Saturday, September 29, 2012

September 30 - Stained Glass Windows Week-2

The Division between Faith and Life
John 2                                                                                          Stained Glass Windows Wk-2

I. Could we live our Christian faith so that it is woven through our daily lives? Could we live our Christian faith so that it is woven through our daily work?Quick answer: not easily. The world we inhabit has been sub-divided into the larger world of secular, daily life AND the smaller world of holy, Sunday life.
            A. We go through our work days and school days without much need for the presence of God – or so we are being taught by the times in which we live.
+For drivers, the rules of the road are on the driving test every teenager takes. The world tells us that we do not need faith in God for that.
+The requirements and necessary skills of our many professions are bound in large books of regulations and best practices. They are taught by the finest schools which have little need to refer to the scriptures for guidance.
+The values we practice are catalogued under headings like GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), the Tennessee Code Annotated, and the United States Tax Code.
+What kids have to learn in school is outlined in the syllabus handed out on the first day of the term. Again, the State of Tennessee doesn’t bother to include any requirement that students turn to God in order to meet the requirements – though there are students in every course who will only get a passing grade by the grace of God.
Day after day, we make our lives from dawn until well-after-dark out of sight of any necessity for faith in God. At its most benign, this division simply ignores the need for faithas we live in this world.
            B. The role for faith is reserved for the edges of life. Just on Sundays. Just at the edges of life far from the ordinary center. Only at the edges, where the ordinary center runs out of answers, do we turn to faith as a last resort: facing the death of a loved one or our own, the coming of war, or responding to a great defeat. Only at the edges, where the answers and structures of secular society seem too trivial to bear the weight of the decisions before us, do we turn to faith for convictions robust enough to meet the need: the vows to marry, for example. Welcoming a child into the world seems to require a baptism. There are those occasions and commitments that require more gravity and moment than the secular world can provide.

            [ILLUS: Where Holiness is Found]
            Wendell Berry said:Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine    which was, after all, a very small miracle.  We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.
      What the Bible might mean, or how it could mean anything, in a closed, air conditioned building, I do not know.... I know that holiness cannot be confined. When you think you have captured it, it has already escaped; only its poor, pale ashes are left. It is after this foolish capture and the inevitable escape that you get translations of the Bible that read like a newspaper. Holiness is everywhere in Creation, it is as common as raindrops and leaves and blades of grass, but it does not sound like a newspaper (1).

Wendell Berry’s objection to the newspaper is that its news and its language grow tired in the short space of 24 hours. In contrast, the news and the language of the Bible are timeless. Most of us can repeat stories from the Bible; many of us have memorized passages word for word. Its language and its message are that dear to us. Sadly however, society provides less and less room for the role of faith in God. Over the decades, society has demanded less and less room for the role of faith. Somehow, we keep the life of faith separate from the life of everyday work. And we are poorer for it.

