Sunday, January 26, 2014

Who Do You Follow? (I Corinthians 1:10-17)

     I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!"
     "Why shouldn't I?" he said.
     I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"
     "Like what?"
     "Well ... are you religious or atheist?"
     "Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?"
     "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
     "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
     "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
     "Baptist Church of God."
     "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
     "Reformed Baptist Church of God."
     "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
     "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
     To which I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.

     So, who do you follow?
We do not live in a large community, but we are a community of seven churches . . . approximately a church for every one hundred people on the census.  Even for a community of our size we have a nice variety of churches from which to choose when it comes time to worship.  We’ve got the Baptists, Wesleyans, Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Christians, and those who meet in the backyard of Micah’s house. If you ask anyone from our community, they will tell you that they are associated with some church within the confines of the community.  It is kind of funny how we have one God, but thirty-two flavors of that one God . . . and, people pick their favorite flavor . . . and, people defend their favorite flavor and usually—though they would never say it out loud—distain the flavors of other people.  Everybody likes their flavor the best.
So it was for those who were in the congregation in Corinth when they called for the help of the Apostle Paul . . . everyone had their favorite flavor and really did not care for the flavors of anyone else.  It created a whole lot of animosity within the congregation to the point that there was the threat of violence and the downfall of the congregation.  Thus the apostle rides to the rescue and attempt to knock some common sense into the warring factors of the Corinth church.
The problem had to do with, well, flavors . . . some of the people liked the way Apollos shared the gospel . . . some liked the way that Cephas shared the gospel . . . still, some liked the way that Paul shared it . . . while others, stuck to the original version which was Jesus.  They all liked their flavors and expected everybody else to like them too.  Of course, not everyone likes the same flavor . . . and, no one appreciated being made to do something they don’t want to do.  Thus quarrels broke out . . . and, we all know how nasty church fights can get.  If they all had their way, they would push the dissenters off the bridge and be done with them.  The only problem is there would be no one left.
Paul poses a simple a question: who do you follow?  Paul explains that it was not Apollos, Cephas, or even himself that was crucified for them . . . nor were any of them baptized in their names.  No, it was Jesus who died on a cross . . . it is in Jesus’s name that they were baptized . . . and, it is the “good news” of Jesus that these individuals were called to share.  It was not their “word”, but the “word” of Jesus.  The bottom line is that the only person that should be followed is Jesus himself . . . they are to be the followers of Jesus and only Jesus . . . and, on that they should agree.
For a while we have been witnessing a great exodus from the organized church . . . from denominations.  The figures do not lie, the church as it has always seemed to be . . . is dying.  We have heard that there are more of those who are “spiritual” and spurn organized religion, than there are those who claim to be “religious” and attend many forms of organized religion.  Again, the statistics and numbers prove this fact to be true.  All of us gathered here this morning can probably name off a list of excuses of why our friends and families do not attend church . . . chiefly it would be that they do not like all the rules and regulations of how churches run themselves . . . or, that the church is too political . . . too divisive.  As a pastor, I have heard everything . . . but, like the Apostle Paul, I would say, who do you follow?
Sadly, what I often hear in return is not Jesus.  I hear a particular denomination . . . I’m a Catholic . . . I’m a Baptist . . . I’m a Methodist . . . I’m a Christian.  Or, I hear a particular minister or ministry . . . Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson, Joel Olsteen, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Rob Bell, or even . . . heaven forbid . . . John Keener!  I also hear particular theological bents on the answer . . . evangelical, missional, liberal, conservative, and feminine just to name a few that are floating around out there.  I hear everything but Jesus!  Listen to the way that people respond to that question, and you will know who they are truly following.
It is here that division begins.  When the focus is lost . . . when the faithful are no longer using Jesus as the baseline, but others and their understandings of Jesus and the Good News.  When the focus is lost on what Jesus asked his followers to do . . . to love God completely and to love one another . . . to go out into the world and serve . . . to be the presence of Jesus in the world.  When that is lost, the faithful are no longer following Jesus, they are following something else.
The church today is probably not very far off from what the Apostle Paul was confronted with in Corinth.  The church today is pretty splintered and far from being what Jesus imagined it should be . . . at least that is my guess.  I think that at some point in the history of the church the faithful wandered off from what Jesus asked of his followers . . . and, because of that, we are witnesses to what we are seeing today . . . the demise of the church as we know it.  Some may say that it is dying, but I don’t think it is.  I don’t think it is because it has made the faithful stop, pray, and begin to discern who it is really supposed to follow . . . I hear a call to go back to the foundation . . . to go back to Jesus . . . his words and his actions.  And, it is slowly happening . . . the church is not dying, it is going through growing pains as it grows towards what Jesus called all of his followers to . . . the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God where all love the Lord completely, and they love one another.
We are called to follow Jesus.  Despite the fact that there are seven churches in this community . . . all seven can agree on that foundation piece . . . we are to follow Jesus.  It is there that we find our commonality . . . where we find our unity . . . where we are not divided.  What we are dealing with is not what Jesus died for . . . the sooner we realize it, the closer we get to the Kingdom.  It won’t be easy, but if we are truly the followers of Jesus . . . we know that it can be done.  Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beyond the Expected (Isaiah 49:1-7)

