Monday, February 22, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Holy Team-Work

Preached on Sunday, February 21, 2016 

Scripture readings: Ephesians 4:1-16; Matthew 9:35-38

The one year that I worked in the wheat harvest, there were only four of us harvesting well over a thousand acres. The two brothers who owned the farm drove the two combines and one other guy and I drove the wheat trucks.
Harvest 2009, near Washtucna, WA
This is not a harvest that I worked on.
A modern wheat combine essentially does all the important jobs in the ancient process we call harvest, and it eliminates the other jobs. With a modern combine you don’t need all those ancient jobs and their workers: cutting the standing wheat, gathering it into sheaves and tying the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves to the threshing floor, threshing or trampling the wheat with oxen or donkeys to break the grain loose from the stems and husks, winnowing the wheat by tossing it into the air so that the wind can blow the chaff (the stems and the husks) away, and gathering the wheat into the bins, or elevators, or granaries, for storage for food and for next year’s seed.
In my harvest work, I drove the wheat truck up to the combine when it was full, and the combine emptied itself into my truck. Then I took the wheat to the wheat bins, or to the elevator. The combines did all the rest.
It’s all very modern, and the equipment (especially the combine) is expensive and complicated, but it makes a big harvest simple. It takes long hours; but not many workers and not a lot of work unless things break down (which, of course they do).
When I worked in the almond harvest, modern machinery made it possible for a crew of four people to do what would have taken a crew of fifty to do in the old days. I heard this from the foreman who had worked in those crews of fifty in the old days.
In the old days everyone worked hard but they worked as a crew, they worked as a team. There were other workers, as well: the farmer’s wife and daughters, and the other women, who did the indispensable work of feeding that crew.
Everyone was important and, truth be told, everyone probably did everything as needed. There were lots more than four jobs and no one complained, “That’s not my job.” If you said that you would probably be out of a job.
No matter how modern the church might seem to need to be, in order to make its way in this world, we can never work in God’s harvest without staying true to the ancient values of the Lord of the harvest.
For one thing, our message is ancient. There is a God and everything and everyone belongs to this God. But that isn’t enough. The ancient truth that the world needs to know tells us that that it is all loved: everyone in it and every part of it. And that is not enough. The ancient truth is that loving sacrifice saves; perfect love saves perfectly; absolute love saves absolutely; and infinite love saves infinitely. This is the message of the cross and the resurrection. The modern world needs the ancient truth and wisdom.
There is another ancient truth the modern world has forgotten. The world is saved from destruction every year because farmers somewhere harvest food in order to feed the world.
The work of the harvest is done by a crew. In the developed world many kinds of farming don’t need big crews but, even in those most developed areas of farming, there are so few actual farmers that the farmers form a crew among themselves. They often help each other out, in a pinch.
One of the ancient principles for saving the world is a crew, a family, a community that works as one and brings the harvest home. Paul called the work of the harvest the Body of Christ.
Paul said that the parts of this body were designed to build those on the outside into the inside. That’s part of the growth. Then the parts of the body were designed to build each other up, in love, so that every part of the body could grow up into Christ who is the head. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Paul gives us a list of harvest jobs. The list in Ephesians is a very short one. You might think, from this list, that there aren’t very many important jobs to do, but there are others lists: in Romans and in First Corinthians, to name just a couple, that are longer.
If you read each one of those lists, you will see that each list is thought out in a completely different way. In Corinthians, some of the jobs seem to be called gifts. In Romans, the jobs aren’t titles. They’re actions that serve others.
The lesson I take from these lists is that there is no single list. The lesson I learn is that there is no job where you can say, “That’s not my job.” Whatever comes up might have to be your job. But, then, notice that Paul is fully capable of calling a job a gift. When you think of it, it’s pretty wise to call any job a gift. It’s pretty wise to call the chance to do a job and the ability to do it a gift.
In the lines we read from Ephesians, Paul said that Jesus spanned heaven and earth and even the depths of that mystery called death, in order to make us into his captives and that he made us his captives in order to give us gifts. He didn’t make us captives to hold us down. He made us captives to give us our true value. (Ephesians 4:7-10)
We have been held captive by so many hard masters that hold us down: fear, anger, worry, failure, addiction, depression, jealousy, and even ambition. Jesus has made us captives in order to save us from being held captive. He has captured us for the purpose of giving us gifts. He makes us into his body. Jesus makes us a promise that the work of being a team in love and drawing others into the team of love will make us grow into him. We will have (each one of us) the gift of being perfectly ourselves and the gift of growing perfectly into Jesus. (Ephesians 4:15)
Paul gave us such a short list of jobs in Ephesians; or shall we call them gifts? There are five gifts in the list: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
The truth is that none of these jobs keeps you from having other jobs. God knows what life is like. None of you have only one job in life: man, son, brother, friend, husband, father, and worker; woman, daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, and worker. What about the jobs of repair, and cleaning, and organizing, and gardening, and making a home or building that home?
What about musician, singer, poet, artist, aviator, inventor, designer, listener, and spectator? You know that some people are just crying out for an audience. I think that, in some marriages, one spouse is the entertainer and the other is the audience. These are all very important jobs; or are they gifts?
