Monday, May 30, 2016

Remembering the Faithful

Preached on the Sunday before Memorial Day, May 29, 2016

Scripture readings: Psalm 77; Hebrews 11:1-3; 11:32-12:3

 Memorial Day is a day for remembering. That is what the word “memorial” means. We remember those who have died; not to hallow their dying (though death, itself, is holy ground). We remember those who have died in order to hallow their living.
Photos at White Bluffs, Hanford Reach National Monument
May 2016
It is easiest to hallow lives when those lives are in some way shaped by faith. Faith works on many levels. We were created for a life of faith and for a world where faith could be expressed in every kind of relationship.
The thing we call sin came from the decision to not live by faith. Our first parents were given a life in paradise by a loving God, and they chose to not have faith. They chose a life where they would not trust the most trustworthy source of love that they knew.
The people who live faithfully by faith, and who trust in something besides themselves show us what this world has lost. The root of all faith is faith in God, but we can show the power of faith in all our relationships and all our great loves: the love of God, the love of one dear person, the love of family and home, the love of neighbors and enemies, the love of country.
The people who have some kind of faith live in a way that makes hope real. They live in a world where reality seems dark, and yet they decide to live in such a way as if they see better things than this world shows. They see better things than other people see.
The heritage of people of faith is about lives not deaths, because their deaths are not the only point. The point is how they lived through to the end. Whether we are talking about life in a home, or a school, or a community; or whether we are talking about life in a hospital room, or a nursing home, or a battle field; there is a way to live all the way through, seeing what so many others don’t see.
The word of God teaches us about the heritage of the imperfection of the people of faith; so that we can see how they learned from grace, and were shaped by grace.
The word of God teaches us about the heritage of the variety of people of faith. It tells us of people going forth to live, or going forth to fight. It tells us that the call to join the life, or the fight, is the lot of all different kinds of people: husbands and wives, parents and children.
The heritage of the people of faith is the result of their choices: choices about family, choices about how we are called to serve and worship God, choices about how we are called to serve our country, choices of whether to blend in or stand out, choices of whether to fight or surrender, choices about where to stay or where to go.
The New International Version says: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The King James Versions says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
I like the older translation at this point. I think that older translators and earlier scholars knew more about the substance of faith, and were not blinded by our modern love of feelings.
Substance is about reality. Reality is real, whether we feel sure and certain about it or not.
Faith takes hold of a substantial reality that it cannot see. Then faith gives substance and reality to those invisible things. Faith builds our will, and our actions, and our way of life. Faith makes what we believe real substantial in our own lives, and faith makes what we believe real for the purpose of serving and blessing other people.
Faith is not about feelings of certainty. If faith is assurance, that’s because the assurance comes from outside of you. Faith comes from something real and substantial reaching into you and changing what you know, and how you live.
Faith is like the pipe that the old timers drove into the hillside behind their house, on their homestead, where a spring seeped out. That’s why they built their house there in the first place. The pipe in the hill connected to the spring, and (if that was a good spring) the water came out as if you had turned on a faucet and left it running forever.
That is the connection between faith and the reality of the life of God that comes to you through Jesus. The pipe let the reality come through. The pipe of faith lets the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (hidden in the hill) come through.
Faith is about a living connection with things that are real, whether you see them, or feel them, or not. This is how the best life goes on. This is how ordinary, imperfect people become our heroes. This is how these heroes change our lives.
Here again, my Baci (my Polish grandma) is an example. Baci was always poor, and she didn’t have very many nice things, and she lived in a tiny apartment. Before I moved with my family to a small town in Northern California, we lived close to most of our relatives and, during the Christmas season, we always had several Christmases. One of the Christmases, every year, was always at Baci’s.
There was no fancy table for our Christmas feast. We all ate on TV trays, and the little kids ate on the floor, and there were hardly any Christmas decorations. But Christmas was just as real at my Baci’s as it was at any of the other Christmas celebrations we were part of.
Christmas, at Baci’s, was “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” My Baci will always be one of my heroes.
In families, and communities, and churches, and nations, the things that matter most are real even when people are struggling, or weary, or worried, or afraid. The things that make a family, or a community, or a church, or a nation continue to be real. They continue to be in force.
They just pass unseen, except for those who see with the eyes of faith and live accordingly. Those who live accordingly live by faith; and they do the things that are worth remembering. They are the heroes.
The mutual “substantiality” of faith and the things hoped for “realize” each other. They make each other real.
The most important part of our heritage is the story of the faithfulness of God; who continued to love a world that didn’t love him back, who died on the cross for a world that wouldn’t live by faith and trust in him. In Jesus we see that our God is a hero who does heroic things. The faithfulness of God makes him our hero.
The heritage of faith is also the story of a faithful memory: a selective memory; a “some-timers” memory.
This is what I mean. Are there terrible troubles, and hurts, and griefs to remember? Yes!
Are there gifts, and graces, and pleasures to remember? Yes, absolutely!
How do the bad things render the good things unreal? They don’t. So remember the gifts, and the grace, and the pleasure, and live accordingly.
Sometime or other you have smiled.  Sometime you have laughed. Sometime you have known that it was an easy thing to give thanks.
This is what the writer of the psalm meant, when he wrote, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” (Psalm 77:10) The “right hand” is the hand of the handshake, or the hand raised high in blessing. The psalmist remembered the times when God had shaken his hand, and when the most important things were easy remember, and when faith saw things the most clearly.
A heritage of faith speaks to how we live in this world as individuals, as a church, as a community, and as a nation. Faith renders its judgment on the continual crises and dangers of this world. Faith decides whether we are doomed or not.
The news, and our politicians, often surround us with a message of continual crisis. Faith creates life by not surrendering to crises, and angers, and messages of doom.
Some communities are famous for their fighting. My home town was like that. You would hear about a meeting of the city council where a citizen invited a council member to step outside for a fight.  You would hear about shouting at a meeting of the church elders. Our town was famous to me, in my young days, for how many good projects and ideas could be destroyed by the envy and rivalry of others. My home town had a lot of churches, and a lot of Christians, but not so many signs or examples of faith.
There is a humble form of faith that comes from asking yourself what you would do in a “worst case scenario”. What is the worst thing that could happen? Then what would you do?
You can always do something. God designed the world so you can always do something: even if it is only to wait, and to watch, and to pray. But sometimes you can do much more.
In the little town where I served before I was called here, I was asked to fill a vacancy on the Park and Recreation District. I must have been on that thing for about ten years. I went on it because no one else wanted the job. I ended up being president for years. I have to confess that I never felt like I knew what I was doing. I made some big mistakes. I didn’t want to be doing it. I had no agenda. I had no plan. I didn’t want to take any side. I didn’t want to be against anyone. All I wanted to do was try to make good things happen, and to avoid making bad things happen. That’s all I wanted, and I still hope that was inspired by a desire that came from faith.
Then there is the faith that is shown when a person commits themselves to serving their country in the armed forces. Until my teenage years, the big war was World War II. When I was a kid playing war with my friends, World War II was the war we fought.
Every kid’s parents were affected by that war. Most of our dads were in the service during that war. It was the last truly unquestionable, noble war. Once we were in it, nobody doubted it. It was a war of faith, in its way.
That changed in the 1960’s. In 1966 the Vietnam War was getting fierce. I grew up in conservative places so, when “The Ballad of the Green Berets” hit the top of the music charts, in 1966, it was the favorite song of almost every boy in Live Oak. But even in Live Oak it was a questionable war. We had the sons of a college professor in our school, and we all knew that they were commie sympathizers.
The fact is they (the questioners) were on the winning side. Veterans came back from Vietnam and got heckled and spat at: never in Live Oak, but in other places. Heroes were not treated as heroes. Because of the draft, people who had not chosen to fight and lay their lives on the line did it anyway, at the bidding of their country, and they never got the respect they deserved.
My point in this: it takes faith to see the real value of the world. This world is a created and much died-for place; and it is full of created and died-for people. It takes faith to see that a country, such as ours, with such a great heritage, and with such a confused and conflicted present, means something far greater than it seems to be. Faith sees that those who serve their country are exercising a kind of faith that is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Their rightful place is in a cloud of witnesses.
The creation of our world has its roots in the invisible. That means it has its roots in God. And this world in which we live has been died for by Christ.
Even for those who don’t know Jesus, even for those who don’t believe in God, the people who live for others, and who give of themselves, and who even pay the ultimate price for their giving, are acting out a kind of faith in people, and in home, and in country that implies that all these things are far greater than they seem. A world that is created and died for means something, and these faithful givers and “sacrificers” have given of themselves for something far greater than they know.
 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
Our world has a heritage that is invisible to many people. Our world, and all of life in it, exists in the shadow of the cross and the God who hung there for the sins of the world. Our heritage is the story of a Jesus-formed memory. He is the beginner and finisher of our faith. Jesus (truly human and truly God) joins together our faith and God’s faithfulness.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

