24 March 2015

An Invitation to Easter

(Yes, I know you will receive tons of invitations to Easter: postcards, shared Facebook posts from friends, radio ads, etc. I'll even receive some of these myself-- and I am sort of tied up Easter morning!)

But I wanted to offer a different invitation. You are invited to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus in a quiet, contemplative setting: at Custer Road's 17 acres, the corner of Custer and Legacy in Plano. Bring your folding chairs and blankets!

"Sonrise," 6:30 a.m. April 5

  • Maybe you are a pastor or staff member, busily making preparations for celebration at your own place.
  • Maybe you will be a greeter or have another role in worship, as a leader or participant-- and your Easter experience will be focused on meeting others' needs.
  • Maybe you'll benefit from a worship setting before the kids wake up and you move into make everyone look amazing mode
  • Maybe you haven't received the Lord's Supper outdoors in a long while (Sonrise will be the only Communion opportunity on Easter Day at Custer Road UMC)
Wherever you are, whatever your Easter need is this year, you are invited to celebrate the Lord's resurrection with us at Sonrise. I mean, check it out:

That's me preaching at last year's Sonrise-- and yes the white robe will return for 2015!
So invest in your own spiritual growth this Easter. Before the crowds and the busy-ness of the day spend some time quietly reflecting on your life with the Risen Lord.

Update: Here is Easter Sunday's weather forecast. If it is raining Sonrise will be in the Chapel. Park at the church and follow the Chapel signs on the facade of the building facing Custer Road.

May the living God raise us from despair, give us victory over sin, and set us free in Christ! Alleluia!

20 March 2015

Relationship Status: It's Complicated.

I joined Facebook in 2008, mostly because it seemed like everyone else I knew was. Social media is a fun way to catch up with friends, check out pictures of your grandkids' achievements, or share common interests. I remember setting up my profile page, and when it came to "relationship status," I clicked "married," and indicated to whom. But one of the options for relationships struck me as curious:

Aren't all relationships complicated? Here is a quick list of some of the many relationships I enjoy/endure/experiment with every day:

  • Christian
  • Pastor
  • Father
  • Husband
  • Son
  • Consumer
  • Citizen
  • Leader
  • Follower
And there have to be a billion more, right? But of that quick list I compiled in less than sixty seconds: which is not complicated?

I learned yesterday that HBO will re-launch the first several seasons of Game of Thrones each Sunday starting this week at 9:00 a.m.-- 10 consecutive hours each Sunday before the new series begins April 12. I've never watched it, so I scheduled the DVR to record and began sorting through the movies on my recorded list to clear space for those upcoming marathons. I cleared four hours last night when I watched an interesting double feature: The Way Way Back and Her. Both, it turns out, explore very interesting and complicated 21st century relationships. You guessed correctly: it's complicated.

The Way Way Back is one of those ensemble movies that features a ton of well-known celebrities but the story is focused on kids-- just click on the link for the all-star cast. Toni Collette and Steve Carell are dating. She has a teenage son Duncan (14; he's the central figure in the movie), and he has a teenage daughter. They bring the potentially blended family to the beach for the summer. They meet up with other eccentric families, one of which is also dealing with the ramifications of divorce, + alcoholism, the other with infidelity. On the drive to the beach the potential father-in-law asks the kid to rate himself on a scale of 1-10. Duncan votes himself a 6. Trent disagrees: "Your mom says you have no goals, no interest, no plan. You sound more like a 3 to me." Ouch.

Things go from bad to worse at the beach house, a nightmare situation for the quiet, awkward Duncan. He just wants to move to San Diego with his dad and his dad's (younger) girlfriend. Duncan's only outlet is discovered almost by accident-- he rides a bike to town, sneaks into a water park, and is given a job by the sarcastic, irreverent adult-who-never-grew-out-of-adolescence owner of the place. Duncan loves his job so much-- he doesn't even tell his mom about it so the beach group will not mess things up. The water park and the funny staff and patrons there accept him, support him, encourage him, challenge him-- all in loving ways. It becomes home for him. I really enjoyed The Way Way Back. It's a good family movie, exploring the many complexities of family dynamics.

