Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reflections on GA - Leslie Evans - August 24, 2008

Reflections on 218th GA
Walk Humbly with Your God
Micah 6:6-8

Since I had never attended a General Assembly even as an observer before I had no idea what to expect. Early on I learned I was assigned to the Form of Government committee. I learned that it was nicknamed the “FOG” committee. A little background:

The 217th GA was asked to develop a new form of government that would allow the church to be a missional church. The intent was to focus on the mission of the church rather than on rules and regulations. The task force was asked to have the document sent for review and suggestions but be ready for review at the 218th GA. One of the few restrictions placed on the task force was to not alter one of the most controversial sections of the current book of order. “Amendment B” had to remain unchanged.
I was dismayed to see that a survey conducted prior to this GA revealed that only 22 of the 173 presbyteries had reviewed the document. One synod (ours) mentioned the FOG briefly during GA commissioners’ orientation. 2 synods and 72 presbyteries responded to the survey saying the document had not been discussed or studied. The remaining presbyteries did not respond to the survey.

My committee worked for many, many hours hearing testimony and setting ground rules for the committee. In the end, we recommended, and GA voted to send the document back for revision and then develop a plan to ensure presbyteries receive the revisions and vote on the new proposed form of government. There were those who testified before the committee that their church or presbytery was doing mission well with the book of order, thank you very much and don’t change anything. Others said there were too many rules and too many people spent more time with rules than with the mission on the church.
I came away believing that the proposed form of government would be easier to understand and would, in effect, state what we all know . . . that the Presbyterian church is indeed a church embracing mission.

During the 8 days I spent at General Assembly I attended worship more that I do in almost two months here.
The highlight of the General Assembly meeting for me was the sermon delivered at the Friday morning worship service. Rev Diane Given Moffet, Pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, North Carolina, spoke both eloquently and passionately on walking humbly with God.
I’d like to share Rev Moffet’s words with you now.
Having the courage to walk Think of a child taking his first steps. Wobbley and unsure. A parent proudly watching, ready at the first sign of trouble, reaching out to catch the child before a fall. The Bible says that we should be like a child and I think that’s what happens. When we stumble, God is there like a parent to extend a hand to steady us or to catch us before we fall.
There once was a famous tight rope walker, John Blondon. He was the first to walk across Niagara Falls on a tight rope. He did amazing feats, each one more difficult and more spectacular than the one before. He carried a stove, set it up, and cooked a meal on the tight rope. One day, he asked for a volunteer from the audience. Someone who would be willing to be carried across. No one came forward. No one had the courage. Do we have the courage to walk humbly with God?

The pages of history are stained with the blood of those who chose God’s call and walked humbly with God. Martin Luther King who advised us to remember that it is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends that hurt us. Martin Luther King had a commitment to God’s call to walk humbly with God.
Harriett Tubman had a commitment to freedom for all. She answered God’s call to walk humbly with God. There are many more who chose to walk humbly with God.
Rev. Moffet spoke about walking humbly and avoiding what she termed cosmetic Christianity. That is:
Works without worship
Deeds without depth
Singing without soul
Labor without love

Some times being a Presbyterian wanting change can feel like swimming upstream against the current of the main stream. We as a denomination have struggled with change, not overnight, but over time.
In 1906, the first female deacons were ordained
1930’s first female elders were ordained
In 1956 the first female minister of word and sacrament was ordained
And in 1974, the first female African American minister was ordained

Times have changed but some practices have not. We are a denomination that does not always embrace the gifts of all, that is not always inclusive.

In the Bible passage from Mathew we learn that Peter sank. Is he criticized because he sank? NO. He is praised because he had the courage to walk. Jesus reached out his hand to Peter.
Can Jesus keep us from falling? Like a parent, He reaches out with the hand of love and scoops us up in his loving arms.
Remember the tight rope walker, John Blondon I mentioned earlier? He asked again if anyone in the crowd would volunteer to be carried across. He finally did get a volunteer. Not many in the crowd knew that the volunteer was John’s manager. When John began the long dangerous walk across the falls carrying his manager he said to his manager, “Do not trust your own feelings but trust mine. You must become a part of me.”
When the walk was finished and the manager was asked why he volunteered he said “because I believed in him.” That is what we must do to walk humbly with God Believe in him and become a part of him.

Amen and Amen

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reflections on GA - Stafford Fredericks, August 24, 2008

Reflections on General Assembly by Stafford Fredericks

Do Justice
Micah 6:6-8

I am always pleased to be a part of the dynamic of General Assembly as it meets. The 218th General Assembly held in San Jose was especially meaningful and gave me a glimpse at the future of our denomination.

We came together as groups of people, some with their own agenda, and yet others not knowing what to expect, but all who attended felt the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit as it moved among the Commissioners, Advisory Delegates and observers.

Our denomination has a bright and dynamic future.

Justice was one of the topics on the top of the list of overtures that were considered in committees and in plenary. I would like to mention two of the many overtures that had special meaning to me.

The first of these was from our presbytery. The Presbytery of the Pacific brought forth a recommendation for our denomination to study in depth the AIDS pandemic, not only in Africa, but also in the United States where there is a surge of cases among ethnic groups and young people living within our borders.

The second overture:
The Synod of Belhar, in Cape Town, South Africa and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches brought for consideration the adoption of the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions in 2004. Our Book of Confessions has not been changed since the Confession of 1967 and the Brief statement of faith in 1983.

