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Cutting Pieces to Find Peace – Luke 12:49-59

Each time this passage comes up in the Lectionary (every three years), I am reminded again just how uncomfortable it makes me feel.  I prefer to associate Jesus’ peace with the passage in John 14:27, often used at memorial services and funerals, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  I prefer the comfort and warm fuzzies alluded to by John and the stories in which Jesus reminds us that we are important to him even when we are not important to anyone else.  I like the texts that remind us of the many paintings we see of Jesus with a calm, serene, loving smile.



Instead, we are dealing with this text, which comes immediately after Jesus comforts the crowd, calling them “little flock” (making us recall the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd) and assuring them that it is God’s good pleasure to give them and us, the Kingdom of God.  BUT Jesus turns around and says, “You think I have come to bring peace?  Nope!  Wrong assumption!”  We have only been thinking all along that Jesus was a peace-maker, but the truth is that he warned us that he came to rend/cut families and situations into pieces–to issue a serious wake-up call we need to heed.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the gospel of health, wealth, power and success.  It is the gospel of the cross, the gospel of piece-making.  Author Flannery O’Conner, whose writing I was introduced to in seminary has said, “What people do not realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket [warm and cozy], when of course it is the cross.”  The cross is where Jesus is headed as he speaks his hard saying.  Jesus was a piece-maker.  Think back to the scene in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old.  He ditched his family to challenge the rabbis while his family spent three days frantically looking for him before they finally found him.  When they scolded him for his behavior, he tossed back the comment, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 



Much later, at the age of thirty, Jesus leaves his family and his father’s carpentry business in order to begin his ministry.  His mother and brothers come after him, but when Jesus is told that they are standing outside and want to see him, he points to his followers and says, “These are my mother and my brothers, those who hear the Word of God and do it.”  OUCH, that smarts!  In Luke 14:26, following today’s Scripture, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  What would James Dobson of Focus on the Family have to say about this one? 



It wasn’t just Jesus’ own family that he cut into pieces; he broke up a bunch of others as well:  James and John were in the fishing business with their father, Zebedee and Jesus came along and said, “Follow me,” and James and John left their father behind as he held the fishing nets in his hands.  So, what is Jesus doing; piece-making or peace-making?  This particular teaching of Jesus is like a slap up alongside of the head or a drenching with cold water in the face.  Jesus didn’t gently ease into these harsh words. Why?  Jesus did not hold back because he does not want us to hold back.  Jesus begins by telling us that he came to start a fire on the earth–to set off a time bomb–to change everything, to turn everything right side up.  He came to disrupt and confront. Fire is a biblical metaphor for cleansing, refining and purifying.  Jesus came to bring fire to the earth so that God’s people might once again be fruitful.  But Jesus does not stop there.  He promises there will be no peace, only division.  Don’t you wish you could have been sitting in the crowd, hearing Jesus speak, so that you could have raised your hand and said, “Excuse me.  Didn’t you promise to give us your peace?  Didn’t the angels promise peace among those whom you favor (in the Christmas account)?  I came for the peace that passes all understanding.” 



Jesus knew and still knows that wherever we go and whatever we do, we are constantly confronted–even in our own homes.  Family is where we want to believe we can find a source of community, a sense of belonging, and now we are hearing that if we allow the fire of Christ’s love to cleanse us, we will be divided.  The division goes beyond my University of Michigan friends cheering against the opposition: Michigan State University. The division Jesus speaks about is not what team color to wear, but whether we are willing to put on Christ, whether we will walk the way of the cross or the way of the world. 



The peace of God is not calmness or contentment or even experiencing the absence of conflict.  God’s peace is about wholeness, being at one with God, being at one with God’s will for us–even if that means dying in exile like John on the island of Patmos–or being crucified upside down in Rome like the legend tells us Peer died.  It is piece-making that leads to peace-making.  We know it is not just our biological families that become divided.  Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth was written in large part because of the division that church was facing.  Churches today find themselves midst controversial division and strife.  Why did Jesus tell the people there will be division?  To warn us?  To assure us?  To prepare us?  Yes, yes and yes!  Jesus did not stop at telling us that there would be conflict and division.  He went on to say that we need to pay attention to what is going on around us–to work out our conflicts.

We are called to feel the heat of the world, and like Moses, to stand before the Pharoahs of our day:  injustice, hatred, poverty–and work to free God’s people for God’s glory. 



