Monday, March 19, 2018

The Hour Has Come
Psalm 119.9-16; John 12.20-33
March 22, 2018

I like being a Presbyterian.

I was born and baptized a Presbyterian … then grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church … either way, clear and concise is our theology …

Theology is what counts … lots of other things count as well, but at the center of our Presbyterian life is theology - what we say about God, or more precisely what God has said about God … 

By the way, when I say “Presbyterian,” I’m referring to what we were called in England and Scotland in the 1600s, because of our form of government … we are governed by Presbyters, or Elders, and linked to one another by our Presbyteries… other churches were called Episcopal, because they were governed by Episcopoi or Bishops, and were linked together through their bishops … and others were called Congregationalists, because each congregation is unto itself, not linked to any other congregation in any formal sense.

So in England, where the questions of governance were debated and wars were fought over it, the three branches of Protestantism were named: Episcopalians on the one hand, Congregationalists on the other, and in the middle, with elements of both, Presbyterians.

When it comes to Protestants here in America, we’re one of these three groups … sometimes we hear the term “non-denominational,” but what that really means is, “congregational” … Baptists, and Assemblies of God are congregational, and other fundamentalist and evangelical churches, like the megachurches … or church life on TBN and other religious sources, all stand alone, congregation-by-congregation … they have associations, or fellowships, or even create satellite congregations, but they’re not linked together like Episcopalians, or Presbyterians … 

Anyway, when I say “Presbyterian,” it’s a reference to our form of government, how we govern, or manage, the local church, and how we’re linked together … in other words, we are stronger together: we believe that our unity reflects the unity of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit … we believe that our fellowship and community reflects the love of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit binding us to God and binding us to one another.

Christ prayed that we might be one … and though it’s terribly hard for us human beings to get that worked out, it remains the prayer of Christ, and must be our prayer as well … 

Now, things get a wee bit complicated … on the continent, churches governed as Presbyterians are called Reformed Churches … 

When the Scottish arrived here, they were Presbyterians … when the Dutch arrived here, they were Reformed, and so were the Hungarians and the Germans and the French immigrants …

Many of these churches have since merged into the mainstream of American Presbyterianism … 

Different names, but the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches are governed in much the same way, by Elders, and both share in a common and glorious theology inherited from John Calvin in Geneva Switzerland.

In other words:

We are Presbyterians in our form of government … we are Reformed in our theology … we are Presbyterian and we are Reformed … a strong and vital heritage, something of which all us can be proud, and for which all of us can be grateful.

Our theology always begins with God, with creation … I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …

Our focus is on God, and then, specifically, what God has done in Christ … and what Christ has done for the glory and the honor of God … it’s all about God … God’s work, God’s purpose, God’s saving grace … we are saved by God, we are preserved by God, we are held and made holy by God … every bit of our faith is God-created … our journey through life is guided and guarded by the Sovereign God, maker of heaven and earth … 

We are bystanders to all of this … we’re not participants in this mighty work of God in Christ … 

We are witnesses to this work … like someone witnessing a glorious sunset …

We are witnesses - we see Christ upon the road to Jerusalem … we walk with him into the Holy City, we might even wave some Palm Branches on Palm Sunday, shout Hosanna, and then, sadly enough, maybe we join the crowd calling for his crucifixion …

Part of our story is sad:
Like Peter, we end up denying Him.
Like Judas, we betray Him.
Like the disciples, we fall asleep in the garden and then we all run away …

We’re not a part of this salvation work … this is God’s work, God’s work alone. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

What had to be done, only God in Christ could do … what was needed to bring about the light of a new world, only God in Christ could do … for God alone is the creator of all that is light: the very first thing God said: Let there be light.

For it is the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts….

God has done the great work of redemption. What we couldn’t do, God in Christ has done.

Just like Adam and Eve - they come at the end of the story, not before, or even during … they are not self-created, but created by God. God is everything in all of this mighty work.