If the life of faith is like a race, then Jesus is the prize we set our heart on. Jesus will make the race worthwhile. And our race will be a memorial race. We will run it well by remembering the many, many people who have run faithfully before us.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Trinity - God's Fullness for Us, in Us, and through Us

Preached on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 6:4-5; 2 Corinthians 13:11-14

You’ve heard The Old Irish Blessing: “May the road rise to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Walking in the White Bluffs Area on the Columbia River
Southeast of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: May 2016
Some of my ancestors left Ireland around 1850 because life there was hard, and it was only getting harder. The British rule of Ireland was brutal and cruel, and there was no freedom. The rains did fall soft on the fields, but the crop was potatoes. There was a terrible blight that destroyed the potato harvests for years and created what was called The Great Famine; The Great Hunger.
The purpose of The Old Irish Blessing was the hope that life would not be so hard. It had a very different purpose from Paul’s blessing. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)
The purpose of Paul’s blessing was not the hope that life would not be so hard. The purpose was a reminder of the gift that he and his friends shared. It was a gift that made life possible when life was harder than words could say.
Paul’s blessing was not about circumstances. The blessing was about relationships. Most of all, the blessing was about one great relationship; or was it about three great relationships? The relationship was with the Lord Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit.
Altogether, this blessing was Paul’s experience with God, in all of God’s fullness. This experience turned into what we call, in theological language, “the doctrine of the Trinity”: that God is one God in three persons. I believe that doctrine with all my heart.
I also believe that the doctrine of the trinity is not enough. The doctrine is an explanation, and that is not enough. I believe that what we need is not an explanation, but an experience. The Bible describes the experience of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit without fully explaining it.
The Apostle John described Jesus as being “the Word” of God. John remembered Jesus telling him and his friends. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) Taken plainly this means that the Son and the Father share a common identity and a common nature.
At the start of his gospel, John said this about the Word that became known to us as Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
What John told us is not merely what he and his friends believed about Jesus and God. It was what they experienced about Jesus and God. John described this experience, but his description is not an explanation.
The doctrine (or the teaching) of God as Trinity came out of this experience, as Christians sought to understand this experience. In trying to understand and explain their experience, they sometimes bitterly disagreed with each other. These disagreements injured the unity of Christians. These disagreements divided Christians, and some of these divisions have never been healed.
Remember that Paul’s blessing involves the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. This fellowship with the Spirit of God is an experience that all Christians are supposed to share and have in common. We are partners of the same partner. In the words of the blessing, it should, “be with you all”. It should be a fellowship shared with the Spirit and shared with all Christians in fellowship together, but it isn’t shared.
It goes unappreciated. We don’t see the Spirit in each other. Especially we don’t see the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in those Christians who disagree with us. We separate and go our own ways. We say that it’s good to separate.
I love to understand things, and I really love to explain things. Ask my sisters. I had an aunt who called me a junior technical slob because I insisted, as a child, on explaining things.
In spite of being all that, deep down, I try to understand one important point: that, when it comes to the Lord Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit, I need love the experience better than I love my explanations, and that I am required to love the fellowship of the Holy Spirit as something shared with others.
Humans are tempted to worship themselves. Worshiping our explanations of God is a clever trick to put ourselves in the place of God. It’s very exciting, and dangerous, and damaging.
If God is our creator, if God created time and space, so that he is beyond time and space, then it would be wrong for us to think that we can fully explain him. We can experience him, and describe our experience. We can experience God as we find him truly presented to us in the Bible, and we can describe our Biblical experience. But God is beyond our complete understanding, and God is beyond our power to fully explain.
We can try to use the Bible to do our explaining for us. The problem comes when we connect and pile so many verses on top of each other that it becomes a thing that the Bible really doesn’t say at all.
We often end up using the Bible to say things about God, and about the way God works, and about how God wants us to do things that aren’t really there in the Bible at all. Such explanations might not be bad things; but they are only “our” things, and not God’s things.
The real blessing is about our relationship with God. Yet it’s not quite right to call this our relationship with God. It seems to be a big part of our relationship with God to mess things up. The real blessing is about God’s relationship with us. The real blessing is how we experience what God gives us and what God makes possible. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit being with us all,” are how God comes to us, reveals himself to us, changes us, and works in us, and through us.
The Word of God is God speaking himself and revealing himself. God came in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ was God speaking himself. John says this, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth….” (John 1:14) “No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)
Paul says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus gave us his grace, his gift of unconditional acceptance (something that creates thanks and well-being). And he gave us this grace, not only by leaving the richness of heaven for earth. He even left the richness of our life in flesh and blood to be judged, and condemned, and whipped, and killed by being nailed to a cross. There’s poverty for you!
Paul had another way of describing this grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. “For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Christ became like us, on the cross, so that we could become like him, as more than conquerors through the one who loves us. (Romans 8:37)
And Paul describes that grace another way. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
That is a mouthful.
Grace is a gift. The gift was God coming, in Christ, to earth, to become one of us, and to die for our sins, and to give us a new life, and to make us new creations, and also to make us messengers.
The sacrificial gift of God, through Jesus, is the experience that enables us to enter into the love of God, and live in that love. The experience of this grace-gift and the experience of this love-gift lead to the experience of another gift.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God enable us to experience the fellowship, or the partnership, of the Holy Spirit. Through the fellowship or partnership of the Holy Spirit, all Christians receive the power, in common together, to speak and work for God together.
The fellowship is fellowship all the way through. It could never be simply the fellowship of the Holy Spirit with you, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit with me. It really must be the fellowship of the Holy Spirit with us all, and more. We are all partners of the same partner. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit doesn’t only include all of us in this room. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit goes on, and on, and on. It makes a partnership that goes around the whole world. It’s one team around the world doing the work of the Holy Spirit together. There is no other team.
Grace breaks through the barriers of our human sins, and rebellion, and blindness. Love rules, and changes, and motivates our hearts. Fellowship-partnership is God and us being on the same team, making the same plays for the same goals. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
The point of this blessing is not to make a hard life easier. The point is a new life altogether. That new life might be very hard, as far as we can see. But the new life is a relationship that is based on God, and in God, and given to us as we share our life in him.
The relationship isn’t just for us. The relationship is for everyone you know and for everyone you meet. The relationship is for the whole world that has gone so far wrong.
God wants a new world, and God gives us the grace, the love, and the fellowship to pursue it. It’s a big picture. It comes from a big God who is much bigger than we can ever explain. The blessing is for a big hope that will come true, in God’s time, because it comes from God and God carries it, and us, with him.

This is what we’re here for. This is what we go out from here for. This is what we take with us: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit with us all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pentecost - Red-Hot and Blowing

Preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016

Scripture reading: Acts 2:1-13

The wind was howling, the lightening flashed, and the thunder boomed like cannons. A mother heard her little girl crying and calling for her. The mother put her arms around her daughter and told her that she didn’t need to be afraid of the storm because God was with her all the time. The little girl said, “I know that mommy, but I want someone with me who has a face.”
May 2016 Photos:
2 Foot Tall Ant Hill at Desert Aire, WA
We have a God whom no one would ever have seen, except that he came down and made himself a face for us, in Jesus. There is a comfort, a feeling of friendship, that comes from knowing that Jesus, as God come down to us in flesh and blood, has a face. He has been one of us, and still is one of us.
He comes to us on his own terms, but he also come to us on our own level. He has a face.
We can imagine quietly walking with Jesus among the brown hills and the waving grain of Galilee. We can imagine coming across him while we’re fishing by the lake. Even though, deep down, we realize that Jesus may not be so sweet and gentle as some of the songs tell us, we know that the very word gospel means good news, and that one of the Lord’s promises to us is the promise of peace John 14:27), and that he will be with us always. (Matthew 28:20)
Before Jesus left this planet in order to be closer to us than ever in heaven, Jesus promised to send his people the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is part of his presence with us, and one of the names he gave to the Spirit was a gentle, peaceful name. Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another “counselor” to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16-17)
We think of counselors as quiet. They need to be quiet in order to listen to us and hear our deepest feelings.
The older translations translate this name for the Spirit as “Comforter”. That’s another peaceful, gentle name. It also means “the friend who comes alongside.”
But when the promised friend actually came to the people of Jesus, as they gathered, and prayed, and worshipped in the upper room, we find that the Spirit acted exactly like the storm that frightened the little girl.
It was worse than that, because his appearance and his sound was more like a fire-storm. The Holy Spirit is the Lord of the roaring wind and fire.
The Holy Spirit is the secret, invisible working of the presence of God, but the Spirit is also like glory, which is not so peaceful or gentle. Glory is more like power and light: too much light. The Spirit glorifies the Father and the Son. (John 16:14-15)
When the Son is glorified the effect can be blinding. We can read about that in the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. (Matthew 17:2)
The Spirit is mysterious, and we don’t see his face. But, sometimes the Spirit has given himself a face to help us understand its work.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that the Spirit fluttered down on the baptism of Jesus. He flew down with the face of a dove; or else those who saw him imagined that what they saw reminded them of a dove.
Surely this was a sign to tell us who Jesus was, and is. It tells us that Jesus was, and is, the king who came as a humble, suffering servant; and so the Spirit was there working humbly and gently as a quiet dove, for doves were the birds that poor people offered in sacrifice at the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Spirit working in us can make us humble, and quiet, and gentle. The Holy Spirit can make us into a true offering of love, and sacrifice, and mercy. The Holy Spirit can make what we offer to God enough, and more than enough; no matter how unimportant and inadequate we feel. We, as humans, can receive from the Holy Spirit what Jesus received when he became one of us.
On the great Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit showed a different face so that we, and all the people of Jesus, can see what kind of gifts he was giving the church. In order to be the kind of Comforter we need most of all, the Spirit was going to work on us like a Biblical fire-storm.
Wind and fire, in the Old Testament, were signs of the presence of the awesome God. Wind and fire were the way that God chose to show his power and energy.
When the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, and were being led to the Promised Land, the Lord guided them and showed them that he was with them by a great column of cloud, like a giant whirlwind, that went with them everywhere. It makes me think of a tornado, but it was a tornado of fire during the night. Fire, and cloud, and storm came with the Lord to the top of Mount Sinai when Moses climbed the mountain to receive the ten commandments from God.
Beetle on My Porch One Night
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the words for wind, and breath, and spirit are the same word. The Greek of the New Testament also has only one word for wind, and breath, and spirit.
In the Old Testament, at the creation, the Spirit of God is described as hovering over the unformed universe. It is as if the Spirit were a power like a great wind, waiting for the word to come and send him pushing the creation into shape, according to the will of God.
In the New Testament, in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus described the Spirit being like the power of the wind that works invisibly, and yet you can hear it, and see what it does. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
When the Spirit came in wind and fire, the disciples, who had often thought about the stories of the Old Testament, thought about these things: creation; Exodus; Moses and the prophets; the power and glory of God! The wind and fire of Pentecost stand for supernatural power.
The disciples had been ordered to stay put. They had been ordered not to try to carry out the mission of Jesus until they knew this experience. Christians can’t fully carry out their mission as Christians, and the Church can’t fully function as the Church, unless we know that there is a supernatural power from God that stands behind us and works through us.
We are not called to be spiritual thrill-seekers, looking for wind and fire. Our own pentecosts can be quiet, and warm, and gentle, and maybe (even) sweet. Our experience doesn’t need to be wild, and hot, and loud, and blinding. But the Holy Spirit, who came as wind and fire, still comes to you and radically changes you on the inside, in order to make the promises and the work of Jesus come true through you. Even the gentleness of the Holy Spirit can be full of power.
