Sunday, May 28, 2017

“The Pyramid Scheme of Faith” (Ephesians 1:11-23)


As an impressionable young couple in a new community, we were flattered when a slightly older and more affluent couple in the community and church I was serving invited Dana and I to supper one night.  The couple represented the “it” crowd and what everyone in life seemed to be striving to attain . . . they were among the “beautiful people” with the perfect tan, big house, new cars, and the status to go with it all.  Needless to say, all things that we wanted as we were starting in a new place; and, needless to say we were more than willing to jump at the invitation to jump-start our arrival in the community.

We thought we were at the beginning of something great . . .

. . . what we were was suckers.

Somehow we miss all the tell tale signs of warning that what we were being set up for was what I and many others would consider to be a scam.  After a wonderful meal . . . after we were wined and dined . . . we all went into the living room.  Our host said that he wanted to show us something as he set up a screen and projector.  Then the lights were dimmed and the scam began.  Showing us products that we could sell from the comfort of our home, our host began a hard sale on Dana and I.  In broad descriptive strokes he painted a picture of all those things that impressed us about him and his wife, and how we--too--could have it all if we would just agree to join up with his sales team.  All we had to do was to recruit two people to do just as we were doing . . . and, we would get a cut of their profits.  And, as those two went out and got two more people, we would get a cut of those profits.  Our host told us the potential was tremendous, and all we had to do was to sign on the dotted line . . . besides, he said, the products would sell themselves.

Do any of you recognize this scenario?  I am pretty sure that I am not the only person in the sanctuary to fall into this trap.  The trap is a classic  “pyramid scheme”.  A pyramid scheme is a legitimate business model that recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme.  This is a great business model if you are the person at the top of the pyramid receiving payment from all the people below you.  It is a crummy model if you are one of the people at the bottom.  In some places the pyramid scheme is illegal . . . thus it takes on many different shapes and sizes to sucker people in.

Fortunately, Dana and I might have been impressionable, but we were not stupid.  After enduring the hour-and-a-half presentation, we thanked our hosts, walked out the door, and never talked to them again.

I suppose not all pyramid schemes are “bad”.  A few weeks ago I shared the story about Catherine Ryan Hyde . . .  her 1999 book Pay It Forward . . .  its eventual movie starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joe Osment . . . and, the start of her non-profit organization, the Pay It Forward Foundation.  It was all based on a simple charitable idea of doing acts of kindness for others.  In the story the young character named Trevor takes to heart the challenge of one of his teachers to “change the world”.  Trevor decides that he would do acts of kindness to others, instead of gratefulness for his acts, he challenges those he has helped to go and do likewise . . . in fact, he challenges them to go forth and do five acts of kindness.

Okay, do the math.  If each of those five people do five acts of kindness . . . and, then those people go out and do five acts of kindness . . . well, the potential is unlimited.  Imagine what the world would be like if this really happened.  This is a “pyramid scheme” . . . a charitable one that seeks to spread kindness . . . everyone profits from this, not just the person at the top.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he is concerned with making “God’s plan . . . to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.”  (Ephesians 1:10, TEV)  It is an appeal to God’s people to live out their lives in the meaning of this great plan for the unity of all through the oneness that comes in Jesus Christ.  It is Paul’s goal to sell this idea to the Ephesians.

Thus it is that Paul begins with his sale’s pitch.  “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”  He is softening up his audience . . . making them feel good . . . pointing out to them that they were chosen for the task that is at hand . . . to go forth, share the “good news of Jesus Christ” and bring about the Kingdom of God.  In Paul’s mind and words, he is telling the people that they have been chosen--hand picked from the boss at the top-- for this gift and task.  The goal?  To grow the company . . . to grow the church . . . to grow Jesus’ message and way of life . . . to establish the Kingdom of God.  And, says Paul, God has chosen you.  And, for this, Paul gives thanks.

