Saturday, June 22, 2019

“How Do People Get Called to Ministry?” - June 23, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 12:2-7

Note: this summer, sermon topics will come from questions and suggestions submitted by the congregation.  This is the first in the "By Request" sermon series.


We live in a culture in which we are largely defined by what we do.  And by what we do, we are talking about our job.  We meet someone and they ask us, “What do you do?”  They are not expecting us to say, “Well, I play golf, I read books, I visit the grandkids, I watch Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday nights, I make scrambled eggs every morning.”  No, that is not what they are asking.

Our culture is very focused on the work we do, and for many people, it defines us.  It is who we are.

On our mission trip to Puerto Rico, our team met together each evening and had a devotion, and then we debriefed – we talked about what we had experienced that day.  And one of the comments, by more than one person, was that it was refreshing to take a break from our regular job and not to be asked by people, “What do you do?”  That question was not at the top of the list of what people there were interested in.

I was asked about our church, I was asked about my family a couple of times, but mostly I was asked, “Why did you guys come here?  What led you to come to Puerto Rico to help us?”

One of the questions that I found in our Summer Sermon Suggestion Box was, “How do people get called into ministry?”  It is a question about vocation.  But as I start, I realize that not everybody looks at work or vocation the same way that we do as Americans.  It is not such a defining chracteristic for everybody.

Now I guess I would start with a little definition of terms.  We really need to know what we are talking about when we say “ministry.”

We have come to have a very professionalized view of ministry.  We call it “The Ministry.”  But I’m not sure that is especially helpful.  What I have sometimes noticed and sometimes experienced is that people look at a clergyperson as a professional who is hired to do the work of ministry on behalf of a group of a congregation.   But that is not an especially Biblical, or for that matter a historically Baptist view.

Two weeks ago, 14 people from our church went to Puerto Rico.   On such a trip, and especially entering into a different culture that speaks a different language, with the work we would be doing and the place we were working and staying and the food we would be eating all unknowns, most of us were a little uncertain if not a bit apprehensive.  We were tentative about the whole thing.

But the people there were not at all tentative.  As far as they were concerned, we had been sent by God.  We had come all the way from the mainland just to help them.  This was a huge deal.  And do you know what they called us?  We were missionaries.  Missionaries!  We had not necessarily thought of ourselves in that way.  We thought of ourselves as church members going to Puerto Rico to do some work, to help out people who needed help, but no, we were missionaries. 

Here is the deal: we are all called to ministry.  Every Christian is called to ministry.  It is what Christians do.  It is what followers of Jesus do.  So right off the bat, we need to have a more expansive view of ministry.  Ministry is done by Sunday School teachers and deacons and choir members.  Ministry is when you help a person in need, or offer a kind word, or give of yourself for the sake of someone else sacrificially.  Ministry is when you share the love of God.  In Puerto Rico, they understood - we were missionaries.  The challenge sometimes is for us to own that. 

I remember the song we sang the Sunday before we went on the trip to Puerto Rico, when we met at McFarland Park.  We sang it again this morning.  Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.  Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.  We have been as Christ to one another.  I have observed many of you ministering to each other, truly being a pastor to one another and to me as well.  In Puerto Rico, we were serving the people there, but there were also those times when they served us – with kindness, with graciousness, and with rice and beans and Mofongo.  

There is a mutuality abut ministry.  We are all in this together.  We are all Christian Ministers.  The first thing I would say in response to “How does a person get called to ministry?” is that we are all called to ministry.  Ministry is what Christians do.  You get called to ministry by deciding to follow Jesus.

Having said that, I understand the deeper intention of the question.  How does a person wind up being a pastor or a career missionary or a chaplain?  How is someone called to be an ordained clergyperson?

Well, it is not a one-size-fits all situation.  There are those dramatic calls to ministry when a person’s life takes a sudden turn and God’s call is obvious and inescapable.  We read about the call of the prophet Isaiah in our scripture earlier.  Or you have Saul, blinded on the road to Damascus.  It is overwhelming and powerful and God leaves no doubt about it.

For a lot of people, however, the experience is different.  How did Jesus call the disciples?  “Come, follow me.”  That was about it.  No big pyrotechnics, just an invitation to follow, an invitation to ministry.

Speaking for myself, I was minding my own business as a chemistry major with thoughts of law school, perhaps, but I spent the summer after my freshman year of college working at Ridgecrest Conference Center, which is basically the Southern Baptist Green Lake.  I worked with about 150 other college students, and that summer had a big impact on my life.

I came back for my sophomore year at Evansville and as a result of that summer experience, I got involved in campus ministry back at school.  It was through participating in the Baptist Student Union that I started to feel drawn toward ministry.  Not as a pastor, initially because – my goodness – who would want to do that, but maybe as a Campus Minister, working with college students.  And the sense of call grew from there.  It came about gradually, and it came as I was involved in ministry.

