Tuesday, February 20, 2018

To the Cross - Where Life Imitates Christ

Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Scripture readings: Micah 6:6-8; Mark 12:28-34
There are six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments in the Jewish Torah (our first five books of the Bible). They all had to be followed and kept. Six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments: It’s a mind-numbing number, or else it makes for a wonderful puzzle or game.
Walking along the Columbia River at Desert Aire
Late afternoon, January, 2018
I know some of you love puzzles. You love putting each of a thousand things in their proper place. But there was a wonderful puzzle or game that the Jewish rabbis and the Pharisees loved to play. It was the game called: “Which is the most important commandment?”
You can see the game way back in Micah. Out of a dozen nearly impossible and terrible possible requirements, what does the Lord really require of you? Of course, Micah wins the game by cheating. He gives us three requirements: Do justice (or live justly); love mercy (which is also translated as kindness); and walk humbly with your God.
The Pharisees played the same old game with Jesus. “Which is the most important requirement?” Jesus also wins the game in the time-honored way of Micah: by cheating. Jesus makes the greatest commandment into two; or the two greatest into one.
But what does he say about these two? Matthew expands (a little bit) on what Jesus actually said about the two: he says that they are alike. (Matthew 22:34)
They are alike! But how can loving God and loving your neighbor be alike? How can they be the same, or nearly the same? The very teacher who started the game agreed with Jesus, and strung them both together into one single commandment.
Both commandments are about love. Both commandments together have a way of putting all the ways of love into one single love-package.
Some people try keeping the two apart. You’ve met people who talk about their love for the Lord, but they’re not very loving to people.
I knew a girl in college who quoted the apostle Paul for her motto in life. She went around “speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) That’s what she claimed that she was doing. Well, she certain spoke the truth all the time: all the time! And when you were around her very much, because she was very pretty, you wanted to wince and tell her, “Please, Christy! Please stop doing that.”
I’ve known some who separated their love in the opposite way. They loved people (or said they did) and they hated God. God didn’t nearly live up to their standards.
Micah makes God’s three requirements into one single love-package as well. You need to know that the words for judgement and justice have two sides to them. There’s a justice and a judgement that is punitive. It punishes wrong-doers. Then there’s the kind of justice and judgement that is restorative. The judge restores what has been taken, or lost, or deserved.
Punitive justice makes some people very happy. If what was taken, or harmed, or lost cannot be restored, then victims often take the side of punitive justice.
In the brutal Middle East, some of the most brutalized and bereaved Christians are famous for forgiving the perpetrators of the violence around them. Of course (to the perpetrators) forgiveness is a sign of weakness. No amount of love can excuse an infidel for their irreverent claim that God has a son named Jesus, and that God is simply like Jesus: not even if those Christians truly succeed in the discipline of acting like Jesus.
In Micah’s love-package, the justice must fit the pattern of mercy (which is also translated as kindness). Justice must conform to mercy and humility, so it’s probably all about righting the wrongs done to people, and forgiving all of the wrongs done by people, by restoring what has been lost, or by healing what has been broken.
God’s restorative judgement was carried out on the cross, where Jesus forgave us, and where Jesus also forgave his enemies, just as he asks us to do.
Micah’s three requirements are a love-package in three parts: the restorative justice looks backwards and heals and replaces the past with healing, grace, life, love, fullness, newness. It makes your abominable past into the productive past of a child of God. Kindness and mercy look forward to the future. It’s like the title of the sad movie “Pay It Forward.” You send your mercy and kindness, shown in the present, to do its work in the future. So future and past are both held together by the humility, and the grace, and the joy of the kingdom of God: walking humbly with your God.
Sometimes it almost kills me to be a forgiver. And that’s right because forgiving the sins of the world killed Jesus on the cross. You have to swallow your pride and it almost gags you to do it.
Swallowing your pride is how you walk humbly with your God. Swallowing your pride doesn’t mean hating yourself. Humility means loving God more than yourself, and loving others as yourself. It could mean simply to love fully, and not to measure any of your loves at all. To love without measure is the humblest love of all.
Lent, and the road to the cross, and to the empty grave of Jesus, is this discipline of walking humbly with God. If we know anything about God, we Christians know that God is like Jesus. “He who has seen me has seen the father.” (John 14:9)
We take up our cross and follow a Jesus-like God. This is what Lent is about. It’s the discipline of walking with Jesus to the cross. It’s also about the Jesus-like God who’s Holy Spirit empowers us to walk so humbly with our God.

