Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Two Realities that Give You a Joy that Nothing Can Take Away

If you were here last week, you heard me say all sorts of exciting things about living in Resurrection Time.   You might remember the riff. 

It isn’t evil has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   Because it isn’t despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s isn’t fear time.  It’s faith time.    Whatever you face, God will love you through it.  God will give you triumph over it.  Because it’s not death time.  Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

Now that makes for a powerful Easter message, but how does it happen?   How do you actually live in Resurrection time?  How do you live with confidence and peace, even joy on a daily basis?   Can you live that way not only on your best days, but on your worst?   Is that even possible?
In the words you’re about to hear, and the words we’ll explore over the coming weeks, God shows you the way.   So, today, let’s start to explore what God has to say.

How do you actually live in Resurrection time?  How do you live with a profound sense of confidence and joy even on your worst days?  Is that even possible?  Here God says.   It is.  You can live with joy and peace.  But how?  It comes when you know the two realities that change everything.  But before you get to the realities, you need to understand the joy. 

As the apostle John, finishes up the words we just read, he tells them.   We are writing these things to make our joy complete.  He’s not saying.  I’m writing to you because it makes me feel so awesome to tell you these things.   Now, it certainly does make John feel awesome, but that’s not what he’s saying.   He’s talking about a joy they all can have.

You see.  As John begins the letter, he tells them.  I and my fellow apostles, we actually saw and experienced Jesus.  We saw it all.    But then the “we the apostles” switches to a “we” that includes not only the apostles but these folks too.   So when he gets to this last sentence, he is saying.  I am writing so that all of us, you and me, can have this complete joy that Jesus brings.  But what is this joy? 

The preacher Tim Keller paints a picture that describes it well.   When Keller and his family lived in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, outside of Philly, they lived in a neighborhood where all the houses were built into the slope of this huge hill, a small mountain really.  Soon after they moved in, Keller noticed something weird.   No matter how little or how much it rained everything in their yard, stayed green.  And whenever it did rain, their basement always flooded.    One day, Keller was talking about how weird that was with one of his neighbors.   And the neighbor said, “Oh, I thought you knew.  All our houses are built on a huge river.”   Underneath Keller’s house, all the houses of that neighborhood actually, he learned, flowed a huge underground river.   So even when a drought came, the lawns stayed green.   And sure enough, when the rains did come, the water didn’t just come down.   It came up too.

And that’s what God is telling you here.   God is saying. You can have a subterranean river of joy like that in your life.  Whatever you are going through, even the hardest things, this joy will be there, flowing underneath it all.   Now God isn’t saying that you’re going to go through life, with a blissful smile on your face, never crying or feeling pain.   That’s not joy.  That’s denial.   That’s detachment from reality.   Jesus felt grief, sadness, discouragement, all the painful emotions of life.   But like Jesus, whatever pain you face, you will have underneath it all, a powerful river of joy and peace welling up from inside you.  

Do you know the name of Helen Keller?   At one point, she became one of the most famous people in the world.   What was her first claim to fame?  She graduated from college, something no one like her had done before.   And when she did, she changed everything for those with disabilities forever.   When Helen was not even two years old, she experienced a brain illness that completely took away her hearing and sight.   But through the work of a remarkable teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to write and then to talk, and became one of the most celebrated writers of her generation.  

And when I was looking for quotes on joy, her words kept popping up.  In fact, I found more quotes from Helen Keller on joy than from any other writer.    And when I looked to understand why, I found accounts of this joy that characterized her life.    A newspaper reporter wrote this about a talk she gave in 1916;

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others.

Just to give you some idea of what she did for others, among other things, she founded with the businessman George Kessler an organization to combat blindness and malnutrition around the world.  Today, that organization, Helen Keller International still exists. It has a budget of almost a quarter of a billion dollars.  And in 120 programs in 22 nations around the world, it works to eradicate blindness, hunger, and disease   

Helen Keller described the joy that led her to do these things and more as this.   She wrote.  “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.”   Helen Keller went through more than her share of pain but underneath it all, lived that holy fire, a fire lit by a profound experience of Jesus’ presence in her life.  How do you experience that joy, a joy that led a deaf and blind woman to this life of deep fulfillment and remarkable joy?

It comes from knowing the two realities of which John speaks, the two realities that Keller knew intimately.   It comes first, from a living day to day relationship with God, and second, from a deep certainty of how tightly God’s love holds you.   

You see.   When John uses this phrase “making our joy complete,” he wasn’t just making up.  He was quoting Jesus. 

Jesus before he died, said to the apostles, I am the vine and you are the branches.  You need to abide in me like that, with the intimacy that a vine has with its branches.  Why did Jesus tell them this.  He said.  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – the same phrase John uses here.

Jesus in those words isn’t simply talking about saying your prayers.  Jesus is talking about an almost constant interaction with God’s presence, one that connects you with this river of joy, this holy fire.  What does this look like?

Let me ask.  Do you sense God guiding you, restraining you, encouraging you as a normal pattern in your life?   For example, how did I know about this vine and the branches connection?  As I was working out this Wednesday and doing my devotions, I was mulling over these words on joy in John.  And as I read through the scriptures preselected for that day, there it was; these very words from Jesus on the vine and the branches. God was guiding me there, but other times, I sense God keeping me from my worst impulses or calling me on my own self-righteousness.   And trust me, I am not special.  Any person can have this connection.   And when you have this sense of day to day intimacy, it taps you into that river, so that no matter what you face.   You know.  You are never alone.

But God gives you more than just this intimacy.  God gives you a certainty that no matter how badly you mess up, his love will never let you go.  

