All posts in Sermons

The Method in Methodism – Why I Preach It…

EDITOR'S CORNER: Too bland for our own good?Robin Russell, Sep 1, 2010

via www.umportal.org

I think Robin's column is dead on here about the identity crisis in United Methodism. One of my convictions as a Methodist preacher is that our doctrines (and, yes, we have them!) provide a grace-filled, biblically sound, and transformationally-focused framework for introducing people to Christ, helping them to mature in faith, and equipping them for ministry in the world. I invite you to join us this Sunday as I continue a new sermon series, "The Method in Methodism!"

What My Teachers Taught Me – James 3:1-12

Ah, the first few days of a new school year. I don’t know
about you but when I was a kid I used to look forward to the first day of
school—new books, new teachers, new friends, new opportunities to learn.

I just got back from a month of cramming in classes and
writing on my doctorate, which leaves me a little less than excited about
school, but I’m also grateful for the additional education. The more I learn,
the more I realize I don’t know.

When I think about my education, however, one of the things
I’ve come to realize is that while the information we learn is important, the
teachers who deliver that information are even more important. I think the old
adage is true—more is caught than taught, thus teachers are really the
curriculum that students first encounter from the time they are born and begin
to grow. It’s our teachers, more than the information they bring, that provide
our real education.

I was recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers which challenges our long-held
assumptions about what makes a person successful. When we talk about successful
people, says Gladwell, “We want to know what they’re like—what kind of
personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles
they have, or what special talents they may have been born with. And we assume
that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached
the top…In the autobiographies published every year by the
billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the
same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit
and talent fights his way to greatness.”

But those assumptions are wrong, according to Gladwell. In
fact, he says, “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to
parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they
did it all themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of
hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that
allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others
cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong
to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our
achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what
successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are
from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

To put it another way, Gladwell is saying that it is the
people and circumstances present in our lives that make a difference in who we
might become. The messages we receive from an early age can shape us for the
rest of our lives.

As I was getting ready to come home from school, I was
thinking about this and thinking about all the teachers in my life who helped
to shape me into the person I have become—people that I am thankful for every
day.

Jean Shaffer, my first grade teacher, who realized that I had
an unusual passion for reading and kept giving me more challenging books to
read and explore. I think of her when I look at all the books in my library.

Barb McElhatten, my fifth grade Sunday School teacher,
grounded me in Christian faith with her creative lessons and her constant
encouragement. Mrs. M’s kids had already gone off to college and careers, but
she kept teaching fifth graders because she loved Christ and loved helping
young minds learn to love the Scriptures.

Mike Formeck, my band instructor all through middle and high
school, was always fun to be around and challenged me as a musician to keep
getting better. When my home life was in chaos during those high school years,
Mike always kept tabs on how I was doing and let me hang out in his office when
I needed to talk. He also gave me my first real leadership position, appointing
me as captain of the drum line when I was a junior. I was privileged to be part
of the alumni team that set up his retirement party last year.

Strange to say it, but my Army drill sergeant, Sgt. Smith,
was another great teacher. He pushed me to my absolute limits, but once I got
there I found I could do a little more. He had steely eyes, was a world class cusser,
and had a tendency to put the brim of his campaign hat right on your forehead
when chewing you out, but I learned from him not only how to be a soldier, but
also that I could do anything if I set my mind to it and refused to quit.

In college, Dr. Wayne Smith became my mentor and fueled my
love for history and for writing. Prof Smith was a tough professor and most
students at IUP didn’t like to have him for the required history course, but as
a history major I loved the way he challenged me and pushed me to go deeper in
learning and research. I didn’t know that I would become a pastor when I worked
with him, but I attribute my ability and passion as a writer and biblical
historian to him.

At Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Don Joy helped me unpack
the baggage from my past, while Dr. Mary Fisher opened my eyes to reading the
Bible in new ways. 

I could go on, but I think you get the point. You probably
have a similar list of teachers in your own life who helped you become the
person you are. I would attest that Gladwell is right—none of us gets to where
we are strictly on our own (talk about your favorite teacher to a neighbor).

Teachers are vitally important, and not primarily because of
the information they impart. Interestingly, I can remember very little of the
content of the instruction of any of the teachers I’ve mentioned. The specific
lecture, the lesson plan, the questions on the test or the essay—none of that
is what seems to have mattered in the end.

What did matter to me—and what I think matters in any
teaching relationship—is character as much as content. The words used to teach
us information can also define us for a lifetime. If we receive words of
encouragement, hope, and love, we have the opportunity to grow into those
words. If, on the other hand, we receive words of scorn, derision, and hopelessness,
we will grow into those as well.

“Not many of you should teach,” says James, because teachers
will be judged by God with greater strictness because their words can make or
break their students. “The tongue is a fire,” he goes on to say, because it can
either purge us or destroy us. Words matter.