The ashes of Lent and the Lord’s Supper are the love-package of Jesus. It holds everything together and there is so much in that package that it fills you up when you receive it: but only if you receive it all.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Passionate Jesus - Taking Our Heights and Depths

Preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scripture readings: Isaiah 40:1-5; Mark 1:1-13

Walk to the Feather River, at Live Oak CA
Just before New Years, 2918
One of my favorite Christian authors is G. K. Chesterton, and he was also a famous humorist. He wrote: “The test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it.”
So, there was a Methodist Pastor and a Baptist Pastor arguing about baptism. The Baptist insisted that the only true baptism was by complete immersion. The Methodist had a question about this: “Wouldn’t it be OK if you baptized a person up to their waist.” “No, the waist isn’t what counts.” “What about the shoulders, if you dipped them up to their shoulders, wouldn’t that be enough? That’s a lot of water?” “No! No! for true baptism the shoulders don’t count.” “What about up to the nose? That’s where the breath of life comes in and out?” “No, no, no, no, no! The nose does not count!” “Then, what about the top of the head? Is that what really counts?” “Yes! Yes! That’s what I’ve been saying all along. The top of the head in baptism is what counts!”
And the Methodist Pastor said: “Well, then; if it’s the top of the head that really counts, that’s the way I’ve been baptizing all along!”
In the Gospel of Mark, we’ve read about both the baptism and the temptation of Jesus. When we’ve read about these same two stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, we know three times more than Mark tells us. The temptation takes on a life of its own in Matthew and Luke, and we may even wonder why Mark left so much of the temptation out.
The odd thing about Mark seems to be that, when you read Mark’s telling of it, the baptism and the temptation of Jesus blend into each other. They become extensions of each other. It becomes the same story.
In Mark, the temptation is not a separate event from the baptism; and neither the baptism nor the temptation is separate from the cross. About a half of the whole Gospel of Mark is the story of the road to the cross.
Mark starts this way: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “Gospel” means good news. No document or book had ever been called a gospel before. Mark really, simply meant that what he was writing about in his scroll was all good news from beginning to end, because of who Jesus is, and what he has accomplished, is all good news for us. But, since Mark came first, the other disciples decided that, when they wrote about Jesus, their books would have to be gospels too.
What we sometimes forget is that everything in a gospel is also the gospel. Everything related to our Lord and Savior, all of his words and all of his accomplishments are good news, because they all lead to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God. They all lead to our salvation and transformation.
The fact that Jesus was baptized is good news for us because it belongs to the good news of the cross and the resurrection. The fact that Jesus was tempted is good news because it belongs to the good news of the cross and the resurrection.
Baptism was the place where the stained and the dirty were washed. Baptism was the place to come when you needed to be born again into a new life, heart, mind, and soul. Jesus didn’t need any of that, but he gave us good news by coming to share with us the place where we need to come.
Jesus came to the place where we need to be clean, where we need to be born again, where we need to die and be brought back to life again. This is good news for us. It’s a picture of Jesus as our savior. It’s the record of Jesus accomplishing his purpose in each of those great needs of ours. Our needs were met in what Jesus truly did.
This good news belongs to the cross, because the cross was the place where those who deserved to die were given a slow and painful, punishing death. In the Gospels we see the good news of Jesus getting himself where he didn’t belong because our sins have a deadly effect on ourselves, and on the world around us. We wound others and we get wounded with hurts that really don’t go away.
Even when our broken bones heal and we become stronger in our broken places, doctors can see where the old break is. Even if we can’t see it ourselves, we may feel it. Maybe our old break predicts the weather now.
Then there are the breaks that may heal and yet they might also come back. A broken shoulder or an injured knee may haunt us again, many years into the future. The bad news is that we can never wipe away old breaks in ourselves or in others. We can never make them as if they had never happened.
The good news is that Jesus can go to the places where we have damaged others, or have been damaged by them. For our sake Jesus has gone to all the places where he didn’t need to go, but he went there for us, to be there with us, in order to wipe away what we cannot.
The cross is the place for the things that cannot be undone, the things that are deadly, the things that are mortal sickness and death. Jesus goes to the place of punishment on the cross in order to make us clean, in order to wipe away what cannot be undone. The baptism and the cross of Jesus are part of one good thing that we call the good news.
Because the baptism of Jesus is the first good news that Mark shares with us, and because it’s the first step of Jesus to the good news of the cross and the resurrection, we should realize that we are on a good news road from beginning to end. So, temptation is good news. No, that can’t be right! And yet it is right.