I've been in the parenting business now for nearly 13 years. Oh my gosh. It's tough work. I have such respect for parents who do their best to instill values to their kids while not stifling their independence and growth. I wonder how my kids would rate my parenting on a 1-10 scale. Like so many other things, I'm learning as I go. It's complicated.

Her is such a different movie. Joaquin Phoenix is a writer who works for a dot.com business where people submit ideas for letters to their loved ones-- but they are composed by a professional, someone who has the time to compose just the right words for an anniversary, graduation, etc. Some of his clients have been with him for years-- he feels like he knows them personally, although he has never met any of them face to face. Theodore is dealing with the looming divorce from his childhood sweetheart. He has tried dating and failed many times. One night he upgrades his home computer, which has an operating system that one can speak directions to: check my email, compose a note, find a reservation, etc. He chooses a female voice, who calls herself Samantha-- voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She's basically Siri if you have an iPhone. The two get to know each other and eventually fall in love, as crazy as it sounds. He has an earpiece to go with his smartphone so they can speak to each other throughout the day. This has become so commonplace in the movie's world that when a co-worker and his girlfriend hear Theodore is dating they recommend a double-date. When he says, with a hint of embarrassment, "She's an operating system," they do not even notice. Theodore just brings them earpieces so they can hear Samantha speaking.

It's a great commentary on the nature of online relationships, and how many of us are awkward or uncomfortable with others, but are able to adapt successfully to the wired community.The movie leaves open-ended some of the questions that come to mind: Is this where romantic relationships are headed? What is the nature of human intimacy? Her is a great movie--it's for adults, no kiddos. If you can accept Theodore and Samantha, and in 2015 this is hardly the realm of science fiction-- there is a lot of thoughtful, honest discussion of what does, and does not, make for a successful relationship.

I've been in the husband business for nearly 18 years, and as reticent as I am to ask my kids to grade me on a 1-10 scale, the same goes for Christy on the spouse scale (she, of course, easily scores a 10-- hey, I may be dumb but I am not an idiot!). We're raising three boys, we've lived in something like 10 houses during our married life, still trying to find a comfortable balance between our careers and family. Yup, no doubt: it's complicated.

What about your relationships? Really, Facebook: what relationships are not complicated?

15 March 2015

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Note: this sermon was preached this morning at Custer Road UMC, continuing our sermon series for Lent: The Seven Words from the Cross.

We’re continuing in our sermon series on Jesus’ final words from the Cross. Last week we considered “Behold your Son/Behold your Mother,” words where Jesus creates the community of believers we understand as the church today—folk defined by their love for Jesus, each other, and the world. Today everything shifts: tone, the scene around the cross. Whereas John had Mary and the disciple whom Jesus loved and a couple of women near the cross, in Mark everyone who is near Jesus either tortures him physically or emotionally. The same crowds who excitedly welcome his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday now shout hate and insults at him.

Jesus turns his attention away from the noise of the moment to the heavens. He cries out to God in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They are words of desperation, of loneliness, of grief. Before his crucifixion Jesus was surrounded by people. Now his friends are gone. When he was baptized he heard these words from his Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” At his Transfiguration on the mountain the disciples heard this pronouncement from the heavens: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” But now here, at the Cross, there is no voice. Jesus’ words are met with divine silence. He dies alone.

Have you ever experienced loneliness? Can you remember a time when you were in need of companionship, a comforting word, someone to assure you everything would be ok, and you only found silence? Friends and family let us down all the time—and we let them down too—we are busy, distracted, worried about our own stuff. But what happens when we feel distant from God? How do we keep faith when God is slow to respond to our needs?