II. The stained glass window we focus on this morning has no interest in any division of our thinking. The window, in fact, preaches an eloquent sermon on the unity of faith and daily life – especially our work life.
            [WINDOW: FIRST MIRACLE] At the top of this window are two miracles: Jesus “Changing water into wine”on the left and Jesus “Feeding the 5000” on the right panel. The window was given by long-time members of the church, Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Murphy.
            You’ll notice that Jesus is much larger in these pictures than other persons. While you might expect that Jesus would be bigger than the little boy who shared his lunch in the Feeding of the 5000, the servants in the picture on the left are also much smaller. It was the artist’s way of telling us that Jesus should stand at the center of our faith; his impactis bigger than life-size.
            In the panels below the two miracles, the artist begins his sermon: The many figures reflect our work world, which is so different from Jesus’ world. The figures include:
+Iron Founder
+Steam Shovel
+Drawing water
+Builder [RETURN].
Certainly, some of these skills existed in Jesus’ day, but the skills by the 1940’s were far ahead of the skills of Biblical times. The occupations for the electrician, the mechanic, the steam shovel operator, the chemist, the scientist, and the chlorinator did not exist. By the way, the “chlorinator” is the technician at the water utility who uses chemicals to make the water safe to drink. While we easily assume that the water from the faucet is safe to drink, we must remember that safe water is a fairly recent development in history – allowing the rise of great cities free from water-borne diseases. And yes, there are pictures of a steam shovel and a microscope in this window.
            The sermon this window preaches begins with the miracles of Jesus; he had the power to turn water into wine and to feed 5000 with a few loaves and a couple of dried fish from a boy’s lunch. In the same way, we exercise the *modern miracles* pictured in the window in the service of humanity. The sermon is built on the conviction that these modern miracles are just that – God-given miracles by which we make the world a better, more livable place. These are God-given miracles to which some of us are called to practice as our Christian service. They are God-given miracles by which we are empowered to bring the goodness of God to those around us.
            Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking that these miracles can be reduced to figuring out the science behind each of these tasks as we do with projects in chemistry, building, and such. In generations past, people tried to figure out how Jesus changed the water into wine. Whether figuring out his process would have caused them to appreciate Jesus more or whether it would have discounted the miracle, I’m not sure. Regardless, that is not the point.
            The point of these modern miracles is that we are using the wisdom and abilities God has given to us to make the world a better place for all of us.
+The doctor who performs life-saving surgeries extends the life-spans and the quality of life of the patients – a godly work.
+The builder who builds a house that shelters the people who live in that house offers protection against the storms that come – a godly work.
+The technician at the water plant who faithfully keeps the water clean of disease-causing microbes, helps people stay healthy – a godly work.
Each of us are called to use the daily work we do to accomplish that godly work by which communities are stronger, people live longer, and people see a better life before them.
            [ILLUS: Baker for God]
            Imagine a Christian pie baker, working in her shop; preparing the crusts, baking the pies and selling her products to her customers. In a world that sees division between the sacred life and the secular life of business the pie baker would be expected to witness for Christ. She might employ Christian staff who would be of a good moral standing. Her day might be interrupted with moments and even time set aside for prayer, especially asking for the ability to take advantage of the opportunities for witness that may occur during the day.
            There is another model, too.
            Imagine the same baker, instead of seeing her baking as a vehicle for sharing the gospel, saw it as an act of godly creation in itself! The very act of baking pies being the work of God! She is a pie baker for God! Her bakery is not just a business place where attempts are made to witness, but a place where as a co-worker with God, she bakes pies. The very act of making pies is a divine moment of creation where the baker participates in the creativity of the God of the universe.

            Jesus changed the water into wine, and we admire the miracle. God has given humanity the tools to imagine far greater miracles than that one. Jesus’ miracle changed the course of a wedding for one couple, long ago. The miracles that come into our hands change the course of life for people across this nation and around the world.
            The challenge for faith is that we work in this world aware that we are serving the God who has called us to lives of energy, imagination, and integrity. Are you and I doing the work of making pies for God? Well, we are not all pie bakers, of course. But, are we doing our daily work offering it all as our service to God? That is God’s call for us.

1.  Wendell Berry's new book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1993), as referenced by Martin E. Marty in Context, 25 (1 December 1993), p. 6.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Parish Adult Choir presents Choral Evensong

As a kick-off for the 2012–13 Master Arts Series, the Parish Adult Choir will present a Service of Choral Evensong, this Sunday, September 30, at 6 PM.
The choir will sing all the traditional elements of the service which include two canticles, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Henry Smart, an anthem, Laudate Nomen, by Carlyle Sharpe, and Preces and Responses by Robert Lehman. The choir will also chant David Hurd’s setting of Psalm 96.
Choral Evensong is a version of the Service of Evening Prayer that is mostly sung by the choir, although there are times for the congregation to participate. It was originally formed by combining the monastic offices of Vespers and Compline. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

September 23, 2012

Daring to Build the House for God
1 Kings 7.51 – 9.3 – Solomon dedicates the Temple to God

            Construction began on the present Church Street United MethodistChurch on March 12, 1930. The people of the church might have used more caution, but no one realized the eventual impact of the Great Depression. So, the church forged ahead with plans to build the building we now see at the corner of Henley and Main. From the planning stages, the church intended to include stained glass windows. But, as the impact of the Depression made its way to Knoxville, it was soon obvious that the church would not be able to do everything it had planned. Many details, including the windows were delayed. Ten years later, the church returned to finish the original plan for stained glass windows. The first window was dedicated on November 23, 1941; the last two windows were installed in June, 1960.
            Stained glass windows have practical and teaching purposes. They bring light into the church where we worship. They also tell the Biblical story. Biblical events, pictures of saints and prophets, as well as symbols are used to illustrate the Gospel message. As a boy growing up at Church Street, I guessed that the builders knew boys like me wanted to look out the windows and daydream sometimes. I figured that they put pictures in the windows to give daydreamers like me something useful to think about.
            Over the coming four Sundays, we will focus on the stained glass windows. They are a great treasure for the church and the City of Knoxville. Seen from a distance, they are a grand sight and fill the nave with light. The blue in the window over the altar suggests that we are not merely looking up toward the sky; instead we are looking toward heaven.
            [WINDOW: HALLOWED HOUSE] Viewed up close each window tells its story, usually in several ways. This one is called the Hallowed House window. In the center, we see King Solomon holding the Temple which he built as a house for God. Above him, a portion of 1 Kings 9.3 is quoted, pointing to the scriptures. The window was presented by members of the church in honor of Charles Barber, the Architect who designed the building. The other figures show the various building tasks: sawing, measuring, and such. The top figure might be the young Jesus, holding the tools of a carpenter.