You know that when we get hard of hearing, our deafness usually doesn’t begin all at once all across all sounds and pitches. When I did farm work, when I was young, some days I would come home with my ears ringing, depending on whether I was using some really noisy machinery. You might ask: “Why didn’t you wear ear plugs?” Well, if you used ear plugs, you wouldn’t hear the quiet sound of something getting stuck or broken. If I begin to lose my hearing, it will probably start with the pitches of the noise those harvest machines made long ago. I understand that, when you’ve been married for a long time, one of the first pitches a man loses is the pitch of his wife’s voice.
Because sin is like deafness, we (who are deaf in the wrong places) think that temptation is the voice of the evil one luring and drawing us to the dark side, the selfish side. That’s wrong. When you read the longer temptation stories of Matthew and Luke, you realize that temptation always has two voices.
Jesus heard the voice of Satan, and Jesus heard the voice of the Father. We know this because his Father’s voice came out when Jesus answered the magnetic voice of the devil. When the devil spoke, Jesus answered with the words of God. He answered the Devil with scripture. But the scripture of the Bible is the voice of God. The Bible is, in so many ways, the test of how we recognize the good voice, the saving voice, the voice of love.
It is a test. Temptation has two voices. Temptation isn’t only the seductive attraction of evil, or sin, or selfishness, or compromise. Temptation tests which voice you want to hear. Jesus had no trouble making sense of the two voices and choosing what was right, and rejecting what was wrong. Jesus had no problem making sense of the voice, to know what was love, and what was defection and unfaithfulness.
Temptation was good news because Jesus went to be with us, where we need him to be. Jesus becomes the voice of God amplified within us, because he embodies the love of God. Jesus is the one who comes to our rescue, and rescue is what salvation is all about.
When Jesus went to the place of the cross, he went to the place where he cried, “Why have your forsaken me?” He wasn’t really forsaken, but he carried our deafness and our blindness on the cross. He came to the place where we live when we can only hear the wrong voice, and not the voice of love. The cross is the place where the wrong voice is finally silenced, and you can say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
This is not the place of death, as it may seem.
To know that your Father is there and holding onto you, and to be able to say “It is finished” is life. “It is finished” is only another ancient way to say: “Everything is whole. Everything is put back together. Everything is where it belongs and makes sense. It’s all good at last.”
The cross is the good news that temptation has life beyond it. The good news is that temptation is not the final word. There is the place where, because Jesus passed the test, he will hold onto us from the cross and we will pass the test with him. He will be close enough to us, on the cross, so that we can here God’s voice: the voice of love.
The baptism and the temptation being one story tells us that Christians can get into a lot of trouble by following Jesus. Of course, some of our Christian trouble comes from living down to the world’s low expectations. The world expects Christians to think they are God’s favorites and that we will be accusers instead of being rescuers.
The name “Satan” actually means accuser and enemy. And Christians have the reputation of being that in this world.
When we remember how the Lord comes to our rescue, we will show our friendship with Jesus by coming to the rescue of others, because rescue is what salvation is all about. Rescuers always go to the place where the other people need them.
We really did need Jesus, and Jesus came to us where we were and (even now) Jesus comes to us where we are: because we haven’t stopped needing him, and we never will stop.
If we remember this, we will go to where other people are, and we will act like people who have come to help and to serve them. We will do that with our neighbors, with our communities, and with our nation, and with our world.
We will not be there to judge or to accuse. We will be there to help. We will be there in order to bring the image of what Jesus wants. Whether we seem to succeed, or seem to fail, we will work to make our world into a rescuing place. We will do this with the power that comes from having Jesus as our rescuer.
The world needs this. The people of the world will not admit this is so. Jesus teaches us that this is so, and he came to the rescue of many who refused him. In Jesus we have the will, and the patience, and the peace to do the same, if we will come to the water with Jesus and rise with him.
Then we will rise out of the water, and step onto the road with Jesus, and we will hear the voice that says, “This is my son, this is my daughter, in whom I take delight.”
Whether we were baptized as babies, or as grown-ups, we came to the waters to wash all our sweat, and stink, and dirt away. We went through the waters and we came out like babies squeezing out of the waters of the womb to a brand-new life. Like the drowning victim who goes into the water, and dies, and must be brought out and given the breath of life again, we came to the waters to be saved from death and all the other evils of this sad world.

