Monday, October 29, 2012

Going with Jesus: Claimed and Owned

Preached on Sunday, October 28, 2012:

Scripture readings: Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Peter 3:18-22

You know that when kids go to camp the parents are supposed to label all their clothing. This doesn’t always help.

The only time I went to camp, it was a Y.M.C.A. camp. It was the summer when I was eight years old. The last day of camp we packed up all our things, and we piled our luggage on the road so that it could be loaded onto the buses, and we were all supposed to take showers so we would be clean enough for our moms’ inspections.

A Hazy September Day
In the process of taking my shower, I lost my underwear. It didn’t matter that it was labeled. I lost it anyway, and I couldn’t find it. I cried like a baby. And my other underwear was in my bag, which was buried under the luggage of other boys who were ready to take the buses for home. I cried with embarrassment because I was obsessed with a peculiar kind of nakedness that lurked under my clothing.

In the scriptures we have read this morning, Peter tells us about a form of embarrassment felt by God’s people. It is a peculiar kind of nakedness. Jesus, sending his people out, under his authority, into a world that is under his authority, gives to his people a permanent label that covers this nakedness and protects them from this embarrassment.

A lot of Peter’s first letter is concerned with a very peculiar form of embarrassment. It is the embarrassment that goodness feels in a fallen world. It is the embarrassment that comes from having been caught not wearing the uniform of the world.

There is a universal uniform of the heart, and the mind, and the life that does not know the grace of God. God’s people do not wear that uniform, and it sets them apart. It makes them look strange.

There is a universal style that says, “We are in charge of ourselves. We will serve ourselves.”

You can serve yourself by being a rule-breaker. To a lesser degree you can create a specialty of your own by flaunting certain rules, and a lot of people choose this way to run their own show. It is a way of being in charge.

You can also serve yourself by being a rule-keeper, and that is the uniform and style of religious people, who still manage to serve themselves instead of God. They run their own show by appointing themselves to be the chief score-keepers and the judges of others. No matter how strongly such people orient themselves to God, they still assert their own way of being in charge.

In a fallen world, human nature maintains its independence from God by any means possible, and at all costs. Whether by rule-breaking, or by rule-keeping, they wear the uniform of the world.

The people who know the God who became a human being in Jesus have seen the face of a God who pours himself out for us as a sacrifice to set us free from our isolation from him. The people who know the God who became one of us in Jesus know their need for such a sacrifice.

Old Farm Equipment
They do not live in the uniform of the world: the world’s heart, and mind, and life. They live in Christ, who died and rose for them. And so the sinners and the religious people of the world may think they are strange, and even bad; just as the world thought that Jesus was strange and bad, and crucified him for it.

So Peter, as we have just read, tells us about “those who speak maliciously about your good behavior in Christ.” (1 Peter 3:16) In the previous chapter, Peter said, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)

You have to understand, here, that good lives and good deeds, as Peter speaks of them here, do not mean lives and deeds of rule-keeping. There is more than one New Testament Greek word for goodness, and this particular goodness, as Peter tells it, means the lovely goodness of lives and deeds done in the grace that comes from God.

It is a goodness of beauty. It is a goodness of attraction. It is a goodness that carries an infectious power that can that can reproduce itself in those who are on the seeing, and the hearing, and the receiving end of that goodness. It is the goodness that first came to us with the love of God in Christ that covers our sins, and changes us from the depth of our hearts. It is the goodness that God came to show us in Jesus.

It melted our hearts. It stripped us of all our self deceptions and self righteousness, and all the defenses we had built to protect us from losing our independence from God. It is the goodness that now enables us to stand before God and this world with a good conscience.

Our problem, as God’s people, is that we can have this goodness of God’s grace and yet we feel naked because we have lost the universal uniform of a fallen world. They think we are strange; and we wonder if they are still right, after all.

We inherit the uniform of the world at birth. We learn to love the uniform at a very early age. It gives us the self confidence that comes from blending in. It gives us the confidence that comes from the acceptance of others.

I was visiting cousins, years ago, and reminiscing with my cousin Don about songs our family used to sing together, and we started singing bits and pieces of them. My Cousin Candy’s son, Kevin, was in the living room with us. Kevin was seven or eight years old. Either Don or I thought of “The Leland Stanford Junior Farm” song. It’s a college drinking song and there is just a little bit of mild vulgarity in it.

