Monday, November 24, 2014

The Higest Calling - A Strong Fight

Preached on Sunday, November 23, 2014

Scripture readings: Isaiah 59:12-21; Ephesians 6:10-20

Paul says, “Be strong,” but I don’t know how well I understand those words. They are a lot like the words, “Be brave.”
Vinyard at Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
I think John Wayne said, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” Being strong means doing what you have got to do. But a lot of people don’t.
There are a lot of times I certainly don’t feel like doing it. It seems like “be strong” and “be brave” are for those very times you want to cut and run; or go with the flow, instead of against it.
Every fall, Dubuque Seminary had an annual football game between the married and the unmarried students. Fred Halde was my team captain. He was my friend, but he kept lining me up me opposite Dave Ulum, who had actually played college football (in one of those tiny colleges in the Midwest).
Fred was my friend, but we all knew I was our weakest player. I was expendable. Fred needed to save the good players for the better positions. It was touch football, but there was blocking and hitting on the line of scrimmage.
So we kept lining up, and Dave Ulum kept hitting me, and I kept flying backward through the air. I never seemed to land where I had been standing, but somewhere else, flat on my back. I was getting really mad at Fred.
I remember standing on the line facing Dave Ulum for the tenth time or so. Dave was my friend too. He hated what he was doing. He was begging me, “Dennis, please go somewhere else!” And I said, “I can’t. I’ve gotta be here.”  I think I must have played the whole game facing Dave.
All the while, we all knew that the unmarried students always lost. That is one thing I think of when I hear the words, “Be strong.”
One thing I know, I am encouraged and inspired when someone else is strong, when someone else lives with courage. When others are counting on you, when others are rooting for you, you have got to think of that. But, not everyone does.
When I was serving my first church after I was ordained, the Presbyterian churches on the south coast of Oregon would put on their own church camp, every summer. We rented a little camp up in the hills, and we would have twenty, or thirty, or forty kids, for a week of junior camp, and for a week of junior high camp.
Here and Below:
Nishinomiya Garden, Spokane WA: November 2011
I would be on the staff, but I would also double as a cabin counselor for kids from Lakeside, where I served. One summer, I had the perfect Junior High cabin. Our camp gave awards at the end of the week to the cabin with the most points, and you earned points by competitions in three areas, how you cleaned and decorated your cabin, how you competed in the games, how you did in the Bible quizzes.
I had a cabin full of kids who were good Boy scouts, good athletes, and good Bible students. We stampeded all the other cabins, and left them groveling in the dust.
The staff kept changing the point system to make the scores more even, but nothing availed, because we were great. We were strong. It was something to celebrate. We celebrated constantly. We celebrated in everyone’s faces.
That last part wasn’t too Christian. But joy is Christian. Thankful-hearted, generous-hearted celebration is Christian. We’re not strong, but God is. We celebrate his strength, and this is a part of the joy of the Lord himself: to be celebrated by his children. I think that “be strong” means something like that.
Paul doesn’t say, “Be strong.” He says, “Be strong in the Lord.” Through much of his letter, Paul has been applying our faith to every part of our life. In every part of life, we have a high calling. Our calling is about living out our real connection with the Lord, in every part of life, nothing excluded.
If only we could see, every day, how everything is connected to Jesus. Everything is connected to the Lord. Every place we stand is “holy ground.” Our moral, ethical life is holy ground. Our life together, as brothers and sisters of faith, as members together of a spiritual family, in the church, is holy ground.
How you live as a husband, or a wife, is holy ground. How you live as a parent, or as a son or daughter, is holy ground. How you work with others is holy ground. How you live alone is holy ground. The example of Jesus (showing, in his life, how to live when strength is needed) is there making it holy ground.
The love of Jesus is there, making it holy ground. The change of heart, the new spirit, the new attitude that comes from being a new creation through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is there, making life holy ground.
The power of the Holy Spirit is there. Everything that matters is there.
There is something to celebrate, even when you want to cut and run. You have something to celebrate, even when the future is hidden. “Be strong in the Lord.”
When Paul says, “Be strong in the Lord,” the Greek for “be strong” actually means, “be empowered. When I was a kid, there was an amusement park we went to, once or twice a year. They had an old-fashioned penny arcade, with cool nickelodeons and mechanical games. There was a machine I always loved. When I put a nickel in the slot, and stood on a brass plate, and held a brass knob with each hand, an electric charge would go through my body, and  a meter on the game would tell me how tough I was, until I screamed and jumped off.
I would try that game every time every time I could. I imagined myself being empowered! “Be empowered in the Lord.” You are in Christ, and Christ is in you. “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”
You must never imagine that you are alone. You are living your life with God. That is your highest calling.
Maybe we are afraid to go to the place where the Lord’s empowerment would take us. What might God be calling you to do? What kind of person is God calling you to become? How might God want to change your life?
I am afraid to think what would happen if I refused to be what God wanted me to be. What’s the alternative to what God wants?
And wouldn’t that be taking sides? And, then, whose side would I be taking?
There are sides. Sooner or later, there are only two sides left in the whole universe.
It really boils down to a matter of life and death. There is the side of life, if only you choose life. And there is another side. And what shall we call the side that turns against life?
Paul says that there is a struggle going on between two sides. There is God, the captain of the team of life. And there is the other side set against us, and against God, and against life. Paul writes: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers; against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) We are not struggling only with the world as it appears to our eyes and to our other senses.
There is an invisible reality that is more important than what we see and sense. In that unseen world, we are in Christ. We are seated in safety, in Christ. That is the highest and most invincible region of the spiritual realms. And yet that best and highest realm is as near to us as our minds, our hearts, our loves, our choices, and our prayers.