Once the apostle has primed his audience, he shares the product . . . God’s Kingdom as demonstrated in and through Jesus.  The Kingdom of God . . . that is the goal.  To bring all of God’s creation, all of God’s family, back together as one.  It is a product that the Ephesians know well as they have been chosen by God to experience it.  In Paul’s mind, the product sells itself . . . who wouldn’t want a little slice of heaven?

Then he hits them with the task . . . go forth and share the “good news of Jesus Christ”.  Go forth and recruit others into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Brings others into the family of God.  To join the ranks of the “chosen”.  Then in return, those who have come into the family will go out and do likewise.

Sound familiar?

Sure it does . . . it is a “pyramid scheme”.  It is a pyramid scheme of faith.  Surprisingly, we have all been caught up in its potential and allure at establishing God’s Kingdom.

Because we have all received--been chosen--to receive the gift through Jesus, we have all been scooped up into this “pyramid scheme”.  We have all been tasked with the job of sharing the “good news” of Jesus with others through the words that we speak and the actions that we take.  We are called upon to bring others back into the family . . . and, in turn, those people are called upon to bring others also.  It is almost like a cosmic, holy game of “tag”.

Surprisingly, the apostle knew what he was doing.  Research over many, many years continues to show that the greatest factor in getting people to believe is not fancy evangelism efforts or programs within a church . . . it is not in hiring some fancy talking preacher.  No, when most people are asked what got them involved, they always answer that it was because somebody took the time to talk to them and invite them to join.  It is through a grassroots approach . . . people talking to people . . . that the “good news” of Jesus has always spread in building God’s Kingdom.  It always has been and it always will be.
Whether we like it or not, we are all a part of this “pyramid scheme of faith”.  We number ourselves among the “chosen” . . . we have received the product of grace, and the promise of God’s presence . . . we have been told to share that with others . . . to build the Kingdom of God.  It really is a good--no, great--product . . . it practically sells itself.  All we have to do is to share it with another.  It is as simple as that.

Think about it . . . the potential is unlimited.  As we have heard before, “Go forth and multiply!”  Amen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“One God, 31 Flavors” (Acts 17:19-35)


True confession . . . my favorite flavor of ice cream is . . . vanilla.  Actually, it is Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia . . . a vanilla ice cream blended with chunks of chocolate and cherries.  But, if I cannot have Cherry Garcia, I will take plain ol’ vanilla.  You are probably sitting there, thinking to yourself, that that explains a lot about me . . . pretty plain.  But, I would bet, that the very first ice cream was vanilla, and that everything else has been a variation of vanilla ice cream.

You like chocolate ice cream . . . it is just vanilla that has had chocolate added to it.  Like strawberry?  Vanilla with strawberries added.  I believe, and I might be wrong . . . but, I believe that all ice cream comes from the same basic recipe and only varies once a flavor has been added to it.

This is probably a way too simplistic way that I speak to children when it comes to the many different denominations and religions that there are floating around in the world.  I explain that there is one God, and that there are 31 flavors of that one God.  And, not too surprisingly, everyone has his or her own favorite flavor.  Some people favor the Methodist flavor, others the Presbyterian flavor, and still others the Catholic flavor.  Some like the Christian flavor, others the Jewish, while others chose Buddhist.  One God, 31 flavors.

The Apostle Paul, while evangelizing in Athens, hits upon this idea.  Having come to Athens to share the good news of Jesus, he was startled to see that the city was filled with idols.  But his message rattled the cage of the educated in that city and confused them . . . stated that he was babbling nonsense.  Thus it is that urge him to come to a meeting at the Aeropagus to explain these strange ideas he was espousing.  

The Aeropagus was a gathering place where the people gathered to discuss ideas.  Now, remember, this is taking place in Athens . . . the literary capital of the ancient world.  This was the most cultured city on the earth and the one in which every Roman sought a finished education.  It was a place of philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters, and poets . . . and the great university where people from throughout the world gathered to study.  Aeropagus was the place of great debate.

In Paul’s presence the debate centered on what these educated individuals considered to be strange teaching from some unknown teacher known as Jesus.  They tell Paul, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we what to know what they mean.”  

