The Winsomeness of the Gospel

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1 Samuel 15:24-35Acts 9:32-43Luke 23:56b-24:11

Today in Luke we encounter the resurrection of Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women discover this, and they can’t sit still!  The Spirit had set them on fire.

Then Peter catches the bug – unable to believe “the women” he runs to the tomb “stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

Three things:

1) I am thankful the message of the good news was entrusted to women.  How fitting for a story that turns the world’s expectations on its head.

2) I can’t imagine the energy and chaos after the resurrection.  I am tempted to think that questions would have flooded my mind.  What happened?  How can I be sure?  What does all this mean?  What next?  How do I fit in?

3) I love the winsomeness of the Bible.  Most people miss this.  It is with a childlike curiosity we peer into the tomb with the women.  What are we expecting to find?  It is with childlike wonder we need to approach the text, lest we miss its point completely.

When the terror had settled down, and the reality of the situation sunk in, and when the resurrection appearances started getting more plentiful, the future would probably overwhelm me.

But God doesn’t call us to that, does he?  We are told not to worry about tomorrow, but for tomorrow to worry about itself.  And for me that is the downside of “Long Range Planning Committees”.  The question is not what should we be doing as an organization 10 years from now, but what is it about who we are that leads us into action today?

The worst thing for the disciples to have done after the resurrection would have been to sit down and come up with a 5 and 10 year plan.  Those plans would have been thrown out the window within 6 months, because so much would have changed.  Who would have thought that things would grow so fast and so virulently?

This doesn’t mean we treat our Christianity with any less seriousness.  It doesn’t mean we head into it without a plan completely.  It means we need to approach our faith with childlike wonder and exuberance.  We need to get caught up in the story, and be equally excited and playful as those first disciples were, venturing into new and exciting adventures.

When we come with that kind of innocence to the story, we come without our agendas and presuppositions.  We come open and ready for God to move us.

We are called, as a Gospel people, to not worry about today.  Oh, we can dream, and we can know some things about the future.  But we cannot know the future, only who holds it.  With that in mind, let us leave the tomb and share what we have seen and heard.

-Matt

Saul, Saul, Saul

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1 Samuel 15:1-3,7-23Acts 9:19b-31Luke 23:44-56a

In our Old Testament reading today we witness the complete and utter rejection of Saul as king.  “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands,” said God.  Even Samuel was angry.

In Acts we deal with another Saul – the one who becomes Paul.  It is here we come to understand the power of the gospel message.  Now Saul has been converted, and is preaching in Damascus.  “Damascus” is code word for expansion.  If the good news can get to Damascus, a hub of trade, politics, and culture, then it can get to Antioch, to Rome, and to any corner of the earth.

The other power is in Saul’s story itself.  Here was a man who persecuted Christians.  He never met the earthly Jesus, who lived and walked in Galilee.  He was not one of the original disciples.  And now he is hanging out with the disciples, and increasing in power and “confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.”

If the good news has that kind of effect of Saul, certainly the “Jesus factor” is high enough to affect distant lands.  We as the readers bring the power of this home.  Here we are, 2000 years later, in a distant land on a distant shore, and we are reading of the tale of the one they called Messiah, following him too.

The evangelization of the four corners of the earth continues.  The questions still come: “And who am I called to spread the good news to?”  What words from God will fill me?  What will I say?  And in our postmodern context professing Christ as Lord has unique challenges.  Radiating the love of God to others is as challenging as ever.  Or is it?

We radiate the same love of God in Christ as Saul did 2000 years ago.  We do our part and watch the miraculous power of God move.

-Matt

Disrupting History

1 Samuel 12:1-6,16-25Acts 8:14-25Luke 23:1-12

Jesus stands before Pilate in our readings today.  “Are you the  king of the Jews?”  “You say so.”  Then he is passed to Herod.  He gives no answer.

It is a sad state of affairs when the establishment chews up and spits out its leaders, its prophets, or in this case its Messiah.  Jealousy abounds.

I am sure you have been on the short end of this stick, or close to someone who has had this happen.  Perhaps they weren’t crucified, but I am guessing fired from a job unjustly or tossed out like the garbage with regards to friendship or what have you.

Jesus stood before Herod and gave no answer to the charges.  They crucified him – not because of what he had done or said – but because they couldn’t handle what he had done.  It threatened their power.  He threatened the establishment.

