26 February 2017

Down from the Mountain

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

You'll probably think I am obsessed with mountains; we just finished examining the Sermon on the Mount the last four Sundays, and here we are again. Firstly, I am not a mountain guy, so I have no particular obsession with them. Secondly, we're following the Lectionary, the assigned readings for churches, and I don't pick those. But since we are on the subject of mountains, I do remember one trip we took with friends when Christy and I lived in England:

That's Mount Snowdon in Wales. It's the highest peak in the British Aisles, south of Scotland. None of us are climbers, but there is a fun option there: a rack and pinion train, built in 1896. It takes an hour to make the 4.7 mile trip to the summit. Wales is a stunningly beautiful country, and the views from Snowdon were breathtaking. But here's the thing: you ride up the train, you check out the scenery, walk around. But eventually, you have to get on the train. There's only so much to do. No one lives there.

The mountain in the Gospel of Matthew is better understood as a metaphor than a specific place. When Jesus goes to the mountain, it's to teach. The mountain is his platform, his pulpit. He brings folk up to the mountain to listen and learn. Or experience. So the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapters 5-7, is a summary of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the resurrected Christ meets the disciples again on the mountain to bless them and send them into the world in ministry. And in the middle of the Gospel we have this story of Jesus' Transfiguration on the mountain.

The Transfiguration is all about mystery, and awe, and wonder, and glory. Jesus' clothes are changed to a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, appear and speak to Jesus. The three disciples Jesus brought with him, Peter, James, and John, absolutely freak out. They didn't expect this-- no one could have! They may have thought this would be a spiritual retreat, or prayer time, or a private lesson. Not a powerful vision of glory. Their teacher is transformed. Heroes of their faith, whose stories they heard as kids in Sunday school, appear with Jesus and talk to him. How amazing is that? Peter just can't stand it. He interrupts the conversation: "Jesus! This is incredible! How about I pitch some tents-- one for you, one for Elijah, one for Moses-- so we can all camp out together?

As soon as the words exit his mouth, Moses and Elijah disappear. A terrifying sight, a cloud from heaven filled with lightning and fire, descends around them, and a voice shouts from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!" Scared to death, the disciples hide. But then everything changes. All the noise, the commotion, the confusion... is gone. They're left alone with Jesus, who:

  • touches them
  • calls them to stand
  • encourages them not to be afraid
All while leading them down the mountain.

Here's the deal: as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the mountains are, nobody lives there. Sooner or later, and it's almost always sooner, folk board the train to go back down. The mountain is not a retreat center, somewhere to hang out for several days. It's a place to experience the word of God, be transformed, and sent out. Sometimes people think about the church as a place to come that is isolated and insulated from the outside world. A place where no one disagrees and there is no messiness. Nope! The church is full of messiness. The church is not a retreat center. We don't live in churches. We come, bringing all of our messiness with us, to experience the praise and worship of God: through music, prayers, fellowship, sermon... but then we go out into the world. And that's a messy place too!

The Old Testament reading also took place on a mountain: Moses went there to receive the stone tablets inscribed with God's covenant with the people. While Moses was there, the same cloud Peter James and John witnessed enfolded the mountain. There were flashes of lightning and fire. It was terrifying to the Hebrews below in the valley. For Moses, it was a moment of intimacy and communion with God. And he probably would have liked to stay there. But the mission wasn't to the mountain-- it was to the people. What did he find when he finally returned to the people? During his absence they fashioned a god of gold and worshiped it. Yup, ministry is messy. 

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John descended the mountain they were immediately approached by a man whose child was ill. "Your disciples couldn't help him," the father said. Jesus felt the same rage as Moses did when he saw the golden calf: "How long must I be with you?" Yup, ministry is messy. After he cured the child, the disciples asked why they couldn't do it. "Because of your weak faith," Jesus said. "But if your faith is just the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, 'Go into the sea,' and it would do it."