Jesus spoke of facing a baptism, of being purged, drowned to sin, in order to create a new family–the church!  The Body of Christ!  Under the waters of baptism, we have been drowned into the Church, torn into pieces and washed into the new family of God. 



In the early church and in some Christian churches of Africa today, baptismal fonts were shaped like a coffin so that the little child to be baptized can be brought into the worship center (or) carried in a coffin, to be reborn into the new life of Christ and the church in baptism.

It is our obligation as Christians today to battle divisiveness that threatens to rip through the Christian community and to set us at odds with one another–tobecome stronger and more united as we all seek the same goal, living to bring God all the glory and honor.  I have a friend who always signs her notes, “God’s peace be with you.  May we know the peace of which Paul reminds us: “Keep our hearts and  minds in Christ Jesus.”  

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Expect the Unexpected

The Scripture readings for today emphasize God’s desire to do good things for God’s people and for all people who will respond in a positive way to God.  Luke quotes Jesus, “Do not be afraid any longer, my little flock of people, for God your Father has expressed a strong desire to give to you the kingdom of God.”  Jesus urges people to sell their material goods and to provide for the poor, to build up their treasures in the heavens, and to be alert at all times, watching for the coming of the Son of Man.  We are urged by faith to accept good things from God and to be ready when good things are dispensed so that we will miss no opportunity to receive them.  God’s desire to do good things for us is “gospel,” good news for all! 
I find it intriguing that Jesus tells us to be dressed for any and all actions.  He goes so far as to say that if the owner of a house knew what time a thief was going to appear, then he wouldn’t have let his house be broken into.  Likewise, Jesus points to his later coming when the kingdom of God is complete, saying, “You must be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” 
Life is filled with unexpected events and surprises.  Sometimes the “happenings” are the source of great joy and bring relief to the routine and boring tasks of everyday life.  You have often heard me say, “Expect the unexpected and you won’t be disappointed” and I often pray for boredom but God chooses not to listen to that petition in my prayer!  Sometimes the unexpected event or person is viewed as a disruption, an annoyance or worse still, a source of pain or anxiety.  When the unexpected occurs, there frequently is nothing we can do to avoid it.  Often the difference between an event being one of joy or pain is our degree of readiness for what happens.  Those who have prepared for the unexpected will use the opportunity afforded them to grow. My recent vacation was a mixture of some of those opportunities to grow in patience, compassion and understanding.  I leaned plenty about expecting the unexpected.  On Friday, only four days before I was to leave home and begin my three week sojourn, my mother called to say that she had had an accident which totaled her car, but she and the people she hit were all OK–Phew!  That was a relief because mom is almost 89.  She was planning on buying the car back but it would no longer be insurable–it was totaled, so it no longer exists to be insured–only PL and PD.  I had to rent a car to drive from the airport to mom’s (she usually comes with someone else driving her car to pick me up) and for the next ten days to get her to doctor appointments, shopping and out to dinner (she did not want me to have to work/cook while I was there).  According to the sign on mom’s dining room wall, she only serves three kind of meals: frozen, microwave and take-out! After my adventures with Mom, I drove back to the Ashville airport and flew to the US Air hub in Charlotte, the same city I spent four nights in two years ago when I thought it would be a great stroll down memory lane to visit Mom for Christmas.  There was a blizzard–the worst in 55 years and no snow removal equipment at the airport to clear the runway.  This time, all the planes were overbooked and my college roommate, whom I was to meet in Toronto, enjoyed the hotel room by herself as I arrived a day later.  It rained almost non-stop for three days, but stopped so that we could enjoy the open dome at the Sky Dome to watch the Toronto Blue Jays trounce the Houston Astros, to the delight of the Canadians all around us.  We got around Toronto via trolleys (buses) and subways utilizing the complex public transportation system, rather than pay a fee to get the car in and out of the hotel garage.  Parking in Toronto is like parking in New York City.  At the end of the second day, I read the fine print at the ticket booth in the subway and discovered I could have saved money with the senior citizen’s rate.  We drove to the Muskoka Lake region to soak up beautiful greenery/scenery, and more rain and temperatures from 58-68 degrees, and then went on to the North Detroit suburbs to experience more rain, but I got to visit my Alma Mater and view a whole new campus that has been added in the last 44 years.  I walked across the Diag and past the coffee shop I used to work in, which recently was sold.  It seemed like my vacation was destined to be extended because all the planes were overbooked and I would not be able to return home unless I switched airlines.  My suitcases had an all day stay at Phoenix International Airport and I arrived later in the evening so I could return to work on the designated day.  “Expect the unexpected.”  Lack of readiness and preparation for what we do not know can be unnerving and create anxiety butwhen we get over the initial shock and past the frustration, we can calm down and go about our business until another unplanned event appears.  Jesus is telling us to be responsible people, to ourselves and God, and not to allow the possibilities that events and people present to us to be lost.  We can grow only to the extent that we are open to what is presented to us.  If we are closed off due to lack of readiness, a complacent attitude, or refusal to interact with people or to deal with problematic situations or events, we will be the losers.  If we are not ready when God’s challenges manifest themselves in events to people, then we will lose a whole lot more.  If we are not ready when Jesus Christ comes to reclaim the world, we will lose everything.  We need to be ready and watching, “For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” We need to ponder these questions: –Challenges in life present us with many different avenues and paths, some of which we would rather not travel when the fork in the road comes.  Have we prepared our minds and hearts for the path it will take or do we miss an opportunity because of our hesitation? –Do we plan for the future and make necessary preparations or live only for the moment and make no provisions for our future? –Do we safeguard the things entrusted to us?  Are we good stewards of God’s gifts? Are we prepared for the unexpected person, the “thief in the night,” who may come to destroy the things God has given to us? –What responsibility do we have toward others to see that they are prepared for the future?  Do we think of ourselves or can we extend our care to others?  Do we keep watch for others as well as ourselves? –It is exhausting and impossible to be awake at all times, but are we ready for the unexpected event when our senses are aroused to its occurrence?  Do we wait with a sense of joyful expectation or of fear and dread? 
I came home from vacation to find the preschool taking on a delightful new appearance under the leadership of our new director/teacher, who is diligently preparing for the opening of our new program.  She sang praises about the more than fifteen people who came to clean, inventory and prepare for school to open.  I went to Chancel Choir practice on Wednesday and was greeted by 25 smiling faces eager to praise God in song under the direction of our new choir director.  The lot behind the Fellowship Hall had two huge dumpsters placed on it to receive the debris from the dilapidated structure on it, due to be removed on Saturday-yesterday.  The ground shook on Friday as the giant palm tree, home to millions of cockroaches and palmetto bugs (and pigeons) was cut down.  God has great plans for the future of Peoria Presbyterian Church as we seek to care for what has been entrusted to us in this little corner of the kingdom of God.  Thank you to all who have been expecting the unexpected in my absence and faithfully preparing for our glorious future–yet to be revealed.  To God be the glory. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Walking in Faith

