Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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1 Kings 19:1-13a, and 1 Kings 19:13b-17 (with Hosea 1:4)

Still, Small Voice of God and The Bible Corrects the Bible

June 19, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

What a story! There is so much in it. At one level this is the story of the beleaguered Elijah trying to run away and resign from the position of prophet; but God won’t let him. It’s also a message about burnout and a kind of recovery. But what I want to focus on today is that "sound of sheer silence," or as the version I grew up with puts is, that "still, small voice" of God. The commentaries say that this almost untranslatable phrase is a combination of the Hebrew words for "sound" and "silence"—it’s contradictory, paradoxical, mystical.

Before the silence there was a violent wind, but the Lord was not in the wind and Elijah stayed hidden in his cave. And there was a terrible earthquake, but the Lord was not in the shaking of the ground, and Elijah stayed hidden in his cave. And there was a raging fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and the prophet stayed in his cave. And then, finally, silence. . . And Elijah knew, he just knew. He wrapped his face in his mantle and stepped out of his cave.

Life is full of wind and earthquake and fire. And so often we seem to prefer noise and drama to silence—we schedule our lives so full there’s no time to sit, if there’s a moment’s down time we have to piddle with our phones, and the TV is always on in the background. Perhaps only after the thunderous noise has died down can we hear the still, small voice of God.

And now I’m going to practice what I’m preaching. I’ll be quiet now for a few minutes, and I invite you to be still and listen for what God may be saying in the silence. There’s an index card in your bulletin in case you want to write down something that comes to you, but it’s not a requirement. After three or four minutes, Greg will start playing, and that will be your cue to turn in your hymnal to the beautiful, meditative song, "Near to the Heart of God," No. 472. But don’t fiddle with your hymnal just yet. Simply listen in the silence for the still, small voice of God.

A time of silence is observed

That still, small voice of God would have been a wonderful place for this story to end. But unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. What Elijah hears from God—or what he thinks he hears—is a message of violence and destruction, to anoint and bless Jehu and Elisha to go on a killing spree against King Ahab and his family. And in 2 Kings 9 and 10, that’s exactly what takes place.

And in 1 & 2 Kings the Bible reports this violence as triumphant, as the will of God. But it’s important to note that this is not the only thing the Bible has to say about this killing. As you can see on the screen, a few generations later, the prophet Hosea says that the killing Elijah blessed and that Jehu carried out was not God’s will at all, but was a thing of shame, something to be punished. And Hosea is in the Bible too. There’s more than one thing going on in this big and difficult book called the Bible.

Too many people think the Bible only speaks with one voice, that everything in the Bible is eternally and timelessly true. That if the Bible condones violence, then violence must be okay. And if the Bible seems to judge and condemn certain kinds of people, then we must also judge and condemn them. But sometimes even the Bible corrects the Bible, and surely for us Christians every verse of scripture has to be read in light of the all-inclusive love of Christ who gave his life for all people.

The Bible is not one timeless truth. The Bible is in conversation with itself. The Bible has a conversation about which is more important—faith or works, what should marriage and family look like, what is the best way to show reverence and respect for God? I found this teaching in a little book by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, called Being Christian. In it Williams says that this moment where Hosea corrects 1 & 2 Kings is an important recognition that "it is possible to grow in understanding and to think again about the past."1

And isn’t that what we need to do after what took place in Orlando last week—to grow in our understanding and to think again about our past. To use the Bible—or the Quran—to justify violence or vengeance of any kind is to draw on the worst of our religious traditions, not the best. It’s not that there isn’t violence in the Bible—of course there is, but that violence has been corrected by the fearless and tender love of Christ. And to use the Bible to judge or exclude certain kinds of people is to miss the point of Christ’s coming. Again, it’s not that there isn’t judgment and exclusion in the Bible, but they are corrected by Jesus when he says, "Come to me, all you—not some but all--who labor and are carrying heavy burdens" (Matthew 11:28) and they’re corrected by Paul when he says, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Yes, there is violence and hatred in the Bible, just as there are violence and hatred in our country and violence and hatred n my own heart when I see what that man did. But let’s let the Bible correct the Bible, and let’s ask Christ heal our hearts so that we can change and heal our country.

 

1 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 38.

 

1 Kings 21:1-20b

My Enemy the Prophet

June 12, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

This story has three main characters. We’ll look at them one by one. First, there’s the king, Ahab, who wants a vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth. You can see why the king would want that particular piece of property. It was right next to the king’s house, a convenient place for a garden; it would give him some room to breathe and expand. The king was willing to pay market price or make a fair trade for the property. He wasn’t trying rip Naboth off or anything. He just wanted that vineyard.

But here’s the thing: the king was not entitled to Naboth’s vineyard, not at any price. Under Old Testament law it was critically important for inherited land to remain within the family and within the tribe. So the king is asking Naboth to betray his family by selling that piece of property, and the king is trying to extend his influence into a tribe he didn’t belong to, which could upset the whole structure of Israel.1

So the story begins with the king assuming that at the right price, anything is for sale. The story begins with the king wanting something that simply isn’t his to have.

Here’s a question I invite you to reflect on: have you ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to have? Have you ever wanted something, got it, and found out it wasn’t good for you to have it? Find a person or two or three seated near you, and just turn in your seat and share about that question. If sharing with others isn’t your cup of tea, the ushers have pencils and paper, so you can spend a few moments jotting down your reflections. Either way, here’s the question: Have you ever wanted something that was not yours to have or wasn’t good for you to have?

So the first character in the story is King Ahab who wants something he shouldn’t have. The second character is the queen, Jezebel, who is all too happy to get what the king wants, no matter what it takes to get it. Jezebel, the foreigner, represents a non-Israelite, an unbiblical, understanding of power, in which kings are above the law, or perhaps better put, kings are the law. In Jezebel’s understanding the king can do whatever he wants, take whatever he wants, kill whomever he wants. And if the king won’t do it, she’ll do it for him.

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has suggested that Ahab may not have been an evil man. He knew what the Bible said, that is, he knew how God wants people to live. But he also heard this other voice, the queen’s voice, telling him something else, something attractive and flattering. And he was, as Brueggemann puts it, "double-minded, unwilling and unable to choose between a Torah tradition he is supposed to know and an acquisitive alternative that suits him better."2 He’s listening to more than one voice, and his inability to choose the right kvoice is his undoing.

So here’s your second question: How do you know which voice to listen to? How do you know who will lead you astray and who will keep you on the right path?

So one main character is the king who wants something that’s not his to have. The second character is the queen, who is all to willing to get what he wants, no matter what it takes. The third character is Elijah, the prophet, whose role is to remind people, even the king, how God wants us to live. Telling the king he’s done wrong is a courageous and dangerous thing to do. At the end of the story, Ahab says to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" And Elijah says, "I have found you," and proceeds to tell the king the consequences of his wrongdoing.

When the prophet, for that matter, when anyone, points out where my life has gone astray, how I am not living the way God wants, it feels like they’re my enemy. Anger and defensiveness rise up inside me. Who are you, I think, to talk to me like that?