            I can imagine snickering in Heaven on the day Solomon, like his father David, proposed to build a house for God. All God’s angels would be astonished that Solomon thought he could build anything that God might need. “You want to build a house for God, the Creator of the Universe?”
+This is the God who creates stars and galaxies with a word, then casually tosses them against the vastness of space.
+This is the God that the Egyptians learned is not fenced out by nations or by loyalties to other gods.
+This is the God who appears as God will: to Moses in the burning bush, to the Children of Israel in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, to the boy Samuel in the voice that calls him to service, to the people of Roman-Israel in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
And you, Solomon, want to decide what sort of house God must show up in?
            Think about it: That you and I should decide what sort of house where God is to be worshiped and honored is a breathtaking claim. It is not to be taken up causally but reverently, discretely and in the fear of God.

            The Temple that Solomon built was ready for dedication about this time of year, possibly to coincide with the Feast of Tabernacles. That Feast was recognized as the time for renewal of the covenant. The priests brought the Ark of the Covenant, which was the old symbol of God’s presence from the Exodus Journey; they placed the Ark inside the Holy of Holies. The Ark was portable with handles for transporting it as the Children of Israel journeyed to the Promised Land. For the 40 years of the Exodus, the people never knew what it was to be a settled people.
            This new Temple was built to be stationary; it stood as a sign that God and God’s people had settled down. Built by the King, the Temple suggested that Solomon was now the keeper of the faith in this God. The simple fact of building a Temple as a House where God should be worshiped says a great deal about what we believe about God and what we are willing to believe about God.
            Note that Solomon was careful not to declare the Temple as the place where God is located or where God is enthroned; it is instead a place for God’s name. It is a place where the symbols of God’s covenant with Israel are kept. The Temple is not so much the place of God’s presence as it is a reminder of God’s presence that is made good in the covenant.
            Beginning in v. 22, Solomon offers his prayer of dedication. Notice that he stands to pray; he does not stand with head bowed and eyes closed as we would do.
Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.
This is a reminder that there are many postures we can assume when we pray. We typically bow our heads and close our eyes; Solomon stood and faced the altar with his hands lifted empty and waiting.
            Then, in his prayer of dedication Solomon asks that God might respond to the prayers of the people, of sinners, even of foreigners. Several times Solomon speaks of prayer offered “toward” this house. Solomon carefully acknowledges that the Temple is not the only place where God is found and not the only place where the petitioner personally encounters God.
            [APPLIC:] Thus, Solomon is putting into words what we also believe. God is not limited to one church building or to all the church buildings across the land. God is free to move and act according to God’s will. God meets us in any place God chooses. Building a church expresses our conviction that our need to worship meets God’s willingness to be worshiped in this place.