And by the Holy Spirit, we are caught up and brought into the work of God in Christ … and into fellowship with one another: once we were lost, but now we’re found … to God we belong, now and forever more … there is nothing, nothing anywhere, nothing anyhow, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our LORD.

And with that, let’s do some practical theology … 

Sometimes people ask, “Are you saved?” When I lived in Oklahoma, I got that a lot. 

Turn on religious TV, and you’re likely to hear someone asking that question.

Here’s my answer: “Yes, I am, because of what God has done in Jesus Christ.”

Not because of anything I’ve done, or have tried to do … 

Not because I went forward in a revival … not because I had a great emotional, spiritual experience at 2:00 in the morning … not because I got baptized in a river, or the ocean, or someone’s swimming pool … not because of anything I’ve done, or anything that I’ve experienced …

Certainly not because of my purity, my goodness, my prayers, my repentance, my tears, or even my faith … which hardly sets any records.

It’s all about God … God in Christ … God did it, God does it, and God will do it.

Are you tracking with me?
This is important.

I recently saw a meme on FB: “The best decision I ever made was to follow Jesus Christ.” Stuff like that drives me crazy … it’s self-congratulating  … something I did … and it’s not true.

It’s not our decision … it’s God’s decision, God’s love … we are saved by grace … not of our own doing, as Paul the Apostle says, lest any of us should boast.

And heaven knows that so much of evangelical Christianity is full of boasting … “I chose Christ” is pure nonsense … no one chooses Christ … no one … it’s God in Christ who chooses us … all of us … everyone of us … all of creation, all creatures great and small.

It’s all about God … God in the morning, God in the evening … God at noontide, God at midnight … 

“I was saved 2000 years ago when Christ died upon the Cross …” said Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

And even before that, we were saved … remember what the Apostle Paul wrote? 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world
It’s God’s decision … when we’re good, and when we’re not … when we’re faithful, and when we’re faithless … when we believe, and when we don’t … when we’re loving and kind, and when we’re little snots.

You see how this works?

The focus is on God … not ourselves … but only God … God in Christ.

Yes, we’re saved … because of what God has done in Christ.

And when we’re clear about God in Christ, then all kinds of things fall into place!

When I die, I belong to God … because in life, I belong to God … before life, I belonged to God … because everyone and everything belongs to God … the living and the dead … the past, present and future … 

Now, at just this point, some evangelical will say, “If we’re saved, no matter what, then I can go out and live my life any ol’ way I please?”

Paul the Apostle dealt with this in his letter to the Romans … the point being,  if you wanna go out from this place today and live like hell, go ahead; give it a try … but guess what? … the Great God Almighty goes with you … remember the Apostles’ Creed? Christ descended into hell, there to set the captives free. 

Even in hell, the love of God in Christ prevails and wins the day … even when we’re stupid and silly and just plain crazy … God’s love wins the battle. Period! All the time, and all the way.

But in reality, who here is going to walk away from God and live like hell? 

Are you prepared to give this all up? To never again sing “Amazing Grace,” or say the LORD’s Prayer? Could you turn your back upon Christ and never utter his name again in faith? Could you walk outta the fellowship of Christ and never again give it a thought?

It doesn’t work that way, does it?
It’s a foolish question … because the love of God in Christ prevails and wins the heart and wins the mind … the love of God draws us upward … when I’m lifted up, said Jesus, I will draw all people to me.

The Gospel News:
We don’t have to worry about our salvation, because our salvation is not ours to worry about - it belongs to God in Christ, and God is pleased to give salvation to us, and to all the world … and what God gives, God preserves … God will see us through, to the end, and beyond.

Dear friends, if any of you should be anxious about your salvation, your eternal destiny, look to Christ and the promise of God the Father in Christ … you are safe in Christ, even if your life is in shambles … Christ surrounds you with his love, even when your faith is battered and broken … his saving love holds you, his redeeming love keeps you … until the end of time and beyond.