Of course, the prophet is not really an enemy, but a very special kind of friend. Not everyone has the moral authority of the prophet to speak a hard word into another’s life. It’s not with everyone that I have the kind of relationship that allows me to listen to them when they speak a painful truth. But we all need someone who will be Elijah for us, our enemy the prophet, or rather, that special kind of friend who can remind us how God wants us to live.

So the final question is this: Who has been Elijah for you? Who has told you a hard truth, something that perhaps made you angry and defensive at first, but that you surely needed to hear? Who has been thR person for you?

Well, that’s it for today—My Enemy the Prophet. Next week we’ll be back in the sanctuary and Elijah will hear the still, small voice of God, and the Bible will correct itself.

1 Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 249.

2 Walter Brueggemann, "The Preacher as Scribe," Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 15.

 

1 Kings 17:8-24

The Prophet as Ambassador of Abundance

June 5, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Here’s what the children learned last Sunday. Maybe you’ll repeat it after me this morning:

A prophet is someone who reminds us

How God wants us to live.

So last week Elijah reminded us, when it comes right down to it, when you have to choose and the stakes are high, always put your trust in God—not anyone or anything else, but in God. Today Elijah is an Ambassador of Abundance, reminding us that there is plenty for everyone and the key to abundance is sharing.

Here’s the story. There’s a famine in Israel, and God sends Elijah to a poor widow in Sidon. He asks her for a drink of water, a precious commodity during a drought. She went to get it and he added, "And how about some bread to go with it." The widow replied, "Give you some bread? I don’t have any bread. All I’ve got is this handful of flour and a few drops of oil. I’m getting ready to make one last meal for my son and me, before we starve to death. Give you some bread?"

But Elijah is the Ambassador of Abundance. He says, "Don’t be afraid." Why don’t you repeat that one after me: Don’t be afraid. "Share with me first," he said, "and the flour will never run out and the oil will never run dry." And that is exactly what happened.

Now you might say that the abundance in this story—the flour and the oil never running out—you might say it was a miracle. And it is, in that we can’t say exactly how it happened. The problem with calling this a miracle, though, is that it’s not unusual in the Bible. In fact, with God miraculous abundance is not the exception; it’s the rule.

  • The Garden of Eden, our original home, was a place of goodness and plenty, the way God intended life to be.
  • When Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, God fed them manna every day. It fell from the sky and they would eat, and then the next day it would fall again. But if they tried to store it up, it rotted. God’s abundance is always plenty, but never for hording.
  • When faced with 5000 hungry people, the disciples despaired: "Better send them away. We don’t have enough." But Jesus said, "Wait—what do you have?"

"Five loaves," they said, "and a couple of fish."

"Will you share them?" Jesus asked. A bit reluctantly, they did. And everyone ate, and there was more food left over than they’d had to start with. Sharing unleashes the abundance of God.

  • Acts 2 tells how the early Christians sold their possessions and shared with each other. This kind of sharing wasn’t easy. Not everyone did it; one couple even lied about it. But when they did it, the result was that familiar miracle—no one was in need and everyone had enough.

Elijah is an Ambassador of Abundance. And he’s in good company—the Bible is full of them.

Samuel Wells points out how odd it is for Elijah to ask a starving widow for something to eat.1 It’s seems almost rude. Why does he do it? Because he respects her dignity. Everyone has something to offer. The Ambassador of Abundance doesn’t give people stuff; he gets people to share what they have and it becomes enough for all.

Wells also teaches that this story is more about faith than facts. The prophet does not wave a magic wand and suddenly everyone is a millionaire. Sometimes we have to share as though we have enough even when there doesn’t seem to be enough. That’s why Elijah said, "Don’t be afraid."

When the prophet asks a starving widow for something to eat, he is asking her to see the world a whole new way. It is, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, "a summons to leave the fearful world of scarcity and to practice the world of abundance in concrete ways."2 The Ambassador of Abundance doesn’t give us stuff; he asks us to share our stuff, to leave our fearful, grasping world for a miraculous world of plenty.

So how might an Ambassador of Abundance call us to share our last morsels of bread? How can we leave the fearful world of scarcity and practice the world of abundance?

I knew a guy in seminary. His wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant during his second year. My friend was in school, racking up loans. His wife felt too sick to go to work some days and was losing pay. And he knew enough about how much it costs to raise a child to make him nervous. Every night he lay awake worrying about money. Every time he needed to buy even some little thing he’d ask himself, "What if we don’t have enough? What if we don’t have enough?" Two things happened to change his fear: (1) His fellow students—dozens of us—took a collection that paid for all the cribs and carseats and stuff that babies need. And (2) his pastor advised him that every time he asked that fearful question—"What if we don’t have enough"—to answer himself with a different question—"Yes, but what if we do have enough?" And of course, somehow or other, they had enough. But what really changed was his faith, the way he looked at the world. His pastor was an Ambassador of Abundance, summoning him to leave his world of fear for the practice of abundance.

A couple of years ago, Maple Grove’s Stewardship Team was meeting to plan the fall pledge campaign. We were trying to set a financial goal for the next year. We knew it had to be high enough to meet the church’ needs, but we feared if it was too high people would grumble and feel overwhelmed. We went around the table sharing various desperate ideas, until finally Cathy Davis said, "We’re coming at this the wrong way." She asked us to get up and move to a different physical space to symbolize moving our hearts and minds to a different spiritual space. She prayed for God to replace our fear of scarcity with a trust in God’s abundance. We breathed deeply, and set a high goal. And then you all surpassed that goal. Cathy Davis was our Ambassador of Abundance, overcoming fear with prayers of abundance.

The same is surely true for our life together as a nation. Whenever we try to improve our schools or provide health care for the poor or save the world from climate change, people will say, "We just can’t afford to do that." Now the truth is we may not have the political will or consensus to solve these problems—liberals don’t like conservative ideas and conservatives don’t like liberal ideas. But the truth is, we have the resources to solve any problem we set our hearts and minds to. What we need is an Ambassador of Abundance to summon us out of our fearful scarcity and invite us to share.

Jesus was an Ambassador of Abundance. In Mark 8 he says, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." What we fearfully grasp gets away from us; what’s truly ours are the things we give away.

St. Francis was an Ambassador of Abundance. In his famous prayer we say that it’s in dying we are born to eternal life, it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it’s in giving that we receive.

Abundance is a miracle, but in God’s economy it is not the exception, but the rule. And abundance is unleashed by the simple act of sharing.

 1 Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 100.

2 Walter Brueggemann, "Disciples of the Great Connector," Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 72.

 

1 Kings 18:20-40

Trusting God in a Multicultural World

May 29, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Elijah was not only a wild, hairy, scary, miracle-working man, he was a prophet. And in the Bible prophets are not people who foretell the future; they are people who tell the truth. They call kings to account for their actions and remind the people of God’s covenant. Elijah appears mysteriously in 1 Kings 17, in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 800s BC, and is called Elijah the Tishbite. Some scholars think that means he was from a town called Tishbe in Gilead, others think it’s a word meaning "stranger" (and he was strange!), and no one really knows.

