26 July 2015

God's Grace: More Powerful Than Our Sin

During this summer we have explored the life of David. We studied some of his most significant victories, from the defeat of Goliath to becoming the King of Israel, to establishing Jerusalem as not just the capital of a country but a religious center, ultimately not only for Judaism, but for Christianity and Islam as well. But even the greatest of individuals fall—and sometimes it is the most painful for us when our heroes, not the everyday, average folk like you and me, but the greatest of us, gives in to sin. Over the next three Sundays we will explore David’s downfall. The one who defeated a giant will succumb to his own weakness. To his credit, unlike his predecessor Saul, David does not lose his faith in God. After all, he will always be remembered as the one who lived after God’s own heart.
It would be easy for the historians of the Bible to “accidentally” forget the shortcomings of one of their favorite heroes. To their credit 1 and 2 Samuel, which tells the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David, and 1 and 2 Kings, which tells the stories of every king from Solomon onward, share the stories with brutal honesty. (1 and 2 Chronicles, which recounts many of these same stories, tends to delete the bad stuff about David—like the king himself, no one is perfect.) The Bathsheba story represents the worst of David—and is a reminder for all of us to watch out for the underestimated power of sin and our broken relationship with God.

David suffered from unchecked desire.  One day David notices a beautiful woman bathing in the house next to his.  David was married to several women, and had many other concubines.  He had many sons, so there is no reason to lust after Bathsheba except that she was beautiful and he desired her.  He ordered his troops to go to her house and take her to him.  Knowing she was married to one of his best soldiers, he slept with her anyway.  And then she became pregnant.  Now David begins to scheme.  He recalls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, from the battle for a weekend furlough.  He says to Uriah, “You’ve done well; you deserve a weekend at home with your wife.”  But Uriah won’t go home.  He says it’s not fair for him to be with his wife when the other soldiers are still at war.  So David throws a party.  Uriah becomes drunk.  And he still refuses to go home.  Then David gets desperate.  He writes an order to his commander, saying Uriah is to be placed on the front lines, then the other Israelites are to retreat, ensuring Uriah’s death.  Uriah literally carries his own death warrant to his commanding officer.  Once Uriah is dead, David allows Bathsheba to mourn for a week and then marries her. For one described as having a heart for God, David breaks nearly all of the Ten Commandments in just this one episode: adultery, murder, coveting, stealing, disregarding God and trusting too much in his own power.

Over the years, commentators have tried to take David off the hook, implying that Bathsheba purposefully bathed in plain sight in order to lure David.  She was the schemer.  But the text in no way says that.  David is the responsible party here, using his power and position to acquire whatever he desires.  Lust often leads to damaged relationships and severe consequences because of the abuse of power. We see it in schools, we see it in our elected leaders, and we see it in our churches. We abuse the power we’ve received because of our position for our own lustful purposes. This is what David does. The danger of lust lies with how one understands other people.  In healthy relationships, each member is treated with an equal amount of respect and honor.  One does not sacrifice more than the other; there is balance.  Someone put it this way: a river is beautiful to look at when it exists within its banks, but when it floods it ceases to be beautiful, destroying everything in its path.  Sexual desire between committed adults is beautiful, but when the boundaries are broken it becomes just as destructive as the flood.  Let’s be clear: his interest in her is only lust. Not love. If she had not become pregnant he would never have spoken to her again. This was not a digression of character—it was a brutal, awful attack on her personhood. In fact, one could argue this was not a sexual encounter at all, but rape—the Hebrew word often translated “sent for”—as in “he sent for her”—is rightly translated “he took her.” It’s the same word Samuel used to describe what the king would do to the people’s possessions: “He will take…” your money as taxes. “He will take…” your sons for war. Well, now David “takes” Bathsheba for his own selfish desires. His power, as king, drives the story. David’s manipulation and scheming ultimately pay their toll on his family. The baby conceived in his act of lust with Bathsheba dies. In the future, one of David’s sons, Amnon, will rape his half-sister, Tamar, then send her away in disgrace instead of marrying her.  Her full brother, another of David’s sons, Absolom, then murders Amnon.  Later Absolom overthrows David and makes himself king.  We’ll talk about the destruction of David’s family in further detail in a couple of weeks. For now, remember this: sin, when allowed to overcome us, causes a multiplying effect, where nothing in our lives is safe.  

Psalm 14 describes the human condition in this way:
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.

