot who had flown 57 missions before being shot down, has lost his memories even though his head wound is superficial. Despite best efforts to help him remember, Chandler insists he is Christ. After a long visit with his patient, Sidney shares a diagnosis with camp personnel. He tells them:

“He’s not Christ. But he’s not Chandler either. The man is a victim. Chandler lost himself. He’s not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said, ‘Enough! You’re Christ, you’re not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself.’”

M*A*S*H, Season 4, Episode 10: “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” (1975)

Sidney then recommends that the pilot be admitted to a hospital in Tokyo where he can receive treatment that will turn him back to his former self but “never into a fighting machine.” A few moments later, in the episode’s final scene, Captain Arnold Chandler is walking out of the medical tent to board a bus to the airport when Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reiley, the young, naïve company clerk approaches him. Radar timidly says to Captain Chandler:

“Sir, my name is Radar O’Reiley. … Um, sir are you really who they say, I mean are you really Him?”

Chandler replies: “Yes, I am.”

Radar breathes a sigh of relief and then asks: “I know you’re busy and all but could you bless this?”

Radar then reaches into a satchel and draws out a ragged old teddy bear that he’s loved since childhood. “I know he’s not real, but we’re very close.”

Captain Chandler blesses Radar’s teddy bear

Chandler places his hands on the stuffed animal, his right hand covering the teddy’s bear’s missing eye, and says: “Bless you.”

Then he looks up at Radar and says, “Bless you, Radar.” 

Moved and humbled by the gesture, Radar says proudly, “I’m Walter.”

Chandler replies: “Bless you, Walter.” And then as he boards the bus, he looks at everyone in the camp and says, “Bless all of you.”

I first shared this illustration in a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Church in Maryland on Christ the King Sunday, 2006. While preparing that sermon, I tracked down the episode’s writer, Bert Prelutsky, and sent him an email asking for more insight on the story of Captain Arnold Chandler. Bert emailed me back the next day, saying:

“I think the message was fairly simple and straightforward. We all share a common humanity, whatever our religion is… Chandler, of course, represented the Christ, the spark of the divine, that resides in most of us.”

There is, of course, a lot about God and God’s kingdom that is mysterious and astonishing. But maybe it’s not so strange to consider that we’ve each been blessed with a spark of the Divine, the captivating love of God

Maybe it’s not too far fetched to concede that when we are tuned into Christ’s voice enough so that we might follow and embrace God’s vision, which is both within and beyond our reach, we encounter a glimpse of the holy…

Mission trips to Honduras and Blue Ridge, Georgia; Bible Study and fellowship at the Duluth Co-Op; Laundry Love; Operation Turkey Sandwich, Clifton Men’s Shelter; Rainbow Village, Blood Drives; Mental Health Awareness Workshops for Parents and High School Youth, Free Clinical Exams for Uninsured Mammogram Patients. Vacation Bible School. Montreat, etc., etc.,

Operation Turkey Sandwich

When we come together to love others as Christ loves, we participate in a kingdom that is not from this world.

That is and will always be the truth.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Elevation

It called loudly to me with its bold title splayed over an alluring cosmic fireworks display, and the renown author’s name printed in large organ letters below: ELEVATION…STEPHEN KING.

A book by King is usually enough to grab my attention but typically I check them out at the library instead of buying them these days. I was so disappointed in his 2014 novel “Revival” from a few years ago that I have picked up and browse every book written since with a bit of skepticism. But this one, Elevation, made my heart leap and sparked curiosity and wonder. Right away I knew the story wasn’t centered around horror, but of that deeper magic found in King’s Green Mile, The Dragon’s Eye, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption, and The Body (Stand By Me). I scanned the description in the book jacket and was instantly convinced that this was a piece of literature to devour.

At less than 150 pages, it took just over a day to read. I finished it a few evenings ago, but I may re-read it before the end of next weekend. It is that marvelous of a tale.

The protagonist, Scott Carey, a 6’4 foot guy who weighs 240 pounds, suddenly discovered that he is losing weight, without his appearance ever changing. More curious is that the scale registers the same with our without clothes and even if he is carrying heavy objects like 2 pounds of quarters in his pockets or 5 pound dumbbells. As Scott continues to lose 2 pounds per day, he finds that he has more energy and literally more bounce as he defies gravity by leaping from his driveway to the stop step of his front porch, among other feats.

In brilliant fashion, King has given us a parable on what it means to let go of the things in life (the worries, the burdens and hardships) that weigh us down and allow friends, and even complete strangers, to lift you up.