The spiritual realms have their bottom land, though, where the dregs of the invisible realms still make war on God and his kingdom. That bottom land is also very near: just as close as our minds, and hearts, and loves, our choices, and our prayers.
Even when we don’t know Christ, we are still part of the kingdom of his creation, and we still represent the life that God wants to bless. The forces of evil hate us for this and they make war against us.
When the lower portions of that unseen world are at work close to us, then we are in a spiritual warfare with the devil, whether we know it or not. Whether we realize it or not we meet the organized forces of the spiritual darkness and the armies of the evil one. He is the one whom the Bible calls Satan and the Devil.
In Ephesians, Paul calls the commander of those forces “the prince of the power of the air” or “the ruler of the kingdom of the air”. (Ephesians 2:2)
These powers are against us because the God of life made us. They attack us within our familiar world, and we find the struggle to be real and terrible. Sometimes that struggle seems much more real than the place where God has seated us in his presence.
The word “satan” means “enemy”. The word “devil” means “accuser”. In the Garden of Eden, the devil, in the form of a serpent, accused God of not wanting the best for Adam and Eve. His advice was for them to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and gain the knowledge and power that God had denied them.
The accusations of the Devil are all lies, or the twisting of the truth. In the Gospel of John Jesus says this about the Devil: “There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
Paul has told us this: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:17-18)
Futile thinking, darkened understanding, ignorance, and the hardening of hearts is the result of the accuser’s lies. Even when we love Jesus, the accuser gets us twisted and mixed up in our priorities. He darkens our ability to understand when people collide with us. He makes us accusers of others and accusers of the unfairness of life. He hardens our hearts toward others, toward ourselves; toward hope and love and caring. He makes us suspicious, and sneaky, and angry, and despairing, and bitter, and unwholesome.
When God came into our world, in Christ, it was to reveal the truth and to give us a new life that we could live within the power of his truth. In Jesus, we see our sinfulness and our need of a savior. In Jesus we see the extreme faithfulness of a God who will go through torture on the cross and death for a world of people whom he loves, including us. In Jesus we see that his faithfulness reaches out to those who seem the most outcast, downcast, and hopeless. In Jesus we see the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God, and the truth a new life held save in his hands.
The kingdom of God is the opposite of the kingdom of the liar. Paul prays this for us: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:17-19) Later on, Paul remembers to add this to his prayer for us, so that, “you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19)
This is strong. This is what we need to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” But Paul gives us another picture of what God does for us, in Christ, to make us strong. Think of it as the armor of God himself.
Paul is thinking about the armor that God put on to work out our salvation. God looked at us, and at our world, and his plan was to fight for us. Isaiah speaks of the armor that God put on to fight for us. “He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.” God put on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. (Isaiah 59:16-20)
When we put on the whole armor of God, it is a strange case of human beings wearing God’s clothes. Imagine children dressing up in their parent’s clothing, thinking, “How can I pretend to be my Dad? How can I pretend to be my Mom?”
God really doesn’t wear clothes. He wears himself. Righteousness and salvation are living parts of God: characteristics of God. When we put on his armor, we put him on. God comes between us and all harm. Because of the cross, if harm touches us, it touches God first and foremost, and we will live because Christ lives.
In Jesus we see that God’s breastplate of righteous is formed by the scars of the whip with which he was beaten. His helmet of salvation is the crown of thorns. His sword of the Spirit is formed by the nails. His vengeance is overwhelming, overcoming love with which he carried our sins for us.
One thing seems clear to me; that all the armor and weaponry God are the work that the Lord has done for us, or given to us as a gift. In Isaiah, God put his armor on to do what no one else could do, dealing with evil and injustice in the world, and dealing with sin, and carelessness, and hardness in our hearts.
He has done the work in Christ, and now, by faith, he wraps us in his work and tells us to live with the confidence that he has taken care of us: with the confidence that all that we struggle to do is somehow finished in him. He puts it in our heart. But he tells us to take it out so we can see it. He tells us to put it on, and to surround ourselves with what he has done.
There is the belt of truth. In Christ we see the truth about ourselves and about God. We see that there is good news for us, in the truth. The truth holds us together, and keeps us honest and sane.
The breastplate of righteousness is the goodness of Jesus. Because we are lacking in goodness, he covers us with his own.
Having “your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace,” refers to the half-boots of a Roman soldier. They had good support for the ankles, and protection for the shins, and tough metal-studded soles.
Even when the fight is hardest there is peace that steadies you. You remember Jesus, and what he has given you; what he has done for you. You know that now you are doing something for him.
This makes you good company for those around you. It makes you steady to share with others what Christ can give to them.
“The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” is the power of the Bible. But the sword is not just words on a page or even words in your mouth. The real sword comes out when the words become the voice of God by the Holy Spirit. Then they come to life for you, and they come to life through you.
Sunset at Desert Aire: November 2014
The Spirit of God becomes the breath of the voice of God speaking of its own will and power to cut through your temptations, and your fears, and to do field surgery on yourself and on others to mend what’s broken or infected.
It cuts mercifully and cleanly through the heart and soul. “It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) The sword of the Spirit enables you to speak for God with confidence and love.
Paul tells us to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24) In all his humility and extreme devotion, God showed his true armor in Jesus.