Fall Colors in the Weeds
I said, “We can’t sing that. Kevin is here.” And Kevin said, “I want to hear it!” Kevin wanted to wear the uniform of the world. Now Kevin wears the uniform of a Marine Corps captain.

Think like a child again. What is it like to be a child and not know the meaning of a word that everyone else seems to know? What is it like to know that you are the only kid in your class who has not done a certain thing?

You think you must be the only person in the whole world who has not done it, and you feel ashamed and naked. You are missing an essential piece of the uniform of the world.

What if you are a grown up, and you know that other people are doing something in the way that they report their income, for taxes, and they are making more money than you are because of it? You think you are missing out on something. You feel foolish, and embarrassingly innocent.

Peter says, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) It is better to be embarrassed by the exposure of your goodness. It is better to have others think you are different, and to have them think you are naked because you are different, than it is to have the confidence of the uniform of the world. And yet, sometimes, we feel we have let ourselves be cheated, because we have not been smart enough to put on that uniform.

We feel guilty of a kind of failure to measure up to the values of the world around us: a peculiar kind of nakedness. But this is the peculiar kind of nakedness that forms the uniform of Jesus.

Jesus was crucified for his goodness, and for the goodness of his mission. He was stripped nearly naked for our salvation on the cross. “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:17-18)

Bird on a Wire Fence
The soldiers at the cross took Jesus’ clothes, as the gospels tell us, but the ultimate nakedness is the emptiness with which we leave this world. Jesus put on that nakedness when he died for us. Death is a peculiar kind of failure; a sort of nakedness that shows we are not in control.

The cross seemed like a kind of failure; the failure of goodness to succeed in this world; the failure of goodness to thrive. It was the righteous one who died, and only two unrighteous people died with Jesus; one on each side of him, on crosses of their own. The rest of the fallen world crowded around the foot of the cross, and they mocked and heckled Jesus in his nakedness.

Who looks more successful when you look at a picture of Jesus on the cross? And yet Jesus rose from the dead and has the final word on everything in this world. The nakedness of Jesus and his people always has the final word over the uniform of the world.

When our goodness is not the goodness of the grace of God at work in us; when our goodness comes from our selves, and from our own competence, and from our standing up to the world on the ladder of our self righteousness; this world will pull our pants down and show that we have nothing underneath. (I really saw something like this happen to someone when I was in high school.) Then we have something to be embarrassed about. But, if we stand up to the world by standing in Jesus, and in his cross, and in his resurrection, and in his righteousness, then we will have nothing to be ashamed of.

That is the good conscience, the clear conscience that Peter is talking about. He is telling us about the difference in the kind of success offered to us by the uniform of the world as opposed to the better success of the promise and the goodness that do not come from ourselves.

It is the promise and the goodness of life, coming from the resurrection of Jesus, that overcomes this world. The victory of Jesus has the final word, and Jesus is the place where we can stand with confidence.

Baptism, as Peter puts it, tells us of the resurrection power of God in Christ to stand over all other powers of this world, and to bring us through this world knowing that we can hold up our heads when the world tells us we are naked, and empty, and foolish. The power of the resurrection of Jesus carries us to safety out of a fallen world.

The flood, in Noah’s time, as Peter puts it, was the proof of the power of God to carry his people to safety, out of a fallen world. Jesus spoke to that ancient world of Noah’s time by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus offered that world a safety that only Noah and his family accepted. Whatever we imagine seems more successful and more powerful than we are, Jesus is able to speak to it, and overcome it, and have the final word, and bring us through it.

Pretty Fall Weeds
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the good news was still brand new. Jesus was dead, killed on the cross. Now Jesus was alive. Jesus proved that he had the final word over a world of evil, and sin, and death. He conquered them all, when he conquered death.

He proved that “all authority in heaven and on earth” was his. He proved that he was the king of heaven and earth. He sent out his people with the promise of his presence to give them the power to serve him. He sent out his people telling them to bring his lost world to him. He gave them the authority to baptize people everywhere “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

The words of Jesus that tell his disciples and us to make new disciples “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are not about a ceremony or a formula of the right words to use. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are the fullness of God. They are everything about God who creates, and saves, and empowers us with the fullness of his presence, and his life, and his work.