It always stuns me when I hear people say something crazy like, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you live a good life.”   Why in God’s name would anybody want a belief like that?   Who the heck knows what a good life looks like?    I mean. What’s the passing grade for a good life?   Every religion and philosophy has a different idea.  So do you just have to wait until you die to know, if you’ll even know then?   I can’t imagine a more anxiety producing belief than that.    

This is why when anyone tells me that they’re not religious, I agree.   I tell them.  I’m not religious either.   You see, religion tells you that it’s your life that saves you.  You do these things.  You obey these rules.  You live by these rituals.  And you experience fulfillment, joy, peace, salvation.  But the gospel tells you.  You’re not saved by your life.  You’re saved by his life.  

If when someone asks you if you’re a Christian, and you say “Well, I’m trying to be.”   Then you don’t get that.   “You can’t try to be a Christian.  Nothing you do make you a Christian.   God makes you a Christian.”    Your life doesn’t save you.   His life does, God in Jesus giving his life for you does that.    And when you know that, really know that, you have a confidence that nothing can defeat.   And it has nothing to do with arrogance or pride.   Yes, you know.  You are so right with God. But you also know.  You had nothing to do with it.  God did it all.   You know.  You are a frog on a fencepost.     Why?  Because when you see a frog on a fencepost, you know that frog didn’t get there by itself.   But it’s there now, and it’s riding high.   And that’s you.

And when you know that, it frees you from anxiety and it opens you up to joy.  It leads you into a life lived with God not just on Sunday, but every day, every hour, every moment.   And no matter how badly you mess up or how hard your life becomes, you know.  God will never leave you.  God’s love will never abandon you.   You know the joy of which John speaks, a joy that flows underneath you, like a mighty river, a joy that lights your path, like a holy fire.   And in that joy, you realize, you are only getting a foretaste of the joy still to come, a joy that will bind you to God’s beauty and love forever.  Do you want that joy?  All you gotta do is ask.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Power of Living in Resurrection Time

Did you see it?  Did you see the pictures from Syria a few weeks ago?   Those images only paint a small part of a more awful picture, one full of more sadness and suffering than I can even grasp.    
Last week, in Egypt, people were just going to worship God.  And for that, someone decided to blow them up.   And the bombers said they were doing that in the name of God?   What is up with that?

You don’t need to go to Syria or Egypt to see it.  Every week, you can hear another story of the horrible things people do to each other, not in some place far away, but right down the road.  What is going on?    

How do you see God in the middle of that?   How can God even be found?   It can seem that God has left the building.  But has God left it?   And if God hasn’t, what is God doing?   How does God give hope when things seem hopeless?   How does God provide peace when so much can scare you to death?   In these words God shows you the way.   God shows you the way not only to hope and peace.  God shows the way to a life lived in the confidence that nothing, not even death, can defeat God’s love.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

When you see a world where so much is going wrong, how does God set it right?  How does God bring hope, bring peace to this world, to this community, to your neighbors, to you?  In these words written to folks going through horrors of their own, God tells you.   Where is God in the mess of the world?  God says.  I am there in the middle of it.   Because that’s where the battle lies, that’s where the enemy lurks, that’s where the victory is won.   And that means, whatever mess you face, God is there too.   And nothing will ever defeat that.    

These people in Rome to whom Paul was writing had begun to doubt that.  And you can see why.   Soldiers were arresting their friends, killing them even, simply for what they believed.   That’s why Paul quotes that verse from the Old Testament, “We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”     That’s how they felt.   And they wondered.  Where is God?   And Paul told them.  God is there with you.   God has not walked away.  God is working even if you can’t see it.    And no matter what happens to you, even death, God will win.

But how did Paul know that?   How can Paul be that confident?  It’s because Paul hasn’t forgotten what time it is.  Now what do I mean by that?  Surely these people knew the time. They knew the date, the day, the year.  But that’s not the only time there is.  

That’s why the Greeks had two words for time.   One word, Chronos, describes the time you see on a clock.   But the other words, Kairos, describes the time a clock will never catch.  Kairos timing sends a ball into a goal, makes a joke funny, makes a story powerful. 

Have you ever seen a great hitter hit a baseball out of the park?  He doesn’t set his watch and when the alarm goes off he hits the ball.   No, he waits for that perfect moment when his bat will slam it into the stands.  He hits by Kairos time.  When you look at someone you love, and you know that it’s time to kiss them.  Do you check your watch to know when?  No, you check your heart.   Kisses live in Kairos time. 

And Paul knows that time.   Paul knows.  It isn’t Rome wins time.  It’s Jesus wins time.   It isn’t Death has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   And Paul doesn’t know that because he heard a nice sermon about it one day, and signed onto the team.  If you know Paul’s story, then you know.  

He had been the guy arresting their friends, even killing them.  And he did it all in God’s name.  But one day, as he headed into the Syrian city of Damascus to do that deadly work, Jesus showed up.    The Jesus he thought was dead and gone, that Jesus showed up, and asked.  “Why are you persecuting me?”  But get this.   Paul wasn’t persecuting Jesus.   He was persecuting his followers, his friends.  But Jesus was telling him.  You hurt others.  You hurt me.   And from that moment, Paul got what time it was.  It wasn’t Jesus was dead time.   It was Jesus is alive time.   It wasn’t violence in God’s name time.  It was turn back from evil time.   It wasn’t death time.  It was resurrection time.
And so every time Paul got discouraged, he remembered that.   When evil ruled his life, Jesus had turned it around.  So when that evil led others to beat him down, to imprison him, he trusted Jesus to work again to bring good out of that evil.   And Jesus did.

