Tuesday, May 29, 2012

May 27, 2012, "Winds of Change"

Acts 2.1-21

God doesn’t care what we believe!
That gets your attention, doesn’t it?

For the last 500 years, Christianity has made a huge fuss about “what we believe” … slicing and dicing the gospel into little bits and pieces:
The Trinity, predestination, salvation, damnation, virgin birth, heaven and hell, the last judgment, the resurrection, creation and eternal life, and 5000 other little points and pieces.
Teaching points.
And then arguing about it, even going to war about it.
Methodists fought Baptists, Baptists fought Episcopalians, Episcopalians fought Roman Catholics, Roman Catholics fought Presbyterians, and Presbyterians fought amongst themselves!

All because of “what we believe”?
What does it mean to believe?

A living, vibrant trust and love and commitment.
But for many Christians, it’s all about ideas … cold, hard facts … points of doctrine.
What it comes to such belief ...
Even the Devil believes, says James.
The Devil believes in God, the Devil believes in Jesus, the Devil believes in the resurrection from the dead, and all the other things Christians fuss over … yes, the Devil believes, thoroughly and knowledgeably.
But there’s no love in the Devil’s heart … no loyalty … no commitment … not a shred of trust.
To simply believe that something happened, that something may be true, even to defend it and argue over it, this is not what God intends.

God doesn’t care what we believe about God! 
God cares deeply how we live for God!
The truth we live.
The mercy we show.
The forgiveness we practice.
The justice we seek.
The peace we create.
You shall know them by their fruits, says Jesus.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. … If we live by the Spirit, Paul writes, let’s follow the Spirit … 
When the New Testament talks about belief in Jesus, it’s all about trust and commitment and love and loyalty … a way of life that follows in the footsteps of Jesus … a way of life that embraces the life Jesus reveals … the quality of life laid out for us in the Beatitudes … the Golden Rule … Matthew 25, kindness to the least of these is kindness to me, says Jesus.

Think of the Apostles Creed …
I believe in God the Father Almighty … and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord… and I believe in the Holy Spirit.
I’ve heard the Yellow Pages read with more passion.
Lots of folks say the creed, claim to believe it, even fight over whether it ought to be “ghost” or “spirit” or “living” or “quick” - but saying the creed, or even fighting about what we believe about the virgin birth and resurrection, isn’t enough; not even close.
To capture the power of the original word credo, “I believe”from the Latin, two words: cor, meaning “heart,” from which we get the word “cordial” or “accord” - and do, meaning to set, place or give… thus, to say, credo, “I  believe” means, to set the heart upon, or give the heart … to God!
We might translate the Apostles’ Creed like this:
I give my heart to God the Father Almighty … I give my heart to Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord … I give my heart to the Holy Spirit … and to the life of the Spirit … the church … forgiveness … resurrection … eternal life.

If we say to someone, “I believe in you” … 
It’s not their “physical existence” we believe.
We believe in THEM!
We rely on them, admire them, trust what they’re doing, and more than that, we want the best for them.
Think of saying all of that to God:
Dear God:
I rely upon you.
I admire you.
I trust you.
I want the best for you.

At the heart of the Christian life, a deep and abiding surrender … life given to God … love for God, love for the things of God … to love what God loves; to do what God does.
John Calvin’s motto … O LORD, promptly and sincerely, I give my heart to you … 
The surrender of the self.
All to Jesus I surrender;
Now I feel the sacred flame.
O the joy of full salvation!
Glory, glory, to His Name!

The Holy Spirit comes to the church.
The first breath of a new life.
The creation story all over again … a handful of dirt, the breath of God, the dirt becomes a living creature!
Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry bones.
Can these bones live again? God asks. 
Of course they can … by the word of the LORD … and breath from the four winds.
The word for Spirit in the New Testament, pneuma … we get the word “pneumatic” or “pneumonia” … breath, wind, Spirit … the same in the Old Testament, ru-ach - breath, wind, Spirit.
Like a mighty wind comes the Spirit, and with fire!
Life to the church.