Paul’s list of jobs, or gifts, sounds official and formal but it isn’t. The gifts are just what you are given to do.
Apostle means someone sent on a mission. God has sent me to you; God help you! The truth is that you are all sent. You are all apostles.
A prophet speaks for God. You have all had to speak for God, or you will. Sometimes there will be no one else on the scene to do it. You are the answer to the promise of the Bible. Long ago, Moses prayed, “I wish all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” (Numbers 11:29) Jesus died and rose from the dead to give us a life empowered by the Holy Spirit. You are the prophets Moses prayed for.
Evangelist means the bringer of God’s good news. Surely (sometime or other) each one of you have had the gift of bringing good news from God. Maybe you didn’t share the four spiritual laws, but you brought God’s goodness and help to someone who needed it.
Long ago, in the 1850’s, in the festering battlefields of the Crimean War between Britain and Russia, Florence Nightingale, the inventor of scientific nursing, was caring for a wounded soldier. He was so moved by her care that he said, “You are Christ to me.” She was Jesus, as we are all called to be. She was the gospel.
This is a mystery. You are the living evidence that Jesus can save lives, and souls, and hearts, and minds. You are the evidence that Jesus makes a new life possible; that change, and love, and hope are possible. You are the best evangelists.
Pastor means shepherd. A shepherd is a guide, a nurturer, a feeder, a protector. Spouses have to be pastors to each other. Parents have to be pastors to their children. Friends have to be pastors. Living in the middle of this world and the people around you requires you to be a pastor, a shepherd. It’s not easy. It’s not always appreciated.
Teacher means educator and I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means to bring up or to train someone.
I was about seven when my dad taught me how to use a hammer. He had a two by four and a bunch of nails. He didn’t just tell me the facts. He hammered a nail to show me how. Then he watched me hammer a nail and gave me plenty of advice about what I should be doing. Then he left me with the board and nails. He left me on my own to do the rest of the nails. I often think he left too soon.
A friend of mine who was also an elder in a congregation that I served sized up what I did as a preacher who taught. He said, “You don’t teach us what to think; you teach us how to think.” I hope he was right.
When I started going back to church as an eighteen-year-old, the youth group teacher taught that way. He used questions to teach us how to think and how to do the work of understanding what the Bible really says, not what it’s supposed to say.
What many people don’t notice about Paul’s short list of gifts in Ephesians is that the five gifts share one common purpose. The purpose is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:12) The gifts of Christ to the list of five are the gifts of service. Sent people, people who speak for God, people who bring the good news of Jesus, people who guide, and people who teach are all people who serve.
God’s purpose is everyone to serve each other with the gifts of the five. The people of the five gifts serve so that everyone will learn how to serve: how to be sent, how to speak for God, and all the rest. Only when everyone serves will everyone grow.
When we can share that with other people, they will want it. Then they will understand the ancient wisdom in our modern times because we have understood it ourselves. We will never fully understand the cross and the resurrection of Jesus until we understand the body of Jesus (of which we are all a part). We will not fully understand the good news of the gospel until we understand what Jesus intends us to be as his body, or how he intends his body to work.
If Paul had been a modern farmer, he might have pulled out the image of the church as a giant combine filling heaven and earth with the great harvest.
I’m going to pull out another modern image with the harvest combine. Understand that I am reaching for it and jumping to conclusions, but not really. Jesus pointed at the people with compassion and he told his disciples that they couldn’t handle the harvest without prayer. I say this because he said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest.” (Matthew 9:38)
Ephesians contains wonderful prayers in which Paul asked God for his brothers and sisters to know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead….” (Ephesians 1:19-20)
There has to be a harvest. And we can never be the body of Christ in the harvest unless we are powered by prayer and by the resurrection.
Paul’s prayer intended to connect his friends with the power of the resurrection. We must pray for that same power. The power is for us to be the harvest, and to be harvesters, and to pray for more harvesters.
As Jesus says, we have to pray for the work, and for the workers. We have to pray for the crew and not just for the members of the crew but for the work we have to do together.
Paul prayed for the work and the strength of his brothers and sisters. He prayed for their inspiration, and their guidance and direction. We have to pray not only for each other but for power, and guidance, and direction in the work we are called to do together.
Last of all, we need to understand the harvest. We are not harvesting wheat. Wheat is food. Wheat is money. Wheat is prosperity and self confidence for those who do the harvest. The harvest doesn't give the wheat prosperity and confidence. Wheat is for consumption.
People are the image of God and God is not a consumer. He does not consume those who come to him. God is love. The purpose of the harvest is to bring people into love. Jesus called us to the harvest because he had compassion on the world, and that compassion led Jesus to die for the world and to rescue it for love.
If we work the harvest because of what we will get out of it or what the church will get out of it, the people outside these walls will sense this. When they stray inside these walls they will know it for sure.
If they see that we are harvesting for our success they will refuse to be harvested. The truth is that we have to drop the idea of harvest at some point.
It will never do to think, or talk, or work on any kind of harvest. What Jesus thought about was love. We have to stop trying to harvest and we have to begin to love people enough.

