Thursday, April 23, 2009

What Grows in Your Garden? What fills Your Heart?

Greetings in the name of the Risen King! And Happy Easter!

When God raised Jesus from the dead, God declared that life is victorious over death. Or as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:54-55,57).

There is no such thing as a static, end state of our lives called death. Not in spiritual, emotional, intellectual and relational matters, and ultimately, not even in physical matters. After each death we experience, new life is born. For example, if a way that we think “dies,” a new way of thinking will be born in its place. If a relationship dies, a new relationship of some kind will blossom. The new life does not replace the old life exactly, but new life continues to emerge and take shape. Never does death have the last word. Life always follows death. This means that death is not such a bad thing, because it creates space for us to live in new ways.

Imagine a precious plot of land, where there is only so much space for plants to grow. If weeds fill 60% of the garden, flowers will only have 40% of the space to flourish. Anyone who prefers flowers to weeds knows that this is no good. But if the weeds died, the flowers would have more space to grow.

Let’s say that fear fills up 60% of our hearts, then trust only has 40% of our hearts to inhabit. That would mean that fear has more power in our lives than trust. This is no good. But if fear were to die, then in its place trust or hope or assurance could blossom.

Think back to some of the ways you have already died in this life. What grew in its place?

Our hope in a gracious and compassionate God is that the new life that blossoms is more beautiful and loving and wise than what was there before. If not, if say bitterness or hopelessness took root, then it’s time to offer that life back to God as a sacrifice. Pray this: Lord God, please give me new and redeemed life where this old and corrupt life now abides.

I think that every time we die, God sees it as an opportunity to perfect us in his love. May we not be afraid to let parts of ourselves pass away, knowing in faith, that God will restore our lives and bring us to the glory of his salvation.

Then the one sitting on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Don't Let Fear Stop You!

(Read John 20: 19-31)

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would solve most of the world’s problems.” Wouldn’t it be miraculous if we could each actually do the good we are capable of? Imagine how the world would change.

A similar notion is articulated by the author, Ben Herbster, who said, “The greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what we could become.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if each of us could become the person we know we are somewhere deep inside of us? If we all finished what we started? Do what we say we’re going to do? If there was no such thing as working a mediocre job? No such thing as frustrated writers and artists and musicians? Oh, the possibilities within each of us.

What inhibits us from growing, from becoming the children of God we were created to be? What prevents us from reaching our full potential and using our gifts to make the world a better place? What stops us from carrying out the plans of God?

Is it Self-doubt? Or apathy? Or complacency? that dooms our lives to a continual reinforcement of the status quo? Is it the great excuse/reason of money?

I would say, “Yes.” Each of us can relate to at least one of these reasons. Lack of confidence, low self-esteem, that stops some of us. Laziness, not wanting to work too hard, that stops us too. Others of us have grown old, tired and weary. We’ve accepted our present circumstance, and no longer have the energy or desire to work towards something new. And as long as you live in today’s world, money will always be a factor in our decision-making process. The remainder of us, while the dream still remains, something inside of ourselves just won’t allow us to blossom.

But ultimately, it all comes back to fear. Fear is the root - the reason we don’t do or become. Fear is the reason we miss out on abundant life. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, fear of lack, you name it. Fear is the evil force that holds us back.

That’s probably why Jesus said, “Do not be afraid” to his followers over and over again. Or “Fear not!” He understood the power of fear, that it can inhibit, prevent and stop even the most gifted and beautiful people from actualizing our greatest selves. Some of my favorite words of Jesus are from John 14: 27. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Sadly, this morning, In John, chapter 20, verses 19-31, we meet the disciples on the evening of that first day of the new creation, on Easter night. It is a night they should be rejoicing, a night they should be on top of the world, but instead they are cloaked in fear surrounded by locked doors.

I suppose we can’t really blame them though. They just watched their leader be taken into captivity, beaten and murdered. It’s exactly as Jesus had told them, but it was so brutal and shocking, they are left traumatized.

If you have ever experienced something traumatic, you know the horror doesn’t just go away. It stays with you for a while; it even becomes a part of you. Long after your mind has understood and rationalized what happened, your inner self remains wounded.

In addition to just witnessing the crucifixion, some of the disciples might be fearfully thinking: “If that happened to Jesus, what is going to happen to us?” Could they proclaim him the Messiah, the Son of God without fear of punishment? It would definitely be safer to say nothing, to let Jesus’ revolutionary message die with him on the cross.