Jesus was saying, “Go out and claim people for the fullness of God; which includes me, the Son. Label them with the ownership of God. Put the name of the completeness of God upon them.”

This world with all its false promises tries to own us, and but its label on us, and make us wear its uniform. God puts the stamp of his ownership upon us in a way that cannot be lost.

You see, we do not put the label on ourselves. These words tell us that Jesus sets a pattern for us. We are authorized to claim others and not ourselves. Once upon a time, in our own turn, we were claimed by God. And so the claim placed upon us gives us the authority to claim others. Grace is always given and received. No one comes into the kingdom of God any other way.

Think about children. Children learn confidence by being claimed, in love, over, and over, and over again.

Even if the children who seem unclaimed have to battle their way to adulthood by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, and by claiming themselves, that kind of success is naked without the humbling success of first being claimed and owned by someone else.

You cannot learn the art of love without learning to be loved, without letting yourself be loved and claimed beyond your control. Nothing else works. We can hold onto Christ, and claim the love of Christ in our great need, but we do not truly know him, as he is, until we know that it is his nature to claim us first, without our having any claim of our own, on our part.

Washtucna on that Hazy September Day
Once we know this, we have the authority of Jesus to claim, for him and for his kingdom, anyone like us who has no dream of a claim on the kingdom of God. That means anybody and everybody. The kingdoms of this world have become his kingdom. (Revelations 11:15)

He authorizes us to establish his authority over this world and over all the people in it. We claim them for the grace, and the love, and the goodness of God that they cannot claim for themselves.

God, in Christ, is our Lord and Savior. Standing up with a good and clear conscience, against all that this world throws at us, comes from no other place than the nature of God himself, and we only know who God is through Jesus his only Son.

That is the authority that rules heaven and earth and gives us our message. And we need to hear that message for ourselves. We need to hear the message of the resurrection power of Jesus, and find that it has the final word for us.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Great Game of Elections, Citizens, and Saints

Preached on October 21, 2012
Scripture readings: 1 Peter 2:13-17; Luke 20:20-26 

In seventh grade gym class we spent the fall playing flag football. We were assigned to our teams and we stayed on the same teams all through that fall season. Each team had a name. I don’t remember what we called our team, but I remember that we lost every game.

Yes, we lost, and we lost, and we lost, and we lost, and we stopped caring anymore. We didn’t even hang our heads in shame because we didn’t care.

Sad Looking Primrose
We made a joke out of it. We became the clowns of the field. Sometimes we scored; but most of the time we scored because we played so badly that we completely confused the other team. We played so badly that we would throw the other team off their game.

Every morning, at the beginning of the period, the coach would read the standings, and he would always get to us last, and say something like 0 – 10 (0 wins, 10 losses). And we were so shameless that we would cheer: “Yay!” The next day the coach would shout our name and say “0-11”: “Yay!” “0-12”: “Yay!” We never won a single game: “Yay!”

This experience has put me in the unique position to understand what Peter means when he writes, “Submit your selves, for the Lord’s sake, to every authority instituted among men.”  The problem with most translations of this verse is that they overly translate it, so that the words apply only to the next few words, only to how Christians are to relate to kings or governments. “Every authority instituted among men” probably refers to everything through the end of the second chapter of this letter and into the third chapter. So the so-called “institutions” of authority that Peter writes about are really all kinds of human relationships.

They are relationships between citizens and leaders and governments; relationships between slaves and masters; relationships between wives and husbands, husbands and wives; relationships between Christians; relationships with absolutely everyone.  These relationships are the authorities, the disciplines, the boundaries of our lives. “Honor everyone,” Peter tells us. (2:17)

Relationships! Relationships stand up around us like authorities that require us to decide how we will live and what kind of people we will be in this world.

God has designed and created us human beings so that we must live our lives within a great, complex network of human relationships, and obligations, and rights, and freedoms, and responsibilities. There are marriages, families, friendships, churches, faiths, boards, clubs, councils, businesses, communities, and more. There are economies, and societies, and political parties, and nations, and more.

