Monday, May 19, 2014

Spiritual Skydiving

55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Reading the book of Acts, we see how the members of the early church modeled themselves after Jesus, whether it's in the healing of illness, the breaking of bread or facing death. While many of the stories and people illustrate how we should live, the story of Stephen shows us how to die. I know, pondering death seems morbid, something best left to angsty teens wearing black. But, studying Stephen's death can help us to transform the way we live today. When we consider death, we think about what makes life meaningful, for us and those we love.

In the story of Stephen, his accusers say he's trying to alter the law of Moses rather than live into it. They charge him with trying to change their customs. Stephen responds with a long speech illustrating the relationship with God and Israel. He takes up the favorite insult from Moses and the prophets. He calls them "stiff-necked people" and accuses them of having uncircumcised hearts and ears. He reminds them that they are a people who regularly kill the prophets—including the righteous one Jesus. 

Stephen shares the parts of scripture. He gives the history. He knows his Bible. He tells a provocative truth. Stephen repeated the criticisms of leadership that pervade the Old Testament and discovered that nothing changes. Prophets are still despised.

Stephen's sermon is there for us, but I suspect it's not what inspires us to remember him. We remember him for his final actions rather than his words. We remember Stephen because in his death he most resembled Jesus. In his death he gave the most radical message of faith and forgiveness.

The picture the writer of Acts creates is a contrast of opposites. The accusers are so full of rage that they are grinding their teeth and covering their ears. They are like children throwing tantrums. We’ve all seen kids acting like this--and been horrified when they are our own! They are so attached to the toy in the store or the cookie in their mind they explode with inarticulate rage when someone denies them.

Spitting mad, the accusers drag Stephen out of the city to stone him. There’s a frenzy of activity as they take off their coats and pick up their rocks and start hurling them. Stone after stone. Fury after fury.

And then there is Stephen who the Bible says has the face of an angel. Stephen, who lives out today's parenting mantra of "use your words" and doesn't try to hit back. Stephen who gazes upward says, "Look, I see Jesus standing at the right hand of God." Stephen, who as the stones pummel him and the blood begins flow prays for Jesus to take his spirit. Stephen, who when he can’t stand any more kneels and cries out in a loud voice asking forgiveness for those who cast the stones.  We hear those same words from Jesus lips.

Even in his death, Stephen found that peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Like Jesus, Stephen lived into his death. He met death with his best self. Imitating Jesus in life seemed to make death a bit easier. He looked for and saw Jesus in that moment of transition. 

Stephen knew death was inevitable and accepted it. We, too, know that inevitability. We just don’t like to think about it. It is frightening and painful and so we push it out of our minds--and out of our culture. Death is often something that happens separate and apart from our lives. We confine it to hospitals and funeral homes. We shield our children from it.

But then something will happen that brings it front and center in our minds—a friend or spouse or a parent or a child dies, test results come back with bad news, whatever the reason, there are times when we are forced to confront the truth of death. When we do, we take a good long look at our own lives. When death comes close, we wonder how it might change us or those that we love.

And because so many things in life can be illustrated in a country music song, I’d like to take a moment to listen to Live Like You Were Dying by Tim McGraw.

When the person in this song found out he had cancer, he looked at his life in light of his death and made a decision to change how he lived. He chose to read the Good Book, he loved deeper and spoke sweeter and gave forgiveness he’d be denying. He lived like he was dying—thoughtfully, intentionally, lovingly. Like Stephen, he chose to face death with love and forgiveness in his heart rather than anger and bitterness. He also chose to take some real chances by going sky diving and riding a bull.

Both Stephen and the guy in the song let the finality of the death allow them to live their best lives. Instead of fearing the inevitable future, they embraced the here and now. Jesus lived the same kind of life. He knew he was headed for Jerusalem and the cross, but he celebrated Passover, healed the people he encountered, and forgave those who killed him.

What would you do if you didn’t fear death? If you don’t fear death—or the journey to death—you probably don’t fear much in life. If you were no longer afraid what would you do? How would you be a different person today? What is your spiritual equivalent of sky diving or rocky mountain climbing?  How might you love more deeply and speak more sweetly? Would you be a missionary or evangelist? Who would you forgive?

Stephen and those who kill him are two ends of a continuum. Most of us are somewhere in between. At the one end, Stephen discovered strength freedom in seeing Christ and letting go of the fear. At the other end, those who killed Stephen were trapped in their fear and their desire for control. They kept throwing their stones of anger and loneliness and powerlessness at Stephen’s grace. They tried to kill Stephen with their own insecurities and frustrations and desire to stay the same. But, Stephen didn’t yield to their fear and anger. He looked beyond those who were persecuting him and gazed into the face of Christ. He found the strength to forgive what was happening to him. 