To understand James’ viewpoint here, we first need to look
at how the cultures of the first-century world viewed speech in general. Whereas
we’re constantly bombarded by words and idle speech every day in the form of
gossip, advertising and the white noise of a technological society, all
cultures of the first century, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, agreed that words
and speech contained both power and peril in ample supply. From the wisdom
literature of Egypt to the writings of Plutarch and Seneca to the wisdom
traditions in the Bible, ancient sages believed that silence was better
than speech
, that listening and not speaking was the pathway to wisdom and
that all human speech should be guarded, never expressing rage or envy. A verse
from the Apocrypha sums up this view nicely: “Honor and dishonor come from
speaking, and the tongues of mortals may be their downfall” (Sirach 5:15). The
biblical book of Proverbs is full of similar sentiments.

James employs a series of metaphors to indicate just how
dangerous even a little bit of indiscreet speech can be. The tongue is a small
part of the body, says James, but like the rudder on a ship or a bridle on a
horse, the tongue can steer us either to the path of wisdom or toward
destruction (3:1-5). It takes only a spark — a misplaced, unkind or untrue word
— to burn down a community that has been nurtured and established like an
old-growth forest (vv. 5-6). The tongue’s “deadly poison” is always just a word
or two away from infecting a whole group (v. 8). The power of words to both
bless and curse is a power not to be taken lightly, particularly when our words
are directed at God and, more precisely, at people who are created in God’s
image (v. 9).

But James also recognized that there was a positive use for the tongue, and
that is as a conduit for God’s own wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding among
you?” he asked. “Show by your good life that your good works are done with
gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). Our speech is merely the product of what’s
inside us. If we are filled with the wisdom and Spirit of God “from above,”
then our speech will reflect that. That wisdom is “pure, then peaceable,
gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of
partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17). If, however, our speech is peppered with
“envy and selfish ambition,” then that is evidence that our deeper motivation
is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (v. 15).

To put it another way, before we share anything with anyone we have to listen
to the inner voice. Before we use our audible voice, we should ask ourselves,
“Is what I’m about to share here coming from a desire to build up the person
I’m speaking with and share God’s wisdom, or am I reciting from the negative
scripts I might have been taught by someone else?”

I was down in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs last Sunday
evening serving dinner to homeless people and learning some of their stories.
Some of the folks there were dealing with severe addictions or mental illness,
while others just seemed to look and feel defeated. As I listened to them, I
began to realize that somewhere along the line a parent or someone else gave
many of these folks the message that they weren’t worth very much either by
their words or by their neglect. A lot of people think that the homeless should
just clean up and get a job, but it’s not that easy because human
transformation only begins when we begin to believe a different message about
ourselves. Old scripts, old messages, harsh words are difficult to overcome.

At the beginning of a new school year, we need to be
reminded that all of us who teach are shaping others through our words and our
actions. Our words can build or they can tear down. When we take the time to
listen to God, to ask God for the right words, then we are much more likely to
lift our students to new heights and offer them a fresh vision of the future.  

  

A Blessing Strategy – First Sunday Sermon at Tri-Lakes

Scripture: Genesis 12:1-9

It’s interesting that when you move you hear other people’s moving stories. It’s never what you’d call a “fun” experience, but people in this country are pretty used to moving. According to the census bureau, in 2000 the median time people in our country live in one residence is 5.2 years (which means half move sooner and half later). Each year, one in six people are moving.

 Let’s take a straw poll – How many of you have moved in the last five years? How many will move this year? See…

 I even think it’s ingrained in our American history. From the time of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark we’ve been a people on the move, and Methodists preachers even more so. Francis Asbury traveled 130,000 miles on horseback during his ministry in colonial America and his circuit riding brethren would log many more moving from town to town.

 And even if you haven’t physically moved to a different location, many of you have made moves of a different sort – some of you out there have graduated high school or college and are moving to a new school. Some are moving to new jobs. Some are transitioning to living with aging parents or returning children. Some are simply making lifestyle changes.

 Whatever the transition, it can bring with it a lot of stress. There’s the grief of leaving behind old friends and familiar ways of life, but there’s also the anticipation and excitement about new possibilities. Jennifer and I have talked a lot in the last few weeks about feeling a “swirl” of emotions almost minute by minute.

 But, then again, all this moving has a biblical precedent. It’s interesting to note that in the Bible most significant events are preceded by someone changing their address. To be God’s people is to always be on the move, whether it’s moving to a new location or moving out of a comfort zone. In fact, as this week’s text tells us, God begins his great mission by calling a Mesopotamian herdsman to make a big move—a move that would change the world forever.

 Abram is a guy who seems to just be minding his own business when we first encounter him in Genesis. At the end of Genesis 11, we see that he and his family have already had one move, from Ur (in present day Iraq) to go to Haran When they reached Haran  the family patriarch, Terah, decided that they would “settle” there – set up house, get comfortable, nest in. But when Terah died at age 205 (they must have had good water or something!), God puts Abram on the move again – “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

 Notice there’s no roadmap…no triple A Trip Tik, no brochures promising wondrous vacation properties or greener grass on the other side of the desert. God simply says “Go” and Abram doesn’t ask “Where?” You’d think he’d be concerned about that…I know I would!