We came to the waters just as we come to the Lord’s Table. Here the Lord, who died and rose from the dead, feeds us with his life that will never end. We come to this table like children who should have been sent to our rooms but we had our sentence lifted and so we come to the table. This table is where our home really has its center and its heart, just as the real heart of our life is at the great feast in the kingdom of God, in the new heavens and the new earth.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Paul's Prayers - Empowering Our Teamwork - Super Bowl Sunday

Preached on Super Bowl Sunday, February 4, 2017

Scripture readings: Proverbs 3:5-8; Romans 15:14-33

Walking along the Columbia River at Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
Once upon a time there was there was a town with a church football league. One of the teams was in their Sunday school classroom that they used for their locker room, while the coach gave them a pre-game pep talk. He wrote the words “Being on Jesus’ team”, and he said, “Always remember, men, there is no “I” in Jesus, but there is an “us”.
By the time I was in high school, in P. E. class, I had earned quite a reputation in sports. The team captains always fought over me, to keep me off their team. I think my un-coordination skills were without equal in the whole school.
I was a geek. I was a nerd. I seemed to be the only real history geek in my class, so, in order to spend time with other kids like me, I became a science geek. It really wasn’t that hard. I liked science too. So, I spent my free time at school in the science room.
But even when you get to talk and play together with chemicals and with the strobe light in the back room you don’t learn a lot of social skills in the science room. Neither was there any science club where we might work together as a team to win competitions with other schools.
Along the way,
 I got adopted as a mascot for one of my favorite teams:
The Dogs
So, I was known as the quietest kid in my class of sixty kids: the shyest kid of them all. Even if we had a science team, I would have been too shy to join it.
I had one cool friend, named Chris, who asked me one day, “You’re a lone wolf, aren’t you?” Even though I was seventeen I really wasn’t familiar with that phrase. I asked Chris what it meant. He told me. And, so, I knew myself in a new way: yes, I was a lone-wolf. I still am.
I had made a commitment of my life to Christ when I was about nine years old; while watching Billy Graham on television. I loved Jesus, but there were problems with the church. We stopped going, and though I read the Bible and prayed lot, there was something missing that I have told some of you about before.
I went back to my old church when I was eighteen and I went with the youth group to a youth rally at one of the county fairgrounds. Toward the end of the speaker’s message I knew that the Lord expected me to go forward to make a new commitment up front. But I was too embarrassed to do it.
I prayed with agony and struggle to get out of this, “Lord you know I love you more than anything!”
The Lord was very firm with me. I felt that he was talking to me from the cross, as he said in my heart, “Are you willing to be someone who can say ‘no’ to me?” This almost knocked the breath out of me. I couldn’t face being a person who ever said ‘no’ to Jesus on the cross. I had to go forward.
The counselor up front coached me to pray things that I knew very well how to pray. I had known for years what God wanted me to be and how it is that we come to him and let him come into us. I still commit my life to Jesus every day.
That coaching in a prayer to commit to, and to receive, Jesus as my Lord and Savior was not God’s point that night. The point was that I had to surrender what ruled my life. I had to surrender my fear and my shyness. I had to surrender my way of life as a lone-wolf. I’m still a lone-wolf, but I’m a “surrendered-to-God” lone-wolf.
Just as alcoholics can find the freedom of sobriety by surrendering in every way to their higher power, still that sobriety depends on their ability to say, “I’m an alcoholic”. This is a kind of surrender of one of the deep and powerful things in their lives.
There is a surrender that destroys you, and there is a surrender that gives you life. This surrender gives freedom, and strength. This life comes from that Higher Power which is God. But it also comes from joining a team where you take care of each other.
A couple of my nerdy-geeky friends were also surrendering to Jesus in their own ways. By going forward in front of other people, including the members of my youth group, surrendering my shyness, my fear, my awkwardness to Jesus, I became an honest and a self-surrendered lone-wolf before God.
I joined a team of honest and surrendered followers of Jesus. You could call it “The Jesus Team”. It’s been playing and praying together for over two thousand years. This Jesus Team is a group of people who aren’t afraid to be honest, and humble, and surrendered with each other. Everyone on the Jesus Team comes from the same place and we all know how to say, “Hi! I’m Dennis, and I’m a sinner. Hi! I’m Dennis and I’m rescued and made new by God’s love and grace alone given to me in Jesus. I’m rescued and made new by his life in me.”
To be able (all of us) to say such things together is a sure give-away that however different our lives may be, we have prayed, pretty much, the very same prayers, and made the very same deep offerings of our heart, and soul, and life to God.
At one time that offering of ourselves cut so deep that it seemed like a human sacrifice of ourselves: almost like an amputation. But now we see that this offering is the greatest thing we have ever done; and, far from losing ourselves, we have gained a new self we would never part with, because we see that our life has become a gift from God. God has given us our new selves as his gift, through the cross and the resurrection; through dying and rising again.
It isn’t only Jesus who dies and rises. Now we can do it with him, in our heart and mind. Now we are free and whole, because we can die to ourselves, and rise in the love of Jesus every day.
For me, this particular lone-wolf became part of a team; the Jesus Team. That team meets and struggles together in a lot of places, and the Jesus Team meets here, right now. Prayer is a necessary part of this.
We are a team partly because we have all needed to say much the same kind of prayers for much the same reasons. We are also a team because we all take care of each other through our prayers for each other. We pray for our performance in the most important game in the world.
Paul shows us this kind of team prayer in his request to his team members in Rome. He asks them to pray for him, but not just for anything. Paul asks them to pray for his ministry: to pray for Paul as he carries out his mission, his program for the game, for the team.
Paul has a difficult and dangerous play ahead of him. Paul is running to a part of the line where he will draw their fiercest opponents to himself.
There was talk of a famine in the land of Judea. The Christians there would see the worst of this because those with the biggest resources to give to those in need would refuse to give that relief to Christians. The biggest resources to buy food and other aide for the famine victims were kept in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Christians were considered heretics and traitors, and they would receive no help in Judea.