The story stirred within me the following questions:

What do I need to let go of so I can have more energy and bounce…so I can be ELEVATED, so I can rise?

How can I stretch and grow?

How can I reach beyond myself and cling to the mystery of God and the love and grace that is all around?

This past week at the PC(USA) CREDO conference has led me to some answers.

More to come…

 

Pastoral Prayers for Sept. 30 and Oct. 14

Pastoral Prayer for Sunday, October 14, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church

Like the ancient people of the book, we too are on a journey—

searching for your voice,

yearning to be in your presence,

seeking your love, O Lord of the heavens and earth.

 

A whirlwind of other voices whip around us and try to suck us into chaos and disarray— Advertisements telling us if we buy this or that, we will have

better looks and better things,

along with more power, prestige and wealth.

Texts and Tweets and Timeline statuses telling us we have to

choose this side

take this stand

like, love, be sad or be angry

share and copy and paste a thousand times if we truly believe

Bullying rants and ugly rhetoric telling us in various platforms that we

            are less than

            are unworthy

            are inhuman

             because of gender, sexuality, race, creed, culture and age

 

But you, O Lord, are not in the wind.

Nor are you in the earthquakes of life

that shake the ground beneath our feet

Nor are you in the fire that seeks to consume us and reduce us to ash

 

You are instead in the silence. The eerie, deafening silence.

The silence that comes when we tune out the noise

and search within our hearts for a moments peace

In the silence, we hear you speak

And we strain to listen so that we don’t miss a single word

We carefully try to make meaning of your message

We want to follow it exactly; we want to do what is pleasing and right in your sight.

 

But like the man who runs up and kneels before Jesus,

we desperately want to always hear you praising us for doing good deeds.

we want that pat on the back and that “A+” so badly.

we want to know that we’ve followed well:

checked all the boxes on the to-do list,

and kept the commandments perfectly.

 

But it’s not about adhering to the rules and living perfectly

to gain reward in heaven, is it?

 

No, you calmly tell us that it doesn’t work that way. You say that if we want

to follow you,

hear your voice,

be in your presence,

understand your love,

We must be selfless rather than selfish

We must be generous rather than greedy

We must be compassionate rather than cruel.

 

If we attempt the latter instead of the former,

you remind us that we will be unable to help build the kingdom,

the beloved community where all are welcomed.

For it is in the act of being selfless, generous and compassionate

that we truly are able to join you in the transforming of this world.

 

Even when the voices and noises and whirlwind

attempt to distract us from your call,

Even when they’ve pulled us into the depths of pain and suffering

to prevent us from moving forward with you

 

Your voice, your way, your light, illumines our lives and path

In the writings of the apostle, you assure us over and over and over again that

Neither death, nor life,

Nor angels, nor rulers,

Nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

Nor anything else in all creation,

Can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

In the silence, let us hear and remember that truth.

And let us proclaim once again that God’s love forever reigns

            as we say the words Christ Jesus taught his disciples to pray,

Together saying… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”


Pastoral Prayer for Sunday, September 30, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church

Whose side are you on, O Lord?

Surely, you are on their side, are you?

        Don’t you hear what they’re saying?

        Don’t you see what they’re doing?

You are on our side, aren’t you Holy One?

         We are the ones who say all the right things.

          We are the ones who are doing it all well.

Surely, you aren’t on their side, Lord.

Whose suffering will you relieve first?

Surely, you aren’t help them, are you?

           Don’t you hear their insincerity?

           Don’t you see their carelessness?

You are going to help us before them, aren’t you Holy One?

           We are the ones who’ve cried out the longest?

            We are the ones who’ve been the most faithful.

Surely, you aren’t helping them, Lord.

 

Maybe the better questions for us to ask are…

When will be tear down the walls that divide us into sides?

When we will rid ourselves of haughtiness and righteous indignation?

When will we recognize and relieve all suffering with compassion?

Perhaps it is when we open our hearts to see that you are,

With. all. of. us.

All sides.

All around.

Within and beyond.

A love that is close to our hearts.

A mystery that is beyond anything our minds can imagine.

 

You are the goodness and wisdom we long to embody and seek for our minds.

You are the peace and comfort we seek for our souls.

You are the love and humility we seek for our hearts.

You are the light that illumines our lives.

 

Transform us over and over by your grace so that we may work side by side with you to care for one another (friends, enemies and strangers) and to build the beloved community and kindom…

Where all of our burdens are sustained.