Dear friends …

When hour came for the Son of God to be glorified, on that terrible cross, God in Christ worked out the glory of salvation, for the world … all the world … and that includes, you and me.

Dear friends:

To God be the glory.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Onward and Upward

John 1.43-51    Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Welcome to a New Year.

Some might say, well, it’s just another year … it’s no different than any other day … which is true enough, but we humans have a sense of time … time past, present and future … 

Time for us is fateful … important … we don’t want to be late for an appointment … we don’t want to be too early for a social event … we want to arrive on time, or at least to be fashionably late.

Time marches on, we say, and so it does.

We’re all part of time … we’re born, we live, and then one day, we draw our last breath … and like the Bible puts it, we join our fathers and mothers, and here in this place, we are no more.

Time … the time we have is everything …

We make choices, decisions, commitments … we make our plans and do what we can to follow through …

We make promises to have and to hold …

We make promises to be faithful to Christ … to tell the truth, at least as best we can … and not just the truth, but the truth in love … because truth without love is hardly truth at all … as Paul the Apostle reminds us: without love, our highest endeavors and our finest words mean nothing …

Time is part and parcel of hope … and hope is our greatest strength, our greatest asset … hope in the LORD, and the LORD’s faithfulness, to be at work in all things for good.

Hope for a better day … for new love … for another chance … 

I’ve been thinking of the Pete Seeger song: I Can See a New Day …

I can see a new day
A new day soon to be
When the storm clouds are all passed
And the sun shines on a world that is free.

I can see a new world 
A new world coming fast
When all men are brothers
And hatred forgotten at last

I can see a new man
A new man standing tall
With his head high and his heart proud
And afraid of nothing at all

I can see a new day
A new day soon to be
When the storm clouds are all passed
And the sun shines on a world that is free.

From our gospel this morning …

Jesus said to Nathaniel, Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  … I have a dream, he said.
That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream …

I find myself thinking of Isaiah:

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah said, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
      “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
      the whole earth is full of his glory.”

I think of those who came to Phillip and said, Sir, we would see Jesus.

Can we be hopeful today?

Can we we face the harsh winds of life and be brave?

Can we speak truth to power, because we believe in the truth, the truth of Christ, the truth that really sets people free?

Can we look at the homeless on our streets and demand that the organs of government get their act together and do a better job for the needy and the downcast?

Can we look at our schools and demand that as a nation we stand by our children, we fund our schools, we keep them in repair, and see to it that our children are safe and secure?

Can we look at the elderly in our land and celebrate what Social Security has meant to millions of Americans, hard working Americans, decent and good Americans who need Social Security to avoid the abyss of poverty?

Can we celebrate the goodness of Medicare … for millions of Americans who need decent health care… 

Can we truly be patriots, and care for one another … 

Can we be Christian enough to know that we owe a debt of love to one another … and that God desires good government … God is the god of kings and queens and prime ministers and parliaments, and Senators and Legislators and Presidents, too … and all who hold the reigns of power will be held accountable before the LORD of heaven and earth, not for how much money they saved, but for how much money they spent, to make life better for children, for women and young mothers, for all who have needs, for all who are in want … God will not ask our leaders about walls built to keep people out, but bridges built to welcome the world! Not about war, but about peace. Not about exclusion, but welcome. Not about punishment, but forgiveness … and how we all cared for God’s good earth.

In the early 80s, I showed to my Session a film about nuclear war, and what we can do to prevent it.

Afterward, an elder asked me, “If we all die in a nuclear war, and we go to heaven, what’s wrong with that?”

At the time, I didn’t have answer, and it saddened me. And for a long time, I thought about it.

And came up with this … not a heavy answer, but just little parable of sorts …

A man stood by the gates of heaven, hoping to enter, but St. Peter said to him, “In your life time, you didn’t care about God’s earth. What makes you think you’ll care about God’s heaven?” And the man was turned he away.