Elijah is an important figure for Jews in part because 2 Kings reports that he never died, exactly, and centuries later Malachi prophesied that God would send Elijah again before the day of judgment. Jews invoke Elijah’s name every week at the end of Shabbat and every year reserve a place at the Passover table for him. He is for them a symbol of hope and deliverance.

Christians have a connection to Elijah too. The gospels portray John the Baptist--another wild, hairy, scary man—as Elijah come to prepare the way for Jesus, calling King Herod to account and telling people to repent.

Today’s story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal is exciting, but troubling—troubling in some obvious ways, but if we dig a little deeper, perhaps also troubling in some very personal ways.

Let’s face it—this story includes two of the biggest problems in our world today:

  • First, there’s Elijah’s religious intolerance ("My God’s better than your god"). We know how much trouble that attitude can cause.
  • And then there’s sacred violence ("I’ll kill you if you disagree me").1 Elijah doesn’t just banish the prophets of Baal, he doesn’t even just kill them, he "slaughters" them.

I’m wanting to suggest to you that if there’s something to learn from Elijah, it’s not those two things.

So if not intolerance of other religions and if not violence in the name of God, what do we take from Elijah? In a book about violence in the Bible, Philip Jenkins suggests that since these stories were written down hundreds of years after the time of Elijah, they are really more legend than history. They’re not meant so much to describe what happened as to communicate a message. "What’s the core message?" Jenkins wonders. Here’s his suggestion: "The imagined war against outside people and customs symbolized a rejection of anything that distracts or separates…people…from God."2

So what distracts us from God today? What threatens to separate us from the God who loves us? Well, we don’t often face a choice between God and Baal, but we do sometimes have to choose between God and work. And every weekend people choose between God and sports. The last poll I saw had God in about fourth place—behind football, basketball and soccer and just ahead of baseball and hockey. Again, our real decision is not between God and Buddha, but we do have to decide if our ultimate trust is in God or guns. Few of us waver between God and Allah, but how many of us are torn between God and the almighty dollar?

"How long," Elijah asked, "will you go limping with two different opinions," that is, between loyalty to God and loyalty to, well, anything else? And all of a sudden, this story is troubling in a very soul-searching way.

Now we all know that our choices in the real world usually aren’t as stark as Elijah makes them out to be. You can’t simply choose between God and money, because we all need money. But there’s a line somewhere, isn’t there, between having money and money having you, between enjoying possessions and being obsessed with possessions. And we don’t have to choose either God or sports. But there’s a line between being worshipers of God who like sports, and being worshipers of sports who are fond of God. And of course there are people who need a gun—solders, police officers, armored car drivers. But our country’s love affair with guns has become, don’t you think, obsessive, perhaps even idolatrous.

How long, Elijah asked, will you go limping along with divided loyalties? Yes, we live in a world of gray areas, of overlapping loyalties. But Elijah forces the issue in uncomfortable ways. To fail to choose God wholeheartedly is, in a way, to choose Baal.3

When it comes right down to it, Elijah is asking, who will light your fire? When the altar is ready and the wood is wet, when you’ve got to make a decision and the stakes are high—whom will you trust to light your fire? God, or something else?

This past Thursday evening I sat in a hospital room at St. Ann’s, where Sara Barbary was in palliative care, her family gathered around to pray and to say goodbye. And when it came right down to it, whom do you suppose they were calling upon in that hour of need, where do you suppose they were putting their trust when their wood was wet and the stakes were high? In their money or their job? In weapons or force of any kind? In the Bengals or the Buckeyes? No, no, they weren’t limping along with two different opinions. They were choosing the Lord. And sad as they were, I saw God keep their fires burning bright.

When it comes right down to it, Elijah insists, when you simply have to decide where you loyalties lie—always choose God. Choose God.

1 See Edwina Gately, "’If the Lord is God, Follow Him’: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal," Journey with Jesus, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20130527JJ.shtml, accessed 5/16/2016, 1.

2 Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (2011), 242. Quoted in Gately, 3.

3 See Richard Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 121-22.

 

Matthew 22:34-40

Confirmation: Rite of Passage or Step in the Journey

May 1, 2016

We have a lot to do today—we’ll hear something each youth discovered during Confirmation, we’ll give them Bibles and blessings, and they will serve us Holy Communion. But first let me say three things, very briefly, to all you parents and adults out there, and then three things to the Confirmation kids. First, to you parents and adults (and kids can listen in):

  1. This year’s Confirmation class marks a shift for our church, or perhaps more accurately, this is the year the shift became too big to ignore. This year a majority of kids in Confirmation told us they are choosing not to be confirmed …or they would choose that if their parents would let them. Which means that Confirmation has lost its power as a cultural rite of passage, for kids if not quite yet for their parents.

Which is sad and maybe troubling in some ways. But I remember my own Confirmation class—five 13 year-old boys and one poor 13 year-old girl. We had a pretty good time together. But for the other four boys, Confirmation was a rite of passage all right—a rite of passage right out of the church! When they finished Confirmation, they’d done their religious duty and made grandma happy, and they were done with church. If that’s all Confirmation is, maybe we ought to just let it go.

But that was then, when most people still went to church, or at least wanted people to think they went to church. Now most people don’t go to church and no one cares, so we can change Confirmation from a cultural rite of passage to a counter-cultural opportunity. Instead of coercing kids into doing what everyone else is doing, Confirmation can now give kids a chance to be different from everyone else, to take a stand, to cast their lot with the Jesus of justice and love and community. Will you join me, you parents of younger kids, will you join me, people of Maple Grove, in no longer leaning on kids to conform, and instead equipping them be different for Jesus?

2. At Pub Theology last week, Doug Davis posed the question, "Is doubt the opposite of faith, or is doubt part of faith?" That one’s easy: the opposite of faith is fear; doubt is part of faith. These Confirmation kids have openly expressed their doubts, their questions, their hesitation. Is God real? Is Jesus the best way to know God? Does the church have anything positive to offer? So parents, help your kids not to spiral down into worry, fear and cynicism. But live with their doubts. In the end, doubt strengthens and sharpens our faith.

3. Finally, for you adults: if there’s been a shift in Confirmation, it’s because there’s been a huge shift in our culture. In the absence of cultural pressure to go to church, people who don’t want to go . . . don’t. Part of our job is simply to accept that new reality. But the other part of our job is to find ways for church to remain relevant to young people. That means developing a certain "cool factor" and presenting the gospel in ways young people can relate to: screens and technology are necessary, short-term service opportunities are popular, it takes different kinds of music, and it means entering that world I may never understand, social media. We have to not only be okay with that, but encourage it. Maple Grove has made a few hesitant steps in those directions; more will be required.

But above all, being relevant to young people means simply being in relationship with young people, or to use the words of Jesus, to love them as we love ourselves. Duane Casares meets with a group of 20-something young men, most of whom have little or no interest in what we do here on Sunday mornings. But they talk about their lives, they help each other be better people, and Duane’s always there for them. I don’t know if they’d use the word, but there’s an old-fashioned term for what Duane and those guys do. It’s called "church." It’s a whole new world, my friends, and we’ve got to learn how to be Christians in it.

