Sunday, January 31, 2016

“Another Four-letter Word” (I Corinthians 13:1-13)

In the last half of verse 31 of the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians the Apostle Paul prefaces what is one of the most famous passages of the Christian faith: “And now I will show you the most excellent way.”  From there he proceeds to speak of “love” . . . love, a four-letter word.  Rarely do we think of “love” as being a four-letter word.  No, we reserve that expression . . . that phrase . . . for more profane and nasty words that we are taught not to ever utter . . . cuss words.  And, yet . . . here is “love” . . . L . . . O . . . V . . . E.  Four letters.

All of us have grown up with the axiom that “actions speak louder than words” . . . and, we all know the truth in that statement.  Actions portray the truth . . . actions reveal the truth . . . actions show us for who we really are.  With such knowledge, as we look around the world in which we live . . . as we look around in the society in which we live . . . in the communities where we live . . . what is it that we see?  If what fills the screens of our television news is true . . . if the words and pictures that fill our newspapers are true . . . if the words we hear on our radios are true . . . then what is being revealed is far, far from what any of us would ever consider to be “love”.  With love there is no room for what we witness on a daily basis . . . no place for war . . . no place for violence . . . no place for hunger or poverty . . . no place for division and separation . . . no place for injustice . . . no place for what we witness daily in our lives and call the “news”.  The world we live in is a far, far cry from “love” . . . the world betrays the reality.  The reality is that “love” is a four-letter word . . . ranks right up there with the best of those profane cuss words that are more familiar than “love”.  Oh sure, the word “love” is thrown around a lot, but the actions . . . the actions . . . betray the truth.

We, the human race . . . God’s children . . . are a long ways from “love”.

Which is sad.  Sad because “love” is the very foundation . . . the very reason . . . for our existence as the children of God . . . as the followers of Jesus.  Remember what Jesus said?  “You should love the Lord, your God, with your whole being—mind, body, and soul; and, you should love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  True, that is a paraphrase, but I think that it covers what Jesus was attempting to say . . . “love” is the key. As the followers of Jesus . . . as the children of God . . . we are called to a life of “love”.

Yet, the world we live in . . . the world we exist in . . . is a far cry from what it is supposed to be.  There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of “love” in the world.

Paul’s letter to the congregation in Corinth was meant to address conflict within that body of faith.  There in the Corinthian congregation there was a great battle for power that was taking place . . . a battle as to who was the true embodiment of what Jesus called his followers to . . . everyone was divided into camps that opposed one another.  Arguments ensued . . . name-calling took place . . . and, it quickly was creeping towards violence as each division proclaimed itself the “way” . . . the one “truth”.  It was getting to be a nasty affair; thus, the Apostle Paul’s correspondence.  The apostle’s goal was to get the “whole” of the congregation back on the right track . . . to bring them back to the very foundation of the faith.

And, that foundation . . . no matter whose camp one was in, was “love”.  “Love” was the very foundation which all of Jesus’ teachings and miracles were based . . . on “love” . . . which the apostle describes quite well in the scripture reading we heard this morning. 

Love . . . pretty simple, wouldn’t you say?  We all get it . . . and, because we all get it, there is no reason for me to go any further.  I just need to remind you to love . . . love God . . . love one another.  That is the gospel—the “good news”—in a nutshell.  That is the foundation of all that we—the followers of Jesus—base our lives on . . . the words that we speak, the actions that we take.  Love.  Pack up your Bibles and go home.

I wish it were that easy.

How does one define what “love” is?

The Apostle Paul does a good job of describing what “love” is and is not, but does he really tell us what “love” is?  All the songs and poems we ever heard about “love” describe it, but do they ever really tells us what “love” is?  Most of us can describe it . . . our pulse increases, we begin to sweat, we stutter grasping for words, feel light-headed . . . but, is that “love”?  I have heard a heart-attacked described with the same phrases.  So, what is “love”?

Long ago, someone I really admired told me what “love” meant  . . . at least to him.  He told me that “love” was wanting the best for the object that was desired . . . that it was helping the individual to become the best that he or she could be . . . of helping the “beloved” to grow . . . to help him or her to be all that God created them to be. It is putting the other first.  It is a verb and not a noun . . . it is action, not mere words or a strong feeling.  It is helping the other become all that God created him or her to be . . . to grow.

Fundamentally, that is “love”.  And, because that is “love” . . . putting others first . . . it does not do well in the world or society in which we live.  It kind of rubs us the wrong way . . . goes against the things we were taught about watching out for ourselves—taking care of Number One.  Thus “love” falls into that category of being a four-letter word.  The world we live in . . . the society in which we exist . . . does not do a good job of loving.