Paul was going where he was very well known as one of the team captains of the heretics and traitors. Both he and the money, or the bank receipts he brought with him (in the form of a scroll, or a tablet of wax or clay) were huge prizes in this game.
Paul was running willingly into danger, and he needed all the will-power he could muster. Paul had been imprisoned, and shackled, and beaten, and tortured, and nearly killed more than once before. If you ever had a surgery that really didn’t make you better, and your doctor was recommending another try at that same surgery that hurt you so much and never helped you, then you would look forward to that surgery just like Paul was looking forward to running to the relief of the Christians in Jerusalem.
So, Paul asks for prayer. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that, by God’s will I may come to you….” (Romans 15:30-32)
“Join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” The way that this is translated, here, teaches us that our team, with our teamwork together, gets strong when we pray for other team members for their work on the Jesus Team. Prayer makes us sweat together for our teamwork.
On this team we take care of each other by praying to God for the work, and for the effort that the others are doing for the team, and for Jesus, the captain of the work.
Imagine that you’ve been assigned to be a member of a team of two. Your other team member needs you to take care of them because of some weakness in their health. Your part, on that team, is to play the care-giver position.
It’s a common experience that the care-giver grows closer and closer to the one needing care simply because of their devotion to care-giving. Prayer-giving is care-giving that strengthens whatever weaknesses our other team members struggle with.
But the translation could be better. Paul is saying something like: “Agonize with me in your prayers for me.” I remember, when I was in high school, going by the football field in August, when the temperature was often close to one hundred degrees, or more, and I could see the football team working out. I knew something about the agony they were going through because P. E., in September, would find me playing football in gym class, and sometimes September was hotter than August in my home town.
That team was sweating together. They joined with each other in the same agony, and that made them a team: sweating together. They were becoming more and more the team they needed to be in order to play their game and win. Their sweat and their sore muscles were building team work.
As the Jesus team, we have important work to do. Taking care of each other in our sacrifices together, and in our sacrifices for each other, through agonizing prayer, helps us to grow strong together. This prayerful agonizing together makes us the team we need to be in order to play with Jesus and win.
There’s a team word hidden from us by our English language. It’s the word about the contribution to God’s people in Judea. The contribution to the poor Christians on the Jesus Team in Judea wasn’t merely financial.
In Greek, the contribution is called a “koinonia”. “Koinonia” means communion. It means fellowship. But those are old English words that sound strange to modern ears, and to those who don’t know the slang and lingo of Christians. Koinonia, communion, and fellowship can mean “partnership”.
The contribution was the teamwork of the Jesus Team. To work as a team, they needed to agonize with Paul. To work as a team with the poor in Judea, they had to agonize with them as well. Doesn’t that sound terrible?
I was never on a team willingly until I joined the Jesus-team and, even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have anything to do with it. The Lord told me, when I was twelve years old, that I had to be something like a pastor on this team, and with all my heart I wanted nothing to do with it.
That’s what was really wrong with me, until God asked me for something that I couldn’t refuse. I had to be a person who would no longer say ‘no’ to God. It went against my very nature, and against everything I had learned by experience.
I had to take the position in the line that I feared most. I had to take the position of agony. I had to play a position in which I would agonize for the team in order to become a member of the team.
At the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, every September, there would be a football game between the married students and the single students. That was unfair in itself because, obviously, the married students had to be more studly than the rest of us. And there were more married students than unmarried ones, so they had a lot more team members to choose from.
Fred Halde, one of my best seminary friends at the time, was our captain. Fred put me in the line opposite Dave Ulum, who had played college football before coming to seminary. It was one of those tiny, Christian, Liberal Arts Colleges that you find all over the Midwest, but Dave was still a big kid. The lines would hit each other, and I would hit Dave as hard as I could, and hitting Dave would always send me flying through the air backward flat on my back. Over and over again, I would hit Dave Ulum so hard that I would just fly; fly through the air backwards.
This bothered me a lot. I asked captain Fred to please let me take some other spot on the line, but Fred said that I was the only one on the team that could free up the better players to play at their best for the team. So, I went back to face Dave.
Dave looked at me and his voice almost cracked as he pleaded with me, “Please, Dennis, please, go somewhere else!” Dave was a softy despite having been in college football.
My answer was, “Sorry Dave, I have to stay here.” And, so, we played on, until the Singles lost to the Marrieds.
Dave was a friend too. I know that he was praying about this. That would be just like him. And I was praying too: a very agonized prayer. And this is what builds us together as a team for the work ahead.
You have work to do on the Jesus-team. This work is much more than church-work. You have Jesus-work to do.
Church-work is important, but it’s designed for the support of the Jesus-work. Our church-work can be a place where we can sweat together because it’s one part of our training places. It’s like the weight room is there.
We’re glad if we can do our church-work together, but the church-work is for the sake of the Jesus-work. Sometimes church-work makes it possible to give the hospitality that we want to offer the community around us, in Jesus’ name. And church-work is like the locker room where you do the team-work of psyching up together for the game, or the cooling off for half-time and for later.
My position in the line-up requires me to take care of you in such a way as to strengthen you, and train you, and teach you whatever you may need in order to do your Jesus-work, not by yourself but bringing in the whole team, praying for each other because we know and share your Jesus-work just as well as you know and share our own.
If we do this we can cut against the grain of so much that the conventional wisdom tells us. The conventional wisdom of our time tells us: “Go your own way. Take care of yourself. Be a lone-wolf. If you happen to be a Christian, then be a Christian lone-wolf, but not a surrendered one. Be a hold-out lone-wolf, not fully stuck to God, not fully stuck to others.