Now a few words to you Confirmation kids.

    1. This new kind of church I’ve been talking about—it’s up to you to create it. The world doesn’t really need another sports or entertainment star (though I’ll come see you if you get famous!). And things like advances in medicine and technology will take care of themselves—there’s money to be made there. But a caring community of spiritual practice, that feeds the hungry and teaches us how to forgive—the world desperately needs that, and love will not take care of itself.

Sometimes people say that our youth are the future of the church. But that’s only part of the truth, and the less interesting part. More importantly, youth are the church right now. And we social media-ignorant, "cool factor"-deficient adults can’t create a church that’s relevant to you. Only you can do that. But here’s my promise: I’ll do it with you. And Maple Grove is game for almost anything. So don’t give up on the church and don’t check out. Make the church whatever you want it to be—it’s yours now.

2. As important as your decision whether to be confirmed or not is--and I know how many of you wrestled with it—faith is not a one-time decision; it’s a life-long journey. A ‘yes’ to Jesus today may become ‘maybe’ later on. And a ‘no’ to Confirmation today, may become an enthusiastic ‘yes’ soon.

For those who are fortunate and do their spiritual work, there comes a time when questioning what you believe just isn’t as important as it is right now. There’s a Zen Buddhist story about a woman who when she was young saw the trees as trees, the wind as wind, and the moon as the moon. As she grew older she began to ask herself why the trees grew as they did, why the wind blew from the four corners of the Earth, and why the moon waxed and waned. Everything she saw posed a question, and all of her time was spent pursuing answers. Then there came a time when the trees were again just trees and the wind was again the wind and the moon was again just the moon.1 Questions and doubts come and they go--sometimes they are not so much answered as they are simply lived through, let go of, transcended.

So whether your answer today is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether your experience of church is lively and fresh or deadly dull, don’t give up on the journey. Faith is for the long haul. Regardless of whether you’re saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ today, someday you’re going to need something like church—I guarantee it.

3. Finally this: we spent a lot of time in Confirmation pondering what you believe. But here’s my best word about that: focus more on learning to love well than on believing the right things. That is what Jesus meant when he summarized all the law and prophets in two commandments—love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself. Rules and beliefs exist to help us love well, not the other way around.

And if you are going to focus on one of Jesus’ commandments more than the other, focus first on loving your neighbor—your family, your classmates, the needy who live nearby. Bible scholar Douglas Hare says, "Love for neighbor… [teaches] us how to love God."2

Now, kids, you might think that I’m giving you the easier thing to do—loving people rather than believing in God. But trust me, it’s much easier to believe in God than it is to love your neighbor well. We learn to love God by loving the people around us. So do the hard and wonderful work of loving the people around you, and I assure you--everything else will fall into place.

1 See Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992), 153.

2 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 260.

Matthew 22:34-40

Confirmation: Rite of Passage or Step in the Journey

May 1, 2016

We have a lot to do today—we’ll hear something each youth discovered during Confirmation, we’ll give them Bibles and blessings, and they will serve us Holy Communion. But first let me say three things, very briefly, to all you parents and adults out there, and then three things to the Confirmation kids. First, to you parents and adults (and kids can listen in):

  1. This year’s Confirmation class marks a shift for our church, or perhaps more accurately, this is the year the shift became too big to ignore. This year a majority of kids in Confirmation told us they are choosing not to be confirmed …or they would choose that if their parents would let them. Which means that Confirmation has lost its power as a cultural rite of passage, for kids if not quite yet for their parents.

Which is sad and maybe troubling in some ways. But I remember my own Confirmation class—five 13 year-old boys and one poor 13 year-old girl. We had a pretty good time together. But for the other four boys, Confirmation was a rite of passage all right—a rite of passage right out of the church! When they finished Confirmation, they’d done their religious duty and made grandma happy, and they were done with church. If that’s all Confirmation is, maybe we ought to just let it go.

But that was then, when most people still went to church, or at least wanted people to think they went to church. Now most people don’t go to church and no one cares, so we can change Confirmation from a cultural rite of passage to a counter-cultural opportunity. Instead of coercing kids into doing what everyone else is doing, Confirmation can now give kids a chance to be different from everyone else, to take a stand, to cast their lot with the Jesus of justice and love and community. Will you join me, you parents of younger kids, will you join me, people of Maple Grove, in no longer leaning on kids to conform, and instead equipping them be different for Jesus?

2. At Pub Theology last week, Doug Davis posed the question, "Is doubt the opposite of faith, or is doubt part of faith?" That one’s easy: the opposite of faith is fear; doubt is part of faith. These Confirmation kids have openly expressed their doubts, their questions, their hesitation. Is God real? Is Jesus the best way to know God? Does the church have anything positive to offer? So parents, help your kids not to spiral down into worry, fear and cynicism. But live with their doubts. In the end, doubt strengthens and sharpens our faith.

3. Finally, for you adults: if there’s been a shift in Confirmation, it’s because there’s been a huge shift in our culture. In the absence of cultural pressure to go to church, people who don’t want to go . . . don’t. Part of our job is simply to accept that new reality. But the other part of our job is to find ways for church to remain relevant to young people. That means developing a certain "cool factor" and presenting the gospel in ways young people can relate to: screens and technology are necessary, short-term service opportunities are popular, it takes different kinds of music, and it means entering that world I may never understand, social media. We have to not only be okay with that, but encourage it. Maple Grove has made a few hesitant steps in those directions; more will be required.

But above all, being relevant to young people means simply being in relationship with young people, or to use the words of Jesus, to love them as we love ourselves. Duane Casares meets with a group of 20-something young men, most of whom have little or no interest in what we do here on Sunday mornings. But they talk about their lives, they help each other be better people, and Duane’s always there for them. I don’t know if they’d use the word, but there’s an old-fashioned term for what Duane and those guys do. It’s called "church." It’s a whole new world, my friends, and we’ve got to learn how to be Christians in it.

Now a few words to you Confirmation kids.

    1. This new kind of church I’ve been talking about—it’s up to you to create it. The world doesn’t really need another sports or entertainment star (though I’ll come see you if you get famous!). And things like advances in medicine and technology will take care of themselves—there’s money to be made there. But a caring community of spiritual practice, that feeds the hungry and teaches us how to forgive—the world desperately needs that, and love will not take care of itself.

Sometimes people say that our youth are the future of the church. But that’s only part of the truth, and the less interesting part. More importantly, youth are the church right now. And we social media-ignorant, "cool factor"-deficient adults can’t create a church that’s relevant to you. Only you can do that. But here’s my promise: I’ll do it with you. And Maple Grove is game for almost anything. So don’t give up on the church and don’t check out. Make the church whatever you want it to be—it’s yours now.

