Friday, April 10, 2015

“Faith for a Hipster City” - April 12, 2015

Text: John 20:19-29

A few weeks ago, a national study reported on the “Most Hipster Cities” in the United States.  While we often think of hipsters as an urban, big city demographic, many of the top 20 cities in this survey were smaller communities.  Does anybody know where Ames, Iowa landed?  Yeah, we are #2.  The second most hipster city in the country.

Well, I am sure this raises a few questions for you, and at the top of the list, maybe you are asking the question, “What is a hipster?”  Glad you asked.

The meaning has changed over the years.  There was a time when the term hipster had something to do with jazz afficianados who had a certain style and dressed in a certain way and called people “cats.”  I remember seeing a picture of Bob McCarley, probably from the late 60’s, with a goatee, thick black plastic frame glasses and an awesome hat.  He gave off a kind of hipster vibe.  There may be folks here who fit that style back then.  But then you went and got a leisure suit, and the era of hipsters was over.

But the term came back in more recent years.  One source defined hipsters as a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s who value counter-culture, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity and intelligence.  Basically, hipsters reject the choices of the cultural mainstream.  They ride single-speed bikes and they are in to good coffee, farmers markets, locally sourced food, and the like.     

The analysis by Find The, as reported by CBS News, looked for classic signs of hipster populations, including young people, education, cafes, and yoga studios.  With 45% of the population from ages 20-34, 62% of the population with a bachelor’s degree, and 7 cafes per 10,000 residents, Ames came in #2 in the country based on the hipster criteria.  Those things can be quantified, but I’m not sure that hipster attitude can be quantified, and this is where the analysis falls short.  If Ames is #2, then you know the study is flawed.

Here is one of the important things the study could not quantify: hipsters place a very high value on independent thinking and on a nonchalant, “don’t really care” vibe.

Now, turning to our scripture for today – and how is that for a nice segue? – if you were asked which of the disciples had the most hipster-like characteristics, it would be Thomas, hands-down.  I don’t know about his fashion sense or artistic leanings, but he was very much a non-conformist.  He was uninterested in following the crowd.  He was skeptical.  He was an independent thinker.  I’m not calling Thomas a hipster, and I understand there are plenty of negatives we could say about hipster culture; I’m just saying Thomas was the most hipster-like among the disciples. 

Thomas had shown these qualities all along.  Jesus had said, “I go and prepare a place for you… And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas was the one who spoke up and said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  He was unafraid to ask questions.

When Jesus was going to see Lazarus, who had died – on what was seen as a dangerous journey – Thomas was the one who spoke up and said, “Let’s all go, that we may die with him.”  He was unafraid, he was unconventional, he was independent-minded – one-of-a-kind.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were still unbelieving, even after Mary’s report that she had seen the Lord.  They were together behind locked doors.  Where was Thomas?  We don’t know.  He was elsewhere.  He was his own person.  Maybe he hid elsewhere or maybe he brushed off the fear and danger and went about doing what he did.  Maybe he went to a local café and reminisced with friends about Jesus.

The point here is Thomas was never one to simply, unquestioningly follow the crowd.  He questioned things, he investigated things.  He didn’t necessarily take what he heard at face value; he wanted to find out for himself.  He didn’t let the opinions and sensibilities of others determine what he was going to believe or what he was going to do.

From time to time, we have a class for older children and youth considering baptism.  I read about another church having that kind of class, and the way they described it is that the class explored the question, “How do I be a Christian on purpose?” 

I really like that question.  How do we be Christians “on purpose?”  How do we make it real?

That is what Thomas was trying to do.  To be a Christian on purpose, you have to mean to follow Jesus.  You have to want to follow Jesus.  You have to consciously choose to follow Jesus.  It means that you have to be honest – honest about your doubts, your fears, your questions.  It means that rather than doing the easy thing, rather than just going along for the ride, you make a personal investment and do what you feel is the right thing.  Maybe the easy thing for Thomas would have been to not make waves, to keep his mouth shut, to go along with all the “Jesus is alive” business.  The others may have not wanted to hear about his doubts.  But that wasn’t Thomas. 

Fred Craddock tells this story:
I was out visiting in a home a few years ago where they'd adopted one of those dogs that had been a racer.  It was a big old greyhound lying there in the den.  One of the kids in the family - just a toddler - was pulling on its tail, and a little older kid had his head on the dog's stomach, sort of using it like a pillow.  The dog seemed to have a smile on his face, and looked real happy.  So I said to the dog, “Are you still racing at all?”

“No, no I don't race anymore,” he replied in a voice a lot lower than I thought would come from a greyhound.  I said, “Well, do you miss it - all the glitter and excitement of the track?”   He said, “No.  No, I don't miss it at all.”

“Well, what's the matter? Did you get too old to race?”  “No, I still had some race left in me.”  “Well, did you not win?” I asked.

He sort of snickered and said, “I won over a million dollars for my owner.”  “Then what was it? Bad treatment?”  “Oh no,” the greyhound answered, “They treated us royally when we were racing.”

“Well, what WAS it then?  Did you get crippled?”  He said, “No. No. No.”  “Then WHAT?”  I asked.

“I quit,” he said. “I just plain quit.”  I said, “Well why did you quit?”  

And he said, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit.  So I quit.”  He looked at me with such sad eyes and said, “All that running, running, running, and what I was chasing wasn’t even real!”