This morning, not only do I want us to be able to understand what the disciples went through following the crucifixion, but I also encourage you to think about your own fear. What are you afraid of? Or better yet, in what way has fear stopped you? Is there some thing you want to do? Some way you want to be that you are not? Is there something that God is calling you to do that you are resisting?

(Some possible examples of what you might want to become: maybe its just being comfortable in your own skin, maybe its shedding your tough exterior so that you can laugh and love more, maybe you want to take the time and money and energy to learn something that you’ve always wanted to learn, maybe you want to change the way you relate to your wife or your husband or your kids or your parents, maybe you want to start treating your body better, maybe you want to start living more for other people’s benefit than your own.)

Jesus did not give his life so that we would remain afraid or trapped or without hope. The resurrection is proof that there is nothing to be afraid of. Not our own inadequacies, not the power of others, nothing. Not even death. And with God’s power, there is nothing that can hold us down. All things are possible through Christ who strengthens us.

When Jesus reveals himself to the disciples for the first time since he has been laid in the tomb, he comes into the house, not restricted by locked doors or fearful hearts, and says, “Peace be with you.” In other words, ‘Be at peace. Do not be afraid no matter how strange and unreal this moment seems. Everything is going according to plan. God is winning the victory.’

The resurrection calls us to live new lives that are blessed by God, alive in Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit

Even if we are afraid, even if we don’t know where we are going, we must start walking the path of new life that God is unrolling before us or that our spirits feel compelled to walk.

It’s a risk, there’s no doubt about that. But risk is part of what it means to be faithful. The thing is: we bet on God. That’s a great bet! Taking leaps of faith into new and unknown territory is what it means to be a Christian.

“We must have courage to bet on our ideas, to take the calculated risk, and to act. Everyday living requires courage if life is to be effective and bring happiness.” -Maxwell Maltz

And I still love the story of the acorns. All the little acorns are running around. Busy doing this, busy doing that. They have their eyes set on accomplishing daily tasks upon the earth. Very few of them have taken the time to ask their hearts what it is they hope for.

And there’s one acorn in particular who feels depressed, like life in acorn-land isn’t living up to its potential. One day, we looks up at the magnificent oak tree that towers over acorn-land and he remembers, “We are that! We are meant to become like this awesome oak tree.”

A neighbor overhears him and responds, “That’s ridiculous. If we become that, then we won’t be acorns anymore.”

There are many spiritual messages in this story. You have to die to the life you know in order to be reborn again. You have to give up being an acorn to become an oak. You have to set your sights on worthy goals. You have to let your heart dream big if it wants to.

“Easter is about the ability of Christ to defeat death in whatever form it faces us.”[1] This Easter, let Christ defeat fear in our lives. Or let Christ defeat any death that has eroded or rotted out some parts of your precious life. Let Christ give you new life! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not die, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16). We who believe even though we have not seen, we deserve a taste of eternity here and now.

Let me end with these inspirational words: “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste the experience, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s possible. It’s all possible for you in the Living Lord. When we say, “He is risen!” may we also be proclaiming that we are risen to new life as well.

[1] Willimon, William. Pulpit Resource. January, February, March 2008. pg. 59.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

He Lives! What Does This Mean?

(Read Mark 16:1-8 and 1 Cor. 15:1-11 and Acts 10:34-43)

When I was putting together the Easter basket filled with the children’s jelly bracelets, I couldn’t help but take a few for myself. I didn’t pick them based on color, but on what they said. I chose “our sin,” then “new life,” and then “strength.” It’s amazing that in just three bracelets, the journey of our spiritual life can be described . We are here to move from our old, individual and collective sinful ways of being to living a new kind of life. We are here to be transformed, to be redeemed from this body of death.

The “our sin” bracelet is colored black, and the “new life” bracelet is colored green, which is appropriate since our new life looks and feels very different from our old, sinful life. The old life is dark and dead. The new life is bright and flourishing. The old life is black, brown and gray, like winter. The new life is green, yellow and pink, like spring. The old life is marred by selfishness and violence and discord, whereas the new life is enhanced by beauty and love and harmony.

But as I thought about it, “strength” wasn’t the appropriate term to describe how we move from sin to new life, although it is a valuable companion on the journey. So I went back to the Easter basket and found the missing component – a red bracelet that said, “Jesus’ blood.” For it is by the blood of the Lamb that we are washed clean. It is by the blood of the Lamb that we are given new life.