Now, I don’t know what Abram was doing when God’s word about the move came to him, but I do know where I was when I got the call about coming here—I was in the shower. I was in the locker room of the Basin Recreation Field House in Park City  toweling off after a particularly grueling workout with my sadistic personal trainer when heard my locker buzzing. It was the Utah district superintendent, Steve Goodier, calling me to let me know that I was being given a new appointment and that someone would be calling me later to tell me where. What a great way to start the day! One minute you’re getting ready to start the routine you’ve been working for seven years, the next you’re virtually on your way out to parts unknown. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is how God works.

 I got the second call a little while later from Olon Lindemud, the DS here at the time, who told me that I was coming to Tri-Lakes. That was exciting to me because this church has a reputation in the annual conference as being a growing, thriving, congregation with tremendous potential—much of that thanks to you all, your vision and commitment, but also because you have had great pastoral leadership in the person of Bob Leeds. At the same time, however, I was sad about leaving behind the work and the people of Park City Community Church. Worse yet, I couldn’t tell them for close to another month! I felt what Abram must have been feeling when God called him to leave behind his country and his kindred to go to a new land.

 When God calls us to move, however, it’s much less about place position than it is about people and purpose. Before God reveals to Abram WHERE he is going, God reveals to him WHO God wants him to be… verse 2 – “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” God is determined to do something wonderful with Abram in the promised land, determined to bless him so that through him others would be brought into God’s family and be blessed. Abram’s move would be the first step in a new vocation—he is blessed in order to be a blessing.

 Not that this would be easy. Genesis 11:30 tells us that Abram’s wife, Sarai, was barren…It’s hard to have “offspring” when this is the case, particularly when the principles are way up in years…Abram was already 75 when they set out from Haran. In fact, in chapter 18, Abram, now called Abraham (meaning “father of many”) is visited by three men who tell him that that time has come for he and Sarah to have a son…they laugh (wouldn’t you?). Here’s what Sarah said, (18:12 – “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” They’re thinking geriatrics while God is thinking pediatrics.  But God does a marvelous and miraculous thing…they have a baby and the promise is fulfilled. The writer of Hebrews sums it up beautifully, “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and countless as the sand on the seashore.” (11:12)

 See, if God is the one calling us, if God is the one giving us the vocation, then God will always provide the means even when the circumstances seem impossible. In fact, if the thing we think we’re being called to do is relatively easy, there’s a pretty good chance it’s not from God. God is always calling us to do things, seemingly impossible things, because it’s then that we realize that we can’t do it alone.

 One of my mentors in ministry taught me to always ask this question when evaluating when discerning if God is calling us to something new. The question: “Is it scary enough?” Is this something that will force you to your knees to wonder how in the world it can happen? Is this something that will force you to depend on God?

 Well, I would argue this morning that beginning a new appointment is scary enough. Is it scary enough for you? I know it’s scary enough for me! Things have changed and more things will change and change is hard for most people. It’s like that old joke: how many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? Why would we want to change it?

 But in the midst of change we need to remind each other
that God has brought all of us here together for a purpose. I come here this morning having been blessed to lead a great congregation for seven years and you have been blessed with a great pastor and church life for eleven years. I have been blessed with a marvelous partner in Jennifer and blessed with two fantastic kids. You have been blessed with a wonderful church family. But all that blessing has been given to us for a singular purpose—to share that blessing, to take on the covenant mission of Abraham, our spiritual ancestor to be a people through whom the world is blessed. More specifically, our call is to bless this part of the world—Monument and surrounding areas, joining God in his redemptive mission for all of creation. We’ll be talking a lot about what that looks like in the weeks and years to come.

 Like Abram, we have been called to “Go” – to go into our community and into the wider world bringing the good news of God’s grace, God’s blessing, God’s divine rescue mission through Abraham’s most important descendant—Jesus Christ. Together we will be a people on the move, a people who will embrace a mission that is scary enough. A people who are blessed to be a blessing.

 Come to think of it, all this “go” talk should make a lot of sense to a church that began in a truck stop—a place where people were always on the move!

 I am excited to see how where we will go together in our future, and excited to see how God will use us to be a blessing.

 

 

Heaven and Hell: A Biblical Vision

 Today we’re looking at one of the most fascinating questions
of faith – What is heaven and what is hell? Probably the better way to phrase
that question (the question behind the question) is, “What happens to us when
we die?”

 From the beginning of history, this has been one of the
primary mysteries that humanity has pondered. Many belief systems have been
built around the concept including, some would say, the Christian faith. So
what I want to do today is a little more of a teaching sermon, looking at the
ways Christian faith has traditionally looked at heaven and hell, then looking
at the biblical view (I assert that these are different views), and then what
the implications are for us as we live in the present. And I have to do all
this in about 25 minutes, so we won’t cover all the issues – but perhaps this
will get you thinking “out here”.