So he can write, God will work all things together for good, for those who love and trust.  Now Paul knew.   That doesn’t mean evil things don’t happen.   Nor does it mean God deletes what evil does like a bad file.    Evil still leaves casualties on the battlefield.  But Paul is saying.  Evil will not have the last word.  God’s goodness and love will have that.  

That’s how the Cambodians came to my childhood church in Chattanooga.   A member of that church went to the pastor, who happened to be my dad, and said.  “We have a chance to bring Cambodian refugees to Chattanooga, but they need places to go.”   You see, that was the refugee crisis of that day, hundreds of thousands fleeing the wars of Southeast Asia.   So our church put out the word, and families across the congregation, across the community stepped up.   They took whole families, mom, dad, kids, often grandma and grandpa too, well over a 120 folks before it was all done.   Folks came together to help feed and clothe them, and get them jobs so they could stand on their own two feet.    And then, we decided to invite them to church.  But they didn’t know English yet, though they had one man who understood Chinese. So the church found John Ang, a pastor who spoke Chinese.  And the church began a worship service for them, and they showed up, with John speaking Chinese, that then got translated into Cambodian. It made for a long service, but it worked. 

Then a few months later, John came to my dad, and told him. “They all want to be baptized.”   Now, we were a little concerned.  Were they doing it just to make us happy?  And they said.    Yes, you had something to do with it.   When we lingered for months in squalid refugee camps , we had lost hope.  We had lost so much already.  Then you showed up, and brought us here.  You weren’t family.  You weren’t even Cambodian.   And we didn’t even share the same religion.  Yet you opened your homes to us.  You sacrificed for us.  You loved us.    And we wanted to know why.   And John told us.  It wasn’t you.  It was Jesus working in you.   And so we want Jesus to work in us too.   We did have a problem.    John Ang was Baptist.  That meant these folks wanted to be dunked when we Presbyterians sprinkled.  So we just found a big swimming pool.  We invited a bunch of other folks to help us.      And one Sunday afternoon, we baptized 120 joyful Cambodians in the name of Jesus.

Because it wasn’t war has the last word time.  It was welcome has the last word time.  It wasn’t refugees are strangers time.  It was refugees are Jesus calling us to love time.   It wasn’t it’s too much trouble time.  It was Jesus will make a way time.   It wasn’t evil wins time.  It was Jesus wins time.  Because, it wasn’t death time.  It was resurrection time.  

That’s why, this church years ago welcomed Cambodian refugees into our midst.  They lived in our church apartment, and one of them became our custodian.  And when that family moved on, we welcomed Bianca, our current custodian and her family. Ironically, the war they were fleeing in Bosnia was one where mainly Christians were killing mainly Muslims.  Evil exists everywhere.     

But evil doesn’t have the last word.  God’s love has that.  That’s what Paul knew.  Paul knew because evil had not had the last word in him.   And in resurrection time, even when evil kills; even when death comes, even then; God’s love lives.  

About 23 years ago it happened in the small community of Goshen, Alabama.   The folks at Goshen United Methodist had gathered for a special Palm Sunday drama.    And when the sirens went off, they didn’t hear them.  So when the tornado struck, and the roof came down, they had no warning.   Of the 145 gathered  that day, twenty perished, including the pastor’s four year old daughter, Hannah.   Twenty years later, that pastor, Kelly Clem returned for a service to mark that day.    

Here is some of what she said, “That evening, the world began to join us to make sense of it all, but Holy Week doesn’t make sense….But -- here and there -- in spite of the “why?” there would be a gleam of hope. ‘Where was God?’ people ask. But a hundred little gifts reminded us that God is here, that it’s God’s story we’re living; that, as Jesus promised his disciples, he will not leave us orphans in this storm.”

One of those gifts was a video.   A church member, Brenda Formby, had been recording the service when those walls came down.   And her camera caught something. Diane Molock had been sitting next to her 3-year-old nephew, Tyler.  And as the walls came down, she cuddled him into the safety of her arms.  Diane Molock would die that day. But Tyler would live.

TV shows offered her thousands for that video, but she refused it.   One by one though, survivors came to see it.   And when they came, that image of Diane giving her life for Tyler helped them heal.   Why? Her death echoed the death of the One who had died for them, who had died for everyone.  Her sacrifice reminded them that just as Jesus was there for them on that cross, Jesus had been there for them on that day. 

The church never rebuilt on that site.  Instead it made it a memorial park, and planted a dogwood tree for each life lost.    And in the outline of the old church, they made two stone walls.   One stands broken with rebar curling out of the top, to mark the devastation of the day.  

But another wall stands beside it with a cross shaped opening cut into it.  

And they positioned it so that when the sun sets, the light of that cross shines through the whole site.

You see.  That church knows, what time it is.   It isn’t Jesus died for no reason time.  It’s Jesus died to destroy death time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   It isn’t Jesus is in the tomb time.  It is Jesus is risen and at work time. It isn’t death has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.  It’s not death time. It’s resurrection time.  
But let’s give evil and death it’s due.  It’s brutal and it’s ugly.   After all, what happened to Jesus?  The great early Christian preacher, Melito says it well. 

This one was murdered.   Why? Because he had healed the lame.  He had cleansed the lepers. He had guided the blind with light.   He had raised up the dead. For this reason he suffered….

But is that the last word, Melito?  No.  Melito of Sardis preaches.   But Jesus arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, been judged for the sake of the condemned, buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned free; I gave the dead life; I raised up the ones who had been entombed.  Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death.  I triumphed over the enemy. I trampled Hades under foot.  I bound the strong one, and carried off humanity to the heights of heaven.  I, he says, am the Christ.

Therefore, come, all families of women and men, you who have been befouled with evil, and receive forgiveness for them. I am your forgiveness, I am the Passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you.  I am your ransom. I am your light, I am your savior. I am your resurrection.  I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.

