Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's Not All About Me (or you either)

I will be away this Sunday. Joann and Jolly Davis will be talking about the Alliance of Baptist meeting in New Orleans and the work they did there.

So this gives me a chance to share something that happened to me recently that I found interesting...and funny...and thought provoking.

We were having the monthly potluck at church last Sunday. Joann made a comment (I forget what it was exactly) and I responded by saying something like "did I do something wrong?"

At that point, Marge leaned toward me and said, "It's not all about you Stephen." The table laughed...then laughed again when I told Marge that I would pass along to my wife Carole that she had stepped in (in my wife's absence) to remind me that everything isn't all about me.

It's a problem that many of us raised with high standards and expectations often have. If something goes wrong-it must be our fault. If someone is upset-we must have done something. We are somehow responsible for keeping all the wheels greased and all the folks happy; so if there's a problem...it must be all about us.

There's an even uglier shadow side to this. In my secret heart I think that because I work so hard to do it right, to be good, to be caring...that I deserve to be rewarded. People should love me, sing my praises...or at least be grateful for all I've done. After all...It's All About Me. For many of the persons I've worked with who've broken the law in one way or another this is the very excuse they use: 'I work so hard, I put in all this energy, I'm entitle to... (fill in the blank for yourself). But it all translates out to the same message: It's All About Me.

This morning I was trying to reflect on the Lord's Prayer when it hit me. When you and I say "Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be THY name; THY kingdom come, THY will be done." We're acknowledging that it's NOT All About Me.

In fact, in the great scheme of things, it's hardly about me at all. It's about God; and God's desire and love for God's creation. What it's about is whether or not God's will, God's desire, God's kingdom are realized in the moments of our lives...and through the actions of our lives. Our task is to seek that will, that kingom, and try as best we are able to join ourselves to it.

There is a gift for us here. See, if it's all about me, then my salvation is all about me too. And if my salvation is all about me...if my relationship to God is all about me...then, I don't know about you, but I'm toast. Cause I just can't do it. But what if here as well as in other ways, it's not all about me. If it's not all about me; then maybe I can relax. Maybe I can not have to be so scared of failure. Maybe I can risk. Martin Luther once said, "Sin boldly, but believe more boldly still."

If it's not all about me, then I can enjoy the part that is about me...that God loves you and me; that God loves us in ways beyond our imagining. And in that love we can risk, and fail, and rise again as we move toward God's will for us and for our world.

It's not all about me...or you either. Thanks be to God.


Monday, April 21, 2008


This week's Scriptures are

Before I say anything else, I want to thank the Wonderful Wednesday Kids for the incredible job that they did dramatizing our scripture lesson on Sunday. Then, they sang with the adult choir and were a marvelous addition to their music....So THANK YOU Wonderful Wednesday Kids....you are an important, valuable part of our church community. And thank you to all the adults who helped you get prepared in so many different ways.

This week's scriptures are about Jesus' encounter with persons who had leprosy. Because of their illness, the were forced out of their homes and made to live on the outskirts of the village or encampment (if it was a nomadic community). They had to wear torn clothing, let their hair hang in front of their face (looking down, they weren't allowed to look others in the eye) and cry out "unclean, unclean" as they moved through the streets. In some cultures they carried little bells that they rang as they walked to warn others that they were coming. Not only did they have to cope with the economic and medical issues caused by their illness; they had to endure the public shaming of their outcast status. This status could also be incurred by their families as well.

I think that these scriptures speak to us on three levels. The first is the social level. Where do we as Christians need to be reaching out to those who are alienated and outcast. Not just to those who are the 'flavor of the month' recepients of help (caring for others needs to be more than a fad); but the ones who are truly set adrift in our culture. From my work with sexual offenders, I think not only of them, but of their families. Remember how the outcast status of the leper could also be visited on their kin.

Second, I find that these passages challenge me to look at the list of people who, in my own heart of hearts, I have made 'lepers.' Who have I written off, written out, ostracized in my own mind and life. How might Jesus be calling me to deal with that part of my own living.

