Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Shall We Do With A Risen Savior?

The two scriptures that will be guiding our work this Sunday are two separate accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus.  John 20:1-18 and Luke 24:1-12.

Every now and then I will still hear someone say something like, "if you look at the accounts of the resurrection they are so different; so it must not have really happened or they'd be telling the same story."  My answer to this is to remind them that even in things that happen around us today (say a car wreck at their neighborhood intersection) there will be multiple accounts of what happened.  A person on one corner will see one thing; the person on the opposite corner will see another; one may notice a dog running across the road, while the other sees a man in a blue shirt stepping into the crosswalk.  But NOBODY would go into Court and claim, "Your Honor, I would like to contend that this accident did not, in fact occur; this is proven by the multiple accounts of the event."  They may argue the details, but all will agree that the collision occurred.

What we get in the various Gospel accounts is discussion of details.  Who arrived first?  Who did they tell?  What, exactly, did they see?  What NONE of these accounts say is, "well, it's possible that there was maybe an empty tomb, but we're not sure."  In fact, John's account makes it clear that even when the disciples didn't believe, Peter and John (the "disciple Jesus loved") raced to the tomb and discovered that it really was empty....just like they'd been told.

Which leaves us with the major question: What shall we do with a risen Savior?. 

I am old enough to remember the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy all taking place within a very short time.  A whole generation of us was impacted by these loses following so close on one another.  Some became cynical that any change could take place, believing that whoever tried would eventually be killed.  Others looked around for a new leader in hopes that they would be the one who could make something lasting happen.

These were the same kinds of responses that people had in 1st century Israel when leaders who wished to overthrow Rome were crucified.....and there were plenty of them crucified.  Some gave up, some went looking for a new leader-hoping that he would be the promised one.

But with the Resurrection, we are given a whole bunch of new questions.  God has raised Jesus from the dead.  This means that God has vindicated Jesus' mission-which included teach a whole lot of very radical stuff about how we're supposed to be living with each other.  God has vindicated Jesus' forgiveness of sins.....a move which meant that Jesus was saying that the things the Temple was once supposed to be doing were now taking place in Him.  And finally, God was announcing that Jesus was correct; the Kingdom of God was beginning then and there. 

Think of the empty tomb as the starting line for a very long race....one that will last until Jesus returns to "make all things new" and creation is restored.  If the resurrection is true, then that would mean that you and I are called to run that race.  Because Jesus has conquered sin and death and announced the Kingdom in the here and now, we, and all followers have been given the task of helping to construct the parts of that Kingdom that are within our ability.

Having a Risen Savior instead of a "Fallen Hero" challenges us in all kinds of ways.  I hope you'll be able to join us Sunday as we explore some more of them.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On A Collison Course With Empire

This week's scripture passage is Luke's account of what is often referred to as the "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem.  You'll find it in Luke 19:28-44.

My thoughts about this passage have been impacted today by the news of the death of Gordon Crosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.  Crosby was 95.  In his article in the Associated Baptist Press News about Crosby's death, Robert Dilday described him this way:

"he [Crosby] told the Washington Post, “feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war — willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.”   Cosby interpreted the call to discipleship as an integration of two journeys: an inward journey of growth in love of God, self and others, and an outward journey to mend creation."

You might ask what Crosby has to do with my thoughts about Palm Sunday.  I believe that Jesus set up a vivid comparison-a visual object lesson-between His God-given vision of the New Creation and that of Empire as represented by Rome and its representative in Pontius Pilate.  As Pilate was riding his war horse in one gate, followed by legions of soldiers to keep the peace during Passover; Jesus was riding in the opposite gate on a donkey-symbol of a ruler who comes in peace.

People in Jesus' day responded to Empire in basically one of 3 ways: they colluded with it (Herodians, Sadducees, and religious leaders like the High Priests); they tried to overthrow it violently (the Zealots and other revolutionaries); or they distanced from it by trying to keep religious purity and thus bring in the Messiah (Essenes and Pharisees in less or more extreme ways).  Jesus offered an Alternative Vision based on God's love and forgiveness and God's call for Israel to be redemptive community.  His weeping over Jerusalem as He rode down from the Mount of Olives was a recognition that they either didn't understand his vision, or chose to reject it.