 Let’s begin with a little exercise as we define what we know
(or at least think we know) about heaven and hell. So I’m going to flip a coin
(pick some one to call it) – choose which side of the sanctuary will be heaven
and which will be hell. Now, I’m going to give you one minute to talk with
those around you about the characteristics of the place to which you have been
assigned (this is very Calvinistic – Calvin (a 16th century
theologian upon whom much of Reformed Christian theology is based, believed
that God predestined some people to eternal bliss and some to eternal damnation
– so there you go).  Talk about
what it’s like “where you are”.

 All of these are pretty standard views. Hell as a place of
fire and torment, heaven as a place of wings and harps and clouds.
Interestingly, a recent survey said that 60% of people believe in hell but only
4% think they could actually wind up there. Both heaven and hell are comforting
in a way – heaven because of the bliss, hell because at some level most people
are glad in their belief that the “wicked” will eventually get their just
desserts.

 There’s a clear dividing line. There are winners and losers,
which we Americans tend to like.

 Of course some also believe in purgatory – kind of a cosmic
holding tank – where you could go either way. Life is just a matter of figuring
out which bin God will put you in.

 But is this what the Bible really talks about?

 Consider this. We live in the western world – a world that
in many ways has been formed by a variety of worldviews. Some would say we have
a Judeo-Christian worldview but that’s not the only one. One of the overarching
views of the world that we still hold to, subconsciously, is the Greek
philosophical worldview – particularly when it comes to talking about things
like eternal destiny.

 The Greek philosopher Plato, thought about humanity as being
of a dual nature. Body and soul being separate parts. The body is evil,
corruptible and the spirit pure. For the Greeks, then, human life was a
transient state that worked like this: a pure and undefiled spirit gets dumped
into a corruptible body – a body that has desires and lusts and needs. Life was
then like a wrestling match – the good spirit trying to subdue the evil body.
The higher state was the spirit, so the goal was to get back to the spiritual
state – but where you wound up when you got there was a function of how well
you managed to subdue and control your body. If you did well then, at death,
your spirit would ascend to a state of bliss…if you didn’t and you indulged
your body, gave in to the evil, your spirit would descend to the depths of the
underworld. Disembodiment was the real goal of Greek philosophy.

 You can see how this has affected Christian faith. Much of
it, particularly in the evangelical world, has focused on “getting people to
heaven” – getting them qualified for a good life beyond this one. In my
childhood, I learned that heaven was “up there” and hell “down there” and that
if I didn’t want to go down I needed to only pray the sinner’s prayer and
believe in the doctrines of the church so that I could go up. As I reflect back
on it, faith was more of a fire insurance policy than anything else. The Left
Behind series of books promotes this view as do many others. The desire follows
the Greek idea of being “out of the body” and back in the spirit. Even some of
our hymns reflect this – “I’ll fly away”, for example. It’s all very
individualistic – “my faith” or “my personal salvation”.

 But I want to argue this morning, along with more and more
biblical scholars, that this view is not what the Bible really talks about. In
fact I would go so far as to say that much of our focus on a disembodied
afterlife has really pushed us away from the real mission we’ve been given as
the people of God. Here’s what I mean.

 When we go back to Genesis 1, we learn that humans were
created “in the image of God”. Genesis 1:26 and 27 – Then God said, “Let us
make humanity in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of
the sea and the birds of the air, etc. So God created man in his own image, in
the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

 Notice something about this passage? It’s the plural. God
says let “us” make humans – who’s us? Well, remember back to our lesson on
God’s nature – God’s nature is relational – a perichoresis, a “circle dance” of
the persons of the Trinity. And that nature finds it’s way out in relationship
to humans – God creates for relationship. Not only that, God’s creative act
invites these humans into a vocation – caring for the creation and each other.
In other words, we can see the image of God as not just being an idea, but a
vocation – humans participating with God in the care of God’s creation. God’s
presence is represented in the creation through these humans, created in his
image.

 To be truly human, then, is to be in full relationship with
God and in full relationship with others, relationships that mirror God’s
relational care. To be truly human is not to be, as Plato said, a dualistic
body and soul, but to be whole person…an embodied person living out the image
of God in God’s good creation. The unique capacity of humanity that separates
us from the animals is not, as is traditionally thought, the presence of a
soul—but rather to be in the image of God and to able to relate to God.

 The Bible tells us that, by chapter 3 of Genesis, humans began
to distort that image and turn inward, missing the mark, veering off target.
That’s “sin” – refusing to take on the vocation and the relationship with God
and others. But God does not give up on these humans – God maintains the
relationship – even coming into the world in the person of Jesus, one who was
fully in relationship with God and others – one who was the “true” human – the
perfect and prototypical image of God. Jesus represents what Paul called “the
new humanity” and Jesus invited everyone to participate in that reality, to
take on the image we were created for in the first place.