Third, if I flip this story a little bit, I need to look at the places in my life where I feel like a leper. All of us have them. Those places that make us ashamed to lift our head, the ones we're sure that if anyone else knew they'd turn away and go "oh yuck." Can we find in ourselves the courage this leper had to bring these things to Jesus and say, "if you want to, you can heal me."

A final thought that brings us full circle back to our Wonderful Wednesday Kids. These are wonderful children. We value them greatly-as we should. Can they help us not lose sight of the fact that the people we write off were once someone's beautiful child as well? I'm often reminded (in better moments) as I work with someone who had been battered by life into a state where they are difficult to deal with, much less to love, of the words to and old religious folk song about the "Tramp on the Street":

He was some mother's darlin'
He was some mother's son,
Once he was beautiful and once he was young.
Some mother rocked him, her little baby, to sleep;
But the left him to die, like a tramp on the street.

God still looks at all of us....lepers, outcasts, tramps on the street, upwardly mobile successful ones....all of us....with the eyes of a loving parent. Can we learn to look at the world though those eyes as well.

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What's Clean and What's Unclean?

This week's scripture is Acts 10: 9-35.

The Wonderful Wednesday Kids are going to be acting out the first part of this scripture for us on Sunday. You won't want to miss it.

When we look at this passage, it's a very strange story. Cornelius has a visit from an angel telling him to send for Peter. Peter gets a vision (and a pretty weird vision at that) which he interpretes in a way that lets him go to Cornelius when Cornelius sends messengers asking him to come.

I got to thinking about this passage. And it seems to me that this is the first time that God has taken such an active, out front role in making things happen since He sent an angel to Mary and a dream to Joseph. I asked myself why that was? What is happening here that is so important that God wants to make sure that everything goes according to plan?

Then it hit me. The importance of this moment is the move of Christianity out from being simply a Jewish sect, to being a faith for all persons. God is going to 'drop kick' as it were the new Christian community into relationship with, and acceptance of, their non-Jewish neighbors. Before they get set in their ways and start demanding that everybody who wants to be a Christian has to first convert to Judeism (and there are some in the early Church who will want that to be the rule), God is going to jump into the middle of the discussion and say, "No...don't you DARE go calling what I have said is 'clean', 'acceptable', 'kosher'...don't you DARE go calling it 'unclean'.

And Peter got the message. That was the good news. The bad news is that it didn't stick for very long and Peter would later chicken out a bit when an intimidating bunch of muckity mucks from the Jerusalem church showed up. But this day, he got it. And because he got it the Christian Church got its first gentile converts.

It's a funny thing though. Even after God gave him this great vision telling him that nothing and no one was 'unclean', even after he's stood there and watched the Holy Spirit come down on Cornelius and his household, Peter still slide back into his fear later on. Kinda like me and you. I need to ask myself over and over: 'who am I calling 'unclean' that God has made clean?' 'who am I blocking out that God has included?'

I am always humbled when I ask those questions of myself. Cause there's a long list of folks I wouldn't want to make a long car ride with; and a long list of folks who (if I'm honest) I harbor resentments toward; who I have deemed 'unclean' in my own heart. And the judgement of Jesus when I look at it honestly is, "when you do this to them...you do it to Me."

What's it like when you ask the questions?

Hope to see you Sunday.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Early Church and Us

This Sunday's Scripture is Acts 2: 42-47.

I will be away this Sunday at a conference. Rev. Dub Pool will be filling the pulpit and he will be using the scripture above as the focus for his sermon. It was interesting to be at the Bible study last night and studying a passage together that I wouldn't be preaching on.

However, I do get to share with you here some of my thoughts about that passage. Here they are:

These verses outline in simple, direct form what the early Christians did (we're going to get to that in a second). And we're told in verse 47 that as they "praised God" (by living the way we'll get to in a second) that they "enjoyed the favor of the whole people and day by day the Lord added new converts to their number."

The early Church grew because of the way that they lived and how attractive that was to the people who observed them.

Those of you familiar with 12-Step programs will know that AA talks about being a "program of attraction, not promotion." That means that it is a way of dealing with addiction that grows because people are attracted to it because of what they see and hear about how others have gotten sober...not because they're running a 'high gloss' add campaign. And they grew because recovering alcoholics told friends who were still drinking addictively about the help they'd found. Sorta like the old description of sharing our faith being "one begger telling another begger where to find food."