How can Melito, a persecuted preacher in the second century be so cocky?  He knows what time it is.   It isn’t evil has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   Because it isn’t despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s isn’t fear time.  It’s faith time.    It’s not death time.  What time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

And if you want to experience a God who brings hope like that, who defeats evil like that, who loves you like that, then make this the day, you figure out what time it is.  Whatever you face, God will love you through it.  God will give you triumph over it.  Because it’s not death time.  Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Two Things That Your Relationship with Jesus and Marriage Have in Common

I gotta admit it.  When I first heard about it, it creeped me out.   Yet for hundreds of years, nobody thought twice about it.   That’s simply the way it was.    You got dressed up in your wedding dress.   You put on your wedding ring.   And you made your vows.  And after that, you were married to Jesus.   That’s how women became nuns.   They got married to Jesus, with the wedding dress, the ring, the whole shebang.  You can even see videos of it on-line.  But now, I realize. It’s not only nuns that get married to Jesus.  Every Christian gets married to Jesus.    But what can this even mean?  How can you be married to Jesus?   In the words of this passage, God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Again and again in these words God makes the same point.   When you become a follower of Jesus, Jesus doesn’t simply become your savior.   Jesus becomes your spouse.   What does this mean?  It means marriage means more than just marriage.   Marriage points to something deeper, a divine relationship that never ends.   And only as you understand that, will you grasp what God intends not only marriage to be but your relationship with him.  Now what do your relationship with God and a relationship with a human spouse have in common?  They both depend on two crucial dynamics.  They depend on grace and they depend on intimacy.     

Over the years, you are going to hurt a lot of people.  But if you are married, you will never hurt someone as frequently you do your spouse.  And at the same time, no one will hurt you as much as your spouse does.  Why?     You’re just around that person more. You live with that person day in and day out.  So you have more opportunity to mess up there than anywhere else.   That means. For any marriage to be successful it needs a lot of grace.    As Robert Quillen put it, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” 

But how do you become a good forgiver?  How do you learn to forgive well?   It requires that you consistently do two things.  You show unconditional regard, and you take unconditional responsibility.   What do I mean?   Let’s say your spouse snaps at you one morning over something insignificant.    It’s clear.  They did you wrong.   Now you could snap back, but that rarely leads anywhere good.    You could ignore it on the outside, but inside put it up on your little chalkboard of resentment.  You know, the one that details how much better you are then them.    But that doesn’t lead anywhere good either.  

Or you could show them unconditional regard.  You could give them a pass, so to speak, offer your forgiveness.   Now that doesn’t mean you go to your spouse and say.   “My dear, you spoke harshly to me this morning, but I because I love you will overlook your offense.   I will give you unconditional regard, and offer you my forgiveness.”   Trust me, if you’re doing that, you’re not offering anything but a backhanded slap of self-righteousness.   No, unconditional regard is going to your partner and saying, “Hey, I can see you’re having a hard time this morning.   Can I help?  What’s going on?”   It’s moving past the offense to reach out to the one you love, not with anger or resentment but with concern and care. 

And usually when that happens, your spouse will respond with something like, “I’m really stressed about this or that, and I’m sorry.  I know I took it out on you.”  

And that response leads to the other key to this dynamic of grace, to taking unconditional responsibility.   That means, when you mess up, you own it.   You don’t excuse it. You don’t minimize it.  You don’t defend it.  You own it.    So when your spouse points out a way in which you hurt them, you take responsibility.  You say, “You are right.  I messed up.  I hurt you and I am sorry.”   But of course words can be cheap.  How do you really live into this unconditional responsibility?

A story I heard from the preacher, Tim Keller, shows how you live into it.  When Tim first got married, every night before he went to bed, he had a habit of sitting down on the bed, and tossing his shoes into the closet across the room..kerplunk   Now naturally, all this tossing scuffed up the baseboards and the walls of the closet.  So his wife, Kathy said.  “Tim, stop doing that.  You’re messing up the closet.”   And Tim said, “Oh yeah, sorry. I won’t do that.”  But Tim had developed this habit years before.   So sure enough the next night, kerplunk, he threw those shoes into the closet.   Again Kathy said, “Tim, please don’t do that.”  Again, Tim said he was sorry, and agreed not to do it. But sure enough the next night, kerplunk…. Ok, you get the idea.  Now Kathy thought to herself. “Well, I can see how much my feelings matter to this guy, but he’s not going to turn me into a nag. I’ll just deal with it.”    Well, a few months pass, with all the time, every night, those shoes going kerplunk right into the closet.  Then one day, Tim and Kathy have a difficult day together.   That night as they go to bed, Tim does it again, kerplunk, and this time Kathy goes ballistic.   Now, Tim is thinking, “Woah, she is way out of line getting so angry about this little kerplunk.  But of course it wasn’t one kerplunk it was sixty of them.”   Finally, Tim got it, and he went to his wife and said.  “I know this habit really hurts you, but I’m trying to figure out how to stop it.”   And she said, “Well, try finding a way to remind yourself.”   So right on the entrance to the closet, Tim wrote a note.  It said, “Stupid, Stop throwing your shoes into the closet and hurting your wife, signed God.”    Now when Tim did that he was taking unconditional responsibility.           

And when you do that, when you own your own failings, it frees you to forgive the failings of others.  Why?  You know.  You’ve got your own issues too.   You have no right to throw stones so to speak.   And any happy marriage has to live in this dynamic, and not only for the big mistakes, but for these minor ones, the shoes kerplunking in the closet.   When a marriage dies or for that matter any relationship, it’s usually dies the death of a thousand cuts.   It’s the resentments built up over the years.  It’s the hurts that have happened over and over again.   Yes, maybe a big betrayal deals the death blow, but the dying began long before then. 