We are called to put on Jesus, to be crucified with him, and to rise with him. That is what gives us a new self to put on every day. That is how to be strong for the fight.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Highest Calling - A School for Christian Life

Preached on Sunday, November 16, 2014
Scripture readings: Genesis 2:15-25; Ephesians 5:21-33.
I have always been a little scared of dancing. I have nothing against it. I should have said that I have always been a little scared of myself as a dancer, except in the spring of 1977.
Here I Am, About 1977, In My Dancing Days
In 1977 there was a girl I knew I could love, who also loved to dance. We were both in seminary, in Dubuque, Iowa; and Dubuque had a real disco with a floor lighted from underneath, and flashing lights, and a mirrored ball.
Her name was Donna, and she made me dance. No, she made me want to dance, and so I did it gladly and enthusiastically. Donna loved to dance, and I loved to look at her dancing with me, and I loved to look at her looking back at me, right there, dancing with her.
I felt desperate about what to do. So I did the easy thing. I did my duty as part of my seminary training. That summer I went away for my year of internship. When I returned to seminary, Donna was gone on her internship.
Marriage is like a dance, and I don’t know much about either one. Of course I have watched many marriages. I have been very close to some marriages.
Times are changing, but most people still get married. Marriage is basic. Going back to the very beginning of the human race (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) we see that marriage is God’s gift to supply something that is good for human life.
Without the gift that marriage is given for, life is deprived of the gift of something very powerfully good. “It is not good for man (meaning Adam, which is Hebrew for human, or earthling) to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)
Not everyone in the Bible gets married. The prophet Jeremiah didn’t. Possibly the prophet Daniel didn’t. (The eunuchs in Isaiah 56:4 clearly didn’t.)
Jesus implied that some people, in order to follow him, would not marry, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:12) Although Paul says a lot about the goodness and holiness of marriage, it is clear, from what he says, in some of his other letters, that he was not married. (1 Corinthians 7:8)
Photos Taken at Desert Aire WA; November 2014
Some people blame the fact of Paul not being married as the reason why some of what he wrote about marriage sounds strange, or even wrong. Paul has been misunderstood.
We know that Paul had been so devout in his Jewish faith, before he became a Christian, so energetic in his faith, and so well trained in his faith, as a young man in Jerusalem, that he rose to high places in the hierarchy of rabbis connected to the Temple. He may even have been a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Senate (Acts 26:10).
In order to be a member of that Senate (or even to be in that hierarchy) you had to be married. Perhaps Paul had a wife who left him, or who was taken away from him by her family, when he did the unthinkable, scandalous thing and became a Christian.
Paul doesn’t write about dancing together, but he does write about singing together. Earlier he said, “Speak to one another with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.” (Ephesians 5:19) Singing with another person is a little bit like dancing, if you both enjoy it. You are aware of each other. You respond to each other. You move together, in sync together, dividing up the parts and taking them in turn. Marriage is a duet and a dance. Two of the parts of the dance are submission and love, and each one takes their turn.
Just before Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, he has told everyone to submit to one another as Christians, out of reverence for Christ. As a Christian, the husband has already been commanded to submit to his wife as a Christian, because all Christians are commanded to submit to each other.
Paul goes on to say that the husband should imitate Christ, by being willing to give up himself and to die for her, as Christ died for us. It’s what all Christians are called to do for each other.
The wife has now been told to give to her husband the very thing she would never withhold from any other Christian. In another place Paul tell his Christians friends, “Out do one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10) The wife has been given the calling that all Christians owe to each other.
That means that a wife is to bring her faith into her marriage. I believe that the word of God teaches that there should be room in your life that serves as a learning place for the Christian life, and that room is your home and your marriage. What better place would there be to learn how to submit to someone than a relationship with someone who has been called to submit to you in return? It’s a special dance. Paul has laid out the choreography for this dance in Ephesians.
It is the same with the husband. Paul has just told all these Christians, at the beginning of chapter five, “…live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:2) This extreme love is a duty, which all Christians owe to each other. Then Paul says, “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her…” (5:25)
So, a husband is told not to withhold from his wife the very thing that he owes to every other Christian. He is told to be a real Christian to his wife. Doing this will look a lot like the action of “giving himself up,” just as Jesus did.
When Christians think and teach about marriage they sometimes forget to put Jesus and Paul together to get the whole picture. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28) Surely marriage fits this.
All Christians are called to love each other that way. They called to “give themselves up”, as Christ gave himself up for us. The Bible is teaching us that marriage and the home should be practice rooms dedicated to learning how to love like that. What can be a better place to learn how to love like Jesus, than a relationship with one other person who is committed to loving you like Jesus in return? This is part of the choreography of Christ.
If one partner submits herself, and the other partner gives himself up, then no one is the boss the way we think of bossing. My kindergarten class had a big, elaborate play house area. And I remember playing house, sometimes, being the husband and father, and I remember it was always an important, in the beginning of the game, to establish exactly who was the boss. I always found a way. But we were five years old.
There needs to be authority in a marriage, and in a family. But it is not an authority based on “who is the boss?” It is an authority based on being Jesus to each other and seeing Jesus in each other. How would you treat your spouse if you looked at them and saw Jesus?