And this is why we remember Stephen. Sure, he delivered a pretty good sermon, but he lived an even better one. He delivered a sermon calling people to account but he lived a sermon of forgiveness and transcendence.  

While the people around him were grinding their teeth and shouting and throwing stones, Stephen was living into his redemption even as the life drained out of his body.

This is our call, too. To live into our redemption today and every day, to let Christ’s defeat of death inspire us to live transformative lives. We are to be the living sermons of God’s Word. Another way of saying this is that we are to conform ourselves to the image of Christ--to practice extreme love and forgiveness. Life in Christ frees us to love deeper, speak sweeter, give forgiveness and continue the ministry that Christ started here on earth.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

What Do We Have in Common?

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! We’ve been saying that in church for what, four weeks now? In our world today, that feels like an eternity. In our BTDT culture we are on the lookout for something new--the newest restaurant, movie, artist or song. The more obscure the better. We don't want what is common because then WE might be common. Instead we seek the out of the ordinary, or, if we can afford it, the extraordinary

But this week's Bible lesson is all about what we hold in common. In the beginning of the book of Acts we read a church story that’s almost too good to be true. Peter gives a sermon and bam—thousands of people believe, devote themselves to the apostle’s teachings and the change the way they live. Day-by-day the church was growing as God added to their number those who were being saved. Those of us in dwindling congregations read it with a sigh.

We wonder how we can make this happen in the congregations we serve. Are the apostles being rewarded for their faithful work of teaching and praying? Should we do more Bible study? Are people impressed by the way God is working through the apostles with signs and wonders? Should we have healing services?Are flocks of poor people being baptized because in the breaking of bread they know they can get something to eat? Should we open a food pantry? 

The explosion of the church’s growth could be due to all of these or none of these. At the end of the passage we see the expansion is not the work of the apostles, but the work of God. God at work in the world.

If you look closely at what the apostles are doing, they are mimicking their leader. They are doing many of the same things Jesus did while he walked the earth-- teaching and praying, feeding people, doing signs and wonders. Just as God decided to share our common humanity, food and experiences, the early church had important things in common with Jesus.

This snapshot describes a church that is incarnational. A group of people who are embodying Christ in the world. Even without Jesus physical presence, the word of God is being embodied—the key focus of loving God and neighbor are being lived out in the context of Christ's resurrection. We see the repetition of theme in the Bible. 

God caring for people ---> Jesus caring for people ---> Church caring for people

In many Old Testament stories, God is set apart and unapproachable. The God on high cares for his people by providing a garden, leading them out of slavery and into a land of milk and honey. In the New Testament, God is no longer on high but touchable as Jesus. God walks, eats, talks, heals and even experiences death just like we do. Christ's church is to continue his ministry.

The fact that God, the ultimate creator, chose to have something in common with you and me is breathtaking. The story of Jesus’ resurrection is amazing and inspiring. The fact that through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection we are able to come closer to God is an awesome story. The Jesus story was attractive and powerful. We see this in Acts. The Jesus story is attractive and powerful today. But we no longer see it that way.

So many of us in churches have heard it over and (yawn) over again. Week after week, year after year. The same old story. What we have in common these days is our ambivalence about the very thing that makes us a church.  We have lost the devotion and awe at the story of our redemption in Christ. Our time and energy are consumed by other things.

Instead of remembering that God came to the world for our salvation, we remember who sits where and which families have ongoing feuds.

Instead of remembering and acting out the teachings of Jesus, we remember and reenact our own traditions and feed our own desires.

Instead of doing the signs and wonders of ministry with boldness and confidence, we look and the signs of decline and wonder how many years we have left until we run out of people or money.

As an established church, it’s so easy to move Jesus out of the center and put the church building or programs or a hot button issue there instead. I know firsthand it’s easy to let the bills and personnel and programs and ads in the paper and building needs creep to the center.

But you know what? Our part of the world doesn’t need any more church buildings. The world doesn’t need another cleverly marketed worship service or VBS curriculum. The world needs more people who love God and act like Jesus.  The world—and the church—need people like those who are mentioned in this passage. People who are devoted the Word, filled with awe, joined together in Christ and willing to share what they have with others.  We need to be those people.  

As a lifelong Presbyterian, I think I have been devoted more often than not. I have been willing to share on a lot of occasions. And I’m sure you have, too. But I also know it’s easy to lose the awe and amazement over the years. Today, there are things about my faith that I take for granted. When you hear the story of Christ’s salvation 50, 100, 200 times it’s easy to tune out or assume you know it. Jesus becomes common in the worst sense of the word.

I remember several years ago my husband and I went out to an expensive and fancy restaurant in Pittsburgh to celebrate our anniversary.  The food was amazing. It looked exquisite on the plate.  The waiters attended to every detail. It was an exquisite and sublime experience.  We were in awe.

But, there was a couple dining next to us who had obviously been to that restaurant many times before. The manager was talking to them and while they were pleased, they made comments about how this could be better or how that other dish was tastier.

I said to Matt, I don’t ever want a meal like this to be common. I don’t want to eat like this so often that I can’t appreciate what the chef and the staff have done.  I want to keep that awe. 

How can we do this as a church? How can we do this with our faith? How can we show up week and week and be continuously amazed by the work that God has done and is doing?

I think that the answer is in the passage. First, the people devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship. In order to be continually amazed by God, we have to continually learn about who God is and what God is doing. We need to hear the deep truth in the stories about how God worked in the Bible and the common stories about how God works in our own lives. God’s word is alive and the Holy Spirit is busy among us. When we talk about it, we make our extraordinary experiences common knowledge.

Also, the converts are breaking bread and participating in prayers. While we think of breaking bread as communion with a bite of bread and shot of juice, the communion and prayer of the early church was different. It was an actual meal. Those who had food in abundance brought food in abundance. Those who had nothing brought nothing. They put it on the table and shared it so that all were fed. They healed people, provided for people and would actually sell their stuff to share the radical, tangible love of God. They made sure nobody was in need.

As an mainline church, we are good at fellowship and meals, but if Christ isn’t at the center and we aren’t learning and praying together, our gatherings are nothing more than social time. If we’ve confined Christ to a chair in the back or prayer to a thoughtless blessing, we need to examine why we are doing it.

When we don’t know God, we can’t be awed by the work God does. When we ignore Jesus, we don’t know what God is calling us to do. When we don't pray, we don't know who God is calling us to bread bread with. When we don’t hold things in common with the people around us, we begin to think that we are set apart from the rest. But that’s not God. That’s not Jesus.

Jesus was and is willing to be anywhere. He kept some questionable company in his life. He found things in common with people who are nothing like him--because, really, who is like God? 

That is our call as well. We need to discover and embrace what we have in common with people who may not be like us. We need to share as if we are on a common journey. We have to realize that what we have in common isn’t how we look or act, but who we are. 

Because at the most elemental level, the most common thing we share, is that we are God’s beloved people

We are the people that Christ died for. Each of us. When we recognize this and start treating each other that way, we are doing the work of Christ, the will of God. When we recognize this and start treating people we don’t know this way, people respond with awe and amazement.

Each of us is made in the image or our Creator. There is no Gentile or Jew, slave or free, man or woman, rich or poor. Christ is all, and is in all. Christ is what we have in common. How awesome is that? 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

God's Mystery Machine

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from 14and talking 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
with each other about all these things that had happened.

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
photo from picgifs clip art

As I was reading the Road to Emmaus story over and over again this week, it reminded me of a cartoon that I used to enjoy watching as a child. I wasn’t too big on cartoons, except, I really liked Scooby Doo. Every week, the gang loaded into their van called the Mystery Machine to solve a case. Every week
Scooby and the gang were faced with a new problem that they always managed to solve.

Now, I don’t want to spoil things for you but there’s a rumor that the person responsible for the shenanigans in Scooby Doo is often the first person that Scooby and the gang encounter. The person who explains the mysterious happenings and the last one they suspect. I don’t know if that rumor is true or not, but I can’t help but thinking that the Road to Emmaus story is similar.

The road walkers know that Jesus has been crucified. They know that the tomb is empty. There is a mystery. But what they don’t know is that the man they encounter, they man who seems to know nothing about the events, is actually the resurrected Jesus. He is the last person that they expect to encounter as they walk dejectedly out of Jerusalem. After swapping stories the mystery of what happened to Jesus' body is solved. In the breaking of bread they recognize the man with them is Jesus. Then poof. He’s gone again—vanishing from their sight.

Comparing the Road to Emmaus story to a child’s cartoon may seem a bit simplistic, but when a story’s structure is so easy to understand that it works for children, that structure is powerful. When a story structure is so common that its found in cartoons and the Bible, it generally reveals something basic about our human nature.  The Road to Emmaus story and Scooby Doo reveal something that is deeply embedded in our humanity. 

In the face of mystery, we want answers.  In the midst of chaos we want order. When big things happen in our lives, we gather together and talk about them over and over again, telling stories and making meaning.

We do this when someone dies. We gather at funeral home to formally honor them and gather around a meal to tell stories about their life. We do this when we have babies, new moms tell the birth stories over and over again. Even after twenty years, I’ll still tell you the stories about the birth of my kids or the traumas of parenting young children.  

The road walkers are talking about what happened in Jerusalem. They are trying to make sense of it when Jesus approaches them and asks what they are talking about. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 

Ironically, Jesus is the only one who actually does know what took place over the last three days. 

Cleopas asks him how he could be so clueless when in reality it is Cleopas who is clueless. And so they swap stories. First Cleopas tells the story of the last days of  Jesus’ life and the mystery of the missing body. Then Jesus tells the age-old story of God and Israel. Jesus reveals the scriptures about himself.  Jesus puts their story in theological context. He shows them how to make sense of the events in their lives.

This is the way we make meaning of our lives. We live though an event, share it with other people and then we try to figure out why it happened or what it means.

On the road to Emmaus the travelers were talking about death and empty tombs. The reveal WHAT happened. Jesus explains WHY it happened.

It’s like our brains are wired for this bigger picture, to understand why things happen. Sometimes though, we don’t have all the answers and so we stay in story mode. We tell the same story over and over again trying to make sense of it. There’s nothing bad about that. It’s just us. It’s an ongoing process to try to figure out life—and death.

I’m guessing that’s why you go to church. You are living the story of your life. You are experiencing the day-to-day events—some good, some bad, some mundane. But you come here to church because you want to know how to put those events in context. What do the scriptures say about your life? About your story?  Who are you in relation to God? Where do you fit in God’s story?

We already know what happens in the Road to Emmaus story, so we see what the main characters don’t: Jesus is the stranger with them. It’s not until they have a meal that they realize that Jesus is present. The Bible says: 

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

It was through ritual of a meal together that they recognized Christ among them. When we hear those words—he took the bread blessed, broke it and gave it we, too, recognize Christ in the ritual. It’s a reminder of the mystery of our faith—that Christ died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.

We gather around the communion table and tell the same story that's been told over thousands of years. The sacrament of communion is a powerful mystery in our lives and in our faith. It’s a reminder of Christ among us, but it also lifts us into the presence of God.

Over time, we as Christians have been trying to figure out what it means. Some believe that the bread and cup are nothing but a symbol. A visible sign of the promises of God for redemption. Others believe that the bread and the juice actually become the body of Christ. 

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, believing that the sacrament is about more than just eating some plain ol' bread and having a swig of juice, yet not going as far as to believe the bread and juice actually turn in to the body of Christ. Most of us recognize a reverent holiness that accompanies communion. Many of us have felt more connected to God, or to each other or to the saints throughout history when we participate in communion.

Occasionally we feel the sacrament lift the veil between heaven and earth. Sometimes we feel our hearts burning within us. Sometimes it allows us to see Jesus more clearly. Sometimes it allows us to serve our neighbor by handing them the bread and the juice.

The sacrament of communion is a mystery, a story/act whose deep meaning we are still trying to figure out. We gather to retell God's story of salvation, to reflect on the story, to encounter each other within the story, and use it to help make sense of our lives.

Sometimes this retelling causes us to change or turn around as the men on the road to Emmaus did. At the beginning of the story they were heading away from Jerusalem, back to their homes. But after their encounter with Jesus they turn and head back to Jerusalem, joining the disciples there. 

Once they recognize the resurrected Jesus, they have a new story to tell--and some more figuring out to do. Their experience with Christ links them to something bigger than themselves. It links them to the remaining apostles. It hooks them in to a bigger story. Returning to Jerusalem to the community of new believers gives them a group of people who could help them make sense of their new experience.

As a community of believers we gather for worship to glorify God. But we also gather for that guidance Jesus offered on the road to Emmaus--making sense of events in light of scripture. We gather to make sense of our lives. We tell our stories. We evaluate our lives in light of our faith. We seek to interpret our lives in light of the scriptures. We break bread together to celebrate Christ in our midst.

Like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, our encounters with Christ change the directions of our lives. Our encounters may call us deeper into our community. It may give us insight as to why things are happening. It may warm our hearts and inspire us to share the good news that in Jesus Christ we are loved and forgiven.
 Will we achieve complete understanding? Will we solve the mystery? Not in this lifetime.