And why do you need this dynamic of grace in marriage or in any relationship?  It’s because that dynamic lies at the heart of the ultimate relationship, the one between you and God.  When God in Jesus died for you, he showed you unconditional regard.  Even on the cross itself, Jesus showed it.  He said.  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”    But God’s unconditional regard calls on you to acknowledge your unconditional responsibility. Why did God go to that cross after all?   God went there to save you.   That’s the gospel.   You had become so lost that God to die for you.   Nothing less than that could bring you home.    But you are so loved that God was glad to die for you.   And when you know that, both your unconditional responsibility and God’s unconditional regard, it frees you for the second dynamic, one that every great marriage needs.  It frees you for intimacy. 

Every marriage needs intimacy, physical intimacy, emotional intimacy the whole shebang.  And when that happens, when a couple becomes intimate, if things work as they typically do, they bring children into the world.  Their intimacy bears fruit.  

And in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he makes that astonishing comparison to our relationship with God.  He talks about how in the Jewish law a wife is not free to marry until her husband dies.   Then he tells the Christians in Rome.  That’s what happened to you.  Before Jesus came along, you were married to an abusive spouse called the law.    And out of the intimacy of that twisted legalistic relationship, you bore awful fruit into the world, fruit that Paul even lists in the letter to the Galatians.   Listen to it.  “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”  That’s the fruit of a life lived with the law.   But then Paul says, Jesus came to win your hand, and by his love, the your old husband, the law died.    You became free to marry him.   And out of that union with Jesus, you bring a far different fruit into the world.   Paul lists that fruit as well; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday simply to offer you his forgiveness, as amazing and beautiful as that is.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem to offer you his hand, to pursue you as his bride; to unite you with himself.   Two people in marriage experience an intimacy with each other that at its best fills them with ecstasy and wonder. But where does that wonder and ecstasy come from?  It comes from the One who created it.  It comes from the one who gave it as a preview of the ecstasy and wonder still to come.     Jesus has come to not only be your savior.  Jesus has come to be your lover too.   This week, you enter not only into the greatest salvation story in history.   You enter into the greatest love story as well, a God who would not let death stand in the way of his love for you, whose great love even death could not defeat.  And when you realize that God loves you like that, that passionately, that completely, it frees you.   It frees you to love your spouse, to love your children, to love your friends, to love your neighbors, even those in the seat beside you like never before.   It frees you to love yourself because you know how ultimately and intimately you are loved by God.   This is the message of Holy Week.  You are loved.  You are loved.   You are loved.   

Sunday, March 26, 2017

What Does God Really Say About Same Sex Marriage? Find Out Here.

Do you know what a guy says when he breaks up with a woman?  He says, “I broke up with her.”   But do you know what he says when the woman breaks up with him?  He says. “It was a mutual decision.”   Many years ago, I dated this woman named Karen, and well, when we broke up, it was a “mutual decision”.   

Still I got over the hurt.  We stayed good friends even.  We’d grab a bite to eat or hang at the beach.  We’d even talk about our love lives. One day, after a particularly tough romantic experience, I called Karen.  I asked if I could come over to unload.    But when I got there, I realized.  She had something to share herself.

She told me in her quiet way, “Kennedy, I have something to tell you.   I like girls.”  Strangely enough, I wasn’t shocked.  It made sense even.   She told me.  She had struggled with it her whole life.   But only lately had she been willing to admit a truth she had known all along.    

Later, she moved west to Iowa for graduate school.  We kept in touch.  We talked about her struggles as she dated women and yearned for a long term relationship.   Then she met Lisa, a friendship that blossomed into love.  A few years later, she and Lisa visited me at the church I pastored on Long Island. And I married them, with two of our church’s elders standing as proud witnesses. 

Now Karen and Lisa have stayed together for 20 years.   They have raised two sons that Karen conceived through artificial insemination.  It hasn’t been easy.  Both of their boys have special needs.  One of them, Aidan, almost died, and for months, Karen lived in San Francisco as he went through surgery after surgery there.    And Luca, their other son, has autism.  But through it all, they have stayed together. 

And Karen has always been a devoted Christian.   That’s how we met.  We both were working at the same church in New York City.  We’ve often prayed together.   Karen’s prayers have always lifted me up.   And I’ve lifted up many prayers for her too.

But was I right to marry them?   After all, Many Christians frown upon these relationships.   These words from Ephesians that we read again today imply that marriage is something that happens only between men and women.   So do these words apply to Karen and Lisa and others like them?   These questions don’t only impact Karen and Lisa.   They impact thousands, millions of people, who want to follow Jesus, yet are attracted to the same-sex.   Are these two things incompatible?   In the words we’re about to read, and in Jesus’ own words that we will explore too, God shows us the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Do these words apply to two men getting married or to two women?   And the answer is that at least as they were written, they don’t.   They don’t apply for good reason.  In Paul’s day, these marriages didn’t even exist.  And for that reason, you can’t look at this passage alone to understand what God has to say about same sex marriage.   After all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about smart phones or cars or computers either.  Why?  Those things didn’t exist either.

But let’s be clear, same sex marriages didn’t exist, but same sex relationships certainly did.   And the Bible has some choice words on those relationships, and they aren’t good.  

Right at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he goes off on this mini-sermon on how awful pagan culture is with its idols and obsessions.  And in the middle of it, Paul says this.  

“Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.”

