Monthly Archives: December 2017

Mission:Impossible — Love

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my[a] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of[b] Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  I Corinthians 1:3-9 (NRSV)

 

Imagine the Apostle Paul sitting down at his desk to write a letter:

Dear First Church Corinth,

What in the name of heaven are you doing out there?  I’ve heard all kinds of stories about how you’re fighting over spiritual gifts, allowing factions to get in the way of fellowship-

He stops, reads what he’s written, tears it up and throws it away.  He’s been trying to write to them for some time.  He’s disturbed by what he’s heard.  Some of the members are getting high and mighty with their knowledge and lording it over the others.  It’s one thing to disagree on faith, it’s quite another to announce yours as the only way.  They are squabbling over their spiritual gifts as if one gift and talent is more important than another.  These and other issues are tearing them apart instead of uniting them.  2,000 years later, we’re not much different, are we?

There is a host of issues to discuss with them.  They’re a fledgling congregation in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth.  There are gods on every corner inviting worship in a culture that is wide open.  This little Christian church worships only one God and they’re known as atheists because of it.  Word is out that they eat the body and blood of Jesus.  They’re not only atheists, but cannibals.

Paul wants more for them.  They’re letting the culture get in the way.  They’ve reached the tipping point and need guidance.   They need Paul.  They’ll have to settle for a well-worded letter from their leader.

Paul turns back to his task with pen in hand.  He loves this congregation.  They have so much going for them.  So, that’s where he begins: with what is right about them: God’s gifts bestowed on them.  He writes of his gratitude to God “because of the grace of God that has been given to [them.]” (vs 4b)  As we continue to read through this lengthy letter we begin to realize that this short paragraph is also a list of discussion points he’ll touch on later.

The more I study scripture, the more I see our culture in it.  We live our faith through our culture — it’s second nature.  It’s not all wrong, either.  But sometimes we get carried away.

A friend and colleague of mine heard this on the radio recently:  67% of adults surveyed would rather not give gifts during the holiday season.

Why is this?  There are probably many reasons, but I suggest one of them is, the responsibility for perfection.  Gift-giving is a burden.  Do I buy the latest electronic toy for the kids and risk them becoming spoiled and entitled?  Does my elderly parent with dementia care about that new bathrobe I bought her when she has three perfectly good ones hanging in the closet?

Come Christmas Eve or morning when we open our gifts, what’s it like?  Is it fun and filled with surprises?  Or overwhelming?  Or, worse…underwhelming?

It’s impossible.  Impossible that I’ll get the perfect gift for everyone on my list; that my house will be perfectly decorated; my entertaining will be perfectly elegant; that my cooking will be perfectly superb.

It’s impossible.  No matter how much I spend and decorate and cook, it won’t be enough.  Does that mean I’m not enough?

What would it be like to decorate and shop and cook and clean, knowing that there’s something important happening that is beyond our ability to totally understand: that God loves this world so much that he sends his Son to us?

What would it be like to focus on this gift from God as a way to acknowledge our own longing for love and acceptance Just. As. We. Are.  What would it be like to feel the freedom and rejoicing in the profound love expressed in the manger?

Just. As. We. Are.  How often do you hear someone say, “I love you just as you are?”

Impossible?  Not with God.  Look below your own surface to your spiritual gifts.  These aren’t from our culture; they’re a part of you in and through the Holy Spirit.

Impossible?  The only thing that’s impossible about this is that God is gracious and endows each of us with that grace and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

Only eight more days until we celebrate the birth.  In the meantime, we smell the Christmas cookies and furniture polish, listen to the carolers and the vacuum cleaner.  And we also feel God’s love surround us and the Spirit’s gifts that make us what and who we are.  And we trust that nothing is impossible with God.

Impossible: Love?  God sent his only son to a God-hating world.  Now there’s a gift you can’t purchase.  Perfect. Sacrificial. Filled with more love than we can possibly imagine.

I pray that your Season of Advent is filled with the knowledge of this love and a stronger sense of the gifts endowed within you by God.  When that happens, the rest of the season takes its place where it belongs.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

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Mission:Impossible — Peace

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV)

My Jewish friend, Ira, shared a story with me that goes like this: A disciple ran in to wake up his rabbi, calling out, “Rabbi, the Messiah has arrived!”  The rabbi opened one tired eye and said, “Wake me when we have peace on earth.”

Does it seem that way to you?  That peace on earth is what we sing, but don’t get?  That peace on earth isn’t here, yet?  That God is letting God’s people down?

Perhaps you’d like to do as the rabbi did: go back to sleep.

These words from the prophet Isaiah are Jesus’ mission statement.  He spoke these words in the synagogue in his hometown Nazareth.  The first couple of verses are absolutely loaded:  “bring good news to the oppressed; bind up the despairing; proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; comfort all who mourn; provide for those who mourn; give a garland instead of ashes.”

That’s a tall order for one man to take on.  So tall, that Jesus had disciples and followers who took on his mission as their own.  That mission has been passed down to you and me today.

And it’s still a tall order.  We’re the wealthiest nation in the world and can’t figure out how to ease poverty, find a solution to gun violence, or even get along with those with whom we disagree.  It’s easy to identify the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned.  What to do about it is the hard part.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”(1) 

In this season of the year when we sing “peace on earth,” we see too much of the captives and oppressed.  We drop our coins in the Salvation Army buckets.  We send checks off to those charities that we believe do the most with our money.  We listen to the news faithfully, trying to understand what’s happening.  We’re a world on edge; a people on edge.  The TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?” This week we ask, “What’s outside of me?”

We seek peace on earth and peace doesn’t come.