In what I would consider to a very uncharacteristic move by the apostle, Paul is diplomatic in his response.  He compliments them on their religiosity having seen their many statues and objects of worship throughout the city.  He even points out to them one particular item . . . an altar that is inscribed with the words, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”  It is at this point that Paul loses his diplomatic touch as he proclaims, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you . . .”  From there he goes on to describe the one God.

But, this is not the only time that Paul dabbles in this idea of one God, 31 flavors.  In is dealings with the church in Corinth he describes their conflict being centered around the fact that there are factions within their body of faithful on which teacher of the good news is the right teacher.  Paul wrote, and I quote from I Corinthians 1, verses 11 and 12: “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”

Then, to emphasis the “oneness”, he asks the question in verse 13: “Is Christ divided?”

I think that the apostle poses a pretty good question.

This past Wednesday evening the ministerial association hosted the baccalaureate service at the high school for the graduating class of 2017.  In that service there were represented four of the six churches in Joliet.  There was a Lutheran, an independent Baptist, a Wesleyan, and a Christian . . . missing were the other Baptist and the Catholics.  There would have been seven churches, but the Episcopalians are no longer open.  That is one church for approximately every one hundred people in Joliet . . . and, if you got down to the brass tacks, the key ingredients of what each believes, they would all tell you the same thing.  They would tell you the good news of Jesus . . . to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbors . . . it would be vanilla ice cream.

So, what happened?  Why isn’t there just one church?  

Well, I think that we all know the answer to that . . . everybody seems to like a different flavor.  Or as Paul put it to the Corinthians . . . some like Paul, some like Apollos, some Cephus, while others like Christ.  Everybody has their favorite flavor even when it comes to faith.

Who’s right?

On the count of three, I want each and every one of you to shout out your favorite ice cream.  I am going to give you a minute to think about it because I know that sometimes it is difficult to chose just one favorite flavor; but, on the count of three . . . shout out your favorite flavor of ice cream.

One.

Two.
Three.

Well, I am not surprised . . . I could not determine on particular flavor of ice cream as being the right flavor.  No, what I heard was a lot of noise as everyone shouted out his or her favorite flavor.  Yet, I remind you, my earlier contention that all ice cream comes from the same basic ingredients.  There is only one recipe for ice cream.

This is what Paul poses to those who are gathered around him in that place of debate in Athens . . . there is one God who created it all, but there are 31 flavors.  The real issue is how do we set aside those differences in flavor to get down to what really matters?

Everyone knows the answer to that question . . . Paul reiterates it time and time again.  We look toward Jesus who shows us the way through the words that he spoke and the actions that he took.  It is a simple teaching that every Jew already knew, and one that he emphasized with his followers . . . to love the Lord, our God, completely . . . to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Jesus stated that if people would do this they would fulfil all the laws and teachings of the prophets.

It really is not all that difficult once you get down to the basics . . . just like ice cream . . . there is one God.  Jesus has shown us the way.  The flavors just spice things up.  May we all focus on that which makes us the children of God . . .

    . . . God.  Amen.  

Monday, May 15, 2017

“From Nobody to Somebody” (I Peter 2:2-10)


“But you are a chosen people . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  

As you may remember from last week, the purpose of the Apostle Peter’s letter was to encourage those followers of Jesus in the northern part of Asia Minor to remain steadfast in their faith and witness in the face of persecution and suffering.  Typically the Roman government was tolerant of the Jewish religion.  As long as the Jewish religion remain fairly docile and didn’t create any waves, the Jews were allowed to practice their religion.  This is important to understand.