There is a tradition within the Bible that speaks to such a condition: the tradition of lament. The best place to explore this tradition is the Book of Psalms. Fully 1/3 of the 150 psalms are from this tradition. The psalmist appeals to God in the midst of a challenging situation—grief, illness, despair, loneliness—not a forum for whining but an invitation to God to address the situation. Psalm 13 is a good example of lament:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
   How long will you hide your face from me? 
How long must I bear pain* in my soul,
   and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
   Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
   my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 
I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.

It is impossible to know the specifics of every psalmist’s situation—and honestly it does not matter. We sense the psalmist’s desperation, loneliness, and impatience. But there is also a sense of hope. God has been faithful in the past; God will deliver us again.

One of the most challenging aspects of a growing faith is what to do when things go the opposite of how they should. So much of the messages we hear are positive—so when we experience negativity it is met with feelings of guilt or shame. In the social media world of Facebook and Twitter, where every picture features an ideal situation, a warm smile, a winning goal, a successful presentation, our failures do not measure up. I am not sure how many posts I recall of the kid’s honorable mention in the Science Fair or the high schooler’s 73 on the math exam or missing out on others’ expectations. It has been said that one of the most significant challenges the church faces, particularly North American Christianity, is a denial about the trials we face. All we seem to hear, and want to hear, is positive: Overcome. Outlast. Win. Victory. Confidence. What happens to our faith when we do not finish first at the end of every single race? I found this great quote from legendary biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann: “The church is not meant to be the happiest place on earth. The church is meant to be the most honest place on earth.” The lament tradition of the Psalms invites honesty into our relationship with God. Sometimes we are disappointed. We feel abandoned. We are hurt. And not just by other men and women. Sometimes we feel that way about God.

Over the years, I have found many Christians’ understanding of God to fall in one of two categories: God is either too big or too small. God is too big when our problems and needs are insignificant compared to our seven billion neighbors on this planet. God does not have time to meet us where we are because children are abused or starving; marriages are ending; wars are raging; poverty is rampant. God is out attending to the really important things so we keep our own needs secret. We miss out on the opportunity to deepen our faith because God is too big. Or sometimes God is too small. God is too small when God is not able to address our needs. We’ve limited God to an hour-long encounter one morning a week. When there is a time change or it’s spring break or it’s raining or the music is wrong or the sermon is too long or whatever else nags us. Faith for the God is too small crowd is one more thing on an already too long list. We easily lose faith not because God is too busy, but because God isn’t important enough.

Well, here is the good news: like the porridge in the Three Bears story, God is neither too big nor too small. God is just right. The antidote for our condition is the tradition of lament. This long tradition trusts God enough to express vulnerability, fear, even anger toward the Lord of all creation. The lament tradition fearlessly challenges God when things do not go according to plan, in sure and certain faith that God will act in ways that sustain and improve our lives. We cry out: “WHY?” to God without fear of reprisal or being ignored. The lament tradition invites the believer to pursue our relationship with God to its fullest. This is what we hear from Jesus on his Cross. The God he loves—the God who loves Jesus—is neither too big nor too small for Jesus’ words.

“My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cries out, louder than the mockery of the crowds, louder than the taunting words of the criminals crucified on his left and right. These are words that are at the same time his own and from the collection of psalms of lament. Psalm 22 is the most well-known of the lament psalms because of Jesus quotes it as he cries out to God. “My God  my God why have you forsaken me” is the first verse of Psalm 22. Scholars debate whether Jesus quotes only the first verse on its own, or if by quoting the first verse he invokes the entire psalm. What is clear is that Jesus knows and understands the lament tradition well—before his time of suffering—and he drew upon that history in time of greatest need. Before we suffer, before we doubt, before God disappoints us, we would do well to own the act of lament.