 Jesus talked about the future – what we call the eschaton in
theological language – but only in terms of the future breaking in on the
present. When he announced the Kingdom of Heaven (or kingdom of God, the terms
are interchangeable), he wasn’t talking about some distant place that we go to
when we die. He was talking about the Kingdom always “coming”. His first sermon
in Matthew 4:17 is one sentence – “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”.
The word “is” here in the Greek is tense ambiguous – meaning “already” and “not
yet”. God’s Kingdom, God’s reality, God’s reign was breaking into the present
from the future and Jesus’s call was for all people to once again take on the
image of God and the vocation of God to make the world more and more like what
it was intended to be.

 Even Revelation gives us this language. Revelation isn’t
about the “end of the world”, it’s about a renewal – Note the language in
Revelation 21 – it’s all about God moving toward us in the consummation of
creation, the new Jerusalem comes “down” – creation is renewed – “Now the
dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. The will be his
people and God himself with be with them and be their God.” This is the hope –
God is going to break in fully one day but, as Jesus said, it’s already
beginning to happen. Our job as his people is to begin acting out that reality
by taking on the vocation of being God’s image, God’s presence in the world.
That’s the work of salvation.

 The Christian hope isn’t a disembodied existence somewhere
far away – it’s resurrection – renewal, re-embodiment in a renewed world.
Creation matters. God will not abandon it (or us) and we will be raised to a
new life in God’s new reality – a new humanity living in community. Heaven is
but a breath away and it’s a reality we can begin to realize now. What a
vision!

 But who is this vision for? Just for Christians? Are we the
only ones who receive this Kingdom and to hell with everybody else? After all,
aren’t we the believers?

 Well, here’s a thought. We have to consider what the word
“believe” really means. In our western mind, we equate belief with the
acquiescence to a particular set of statements or propositions. When we
“believe” something it means that we’ve studied the propositions and find them
useful…but the propositions are always different. Consider the wide and varied
propositions that Christians claim to “believe” – we can’t seem to agree on
which propositions are important. If someone doesn’t adhere to our particular
set of propositions then they are misguided at best and doomed to hell at
worst.

 But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t come to us offering a
set of propositions. He comes offering a proposal – For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son that whoever believes
 in him will have eternal life
(John 3:16). Now read this carefully – God did not give a set of statements or
propositions, he gave himself in the person of Jesus – who delivered God’s
proposal of love. Believe, here, in the original sense of the word, means to
“be live” to be alive, to live into, to be in relationship with God. What’s the
goal? Full relationship with God and full relationship with others – THE IMAGE
OF GOD! Jesus gives us the prototype and invites us into that reality.

 Look at our Gospel lesson today – Jesus makes it clear –
many who say “Lord, Lord” – those who simply believe in the propositions but
don’t live out the relationship – will not enter the Kingdom. It’s much less
about what you understand and much more about who you know!

 As I have been saying for seven years, God’s goal is not to
simply make more Christians but to invite all people to live into the image of
God we were created to be – to “be live” in connecting with God and others in a
life-giving relationship. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

 But what about judgment? The Bible talks about that, too.
While we believe that God’s Kingdom is coming and indeed is already at work, we
also look around us and see that in many ways there are those who will actively
seek to throw off the image of God, to disengage from relationship with God and
with others – people who, in their sin, work harder and harder at becoming less
than human.

 We even use the concept in our language. It is possible for
people to become “monsters” – less than human. Crack open your newspaper and
you’ll see it every day. Genocide, war, corporate scandals…it’s all there.

 If heaven is a reality where God dwells with us and we dwell
with each other in love, then hell is also a reality where humans, in their
free will, choose to live in the pain of isolation. God doesn’t have to assign
us there – we can do a pretty good job on our own. Most of the time in the
Bible where you see God’s wrath threatened it has nothing to do with lightning
bolts from heaven. Rather, God’s wrath is seen, painfully for God, as allowing
his beloved humanity to experience the consequences of its own inwardness.

 What about Satan? Satan is less than human – the tempter,
who reminds us that we have a choice. Look at the temptation of Jesus in
Matthew 4 and you’ll see how it works. The devil doesn’t “make us do it” as in
the theology of Flip Wilson. Rather, all Satan does is remind us that we can do
it by ourselves – that we are the center of the universe. As Donald Miller puts
it: “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story
about me.”

 And when people begin to believe and live out this
self-centered reality, they are in a real sense, in “hell”. I’m not talking
about the fiery, Dante-esque hell that we often picture. When Jesus talks about
hell he uses the word “gehenna” – which was the garbage dump outside Jerusalem
–a place where spontaneous combustion kept the garbage perpetually smoldering.
He used the word to refer what would happen to Israel if they kept up their
revolutionary ambitions and, in AD 70, the Romans did in fact burn it to the
ground.