Gordon Crosby understood the vision.  He understood that we are always at war with Empire (exploitation by the most powerful in any given situation of the vulnerable-in government, industry, church or family life).  He believed that if we understood ourselves as being in combat (Paul says "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places") and saw our faith "as an urgent tool to change the world" that incredible things could happen.  He saw us as being called to prepare for that combat by the journey inward/journey outward noted above.  His life and work reflected that understanding.

Our world continues to struggle with the collision between New Creation and Empire.  We continue to make choices as to how we will respond.  Jesus calls us to an Alternate Vision that stretches all the way back to God's covenant with Abraham.  May we, like Gordon Crosby, catch a sense of our place in that vision.

Shalom



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Extravagant Gratitude

This will be my first Sunday preaching at 1st Baptist Gaithersburg.  I'm excited...and nervous...and happy....and all those things you'd expect.

A really good thing that happened yesterday evening was that the Bible study group that meets on Wednesday evenings agreed to use the time to explore the passages for the upcoming Sunday as a regular format for a while.   Those of you who've followed this blog and my Interim work know that this is one of the ways that I get the kind of dialogue going that helps me preach sermons focused on the needs and questions of the congregation.  The other part of that dialogue is this blog (so please, all responses and conversation are welcome).

So what we found last night, as we looked at John 12:1-8 is that this is a story that, in one form or another, shows up in all four Gospels.  Each writer (Matthew pretty much copies Mark to the letter) retells a story that was clearly part of the oral tradition about Jesus in a way particular to what they want to focus on with the community to which they are writing.  But....and I think this is extremely important.....the core of the story remains faithful to the oral tradition.

One of the things that struck me was that in the account found in Mark and Matthew, the dinner party occurs at the home of "Simon the Leper."  This should suprise us.  Lepers didn't live in their homes.  They were forced to be outside the city and had to cry out, "Unclean, Unclean" when they walked through town so that others were protected from them.

So, for this party to be taking place in Simon's home, means that he has been healed from his leperosy.  Suddenly, the story takes on a much deeper meaning.  Here is Simon, throwing a party in his home for Jesus who healed him.  In a burst of gratitude, moved beyond words, one of the women in Simon's household: wife, daughter, sister...anoints Jesus.

John has the story taking place in the home of Lazarus who Jesus has raised from the dead; and the one doing the anointing is Lazarus' sister Mary.  Luke has the party in the home of a Pharisee and the woman is someone with a bad reputation.  But in each case the motivaton for the anointing is a response of extravagant gratitude.  These people have hit bottom.  They've known loss and grief and shame and despair.....and Jesus has healed and forgiven and restored.  Their impulse is one that doesn't think about the cost of the perfumed oil; it just acts in joyful gratitude.

How much of our lives are spent that way?  Can we remember times when Jesus reached out to us when we had hit bottom?  Are our lives ones of extravagant gratitude for what He has done?

Hope to see some of you on Sunday.

Shalom

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A New Opportunity

I am very excited and grateful to have been called as Interim Pastor of First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg.  My first day in the office will be March 12 and my first Sunday in the pulpit will be March 17.

I'm particularly grateful to Rev. Gary Long, the outgoing pastor at FBCG for the effort that he is putting into making sure that this transition is a smooth and healthy one.  He's already helped me find the resturant where I can get the best grits (I grew up in S.C., I need my grits), and we've had preliminary conversations about things like pastor care issues....conversations that we'll drill deeper on during my first week.  Every Interim should have this kind of transition into their work....Thanks Gary.

From the Committee that recommended me to the Deacons, to Deacon Chair Jamie Marks, to Minister of Music Lonnie Browd, to Office Administrator Kathy Lynn Grohs, to the multitude of folks who've welcomed me on FBCG's Facebook page.....I couldn't wish for a warmer reception.  I haven't started work yet, and I've already been blessed.