When the wind and fire hit them, the disciples knew that the Holy Spirit was making them into the fellowship and the followers of Jesus in a way that they could never be on their own. The same Spirit hovers over us; over us as a group, as a family. The same Spirit hovers over you individually, as a follower of Jesus.
This is the Spirit that first created the Church, and that hovered over the uncreated universe. What kind of Christian is the Lord hovering over you to bring into being? What kind of family and mission does the Spirit want to make of us together?
Jesus told his disciples to wait for the Spirit to empower them, but waiting, in the Bible, requires a high level of concentration, and prayer, and attention. Waiting means being eager and ready for anything. It’s like waiting to go onstage and play your part in a theater where God is both the audience and the director.
Thistle on Trail at Desert Aire
The wind of the Spirit pushed and whipped the creation into shape. Is life pushing you and whipping you into some shape? Do you think that this pushing and whipping comes from the Holy Spirit?
Or maybe the pushing and whipping are going the wrong way. Are you so busy being pushed and whipped by your life that you aren’t ready for the different shape that the Spirit wants to give you? Are you eager and ready to be made into something different?
We have been praying for the Spirit to make us into something different here. We have to offer ourselves to the power of the Spirit, and maybe we need to use quite a bit of our own energy in the process.
The Spirit brand of waiting can be hard work. The Lord will support us and work through us and give us an inner confirmation that we have his help and his power.
Then there is the fire of Pentecost. Fire shows us what the Holy Spirit intends to do with us.
My dad loved guns. He loved hunting, and shooting, and he just loved guns. He never put his reasons into words. I think he loved being part of what they were.
For the sake of the Spirit of fire, it might be good to remember, here, that another word for guns is “firearms”. One way my dad became part of what they were was by making his own bullets and you need fire for that.
My dad bought lead. We had thick sheets of lead in our garage and barn. My dad had a small furnace to melt the lead. And he had molds to shape the melted lead into different kinds of bullets.
I loved to watch him do this. My dad would take some dirty, dark grey pieces of lead and put them in a sort of pot on the top of that small furnace. The fire in the furnace would burn, and the lead would start dripping like a melting ice cube, only the dull, dark grey was dripping like the brightest silver. Dark impurities would float like a skin on top of the liquid silver lead and my dad would scrap those impurities off and toss them away. Then he would pour the pure, beautiful, silver lead into molds, and make it into shining balls and bullets.
Fire is the power that changes things. It changes ore into metal, and it changes impure metal into bright, new, useful metal. It works on old lead, by purifying it and making it shine.
The change is a process of separation. The Holy Spirit separates us from whatever keeps us from being useful, or beautiful, and even the most useful object can be beautiful if you appreciate it as you should.
The list would be too long to tell, of all the behaviors, and habits, and attitudes that work against our being what God has created us to be, and against our being what God has saved us for, in Jesus. The fire of the Spirit aims at burning away our fears, and prides, and stubbornness, and prejudices.
The first Christians to receive the fire of the Spirit found themselves serving people they would never have served, and going places they would never have gone, and doing what they would never have done, and accepting what they would never have accepted. They had to learn a completely different way to be God’s people than they were prepared for. It wasn’t easy to live in the fire, and to have the fire in you. Read the Book of Acts.
A Farmer's Playful Stunt, East of Mattawa WA
That’s what having the fire of the Holy Spirit will mean for us, if we are eager and ready for absolutely anything. It shouldn’t have surprised the first disciples, and it shouldn’t surprise us either. We ought to know that having a God who became a baby might ask anything of us. We ought to know that having a God who deals with a sinful world, and with our own sin, by dying on a cross; that such a God might ask anything of us. We ought to know that having a God who dies in order to create resurrection might ask us to die to ourselves, and to die to everything we hold dear, in order for us to rise, with him, to a new life that we could never have imagined.
You might as well say that the Holy Spirit gives us fire simply because Jesus is a consuming fire. We think that the Letter to the Hebrews, that says “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) refers to a warning for those who don’t follow him. It’s actually written as a joyful promise to us.
The consuming fire is a promise for those whom God prepares for his kingdom. The fire is the beauty and faithfulness of God to see us through. It comes from Jesus, the cross and the empty grave. The coming of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire on the feast of Pentecost enabled Peter, and the other disciples, to make that connection and to understand it. The Holy Spirit enables us to know the good news of Jesus as a consuming and beautiful fire.
More than three hundred years ago, there was a young mathematician, and scientist, and inventor named Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) who met Jesus and became a Christian. He wrote his experience on a piece of parchment that he had sewn into his coat above his heart, as a reminder of what he found. Listen to his words.
“Fire! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ, God of Jesus Christ, my God and your God. “Thy God shall be my God.” The world forgotten, and everything except God. He can only be found in the ways taught in the Gospels. Let me not be cut off from him forever. “And this is life eternal, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.”
Pascal found something wild in Jesus. There is something about Jesus, and the Spirit he gives us, that is more like riding on the storm than standing on a rock. It’s like riding a horse that breaks into a gallop against your will. The Spirit is alive and has a mind of his own.
This power, this wind and fire, is a person who loves you. He also loves us together in this movement and mission called the church. This wind and fire wants to do something through us that we can’t (and probably would never choose to) do on our own. We aren’t brave enough for this. That doesn’t matter.

