Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Be Whole"

“Be Whole!”
Acts 8:26-40
            Perhaps it’s because I preached this passage last Sunday.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve had a hip replacement, cataract surgery, heart catherization (with a stent)—and no telling what other parts I may need  to have replaced.  Perhaps it’s because I feel myself slowing down, stiffening up, bothered by aches and pains I never used to have.  Whatever the reason, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch has been much on my mind.
            You know the story.  A eunuch (quite likely a misplaced Jew), a trusted member of the Ethiopian queen’s court, is traveling the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, reading the Hebrew Scriptures.  Philip has been directed to that road by the Spirit for the express purpose of intersecting with—and interacting with—the eunuch.  After being invited into the chariot, Philip explains the gospel to the eunuch, who becomes excited.
            “Look!  Here’s water!” the eunuch cries.  “What prevents me from being baptized?”
            This seemingly innocent question is actually a loaded one.  The eunuch has been to the temple in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, presumably to worship there and reconnect with his Jewish heritage.  What he most likely found was a stone wall, erected by Torah law, which declared that no castrated male could be part of the congregation of the Lord.  As sincere as would have been his desire, we can be sure he would not have passed the Pharisees’ “wholeness” test.
            Philip assures him that if he believes the gospel he can be made whole in God’s sight.  No wonder, when the Spirit removed Philip from that place, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing!”  What he had not found in Jerusalem, what he could not understand from his reading of Isaiah, he discovered in the story of Jesus Christ.  There was nothing in his physical condition that prevented him from becoming a follower of Jesus.
            Moses had a speech impediment.  Rahab was a prostitute.  Isaiah was a man of unclean lips.  Jeremiah considered himself too young for God’s service.  Zacchaeus was short and a Roman collaborator.  Paul had an unspecified “thorn in the flesh.”  All of these people had something that prevented them from being whole—perfect—in body or spirit.  Yet God was able to reach out and use them.  It wasn’t their imperfections—their disabilities—that concerned God.  God was interested in what they could offer, not what prevented them.
            Fanny Crosby was blind, yet she wrote beautiful, meaningful hymns—many of which we still sing today.  John Milton, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel were also blind, yet God used them to create major works in literature and music—works that enrich the human spirit, and that demonstrate the working of God’s Holy Spirit.
            What prevents us from being whole?  Is it our physical condition?  Our lack of an education?  Is it shyness, or the perceived lack of the ability to speak well, or the belief that we couldn’t possibly be used by God?  Whatever our disability, our shortcoming, our imperfection, it doesn’t matter to God.  God is an expert in taking less-than-perfect people and using them, often in ways they—and others—thought impossible.
            Hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch afresh.  Feel with him the estrangement from his religious heritage, the incompleteness that cuts him off from the God he so much wants to relate to and serve.  Hear Philip’s words, telling of God’s grace and mercy, of God’s ability to make even the most imperfect person whole again.  See through his eyes possibility of baptism and feel what he must have felt as he emerged from the water—a new creation.
            Hear him say, “I’m whole in God’s sight!  I’m complete!  I have been accepted into God’s kingdom!”  And accept the wholeness God offers you.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Prayer Changes Things