In part, all of the above is to say that I'll be doing more 'sermon prep' kinds of blogging again on this site.  I look forward to that; it's the kind of blogging I enjoy the most as I imagine congregation members or others who are interested in exploring the upcoming scriptures 'tuning in' to dig down a little deeper with me and be part of the process of creating a sermon.  I'm hoping that more folks will join the conversation with comments, thoughts, disagreements, etc. as we move forward.

Please keep me in your prayers as this next ministry opportunity unfolds.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Prodigals At Lent

I'm not preaching anywhere this week, but the Gospel passage for this week is one that I've lived with and wrestled with pretty steadily for the last 20+ years.  It is Luke 15:1-32; a series of parables that Luke tells us Jesus told in response to the accusation by the Pharisees and scribes that, "this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  The most famous of these parables is the one most often referred to as the "Prodigal Son" (though a clear reading of the parable shows that both sons were 'prodigal' in their own way).

The youngest son was the most obvious.  His request for his inheritance was, in that culture, the same as saying to his father, "I can't wait for you to die; give me my share now."  His selling off of that inheritance damaged both family and those who worked the land that he sold off...many others depended on that land for their living.  No wonder the younger son left in such a hurry!

The older son's disrespect was not so obvious.  It showed in his silence.  It would have been his task as eldest son to attempt some reconciliation between his father and his brother.....but he does nothing.  His father divides the inheritance between them both....but he says nothing, simply takes.  And when his brother comes home, he describes his brother's time away as having been spent on prostitutes (something the story never says) and derides his father for letting him come back.  Furthermore, when his father throws a party for his brother, he refuses to come in and help host that party.....thus shaming his father publicly before all of those who had been invited to the celebration.

Before continuing to focus on these brothers (it is Lent and such a focus is appropriate) the point needs to be made about the incredible grace of the father in this parable.  I have come to believe, over these past 20 so years of studying this parable, that it represents Jesus' clearest expression of the Gospel (it is often referred to as 'the Gospel within the Gospel'); and Jesus' description of God's action and Jesus' role in what is often called Atonement (the way the gulf between us and God is bridged).  In this parable we are not shown a penalty being paid to an angry God who cannot stand to be around our sinfulness.  What we're shown is a loving God (in the image of the father) running toward us...even in our ragged, dirty state.....throwing arms around us, and shielding us with God's own body (in Jesus) from the consequences of our sinfulness (in the parable, the villagers who would have lined the road to jeer and taunt and enact a ceremony which would have cut the youngest son off forever from the village).  If we want to see the Face of God we need look no further than the picture Jesus draws of the father running down the road to embrace his son.

Lent, however, calls us to look at ourselves.  And we are most clearly reflected in the brothers in this story.  It is easy (for some of us) to see ourselves reflected in the younger brother.  Our journey away from faith and ethical living and our return to God's embrace are drawn in such a way that we can see ourselves clearly there.  It is much harder for many of us to own up to our role as elder brother...self rightous in our responses, angry at God's grace toward the ones who have broken covenant with family and community......we want to see retribution, not restoration.

What may be hardest of all is to acknowledge that we aren't one or the other-we are both.  We have accepted God's grace for ourselves.  We have rejoiced to see the Father running toward us, arms open wide.  We sing and pray and witness to how God put God's own self between us and the consequences of our sins.  But how often are we less that excited about those who turn, or return, to faith in ways that we don't like?  Whose 'trip to the far country' has included things that we find difficult to deal with?  Are we less graceful to them than God was to us?

As Christians we are called to help host the party for all of God's creation as it is being redeemed, reconciled, and welcomed home (look at God's words in Isaiah about Israel's role in this).  What does it look like to those outside our faith (the villagers in the parable) as they watch us shame our God by refusing to come in to the party because our brothers and sisters who are coming home from the 'far country' don't meet some requirement that we-not God have set up for their return.

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  And if we're going to follow "this fellow," we need to be willing to do so as well.