 No, the reality of hell is a deeper and even more tragic
sense of loss. It is a sense of utter isolation and aloneness. God grieves over
those who would choose to keep running away, like the Father in the prodigal
story who pines after his son. God’s desire is that all might be saved –
brought into relationship with God and the rest of the human family. But the
reality is that some will still choose for themselves. We know what that looks
like in our world. What that looks like in the end, I don’t know but it can’t
be good!

 Eventually, we know that hell will be defeated…that every
tongue will confess Christ as Lord. So our task as the people of God is not to
focus on the eternal destiny but on the present through the lens of this future
reality. Our task is to focus on the Kingdom of God, on our relationship to God
and to others, which pushes hell back further and further – to live as if we’re
in heaven now so that when it comes fully upon us, says Leonard Sweet, it won’t
be such a culture shock!

 Christian faith is less about what happens when we die and
more about how we live. That, said one of my seminary profs, is why the Bible
is so thick with all that stuff about loving God, your neighbor, and yourself.
We’re called to proclaim and live out God’s love in the present as if the
Kingdom has already come.

 God wants us all to live out our humanness in a love
relationship with him and with those around us. What would happen to our world
if we Christians, instead of focusing on who’s in and who’s out, who wins and
who loses, instead saw every encounter we have with someone as an opportunity
to give that person an opportunity to experience the Christ that is alive in
us? What if we saw every encounter we have as an opportunity for someone to
have five minutes alone with the Jesus that we represent?

 In his book “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller relates a story
about a group of Navy Seals who were sent to free a group of hostages in some
dark corner of the world. The hostages had been held for months. When the Seals
broke down the doors of the compound, they called for the hostages to follow
them to safety. But none of them moved. They had been abandoned and mistreated
for so long that they couldn’t trust anyone. No amount of coaxing could get
them to move. Then, one of the Seals realized what needed to happen. He took
off his helmet and put down his weapon and sat close among the hostages,
putting his arms around them…just sitting with them. After awhile they began,
one by one, to stand up and follow the Seals to safety – all because that tough
Navy Seal got down and entered into their world, moved into their pain and made
himself vulnerable.

 What a story!

 What if we didn’t threaten hell and pine for heaven and
instead get down to the business of simply loving those people around us,
especially those who are trapped in the darkness of isolation and sin?

What would happen? I imagine that more and more people would
cross the aisle!

 

 

 

 

Live Long and Prosper – Easter Sunday

The_Resurrection_of_Jesus_Christ  Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

(The following sermon is adapted from one I wrote for the March-April issue of Homiletics

Christ is risen! 

Christ is risen indeed!

The apostle Paul declares in our text that Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee
of our own. Because he lives, we live. But how long will we live?

Let’s put that in perspective by looking for a few moments at how long we might
expect to live in these temporal bodies. If you live in Japan, there’s a good
chance you could live well past the age of 100.

There’s an old saying in Japan: “Old people are everybody’s treasures.” If that’s
the case, and it should be, then Japan is one of the richest countries in the
world — cars and electronics notwithstanding. 

A 2008 survey revealed that Japan has more centenarians than any country in the
world with 36,000 citizens aged 100 or older. That’s a huge increase from 1963,
the first year the country started recording the number, when there were only
153 people in the centenarian category. Eighty-six percent of Japan’s current
century-club members are women, with the oldest woman in the country being a
113-year-old from the island province of Okinawa. Incidentally, Okinawa has the
largest concentration of centenarians in Japan, at 838 (that’s 61 for every
100,000 people). 

Compared to other nations, Japan’s longevity factor leaves the rest of the
world looking positively sickly by comparison. Out of 1.3 billion people in
China, for example, there are only 18,000 centenarians, while in the United
States the ratio is about 10 per 100,000. Life expectancy in Japan is a full
four years longer than in America.

But is living that long really a good thing? What is the quality of life after
100? After all, who wants to spend his or her golden years tarnishing in a
wheelchair or nursing home? Here, again, is where the Japanese respect for
their elders as “treasures” trumps our obsession with youth and fear of aging.
Turns out that many of these Japanese elders are partying like it’s 1899. 

Take a guy named Tadashi Kozakai, for example, who’s 101. He goes dancing twice
a week, exercises every day and gave up smoking 11 years ago at age 90. Or
consider Masaaki Hatsumi, a relative youngster of 77, who’s one of the world’s
grandmasters of Ninjutsu (in other words, he’s a super Ninja!). Then there’s
Shitsui Hakoishi, who at 92 has been cutting hair for 75 years and still gives
her clients a shave with a straight razor. “When my hands start to shake, I
will have to retire,” she says. These folks aren’t exactly waiting around to
die.