Where all of our suffering is tended.

Where all of your mercy abounds.

In the name of Christ who taught his disciples to pray together, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

A Pastoral Prayer for 6/17/18

An acrylic painting on wood illustrating the bible verse in Mark 4 describing the kingdom of God like a mustard seed. Jesus is seated with a child under the yellow-leafed branches of a tree showing her a tiny mustard seed.

Pastoral Prayer, 10 am worship at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, June 17, 2018. “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much,” written by Ted Loder, author of Guerillas of Grace. 1981. Text in red are my additions.

Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken families and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying and people being torn apart from loved ones; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much stale routine and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence, red rage and the bitter tastes of ashes in our mouths.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion. Too much darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference…Too much, Lord, too much, too blood, bruising, brain-washing much.

Or is it too little, too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence, or sacrifice; too little of music and laughter and celebration?

O God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, we may also be fed and be full.

O God, make of us joyful children like those in Vacation Bible School last week who gave you praise and lived out grace through music, play, art, mission, story and the sharing of scripture.

O God, make us of us mustard seed and scatter us across the earth so that we may sprout and grow, putting forth large branches of love and mercy where your people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the stranger and the foreigner can find protection, solace and comfort.

We ask all these things in the name of Christ Jesus who taught his disciples to pray together saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

 

For God So Loved

A Sermon for Sunday, May 27, 2018, Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-17

A week from today, a group of high school teens and adults will travel to North Carolina for the annual Montreat Youth Conference. One of the highlights will be gathering as a youth group each evening in our lodging space to reflect on everything we’ve experienced that day.

We’ll ask questions, share insights, and try to find meaning out of what we’re learning about life, faith and God.  It will undoubtedly be a powerful and sacred time just as it is every summer.

Many of you have probably had similar late night chats with family and friends in your home or on a retreat or mission trip—those deep and baffling, blow-your-mind talks that can illicit a variety of responses: jaw drops, puzzled looks, deep sighs, astonishment, uncontrollable laughter and teary eyes.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the religious leader Nicodemus is quite astounded by the midnight convo he is having with Jesus. It’s a peculiar exchange to be sure, and Nicodemus can’t seem to wrap his head around Jesus’ talk about “being born from above.”

Nicodemus knows intuitively, as any human being should, that it is physically impossible for someone to grow old and re-enter his or her mother’s womb and be born a second time. Thus, Jesus’ suggestion that someone can be born is mind-boggling to him.  With all the wisdom he has gained as a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus simply doesn’t understand what Jesus is telling him. Emmanuel Lartey, a former seminary professor of mine writes:

“So often our misunderstandings and disputes arise because (those in dialogue) are not speaking the same language. Jesus is using symbolic, spiritual, analogical language; Nicodemus is looking at the plain, literal meanings. Nicodemus sees birth as ‘of the flesh;’ Jesus speaks of spiritual realities… Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it. Religion often becomes a matter of the correct observance of particular practices. When these practices become routine, they may actually serve to hinder spiritual sensitivity.”[1]

Put another way, Nicodemus is much like an old school Presbyterian Methodist or Episcopalian who feels comfortable wearing the well-worn “frozen chosen” label—Christians who are reserved, scholarly, and extremely organized; have a thought-out, orthodox system of beliefs; and keep strict adherence to religious doctrines. They follow the rules, check the lists, memorize the scriptures, attend church every Sunday and say their prayers every night. They’ve got faith locked down so they conclude there’s no need for spirituality.

The freewheeling Spirit, they reason, is for the doubters and unbelievers who are lost and need Jesus. The irony, though, is that the ones who seem to have it all figured out are precisely the people who need a spiritual transformation in their lives. Lartey explains further:

“To be in tune with God’s reign and presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being. We need a transformation of our whole way of knowing and experiencing the world. When this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again. Nicodemus’ confusion deepens because he is unable to leave the realm of literal thinking to join Jesus on an imaginative, spiritual level.”[2]

In other words, the triune God can’t be stuffed in a box or put in the corner. God can’t be coerced into carrying out our selfish agendas or comply to our ideological views of humanity and the world. The triune God cannot be controlled or tamed—forced to be in tune with us.

Yet for centuries, it is what Christians have tried to do in an effort to understand their relationship with God. Despite best intentions to organize religion, which resulted in the establishment of communities of faith like churches and denominations; sacred practices like baptism and communion; and the structuring of ministries like Christian Education, youth, pastoral care and mission, there have also been unintended consequences.