In Peter’s writings, the thing he calls “human institutions” does not means humanly created human relationships, it means divinely created human relationships. The “institution” word, in Greek (ktisis), is actually a God-centered word. It is the Greek word that the New Testament uses to describe God’s work of creation, not human creations.

My seventh grade experience tells me that Peter’s words “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” means “play the game”. Play the big game in this field of relationships. Play like you take the game seriously; and play your part, play your position as well as you can, and play it with joy, because it is God’s game, God’s creation.

The game is a huge game, but we are playing for life, we are playing for eternity. Some of the plays are seen by no one else but God. These plays are made in our minds and hearts. Some of the plays take place in our family. Some of the plays take place in the larger world outside our homes. Some of the plays take place in our elections, and our politics, and our lawmaking and government.

God created the game in the sense that the rules are his. We don’t honor the king, or the emperor, or the government just because they write the laws. They are players in the game too, just like us; and they are accountable to keep the rules, themselves; but how we play, and how they play, will all contribute to the course of the game.

God is the creator of the game because he wrote the rule book, and measured and marked the lines on the field; the yard lines, the side lines, and the goal lines.

The question to Jesus, about whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not, was a trick question, but it was a question that mattered to a lot of people. It was basically to ask: are there parts of the big game that you can sit out, if you want. In Jesus’ time and place, God’s people wanted to know if they could sit out the Caesar part of the game; the secular part of the game. Was that a part of the game they didn’t have to play in?

Jesus answer was that they had to play the whole game, even the secular part. Belonging to God, knowing the Lord, does not let you off the hook for sitting out the game for what is going on in the nation, or in the world. Or, even if you think that you are only stuck on the sidelines, you are still part of the game.

In a monarchy, like the Roman Empire, submitting to the game looked different than it would in a democracy, or a republic. In the empire people either obeyed, or they could write letters or send petitions which might get them in trouble, or might actually get them a hearing from the emperor.

In a democracy or a republic we submit to the game by keeping well informed, and meeting, and voting, and joining, and contributing, and by running for office. Jesus’ answer about “giving Caesar what is Caesar’s” applies to this because, ultimately, in this nation, we are not under obligation to human leaders; we are under obligation to the constitution. The constitution is the covenant of the people of the United States. We have no right, for the Lord’s sake, to sit out the constitution part of the Lord’s great game.

Jesus didn’t say to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (Luke 20:25) because Jesus thought that Caesar was a good guy who was doing a great job. The case was just the opposite. Jesus spoke at a time of the beginning of a string of mostly bad emperors. The emperor in Jesus’ day was Tiberius, who lived in splendid isolation of the Isle of Capri and let corrupt underlings do all his work. The emperor at the time when Peter wrote about honoring the emperor was Nero, who had his own mother killed, and who is famous for “fiddling while Rome burned”, and who lighted his evening garden parties with torches made of burning Christians.

Honor doesn’t mean closing your eyes to evil, or compromising with it. Honor is the stubborn and gracious determination to remember, no matter what, that other people (whomever they may be) are still (and always will be) creatures of God, made in the image of God. If you have contempt and hatred for anything or anyone God has made, you will not play your part in the game well. When any team plays the game with contempt for the other team they begin to play badly.

There was an ancient Christian named Justin Martyr, born around the year 100 A.D., born in the city that is now called Nablus, in the West Bank area of the River Jordan, in what is now the Palestinian Territories. He wrote an open letter to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and his sons. He wrote: “So we worship God only, but in temporal matters we gladly serve you, recognizing you as emperors and rulers, and praying that along with your imperial power you may also be found to have good judgment. Suppose you pay no attention to our requests and our frank statements about everything. That will not injure us, since we believe, and are convinced without doubt, that everyone will finally experience the restraint of divine judgment in relation to their voluntary actions. Each will be required to give account for the responsibilities which he has been given by God.” (FIRST APOLOGY, 17)
Perovskia: Russian Sage

When Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25) he doesn’t mean that we have compartments in our lives. You can’t let the world claim part of you, or claim part of yourself for your self, and then let God have the rest.

You can’t have different rooms in the house of your life. Imagine thinking your life was compartmentalized into separate rooms where you could live a different life in each. Imagine having a politics room, and a money room, and a family room, and a religion room, and thinking you could be one person in the religion room and a different person in your family room, and still another person in your politics or money room.