Our brothers and sisters in South Africa had suffered under Apartheid for many years. Our black brothers and sisters in this country were marginalized by oppression and slavery for many years.

Because of this request, the General Assembly in 2004 set in motion a task force to seek methods for the church to express a way to address reparations and reconciliation for our actions in this country. The Belhar Confession, having already been adopted by the New Dutch Reformed Mission Church, with the assistance of our former Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick as president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches promoted further study.

By an overwhelming majority, the commissioners of the 217th General Assembly in 2006 voted to urge each presbytery and all congregations to undertake a study of the Belhar Confession before the 218th General Assembly.

The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns asked that the Belhar Confession be presented to the 2008 General Assembly, and the Assembly voted to begin the process of amending our Book of Confessions.

I was honored to be able to work along side our former moderator of the General Assembly, the Reverend Jack Rogers as he gave a presentation to ministers and elders at a meeting of the Association of Stated Clerks. He provided detailed background and his theological interpretation of the Belhar Confession.

One of the major components of this confession as restated by Dr. Rogers is as follows:


We Believe

--that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
--that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged…
--that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that 9in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”

We would ask, as members of this congregation, that we hold the committee that is empowered with completing the draft of this document, deeply in our prayers and thought.

Do Justice, and as we do, we should be reminded of all peoples who are marginalized in our own communities and in our churches.

God will provide… we only need to ask what God wishes of us. We know that our Lord is asking us to do justice with His help. As our denomination grows and changes I am ever mindful of how we are Reformed and always Reforming. That nothing is too great if we ask for God’s help along the way.

Jesus was an incredibly just man, and remains so even now within our hearts. He is ever present with us. We just need to listen.

Reflections on GA - Shari Stump - August 24, 2008

Micah 6:6-8

I’m guessing that it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that my General Assembly experience is all about being social! I was delighted when one of the Presbyterian Women staff in the Louisville office called to ask if I would staff the PW booth in the Exhibit Hall during General Assembly. I immediately said, “Sure, Yes, Of course!” During the course of the five days that the Exhibit Hall was open, I think I spoke about the work of Presbyterian Women to ALMOST everyone who attended. We had one night off – when the exhibit hall was open to GA commissioners only and each booth was staffed by a member of the General Assembly Council. Other than that, from opening to closing each day, I shared the news and stories of what’s up with Presbyterian Women. I was in heaven – and always talking!
I have a couple of experiences that I want to share with you this morning – experiences that touched me and speak of our connectedness and diversity - how different and yet how alike we are!
Buddy and Diana Monahan – whom some of you know from their years here at Covenant – were there staffing the Racial-Ethnic ministries booth next to Presbyterian Women. They live now in Albuquerque where Buddy is on staff at Menaul School. Some of the women’s ministries resource boxes didn’t arrive prior to the opening of the exhibit hall – and when they did, needed to be carried into the Exhibit Hall, one by one – those were the rules! Oh joy, I thought – but soon someone offered up a couple of temporarily unenthusiastic, but muscled young men to help me and after just a few trips to my car trunk by myself, I was joined by the two young men. We had 70 boxes to move…it was going to take a while. On the first trip, in the elevator, I noticed that the boys were wearing Menaul School tee shirts and I told them that I knew someone on the staff at Menaul, and started to ask if they knew Buddy…and I didn’t even get Monahan out of my mouth when it occurred to me that I was looking at younger versions of Buddy. My helpers were Buddy and Diana’s two sons, and I told them that I knew them when they were tiny…and all of a sudden, those welcoming Monahan smiles lit up their faces and 13 year old Jordyn and 11 year old Brandyn and I became related through our extended Presbyterian family. They’re doing very well, by the way, and are handsome, healthy looking, extremely polite young men. Ultimately, as brothers do, they turned the moving of the boxes into a competition, and I was no longer needed to complete the task!
As many of you know, I was on the staff of the Mary Magdalene Project for seven years, and for about 10 years before that, was a volunteer. At this General Assembly, Women’s Ministries chose the Reverend Ann Hayman, former Program Director of the Mary Magdalene Project and dear friend of mine and to many of you, as a recipient of the Woman of Faith award; an award given at each General Assembly to honor the contributions and gifts of two or three special women in a particular focus area. This year’s award went to three women who are in the forefront of “Visionary Women Transforming the Church and Society.” Ann’s work with street prostitutes for almost 30 years certainly qualified her for nomination – and the General Assembly Council saw fit to honor her transformative ministry, ironically two months after she was let go from the Mary Magdalene Project staff. God does work in mysterious ways – and this honor not only affirmed Ann’s contributions and ministry, but also affirmed for her the value of her ministry to society. Not that she really ever doubted the value of the work of the MMP – but she was and is going through a period of discernment and questioning of where God is leading her in the next adventure of her life. Part of Ann’s Woman of Faith statement reads, “I believe in the dignity and worth of each human being. I believe racism is wrong, that sexism contradicts the common good, and that economic disparities are indefensible. I also believe that forgiveness is possible, that grace abounds, that faith sustains and God’s love prevails.” I was privileged to be part of this tribute to a woman whose ministry reflects Micah’s challenge to us all.
The third and final experience that I’ve chosen to share with all of you this morning is that I attended a wedding in the middle of General Assembly at the More Light dinner when Derrick Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner chose to marry each other in front of their “friends” – their friends being those of us at the dinner. Derrick and Craig were married in a church ceremony 18 years ago and chose to legalize that commitment in a Civil Ceremony with the same pastor pronouncing them married and the same witnesses signing their marriage certificate who had been in attendance at their original marriage ceremony. David and Craig are members of the First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto – a church being honored by More Light Presbyterians for their inclusivity. And so, before a room full of friends and friends not yet met, they promised to, among other things, find…the courage to resist the many deaths by which love can die…to be willing to take the risk to accept the vulnerability to love again and again and again,. Both had written vows and promises that brought tears to my eyes. I turned to the man sitting next to me – Bill, a Presbyterian clergyman – who also had tears in his eyes, and said, “I can’t imagine what I’d be like if I actually knew the happy couple!” He laughed and agreed – and Bill & I became friends for the duration of the GA. We were all invited to stay and sign their marriage certificate. At the end of the ceremony, the couple looked out onto a sea of people all wearing rainbow scarves and Craig said, “This is a proclamation in a public place saying why this union – although often scorned by people – is blessed by God. We’ve made an incredible journey these twenty years to be here with you tonight. May God bless us all.” And to that I can only add, Amen!
And now, would you please join me by standing either in body or in spirit to sing, “All Are Welcome”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Destiny - August 17, 2008