Let’s learn to tell each other what the Jesus-work is that Jesus is calling us to do on the team. Then we can know how to pray for each other. Then we can know how to build our line of the team in Desert Aire and Mattawa. When we know everyone’s position, then we can plan our next play: and the next, and the next. And we can hit our work and fly through the air with it: only forward and not backward.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Paul's Prayers - Quest for the Best

Preached on Sunday, January 29 2018

Scripture readings: Proverbs 11:30; Philippians 1:9-11

Paul says, “This is my prayer.”
And then, of course, we find that it’s not a prayer. It’s an explanation of prayer. Paul is telling his friends in Philippi what he asks for when he prays for them.
The gist of this is that Paul is telling them, in a polite, and loving, and teacherly way, what they ought to be asking for when they pray for themselves, and for each other, and for their neighbors. Instead of asking this church of his to share their prayer requests with him, so that he can pray for them properly, Paul’s telling them what their prayer requests ought to be.
They’re pretty basic prayers, and everyone who knows us would live a much happier life if we were asking for these things for ourselves. At the same time, everyone who knows us might be royally offended if they thought we were praying these things for them.
“Dear God, make that other church more loving. Lord, please make my children smarter than they are. And, while you’re about it, please make my wife smarter, too, but not too smart for me.”
You see how basic these prayers are. Now the Christians in Philippi knew how Paul always wanted them to get better and better. Read the letter (it’s quite short). It really is one of the most tender, confident, and loving of all his letters. Paul knew that, even now, they were loving, and they were wise, and they were off to a very good start.
Just keep on track. That’s what Paul said. They knew that Paul loved them, and he could say anything to them and get away with it.
Lord, make me more loving. Lord, make me smarter than I am. Lord, make me smarter in a more loving way. There’s the core of that prayer. Make me smarter, make me wiser, in a more and more loving way. Nothing less will do.
There’s no more important way to be smart or wise than to be smart and wise in the ways of love. If you’re wise without love, then you’re nothing better than a wise guy… or a wise gal.
Intelligence without love, according to Paul, can never discern what is best. It’s the knowledge and wisdom that come from a more and more abounding love (think, here, of love like water; overflowing; love that’s much too overflowing to hold it in; wild and joyful love that wants to hug everyone) … only such a love can discern and choose what is best.
It’s the love that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. We really can only grasp who God is, and what kind of love God is calling us to, by watching and listening to Jesus. (John 1:18)
We know who God is through Jesus, because Jesus broke down the barriers that our pride, and selfishness, and sin have built. He has broken down the high walls that have blinded us and hidden God from us. We, most of all, know who God is through Jesus, because (as Jesus said): “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
There are some people who will say that Jesus is God-like, but I think it’s better to say that God is Jesus-like. The Father is like the Son. When “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” is active and strong in us, it will lead others to glorify and praise God, because they have seen Christ in us and, through Christ in us, they have seen God, well ahead of the day of his coming.
In another letter, Paul says this about God showing the nature of his love for us: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:18)
One of the fruits of righteousness is love: the deepest love is like the love that hangs for us upon the cross. The love and the wood of that bloody cross, that brought Jesus to his death, is our tree of life that gives us life. The fruit of righteousness on the cross is self-giving love.
We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, or love our neighbors and ourselves, because we are all made in the image of God, and we are all made for the purpose of becoming children of God. We become the children of God because God is in Christ, reconciling us, and reconciling the world to himself, through Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
So, we are unable to discern and choose what’s best, or what’s excellent, unless we love like Jesus loves. We can’t work for what’s best in others, and we can’t work for what is best for our families, and we can’t work for what is best for ourselves, unless we love everything and everyone with the love of Jesus on the cross.
The knowledge of what’s excellent is not a love of success, or quality, or simplicity, or comfort. Excellence is dying and rising from the dead for others.
Paul will go on, in Philippians, to say that his own being in prison is for the best, and he’ll explain why. His imprisonment will tell how much more important the freedom and the grace of Jesus is than so many other things that this world counts as important, or influential, or powerful, or successful. His imprisonment will give his brothers and sisters in Christ the courage to live openly as Christians in a world where such faith seems foolish, and childish, and dangerous.
Our Proverb (11:30) says: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life and he who wins souls is wise.” If you show a life from Christ, and speak for Christ in a way that truly shows and speaks the love of God in Christ, you just may win souls. You may win the wandering children of God. Jesus may be seen and heard in you, and others will learn to love Jesus through your demonstration of that love of God.
If you read around this prayer, you will find other fruit; like joy, and courage, and goodwill. And bearing fruit also means to be pure and blameless.
Pure means that we are to be transparent, like pure glass. It means to be one thing through and through. It means to be full of loyalty, and truth, and sincerity.
To be blameless, means to not be the one who divides people, or wounds them, or offends them. To be blameless, means to not be a contributor to the harm that goes on in this world. It means to not be one of those who bear the blame. To be blameless also means to not be one of those who are shuffling their feet on the sidelines, because we’re too clean to get involved. To be blameless means to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.” A tree is always much bigger than its fruit. Our fruit of righteousness is much bigger than we are. We need to remember that. Our love, our joy, our courage, our goodwill, our ability to become partners with others seem very hard. They seem much too big for us to bear. For the fruit we bear is much bigger than we are. We are to bear the fruit of Jesus. That is how our fruit becomes a tree.
What goes out from us to just one other person beside ourselves, can become a tree growing up from them to shelter, and strengthen, and fill more and more people, until the Day of Jesus comes. True, self-giving love loves to be able to love other people into their joyful place, beside us, in that good day.
True righteousness is fruit. It is the sheltering tree. Fruit turning into more and more fruitful trees, which bear more and more fruit, is what the righteousness of Christ was made for. It’s what you are made for. It’s what everyone in this world was made for.
No one is smart enough for this. Sometimes we don’t know if even our love is sufficient for choosing what is truly the best.
The faith that comes from seeing, in Christ, who God truly is… that faith will trust this God until the day of Christ comes. The Day of Christ is the day for seeing Christ’s ability to bear fruit through us.
Jesus gives us the wisdom that comes from love, and that wisdom from love is the gift that is wise enough to choose the best way for us all to get there. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Paul's Prayers - For Others