We need to pray to love people enough, and we need to pray to know what form our love must take before other people trust and believe in our love. Then they will learn to trust and believe the God of love whom we all meet in Jesus.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lent - Our Eyes and Jesus' Eyes

Preached for the Lenten Service on Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Scripture readings: Isaiah 42:5-9; Acts 9:1-19
Paul was full of anger at his own people when they turned to Jesus. He was mad at Jesus too. Jesus had tried to reach him and Paul had tried with all his heart to not be reached. Paul had tried with all his heart to not see Jesus.
In later years Paul recalled his change of heart, and he remembered that one of the things Jesus had told him, in this vision of light and glory was, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14)
Apparently a young ox in training, pulling a plow or wagon, would try to kick its way free from the burden and from the plowman or driver behind it. When training a young ox, a wagon would have spikes put on the front to keep it from kicking. A plowman would carry a staff with a spike to do the same thing. Paul must have been kicking at Jesus for some time. But it was hard work.
Paul was afraid and angry at the thought of Jesus leading his people astray. Jesus claimed that God’s kingdom was based on the forgiveness of sins and even the forgiveness of enemies. Jesus claimed that God’s kingdom was based on the surrender of one’s own claims and one’s own advantages.
This seemed dangerous to Paul and his friends. This seemed like a huge weakness, if God’s people were going to survive in such a world as this.
For Paul, the kingdom had to be built on the laws that held God’s people to God. The kingdom had to be built on ridding the world of God’s enemies and the enemies of God’s people. Jesus took none of this seriously, and now it was claimed that his execution was for the sins of the world, and that Jesus had risen from the dead to rule a kingdom of forgiveness, and mercy, and grace.
This thought angered and frightened Paul and his friends. But the greatest anger and fear came from something that haunted Paul’s thoughts. It seems that Jesus had his eyes on Paul and Jesus was reaching out to him through the blindness of his anger and fear. Paul worked hard to kick against this thought, until he saw Jesus.
Once Paul had seen Jesus, the only choice that was left top him was the choice between blindness and Jesus. In some strange way Jesus decided to teach Paul (and us, through Paul) about true blindness and true seeing.
This world is angry and afraid, and (often) so am I. Anger and fear make us blind to a God of love and purpose who is not shaped by our angers and fears.
We want a God who respects our angers and our fears but there is a God who will not do this. There is a God who will not grant us a right to our angers and fears. Jesus is where we meet this God. It is strange that we seem to love our own blindness more than a God who would set us free from all that.
Have you ever tried to make an angry child laugh? When I was a child, my parents would try to make me laugh when I was angry or crying, and I simply hated that. It made me madder still.
Grown-ups are just the same, only they won’t admit it. We would rather be blind and mad than seeing and gracious. And so we miss a lot. We hold onto our blindness and we miss seeing anything that is real to God.
The whole grown-up world has been like this since the beginning, and horrible things have come of it. There is nothing grand, or majestic, or heroic behind the tragedies of this world. It is nothing more than the sad and pitiful preference to be blind that is the cause of it all.
It is a tragedy to miss seeing anything.
When I was ten years old I got glasses for the first time, and realized that I had seen trees, but not the leaves on them. I had seen grass, but not the blades of them.
When I was ten I could see trees but not the leaves unless I held them in my hand. I could see the grass, if I was sitting on it, but not the waves of grass blowing on a hill. I could see the sun and the moon in a fuzzy way, but I couldn’t see the stars.
Was I missing anything important? Was I missing anything you wouldn’t want to miss? If I told you what I could see, and that it was OK with me, and don’t make me wear glasses, would you have believed me, and left me alone, and not told my parents that something needed to be done? Did I know enough because I thought that I knew what I could see, and I was content with that?
As a 10-year-old, putting on my first pair of eyeglasses, I wept for the loss of what I had not been able to see, and I wept for the joy of seeing what I had never seen before.
As an adult, have I really grown up because I don’t know how to cry for what I still don’t see? Do you know how to cry for what you don’t see? Do your friends know how to cry for what they don’t see?
It is a tragedy not to see what God would give us: Jesus, the life and the cross and the resurrection that change everything, a love bigger than ourselves, a new self, a rescue from exile. It is a tragedy to not see what such a new life would make us care about: the depth of need of those around us, the world of need to which we could give our tiny gifts, or our whole life and love as small as those seem in comparison.
In Jesus we receive a new life with new eyes that see the world as he does. But, on the other hand, it is easy to see why people prefer to be blind. If you don’t have the eyes of Jesus, you don’t have to see your enemies with the love of Jesus. If you don’t have the eyes of Jesus, then you don’t have to see a world in which God offers himself in sacrifice and calls you to do the same.
The truth is that you either see this or you don’t. You can’t choose to be a near-sighted ten-year-old. You have to either see or else you have to live blind in this world that God has made to be seen; in this world that God alone rules. The only eyes that will truly see anything are the eyes of Jesus: the eyes that saw Paul, the eyes that see you and me, in a world of anger and fear.

