Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, June 27, 2011

lamentation and freedom

Psalm 13:1-6
1    How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
          How long will you hide your face from me?
2   How long must I bear pain in my soul,
          and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
     How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3   Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
          Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4   and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
          my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5   But I trusted in your steadfast love;
          my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6   I will sing to the LORD,
          because he has dealt bountifully with me.

I want to spend most of our Bible time with our New Testament lesson, but I just couldn’t let this beautiful Psalm sit untouched. I couldn’t leave this painfully honest Psalm alone because too often the church isn’t painfully honest.

We put on our best faces for church, maybe we put on our best faces for other people in general. Someone asks how we’re doing and we say something socially acceptable. That’s actually an OK habit to be in a lot of the time. It’s not a great idea to pour our guts out to everyone we meet. But when we take it too far it kills genuine community and relationship. 

         When we come to church we are with our brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we are supposed to be in a safe place for honesty; a place we can share our struggles and our pain. We’re family, so we should be able to be vulnerable with each other.

         But that’s not always how it feels. One thing that gets in the way of honesty and openness is Sunday best syndrome. We feel like since our outfits are well put together, we’re supposed to button up our troubles too. We shine our shoes and our smiles and we tuck our problems and doubts under the carpet so we can do church “the right way.”

         That’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger issue is that we feel we have to be careful with God. We use carefully crafted words and scripted prayers to talk to the God who is high above in heaven. The language in the Bible is stilted and our worship language doesn’t usually sound like how we would have a conversation. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or offend God.

         The truth is that God can take it. Look at this Psalm: “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Have you ever felt that way before? Did you cry out to God like the Psalmist did? Our polite religious tradition is hard to break, but when we open ourselves to God and to each other we learn how to actually trust God. Look where the Psalm ends up: “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” If we open ourselves up and trust God with our doubt and pain, we’ll find out for ourselves that we can count on God. If we handle God like fragile, precious crystal we’ll never find out how strong and supportive God really is.

OK, like I said, we’re going to spend most of our Bible time on the New Testament reading. It’s kind of a doozie, so we’re going to play with it a little bit in groups. Each of you has a small piece of paper with a number and a piece of our lesson on it. I’d like you to get up and move to the section of the room with your number on it and arrange yourselves in groups of 4 or 5. Introduce yourselves quickly and read the passage together.

Once you’ve done that discuss the passage for a couple of minutes. If you have a hard time starting your discussion, you’ll find a couple of questions on your sheet that might help. In a few minutes we’ll come back together and talk about the whole passage.

Romans 6:3-23
3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

15What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.

20When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

          Sometimes we feel trapped and overwhelmed by our lives and situations. We feel the press of bills and family responsibilities. We feel the demands of our job or the stress of looking for work, while we also wrestle with to do lists at home. Sometimes guilt or grief or anger or addiction or hopelessness take hold of our lives and refuse to let go.

Anything that traps us and takes away our freedom releases its grip when we die. If alcohol or gambling or bitterness or fear holds you so tightly you feel like you can’t breath, imagine what happens to that clutching claw when you die. It can’t hold you anymore because those traps and prisons are part of life. They loose their power when we die. That’s why when people feel like they have come to a dead end in their lives suicide can seem like a tempting escape. Suicide is the wrong choice, but when we feel trapped, the temptation makes sense. Death breaks the bonds that trap us.

Jesus died.

In baptism we become part of Jesus’ body.

That means in faith we have already died, and we are set free from all the concerns that take up so much of our energy and weigh so heavily on our shoulders and our souls.

The crazy thing is that Jesus didn’t stay dead, but instead he rose from the grave. By faith in Christ we are also part of his resurrection, which means we move from death to new life. So we are free from the tyranny of life and the cold grasp of death. We are free to do whatever we want with the amazing gift of new life in Christ.

All our responsibilities and relationships can be transformed in our new life in Christ. Instead of being traps and obligations we are free to see them as gifts and opportunities.

         In all the choices of freedom one of our choices is to fall back into sin and selfishness. We are free to get stuck again in the traps that held us before we found freedom in Christ. We don’t have to accept the freedom God offers; it is our choice.

         Sin isn’t an isolated thing. When we use our freedom to sin we become trapped in it, slaves to sin again. When we use our freedom to build up wealth for ourselves, for instance, we gradually become more and more attached to money. We start seeing other people as a threat to our financial security instead of being brothers and sisters we can share with. We use more and more of our time to pursue and secure wealth instead of following our calling to love and enjoy other people. Little by little the choice to make a little money becomes total slavery to possessions.

         We can imagine the same trajectory with any other sin if we want: pride, infidelity, racism, etc. One action leads to another and before long the trap is complete.