Thomas had had suspicions that what the other disciples were chasing was perhaps not real.  He had to know for himself.  If he were going to follow Jesus, it had to be real.

Now Thomas gets a bad rap.  He has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas.”  But look at what happened.  Mary came running to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord.”  Nobody believed her.  They flat-out rejected her testimony.  But that night, they were gathered together when Jesus appeared to them.  They see for themselves, and then they believe.

So they say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.”  Guess what?  Thomas has his doubts about their “Jesus is alive” story.”  How was Thomas any different from any of the other disciples?  Like them, he had to see.  The only difference, I suppose, is that he was alone in his unbelief.  It was easy to raise doubts when everyone had doubts.  It is harder when you are the only one.

One thing that has always struck me is that despite the fact Jesus had already appeared to them, it doesn’t seem like things had changed for the disciples.  The next Sunday evening, a week after they had seen Jesus, the disciples are still in the same place, still huddled behind closed doors.  They were saying that Jesus was alive, but they weren’t exactly acting like it.  The experience of Christ did not turn them into unstoppable world changers, at least not right away.  You can’t blame Thomas for having questions.

But look at what Thomas does.  Despite his doubt, despite his unbelief, he remains a part of the community.  Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but he keeps faithful to the community.  And it was in that community that Jesus appeared to Thomas.

To me, this is incredible hopeful.  In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can “carry us along,” so to speak.  There are those times when maybe others can believe for us until we are able to recognize the Lord again.

This speaks powerfully about the role and purpose of the church.  The Church is not a gathering of people who have it all figured out.  The Church is not a community for people who have their act together before entering.  And the Church does not have all the answers.  But the Church is a place to ask the questions, is a community of love and support, a place to stand while we learn and explore and discover and become.  The Church does not have all the answers, but helps us to connect with the One who ultimately is The Answer.

Even in his doubt, Thomas stayed connected to the community – which not only says something about Thomas, but it says something about the other disciples.  Those with doubts, those with questions, those who do not have the orthodox party-line view are to be welcomed into the community of faith.

George Hunter wrote a book several years back called The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  His thesis is this: In the Western church, we have by and large followed a Roman way of evangelism: propositional truths are put forward, one believes these truths, becomes a Christian, and then becomes a part of the church, the community of believers.  One is converted and then one becomes a part of the community of faith.

But this is in contrast to the Celtic way of evangelism.  Dating back to the time of St. Patrick, the Celtic way focuses on relationships.  One first becomes a part of the community, and then gradually, through fellowship and friendship one comes to know Christ.  This is the way the church grew and developed in Ireland, through small, caring communities, and Hunter offers it as a model for the modern church.

Bill Easum told a story of inviting a non-Christian drummer to take part in his church’s praise band.  After a year or so of playing in the band, he came to Easum and said, “I’m not sure what’s happened, but God had really become real, and Christ is real to me.  I can’t point to a single moment or anything, but my life is not the same.  I guess I’m a Christian.”   And indeed, he had become one.  The congregation, Easum said, had loved him into Christ.

Thomas did not believe, but he stayed with the fellowship of those who did.  Thomas did not believe, but he was nevertheless very much a part of the community.

What I like is that Jesus gives Thomas the answers he needs.  Thomas does not simply question for the sake of questioning.  This is not a refusal to follow Christ’s ways masking as doubt.  These are honest questions.  Thomas says up front what it would take to convince him: he must see Jesus’ hands and touch his side.  What would convince him were Jesus’ wounds, his scars.

For his part, Jesus does not shame Thomas or belittle him for having questions.  Nowhere does Jesus say that it is a sin to doubt.  Jesus comes to Thomas and gives him what he needs to believe.

I have to admit that I like Thomas.  I like the fact that he is honest with himself and honest with God.  I like the fact that he stays with the community, even when he isn’t sure.  I like the fact that he is his own person.  I like the fact that once he believes, he really believes, for him it is real, and it changes his life.  Of all people, it is Thomas who makes the highest confession of faith in Christ in the gospel of John – and in all of scripture: “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas, the disciple for hipsters, is a disciple for all of us.  He doesn’t blindly follow, but he honestly, courageously, faithfully follows.  In the way that he comes to know and believe for himself, he might even make a good patron saint for Baptists!  Thomas turns out to be a good model of one who authentically, genuinely, faithfully followed Christ.

Living involves doubts.  Living involves questions.  God is big enough for our doubts and questions, and God loves us enough to reach out to us in the midst of our doubts and questions.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  That would be us.  And in some ways, it may be easier for us than it was for Thomas.  Thomas knew Jesus in the flesh.  He understands Jesus’ humanity.  It was hard for him to make the leap to Jesus’ new condition, to know him as a resurrected savior.

We come at it in the other direction.  For us, the real wonder is God having hands and feet in the first place.  The real wonder is God allowing human beings to nail those hands and feet to the cross.  For us, it may be Jesus’ humanity that is more problematic.   

Some of us get faith in our minds, others feel it in their hearts.  For Thomas, it has to do with his senses.  He wants to see and touch, to know in the way that works best for him.  And Jesus honored the way that Thomas came at faith, showing him his wounds. 

Jesus came to Thomas – and Christ comes to us – in the midst of our doubts, honoring the way that each of us comes to faith and calling us to believe and follow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Give Up Death" - Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18

This past week, our dog Rudy and I went for a walk.  It was pretty brisk out but perfect for an early morning walk.  We turned a corner and I saw a small tree just starting to bloom – I think it was some kind of magnolia.  It was the first flowering tree that I had seen, and it made our walk even better.