The surprise is that this Spirit of wind and fire wants to blow us into a storm and set us on fire; and we’ve been talking about him calmly for years. We have let others teach us to call him gentle and sweet. Listen to the word of God. Let God tell you what is waiting to happen to you. Be eager and ready for anything.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Holy Home

Preached on Mothers' Day, Sunday May 8, 2016 with Holy Communion
Scripture readings: Proverbs 31:10-31; John 19:25-27
A mother and her young son walked into an ice cream parlor. The boys made his order, then the clerk turned to the mother, “And you, ma’am, what would you like today?” And she said, “Nothing today, thank you, I’m on a diet.”
The son groaned when he heard this. “Aw mom, you’re not going to help me eat mine again, are you?” (Reader’s Dig., July ’94, p. 120)
The last chapter of Proverbs asks the question, “A wife of noble character who can find?” It goes on to describe a woman who can do the work of ten men, and who makes her family rich, and gets her husband on the city council that met at the city gate.
In our translation she has what is called a noble character. The King James translation says she has virtue, which means she has a powerful goodness. It means courage.
This word is a warrior word. The Lord used the word to describe Gideon, one of the judges of Israel, when the Lord first gave Gideon his calling. “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor.” (Judges 6:12) There the translation is “valor”. That’s this wife and mother.
So here is an example of an amazing woman. The most amazing thing about her is that no one seems to be afraid of her, unless her husband was afraid to admit it.
The lines here begin to describe a wife, but they end up describing a mother, and her husband, and her children, and the whole atmosphere of their home. Proverbs is about wisdom, and this is a home where wisdom lives.
I wonder: what would it be like to grow up in a home like this? What would children learn in this home?
Children in the home where wisdom lives will learn that when God’s love lives in a person’s heart, that love is whole-hearted. That kind of love isn’t on duty sometimes, and off duty other times. Verse twelve says this: “She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.”
It tells us that a wife, or a husband, should want to be helpful, and never hurtful. This is important because, sometimes, we like to be a little bit hurtful. Maybe we want to go beyond teasing to a lower level. A husband or wife might be good in every way except that they reserve to themselves the right to an occasional meanness.
Sarcasm is a good example of this. Evans Family men are proud of their talent for sarcasm, but my cousin Don, who is a better Christian that I am, has really devoted himself to detoxifying himself of the Evans gift of sarcasm. He knows it’s dangerous, and I am trying, with difficulty, to learn from his example.
Children learn about whole-hearted love from their parents, and how their parents relate to others. If the children are to grow up to be wives and husbands who really care about their spouses and their children, who are really capable of giving whole-hearted respect to others, giving a love that is on duty all the time, they need to see this in their mothers and fathers.
Proverbs has a lot to say about the wisdom of loving work. That is; it is a wise thing to learn to love work. Here is a woman who does that.
In my first church, there were a few families who were always doing something: not just doing their own things but doing those things together as well. In one of these families there was a boy named Glen. Glen liked school. He got good grades and went out for sports. He was a good athlete even though he had asthma, and he went on to be a high school coach in the Midwest. He was in band. He was a good scout, and got his God and Country Award. He came to worship, and Sunday school, and he was in two youth groups: the one I led, and another one too.
Once I overheard one of his friends talking to Glen, asking him why his parents made him do all those things. Glen was surprised, and he said, “I like doing those things!” Glen had learned from his parents to love work. He had learned from his parents’ example, and his parents were always there supporting him.
Maybe I should add that I tried to make my youth group fun. We played together as well and learned together. For Glen, a lot of his work was play for him.
I think that the work I like best is the work I think is fun, and I can make some of my work into play. I also have trouble playing unless I work hard at it.
What’s great about the mother in Proverbs is not that she was always working. She wasn’t always working, because she also had time to sit and think about the future and laugh about it. (Proverbs 31:25) She had time to notice when other people were hurting and when they were in need, and she took time to help them. (Proverbs 31:20)
She wasn’t always working because she had time to look around her and to see opportunities. The children in her family would grow up learning to see what they could do, instead of brooding over what they couldn’t do, and why they couldn’t do it.
In her care for others, remember how the saying goes. “She opens her arms to the poor and she extends her hands to the needy.” (31:20)
There is something physical about true caring. You can use your hand to put something in another person’s hand. But this woman opened her arms. She probably held out her hand to hold someone by the hand. You open your arms to make others welcome, even embarrassingly welcome. Children learn to be comfortable making other people welcome from their parents.
My parents weren’t really huggers and so opening my arms doesn’t come easy to me. My mom’s mother (my Baci, babcia, my Polish grandma) was a great hugger (at least for her grandchildren). She normally embarrassed me by doing this. But I was always just as thankful for her hugs as I was embarrassed by them.