If your life was a house, you would be God’s house, and God would be the master and have his say in all the rooms. But in my story, you are in a great game; and your politics, and your citizenship, and your family life, and your financial life, and your spiritual life are all played out on the same field with everyone there.

You are a player in God’s game of life and you are not divided into 10 percent here and 50 percent there. Wherever you are in the game, even, if you are on the side lines, you are in it 100 percent, or 200 percent (as a coach might put it), or not at all. And that includes your identity as a citizen of the republic and your identity as a saint, a person who belongs to God.

When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, he tells us that Caesar is not God. The world and the culture we live in is not our God. We have no reason to listen to the world around us, or to the culture we live in, if they tell us something different than what God tells us.

When we are ready to give to God what belongs to God, then we are ready to give him our very selves (our whole selves), and we immediately become potential revolutionaries and mavericks. We immediately become ready to contradict what the world and the culture says. After all, Peter says, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Honor is an attitude of respect. Fear is a sense of awe and wonder. Fear engulfs honor. The world cannot compete with God.

Peter says, “Honor all men.” And he says, “Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) There is just one Greek word originally used for how we are to relate to an emperor, or to just anyone; even though some translations use a different word in each phrase. Honor is the one thing that is meant in both places. Any human being Peter met he would honor just as much as he might honor the emperor.

This was revolutionary. It is said that there were more than 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire during the first century. They were nothing more than mere property in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the culture.

But for Peter, looking through the eyes of Jesus, any single slave, working in a quarry, or a farm, or a kitchen, or a shop, was the emperor’s equal: that was his brother. This was revolutionary. This was as much as treason.

We live in a world and a culture that have very little understanding of respect and honor. I think the church is supposed to be a culture of respect and honor. This culture used to be reinforced (more or less) by the world around us.

But now the world teaches us to laugh at people, or point a finger at them, or rant and rave about them, or just ignore them. Everyone we laugh at, every one we accuse, every one we hate, everyone we ignore is some one who is the image of the living God, someone for whom Christ has died. What are our election campaigns and political programs teaching us about the importance of respect, as citizens?

Peter writes about the Christian’s freedom. Our freedom comes from the love of God working in the cross of Christ, setting us free from our sin, and setting us free from the power of death.

There is a real freedom that is God-given. It gives us the ability to stand up against the false reasoning, the false priorities, and the false fears of the world around us.

There is a false freedom, Peter warns against it. (2:16) Peter warns us that we are tempted to think we have the freedom to do whatever is convenient for us. We are tempted to think that we have the freedom to do whatever makes us feel good, no matter what affect it has on others.

When a person’s personal freedom is more important that the life of an unborn child; that is a false freedom. When a business saves a worker’s benefits and then lays them off so as not to have to pay them a pension, that is their using their right of proprietorship as a false freedom (it’s a broken promise, after all).

I think the economic failures that continue to haunt our country and our world began because so many people in banking and investments thought that they had a right to get what they wanted just because they wanted it, and they gambled with what other people entrusted to them under false pretenses and false assurances. That was the false freedom of greed. Nations decline when they become addicted to the worship of false freedoms.

True freedom is to be a servant of God, who lays out a great game before us, for us to play in, and not hold back at the parts of the game we don’t like.

God himself is the major player of the game. He played in every part of it. He came down from heaven and was born in a stable. He played as a child, and learned to work with his hands at an early age. He left his work to teach others. He made passionate friends and passionate enemies. He was misunderstood. He stood up to the powerful. He stood up to the Roman governor, who was the local arm of the empire.

Birdbath in my frontyard
He identified with the sins and evils of this world, and died to defeat them. He died and rose from the dead to save us from our sins, and give us the freedom of the children of God.

God still loves this game. It gives him joy to play in it. And it gives him joy to watch us play.

It is a game that takes up the whole of your life, and involves you in the whole of life on this planet. There is nothing of which we can say that God has nothing to do with it. There is nothing that goes on in this world that God wants us to be indifferent to.

The election we are all thinking about is a reminder that we all have an invitation to God’s great game. Whether it is Washington, or Olympia, or Washtucna, or Kahlotus, or anywhere: nothing is off God’s playing field. Freedom is a life where everything matters, and everything counts, and no one is to be left out, and no one is off the hook.