Our crocuses bloomed the week before.  The lilies and daylilies at the back of the church are green and growing.  The grass is greening up.  There are signs of spring around.

In spring, we celebrate the renewal of life, and we often relate that to the new life we celebrate at Easter.  And that is fine, that’s great.  But there is a big difference.

You put a bulb in the ground, dead as it looks, and you expect a tulip to come up in the spring.  In the fall, leaves will turn brown and fall off a tree, and the tree may look lifeless, but nobody is surprised when spring rolls around and the tree starts to bud.  This is natural.  This is expected.  This is ordinary.

But there is nothing ordinary about Easter.  Jesus is crucified and buried and in the tomb for three days, and then is raised from the dead.  When you bury a person, you do not expect to see them again.  This is about as far from ordinary as you can get.

What is ordinary, what is typical, what is expected, is death.  Life is transitory.  We are finite beings and have our limits.  As far as our own personal experience, Good Friday is much more familiar to us than Easter Sunday.

St. Augustine said that our lives are like when a man is sick and near death, and friends look at him in his deathbed and say, “He is dying, he won’t get over this.”  Augustine says that the same could be said of us on the first day of our lives, as we lie in the crib, “She is dying, she won’t get over this.”

I know that this is not polite conversation on Easter morning, or any morning, really.  We want to ignore death, and if we do talk about it, we talk as though we can defeat it.  Flip on the TV and you will find advertisements for “age-defying” makeup.  Cosmetic surgery, botox, hair implants and the like are popular because they make us appear younger, as though we are winning the battle.

But you know, we can only do so much, and our efforts don’t really make us any younger.  We can try and hide aging, but it doesn’t stave off death.  When you are ill and go to the hospital, they don’t treat you with Grecian formula.

You might remember last fall daredevil Nik Wallenda walking on a high-wire between two skyscrapers on either side of the Chicago River.  There was much to-do and it was televised live.  (I didn’t watch - I don’t enjoy watching that sort of thing.)  It was billed as a “death-defying” feat.

There is this image of defying death, taking on death and winning that we find appealing.  In a sense, every time we wake up in the morning, every time we get in our car and drive to school or work or church, we are defying death.  And we can get away with it for awhile, but not indefinitely.  Evel Knievel used to perform death-defying feats on his motorcycle, but he could not defy death forever.  We all know how this story is going to end.

The disciples knew.  Jesus had been arrested and taken away, just after their Passover meal together on Thursday night.  He had been beaten, he had been mocked, he had been tried in a rush trial.  He had been sentenced to death as an enemy of the state, a traitor, an insurrectionist.  He had been crucified on a cross, dying an agonizing death.

Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code, was a New York Times bestseller made into a blockbuster movie.  At the center of the story is the contention that for 2000 years, the Church has prevented the world from finding out that Jesus had been married to, and had children with, Mary Magdalene.

Well, this certainly would be a startling thing to discover.  What would it be like to do genealogy, get on and discover that you are a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene?  But here is the thing about The DaVinci Code: it is based on the notion that if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, it would destroy the faith because it would prove that Jesus was human.

But isn’t that what we believe?  Isn’t that the claim of Christian faith?  That Jesus really was born, really lived on this earth, really and truly experienced what it is to be human: pain and joy and hurt and loss and laughter and temptation and uncertainty and anticipation and happiness and fear and foreboding.  And death.  He really did experience human life and he really did suffer and die.  If Jesus did not really live and really die as one of us, then Easter Sunday would have no real meaning.  Without a real death, there is no resurrection.  Without really living as a human being, there is no connection to us and no reason for Mary’s tears early that Sunday morning.

Filled with grief, Mary went to the place where Jesus was buried.  Like many of us, she went to the grave of her loved one to remember and to grieve.  The tomb was a small cave in the rock.  A great stone was rolled in front of the tomb to seal it.

Mary was not prepared for what she saw.  The stone had been moved.  It was almost more than she could bear.  Jesus had been beaten, humiliated, and finally crucified.  Mary could only watch helplessly.  And now, one last humiliation.  She was filled with fear and terror.

She ran to tell Peter and John.  Peter had not shown his face in public since Thursday.  He had denied Jesus and stayed far away from the cross.  But Mary did not know where else to go.  On hearing her report, Peter and John hurried back to the tomb.  John ran ahead.  He arrived and saw the stone moved away.  Then Peter caught up.  He went on inside.  He saw the linen burial wrappings rolled up.  Peter and John saw for themselves what Mary had reported, and then they went back home.

By now Mary was back at the tomb, but she stayed.  She wept.  Finally, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels.  They asked why she was weeping, and Mary told them.  Someone had taken away her Lord, she said.  Someone had stolen the body.  She turned around and saw a man she supposed to be the gardener.  She said, “If you have taken the body, tell me where you have laid him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  “Mary.”  And she knew.  She knew.  He was alive!  It was Jesus!

We have heard this so many times that it is hard to catch the joy of that moment.  It is not such a surprise anymore.  We know what is going to happen.  Year after year, like that tree beginning to flower in spring, Jesus comes out of that grave.  The story is so familiar that it loses its shock value.  We can’t feel the raw emotion, the incredible surge of amazement and joy and euphoria that Mary felt that morning.