Paul let himself be given the eyes of Jesus, and so he became able to see what Jesus sees. Jesus offers those same eyes to you and me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Roads and Doors

Preached on Sunday, February 14, 2016

Scripture readings: Colossians 4:2-6; Acts 16:6-10

Along Lower Crab Creek, Near Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
January 2016
The following radio conversation was overheard between the US Navy and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.
It was foggy: visibility zero.
The American captain radioed the Canadians: “Please divert your course fifteen degrees to the north to avoid a collision.”
The Canadians answered: “Please divert your course fifteen degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”
The Americans responded: “This is a US Navy ship. I say, again, divert your course.”
The Canadians answered: “No, I say again, YOU divert YOUR course.”
The Canadians answered back: “We are a lighthouse. It’s your call.”
Sometimes what we call the church has been compared to a ship. Actually it has been compared to an ark, like in the story of Noah and the ark. There are jokes about that.
In another way God’s people are not a single boat, but a fleet on a mission. Like any modern fleet we sail in a cloud of communications: with headquarters, with each other, with other ships at sea, with lighthouses and with other navigational networks.
For us, who gather here, this is our base. This is our home harbor. We serve as a fleet together. There are other fleets a lot like us, for their size and for the age of their commissioned ships.
Other fleets might be bigger. They might also have a lot of baby ships. Maybe we should call them training ships. I wish we had some of those, but we don’t right now. We could be given an assignment in which we have to take on a bunch of those training ships. Right now we are on a mission in which we train each other. We are training to communicate with other ships at sea, and we are authorized by headquarters to commission those independent ships into new ships of the fleet.
Of course you can already tell that I have no idea what I’m talking about. It just seemed to me that Paul, and his missionary team, and his churches, were all moving in this cloud of communication with headquarters, and with each other, and with a sea that was crowded with other ships (I mean other people).
There was a connection (for them as it is with us) between communication and navigation. For Paul, in the story we read today from the Book of Acts, conditions seemed to encourage them to chart a course in a particular direction, and each time they settled on their new destination or a mission, headquarters communicated with them (in the form of the Holy Spirit) not to go that way and not to do that thing.
Paul was smart. He was full of faithful determination and experience. Paul loved the Lord, and he loved a new mission, and he especially loved the mission to grow the fleet.
We don’t know how the communication took place. We don’t know whether headquarters communicated with Paul and his friends through circumstances, like really hot resistance that kept them from going where they wanted, or whether communication came in the form of some low-frequency inner-voice, or a deep conviction that formed within them, when they prayed. We don’t know.
Don’t you imagine that they must have felt very confused and frustrated? They may also have felt very defeated and demoralized.
Somehow, every step of their way, the Lord made all their best options impossible. Whenever they plotted the next best course, the Spirit said “no”. It was when they came to the coastal city of Troas that they literally came to the end of the road.
Their mission had taken them on the road that stopped at the shoreline. Then the Lord told them that, when you come to the end of the road, you might just take a boat. Sister Maria, in “The Sound of Music” says, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”
Paul was relentless, and brilliant, and creative. Still he missed the point of those closed doors and the end of the road. Then God spoke, and Paul refused to learn from all his past frustrations and all his past defeats. God spoke to Paul, and Paul listened. Then Paul spoke with his team. So they went off-road. They dropped all their most carefully considered options and they took God’s way instead.
Not everyone does this. I remember, long ago, a poster with a kitten on it. The logo on the poster said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.”
That’s what the kitten was doing. It was very cute, of course. The problem is that, sometimes, deciding to hang on is the last decision that some people ever make.
Holding on can work for a while, until headquarters sends you the next message. I like the Disney cartoon series “Phineas and Ferb”. The main characters are very adventurous kids. For Phineas and Ferb, the next likely message will not say “hold on”. It will probably say, “Jump.”
I often think that something will be possible if I jump. You might not believe me, but I have done this before.
This is what we must pray about. All Christians and all congregations must pray like this.
They usually don’t, because they don’t have to. They have alternatives to jumping. Most of the time, they can follow the trends and the best advice. They can listen to the experts. They can use their best judgment and their common sense. They can read the latest how-to book. But that is, somehow, not quite the same as being in communication with the Holy Spirit.
