29 March 2013

"Earn This."

When most people think of Steven Spielberg's classic Saving Private Ryan (1998), they think of the brutal first twenty minutes of the movie, a re-enactment of the storming of the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. When I think about the movie, I remember its bookends-- the first and last scenes of the movie. Both take place at the Memorial Cemetery at Normandy, where an elderly man kneels at the grave of a man called Captain John H Miller.

The story of the movie is about a desperate search for Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed in combat. The War Department dispatches a crew of excellent soldiers to find Ryan, to make sure his mother does not lose all of her sons in war. The group of soldiers is not pleased with the assignment, which will be very dangerous. Ryan is in at unknown location far behind enemy lines. After a long struggle they find him, and he is resistant to go-- why should he be so special? Why should he be the only one to go home? Near the end of the movie, Capt Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying. He pulls Ryan to him, and whispers these words: "Earn This." Here's a clip from the movie There are a couple of bloody shots here, being war and all.

Flash back to the cemetery again, and Ryan, now a grown man, is surrounded by his wife, his kids, and grandchildren. He kneels at the grave of Capt Miller and weeps. His wife consoles him, and he says, "Tell me I have been a good man." For the last sixty years, Ryan has carried the burden of the sacrifice these men made on his behalf. The words, "Earn This" are etched on his soul. Has his life been worthy of the sacrifice?

We began a message series weeks ago at the beginning of the Season of Lent called "Forgive." God forgives us our sin, allowing us to step in to a new life, free of guilt and shame. Jesus commands us to forgive those who have hurt us. Now we end on Good Friday, reflecting on Jesus' words from the cross: "Father, Forgive Them" (Luke 23:34). These are the words Jesus speaks as he looks down from the cross upon those in the crowds who insult him. His grace and love are so powerful that at the moment of total suffering and abandonment he is able to forgive. He does not say to them, "Earn This." He could have. It would have been easy. But it would have left us with a burden similar to Ryan's from the movie. We would face the cross this, and every, Good Friday, and say, "Tell me I have been a good person." We would have longed to hear that we were indeed worthy of such a sacrifice of love. But Jesus would have us to live free of guilt. We cannot earn God's love and forgiveness anyway. It is offered to us freely as a gift. We can accept it without guilt or shame.

There is more. As disciples of Jesus we seek to grow into his very image, to be the kind of people who can face such hate with radical love. "But I am not the Christ," you say. Right. But consider the story of a disciple, an ordinary person just like you and me, who faced similar suffering to Jesus-- and responded as Jesus did. Stephen was not one of the apostles-- his ministry was not preaching-- he was a servant who looked after the needs of people. He also had a tremendous faith and was not shy about it. When the religious folk began to insist that Stephen be silent, he refused. He was forced beyond the city gates and people began to throw rocks upon him. As he lay there dying, he said, "Father, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). Stephen prays for those who persecute him. His faith makes this possible. And if it was possible for Stephen, it is possible for us.

What rocks have been thrown your way recently? Who threw them at you, and why? What can you do with the hurt it caused in you? We can respond with violence, lashing out at those who hurt us. We can hold on to the burden of anger and allow it to become a bitterness that plagues us our whole lives. Or we can say, "Father do not hold this sin against them." We can, and must, summon the courage to look upon those who persecute us with forgiving hearts.

You have been forgiven. At the cross, Jesus considered human sin. Instead of saying, "Earn This," sentencing us to a life of guilt and shame, constantly wondering if we can live up to the sacrifice, Jesus interceded on our behalf. Looking at our sinful hearts, he prayed to God, "Forgive." May we live our lives in the way his life ended: with grace, love, and forgiveness.

08 March 2013

Mr (Rev) Irrelevant

The other day I realized I had made a scheduling snafu: My Tuesday schedule: Christian Believer class, a wedding conference immediately before that, and Pastor JoAnne's Taize service all conflicted with Miles' first ever Pinewood Derby for Cub Scouts. Just a couple of days before, all five of us spent an hour of so sanding and painting all three boys' cars for the derby. How could I have forgotten it? That morning I began working the phone, cancelling my appointment, telling JoAnne I could not be at worship, asking Sue Thorn to step in and lead class until I got there. It all worked out. Whew.

We had a great time at the derby. Miles' car came in 2nd or 3rd (out of 4) in all of its races, and he won a trophy for "Most Funky Car." The racing was over at 7:25. Then I headed to church for Christian Believer. I was on time. And then: traffic. Not just traffic: TRAFFIC. It took 45 minutes to get to SMU from Royal. I began texting members of the class to say I would be later than I thought because of traffic. Sue wrote back: "Go home. We're fine." But I was determined. I kept going. Another 10 minutes to Knox, where the accident happened. From Byron, and Sue again: "Really. Go home." So I u-turned there at Knox. I arrived home at 8:45. More than an hour of my life was lost in just a few miles on Central. Oy. I was not happy.

When I walked in the door, Christy said she had told the boys about all the things I had missed to go to the Pinewood Derby. I went upstairs to see Miles and congratulate him on his "Funkiest Car" award. He was still awake. He said, "Dad, thanks for missing all that stuff for the Pinewood Derby." It was one of those moments Dads live for. I have thought about that all week, and two points keep coming to mind:

* I am proud to be part of a church that would give me the permission to be a Dad for special events like that. Thank you.
* I was proud to be irrelevant to the church that night.

Every text from study participants that said, "Go home, we're good," made me remember one of the most important lessons pastors, and leaders in general, can learn: it's not about us. Our main task is to grow leaders who will ultimately make us irrelevant. What a joy to see people embrace their own leadership and take pride in their own ministry. It's been a foundational understanding of ministry of mine since I was in seminary: pastors and professional staff should "equip the saints for ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). The best gift we can offer to layfolk is to help them realize their gifts, get out of the way, and let them use them for the Kingdom. As John the Baptizer put it, "[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

As we make this discipleship journey together, may you realize that you have gifts for ministry. Your pastors and professional staff can assist you in discovering your gifts, but it is not our responsibility to do the ministry of the church-- that's for the "saints,"-- YOU-- to use Ephesians' term. This is good news especially in United Methodist churches, where clergy serve at the pleasure of the bishop and agree to be appointed elsewhere when there is a need. Staff members sometimes move on for a variety of reasons. If we become too dependent on clergy, or professional staff, for ministry to happen, what do we do when they move on?

Maybe you can help in this change of mindset-- the next time a pastor or staff person says, "I'll handle that," say, "No thanks. Just point me in the right direction and I'll handle it." Both of you will learn, or remember, a valuable lesson: it's ok to be irrelevant sometimes. It's ok to be sent home. It's ok to let someone do ministry when they assure you, "I've got this." The result will be increased faith, increased ministry, and increased pride in yourself and the church.