Inseparable: A sermon on God’s love, Norway, and us all.

Every Sunday in worship, right after we confess our sins together, I ask you, “Who is in a position to condemn us?” And I then say, “only Christ, and Christ so loved us that he gave himself for us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven. Thanks be to God.”

 

That line is from a prayer book, but that prayer book took it from this passage that we are reading here today. These words to the Romans that brought them comfort and hope two millenia ago continue to bring us comfort and hope today. They assure us, as the passage reads, that nothing, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

That’s good news for us humans who will do everything in our power to try to separate ourselves from the love of God. We are born with our hearts turned towards God and, no matter what we do or how we try to ignore it, we are at our best when we stay turned that way our whole lives. And yet we do all we can, maybe even sub conciously, to create a separation and to fill it with everything in the world that is bad for us.

 

And we are creative. We can find a hundred ways to move away from God without even realizing it. Yet in the end, no matter what happens, God decides that separation is no obstacle. And the love of God always wins.

 

I was thinking about that this week. It was hot out there. You’ve heard a born and raised Southerner who prides themselves on not admitting to Yankees that their weather is hot say it is hot. So, it was hot. And when I finally gave up I went down to the Rock River in Dummerston and jumped in.

 

I had never swam there before, and I wasn’t expecting the current to be so strong. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but I found places where I could swim with all my might and not make any progress back upstream. But if found that if I stopped fighting, and let go and let the water do what it was made to do, I realized the current would take me right back to a safe place.

 

The love of God is a lot like that. We try our best to fight our way upstream, swimming against the unstoppable current of God’s love, but we find that when we just let go and accept it we are safe. And that current keeps moving downstream, and in the end even we can’t dam it up. It always wins.

 

Paul knew that when he wrote to the Romans. He knew that no matter how horrible things were, no matter what utter devastation and tragedy would befall us, God’s love would in the end win.

 

And that’s the sort of passage you need on a day like today. A day when we are still asking “Why?”

 

Last Friday a man detonated a car bomb in the middle of Oslo killing at least seven people. He then walked into a youth camp and killed 89 more. We immediately began to ask why. And the answers that have come so far are more related to you and I than we’d like to believe.

 

The man who carried out these acts was a Christian. And he points to the faith he claims as the reason he felt compelled to kills dozens of people. And he wasn’t a madman. He wasn’t someone who snapped and went on a rampage. He was methodical and deliberate and deadly. He was, quite simply, a terrorist. A Christian terrorist.

 

We don’t like that idea. We don’t like thinking that our faith, which has always respected the example of the non-violent Jesus Christ, would be twisted by someone who was filled with hatred. We don’t want to claim him as ours. We want to believe that terrorists belong only to other faiths, and not our own.

 

And yet that’s not true. Of course this man is in the extreme minority of Christians, just as the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania represented an extreme minority of Islam. He is not indicative of the beliefs of the vast majority of Christians. And yet in the aftermath, in more places than you might believe, our faith is being painted with a broad brush as violent and deadly and inherently wrong.

 

The people who say that…they’re not right. They’re simply reacting to what happened with the same knee-jerk thinking that targets any group after one of its members goes on a violent spree. But how many of us who feel uncomfortable now have done this to other groups?

 

But the even harder question is this: What are we as a church, a worldwide church, doing wrong that someone would so misinterpret the teachings of Jesus this way? Why is a message of love and grace being heard as anything but? It would be easy to dismiss it if this man were the only one to so mishear the message, but he’s not.

 

Today in New York City, the Westboro Baptist Church is spreading it’s message of hatred there and protesting weddings. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with whether people should be marrying today. I’ve always said there are good Christians on every side of that issue. But it does matter that someone claiming our name is standing there telling people that God hates not only them, but all of America. It matters that they are standing at the funerals of fallen service members and, instead of comforting their loved ones with the words of hope from this passage, the words that say that not even death can separate us from Christ, they are shouting that their family members are in hell.

 

It’s easy to dismiss them as well. But for every extremist Christian individual or group that we dismiss, there are a dozen more that we don’t even know about yet. They are claiming our name, and they think that they are right. And in the process people across this country and around the world are thinking that this is what Jesus Christ was all about. Their violence and hatred and mean-spiritedness is not what Jesus died for. It’s what he died to save us from.

 

And so what do we Christians, who stand here reeling from what was done on Friday in our name, do to respond? Do we fight violence with violence? Do we call for the blood of the man who did this? Or, conversely, do we just talk about how terrible it is and pray for the victims and then let it slowly fade into our subconscious?