Prayer Changes Things
Luke 11:1-2
            Prayer Changes things.
I grew up with this saying.  Many of you probably did as well.  In my smart alecky moments I sometimes ask, “What things does prayer change?  How does prayer change things?” Robert Webb says, “Prayer is one of our greatest weapons for change.”  Again, I’m led to ask, “Change what?  Change how?”
            So many people have written so much about prayer that it is a daunting task to find something new and meaningful to say.  Recently I have found stimulation for my own thinking in other people’s words.  Perhaps some of these words will help here.
            Ruth Bell Graham, the wife and lifetime companion (and, I’m sure, influence) of Billy Graham once said, “God has not always answered my prayers.  If He had, I would have married the wrong man—several times.”
            All too often, when we go to God in prayer, we already know what we want.  We’re so sure that what we think is best for us is so obvious that God must see it too.  “Surely God is perceptive enough to see things my way!” we’re likely to say.  Any right-thinking god would have to agree with us in every detail of our request. This attitude is akin to making God in our image. 
            Often it’s only when looking at our lives in the rearview mirror that we understand how disastrous things would have turned out if God had given us what we wanted.  “How could we have been so stupid!” we ask ourselves—if we have the humility to admit our mistakes.  Thank God (and I use this phrase purposely) we didn’t get our way.
            It is easy to forget that God’s view is much longer and clearer than ours.  We walk through life with a flashlight, which allows us to see a few steps ahead, while God’s light illumines not only our path but all other paths as well, far into the future.  Our perspective is bound to be short-sighted.  God has the long view.
            A pastor once said to me, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes us.”  I think that’s as good a description of prayer as we are likely to find.  How does this work?  Someone has said,  “When we ask God to do something for us, He generally wants to do something in us.”  We want God to grant us our wish list, like a celestial Santa Claus, who will open his bag of goodies and fill the area under the biggest Christmas tree we can imagine.  Instead, God wants to work within us to help us see things from God’s perspective.  When we open ourselves to God in prayer we will be able to catch a glimpse of the long view—and our view will change.
            Trouble is, we misinterpret what prayer should be about, or as John Jones says, “Sometimes we’re so intent on praying that it becomes all talking and no listening.”  God wants to have a conversation with us, not hear our endless list of requests.  Many of us have been on the receiving end of one-sided conversations, and we know how boring they can be.  I’m not saying God is bored with our prayers, but I’m sure that, like us with our talk-dominating companions, God would like to get a word in now and then.
            We should listen to Bill Madison who says, “Meditation is slowing down enough to hear God.”  Meditation:  the act of being silent before God—or, as Isaiah says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  When prayer begins and ends with quiet time we not only set the mood for prayer, but we allow God time to speak with us—we get to know God; then God can really change something—us.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

But Wait! There's More!

But Wait!  There’s More!
Mark 16:1-8
            As I said last week, the ending to Mark’s gospel leaves us feeling that something’s missing.  It ends so abruptly that we feel cheated, especially when we compare it with the endings of the other gospels.  We are not alone in this feeling.  Later editors added first a short ending then a longer one, so that eventually twelve verses were attached to Mark’s last chapter, documenting some of Jesus’ post-resurrection experiences.
            N.T. Wright believes Mark wrote a longer ending of his own that was lost.  Perhaps, but more likely Mark’s intention was, as many experts believe, to leave the ending to us.  We are the ones who must carry out the commission given to the women that first Easter.  It becomes our work to spread the news that Jesus is alive.
            Still, we miss so much without the post-resurrection experiences the other gospel writers share with us.  How empty our account of the resurrection would be without them!
            Jesus meeting his disciples on a mountain in Galilee and giving them the Great Commission (Matthew).
            Jesus joining the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, sharing the gospel with them, then revealing himself to them.  Their joy and excitement led them to turn around and rush back to Jerusalem to share their experience with Jesus’ followers, only to hear them say, “We have seen the Lord.”  Then Jesus stood appeared (Luke).
            Three of the most beautiful, meaningful stories in the Bible:  first Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene in the garden, the religious source of that beautiful old hymn we sing too infrequently.  Then his appearance in the upper room that night, while Thomas is away.  When Thomas returned he was skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection.  Then Jesus returned, and Thomas  confessed, “My Lord, and my God!”  Finally, Jesus’ meets with Peter and six other disciples by the Sea of Galilee where he lovingly reconciles with Peter (John).
            Without these stories our own post-resurrection experience is far less rich.  With them we can visualize the risen Christ interacting with his closest followers, enriching their lives, reconnecting with them lovingly and forgivingly.  We long to see the risen Christ—not in person.  That would be asking too much.  But when we read these stories we are there with the disciples, sharing their joy, their amazement, their sense of completeness.  Their master is back with them.  Even though it will be for a limited time, they are glad.
            Experiencing something vicariously can never be as fulfilling as experiencing it firsthand, but there are many experiences we cannot have firsthand.  This is one.  While we might have a sense of Jesus at work in our lives, and feel him close to us, it means so much to hear his words to those first disciples, to experience the accounts of his interaction with them, to imagine their joy at his presence as they finally understand and believe what he had told them so often.
            As we read Mark’s account, we may sympathize with the women.  They had been given unbelievable news.  We can feel their fear as they hurry from the tomb, not knowing what to do, and believing it best to say nothing until they can be completely sure.  We may find ourselves saying, “Well, if they won’t tell the story of the risen Christ, I suppose it’s up to me to spread the word that Jesus is alive.”  All this is good, but still unsatisfying.
            But wait!  There’s more!  We can run with Peter and John to the empty tomb.  We can walk the Emmaus road.  We can share in Thomas’ confession, and Mary’s devotion.  We can feel the joy of those who say, “We have seen the Lord!” and our own joy will be full.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