I don’t mean for us to not use our heads and to not pick other people’s brains. I love doing that. Brains are good. God made our brains; and even other people’s brains as well. Yay brains! Go brains!
You might say that, in our story in Acts, God spoke to Paul by using all of Paul’s exhaustive planning, and all of his constant course-changing, as a way of giving him a completely different plan: an unexpected plan, an unplanned plan. Paul’s frustrated planning made him receptive to God’s real plan. This can happen to us and it would be a wonderful thing.
Paul saw our navigation, as followers of Jesus and as a family of followers, as a combination of brains and Spirit. He said, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” (Colossians 4:5) There’s the brain, but remember it has to be a Spirit-filled brain.
Remember that the good news of the gospel is that God followed an unconventional, completely unexpected plan. God became a baby, and a dusty, calloused carpenter, and a convict on a cross, and an escapee from an empty tomb. The good news of the love of God (as we meet God in Jesus) is a pure and earth-shaking miracle. It is a superhuman gift that we call grace. It is a superhuman power that makes us become the humble humans that God created us to be.
We call this salvation, but it is a miracle. It is also called grace, and it has got to fill us up.
Paul told us to us to talk like people filled up with a miracle. He said, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)
Every encounter with everyone around us is a kind of miracle. It’s a kind of grace. It’s filled with a kind of wonder that makes us wiser than this world.  It really is good news and we should be able to tell it with unadulterated happiness.
It should be “tasty” to any sane person. I think that is why Paul said that it should be “seasoned with salt”. What we share with others should come out tasty for us and for them.
Paul said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, and pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:2-3)
The mystery is the wonderful surprising story. The mystery is this miraculous grace that fills us up, and which we could never have imagined without actually knowing Jesus. It’s that kind of mystery.
There you see the miraculous open door. Why would anyone (especially the people who were holding Paul prisoner; and especially the officials who were handling his case) listen to a prisoner’s source of joy? There was no reasonable course for Paul to follow. All he hoped for was simply a suddenly open door.
Paul said to pray and be watchful. In prayer we have dealings beyond this world and yet, in these dealings, we are supposed to be able to watch for how to live as Christians in this world. We watch for opportunities that come from God. And we are open to those opportunities because we are thankful.
Paul was thankful in chains. Paul was thankful at the end of his road, and at the end of his rope. Paul just went off-road. Paul jumped.
I had a hard prayer exercise this past week. My prayer journal instructed me to spend an hour asking God what to do next. I was instructed to ask God what to do next, that morning, at every step of the way. Should I brush my teeth next, or should I shave?
Well I always do things in the same order every morning. How could I do that by asking?
It was hard. I never thought it would be so hard. But I realized that I need to live more by asking, and not so much by habit, and not so much by planning custom, and not even by reason. I tried for more than an hour I tried all day, and the next day, but it was hard.
The people who designed that prayer journal were smart. We must learn to live by asking. I can see that this is what we all must learn to pray and to do: otherwise we will miss the open door. We will not receive the signal. This is what the church needs. God help us.
The Lord’s Supper has something to teach us about this. It requires our watchfulness. It requires us to see the strange opportunity. This is a funny meal that brings us into fellowship with all the fullness of God in a little bite of bread and in a small sip from a cup.
There’s a wonderful passage in a church document called “The Scot’s Confession” It was written by the Church of Scotland, during the reformation, in the year 1560. It says this, in its old and fancy language, about our fellowship with Jesus in this meal. “…This union…which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus in the right use of the sacraments is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, once broken and shed for us but now in heaven, and appearing for us in the presence of his Father.” (“The Scot’s Confession, Chapter 21)
In a sense, in this meal, we have our fellowship with Jesus not merely by him coming down to us here. It is just as much by our meeting him, in the Spirit, in heaven, and having fellowship in heaven with everything that Jesus is, and possesses, and promises, and does.
This is what the Church has in it. This is what we have in us. In all our planning there is a course charted for us with Christ in heaven. This is how we navigate as a church and as individual Christians every day.
Our life, as Christians, comes to us by a miracle that we never could have planned. This is what we have that enables us to watch, and see, and know what to say to each other, and to our families, and to our neighbors, and to our communities.