An automatic authority comes to a man who obviously and deeply loves his wife. An automatic authority comes to a woman who obviously respects her husband because she knows he would give up everything for her and even die for her. Submission is a hard word but Paul ends up calling it respect. (Ephesians 5:33)
What if we make a pair out of these two words: love and respect?  Let’s think of the love side as something tender, affectionate, warm, sensitive. Let’s think of respect as, well, respect: the mark of confidence, trust; a kind of dignity or honor that is well placed.
Now let’s think of all people having the wonder of the image of God in them, but also of God planting something unique in each person. God makes each person a unique blend of strengths and needs. Men and women are also unique from each other. Men and women have somewhat different natures, as men and as women.
There’s a story that goes like this. There is an elderly couple. Let’s call them Ole and Lena, and they’ve been married for fifty years. They’re sitting on their front porch swing, on a summer evening. Ole looks at Lena and says, “Lena, it’s more than I can stand, to keep from telling you that I love you.”
Men have to learn to be romantic. They have to learn to express love to a woman and make it clear, unless they have grown up in a home where the father has been a clear example of this kind of love.
Christians love with true devotion. The church, and marriage, and family are the places where men can learn to love like Christians. These places reinforce each other. They are all schools of the Christian life. They are places where men can learn the things that don’t come easily to them.
Think of what Paul says about Jesus being the husband of the church and the church being the bride of Christ. Think of the image of Jesus washing his bride. Have you ever thought about that? It’s like a honeymoon bath: a huge tub with a Jacuzzi, and scented candles, and a lot of sponges. What if a husband lived with his wife every day as if he were taking a honeymoon bath with her?
I remember talking with a couple and I made the confession that I sometimes make about my own sense of maturity. I told them I was really just a twelve-year-old at heart. The woman laughed and said that all men are twelve-year-olds at heart.
We all laughed at this. It’s probably so funny because it’s true. At the same time it’s just as true that twelve-year-old boys need to learn what it’s like to be respected.
I believe that women have a gift for love in the form of taking care of others; along with a great many other gifts. But giving respect as a form of grace does not come easily to most of us.
I knew a couple where the husband was very responsible and caring. He was more than that. He did things like secretly planting crocuses in the yard, so arranged that they would form a heart when they sprouted and bloomed, but the wife was not good at showing him respect.
Maybe that comes from not being properly respected themselves when they were children; and so showing respect is hard. The church, and marriage, and family are the places where we learn to give to others what comes hard for us to give, because Jesus has given it to us.
I believe that a man’s need for respect mystifies some women in the same way that a woman’s need for tender love mystifies a man. I believe we all need both. But men and women have special needs.
In marriage, Christian people bind themselves in a partnership where they have a holy obligation to listen and learn to give according to their partner’s special needs. They don’t have an obligation to succeed, but they do have an obligation to want to give, in the hope that their spouse will flourish, and not merely survive.
Loving and respecting each other is what the Lord expects all his people to learn. The things we know how to do best are the things we do every day. God wants us to learn love and respect every day; and God wants us to be loved and respected every day; and so God created the church, and marriage, and family life.
Maybe the curse of our modern day conveniences is the illusion that everyday things should be easy. If we went back in time more than one hundred years, we would find ourselves in a time when nothing was easy. For most people (for any people who were living right here, in this place, one hundred years ago) if you wanted water, you carried it from the well, or the river. If you wanted bread, you baked it yourself. If you wanted eggs, you raised chickens. If you wanted bacon, you raised pigs. If you farmed, then you fed, and watered, and doctored, and groomed horses or mules every day of your life. Nothing you did everyday was easy: but you had to work at it in order to have a life worth living and a life where you had something to give to others.
We don’t live that way anymore. I sometimes think, or hope, that the people of the past were more likely to carry that understanding of work to their marriages, and their family life, than we are.
At any rate nothing important is easy: not honesty, not forgiveness, not faithfulness, not purity, not constructiveness or helpfulness. Nothing important is easy. It isn’t only marriage and family where people take the easy way out. There is a lot of hurt going on in this world because of that. But Jesus calls us to do things a different way.
The church is one place where we are called to learn these things. So are marriage and the home. These places are the gifts of God. They are schools for the men and women who want to become men and women of God. But it is also a school for girls and boys, so that they may look at their parents and know what it means to become men and women of God.
Along with the Church, home should be a place where boys and girls learn how beautiful it is when we live together the way God wants, even when it is hard work. Church and home should be a place where kids learn that love and respect are worth working hard at, even when it is a rocky road. A child’s home, and their parent’s marriage, should be the place where it is safe for them to give their love and respect to others and to be wholesomely loved and respected in return.
God calls us to make wherever we are into a good place like that. God teaches us that we belong in school: a school of respect and love.
In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (15:13-14) I would say that the sort of friendship to which Jesus invites us is a kind of respect and love.
In Jesus, on the cross, we see the strange love and respect of God, for us. Over and over, Paul says, “you do this; just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Respect is a kind of dignity or honor. The love of Jesus gives us that.