A new pastor moved into town, and was calling on parishioners.

He rang the doorbell of one home … heard someone inside, but no answer at the door.
So he left a card, and wrote on the back, Revelation 3:20.

The next Sunday, an usher handed him the very same card with Genesis 3:10 added to it.

Here’s what they say:

Revelation 3:20 - Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone answers, I will come in.

Genesis 3:10 says - I heard your voice, but I was afraid, because I was naked.

We can find just about anything in the Bible.

Some folks love to look for doom and danger.
Some folks dwell on the wrath of God and punishment for sinners.
Some folks look for secrets to wealth and happiness.
Others search the Bible looking for Noah’s ark … or the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah … or the chalice of the Last Supper.

Others look for hope.
What we find depends on what we’re looking for.

Some years ago, I misplaced my glasses in my office … I looked and looked – nowhere to be found.
I called my secretary, “Can you help me?” She glanced around the office and immediately spotted them. They were out in the open and obvious.
I couldn’t find them, because I expected them to be somewhere else.
We find in the Bible what we want to find.

I look for assurance!
The message of assurance on every page.
We belong to God.
God doesn’t forsake His own.
The promises hold true forever!
God at work in all things for good.
We’re all going to make it.

Who doesn’t need a little assurance now and then?

At a retreat center near Tulsa, Oklahoma – a lovely wooded area high on a bluff overlooking the city … I was out for a stroll through the woods – a warm, sunny afternoon in the early fall – everything still, and while strolling along the path, there ahead of me, a small lizard, sunning herself … I stopped … she looked at me; I looked at her … we both stood there for a few moments, sizing each other up.

I didn’t move
She didn’t move.

Who was going to move first?
This path was hers.
She got there before I did.
I was the intruder.

But I moved.
And I was a whole lot larger.
In a heartbeat, she was gone … skittering off into the leaves… hiding … afraid.

How many times I’ve been that little lizard.
Shadows frighten me.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …

Two cousins of mine lost their spouses this week … the turn of the page, the tick of the clock … the inevitable procession …

My heart trembles …
Clouds fill my mind.
I want to run.

But where shall I run?

Busy myself in work?
Read a little more?
Sleep longer?
Play harder?
Cook dinner and go to the movies?

Where do you run when you feel like running?

We all have our little strategies when shadows cross our path.
I suspect we’re all pretty much the same.

We’re flesh and blood.
Tears and laughter.
We know in our bones how mortal we are.
We see the page turn.
We hear the clock tick.

We do our best to make the most of it.
We love and hope others love us.
We work hard, and we want the world to be a little better because of us.
We forgive and are forgiven.
We dream of far away places … adventures we’ll never have …
We’ve got a book full of missed opportunities.
And a story full of grace.
We’ve made it this far …

I think we’re all pretty much the same.

So where do we go?
When shadows loom?
Is there some anchor to hold the ship in the storm?
A refuge in the wilderness?
A place of safety when all hell breaks loose?

Let’s take a look at our text for the day – Romans Chapter 11 … [read text] …

The question lurking in the background: Has something gone wrong with God’s plan of salvation?

If Jesus is a Jew, from the Jews and by the Jews, why have so few of His people signed on?
Has something gone wrong?

Paul wrestles with this question.
He’s a Jew.
It pains him deeply.

But an answer emerges in Paul’s heart and mind.
God is at work.
In all things.
For good.

Has God rejected His people? Paul asks!
Not at all.
“I’m one of them,” says Paul.

Nothing has gone wrong.

The promises of God hold true.
No matter what!
God’s people are still God’s people.
The apple of God’s eye [Deuteronomy 32:10].

So why have they turned from Jesus?

There’s a mystery here, says Paul.

Their turn has been instrumental in your turn.

For a time being, they’ve gone another way.
So you can find your way.

Paul doesn’t explain, and neither should we.
We step back and celebrate.
We give thanks and we rejoice.

It’s all going to work out.
Because the promise holds true; God’s Word is good to the very end.