This is how we, as a church, can know what to do and to say to reach others for Jesus, and bring them into the family of faith and life. This is how we find what to do at the end of our road or at the end of our rope. This is how we find that open door.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Transformation

Preached on Sunday, February 7, 2016

Scripture readings: Ephesians 2:11-22; Luke 15:11-32

Walking near Lower Crab Creek, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2016
Some women were talking about different experiences they had as mothers. One of them confessed that she had taken some classes in child development in college and when she had gotten married she had three favorite models of child-raising that she wanted to try. In the end, she said that she had three children and no more theories.
The Pharisees were a strict sort of teachers and they found fault with the kind of teacher Jesus was. They thought Jesus was rewarding the wrong sort of behavior. It was as if they had a different theory of child-raising than Jesus had. So Jesus told a story about a father who raised two sons.
The story is called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”. “Prodigal” means wasteful and reckless. The younger son treated his inheritance that way, but the bigger point is that he treated his father the same way. If we thought about it, we would see that the story is really about both sons and, even more, the story is about the father.
The story should be called “The Prodigal Father”. In Jesus’ mind the story is about his own prodigal father and about himself as the most famous prodigal son of them all.
In the story as Jesus told it. The neighbors in the village would have considered the father the original prodigal. The father was the one responsible for all the trouble.
When the younger son asked for his share of the inheritance it was an insult within that ancient Middle Eastern culture. It would be the same as if he said, “Father I wish you were dead.”
Any father with any sense of decency would have disowned that son on the spot. A decent father would have driven that son away. He would have kicked that son out of the family.
The Father had no sense of decency. He had no sense of honor. He had no sense of the importance of the family’s dignity. Clearly that crazy old man was waiting, every day, for his prodigal son to return. The father must have sat outside his front door for years. That’s why he was ready for him. He spotted his son coming up the valley from a long way off.
The villagers just laughed at the father sitting there day after day. If they had spotted the son, or seen him in their village, they would have mobbed him, and dragged him out, and pelted him with rocks and donkey dung. They didn’t want riff-raff like him living in their town.
The father ran, in part, to protect his younger boy from that mob-scene. He risked getting a pelting himself. Once they got home, he dressed his son up in some of his own best clothes and had the fattened calf killed to make a feast.
The fattened calf was a special item for a rich family living in that time and place. A calf was raised and fed and sheltered to stay tender into adulthood.
It would be like the famous Japanese Kobe cattle. No matter how big it was, it was always called the fattened calf. It was saved for a visit by some governor or other dignitary. A full-grown fattened calf could have been at the top of the menu for a feast of a hundred guests.
The father must have invited that whole hateful village, in order to obligate them to accept the prodigal. That would be just one more piece of evidence for how prodigal, and wasteful, and reckless the old man was.
A feast of barbequed roast beef was just too good to pass up. Most of those people hardly ever had a chance to eat beef. If they had meat it was chicken, or goat, or lamb. Beef was food for rich people. The villagers would go to the feast, and laugh behind the father’s back (behind the whole family’s backs) even though accepting the invitation solemnly obligated them to treat the son politely and not drive him away.
The prodigal father was so reckless and wasteful that he became a dishonor to his own family. The ancient world in the Middle East was honor-bound, as that part of the world still is (as dishonorable as that part of the world sometimes seems to us). People were honor bound to kill members of their own family who dishonored the family.
My old friend Dick Cochran and his wife Eloise (who has since passed away) served as missionaries in Iraq and Lebanon in the 1950’s. Dick would say that the oldest son would be honor-bound to kill his prodigal father for dishonoring the family by forgiving and honoring the prodigal son.
The father’s problem was his love. His love was wasteful and reckless. The Pharisees, who were so critical of Jesus, were forgetting that this was the same as the love of God.
There is a special Hebrew word that describes God’s love. The word is often translated in the King James Version as “loving-kindness”. In the Revised Standard Version it is often translated as “steadfast love”. There is a musical version of one of the places where this love appears in the Psalms. Psalm sixty-three verse three says, “Thy loving kindness is better than life.”
The people who think that they know God and the scriptures best often forget this special word. It describes the love that binds God to his people.
They forget that the key to this love is that it is, in fact, never deserved. It describes the love that binds a faithful God to a faithless people. It describes the love that binds a holy God to a sinful people. God’s love is wasteful and reckless and it is given to people who don’t deserve it. Maybe the people who think they know God best haven’t forgotten the true meaning of this love, but they have forgotten who they truly are in the sight of God.
They are God’s beloved children. This specifically means that they are beneficiaries of God’s love because God’s love is prodigal, wasteful, and reckless. They need to know that, if God’s love was not prodigal, and wasteful, and reckless they would not be loved at all.