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

I do not know if you have any special routine or rituals that you observe when you get ready to go on a trip, but I try to make a list, write checks in advance to pay bills, and start gathering things to put in my suitcase.  I always seem to forget to do something, take too much stuff–or the wrong things, and then come home to a whole list of things I forgot to do before I left.  They are waiting for me!  Which is worse, getting ready to go on a trip or coming home and picking up the pieces?  Today’s text from Luke speaks about Jesus’ followers, the route for them to take after his death, and their attempt to share the message of the gospel.  The Disciples felt somewhat like “lambs in the midst of wolves” with very little success.  Their situation was considerably different from that of the proclamation of the Jesus of history as a Jewish Messiah figure talking about God and the coming rule of God, giving hope to the oppressed Jewish people in Galilee before Jesus was crucified.  As Christians today, we seek hope for a nation that is growing in the number of non-Christians taking power and having great influence.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 is permeated by a sense of  urgency.  The message of the coming rule of God must be proclaimed in spite of all dangers.  Apparently, the Jesus of history had pointed very effectively to the Lord God and to the necessity of acclaiming the Lord God and not Caesar as the ONE who should be the ruler in the lives of the people around him.  We need to also claim Jesus as the Risen Christ and God for today and every day.

Both the Old and New Testament readings express God’s mercy of the oppressed and the opposition of God to the oppressors, whether they be Canaanites (Syria), Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek or Roman, or within the Israelite or early Christian power structures.  If we look around us after celebrating the birth of our nation, we must remember that in the biblical texts it is the Lord God, not any nation or secular power, including our own, who is Supreme.