It works like that for a lot of people.  There are an awful lot of second career ministers out there.  They may be active and involved in their church, maybe they teach Sunday School or work with the youth or visit people or serve on the church board or go on mission trips, and through those experiences of ministry, they begin to discern a call to full-time vocational ministry.

Now I grew up hearing, not infrequently, that a person had to be dragged kicking and screaming into ministry.  “If you can do anything else, then do it.”  The language was of “surrendering to the call to ministry.”  Like you are throwing up the white flag and saying, “I can’t fight it anymore.  I give up.”  I’m not sure, but some preachers may have talked that way in order to make themselves seem special and above everybody else.

I have no doubt that it works that way for some people – it certainly was that way for Biblical figures like Paul - but that is not the only authentic way to be called to ministry.  Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers and a Presbyterian minister, wrote maybe the best advice I have ever heard about vocation.  I’m going to read this passage from Buechner:

(Vocation) comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a (person) is called to by God.

There are different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this.  The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.  If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b).  On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
In other words, what do you love to do that really needs doing?  That is where God calls you. 

Now, I am aware that there are an awful lot of people who have to work in jobs they do not necessarily enjoy.  We have to earn a living.  We have to pay the bills.  In many cases our vocation, our real calling, may be outside of our paying job.  But that does not make it any less of a calling. 

One more thing I need to say about the call to ministry – whether as a career or simply as part of your life as a Christian - and that is the role of the community.  Some of you may have gone on the mission trip because you were encouraged by someone else to do so.  In fact, every single person who went was encouraged to go by the amazing generosity of the church, who made the cost within reach for everybody who wanted to go.  The role of the community can’t be understated.  Some of you may be serving in ministries in our church or in our community because someone said, “I think you would be good at that – will you think about serving there?

As Baptists, ordination is the confirmation by the church of God’s call to a person.  The point is not to have a vast divide between clergy and laity – we are all God’s ministers – but ordination is a setting apart for a specific form of service.

I want to tell you about George Truett.  Truett was a law student who joined a Baptist church near the college he attended in Texas.  The church discovered his teaching and speaking abilities and so they elected him to be the superintendent of the Sunday school.  When the pastor was away he would often speak at worship services.  Church members were so sure of his gifts and calling that they urged him to enter the ministry.  He wasn’t really sure.  He was studying to be a lawyer.  But at a Saturday meeting at the church, the congregation insisted that he was called to ministry.  They pressed their case with him and then they ordained him - the next day.  This was their idea, not his.

Well, it was a different time.  Truett became pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and famously gave a sermon from the steps of the U.S. Capitol arguing for complete religious liberty and absolute separation of church and state.  Historically, that was about as Baptist as you could get. Years later, when Baylor started a seminary, it was named the George Truett Seminary.   I love the story of George Truett because the role of the community in discerning God’s call can be so important and so powerful.

So – how are people called to ministry?  In one sense, you don’t have to think about it too much: if you are a Christian, you are called to ministry. 

In the sense of serving in ministry as a career, the call really begins as we exercise our first call to ministry.  It comes as we listen for God, as we pay attention to our lives, and as we ask, “What do we most want to do that he world most needs doing?”  The call can come and the call is confirmed through the encouragement of the community, who may see something in us that we do not see in ourselves.

And while it may happen dramatically, in my experience it more often happens more organically.  Experiences of ministry like leading a Bible study or going on a mission trip or volunteering with Music Camp or taking part in Youth Sunday - can help to steer us toward further experiences of ministry.

People of all ages, men and women, are called to ministry.  God may even be calling someone just like you.  Amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

“Crossing the Threshold” - May 12, 2019

Text: Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

“Never trust anybody over thirty.”  Anybody remember that?  It is by no means a recent phenomena, but we live in an us and them world.  An insider-outsider kind of world.  We separate by age, by nation, by language, by ethnicity, by race, by educational level.  We separate by political party and by ideological commitments.

And it is not surprising that people are divided by religion.  There are insiders and outsiders.  And of course we probably think of ourselves as the insiders, the ones with the inside track to God.  But the thing is, when we turn to the Bible we find that God stubbornly refuses to acknowledge these distinctions.

You’ve got Ruth, a Moabite.  The Moabites were despised by ancient Israel, and Deuteronomy says that no Moabite shall ever be admitted to the people of Israel.  But there she is, Ruth from Moab - a model of love and faithfulness.  Her commitment to her mother in law Naomi leads to her marriage to Boaz and Ruth, the Moabite, becomes the great-grandmother of King David.  Jesus is a direct descendant of Ruth.  Somebody who was supposed to be prohibited from the community becomes a central figure in the story of Israel.