The “church” today is not the church your grandparents knew . . . nor is it the church that your parents were familiar with . . . and, odds are, as you look around at the state of the “church” today, it is not the church you grew up with.  In the current state of upheaval within the traditional “church”—or “church” as we think we know it—we scratch our heads and think that this is nothing like we expected . . . this is a whole new, crazy, and scary creature that we are dealing with.  We are living within a paradox of what Jesus called us to . . . what we are . . . and, what we should be in the eyes and heart of Jesus.  We are called to go beyond the expected.  These are frustrating and scary times that we are living in as the faithful.

The “church” is changing.  The “church” is changing whether we are ready of not for it.  There has been a major shift from what once was a program focus of congregations—doing things for the faithful like Sunday school classes, Bible studies, women and men’s groups, youth groups—to a more missional focus that calls for the congregation to look beyond itself out into the world and serve others beyond the confines of the church.  There is a call to return to the spiritual life . . . the inner life . . . to drive the outer life.  A call to know thyself in order to know God’s will in one’s life.  A call to understand one’s relationship with God and how that calls the individual out to serve others.  Churches are not conducting business the way that they used to conduct business . . . the times are changing . . . and, they are becoming more Christ-like than ever before.
But, we never expected this.  In fact, this is where the frustration comes into play with the struggle between what once was, what is, and what is coming . . . many of us have realized in our faith journeys that what we have is exactly what we expected.  It meets our needs.  It makes us feel fulfilled.  It works for us.  It is good stuff . . . faithful stuff.   Our expectations are exactly what the doctor ordered; yet, we look around and we see change taking place that upsets our expectations.  It is frustrating . . . and, if we are honest, it is scary.

Understand . . . what we have is not bad.  What we have in the “church” has worked for generations . . . churches and congregations have grown in what we have . . . things got done . . . and, we all felt fulfilled.  Yet, statistics show that the “church” is changing . . . churches and congregations are beginning to disappear . . . denominations are growing smaller . . . things are not being done the way that we used to do them, yet things are getting done . . . and, fulfillment is now coming in new ways that we have never experienced before.  Success is being measured differently . . . not in numbers, but in relationships.

This is a sort of epiphany-like revelation.  Remember that an epiphany is a revelation of the glory . . . a revelation of the Holy . . . an understanding of God and God’s ways.  The problem is that it is not an epiphany that has come suddenly and with great clarity . . . it has seemingly snuck up on us, tapping us on the shoulder, and revealed itself  slowly and quietly as it has begun to gain momentum.  Momentum that is getting more and more difficult to ignore.  Nonetheless, the Holy has and is being revealed in this changing environment of the “church”.

What we are dealing with today is better than what we ever expected . . . it is a return to what Jesus called his followers to.  We know that what Jesus lived, represented, and called his followers to, was not well received in his time or since.  In listening to the prophets, the people had certain expectations of what the Messiah would be and do . . . this is partially due to the fact that the people were like all good humans who used their selective hearing to hear what they wanted.  They took what they liked and ignored the rest.  For example, our reading this morning from Isaiah.