This idea that we are saved by the blood of Jesus is a foundational Christian proclamation, although many believers find it a troublesome and challenging concept to accept. Afterall, why does our loving God need Jesus’ blood to forgive us and raise us to new life?

What I’d like to suggest is that God doesn’t need Jesus blood. His blood is a symbol for what God truly desired from Jesus and from us. What God truly desires is faithfulness. For me, Jesus’ blood is the sign of his faith. If you have heard the story of how Jesus came to be crucified, of how the Lamb was lead to the slaughter, then you know the reason he bled was because he was faithful to God, he was faithful to the message he had been given to proclaim. When Christians say, by his precious blood we have been saved, what we mean is, by his incredible faith we have been saved.

Sally Brown, a professor of mine from Princeton Theological Seminary, explains it this way in her new book, Cross Talk:

In a sermon titled “The Will of God,” master preacher [and Episcopal priest] Barbara Brown Taylor grapples with the idea that “God killed Jesus.” [In my words, that God needed his blood.] Christians must come to terms with the crucifixion, says Taylor; “according to the historical faith of the church, it happened because God wanted it to.” God’s silence at the cross – God’s failure to step in and end the horror – only seems to underscore that God “willed” for Jesus to die. The real question is not, “Did God will Jesus to die?”… but, “What, exactly, did God will?” What God willed…was not that Jesus should die, but that Jesus should pursue utter fidelity to the ways and will of God. [What I am calling his incredible faith best symbolized by the blood he shed.] It was the utter fidelity of Jesus’ life to whom and what God had called him to be and do that led to his death. It was Jesus’ fidelity to the Father’s way of being in the world that got him killed; his refusal to be other than what he was, his refusal to disclaim his identity and role [lead to the bloodshed].

Jesus could have done otherwise… He could have disclaimed his identity – as in fact frightened Peter did in his threefold denial: “I am not,’ Peter said, not once but three times. So Jesus died and Peter lived. This is the difference between [being ‘who I am’ as Jesus was and refusing to be who I am as Peter did]. If Jesus had denied himself the way Peter did, he may have lived.” [Thus], Jesus’ death was God’s will only indirectly…as the consequence of his faithful life. (Brown, Sally A. Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pg. 65-66.)

People couldn’t handle the real Jesus, the dynamic and miraculous Son of Man that God created him to be. So we killed him, or the religious and civil authorities and mob-like masses of the day killed him. But not God!

What God did do is raise Jesus from the dead.

That’s the God we believe in. As it is written, “They put him to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from death three days later…” (Acts 10: 39-40). This declares to all people in all generations that “I, the Lord your God, will have the victory! And that Jesus Christ, my Son, is raised to victory with me!” God also declared through the disciples and the Church that “you who believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ will also be raised to victory! I will give you new life. I will give you my life, eternal life, forever. And I will forgive your sins,” which is to say, “I will heal and reconcile our relationship so that we can be close, as close as a Father can be to a Son.”

That’s the God we worship. Not a God who kills, but a God who raises from the dead. A God who is so powerful, a God who is so loving, that he looked at what a sinful humanity had done, and he declared with authority, “No, you will not! I, the Lord your God, am putting an end to the broken, distorted, sinful, and foolish ways you behave in this world. I, God, am having the last say.”

Brothers and sisters, the women went to the tomb early on Sunday morning, and it was empty. The angel said, “He has been raised” (Mark 16: 6). What does this mean?

It means that God, who is the source of life, who IS life, is stronger and victorious over human frailty and human death.

It means, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:53).

It means, “Everyone who believes in him will have his sins forgiven through the power of his name.” (Acts 10:43).

There are many ways to proclaim this. We are redeemed! We are reborn! We are being recreated!

The prefix “re-” means “again and again.”

Again and again, God rescues us. Again and again, God revives us. Again and again, God refreshes our lives emotionally and physically and spiritually. What God declares to us this morning is that God will not ever quit on us.

You know what the resurrection means to me on a personal level? That you and I can actually fulfill our potential to be the people God intends us to be. All the barriers have been broken. Sin and death have been defeated. There are no more excuses.

Think of Peter. After the resurrection, he was a new man. The one who denied Jesus in his greatest hour of need became the rock upon which Jesus built his Church. You heard one of the many speeches he made to win disciples for Christ this morning from the book of Acts. He proclaimed the good news and declared himself a witness to everything that God had done in Jesus Christ. May this Easter be as transformative for you as the first Easter was for Peter.