In the book The Great Spiritual Migration, which a group of Pleasant Hill members and I recently explored, author and pastor Brian McLaren points out that the ancient tradition of Christian institutions protecting a timeless, correct set of beliefs has caused much calamity:  colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, physical and sexual abuse, power grabs, financial scams and environmental destruction.

Over the last few decades, Christianity and the Church have become hypocritical, judgmental, manipulative and irrelevant in the eyes of many across the globe. And the numerical declines that are occurring throughout every area of Christianity in the West, particularly among younger generations, bear the reality. McLaren writes:

“The pattern is predictable. Founders are typically generous, visionary, bold, and creative, but the religions that ostensibly carry on their work often become the opposite: constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms as their founders did, their successors stand guard with clenched fists. Instead of empowering others as their founders did, they hoard power. Instead of defying tradition and unleashing moral imagination as their founders did, they impose tradition and refuse to think outside the lines. …No wonder so many religious folks today wear down, burn out, and opt out.”[3]

Now, I will be the first to say that I am grateful to be serving in a church that is not constricted, change-averse, over-nostalgic, and fearful, etc. Pleasant Hill Presbyterian creates and imagines outside the lines; greets the world with open arms and generous hearts; and empowers people to do ministry.

But if we were to be honest in those late evening conversations we have with others and even ourselves, we’d have to admit that things are not the same here as they were 10 years ago or 30 years ago. Like many churches, Pleasant Hill’s pews get emptier and emptier and it has a little less energy than it used to have. I don’t know exactly why. It just is.

Maybe it’s a reflection of some of the emptiness and lack of energy many Christians feel in the world these days—a world that seems to have become meaner and more hateful and destructive. The mistreatment of our neighbors, the brokenness of lives, the horrors of violence and the heaviness of death is draining, especially when we are glued to our screens 24-7.

Christianity has sadly become too settled in its ways, too comfortable, too tired and apathetic. Christianity needs spiritual transformation and inspiration. It begins when Christians and churches let go of long-held systems of belief and arguments over sexual orientation, salvation, worship styles, money and carpet colors. And allow instead for the Spirit to carry them out of their comfort zones and in the way of love.

Christianity’s purpose is to be in constant motion. Our relationship with God can only thrive if we are moving, growing and changing. Our call to serve can only be fruitful if we are stretching ourselves to love our neighbors (including strangers and enemies). Our ability to see the kingdom of God will only materialize if we are willing to go and teach others how to love.

For God so loved that the Spirit sent a perfect loving Messiah into the world because of the Creator’s love for humanity. For God so loved that the Spirit transforms us through the love of Christ and sends us out to live our whole lives in love. For God so loved that the Spirit opens our hearts to love others as God loves us.

As the late Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV icon, Mr. Rogers, once said:  “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”[4]

 

Rogers also had this gem:  “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”[5]

Love is powerful. Love changed the world and can continue to change the world. We heard that reminder last weekend from Bishop Michael Bruce Curry at the royal wedding in Britain. In his sermon, Curry asked everyone to imagine a world where love is the way:

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way—unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. …

 When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. …When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.[6]

If you’re doubtful some days that the Spirit is unable to move people toward the way of Christ’s love, consider this story from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama about a 4-year-old boy named Austin Perine:[7]

Donning a bright red cape and a bold blue shirt emblazoned with the message “#SHOW LOVE,” and assistance from his incredible side-kick dad TJ, the heroic Austin hands out meals to the city’s homeless on a weekly basis.  Austin says his superhero motto is “show love,” because “it means you care about someone no matter what they look like.” One homeless man told Austin: “It’s because of you that I want to be a better person.”

Austin’s mission started when his dad took him to a city shelter to learn about homelessness. TJ said that his son immediately asked if they could feed the people at the shelter. “I didn’t expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old boy asks you, what can you say?” They immediately went to Burger King, bought chicken sandwiches’ and took them back to the shelter. Word quickly spread and Austin became a local celebrity overnight, appearing on TV, news articles and social media posts. Burger King gave him a $1,000 monthly allowance for a year so he could continue his mission.

This is what love looks like when we let the Spirit take hold of us. The Spirit blows through our lives where it chooses and we hear the sound of it, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So let us be open and ready to go wherever it takes us to show love to others.

For God so loved.

For God so loved.

Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)

[2] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)

[3] The Great Spiritual Migratio: How The World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking A Better Way to Be Christian by Brian McLaren, (2016)

[4] http://www.newsweek.com/fred-rogers-birthday-quotes-wont-you-be-my-neighbor-movie-854013

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/518360-i-believe-that-appreciation-is-a-holy-thing–that-when-we

[6] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love

[7] https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/us/iyw-boy-helps-homeless-trnd/index.html

Take These Things

A Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018. John 2:13-22, Third Sunday of Lent

While I was doing some online research for today’s sermon, I discovered the following meme, which offers some sage advice:

The caption is funny precisely because many Christians forget or ignore that Jesus sometimes got mad during his life and ministry.  Nobody wants to see and talk about angry Jesus, especially that time he made his own whip out of cords and drove the merchants and money changers and livestock out of the temple before dumping coins on the floor and overturning tables.

Instead, we’d much prefer this image of Jesus clearing the temple by cartoonist and pastor Cuyler Black:

While the cartoon is a humorous interpretation and play-on-words for a 21st century culture that is familiar with extreme sports terminology, what Jesus actually does is far more risky and dangerous than a skateboarding stunt.  Therefore, it is crucial that we take a hard look at images that attempt to portray exactly what is occurring in the text as well as the story itself:

Jesus is furious and causing a scene. The inside of the temple is a mess. Dove are flying out of cages, sheep are fussing and running around in circles. Coins are spinning through the air and across the floor. People are scrambling to get out of the way. Merchants stumble over one another while others shake their fists at Jesus or grab him by the sleeve to make him stop. Jesus is livid as he swings a whip of cords in one hand and picks up tables with the other, all while shouting: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The Gospel of John puts the event front and center, right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The temple visit marks Jesus’ first public appearance, immediately following the calling of the disciples and the private wedding at Cana where water is turned into wine. The writer of John’s gospel wants readers to know right away that the outraged Jesus in the temple is the one he described in the first chapter as the Word who is God—the light in the darkness that shall not be overcome, the Word that became flesh and dwells with humanity, the Word that is full of grace and truth.

On the surface, it may seem as if Jesus’ outrage is not congruent with John’s description of God in Christ or what we know of Jesus from other gospel stories. The idea of Jesus being angry and causing a ruckus in the temple of all places is hard to imagine. It’s not a scene that sits comfortably next to accounts of Jesus’ healing, feeding and caring for the marginalized of society. The whip-holding, table-flipping Jesus sure doesn’t seem like the type who would want children to come and sit in his lap. But Jesus’ anger is an important part of who he is and not something that should be easily dismissed.

Over the centuries, Christians have mistakenly domesticated Jesus in their own image and have come to see him as this gentle, nice, serene person who is always smiling and giving a pat on the back. And believers have, at times, overlooked the fact that Jesus and God are connected.

Christ is God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. Everything we know of God as the almighty creator of the universe and sovereign lord of the heavens and earth is manifested in the bodily flesh that is Jesus; unfathomable power and an incredible, mysterious force of logic and love embodied in a single person. It’s truly quite astonishing, and seems reasonable then to conclude that such an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being in human form is not going to be nice all the time. The late Christian author and theologian Mike Yaconelli once put it this way:

What characterized Jesus and His disciples was unpredictability. Jesus was always surprising the disciples by eating at the wrong houses (those of sinners), hanging around the wrong people (tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, lepers), and healing people on the wrong day (the Sabbath) … Jesus was a long way from dullJesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. …If Jesus is the Son of God, we should be terrified of what He will do when He gets his Hands on our lives.”[1]

(The triune) God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. God is our great strength and comfort. And Jesus, God-with-us, is the bread of life, the true vine, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd and the resurrection. But neither God nor God in Christ is safe or tame or nice.

The anger that erupts from Jesus upon entering the temple, though, is not irrational or petty. Jesus is not throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get his way or upset because he’s hungry and cranky. Whenever Jesus became angry, it was because he saw injustice and irreverence.

Now, the selling of animals and exchanging of money was necessary for the festivals occurring in the temple during Passover. People traveling from long distances would need sheep and doves to make burnt offerings and those who came from foreign lands would need to exchange their money for the local currency to purchase the animals.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have issue with this economic practice; otherwise he’d be ranting through the outdoor marketplaces in every town.

The problem Jesus seemed to have is that these transactions were taking place in the temple—a place intentionally set aside to worship God. What Jesus witnessed was a lack of respect and reverence for God on display. Practices that weren’t harmful in of themselves, but distracted people from giving their entire attention to God. And thus, Jesus was consumed by righteous anger.