We are following Jesus, aren’t we? And what he did for us, giving himself up for us, gives us the strength, the patience, even the will, to live with that respect and love, not only out in the open, where our neighbors can see us, but most of all where those who know us best can see us, and where God himself can see us: in the inner chamber of our marriage, and our family; if only God so blesses us with these great gifts.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Highest Calling - Doing the Jesus-Walk

Preached on a Communion Sunday, November 9, 2014

Scripture reading: Ephesians 4:17-5:2

In my first church, down on the Oregon Coast, there was a retired couple named Dale and Mabel, and they had a granddaughter from Portland visiting them for the summer. Her name was Marguerite. She had come to help with our Vacation Bible School which was being put on by a mission group from out of town.
Photos Near Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
When one of the adult leaders of the mission group met Marguerite, almost the very first thing he asked her was, “Do you dance ballet?” He asked her this question because she did, and she looked like it.
Marguerite didn’t walk. She flowed. There was nothing unnatural about the way she walked. She didn’t put anything extra into it. She didn’t twirl or wave her arms in the air when she moved. She simply walked to perfection.
Another member of that church was a woman named Margaret. She didn’t live far from the church. One day I walked down the street to pay her a visit. She looked out her window and saw me coming, so she was ready for me when I got there. At her door, Margaret told me she had recognized me, from a distance, by my rolling gait. I think she meant that I didn’t have a ballet dancer’s walk.
Every one of us has a unique walk: and more than one walk, if you look across our lives. We have one walk when we are three, another walk when we are sixteen, and still another walk when we are sixty or so. But, for Paul, in his letter to his friends in Ephesus, it all boiled down to two walks: the world walk and the Jesus walk. You could say it is the matter of the world’s life and the Jesus life.
“You must no longer live like the Gentiles do.” (Ephesians 4:17) The Greek word that gets translated as “live” is really “walk”. The older translations say “walk”, but who lives by walking anymore?
When I was in high school, one of the coaches during P.E. was watching me run. He started to run beside me and tried to give me instructions on how to run correctly. He kept telling me what to do so that I would run right. I tried to do what he said. For a few days he repeated the process with me, and then (I think) he gave up.
There are rules for good running. There are even rules for good walking. The people who have physical therapy probably learn those rules.
Paul seems to give us a lot of rules for the Jesus walk. All those rules are worth thinking about. The truth is that it’s hard to do the Jesus walk. There is a lot of falling down involved; and a lot of bruises; and some pain. It takes time.
I had a friend in college named Bob. Bob was born with cerebral palsy, and he could never walk very well. He got around campus in a golf cart. When he had to walk, he looked like a human windmill. His legs and arms swung around and around.
Bob’s body did not walk well, but Bob walked the Jesus walk in an amazing way. He didn’t grow up that way. If I recall correctly, he had been a desperate and angry kid who finally met Jesus, and was changed by Jesus, so that he could learn the Jesus walk. For Bob it wasn’t a matter of rules. It wasn’t a matter of “should” and “ought”. It was a matter of love and passion.
In spite of his life-long condition Bob knew that Jesus loved him and Bob loved Jesus back. He did the Jesus walk because Jesus lived inside him.
We know it has to be this way, because some of Paul’s rules are humanly impossible. It depends on our “being made new.” If you are “being made new” it doesn’t mean that you are making yourself. It means that something or someone is doing it to you.
“Being made new” is something that is done to you. It happens to you. It’s a gift as well as something that we must learn.
Paul does this strange thing over and over again. He makes the walk really tough. He requires of us the achievement that is humanly impossible. And then he tells us how it is done. It is done by God, in Christ. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) The walk comes from efforts at imitation, but it also comes from the “fragrant offering” of Christ.
It is so hard to know how to live unless we know that we are infinitely loved, unless we know that the creator and power behind everything made himself into a human being to die on the cross for all humans. He did this in Jesus for our forgiveness and to give us a new self.
He is our Father by creation, and he is our Father by the new creation of grace. He offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and so he defeated the power of sin. He offered himself up to death, and so he defeated the power of death. And he also made an offering of our humanness as a gift to his Father.
As humans we surrender ourselves to the humanness of God in Jesus. By faith we take ourselves off. By faith we put Jesus on. We become the humans we were created to be because we receive the humanity of Jesus. In Jesus we have all died, and we have all risen from the dead. He is one with us and we are one with him.
Once I served a little small town/rural church where some of our members and others in the community performed a piece of classical music for holy week. It was called “The Seven Last Words of Christ” by a French composer named Theodore Dubois, who mostly wrote operas. After our last performance, a member of the audience said to me. “It was great. It was just like hearing ordinary people singing opera!” Yes it was exactly like that: hearing ordinary people singing opera!
It was a good thing we didn’t try to make it into a ballet, as well. It came off better than that. The audience was gracious because we were everyone’s friends and neighbors. Their enjoyment must have been based on the same principle as parents watching their little kids dance ballet.
On one hand the rules are excellent. The rules define the holiness and the greatness of the ballet, the opera, and the walk, but it is (above all else) a matter of heart and mind: a heart and a mind open to love, and wonder, and grace.