And Paul. Think of Paul. It took him longer, but after the resurrection, he too became a new man. He went from doubting God’s salvific work in Jesus Christ to proclaiming it boldly across the known world. He went from being a persecutor of the Church to being our greatest evangelist. In the Scriptures, Paul says that he was one who was born at the wrong time. Maybe he thought that because he never got to meet Jesus before his death. But you know what? Paul did meet Jesus. He met him as the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. May you encounter the Risen Lord and have an experience of Jesus that will alter your world as profoundly as Paul’s world was altered.

After all this, I realize that there was a reason I chose the yellow bracelet that says, “strength.” And that is, strength is necessary for this journey from sin to new life. Believing in Jesus doesn’t mean life will be easy. Being Jesus didn’t even make life easy. And trying to follow his example and live by faith is beyond difficult. We need strength, but the strength we need is not willful determination and grit. It is the kind of strength that Jesus showed us when he went from saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” You could say that the kind of strength we need is incredible faith.

Brothers and sisters, hear the good new:, Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead! He lives! We know what the resurrection means. The question is: will it change your life?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How Do We Love One Another?

On this day, Maundy Thursday, we recall the new commandment that Jesus gave right before his betrayal and death. He told us to love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

What does it mean to love one another? Of course, there are many answers to this question, such as to show genuine warmth and kindness to another person, to listen to another person, to help them in times of need, to celebrate with them in times of joy. When we think of loving another, we often think of ourselves actively doing something for that person.

The first time I ever participated in a foot washing, I learned something new about what it means to love one another. It was on a Maundy Thursday 6 years ago in 2003. I was just about to complete my first year of seminary, and I was at a worship service much like this one, where I knew some people quite well and others not at all.

I didn’t learn there was going to be a foot washing until I arrived at the service, and my first thought was, “No way.” My second thought was, “When was the last time I trimmed my toenails?” Then, I wondered if my feet smelled. It’s somewhat humorous to recall, but if you think about it, what this reveals is that I didn’t want to engage in an act of service (the foot washing being a symbolic act of service) because I was worried about myself.

When we think about it even further, the part that scared me wasn’t serving others, it was being served. I wasn’t worried about what the person’s feet whom I would have to wash would look like or smell like, but worried about the person who would be washing my feet.

The foot washing taught me that I was afraid of how other people perceived me. It taught me that I was afraid of being vulnerable. It taught me that the receiving part of loving one another was scarier than the giving part (at least at that point in my life).

When you go to wash someone’s feet, you still have control. You are the one giving, the one in charge. But when your feet are being washed you have surrendered that control and you have opened yourself up to another person. I found this to be the most humbling part of the experience. The kindness that Luke (I still remembered who washed my feet, but I don’t remember whose feet I washed!) showed to me took me off guard. I felt like I didn’t deserve his kindness.

As a Christian and as a disciple of Jesus, I am used to the act of serving others, but being served by others taught me something new about the command to love one another. To love one another is to serve and to give, but in order to allow other people the same opportunity to follow the command to serve and to give, we have to be willing to be vulnerable and to receive what is given.

I remember an old friend who used to live on the street I grew up on in Ohio. A few years ago, we were catching up. She was married and in her thirties now. She had always been kind of short and thicker, but she was very athletic in high school so she had a lot of muscle. She was still in good shape, but she started telling me how her husband always complimented her body and told her that she was beautiful, but that she didn’t believe him. She thought that she was unattractive and not beautiful at all.

I told her that she was being completely unfair to her husband. She was rejecting his love. If he felt she was beautiful, even though she didn’t conform to society’s standards of beauty, that was his heart. In his eyes, she was beautiful. Do you see how she pushed love away by not being willing to receive? We become barriers to love when we do not receive.

This is what I learned from a symbolic foot washing, much like we are doing tonight.

Since that experience, I have had a much greater awareness of the hospitality that other people are continually giving to me, and the goodness of other people. Here I am a minister, the one who is supposed to give, trying to love as Jesus loved, and what I have realized it that loving one another includes receiving, and being vulnerable, and seeing the purity of heart in others and their desire to give. I realized that to love another is to really see that person, to look at him or her and see how good and kind he or she is.

That was God’s lesson for me on that night. You may realize something similar or perhaps you will realize something different tonight. Or perhaps you will not really be affected at all. It’s the Spirit’s doing. But what it means to love one another and our ability to actually love one another, whether loving is expressed in the form of giving or receiving, is a part of the ongoing development of our spiritual lives. God’s hope is that we will all be perfected in love.

My prayer is that we will all grow richer in the ways that we love one another on this night.