Figures such as Ruth keep appearing in scripture, and we have such a person in our scripture today.  His name is Cornelius.  He is a Roman Centurion – a soldier.  This is not an insignificant detail.

Israel is a small nation struggling for survival.  Through most of its history it had struggled, and at this point, Israel was occupied and ruled by Rome.  It would be hard to imagine someone a typical Israelite would have more disdain for than a Roman soldier such as Cornelius.  Politically and culturally, he is the enemy.  He is an oppressor.  He represents the power of empire.

Cornelius is stationed in Caesarea.  There were several Caesareas, cities dedicated to Caesar.  This was Caesarea Maritima – Caesarea by the sea, a seaport on the Mediterranean, a recently built and thoroughly Roman city.  Religiously, Cornelius is a Gentile.  To protect themselves, to protect the faith, to survive in a hostile environment, the Jews kept strictly separate from Gentiles – which means anybody who is not a Jew.

But there were those Gentiles drawn to Jewish faith, drawn to Jewish worship.  And Cornelius was in that category.  We read that “he feared God.”  Gentiles drawn to Jewish faith were called “God-fearers.”  He apparently is very devout and a person of deep prayer – even though he would not have been eligible to worship in the temple in Jerusalem or participate fully in community worship.

Cornelius has a vision.  An angel appears to him and says, “Your prayers and your alms – he didn’t just pray, he gave of his means to help the poor – your prayers and alms have been heard and seen by God.  Send men to Joppa for Simon Peter – he is staying with Simon the Tanner who lives by the seaside.  

Pretty wild, huh?  God sends an angel to this outsider – a Roman’s Roman, a soldier, a Gentile.  God was not respecting the careful boundaries and sure understanding of the nation of Israel.  But Cornelius had prayed and God had answered.  So Cornelius sends men to Joppa, just down the coast.  Unlike Caesarea, Joppa is in Jewish territory.  While Cornelius’ men are on their way, Peter goes up on the roof to pray.  We don’t typically do that today, but then our roofs are not like roofs in that day.  Think of this as more like the patio or deck for us.  He is there praying and he gets hungry.  And while somebody at Simon the Tanner’s house is making lunch, Peter goes into a trance.

Peter falls into this trance and has this vision, of a giant sheet descending from heaven, full of all kinds of un-kosher food—pigs, and shellfish, and reptiles, and weird-looking birds.  A heavenly voice commands, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”

So, Peter is hungry, he goes into a trance, and he sees bacon wrapped shrimp and lobster and pulled pork, as well as some reptiles and weird looking birds – all of which are not allowed because of Jewish dietary restrictions.  God says, “Bon appetit.”  But Peter answers, “By no means, Lord.”  No way.  I have never eaten anything that is unclean, not a crumb.  Peter is reminding God of Leviticus 1, which forbids all of these foods.

This was not a small thing.  This is what Peter had known all of this life.  Peter’s mother had taught him well.  This was part of his identity.  You may remember that when Daniel is taken to Babylon, he will not eat the food that the king provides.  He negotiates with the king to eat a diet in accordance with his religion’s dietary laws.  This was very serious. 

Peter says, “No, this isn’t right.”  But the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  All of this happens a second time, and then a third time.  And then the sheet is suddenly taken back up to heaven.

Just about then, Cornelius’ men show up.  The Holy Spirit has orchestrated the whole thing.  They explain what has happened and how the angel had spoken to Cornelius.  So Peter invited them in and they stayed the night.  

Interestingly, Peter didn’t ask permission from the homeowner, Simon the Tanner – who already seems a hospitable person because of the fact that Peter is there.  But then, having Gentiles in the house was something else altogether.  But it seemed clear to Peter that God was in this.

The next day, Peter went back with Cornelius’ men, along with some believers from Joppa.  Peter tells Cornelius and the others he encounters that God had shown them that he should not call anyone profane or unclean.

Did you catch what happened there?  Peter understood God’s message.  It wasn’t just about food.  It was about people.  It was about life.  It was really about the limits we can place on God.  It was about the way we can assign insider and outsider status.  And it was about the new thing God was doing. 

It starts with the visit of the angel to Cornelius, and Peter falling into that trance on the rooftop.  That is a really interesting detail.  Have you ever gone into a trance?  Me neither.  I mean it looks like my cat might occasionally go into a trance, but I’m not sure.

In the Bible, however, this seems no big deal.  It is just casually reported.  “Oh, yeah, Peter went into ta trance.”

I think this is a matter of being ready and able to see.  Of being open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit might speak to us.  To be awake to the idea that God might do something new.