Sometimes Christians come off as unloving; and that is because we often are. We make life a matter of the rules and not of the freedom that comes from being loved and loving back in a million different ways. Even when we claim to love, our love can be very cold and prickly.
Jesus “offered himself up for us”, and that is where our love is supposed to come from. That is the love that lives in us when Jesus truly lives in us.
This is so hard. Can any of us really say that we love anyone if we are not willing to give ourselves up for them as Jesus gave himself up for us? And what would that require of us, if we truly did it? Do we really know our true selves, at all, in the matter of our love for others?
The world walk, as Paul saw it, was what Jesus came to cure. The world walk needed to come to an end. So much is wrong in this world because what sin really does is rob us of our true selves. We no longer know how to understand what we are really saying and doing, or what anyone else is saying or doing.
In the world walk, neither the brain nor the heart is right. Neither the brain nor the heart work the way God made them to work. Paul speaks of “the futility of their thinking” in the world walk. He says, “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:17-18)
Paul talks about “deceitful desires” and these don’t need to have anything to do with sex. We jump to conclusions about this because we, as Christians, in our own way, are just as obsessed about sex as the world is.
“Deceitful desires” come when we disguise what we want as good for us (as something that will make us happy) and it wrecks our lives. Deceitful desires come when we disguise what we want as something good for others when it is really about ourselves. Deceitful desires even come when we claim to want what God wants (when we convince ourselves that we want what God wants) and yet we are serving ourselves and our own supposed emotional needs.
Paul writes this about one of our needs. “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26)
Sometimes we need to be angry. Sometimes we really do. Even God wants us to be angry about some things. Love demands it. Parents understand the meaning of righteous anger when they hear their child tell a lie, or see their children be cruel to each other or, to a pet.
The world needs a truly righteous anger in the face of evil, and injustice, and corruption. But there is a fine line between anger and sin. There are just too many times when I need to be angry only because I want to be angry.
The mind and the self, that come from Jesus, are able to teach me that such an anger is not based on what is happening to me right now. It’s based on my life story. It’s an anger that is not about what any one says or does now, but about something (maybe something horrible) that some one said or did long ago. Or my anger is about my pride or my ego.
“Do not let the sun go down on your anger” means at least two things. First: it tells us to make up as soon as we can, and it tells us not to design our making up as another tactic to actually blame the other person all over again. Don’t say, “I’m sorry I didn’t know that you were out of sorts yesterday when I ate the last piece of pie after you told me you were going to have it for breakfast the next morning.”
Not letting the sun go down on our anger is also a matter of facing what our anger reveals about ourselves. We are called to surrender what we are quickly, all the time (before the sun goes down), “to be made new in the attitude of our minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:23-24)
“Righteousness” means working right. It means having hearts and minds that are sensitive to what God is asking of us because we are letting God live, in all his truth and light, in our hearts and minds, so that we live it right.
“Holiness” means being set apart for a purpose. God is holy because he sticks to his purpose, and his purpose is love. We are holy when we are like God in his purpose: to love and to make love possible, and to rescue everyone from the world walk by walking the Jesus walk.
For Christians, when we try to relive the world walk, Paul wrote, “You, however, did not come to know Christ that way.” (Ephesians 4:20) The problem is not merely in learning and mastering the rules. The situation is that we have not fully come to know God as he truly is in Christ. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) We forget.
Forgiveness is a mystery. It may seem like a game. Forgiveness may have been used against us as a game to make us lose and to let the wrongdoer win; or even to let the wrongdoer go on, and on, and on in their wrongdoing.
Or forgiveness may be a game we play by making excuses for the wrong doing and this implies that the wrong doing was not really wrong: not really. But that’s not true forgiveness. Sometimes there is no good excuse for our sins. What if God only forgave the excusable?
The truth is that is kills us to truly forgive. It killed God, in Christ, to forgive us. It cost him death on the cross. And, sometimes, it seems as though God has forgiven many people in vain. They do not respond to the kindness and compassion of God on the cross. God’s love is a love that truly forgives even when that forgiveness seems to be offered in vain.
I believe that the truth is that we cannot truly and fully know Christ without receiving a love and a forgiveness that are exactly like that: that extreme. Only such a forgiveness and love can make it possible for us to be made new; for the old mind and heart to die and to rise from the dead.
I believe that giving forgiveness comes from seeing the forgiveness of Jesus, and trusting the power of what we see in Jesus, and giving it to others by faith. When we forgive others we are giving them a love that trusts what Jesus intends to do with that love.
In Romans 13:14, Paul says that we must, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is another way of saying to “put on the new self created to be like God”.
We stand before others as if we were not ourselves but Christ forgiving the wrongdoer. That is exactly what we need each other for. We need others to stand before us as if they were Jesus forgiving us when we do not deserve it. It’s is what Jesus came to give to the whole world, and it is what we are called to give to the world in his name.