Righteous anger is considered to be good, conscientious, moral, healthy anger and there’s always a time and place for such emotion. Alice Pau, the American suffragist, was angry that women were denied the right to vote. The civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was angry about racial segregation. And peace activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was angry at apartheid in South Africa. In our daily lives, it is normal to feel righteous anger about bullying, abuse, poverty, racial inequality, and so much more. God has wired us to show deep compassion and care for the broken and suffering in this world; it’s only natural that we become angry when we read the news headlines and see yet another act of violence and oppression. Righteous anger is good and we are called to practice it and be an instrument of change.

With that in mind, it is very tempting to preach and read today’s story as if we’re only called, like Jesus, to deliver righteous anger by taking up a whip and overturning the tables of the injustices we most despise. However, the writer of a biblical commentary I read last week reminded me that the writer of John’s gospel has something else in mind:

“The text pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. Surely we can be honest enough to acknowledge that often enough we put ourselves and our institutions at the service of the powers that are decidedly less than God.”[2]

It would be naive for us to read this text and believe that Jesus is only criticizing everyone but us good Christians and our places of worship. As the biblical commentator notes further:

“For the truth is that neither the prophetic impulse nor the institutions called to embody it are well served by the quick assumption that because he is ‘our’ Savior, he is perpetually well pleased with us. It is important for us to tolerate and explore…the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with the whip of cords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgment of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even against us.”[3]

In other words, we are not perfect followers and we don’t have this whole faith thing figured out. We make mistakes. We turn our back on God and neighbor.  It’s what we confess together every Sunday and frankly, we need Jesus to call us out when we’re wrong. We need tough love that speaks truth to our waywardness. Jesus’ righteous anger comes from a deep place of love for humanity.

So, if Jesus were to enter our sanctuaries, what might he rail against? What are the distractions and displays of disrespect and irreverence that would cause him to yell aloud with righteous anger: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house something else” What tough love speech would Jesus give?

Would Jesus be angry that worship spaces designed for the purpose of communing with God have evolved into a place where folks primarily come to socialize with and be entertained by others?

Would Jesus be angry with people who play games, text and check emails on our smart phones during any part of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with people who clap and cheer after a musician gives glory to God through a special anthem because they were thoroughly entertained, not because they are praising God for the gift of music? Or would Jesus be angry with some who allow a negative attitude about a hymn prevent them from finding joy and meaning in other parts of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with those who make grocery lists on the back of their bulletins and pretend to listen? Or with others who are so focused on every aspect of worship being flawless that they miss the chance to be surprised by the mystery of grace?

Would Jesus be angry with people who set up metaphorical tables covered with misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions and judgments, smug self-satisfaction, arrogance, envy, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, and political idols? [4]

Would Jesus be angry with those who worry more about the empty pews than being delighted by the people who have come to praise God? Or with the many who claim to be friendly and welcoming and yet never take the time after worship to know the people who sit on the other side of the room?

Would Jesus be angry with the people who pray for the well-being of others, but don’t always work to ensure their well-being?

Would Jesus be angry with pastors and leaders of the church for focusing too much attention on the maintenance of the institution—the upkeep of the building, the budget, the stewardship campaign, new equipment—instead of the practices of faith? [5]

These are the questions we must ask in this season of Lent in which each of us are called to look inward and discern how we have let certain things get in the way of our relationship with God.

I don’t know for sure what Jesus would specifically be angry about if he were to walk through the doors of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian’s sanctuary or any sanctuary. I don’t have the answers.

But I do know this: Jesus’ deep desire for a sacred space where people can worship and experience the holy is what leads to his death at the hands of the religious authorities who were greatly offended by Jesus’ outrage. As a seminary classmate and friend wrote recently on this text:

“’It is zeal for your house that will consume me’ reveals itself to be a prediction that the very ones who are most zealous for the Temple are the ones that will ultimately destroy Jesus. Those who have the greatest investment in the success of official religion will chew Jesus up and spit him out. You see, establishment religion cannot abide Jesus, who is the world-shaking intrusion of God’s free and radical love into the world.”[6]

Let us heed then the words of Christ who will flip the world over and scatter all the distractions that compete for our time and attention so we may be fully immersed in God’s presence; so that we may give our whole hearts to God.

Let us also take the things that turn us away from God and remove them from our midst. The things are not what matters in this life or the next. All that ever matters on this journey with Jesus is Christ himself, and his radical love that rises from the ruins, binding us forever to God and one another.

Amen.