We have a cookbook at home, sort of a comfort food type book, and over and over again: meatloaf, anything that involves mixing stuff together, it uses the same phrase: "Using your hands..." Not a spatula, not a utensil. Your hands. I guess there is something about getting one's hands dirty that makes the recipe so much better. And ministry is like that. Church is like that. People are like that. There are no perfect people or places. If we find ourselves there we can see God face to face, but only for a moment; we have to descend the mountain and find the people Jesus loves and wants to save.

Before and after the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection. Messy. People are messy. We get sick, we lose loved ones, we vote one way or another. But we're called to be with them and love them anyway. No one lives on the mountain! You may encounter God's presence there, but briefly; and you will be transformed. So get on the train, and follow Jesus down to where he always is: in the messiness of people. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

22 February 2017

The Season of Lent at Grace

The Season of Lent, a 40 day time of spiritual preparation before Easter, begins Wednesday, March 1. We will offer a special worship service that night in the Celebration Center at 6:00 p.m. We will burn the palm branches from last year's Palm Sunday service, and then impose those actions on the foreheads of everyone. The ashes are a symbol of our brokenness and need of divine grace. This year at Grace we'll have several different opportunities to participate in:

  • Our sermon series will be from Paul's Letter to the Romans. Romans is a complex book. It is especially important to read during Lent, because one of its key themes is overcoming the power of sin to live a life of righteousness God offers us in Jesus Christ. I invite you to read along as a devotional time during Lent.
  • I'll offer a Lenten Bible study: “The Death of the Messiah.” We offered a similar study during Advent. We will explore each of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion: his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion, noting their similarities and differences. Studying the different gospel accounts of the Passion always brings up great questions. In addition to the gospel texts, at the beginning of each session we will explore an artistic depiction of Jesus’ passion as it relates to that evening’s gospel material. Four Wednesdays: March 22 and 29, April 5 and 12, 5:30-7:00 p.m., upstairs.
  • Holy Week services: Palm/Passion Sunday (April 9), Holy Thursday (April 13), Good Friday (April 14). Easter Day is April 16.
In addition to reading Romans on your own, I hope everyone will make a renewed effort to attend
worship during Lent. We'd love to see you! Our family will miss a couple of Sundays during Lent.
The boys will go to my parents' home in Bay City. Christy and I are going to Italy to celebrate our
20th anniversary. We always said we would do this, and now it's here! Neither of us has been.
Pastor Leon will preach for me March 12 and 19.

To get you set for Lent, here is a psalm reading and some prayers from the Taize community
in France:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard (Isaiah 58:6-8). God our Father, you want us to become new creatures in Christ. We pray to you. Lord, you promise us new heavens and a new earth. Renew our hope. You have freed us from slavery by giving us your only Son; you open for us the way of freedom. Enable us to listen to your Word and to welcome it with hearts filled with love. We were dead and you brought us back to life through the Spirit; we were sinners and you
continually restore us to purity of heart. God of peace, you do not want us to know relentless worry but rather a humble repentance
of heart. It is like a surge of trusting that enables us to place our faults in you. And then, by
the inner light of forgiveness, little by little we discover a peace of heart.
Prayer for Each Day, 1997 and 1998 Ateliers et Presses de Taize

19 February 2017

Heart for Heart

Matthew 5:38-48

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, a white supremacist, Mark Stroman, shot three men at a gas station in Dallas. He was seeking revenge for his half sister, who was killed when the Twin Towers fell. Two of the men died; a third, Rais Bhuiyan, survived, even after being shot in the face. Stroman was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to death. A remarkable thing happened during the process from the murders to the scheduled execution: Rais Bhuiyan forgave Mark Stroman. A devout Muslim, Rais did not believe in returning violence for violence. He advocated for the man who shot him in the face to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. The State of Texas executed Mark Stroman in July 2011.