Mark and Matthew even extend Psalm 22’s impact on the crucifixion story with the note that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothing by casting lots—a direct correlation to Psalm 22 verse 19. Despite the isolation, the feeling of abandonment, the agony of his suffering, Jesus does not lose ultimate hope in God. His faith in God is so strong at his weakest moment because of the authenticity of the relationship. Jesus knows the end of Psalm 22, although he does not voice it from the Cross:

For he did not despise or abhor
   the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
   but heard when I cried to him. 

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
   my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
   those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
   May your hearts live for ever! 

All the ends of the earth shall remember
   and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
   shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
   and he rules over the nations. 

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord, 
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.

“My God my God why have you forsaken me?” are words expressive of Jesus’ abandonment by God. The closeness he once felt with the Father is gone, the words proclaimed from heaven at his baptism and Transfiguration distant memories. Now there is only silence. But Jesus is faithful: he still uses the words My God, my God. When our faith falters, when we find ourselves living the psalms of lament, may we, like Jesus and so many others across the millennia, remember the ultimate goodness of the Lord. May we find rest in a relationship with God so grounded in honesty and trust that even when God seems distant we still know we are his children.

During his temptation by Satan in the wilderness, the tempter begins each test with these words: “If you are the Son of God…” At the crucifixion, the crowds shout at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God…” Standing near the cross is a Roman soldier. Shortly after Jesus cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” he dies. This centurion, Mark says, responds in a remarkable way: “Seeing that he died in this way he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’” What about Jesus’ death invokes such a reaction from a non-believer? Jesus’ faith, his confidence, his knowing beyond the present moment that his life with God is secure forever. God is neither too big nor too small to totally abandon Jesus in his weakest moment. So it is with us: God is neither too big or too small for our own brokenness. God is able to take our grief, our disappointment, our doubt, our anxiety, even our questions. Just as Jesus’ scars did not disappear after his resurrection, so our lament is not easily hidden from God.

Over the years I have returned to the closing words of Chapter 8 of Romans over and over again. I have read them bedside at hospitals, quoted them over the phone to those in a faith crisis, mentioned them in countless holy conversations:

 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

[Listen closely here: Paul quotes from Psalm 44—a lament!]

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

08 March 2015

Behold Your Son/Behold Your Mother

Note: this sermon was preached this morning at Custer Road UMC, continuing our sermon series for Lent: The Seven Words from the Cross.

Several years ago I presided at a funeral. I do not remember today whose funeral it was—maybe a parishioner or extended family of a church member. What I remember was a comment shared with me following the burial at the cemetery. A young man approached me, shook my hand, and said, “I could tell you really believed what you said.” This was not the usual, “Nice service,” or “Good job” preachers normally hear after a funeral. I was sort of taken aback. My response was pretty strange: “Well, yeah.” Not the most pastoral response ever. But my immediate reaction was: “Of course I believe this stuff. I am a Christian. I am a pastor. This is what I do. Well, yeah.”

For the Gospel of John, the issue of what we believe is central. In fact, of the 173 times the word believe appears in the Bible, 57 of them are found in John! Many of us can recite John 3:16 from memory: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is profoundly interested in what we believe—and why—and he is constantly provoking and inviting others to believe in him: “This is the will of God: that you believe in the one he has sent.”

At the foot of the Cross, only in John, a scene of profound love occurs. We see two people who believed in Jesus: his mother Mary and one of his disciples. The two hold each other on a day of great pain and grief. Looking down at them, Jesus remembers each—the memories, the stories, the lives they shared together.

The Gospel of John says nothing about Jesus’ birth. The only reference we find to Mary aside from Jesus’ Cross is at a wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2). When the staff runs out of wine, Jesus’ mother informs Jesus about the situation. Jesus’ response to his mother is questionable: “Woman, what is that to me? My hour has not yet come!” Some object to Jesus’ use of the term woman to refer to his mother. Would any of you say that to your own mother? You might—once! But he was not being ugly. “Woman” was a common way of addressing women in public in his day. Anyway, following Jesus’ comment to her, she says to the steward, “Do whatever he says.” In this comment I detect a couple of messages: Pride. This is my boy. He’ll take care of this. Faith. Jesus has power and ability and can make any situation right.

