Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Beginning Thoughts on New Commandments

In the Gospel lesson for this week Jesus does something interesting.  All along, up to this point, He's been telling stories about what the Kingdom of God, the New Creation looks like.  Now, in His final time with the disciples, He cuts right to the chase: "I'm giving you a new commandment; and your following it is how folks will know that you're My disciples-love one another like I have loved you." (John 13:34-35)  Then, over in John 15:12, He's going to say it again, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."  This time, He makes the point that He is about to lay down His life for them.

Love, the way Jesus lived it, is a difficult thing.  It sacrifices, it heals, it lifts up.  Following Jesus in love is clearly an action verb.  Peter, in our passage from Acts 11:1-18 is going to find out just how difficult that following is.  That following is going to cause him to go and eat at the home of a gentile Roman soldier (think of a  black South African taking the Gospel to a white politician during apartheid and you'll get a little of the flavor of what's happening here...add to that the fact that not eating with gentiles was one of the ways the Jews maintained their identity and you'll get an even fuller picture).

I'm not sure when Jesus told Peter to "feed my sheep" that Peter imagined that this was what He had in mind.  But it was.  Jesus' commandment to us to love is a commandment to reach beyond....to go where we're afraid to go.....to embrace even our enemies.

I am struck so often lately by how much time we, as Christians, spend fighting about what people believe intellectually.....as though Jesus had said, "a new commandment I give to you; believe this list of stuff."  But what we're called to as Jesus people is to a way of relating to each other.  How different would our world be if we took that seriously?

More to come on Sunday.  Hope to see you then.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Do-Over

This has been a week of pain and grieving for many.  The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon has left us reminded of how fragile our sense of security really is.

Two articles have also moved me this week.  You may find them here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/opinion/a-senate-in-the-gun-lobbys-grip.html

and here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/opinion/hunger-striking-at-guantanamo-bay.html

Where ever you land on the political spectrum in regard to these issues, as Christians called to be a healing force in a broken world they are a grim reminder.

And smack in the middle of this is our passage for this week.  It is John 21:1-19.  Jesus is going to ask Peter three times if he loves Him....no escaping that Jesus is reminding him of the three times that Peter denied Jesus.  But remarkably, Jesus does not berate or scold or express anger at Peter.  What He does is give Peter a task to do:  "feed my sheep."  Then Jesus gives Peter a warning.  He tells Peter that if he does follow through on the task he's been given, it will cost him his life.

When we were kids getting a "do-over" meant we got to try again.  The mistake or miss or failure wasn't counted against us.  Jesus is giving Peter a "do-over."  But it comes with a price.  Jesus' grace to us is free.  But if we take up the task that He gives us, we need to be prepared to sacrifice, to change, to give ourselves to see it through.

Many of us have come to Jesus with histories that we're not very proud of.  Acts of betrayal, unkindness, addiction, cruelty.....therapists and pastors hear the stories of them all the time.  Jesus meets us with open arms of graceful forgiveness.  We remember that Paul says that, "if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature."  But I can almost promise you that somewhere in the new life that you've been given, you will be faced with the "do-over moment": the moment when you are confronted with the same issue where you failed before.  Now, in Christ, we are offered the opportunity to live out that moment in a new and different way.  It may not be with the person we betrayed before....but it will be an opportunity for fidelity that is challenging in a similar way.  Jesus offers us these opportunities for healing and for the healing of our world.  They are part of the mission to which we are called as Christ's Body.  In each act of faithfulness, of kindness, of living as God's people our world heals just a little and the Kingdom comes a little closer.

One way to think about this is to remember the new stained glass window that was put in at First Baptist Gaithersburg this week.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of separate pieces of glass went into this beautiful picture.  The light comes through them all and those of us who see it are blessed with the artistry of this work.  Each of us is like one of those pieces.  Held together by our call to be Christ's Body, the Light of God's Love for the world shines through us in a way that we take on the darkness of moments like Boston, or Sandy Hook, or Gitmo.  Being available for God's light to shine through us is part of our do-over.