Tunnel vision makes it difficult to see the world that is beyond the scope of what one can see through a scope . . . can’t see what is to the left or right . . . can’t see what is behind or up or down.  You can only see what is directly in front.  So it was for the people of Israel who picked and chose the words of the prophet that they wanted to hear concerning the Messiah.  In their estimation, the Messiah was theirs and theirs only . . . destined to save only them.  Yet, Isaiah says that as true as that statement is, God had even greater expectations for the Messiah . . . the Messiah would save all people . . . save all of God’s children.  Isaiah even quotes God as saying that the Chosen One, the Messiah, would be a “light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”   The expectations of the children of Israel were going to be met, but what God really wanted went beyond the expected . . . went beyond the expected to something even bigger and better than they could accept or realize at the time.

Thus it is that we see the frustration of the people with Jesus and his ministry.  We see the anger of the people when Jesus does not solely focus on them.  We see the murmuring and complaining when Jesus choses to minister to those outside of the so-called family.  We see the confusion when Jesus pushes the boundaries of the teachings and law.  And, we see that in the end this gets him crucified on a cross.  Yeah, Jesus was what they expected and so much more.

But, who are any of us to go against the will of God?

The “church” of our grandparents and parents . . . the “church” we grew up with . . . none of them are representative of what the people of Jesus’s time expected.  It cannot be because the “church” is not a box that we fit our faith into; the “church” is a living and growing spirit or movement that keeps growing with each generation as it is experienced, interpreted, and developed to meet the call of God in a certain time and place.  It is constantly growing and changing . . . whether we can accept it or not.

God has always called us beyond the expected . . . called to something bigger and better.  Living with in the expectations we have is nice, but what we are called to is even better.  We are called, like the Messiah, to reach within to discover the world outside of the “church” . . . to love the Lord completely, and to love others . . . that has always been the expectation.  As well as we have done that in the past in the ways that we do it, the Spirit is moving us to a different direction and way of doing “church”.  The “church” is changing whether we are willing to change with it . . . what we have is good, but what we can have is even better.

Embrace the present to receive the future . . . things are not always what we expect . . . sometimes they are even better.  That is what God said to the Messiah . . . and, if it was good enough for the Chosen One, it should be good enough for us.  Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Faith in an Instagram (Matthew 3:13-17)

     Let us remember that we are in the season of Epiphany.  In our scriptures, epiphanies are revelations of glory . . . God’s glory.  Epiphanies can be public and available to all, or they can be private and only available to individuals.  Whatever the case, epiphanies reveal God in a sudden burst of awareness by the individual or group . . . and, so it is with our reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew.

     This morning we get to witness a revelation of glory . . . we get to witness a sudden burst of awareness . . . and, it all happens in a matter of seconds or even minutes.  God proclaims that Jesus it the Son, whom God is well pleased.  It is the proclamation that Jesus is the One . . . that Jesus is the Messiah . . . the Chosen One.  And, the only one who experiences this epiphany is Jesus.  This is a private epiphany not shared with anyone else but Jesus . . . not John, who is standing next to Jesus as he baptizes him . . . not the crowd who is witnessing the baptism . . . only Jesus is privy to this revelation.  It is a snapshot of holiness.

     Speaking of snapshots, the word of the year for 2013 was “selfie”.  A “selfie” is picture that an individual takes of him or her self . . . a self-portrait that can be later shared with others.  In our day and age, it is a digital record of a moment in one’s life . . . captured to be saved, savored, and shared.  The Reverend Nancy Rockwell, in her recent blog, states that this is exactly Jesus is doing in this reading . . . Jesus is taking a “selfie” of himself in a moment of divine acknowledgement, understanding, and awareness . . . a moment that could be saved, savored, shared, and used to remind himself of who he is.

     Images and pictures are powerful things.  It does not matter whether they are actual images or mental images . . . for all of us, they are powerful.  They are powerful in that they capture a moment and all that happens in that moment to help remind us.  They are powerful because they can be shared with others to help them understand what words cannot convey.  They are powerful because they can be pulled out from the recesses of storage or our minds to help us remember . . . to remember feelings, emotions, and thoughts in times when we need to remember and be bolstered.  And, so it was for Jesus.