2. As important as your decision whether to be confirmed or not is--and I know how many of you wrestled with it—faith is not a one-time decision; it’s a life-long journey. A ‘yes’ to Jesus today may become ‘maybe’ later on. And a ‘no’ to Confirmation today, may become an enthusiastic ‘yes’ soon.

For those who are fortunate and do their spiritual work, there comes a time when questioning what you believe just isn’t as important as it is right now. There’s a Zen Buddhist story about a woman who when she was young saw the trees as trees, the wind as wind, and the moon as the moon. As she grew older she began to ask herself why the trees grew as they did, why the wind blew from the four corners of the Earth, and why the moon waxed and waned. Everything she saw posed a question, and all of her time was spent pursuing answers. Then there came a time when the trees were again just trees and the wind was again the wind and the moon was again just the moon.1 Questions and doubts come and they go--sometimes they are not so much answered as they are simply lived through, let go of, transcended.

So whether your answer today is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether your experience of church is lively and fresh or deadly dull, don’t give up on the journey. Faith is for the long haul. Regardless of whether you’re saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ today, someday you’re going to need something like church—I guarantee it.

3. Finally this: we spent a lot of time in Confirmation pondering what you believe. But here’s my best word about that: focus more on learning to love well than on believing the right things. That is what Jesus meant when he summarized all the law and prophets in two commandments—love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself. Rules and beliefs exist to help us love well, not the other way around.

And if you are going to focus on one of Jesus’ commandments more than the other, focus first on loving your neighbor—your family, your classmates, the needy who live nearby. Bible scholar Douglas Hare says, "Love for neighbor… [teaches] us how to love God."2

Now, kids, you might think that I’m giving you the easier thing to do—loving people rather than believing in God. But trust me, it’s much easier to believe in God than it is to love your neighbor well. We learn to love God by loving the people around us. So do the hard and wonderful work of loving the people around you, and I assure you--everything else will fall into place.

1 See Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992), 153.

2 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 260.

Acts 11:1-18

I Say ‘No,’ the Spirit Says ‘Yes’

April 24, 2016

"Peter," God’s voice came to him, "Peter, I know you’re Jewish, Peter, but I want you to eat a bunch of unkosher food, Peter."

"No way, Lord," Peter replied. "I’ve never done it; and I never will."

"Peter," the voice went on, "what God has made clean, you must not call unclean. Oh, and one more thing, Peter. I want you to go eat this unkosher food with a Gentile Roman soldier from Caesarea."

As Peter tells the story, he wants everyone to know that none of this was his idea, that he tried not to do it. He wants everyone to be aware that he said, ‘No,’ but the Holy Spirit said, ‘’Yes.’ And so off to Caesarea Peter went, to eat unkosher food with a Gentile Roman soldier. And in the midst of their meal, the Holy Spirit fell upon this soldier and his household, and in the end Peter not only ate with these Gentiles, he baptized them and welcomed them into the church in the name of Jesus Christ.

Much the same thing happened just a few verses earlier in Acts 10. While Peter was speaking to a crowd of Gentiles, the Holy Spirit fell upon them too The circumcised believers, it says--that is the good, traditional, Jewish believers--were "astounded" that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. "Astounded" probably puts it mildly. Appalled, perhaps. Offended, I’m guessing. Downright resistant, probably. But Peter asked, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit the same as us?" And before anyone could say anything, Peter went ahead and baptized them. He didn’t schedule their circumcisions first. He didn’t make sure they knew how to keep kosher first. He didn’t give them a manual on how to act Jewish first. He just accepted them, the way there were.

Here’s how one writer sums up what had happened. All in favor of admitting Gentiles into our church say Aye. The vote: 30 No votes from the church, one Yes vote from the Holy Spirit. Motion carries. And they’re in.1 That’s how it goes in these Outrageous Stories from the book of Acts.

Now, you might be wondering: why is it such a big deal for Peter to eat unkosher food with a Gentile? I mean, who told him not to do that? Well, in a word, God did. It’s in the Bible, in Leviticus 11 and elsewhere. What to eat, what not to eat, and not to put to fine a point on it, to eat the wrong things, the Bible says, is an abomination (Lev. 11:13). Peter had learned in the temple not to eat unkosher food, he’d learned in the synagogue not to do this, he’d learned not to do this from his mother, for heaven’s sake. And here’s God telling him to do it anyway.

It’s another of these double conversion stories in Acts, two conversions for the price of one. Cornelius, the Roman soldier, is converted to belief in Jesus Christ. But even more amazingly, the church of Jesus Christ is converted to baptize and welcome and even eat with people like Cornelius.

This reading from chapter 11 is one of three times this story is told in Acts. It’s told first in chapter 10, it’s referred to by Peter at the Council of Jerusalem in chapter 15, and here in chapter 11 Peter is called upon to defend himself by church members who think he’s gone too far in admitting Gentiles into the church. And Peter’s defense is essentially this: that God is doing a new thing.2 That’s why it had to come to Peter in a vision. That’s why Peter resisted it at first. That’s why the Holy Spirit had to repeat itself. In bringing Gentiles into the church and in not insisting that they keep kosher, God was doing a new thing.

Now of course there’s nothing new about God doing new things. In Isaiah 42 God says, "See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare." In Isaiah 43 God says, "I am about to do a new thing." And just for good measure in Isaiah 48 God says, "From this time forward I make you hear new things." The Bible itself is full of new things. In Deuteronomy 43 God’s word prohibits certain kinds of people from entering the temple; in Isaiah 56 those same people are welcomed with open arms. Deuteronomy 24 prohibits a man from taking back a wife who’s been with another man; in Jeremiah 3 God changes God’s mind. And most famously in Matthew 5, Jesus says several times, "You have heard it said," and he quotes from the Bible; but then he goes on, "But I say to you," and he tells us the new thing God is doing.

God has done lots of new things, always in the direction of welcoming more and more people into the church community. In Acts it was Samaritans and Gentiles. In our own country’s history it was the Holy Spirit making white people see that black people were, well, people, gifted and beloved just the same. Peter Gomes, the late Harvard chaplain and himself an African-American, says that "Black Muslims ask [in disbelief] how any black person in America could possibly be a Christian, given the legacy of white Christians. The answer, of course, is that if Christianity in American depended upon white Christians, there would be no right-minded black Christians. What is the case is that Christianity, and the Bible in particular, did not depend upon Christians for its gospel of inclusion, but upon God."3 I say, ‘No," but the Spirit says, ‘Yes.’

Then God called the church to see that, despite a few passages in Paul, women are no less called and gifted for ministry than men. My dad had a cousin, Max, who was an Episcopal priest. He had a big heart but he was pretty old-school. When the Episcopal Church began considering the ordination of women I asked him, "Max, what do you think about that?" He said, "The ordination of women goes against all my principles. . . But I try not to let my principles get in the way of what God is doing." I say, ‘No," but the Spirit says, ‘Yes.’

