Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What the World Needs to Hear

As a church, we have a radical message to proclaim to the world.  It may be easy, particularly for those of us who’ve been part of the church our entire lives, not to realize how shocking the gospel is, and to fail to grasp the enormity of the challenge that we proclaim it.  I’ve recently encountered two examples of how the gospel undercuts the messages in the world around us.

“God loves you.”  This simple statement can sound ridiculously simple, even trite, for those who have lived a long time with an awareness of God’s love for you.  But in my work as a pastor, I frequently encounter people who don’t believe it, or who can’t comprehend, as Ephesians 3:18 puts it, the width and the length and the height and the depth of the love of Christ.  Far too often, when I ask someone if they know that God loves them, they’ll respond with a comment such as “I hope so” or “I wish I could believe that.”  I recently spoke with someone who believed that God would reject her because of a deep-seated pain from her past.  And I recently spoke with another person who thought that God was angry with him for failing to meet a goal that was beyond his ability.  And these were both people who grew up going to church!  Never make the assumption that people can conceive of, let alone believe, the fullness of God’s love for us.  The burden of our own sense of guilt, or of criticism we have received from others, or of the need to “measure up,” hinders many of us from realizing the power of grace: God doesn’t need a reason to love us.  He just does.  Unfortunately, this good news is often undermined by well-intended church leaders who feel it necessary to emphasize our sinful condition apart from God’s love.  I don’t feel the need to point this out because in nearly 31 years of ministry, I have never met someone who was not already fully aware of their sinfulness.  But I’ve met plenty who doubt God’s love for them.

“God desires unity.”  If you’ve attended worship at Old Union Church even once during the past two months as we’ve been studying Ephesians (or if you’ve listened to my sermons on the website), you know that this is a pervasive theme throughout the letter.  But this concept is not limited to one book of the Bible.  For example, 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that God has given us the “message of reconciliation,” and Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples was that we may all be one (John 17:20).  We look forward to the day when all of creation will be united under Christ’s lordship.  No exceptions.  Someone who heard me preach this recently took great offense at this concept of unity for all people.  She proceeded to pepper me with outlandish claims about what “they” were doing, and that I am deceived if I don’t think we should do everything we can to oppose “them” with everything we’ve got.  But even if “they” are guilty of everything she claimed, Christ is nonetheless calling us to work for reconciliation toward the goal of unity.  I don’t think she’ll be listening to any more of my sermons, but unfortunately I suspect that she may find preachers who will support her divisive spirit.

God loves you.  God desires unity.  Such simple but profound truths.  The world needs to hear these words.  Our community needs to hear this message.  Some of your friends and family members may need you to help them wrestle with the reality of the gospel.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Radical Hospitality

Our church session is reading and discussing the book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” which our temporary pastor used during her time at Old Union earlier this year.  In November, we talked about the first of these practices: “radical hospitality.”  We commented on how important hospitality was in the culture that the Bible comes from, and as we prepare to celebrate Christmas we considered how scandalous it was that no one in Bethlehem shared hospitality with a woman about to give birth.
“Radical hospitality” means more than providing a warm welcome and helping someone feel at home, although it certainly includes that as well.  Hospitality becomes “radical,” or out of the ordinary, when we take the initiative to reach people, rather than waiting for them to come to our doorstep.  One example of such “radical” hospitality is the team of people from our church who go to a local foodbank each week to share conversation with the patrons as they wait for their food package.
Question: In what other ways can we initiate hospitality”?
Hospitality often includes an invitation; think of the invitations you are receiving for holiday gatherings.  Without the invitation, you wouldn’t know when to show up!  As the number of people who have never been inside a church continues to grow, our invitations can include a sense of what to expect, especially for those who don’t know a doxology from a benediction, or who may have had negative church experiences in the past.
Question: Imagine walking into our church for the first time.  Would you know where to go and what to do?
When an invitation is given with a sense of obligation (“you should, or you ought to”) it describes a duty to follow, rather than hospitality to receive.  A good basis for an invitation is a conversation about how the church has made a difference in your life.
Question: What excites you about our church?  What do you most appreciate about it?
Once someone responds to an invitation and comes to church, radical hospitality means taking the extra steps to let them know they are welcome and appreciated.  For example, someone recently moved from her regular seat to sit beside a guest during worship.
Question: How were you welcomed the first time you came to your church? What could have made the experience better for you?
          Hospitality continues once the guest becomes a part of the church family.  Some churches (and families!) send subtle messages to those who have recently joined, letting them know that they’re not part of the in-crowd yet, and that they must conform to our expectations, instead of being their true selves, before they are accepted.
Question: On a scale of 1 to 10, do you expect newcomers to conform to our ways of doing things, or do they change the character of our church with their unique contributions?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Taking Pictures of Squirrels