Definitive Japanese cultural traits, good genes and a focus on social activity
and family may have something to do with long life in Japan, but diet appears
to have even more of an impact. Unlike a typical Western diet, the daily
Japanese diet doesn’t contain much meat or sugar. In fact, an average Japanese
person eats 86.2 grams of fat per day, or about half of the 155.4 grams horked
down by the average American. As younger generations in Japan are influenced by
the West, however, some Japanese experts such as Dr. Takako Sodei, who teaches
gerontology at Ochanomizu University, fear that Japan’s edge in longevity will
continue to be nibbled away at like an oversized Twinkie. “The problem is that
among young people, their lifestyle and eating habits are getting just like the
United States,” says Sodei, “so in the future I am not sure that Japanese
people can keep living longer and longer.” 

Now, it isn’t as if we Americans don’t know that eating too much fat can
shorten one’s life span, or that spending too much time on the couch may
require a larger coffin sooner rather than later. We’ve been told over and over
that just four things are needed to live a basic healthy lifestyle: Be a
nonsmoker, exercise at least 30 minutes a day five or more days a week, eat
five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day and maintain a healthy weight.
Yet, a 2005 Michigan State study revealed that only three percent of Americans
do all these things. What gives?


Well, besides the fact that fatty foods taste good and that exercising requires
sweating, our drift toward a shorter life span may have as much to do with
ancient Greek philosophy as it does with pork rinds. It’s a philosophy that
Paul confronts in this section of his first letter to the Corinthians. He
writes to people who have come to believe in Christ but who still hold on to
some ancient assumptions about the body — assumptions that many Westerners
(even church folk) still hold today. 

You could argue that the idea originated with Plato, somewhere around the
fourth or fifth century B.C., who postulated a dualism between the body and the
soul. Speaking in general terms, Plato believed the body to be the enemy of the
soul primarily because the body engages the world through its senses, which can
deceive a person’s view of reality. For Plato, the real world was the world of
eternal and universal ideas that can be seen only with the mind’s eye and can
be known by humans only after death (or before birth, as human souls were
thought to be pre-existent). 

To put it another way, Plato saw the body, although beautiful and worthy of art
and sculpture, to be a kind of prison: something to be sloughed off at death so
the soul could move to a higher plane of knowledge and existence. 

It’s interesting to note how this philosophical idea has permeated Western
culture and, perhaps most tellingly, much of Christian theology and thought.
The idea of an eternal and blissful heaven as the realm of the soul at death is
a vision that many Christians and even nonreligious people believe to be true.
In this view, the body has no ultimate use or value in comparison to a
disembodied spiritual life lived on clouds behind pearly gates where souls have
wings and plunk on harps all day long. It’s the kind of philosophical view
that’s even expressed in our hymnody in lyrics such as “Some glad morning when
this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.” 

 I see this a lot in the funerals
I’ve done as well. The focus on a disembodied spiritual existence in a faraway
heaven dominates the worldview of most people, even those who aren’t Christian.
At funerals, people often want to spiritualize things to the point that the
death of this person lying there (or increasingly more so not lying there) is
merely a passage to a new kind of better existence where the body doesn’t
matter. The assumption also is that heaven is our actual home and that we’re
just passing through here—a very Greek idea. I heard a pastor once preaching at
the funeral of a young woman who loved horses and was killed by a drunk driver
say that God “needed her in heaven to help get the four horses ready to ride
across the sky on judgment day”—death as the answer to a heavenly labor
shortage—Yikes! Or there’s the inevitable eulogy from a guy who will get up and
say something like, “Yup, Jimmy’s no doubt up in heaven right now havin’ a beer
and laughin’ at all this,” forgetting, of course, the old polka song—in heaven
there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here!

 Then there’s a poem that’s become
more popular that people want read at funerals—a Mary Elizabeth Frye poem that
goes:

 Do not stand at my grave and weep,


I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain…

 

Nothing like adding a little pantheism
to your Platonism!

 

Point is that if most people believe even unconsciously that their bodies
are simply destined for the ground anyway while their souls will experience
heavenly bliss, what incentive is there to care for the body in the present?
Why live a long life on earth when eternity in heaven is waiting? Why not “eat,
drink and be merry” in the present body, because tomorrow we’ll die (1
Corinthians 15:32, quoting Isaiah 22:13)?

These may have very well been the questions the first-century Corinthians were
asking, having been culturally steeped in Hellenistic philosophy and living in
a prosperous cosmopolitan city where there were plenty of opportunities to eat,
drink and make merry in many self-indulgent and salacious ways. When Paul thus
came to Corinth and preached a gospel centered on the resurrection of Jesus’ bod yas the “first fruits” of the
general resurrection of human bodies at
the end of time (v. 23), it’s no wonder that some of them scoffed at his
message (v. 12). Bodies coming out of tombs may be a wonderful spiritual
metaphor, but for many of them, like some Christians even today, believing it
to be literally true was spiritually and intellectually repugnant. 

Paul insisted, however, that
resurrection was anything but a metaphor. The empty tomb on Easter morning was
the linchpin for the whole Christian movement and the only hope for all of
creation. If Easter hadn’t really happened, if the tomb wasn’t really empty
because Jesus hadn’t literally risen from the dead, then the consequences for
Paul and the church were staggering. Without it, Paul’s preaching ministry
would have been useless (v. 14) and deceitful (v. 15), and his life of constant
risk and danger on behalf of the gospel would have been in vain (vv.
31-32). 