Why does Peter fall into a trance and not somebody else?  Why does this vision come to him?  And why do we see what we see?  Today we talk about people “getting it.”  That can be a condescending term, but it can also express a truth.  Why do some people “get it” while others don’t?

The Bible is the continuing story of God doing new things.  Often, the new thing may involve the recovery of an old thing that has been forgotten or overlooked or set aside, but again and again God does something new.  Sending Abraham and Sarai to a new land God would show them, or speaking to Moses in a burning bush, or leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or calling for justice through the prophets, or telling a young woman named Mary that she would have a child, or bringing life out of death.

God is doing a new thing, but all along there had been this call to be a light, to be a blessing, to the nations.  The new thing was in some ways a recovery of an old thing.  What is interesting is that Peter’s upbringing – his religion – gets in the way of what God is doing.  His compulsion to defend and protect his understanding of God gets in the way of following what God is actually doing right in front of him. 

Initially, Peter is so sure that he is right that he gets it wrong.  Which is entirely in Peter’s character, as we were reminded in our cantata a couple of weeks ago.  But then, as he is wondering about things, wondering about the theoretical idea of clean and unclean food, actual people, people he had been taught were unclean, show up - and it is not a theoretical issue any more.

The great preacher Fred Craddock told about his first student church, in East Tennessee.  It was during the time that Oak Ridge was just booming, with all kinds of building activity with the atomic projects there.  So there were construction people who had come from everywhere to turn this little town into a thriving city.  Craddock pastored a beautiful little church nearby - a nice white frame church, very classic building with very nice people.  Just lovely people.  And here were all of these newcomers to the area.  They were living in tents and trailers and all kinds of temporary housing.  Many workers had their families with them, they had little kids with them. 

Craddock suggested to the church board that they reach out to these folks.  They had come from everywhere and here they were nearby.  It looked like this was the church’s mission.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said the board chair.  “They won’t fit in.  After all, they are just here temporarily, living in trailers and all.”

Craddock said, “Well, they may just be here temporarily but they need the gospel and they need a church.”  “No, I don’t think so.”

There was discussion about this and in the end there was a resolution for the board to vote on, a resolution moved by a relative of the board chair.  The resolution essentially said, “Members will be admitted to this church from families that own property in this county.”  The vote was unanimous except for the pastor, and Fred Craddock was reminded that as pastor he was not a board member and could not vote.

Well, years later Craddock was teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in Atlanta. He wanted to take his wife Nettie to visit the site of his early failure.  The church was hard to find because I-40 had been built since then, cutting off a lot of county roads, but they finally found it.  There it was, nestled in pine trees, just as he remembered, still a beautiful white frame building.  Just like he remembered it except that now there were cars and pickup trucks parked everywhere.  And a big sign out front that said, “Barbecue.   All you can eat, chicken, ribs, pork.”

Craddock said, “Well, we might as well go in for lunch.”  They went in and the beautiful oil lamps were still hanging on the wall.  The pump organ was still there but now it was a decoration.  The pews that had all been cut from one giant poplar tree were still there but now they were on the side and people sat there while they were waiting for their tables.  And the place was filled with people, all kinds of people from all over the place.

Craddock said, “It’s a good thing this place is not a church now.  These folks would not be welcome.  They wouldn’t fit in.”

Peter went to Caesarea.  It was not his kind of town, but the Spirit had led him there.  He came to the home of Cornelius.  Cornelius was waiting for him.  And it is only a few words, seemingly insignificant, but we read the Peter went in.  He had probably never been in a Gentile home in his life.  He had been taught his whole life that you just don’t do that.  But he crossed the threshold and entered the home.

Cornelius had gathered friends and family.  And Peter speaks to them, telling them the story of Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist and telling them about Jesus’ life and teaching and healing, and how he had been crucified but rose on the third day and how forgiveness was available to all who believed in him.  And he did not say “all from the nation of Israel who believed,” but simply “all who believed.”

And the Holy Spirit descended on everyone there, and all believed, and all were filled with the Spirit.  Peter said, “How can we withhold baptism from these people who have received the Spirit just as we have?”  And so Cornelius and his family and friends were the very first Gentiles to be baptized. 

Peter was a little slow at first, but he now understood what God was doing.

It is interesting to think of this in terms of mission.  It is not that Peter brought God to these people.  God was already there.  The Holy Spirit showed up long before Peter did.  We don’t really bring God to anyone.  God beat us to it a long time ago.  Our mission is to discern where the Spirit is moving, where God is working, and join in that work.

Following Jesus involves being open to the new things that God is doing.  I think about my life – the way I grew up, the things I was taught, the things I believed at one time.  You know, I have changed.  I have grown.  My understanding has broadened, evolved, developed.  And I am so much better for it.  I bet your experience may be a lot like mine. 