So, confession time . . . despite my desire to “love” my wife, my children, my fellow sojourners on the journey of faith, my neighbor, God . . . I have not always done a real good job.  I admit . . . I have fallen short in the area of “love”.  I have not honestly desired the best for those around me . . . not strived to help them become who God created them to be . . . for whatever reasons.  I have failed at “love”.  And, it is with great 20/20 hindsight and age that I see this.

But, I keep trying . . . we all do.  We all keep trying to master this art of “love”.

Why?  Because “love” is the only thing that makes life worth living.

A song writer once said, “What the world needs now . . . is love, sweet love.”  No truer words have ever been sung or spoken.

Jesus understood that “love” was the key to everything.  Love was the key to an intimate relationship with the creator.  Love was the key to others. Without love there was nothing . . . no relationships . . . no kingdom.  The Apostle Paul understood this foundation of “love” . . . understood that love was the basis to everything . . . especially relationships with God and one another.  Without “love” there is nothing.  Thus it was that he preached a message of “love” because he knew that there would be or could be no true family . . . no heavenly or earthly kingdom . . . without love.  “Love” was the key.  With that he admonished the congregation in Corinth to “love”.

The message has not changed.  We are called to “love”.  To love God.  To love one another.   The apostle puts it quite eloquently in what we refer to as the “love” chapter.

Without “love”, says the apostle, he is nothing.  Without “love” we are nothing.  So, we must continue . . . we must continue to “love”.

One of my favorite movies is the 2004 movie, Saint Ralph.  This movie a young teen has lost his father to the war, his mother is in the hospital battling cancer, and he is living at home by himself.  Eventually his mother falls into a coma, and things do not look good.  In his Catholic school he grasps on the hope of a miracle to cure his mother.  The priest in his religion class tells the class about miracles . . . that faith, purity, and prayer produces miracles.  The priest, also the school’s cross country coach, mentions that any teen winning the Boston Marathon would be a miracle.  The boy, Ralph, now has a goal . . . he is going to win the Boston Marathon to bring his mother out of a coma and back to life.  And, so . . . he runs.  He runs because he wants the best for his mother.  I won’t ruin the movie, if you have never seen it, but I will tell you that a miracle happens.  It happens because Ralph tries . . . and, keeps on trying.  The music in the background of the climactic scene is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
I share with you the last verse of that song:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Jesus called us all to a life of love.  The Apostle Paul reiterates love as the foundation of being a follower of Jesus . . . as a child of God . . . as a keeper of God’s kingdom.  We are called to keep trying . . . over and over again. . . to love.  All we can do is to stand before the other . . . God and our fellow brothers and sisters created in God’s image . . . and, love.  To love and to cry out, “Hallelujah!”  Four-letter word or not . . . it is our only hope.  Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

“What If . . . One Among You” (Luke 4:14-21)

As usual, those who choose the scripture readings for the lectionary have chosen to tell only part of the story of Jesus’ return to his hometown’s synagogue.  In our reading this morning we hear how he goes to the synagogue he grew up in, stands and reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he sat down, looked at those who were congregated and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And, that’s it.  That is all they have given for all of us poor preachers to deal with on this Sunday morning . . . Jesus read the scripture, sat down, and proclaimed to the hometown crowd that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled.  We are a curious people . . . actually, we are a nosey people . . . and, this reading leaves us feeling unfulfilled . . . feeling as if there is more that we want to know.  We are an inquiring people and inquiring people want to know . . . we want to know the rest of the story as Paul Harvey used to say.

What is the rest of the story?

Well, Jesus being a hometown boy was quickly sized up . . . he was found lacking and brash . . . the people were not real pleased in the way that he addressed them.  In fact, it made them angry; the writer of the Gospel of Luke says that they were “furious.”  So furious that they drove him out of town to the edge of a cliff . . . a cliff they planned to throw him over.  To say the least, they were not too thrilled with the hometown boy coming home in all of his prestige and press clippings acting like some sort of hotshot . . . or at least that is how they perceived him and his actions.

Jesus knew this would happen, after all, Jesus knew that a prophet was never well-received in his or her hometown.  Jesus was one of them . . . he was “Joseph’s boy” . . . and, in this new persona, Jesus ruffled more than a few feathers.  Who was he to come prancing in proclaiming himself a big shot . . . the redeemer of them all?  This Jesus was nothing more than a snot-nosed kid who had grown up among them just like every other snot-nosed kid . . . who did he think he was putting them down as he confronts their disbelief?

What is it that Jesus actually did?  I would contend that Jesus did nothing more than to point out to those who had gathered at the synagogue that the Messiah was among them.  True, he pretty much implied that the Messiah was himself, but basically he was proclaiming that the Messiah was among them.  The Messiah was one of them.