Preached on January 14-2018 

Scripture readings: Psalm 133; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

I served a church which had an ushers’ bench, an usher’s pew, right up against the back wall; you know, so that they could march together down the aisle to pick up the offering plates. (Church used to be so dignified, until I grew up.)
Sunset, Desert Aire/Mattawa WA November 2017
Well they had this old story, from the 1940’s and 1950’s, and maybe earlier. It was always the same four guys, every Sunday, and they always sat in the same order in the ushers’ pew. They did this together year after year, decade after decade. In the end, one of them died. It was so sad that the four would never be the same.
It also presented that church with a difficulty, because it meant that they had to find a guy of the exact same height as the one who had passed, so that he could hide the grease spot that the deceased usher had left on the back wall above the pew.
You know that the kids today have no idea what that greasy kid’s stuff was? You just ask them! And I doubt that any of them use Vitalis.
The perfumed olive oil mentioned in Psalm 133 reminded me of this. It was the greasy kid’s stuff of its long day. There’s a Hebrew word used here that means olive oil and (even more interestingly) it means richness, but the primary meaning of this word describes something that’s greasy and gross.
 A Series of Photos on a Foggy Day: Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2018
In the Psalm, Aaron refers to the first high priest, the brother of Moses. Moses set Aaron apart for this work of being the High Priest by pouring perfumed olive oil on his head. But there’s no story about Moses, or anyone else, pouring so much oil on any priest so that it ran down his face, and beard, and neck, and collar, and chest, and legs, and soaked his robes down to his hem and his feet.
That’s greasy and gross for sure. That’s like spreading tubes and tubes of Brylcreem all over someone’s body and clothes. But just think of all the richness and the sweetness that would come from doing that; or having it done to you. Wouldn’t that be great; having it done to you? Can’t you feel it? What a good way to think about this excessively wonderful thing.
Psalm 133 is only three verses long, but it manages to be completely excessive: the oil running down from head to toe; the dew from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion at Jerusalem that would be like the dew from the Olympic Mountains falling on the desert of Mattawa and Desert Aire. And this rainforest dew really refers to the whole climate that makes plants grow: the whole climate becoming like a rainforest.
When I lived on the South Coast of Oregon, the first year I was there, we got nearly one hundred inches of rain. The natives liked to tease me about coming from California, and so they began to ask me if I was sick of the rain.
I answered their question with a question of my own. When they asked if I was sick of the rain, I simply asked them, “Are you?”
What is all the excess in this tiny psalm about? It’s about love: Brothers living together in unity. (Brothers, here, refers to all the people of all the tribes of Israel.) They were always fighting and destroying each other. Compared with that, living side by side, with hearts beating as one, would be excessively different. It would be the exact opposite of real life, and opposites tend to be excessive.
The nation of Israel was called to be the opposite of the whole world: a whole nation totally dedicated to God’s purpose. God’s calling of the tribes of Abraham was for them was to be a blessing to every other nation on earth.
They were called to be a “kingdom of priests” mediating and reconciling the world to God. Which is what a priest is for.
Being priests meant praying for the world. In such a life of prayer, the power of prayer, in the hands of God, would make this stinking world smell sweet for the first time since the beginning.
Soap is only mentioned twice in the whole Bible. That’s because the people of Israel usually washed themselves with olive oil. Some people might call this greasy and gross, but they pictured olive oil as having a richness to it. Prayer for others would be like olive oil that made it possible to wipe away all the dirt and make the world squeaky clean and fresh as new.
  On hot and dry Mount Zion, the priest, washed with oil, would enter the dim and silent world of the Temple. They would enter God’s House, with the sweetness of prayer for others, or with the sprinkled blood of sacrifices that brought a sweet smell of forgiveness, and grace, and healing to God’s people, and to the earth.
We have been washed with the Oil of God. This oil is the love of the Creator Father, the love of the self-sacrificing Son, the love of the Holy Spirit full of God’s growth-giving richness, full of the sweetness of God’s power and love. We have had this oil poured out on us with all the excess of God.
Now, by faith and prayer, we go into Christ, the living temple of God and creation. Entering into Jesus leads us to bring the world, and our neighbors, and each other, with us into the sanctuary, into the holy and safe place of God.
We are to be like Jesus in this world. As he poured out himself for the creation, and for our brothers and sisters, in all times and places; in the same way, we (like him) pour out ourselves for our brothers and sisters, and for every good thing of God. In Christ, we do this with our lives and with our prayers.
Paul says it: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.” That’s the excess of God, once again. Only, now, it’s at work in us and through us, for others.
Paul, in most of his letters, reminds his people (his friends, and brothers and sisters) that they have seen this excess at work in him, for their sake, and just as much for the sake of the whole world that needs God so much. I think Paul must have been excessive about everything.
I often fail to be excessive, except for the fact that I seem to be obsessive. Could those be the same thing: obsessive and excessive? But here we’re talking about being excessive in love.