The Lord’s Supper is a kind of surrender in faith to that love. We receive what Jesus came to give the whole world. It is like food and drink because we need it to live. We need it just as much as the world does. In the strength that comes from this love we will be able to walk the Jesus walk and share it with the world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Highest Calling - Not a Job, But a New Creation

Preached on Sunday, November 2, 2014

Scripture reading: Ephesians 4:1-16

A six-year-old boy was whining because his three-year-old brother wanted him to play and wouldn’t leave him alone. Their mom was watching and listening, and she told the older boy to play with his brother. She said, “Always remember that God has put us here in this world for others.” The boy’s answer was, “Then what are the others here for?”
Everyone has a purpose. Everyone has a calling. Everyone has more than one calling.
At Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
These work on many levels. Sometimes we think these callings have to do with work or a job. We may be drawn to a certain kind of work so clearly that it is as if we were truly called. It is as if that work called us by name, or God called us to it because he knew it would be good for us and that we would be good to others through it. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word for calling.
God likes us to feel a calling to honest work. Paul wrote about this in a surprising way: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)  It’s almost funny. Imagine a congregation wringing it hands over the fact that one of them was a professional thief. What shall we do? Then Paul writes to this Christian thief, telling him that he needs to stop stealing and get a job. What a way to correct a thief! And there is the “we are here for others” idea again.
There is much more to a calling than work. There is a wise saying that goes like this: “Don’t live to work; work to live.” Work is good. God loves work because he loves life. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
God, himself, became a carpenter in Jesus. (Mark 6:3) Maybe God was a jack-of-all-trades carpenter in Jesus: houses, and plows, and tables, and chairs, and wagons. God is a jack-of-all-trades, because he makes everything.
The creation is God’s work. Our salvation is God’s work, on the cross, and in the resurrection. Our growth in the image of Jesus is God’s work by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our serving Jesus is God’s work. (Ephesians 2:10) All the infinite preparations that have been going on in every human being through the ages, and in every part of creation since the beginning, getting ready for the new creation of the new heavens and the new earth are God’s work.
The calling to work is more than being employed or running a business. There are callings to the arts. There are callings to serve: medicine, education, emergency response, law enforcement, the armed forces, public service. Making a home, nurturing a marriage and family, being a neighbor, and serving a community: these are all callings.
I hope no one feels left out. The longer I worked on this list, the longer the list grew. These are just a few of the callings that make God’s world go round. Paul calls callings gifts. God’s callings are gifts from God to the people and to the world that he loves and cares for.
There are callings in the church. Paul especially calls these gifts. He gives us the titles to five callings in Ephesians. He has longer lists in other places. There is no reason to suppose that he ever tried, or was able, to list them all.
I have to tell you something about Paul’s short list of five gifts. I have to say that it is a strange list, a strange combination because it leaves important gifts out. I also feel odd about the list because I am on that list at least a couple of times.
The two gifts on the list that apply to me are pastor and teacher. The people who will tell me to my face what they think of me have told me that I am a good teacher and a good pastor.
I take nothing for granted. Being a pastor can be very scary; but, sometimes, I like it. I like teaching, but even that can be scary.
The two callings (pastor and teacher) go so much together. Pastor means shepherd. The ultimate shepherd is God. We say: “The Lord is my shepherd.” A shepherd is a guide, and protector, and healer. Any teacher, wherever they teach, must feel some kind of great responsibility in this way, to be a shepherd.
And isn’t a family really just the same? I remember, when I was four, feeling a responsibility for my parents, as well as for my sisters (I being the oldest child).
In a small church, the elders, the worship leaders, the musicians, the people who lead classes and fellowship groups, the people who take care of the kitchen and the rest of the buildings and grounds, the people who are the contacts with the congregations and the groups that use our buildings, our treasurer, and the recorder and keeper of our official records (whom we call the clerk) are all pastors.
This means that they are all shepherds. They are all guides, and protectors, and healers. Even the so-called non-leaders of any group (whether in a family or a small church) are the same. They are all pastors, shepherds. They are all guides, protectors, and healers. Whenever we think seriously about our common calling it is only right to feel amazed, and honored, and excited, and scared: and maybe even burdened.
Think of the responsibility. Also think of the question: exactly how many jobs do you want?
This may be one reason why the church is scary. The church sounds like a job and it is so easy to be offered a job that you know you won’t enjoy.
Even in the world of work and employment it is so easy to make a job into nothing more than a job, and to take the blessing out of work. There are people who do this to themselves. There are people who do this to others. It’s a terrible thing when a job becomes a job; when the calling goes out of it.
A real calling comes from a voice. Something, or someone, is speaking to you. A calling is not an order but an invitation. It is meant to be encouragement. I was first called to the ministry when I was a shy and bullied kid of twelve, and the church was pretty strange to me.
It scared me and I didn’t want to do it, and I avoided it as long as I could do it without breaking my own heart. I have told you the childhood part of that story and, in the telling of it, it was all I could do to keep from crying: not because it made me sad, but because I still remember that it was a voice of love that scared me. It was the work of God’s love that called me and scared me. I knew the words of “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and the call came from him.
Sometimes, in our serving (even in the church), we have forgotten that voice. Or, maybe, that voice didn’t call us to that thing at all. It’s possible that even the church has work that it thinks must be a calling because it used to be a calling and now it is simply a space to be filled. It’s a job that has been made into nothing more that a mere job.
There is no grace in it. Or the grace has gone out of it.