 

I hope we do none of those things. I hope we choose a third way. I hope we choose a way that is consistent with everything that Christ taught us about grace and compassion and love. I hope we honor who he was, and is, by proclaiming this passage that we read here today to the whole world.

 

Nothing on earth, not death, nor life, not things present, nor things to come, not a gunman hijacking our faith nor a woman with a hateful sign, will separate you or I or anyone from the love of Christ. No matter how hard they try.

 

Jesus loved the young people whose lives were cut short in his name on Friday. He loved them when they were afraid. When they were in pain. When they were confused. This gunman couldn’t change that. And when this happened, as the Rev. William Coffin said about tragedies like this, God was the first of all of us to cry.

 

And today the love of Christ surrounds Norway, and it surrounds our country, and it surrounds the whole world. But the thing about Christ’s love is that it is most often, and best, felt when it is shared between people. Today in Norway, and in a hundred other places where people have been hurt in Jesus’ name, the word Christian may bring with it some pain, and some fear. It shouldn’t be that way.

 

Our job as Christians is pretty easy: be loved and love. Be loved by God, love God and one another. It’s the simplest job description in the world. And the hardest job you’ll ever have. I’ll save you some worry and tell you that you will never get a pink slip. You’ll never be let go in a round of layoffs. For better or for worse, nothing can separate you from this work because nothing can separate you from the love of God.

 

And today there is a world of people who have been hurt by those claiming our name, and they need to know that Christ’s love is real, so it’s time for us to get to work. As you head back out into the world today, I give you these words as your guide. When I first heard this prayer, attributed to St. Francis, when I was 17, I knew it was all I wanted to do with my life. It’s when I really knew I wanted to be a Christian. May they comfort you as you seek to comfort the world:

 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.


“What We Share” – Sermon for May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;

2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

2:46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,

2:47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I sometimes get asked how I choose what I’m going to preach about on Sundays. Sometimes folks think I pick a topic first and then select the appropriate Scripture. But that’s not what actually happens. Instead, I let the Scripture pick my topic. I preach using the lectionary, the calendar of readings I’ve told you about before which most mainline churches follow. Each week I’m given an Old Testament, Psalter, Gospel and Epistle reading.

On most Sunday mornings I preach to you from the Gospels. The parables of and stories about Jesus are usually a little more interesting, and more fun to preach about. But today I’m preaching from Acts. The book of Acts is the story of the earliest church and the way they lived together in the first years. This is a sort of “next chapter” of the Gospel stories. This is how this band of believers began to become something greater than just themselves

This morning’s reading from Acts talks about how they sustained themselves in the earliest days: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I really resisted preaching about this passage this morning. I hate preaching about money and about how you should be using the things you have. I make it a point not to know who gives what to this congregation. I don’t want to. And I make it a point not to harangue you to put more in the collection plate. Some weeks you just can’t, and there is absolutely no shame in that. I don’t tell you to give. It makes me feel like a televangelist. And so I say, in the end, don’t listen to any preacher who tells you what you should do with your money.

But as much as that is true, I remember something one of my seminary professors used to say. If you are scared to preach on a particular text, if it makes you uncomfortable, it means you probably need to preach on it.

The Bible says more about the correct treatment of money than it says about a lot of other things. More than it says about heaven. Far more than it says about sex. More than a vast majority of topics. In the end, the stewardship of money, which is how you use it, seemed to matter a lot to the people who wrote the Bible.

The interesting thing is not that they are saying “turn over all your money” to the church. If I said that, I hope you all would walk out the sanctuary doors and find a new pastor. Instead, we are told in this passage about what the earliest believers did. We are told about how they as a community survived in the hardest of times.
They took what they had, and they shared it with one another, and they shared it with those who needed it outside of the church, and they gave thanks for all that they had been given. In a very radical way, they cast their lots in with one another so that they could do ministry to those who needed it most.

There is a church in Washington, DC that takes up an unusual offering on Sunday mornings. They still have a collection plate, but people don’t just put something in. They tell the people that come to worship that if they are in real need, they are free to take something out.

You might think that would make the church and easy target. You could come and just sit on the back row and take everything out when it gets to you. But that’s not what happens. Rarely does anyone take more than they need. And usually, those who you might thing have nothing to give, give something instead of taking.

I’m not suggesting we start that here. But I do think there’s something to be learned there. The people give fearlessly. They give because others need. They give because they receive. They give because they believe something good is happening at that church and they know that they have to be the ones who ensure that it’s there for the people who need it the most. And they give without fear.

