Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Somewhere Beyond the Sea

"Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God...

"Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.

"And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch...I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.

"But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.'

"Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him...And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days."

"But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided...Then God said to Noah, 'Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you...'

"Then Noah built an altar to the Lord...and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done...'"
- from Genesis 6-8 (NRSV)

Often, Christians get too caught up in the details of the Great Flood story, missing its beauty. Many conservatives insist that it is a literal event; many liberals consider it to be an ancient fable. Books have been written to support both sides and debates have been held, all of which has proven very little about the veracity of the Great Flood.

This is a story that is about more than a prehistoric cataclysm, more than just another, albeit massive, geologic disaster. The story is beyond simply a tragedy of the sea.

What strikes me as I read the story again (it is part of the lectionary for this Sunday) isn't the fantastical element of the story, but rather the change of heart apparently experienced by God.

Because of the sin of humankind, God was determined to wipe his creatures off the face of the planet and "reboot". The waters flowed and only Noah and those on his "ark" were safe.

But something happened in the heart of our paradoxical God, who is at once never-changing and yet always dynamic. It's more than just a "reboot" with the relatively righteous Noah. Something about the Great Flood "event" broke the heart of a perfectly loving God. God admitted that "the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth", and knew that humanity would eventually be just as rotten and corrupt as the generation destroyed in the Great Flood. Our Lord will be hurt again and again by our sin, and yet he decided to stick it out and love us anyway.

This is marriage. This is covenant. This is real gospel love. This is the Jesus story told through the wetness of monsoonal downpours and waterlogged wood.

We learn from the story of the Great Flood and from the deliverance of Noah that we live with a God who loves us no matter what, and who does not reject us entirely even when we thoroughly screw up (I suppose that the one caveat is that we are given the capacity to completely reject him, but that's an issue for another post). And God in Christ promises to be with us "even to the end of the age."
"God has built an ark of gracious love and mercy to preserve us from destruction and carry us safely to the place where we can make a new start and fulfil our ancient destiny, and this time we are all in the same boat."- Nathan Nettleton
"Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life's tempestuous sea;
unknown waves before me roll,

hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass come from thee; Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

"When at last I near the shore, and the fearful breakers roar
'twixt me and the peaceful rest,

then, while leaning on thy breast,
may I hear thee say to me, 'Fear not, I will pilot thee.'"

- Edward Hopper, 1871,
UMH 509

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wesley's Standard Sermons #29

In my preparation for Sunday's sermon on Matthew 6:24-34 (the Gospel selection in this week's lectionary), I have returned again and again to John Wesley's sermon on the passage. Good, good stuff.

While I regularly read, study, and meditate upon Wesley's sermons, I confess that for reasons which elude me I often "skip" the 13 standard sermons based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. I'm not sure why this has been my practice; I am not proud of my neglect. Wesley's sermon on this passage is so spot on, so much what I have wanted to say, that I am tempted to simply read his text. I won't do that, of course, but I'm not going to make light of the fact that much of my sermon will be drawn from Wesley's fine work.

If pastors who read this blog are preaching on this passage, I'd urge you to look again at Wesley's words if you have not already done so. You can find his sermon here. If you're not preaching on this passage this Sunday, I've no doubt that you will still be challenged and uplifted by this excellent sermon.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rerun: Trinity Sunday / Peace with Justice Sunday

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the Christian year devoted to a doctrine, rather than an event. This makes sense, for the Doctrine of the Trinity is the most important doctrine in Christianity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is important for many reasons; it helps define, for example, other crucial doctrines, such as Incarnation and Atonement. Christians are, technically speaking, not monotheists as much as they are Trinitarians.

I am amazed, nevertheless, at the number of pastors who never preach on the Trinity. I relate to Roger Olson's words in his wonderful 2002 book The Mosaic of Christian Belief (pages 133-134):

...some Christians have become so exasperated by the seeming confusion surrounding belief in the Trinity...that they have functionally given up on it. They may be members of a church with the word 'Trinity' in its name; they may pay lip service to belief in something called Trinity if asked; they may sing a hymn about God's triunity now and then in worship. But fewer and fewer Christians seem actually to embrace the belief known throughout Christian history as 'Trinity'. As one modern Catholic thinker has said, modern Christians tend to be functionally unitarian.

This is too bad; it's scandalous, in fact, given that our spiritual ancestors sometimes died for their devotion to the Holy Trinity.

One of the reasons this doctrine is so important is because of what it teaches us about God. From the Doctrine of the Trinity, we learn that God is social by his very nature; God exists in community.

We, therefore, as those devoted to the God who has revealed himself as triune, should also exist in community. We need the Church in order to faithfully incarnate Trinitarian doctrine...an important realization on the eve of Annual Conference.

But Sunday is not only Trinity Sunday, for in her wisdom, the Church has declared the day to also serve as Peace with Justice Sunday. Peace is more than simply the absence of conflict; it is a way of life in which each person has the essentials such as food, water, and shelter, in which sins such as sexism and racism don't exist, in which love is the crucial factor in human relations. In order to faithfully live in community, the Church must prayerfully support the elimination of poverty, war, racism, sexism, hate, and the like. True peace is intimately married to real justice.