[1] Dangerous Wonder by Mike Yaconelli, 2003, Navpress

[2] Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, 2008, Westminster Knox Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060313JJ.shtml

[5] https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/overturning-established-religion-john-213-22/.

[6] Ibid.

There is a Light

A Sermon for Sunday February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday, John 1:1-5, 14 and 18; Mark 9:2-9

Whenever we consider the pairing of the words “light and darkness,” we immediately think of “good and evil,” and “hope and despair.” We associate “light” with what is positive and “darkness” with the negative.

It’s what we’ve been taught since we exited the womb. We’ve endured the “dark night of the soul” and understand intimately the notion that “it’s always the darkest just before the dawn.”  In the dark, we are seized with pain, and in the light, we are healed.

There are numerous books, movies, songs, and wise sayings that express that very message, reminding us again and again that the light shines brightly no matter how dark any particular moment seems.  Many of those artistic expressions point us back to the scriptures, which has assured us throughout the centuries that hate and darkness will never overcome light and love. 

That assurance is true and core to our beliefs.

But could it be equally true that the light might be just as scary and quite dangerous to behold and embrace—more so than we’d like to admit? The gospels seem to affirm this truth, which we don’t always notice right away.  

In this morning’s reading from Mark 9, we encounter Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, atop a mountain when an amazing event occurs. Suddenly and without warning, Jesus is transfigured before them—his clothes becoming “a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (And no, this wasn’t a “Tide ad.”) [1]

Matthew’s version of the story adds that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun,” which would mean that it was intensely bright and difficult to see without squinting.  While Luke’s account says the “appearance of his face” changed, most likely indicating that it became ethereal. And appearing next to Jesus in this flood of illuminating transfiguration are two revered and long-dead prophets, Elijah and Moses, striking up a conversation.

Peter responds to this incredible supernatural spectacle by anxiously suggesting they set up camp and stay awhile.  On the surface, it seems to be a tone-deaf statement that highlights the disciple’s ignorance of what is occurring before him.

However, the reality, as Mark tells us, is that Peter, (along with James and John) is terrified and doesn’t know what to say. In an effort to calm his fear and cope with the magnitude of the scene, Peter starts rambling about dwelling places even though he’s probably aware that his idea is unrealistic and makes no sense. 

The transfiguration is not the special effects blockbuster film that persuades you to sink into a large comfy chair with a bucket of buttery popcorn for a two-hour thrill ride. Nor is it an opportunity to set up a picnic and watch an half-hour fireworks show.

The transfiguration of Jesus is much more compelling in its brevity and comes with a soundtrack straight from the heavens as God’s voice booms: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Peter, James, and John have every reason to be struck with terror. This is not the soft pink light of a sunrise that is easy on the eyes, or the flame of a candle that can be contained from spreading and quickly put out.  This is not a light that can be harnessed and controlled with the clicking of a switch, a swipe on a smart phone, or a voice-activated command.

This is God’s light in Christ arriving with blinding power and might that cannot be tamed.  The scriptures tell us that God’s light rescues people from dark places, protects them like a suit of armor, and reveals the things that were once hidden in darkness. [2] The writer of John’s Gospel, whose poetic words we’ve also heard this morning, proclaims:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Even the natural light that God has created for our days is too potent for us to truly handle ourselves. Sunlight is the most powerful source of energy for our planet, crucial for growth and sustaining of life; for any human being to think it can be completely mastered and managed is quite naive.

Light will do what light does just as God and God’s light does what it will. The transfiguration is a mere glimpse of how God’s righteousness and justice radiates through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Transfiguration—this mysterious, extraordinary, transformative display of light—is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets—the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel death exposes the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion.  For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

Transfiguration is God quickly flashing God’s hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.

And while that is exhilarating to consider on one hand, it is also quite frightening as the disciple Peter can attest.  Peter, James, and John know that Chris is the light of God made manifest and still the prospect of being around and following such a force is scary.

Being a disciple of Jesus is no walk in the park. Ministry is not easy. It’s risky and challenging. Not everyone is fond of helping those who are on the margins of society—the folks who are deemed to be filthy and unworthy. You can be criticized, judged, condemned, cursed, bullied, beaten, arrested, and killed as evident in the stories from the New Testament and our history books.

Peter’s fear is quite reasonable and there are many days when I resonate with what the disciple is feeling. As an ordained minister of 13 years, I know who Jesus is in our lives and world. And yet as someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression most of my life, and who has been in counseling and taking medicine for more than a decade, I am regularly startled by the overwhelming light of Christ.