But it’s a hard business putting it all together.
Hard for us.
Hard for God.

Nothing easy about love and grace.
Nothing easy about forgiveness.

We all know the sorrow of forgiveness that didn’t come our way when we needed it.
Our heart was aching for a second chance, an encouraging word, and there were only scowls and scorn, wagging fingers and wagging tongues - judgment and chastisement. We didn’t need one more slap in the face – but we got it anyway …
And we all know how easily we can withold forgiveness from others … even as we hope others will forgive us, we become miserly in our forgiveness of others.
A kindly word could heal a wound quickly, but no, our resentment, our sense of hurt, our smoldering discontent, our self-righteousness, our desire to get even and set things straight deepen the wound and increase the hurt.
Why do we do that?
Why the scowl rather than the smile?
Why hang on to our anger?

Why can’t we let things go?
Leave things alone … leave them up to God.

Nothing easy about love and grace.
Nothing easy about forgiveness.

For us, or for God!

It’s tough to cross out sin.
The first sacrifice - in the Garden.
The journey was going to be a tough one.
Fig leaves wouldn’t do.
Something more durable was needed.

So God becomes a tailor.
Leather clothing … animal skins … the first sacrifice … life given in exchange for life.
Every time Israel spilled the blood of a goat or a lamb, Israel remembered how costly forgiveness is.
Life given in exchange for life … all of the blood poured out … yet something more was needed.

Something so good, so pure – to do it once for all – to finish the work.

There would have to be another sacrifice …

On a hilled called Calvary.
A cross.
A crown of thorns.
Shouts and jeers.
Thieves on either side.
Soldiers doing their job.
A spear thrust to the side.
Women weeping.
Men fleeing for their lives.
The proud and the mighty ever so proud and ever so mighty.

It’s a hard business for God.
It’s tough to cross out sin.

But God works.
There are miracles of grace.
Light shines in the darkness.
Hope dawns upon the weary soul.
Faith is born anew.
Courage to face the day.
Strength to continue.

There is both severity and kindness in all of this, says Paul.

God darkens the darkness.
God puts stumbling blocks in our way.
God makes our hatred all the more hatred.
Our despair all the more dark.
Our anger all the more angry.
Our bitterness all the more bitter.

When we walk away from God,
God magnifies the misery.
When we feast on lesser things,
God makes us hungrier.
When we drink at other fountains,
God makes our thirst unbearable.

God takes a hardened heart and makes it harder.

Until we weary of ourselves.
Until we find ourselves utterly disgusting.
Until we begin to ask the right questions.
Is that what I’ve become?
Is this who I really am?

Like the Prodigal Son in the far away land … eating pig slop and dressed in rags … he comes to his senses - Why am I here when I could be in my father’s house?
Why am I so hungry when I could be feasting at his table?
Why am I dressed in rags when I could be clothed in the best?

God hammers us.

Bending us toward life.
Toward love.
Toward grace.

To that moment when we rise from the pig slop and begin the journey back home!
A strange and fearsome grace at work.

Paul reminds his Gentile readers … you’re in, but you’re in by the grace of God … others were here before you got here, and if, for some reason, they’re somewhere else right now, don’t get snotty, don’t get snooty!

If only Christians had read Paul carefully, the sad, tragic, history of anti-Semitism would never have emerged …
If the Church had read the Bible well, there would never have been a holocaust and the death of six million Jews …

I recall my own childhood and the derisive remarks made about Jews.
The story is real … not imagined … the church abused and killed Jews for 1500 years, and what came to pass in Nazi Germany must be laid at the feet of the church.

Gentiles did get snooty and snotty about it all.
Gentiles forgot that it was all by grace!

When it’s all by grace, no one call pull rank.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. [Galatians 3:28-29].

So don’t get snotty, says Paul.
Don’t get snooty!
If you’re in now, Mr. Gentile, Mrs. Gentile, you can just as easily be out.
God grafted you in … you’re but a branch.
You’re not the root.
Jews are the root.
To the Jew belongs the first rank.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

You’re here by grace!
So be humble in your faith.
Grateful in your praise.
Generous in your love toward others.
Patient and forgiving.
Open-handed and open-hearted.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8].

I have to remind myself of these things now and then.

When shadows loom on my pathway and my heart trembles.
Who am I?
I’m a child of God.
Saved by grace.
Life and love are my destiny.
Jesus died for me.
To cover me with God’s love.
Open the doors of salvation.
Heal the wound.
Forgive the sin.
Bridge the chasm.
Bring me to God.

I’m often frightened by many things.
Yet Christ is present.
Death will close my eyelids.
Yet the hand of Christ will open them anew.

The promise holds.
God doesn’t fail.

We will all make it.

Whatever shadows you’re facing today,
Whatever challenge and heartache have come your way,
You will make it.
Because God made you.
Jesus died for you.
You were there in the mind of God.
When Jesus cries out, It is finished! it was finished for you.
For you, for you, for you.

You’re gifted and you’re able.
You have a good mind and a good heart.
You can forgive.
You can overcome.
You will find a way through, over, under or around.
You are a person of love and grace.
You have the strength of the Holy Spirit within you.

The work God began in you will be finished, and it will be finished well.

The promise holds.

We belong to a faithful Savior.
And Jesus is His name.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Purpose - August 10, 2008

Romans 10:5-15

There is something called faith …

And there’s something called the church …

Faith is sort of like a fire … and the church is sort of like a fireplace … they need one another.