From Our Sins and Fears Release Us

From Our Sins and Fears Release Us
Mark 16:1-8
            Mark’s account of the resurrection is the least complete, least fulfilling, and most unsettling of all the gospel writers.  There’s no meeting between Jesus and the women on their return from the tomb.  No beautiful story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden.  No doubting Thomas.  No journey to Emmaus.
            Mark tells us that the women arrive at the tomb, see that the stone has been rolled away, enter the tomb and find a young man in a white robe.  Although Mark is cautious here, the identification of the robe as white is a sure indication that they are looking at an angel.  If we want further proof, the young man says, “Do not be alarmed,” something angels always say to humans—and rightly so.  Wouldn’t you be alarmed if you entered a room and saw an angel?  I’d wonder what I’d done wrong.
            The young man/angel tells the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has risen, and he will meet them in Galilee.  And here’s what’s so unfulfilling and disturbing:  Mark says the women, “went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
            Later—much later—other writers, feeling the incompleteness of Mark’s ending, added twelve verses they had taken from some other source.  These verses make the ending more satisfying, perhaps, but less accurate to Mark’s version of Easter morning. 
            Fear paralyzes.  It makes us do strange things.  We forget what we’re supposed to be doing.  We don’t fulfill our responsibilities.  We tremble.  Our insides churn.  We do nothing.
            Is fear sin?  Perhaps that’s going too far, but fear keeps us from doing what we know is right, what we know we should do—and that’s pretty close to a definition of sin.  Fear may not be sin, but it makes it more possible for us to sin.
            Thomas Troeger captures this in his poem, Crucified Savior.
                                Crucified Savior,
                        when we sing of Calvary
                        we hear a hammer pounding nails,
                        we see a reddened sky,
                        and we shudder to remember
                        your uncompromising words,
                        Take up your cross and follow me.

                        Then with the psalmist we wonder:
                        Where can we flee from your presence?
                        Where can we hide
                        from your demanding spirit,
                        from the strenuous work of love,
                        from the severities of doing justice
                        in a brutal world?

                        Risen Lord,
                        Forgive our betrayal,
                        our running away,
                        our lack of courage,
                        our failure of nerve.
                        infuse us with a passionate faith
                        until we seek no other glory
                        than what lies past Calvary’s hill
                        and our living and our dying
                        and our rising by your will.

            Mitzi Minor says that Mark left the ending incomplete because it is up to us to finish the story.  We are the ones who must conquer our fears.  We are the ones who must tell others about the risen Christ.  We cannot give in to the sins of not taking up our cross, of not doing justice, of not loving.  For surely these are the sins that keep us from completing the story.  These are the sins that cause us to tremble when we should be boldly following the angel’s instructions.