Christianity grew out of the Jewish religion, after all, Jesus was a Jew.  The model of the first disciples was to bring the message of Jesus to the Jews in the synagogues since Jesus saw his ministry and message of the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.  Thus it was that many of the followers were Jews.  In the beginning this sect within the Jewish religion was tolerable for both the Jews and the Roman government.  The Romans basically ignored them as they saw the new movement as nothing more than the Jewish religion.  Unfortunately, not all the Jews were too thrilled with the movement.  This movement was based on a person and his teachings that were a burr in the Roman government’s and the leadership of the Jewish religion’s backside.  It’s what got Jesus killed . . . he stepped outside of the acceptable boundaries.  Those hard line Jews began to complain . . . they did not want this new movement within their places of worship or within their religion.  These Jesus followers were upsetting the cart.  They wanted them out.

Suddenly, these people were seemed to be like everyone else in the Jewish religion . . . pretty much oblivious the Roman government . . . were people of interest.  Being pushed out by the Jewish religion, they were no longer protected . . . they were on their own.  Now they were getting attention even though it was not the sort of attention they wanted . . . persecution from their religion and the government.  It was enough to make the followers want to return to that time when they were “nobody”.

I believe that the most basic human need is to be acknowledged and wanted.  From the day that we are born, that basic need is there.  Countless studies have been conducted about this need.  Studies that show the effects of being ignored . . . of not being allowed to come into relationship with another.  Decades ago there was a study conducted on the babies in Romanian orphanages where it was observed that those babies that we held did so much better than those that were not.  Studies in education . . . in particular, classrooms, show that those teachers that take the time to acknowledge their student--develop a relationship with them--do better than the classrooms of those teachers that do not.  What the research shows it that with acknowledgement, relationship, and being wanted . . . people thrive.

Everybody wants to be somebody . . . by that, I mean, everybody wants to be acknowledged and wanted.

In Peter’s message this morning, he explains that through Jesus everyone has the opportunity to enter into that relationship in which they are desired, acknowledged and wanted . . . desired, acknowledged, and wanted by none other than God.  That they are not only acknowledged, but that they are chosen . . . chosen by God.  God, through Jesus, lets them know that God desires a relationship . . . an intimate, personal relationship between the Holy and that which the Holy has created.  Where they once seemed to be nobodies, now they were somebodies . . . they were God’s.

Isn’t that what everybody wants?

Of course it is.  Jesus shows us the way.

But, no relationship is a one-way street.  Relationships are tricky business.  As each acknowledges the other . . . as each lets the other know that they are wanted . . . there also comes some expectations with the relationship.  Peter reminds the followers of Jesus of these expectations.  “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Through this acknowledgement and reception of the relationship, there comes some expectations.  The greatest of these is being and living as who God created you to be . . . to let yourself and your relationship with God shine forth in all that you are, do, and say,  It is to follow the call of God in your life . . . just as Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry.  And, it is to share this opportunity with others.  And, lastly, as implied by Peter, we are to do this because if God wants us, God wants everybody.  God wants all of God’s children returned to the family.

God wants us to share what we have found in God as shown to us through Jesus.

As I stated earlier, relationships are not easy . . . they come with expectations.  To move from “nobody” to “somebody” is to step out of the shadows and into the light . . . and, people are going to notice.  Some will notice and react with positivity, wanting to know all about the change; while others will react negatively, and only want to destroy the new found confidence and relationship we have with God.  That is the risk that comes with any relationship . . . especially stepping into that relationship with God through Jesus.  Not everyone is going to agree.

Yet, the Apostle Peter reminds us that God desires us . . . acknowledges us . . . and, steps into relationship with us.  God chooses us.  We are welcomed into our place in the family.  This acknowledgement of us as the children of God . . . as a chosen people . . . as a priesthood . . . a holy nation . . . should carry us through any difficulties that life should throw our way.  Thus, we are to share that experience with others . . . offer to them the opportunity that we have received.  And, we can do it because we are “somebody”.  Ain’t it great to be “somebody”!  Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

“Grace Ain’t Cheap” (I Peter 2:19-25)

For a lot of Christians these two statements pretty much sum up their faith; from the Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Then in Romans, chapter 10, verse 9, a similar sentiment: “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  For a lot of Christians that is all that matters . . . Jesus paid our debt, redeemed us, and gave us eternal life in heaven . . . all through his death on a cross.  And, all anyone has to do is to believe.