Peter went into this trance and got the message.  We can be pretty slow sometimes.  We are a lot like Peter.  But if we are open, we can hear the Spirit’s voice, we can observe the Spirit’s doings, and we can join in.  Amen. 

Thanks to Rob Bell for helpful ideas in his Robcast #25, The Sheeeeet Factor.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

“The Great Promise” - May 5, 2019

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Since the first of the year - Sunday, January 6 to be exact - we have been in the gospel of Matthew.  That is 116 days, if you have been counting.  About a third of the year.  And this morning, finally, we come to the conclusion.

It is after the resurrection.  Jesus appears to his disciples and what we have this morning are Jesus’ final words to them.  It is like George Washington’s farewell address – these are his parting instructions.  These words are shared with those who were closest to him, those who have followed him.

A few weeks ago, we looked at a passage from Matthew 25 called The Great Judgment – it says that in the end, the question will be, did you care for those in need?  When you saw others hungry and gave them food or thirsty and gave them a drink or sick of in prison and you visited them, you did it for Jesus. 

The passage we just read is known as the Great Commission.  It is a very Baptisty scripture.  I heard it a lot growing up.  We memorized it in the King James Version.   “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  The Great Commission is a call to take the gospel to the world out there – to all nations.

Well, our reading this morning actually begins a couple of verses before that.  This part does not get as much attention, but maybe it should.  If you remember, Jesus had told the two Marys at the tomb, Mary Magdalene and his mother, to go and tell the others to go to Galilee – to leave Jerusalem and go back home, and he would meet them there.

So they are all on their way back to Galilee, they arrive at the mountain where Jesus had told them to go, and the description is very interesting.  “They worshiped him, but some doubted.”  It is even more interesting when you consider the Greek, which does not have the modifying word “some” in there.  They worshiped and doubted.  It is just understood that it has to mean “some” doubted, but it does not literally say that.

In the Gospel of John, Thomas doubts and gets this bad rap as Doubting Thomas, but I had never really paid much attention that we read in Matthew that “they worshiped, but some doubted.”

We really shouldn’t be surprised.  If we are honest, even on our best days we wonder a bit – about God, about life, about mystery, about the universe.  It means we are alive.  It means we are sentient beings.  It means we notice what is going on around us.  It means we are engaged, and we are honest with ourselves. 

What is stunning is that these disciples – who worshiped and also doubted, are the ones that Jesus sends out to do his mission.  To continue his work.  Jesus is leaving everything up to them.

Just so you caught that, let me say it again.  Jesus is depending on people who are not completely sure.  This is who he is sending out.

Now often, we may feel like we are not spiritual enough, not polished enough, that we don’t have special gifts or training or abilities.  You know what?  Jesus depended totally and completely on people just like us.  He still does.

The commission Jesus gives is to go and make disciples of all nations.  And at this point, the gospel has come full circle.  It begins with a genealogy – Jesus is set in a very specific community and tribe and nation.  But then Jesus is born, and the news of the messiah is first revealed to who? – To the Wise Men.  Gentiles.  People from another place, another land. 

Jesus’ mission is largely to his own people, to the Jewish nation, but all along we continue to have these inklings, and sometimes more than inklings, that the gospel is not just for insiders, but those on the margins.  And not only for Israelites, but for all the nations.  There is the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus for healing.  The Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan woman at the well.  And all along, Israel was called to be a light to the nations.

So Jesus’ parting words are that his followers are to go to all nations and make disciples.  Now, a couple of things about this.  First, we tend to think that his is for missionaries.  I mean, it is a great missionary text.  But we can think that it is just for super-spiritual people.  But then remember, these words were spoken to people who had questions, people who weren’t even sure.

But on the other hand, we can read this as though it is totally written to us – as though we are the ones on whom Jesus’ mission depends.  And by us, I mean us Americans.

The missionary impulse runs deep in American life.  And as an organized denomination – if that isn’t an oxymoron – Baptists first organized to do mission work.  We came together as a national denomination in 1814 as we sent our first missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma.

But today, there are groups in other countries who send missionaries to the U.S.  And it is not just missionaries who come to share the gospel.  Last spring a number of us went on a mission trip to Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  It is located on the grounds of Bacone College, a historically Native American college affiliated with the ABC.  Today, about 1/3 of the students at Bacone are Native American.  Roughly another third are students who came to the U.S. as refugees from Myanmar.  They are ethnic Chin and Kachin and Karen.  Their families came here from refugee camps in Thailand.  They came to this country as Christians and as Baptists – a result of the early mission efforts of the Judsons and others.  And they are bringing the message of Jesus to our country. 

People like students we met at Bacone are coming here, starting new churches, and transforming long-existing churches.  As of sometime last year, 8 of the 10 newest ABC churches in our region were made up of immigrant groups, and mostly refugees.  