         On the other hand, we can use our freedom to follow God. Like with sin, choosing to follow God isn’t really an isolated choice. That choice leads to a life of service, a life even of slavery to righteousness.

When we choose to base our life on love we become trapped in the joy of fellowship, the freedom of giving, the warmth of acceptance. We loose the freedom to treat other people as objects because we know they are our brothers and sisters. We loose the freedom to build walls around ourselves and our possessions because we know we are connected to other people. A life of discipleship is slavery in its own way, because we give our lives to God, but it is a slavery full of joy, peace and fulfillment.

         In the freedom God gives us we choose whom we will serve. Will we choose to serve ourselves and the sinful structures of this world or will we choose to serve God and those who need us most? Will we choose the dead end of selfishness or the joyful road of community and discipleship? Christ sets us free for new life. How will you use your freedom?

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

commissioned for ministry

Psalm 8:1-9
1 O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9 O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Matthew 28:16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Can you tell where we are in the story of Jesus?

What hints help you figure that out?

Jesus has spent maybe three years with his disciples. He’s now giving them some last instruction before he goes up to heaven. He’s giving them their mission for the rest of their lives. This mission, this great commission gave shape to the church’s life in those first years and continues to guide us in our ministry.

It’s a short passage but there’s a lot going on in it. First Jesus makes a bold claim. He says that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. That sounds outrageous after the disciples had seen Jesus surrender to the authority of the chief priests and Roman governor. It sounds outrageous coming from a guy who was whipped and beaten and mocked by soldiers. It sounds outrageous from a man who was crucified not many days before this. It sounds like an outrageous claim.

But then again Jesus is standing in front of them alive and risen from the grave. Maybe there is an authority greater than the obvious powers of the world at work in Jesus. Something made the disciples believe Jesus’ outrageous claim and by believing it they offered more evidence for its truth. In the power of Jesus they took an unlikely message across the region and soon, around the world. The power of God’s love in the disciples’ message proved stronger than disease, stronger than political and religious tyranny, stronger even than death. Maybe Jesus wasn’t making such an outrageous claim after all, but each generation, each Christian has to see that for him or herself.

living by the Spirit, 6.12

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
3bNo one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Acts 2:1-21
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17  ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
     that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
          and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
     and your young men shall see visions,
          and your old men shall dream dreams.
18  Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
          in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
               and they shall prophesy.
19  And I will show portents in the heaven above
          and signs on the earth below,
               blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20  The sun shall be turned to darkness
          and the moon to blood,
               before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

            We’ve got two passages about the Holy Spirit on this Pentecost Sunday. We celebrate Pentecost as the church’s birthday, because it was really the Holy Spirit that made the church what it became. At his last supper with his disciples Jesus told them that he would send the Spirit to comfort and guide them. Jesus told them that by the Spirit’s power they would do even greater things than he did. The risen Jesus tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit came to lead them out in ministry.

            So the disciples prayed and worshiped and waited in Jerusalem. On Pentecost they were together and the Spirit finally came. Often we have to really pay attention to notice the Spirit, but that day there was nothing subtle about it. The Spirit came like wind and fire and filled the room. The Spirit filled the disciples with power and gave them the ability to speak other languages.

            With that power the disciples went out into the streets and started sharing the good news. They started talking about what God had done, how God loved everyone deeply and welcomed all kinds of people into community. The Spirit stayed with those disciples and gave them the courage to share their faith not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the wider area and across the seas. The Spirit gave the disciples power to heal the sick and drive out demons. The Spirit allowed regular people to stand up to powerful leaders in the name of Jesus.

            And the Spirit wasn’t just with those first disciples; the Spirit filled each new believer who heard God’s word. The Spirit guided the church as a few believers grew to thousands of disciples gathered in hundreds of house churches throughout the Middle East.

The Spirit still guides the church today as we continue Christ’s ministry. The Spirit guides big churches and small churches. The Spirit guides Baptists and Presbyterians and Catholics. The Spirit guides the whole church because there is truly only one church. Every church has its own personality, just like every individual Christian has his or her own personality, but with all our differences, we are one in Christ.

That’s what Paul is getting at in the piece of the letter to the Corinthians we read a few minutes ago. The Holy Spirit gives each believer different gifts: gifts of healing, teaching, wisdom, understanding and so on. But as different as God’s gifts are, and as different as we are, God’s Spirit is the same. God gave Lisa powerful gifts of music. God gave Mary and Amanda gifts of financial wisdom. God gave Mildred the gift of faithful persistence. God gave Jim spiritual wisdom and the list goes on and on. Everyone here has gifts from God. God’s gifts are so varied and generous that many of us have gifts we haven’t even discovered yet.