     Jesus had this image . . . this “selfie” . . . in which God confirms him, affirms him, and declares God’s satisfaction in him.  It is a moment captured when Jesus understands that he has been given the mantle of the Messiahship . . . that he is the Chosen One . . . Jesus is the beloved . . . the one that God loves.  What a powerful image and one that Jesus would turn to time after time when he had doubts . . . when he felt threatened . . . when he felt lost.  He could turn to that self-portrait, that “selfie”, and remember that he was the beloved chosen by God.

     About a month ago, on the Koinonia Facebook page (, I shared a post that offered a quick photo montage titled “The Christmas Story Told On a Cell Phone Through the Eyes of Instagram” ( –it is a 90 second clip using hundreds of digital pictures that tell the story of Christmas.  Through a whole bunch of “selfies” the wonder and awe of Christmas is shared . . . it is one of the coolest things that I watched during the Christmas season . . . and, it only took 90 seconds—a minute and a half!  It was an epiphany in that it revealed the glory of God.

     Instagram, for those of you not familiar with this tool, is an application that an individual can download onto a cell phone or tablet device that allows the individual to take snapshots . . . to take “selfies”.  These pictures are then placed in a location from which the individual can keep and share these images.  It is like a rolling photo gallery.  Basically Instagram  has moved the “selfie” up to another level as these picture then become a sort of digital history of a person’s life.  From this gallery the pictures can be shared on any number of social media networks—Facebook, Twitter, and through the email—instantly.  I know, for the most part, that I really appreciate Instagram as it has allowed me to be a part of the lives of my family and friends that I could not be a part of because of time and distance.  It allows me to be connected in ways that I never could have been before . . . and, it especially makes me feel good to be able to witness my granddaughter on a regular basis.  Instagram is a powerful medium.

     It is a powerful medium because it opens up to me moments in my life and the lives of others that have taken place.  It is powerful because it becomes a means of remembering . . . of connecting and reconnecting . . . of witnessing.  Whenever I need to bolster up my day or feelings, I can turn to Instagram, check out the images stored there, and feel much better.  Sometimes that is all that it takes to get me through the day.

     So it was for Jesus as he captured in his mind and heart that moment in his life when he was baptized . . . when he caught that declaration and affirmation of being God’s beloved . . . when he knew he was the Chosen One, the Messiah.  Such an epiphany would carry him through his ministry to its completion as he would pull out that “selfie” over and over again in his times of need.  He believed in what he saw and experienced in that moment.

     We are not much different than Jesus.  In the journey of faith we have all had our moments of epiphanies . . . moments of being in the revelation of the glory of God . . . moments of great realization of the Holy . . . moments when all those cosmic rollers align themselves in our hearts and we know.  And, like Jesus, more often than not, those moments have been more personal and private than they have been communal.  For an instant, we pause, click the picture for our own remembrance, and we go on.  We go on knowing that we can pull out that “selfie” anywhere along the journey, remember, reaffirm, and strengthen ourselves for moment and for what lies ahead.  It is in those moments that we, too, realize that we are also among the beloved . . . that God loves us too.

     Whereas the other three gospels put Jesus’ baptism and proclamation out there for all to witness, Matthew makes his a private and personal affair to only be experienced and witnessed by Jesus.  As important as it is for the world to know that Jesus is the Chosen One—the Messiah, it is more important that Jesus knew and accepted this knowledge.  Important because that is where it all came down to—Jesus as a person and as an individual.  It had to begin with him and his faith . . . and, so it is with us too.

     It begins with us and radiates out to the world.  But, we all know that the world can be a harsh companion in the journey of life and faith.  Yet, within each of our hearts we have a gallery of images . . . a gallery of moments in our relationship with God and Jesus that affirm ourselves and our faith . . . that we can pull out and remember . . . we are loved.  Loved by God . . . and, with us God is pleased.  What more can we ask for?  Amen.