[IV. The convictions behind building a church.]
            A. When we build a church, we say to ourselves and this community:this is our burning bush, the place where we expect to be called up short by God as Moses was.Sunday Church is remarkably predictable. The service does not change much from week to week; the same choir comes to sing each Sunday morning; the ushers who greet us at the door are somehow timeless. We don’t come to church because we are expectingto find something completely new each time. But, what we also expect is that anyone who stands along God’s way Sunday after Sunday runs the risk of meeting the Living God face to face. We might plan for the same old Sunday church, but God is able on any day to turn the world upside down. You have to be ready for such a God. You have to live a bit on edge all the time. Any Sunday might be the day that God chooses to stop you in your tracks with a call that you cannot refuse – any more than Moses could refuse that day when God addressed him from the bush that burned but was not consumed.
            B. When we build a church, we say to ourselves: This is the place where we expect to see God’s glory.This is the place where we expect to see God sitting on the throne, high and lofty, just the hem of God’s robe filling the Temple. Isaiah saw that vision years ago in the Jerusalem Temple, and he was moved to ecstasy.
            Sadly, we do not expect Isaiah’s great vision of God to happen again and do not expect that vision to be given in our churches. We rationalize our lower expectations by assuming such visions were for long ago or only in the Holy Land. But, that cannot be correct; we worship the same God that Isaiah honored. Our church is for us our holy place. Every church is a place of expectation.
            Now, in this Church or in the church where you worship, you and I are saying to ourselves and the community: this is that holy place of vision. This is the place where we will catch sight of the glories of God. This is the place where we will see a vision of all that God holds for us.
            C. When we build a church, we say to ourselves and to those who join with us: This is the place where we practice for eternity spent in God’s presence. Years ago, as I served a church in the mountains of Virginia, we had a tradition. Each time we sang the hymn, “When We all Get to Heaven,” we would leave our pews and go around the church shaking hands with everyone in the church. Their logic was this: If these are the same people with whom we are going to spend eternity, we’d better get along with them now. So,we got out of the pews to make sure these were friends.
            D. When we build a church, we tell the larger world, that though it has no way to offer or receive forgiveness, we have a way. Think about it:
+When we get into a fender bender, the insurance company cautions us not to admit that it was our fault. Let the company work that out. You and I should only exchange name and insurance information and call the police. Let the company determine who was at fault.
+When someone messes up on the job, the only solution the boss has to fix the situation is to fire that person. The only way to solve this problem is to exclude the mess-up from the company.
+When two people or companies disagree, the only solution the world offers is setting a dollar figure and going to court to settle the money damages. Isn’t it odd that we should reduce everything we do with others to dollar figures? Not everything has a dollar figure, you know. And not every hurt can be repaired with money.
What the world does not know how to do is how to forgive and restore. It has no mechanism to welcome the Prodigal home.
            In contrast to the world’s awkwardness, the church knows how to give and receive forgiveness. Why we practicesgiving and receiving forgiveness every time we gather at the communion table.As the church, we own the stories of welcoming the Prodigal home and going out to plead with the angry older brothers among us. We offer ways for traitors like Zaachaeus to make restoration and return in good standing. How strange forgiveness must seem in a world that has almost no categories to consider it any longer! When we build a church, we announce to the world, the forgiveness you can only imagine is found in this place.

V. When we built a church, we announce to a splintered world, that real and lasting unity can be found in this place. The world is deeply divided – divided by religions, by political systems, by party politics. The parties and the movements of this world are not interested in finding ways to work together; they are interested in gaining advantage over any not like themselves. In contrast to this atmosphere of division, Solomon built the Temple to unify the nation under the Lordship of God.
            The unity of this nation will not be achieved by the popularity of any candidate, not by a majority in the House and the Senate, and not by force of arms. Real unity will come as we the church of Jesus Christ offer God’s great vision of the Kingdom of God to the community and the world around us. Such unity will be achieved when we have the courage to live out God’s Kingdom in our time and our place.

            In 1930, the people of Church Street Church built a house where God might be honored. They built it of Crab Orchard stone so it would last. They added stained glass windows so that boys like me might have something useful to think about when we daydream. Like every church building this region, they built it – not just for themselves – but in the hope that it might be a house of prayer for all peoples. Like every church building in this region, they built it to bring unity and peace to the nation and the world.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stained Glass Windows Celebration

Sunday Night Live

Great Options for Adults on Sunday Night

Preparing Your Yard for Fall - 4 to 5:15 PM – CLC 122
Join Master Gardener, David Craig, as he shares topics including mulching, lawn care, bulb planting and more.

Staying Upright When Your World Turns Upside Down - 4 to 5:15 PM – CLC 123
Your overall health depends on how you navigate the detours and rough waters that life presents. Diana Brown-Taylor will teach us how to effectively deal with change. This 2- part session continues on Sept. 30.

Church Street Book Club - 6 to 7 PM – Room 103
Join Kathryn Freeman and others to help organize the book club. Bring your ideas and join us!

Making Scrapbook Pages - 6 to 7 PM – Room 118
Beth Cooper-Libby leads the class. To help us plan for materials, please RSVP for this class by calling 524-3048. Bring your scissors. Photo Memory Books class coming on October 21.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Light the Night - Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

Please join us on Sunday, October 7, after the second service for a luncheon in honor of Rick Isbell benefitting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door, but please stop by the table in the breezeway this Sunday, Sept. 23, to make reservations. Our youth will set up and serve a delicious spaghetti dinner with salad, bread and dessert, and the youth choir will entertain us.