The world is getting a lot smaller, and we don’t have to go anywhere to be in conversation with the world.  Living in a university community, we know this well.  We are all blessed by a rich diversity of folks from many places.  So, you can go and make disciples of all nations, or you can just as easily stay home and make disciples of all nations.  And to top it off, some of those who go will wind up in places like Ames, Iowa and will help us as we become disciples.

Go, make disciples, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Help others come to faith.  And then, “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The obeying part is kind of a downer, right?  We are not really up for a heavy rules-based kind of religion, where obeying every little thing is what it’s all about.  And we especially don’t want to try and teach a bunch of rules to others as being the way that you follow Jesus, the way that you serve God.

Well, let’s back up.  “Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.”  Well just what is exactly that Jesus commanded his followers?

Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength.
Love one another as I have loved you. 
Love your enemies.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Do you see a pattern here?  The command is to love.  We get scared and more than a little nervous with talk about evangelism, and evangelism can become almost a bad word because we associate it with manipulative methods and fire and brimstone and damnation.  But when you get right down to it, what we are asked to do is to love others.  That is what we are called to do and that is what we are called to teach – by word and example.

A few weeks ago, Westboro Baptist Church came to Ames.  This is the group that protests all over the country – against gay people, at churches, at the funerals of soldiers.  Incredibly hateful stuff.  My impulse was to just stay away, as they are just looking for attention.  But they were going to protest at Ames High School.  I felt like with students seeing this going on, there needed to be support for students.  And this was my neighborhood.

When she was in high school, I remembered Marian Thompson saying that a lot of her friends could not believe she was Baptist – because they thought that all Baptists were like Westboro.  So I felt like I needed to be there to give witness to what real Baptists are like.

I walked over to the high school about 7:00 am that morning and it was a surreal experience.  There were a few protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, with their hateful signs and strange stuff playing over a portable PA system.  They had signs saying God Hates – well, I won’t use their incendiary language, but basically signs saying that everybody except them is going straight to hell.  And there were about 150 people there to support students and stand against hatred.  With all kinds of signs talking about what God hates, I brought a sign along that just said, “God is love.”  It was my little effort to witness for Jesus and I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood.  But in a world with so much hate, a message of love can be very powerful.

The same day that Westboro was here, I went to a pastors’ conference in Omaha.  One of the speakers was a man named Elie Haddad.  He is the president of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.  He was talking about the churches in Lebanon.  Lebanon is about 1/3 Christian, 1/3 Sunni Muslim, and 1/3 Shia.  But in reality it is a quite secular country with a minority of people who actually practice their faith, whatever that faith may be.

The churches there had always been very insular, very focused on survival and inward-looking.  But they have been challenged by the war and upheaval in Syria next door.  There are over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  This is a small country.  A million refugees in Syria would be like having 50 or 60 million refugees in the U.S.  Can you imagine?  I mean, there are those who argue that a limit of our country accepting 50,000 refugees a year is way too high.  Lebanon has over a million refugees.     

So there are all of these refugees, mostly Muslim, and the Lebanese Baptists have historically been very inward looking.  But the need was so great they could not ignore it.  And so they started providing services for refugees.  They started serving meals.  They started schools for children in refugee camps who were not getting any schooling.  They started reaching out and something happened.  It didn’t just make a difference for these refugees, it is transforming the churches.  Churches that had always looked inward are now looking outward. 

The Baptists in Lebanon do not have to go far away to take the Good News to the nations.  They are doing it right where they are.  And they are teaching both by their words and their actions to obey what Jesus has commanded.  Love one another.

We may go to all nations or we may just wait for all nations to come to us.  And actually the sense of Jesus’ words is “as you go.”  Wherever you go.  As you live your life.  As we live our lives, we are to share Jesus’ message of love.  It is a powerful message for a difficult and dangerous time. 

But here is the last part.  Just as important as anything else.  Jesus says, “I am with you always.”  Doubtful, believing, worshiping, going, staying, living – whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus says, “I am with you always.”

This scripture is called the Great Commission, but it contains both a commission and a promise.  You could even call this the Great Promise.

Think of your life.  And think of all the situations that you find yourself in.  Wonderful and terrible times.  Joy and happiness as well as pain and desperation.  Those times when life is easy and those times when we feel we can barely go on. 

Jesus knew it would not always be easy.  And so he gives this wonderful promise: “I am with you always.”

Earlier this week, Joe Parrish asked about the sermon for today, what the theme would be.  He was trying to find a song to sing that would fit the theme.  I told him the scripture was the Great Commission, but anything he wanted to sing would be fine.  I mean, I was really helpful.  So Joe came up with “You Are Mine,” and I said, “Yeah, that would be good.”