The mother in Proverbs loved giving just as much as she loved working, and building, or earning. She knew how to make giving into loving.
The Scottish author, George MacDonald, wrote about his parents’ thriftiness, but he was especially proud of the way his mother was just as concerned to teach her children how to give and how to save. The children of the mother in Proverbs would learn to love to give. They would love to bring others in, and make them welcome. They would love to open their arms to others.
There was a mother who gave her daughter two dollars on Sunday morning, one for the offering, and the other for ice cream after church. While the girl was walking to Sunday school, a big gust of wind caught hold of one of the dollars and blew it away. She tried to chase it down, but she couldn’t catch it, and so she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, there goes the church’s dollar.” She wasn’t opening her arms.
In Proverbs it says, “When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.” ( 31:21) None of the commentaries understand this. At least they think that the Hebrew word “scarlet” is there because a copyist misspelled a similar word that means “double”: that her family’s clothes were double thickness in the winter.
I don’t care what the commentaries say here. I think those people had enough sense to know that scarlet would keep people from going missing in the snow (what little they had). And it wasn’t that long ago when people thought that red flannel would keep you warm in the winter and white flannel would be cool in the summer. So winter underwear was red; maybe not in the Bible times, but in our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time.
The children in the home of the Proverbs mother would grow up knowing the importance of looking out for the well-being of others. In a loving home, everyone cares about the safety and the whereabouts of each other. They grow up knowing that they are their brother’s, and their sister’s, and their neighbor’s keepers.
Then it says, “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.” (31:23) There would be an open area inside the city gates, sometimes with benches built into the walls, where the most respected citizens acted as the town council and made plans for the community.
If there was a disagreement in the town, or a case, or a crime, that needed to have a trial, people would go to the gate, and get the advice, or the decision, or go to court and judgement under the direction of the elders at the gate. The good wife in Proverbs made her husband look so good that he got asked to join that council.
Their children would grow up in a home where they were taught to make others look good. We read that the husband was extravagant in his praise of his wife, and that was his loving way of making her look good, even to herself, if she ever doubted it.
We see that their children learned the lesson. They were praise givers too. “Her children arise and call her blessed.” (31:28)
In verse twenty-six we are told that “faithful instruction is on her tongue.” The King James translation says, “in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Are our tongues ruled by the law of kindness? Older teachers in the school notice a decline in kindness among many young people. Kindness is learned at home. At the center of every home, God wants someone there who can teach us to be kind and faithful.
Kindness and faithfulness are an essential part of life as God wants life to be, in our home family, in our church family, and even in our national family. Kindness and faithfulness should be our law.
Here was a wife of noble character, a mother of courageous character: and what about the father? Let’s have everyone be noble. Why should anyone be let off the hook? Why should anyone miss out on the good stuff? Otherwise children will grow up thinking that nobility is optional: that nobility is for some people, but not for them.
God wants us all to grow up to be noble: to be able to live with a courageous goodness; to have integrity and goodness that don’t pop like a bubble when things get hot; a goodness that is aggressive, that changes the world around us. This nobility, which God wants us to have, is mostly learned in a family, but the church is called to be God’s family, and so the church is a family where we learn to be noble.
The truth is that we learn this from Jesus who labored to do the impossible for us. Jesus is our savior, but he is also our brother. In a sense Jesus is our mother too, since his cross and his resurrection give birth to the new life that comes from him. The pains of the cross were the pains of Jesus giving birth to us.
The mother in the last chapter of Proverbs, who does the work of ten, is sort of an impossible standard, but she also points us to a holy ambition, she is a mother who makes us want to do noble things.
Jesus gives us a holy ambition to do noble things, like an older brother, or a loving mother or father.
Jesus also gives us his grace, his faithful, powerful love, to help us do it. On the cross, he shows us this nobility, this thinking of others, and it gives us a holy ambition to do likewise. Jesus, on the cross, gives us a radical, unconditional love.
The author David Hansen writes, “…the soul can be awakened and made stronger through the miracle of love, and the spirit can be harnessed and disciplined through the miracle of confrontation.”
The Lord’s Supper is a meal in God’s family where we are confronted by the noble love of God. The love and the discipline of the cross become real; something is offered here to us to make us stronger. Here is something to make us noble: more noble as parents, and more noble as children in the family of God, and in the work of Jesus.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Jesus-Fruit Harvest - Justice and Grace

Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016

Scripture readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 20:9-18

When my youngest sister, Nanci, was little, my parents subscribed to a book series for her. It was the Dr. Seuss series. There was “Yertle the Turtle”. There was the “Cat in the Hat”.  There was “Green Eggs and Ham”. “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox? I would not eat green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am.”
Pictures along Lower Crab Creek
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
April 2016
My sister knew every line by heart. My Uncle Eddie had a knack for making up Dr. Seuss rhymes off the top of his head, and he would try to slip them in, when he was at our house and Nancy would ask him to read one of those books.
But you couldn’t fool Nanci. The words formed a pattern in her head, and she could recognize any deviation from the pattern.
This is just one example of how, even at the age of four, we get many patterns laid down in our head and we become creatures of patterns and habits.
The Bible teaches us important things about the patterns of God’s judgment and God’s grace. The “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah and Jesus’ parable of vineyard tenants are, both, about patterns of judgment and grace.
We need to know about both God’s judgment and God’s grace, even as Christians. Christians are correct when they talk about being under God’s grace and not his judgment. But this is how it is.
Grace is God’s unconditional love. That love is always unconditional, but Christians may build poorly on that foundation of unconditional love. Unconditional love is only fruitful for the givers when the givers see their graciousness bear the fruit of graciousness in the receivers. Grace givers always want to see more grace grow out of their grace.
We are receivers of God’s grace and yet we can build ungracious patterns into our lives. We turn the grace of God into ungraciousness, and nothing that is ungracious will last.
We will live forever in the grace of God, but we cannot keep anything we build ungraciously, unlovingly, or unfaithfully. Those things will be taken away and lost. Paul says that the ungracious, unloving, unfaithful work of our lives will be consumed as if by fire, even though we will be safe in the graciousness of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 & 4:1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10)
We need to know about both the judgment of God and the grace of God. Jesus, the way he elaborates on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard, shows us that things such as God’s judgment and God’s grace are not arbitrary. They are not shallow, or petty, or picky, or mean-spirited, or narrow-minded. There is no trick or loophole about them. And judgement and grace rightly go hand in hand. They are consistent with each other.
The grace and the judgment of God both come from God’s love. Grace and judgment are both bold and clear patterns of how God’s wise and perfect love will respond to ungracious patterns in our lives.
Jesus tells the story in such a way that we see the patterns in God and in ourselves. The patterns show up in the repetition of behavior.
God’s pattern is to show himself to be more and more gracious and forgiving. God is the owner of the vineyard, in Jesus’ story, who sends messengers over and over again, saving the very best messenger (his own son) for last.
The pattern of the tenants is to show themselves more and more resistant and rebellious. They show themselves to be basically ungracious and unthankful in the core of their being. The pattern of the tenants is a warning to us, just as much as God’s pattern is an assurance to us.
The murderous tenants were the religious authorities who had Jesus killed. Even on the cross, Jesus (the son of the vineyard owner) prayed for their forgiveness. There Jesus shows us the grace of God that the tenants wanted to put to an end.
I remember once that, when I was about fifteen, my Uncle Eddie (again) was playing catch with me and trying to give me some pointers on how to throw well. The only thing wrong with this was that I was in a deviant mood that day, and I deliberately messed up more and more, because (for some strange reason, at the time) I thought it was funny, and I suppose I was testing him.
I guess I beat my Uncle Eddie in the test. I mean that I got what I deserved. After a while, my uncle gave up on me. Our game of catch had stopped being fun for him. It had stopped being promising and hopeful for either one of us.
Like I said, I got what I deserved. In that game of catch, my uncle was very gracious, but I was not. Grace lost the test.
That was only a game of catch. Life is much more serious than that. The grace of God in our lives, and our playing around with ungracious living, is much, much more serious.
The fruit of the vineyard, that the Lord came to find in Isaiah, was justice and righteousness. (Isaiah 5:7) The Lord, “Looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
Now the vineyard stands for God’s people. God’s vineyard consists of the people who have heard his call; who have received his love, and learned about the depth of that love.
No one gets into that vineyard by performing at a certain level of justice and righteousness. We are simply planted there by love, in the first place. We are planted in God’s vineyard, in God’s fellowship, by his gracious love, but God’s love bears fruit only when it is thankfully and graciously received and shared.
Justice and righteousness are the fruit of our relations with others. They have to do with how we live in this world. Justice and righteousness have to do with how we live with our families, and with our neighbors, but they don’t stop there. They have to do with the part we play in the big, wide world around us.