As part of my sabbatical earlier this year, I spent two weeks visiting national parks in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  I hiked for a week in the backcountry of Canyonlands, then spent a day each at Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Lake Powell, and Canyon de Chelly.  Although I am a Pennsylvania boy through and through, and I love the beauty of the Keystone state, I saw breathtaking scenery that filled me with awe.

Maybe too much awe.

Scenery that, at the beginning my trip, seemed majestic struck me as mundane and ordinary toward the end.  I found myself looking at majestic mountains and amazing rock formations and ancient petroglyphs, but my only reaction was “eh.”  I had already taken hundreds of photos of breathtaking scenery; why did I need to take one more?

I realized that I was experiencing what I dubbed “awe-fatigue.”  It’s similar to “compassion-fatigue,” which generous people feel after they have responded to one desperate need for help after another.  After a while you simply run out of the ability to respond with compassion to the victims of the latest disaster, because your tank of compassion has run dry.  In the same way, my ability to have my jaw drop in wonder and say “Wow, isn’t that amazing!” had reached its limit.

Then I saw it, as I was walking along the Virgin River in Zion National Park, swollen with flood waters from the melting snows in far-away mountains and surrounded
sheer cliffs towering 2000 feet over my head.  My fellow park visitors were captivated by the squirrels who scampered and begged for food along the footpath.  They oohed and ahhed, called their friends over to see, and stopped to take pictures.  Of squirrels.  Regular old gray squirrels, just like the ones you’ll find in any city park or backyard tree.  They were blind to the extraordinary because they were focused on the ordinary.

How often are we like tourists in Zion National Park, taking pictures of squirrels while ignoring the majesty around us?  God has placed us in an incredible world and has surrounded us with amazing people.  He constantly lavishes unbelievable love and blessing and grace upon us.  But we respond with “awe fatigue” of our own, noticing only the problems and difficulties, focusing upon the trivial when God thrusts the astounding right under our oblivious noses.

Today, take a moment.  Clear your mind of the clutter of everyday living.  Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and look at your life again.  Notice the astounding beauty.  Appreciate the blessings around you.  And most importantly, pay attention to the people in your life.  Notice how amazing and profound they are.

And give thanks.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Guerilla Blessing

How would you like to be a secret agent for God, involved in a clandestine operation to fill the world with his blessing?  Here’s your opportunity to begin sending the Lord’s grace into people’s lives without them ever knowing about it.  It’s easier than you may think, but it sends more of the Lord’s power than we can understand into the lives of people who need it more than they realize.

During my recent sabbatical, I was introduced to the practice of “Guerilla Blessing.”  All that it requires is a belief in the power of prayer, and the ability to care about other people.  Imagine that you find yourself among a group of strangers: other shoppers in the store, other drivers in traffic, other fans at a sporting event.  Randomly choose someone to look at, preferably without them even knowing it.  As you do, silently pray, “May you know joy.  May you know peace.”  Then shift your gaze to another person.  “May you know joy.  May you know peace.”  And then another.  And another.  “May you know joy.  May you know peace.”

As you spend those few seconds holding someone before the Lord, something will happen within you.  Suddenly that stranger will become a real person to you.  They are no longer “that white truck in front of me,” but a man whom you can imagine is tired after a long day’s work.  You may begin to wonder what kind of job he has and what sort of family he is going home to.  She is no longer that person with a shopping cart full of groceries in front of you in the check-out line, but somebody’s mother or daughter or sister or wife.  Is her heart full of happiness, or is she going through the drudgery of a monotonous routine?  Has she just had an argument with a friend, or will she get unexpected good news the next time she checks her email?