On Thursday, a man who had been lost at sea for 66 days was found 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.  Louis Jordan was sitting on the hull of his overturned boat.  He had somehow survived on rainwater, fish, and prayer.  He was spotted by a German container ship.  Search efforts had ended back on February 18.  You can imagine the great relief this man felt upon being rescued, and maybe even more, the incredible shock and joy of his family who found that he was alive.

It was an amazing story, but at least it seems in the realm of being possible.  If you have actually died and been buried for three days, nobody expects to see you again.

Tom Long (in Whispering the Lyrics) tells the story of Clint Tidwell, the pastor of a small-town church.    One of his blessings – and curses – is that the 80-year old owner and still active editor of the local newspaper is a member of his congregation.  The blessing part is that this veteran journalist considers Tidwell to be one of the finest preachers around, and wishing the whole town to benefit from his wisdom, he frequently publishes a summary of the Sunday sermon in the Monday newspaper.  The curse part is that this well-meaning editor is a bit on the eccentric side, and Tidwell is sometimes astonished to read the synopses of his sermons.  There is often an ocean of difference between what he said and what the editor heard.  This man owns the paper and nobody dares edit his columns, and so what shows up in the paper is often a source of embarrassment to Tidwell.

The pastor’s deepest amazement, however, came not when the editor misunderstood the Sunday sermon; it came when he understood it all too clearly.  Early on the Monday morning after Easter, Tidwell went out in his bathrobe and slippers to get the paper at the end of the driveway.  As he approached it, he could see the headline in “second coming” sized type.  What had happened?  Had war broken out?  As he got close enough to read the headline, he was startled to read the words, ‘Tidwell Claims Jesus Christ Rose From The Dead.’

Long wrote, “A red flush crept up Tidwell’s neck.  Yes, of course, he had claimed in yesterday’s sermon that Christ rose from the dead, but golly, was that headline news? … I mean, you’re supposed to say that on Easter, aren’t you, that Jesus rose from the dead, but that’s not like saying some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it?”

I guess that’s the question for all of us.  Does Jesus’ resurrection mean anything to us, here, today?  Does it affect our lives, right here, right now?

The Good News of the gospel is that by raising Jesus from the dead, God showed that the power of God is greater than the power of death.  Death does not have the final word.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face, and God will swallow up death forever.”  That is Good News, because we are surrounded by death.  Death doesn’t just come at the end of our lives, it comes little by little.  We die all kinds of deaths along the way.

We all know folks who are in the midst of hurt and pain and grief – and maybe right now, that person is you.  Heartbreak and disappointment, disillusionment and uncertainty, rejection and losses of all kinds is pretty much par for the course.  Without knowing it, we can begin to live under the cloud of death.  Rather than pursuing joy, we just try to avoid pain.  Rather than succeeding, we just try not to fail.   Instead of living, our focus, maybe even subconsciously, can be on simply not dying.

In Easter, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of the resurrection of the dead by the power of God.  We celebrate life on the other side of death.  But we celebrate more than that.  We celebrate resurrection and new life that we experience right here and now – in this life.

A couple lost their adult son in an automobile accident.  They were a very close-knit family. The man’s parents and sister were overwhelmed with grief.  They lived in a Good Friday world for months: confused and angry, loving a person who no longer met them for Sunday worship and dinner once a week, and called every day between.  Shortly after the early December accident, the family was driving home from church in silence.

They all noticed it at the same time.  Someone had sawed off the cap of a lone pine tree that stood in a field near their house.  Clearly, someone had wanted a perfect Christmas tree without paying the local nursery, so they stole the top six feet of their neighbor’s tree.  The ruined tree hit a nerve with this family.  They were “tree people” to begin with, the kind of people who plant seedlings on Arbor Day and write polite notes to their congressmen to protest the destruction of rainforests.  But seeing that tree cut off just knocked the wind out of them.  It was a perfect symbol of their unbearable loss, and though they never talked about it, each of them took to taking the long way home in order to avoid facing this pine tree.

A couple seasons later, the three were on their way home from church again.  The mother missed the turnoff for their detour, and so as they turned the corner that would take them past the tree, an invisible shroud covered them, stirring up their grief.  But what they saw took their breath away.  The tree had healed.

When the father told this story, weeping, he made this motion with his hands, to illustrate: open hands, reaching to one another, until his fingertips touched.  The tree once again had a perfect, tapered crown.  And once again, it was a perfect symbol for the family.  For the first time since the accident, they felt hope in their hearts.  The mended tree held so much promise: the slow but sure restoration to life had begun.  They believed what they saw: every suffering, every life cut off short, would be healed.  Their grief wasn’t erased, but they were released to open their hearts to the hope and promise of resurrection.

Through the season of Lent, we have organized our worship around the theme of “Give It Up.”  And today, on Easter Sunday, our theme is “Give Up Death.”

I have to admit: to first hear it, “Give Up Death” doesn’t even make sense.  You can give up chocolate or red meat.  It may be difficult, but you can theoretically give up worrying or gossip or criticism.  But how do you give up death?  You can’t.  It is beyond our control.

We can’t stop death from happening.  But what we can give up is the hold that death so often has on us.  We can choose to live joyfully and abundantly.  We can choose to live boldly, generously, hopefully, in the light of God’s grace and goodness and with the promise of eternal life.  Or we can choose to live as people just going through the motions of life.  We can live small, cautious, miserly lives, living under the specter of death.