We don’t know why the younger son was so desperate to get away from home. He might not have been so desperate to get away from his father. He might have been more desperate to get away from that older brother.
You know, this suddenly made me think that churches sometimes work the same way as that family worked. People may not leave the church because of God, but because of the brothers and sisters who act like the older brother of the story. I think that is one way to describe why my family stopped going to church.
If the church is like a family, the reason why the younger son came back to the family was because he was transformed by the memory of his father’s wasteful, reckless love. The memory of that love made him feel like the sinner he was. The prodigal’s sin was not against his brother’s awful goodness. The younger brother felt that his sin was against his father’s wasteful, reckless love.
The older translations tell us that, because of this memory, and because of the crisis that he was going through, the prodigal “came to himself”. He didn’t “come to his senses” as some more modern translations put it.
The prodigal came to himself. He finally met himself for the first time in his life. He remembered that there was this love and there was his failure to enter into that love. He finally saw himself. He was wasteful and reckless in his escape from a great love.
He came to himself and he saw what he was made for and where he belonged. He was his father’s son and so he came to himself. He found himself in the father’s love.
He was transformed. Transformation is the wonder and the miracle of being a Christian. How has the wastefulness and recklessness of God’s love transformed you?
We don’t know how the older brother’s part of the story ended. Did he kill his father to preserve the honor of the family? Or was the older son transformed at last?
The father had this older, serious, careful, son whom he was told was sulking outside the house and outside the feast. The father did with the older son the same thing he did with the younger.
He followed his heart. He went out to that son who was holding back and refusing to join the feast of reckless love. The father went out to him instead of waiting for him to come to his senses. The father knew that the oldest son was much too sensible to see the sense of the feast. The father wasted his own joy by going out in search of the sulking boy.
Do you know that if you are a serious, sensible, careful Christian you might be the older brother? Do you know how reckless and wasteful God really is and how much your life depends on this?
The Bible tells us that God was so wasteful and reckless with his love that he left his own fun. He left the feast of heaven. God went outside of all that for you and me. God went out of heaven to enter a very deadly, serious world.
That world had such a serious view of what God was supposed to be, that it couldn’t make anything out of him when he showed himself. The only thing this world could do was to kill God in defense of this world’s honor and independence. God came in Jesus and refused to take the world’s values seriously. God in the flesh (in Jesus) flaunted his loving kindness on all the wrong people.
The prodigal God, knowing what would happen, died for the sins of the world.
Look at this world! He died for the world that so much frightens us and angers us. He died for the world that makes us indignant. He died for the world that is indifferent to him. He died for the world that destroys the innocent.
More than we know, this is the same world we look at when we see our own reflection in the mirror. It’s a wonder to know that the prodigal God loves such a world as our world.
It’s the same world we see when we look out our windows every day. Every day we share our lives with people who live in such a world and they have no idea of what kind of love overhangs them and reaches out to them all the time. When we see such a love and allow it to come into us, we are transformed by it, and we have something to share with others.
God is so reckless with his infinite love that it has the momentum to transform everyone who has been struck by it. His prodigal love has the power to give to those who embrace it the transformation of dying to themselves and living a new and everlasting life.
If the older brother could have his blind eyes opened, and have his lost heart found, and find that his shriveled up love was bursting to life, then he would have been transformed. He would have hugged the prodigal father and the prodigal son. And he would have laughed a wonderful laugh. He would have forgotten his old self and he would have come to his true self. He needed his own story of transformation.
I am the oldest child and (believe me) I am much too serious for my own good. Someday I hope to laugh with all my heart at the sight of how silly all my seriousness has been.
I have never rebelled in my life. My only rebellion was to go to church, and stick with the love of Jesus as the Bible tells me so, and go into the ministry. That’s my rebellion. In my own way, this was the most wasteful and reckless thing I could do for the love of Jesus and our Father.
Somehow this was my transformation. And I see everything differently because of it. But I am still much too serious for my own good.
God is wasteful and reckless with his love. If we don’t treat others with the same scandalous love, then we are not living out the transforming power of God. If we don’t love the people outside these walls wastefully and recklessly we cannot offer transformation to anyone.
There is nothing more exciting than to be transformed by being recklessly and wastefully loved. Most of the people we know have never found such a love as this. That is the simple truth.
We represent what our neighbors and the world around us can never imagine. Everyone hungers for this love without knowing it. But we might have forgotten what we have. Or we might not have found God’s transformation and received it for our own.
The older brother in the story may never have become the prodigal son that he was born to be. We don’t know, but we can see that he needed this more than anything else that he valued in his peculiar brand of awful goodness.