Those are some pretty potent words . . . especially coming from one of the hometown boys.  Hearing those words, the people decided that they would have to put Jesus in his place.  There was no way that the people of his hometown were going to see him as the Messiah . . . no way they were going to see the miracles he could perform . . . no way they could hear the teachings he was going to share.  Nope, Jesus was just being a little too big for his own britches and the homefolk were going to help him get back into this own pants.

Despite it all, Jesus remained steadfast in what he was saying . . . the Messiah is among you.

There is an old story, the Rabbi’s Gift that you may have heard before but it is worth repeating again.  It is the story about a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  Once a great and proud order of holy men, it had stumbled slowly into a state of major decline . . . they were down to an abbot and four monks.  It was clearly a dying order.

In the woods near the monastery, there was a small hut that a rabbi from a nearby town used to come to pray and contemplate.  Over the years the monks had developed a sense of the rabbi’s presence whenever he came to the small hut to pray.  “The rabbi is in the woods; the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to one another.  The abbot, agonizing over the imminent death of the order, decided he would go and visit the rabbi and see if there was any advice that the rabbi could offer to save the order.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot into the hut.  The abbot explained the purpose of his visit.  The rabbi just shook his head in understanding and explained that it was no different for him and his synagogue . . . “The spirit has gone out of the people . . . almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.”  And, so, the two of them sat there in silence and wept . . . read the scripture . . . prayed.  Then the time came for the abbot to return to the monastery.  He proclaimed that he had failed in his purpose of coming to visit the rabbi.  He looked at the rabbi and asked, “Is there any advice . . . any words . . . that could help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded.  “I have no advice to give.  The only thing that I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

Returning to the monastery, the other monks wanted to know what the rabbi had said.  The abbot told them all about his time with the rabbi . . . the weeping and reading of scripture, the prayers, and the discussion.  Told them that the rabbi could not help them; then, the abbot said, “The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving—it was something cryptic—was that the Messiah was one of us.  I don’t know what he meant.”  And, that was it.

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words.  The Messiah is one of us?  Then they started considering whether or not it truly could be one of them . . . they began looking at one another differently . . . they began treating one another differently.  As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat one another with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah . . . and, on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah.

Surprisingly, things began to change.  Those who came around the monastery for picnics and family gatherings began to notice this change in the monks . . . they began to sense the extraordinary respect and love that was radiating out from the place and from the monks.  People began to bring other people . . . the monastery became a special place.  Soon young men, curious as to this lifestyle, began to ask questions of the monks . . . began to ask to join the monastery.  The monastery began to grow and become vibrant once again.

And, to think, it was all because the rabbi suggested that the Messiah was one among them.

And he stood up to read . . . “The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  The rabbi said, “The Messiah is one of you.”

I imagine that the people of Jesus’ hometown were too close to see and understand.  In response to the message Jesus shared, they rejected him . . . rejected his message . . . rejected the possibility.  There is a tradition in many of the varieties of the Christian faith to use a greeting during the worship service that acknowledges the presence of Christ found in each follower.  It is that the Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.  Which is good . . . but, such an acknowledgement is meant to go beyond the walls of the sanctuary on Sunday morning.  It is meant to be lived each day.

Consider it . . . consider it just as the old monks considered it in the words of the rabbi . . . the Messiah is one of you.  The Messiah is among us.  Consider it and what it would mean in the way that you live your life . . . in the way that you treat others.  What if Jesus was one of us . . . but, we really don’t know which one of us Jesus is . . . maybe we would be safe in doing what the monks in the story did.  Treating each and every person who wanders into our lives with great love and respect just in case he or she is the Messiah.  It can make a difference.

Yes, in our reading this morning the Messiah was among those who had gathered . . . they just could not fathom it or the possibilities.  Jesus told us that whenever two or three gathered in his name he would be among them.  I look around . . . Jesus is here.  Amen.

Monday, January 18, 2016

“Best for Last” (John 2:1-11)

When throwing a party . . . like a wedding reception . . . the unwritten protocol is to serve the best first, let the people get liquored up, and then bring out the cheap stuff.  Why?  Because the people will be too inebriated to know the different . . . they will be too drunk!  Even the caterer for the wedding reception in our scripture reading knows this as he speaks to the bridegroom about his faux pas.  Remember what he says? “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink . . .”

The bridegroom wasn’t playing by the rules!  He had saved the best for last.  Actually, he really had nothing to do with it.  Blame it on Jesus.