Cana is the only reference to Mary outside of the Cross—but not so for Luke. Luke tells us Mary’s response to the angel’s proclamation that she will give birth to the Messiah: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” At his birth, Luke tells us shepherds visit the Christ child and leave proclaiming his glory. Luke says, Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” A week later the infant Jesus is presented in the Temple. An elderly man, Simeon, holds the child and says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel…and a sword will pierce your soul too.” When Jesus was 12 the Holy Family returned to Jerusalem for Passover. A day into their return journey home they noticed Jesus was not in the traveling party. Panicked, they find him in the Temple, teaching the religious leaders. When his parents expressed their concern, probably threatening to ground him or take away his mobile phone, the preteen Jesus says, “Where else would I be? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” Upon their return to Nazareth Luke tells us Jesus was obedient to his parents, and Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.”

Now, standing at the foot of the Cross, his mother remembers these and other stories of her son. We share her grief. But she experiences more than just loss—she sees in his eyes the very heart of God. The Church teaches that Mary was Jesus’ first disciple. From the moment of his conception Mary shared in his life—not only as a mother but as a faithful, committed follower. She did not abandon him at the end. Those condemned to crucifixion were not hung 20 feet in the air or so as it is often depicted in art—it was more like seven feet above ground. So Mary is not quite eye level—more like waist level—and she is able to clearly hear Jesus’ words from the Cross, referring to the disciple standing with her: “Behold your son.”

Who is this disciple? Well, he is unnamed in John, although most simply refer to him as “John.” We’ve only met him the night before, when Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples. Although he is unnamed we know a great deal about his relationship to Jesus. John tells us this disciple was seated right next to Jesus at the table, a place of great respect and honor. The disciple is referred to only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Literally the Greek text says this guy sat at Jesus’ breast. The two enjoyed an intimacy Jesus shared with no one else. He learns that Jesus is faithful to his promise. Just the day before, Jesus said to all the disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned.” While the other disciples are absent from the Cross, this guy is right there, accepting the responsibility for caring for Jesus’ mother: “Behold your mother.”

By linking these two together, “Behold your son/Behold your mother” Jesus creates a bond of intimacy, trust, and mutual affection. The only thing these two share in common is their love for, their belief in Jesus. He is their Lord, their Christ, their Savior. Their faith is obvious to us—they are present to the end. Their relationship to each other—and to Jesus—marks the very best definition we have for church. A community of like-minded folk who love and care for one another as a result of their relationships to each other and the one they affirm as Lord and Savior.

Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Gospel of John says,” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” We are invited to accept Jesus’ great love for us and become his disciples. To put it another way, from his Cross, looking upon each of us with the same love and compassion he had for Mary and the disciple, a love you and I could never imagine or understand, Jesus asks each of us: “Do you believe this?”

If you have not known this love before this morning, may you receive it right now. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” You are Jesus’ friend. He loves you—all of you—your brokenness, your imperfections, your mistakes. Acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship of your life and walk in the abundant life he promises for all who love him.

If you have already accepted Christ’s love for you and count yourself as his disciple, then live out your love in faith and obedience: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

If I had a time machine, there are many places in the past I would want to visit. One would be that cemetery in Duncanville a decade or so ago. When the guy says, “I can tell you really believe this,” I would have a more thoughtful, articulate response—more than, “Well, yeah.” Mary and the disciple share Jesus’ love for them, and that love creates a bond that can never be broken. In his love is a longing, a community, an authentic relationship that gives our lives meaning. St. Augustine said, “You have made us restless, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” May each of our restless hearts find their rest in the love of Jesus Christ!

Behold your son.
Behold your daughter.
Behold your mother.
Behold your father.
Behold your sister.
Behold your brother.
Behold your neighbor.
Behold your friend.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.