How can anyone around here find the prodigal God, unless we become prodigals too?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Keeping It Real

Preached on Sunday, January 31, 2016
Scripture readings: Mark 12:28-34; Romans 12:1-21
Walking Along Lower Crab Creek: Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2016
One of my favorite authors is G. K. Chesterton. He wrote this about the love that God requires. He said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
God came down to earth to be one of us and to die for us to make us “new creations.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The truth is that we do a better job of being that new creation with some people than with others. By pairing up two separate commandments and saying that they are like each other, Jesus told us that it was just as important to love others as it is to love God.
Jesus asks even more of us than that, if we are committed to loving God. In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
This means that God loves his enemies, and so God must love our enemies too. God wants our love to be just as real as his love.
I had a Christian friend in college who told me that he never said “God bless you” to anyone he didn’t know was a Christian, because he was afraid to ask God to bless anyone before he saved them. My friend knew the Bible really well, but he didn’t seem to know that Jesus said that God already was busy blessing those who didn’t believe in him.
Paul said the same thing, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14) We are command to bless everyone, even our enemies.
You know that blessing is more than a matter of words. God’s blessing is always more than words; more than talk. How could we dare to follow him, otherwise? Our own love and our own blessing of others are required to be more than words if we want them to be as real as God’s blessing and God’s love.
I have had Christians be very nice to me in words. I thought they meant it, but I found out by experience, later, that they didn’t mean it at all.
The Bible says, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Love is a relationship. God is a relationship because God is one, and God is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so, in the matter of love, God’s love (in himself) is multi-focused, or multi-layered. Jesus, with his take on the Ten Commandments, wants our love for him (our love for God) to be as real as his. To make it real (as real as his) Jesus insists on our love being multi-focused, and multi-layered.
God made his loving actions so physical and so extreme that he died on the cross to make you a child of his love and this love of his was for the whole world. It’s impossible for God to say “I love you and I bless you” without making that love and that blessing as radical and as real as it can be.
Where would we be in a world where God didn’t love enemies? Paul tells us that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” And Paul goes on to say, “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be save by his life.” (Romans 5:8 & 10)
When you read the twelfth chapter of Romans, you might notice three focuses of love. There are three layers of love that are required for the Christian life. It’s almost like a Trinity of love.
First there is the priority of love for God which we must make into more than words. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God: this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Every outward action of ours is meant to be part of our worship of God.
Second, Paul said, “So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 5:5) So our second priority of love means to belong to our brothers and sisters in Christ, in more than words. We love them with our actions.
At the point of saying, “Bless those who persecute you,” ( Romans 12:14) Paul pointed us to those who are on the outside of the Church. He told us to love them with more than words. We love them with our actions.
By doing this Paul wanted us to see that those who seem to be outside the church are not outside of us. They are not outside our concern. They are not outside our love: the love that loves with more than words. Our love for those outside is a priority in the love that God requires.
Paul meant that we can’t let our neighbors rejoice alone. We can’t let them grieve alone. (Romans 12:15) Paul challenged us to do what everyone can see is right. “Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:17)
Scott and Elmarie Parker are missionaries whom we support directly. They serve in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Scott wrote recently about a particular Presbyterian Church in southwest Syria. He didn’t say the name of the town where this church serves, for obvious reason.
Scott wrote about an Arabic word “hadara”, which sort of means “good culture” in the sense of being a positive influence on the community. That one congregation helps Muslim widows whose husbands have been killed by ISIS and who are neglected by their own families.
Many Muslim neighbors of this congregation are afraid that the Christians will leave. One lady told the pastor’s wife, “You people cannot leave. You are hadara. You are good culture: you are the positive, the life, the hopefulness that keeps our community going.”
Our churches in the Middle East shelter people when they need shelter. They often run their own schools for children (no matter what their faith, and in their schools they respect the faith of all the children and their families). There is a Muslim father who said this: “The Islamic schools are becoming more and more fundamentalist and teaching our children violence and hate. At the Christian school, they are learning a way of love and peace. We will send our children there.” (Scott Parker, “Good Culture: Hadara in the Middle East”; The Presbyterian Outlook; Feb. 1, 2016, p. 12ff) 
We are called to love like that. It is never enough to love God. We must first love each other so that we can be a school for real love and real peace even for those who seem to be outside.
The people around us need to know that we are a family that consistently, year after year, loves each other, and lives in together in a peace that is more than words. This is how they will respect us and be interested in us. When we love like this we will know how to help our neighbors with a power that comes from a love that is real in every way.
In the matter of words, I honestly try to love other people with my words. I especially try to love you with my words.
This is not easy for me, because there was a long tradition, in my family, in which Evans men were raised to be wise-guys. We were raised to say just about anything that came into our heads. Both my cousin Don (who’s a better Christian than I am) and I have been trying to break our part in the cycle of wise cracking for years.
Sometimes I have to apologize for what I say to you. I try to do that from the depth of my heart. But you don’t see me at my worst.
God sees me at my worst. I have to apologize to God, every day, for what I say to him. The truth is that I am probably more real with God than I am with you. But God knows what I was raised to be.
Part of how we practice getting real with God, and with others, is to pray what comes naturally and listen to ourselves while we do it. Prayer is never talking to yourself, but any conversation requires that you be able to hear yourself for what you are. Your love and your life with God can never be real without this.
In this church’s current adult class we have a prayer journal in the material. We are learning to pray in a way that is designed to renew us and renew our church. That is probably the most important thing we are learning. And I hope we can learn to talk about our prayer life together.
I hope we are learning to listen to God. I hope we are also learning to listen to the character of our own heart speaking, when we speak to God. We have to know who we really are in order to be real with ourselves. That makes repentance and a new creation possible. Then we learn to be humbly, repentantly real with God.
For the church to be the real body of Christ we, first of all, have to avoid being like the Evans men at all costs. Then we have to learn to be humbly and repentantly real together.
That’s part of why we confess our sins together. It’s not for pretend humility and pretend repentance. It’s for practicing being who we truly are: the sinners saved by the love of God, all in the same boat together.
Church is not a place but a people: especially a people who know about the living sacrifice of self and about the healing of our souls and our sins. We learn new ideas about our relationships within our marriages and families, about how to be well functioning new creations. Together, we get new ideas for how to help each other in our need and how to compassionately experience and care for the needs of others.
Churches don’t always do this and the result is destructive and hard to heal.
I have seen churches turn people’s lives and families’ lives completely around. These were spiritual turnarounds, of course, but the turnarounds were so real that they went deep in every way.
The whole church loved these people and these families. The whole church took care of them, and didn’t judge them. I’ve seen churches do this work for years and bear fruit.
I know you have tried this. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But sometimes it does work.
This kind of work is only a small part of what we want to be famous for. We want to be trusted for finding ways of taking care of others, and of our communities, and of the world.
How can you make your neighbors gladder than ever when they see you coming? If you ever thought that our community and our surrounding area lacked something, what would that be? Is there something basic that can show how our love is for real?
Don’t just think about this: pray about this.
First of all we need to know the power that makes love real. This power is the radical, sacrificial love of God in Jesus. This power comes when we live together, for real, on the foundation of prayer.
The real prayer is not only the prayer that changes things, but the prayer that changes us, and changes our church. It’s the prayer that makes each one of us to look like Jesus and to love like Jesus. It’s the prayer that makes our church look like Jesus and love like Jesus.

Let us love our neighbors, whether they are in or out of the church. Let us learn how to belong to everyone, just as we have learned how to belong to each other. Scripture says it: offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. That will make us real.