Your prayers of blessing, “May you know joy.  May you know peace” are effective, because they do not depend upon that person accepting them, or even knowing about them.  They make a difference because their potency depends not upon their awareness, or upon your knowledge of that person.  They depend upon the grace of the Father, who sent his redemption into the world through the death and resurrection of his Son.  He sent his redemption to us when we were not only unaware of it, but actively resisting his love.  Your “guerilla blessings” are a way for that redeeming grace to touch another person in a new way.

I learned about “guerilla blessings” while I spent a week in Chicago with a community of Roman Catholic sisters who spend their days praying for a city, nation, and world in need of God’s mercy and grace.  Each Friday they pray for a safe weekend in Chicago, painfully aware of the gun violence that takes so many lives.  On Monday they grieve when they hear the number of shootings have taken place.  But I am convinced that without their own form of “guerilla blessing,” that number would be so much greater.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Unseen Footprints

“Your path led through the sea,
     your way through the mighty waters,
     though your footprints were not seen.” (Psalm 77:19)

One of the things I enjoy about live theater, perhaps more than the actors themselves, is the stagecraft.  (Maybe it’s because I was on stage crew in high school.)  People work behind the scenes to pull off audience-pleasing effects.  They dart out, dressed all in black, when the lights are darkened between scenes, to reset the stage.  A good theatrical crew member is invisible, never seen or noticed by the people in the seats.

Similarly, movie production crews don’t want you to be able to tell the difference between live action and computer-generated images (or CGIs).  If the dragon seems as real as the Hollywood superstar riding on its back, the animators have accomplished their goal.  They don’t want people to realize that they’ve done anything at all.

Just like God.

The author of Psalm 77 describes his distress about feeling separated from the Lord.  He remembers his “songs in the night” and joy that God had brought into his life.  But now that joy is gone.  Had God forgotten him?  Had the Lord rejected and abandoned him in anger?  Eventually he finds consolation by remembering “the deeds of the Lord,” and his miracles from long ago.  Recalling God’s faithful actions in the past gives him the confidence in God’s continuing care and guidance that he needs to persevere.  Even though he can not feel the Lord’s power in his life, he knows that it is real.

Psalm 77 offers an encouraging perspective for those times when God seems absent.  When the psalmist considers God’s powerful actions in the past, he remembers how he parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt.  As the 19th verse puts it, God’s path led through the sea, even though his “footprints were not seen.”

As I read this verse, I recognize how God is invisibly at work during the times when he feels distant from me, and when his love seems as remote as a favorite song from long ago.  God has not rejected me or abandoned me.  He is not too busy keeping the universe spinning to remember little puny insignificant me.  I am never puny or insignificant or forgotten in the eyes of God.  And neither are you.  He is working mighty deeds and powerful actions all around us, all the time.  His blessings are present every moment of every day, and he pours his love upon us like the waters of Niagara Falls.  God does great things, but his footprints are not always seen.

You may not see God’s footprints in your life.  But he is acting in power to show his love and to change your life.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Day in the Life of Pontius Pilate

He awakes, with his tongue hot and dry and his whole chest raw like a wound.  So even before breakfast he makes his first major decision.  While still in his pajamas, he walks downstairs to the closet where he keeps his extra cigarettes, takes out the two and a half cartons that he finds there, and puts them out with the trash.  There are the remains of a pack in the pocket of his suit coat and some loose cigarettes lying around the house in various places.  All of these he carefully destroys, slitting them with his thumbnail and flushing the tobacco down the toilet, so he wouldn’t be tempted to fish them back out of the garbage.  After dinner the evening before, the talk had turned to politics and they had been up for hours, talking and smoking.  This morning he is paying the price for it.  He knows all about the surgeon general's warning.  He has seen the usual photographs of a smoker's lungs.  He has been a three-pack-a-day man for over thirty years.  So his prebreakfast decision is a decision for life against death, and he sees it as his death that he slits open with his thumbnail and flushes away.