The best way I can explain what it’s like to live with the debilitations of anxiety and depression is to share a description from a meme being shared on social media:

Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time.

It’s the fear of failure but no urge to be productive.

It’s wanting friends but hating socializing.

It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely.

It’s caring about everything then caring about nothing.

It’s feeling everything at once then feeling paralyzingly numb.

Following Christ, witnessing to and bearing the light, is something I feel deeply about; it is certainly my calling. However, I don’t always feel comfortable heeding my call because being a part of the Light means I have to take risks and make myself vulnerable to criticism, condemnation and rejection for showing love, practicing mercy and speaking truth to power. I also have to become vulnerable when I fail at not loving God and neighbor as I should and seek to make amends. I would much rather make a dwelling place in the darkness under the covers of my bed and never come out because it can be exhausting to swing out my feet and take a step forward.

 I suspect that many of you, regardless of whether you have anxiety and depression, would confess that you are also reluctance about fully bathing in Christ’s light like I am. Don’t we often present the best of ourselves, desiring to not be vulnerable or show weakness—to keep our flaws, heartache, struggles and pain deep within? We silently pray: Let a little light in God, but not too much, so no one judges us for a fool.

Like a lot of folks in the world, I feel a sense of inadequacy about myself.  I have great doubts about my abilities as a pastor, husband and dad. But then I recall one of my favorite quotes from the author Marianne Williamson that render this attitude absurd. She writes:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” [3]

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…”—it’s a lot of pressure to live into, isn’t it? It’s not surprising that I or anyone else wants to shrink and play small. The task sounds quite intimidating.

But I suppose that it’s not actually about dwelling in and embodying God’s light 24-7. It’s not about us putting pressure on ourselves to always have a glowing and sunny optimism.

Instead, it’s about coming down the mountain with a small flame in our hearts and kindling the hearts of others as we slog through the mundane, messy, demanding, dark and excruciating parts of life.

God is not asking us to be the light of Christ or immerse ourselves in the light every second of every day. God knows we experience suffering and pain and are incapable of being perfect and happy all the time.

But God does call us to listen to Christ and carry what we can of Christ’s light into a world that needs to be illuminated with love. The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says there is no other way:

The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’[4]

            Christ’s light finds us and moves us onward in spite of our anxiety, depression, fears, doubts and insecurities. Christ’s light sparks something hidden inside of us that inspires us to brighten the life of another.

Google Images/CNN

Like 15-year-old Gomez Colon, a resident of Puerto Rico who has raised more than $125,000 to help provide 1,400 solar lamps in 840 households that are without electricity due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in November.[5]

Google Images/Yahoo Sports

Like the former NFL player-turned-Baltimore teacher Aaron Maybin who inspired his community to donate hand warmers and gloves to students when Matthew A. Henson Elementary School lost heat and electricity during the winter cold snap last month, and who has also helped raise more than $80,000 to repair the problematic heat systems that exists throughout Baltimore Public Schools.[6]

Like the church members who lovingly insert quarters in the machines at Kim’s Laundromat to provide clean clothes to those in need.

Like the volunteers who spend a couple of hours every month reading to the children of the Burmese refugee families we sponsor.

Those lights seem like tiny flickers in the midst of darkness, but their affects are everlasting and inconsumable. There is a light even though the darkness always surrounds it, and we must shine that light, however big or small, in any way that we can.

            For when you shine the light of Christ that is within your heart, you free other people to do the same, immersing all in the warmth of God’s love.

            Amen.

[1] Super Bowl 52, “Tide Ad” with actor David Habour of the cult hit Nextflix show, “Stranger Things,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doP7xKdGOKs

[2] Micah 7:7-9, Isaiah 9:1-3, Romans 13:11-13, I Corinthians 4:406

[3] Marianne Williamson, Return to Love, HarperCollins Publishing,1992

[4] “Pastoral Perspective” on Transfiguration Sunday texts by Maryetta Madeline Anschutz, Feasting on The Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Pentecost. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010

[5] “Teen delivers hundreds of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans without power.” http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/01/news/economy/puerto-rico-teen-solar-lamps-power/index.html

[6] “Crowdfunding helps former NFL player bring heat back to Baltimore schools” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/crowdfunding-helps-former-nfl-player-bring-heat-back-baltimore-schools-n839951; and “NFL player turned teacher goes door to door to help students during Baltimroe cold snap” https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/nfl-player-turned-teacher-goes-door-to-door-to-help-students-during-baltimore-cold-snap-1142238275622