Maybe another way to put it is that we can spend our lives truly living, or we can spend our lives trying not to die.  And when you think of it in that way, “giving up death” – giving up the hold that death can have on us - makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ resurrection is an invitation to go all-in on life.   We can choose to live small, but the resurrection gives us the promise that God’s power and love is greater than anything this world can throw at us.  We can live in hope and in confidence that in the end, God will swallow up even death. 
Thanks be to God.  Alleluia!  Amen.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

“Give Up Timid Faith” - March 29, 2015

Texts: Matthew 21:1-11; 26:57-75

The NCAA basketball tournament may be my favorite time of year.  There are such great stories.  Georgia State won its conference tournament and got into the NCAA tourney for the first time.  In the celebration after winning their conference tournament, their coach, Ron Hunter was injured – he tore his Achilles tendon.  And so, he was sitting on the bench, not roaming the sidelines, at the end of their game against Baylor.  It looked like a certain Baylor victory, but Georgia State scored the last 13 points of the game, capped off by the coach’s son hitting a 30 foot game winning shot, and the coach literally fell out of his chair and rolled around on the floor in celebration.   

And then there are sad stories.  ISU being a case in point, which we won’t talk about, but you also had #1 seed Villanova losing early.  As the game wound down, the camera focused in on a piccolo player with tears streaming down her face, knowing that as a senior this would be the last time she would ever play with this group of friends in the Villanova pep band.

This time of year, sports fans can be celebrating one moment and in mourning the next.  You can suffer a kind of emotional whiplash.  But of course, it’s not just March Madness and it’s not just sports – it’s life.  Joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, great victories and great losses, sometimes right on the heels of each other.  That’s the way life is. 

We have been journeying through this season of Lent and we come to a day known both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  And of all the days in the Church Year, this may be the day that most lends itself to spiritual whiplash.  Our scriptures today make for an emotional roller coaster.  The day begins with celebration and ends in depression.  It starts out with triumph and ends with catastrophe.

Holy Week begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  He was entering the capital city, the center of culture and commerce – and the center of faith.  A large crowd gathers.  There was anticipation.  There was excitement and enthusiasm.  There were great hopes that Jesus would be the one to lead the nation to overthrow Roman rule, that he was the Messiah they longed for.  The crowd welcomed him as a king and shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It was a great day of hope and expectation.  But Jesus’ popularity and message threatened a lot of people.  When you speak out for the powerless, you threaten the powerful.  When you give hope to those on the margins, you irritate those at the center.  The week started out wonderfully, but the good feelings did not last.  There was increasing conflict.  As he entered the city, everyone wanted to be with Jesus.  As the week wore on - not so much.  Jesus spoke of suffering and dying.  He prayed and agonized over what was to come.  Meanwhile the religious establishment plotted against him.  After Jesus and his disciples shared the Passover meal, he was filled with spiritual and emotional angst.

Jesus asked Peter and James and John, his three closest disciples and friends, to go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He told them that he was “deeply grieved, even to death.”  His anxiety and agitation were palpable.  His friends went with him to pray.  In his time of great need, they were there - but not really.  Jesus prayed that this cup might pass while his disciples fell asleep.

Jesus had no more than said, “Could you not just stay awake for a few minutes?” when Judas arrived with a large contingent, a mob sent by the chief priests and elders.  Jesus was betrayed and arrested and taken to the residence of the chief priest, Caiaphas.  It was a stunning turn of events, coming so quickly after the joy and excitement of only a few days before.

As Jesus was taken away, Peter followed at a distance.  He followed all the way to the courtyard of the high priest.  Interestingly, he sat with the guards while Jesus was being interrogated.  A servant girl approached Peter and said, “Hey, I recognize you – you were also with Jesus.”  Peter denied it.  Another servant saw him and said to some bystanders, “This man was with Jesus.”  Peter said, “I don’t know the man.”  And then some of the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you were with Jesus – your accent gives you away.”  Peter and Jesus were from Galilee, but now they were in Jerusalem.  If you have a Mississippi drawl, you might stand out in New York City.

At this point, Peter began to curse and swore to God that he didn’t know Jesus.  And then the rooster crowed, and Peter remembered that after his bold claim that he would never leave Jesus, even if everybody else did, Jesus had said that before the cock crowed Peter would deny him three times.  This conversation had taken place only hours before.  Peter ran out and wept bitterly.

Through this season of Lent, we have considered ways of living and thinking about life that we might do well to give up.  Today, thinking about Peter’s denial of Jesus, our theme is “Give Up Timid Faith.”

As you might imagine, if you plan a 7-week sermon series, you don’t necessarily have all the details worked out in advance.  Working with the text for the day, “Give Up Timid Faith” seemed to fit – and it does – but now that we have got to this week, I don’t feel so good about throwing that label on Peter. 

In the first place, who am I to call Peter a person of timid faith?  It’s a little like questioning Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting, or calling LeBron James a weak rebounder or critiquing Warren Buffet an overly cautious investor.  Who am I to talk, right?

But beyond that, I’m not sure that “timid” is quite the right adjective to describe Peter.  This is not one of his better moments, to be sure.  But let’s think about what really happens here.

When Jesus is arrested, Peter follows along at a distance.  Why did he follow?  Out of love, out of commitment, out of a crazy thought that somehow he might bust Jesus loose? (I’ve probably watched too much TV.)  Or did he hope to have a chance to testify and vouch for Jesus’ character?  The text just says that he followed to see how this was going to end – the implication being that he knew it wouldn’t be good.  It comes across almost as morbid curiosity.