Wow, that doesn’t sound good.  And it’s not.  Paul is pointing to something that has as much relevance today as it did then.   We live in a culture that has all sorts of sexual confusion and dysfunction.   Tens of millions of people, gay and straight, look at pornography, and they pay the price in relationships caught up in a false sexuality that has no basis in reality.  Way too many know the emptiness that comes from sex without love and commitment, and it is destroying them. 

Yet interestingly enough, even as Paul is certainly against that behavior, that’s not why he is giving that sermon.  Instead, Paul is using it to actually catch out religious people not pagan ones.   In his words,  he is setting up a sermonic surprise attack.   You see.  As Paul starts condemning pagan culture with its narcissistic and idolatrous ways, religious folks would have been eating it up.   Yeah, Paul, you get ‘em; those nasty pagans with their depravity.   But right at the end of the sermon, Paul throws a curveball.  He says this.    

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

Paul is telling them, your self-righteousness is blinding you.  You need God’s grace and forgiveness as much as the pagans do, maybe more.  The great Christian writer, C.S. Lewis put Paul’s point this way.

If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasure of power, and hatred….Thus a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

Wow, C.S. Lewis had a way of putting things.  But you still might be thinking.  Ok, judgmentalism is bad, but still Paul does say those things about same sex relationships, doesn’t he?  But here’s the problem.  It’s the same challenge we ran into with the words in Ephesians. 

Paul had no idea that a love based relationship between two people of the same sex could even exist.  In his culture, the typical same-sex relationships were lust-based ones, things like older men having relations with teenage boys.  That’s what Paul is focusing on here, what he knows. 

Paul’s words don’t describe the relationship of my friends, Karen and Lisa.  They haven’t turned away from God.   Their relationship is not based on lust.  It’s based on a deep love and commitment. Heck, it’s kept them together for 20 years.   So, is there anything in scripture that could help us to understand whether a loving, committed same-sex relationship is morally right or wrong?  There is.  But it comes in a place you would not expect.  It comes when Jesus talks about food. 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says these shocking words, at least to his hearers. 

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.  He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now how do these words of Jesus’ give us guidance on same sex relationships?  To see that, you   
need to understand what Jesus is talking against, something called a cleanliness code.  

After God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God gave them a complex set of these cleanliness codes to order their life.  God called them for example to separate dairy products from meat ones.  These laws had deep roots in spiritual understandings.    For example, when you separate milk, the stuff that sustains a newborn creature, from meat, the flesh of a dead animal, you are symbolically separating life from death.   But the codes carried more than just symbolic meanings.  They helped Israel establish a clear identity, one that helped them from falling into the idolatry of their neighbors.  So these cleanliness codes by Jesus’ day had become one of the key ways to tell how close a person was to God.   

But here Jesus blows that apart.  Jesus says. Outward actions don’t define your righteousness.  The state of your heart does.    Righteousness can’t go from the outside in.  Righteousness has to come from the inside out.   This may seem obvious to us.  But in Jesus’ day, his words rocked the religious world. 

His words blew away all the old categories of defining who is in and who is out.  In the early church, it led them to welcome and include all sorts of people who before had been excluded.   The early church welcomed Samaritans, even though in the past they had been considered un-clean.  Then it welcomed eunuchs, even though sexual mutilated people had been considered unclean.   Then the early church welcomed Gentiles, even though their dietary habits had before made them unclean.   When a tension developed between an outer category that had previously made a person un-clean and the inner state of that person’s heart, the church followed Jesus’ example.  They looked to the heart.  These decisions did not come easily.  No other decision generated more controversy than the dropping of the cleanliness code as a definer of one’s relationship with God.   But the church did drop them.    

Now what does this have to do with same sex relationships?  Everything.   A cleanliness code helps you define something’s proper place.   If something’s not in its proper place, it’s dirty.  It’s unclean.   If meat gets mixed with dairy, the food becomes un-clean, and those who eat it become unclean.   Now we don’t have nearly the cleanliness codes of Jesus’ day, but we do have some. 

Let’s say you spill water on a table.  Why when you do that, do you say the table is dirty?   Did the drink transform into dirt when it hit the table?  No, of course not.  You know.  The drink is not in its proper place.   And thus it has become dirty.  Drinks belong in cups.  They don’t belong on tables. 

It’s the same reason that when my nephew went to work in China, one of the first words he learned was the word for dog.  Why?  The idea he might unwittingly eat dog in a restaurant terrified him.   Now, if he’d eaten dog, would he have died?   No, dogs are perfectly fine to eat.  But for most Americans, they’re not.  Dogs belong in our backyards not on our dinner table.  In other words, when it comes to eating, they’re not clean.    

And in the Bible, concerns about same sex relationships rose up out of these cleanliness codes.  Women and men go together.  Women and women don’t.  A man with a man is not in his proper place.  He’s unclean.  Now for the early church, they had no problem keeping this code in effect.  Why?   When they saw men with men or women with women, they did not see only an outward rule broken.  They saw twisted hearts; the twisted hearts that Paul described in Romans. 

But what happens when a couple doesn’t exhibit the twisted heart.  What if they haven’t turned away from God?  What if their relationship is not based on lust or idolatry but on love and commitment?  What if their relationship enables them not to exchange the truth for a lie but the exact opposite?  What if their relationship enables them to exchange a lie they’ve been living for a truth they’ve denied  Do you continue to focus on the outward category or the heart?   If you follow the direction of Jesus’s words, then you look to the heart. 

So when I look at my friends’ faithfulness to each other, I see no contradiction between that faithfulness and their faithfulness to God.    Two people can live in a committed, loving, same-sex relationship and live faithfully as followers of Jesus.  In our own denomination, so many have come to this same conclusion, that it gives permission for pastors to marry folks of the same sex if they so choose.    