Paul connects those spiritual gifts to baptism, because the prophets and John and Jesus all talked about how Jesus would send the Holy Spirit as a baptism for believers. So it’s appropriate that we talk about the Holy Spirit as we baptize a new Christian today. Oliver is part of a long line of faithful Christians. Dick and Doris, and Beverly all paved the way for Lisa’s vibrant faith, and this part of Christ’s church called Beacon Presbyterian has supported Lisa and Tony as they started and grew their family.

Today Oliver not only becomes part of his family’s story at Beacon, he becomes part of the body of Christ. That body includes men and women around the world who are different in every imaginable way. And yet that body is one body because it is Christ’s body. That body is led and guided by one Spirit because it is God’s Holy Spirit. With all our gifts and differences and disagreements, we are one body in Christ. Today Oliver becomes part of that one body where he will discover and share his unique gifts. Wherever Oliver goes, wherever each of us goes, God’s blessing and calling goes with us.

Paul talks about how the diversity of gifts are all part of Christ’s one body. That story goes both ways. The body of Christ is diverse with many members but one body, and the body is one but reaches out in every direction. The story of Acts is the story of that one body reaching out in new directions. When the Holy Spirit first filled the disciples, they immediately started speaking in other languages so all kinds of different people could hear the message of Jesus.

God still does the same thing in other ways. Some of us have been blessed with the ability to speak other languages literally. But God has also equipped all of us with different experiences that help us to reach out to different kinds of people today. Your life, your work, your unique story gives you a style, a language, that God can use to reach the people you come across in a way others can’t. God uses your words and actions to reach out to others with the love of Jesus.

Baptism and faith are not just about coming together to worship. They are not just about the story we have built here at this building on the corner of Cumberland and Cedar over the last hundred and thirty some years. Faith is about reaching out with God’s love today too. Whatever the future holds for this building and this congregation, God can use our witness to touch others with the good news that God is love and that love has no limit.

People in this community need to hear that message. They need to hear and see it in different ways, through the word proclaimed, through lives lived full of grace, through care for those in need. Some may connect with Christ’s message through art, some through music, some through the presence of Christians in the everyday lives of this community, through how we treat others when we shop and clean and drive.

People in your life, in your neighborhood, in your workplaces need to hear and see the message of God’s love too. God has given each of us the gift of the Spirit, the baptism into Christ’s body not just for ourselves but for others too. You have a language that only you can speak; you have a story that only you can tell. God wants to use your life and your story to continue the amazing story of Jesus until all creation is finally reconciled to God in love.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

power in weakness (6.5.11)

Acts 1:6-14
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Let’s talk about the passage Karen just read. This passage comes from the Book of Acts. Can someone tell us in a few words what the Book of Acts is about?

That’s a good way to put it. Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Luke wrote his Gospel to give, as he put it, an “orderly account” of Jesus life. He tells about Jesus’ teachings and how he healed the sick and welcomed all kinds of people. Jesus showed people, especially those who were excluded by religious tradition, that God loved them.

The way Jesus lived led to conflict with the religious and political leaders. That conflict revved up until the leaders finally got so scared that they had Jesus executed. Amazingly, that wasn’t the end of the story. God raised Jesus from the dead and he appeared to his followers. That’s where Luke’s Gospel ends and the Book of Acts begins. Acts is the follow-up story.

As Acts begins Jesus spends some time explaining scripture to his followers in the light of his resurrection. In this passage the disciples ask Jesus if now’s the time for the Kingdom of God to be established. In other words, “Is today judgment day?” This is a great passage to hear in light of our recent rapture scare. Many people were afraid or excited that judgment was coming on May 21st. Predictions like that have been made many times before since Christ’s death, but so far none of them has been right.

This passage reminds us why predictions of rapture or judgment are so tempting, but also why they are a waste of time and anxiety. The disciples were excited about the possibility that Jesus was about to usher in God’s peaceful kingdom. They were excited that they might soon be free from the oppression of the Roman Empire. There’s part of us that wants to know when the end is coming. We want to know when the story of the world will end. We also sometimes feel afraid that the end, the final judgment will catch us off guard.

Jesus tells them it’s not for them to know when the end is coming. Nobody knows, so don’t let anyone fool you into thinking they do. In another passage Jesus says even he doesn’t know when judgment will come. We just don’t know, so there’s no point worrying about May 21st or 2012 or whatever the doom prophesy of the moment is. There’s also no need to worry because God is in control of the story and we know the end of the story is a good one. God loves each of us, so there’s no need to fear the end.