The flames of love came to all in that upper room.
No one’s flame was bigger or brighter than anyone else’s flame.
All were empowered to proclaim the gospel in all the languages of the world …
The gift of many languages compels us to pay attention to one another … to listen carefully … speak clearly … strive for understanding … ask questions … learn other languages … in a world of many languages.

On the street of any major city anywhere in the world … Paris, London, Cape Town, Rome, Cairo and Los Angeles … many tongues, all kinds of dress … restaurants with foods from around the world … music and dance from every corner of the globe.
More and more even in small towns … the world is on the move, and getting smaller every day … peoples, languages … all on the same sidewalk, shopping in the same stores, going to the same schools.
Many languages … a gift from God!

Because there are so many ways to speak the language of love.
The language of love is bigger than one language!
The glory of God requires many languages, many words, many tongues … 
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace! 
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

May 20, 2101, "A Lot to Gain"

Acts 1.15-26

Judas went his own way.
For whatever reasons, he betrayed Jesus.
30 pieces of silver.
And a kiss.

It ends badly for Judas … in one account, he hangs himself [Matthew 27] … in our reading today, he falls and injures himself so badly he dies.

We have to be careful with Judas.
Who hasn’t made a really bad decision a time or two?  
We’ve all crossed thresholds we’re not proud of.
We’ve all gone to bed at night racked with regret.
We’d do anything to live the day all over again.
However it ends, it ends badly for Judas.

And it seems to end badly for Jesus, too - arrest, trial, crucifixion, dead and buried - but God’s ways are not our ways!
As it turns out:
God’s purpose is fulfilled in the death of Jesus … the throne of glory, a cross; his crown, a wreath of thorns.
To our eyes, all is failure.
To the eyes of God, only through failure, the worst of it, can God reveal the beauty of God’s love at work in all things … not just the easy things of life, or even the medium-difficult things, but the meanest, the ugliest, the worst of it.
Only through suffering can the Messiah show to the world the full power of love … love that lays its life down for the sheep … love that comes to us, not to be served, but to serve … love that sheds its formal dress and, with towel and basin, washes feet.
Three days later, the stone is rolled away.
Jesus raised from the dead, triumphant and glorious.
Death cannot hold him.
Life wins the victory … it always does … and it always will!

Jesus appears to his disciples … walks with them and talks with them … restores Peter to the fellowship … 
Jesus gives to them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life … and a great commission, a task, a calling - take the message of hope into all the world … as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.
Be my witnesses.
Tell the story.
Live the story.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Forgive one another ceaselessly.
Pray as I’ve taught you.
Make a difference.

But don’t leave Jerusalem, just yet … don’t jump the gun … don’t be impatient … wait for the promise … John baptized with water, but in only a few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
With that, Jesus takes leave of them - the cloud of unknowing envelopes him … 
He ascends into heaven … to the right hand of God … to govern the world and guide the coming of the Kingdom … the angel says to the disciples, Don’t spend any more time looking up … get on with it down here … this Jesus, whom you saw lifted up, will come again, in the very same manner you saw him take leave.

The disciples return to Jerusalem!
And there they wait … and there they pray … and there they take care of some business!

Peter stands up and says … What shall we do about Judas? … he was one of us … he betrayed our LORD … but it was supposed to be this way … the Scriptures foretell the story. 
There’s something wonderfully practical in Peter’s leadership … a time of uncertainty, instability … happens to us all the time - loss of job, moving to a new town, changing careers, the onset of illness, the death of a loved one - the world comes to an end for us, or at least a part of the world comes to an end for us … 
Counselors encourage people to find basic things to do … sort through personal papers, pay the bills, vacuum the living room, get the car washed … go to work.
Did Peter see the need for them to do something other than just sit around waiting and wondering?
Here’s something we can do, said Peter.

They select two persons, who had been with them from the beginning …
Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus and Matthias.
They cast lots.
There was a lot to gain!
Ohhh, I know, a bad pun.
“A lot to gain”?
But just exactly, what is the casting of lots?
Did they throw dice?
Draw straws?
Choose the right hand or the left hand held behind someone’s back?
Pull a name out of the hat?
Flip a coin?
No one knows for sure what the casting of lots was like.
The soldiers at the foot of the cross cast lots for the garment of Jesus.
Casting lots is mentioned 70 times in the Old Testament and seven times in the New … yet no one knows for sure how it was done.
Yet the point is clear - there was no election, as we know it.
The choice was left to God.