Hope to see you Sunday.....the window really is absolutely beautiful.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When Tears Are Our Food

Some time ago I stumbled across a photograph that has etched itself into my mind.  A copy of it is tacked to the wall in my therapy office.  I may have blogged about this picture before (I'm not sure), but I'm going to blog about it again today.  You can find a copy of the picture here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/catherinetodd/3326323876/

This picture totally changed the way that I read Psalm 42; especially the first verses, in which the psalmist says, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'"

The image of the burning forest in the background gives new meaning to "as a deer longs for flowing streams" as they take refuge from the fire in the water of the river bottom.  This was not a psalm written for a cool summer day when one wants to dip your toes in the water and cool off a bit (though there's nothing wrong with that, or with the thought that sometimes our journey with God is like the description in Psalm 23 where we are lead by still waters).  This is a Psalm for crisis; for the days when our "tears have become my food day and night;" for a time of deep longing and anguished desperation.  It is a cry of memory and hope in the midst of isolation and pain.

When I look at John 20:25 (part of the scripture for this Sunday) and hear Thomas saying, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe," I hear that kind of anguish.

Think about it.  The disciples have seen Jesus. Thomas hasn't.  All he knows is that Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, all of them deserted him, and everything he bet his life on has been shattered.
Thomas' response isn't all that different from that of the disciples on Easter morning.  Thomas' remark is a cry of pain.

I find very interesting John 20:26 which says, "A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them" [emphasis mine].  Even with everything that Thomas is going through, he is still hanging out with the disciples....and they are hanging out with him.  There is a community there that does not desert Thomas.  They have made room for his anguish.  He has made room for their care.

Can we celebrate and be thankful for those who were steadfast in their faithfulness to us when tears were our food?  Are we, as communities of faith, places that do that for the lonely, desperate ones?  Are our churches deep river beds where people can come for safety and refuge from the 'wildfires' of their lives?

Because that community was present, Thomas was there when Jesus showed up later.  That should tell us something about holding on to people, keeping the conversation going, sitting with the hurting until Jesus shows up.

We'll explore this some more on Sunday.  Hope you can join us.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jesus On The Loose

This Sunday, April 7, I will not be preaching.  Instead, I will be joining the congregation of 1st Baptist Gaithersburg in listening to the choir perform the musical The Power of the Cross.  Now I do have the honor of being one of the narrators for this musical, but I'm most excited about the musical performance because I've been so impressed by the musicians at FBCG and their director Lonnie Brown.

Not preparing a sermon has given me some freedom to take a kind of "wide angle lens" approach to the post-resurrection activities of Jesus; and the primary think I see is that you just can't predict what the Risen Christ is going to do next.  Just take a look at the numerous accounts of Jesus showing up: in a locked room full of terrified disciples; on the road to Emmaus outside of Jerusalem; a return to the locked room to talk with Thomas; a seaside breakfast with Peter and others; and some other-not specified-times we're told he spend with the disciples.  But there isn't a pattern that tells us what will happen next.

I think this is wonderful.  It is a foretaste of the scriptural promise that "the Spirit blows where it wants to."  It is also a warning of sorts....in a mostly good way.  It warns us not to try to pigeon-hole where we think Jesus can, will, or should show up in the lives of the people around us.  Jesus goes where He wants to, to who He wants to.  We don't get to determine any of it. (Which, by the way, is a pretty good thing when we remember that for many of us there were those who doubted that Jesus would want anything to do with us).

I used to work in a prison in a southern state.  There was an inmate-we'll call him "Red"-who was doing life there.  Red was, to put it mildly, a hard man.  I heard another inmate describing a fight that had occurred on the yard some years back.  Red had been attacked by a group of other inmates armed with shivs.  He'd been stabbed multiple times.  Red was the one who walked away. He was a hard, tough man. Word went out, you don't mess with Red.

Then, and I never got the whole story of just how, Red met Jesus.  Red didn't cease to be a tough man. He still wasn't someone you wanted to push.  But Red's attitude about others changed. They ceased to be people you either fought or ignored.  I met Red because he brought another inmate to me who had a substance abuse problem.  His friend wasn't a Christian....that didn't matter.....Red was, and to him, that meant getting his friend some help.

Few people looking at Red when he first came into prison would have thought of him as a candidate for conversion, much less discipleship.  But Jesus didn't ask any of them.  Jesus just showed up in Red's life; because Jesus goes where He wants to.  Jesus showed up in my life for the same reason-and I hope in yours.

This may wind up being fodder for my Ascension Sunday sermon, but I think that one of the reasons for the Ascension was that Jesus didn't want folks trying to nail Him down to one place.  The Spirit that was coming needed to be clearly defined as free to go where It wills.

Can we open our eyes to see the possibilities for where Jesus might show up next?

Shalom,
Stephen