The man objected: I have faith, I believe in Jesus … and St. Peter will say, Yes, but you didn’t have love. You didn’t love my green earth, my clean water, my bright air. You didn’t care about children dying. Oh, you did your charity; you gave, but you didn’t put away the tools of destruction and the greed that creates poverty. You sang hymns about Christ, but you failed to follow him.

Without love, faith is nothing.
Without love, charity means nothing.

I so like what Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globes:

In my career, she said, what I've always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. 

To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome. 

I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. 

So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! 

And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say "Me too" again.

2017 has been a pretty rough year for me … and for our nation, as I see it … and the world around us … but I believe the LORD above yet has a hand upon the engines of history … evil will fail and love will prevail …

And that we here in this place will make a difference when we choose Christ, anew and again.

Something new on the horizon … a new day coming … the fresh winds of faith, hope and love … the sunshine of grace, mercy and peace … the love of Christ … and people, people all around the world, taking a deep breath, rolling up their sleeves, going to work, and working hard, to make this a better world …

In the end, God will look upon us and say Thanks. You cared for my earth, and that means you’ll love heaven. 

In life and in death, now and forever, we belong to a most faithful Savior.

I can see a new day.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Bethlehem Road

Isaiah 64.1-9; Mark 13.24-37
Advent One
Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Today is the first step … along the Bethlehem Road … it’s Advent … the first Sunday of Advent … the first of four Sundays that take us along the Bethlehem Road.

The Star above … Wise Men from the East, Shepherds in the field, and the angels who sing to them … to Bethlehem we go … 

God is waiting for us, calling us … to make the journey …

Mary and Joseph are already there …

The powers that be ordered Mary and Joseph, and everyone else, to return to their hometowns, to register for taxation … everyone was on the move, and nothing seemed right … all was topsy turvy, the bad guys in charge, and in just such time, and in just such a place, the Son of God is born.

The Bethlehem Road … we’re on it today.

To find goodness and beauty … to find hope and peace … and there, before the manger, to lay down our gifts, our lives, our dreams, our love … all that we are, and all that we hope to be.

In Bethlehem, we find our true selves …

And what’s our true self?

We are children of God, and that means we’re brothers and sisters with one another … and that means we take care of one another.

We have no self without other selves connected to us … “no man is an island” said the poet John Donne. 

We’re created to be with each other, and for each other … every human being is family for us … remember when God questioned the Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain petulantly asked, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?”

And the answer, “Yes, of course, you are. You are your brother’s keeper.”

We’re all in this together … it’s sin that divides and sets us apart … it’s sin that tells us we’re exceptional and have certain rights over against others … nothing is more painful to watch than a person who believes they’re better then others … it’s a giant ego, we say … and such thoughts are the worst when those thoughts infect nations … as we saw in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia … all of those nations thought they were “exceptional” and what a world of suffering their pride created.

On the Bethlehem Road, we learn the truth about ourselves … we’re all exceptional, because we’re loved of God … and every nation is named by God … everyone and every nation has a place in the scheme of life, and only when we see how deeply connected we are to one another, only then do we learn who we are, what life is all about, and what we have to do.

There have been times in our nations history when this part of the Christian story held sway, and people and churches and synagogues and government took care of one another … and then there are times, when we’ve forgotten how to take care of one another, and then we fought a Civil War because some thought slavery was a good idea … and these days, I fear for our nation, that we are quickly becoming a nation ruled by self-interest and self-glory … led by people who are quick to grab all the clothing off the rack before anyone else has a chance to get even a coat or a pair of pants …

That’s why we need to make this journey to Bethlehem, to find our true selves … to find mercy and kindness and to guide our nation to a better place … to promote peace and not war … to share and not to take … to tell the truth and not use lies and alternate facts to hurt one another.

In Bethlehem, we find our true selves.