God has done a lot of new things, always in the direction of welcoming more and more people into the church community. This is part of our Methodist DNA. Way back in the 1700s John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, "There is no other religious society under heaven which requires nothing of [people] in order to assure their admission into it but a desire to save their souls. Look all around you; you cannot be admitted into the Church [of England], or . . . the Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Quakers, or any other unless you hold the same opinion with them, and adhere to the same models of worship. The Methodists alone do not insist on your holding this or that opinion, but they think and let think."4 Even though human beings may say, ‘No,’ the Holy Spirit (and John Wesley) say, ‘Yes.’

Today, of course, Methodist churches are struggling about whether to fully welcome gay and lesbian people into our membership, leadership and ministry. We can say, ‘No’—many of us do say, ‘No." But as in Acts, the Holy Spirit gets the deciding vote. And we wrestle with whether people can be Methodist if they love Jesus but can’t accept our creeds and doctrines. We can say, ‘No,’ but deep inside we know how the Holy Spirit is going o vote. And in this multicultural world, we wonder whether people or families can be Christian and Buddhist, or Christian and Hindu or Christian and New Age. For much of my life I might have said, ‘No,’ but only God’s vote counts. God is always doing new things, and always in the direction of welcoming more and more people into the church community.

Now I know there have to be limits to what’s allowed in Christian community. Violence, self-righteousness, lack of concern for the poor—these cannot be endured in the church. No one is arguing in favor of stealing or bearing false witness or the worship of Baal in the church. But throughout the history of the church, God has always been stretching the welcome a little wider. God is forever doing new things.

When the Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius and the Gentiles, Peter stepped back and asked, "If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" In the same way in chapter 10, he asked, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these [Gentiles] who have received the Holy Spirit the same as us?" And no one could. Can you?

1 See William H. Willimon, "Led by the Holy Spirit," Living by the Word. The Christian Century (April 17, 1991), 427.

2 See Russell Morton, "Acts 11:1-18," Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation 66/3 (July 2012), 311.

3 Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (Harper One, 2002), 23.

4 Quoted in Charles L. Allen, Meet the Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 55.

 

Acts 9:32-40

No One Will Stay in Their Place, Not Even the Dead

April 17, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

 Every scripture has more than one sermon in it—otherwise the world would have run out of sermons centuries ago. And today’s outrageous story from Acts is no exception. For example, one could preach a sermon about those two folks Peter healed--Aeneas and Dorcas--as representatives of what N.T. Wright has called the "unsung heroines" and heroes of the church.1 Aeneas has been what we sometimes call a "shut-in," laid up in bed for years. It’s never our intention, of course, but you know how easy it is for the church to lose track of people who can no longer get out and about. Despite years of faithful service, despite an ongoing life of prayer, we let people fade from our consciousness. But Peter did not.

And Dorcas is a widow, it says, devoted to good works and acts of charity. You know the sort—they’re in the quilting group, they paint the fellowship hall, they knit prayer shawls for the sick, they bring food for funeral meals, they pick up senior citizens for church on Sundays, they’ve cleaned the kitchen more times than they could ever count. Wright suggests that had it not been for Peter, Dorcas might never had made it into the pages of the New Testament. And there have been, and still are, thousands of people who live quiet, faithful, pious lives and never show up in the newspaper, maybe not even in the church newsletter. They can go unnoticed and unappreciated. But not by Peter. Aeneas and Dorcas represent the unsung heroes and heroines of the church. Peter heals them, Acts names them, and today we take time be grateful for them.

That’s one sermon you could preach from this scripture. Here’s another one: In his commentary on Acts, Will Willimon points out that Dorcas’ death has caused a crisis in her church community.2 Her fellow church members are not able simply to accept her death and move on. They send people to ask Peter to come. And when Peter gets there, he finds the whole church weeping and wailing. Not just her close relatives, but the whole church is unsure how they will go on without her.

I’ll talk more later about the specific role Dorcas played in her church, but for right now, let me just ask you this: would your death create a crisis for your church community? Do so many people look to you and lean on you, do you have such a vital place in people’s lives, that they’d have to figure out how to get along without you? If so, praise God! And you may want to think about doing some succession planning, so other people know how to do what you do. But if not, if your death would not leave a big hole in your church community . . . it’s not too late. You can say yes to being one of those people God uses to love and serve and unify people in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s not too late.

That’s another sermon you could preach from this outrageous story from Acts 9, and one could expand on either of those sermons in meaningful and fruitful ways. But here’s the sermon I am going to preach from this scripture today: in this new community, called the church, no one will stay in their place.3 The old home-bound member, Aeneas, gets up and walks around. The widow, Dorcas, who is supposed to be humble and subservient, is a crucial leader in the church. The healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas are symbolic. They enact in a physical way the spiritual truth that the resurrection of Jesus has unleashed a new power in the world. And in this new power, no one, not even the dead, will stay in their place.

It’s hard for us today to grasp just how radical a thing Dorcas was doing in Joppa. In a culture in which widows were supposed to be powerless, dependent on a son or a brother or charity, Dorcas has created a cottage industry, making coats and clothing. Rather than waiting to be cared for, she has organized widows to care for themselves. Willimon calls it "a new configuration of power."

What happened after the resurrection of Jesus is that no one would stay in their place. Paralyzed old men get up and walk around changing lives. Common fisherman preach to the temple authorities. A humble widow leads a workforce development program among poor people in Joppa. Later on Peter will sit down and eat with a hated Roman soldier. A sexually questionable man from Ethiopia gets baptized. The Holy Spirit falls upon a crowd of despised Gentiles. In this new community, founded on the resurrection of Jesus, no one has to, and now one does, stay in their place.

Now that might sound exciting, and in many ways it is. But exciting is not all that it is. It’s also disconcerting, and sometimes upsetting. I remember one time at a particularly stressful time in our family my dad had a dream. And in this dream he was a traffic cop, directing traffic. But none of the drivers paid attention to him and none of the cars would stay in the right lanes. So in his dream my dad would lift the cars up and physically put them where he wanted them. He woke up to find that in real life he had picked my mom up and dropped her out of bed! It can be upsetting when people won’t stay in their place—even in dreams, and even if it’s by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts 17, some people in Thessalonica drag Paul and Silas before the authorities, claiming that they have been "turning the world upside down." It was not a compliment.

In the power of the resurrection, no one, not even the dead, will stay in their place. Can we acknowledge that we find this disconcerting, sometimes even upsetting? While at the same time knowing that ultimately it’s the gospel at work?

"Every time . . . little stories like this are faithfully told by the church," Willimon says, "the social system of paralysis and death is rendered null and void."4 Martin Luther King, Jr. told Bible stories like these, and African-Americans rose from oppression to pride. If everyone just stayed in their place, we still wouldn’t have women preachers in the church. The way things are is not the way they always have to be. So we’ll keep telling our little stories. Because in the power of the resurrection, no one, not even the dead, not even you and not even me, have to stay in their place.

1 N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 154.

2 William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 84.

3 Willimon, 84.

4 Willimon, 85

 

Acts 9:1-20

Saul (and Ananias) Saw the Light

April 10, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Sequels are all the rage and Acts is a biblical sequel. Luke’s gospel—Part 1--takes the story up to the point where the risen Jesus ascends into heaven. Acts—Part 2--picks it up from there and tells how the Holy Spirit empowered his disciples to heal and save people in his name--in other words, to be for the world the ongoing presence of Jesus.