We're wrapping up our brief sermon series on Chapter 5 of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount with some of the most difficult teachings Jesus ever shared:

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...'

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...'

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

From the very beginning, I find a verse to be nearly incomprehensible: "Do not resist an evildoer." How can Jesus say that? How can Christians not resist evil? Didn't Jesus himself resist evil in Chapter 4 when he was tempted by the devil for 40 days? Frustrated, I turned to my Greek/English New Testament and I made an important discovery: the same Greek word translated here as "resist" is translated "stand firm" in Ephesians 6:11. Ephesians 6 talks about Christians putting on the "whole armor of God" to fight against evil-- a final showdown. Stand firm/Resist in that context is about fighting. Matthew 5 takes place at the other end of that spectrum, on a leadership retreat, not in a boxing arena. "Do not resist an evildoer" in Matthew 5 means do not return violence for violence. Here are other similar New Testament scriptures:

Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:7-8).

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all" (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9).

Placed in that context Jesus' "Do not resist an evildoer" makes more sense. "You heard it said before 'an eye for an eye,' or 'a tooth for a tooth.'" These teachings from places like Leviticus seek to create a uniform code for justice, so that punishments do not come down as vengeance. Justice should be paid back in equal measure. So for example, do not demand the death penalty for someone who steals your car. Jesus takes this familiar teaching, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and makes it harder: Do not resist an evildoer. Do not return violence for violence.

He goes on: If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also. If someone sues you for your coat give your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile go a second mile. Give to whoever begs. This is not about cowering in the face of oppression. It's not looking the other way. It's a peaceful, loving confrontation. I heard these comments from the great theologian Walter Wink:

  • The slapping of the cheek: this would be the back of their right hand against your right cheek. If you turn the left cheek as a response, you are forcing them to hit you with their right fist (the left hand was not used in these ways in Jesus' society). So by resisting you are forcing the other person to break existing cultural boundaries-- you are making yourself equal to your oppressor. 
  • Give your cloak as well: You're in a public space-- a courtroom-- being sued for your coat. Give that-- and your outer cloak: you'll be basically naked in a public place and will make the powerful feel uncomfortable.
  • Go the second mile: Roman soldiers could force locals to carry their belongings, but for only one mile. Jesus says go ahead and do that, but also go another second mile-- beyond the custom. This act of defiance will elevate the oppressed and shame the oppressor.
These teachings are not about living a sacrificial, generous life; they are about resistance.

Remember this guy?

This was June of 1989-- Tienanmen Square in China. I had just graduated from high school. Tank Man blocked the path of these tanks, jumping in front of them for several minutes. He disappeared after this moment of resistance. No one ever heard from him again.

Or one of my favorite Bible stories is the Book of Esther. The Jewish festival of Purim, celebrated this year March 10 & 11, remembers two powerful women from this story: Queen Vashti and Queen Esther. Vashti was summoned by the king to perform in front of a bunch of drunk men, including the King. She refused. She was replaced by Esther. Esther was Jewish, but kept her identity secret until one of the King's advisers planned to kill all the Jews. Esther stopped it. Purim is an fun annual celebration of these two women.

Do you know this guy? This is St Valentine, a Christian from the 3rd century. Valentine performed weddings for Christians, which was against the law, and sheltered Christians sentenced to death for their faith. He was arrested by the Romans, and after trying to covert the Emperor Claudius II was executed on February 14 in the year 269. In the year 496 the Church established a day to remember and celebrate his life, February 14. He's the patron saint of couples and greetings.

In the face of evil, in the face of violence, Christians do not return violence or evil. But we also do not look the other way and accept. We resist. We stand tall. Our faith compels us to do this. How could Rais Bhuiyan forgive Mark Stroman? Because his faith taught him to not return violence for violence. Jesus said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect." God's grace perfects us throughout our lives, that we may be made perfect in love. So live out what you believe!