We might well ask a million questions about all of this … questions about God, questions about Judas, questions about fate, predestination, and all those other sticky questions.
Life and faith are full of sticky questions … questions that have no answer … problems for which there is no solution … terrible things that have no reason.

But the disciples are at peace.

Peace in God’s eternal purpose … the Suffering Messiah … betrayal and denial … death and darkness and disappointment … strange tools for the work of God … but the Scriptures bear witness to these strange tools … tools in the hands of God … God at work … God at work, for good.
Because God is good all the time, and all the time … God is good!

God is our refuge and strength,
A help always near
In times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid
When the world falls apart [Psalm 46.1-2a].

If the disciples are at peace with all of these dark questions, maybe we can be at peace, too.
To God be the glory.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

May 13, 2012 - Mother's Day - "A Cry for Peace"

1 Samuel 1.21-28 & Luke 1.26-33

This past week, on my Facebook page, I posted the following quote:
 A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.

A FB friend replied:
This describes my mother perfectly. She raised 9 children and while my father recuperated from a helicopter crash (burned on 80% of his body but lived another 50 years) money was EXTREMELY tight. As the 7th child, I remember one day she started making lunch for her and I when she discovered we were out of bologna. She'd already put mustard on two slices so she scraped the last of the peanut butter out onto the non-mustered bread for me and put the two mustard slathered slices together and proclaimed that "mustard sandwiches were her favorite" (but that remains the only time I ever saw her eat one.). Thanks for that memory Tom. I have to call Mom now.

I celebrate with you, Mother’s Day!

Yes, I know.
Not every mother is able to love as she should.
Who knows what kind of pain she’s passing on?
My mother was a tough customer.
A woman of intelligence and a lively sense of humor.
But abusive of her two sons and her husband.
A lasting sorrow in my life.
Why she was the way she was neither my brother nor I have been able to figure out.
Donna and I have talked about it so many times - without answers for any of it.

I learned just how good a mother could be when I met Donna’s Mom … a kind and thoughtful woman … hard-working all of her life to raise to her family … and worked outside the home, as well.
She was a woman of great love, good humor and deep faith - she left behind a ton of good memories.
I further learned about mothers watching Donna … there are not enough words in my vocabulary to tell her story … but I’m ever-grateful, and her children are crazy about her … and that’s about as good as it gets.

Celebrations of mothers and motherhood are found all around the world and throughout history.

In America, Mother’s Day originated with the Jarvis family in Grafton, West Virginia.
Ann Jarvis, a Methodist Sunday School Teacher, conceived of the idea as a Mother’s Friendship Day, and established a committee in 1868 "to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil  War" … she wanted to expand it into an annual memorial for mothers, but she died in 1905 before the celebration became popular.
It was her daughter, Anna Jarvis, who carried the banner after her mother’s death … ultimately leading to the establishment of a formal national day of recognition - in 1914..

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, wrote “The Mother’s Day Proclamation (see the bulletin),  a protest against war - the carnage of America’s Civil War just ended and the Franco-Prussian War underway. 
Ms. Howe, a social activist, an abolitionist, authored one of the great American Hymns - anyone know?
That’s right … “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” … written after she and her husband visited Washington D.C. and met Abraham Lincoln at the White House, November, 1861.

Though the hymn is sometimes sung as a hymn of war, it’s a hymn of freedom for American slaves - God’s righteous purpose marching on, to liberate the oppressed, break the chains of slavery, set people free.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Mother’s Day originates in the heart of a woman - her prayers for justice and peace … prayers for healing and social righteousness … prayers for her children.
Mother’s Day is a powerful reminder to all us - as Jesus said so pointedly, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Mother’s Day is a reminder of things that count … the choices we make - the story we live.
Several weeks ago, I shared with you the familiar story of the challenged children running a footrace in a Special Olympics event … you all know the story … 

The starter’s gun goes off and ten children begin to sprint toward the finish line, when suddenly, one of the runners stumbles and falls.
The other runners, turn and laugh at the fallen child, blame the child for her clumsiness, laugh at her sprawled on the ground, scold her for being stupid and lazy, telling her that she deserves to lose the race.
So the rest of runners continue the race, pushing and shoving one another, until only one crosses the finish line, to the wild cheers of the crowd.
The winner dances exultantly, pointing a finger at all the rest, calling them “losers” - because we all know there can only be one winner, and only those who push and shove to the finish line will win the day.