Our worship series is called ACTing up (get it?)—Five Outrageous Stories from the Book of Acts. Outrageous, how? Well, in Luke Jesus was always doing outrageous stuff—healing the sick, and eating with sinners and outcasts, rising from the dead. But it doesn’t stop. In the sequel, outrageous stuff just keeps on happening:

  • the Holy Spirit descends like fire and causes the disciples to speak in languages they don’t even know
  • they’re compelled to include Gentiles, in the church
  • and the Christian-killer Saul becomes a Christian himself, and even more amazing, the Christians take him in.

If you look at the headings in Bibles, today’s scripture is usually called something like "The Conversion of Saul" or "The Risen Jesus Appears to Saul." And those headings are true as far as they go. Saul does see the light, and his life is turned around by this encounter with the risen Lord. But that’s only half the story. Ananias has a vision too. And the early church has to be turned around from fearing Saul to embracing him. So this is actually a double conversion story, two people see the light. And if you ask me, the second one may be more outrageous.

Let’s start with Saul. He’s appeared a couple of times before in Acts. At the end of chapter 7, some haters stone the Christian Stephen to death. And standing there, approving of it all, was Saul. And in the next chapter, it says, Saul "began to destroy the church," going from house to house, dragging Christians to prison. And it was on a mission of that sort when Saul saw the light—literally--and heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" For three days Saul couldn’t see anything. Finally something like scales fell from his eyes, and when he could see again, he saw Jesus, he saw Christians, he saw his own purpose in life, in a whole new way. He was, in a word, converted.

It’s a great story, a famous story. But I suspect what people really want to know about this story, but may be too polite to ask, is this: Is it true? Does this kind of thing really happen? Oh, I know there are stories like this in the Bible. But does heavenly light really shine and change people’s lives? Does Jesus actually talk to people? Does it really happen?

Well, yes. We’ve just come to tell our stories a different way. In fact, Saul (or Paul) himself has a very different way of telling this story. In Galatians this is how he tells it: "God was pleased to reveal his Son to me. (1:15-16). That’s it. Just because there’s no mention of blinding lights or voices from heaven, doesn’t mean it’s not Jesus reaching down to turn our lives around.

When I was in college I was going to get ice cream one evening with some friends from church. One guy and I thought it was clever to make disparaging comments about people as we passed—about their clothes, their appearance, anything we thought might get a laugh. Nobody paid us much attention until we started picking on some guys we thought might be gay, and we used some derogatory terms about them. (I’m not saying I’m proud of who I was then; I’m just telling you what happened.) The woman who was driving the car, a pastor, pulled over to the side of the road. She stared at us in the rear view mirror and said, "My brother is gay. He is talented and spiritual, and much kinder than you are. And if you’re going to use language like that, please get out of my car right now."

And from that moment I began to see the light. Oh, I had a lot of biblical and theological work to do. But I began to see that we’re all just children of God, and that my putting someone else down says more about me than it does about them. I was, in a word, converted. And while the voice I heard belong to that pastor, the message was from the risen Christ.

Yes, this kind of thing still happens. We just tell the story a different way. I wonder, when has Jesus spoken to you? When have you seen the light?

That’s half the story, the conversion of Saul. But in some ways it’s the rest of the story that’s more amazing. At this point Saul is all dressed up with nowhere to go, he’s a Christian with no church that will let him in. So God sends a vision to Ananias, instructing him to welcome this man Saul. Ananias replies, "I think you must be mistaken, Lord. I’ve heard of this man Saul. He’s out to get us, you know." And all that God has to say is, "I’ve chosen him." And immediately, it says, Ananias laid his hands on him and called him, "Brother Saul." Ananias was, in a word, converted.

Chris Hoke is a jail chaplain and gang pastor on the West coast. He says it’s easy for him to identify with Saul. He knows countless young men who have witnessed violence and perpetrated violence, and he knows it’s possible for those young men to see the light and for their lives to be turned around. "For me," Hoke writes, "it’s more difficult to appreciate…Ananias," that "timid church insider." Apparently, Hoke says, the risen Christ, with his mysterious light, had already reached the violent man on the streets—without the church’s help. Now God wanted the church to welcome this new Christian. And when Ananias laid hands on the man that he feared, Hoke says, something shifted inside of him.1 He was, in a word, converted.

All of a sudden, and rather uncomfortably, this conversion story is not just about violent outsiders. It’s about the conversion story of a timid church—it’s about me, and maybe it’s about you. "Those people," we say to ourselves, might fit in better in some other church. I’m not comfortable with "that kind of person" in my church, we think. That person, we think ever so politely, is too conservative, or too liberal, or too rough around the edges, or too outspoken, or too this or too that for us. But all that God has to say is, "I’ve chosen them." And we are meant to call them Brother Saul or Sister Susan. When we welcome the person we fear, something shifts inside of us. It is, in a word, the conversion of the timid church.

There are, I think, two possible responses to these tales of seeing the light, these stories of conversion. Some people will say, "Oh, I want that! I know I’ve been headed the wrong way, Lord. So turn me around. And I know you’ve got new and different people for me to love and welcome. Send me to them, Jesus--my arms are wide open.

The other possible response is this: "Oh, please no light from heaven, Lord Jesus. I’m perfectly content with the way I am. And different people make me nervous. Can’t you just leave us well enough alone, Lord Jesus?"

I am by nature that second kind of person. I am a timid church member. But I’m praying, nevertheless, to see the light. I want to be part of the outrageous things God is doing in the world. How about you?

1 Chris Hoke, "Jesus’ Barrio: Inmates as Apostles," The Christian Century (November 28, 2012), 32-34.

 

1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 50-58

Ultimate Healing

March 27, 2016 Easter Sunday Maple Grove UMC

Fleming Rutledge tells about chatting with a friend, a militant atheist, who said he didn’t like birthdays, since he was now "chronologically gifted."  She agreed that getting older is hard.  He said, rather sarcastically, "Well, it’s different for you.  You have eternity to look forward to."  She was indignant:  "That doesn’t make any difference," she told him, "I still don’t like getting older!"  But as she thought more about it, she realized she’d missed an opportunity.  "The next time I see him," she writes, "I am going to reintroduce the subject, and say yes it does too make a difference.  Faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life  . . . makes a great deal of difference."

The reason Rutledge hesitated to say this to her atheist friend is that it makes it sound like the only reason to believe in God is eternal life.  But the genius of the gospel, she says, is that faith in Jesus Christ includes not only the promise of eternal life some day, but also a radically transformed life right now.1  It’s not just that there’s life after death (as cool as that is), but that there’s life before death.  And I know I need that. 