For thousands of years, folk tried their best to understand the human condition and our propensity to fail. Genesis begins with the story of Adam and Eve, the first human couple, too overcome with their own desire for god-like abilities that they broke the one rule they were asked to follow. Commentators developed the concept of Original Sin based on this story. Every person, since “The Fall” of Adam and Eve, has a sort of genetic disorder—a brokenness passed down from the first human couple. Only the grace and power of Jesus Christ, through his resurrection from the dead, has the ability to restore this relationship with God.

When we began discerning what Lectio would look like—how it would be a different worship opportunity than our Sanctuary services—we examined elements in the service, like music, liturgy, and everything else. I wanted to try something new in my preaching as well. For thirteen years I was a series preacher, using the Lectionary only from time to time to fill in the holes between series. Lectionary or I was always a preach one text sort of guy. I wanted to try something new here. I would use the Lectionary (hence the name of the service lectio), we would read all four assigned texts every week regardless of length, and I have tried, with varying results, to preach on a common theme between the four texts. For today, the first two texts, the David and Bathsheba story and Psalm 14, go naturally together. The brokenness of  humanity and our need for redemption. Here’s the last verse of Psalm 14: “When the Lord changes his people’s circumstances for the better…” (not if, but when) “…Jacob will rejoice; Israel will celebrate!” 

But the Gospel text surprised me: Jesus feeding the large crowd by the sea and afterward walking on the water to the disciples. What does that text have to do with the human condition??? And I was frustrated for several days. I was tempted to drop the gospel from the sermon altogether and just focus on the Old Testament stuff, which is vitally important.
But then this came to me, and you can tell me if it works; well, tell me it works. The gospel text does not speak to the brokenness of humanity. It speaks to the power of God to overcome and transform reality. On the seashore the large crowd is hungry and worn out—have yall heard the new term hangry (hungry + angry; I was surprised to type that word and not find a red squiggly line under it—although yall did have one)? This is hangriness (red squiggly on that one) on a massive scale. But Jesus, and Jesus alone, is able to meet the need. In the other accounts of this story Jesus does the blessing and breaking, but it is the disciples who first notice the need and who eventually distribute the food. In John Jesus controls the entire scene. These are people will all kinds of needs, living though all kinds of challenges. They are all broken, all in need of God’s infinite power. So everyone who was hungry was fed with the new life of Jesus Christ. Everyone experiences the fullness of life offered through faith. At the end of the day, the exhausted disciples are on the boat crossing the sea. Jesus is not with them for some reason. The water became rough and the wind strong. Jesus, unseen by the disciples, sees their fear and calms it: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” Invoking God’s name, easing their fear, Jesus embodies God’s power.

The epistle reading, from Ephesians 3, implores us to accept and claim the transforming power of God: “I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all the believers. I ask that you will know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” The knowledge of that love is what can reform the human condition and restore our broken relationship with God. That is good news for us! The feeding of a large crowd was always considered a communion story: Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, distributes it. Communion is a tangible way to see, taste, and hear God’s redemption and power.

I know the David and Bathsheba story is serious, and I hope no one here thinks we sort of buried it under the rug this morning. This episode is far reaching in David’s life, and we will pick it up again the next two Sundays. Next week we will learn about owning sin and seeking God’s forgiveness. The following week we’ll learn about the consequences of sin—how lives other than the immediate ones involved are impacted. Overcoming the human condition is something only God’s power is strong enough to do. So for today we honor and celebrate the goodness of God, who sees our need and meets it in ways that transform and give the possibility of new life. The Ephesians text ends with these words: “Glory to God, who is able to go far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen!

19 July 2015

People Will Come

This sermon was delivered at Custer Road today as part of the "At the Movies" series. Many thanks to Paige Christian for preaching at Lectio and to Rev Sharon O'Connor for serving as liturgist and communion celebrant. I'll be back in the Chapel next Sunday at 9:00.