We are also the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned.  We yearn for peace.  We listen to the news with heavy hearts.  We see pain and suffering and we grieve.  We even feel guilty for having it so good.  Where’s the peace in all that?  Our hearts are breaking and the Beatitudes speak to us more than ever:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  (Matthew 5:3-6 NRSV)

Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with blessings for the poor in spirit, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Doesn’t that include you and me?  We’re yearning for peace and comfort and seeing no peace and very little comfort.

Peace is found in prayer with God.  Peace settles upon us in the form of grace: sitting quietly and feeling rested and peaceful for a few minutes; looking upon a newborn baby and seeing one of God’s multitudinous miracles; gazing at a sunset; having lunch with a friend.  Isaiah suggests the power of a seed that falls to the ground and dies in order to become a growing and thriving plant.  Peace arrives when we least expect it.

What if we took Flannery OConnor’s words seriously?  What would that look like?  Perhaps we’re sitting on the sidelines, waiting for Jesus to do something.  Anything.  What if we got in there with him?

Where to begin?  I suggest we begin where our hearts are breaking.  Write it down, draw a picture (yes, even a stick-figure image.)  Write about it, dream about it, pray over it.  Ask for insight, to see it from different angles.  Pray for those who make the situation worse and those who are trying to make it better.  Pray for yourself.  What can you do?  Where can God use you?  Why does this issue hurt so much or make you so angry?  Keep asking why until you hit the core of it.

Isaiah spoke to the captives in Babylon that God was at work and that Isaiah was the messenger of this good news.  God would bind up, bring liberty, comfort and provision.  They could trade in their ashes of mourning for a garland of joy.  How will you trade in your ashes?  How will you walk into the difficult issues that cause you to run away in order to feel the peace of God?

Is it impossible that God can make a difference in the world?  Is peace on earth possible?  The Psalmist wrote about “sowing in tears and reaping with shouts of joy.” That “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps 126:5-6)

Will you resist grace?  Or will you allow it to change and transform you?  Will it be any more difficult to pray your way through this than it is to run from it?

God’s peace is waiting for you.  Name your issue.  Pray.  Research it.  Pray.  Seek out information.  Pray.  God is waiting for you where it hurts the most.  God will use your tears to transform you and your corner of the world.

Grace and peace are ready to change your life.

Do you have the courage to move into it?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

(1) (Flannery O’Connor,  “Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being” [New Yoir; Vintage Books, 1980], 307 As cited in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Volume 1 [Lousiville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008] page 54)


Mission:Impossible — Hope

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f] water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

“Excuse me, Pastor.  But I think you printed the wrong scripture lesson.  You see, this is Christmas.  We want to hear about Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and Magi.  Why are you bringing John the Baptizer into this?  He isn’t part of the Christmas story.  Is he?”

It’ll be two more weeks before we read a “Christmas Story.”  You see, this is Advent.  The four Sundays before Christmas Day when we do two things at once: prepare to meet the child in the manger and prepare to meet our Lord when he returns again.  That’s a tall order for just four weeks.  So let’s begin.

This is the Sunday of Hope.  And what better way to look at hope than to read about the Baptizer.  He’s nothing like Jesus: dresses like the prophet Elijah, lives in the dessert, eats honey and locusts (yuck!)  Strangest of all, he doesn’t announce himself.  He doesn’t have a cover band to warm up the audience, he doesn’t send out PR people to prepare for his arrival.  He simply arrives and does his job of pointing away from himself to the Messiah who will arrive soon.

He calls for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He preaches being right with God.

“Do we have to?  Really, Pastor.  Let’s do this later.  How about the Season of Lent?  That’s a good time to get all sad and do this  forgiveness stuff.  Right now, I’m pretty busy, you know.  Christmas gifts and parties and preparations.  Let’s set John aside for Lent.”

John will appear several times between now and Easter.  Today, we begin with John.  We begin our journey to the manger with repentance.  We remember that Christ will come again with repentance.

You see, these are two big moments in our Christian world.  Christ is born.  Christ will come again.  How can we NOT repent and turn, once again, to be right with God?

That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  Repenting.  It’s like peeling away the layers of a smelly onion.  These layers are thick and they encompass our hearts, telling us that we can’t live without, (fill in the blank): money, anger, war, hate… The popular TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?”  Today we might ask, “What’s in your heart?”

Of what do we repent?  Repentance comes to us in many ways.  It is personal repentance when your confession is between you and God, alone.  There is also corporate confession when we confess together our sin and receive the assurance of pardon.  I have found repentance in watching the evening news.  I have found healing in stories that show humanity at its best.

But, seriously, is the world worth it?  It’s god-forsaken.  It’s unlovable.  And I’m unlovable.  We’re all unlovable.  Talk about a smelly onion! It’s impossible!

Impossible that God could be at work today in this godforsaken world; that God doesn’t see the smelly onion and see anything of worth in our hearts; that God would be the least bit interested in inviting us to walk with God.  Impossible that we could hope for peace on earth; an end to hate and anger; a newness of life that leads us to righteous living.

Is anything impossible for God?  I mean, we’re talking about God, here.  God, who intervenes in history and sends himself to live among us.  God, who frees us from our worry and hate and anger and all that gets between us and God.  God, who is at work today as diligently as ever, not noticing the smelly onion, but seeing the beauty of what God has created us to be.

We’re free.  Free to open our lives to God, so that God can seep into the corners and crevices of our hearts and minds to show us how to live out the Mission of Christ in this godforsaken world.

Mission: Impossible — Hope.

Yes, it’s alive and well.  We live in that hope that we can be freed from it all because someone (God) knows all that stuff about us, and so much more.  We live in the hope that we can be freed from it all because God loves us: smelly and sinful though we may be.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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