Any of you who have been to a wedding know this story.  The minister officiating at a wedding typically includes this story in his or her opening remarks about how Jesus officially started his ministry with the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.  As Jesus, his disciples and mother, are sitting around the banquet room with all the other wedding guests it is discovered that there was no more wine to drink.  An observation that Mary, Jesus’ mother, points out to her son.  Not only does she point it out, she more or less hints to him that he should do something about it.  And, what is Jesus’ reaction?

Like a typical child, he responds: “Aw, Mom!”

But, he does it.  He takes six stone jars, tells the servants to pour water into them . . . and, viola!  There is wine . . . not the cheap stuff either, but the good stuff . . . which creates the scene between the caterer and bridegroom.

The result of the very first miracle?  The disciples believed in Jesus.  Well, that and a big argument between the caterer and bridegroom . . . but, the important thing is that the writer reveals to us that the disciples believed in Jesus.

For generations there have been arguments about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament over whether or not it is the same God.  There are folks who argue that the God of the Old Testament was a mean, grumpy, vindictive God . . . always smiting this person or group . . . punishing the people.  There is a lot of bloodshed in the Old Testament.  Because of this, they argue, this cannot be the same God as the New Testament.  The God of the New Testament is a loving, caring God of grace . . . a nice entity.  They argue that this could not be the same God.  The argument goes that because this is true, there is no need for the Old Testament . . . after all, we are a people of the New Testament.  They have no need for the Old Testament.

It is a pretty good argument . . . it makes sense . . . except for the fact that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the one found in the New Testament.  God is God whether it is in the Old or New Testament.  You cannot throw out one book in favor of the other book . . . you have to have both to get the whole story and to understand the story.  Thus, after many, many years, I have come to this conclusion in explaining this issue or argument about the God found in both books . . .  

Picture, if you will, God as a parent.  In the Old Testament we have God, the parent, attempting to get the children to do the right thing . . . which is to love God and one another . . . to develop that intimate relationship between one another.  And, like any parent, God tries every parenting tip that there is to get the children to be obedient.  God chews them out.  God sends them to their rooms.  God spanks them.  God does every imaginable thing that God can do, but nothing works.  The people just will not be obedient to God’s desires or will.

In reading the Old Testament we can see every act of God in God’s attempt to get the people to be obedient.  It is some pretty hair-raising stuff, but nothing works.  Now any parent who is at the end of his or her wits would probably throw up his or her hands, quit, and walk away . . . of just wipe the slate clean and start over.  But God does not do this; no, God finally figures it out.

The best parenting skill a parent can have is the ability to model what he or she wants the children to do.  God figures this out.  God figures this out and decides that the only way to effectively get the children to love God and one another is to show them how it is done.  To model it.  Through Jesus, God models what God desires.  God shows the way it is to be done.

And, guess what?  This is it.  This is the last attempt of God to get the children to be obedient.  After this, there is nothing else.  Thus, I would argue, that God has saved the best for last.

The best is the way shown by Jesus . . . the way that he lived his life . . . the message that he spoke.  Jesus said, in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Over and over again, Jesus said, “Follow me.”

In the Gospel of John the story of grace and love . . . the story of redemption and salvation . . . begins with the best being offered last . . . and, this is it.  This, in my estimation, is God’s last attempt in fulfilling what God originally intended . . . intimacy with us and between one another.  God, through Jesus, shows us the way.  Ultimately the life and story of Jesus shows us the way.

Now, no one likes it when the good stuff runs out and the cheap stuff is brought out.  Typically that is a sign that it is time to go home.  But, when someone brings out the best for last . . . well, that is a different matter.  We think of the host in a different light.  Here is a person who really cares about those who have gathered . . . cares enough to use the best.  In using the best that individual lets us know that he or she cares about us . . . wants us to have the best . . . that he or she loves us.  And, because of this gracious and giving act, we in return hold that individual in esteem . . . maybe even feel as if we love the individual . . . maybe even believe in that person.

Isn’t that how we feel when we encounter Jesus in our lives?

A central theme during the season of Epiphany is focused upon those moments in our lives where there is a sudden awareness—an “aha” moment—that reveals a great understanding or learning.  Sort of like that moment when you are sipping on your tomato juice and you become aware that you could have had a V8 instead.  For me, this scripture reading was an epiphany in that it became apparent to me that as the writer in the Gospel of John is setting Jesus off on his ministry and mission, that the writer is also tying up the loose ends in the story by revealing that this is it . . . this is God’s last attempt at restoring that which has been lost . . . intimacy and grace.  Jesus is the best and God gives the best to us last.  This is it.  With Jesus representing such a gracious and loving act . . . of showing us the way . . . of modeling the relationship with God and others . . . we ought to believe.

In believing, we give our best to God . . . we give our best to one another.  In the end, that is all we can do.  Amen.