Also, thanks to the encouragement of one our youth, Emily Ehrenschwender, we are pushing church-wide support of the Leukemia and Lymphoma society’s “Light the Night” walk on Thursday, October 25. Visit our team’s web page to sign up or donate at: ChurchStreetUMC. Please don’t miss your chance to support this very worthy cause!

Monday, September 17, 2012

September 9, 2012 - God's Vote

God’s Vote
Mark 7:24- 30

I. By the 7th chapter of Mark, Jesus has become a celebrity. He has already been on the covers of Time and People Magazine. In the last few weeks in Galilee he has
+Fed 5000 with a few loaves of bread;
+Walked on water
+Healed people in Gennasaret right and left. The scripture says:
            “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mark 6.56).
So, Jesus decides that he needs time away from all this demand. He leaves Galilee and goes to the coast where Galileans are scarce and he can go about quietly. This is the ancient land of the Phoenicians, the sea people, and the Biblical land of Syria, and the modern nation of Lebanon – just beyond the borders of Israel. He arrives in Tyre and finds a house where they can stay.
            A woman of the region hears about him and comes to the house to appeal to him on behalf of her daughter.
            1. In ancient cultures, women were not supposed to approach men in public with whom they were not related. An honorable woman in that ancient culture would ask her husband or eldest son to approach a strange man on behalf of the family. We have to assume that either she had no husband or he was unwilling to act. But, this woman is no fatalist; she does not believe that her daughter’s present condition has to be her last. She has heard how Jesus healed many people in Gennasaret, and she realizes that wherever Jesus is found, the future is not limited by the past.
            [APPLIC] Actually, that will preach. Too many people have the idea that the handicaps they have today, or the obstacles on the day of their birth, or the mistakes they have made limit their prospects for a bright future.
+I’m old, OR I lost a leg in Afghanistan, OR my eyesight is bad – and that is the reason that I cannot succeed. Well, it turns out that the Para Olympics have been going on in London this week, and the pictures are stunning. Have you see competitors sprinting on two blades instead of feet? The athletes interviewed said that they became competitors when they stopped thinking about what they couldn’t do and started thinking about what they could do.
+OR, I’ve made so many mistakes no one will give me another chance. Well, it takes time to earn the trust again, but it can be done.
In each case, finding the gumption to begin comes with the conviction that God offers us better than the handicaps or the obstacles or the mistakes that cling to us like lint from a bad dryer. God offers us the strength to make the changes we need to make. The handicaps or the obstacles or the mistakes that cling to us today are not the last word about us because God, of course, will have the last word.
            [SUM UP:] The woman approaches Jesus at a home. She approaches Jesus on behalf of her daughter: “She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter” (v. 26).

II. Now comes one of the most awkward moments in Scripture. Jesus responded to the woman:
“Let the children be fed first,
for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

+He stiff-arms her by calling the woman and her sick daughter: “dogs.”
+He suggests that they are lower than the children of Israel -- his land, his people.
+And he does it at a house in her hometown – not his.
            [A.] This would have been hard for Mark’s audience to hear. Mark wrote this gospel for gentile Christians living outside of the Holy Land – possibly some in Tyre. It would be read by Christians who were dealing with non-Christians every day. If Jesus thought so little of the Gentiles he encountered, then how could the Christians whom Mark addressed with this gospel be expected to hear it gladly? There is no clear answer in the text.
            Could it be that the Syrophonecian woman’s response, which caught Jesus in his own words, won him over – for all of them? People beyond Israel could delight in knowing that Jesus did visit in areas familiar to them. They could take comfort from the fact that Jesus ultimately did hear her and respond.
            [B.] OR, could the message of this exchange be a lesson in prayer? This woman with no standing, with no advocate, bringing nothing but her need was able to approach and win her request from the Son of God. Let it be a word of encouragement for everyone of us whose prayers seem to be delayed. Is the answer long in coming? Is your standing before God a bit shaky? No matter. Just as that Syrophonecian woman was able to make her case, so you will make your case. So, pray persistently and hopefully.
            Jesus said to the woman: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” To which she replied with great deference and humility, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
            [C.] I guess my mind wandered as I was reading this exchange – off to a country song by Garth Brooks.
            In 1990, Garth Brooks released a song with the raucous chorus:

'Cause I got friends in low places,
Where the Whiskey drowns,
And the Beer chases my blues away,
But I'll be okay,
Now I'm not big on social graces,
Think I'll slip on down to the Oasis,
Oh I got friends,
In low places (2).