A fire, without a fireplace, is dangerous, unpredictable, hard to manage …
A fireplace, without a fire, is only so much decoration – nice to look at, but no one lingers at a fireplace without a fire.

Fire and fireplace …
Faith and church …

Faith is our life.
Church is our location.
Faith is the fire.
Church is the fireplace.

They need one another to be effective …
The fireplace needs fire … fire needs the fireplace.

I hear folks say, “Who needs the church? I have my faith.”

I understand.
Let’s be honest … sometimes the church leaves a lot to be desired.
Ask your unchurched neighbors what they think about the church … pour ‘em a drink first, then have a drink yourself, because what you’re likely to hear won’t be nice.

Our unchurched neighbors are likely to say things like:

Churches are cold and clammy … damp and dour … dark and dingy … scoldy and sanctimonious … greedy and gougy … snooty and snotty … all dressed up and no place to go; stuck in the past and going nowhere fast … rules and requirements … short on grace and stingy with forgiveness … doctrine and dogma … dress codes and unmovable pews, and unmovable minds; wanting your money … dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s …

Better pour yourself a stiff drink.

Are they right?
Maybe not … maybe a little … maybe a whole lot in some cases.
Outsiders see things …
A fireplace without a fire.

One of my all-time favorite stories …
A stranger walks into First Presbyterian Church, sits near the back, and during the message of the day, shouts out, “Praise the LORD” … “Hallelujah, preacher,” … “God is good.”

Folks in the pews are a little edgy … turn around, faces in a scowl …

Finally, an usher steps over to the gentleman and says in a stage whisper, “Sir, we don’t do that here.”

“But I’ve got the Spirit,” says the man.

To which the usher replies, “Sir, I don’t care what you have; you didn’t get it here.”

A fireplace without a fire.

When folks tell me they don’t need the church, I wince.
Yes, they need the church …

But the church needs to be ready for some fire.

Some years ago, in a beautiful home, massive fireplace … stonework and a cherrywood mantle – large landscape painting above the mantle … centerpiece of the room.

I said, “Must be a great place to have a fire on a cold wintry evening.”

Said the host:
“We never light a fire here.”
“Too messy.”

When I was child, we visited some friends who had a beautiful living room – white carpet, white couch and chairs … plastic walk mats on the carpet; clear plastic coverings on the furniture.
When we went to their home, my parents warned me to keep my shoes clean.
But kids don’t keep shoes clean.
Playing in the field across from the home, my shoes got muddied … and you know the rest of the story … in spite of ample warning, I tracked in mud when it was time for dinner.

I was an assistant pastor at a large Pittsburg church - three full-time custodians.
Every Monday morning, they’d complain about sand in the classrooms.
Our classrooms had small sandboxes – teachers could tell stories using the sandboxes – Israel in the wilderness, Jesus in the desert … shepherds in the hills … water from the rock … but no matter how careful, there’d be sand on the floor Monday morning.
Since I was in charge of lower-grade education, I heard all the complaints.

Now, I appreciate how hard a church custodian has to work … harder than we realize … Christians are mighty messy, and someone has to clean up after us.

But I remember saying one Monday morning – kids come into the building, teachers use the sand boxes … things happen – we’ve got to clean up afterward.
I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but someone has to do it.

Some years ago, while on retreat with the Ecumenical Institute, I and one other guy were assigned floor scrubbing detail … and when we were done with the hallway, one of the retreat leaders came in with muddy shoes and dirtied up the hallway again, and told us, “Clean it up.”
We knew the drill – life is messy, things happen, the clean-up work is never done …

I like to cook … but I’m a mess when I cook.
Sometimes, after a good dinner, Donna says, “Sit down and relax; I’ll clean it up.”

After 30 minutes of scrubbing pots pans and putting spices away, she’ll wipe her brow and say, “Takes more time to clean up then make dinner.”

I’m on the couch reading, maybe watching TV, playing Solitaire on the computer … so I reply, “What’s that? What did you say?”

John Ortberg tells a story …
After his grandmother died, Grampa had the sad task of cleaning things out …
He came across s box of old dishes … they were blue, and not know what to do with them, he called his daughter-in-law, John’s mother.
The dishes were blue, and that was her favorite color.
“Come on over and take a look at ‘em. If you want ‘em, they’re yours. If not, I’ll give them to the Salvation Army.”

So John’s mother took a look, expecting to find some run-of-the-mill dinnerware. Instead, when she opened the box, she was looking at some of the most beautiful china she’d ever seen.
Each plate, individually painted, a delicate pattern of forget-me-nots – dishes and cups rimmed with gold – the whole set handcrafted in a Bavarian factory destroyed in WW 2, so they were literally irreplaceable.

John’s mother has been in the family for twenty years and had never seen the dishes. She asked her husband who had grown up in the family, and he hadn’t seen them either.

Eventually, they found out from some older family members … when Florence was very young, she was given the china over a period of years – they weren’t a wealthy family, so everyone knew how valuable the china was – Florence got only one piece at a time – confirmation, graduation, birthdays.

Whenever Florence received a piece of china, she wrapped it carefully in tissue, put it in a box, stored in the attic, waiting for a special occasion.

But the special occasion never came along.

So Florence went to her grave with this valuable gift never used.