Often this is what happens in our churches.  Our pastors illuminate something we don’t like in ourselves.  They help push us into the Gospel light.  Systems sometimes kick back.  People don’t like change.

Jesus demanded that the people wake up.  We don’t like to be awakened.  Let us sleep.  Leave us alone.  Don’t change us.  Don’t make us move, or think.

This is what is wrong with our political system.  Ultimately it comes back to us.  We are too lazy to do anything about it.  So most of us casually sit back and allow the dysfunction to continue to manifest itself.  This is what happens in our churches – we get sick of trying to help people change and we give up and it goes back to the way it was.

I have been the pastor of churches like this – churches that are very much like the Titanic – too big of a boat and too small of a rudder, unable to significantly move in any new directions, dragging over 100 years of history behind it.  Sometimes that history can help.  Other times that history is exactly what ends up holding them back.  Sometimes it is both (a “both/and,” so common in our postmodern world).

At times the dysfunction that manifests are things like radial injustice, powers that are so great, getting so much steam behind them, that they become the Titanics of our lives.  We fight, but it is only as others join the fight that we can get anywhere.

Are you familiar with Titus Kaphar?  He is one of the artistic voices of our day, with some of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  He is painting, cutting, and sculpting images of our criminal justice system that you need to see.  He is disrupting history.  He is looking through the lens of history and helping us see our sin.  He is helping us to remember.

Titus is also helping us to critically look at ourselves, and do that “both/and” with history I talked about previous.  Sometimes history can help, other times it is holding us back.  Titus can help us do both.  Most recently he took on Ferguson.  You should check him out if you aren’t familiar (pictured above).  http://kapharstudio.com/

Prophets like Titus often show us the way.  They help us to wrestle with our past and chart out new futures.

Jesus shows us the way.  His way is even more radical.  Are we willing to lose our life in order for new life to take root?  He died to this end.  But remember that was not the end of the story.  We follow the one who vanquished death forever, and who lives eternally.  He will not let us falter.  New life will find a way.  The question is how and when and how will you choose to be a part.

-Matt

Freedom (corrected version)

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1 Samuel 11:1-15Acts 8:1-13Luke 22:63-71

My entire life the 4th of July has arrived and I have been 100% confident that the next year our country will still be in existence.  This year is different.  With the very foundation of our democracy under attack, there is that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that says “What if this is our last 4th?”

With the November 2016 election, I thought things couldn’t get worse.  And then they did.  2017 has been a trainwreck.  From personal tragedies, to family deaths, to dysfunctional churches shooting themselves in the foot, to the political circus that is Oklahoma and the US, it is hard to imagine 2017 getting any worse.

And yet we pause.  We pause today and give thanks for the breathtaking splendor of our United States.  I am thankful for the US Constitution and the Constitutions of all of our states, which demands that the rule of law trump over the tRump (most recently our state election officials saying NO to Big Government/Big Brother).

We live in a great country where no one person can hold captive our liberty.

Oh, that will not stop politicians from trying.  Human nature is to grab for power.  But the checks and balances of our country finally win out. Don’t they?

Our Acts reading is remarkable today.  Saul persecutes the church in a dramatic way, breaking into house after house and dragging Christians, both men and women, to prison.  Freedom is in jeopardy and the church is scattered throughout the countryside.  But the pivotal question comes: Is this a dark day for the church, or its most glorious day?

It turns out, the irony of scattering is precisely what the church needed – the impetus for growth, forcing the church into new territory.  Irony is a common theme for the New Testament.  In Luke, Jesus seals his fate by acknowledging he is the Son of God.  His crucifixion is the most glorious of days ironically for God’s kingdom.

And that is the irony of our country today and the July 4th celebrations.  Despite the threats to our democracy, the seeming erosion of freedom and liberty will probably lead to more freedom and more liberty.  That is how it has always gone.

Think about marriage equality.  Who would have thought 10 years ago that our country would be years ahead of Germany on the issue of marriage equality?  Germany has always beaten the pants off of us when it comes to infrastructure and jobs and energy and healthcare and social policies.  How on earth did we leapfrog them on marriage equality?

Well, because of states rights.  So today I give thanks for these United States of ours.  Here is the deal with freedom.  Once you give freedom it is hard to take it away.  So one or two states declared same-sex marriage legal, and it became difficult to take away those rights as people moved across state lines – or the rights of their children more aptly.