Field of Dreams came out about a month before I graduated from high school, in 1989. It’s not the greatest baseball movie; in fact it’s not even my favorite baseball movie starring Kevin Costner (hello, Bull Durham). But it’s a movie close to my heart because it evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for the game. If you haven’t seen the movie, or you’ve forgotten it, here’s a quick summary. Ray Kinsella is a corn farmer in Iowa. One night he hears a mysterious voice in his cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Who will come? If you build what? No response. After some discernment Ray figures out the puzzle: If he builds it—a baseball diamond in his cornfield—he—Shoeless Joe Jackson—will come.
He has a love/hate relationship with baseball—mostly on the negative side. His father was a baseball player, a catcher in the minors, and he died at a very young age, so Ray sort of blames baseball for the lousy state of his relationship with Dad. Shoeless Joe Jackson was Ray’s father’s favorite player. Jackson was a member of the 1919 White Sox, infamous for taking money from gamblers and throwing the World Series. Ray thinks it typical his dad’s favorite player was banned for life for cheating.
Still, he builds the ballfield, and sure enough, Shoeless Joe Jackson appears, along with many other players. Then the voice comes to Ray again: “Ease his pain.” Ease whose pain? No answer. Ray figures it refers, not to Shoeless Joe, but a famous writer from the 1960s, Terrance Mann. Ray goes to visit him in Boston, takes him to a Red Sox game, where both men hear the voice again: “Go the distance.” To where? Minnesota. OK. There they pick up young ballplayer and return to Iowa. This clip takes place toward the end of the movie. You hear Terrance Mann give a glorious speech about baseball, interrupted occasionally by Ray’s brother-in-law, trying to convince Ray to take bailout funds from investors, or face foreclosure.
As a baseball fan I get goosebumps everytime I hear that speech. I love baseball, but the truth is the game is facing some major difficulties. Now, at the Major League level baseball is doing very well. Every team is making money, attendance has increased every year for many years, and the revenue stream is very healthy. When the average player earns more than $3 million/year, you know the superstars and owners are doing well too. Baseball’s challenges are not in the executive offices; the problems are found on fields across America and in baseball’s viewership numbers. Listen to a couple of stats: in 1978 the World Series had 44 million TV viewers. Last year’s Series numbered just over 12 million. According to ESPN, the average age of its baseball audience is 55, up from 46 in 2004 (compare those numbers to the NBA: according to ESPN their NBA audience’s average age, in both 2004 and 2014, was 37). It’s not just the age of TV viewers that is a concern—Little League participation is dropping rapidly. In the 1990s three million kids played baseball. In 2013 the number was 2.2 million. The average length of an MLB game in 1981 was 2 ½ hours; today it is 3+.
The clip from Field of Dreams is fairly typical of how most folk speak about baseball—dripping with nostalgia. When faced with challenges throughout the years, baseball has looked to the past for inspiration, rarely the future or the present. Baseball has always been more interested in promoting its dead or long-retired legends of the game, rather than its current stars. Just think of many of its newer ballparks—they are designed to evoke the ballparks of the 30s and 40s.
I was not always a baseball fan. I used to hate watching baseball on TV—it was so slow and boring, unlike football and basketball. My interest in the game consisted of going to a game every now and then in Houston at the Astrodome. But everything began to change for me in 1986. My Astros fought, and ultimately lost to, the New York Mets in the League Championship Series. Then the Mets played the Red Sox in the World Series, and the Sox pitchers were led by Roger Clemens, who previously pitched at The University of Texas, where I would attend following graduation. The Sox lost the series, but I was hooked on the game. Another step forward for me was learning to keep a score, a sort of short-hand way to reconstruct the game as it unfolds. It’s an interactive way for viewers to become participants. In other words, the more I engaged with the game—keeping score, learning the players’ stats and tendencies—the more the game became real for me.
When I hear James Earl Jones’ speech (by the way, in researching Field of Dreams I learned JEJ actually hates baseball in real life—a little part of me dies inside now when I hear the speech) I cannot help but draw a parallel with the situation the Church finds itself in today. Like baseball our “fanbase” is aging. Like baseball, the Church tends to look back at its glory days, maybe the 50s or 60s, to address current realities. Recently the Church has tried several different ways to redefine itself to meet the needs of a new generation: this especially happened during the 1990s, commonly referred to as the “Church Growth Movement.” Many churches relocated out of their vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows for storefront or auditorium like spaces. Some changed the worship style, music, wardrobe for leaders and congregation. Those changes can serve a purpose, but my biggest concern during the church growth movement, and even in many churches today, was that we watered down the gospel .Jesus said being his follower would be very difficult but would fill us with joy; many churches stopped asking their congregants to do anything and focused on self-help topics.