Fireplaces without a fire.
Furniture wrapped in plastic.
Beautiful dishes never used.

Purpose …
Shouldn’t fireplaces have fires in them?
Shouldn’t furniture be comfortable?
Shouldn’t dishes be used?

The church has a purpose … that’s you and me … each of us, all of us …

When that purposed is lived, there’s nothing more beautiful, more exciting, more remarkable, on the face of the earth…
A local church filled with the Spirit of Jesus.
The church – visionary, courageous, sacrificial, faithful, the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

Like a fireplace with a fire.
A sofa inviting you to sit on down and kick back.
Dishes heaped high with mashed potatoes and gravy and slices of roast beef.
Sunday School rooms with children spilling sand on the floor … and messy kitchens.

Purpose … we have a purpose … really just one … but it’s a biggie … so big maybe we get a little scared, we back off a little … we try another tact … is there anything else we can do?

Let’s take a look at the text … Romans 10:5-15 [read text] …

We could spend the next six months unpacking this one … verse-by-verse, word-for-word, but for our task this morning – just this – Paul’s question:

How are they to hear without someone to proclaim?

When all else is said and done, this is our purpose – to talk about Jesus – intelligently, clearly, kindly.

So that folks can hear, really hear, honestly hear, accurately hear, and if they hear, they may well believe, and if they believe, they’ll find something good and wonderful.

How good it is to know Jesus.

But sometimes I forget how good it really is. Maybe your forget, too.

Jesus has been a part of my life from the get-go.
I grew up in a Christian family.
I went to a Christian high school and a Christian college.
I went to seminary, and married a Christian woman.

Jesus has always been a part of my life.

I can’t imagine life without Him.
To live without reference to Jesus.
To live without the Bible.
Without the church.
Without faith.
Most of my friends and all of my family are Christians.

I’ve never known life outside of Christ.

When I was in seminary, I met a convert to Christianity – he was the first person I’ve ever know to have come to Christ as an adult.
He was a Canadian – in his early forties … a convert to Christ ten years earlier.
He grew up on the rough side of things.
His parents were murdered when he was a child … grew up in an orphanage … tough life … no religion, no faith, no church, no nothing.

He came to Christ through a friend, and then experienced a calling from God for ministry …

A group of us were chatting one evening, and he said to us, “I’m envious of all of you. You have known Christ all of your life.”

I said to Len, “I’m envious of you, because you know, as I will never know, the joy of Christ by contrast.”

If you’ve grown up in Jesus, it’s hard to know how foggy life can be outside of His grace.
To know Jesus is really something.
Profound and beautiful.
To live outside of Christ is hard …
The absence of grace.
No eternal assurance.
Easter and Christmas are just holidays for a little time off.

Without the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, without the Cross and the Empty Tomb, to fill the center of our lives, the lesser gods will likely win the day.

Money, power, or the quest for youthfulness … popularity, sex, adventure and pleasure … without the anchor of faith, we’re likely to run ourselves ragged looking for what we don’t know, asking for what we never seem to find, knocking on all the latest doors the world gives puts in front of us.

If you’ve grown up in Christ, it’s impossible to imagine life without Christ …

I’ve tried over the years to have non-Christian friends … I’ve learned a lot from them … I’ve learned how silly the church looks to them … how goofy and funny we are in their eyes … the things we fight about; the things we value – the little things we fuss and fret about.
There’s nothing more instructive then getting to know someone outside the church - become friends with them, learn from them – they have a lot to say, if they trust us enough to tell us.

The unchurched can teach us a lot.
They see things we might miss.

But I’ve also learned from them what it’s like to live outside the grace of God.
The fog in the heart.
Something missing.

How can they believe if they’ve not heard?
How can they hear without someone to speak?

Here’s where the rubber hits the road.
The hammer on the nail.
The glove that fits the hand.
The shoe that fits the foot.

Are we sometimes the fireplace without the fire?
Overstuffed furniture covered in plastic?
Beautiful dishes never used for dinner?
Sunday school rooms always clean?
Kitchens neat and tidy?

In thirty-eight years of ministry, I’ve seen it all, heard it all – there’s nothing new under the sun.

The church wrestles needlessly so much of the time … we expend means and money on all sorts of endeavors and programs … even as we forget our singular purpose – to share Jesus with a lonely world, and let the chips fall where they may.

Right now, much of Christendom is engaged in heated debate about homosexuality … before that, it was Civil Rights, and the ordination of women.
Before that dancing and card playing, alcohol and theater attendance … before that slavery and abolition … before that, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and if a mouse were to eat a crumb of consecrated bread, would that mouse be saved?

All of these are important issues … even the mouse … but all of them could have been resolved easily if we had only paid more attention to our singular purpose.

As one pundit put it,
The church majors in the minors
And minors in the majors.

It’s good for us now and then to assess who we really are.
To sit down with the Bible.
To pay attention to our unchurched neighbors.
To ponder our purpose.

We are the church of Jesus Christ.
Called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
To bring good news to the poor …
Proclaim release to the captives …
Recovery of sight to the blind …
Let the oppressed go free …
Proclaim the year of the LORD's favor.

It’s a simple task …
This is not rocket science …
We don’t have to scale the heights or plump the depths …
The word of the LORD is clear and clean … it’s right here and right now.