At any rate, Peter follows.  He is there.  He sits by the guards.  And who else is there?  John?  Matthew?  Andrew?  Mary?  Not. it’s just Peter.  He alone follows right into Caiaphas’ courtyard.  Peter was there, which is more than can be said for the other disciples.  So we can give him credit for that.  It may not have been the brightest idea he ever had, or maybe it was exactly where he needed to be, but either way, this was not for the faint-hearted.  You wouldn’t call Peter timid.  But then – out of fear or out of embarrassment or out of a desire for self-preservation, Peter lies and denies that he knew Jesus.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter, and maybe calling this an example of “timid faith” is not exactly the best way to describe it.  But I think there is something here for us to consider.

We have been looking at the theme of “Give It Up” over these past weeks – taking off on the discipline of giving things up for Lent.  But rather than state things as a negative – as giving something up – we could choose to describe things in positive terms – as taking things on.

Rather than “Give Up Impressing People,” we could think about “Living Authentically.”

Rather than “Give up Worrying,” we could think about “Living with Trust.”

Rather than “Give Up Going It Alone,” we could focus on “Living in Community.”

Rather than “Give Up Enemies,” we could “See worth in every person and want the best for every person, even those who may have it in for us.”  (OK, that’s a little wordy; “Give Up Enemies” might be easier.

Instead of “Give Up Your Life,” we might think about “Live for Something Greater than Yourself.”

And the flip side of “Give Up Timid Faith” is “Live Courageously.”

When we look at Peter’s actions, he shows courage in being there.  For sure.  But his courage only goes so far.

If you think about it, this is absolutely in keeping with Peter as we read about him in the gospels.  The disciples are in a boat, out on the lake.  The wind stirs up, the waves are beating against the boat, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Everybody is scared to death, but Peter says, “If it is you, Lord, ask me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus does, and Peter walks on the water.  He has courage, he has faith – but he remembered the wind, he takes his eyes off Jesus, and he sinks.  He has courage, he has faith, but just up to a point.

Another time, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and follows up with “Who do you say I am?”  Peter gives this powerful confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  He shows great courage and faith and wisdom, but right after that, Jesus speaks of having to suffer, and Peter says, “That can never happen, God forbid it.”  Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Peter jumped right in, showed great faith, made this great declaration, but then it turned out he didn’t really know what he was talking about.

This incident in which Peter follows Jesus after his arrest, goes right into a place of danger, shows faith and courage - but only so much – before denying even knowing Jesus is entirely in keeping with Peter’s personality.

Like those instant replays at the end of basketball games where they review the play again and again, we can consider how much courage Peter did or did not show and how awful it may have been that he denied Jesus.  But maybe a better question for us to consider is, what about us?  How do we deny Jesus?

It’s a little more subtle for us than it was for Peter.  Bystanders don’t approach us and ask “Do you know Jesus?”  (Actually, somebody knocked at my door this week and asked if I knew Jesus, but that’s a different story.)  We don’t say out loud, “I don’t know the man,” but it is certainly possible to deny Christ through the way we live.

Two weeks ago, an American pastor asked his congregation and TV audience to contribute $60 million so that he could purchase a new Gulfstream G650 jet - an essential tool for ministry.  (And to think that I’ve been missing this essential tool for all these years.)  In soliciting for this needed ministry tool, this pastor’s website said, “We need your help to continue reaching a lost and dying world for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus apparently never owned a home.  Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  He ran his ministry on a shoestring and was much more interested in caring for those in need than in generating revenue for himself.  He never bought a jet or even a fast camel.  In light of Jesus’ life and teachings, to see the gospel as a means to wealth is to deny Christ.

But we don’t need to beat up on televangelists.  When we put profit above principle, when we measure the worth of others – or ourselves - in terms of dollars and cents, we are denying Christ.

When we join in on putting down those who are outsiders or making fun of somebody who is different, when we heap abuse on those with whom we disagree, we are denying Christ.  Jesus asked us to love our enemies.  Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, gentle-hearted, forgiving one another,” but that can be awfully hard.

I was watching a CNN special this past week about atheism.  They interviewed a college student who at age 16 told his parents that he just didn’t believe in God.  This was a traumatic thing for his parents, who were very pious, very religious.  They told the interviewer, “It is really hard because our son is dead.”  They said that was not something they had decided, but according to the Bible, he was dead.  To me, it was very sad, and hearing the way these parents spoke, it occurred to me that if my mom and dad had been like them, I might be an atheist too.  We worship a God whose love will never let us go, but these parents had given up on their child, someone they readily described as a good kid, because of his beliefs.  He was probably 19 or 20 years old.  The weird thing was, hearing this son speak with grace and understanding toward his parents, he seemed to be acting more like Jesus than his very religious parents.

There are a lot of ways that through our actions or inaction, we may deny Christ.  And often it can have to do with courage, or a lack thereof.

It can take courage to act differently than the prevailing culture.  It can take courage to speak for justice in a world that is a lot more concerned about making money than it is in doing the right thing.  It can take courage to value people and relationships more than image and appearances.  It can take courage to care for the least of these when there are those who will dismiss our work as simply taking a political position.

It can take courage to pursue a vocation that uses your best gifts to make a difference in the world when friends and family may not be especially supportive.  It can take courage to go to one who has wronged us and work for reconciliation.  It can take courage to buck a me-first culture, get-ahead culture. 

Courageous faith can be difficult.  It can be costly.  And as Jesus showed us – it might even get you killed.