Is that how the story goes?
Is that the story we want to hear?
Of course not!
In the original story, the runners all stop, turn around, and pick up the fallen child, and together, arm-in-arm, they help each other reach the finish line, and all of them cross the finish line together.

As I told the first version, how the runners laugh at the fallen child, how did you feel?

Dear friends, what story are we living?
What race are we running?
What story did Jesus live?
What race did he run?
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops to help the troubled woman at the well in Samaria. 
On his way to Jerusalem, he stops beneath the Jericho tree in which Zacchaeus had climbed.
He stops along the road to Jerusalem to heal blind Bartimaeus.
Yes, he has a place to go.
A race to win.
But he always stops along the way to help.
Again and again, Jesus stops - to help, heal, bless, make life better - for King Herod? For Pilot? For the people of wealth and power? For the privileged and the comfortable?

To whom does Jesus pay special attention?
In the days of Jesus:
The deaf and blind were scolded, as if it were there own fault - when Jesus healed the blind man in the temple - folks argued whether the man or his parents were to blame for the blindness.
The poor were blamed for their poverty, too … they must have done something wrong to merit God’s displeasure. After all, if they were good, if they did it right, then God would bless them, too.
Which is why the disciples were surprised when Jesus said:
It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded. [Matthew 19.23-25]
The disciples thought wealth was a sign of God’s favor.
Yet Jesus is clear in the parable of the Rich Fool - wealth is often the result of graft and greed … the lust for power, the willingness to run the race, and never turn to help anyone who has fallen.

Which story shall we live today?

Our nation is at a crossroads … like we were in the 1850s … trying to figure out what story to live.
Shall we be a nation of slave-holders or a nation wherein all free?
Are we nation bound together by a great vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Or shall we cease being a nation, with the States pitted against one another, everyone going their separate ways?
We salute Abraham Lincoln because he refused to let America tell a cheap story about itself … and there were some who wanted the cheap story so badly they were willing to fight a war over it.
Jesus tells us: You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Jesus is LORD and Savior because he refuses to let God’s People tell a cheap story about themselves … and there were some who wanted the cheap story so badly, they were willing to tell lies about Jesus and crucify him.

We have a story to tell.
A story told by Jesus every time he stopped to help someone.
A story told by Ann and Anna Jarvis.
A story told by Julia Ward Howe.
A story told by Abraham Lincoln - we are a nation, bound together by a common vision of liberty and justice for all.

I pray that America will take a deep breath … to celebrate Mother’s Day by celebrating every day our core values, our family families - with a simple recognition - that we all owe to one another a debt of love, because we are all brothers and sisters in God’s great family - what we need to do for one another can only be done collectively - like the children in the race, arm-in-arm, we cross the finish line.

What story shall we live?

For us as Christians, no task more important but to remind our nation, our politicians, remind the wealthy and the powerful to whom much has been given, and to remind ourselves everyday - of our high callings.
The high callings of love and kindness.
The highest of all callings … to provide for the welfare of our children.
Black and Yellow, Red and White … every color of the rainbow, they are precious in his sight … Jesus loves the little children of the world.
And that’s why we celebrate Mother’s Day!

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

That’s the news from Calvary on the Boulevard.
Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
Happy Mother’s Day Calvary!
Happy Mother’s Day America.
Amen and Amen!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

May 6, 2012, "Quickly the Doors Open"

I didn't preach this text ... when I stepped into the pulpit, I went in some other direction, extemporaneously ... but I wanted to post the text I had prepared:

Acts 8.26-40.

Quickly the doors open.
God’s love reaches far and wide.
An angel sends Philip to a desert road, to meet a carriage, a man on his way back home …
The power of one … one person with a purpose … with a heart … with a vision … a willingness to go to a desert road, get into someone else’s carriage, spend some time with them.