Luke’s account of sending forth seventy disciples in pairs to every town where Jesus went, seems simple enough but it is like each one of us planning a trip and packing our suitcases.  We have a basic outline we follow but then Jesus gives marching orders for all who would follow him.  We need to pay attention because Jesus is still speaking to us today, but there are some interesting glitches.

To follow in Jesus’ footsteps: Carry no purse, no bag, nor any sandals.  Travel light!  I do not know about you, But I am in trouble already.  I cannot pack to go away for more than twenty-four hours but what I take everything except the kitchen sink–and that is if I have my wipes with me.  Think back to Jesus’ time.  It made sense.  The more stuff they took on  a trip, the more they had to carry and worry about.  Stuff would drag them down, and keep them from concentrating on preaching and healing.  When I go to  a conference, I pack more puzzles and books than I could ever do in a month, much less 4-6 days.  And I have to pack for every conceivable weather pattern that exists in the northern hemisphere.  It we have trouble packing for a few days, how much more difficult is it to pack for life?  We accumulate things.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more successful we may feel.  Jesus knew things have a way of weighing us down and holding us back.  Jesus knew people had to eat, be clothed and housed but possessions can take hold of us.  Jesus wanted his disciples to remember what they could not live without was his power and authority–not what things they carried and claimed as their own.  Our security comes from trusting in God’s word, not from material possessions. Our ability to hear and respond to that word can be encumbered if we do not learn to ravel our religious path/faith journey in a “light” fashion. (Jesus is the light of the world.)

Second instruction:  “Greet no one on the road.”  That sounds pretty snobbish, doesn’t it?  I like/love to talk as you all know.  Imagine me walking by one of you and not saying a word!  Jesus knew human nature.  There is a job to do and it includes getting to a destination so that healing, words of comfort and salvation can be spoken.  To dally along on the road engaged in mundane and superficial chatter is not our mission.  The disciples had a job to do and so do we and Jesus does NOT want us distracted.  Some of us can cut ourselves off from worldly distractions by removing or turning off hearing aids, but we need to determine what is truly important in how we spend our time here on earth.
As people of God, we are given a task, “To go to all  the nations of the world, baptize and teach in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  That great commission is also our commission, our calling and sending forth, and in Jesus’ instruction for travelers, he reminds us that there is an urgency to our message.  We have news about life and death!

Instruction three:  Jesus goes right to the point when he says the task at hand is to announce peace, to heal the sick and to say “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.”  We are not the saviors here, we are the bearers of God’s news that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world and we are called to point to it for others to see.  We point to the baptismal font and say: “Here is life-giving water.  God is at work laying claim to our lives.”  On Communion Sundays we can point to food on the table and say, “This food is a foretaste/a sampling of the great banquet to come.  God gave us his body and blood for strength for our journeys, wherever they may take us.”  We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless and care for the sick.  God is at work through the loving hands of the people He calls into service.

Final word: “Whenever you enter a town and you are not welcomed, go out into the streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.’ Time is too short to be wasted in futile arguments.  Testify to God’s power and authority, proclaim the arrival of God’s kingdom; and let your witness stand on your own merits, win or lose.”  No one comes to faith without having been led to it by someone who shared the story of God’s love and grace with him or her.  It is our job to tell people God loves them and cares for them and to prove it by what we say and do.  Our role is to share the faith in a way that says we care and God cares.  Trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

These are simple instructions for our road trip to life–in this world where we walk by faith with God on a mission to do God’s work.  That is something to think about as we pack for our journeys.  So long, for now.  Have a great trip!  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

A History Changing Letter

Message Delivered on June 23, 2013
Galatians 3:23-29

For those of you who turn your televisions to the history channel from time to time, you will have no problem identifying with Paul’s letter to Christians at Galatia.  We can view this letter as a snippet of time captured in succinct words that convey the relevance of the gospel to Christians in any age.

Once upon a time, people wrote letters; not text messages, e-mails, or tweets, but epistles.  Pens were actually put to paper (papyrus, vellum, parchment and other early forms of paper).  These letters changed history in ways big and small.