Well, it’s a great song and Joe does a great job with anything.  But as it turned out, it fits perfectly.  Do not be afraid, I am with you.  Lo, I am with you always.  I love you and you are mine.

It is a Great Promise.  Amen.



“Make Room for the Unimaginable” - Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Text: Matthew 28:1-10

William Willimon was preaching in a little church in Alaska when an earthquake hit.  “The earth heaved for a moment that seemed forever,” he wrote.  “The little church shook.  But the Alaskan Methodists sat there like it was another day at the office.  Their only response was the woman who said, ‘How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.’”

Willimon ended his sermon immediately.  He was shaken by the earthquake, but also a bit shaken by those nonchalant Alaskans.  Afterwards, he asked the pastor, “What the heck would it take to get this congregation’s attention?  I’d hate to have to preach to them every Sunday.”

Easter is like an earthquake, only we have been through the routine so many times, we have grown kind of nonchalant about it.  The surprise and the joy isn’t quite so strong when you’ve been through it time and again.  But what must it have been like that first Easter morning!

Jesus had entered Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of hosanna.  But it wasn’t long before he was throwing the money changers out of the temple, and it went downhill from there.  After sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was betrayed and arrested.  And on Friday, he was crucified.  On Sunday, Jesus was hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.

Everything had gone so badly so quickly.  His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.

As Matthew reports it, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb.  “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter.  The women do not have an agenda.  They are just going to the tomb, which makes perfect sense.  We may go to the cemetery after the funeral of a loved one.  The women went to remember and grieve.

But they did not find what they expected.  When they arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake – the kind that really gets your attention - and an angel descends from heaven.  An earthquake and descending angels.  The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it.  Guards posted at the tomb are so terrified that they pass out like dead men.  And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead.  Stunning, unfathomable news.  Jesus was alive! 

We are told that the reaction of the women to the news that Jesus was alive was fear and joy.  Fear and joy.  They are an unlikely pair. 

Cardinal and gold – they go together.  Winter and potholes.  Spring and daffodils.  College and ramen noodles.  They all go together.  But fear and joy?  As it turns out, we have all have had the experience of simultaneously feeling joy and fear, in both large ways and small ways.

You’ve saved and scrimped and looked forward to the day when you could buy your own home, and now the day has come.  You make an offer, and it is accepted.  And then it hits you that you have committed to paying an incredible sum of money over the next three decades, and so you feel both excitement and joy at owning this home as well as this feeling of “what have we done?”

You have looked forward so much to the birth of a child.  And seeing this tiny baby, you feel such incredible love and joy and thankfulness.  But at the same time, as you think of the challenges of parenthood, there is fear mixed in - a sense of the awesome responsibility you now have.

You are off to college for the first time.  It is exciting.  It feels like freedom.  It’s a new chapter in your life.  But it is also scary.  You are not sure what to expect and your roommate is a bit – well, questionable.  There is both joy and fear.  For parents whose child has gone off to college, there is fear and joy as well.

Joy mixed with fear is actually common.  What the two Marys experienced, however, went far beyond this.

An earthquake and an angel will elicit fear every time.  But what is really frightening is to have your understanding of reality challenged, and that is exactly what happened on Easter morning.  What really provokes fear is a sense that things are out of control and that the world is not the way we had thought it was.

As they ran to tell the others, suddenly, Jesus is there with them.  He speaks to them.  They took hold of him and worshiped.

There was fear, and then there was joy.  If the guards became like dead men, Mary and Mary, who had felt dead before, suddenly became fully alive.

The resurrection challenges us with the notion that God is at work in ways that we cannot see or even imagine.  There is a reality beyond the logic and analysis of our minds, and God is not limited by our understanding or experience.

The resurrection is the heart of the Christian gospel.  It is reason for great, soaring joy, and it can also scare the living daylights out of us, because it means that we thought we had the world all figured out, and maybe we don’t. 

The resurrection inspires both joy and fear, but we have had mixed feelings about Jesus all along, if we are honest.

  • We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.
  • We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.
  • We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.
  • We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are beneath us.
  • We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our own cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.
Resurrection can be threatening.  New life can actually be scary, because we prefer the certainty of the way things are, even if the way things are isn’t all that great.

We can get used to going through the motions.  We can get used to a kind of ho-hum existence.  We can easily make what we think are the safe and usual and conventional choices, even if we don’t find a lot of joy in it.  We just tell ourselves that is the way things are, and it to do something different just seems too much trouble, or too uncertain, or too scary.  

It can be hard to live by faith when what most of us know, what most of us are taught in so many ways, what most of us are programmed for, is to live otherwise. 