He is Pontius Pilate, of course: the procurator of Judea.  His day is starting out well, and he feels better for it.  He has just taken a step to become a new man, a better man, a man who can handle whatever the world brings without relying his tar and nicotine. Not even the morning paper, filled with stories of poverty, crime and corruption, upsets him as he leafs through it in the back seat of the limousine that carries him through the city.  As the car rolls along he glances out at the world from time to time through the tinted windows.  Children are playing in the dirt, heavily armed policemen patrol the streets, and beggars crowd the temple gates.  Other people could carry on about how rotten everything is.  But Pilate's business is to keep the ship afloat from day to day.  And he is not doing a bad job of it.  There are no major complaints from Rome.  The Jews are content.  And he himself, if not exactly happy, is happy enough.

When he was a young man, he dreamed of greater things than being a provincial procurator, but he could have done a lot worse.  His sons had the best education money can buy.  His wife keeps having troubling dreams, but she is in the hands of a good therapist.  Their marriage isn't what it used to be, but he keeps looking forward to the day when they can retire to the villa outside Ostia.  That will be relaxing.  But in the meantime, he has appointments to keep, and he keeps them.  When he arrives at the office, the sitting area is full of people waiting to see him, texting and tweeting on their phones, and reading old copies of Time Magazine.

The chief of the occupational forces is in a sweat because a Jewish festival is upon them and he expects trouble from the fanatics.  The Jewish God, not knowing which side his matzoh is buttered on, wants Rome out; he wants the peace that passeth understanding instead of the peace of Rome.  Pilate starts to reach for a cigarette, and then remembers.  He picks up a pencil instead and starts to chew on its eraser.  What passeth his understanding is the Jews themselves, who have never had it so good.  What passeth his understanding is how they can knock themselves out for a God who supposedly runs history, when history has run over them and left them as beggars in this strip of rock and desert that they call the Promised Land.  He orders the guard doubled around the temple and the whole garrison put on alert until the Passover passes over.

And the appointments continue.  The tax people are full of excuses for why the quota wasn't filled last quarter.  A man has a scheme to solve the city's water problem, which so happens to include Rome buying his property to build an aqueduct.  An epidemic is raging through the old slave district, and there are complaints about packs of orphans scavenging on the streets for food.  A few days ago there had been some kind of demonstration at one of the city gates with an up-country preacher at the center of it, and the Jewish leaders want to handle this troublemaker before things get worse.  But of course, because of some arcane religious requirement that Pilate really doesn’t understand, they can’t come into his office to speak to him.  With a grunt and a grumble, still clenching the pencil in his teeth, Pilate gets up from his desk and walks out to meet with them. 

Once outside, he takes the pencil out of his mouth and asks matter-of-factly, "What are the charges?"  One of the ringleaders stands up and said, "If he wasn't a troublemaker, we wouldn't have brought him here!"  Pilate sighs.  The day may have started out well, but these pesky Jews are enough to drive anyone to distraction.  With all of their strange customs, Pilate never comprehended the things that get them worked up.  And he didn’t particularly care, either. Now they bring a man in, someone who was supposed to be a messiah, whatever that is, and they won’t even tell him why he is such a menace.  But Pilate agrees to see the man if that’s what it will take to keep the peace.  If they want him to see their God, he will see him too.  The more the merrier.

As Pilate walks back to his office, he gets a call on his cell phone from his wife.  She’s had another night of bad dreams.  As she goes on, he can hear that she's crying.  And Pilate can picture her, sitting there with the phone cradled between her ear and her shoulder so she can light a cigarette like she always does when she starts to cry.  He can almost smell the smoke as she lights it and then starts talking again.  He tries to distract himself, to keep from thinking about the cigarette. As his wife talks, he stares out the window.  Down in the courtyard a ragged child is talking to a soldier.  On the windowsill a pigeon preens her feathers.  Finally his wife hangs up, and he swings back to the desk.