Now, you might disagree with this interpretation.  Many Christians do.  But in the meantime, wherever you stand, let’s steer clear of judgment.  It saddens me when I see Christians label other Christians as bigots or question others’ commitment to Jesus rather than try to understand their honest attempts to discern God’s will.  

But how can you do that, when you feel so strongly one way or the other? You look to Jesus.  You look to what God in Jesus did for you   When God went through infinite agony on the cross, God did it because without it you had no chance.   You had become so lost, so twisted up, that nothing less than the death of God could save you.   But God loved you so much that God was glad to pay that price.  Hebrews tells us that for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross.  And you are that joy.  And when you know that, what God had to do to bring you home, it frees you from judging others.  You realize that gay, straight or whatever, everybody is equally lost.  And it frees you from judging yourself. Why?  You see how infinitely God loves you, not because of what you do or not, but simply because you are.   And when you know that love, you have a love that defeats disagreements; that defeats death; that defeats everything. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What Is the One Thing That Makes for a Great Marriage? And Why Is That One Thing Different Depending on Your Gender? Find out Here

Do you know that Christmas story by the writer O. Henry.   It goes something like this. This poor young couple has nothing to give each other at Christmas.  But the woman has this beautiful long hair.  So out of love for her husband she sells her hair to buy him a chain for his beloved pocket watch, a gift from his father.  At the same time, the man sells that very same pocket watch to buy his wife a beautiful tortoise-shell clasp for her long hair.   So Christmas arrives. They open their gifts.   And as they look at these now useless gifts, they realize that in these gifts they have received a gift far more significant. They now know that they love each other so much they are both willing to lay down what they value most to give for the other.  It’s a great story.  But s that the way it really works in the world of relationships?   I think this darker version gives a more painfully accurate perspective.    

As in O”Henry’s story, my poor young couple also has nothing to give each other at Christmas.  And the wife, Jane then sells her hair for a watch chain for her out-of-work, discouraged husband.  Meanwhile the husband, Tom, after a hard day of job-hunting  grabs a drink with his buddy Jim before heading home. He tells Jim, “This Christmas stinks.  I don’t have a job.  I don’t even have a gift for my wife.”  And Jim says, “No problem, Tom, here’s 20 bucks.  Go out and get something.”   Tom remembers that she was complaining about the tea kettle.  So off he goes to Target to to get one for his beloved.  As he drives home, he’s feeling better.   “At least I got something,” he thinks.  She’ll see that I’m trying to do right by her.”

But Jane is at home, wondering. “Where is Tom?  He better not be drinking with Jim, after I sold my hair to buy him this gold chain.”  Tom comes in the door smiling.  He places the Target bag on the table.  “Merry Christmas, sweetheart”   Jane looks in the bag.  She sees the tea kettle.  She thinks, “A tea kettle?  This is the best he can do?”   She throws her gift across the table and pulls off her hat.   “Look, I cut my hair off for you to buy you this chain, and the best you can do is a tea kettle?  But Tom doesn’t really understand what’s happening.  He turns to his wife, “What happened to your hair?”   Janes yells back.  “I cut it off for you.  Don’t you understand, I cut it off for you.”   But Tom is thinking, “I liked her hair, and yes, the watch chain is nice, but she had such nice hair.”  He assures her, “Don’t worry, honey, it’ll grow back in, and you’ll look as beautiful as when I first married you.”   But this comment does not have the effect that Tom thought it would.  The fight just gets worse.   Tom thinks, “I did the best I could, and it doesn’t count for anything.”   So out the door he goes to get Jim’s feedback and sympathy.  As the door slams, Jane thinks, “I can’t believe it.  My husband is going back out drinking on Christmas Eve?”   15 minutes later, as Tom walks into the bar, she calls him, telling him that he better get his little tookus home right now or else.  Tom looks to his buddy, Jim, and says, “Bro, don’t ever get married.  Your life is no longer your own.”   Sadly, he puts on his coat and heads home. 

Now how do you make sure that your marriage looks more like the first story, and less like the second?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Ephesians 5:21-33

The preacher Andy Stanley said.   I have never seen an ugly wedding but I have seen lots of ugly marriages.  But how does that happen?  That question can have lots of answers, but in the words we just read, God points to maybe the most important answer of all.   What often messes up marriages has to do with men and women, how they relate to each other in marriage or rather don’t relate to each other, at least well.  How do men and women in marriage come together to make their relationship work?  Here God tells you.  God says.  Making your marriage work lies in you giving up your power, and that giving up tends to look different depending on your gender.

At the beginning, Paul makes it clear.  In marriage, both men and women have to give up power.   That’s why the passage begins with these words.  “Be subject to one another, out of reverence for Christ.”    This passage does not endorse a lack of equality that places men above women in marriage.   Instead, you could say it endorses a sort of mutual inequality.  Each partner need to give up their power to the other, and this this giving up tends to look different, depending on your gender.

How does it look different?  Let’s start with how giving up power usually looks like if you are a man.   Why start there?  Because God took twice as much space to talk to men here as he did to women, so it makes sense to begin where God put the emphasis.   

In these words, what does God, through Paul, tell men to do?  He tells them to love their wives.   And in that command God is showing men the power they have in marriage.  The more men effectively take the lead in loving their wives, the better their marriage will be.   But here’s the problem.  Men often don’t take the lead.   Out in the world, in the workplace, with their friends, men often take the lead but in their marriage, not so much.   What do I mean?   In marriage, men tend to get lazy. So they don’t treat their wife like their lover, but more like their mother.   So here’s the pattern that typically develops in many marriages.   