In Bethlehem, we find one another … and that’s always the way it is when we find ourselves … we find one another … 

The closer we move to Bethlehem, the closer we become to others … who are on the road to Bethlehem … many roads, from many different directions … everyone of good faith, whatever their faith, is on the road to Bethlehem … every religion, every faith - Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, Sikh and Christian … each in our own way, on the Bethlehem … and the closer we move toward Bethlehem, the closer we move to one another …

Here, in a big city, how close we are to one another … that’s why I love big cities … our neighbors are the world, and the world is our neighbor … the food we eat is different, the ways we dress and talk, the ways we worship god … all different, all wonderfully different … and that’s why we need each other … not one of us is complete by ourselves … no one faith tradition has all the truth, but only a part of it … Christians need to talk with Jews, and Jews with Muslims, and Muslims with Buddhists, and Buddhists with Sikhs … we all need one another to fulfill our own unique calling from God.

On the Bethlehem Road.

And along the way, the poor and the oppressed, the lost and the lonely … God asks us, “Do you see them, too? along the road? 

You can walk, but maybe they can’t … some have been set upon by thieves and left to die beside the road … some are orphans and some are widows who haven’t the means … some of them are strangers in our midst; they belong nowhere and have no home … can you see them on your way to Bethlehem?

Help them, carry them, provide for them … as the Samaritan did for the injured man on the Jericho Road …  “leave no one behind” is the only way for us to follow Christ and be faithful to our calling.

With helping hands and kindly words, we lift one another … and again and again, we remind this nation what it means to be a godly nation, not just with words printed on our money, or in phony prayer breakfasts that look good and stink to high heaven because of their hypocrisy … white washed tombs, said Jesus, beautiful on the outside and full of death inside.

We have to help our nation recover its senses, it’s purpose, it’s character … to leave no one behind, to provide for one another, with fair taxes, and ways and means so that the rich don’t get richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor don’t get poorer because the rich simply don’t care.

The rich and powerful rarely make the journey to Bethlehem - they don’t have the time or the interest, because they know that Bethlehem would change their lives, and they don’t want that kind change. They know it, and they fear it.

But we can do it, we have do it, we have to do it for them, and we have to show them their true selves, we have to help them see those beside the road … 

I’m an American … a proud and grateful American … and I’m a Christian, too … a Christian who wants this nation to recover its sense and regain its purpose … I want America to be great again … but right now, we’re not on a path to greatness; we’re on a highway to disaster.

As for credentials?

For better than 50 years, I’ve been a student of the Bible [sounds like the Apostle Paul] … I’ve read theology … I have a doctorate … I’m well-read in American and world history … if credentials mean anything, I have them … but it’s Christ finally to whom I appeal, on behalf of our nation - we’ve lost our way … our incessant wars, our failure to deal with poverty … the hideous forces of racism and misogyny … an administration mired in doubt and deceit … a tax plan that will hurt millions of Americans … our failure to deal realistically with immigration … the propaganda of fear paralyzing our moral compass … 

America is in the grip of unholy forces, economic and religious … standards of truth compromised … millions of Christians lost, because they have lost touch with Christ … they have traded away the Christ of Bethlehem for King Herod in his palace!

Only on the road to Bethlehem can life be found, only there, do we find ourselves, and only there, find one another.

In Bethlehem, we find ourselves found of God.

It’s not me, LORD; it’s you!

All of this begins with God … in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth … in the beginning, it was the love of God that said, “Let there be light.”

God is always first … the first to speak, the first to act, the first to love … and God is always last … the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between.

Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, I choose you!”

Which is why I love infant baptism … there’s no chance here for anyone to say, “I chose Christ” … because none of us ever choose Christ … it’s Christ who chooses us, and no better image of this grace, this mercy, than infant baptism.

Because it always starts with an infant … the infant Moses … and infant Samuel … and the infant Jesus … God is always the God of good beginnings, good endings … and even in the middle, in the muddle, good things … at work in all things for good.

We discover the mystery of faith on the Bethlehem Road.

We find ourselves … and we find one another.

On the Bethlehem Road.

Hallelujah and Amen!