It was a letter that connected Annie Oakley to the President of the United States, William McKinley.  The famous sharpshooter amazed crowds by shooting holes in playing cards tossed into the air, so she thought she could be of service to her country.   She offered her services in the Spanish American War, and those of fifty other female sharpshooters to be at the disposal of the President.  The women were prepared to furnish their own arms and ammunition, so as not to generate expense to the government.  Mr. McKinley never responded, but that letter helped open the door for women in military service.

In 1956, Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote a letter to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, in which he criticized Fleming for putting a lady’s gun, a 25 caliber Beretta in Bond’s hand.  Fleming responded by rearming Bond with a Walther PPK and took on Boothroyd as an arms advisor, and created a new character named Major Boothroyd, known to fans as “Q.”

As pioneers moved from Peoria, Illinois and settled in the Arizona Territory, some working on the Arizona Canal Project, Jennie Mann wrote about starting a Presbyterian Sunday School to bring Christian education to the settlers’ children and children in this region.  She chronicled her experiences and we have included them in the history of our church, established in 1892.

The apostle Paul changed history by arguing that we are made right with God through the faith of Jesus, not the religious law diligently followed by children of Abraham, the children of the Covenant who adhered to the law outlined in the Jewish book of faith, the Torah.  In writing to Greek speaking converts to Christianity, Paul was addressing the concerns of the faith community, who wondered if they needed to add Jewish religious practices to their new faith in Jesus.

As radical as Paul’s ideas were to his listeners, I do not think they would have been ready for the e-mail I received this week from Lester Dray, which included the message, “Do you think Peoria Presbyterian Church is ready for this?”
       PREACHER: “Praise the Lord!”
     
       CONGREGATION: “Hallelujah!”

       (T-i-m-e is allowed for this to be accomplished).

       PREACHER: “Now, let us pray, committing this week into God’s hands.
                         Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter, and Facebook, and chat
                         with God.”

       S-i-l-e-n-c-e (except for gadgets running).

       PREACHER: As we take our Sunday tithes and offerings, please have
                         your credit and debit cards ready. You can log on to the
                        church wi-fi using the password ‘Lord909887’.  The
                         ushers will also circulate mobile card swipe machines
                         among the worshipers. Those who prefer to make
                         electronic fund transfers are directed to computers and
                         laptops at the rear of the church. Those who prefer to use
                         iPads can open them now. Those who prefer telephone
                         banking, take out your cell phones to transfer your
                         contributions to the church account.”

                        The holy atmosphere of the Church becomes truly
                         electrified all ALL the smart phones, iPads, PCs, and
                    laptops beep, flicker, and leap into action for the contribution.

              Closing Announcements:
              This week’s ministry cell meetings for various age groups will be
               held on the Facebook group pages where the usual group chat
               ting takes place. Please log in and don’t miss out. Thursday’s
               Bible study will be held live on Skype at 1900hrs GMT. Please
               don’t miss out.
               You can follow your Preacher on Twitter this weekend for
               counseling and prayers.

               Thank you for coming. God bless you—and have a nice day.

My response to all of this to Lester was, “I want to believe that the Lord of our lives is more personal and relational.”  Lester’s answer to me was, “I agree.”

After receiving Paul’s letter, the Galatian Christians realized that there was “no longer Jew or Greek—slave or free…male and female. Instead, all were one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

History was shaped in small ways for President McKinley, Ian Fleming, and families of pioneers from Peoria, Illinois, but it was totally transformed by Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Before Paul wrote his interpretation of the gospel, people believed and felt imprisoned and guarded under the religious laws, which restrained and protected them from hurting themselves and others.  The law was viewed as a disciplinarian.  The disciplinarian, paidagogos, from which our word pedagogy is derived, was a slave who supervised and guarded children, taking them to school and back, and overseeing their behavior, a “nanny” by today’s standard.  The protective custody was temporary because the children grew up and their services were not needed any longer.  Paul says they were guarded under the law until faith would be revealed; faith in Jesus Christ.  He suggests that there were two historical ages: the age of the law and the age of faith.  People had faith in Almighty God for hundreds of years but history changed when Christ faithfully suffered death and rose to new life.  Paul spoke of the law as a prison and prison guard, a disciplinarian (the pedagogue).  Paul insisted that after Christ came we were justified by faith and no longer needed a “nanny.”  Once Christ died and rose from the tomb, no human action is required except that we put our complete trust in Jesus Christ.  In Galatians 2:20 Paul said, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Personal faith.  Christ’s faith.  Together they form the Christian faith.  We no longer live in a nanny state, subject to a disciplinarian.  Paul believing that we are justified by faith and as followers of Christ, are now children of God.  Until Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians, “Children of God’ was a term reserved for God’s chosen people, the Jews, and could be applied to the first Jewish followers of Jesus.  These disciples continued to practice circumcision and to follow many of the religious Old Testament Laws.

