Friday, May 29, 2015

Deep Breath

EZEKIEL 37:1-14
1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.“7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Quality of Life

1 JOHN 5:9-13
9If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

What brought you to church this morning?

You could be at a diner eating too much for breakfast or at at a coffee shop with a newspaper. Why did you get up, get dressed and come here to church?

Maybe you read the news this week about the Pew study that shows the number of Christians in the United States continues to decline while the number of religiously unaffiliated people continues to go up.

How did you feel when you heard that news? Does it make you sad? Angry? Does it inspire you to go out into the world and share God's love? Does it make you want to retreat further into the church?

As we close out our study of 1 John we remember that its written to a community of believers in a world where Christianity was a minority faith. Jesus and the early Christians were living in a world where Jews (and soon to be Christians) were not politically powerful. The 1 John letter that we have been studying is to a small group of believers that was being criticized by people on the outside. 

Those who remained in the church seem to have been confused and bewildered. Like us, they did not quite know what to think. In the past month, we've discovered that the book of 1 John reminds the little congregation of three things:

  • They are God’s beloved.
  • Perfect love casts out fear.
  • They are to be love in the world.

Today’s verses remind us that it’s important to believe that Jesus is a testimony of God’s love for us. 1 John says:

God’s testimony is this: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

The idea of testimony or witness has been part of the Christian church since Mary Magdalene first ran to the disciples breathless with the news, He is risen! The disciples witnessed to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances on the Road to Emmaus and the seaside fish-fry. Today we remember Jesus' ascension, his rising up into the sky to return to heaven. Christians are known for their testimonies of some pretty crazy-sounding stuff.  

But, faithful and personal witness is foundational to what we do as a church. And so today, that’s what I would like to do today.

Some sermons are meant to teach, some to convict, some are meant to evangelize, some to inspire. This sermon is one of witness. It’s me sharing where I have seen God, Scripture and the church swirling around in my life. It’s a testimony that, I hope, points to God’s testimony in Jesus Christ.

When I read news about the number of people who are indifferent to Christianity, it makes me sad. As someone who has been raised in the church, challenged by the church, loved by the church and, yes, hurt by the church I can say without a doubt that my life has been enriched by the body of Christ that is the church. It has made me feel like I live a quality life.

And so I want to thank my parents, who took me to a church where I felt –as John says—beloved. I have memories of my mom and dad singing out the hymns that they knew, sometimes with a line or two harmony. My babysitter Anita worked the nightshift at the convenience store and would always fall asleep during the sermon.

My grandmother would listen critically to the sermon and, if I remember correctly, refused to say the prayer of confession because she didn't believe it was necessary.

My sister would belly crawl under the pews as a young child, avoiding people’s feet in order to escape out the back door.

I remember being an acolyte, probably in late elementary school. Acolyting was a big responsibility because after we carried in the Bible and lit the candles we had to sit in the front of the church in full view of the congregation for an entire hour.

One day I lit the candle and watched as my co-acolyte put the Bible in the pulpit. She plopped down in her chair. A few minutes into the service I heard a r-r-r-i-i-i-p-p-p as she tore a long strip from her bulletin and folded it carefully into an origami frog. Then she did it again and again and again. Pretty soon she had a choir of frogs on the hymnal sitting on her lap and church was only ½ over. So then she pretended that she was the choir director leading them with her fingers. She was so engrossed with what she was doing that she didn’t notice that everyone in the sanctuary was watching her instead of listening to the service.

These childhood experiences taught me that church is a safe place. A place where I and others were be-loved for our far from perfect selves. The showed me that God is loving and forgiving. In Matthew, Jesus says I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. I believe that.

A few years later my youth leader taught me that a journey of faith is about the questions, not the easy answers. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, it sometimes it takes a good wresting match with God to help us grow in faith. And teenagers and young adults have questions in abundance. Questions like:

  • What if we just made up this God story? Or Is God a universal consciousness?
  • If we don’t believe in a literal six-day creation, why do we have to believe a literal resurrection?
  • Would God create people just to predestine them to hell?
  • Would you be willing to go to hell so that someone else could experience heaven?