Have you approached a neighbor or a friend with a simple invitation to come to church with you on a Sunday?
Invite them, pick them up, sit with them, take them to lunch afterward … and then do it again … and then pray for them – be prepared for a long-term commitment, months, years … who knows, you may be the one Jesus uses …

You might be the fireplace for someone’s fire.
The couch on they can rest their weary spirit.
The dish on which the Bread of Heaven is served.
The Sunday School room where they can learn.
The kitchen where Jesus prepares dinner.

That’s our purpose.
That’s who we are.

We are the church of Jesus Christ.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Passion - August 3, 2008

Romans 9:1-5

I like the Apostle Paul.

He’s my middle name.

I’ve often joked that my parents gave me the perfect name … Thomas Paul … Thomas the Doubter; Paul the Believer … and I’m somewhere in between: “LORD, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Believing always includes pieces of unbelief … and unbelief always flirts with believing … Thomas Paul … the Doubter, the Believer … for me, it’s a good combination … and I’ve always been grateful.

I’ve always been glad to share Paul’s name, and I’m glad to share in Paul’s vocation.

He’s a pastor …
He’s a missionary …
He’s a teacher …

Utterly humbled by his Damascus Road experience …

Paul is patient …
Paul is a man of Good News …
A preacher of grace … passionate about grace.

Paul is real … he frets and fusses like we all do … he gets angry, has regrets; he defends himself and then apologizes for being defensive; he’s at a loss for words, and he’s eloquent; he’s tender and he’s testy … in other words, just like you and me, he’s a sinner saved by grace.

I like Paul.

His credentials make him a voice worth listening to.
No armchair philosopher.
His faith is forged on the anvil of suffering.
Paul puts himself on the line again and again.
Paul knows the pain and humiliation of a Roman lash.
The filth of a prison in Philippi.
He’s been shipwrecked and robbed.
Beaten and belittled.
He’s been hungry and cold.

At one point, Paul asks, “Am I doing this for human approval?” If so, I must be nuts. But what I do I do for God [Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4].

Does Paul understanding everything there is to understand about the Gospel? … not at all, and he’d be the first to say so.
Should we take everything Paul writes with unquestioned literalness? … Paul would say like any good theologian – “Let’s talk about this. Let’s think deeply about Jesus. Let’s talk about grace.”

“I’m not the issue,” Paul would say.
“Jesus is the issue.”

Paul believes that God did something profound in Jesus …

For a moment, we have to put on our thinking caps … we have to remember that Paul is a Jew … when Paul talks about God, it’s the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob … the God who led the children of Israel out of slavery, through the wilderness to the Promised Land … the God of King David and the God of the Prophets … the God who sent His people into exile and then brought them home again …

Paul believes that the whole story was headed for the moment when Jesus was born … that all the hopes and fears of humankind are focused in that Bethlehem babe … Jesus of Nazareth, the man of sorrows.

Paul believes that Jesus is the fulcrum on which the whole world is balanced – Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female; past, present and future – the whole world, the universe …
In Jesus, God is at work, reconciling the world to Himself.
Doing for humankind what humankind could never do for itself … to shoulder the burden and pay the price … to lift up the weary and heal the sick … to give sight to the blind and set the oppressed free.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is often dense and difficult … Paul is writing to a community he’s never visited … but he knows a few of them … Paul hopes one day to visit Rome and then travel on to Spain.

Paul never stops thinking about the world.
Paul’s vision is large.
Paul cares about the spiritual wellbeing of people … because God loves the world … God’s grace and mercy are present and obvious everywhere … yet Paul sees the terrible confusion that fogs the mind and heart of humankind.
Paul is passionate about people.

Paul lives in the Roman Empire … he’s a Roman citizen … he’s no one’s fool … Paul has seen the world and he’s seen it all.

Roman says, “Caesar is lord” … Paul says, “Jesus is LORD.”
The world expects salvation from Rome … Paul says, “The hope of the world is Jesus.”
Folks called Caesar savior … Paul replies, “Jesus saves!”

The end of Paul’s life is not recorded … the last we hear of him, he’s in Rome, imprisoned … under house arrest of sorts, with a guard. He’s free to have visitors, free to write his letters …

Tradition is murky at this point … but everything suggests execution … this is what Rome did to anyone who challenged its authority, who created a disturbance, and Paul created lots of disturbance wherever he went.
Paul is passionate about truth.

Our reading today is a fascinating piece of a very large puzzle …

[read text …]

Putting it as simply as we can, folks wondered if something had gone terribly wrong with God’s plan of salvation.

If Jesus is from the Jews, by the Jews, for the Jews, then why have only a few Jews acknowledged Jesus as LORD and Savior?

And if something has gone wrong, could Paul be wrong?
And if Paul is wrong, is the gospel wrong?
Have we gotten it wrong?
Have we bet on the wrong horse?
Have we hung our hat on the wrong peg?

People were putting their lives on the line for the gospel … so folks wanted to know: Is Jesus the One?

Is Jesus is the long awaited Messiah?
If Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?
Is Jesus is everything you claim Him to be, Paul?
Then why have so few of His own welcomed Him?

Paul was caught between an expectation of how things might to work and how things were really working.

Who hasn’t been there a time or two? Caught between expectation and reality.