And so, we are called to live as faithful Trinitarians, modeling the One God who exists in community, and doing the work of Christ by loving our sisters and brothers in the human family by prayer and sacrifice.

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all."
- 2 Corinthians 13:14

Originally posted 5/29/07

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pentecost 2008

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

What a day! Yesterday turned out to be a terrific Pentecost for Jefferson United Methodist Church!

The Rev. Dr. Donald Scandrol, Pittsburgh District Superintendent, joined us with his wife Barbara, and it was a real treat to worship with them. Don preached an inspiring message about allowing God's Spirit to inspire us and work through us as we try to speak the other languages of our culture and reach a lost and hurting world. Good stuff.

We then moved on to our United Methodist rite of Confirmation, which was a joy. We had a tremendous group of young people this year, all of whom are committed to Jesus and to their faith journeys. They are, in fact, each among the more active folks in our congregation. I have learned far more from them during this process than I will likely ever teach them as their pastor. It has been a fine experience.

As each confirmand knelt at the altar, Don and I lay hands on them, joined by the Rev. Robert Slack (a retired pastor whom we're glad to have with us at JUMC) and the Rev. Dawn Lynn Check (of Janes UMC in Creighton, PA), whose twin nephews were among our confirmands.

Don prayed for each young person by name, calling upon the power of the Holy Spirit, the blessing of the Father, and the presence of Jesus. This was a great moment for me as a pastor who loves these young people, but also as a father, as my daughter Kate was among those confirmed. What a blessing it has been (and continues to be) to watch her grow in her faith and in her service to the Kingdom of God. Most recently, she has become our new Children's Choir Director.

After the confirmation rite was concluded, I invited anyone who wished to join with JUMC to come forward and join the church. To my delight, we had fifteen people respond to the call. Only one of these, it turns out, is a "transfer" - the rest all joined JUMC by profession of faith. God is moving in and through JUMC, and I feel so blessed to be a part of it!

Don then led the liturgy for the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and our confirmands offered the bread and the cup to those present (we had multiple stations to accomodate the full house). Dawn then closed our worship with a blessing.

It was a day filled with joy and a real experience of the Holy Spirit. God is so very, very good. I pray that the Spirit continues to move in and through JUMC, with our newest members, but especially in the lives of the young people who took a bold step yesterday. May they always walk "near to the heart of God".

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

5 Most Played on My iPod right now

#1 - "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (live)"
by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

#2 - "Solsbury Hill"
by Peter Gabriel

#3 (tie) - "Instant Karma"
by John Lennon;
"All This Time" by Sting

#4 - "You Still Believe in Me"
by the Beach Boys

#5 (tie) - "Everything" by Michael Buble;
"Follow You, Follow Me" by Genesis

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Jesus' Ascension

"...as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They 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.'"
- Acts 1:9-11 (NRSV)

Today is Ascension Day...the day on which we remember the "Ascension of the Lord". This Sunday, Christians all over the globe will be remembering this important event (if you're choosing to ignore it, then shame on you!). This event is a crucial theological event that pastors need to talk about and need to address, particularly in today's postmodern environment.

Too often, we get caught up in the idea of Jesus going "up", knowing that as one rises through the atmosphere, one reaches not the otherworldly realm of the Almighty, but Earth's orbit and, eventually, deep space. We must remember that the writer of Acts, as with all the early disciples, were trying to describe something which happened before them which was difficult for them (and us) to understand, using the vocabulary they had, and working out of the worldview they maintained.

In N.T. Wright's fascinating new book, Surprised By Hope, he deals extensively with the notion of Jesus' Ascension. Bishop Wright describes heaven - the place to which Jesus "ascended" - not as a place far above in the sky, but rather as another dimension of God's creation, which exists concurrently with earth. He (brilliantly) compares it to C.S. Lewis' Narnia, which is distinct from our world yet only a wardrobe away.

The Church believes that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and affirms this each Sunday in the Creed. Given Bishop Wright's understanding, this means that Jesus is very present with us now, though he is distinctly somewhere else. This says wonderful things about the absolute Lordship of Christ.

More than this, however, the fact that Jesus is now in heaven and not on earth reminds us that he will return on the Day of the Lord. We read on page 117 of Bishop Wright's book,
"At no point in the Gospels or Acts does anyone say anything remotely like, 'Jesus has gone into heaven, so let’s be sure we can follow him.' They say, rather, 'Jesus is in heaven, ruling the whole world, and he will one day return to make that rule complete'."
So, the Ascension strengthens not only our understanding of the Lordship of Christ (a strengthening which is greatly needed in today's Church), it also reminds us that our eternity will be spent not "in heaven" as disembodied spirits flying around the clouds (a la "I'll Fly Away"), but rather in the New Jerusalem on the New Earth, as transformed and embodied children of the living God, a concept sadly forgotten by many Christians, but a concept which has incredibly far reaching implications, theologically, practically, missionally, politically and socially.

So, my prayer is that the Church is blessed this Ascension Day, and that pastors and congregations across the planet ponder these issues and rejoice in the hope of glory!