What is the connection? What do Garth and the Syrophonecian woman have in common? Just that neither one allowed their social status to discourage them. Garth could find friends; the Syrophonecian woman still had a daughter she loved. They refused to be written off.
            The lesson for faith is that this woman acts out of love/devotion to her daughter and conviction about the power of Jesus; there is no craving for fame or honor for herself. She *took it* so she could press the case for her daughter with the Son of God. Can we also come to Jesus with such a pure motive? Jesus recognized the living, empowering faith in the woman’s conviction that God will be merciful. It is not the fulfilling of the Law which saves, but the heart which expects everything from God through Jesus.

[III.]  But, now we have to read the exchange as a lesson in THEOLOGY. The title of this devotional this morning: “God’s vote?” suggests the answer to the questions raised by this encounter.
            The ancient claim of Judaism is that God has chosen the children of Israel. They are children of one family; they are children of a specific piece of real estate, the Promised Land. If the good things of God are promised to one people of one land, then what is Jesus doing with this brassy, Gentile woman beyond the bounds of Israel proper? Based on the ancient doctrine of a Chosen People and the Promised Land, the good things of God are the property of one land and one people and no one outside that group need apply. This was a serious problem to the early church as missionaries began to carry the gospel beyond the bounds of Israel.
            Clearly, Jesus was won over by her response of humble trust. And, by her response, this Syrophonecian woman has redefined the centuries old concept of the “chosen people.” Because of this encounter, the “chosen people” are now defined as those God has chosen to welcome simply because they respond to the proclamation that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Now, the Gentile can be every bit the Christian that the Jewish Christian can be. It is a far-reaching and stunning re-definition which has shaped the Christian faith and the societies shaped by this faith since that day.
            Does God vote for one and against the other? The answer is clearly, “NO.” Paul got it right when said: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2.16).
            Because of this encounter, modern Christians have extended this re-definition to believe:
+that people of every nation, every tongue, every race, every political party can find faith in Christ.
+that people from whom we keep our distance because they have a past or a reputation or a smell find welcome at Christ’s table.
+that people whom we love to hate because of their politics or their form of government can find faith in Christ.
And further, if anyone finds faith in Christ, then that person is a brother or sister to you and to me. That is hard to swallow today, as I believe it was hard to swallow in Jesus’ day and in the days after Mark’s gospel was being carried into all the corners of the world. Again, if Christ has spoken on the inclusiveness of the gospel, who are we to build barriers against anyone?
            Does God vote FOR one or AGAINST another ? I don’t think so. Again, Paul said:
            There is no longer Jew or Greek,
            there is no longer slave or free,
            there is no longer male and female,
            for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28).

+I recall one hot June day at the Methodist Annual Conference session. The debate was contentious and tempers were short. The Bishop stopped the debate to remind us: “Whenever this debate is finished and the votes have been counted, we are still going to leave here as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
+I would extend that message to the election season right now. The Republican and Democratic National Conventions are just completed, and the fall campaign for the Presidency begins now. The speeches and the TV ads are going to get pretty shrill before this election is held. To borrow the words of that Bishop: “Whenever this debate is finished and the votes have been counted, we are still going to live right here – all of us citizens of the United States of America.”
            We read this encounter between Jesus and the Syrophonecian Woman, and we wince. This doesn’t sound like my Jesus. I think this mother changed Jesus’ way of thinking that day. For one brief moment, she was more certain about Jesus’ mission than he was. I think she taught him something about the power of Gospel to mold this aching world so that it looks more like the Kingdom of God.
            So, now it is time for us to take the lesson she delivered that day to heart. It is time for us to step out into the world with a new thought: each one we meet may be one who lives trusting in Jesus. Each one we meet could be one who lives trusting in Jesus. A conviction like that will give you and me a new way of seeing.