Now I've got nothing against ad campaigns per se. I've heard some lately that aren't bad. But once folks get in the door, if our walk doesn't match our talk, folks will drift on out just as quick as they came in.

So what did that "walk" look like in the early Church? Christians were, in the beginning, called People of the Way...what did that "Way" look like to outsiders?

First of all, we're told that they learned the Story. The "teaching of the Apostles" was those who had known Jesus and traveled with Him telling the same stories and sharing the same teachings that you and I find in our Gospel accounts. So they heard the Story and tried to figure out what it meant for them.

Second, they had "fellowship." Now this wasn't a "Hi, how are ya?" kind of thing. This was a view of fellowship rooted in Jesus teachings (for example "I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me...") that caused some of these folksto sell property and "share all things in common" so that their brothers and sisters would be taken care of.

Third, they "broke bread" together. Now this is important. I mean really IMPORTANT. It wasn't just that they ate meals together potluck style (which they probably did) moving from house to house. But more than this, each meal became a reminder to them of the Last Supper where Jesus talked about being 'broken' and 'poured out'; and how Jesus, following the resurrection, was "known in the breaking of the bread." And beyond even this, their meals stood as a counter cultural statement about who was in and who was out...reflecting the way in which Jesus ate with others during His lifetime. (We're into next week's sermon, so I'll stop there).

And finally, they prayed. Prayer became a natural, ongoing part of their life together.

I would challenge each of us-myself included-as we look at our identity as a congregation, and as we search for our next pastor, to examine our lives and see how well we reflect these early Church values.

I wish I could tell you that the church has lived up to this lifestyle; but very quickly this mode of living broke down (again, we're into next week's sermon); and we as current 'Followers of the Way' struggle with it even now. How will we...you and I....seperately and corporately seek to engage in this committed, disciplined struggle to understand and live out the Story and teachings of Jesus.

When we figure that out, we'll find, as once commentator (Al Wynn) said, that folks will be trying to break in to such a fellowship.

See you in two weeks.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

This week's scriptures are Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-49

The story from Luke 24 is often referred to as 'The Road to Emmaus' because of where this incident takes place. One of the interesting things is that no one seems to know where Emmaus was. Much like the 'holler' (or hollow if you prefer) in the mountains of Appalachia, it was probably a little village that was associated with a particular craft or family grouping...not even a dot on the map.

And the time? Well to you and me it was Easter evening. To Cleopas and his traveling companion (who was probably his wife....we'll talk about that on Sunday) it was three days after their friend had been tortured to death and the day they'd been told his grave had been robbed. They weren't looking for a resurrected Jesus; they were just trying to make it home safely and sharing their grief and troubled thoughts as they walked down the road. It was an ordinarily painful time in a troubled point in history. Another day in a world of political oppression and personal pain.

They weren't looking for Jesus. And they almost missed Him. It wasn't until the meal time, when he broke the bread and blessed it, that they recognized who he was. Then just as quickly...He was gone. We're told that they hotfooted it back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

But I want to point out three things that seem important to me. The first is that Jesus showed up in the middle of their sadness. God often comes to us in the times of our greatest distress. The second is that they invited this stranger into their home. They didn't know who he was; they only knew that night was coming and he needed to eat. Third, it was in this time of community and hospitality that Jesus became known to them.

The time when folks were most fearful of being arrested as Jesus' disciples, these two invite a stranger into their home for dinner. And in this act of risky hospitality they meet Jesus again. They are blessed with a visit from the risen Christ. Not because they're part of the important 'inner circle' of disciples. But because they shared their story, opened their home.

As we look at our lives personally and as a congregation; and especially as we explore our indentity in preparation to seek a new pastor; we might want to consider that it is in times of risky hospitality that we are most apt to encounter Jesus. This is the flip side to the "I was hungry and you feed me, naked and you clothed me..." passage. It says to us, "if you want to meet Jesus in the day to day, in the ordinary and unexpected places of your life...risky hospitality to strangers is the doorway to that experience."

We'll talk more on Sunday. Hope to see you then.