12 February 2017

The Founder

A couple of weeks ago I saw The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. It's not playing here in Sherman; I saw it in Plano. It's the story of how Ray Kroc took a hamburger stand in California and make it a global phenomenon. Ray Kroc did not start McDonald's-- Dick and Mac McDonald did. But Ray was a visionary and saw its potential.

The movie starts with Ray as a traveling salesman in Ohio. He's driving to small restaurants and drive-ins, trying to convince them to buy his milkshake machine: it can make six at a time, instead of the usual one. He can't sell any to anyone. He calls the home office to check in, and the secretary tells him a place in California just placed an order for six. Assuming it's a mistake, Ray calls McDonald's. The owner says, "Yeah that was a mistake. Better make it eight." Ray decides to drive out to California to see this place. He is amazed at what he finds.

McDonald's a hamburger stand. It's not a drive-in, so there are no cars-- and no car hops. You have a choice of either a cheeseburger, fries and a drink, or a cheeseburger, fries and a drink. Or maybe the special: a cheeseburger, fries and a drink. No BBQ, chicken wings, etc. Everything is served in a paper bag. No knives and forks, no plates. Eat, and throw it away. The burgers are all made exactly the same way, and there is no waiting. Your order is ready in seconds.

He asks the brothers about the process. They tell the story of before the place even opened, before it was built, they gathered all the employees at a tennis court. As a conductor leads an orchestra, the McDonald brothers laid out the whole operation. Drawing with chalk on the court, the drink station was here; the grill over there; the window here. With a stopwatch they meticulously time each station so that everything runs smoothly and to exact expectations.

Ray sees the potential to spread McDonald's across the country, and the brothers agree to let Ray start selling franchises in the Midwest. They open restaurants everywhere, but Ray is not making any money. That's when a partner says they need to establish a corporation which owns the land. The individual franchisees own the business, McD's incorporated owns the land. Ray establishes this without the brothers' knowledge or consent. Soon he buys them out, and McDonald's becomes a multi-billion dollar industry, one of the largest landowners in the world. Ray was a great businessman-- not a great man, husband, or friend-- but a visionary. He could see reality in a way the McDonald brothers could not.

Jesus was a visionary too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his new disciples up to the mountain to teach them about the life they are beginning. This is Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. So in Chapters 1-4 we've had his birth, his baptism, his temptation, and the calling of the disciples. Matthew is very clear that Jesus calls the disciples to teach them-- others are listening, but the primary audience is the disciples. He begins the sermon with very comforting, affirming words.

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘You are the salt of the earth;  ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

 It all sounds wonderful. But he's not finished. He's just getting started. In verse 21 things get real, or as they say about preachers when sermons hit too close to home, "he's gone meddlin'." Now, Jesus was not from Texas, so I'm going to read it as if he was. The "you's" he says are plural: y'all.

‘Yall have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Yall shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if yall are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement;  ‘Yall have heard that it was said, “Yall shall not commit adultery.” But I say to yall that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ‘Again, yall have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Yall shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to yall, Do not swear at all."

So he takes classic teaching from the Ten Commandments and other common practices and makes them much, much harder. Yes, I know I should not murder. I can buy that. OK, I should not commit adultery. Easy. I should not swear a false oath. Got it. Jesus says not murdering isn't the standard at all; you shall not be angry with a brother or sister. Don't give your gift to the church until you have reconciled with someone you have hurt. That's hard. Forget adultery-- too easy. But how do you control lust? Or do not swear anything at all??

Paul wasn't from Texas either, but he goes to meddlin' with the Corinthians too:
"And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to yall as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed yall with milk, not solid food, for yall were not ready for solid food. Even now yall are still not ready, for yall are still of the flesh."

Following Jesus isn't easy-- sometimes in the church we make it too warm and fuzzy. It's messy; it's hard work. But the potential is there for transforming, new life. And Jesus wanted the disciples to be able to fully understand, and say yes: " Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:37). Literally just this morning this verse was in my devotion: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
   and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice" (Ecclesiasticus 15:15).