For the Corinthians and other Christians then and now, the consequences were perhaps
even more dire. Without resurrection, Paul says, “[Y]our faith is futile and
you are still in your sins” (v. 17) and those who have died before are simply
dead (v. 18). Notice the lack of happy visions of a disembodied spiritual
heaven for them as a consolation prize; no Platonist parachute to save them
from death. 

For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was absolutely vital because it validated
the essential goodness of God’s creation. Resurrection meant that God wasn’t
abandoning the creation project that he had been working on since Genesis,
despite humanity’s desire to engage its own failed self-indulgent and
self-destructive project. In the resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, God was
doing nothing less than beginning to reverse the curse of sin and death that
entered the world through human sin. “For since death came through a human
being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as
all die in Adam, so will all be made alive in Christ” (vv. 21-22). The
resurrection of Jesus was thus a prototype and the beginning of the
resurrection to come for all of us in “the end” when Jesus returns, destroying
the forces of evil, and God sets his good creation right in the way that it had
always been intended (vv. 23-25). 

Unlike Platonism, the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t a means of circumventing
death or simply seeing it as a transition to a better, more spiritual
existence. On Easter, death itself had been placed on notice that its reign of
terror was nearing an end. For Paul, the body is not the enemy, as it was for
Plato, but death is! (v.
26). The goal of life isn’t a ticket to heaven but a renewed body in a renewed
creation. Paul will spend the rest of the chapter spinning out how that works.

The point of Easter isn’t merely that it’s a nice metaphor for some kind of new
life (often symbolized by eggs, bunnies, green plastic Easter grass and all
that). Nor is it just evidence that Jesus was divine but eventually went back
to heaven and, if we just happen to pray the right prayer and/or do the right
things, we’ll get to go be with him there someday in spirit (and, if we don’t,
we’ll get “left behind”). 

No, the point of Easter is that this world, God’s good creation, matters. What
we do and how we live, as people created in God’s image in his good creation,
has ultimate significance when we understand ourselves to be part of God’s
mission of a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We care for ourselves, we
care for each other and we care for the earth because we know that God has not
and will not abandon this creation project but will ultimately make it whole
again. As we await that great day, we are to spend our lives not giving into
death but embracing the goodness of life. The point of the gospel isn’t that we
go to heaven to be with God but that God comes here to be with us: “Your
kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

What we do in the present matters. It’s like that Russell Crowe movie
Gladiator, when Crowe’s character, a Roman commander, pumps up his troops before
a battle by shouting to them, “What we do in life, echoes into eternity!”
Spoken by a pagan warrior who meant something different by it, but it’s
theologically true.

 One of the images I have become
fond of using to illustrate how this works is borrowed from Anglican Bishop
N.T. Wright, who invites us to think about a guild of 11th century
stonemasons at work on a cathedral. Each has been given a block of limestone or
marble and has been given the task of carving out some shape or figure or
ornamentation. The mason doesn’t know where it all fits. Depending on his
outlook, he might say either “I’m carving a rock” or “I’m building a
cathedral.” He chisels away at his block, while many others do the same, none
of them really knowing the full vision of the master builder.

 But then comes the day, perhaps
after decades and maybe even a generation or two, when the cathedral is
finished. And on that day, the master builder takes the stonemasons on a tour
through the magnificent building, pointing out to each mason—that’s your piece,
you did that, this is yours over here…see how they fit together…each is vital
and generations to come will see it’s beauty. You built a cathedral!

 Wright says that this is what it
will be like for us when God brings forth the new creation and we are
resurrected to enjoy it and finally to embrace it. Each of us is given a
lifetime, a piece of time, a block of life, to work at and sculpt. Some might
look at that block of life as their own carving, their own doing…others,
however, might realize that we are carving out our lives as part of the
ultimate structure of God’s coming Kingdom. Our piece may not be the most
central or visible, but it is vital to the whole. Everything we do for God,
every act of mercy, every sacrificial act, every work for justice, every
prayer, every visit to the sick, every word of comfort, every little thing we
do out of love for God and God’s creation—all of it is part of the process of
building the Kingdom.

 On that final day, when it is
finished, God will tour us through the Kingdom and show us our piece, our block
of life, and how it contributed to the whole. Imagine God saying, “Your prayer
did that, your care for that hurting person did this, your teaching your
children about my love did this…” We all have a block. How will we use it?

So why not “live long and
prosper”? Whether we are 10 or 110, each day we live is another opportunity to
advance the coming kingdom of God on earth and to bring the day of death’s
ultimate defeat that much closer. 

 The resurrection of Jesus’ body is a sign for our own
bodies, too, and those of our neighbors. May we not be so focused on heaven
that we do no earthly good, and may we remember that resurrection makes all
things new!