1. Robert Bachelder, Between Dying And Birth, CSS Publishing.
2. Brooks, Garth, “Friends in Low Places,” 1990

September 16, 2012 - Yes, the Cross

Yes, the Cross
Mark 8:27-38

            I have been reading a book by Alain De Botton with the unexpected title, Religion for Atheists. Yes, it was written for atheists. The premise of the book is that, after you strip away all belief in the reality of God, there is much to appreciate and much to learn from religion. For me, as a Christian and convinced of the reality of God, reading this book for atheists reminds me of the way we learned appreciation for our English language by studying a foreign language. It is the basic premise of the book that I cannot accept: that there is a lot to appreciate and much to learn from religion when you strip away all belief in the reality of God.
            A. I can’t accept the author’s premise because, for me, living a decent, moral life is inseparably intertwined with the God we worship.
1. The character of God is the standard against which all human motives are measured. Human motives and insights are variable. They are too dependent on the news cycle:  one day your issue is the talk of the nation; the next day the nation has moved on to something more interesting. God, however, continually presses us to live in love, in justice, in service.
2. God is not just an object to be studied, like a nearby planet orbiting nearby waiting to be photographed or sampled or measured. The relationship between humanity and God is a required element in our understanding of God. Indeed, we are defined by this one relationship.
            You see, in relationship we are more than the pile of cells and hormones that animates us. A believer responds in faith to the call of God and by that response is endowed with the hopes and purposes of God. Through relationship with God, we become more than isolated individuals.
3. Our history with God becomes our story. The simple fact that God has walked through this life with us is momentous. That God on occasion bends near to listen when we pray is life-changing.
To strip away all belief in the reality of God turns the Bible into just another book of pulp fiction. And that, I cannot accept. And I hope you will not accept such a premise. Through faith, we know the God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, and indeed we are known by this God. In Jesus Christ, God has entered our world-space to share what it is to be human. To worship other gods or ourselves as god would change the character and the possibilities of human life. To worship the God known in Trinity: Creator, Son, Holy Spirit, is be in life-giving relationship and held to the greatest life that we can aspire to live.

I. I don’t travel outside the USA often enough, but each time I walk through Customs, headed for home, I am tempted to do something unexpected. What keeps me from acting on this temptation is the conviction that Customs and Immigration Officers are recruited on the basis that they have no sense of humor what-so-ever. So, no, I do not plan to act on my temptation. I’ll just share it with you.
            Each time I walk through the customs station, I have been met with the question from the officer, “Do you have anything to declare?” I know that the officer is asking if I have bought anything on my foreign travels for which I should pay duty. But, as a Christian, that question has an entirely different meaning.
            You see, each time I hear that question: “Do you have anything to declare?” I want to announce with confidence and conviction: “Yes, I do. I declare my faith in Jesus Christ. I follow Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” You see, the most important thing that I want to declare is my faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. My declaration may be foreign to the guy behind the customs desk, but it is a great treasure for me.
            I know that in times past, Christians were brought before magistrates and judges to demand that they renounce their faith in Christ or face persecution. In those arenas, declaring your faith in Christ could be very costly indeed. But, where are we called on to declare our faith? Where do we take a risk simply by saying, “I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord”? The modern world has managed to do what the Romans and their arenas could not do; it has made following Christ toothless and without consequence. We pass through the customs station as we arrive home in the USA. The customs officer asks, “Anything to declare?” And we meekly respond, “Nothing.” Such a pity.

II. Thus, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do they say that I am?” he was pressing them for a declaration. He was pointing them to a relationship with the God of heaven and earth. They would have preferred a lower target. They wanted to focus on the skills they had been learning at Jesus’ feet:
+Casting out demons,
+Feeding multitudes with lunches pilfered from small children,
+Changing water into wine,
+Prep-ing for the Messiah debates coming up.
On the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah;
and still others, one of the prophets."

“Let’s keep this conversation anchored to earth, Jesus. Let’s talk about stuff we can debate even though Judas gets all political and John gets all dreamy eyed and Simon starts blustering about how brave he is. We can handle earth-bound stuff.”
            It was Jesus who changed the subject on them. You’ve spent long enough focused on things you can hold in your hands; now it is time to focus on the One who can hold you in His hands. “Who do you say that I am?”
            You see, had they kept Jesus anchored to earth, they would have taken the safer choice. But, when they saw God in Jesus and acknowledged it to him and to themselves, they were reaching for realities beyond their grasp. They were reaching for the God who can only be reached when God is reaching for us. It was a life-changing moment for all of them.

            C. In the verses that follow Simon Peter’s confession, Jesus describes what believing in him must mean.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly.