Boom. That's really the issue. We can choose to follow Jesus and step into a new life. Or not. The disciples are just as free to return to their boats by the Sea of Galilee.

Ray Kroc was a visionary who saw the potential for McDonald's. The brothers didn't. Their answer was no. Ray bought them out and created a corporation known throughout the world. Jesus also shared a vision on the mountain. And we can choose to follow or not. What's your answer? In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

09 February 2017

Yo Yo Effect

"Baby it's cold outside!" That's one of the creepiest "holiday" tunes played during December (have you ever paid attention to the lyrics??), but it's certainly the case today. Cold is normal for February, not the warm temps we had earlier in the week. Check out this tweet from Pete Delkus of Channel 8 in Dallas:

And here's the ten day forecast:

So... cool today, warm and sunny tomorrow and Saturday, cold and rainy (thank you, Jesus) Sunday through Wednesday, then warm and sunny again. I am a cold weather guy. But the bouncing around is making me crazy!

When I was a kid, I loved yoyos. My boys play with them too every now and then. I could never do any tricks with them, but it was always a fun, simple toy, that is until the string became tangled and you were left with a useless plastic or wood paperweight.

Our recent weather makes me think of yoyos. Down. Up. By the way: in places like Hawaii, where the weather never changes-- what do folk talk about? Anyway, life in the church often feels like a "yoyo effect" has taken place. Sometimes you are strong in your attendance and participation. And then... boom... it's been three weeks or more since you were in Sunday school. One of the biggest spiritual challenges folk face today is the church's lack of relevance. There are all kinds of reasons/excuses for it, but the reality is: the fully dedicated, in worship unless unable to come Christian is an endangered species. Here at Grace we see this in things like participation in Bible studies, Sunday school, or committee meetings. Up. Down.

This Sunday in the message we are still exploring the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:21-37 this week. Jesus speaks directly to our spiritual need, calling us to live in to a new vision of what it means to follow God. And our epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, really pushes our yoyo tendencies: "And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh" (verses 1-3). Ouch.

If we each put a stronger effort in to our relationship with God, we will see renewed passion and vitality in our lives, our church, and our community. Just the little start we have made at Wakefield Elementary as readers is already making an impact, and there is much more to come. Let's not yoyo around with those kids, or anyone else God puts in our path. Starting this Sunday, let's show up for worship, ready to sing, pray, listen, reflect, and experience God's grace.

Just make sure to bring your sunblock, umbrella, parka, de-icer, galoshes, fans, and sunglasses.

01 February 2017

Signing Day

Today is National Signing Day, when high school football players from across the country declare their intentions to play for colleges. Throughout the day on Twitter I've seen students declaring for SMU and Austin College, among others. Part of me can't help but wonder if in three years James will tweet something about his next destination! Then again, who can predict the future...

Signing Day is about claiming an identity. I am a Longhorn. I am a Mustang. I am a Sam Houston State Bearkat. This afternoon I'm thinking about Signing Day from a different perspective. Tonight our middle schoolers will begin a new spiritual journey toward faith in Christ. Confirmation Sunday, June 4 (also Pentecost Sunday) will be their Christian Signing Day, where they will publicly claim their identity in Christ.

We'll explore these themes together:

  • Creation
  • Sin
  • Redemption
  • The Holy Spirit
  • Church
  • The New Creation
  • Discipleship
  • Salvation
  • The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
  • Worship and the Sacraments
  • Living a Holy Life

We'll attend other faith traditions:
  • Roman Catholic
  • Bilingual United Methodist
  • Jewish
We'll also serve in a mission opportunity, and attend an end-of-Confirmation retreat. I invite you to be in prayer for our young people as they explore faith, ask questions, dig into the Bible, and learn the responsibilities, challenges, and privileges of being a follower of Jesus.