Our worship series in Lent was about Unusual Healings

  • like the lame man in John 5, we don’t get the healing we deserve; we get the healing God so graciously bestows
  • like the blind man in John 9, God is healing all the time.  The only question is, will we see it as a gift or as a problem?
  • after reading about Lazarus in John 11, Ed Lewis asked us, "Can Jesus really raise the dead?"  Well, yeah!
  • and perhaps most unusual of all, after Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus gives Peter a chance to redeem himself. 

Healing is what Jesus does all the time—healing bodies, healing spirits, healing broken relationships.  And the resurrection—well that’s the ultimate healing.  Ultimate in the sense of last or final.  The great teacher of prayer, Richard Foster, says somewhere that every prayer for healing is answered, until the last one.  But see, the resurrection answers even that one.  Even when everything fails, even when death has come, God isn’t done yet.  The resurrection is the ultimate healing.

But the resurrection is also ultimate in the sense of healing what is hardest and most important to heal.  The resurrection not only restores Jesus to life, it heals the hopelessness of the disciples, it overcomes what can feel like the pointlessness of life, it changes the hardest of hearts, and opens up a way in life where there has been no way.  The resurrection is the ultimate healing. 

The church has always professed belief in the resurrection.  The Apostles’ Creed says, "I believe in the resurrection of the body."  I know, it’s unfashionable to believe that.  We’re too sophisticated, too spiritual, to believe in anything as crude as the resurrection of the body.  Well, so were the Corinthians.  Some of them mocked Paul, asking, "How can the dead be raised?  What kind of bodies would they have?"  But Paul has an answer:  "The dead," he says, "will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality."  In the Bible the resurrection is not escaping from the body, as many suggest; it is the ultimate healing of the body--its weakness, decay and mortality.

"Bodies matter to us," Fleming Rutledge insists.  "There is a sense in which we really cannot separate a person from [their] body."  She tells about a friend whose husband died of heart disease when they were still young.  When the funeral director came to take his body away, she was overwhelmed with grief and began to sob.  Someone tried to console her, "It’s only his body," they said.  "His soul has gone to heaven."  But the woman wept even more uncontrollably, saying, "But it’s his body I want!"2  Do you see why the resurrection of the body matters?  Even as it offers hope the future, it takes seriously the reality of death.

But the resurrection of the body also takes this earthly life seriously too.  When Jesus came back from the dead, he still had a body.  True, he seemed to be able to pass through walls and the disciples didn’t always recognize him.  But he walked with them, and talked with them, and even ate with them.  So much of Jesus’ ministry was about bodies—feeding the hungry, and touching lepers and holding children in his arms.  Jesus commanded us to love one another not so much mentally or even spiritually, but to get down on our knees and wash one another’s dusty feet.3  It doesn’t get much more bodily than that.  You can see why the resurrection of the body matters.  Even as it offers hope for the future, it affirms the goodness of this earthly life in all its fleshy glory.  The resurrection is not embarrassed about bodies, it’s not dismissive of the body; it is the ultimate healing of the body. 

The apostle Paul writes a lot of verses in 1 Corinthians 15 sorting out death and resurrection, perishable bodies and imperishable ones, mysteries and change.  It can all sound a bit arcane.  And you might get the idea that Paul’s main intention was to correct the Corinthians’ doctrine, to help them believe the right things about the resurrection.  And in a way, of course, it was.  As Fleming Rutledge learned, what we believe makes a great deal of difference.  But Paul’s ultimate point wasn’t doctrine; it was faith and life.  Paul wanted to correct not just the Corinthians’ thinking, but their living and their confidence in God.  The culmination of this chapter on the resurrection is not about the future, but about right now:  "Therefore, my beloved," Paul concludes, "be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." 

The point, Paul says, is for us to be steadfast, immovable.  Garrison Keillor says that "Easter is that time of year when Christians ask themselves two questions.  Do I really believe all this stuff?  And if so, why do I live the way I do?"4  If Christ is really raised from the dead, why am I so anxious and afraid?  If the resurrection is true, why am I not raised out of my grudges and anger and hardness of heart?  And if I believe all this stuff, why doesn’t joy fill my spirit and forgiveness flood my soul?  "Therefore," Paul says—the point of the resurrection is—"be steadfast, immovable."

Brian Blount is a seminary president who wrote a book on how to preach the resurrection.  It’s called Invasion of the Dead and it’s the only preaching book I know of that has whole chapters about zombies.  Seriously, look it up.  But for now I leave that up to your imagination.  The part I want to share with this Easter is this:  "Don’t just believe in resurrection" he says.  "Don’t just preach resurrection.  Live Resurrection!"    He’s saying pretty much the same thing Fleming Rutledge says and Garrison Keillor says—that the resurrection matters not some day but right now, in the faith and confidence and love with which I live my life.  In another place, Blount says, "Live resurrection in the present like you are certain resurrection is coming in the future."5  Because God can raise the dead, there’s no reason we can’t be steadfast, immovable.

Paul writes this whole chapter about the resurrection, ending with this powerful culmination:  Therefore, be steadfast, immovable.  And here’s the very next verse in 1 Corinthians.  We don’t often read these passages together because the next verse starts a new chapter.  But the chapters and verses were added centuries later—Paul just wrote one continuous letter.  And the very next verse says this:  "Now concerning the collection for the saints . . ."  Now I’m not fishing for money here on Easter Sunday.  I’m just saying that belief in the resurrection is directly connected to our generosity.  Belief in the resurrection is connected to our ability to forgive.  Belief in the resurrection is connected to our faith and hope and love.  God can raise the dead for heaven’s sake—why not be steadfast, immovable. 

My teacher, Fred Craddock, learned that in the Bible when you give your life to Jesus, you’re raised from the dead, you’re different.  "That’s what was puzzling me," he says, when I gave my life to Jesus just a couple of weeks shy of my fourteenth birthday.  "As I walked home from church that day," he says, I was thinking about that.  I mean, when you’ve been raised from the dead, you don’t look the same, sound the same, talk the same, do the same.  But what do you do?  How do you talk?  What is your life like now?

He says, "I went to school Monday morning thinking, Is anybody going to notice that I’ve been raised from the dead?  Should I dress up a little?  Do I use different words?  Do I throw in a verse of scripture now and then?  How do I treat people in the lunch line?  Are they going to say, "Well, looks like Fred’s been raised from the dead."6

He tells it as a humorous, adolescent story.  But in a way it’s not funny at all, and there’s nothing really adolescent about it.  Belief in Jesus Christ and the resurrection make a great deal of difference.  And the resurrection includes not only the promise of eternal life some day, but a radically transformed life right now.  Here’s what I want to say to 13, amost 14 year-old Fred, and by extension to you this morning:  This is how people will know that you’ve been raised from the dead—because you are steadfast, immovable.  That is the ultimate healing. 

1 Fleming Rutledge, "Faith Overcomes the World," The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 157-58.

2 Fleming Rutledge, "Hear! See! Touch!" The Bible and the New York Times, 145.

3 See Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Holy Spirit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 18.

4 Quoted by Shawnthea Monroe, "John 20:19-31," Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 16, 2016), 23.

5 Brian K. Blount, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2014), 76-77

6 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 92-93.

 

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