That may be true for a lot of Christians, but I disagree.  I disagree because to ground faith on the single act of Jesus giving his life on a cross is to cheapen the life, ministry, and purpose of Jesus.  German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred at the end of the Second World War shortly before the Allied Forces captured the prison encampment he was at.  As a pastor and seminary teacher in Germany in the 1930s he watched as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party grew in power and exerted its dominion over the citizens of that nation.  He watched as Hitler and the Nazis began the practice of death-making to exterminate those who were not of the true Aryan race . . . he watched as people were herded away, sent to concentration camps, and eventually killed.  He watched as more and more freedoms were taken away and replaced with strict and restricting laws.  He watched it all and could not take it as a citizen of Germany, and especially as a clergy.  He stood in opposition to Hitler and the Nazi war machine.  He believed that as a follower of Jesus he could not stand idly by and allow this to happen.  He believed that this is what Jesus would do.  His opposition landed him in prison . . . and, eventually cost him his life.

Grace ain’t cheap.

In his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”  This “cheap grace” according to Bonhoeffer is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.”  In other words, to believe is enough . . . period.

That, believes Bonhoeffer, is “cheap grace”.

Believing is not enough.  Living as if one believes implies an effort to move beyond the final scene of the crucifixion and to look at the whole and holy picture of Jesus . . . his words, actions, ministry, and the ultimate fulfillment of it all in his death and resurrection.  Belief in Jesus cannot be mandated into a life insurance policy or an “escape jail” card telling us to pass “go” and collect two-hundred dollars.  That is “cheap grace”.  All of it must be embraced and lived if one is truly a follower in Jesus.

Grace ain’t cheap.

This is what the Apostle Peter is attempting to convey to those who called themselves “Christians”.  Peter’s letter was addressed to these “Christians” who were scattered throughout the northern part of Asia Minor who were facing persecution and suffering for their faith.  His goal is to encourage these people to remain steadfast in not only believing, but to also live their beliefs . . . to follow in the footsteps and example of Jesus himself.  It is the price one pays for living a life of true belief . . . look at Jesus, he tells them.  Grace ain’t cheap, it comes at a cost.

Peter writes: “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God . . . to this you were called, because Jesus suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps.”

As true followers of Jesus we must see his death in the light of his life.  Peter is not telling the people to “roll over and take it” . . . to be doormats in life.  Far from it.  He is telling the people to be like Jesus.  Jesus was always seeking to do good and to seek justice.  Jesus did not stand off in the shadows of the crowd . . . he spoke up . . . he asked questions . . . he stood for an alternative vision of what life could be--the Kingdom of God.  He pushed the envelope with his passion for doing good and seeking justice . . . of doing God’s will.  It was this passion that got him the cross . . . it was the only way the authorities felt they could quiet the noise.  Jesus did not get to the cross by being a doormat.  Because of that we must see his death in the light of his life; otherwise we have no idea what this life is for which he died . . . instead we see it as some kind of promise--some sort of divine insurance policy--that delivers us to a heavenly reward because Jesus already paid the price for us all.

Jesus never said it would be easy to follow him.  None of the apostles or early church leaders ever proclaimed that it was easy to be faithful.  No one who is truly grounded in a faith that emulates the words, actions, and ministry of Jesus would say that it is easy.  It is not easy to be follower of Jesus . . . to believe as he believed . . . to seek to do good . . . to seek justice . . . to love God in the good times and the bad times . . . to love others.  It is not easy . . . and, if anyone is selling you such a message; well, be careful.  It is a bucket of hooey . . . it is “cheap grace”.

I believe that we are living in a time in which our faith is the most difficult thing to live up to.  We are constantly barraged on a daily basis with situations which confront our ability to live up to the life and example of Jesus.  We are being challenged to decide between the ways of the world and Jesus’ way . . . Jesus’ way of seeking to do and justice . . . Jesus’ way of restoring the Kingdom of God . . . Jesus’ way of loving others.  And, the bottom line is that it is hard to stand up for Jesus and his ways.

It is in moments like that that it crosses our minds to take the easy way out . . . after all, Jesus has already paid the price for us . . . and, we believe. But, what good is the preaching of forgiveness if there is no call for repentance?  What good is communion if we do not confess?  What grace worth if there is no discipline . . . no cross . . . no example of Jesus and his life?

Jesus gave his life for what he believed . . . he gave his life because he believed in us.  Believed in us that we would pick up the mantle and seek to do God’s will of bringing the Kingdom to the world.  Grace is not cheap as Jesus demonstrated.  Peter wrote: “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God . . . to this you were called, because Jesus suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps.”

Jesus stood up for us . . . will we stand up for Jesus?  My prayer is that we will.  It won’t be easy, but that is the cost of discipleship.  Grace ain’t cheap . . . thank God!  Amen!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Pay It Forward” (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 and Acts 2:14a, 36-41)


Who among us has ever experienced a “random act of kindness”?  This past Thursday a coworker and I had to go to Lame Deer and Wyola to do hearing screening in the schools there.  It was a dreary, cold, and rainy day.  Nothing went right in the schools, they had forgotten to get the permission slips from the parents . . . of the 130 kids I needed to test, I only got to test about 35.  Needless to say, it was a frustrating day.  Nothing was going right, and I was getting soaked.

On the way back to the university we stopped for lunch at the Burger Dive . . . an expensive gourmet burger place.  As is the custom, when dining with co-workers, I asked for separate checks . . . and, much to my surprise, my co-worker said lunch was on her.  So, of course, I ordered the most expensive burger on the menu.  No, I didn’t; but, I was floored by her generous and hospitable offer to buy my lunch.  I was the recipient of a “random act of kindness”.

Maybe you remember the movie from 2000 that starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment called Pay It Forward based on a book by the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  In the story Reuben St. Clair, a social studies teacher, challenges his student to “change the world”.  One of the students in the class is Trevor, who takes the challenge to heart.  As he goes about his day, he wonders what he could do, just a twelve year old student, to change the world.  He starts by showing kindness to a stranger, and from there, moves on to the next person he can help.

Each time he helps someone, he answers their question of what can they do to repay him, with the words, “Pay it forward.”  In other words, he wants them to do as he has done . . . he wants them to do a random act of kindness for someone else.  In fact, he is a little pushy because he tells them not to do it for just one person, but for five people.  Plus, he tells them to challenge those that they help with the same task.  In this way he figures he can change the world with a pyramid scheme of kindness.

Hang on to that idea.

The psalm we heard this morning, Psalm 116, is a psalm of thanksgiving.  The person speaking is thankful for the mercy and grace that God has shown in a time of great need.  In an overwhelming sense of gratitude the person asks, “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?”  Personally, I think that is a powerful question.  Think about it, what can any of us do to pay back God for what God has done for us?  In this Easter season we have received a gift . . . a wonderful gift of salvation, redemption . . . or grace and mercy.  Jesus paid it for us.  So, what can we give to the Lord to ever repay such a gift?  Kind of throws us into the same boat as the speaker in Psalm 116 . . . we echo the words of the psalmist: “How can (we) repay the Lord for all his goodness to (us)?”

There is nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . except, ourselves.  The person speaking in Psalm 116 comes to this realization.  The only thing that can be offered to God for this act of kindness, grace, and mercy is one’s life.  The speaker proclaims, “O Lord, truly I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant . . .”  In this realization, the speaker comes to the conclusion that there is only one thing that anyone could ever offer God for such redemption, and that one thing is a person’s life . . . the way that he or she lives life in thanksgiving to the wonder of God’s love and grace.

From that moment on, the psalmist proclaims: “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord . . .”

And, how shall this individual fulfill these vows?

The person is going to “pay it forward”.

This is how the recipient of God’s love, grace, and mercy pays back the debt of such a huge act of kindness . . . by living a life that reflects the gift received.

Surprisingly, I do not think that there is a person sitting in this sanctuary that does not know what that means . . . to love the Lord with our whole being, and to love our neighbors . . . to reflect the random act of kindness display by Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection.

It is what will change the world.

The Easter Story is not just about the resurrection of Jesus; no, it is about more than receiving the gift . . . it is about how the recipients of the gift respond to it.  And, the only response that anyone can have to such a gift is to “pay it forward”.  Which is exactly what the disciples did . . . they
“pay it forward”.

In our epistle reading this morning we hear Peter stand before a crowd to share the gift of Jesus . . . to share the gift of grace and mercy . . . and, to let the people know that it is theirs for the asking.  The writer of the Book of Acts records the people’s response: When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter tells them to receive the gift and give their lives to God.

The writer then goes on to tell the reader that “about three thousand were added to their number that day.”  Peter was paying it forward . . . he was changing the world.  And, he and the others did . . . they changed the world.  We are here this morning because they chose to “pay it forward”.

This morning we are confronted by the psalmist’s question: “How can I repay the Lord for all of his kindness to me?”  That is the question of Easter.  The response is to receive the gift and to go out into the world and share it with others.  The psalmist proclaims: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.  I will fulfill m vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

How do we answer the question of Easter?

We answer the question, if we have truly received the gift into our lives, by living our lives through random acts of kindness as we pay it forward.  It is all in the way that we live our lives on a daily basis.  Do our actions and words reflect a love towards God and others?  

That is the challenge of Easter.

It is reflected in the random acts of kindness as we pay it forward.

It is the only way that we will ever change the world.  One random act of kindness paid forward into the lives of others.  The psalmist recognized the power of this response . . . in the end, he proclaimed, “Praise the Lord!”  Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

“Not Written in This Book” (John 20:19-31)


What if?

It is said that Yellowstone National Park sits on top of one of the largest volcanoes in the world, just waiting to erupt.  The problem is that no one knows exactly when this eruption will take place.  It has also been said that the destruction caused by this eruption would be catastrophic.  Worse than a nuclear bomb . . . it would destroy everything . . . change the landscape, topple buildings, wreck homes, level everything . . . the destruction would be massive.  With such destruction there won’t be a whole lot left.  It has been said that its destruction would be cataclysmic.  And, guess what?  Living approximately a hundred miles from Yellowstone, we live in the area of this future catastrophe.  

Such a happy thought for a Sunday morning, wouldn’t you say?

I doubt if too many of us lay awake at night worrying about the eventual eruption of the volcano lying underneath Yellowstone National Park.  Nor do I think too many of us consider what would be left behind in the wake of such a disaster.  Every so often I have thought about it . . . especially about what would be left behind--if anything . . . what would survive . . . In particular I have even thought about what it would mean for us, the followers of Jesus.  If everything is destroyed--everything, that would mean that our churches would be gone . . . our Bibles would be gone . . . the whole physical foundation of our faith would disappear.  We’d have to start over from scratch.

Think about it . . . there would be no Bibles . . . no written Word.  How would we function as a people of faith if we do have the Word of God to guide us and validate our faith.  After all, it is the Bible that we base our faith upon . . . we are a “people of the Word”.

I imagine that we would be able to gather enough people together to recall all the parts of the Bible from memory . . . surely enough people would remember enough in bits and pieces to put it all back together again.  I assure you, with my memory, that I will not be a part of that group.  Together this group would reconstruct the Bible . . . probably word by word . . . and, again, we would have our proof of faith.  We’d have our stories of God and Jesus.

Or, would we?

Our scripture reading this morning is a curious bit of writing.  The resurrection of Jesus has occurred.  People have begun to encounter the risen and living Jesus.  Our reading tells us of Jesus appearing to his disciples and how they believed . . . except for Thomas who was awol at the grand entrance of Jesus to his disciples.  He refuses to believe and demands proof . . . of which Jesus provides . . . the wounds are displayed.  Thomas then believes.  Jesus tells him: “Stop doubting and believe . . . because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

This is a familiar story . . . we all know about “doubting Thomas”; yet, as the writer of the Gospel of John likes to do, there is a bit more to the story that is shared.  The writer of the gospel shares the story and explains that these stories of the miracles and signs of that Jesus did have been recorded so that others--those reading the scripture--may believe.  Through these stories faith will be found.  Then, almost as an aside--an off-hand remark, the author writes that there are many stories that are not recorded.

Wait a minute.

I thought everything that we know about Jesus can be found in our Bibles . . . everything.  Now this writer is telling us that not every detail . . . not every miracle, every sign, every word . . . every detail of Jesus’ life is not in the book?  That there is more to the story than the words that are written in the good book?  That, maybe, the story isn’t complete . . . that there is actually more to the story than is written down between Genesis and Revelation?

Of course there is!

The story does not end with the final period at the end of the Book of Revelation.  No, the story is a “living story” that is instilled in our hearts when we come to believe.  When we receive the living Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we inherit the story that becomes a part of who we are . . . a story that we live each and every day.  It has been, since that encounter of Jesus with his disciples in which they came to believe . . . a corporate story and a personal story.  A story that is being written every day . . . written every day from the faithfuls’ perspective and experience.  

The story is a never-ending story, and it continues; unfortunately it is just not included between the covers of our most sacred book.  And, just because those stories are not included in the book, does it make them any less holy or valid as those found in the scriptures?  It shouldn’t . . . after all, the writer of the Gospel of John tells us that there are many stories that are not recorded.  Stories like yours and mine.  I’d like to see you try and convince me that my relationship and experience--my stories of Jesus are not authentic, valid, and as holy as any story found in the Bible.  True, they might not be as dramatic as what you would find in the Bible, but they are stories of faith, stories of relationship and intimacy between Jesus and I.

But, for some people, if it ain’t scriptural . . . it ain’t real.  The proponents of this belief cannot and usually will not accept personal stories of faith as proof and evidence of a living Jesus . . . of a living God.  To these “doubting Thomases” I repeat the words of Jesus to the original doubting Thomas: “Stop doubting and believe.”

These “doubting Thomases” are wrong.  The writer of the Gospel of John clearly explains that not everything we know about Jesus is written down in the scriptures.  Could you imagine if they were!  It would take a semi-truck to haul around that Bible.  Here the theological argument is that Jesus . . . that God . . . can be experienced outside the realm of scripture in the lives of everyday people, like you and me . . . and, that it is real and holy and valid.  The writer is opening the door and allowing us to say that we all have a story of faith . . . powerful stories of faith . . . that are just as holy as the scriptures that we read.  

Our experiences of Jesus . . . our experiences of God . . . are just as real, holy, and valid as anything that we will read in the scriptures.  Even more importantly it that they are our experiences of encountering the Holy . . . personal, intimate stories.  And, with this, we become a part of the story, the never-ending story.  We claim our place in the family of God.

And, when we share our stories of faith, our stories of encountering the living Jesus, we open a door for those who are listening to hear the story in a different way . . . a more personal way . . . an intimate way because they know the person sharing the story.  A connection is shared, the Holy is exposed, and a relationship is possible for those who are listening.  This is not a staunch by the letter of the law sort of thing to establish faith; no, it is a simple story of faith between one who believes and the God that loves them.

Not everything is written in our holy scriptures.  The writer of the Gospel of John tells us that.  The writer also tells us that those stories that are written in the scriptures are important as they help people to believe.  At the same time, the writer is also letting the readers . . . letting us know that there are other stories of faith . . . or miracles . . . and signs that are just as important, but they are not recorded in the scriptures.  These are the stories that we can share as the followers of Jesus.  Personal, intimate, holy stories of the living Jesus in our lives.  We may not always have the Bible, but we will all . . . each and everyone of us . . . have the stories of our relationship with Jesus.  Nope, not everything we know about Jesus is written in the Good Book, a lot of what we know is written in our hearts.  May we share our stories . . . may we share our hearts.  Amen.