We’ve made our plans, figured it out, put pencil to paper – googled it and talked it out with friends and family, and everyone says, “Yup, that’s a good idea.”
Then life takes an unexpected turn – events unfold in their own chaotic way, and who would’ve guessed.
Monday morning quarterbacks tell us we should’ve done it differently.
We find ourselves saying, “If I knew then when I know now, I would have made different decisions. I would have gone in another direction.”

That’s the hard edge for Paul …
Paul is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Let’s step back for a moment … and think a bit more about Paul!

Paul is brilliant and well-trained.
He knows the story of Israel inside out and backwards.
He’s has spent a lifetime with God.

With a life-changing moment on the Damascus Road.

You know the story:
A blinding light hurls him into the dust of the road …
A voice addresses him, using his Jewish name, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Who are you, LORD? Paul replies.
I’m not persecuting you.
I’m defending you.
I’m on your side.
I’m doing what’s right.
I’m living my faith.
And I’m persecuting you?

In a blinding moment of realization, Paul’s certainty is shaken to the core.
The world, as he knows it, is suddenly turned upside down.
Everything up for grabs.
The story Paul knew so well suddenly grows strange.
This is an unexpected twist.
A turn he didn’t see.

Who are you, LORD?

I am Jesus!

But you’re not the one!
We tried you in our courts and found you wanting.
The Roman Empire charged you with sedition and executed you.
You’re dead and buried.
We put you away.
We’re done with all of this.
And I’m doing what I can to stamp out the remnants of this distorted movement.

Who are you, LORD?
I am Jesus!

There are some sidebars to this story.

The voice asks, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
Ring any bells?
Of course … King Saul … Israel’s first king … from the tribe of Benjamin, just like Paul is from the tribe of Benjamin – like two folks discovering they’re both from Westchester.
Saul, Saul.

Echoes here of King Saul’s intent to kill David … the young shepherd boy, David, is hired to play the harp to soothe Saul’s depression, but in a fit of rage, Saul hurls a spear at David hoping to pin him to the wall.

David escapes … and the inevitable begins to unfold … David’s popularity eclipses that of Saul … time and again, Saul fails; David succeeds … Saul fusses and fumes and embarks upon a campaign to kill David, chasing David through the wilderness, persecuting David.

Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?

In this remarkable moment on the Damascus Road, Paul sees his murderous rage for what is - misdirected and ill-conceived … it’s all wrong.
Paul suddenly sees through fog of his own convictions and traditions – Jesus is the LORD God of Israel.
Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of the Cross … Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph … the LORD God of Israel.

The man on the road thought he knew so much, but now asks the simplest of questions: Who are you, LORD?

There’s a second element here … remember the call of Moses?
Moses the shepherd in Midian.
When off to the side, one day, Moses sees a burning bush … in the middle of nowhere.
I’d better check this out, thinks Moses.
And when he’s near to the bush, God calls him, Moses, Moses.

Twice named … just to be sure.
Saul, Saul, why do your persecute me?

When God commissions Moses to return to Egypt and lead the people to the Promised Land, Moses asks, Who are you, LORD? Do you have a name?

God replies, I Am Who I Am – Yahweh – I Am Who I Am.
When the people ask you, tell them “I Am has sent me.”

God’s name, I Am, Yahweh …
The sacred name … so sacred, Israel didn’t say it – they said, Adonai instead, and Adonai means LORD.

The LORD God Almighty … Yahweh … creator of the heavens and the earth … the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob … the God of the Prophets …

On the Damascus Road, Paul realizes that Jesus is the LORD God Almighty … that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is Jesus of Nazareth.

Who are you, LORD?
I am Jesus!

And with that, Jesus says to Paul, Now get up and get on your way; I’ve got work for you to do.

And work Paul did.
To tell the story … now with a twist.
To tell the old, old story, with a new chapter.

What God started in Abraham has come to pass in Jesus.
Yes, we killed Him.
But God the raised Him from the dead and crowned Him LORD of lords and King of kings.

This is not what I expected, says Paul.
But who can guess the mind of God?
The ways of love are beyond our grasp.

A story to tell to the nations … a story of goodness and hope … a story to set nations free and liberate the soul from superstition and idolatry … to break the chains of sin and sorrow.

But it wasn’t long before Paul realized that others didn’t see it as he did.
Have you ever been convinced of something, tried to explain it to someone else, only to have them scratch their head and say “huh?”

The question plagues Paul:
If I have seen this, why can’t my brothers and sisters see it?

Could I be wrong?
I was wrong before.
Might I be wrong again?

Our text today has to be read in the light of the whole book.
Paul remains clear – all things work together for good, all things for the glory of God and welfare of creation.

Though my heart breaks for my own people, I know that God’s love for them remains intact … there will be a day when the barriers come down.

Paul is passionate.
He would trade his salvation for the sake of his own people.

Like a parent at a child’s hospital bedside, “I’d take my child’s place if I could.”
“I would suffer in their stead.”

So says Paul about his own people.
If I could, I’d change places with them.

But Paul doesn’t lose his confidence in the goodness of God … Paul knows that it will end well.

All things work together for good.
God is faithful.
The covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah remains … if there’s a strange twist to the story, so be it.

Stories have a way of taking a strange twist.
But God’s love remains.
The hope is right.
The vision secure.

I like Paul.
He’s a man of passion.

He met Jesus and followed Him to the end of his days.

I’m glad to share Paul’s name.

And with all of you, to know the Damascus LORD, our LORD Jesus Christ.

Amen and Amen!