How many of you have ever heard of John Wood?

I never heard of him either, until earlier this week.

He’s a library man.
12,000 libraries and 1,500 schools, all around the world.
[the following material comes largely from a New York Times article - see below; I’ve edited it to conform to preaching].
It began in 1998 when Wood, a Microsoft marketing director, came upon a remote school in Nepal serving 450 children. Only one problem: It had just a few books.
Wood offered to help and eventually delivered a mountain of books by a caravan of donkeys. 
The local children were happy, and Wood said he felt such exhilaration that he quit Microsoft, left his live-in girlfriend (who pretty much thought he had gone insane), and founded Room to Read in 2000.
He faced one challenge after another, not only in opening libraries, but in filling them.
There are no children’s books in many languages, so Wood became a self-publisher, with now more than 591 titles in languages including Khmer, Nepalese, Zulu, Lao, Xhosa, Chhattisgarhi, Tharu, Tsonga, Garhwali and Bundeli.

Room to Read also supports 13,500 impoverished girls who might otherwise drop out of school. 
In a remote corner of the Mekong Delta, reachable only by boat, one of these girls, a 10th grader name Duyen … her family, displaced by flooding, lives in a shabby tent on a dike.
When Duyen was in seventh grade, she dropped out of school to help her family. “I thought education was not so necessary for girls,” she said.

Room to Read’s outreach workers trekked to her home and convinced the family to send her back to school. Room to Read paid her school fees, bought her school uniforms and offered to put her up in a dormitory so that she wouldn’t have to commute to school, two hours each way, by boat and bicycle.
Duyen is back in school, a star in her class — and aiming for the moon.
“I would like to go to university,” she says.
The cost per girl is $250 annually. 
To give some perspective, Kim Kardashian’s wedding is said to have cost $10 million; $10 million could have supported 40,000 girls in Room to Read.

Education is a powerful tool to transform the world … the powerful nations of the world have yet to learn this lesson - the big powers of the world continue to believe that the world can be made better with missiles, soldiers, conniving treaties and billions spent on planes and warships.

Schooling is cheap and revolutionary … the more we spend on schools today, the less we’ll have to spend on missiles tomorrow.

Wood is only 47 years old - tireless, enthusiastic, emotional … when he talks about Room and to Read and the lives of girls transformed, he tears up.
“If you can change a girl’s life forever, and the cost is so low, then why are there so many girls still out of school?” he asks.
Room to Read now has fund-raising chapters in 53 cities around the world.
Wood tells supporters they aren’t donating to charity but making an investment: “Where can you get more bang for the buck than starting a library for $5,000?”
“There are 793 million illiterate people - the solution is so inexpensive …. 
No guarantee every child will take advantage of the opportunity, but if it isn’t provided, there will be no opportunity at all, and poverty will continue.
Wood would like to have a 100,000 libraries, in 20 years, reaching 50 million kids. 
Big plans … big ideas … and it all started with one man’s decision 
[The New York Times: “His Libraries, 12,000 So Far, Change Lives,” by Nicholas D. Kristoff, November 5, 2011].

Whatever we might learn from the story of Philip, this much we know for sure: God works through people, just like Philip, just like you and me, just like John Wood.

An angel told Philip: Go to the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza …
Philip might have asked a millions questions:
How come?
What am I supposed to do?
How much will it cost?
How long will it take?
Isn’t there anyone else?
No questions … just obedience … call it faith … faith isn’t something we believe … faith is what we do with our hands and our feet … faith is life, action, decision, work … 
Philip went to the desert road.
And when a carriage came near, the Spirit told Philip, Approach this carriage and stay with it.
We know the rest of the story.

Dear friends, never underestimate your power to change the world … God works through people … great things happen when love is the power, when compassion is the goal, when someone says, I’ll do it!
Who knows?
Maybe there’s a John Wood sitting in the congregation right now … an idea … a project … a dream … it’ll unfold, and the world will be changed.
Maybe there’s a Philip here … one day, an angel will tell you where to go … because someone needs to hear your voice and guidance.
Who knows?
Never ever underestimate your place in the kingdom of God.
Never underestimate the doors you can open!
Amen and Amen!