While he was talking, they had brought in the up-country preacher for questioning. Pilate is caught off-guard, and before he knows what he is doing he takes a cigarette from the box on his desk and lights it.  The man stands in front of him with his hands tied behind his back.  You can see that he's been roughed up a little.  His upper lip is puffed out and one eye is swollen shut.  He looks unwashed, and he smells unwashed.  Pilate is not sure if the man looks ridiculous, or if he looks pathetic.  If it were just the two of them, he would give the man busfare and send him back to the boondocks where he came from.  But the Jews think he’s trouble, so Pilate stands up and takes a good look at the man.  He can't quite explain it, but even with the swollen eye and torn clothes, the prisoner seems to carry himself with dignity.  There seems to be more to this fellow than there is to the ordinary fanatic. 

"So," Pilate says, "You're the king of the Jews."  He almost doesn't understand the man's reply, between his thick country accent and the split upper lip.  "Is that your own idea, or did someone else tell you that?"  Pilate flicks the ash off the end of his cigarette into the ashtray.  The trouble with these Jews is that none of them are willing to give a straight answer to a simple question.  This backwoods preacher is making him uncomfortable, as though he belongs in this office and Pilate is the prisoner.  So he tries to regain control with a more straightforward question.  "What have you done?"  But the man with the split lip doesn't give him an answer to that question.  Instead, he answers Pilate's first question. "My kingdom is not a part of this world."  He isn't sure what the man means by that, but he did catch the part about being king.  Finally, one of these Jews said something that he can understand.  "Oh, so you are a king, then!"  And the man replies, "You could say so.  I have come to bear witness to the truth."

Pilate has to sit down.  The day had started out well, but now everything is giving  him a splitting headache.  Maybe at a different time, in a different place, with a different person, Pilate would enjoy talking about truth.  Philosophy is one of his hobbies, after all.  But not with this fellow, who doesn't act the way prisoners are supposed to act.  Truth.  Why talk about truth?  Where did this guy get the idea of talking about truth?  Pilate takes a long drag on his cigarette, and with narrowed eyes and a cynical smirk he sneers, "Truth?  What is truth?"  He asks it half because he would love to hear an answer to the question, and he hopes this man has one.  He asks it half because he is certain that there is no answer, and that would mean he has one less thing to worry about.  But this man with the split lip gives Pilate no answer.  No answer except, with his one good eye, he stares Pilate straight in the face.  Pilate cannot match his gaze, and he hurries out to speak with the Jewish leaders again, leaving the man with the swollen lip and unsettling presence behind in his office.

He finds the Jewish leaders just outside the lobby, impatiently pacing on the sidewalk in front of the building.  When they see Pilate come out they gather around with angry, challenging expressions on their faces.  “Well,” they ask, “are you going to crucify him or not?”  Crucify?!  Who said anything about crucifying this fellow?  They save that kind of punishment for the worst of the worst.  At most, he needs to be gotten rid of quietly, not be made into some spectacle.  But no matter what he says, Pilate makes no headway with these stubborn men who surround him.  They demand nothing less than crucifixion.

It occurs to Pilate that perhaps it was not the best idea to leave the prisoner alone in his office, so he hurries back inside.  All this running back and forth takes a toll on him, so he pauses a moment to catch his breath before going back into the office.  Maybe it’s because of what all those years of smoking have done to his lungs, or maybe it’s because he simply doesn’t want to have to face the man again.  What was it about him? Not even Caesar himself could unnerve Pilate the way this – what was his name? – Jesus – did.

When he enters, Pilate finds the man staring out of his office window at the city below.  He looks sad, but oddly not for himself.  He seems to be more concerned about the people below than he does for what might happen to him.  He turns to Pilate as he closes the door, with the same piercing, inscrutable gaze.  By now Pilate is beside himself.  He desperately wants another cigarette to calm his nerves, but he knows it won’t do any good. 

Exasperated and frustrated, he shouts at the man, “Who are you?  Where did you come from?”  But the only reply the prisoner gives is that unsettling look, before he turns to stare out the window once more.  “Don’t you understand?” Pilate practically screams.  “Don’t you know that I could have you crucified if I wanted to?”  The man turns back, with an amused look on his face.  “The only power you have over me is what God has given you.  The people who brought me here are worse criminals than me.”  And then again, he goes back to looking out the window.

In his younger days, Pilate had fancied himself an athlete.  But all these years of smoking cigarettes and sitting behind desks have taken a toll on his health.  Wheezing and breaking into a sweat, he makes the trip back to the elevator, down to the lobby, and out the door again to confront the pompous fools who were making today such a nightmare.  “Fine!  If you want to string this man up, go right ahead.  Here he is!  I don’t care what you do, just get that man out of my office!”  And under his breath he adds, “And get him out of my life.”

Back in his office, some time and several cigarettes later, Pilate gets out of his chair to look out the window: the same window that the mysterious man had been looking out of earlier.  By now, he supposes, the troops are probably done beating the man and are on their way out the city to crucify him.  Sure enough, in the street below he sees the procession going outside of town.  He is surprised to see how many people are following behind.  Apparently this Jesus is more consequential than Pilate had given him credit for.

His mind goes back the question he had asked earlier in the morning: “What is truth?”  Not truth as in “what is right and wrong?”  But a different kind of truth.  The truth that shapes reality and brings meaning to existence.  What is truth?  What really matters?  What is at the center of what makes life worth living?  What gives purpose to governing a province, or trying to quit smoking, or saving up for a retirement villa in Ostia?

As Pilate continues to look out the window at the man being led to his execution, he is startled to see the man pause, for just a moment, and look up at Pilate as he is watching.  There is that look, one more time.  The gaze that penetrates to the depths of Pilate’s soul that he does not even know that he has.  This time, it drops Pilate to the ground, sobbing in tears.

At that moment he realizes that he had asked the wrong question.  Instead of asking “What is truth?” he should have asked “Who is truth?”  Now he knows the answer.  And he has sent him out to die.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Saved from and Saved for

We are saved by Jesus Christ.  This basic declaration of our faith takes on powerful significance this month as we remember how he won our salvation through his atoning death on the cross and his victorious resurrection from the grave.  Many minds much wiser than mine have pondered exactly how Christ saved us, and what this salvation means.  Although it ultimately is a glorious mystery that lies beyond full human comprehension, we celebrate this salvation, and we honor and worship the God who provides it.

As we prepare for the Easter season, I’d like to ponder three questions what arise as we consider our salvation in Jesus Christ.

1. AM I SAVED?  Unfortunately, many people worry about their salvation.  Have I done what it takes, or believed what I need to believe, in order to be saved?  This form of thinking probably arises from comparing the salvation that Christ provides with other desirable things: we have to earn them or deserve them.  The entire point of Christ’s self-giving love is that there is nothing we need to do receive, other than simply to open our lives to it.  If you want what Christ has to offer, it is already yours.

2. WHAT AM I SAVED FROM?  The simplest, most obvious answer is that we are saved from sin.  But that simply leads to another question: what is sin?  We commonly understand sin to be the acts of disobedience and destruction that we commit: those things that hurt God, others, creation, or ourselves, or which violate God’s will.  Christ has saved us from punishment for these actions, even if we still must face their consequences in our world.  But the Bible also portrays sin as the force that opposes the reign of God in our lives and in our world: it is the power of evil.  Christ’s death and resurrection has freed us from sin in this sense as well.  We are saved from broken relationships, from isolation from God, from fear and despair, and so much more.

3. WHAT AM I SAVED FOR?  We may not ask this question as often as we ask the others, but it may be the most important question of all.  Christ has saved us for a purpose, for a reason.  In salvation he equips each of us uniquely to serve him each in our own special way.  We Presbyterians in particular are aware that God has a plan for our lives: that our salvation is the beginning of a life lived for him.  God’s love for us extends beyond rescuing us from the terrible situations we find ourselves in, and which we often bring upon ourselves.  He loves us so much that he wants to include us in the great work he is doing to establish his kingdom and to bring all creation into the glory that he has prepared.  He loves us so much that he has chosen each of us, individually and as a community, to play our part in his great plan. 

As we travel together from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to Easter, I invite you to contemplate not only what Christ has saved us from, but what he has saved you to do in his name and for his glory.