I grew up in the church, but not much further than the most basic level, attending worship. I rarely attended Sunday school or youth group. The difference in church for me came when I decided to participate more fully in the life of the church. I attended youth mission trips, summer camp as a counselor, joined Bible studies, etc. My level of engagement changed, and so did my life. Recently I read an article from Harvard Business Review about a church in San Francisco that re-thought how it measures how well the church is achieving its vision. Most churches, including Custer Road, use metrics of worship attendance or membership to analyze how well they are doing. Attendance is the baseline number—the most basic level of activity in the church. What this church in California learned is that those metrics can be very difficult to define. They decided to track engagement—after all the church’s mission is to lead individuals to change their lives so they will change the lives of others. Engagement is about changed lives.
So Jesus sent the disciples out in ministry at the beginning of Chapter 6 of Mark. He gave them authority to do the same things he had been doing: heal the sick, exorcise demons, teach. The disciples had the five previous chapters to listen to Jesus, take good notes, prepare themselves for ministry. Nobody expected it this early—Chapter 6! But here’s the thing: they went out and did it. The difference in their lives and lives of so many others is illustrated by Mark’s use of the term “apostles,” rather than “disciples” to refer to the Twelve (it won’t last). But for now they do amazing things. Their level of engagement changed:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56).
This morning you’ve heard from our leaders of our youth mission trips to New Orleans and Crossville, TN this past week, as well as from college students from Project Transformation spending their summers helping underserved youth better their reading skills. I know from experience: the best thing about returning from mission is the sharing of stories. And the disciples want this—they need it. Mark notes their hunger and tiredness. But their first impulse is to share how their lives were changed when they participated in the changing of another’s life. Engagement. I am sure just about every youth has a story or experience they want to share about this week. And we want to hear those stories! But let’s not forget that the ministry must continue. Let me offer a challenge to those returning from a mission opportunity: as full of as you are, do not fall back to your minimum baseline of worship attendance. Get your rest, share your stories, then get yourself right back out there to serve someone else.
One of Jesus’ most familiar, and least understood, teachings is “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7, John 12:8). Many individuals and churches interpret this saying to justify offering minimum-level help to others. Since we will always have the poor with us, it is Ok to participate with charity, rather than face down institutional poverty. Jesus never gave us opportunities to do enough to squeak by. Remember, discipleship is supposed to be hard, yet filled with joy from those who engage at a deeper level. “You will always have the poor” means the Church will never run out of opportunities to bless others with the love and compassion of Jesus.
In the Mark story, Jesus wants to take the disciples to a quiet, distant place so they can rest, get something to eat, and share stories. But the crowds figure out when they are going and beat them to the Retreat Center. The crowds’ needs are too great—you will always have the poor with you. Jesus looks upon the people with compassion: not guilt or shame. They are like sheep without a shepherd. Doomed and lost. He does not chastise the crowd for interfering the disciples’ rest. He loves them. And Mark tells us more people, bigger crowds, found Jesus by the seashore and he healed them. There is ample opportunity to spread God’s heart and love to a hurting community.
So we could just ask the mission trip and Project Transformation folk to step it up a notch for us, couldn’t we? But we know that will not work. They are tired and hungry, and like those returning disciples they too are anxious to sleep in their own beds. The rest of us must examine out own engagement level. Here’s an easy diagnostic:
  • Are you being changed for the sake of the gospel?
  • Are others’ lives being changed because of you?
When more people who say yes to those questions we’ll have a better idea of how successfully we are accomplishing our God-given mission. Here at Custer Road we have great missions opportunities: from serving lunch to hungry kids during the workweek at our Summer Lunch program to mentoring students at area public schools. Further engagement with the gospel will lead to transformation--for yourself and for the community.
At the end of the movie Ray is talking with Shoeless Joe and says, “You know, I’ve done all this stuff. What’s in it for me?” “Is that why you did it?” Joe asks. After an uncomfortable silence Joe says, “If you build it, he will come,” motioning to a catcher taking off his gear. It’s Ray’s dad. Ray goes over and asks, “Dad you want to have a catch?” And every father and son who has ever seen that moment bursts in tears:
(have the Kleenex ready.)

It kills me every time. But that’s the thing. What if people did come to our church—would they find that kind of love and compassion here? Every church that built a giant building in the 90s adapted the famous lines from Field of Dreams: “If we build it people will come.” But sometimes people came and they did not find the love and compassion of Jesus. They left empty, even as the buildings were full of people. When we speak of Church we do not mean buildings—we’re talking about people, the body of Christ. And when people hear that the love and compassion of Jesus Christ is available they will come. People will come! 
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.