The poet Mary Oliver, who died in January, wrote, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  I love that.  And that is the heart of the message of Easter: “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Kim Fabricius told about going to a meeting at a university where someone spoke on “The Resurrection of Jesus.”  The talk was brilliant.  All of the arguments against the resurrection – that Jesus hadn’t really died, that the disciples stole the body, that it was all either a hoax or a hallucination – all of these the speaker roundly refuted.  And then he presented evidence in favor of the resurrection.  The witness of the disciples and especially the women (nobody would invent the testimony of women in first-century Israel); the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul; the birth of the church, believers willing to die for their faith – marshalling all this evidence, the speaker claimed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.

The audience was impressed, but somehow this all left Fabricius kind of cold.  The main reason the talk fell flat for him was that it was as if the speaker had it all figured out.  He had all the answers to what came across as a kind of algebra problem, an academic game and it made it sound as though the resurrection of Jesus were easy.

Fear and joy.  While the speaker was short on joy, he had completely left out the fear.  There was no sense of mystery about it, which to this man who attended the talk made it feel like there was no sense of God in it.

The fact is, resurrection is not easy at all.  It’s existentially disturbing.  It’s threatening.  It’s explosive.

Of course, this speaker did what we are all tempted to do – to make God manageable, to have it all explained and figured out.  Now certainly, our faith is worth examining in a rigorous way.  But the way the gospels present the resurrection, each a bit differently, leaves things kind of messy.  And it is interesting that none of the gospels are trying to prove the resurrection; they are simply reporting, and inviting us to experience the mystery of God and the joy of new life as well as the fear and messiness of following Jesus for ourselves.

New life is unpredictable.  It can mess up our reality.  That can be scary, but at the same time this is good news, because there is a lot of reality that needs to be messed with.  There is a lot in this world that needs some shaking up.

Last Monday, I was between running errands and doing projects.  I came inside for a minute and Susan said that there was a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Wow, I thought, and I went on with whatever I was doing.  But a little later I sat down in the front of the TV, and this time it was, WOW.  We watched the video of the spire falling.  We saw the roof consumed by flames and collapsing and all of the people watching in shocked horror.  The building had stood for 850 years, and it looked like it might be completely destroyed.

But then came morning.  After firefighters labored for nine hours, the fire was out.  The nave of the church was open to the sky.  There was a huge pile of timbers and debris and ash across the floor in front of the altar.  But amazingly, the altar still stood, and there was a gleaming cross that had escaped damage.  You have probably seen the photograph.  In the midst of all of this destruction, there was the cross. 

It was almost as if to say, this has been a dark, terrible day, but God is still here.  And coming in Holy Week, this somehow told the story of our faith.  Hurt, pain, loss, grief will come.  But God is there through it all, God is with us through it all, and there will be life on the other side of that pain.  Life beyond our imagining.

I was reminded too of other places of worship that have burned.   In Louisiana, three African-American churches in Landry Parish were destroyed in fires set by an arsonist.  Those churches have had to endure not only the loss of their place of worship but the hatred expressed by those church burnings.  The outpouring of support for the Cathedral in Paris prompted an outpouring of support by Americans to rebuild those Louisiana churches.

For the cathedral in Paris, for those churches in Louisiana – not just buildings, but flesh and blood people - and for all of us, the message of Easter is that beyond the pain, on the other side of loss, there is hope and there is new life.

If there is anything we share in common, it is loss.  There are broken relationships and dashed hopes and shattered dreams.  We lose those whom we love; for some here this morning the grief is fresh and raw.  In one way or another, we all have to face loss, and if we are not careful, death can have a grip on us long before our bodies die.

But Easter tells us that there is resurrection.  There is new life, not just awaiting us in the future, but here and now.  Easter tells us that the power of God is greater than the power of death, greater than all the losses we suffer in this life.  And while Easter elicits both fear and great joy, in the end the power and grace and love of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, is greater than all our fears.

I noticed an interesting news item on Friday.  Researchers at Cal Tech and UC-San Diego found that between 2008 and 2017, Southern California was hit by an average of 495 earthquakes a day, or roughly one every three minutes.  This is about 10 times more than previously thought. 

“It’s not that we didn’t know these earthquakes were occurring,” said Zachary Ross, lead author of the study.  “The problem is that they can be very difficult to spot amid all of the noise.”

For the women who went to the tomb, the women who became the very first preachers of the gospel, the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, Easter came with an earthquake.  And the thing is, Easter keeps happening.  New life keeps bursting forth in places where we don’t expect it, those Easter earthquakes keep happening, at least every three minutes, but sometimes it can be difficult to spot amid all the noise. 

This morning, the announcement comes not just to the women at the tomb, it comes to us.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  The power of God is greater than any of the losses we suffer, greater even than death.  Ester earthquakes are all around.  So “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  Amen.