That leads us to another part of this excess. Paul has been modeling, for his friends, the life of excessive prayer. Paul says this, here: “Night and day we pray excessively that we may see you again and supply what is needed in your faith.” (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
I retranslated two words here. The New International Version says: “We pray for you earnestly.” The King James Version says: “praying exceedingly.” Earnestness is an intensity in prayer. Exceedingly is literally a lot like excessively. These words translate a Greek word that includes all of this excess.
This excess of love and prayer build each other up, and intensify our lives. It tends to mean that we get absent-minded about ourselves because we do obsess, lovingly, about others.
This doesn’t mean exhausting yourself into a state of frazzlement. It doesn’t mean seeing yourself negatively, or as being unworthy. God has made you worthy, through the blood, and the grace, and the power that comes through him, as we meet him and know him in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit.
This excess of love is nurtured by this excess of prayer. This excess overcomes the world. It makes us strong in our weakness. Paul will tell his friends in Thessalonica that they need this. They need Paul, and they need each other, because they are like Paul, and they are like the Christians in the Holy Land, in a terrible and difficult way. They are all being persecuted excessively; almost mercilessly.
It really was merciless. It was meant to put an end to them. When Paul was talking about his desire to supply what was lacking in their faith, their lack wasn’t immaturity. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Jesus, or a lack of knowledge about the good news. Paul wasn’t talking about a lack of faith on their part, but about a strong need within their faith, because of their difficulties.
All of the negative and destructive energy directed against them, threatened to empty them, and make them feel lacking. It was a lack that was actually a need. This need came from the injuries of being hated, and reviled, and abused.
Perhaps some of them were being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their trust and their love of Jesus. There are wounds and scars of faith that need to be healed, or that create a need for gentle, persistent therapy.
Paul had enough experience of his own in what they were going through, so that he had a good idea of what they needed or lacked. They may have been questioning the strength of their own faith, and blaming themselves for what was happening to them.
Paul, in his letters, doesn’t very much pray for himself. He, almost without exception, makes excessive prayers for others. He asks for their prayers, and he promises that he prays for them, because that is what the best prayer is about. Prayer, at its best, prays for others. Prayer in Christ created, in them, a new world. That new world, growing from their prayers for others, was building within them a world much like the new world that will come with Jesus when he returns.
Prayer opens up the lid of a jar full of the sweet tasting preserve of the beginning of the world, as God designed and created it to be. Prayer, when God speaks to us, tells us of a great goodness that belongs to us, but has been lost.
Prayer looks, even more, into the future. Prayer creates a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth that will come with Jesus. You see, prayer creates readiness for that new world by creating that world, ahead of time, in those who hunger and wait for it.
As others were Paul’s greatest joy, prayer makes others our greatest joy. As the faithfulness of others was Paul’s greatest source of encouragement, prayer makes the faithfulness of others our own source of encouragement. When Paul’s love overflowed to others, then the love they gave to others (through Jesus) was Paul’s greatest reward.
I do love to see other people loving each other. That’s why weddings can be so much fun (as long as the kinfolk don’t tell me how to do my job). The couples are usually too much in love to care about what happens in the wedding.
The truth is that, as strong as Paul’s obsessive prayer was (for his friends’ love to overflow to each other and to everyone else), Paul found love flowing back to him, from his friends, and from Jesus. But the success came because, as Paul was excessively praying for his friends’ overflowing love, Paul’s prayer changed him.
Praying for others made him into a sort of cheerleader for their own prayers for loving others. Paul’s prayers for others loving others made him into the sort of person who embarrasses you by telling you over and over again that they love you, or what a good friend they see in you, and how great your humble qualities are.
Even saying thank-you, excessively, could have the power, in the long run, to change everyone you know, especially your brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, together, you become the family of people who show the world how to love.
The Lord’s Supper is a kind of prayer for others. At the Lord’s Table, we gather together to meet, in person, the prayer of Jesus for us, which we hear the prayer of the cross: “Forgive them.” Jesus, in his prayer, is so full of us that he becomes as self-forgetting as a pinch of bread and a sip of wine.
His sacrifice was not a way of despising himself, but a way of loving others. He makes us so loved that we can forget about ourselves in just that powerful, loving way that he loves us, and the whole world around us.
The cross and the resurrection are a kind of infinite prayer that makes us a new creation. Jesus’ prayer makes us ready for the new heaven and the new earth that are coming.
The power within us comes from his praying for others; his praying for us. This way of prayer, as Paul teaches us, changes us excessively, so that our own prayers become the heart of a life devoted to a passionate and excessive love for others, and for God’s world.