It’s hard to give without fear. Especially in this economy. I know how hard it is out there right now.I know there is a lot of anxiety.I know that the impulse is not to give now more than ever, but to try to keep as much as possible for ourself in case of emergency. My friends at non-profits tell me that they are having a particularly hard time making ends meet. People aren’t giving the way they used to even as more people are losing services that they depended upon. They are struggling to do more with less and often turning people away. In the end, the need is becoming greater and greater.

And I think about how the way we give is sometimes so different that was in this earliest church. I think about how when things were so bad for them, far worse than they are for those of us nowadays, they reached in a little deeper and gave to one another and the ones they didn’t even know.

And you know what happened? They didn’t go into the red. They didn’t lose everything. They didn’t die.

Instead they lived. Scripture tells us: the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They grew.

Yesterday I was helping a friend move. We were nearing the end and she cleaned out her refrigerator. She threw out the products that were opened or about to expire, or already expired. I went and took them out to the dumpster and came back from more trash. When I went back there was a woman, probably in her 80’s, digging through the dumpster and pulling out the expired food. She spoke only Russian, but I could tell what was happening. This was the only way she would eat. I gave her some money, something I rarely do, and I went upstairs to try to get her some more food. When I came back she was gone. But soon another elderly couple appeared in her place doing the same thing.

I remember how that morning I had been looking at my bank account and getting frustrated that I wasn’t able to afford a minor want. It made me feel pretty ashamed that I was so worried about that, than about the woman downstairs who would dig through bags of trash to eat.

And I thought about how that was my work, because I was a Christian. And about how it was the work of the churches. And I thought about that neighborhood. So many churches. Churches I knew. Churches that held on to everything they had out of fear. Churches that thought they couldn’t help her because their membership was dwindling and so were the reserves. Churches that, unless something drastic happens, will be dead in twenty years.

And I read this passage. And I read those lines about what happened. About how they gave, not until it hurt, but until it felt good. And how they grew. The church as we have known it for centuries would never have existed without that first church making the decision to be fearless with what they had, and with the love that Christ gave them.

And so, that is my challenge to you today. How will we cast aside our fears and be fearless in Christ? How will we be owned not by the demons of “do we have enough” but by the love of Christ? How will we show the world outside these doors that grace is real, and that we can be God’s agents of it?

This morning the Psalm was Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” If we really believe that, if we really believe it when we recite it, then we have to believe that it’s true when it comes to stewardship. And we have to believe that in the end we are all here because someone in the church showed us grace of one kind or another. And in the end, it is not our fear, but our joy and our hope and our generosity that help us grow. Amen.

“On the Road to Emmaus” – sermon for May 8, 2011

Luke 24:13-35
24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

24:14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

24:16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

24:18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

24:19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,

24:20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.

24:22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,

24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

24:24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

24:25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

24:26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

24:29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

24:31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

24:32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

24:33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

24:34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

24:35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

A friend of mine got a new car recently, and we were talking about something interesting. Before she started looking at this particular car, she would have thought there were not many of them on the road. But when she got close to buying one, she suddenly began to see them all the time. She could not go a mile without seeing at least one of these cars.

We laughed because the reality is that there hasn’t been a sudden surge of the number of people who drove Hondas. Not everyone had run out and bought a car just like hers around the same time she did. Instead, she had just became more conscious and more aware of cars like hers and she was more able to readily see what was there all along

It’s like that with a lot of things. Try this exercise with me for a minute. If I had stopped you outside the door and asked you to name five green things in the sanctuary today, could you have done it? Probably not. But the reality is that those things have been here all along. You just haven’t been looking for them. So, try it now. What do you see around you?

When we are looking for something, we are more likely to see it. When we are looking for a certain kind of car, it’s there. When we look for a color, it pops out at us

When we look for a sweatshirt or a bumper sticker with our college’s name on it, or a license plate from our same state, or anything else, we’re apt to see it.

But when we’re not looking at all, just like my friend before she was looking for a specific kind of car, we are most likely to miss it.

It’s like that with Jesus sometimes. This story tells us that two men are walking on the road to Emmaus. And they know vaguely what has happened, and they are sad and confused. They have seen what happened to Jesus, and they have heard these stories that he might be back, but they are obviously doubtful. So doubtful, that they are not looking through the world with eyes that wanted to see Jesus. So much so, that when he was walking with them, they didn’t even notice it.