Paul continues to emphasize that “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (v.26).  The circumcised and uncircumcised, keepers of the law as well as those who knew nothing of the law.  Jews as well as Greeks–all are children of God through faith.  For Christians today, this letter speaks of the power of faith to create a new family called “Children of God.”  It does not matter what your ethnic or religious background might be or what language you speak.  It does not matter what level education you have attained or if you have a job or spouse or money in the bank.  What matters is faith in Christ. That is what makes us Children of God.

Paul gives us a new identity: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (v.27). When we clothe ourselves with Christ, we take on his characteristics and do our best to present him to the world.  This means showing his grace and his love, speaking the truth, and serving others with generosity and compassion.  V.28 is a political and social statement that continues to be recognized as such today.  In v.29, Paul is following through from his argument in v.16, “The promises were made to Abraham and his offspring, referring to one, which is Christ.  For the Galatians to be the offspring of Abraham is for them to be co-heirs with Christ and for Paul, this is the key point.  If the Galatians are upholding Abraham as a paragon of virtue, Paul is at pains to lead them to the next step of recognizing that Abraham’s virtue was not a product of the law but a product of faith.  I see this as the hinge pin, the key in human history that can unite us with our Muslim brothers and sisters who profess to be faithful children of Abraham.  It is our ministry as disciples of Jesus to proclaim that faith in Jesus Christ is the means by which all people are able to become heirs of the promises.  We have many words to share and letters to write.  I do not believe tweets can convey the “hands-on”, relational love of Jesus for all people.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Joy in Jesus

Message Delivered on May 12, 2013

In 1987, I visited the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated.  In Greece there are “documented” sites and “traditional” sites.  As I looked at the hillside where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated, I could still see the iron rings where the shackles on Paul and Silas’ feet had been attached.  I could imagine the intense heat of the jail by day and the penetrating cold after the sun had set.  The two missionaries had been flogged before being imprisoned and their feet secured in stocks for good measure.  It was a grim bit of news recorded in Acts but at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God.  I doubt their choruses were happy tunes; after all, jails were designed to make their residents unhappy in those days.  Paul and Silas were not wailing tunes of despair, rather they remained surprisingly calm throughout the ordeal.

I cannot imagine what Paul and Silas were feeling in this dungeon, but as Christians their hope in God remained paramount.  Recall the days of your childhood and learning the tune, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…stomp your feet…nod your head.”  There were sixty kids in the primary department of my Sunday school and after a rousing chorus of this song (I now call Christian calisthenics), even the usual “antsy-pantsy” students had an opportunity to expend energy, calm down and be receptive to the morning Bible lesson.  At a youth rally one of the speakers emphasized that because the kids were Christians and had the good news of the gospel, they should be happier than other people and smiling all the time.  One of the kids responded, “O great, now I have something new to feel guilty about; I am a Christian and I do not feel happy every minute!”

When Charles Schultz died, the next day the Peanuts cartoon pictured the faces of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the gang resting on a fence with tears rolling down their cheeks.  The master cartoonist, who had brought joy to many, was gone.  In one of Schultz’s early comic strips, Lucy was acting philosophical and asked Charlie Brown, “Why do you think we are put on earth?”  After pondering this profundity, Charlie replied “To make others happy.”  Not a bad answer from the round-headed kid.  Lucy was momentarily happy, but then a scowl darkened her brow, “I don’t think I’m making anyone happy, but of course, nobody’s making me very happy either.”  In the final cell of the strip, Lucy screams out in big, capital letters: “SOMEBODY’S NOT DOING HIS JOB!”

The notion that Christians should be happy all the time is one that just won’t go away.  Pop-gospel writer, Gary Paxton, penned: “If You’re Happy, Notify Your Face.”  I learned in anatomy/physiology in college that it takes more muscles in the human face to frown than it does to smile.  On varying occasions our faces project pain, anger and joy.  Most of us find it impossible to be happy all the time.  Life is too complicated for that.