Friday, March 13, 2015

“Give Up Enemies” - March 15, 2015

Text: Matthew 5:43-48

In this season of Lent, we have been looking at the theme of “Give It Up” - considering beliefs and habits and behaviors that we would be better off without.  And it has not been easy going.  “Give Up Impressing People.”  “Give Up Worrying.”  “Give Up Going It Alone.”  All very difficult.  It would be a heck of a lot easier to just give up Doritos for the 40 days of Lent and be done with it.  

And then this morning, Jesus would have us consider another nearly impossible choice: give up enemies.

Our text is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ ethical demands are so hard that commentators through the ages have tried to make it more palatable.  Some have looked at Jesus’ teachings as ethical ideals.  We won’t live up to them, of course, but at least they are something to shoot for.  Others have argued that Jesus sets the bar so high that his teaching is actually designed to drive us to despair – to help us realize the impossibility of satisfying God’s righteousness and help us to recognize our complete dependence on God’s grace.

But there is no evidence that the early church understood Jesus’ teaching in this way.  And just reading the passage, one doesn’t get the feeling that Jesus is playing with his listeners.  It comes across as though he really meant this.  We really are asked to love our enemies.

Jesus’ words raise a few questions for us, the first and simplest being – who is my enemy?  Who are we talking about here?

You know, we live in an enemy-rich environment, don’t we?  It is very easy to find enemies, and especially enemies of the nameless, faceless, generalized sort.  

When I started college, there were quite a few Iranian students at my school.  By and large, they were great people.  Shirooz was in pre-med and was a goofy, fun-loving guy.  I was in a religion class with Muhammad, a very endearing Shia Muslim from Iran.  It was a small seminar class and we all made presentations about some aspect of our own religious tradition.  There was another Iranian guy I knew who drove a DeLorean – if you remember the car in Back to the Future, that’s a DeLorean.  But one day, everything changed.  Protesters in Iran overran the American Embassy and took everyone hostage.  And suddenly, people like Shirooz and Muhammad and the guy with the DeLorean were hated enemies.  Somebody fired a bullet through the apartment window of an Iranian student on campus.  Today, lots of folks consider Iranians as our enemies.  They are enemies by virtue of being on the wrong team.

There are national enemies, but those are far from the only people who are enemies by virtue of being the other or the outsider.  Those who have the wrong political convictions or live in the wrong place or have the wrong ancestry may be thought of as enemies. 

Fred Craddock died this past week.  He was very influential in preaching circles because rather than taking the stance of “I am going to reveal the truth to you in 3 points with a nice poem to wrap it up,” Craddock looked at the way that scripture itself spoke to us, and it generally isn’t like those three point sermons at all.  Instead, Craddock used story and narrative and an inductive approach that made the sermon come alive and allowed listeners to make connections and figure things out for themselves. 

Craddock came from dirt-poor beginnings in East Tennessee and while he was a very learned scholar, he could connect with anybody.  In retirement he helped start a church in the rural community where he lived in Georgia, as well as starting a center that helped fight poverty in that area and did wonderful work.  I never met him, but through his books and sermons and influence on people I learned from, he influenced me, and I was saddened to hear of his loss.

This past week, the president of one of the Southern Baptist seminaries chose to criticize Craddock.  In fact, on the day of his funeral, he said that Craddock had damaged the state of preaching in this country by devaluing the authority of scripture and the authority of preaching.  I disagreed, of course - as far as I was concerned, Craddock elevated the place of preaching and engagement with scripture and the role of the Spirit, as well as respect for the congregation.  What he had devalued, perhaps, were self-important preachers who want to claim authority for themselves.  But even more than what this person said, the fact that he chose to criticize this humble and beloved man on the day of his funeral was just plain tacky.  I was offended and I can’t imagine how this would have felt to his family.

I know that it has something to do with my own upbringing, but it is hard for me not to see fundamentalists like this seminary president as the enemy.

We all have enemies.  Maybe you don’t think of people quite in those terms, but what we are talking about is those who have hurt you, excluded you, dismissed you, talked bad about you.  We are talking about the person who is always unkind to you and you have no idea why.  We are talking about the neighbor who you would pay good money to have them move to New Jersey.  We are talking about those whose lives stand completely against the things you hold dear.  This is not to mention the whole category of “frienemies,” those friends that you can’t really trust and who are likely to hurt you or betray you at the drop of a hat. 

Maybe you are not inclined to think of yourself as having enemies, or maybe on further review you can think of an enemy or three.  Maybe a bigger question is, “How do we love people like this?  How do we actually love our enemies?”

We need to say right away that loving someone does not necessarily mean liking them.  What we are talking about is getting to a place in your heart where you do not bear them ill will.  My seminary ethics professor Henlee Barnette, God rest his soul, talked about love as “willing the well-being of the other.”  That’s a good way to understand it: wanting the best for the other, wishing them well.
Maybe a starting point is to keep this idea of loving our enemies before us.  We get all kinds of reinforcement for hating our enemies – not so much for loving them.  Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon in 1957 on “Loving Our Enemies.”  Here was a person with serious enemies – people who threatened him people who wanted him dead.  And yet he knew how important this was.  King said that he tried to preach on loving our enemies to his congregation at least once a year – it was that important.  He was 28 years old, but he understood that Christian faith was about loving everyone, even our enemies.