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Surely, the disciples thought, following Jesus will take us like conquerors into Jerusalem. Following Jesus will draw the crowds to see what wonders he will do next. It will bring out the shouts and songs of Palm Sunday. What a shock it came to them when Jesus told them that following him would lead him to a cross and them to crosses of their own.
            The political staffers working in the election campaigns this fall assume, rightly, that they will have a chance to work in their candidate’s administration. But, Jesus warns his disciples that working in his campaign only leads to a cross. They had to know this just as we have to know that following this Jesus will lead to the cross.//  And you were hoping that following Jesus…
+would lead to an office with a plaque on the door identifying your importance to the boss in the corner office;
+would lead to a life of ease;
+would provide a path to a comfortable retirement.
But, Jesus says, “Let me tell you about the cross at the end of this journey.

III. Of course, Mark did not tell this moment from the life of Jesus just for history’s sake. He was not merely trying to get all the details recorded. Mark told this moment from the life of Jesus to bring us into the story right up to the moment when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” It is our question, too.
            We all know how hard it is to be the first to say, “I love you” to another, to be the first to break the silence with such a large truth. One does not say anything like that for the first time without sweaty palms and a dry mouth. We may hesitate, not because we doubt that the words are true, but because we know how powerfully true they are, and because having spoken the truth, we can no longer ignore its implications for our lives (1).
            The first question: “Who do people say that I am?” is as easy for us as it was for the Twelve. But then comes the second question: “Who do you say that I am?” only one word is different, but that one word makes all the difference. There is no escape into comfortable objectivity. This question demands not so much the insight of our minds as the allegiance of our hearts. It is one thing to talk about Jesus; it is very different to state your devotion. It is the difference between talking about your loved one and sending a love letter (1).

B. So, we must take up the cross if we would follow Jesus. The call of Jesus is not to deny oneself something, but to deny self. Asceticism can hand the victory to the self, for Self can ride as comfortably on a bicycle as in a limousine. Nor is the call to reject oneself. Self-hatred is not the way of Jesus. The cross we take up is not the burdens life imposes from without but rather the redemptive action voluntarily undertaken for others.
            Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a gruff retired Polish American factory worker and war veteran, has recently been widowed after 50 years of marriage. His Highland Park neighborhood in Detroit, formerly populated by working-class white families, is now dominated by poor Laotian immigrants, and gang violence is commonplace.
            A Laotian family resides next door to Walt. At first, he wants nothing to do with his new neighbors, particularly after he catches the son attempting to steal his Ford Gran Torino as an initiation into a gang. The gang continues to pressure the son and again assaults him on his way home from work. The gang performs a drive-by shooting on the neighbors’ home, injuring the son, and kidnapping and raping his sister.
            The next day, the son seeks Walt's help to exact revenge. Walt locks the young man in his basement and tells him that he has been haunted by the memory of killing an enemy soldier.
            Walt then goes to the house of the gang members where they draw their weapons on him. He talks loudly, berating them and drawing the attention of the neighbors. Putting a cigarette in his mouth, he asks for a light; he then puts his hand in his jacket and provocatively pulls it out as if it is a gun, inciting the gang members to shoot and kill him. As he falls to the ground, his hand opens to reveal an army lighter: he was unarmed. A police officer tells them the gang will be arrested for murder and imprisoned for a long time (2).
Kowalski dies as the Christ-figure in the movie. By offering himself for this killing, Kowalski provides relief from the gang and its violence which was on a path to destroy this family. And clearly, it was a path/cross which he chose.

            I told the Cross-story of the Clint Eastwood movie with some reluctance. It has always seemed to me that Christ’s work of taking the cross is the defining act of suffering love in the history of the world. Christ’s willingness to endure the cross stops me in my tracks.
            What I don’t get is how we step forward with similar acts of suffering love which we might call “taking up our crosses,” as Jesus commanded. Clint Eastwood can make up a scene for a movie – but that is the art of cinema. How do we make our response real?
            So, I leave this command of Jesus with you.
34  Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
            and take up their cross and follow me.

            How do we follow Jesus, taking up our cross? Jesus has embraced the cross for our life and our salvation. Let us watch for the ways by which we might follow in that way – the way of the Cross.

1. Copenhaver, Martin. “Who do you say that I am?” Christian century, Aug 24-31, 1994, p. 779.
2. Gran Torino, film directed and produced by and starring Clint Eastwood, 2008. Plot summary from