Scripture tells us a lot about joy in the lives of those who try to serve God and follow Jesus.  Joy in the biblical sense is something different from happiness, even though the two often coincide.  The Bible does not command us to feel joy or to notify our faces or any other parts of our body to reflect joy.  Joy is what life looks like when we really trust God. 

Captivity and liberation are themes that run through the biblical account of Paul and Silas in jail.  The scene is set when a slave girl, possessed by a spirit, is liberated by Paul.  The slave girl’s owners are displeased because they have lost the spectacle that made them money.  Paul and Silas are consequently brought before magistrates who order them to be flogged and thrown into prison.  Divine intervention frees them from the jail by an earthquake.  Having every opportunity to escape, Paul and Silas call out to the jailer and save him from committing suicide because he assumes the prisoners have escaped during his watch (The death penalty was issued to Roman guards failing to carry out an assignment).  The jailer leads Paul and Silas to safety.  The jailer is further liberated by Paul and Silas when they teach him and his family about salvation, to be set free from sin by belief in the Lord Jesus.  The jailer and his entire family are baptized into the body of Christ.  God’s liberating activity transforms the lives of the faithful.  The incarceration of Paul and Silas is a reminder that God’s faithful will never face adversity alone.  Even as Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God in the midst of their imprisonment, Paul and Silas demonstrated how they were spiritually liberated by God, even before they were physically freed by God through the earthquake.

Paul and Silas were Roman citizens and servants of God, but they were accused of being Jews and following customs that were unlawful for Romans.  They had professed to be servants of the MOST HIGH GOD, rather than citizens loyal to the emperor.  Another common theme throughout this passage is that God is proclaimed.  The power of God and merely mentioning the name of Jesus chases away the spirit from the slave girl.  The way of salvation is made clear.   The God with the real power to control the cosmos shines forth and this God has provided the only means of salvation for all who are willing to believe.

The Bible does not tell us what to feel, and we have no Christian obligation to demonstrate joy.  But when we are in the darkness and trusting God, joy is simply a description of what is happening in our inner beings.  I shared childlike joy when I sang “I Love to Tell the Story of unseen things above; of Jesus and his glory; of Jesus and his love” in Sunday school.  As I grew in faith and trust in Jesus, my joy became, “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.  I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.”  As mothers and fathers, care-givers of young and old, may we share the joy that comes from knowing and trusting Jesus as our Savior, the lesson Paul and Silas have given to us for today.  Amen.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Heaven is for Real

Message Delivered on May 5, 2013
John 14:23-29; Revelation 21:1-4, 10, 22-22:5
Upon viewing my liturgical calendar for this coming week, I noted that Ascension Day, the day that Jesus returned to the Father in heaven after his resurrection, will be remembered on Thursday.  I can only imagine the mixed feelings of joy and grief as the beloved Savior prepared to leave his disciples.  I know the mixed feelings I have every time I officiate at celebrations of life, remembering friends and trusting God to care for them in their new life in heaven.  Jesus’ words of comfort to his friends before leaving are consoling and help us to look forward to our new life with God forever, but how do we deal with grief caused by losses? Today’s passages give us some insight to God’s words for us in difficult times.

In the Old Testament the Israelites dealt with loss and disappointment by remembering the creation account. It was in the Garden of Eden that sin was first introduced and people have been seeking to reverse its damage for eons. Christ came to offer forgiveness, hope, and the promise of new life; a new beginning with God forever. In the times when we are feeling lost and alone, God promises to be with us. “I am making all things new.”

God had promised the Israelites after the Babylonian captivity to bring them home to the land of their ancestral birth, to restore the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild the ruined temple and to re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation. This morning’s text in Revelation speaks of the eternal realm after the great resurrection as both a new genesis (re-creation) and a New Jerusalem (new world). Creation is renewed not by destroying the old and starting over but by transforming the old into something different, better and transcendent. Creation’s renewal is modeled after the transformation and resurrection of believers (1 Corinthians 15:35-53). In the same way that sinners become a new creation because the old has passed away and the new has come, the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. They have discontinued in their current condition because God is restructuring the old created order into a new state of glory: creation changes without losing its former identity and becomes “a new heaven and a new earth.” God has not abandoned this world, and neither should we. Because God plans on transforming the old created order, the church should be faithful stewards of the planet and not exploit its resources. God’s city, the New Jerusalem, is an epiphany (a light show) revealing three major movements: 1. the initial descent of the city, 2. the measurements and the materials of the city, and 3. the internal content and landscape of the city of God, heaven.