Christ’s church was willing to stand in the questions with me, to welcome my participation even though my beliefs were still being formed. It was because I knew that I belonged that my belief grew stronger. Church showed me the God who self-identifies as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love. And I believe in that God.

As an adult, the questions, the inspiration and the forgiveness keep coming. So many people have challenged me in faith and love. We've shared gallons of coffee and hundreds of hours talking theology, church and salvation. So many people who have been generous with their prayer, their time and their pulpits. They have shown me that God calls people who don't think they are ready or able to participate in the kingdom. 

In my life the church of Jesus Christ has engraved the testimony of God on my heart: God gave us eternal life and the life is in his Son.

When I think about my eternal life, I know I'm in it. I experience communion with Jesus and other people in and through the church. This life not something I qualify for by having the right theology about the doctrine of creation or predestination. It’s not something that I earn after a life of good deeds. My eternity isn’t an expansion of days that goes on forever with all of the things I have ever wanted in life. My eternal life isn’t even about me—it’s about Jesus who brought God's kingdom to us.

1 John says: God gives us eternal life in the Son. Our eternal life is in Jesus not a never-ending Disney visit, beach vacation or even family reunion.  Eternal life is a deep relationship with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our eternal life is “in the son” not in the self and everything self desires.

We have the opportunity to experience a little of that “in the son-ness” right now. We can experience communion with Christ through our sacraments, prayer, mission and study. We can be the body of Christ. We can bear witness to Christ.  We can taste that eternity.

Too often we want eternity to be a quantity of life—extending endlessly. But eternity can be about quality of life, too. It can be about discovering hints of the richness and depth of living in Christ today, at this moment. And discovering it more fully in heaven. 

A women noticed that it was 8:30 on a Sunday morning and her husband still wasn’t up and ready for church. She touched him gently on the arm.

“Honey, get up, you’ll be late for church.”

He pulled the covers over his head. “I’m just going to have a cup of coffee on the deck, listen to the birds and say a prayer.”

The woman went and got a cup of coffee.

“Here’s your coffee, c’mon get up. It’s time for church.”

He opened on eye. “There will be other people there. Nobody will miss me. I can read the Bible here at home.”

She put her hands on her hips, frustrated. “Get up. It’s time for church.”

Both his eyes were open now. “Why?” he said. “Give me one reason why I should go to church!”

She threw his clothes at him. “Because you’re the pastor.”

What brought you to church this morning?

What brings me here week after week is the belief that God the church is the body of Christ given for the world. We aren’t here to stand in judgment, but we are here to do what Jesus did.

When we read the news about the decline of Christianity, we can do three things. One, we can blame the people “out there” who go to soccer and brunch and sleep in.

We can blame the people “in here” for being hypocritical, irrelevant and unwilling to accommodate new people and ideas.

Or, we can trust that God is calling us as God works out all things for the good. We can trust that what looks like an ending is really a new beginning. Jesus' church did not have an easy start. As they nailed him and later some of his disciples to crosses, it looked more like an ending than a beginning. But, that’s how God works, isn’t it?

The last shall be first.
The poor shall be rich.
The hungry will be fed.  
Death leads to life.

We are called to trust and participate in the endings and beginnings of God. We are here to reflect who God is to a world that is full of injustice or pain. We are to be gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

I’m here because early on I was taught that the body of Christ is rooted in love. The church is a way of making a difference in the world.

I’m here because the body of Christ offers hope, not just an endless parade of days for me, but hope for all of humanity.

I’m here because the alternative is die of despair and heartbreak when I look at the way we humans hurt ourselves and one another.

I’m here because I believe that God so loved the world that he gave us Christ.

I'm here because I believe God so loves the world that he sends people like you and me to live out what Jesus started.

I’m here because I believe the promise of scripture that one day we will beat our swords into plowshares, that we will learn to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us and the words of Revelation will ring true:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

So I ask again, What brought you to church this morning? 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

God's Framily Plan

1Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
6This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Have you seen this ad for a cell phone framily plan? 

This ad campaign was odd and unsuccessful, but it helped to popularize a new word—Framily.


People in a framily are both blood relatives and friends who care for one another they way a family might. Maybe you have some people in your life who are like that. People that you love and care about as if they were your siblings who share no blood relation.

The ad campaign took great pains to show how different each member of the framily was. One of the more popular commercials in the series showed them gathered around the table for a framily dinner and I couldn’t help but think of the way the church gathers different people around Christ’s table.

Churches have been framilies long before advertisers came up with the word. We have had our “church families” almost as long as we have had churches.

A church is a group of unrelated people who love Jesus Christ and care for each other, even if they don’t have very much in common. The idea of a framily emerged with the Christian church as Christ commanded us to love beyond the boundaries of our blood relations. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became the God of Samaritans, Greeks and Romans.

Suddenly, you didn’t have to be Jewish to be in relationship with God. Jesus built relationships with Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free. Since then, millions of people have been adopted into God’s framily plan.

This week we are again studying 1 John. Remember, 1 John is written for people in a fractured community.  Biblical scholars think that 1 John is written to correct the teaching about the separation of the human and divine Christ. Some people left John’s church saying that Jesus humanity and divinity were separate not combined. 1 John was written to remind the followers that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It was written to remind this framily that they are God’s beloved.

Today we are going to explore the way that obedience ties in to love in the Gospel of John and 1 John. There are some similarities and differences between our participation in God’s framily and choosing a cell phone contract.

Contracts are a Biblical idea, but they are called covenants. In the Old Testament God and Israel are in a covenant agreement—kind of like a contract. In Exodus we see the basic covenant is this: I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.

The basic terms of this contract or covenant are laid out in a very familiar Old Testament passage—the one where Moses gets the 10 commandments. Then Jesus comes along and says, “I give you a new commandment, Love one another as I have loved you. “

Now Jesus’ new commandment doesn’t mean the old commandments are invalid. Our passage today shows us that keeping the original ten commandments is a way of showing we love God and one another. But in his life and death, Jesus illustrates another way of living out the covenant—by feeding, healing, forgiving, and laying down one’s life for you and me.

The idea of covenant or contract with God is as old as the Old Testament. God’s Framily Plan has been around for a long time. But sometimes we need to look at things differently to understand them in our world. Here’s how God's covenant and commandments look when we think of it in terms of a cell phone contract:

For more information on how cell
phones (or any gadgets) work see
Like our cell phone plans, God’s framily plan is for connection.  The commandments in both testaments are ways of preserving the peace and creating community among people. In John’s gospel and the letter of 1 John, faith in Christ and love for one another are the main points of emphases. Our readings from John and 1 John show us love is everywhere, love connects God and Christ, Christ and us, love connects us to God, us with each other. Love surrounds us and connects us in powerful ways.

Now, I don’t know about you, but cell phones are a glorious mystery to me. I know that I can talk the people I love and care about because a wireless radio signal is picked up, repeated and decoded by some sophisticated electronics in cell towers. I’m thankful to the inventors, scientists and engineers who have created this. Love is a glorious mystery, too. It connects us to people across time and space in ways that we can’t describe. I am thankful the many ways in which God connects people.

Like a cell phone contract, God’s covenant costs something. We can’t walk into a store and tell the clerk we’d walk out with a phone to talk, text and tweet for free. That just doesn’t happen. We have to pay for a phone and a contract. In fact, we don’t just pay once, it’s an ongoing payment month after month after month.

We don’t have to PAY to be in covenant with God. But, the relationship comes with expectations. In both John and 1 John we see a clear call to obey God’s commandments. Now, it’s not like phone contract where we have to pay or our service gets shut off. No, God’s service is always on and available to us. But it’s not a free ride.  God and Jesus have expectations for us. 1 John tells us that we are expected to love God and love one another in both word and deed.  The Gospel of John says we are to bear fruit for the good of God’s kingdom. Jesus shows us what that fruit looks like—feeding, healing, forgiving and laying down one’s life.

A contract with God is less about what we get and more about what we give. Jesus demonstrates that over and over again in his ministry. God gives up the glory of heaven for the incarnation, God with us.  Jesus gives up his life so that we can be reconciled, Christ crucified. The Bible tells us that love means laying down our lives for friends. Giving is holy behavior. Making our “payment” in God’s covenant is done by loving and giving.

Next, our contracts commit us to certain limits.  My family phone plan has data limits. That means, we will occasionally get a text or email that says we are approaching a limit and that if we go over it, we will have to pay more. That’s when we have to turn off the cellular data and stop watching videos on our phones or else we parents get cranky since we have to pay the bill. If you use a pre-paid phone plan, your limit really is a limit. It means that your phone shuts off once you use up the minutes or megabytes.

Our contract with God commits us to certain limits, too. Limits that we choose to obey out of love. Jesus command "Love one another as I have loved you" is more of an open invitation, a positive command. But, when we think of the 10 commandments, we usually see a list of limits.

God limits who and how we worship. The Ten Commandments say: You shall not have any god before me, you shall not make images or take the name of the Lord in vain. These put limits on our relationship with God. These are like God’s copyright laws limiting how we can depict and talk about God.

Then there are the moral imperatives of do not lie, steal, commit adultery, murder or covet. These limit how we behave with each other. (If you are counting, that was only eight. The other two commandments in the Big 10 are Remember the Sabbath and Honor your Mother and Father, positive commands).

So, there is a difference in the way the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are presented, but they both describe the same behavior. The 10 Commandments create an orderly community by placing limits on bad behavior, saying thou shalt not.

The New Testament creates an orderly community by calling people to live out a higher standard. We see this standard though Jesus’ living example and his call to love. Love God and love your neighbor.

It’s important to note that the goal of both covenants is the same. Jesus and later the writers in John's church can give positive commandments because Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. He is the living, breathing example of obedience to the Old Testament limits, including the 10 commandments.

The gospel and the epistle both call us to obey the commandments and abide in Christ. Our actions should demonstrate our love for God and one another. Jesus had no patience for the people who claimed to love God but didn’t show love to their neighbors. He called them hypocrites.

There is freedom in the covenantal limits. Even though our phones and our religion come with a contract and limits, they still enhance our lives. Most of us don't refuse the phone because it comes with a contract or cost, though I know some people do.

We know that the contract actually gives us access to the many features that our phones offer—connection, information, and even inspiration.  Our covenant with God is similar. Being a Christian does come with expectations and limits, but in a strange way, when we live within the limits we discover a more expansive life.

Like the mystery of cellular service and the mystery of love, this expansive life within God’s limits is hard to explain and understand. It’s a feeling of connecting to something bigger than yourself and knowing you are loved in the smallest part of yourself. It’s limiting and freeing. Take lying for example. Lying can be a easy way to live, until you have to start remembering which lies you have told which people. Pretty soon you are trapped in a web of falsehood.

But if you follow the commandment not to lie, you are free to life more authentic relationships with people. You are free to speak and act without worrying about what you said yesterday or what you told her brother.

Rather than being a burden, it's a practice that lets love grow between people and in communities. This is what 1 John is trying to convey when it says the commandments are not burdensome.

Now there is one way that is different from a cell phone contract: God’s Framily Plan allows for unlimited participation. Not everyone in the world can make calls and surf the web just because you bought a contract. And if you can convince the phone company to do that for you, you will have my thanks! But God’s framily plan invites everyone to participate, even if not everyone chooses to.

God desires the reconciliation of everything on earth and in heaven. God loves the world. One person, Jesus, did initiate a new contract for all of humanity on the cross. Jesus makes God's framily plan available to us all.

Jesus invites all kinds of different people to come to the table.  The Gospel of John says that “You did not choose me, I chose you.” 1 John says, Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child.

Just like cell phone contacts, God’s family plan has morphed into a FRamily plan. It’s not just about your family history, bloodlines or the religion you are born into. God chooses you to participate in the framily plan. You can be part of the covenant of new life. You can choose this contract as a way of showing your love for God and for your neighbors. You can respond to God's invitation to new life. 

In verse 11 of John's Gospel Jesus tells his disciples:  "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." Participating in God’s framily plan, abiding in Christ, and keeping the commandments can to a joyful, loving and eternal life. Following Jesus allows us connect with God and one other, it teaches us to love beyond our limits and deeply roots us in the promise of abundant life of Christ. Thanks be to God.