We often think of this idea of loving your enemies as a Jesus thing, a New Testament thing, and it is one of the distinctive teachings of Jesus.  But there are roots in the Old Testament.  Our reading from Exodus says that if you see your enemy’s donkey or ox wandering off, bring it back.  If your enemy’s animal is in trouble, help it.  When there is an opportunity to do good for the one you hate, do good.  That can be a place to start.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Getting to a place where you can pray for your enemies can be a place to start.

A couple of years ago, Chick-Fil-A owner Dan Cathy was very public in his opposition to marriage equality, and LGBT activists found that his company had contributed large amounts of money to anti-LGBT causes.  So Campus Pride, a national organization for gay and lesbian college students and their allies, started a boycott of Chick-Fil-A.  It became a highly publicized campaign.  Some picketed Chick-Fil-A’s while others flocked to the restaurant to show their support for the company’s position.

In the middle of the controversy, Dan Cathy made a phone call to Shane Windmeyer, the national director of Campus Pride.  Windmeyer was surprised by the call and quite suspicious, but that first conversation lasted an hour.  It led to other conversations and emails and text messages and in the coming weeks to in-person meetings.  Neither changed their beliefs, but they both changed the way they viewed the other.  Cathy had been naïve about the situation faced by gay and lesbian students on campuses and how the organizations he had supported made that worse.  Windmeyer came with stereotypes about Dan Cathy and found these stereotypes to be completely wrong, finding him to be always kind and genuinely interested in his viewpoint.  Their interactions were sometimes a little awkward but always respectful.  In time they got to know one another on a personal level, sharing about their lives and their families, and then Dan Cathy invited Shane Windmeyer to be his guest at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, one of the college football bowl games.

Both were kind of stunned to find themselves in this position.  And this was a big risk for both.  Windmeyer’s colleagues might have thought he was being played by this billionaire entrepreneur.  Dan Cathy might have faced the ire of his conservative base – and maybe even a boycott from that side - for welcoming a gay activist to his luxury box.

Neither changed their basic convictions, but both were able to see the other not as an enemy or as an opponent, but as a person with opposing views – and there is a big difference.  Both were able to better understand the other.  Chick-Fil-A continues to donate millions in grants to organizations that focus on youth, education, marriage enrichment and local communities, but no longer contributes to the most divisive anti-gay groups.  They made this change months before LGBT activists knew about it, and it was not done in exchange for anything.  Campus Pride dropped their boycott of Chick-Fil-A.  And Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer gave up an enemy. 

It is a rare thing, but these two very different people gave a great example of how to love one’s enemies.

It is not easy, and more often than not, you are not going to be going to a bowl game with your enemy, but getting to know and seeking to understand the one you call enemy is a good starting point.  I will sometimes remind myself that the most hateful people are not very happy and have generally been on the receiving end of hatred themselves, and while this does not excuse behavior it can maybe be a starting place toward loving one’s enemy – or at least praying for them.  

This leaves us with one more question.  Why?  Why should we bother?  Why would we even want to love our enemies?

In Martin Luther King’s sermon on loving your enemy, he told the story of traveling with his brother late one night.  It seemed like every car they passed had its bright lights on and didn’t dim the lights.  King’s brother was getting angry about it and said, “The next car that doesn’t dim its lights, I’m going to turn my brights on for them.”  King said that if everybody had their brights on, nobody would be able to see and there would likely be a collision.

He compared this to hating others.  Somebody has to have sense enough to dim the lights.  If we don’t, he wrote, “We will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.  Somewhere somebody must have some sense. (We) must see that... hate begets hate… and it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.  Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe.  And you do that by love.
Another reason to give up enemies is that carrying hatred in our hearts affects us.  When we limit the scope of our love for others – when we limit those whom we wish well – it does something to us.  It diminishes us.  It makes our hearts smaller.  Holding on to hatred gnaws away at who we are.  The other night I saw Don Lemon on CNN interviewing a Klu Klux Klan leader.  The recent incident with the fraternity in Oklahoma and the ongoing protests and shooting this week in Ferguson have proven to be recruiting opportunities for the Klan.  I’m not sure why they even tried to interview this man, because he was so filled with hatred that it was hard to even have a conversation.  Hate had completely eaten him up.  For our own sakes, Jesus says, love everybody – even your enemies.  Which is a way of saying, give up having enemies.  Refuse to put people in that category; refuse to let relationships be defined by hatred. 

We are to love our enemies because love has a transforming power.  Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died, leaders from all over the world attended the funeral.  This was not very long after Watergate.  Former President Richard Nixon was there for the funeral, but it was like he was toxic.  Eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him.  Nixon could feel the ostracism surrounding him.

Then Jimmy Carter, who was then president, walked into the room.  Carter was from a different political party and in many ways was elected as the anti-Nixon.  As President Carter started toward his seat he noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone.  Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, smiled broadly, and embraced Nixon, saying “Welcome home, Mr. President!  Welcome home!”

The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”

We are called to love our enemies because it makes a difference in us, and it can make a difference in them.  And even more, we are to love our enemies because this is the nature of God.  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  This sounds like the most impossible task of all.  How can we be perfect?  What this refers to is being complete – essentially, let your love be all-encompassing, as God’s love is all-encompassing.  Of course, that is not exactly easy either, but Jesus is calling us to give up enemies, give up hatred, give up getting even, and be filled with God’s love that reaches out to all, wanting the best for everyone  – even our enemies.  That kind of love is a miracle – a miracle that God wants to work in our hearts.  Amen.