Justice and righteousness include how we commit ourselves to the issues that get in the news. Justice and righteousness have to do with how we relate to issues in our society. They have to do with how we live with the issues in our community and with the people who are part of our community.
Justice has to do with fairness as a standard for making things right with other people but also between other people. Justice has to do with making good things happen between others, or with stopping certain things from happening between others so that everything is fair. God’s sense of justice requires his people to never say, “It’s not my concern. It’s none of my business.”
Righteousness is related to justice. It has to do with the rightness of the way we live toward others and toward God. I think righteousness is more than fairness. The fairness of justice seems like the least that we can do.
And yet God’s justice is not the least that God can do. God’s justice (we believe) is to die for his enemies. God’s justice is to come down in Jesus and sacrifice himself for us on the cross. God’s justice is infinitely more than the least that God can do. If we love God’s justice, won’t we be guided by that same measure of justice in our lives and in the stands we take in this world?
Righteousness goes at least an extra mile beyond fairness. And yet God’s justice goes far beyond our justice. Both righteousness and justice, by God’s standards, never exist outside of his unconditional love, and neither should ours.
When you walk through a vineyard, as the grapes grow close to harvest, and the bunches are hot in the late summer, or the early autumn, sun. Then the very air in the vineyard is sweet. That is a righteous aroma. There is joy and pleasure in bearing fruit. There is sweetness for everyone to enjoy in it.
But we form unjust and unrighteous patterns. There was a mother driving her kindergarten aged child in a crowded city. As the mother struggled with the traffic her child asked, “Mommy, how come it’s only when daddy drives that the idiots come out?” The father and mother had different patterns of dealing with traffic.
We form ungracious patterns.
The tenants of the vineyard wouldn’t turn over the owner’s share of the harvest because they didn’t accept his ownership of the vineyard: his ownership of their world and their lives. They didn’t accept their own promises and their commitments to the owner.
We form patterns that deny God’s ownership of us. We form patterns of anger and grudges. We act out old conflicts that have nothing to do with the present. We act out negativity. We don’t see each other as beloved children of God. We think about what others owe us, instead of owing others a debt of love.
As Christians, and as a church, we may stop living as if we had confidence in God to care for us. We may put our desire to protect ourselves, or justify ourselves above God’s call to forgive, and to reach out to others in humble, self-forgetting ways.
The problem, or the blessing, of patterns and habits is that they tend to build on themselves. The good patterns get stronger and the bad patterns get harder.
The repetitions in the story tell us that God speaks to us over, and over, and over again, in many ways (just as he sent many prophets to the people of Israel). God speaks through the repetitions; the patterns that happen to us over and over again in different ways.
God speaks and works, over and over, in an effort to remind us of the claim his love has over us. God does this to establish his good patterns and to break our bad patterns. God speaks and works in order to break our struggle to own ourselves.
God speaks in his word, and in prayer, and in our worship and fellowship together. God speaks his word to us in the look in someone’s eyes, and in the patience of a Christian who really is Christian through and through.
Our owner asks the question, “What shall I do?” and then God reaches into the strength of his pattern of grace; and God shows us his Son, Jesus. God claims us with Jesus.
There are Christians, there are people who belong to God, who will not be owned by God; except on their own conditions, or on their own reservations. Each of us has issues like this. There are Christians who can look at Christ on the cross and say, “Yes, but I will not forgive so-and-so. Yes, but I will not show I am wrong by showing signs of change. Yes, but I will not confess. I will not admit. Yes, but I will not say I am sorry.”
The Lord’s pattern of grace is strong and he is absolutely committed to us. But the Lord, because he is love and grace, will not let a contrary pattern come into his work. He will not let anything unloving or ungracious stand.
Here comes Jesus, up the road to that piece of ground we will not yield. God comes in his Son to humble our resistance and to claim our love, more deeply than we’ve ever let him before. He comes with no weapon but the nails in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He comes with no weapon but the cross.
When we truly see him, just as he is, coming down that road to us, we judge ourselves. The pattern in his cross reveals the pattern in our own lives, for good or for bad. It is nothing but his grace that has done this.
It is nothing but his grace that requires us to see whether his grace truly owns us, or not. Our life depends on this and God wants us to see, and respond, and live. The contrast between what he is and what we are judges us.
But he does this in grace. This is our opportunity. This is what he offers when he asks himself what he will do.” He says, “I will send them my son.”
He offers us Jesus. When we really see Jesus, it is for us to ask, “What will we do?”
God’s grace has claimed us as his children. What will we do with that? Will we choose God’s choice? Will we choose to be God’s children of grace?
There are two possible answers, but only one of those answers has any life in it. There is life with God only in Jesus; and only in receiving and giving grace. There is life nowhere else.