In John’s gospel for today, believers are called to keep the word. In knowing Jesus, God’s presence impacts peace and love and builds a home for those who abide in God’s word. As Jesus prepares to go to the Father, He promises to send the Holy Spirit in his absence to continue in the instruction of Jesus’ words. The revelation of God in Christ will go on.

Last year we read Heaven is for Real in which a young boy of three died in surgery, came back to life, and gradually related to his parents his account of being with God in heaven. Revelation 21:3-4 is often included as one of the “words of comfort” I use at a celebration of life to depict the Kingdom of Heaven we look forward to seeing in God’s glory. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be there with them; 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.” Belief in an after-life is comforting.

Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurobiologist, trained at Harvard University as a neurosurgeon. He was a religious skeptic, but on November 10, 2008, he woke up with a splitting headache that devolved into seizures. An ambulance took him to the same hospital where he worked. He was shrieking, “Help!” and he learned that E.Coli had attacked his brain in a rare form of bacterial meningitis. In a coma, his colleagues felt that he had very little chance of survival. If he lived, he would be severely brain damaged.

Amazingly, Dr. Alexander made a complete recovery; a medical miracle. An afterlife experience during the coma turned a skeptic into a faithful Episcopalian. He penned Proof of Heaven, making the New York Times Best Sellers List for non-fiction after only four weeks. He recalls the medical miracle and shocking after-life experience of heaven he had while in his coma. “While brain dead, he described himself as a hyper-aware speck of consciousness in the midst of darkness, but a visible darkness—like being submerged in mud but also being able to see through it.” He was plunged from that place by a spinning orb of white light that emitted a beautiful melody. The light drew him in and then opened like a portal into an unending valley—“Below me was countryside: green, lush and earthlike. It was earth but at the same time, it was not.” A celestial being spoke to him without using words. He sensed three messages about that eternal place: 1. “you are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” 2. “you have nothing to fear.” and 3. “there is nothing you can do wrong [that cannot be made right].” These images and words have some overlap with scriptural notions of heaven in Revelation. Alexander had no knowledge of this text or any need for it. Heaven had been dismissed as religious nonsense. He described his near death experience as subconscious hallucinations created by the neo cortex of the brain, based on memories of what the person had previously heard or imagined about afterlife. The E.Coli infection was spread across the entire outermost layer of the brain responsible for all of higher functioning. Brain scans during the coma showed zero activity in the areas that could access memories, create dreams, or imagine visual and audio sensations. Alexander’s vision of heaven could not have happened within his physical brain. He was convinced there is a heaven and a loving, personal God.

Revelation 21 is not a vision of angels and harps, it is a vision of the arrival of the New Heaven: 1500 miles long, wide and tall (Revelation 21:16), great perimeter walls made of jasper (verses 12, 18), foundations crusted with precious jewels (verses 19-20), and city and streets made of pure gold (verses 18, 21). The wonder of the city is not what it is made of—but what it represents: 1. No temple in this city. There is no need because Jesus is the mediator of forgiveness and relationship with God, not a building. 2. The Heavenly City represents the fullness of human purpose. In Genesis the garden was created and perfect. Revelation 21 is the true fulfillment of Genesis 1. God is pleased and makes this city in the middle of heaven—his throne. The glory of all civilizations flows into the city as the worship of God (Revelation 21:6).

The implication of how we view our work is huge because God is honoring human work. The proof of heaven is in the work of our hands. Our “city-building” includes all work done in the Genesis mandate to create and cultivate; this fulfills God’s design for humanity. It literally brings heaven to Earth. Of all the images of heaven that God could send to John, he chose a city: Heaven as gritty and earthy and tangible. Alexander’s afterlife experience/vision was his proof of heaven and we can all look for our own proofs of heaven today.

We long for a peaceful world without pain. It is in our sense of satisfaction that comes through holiness—of overcoming the momentary satisfaction of sinful choices that we can find peace. It is in the goodness of the everyday work of our hands—work that fulfills our purpose now and builds a heaven that will come. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) in the present tense, and our lives today can be the proof of heaven as we live, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord God is our guiding light at all times and in all places. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon