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.



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!