We hear the story now and think they must have been pretty dense. Who would miss it if Jesus were standing right next to them? But the reality is that a lot of us would. A lot of us just wouldn’t have the eyes for it that day. As much as we tend to see things when we are keeping a look out for them. The car. The certain color. We sometimes don’t if we are not.

There was a story about a year ago. you may have heard it. The Washington Post reported on a violinist who played in a Metro station in DC. He played for 45 straight minutes. Only six people stopped. He made about $32 and packed up and went home

The violinist’s name is Josh Bell. He’s one of the most renowned classical musicians alive. Seats for most of his shows average $100. And he was playing one of the most complicated pieces ever.

And yet no one realized. Because no one was looking for it, and no one was ready to believe that an extraordinary musician would just come and play in the Metro station. And so he became just another guy trying to make a little money playing in the subway.

I’m wondering if it was that way on the road to Emmaus that day. Who would have expected Jesus to be walking this dusty road, in the middle of nowhere? Who would have imagined that possibility? It was the Jesus-equivalent of walking past one of the most incredible musicians in a Metro station and hearing him play, and having no idea who was right in front of you.

But we’re not so different. We miss Jesus a lot.

In seminary one of my theology professors would talk about missionaries in the past who left this country and went to places where no missionaries had ever been saying that they were taking God to “those people”.

It was almost as if God were a piece of carry on luggage, loaded up and ready for the journey.

But the reality was that they didn’t get it. They may have been teaching people more about how to see God, but they weren’t taking God anywhere. God was already in every remote village they would travel to. God was already in the lives of the people there. God was already doing incredible things. They didn’t have to bring God anywhere.

And the real irony, is that sometimes those of us who think we get it. Who think it’s our job to show God and God’s will to the people who we think have never seen it, are the ones who are most apt to fail to see it ourselves.

When I look back on things now, I know that there were times when God felt so far away from me, and yet I was never so close. They’re usually the times when everything was going wrong and I cried out, “Where is God in this?” and got, so I thought, no answer.

I didn’t see the little signs around me. The little indications that God was working in my life. The gestures from people that God was working through to give me a sign, the turns of event that signaled that something extraordinary was happening, the moments where if I had just turned to the side, I would have seen that Jesus was walking with me.

I’m not the only one. You’ve probably had these moments too.

We sometimes teach ourselves not to expect what we think is unlikely. We tell ourselves that the kid who is a “trouble maker” will always be a troublemaker and we fail to see the signs that he is really gifted in some area. We say that the relative who was having a hard time with something will never really get their act together, even when there are signs otherwise. We make a million assumptions and snap judgments without meaning to, and we miss the incredible reality of what is in front of us.

And if we do it in the day to day details of our lives, we do it more when it comes to God. We tell ourselves not to expect the incredible. Not to see the life changing. Not to dare to believe in what is extraordinary.

When I get into good natured arguments with my atheist friends, and I do have atheist friends, it often becomes a litany of “but what about this” statements. Every possible sign of God’s absence is used to try to prove that God does not exist. But on the other side, every sign that God is alive and well and working in this world, is ignored.

Now, I’m not trying to argue a point about atheism here, although I often think strenuous atheism is often just another kind of religious fundamentalism. I’m just saying that we are often more willing to see what isn’t there, than we are to see what is. We are more willing to be negative than we are positive. We are more willing to disregard the fact that Jesus is walking next to us than we are to accept the hard, and it is hard and inconvenient, truth that Jesus has been with us every step of the way.

When the two men got to the end of that road with Jesus, they sat at a table with him. They still didn’t see. They didn’t see until he took bread, and broke it, and gave it to them. And finally it became too much to ignore. They had to see it.

Sometimes when have those moments too. When it just becomes too much to ignore. When are eyes, for however short a period of time, are opened wide. When we can’t argue it away anymore, and we have to believe.

They went from that place and they told everyone what they saw. They went to the disciples who had just had their own experience of seeing Jesus. And together they shared the news that he was back.

The church is the same way. We come here week after week, sharing the news that Jesus is with us. Telling one another about walking on the road with him or seeing him again for the first time. We strengthen one another when we look around and really see what is happening around us. We strengthen the church when we look around not with eyes that are looking for a certain car or a certain color, but for Jesus. When we look at the world through Jesus-eyes, we find that we cannot help but see him all around us. And then we find that we can’t keep it to ourselves anymore.

As we walk on our Emmaus roads may we dare to turn to those who are walking beside us and see the light of Christ that is in them. Amen.