Big churches may work in terms of programs and jobs. But a small church has to know how to how to hear a calling. It needs to know how to take off the mask of our costume. We think that being a church requires us to dress up in a costume that makes us look like an organization, or even a club.
Churches often go year after year dressed up as something they are not. It’s as if every day was Halloween, and we wear a costume that makes us scary in a way that is not holy.
In the church we need to look deeper than the surface to see what God is truly calling us to: what God wants us to do and to be. We need to hear the voice of God calling to us: “Stop doing that. Stop doing that. Now try this instead. Try this.”
There is a calling. There is a voice talking to you about what to do and what to be. It is the voice of God speaking in his Word; in his Son Jesus. The calling comes from God’s own love calling. The calling is God’s own purpose for you, and for his people, and for his mission.
Paul wrote about this calling as a mystery, in his complicated way of putting everything. Paul wrote: “And he made known to us the mystery of his will….to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)
When the first human beings sinned in the Garden of Eden if came from their desire to be in charge of themselves. The Bible describes it as the sin of trying to be “like God”. We have inherited this sin.
The very nature of humanity seems to carry a hereditary spiritual genetics. Our spiritual genetics makes us people who are all trying to be in charge, and we are not very pretty about it, even at our best.
Each one of us (no matter how sane we may be) has more than one set of voices speaking inside of us: conflicting motives. It is often very hard (even at our best) to be what those whom we love need us to be. It is much harder to be what those whom we do not love need us to be.
There is selfishness. There is pride. There is control. We see it in families, communities, nations, and in the whole world. We see the good and the bad of it working in every crisis. Sin has created a division of fear, anger, and conflict.
We all carry what Thomas Merton called “the seeds of destruction”. When God came to us in Jesus we see what the seeds of destruction can do. They can reject the love and forgiveness that God has for all people, and especially for those who are different, and for those whom we don’t accept as our neighbors.
The seeds of destruction came out of cover in order to hang Jesus on the cross. But Jesus took what sin did and used it against the sin of the whole world. Jesus defeated the seeds of destruction on the cross. He defeated the destructiveness carried in our human nature through his defeat of death itself in the resurrection.
By the humility and self abandonment that comes from faith in Christ the destructive seed is killed. The presence of Jesus in our lives, dealing with our sins and failures, is like having a contract with someone to spray the weeds in our yard with Roundup every week. His cross is the wholesome love and mercy that gives us life; and his cross is the poison that withers sin.
The calling of God is empowered by the cross, and the resurrection; and the Holy Spirit brings this power to us. The Spirit removes the conflict. The Spirit ties together, in peace and mercy, those who hear his call. This is the peace of a new creation. This is what will sprout under God’s care. It will flower in a new heaven and earth. But it begins with Jesus and us now.
Right now we are babies, but the power of God’s calling will create a tiny new creation in his people. If we nurture that new creation of God, we will grow up to live in that new world: but it begins in us now, together, through Christ.
It works if we nurture our calling in the way Paul tells us. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)
The other three gifts on Paul’s list of five are: apostles, prophets, and evangelists. I am not going to be a thorough scholar here, but a brief one. The word “apostle” (at its most basic) means someone who is sent: in this case sent by the Lord. A prophet is someone who speaks for the Lord. The word “evangelist” means a messenger bringing good news.
Some people will make it more complicated, but you all can carry all three combined into one. You can all be the people who are sent to speak and live God’s good news in the world that he loves. You are all sent to speak and live the good news for God.
This world does not see Christians or the church as the bringers of good news. But we are called to surprise them. Paul surprised people all the time, and his friends had him as their model. Paul did what had never been done before in a way that no one would ever have thought of.
The Lord showed him how. Paul was a prisoner of the Romans, but he never called himself that. He made it something new and surprising. He called himself a prisoner for the Lord, and he was.
Paul couldn’t do what he wanted to do, but he found a way to do what God wanted. He found that, as huge as his limitations were, he had perfect freedom to answer the call of Jesus to speak, and to do, and to be just as he was called. It was Paul’s experience that God empowered his people to be able to do this. “Make every effort,” Paul said.
There is a calling. There is a voice talking to you about what to do and what to be. It has nothing to do with you alone. You are not called alone, and the calling can only be answered when people serve each other, and the world, together.
It was never supposed to be the list of five special callings that got the work done. They are only examples of what every part is called to do and to be; each in their own way. The Holy Spirit is able to do this.
There’s a story about a man telling some friends about a group he had come across. It was actually a Bible study and it was surprisingly good. He said, “There was no leader. None of us knew anything, and we all taught each other.” It’s funny, but it can happen.
“From him (from Jesus) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16)
God’s word is not something that God inspires in order to tell us what other people ought to do for us. God’s word speaks to us. It tells us what to do.
A lot of churches want other people to come and to do things that will build them up. Other people will see through this, no matter how that church tries to disguise it. It will never work.
They are not called to build us up. If anything, we are called to build them up. We are called to be the seed of the new creation in miniature. We are called to be Jesus to the world, and to save others under the real saving work of Jesus. Others are not called to come and save us.
Joining and membership make people think of clubs and organizations, but the church is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We get confused because a body has members and we have transferred that idea to organizations. An eye, a foot, or a hand, are members of a body, but they do not hold office or fill a vacancy. So it is with our calling in Christ.
Let’s learn to look past our jobs and hear God’s calling to us. Let us live as his people because the voice of crucified and resurrected love has claimed us. He is speaking to us every day.

Let us be shepherds: guiding, protecting, and healing others. Then we will find ourselves becoming what the world is looking for: a people of purpose who are sent with God’s good news.