The same principle of freedom in Christ and Christ’s will has molded and shaped the church.  Once the Holy Spirit has moved us to be more loving or inclusive, it is hard to take that away.  Women in ministry.  Or backing up to the 1st Century, the Jewish/Gentile question.

Change in churches have caused anxiety.  It is natural.  But in a similar ironic twist in church work, that anxiety has not always been a bad thing.  It wasn’t too long ago that integrated churches were illegal, especially in the South.  Anxiety over women in ministry or gays in ministry has led to the Church in North America generally being more inclusive, loving, and healthy in my eyes.  (People always want to talk about how the Presbyterian Church is in decline.  Have they looked at Southern Baptists churches?  Their decline is much more rapid.  Part of it is simply a large generational population dying off, coupled with the secularization of society.  I am not so much interested in overall numbers.  I am interested in overall health.  Like I said in my last reflection, I would rather have 1000 people who want to follow Jesus, than a million that don’t give a darn.)  

Much like pruning a vine, God is making us a stronger church.  A more inclusive church, more loving, more set on the ideals that Christ held close.

Those churches of exclusion are gasping their last gasp.

Our challenge is to trust that our anxiety can ultimately lead to health and success and a stronger church.

And so whether you are part of a church struggling to have a healthy survival instinct, or whether you are struggling over using wine for communion or having a common cup, or having people of different color come in the door, trust that God can use your anxiety.  Just don’t let it become a pathological fear that can dangerously steer the agenda of the church into more fear.  Remember, the early church had much anxiety.  There was constant stress, even churches being blown apart by radical extremists like Saul.   And yet, the church thrived.  So will our country.

Do we believe our theology or not?  Do we trust that God is in charge or not?

Nothing can shake the foundation of who we are.  And as we claim that, we will find ourselves overcoming the anxieties in the churches or our country – but we must face them head on.  We must trust that Christ is at the center of who we are, and we must act accordingly.

May freedom ring!

-Matt

Freedom

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1 Samuel 11:1-15Acts 8:1-13Luke 22:63-71

My entire life the 4th of July has arrived and I have been 100% confident that the next year our country will still be in existence.  This year is different.  With the very foundation of our democracy under attack, there is that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that says “What if this is our last 4th?”

With the November 2016 election, I thought things couldn’t get worse.  And then they did.  2017 has been a trainwreck.  From personal tragedies, to family deaths, to dysfunctional churches shooting themselves in the foot, to the political circus that is Oklahoma and the US, it is hard to imagine 2017 getting any worse.

And yet we pause.  We pause today and give thanks for the breathtaking splendor of our United States.  I am thankful for the US Constitution and the Constitutions of all of our states, which demands that the rule of law trump over the tRump (most recently our state election officials saying NO to Big Government/Big Brother).

We live in a great country where no one person can hold captive our liberty.

Oh, that will not stop politicians from trying.  Human nature is to grab for power.  But the checks and balances of our country finally win out. Don’t they?

Our Acts reading is remarkable today.  Saul persecutes the church in a dramatic way, breaking into house after house and dragging Christians, both men and women, to prison.  Freedom is in jeopardy and the church is scattered throughout the countryside.  But the pivotal question comes: Is this a dark day for the church, or its most glorious day?

It turns out, the irony of scattering is precisely what the church needed – the impetus for growth, forcing the church into new territory.  Irony is a common theme for the New Testament.  In Luke, Jesus seals his fate by acknowledging he is the Son of God.  His crucifixion is the most glorious of days ironically for God’s kingdom.

And that is the irony of our country today and the July 4th celebrations.  Despite the threats to our democracy, the seeming erosion of freedom and liberty will probably lead to more freedom and more liberty.  That is how it has always gone.

Think about marriage equality.  Who would have thought 10 years ago that our country would be years ahead of Germany on the issue of marriage equality?  Germany has always beaten the pants off of us when it comes to infrastructure and jobs and energy and healthcare and social policies.  How on earth did we leapfrog them on marriage equality?

Well, because of states rights.  So today I give thanks for these United States of ours.  Here is the deal with freedom.  Once you give freedom it is hard to take it away.  So one or two states declared same-sex marriage legal, and it became difficult to take away those rights as people moved across state lines – or the rights of their children more aptly.

The same principle of freedom in Christ and Christ’s will has molded and shaped the church.  Once the Holy Spirit has moved us to be more loving or inclusive, it is hard to take that away.  Women in ministry.  Or backing up to the 1st Century, the Jewish/Gentile question.

Change in churches have caused anxiety.  It is natural.  But in a similar ironic twist in church work, that anxiety has not always been a bad thing.  It wasn’t too long ago that integrated churches were illegal, especially in the South.  Anxiety over women in ministry or gays in ministry has led to the Church in North America generally being more inclusive, loving, and healthy in my eyes.  (People always want to talk about how the Presbyterian Church is in decline.  Have they looked at Southern Baptists churches?  Their decline is much more rapid.  Part of it is simply a large generational population dying off, coupled with the secularization of society.  I am not so much interested in overall numbers.  I am interested in overall health.  Like I said in my last reflection, I would rather have 1000 people who want to follow Jesus, than a million that don’t give a darn.)  

Much like pruning a vine, God is making us a stronger church.  A more inclusive church, more loving, more set on the ideals that Christ held close.

Those churches of exclusion are gasping their last gasp.

Our challenge is to trust that our anxiety can ultimately lead to health and success and a stronger church.

And so whether you are part of a church struggling to have a healthy survival instinct, or whether you are struggling over using wine for communion or having a common cup, or having people of different color come in the door, trust that God can use your anxiety.  Just don’t let it become a pathological fear that can dangerously steer the agenda of the church into more fear.  Remember, the early church had much anxiety.  There was constant stress, even churches being blown apart by radical extremists like Saul.   And yet, the church thrived.  So will our country.

Do we believe our theology or not?  Do we trust that God is in charge or not?

Nothing can shake the foundation of who we are.  And as we claim that, we will find ourselves overcoming the anxieties in the churches or our country – but we must face them head on.  We must trust that Christ is at the center of who we are, and we must act accordingly.

May freedom ring!

-Matt

Get To It, Y’all

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1 Samuel 10:17-27; Acts 7:44-8:1a; Luke 22:52-62

 

I audibly laughed this morning when I read 1 Samuel today.  OK, let me back up and give you some context.  Saul has just been anointed by Samuel and selected as king.  There is a very brief celebration, as the sweep of the Old Testament narrative is laid before the people – how they were brought up from Israel of out Egypt, rescued, and set up as a people.  They have finally made it.  They are now a kingdom, complete with a leader.

I laughed because I thought “They are now a kingdom, complete with a leader…..wait, what does that make us?”  It appears we are without a leader.  Instead he has been replaced with a baby, who has a Twitter account, and worse yet has access to his smartphone.  Word to his staff: Treat him like a teenager, and take it away.

With Saul dissension begins almost immediately.  He is unfit for office and God’s judgment reigns.  I pray that we in this country have the courage to call out those who are clearly guilty – so many of which are impeachable offenses.  We seem to have less of a spine than our “leader,” acquiescing to mediocrity and infantile rants.  When are we going to learn our lesson?  It doesn’t need to get “Old Testament bad” for us to wake up, does it?

It is not time to “Speak Out!”  I keep hearing this.  What does that mean?  It is time for us to move to action.  That could mean with our pocketbooks.  It could mean rallying in our churches, synagogues, and mosques.  It could mean a number of things that could mean taking back our country without an armed uprising.  It starts with VOTES.

LOVE must win.  LOVE will win.  If I know the Gospel to be true, love will stamp out hate.  This starts in us.

In Luke, Jesus is betrayed and arrested.  The denial of his identity and a rejection of the Lord is soon to follow.

My doctorate, my work at the Church Development Institute in Seattle, my consultant work have all looked critically at church systems, learning processes and models, in order to help churches identify themselves more realistically and move forward in faith.

I find it interesting that 1 Samuel and Luke are Utopian visions shattered by unfulfilled expectations.  “Having a king” was going to save us.  In both stories, it turns out, the “savior” cannot live up to expectations, because each person seems to have a different way by which to deliver the goods.  False hopes.

Often churches do this too, don’t we?  “If we could just discover the next miraculous program to start, it will save us.”  “That new pastor will save us.”  Or worse yet, “Her VBS ideas will bring in the children and that will save us.”

It turns out, God does not call us to the Utopia of the church, but to action through faithful service.  We are called to follow the King (as in THE KING), knowing full well that the church is not the kingdom itself, but a reflection of God’s grace here.  Not everything will be perfect.  And knowing that, we can move to a place in which the world is better with us, and in which we can reflect the gospel light.

It is as the Great Ends of the Church declare, our job as Christians is the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

-Matt