In marriage, the women dress them.  They decide what they’re going to eat.  They give instructions on the kids.  They deliver their “honey do lists” so they know what they’re supposed to be doing and when.     Now men think that this is just great.  Everything is good.  I’m being a good husband.   But usually the woman is not thinking that at all.  She is thinking, “When is this guy going to take the lead around here?  Why am I always the one who has to tell him what I need, what I want, what needs to be done, what he needs to wear, what matches and doesn’t, what he needs to eat and not eat?  This is ridiculous”   

Why is she thinking that?  It’s because all this passivity sends a powerfully hurtful message.   The man is communicating that this relationship isn’t important enough for him to take the initiative.  I’ll do that at work.  I’ll do that with my buddies.  But here, in my home, with my wife and family, I don’t think so.   And that’s the power men need to give up, this power of entitlement that lays back on leadership in the very place their leadership is needed the most.   They must lay down this power that lays all the responsibility for nurturing and sustaining the relationship on the woman. 
Now this is hard for men, because what our partner needs to feel, men often don’t.  At times, my wife has said to me.   I think you’re angry about something.  I can tell.  And I say, “No, I don’t feel angry at all.” Then a few days later, I’ll come back and say.  “You know.  You were right.  I was angry.  I realize that now.”   And she looks at me stunned at how a person can be angry and not even know it.  But for lots of guys, that’s perfectly normal.     So trying to take the lead with this person, whose emotions are often so much more on the surface than our own, that’s hard.  It requires men to get out of their comfort zone, to do things that for them may not seem all that necessary at all. So a man can ask.   “Why in the world does she need that to feel loved by me?”           

That’s why Paul says to men, “Men, when your body is hungry, what do you do?  You feed it. ”    Paul knows.  Men may not know if they’re really feeling angry, but they sure know when they’re feeling hungry.   So Paul says what you know how to do for your body, you need to learn how to do for your partner.  What your marriage needs is your loving, sensitive and proactive leadership.   What does this look like? 

It may mean going home and saying to your wife, “This year, I’m going to shop for my own clothes, and I will work hard on buying something that will show I care about my appearance.”  It could mean saying.  “This week, I will take the kids for a night so that you can go out and spend time with your friends.”    It might mean taking the lead in making your own Honey-do list, and then actually getting it done  or setting up a date night or picking up some flowers to surprise her one evening.   The specific actions can differ, but what matters is that you are doing them.  You as the man are taking the lead in the loving, the lead in making the relationship strong, the lead in making your partner feel valued.    You are saying to your wife.  I cherish you.  I will make you and this family the top priority of my life…….But what if this happens?  What if a man gets serious about taking more responsibility in the relationship?  What if he starts really working to show that he cares about his wife’s needs not simply by his words but by his actions?

Then something like this can happen.  The woman thinks, “I know this guy.  I love him, but no way can he pick out his own clothes, and if I leave him with the kids, he’ll probably lose one of them.  And he’ll never be able to put together a decent to do list.  And, if he sets up a date night, who knows where we might end up?”   So she resists giving over any of this power and responsibility.  When she reacts this way, the guy usually doesn’t push back.  He gives up.  He goes, “Oh well, what’s the use?  And it’s back to business as usual.”  

And that’s the power that the woman has to give up, her need for control, her unwillingness to let go and trust her partner, even when he doesn’t do it exactly as she desires.  A woman has the power to destroy her marriage by shaming her partner, by communicating to him directly or indirectly that he is not worthy of her respect or confidence.   What does this look like?  
Let’s say a husband brings home a box of chocolates to his wife for Valentine’s Day.   But she asks, “We’ve been married for ten years, and you still don’t know that I like the truffles and not these?”  Well, the next year, the husband, now feeling burned, backs away from responsibility.  He thinks, “I’ll get a Godiva gift certificate, and that way, she can pick up exactly what she wants.  No more problems.’   Now the wife is more upset.  She doesn’t understand why he couldn’t go to the trouble of picking the chocolates himself.   So what is this guy’s problem?

At the risk of gross oversimplification, here’s the problem.   For women, often what they most need from their spouse is to feel their partner’s love and affection.  And what do men need?  They need to know they have their partner’s respect.  And the less they have it, the less confident they feel to take the lead in loving that their spouse needs.  That’s why when Paul talks to women, he focuses on respect.  Paul is saying.  You empower your partner when you affirm any responsibility he takes instead of critiquing it.  You set him up to succeed.   So when men begin taking responsibility, then women have to let go and let them, and affirm them in those steps, as feeble as they might be, instead of reacting critically.  What does this look like?   Maybe something like this.

 “Honey, you are so amazing for bringing these chocolates, and Godiva too, very impressive.  But if sometime, you could bring me some of their truffles, well, then you would just send me right into heaven.”   Guaranteed that man will be buying truffles and soon.  Or for a more pedestrian example, “When you pick your underwear off the floor, it makes me feel so good that you’re being sensitive to how much responsibility I have with the house and the kids.  It really is thoughtful.”   Well the man feels like he is a success and maybe not only will he pick up the underwear, he might even take on some more household chores.   Or, “You did such a terrific job with the kids this afternoon.   Thanks so much.”   Now as he succeeds there, he might take on a whole weekend with the kids in the future.  When a woman sets up her husband to succeed, even when it means letting go of a responsibility that she thinks she could do better, she is letting go of her power to destroy her partner by shaming him and not respecting him.

Now if you are thinking, “Yep, my partner needs to stop criticizing me like she does.”   Or, Oh, he so needs to take more responsibility for nurturing this relationship.”   Guess what?  That’s not your job.   Your job is not to change your partner.  Your job is to change yourself.

But how do you do that?  How do you let go of that power, whether it be entitlement or control?  You look to the one who gave up everything for you.  When you walked away from God, God didn’t.  God took the lead in winning your love back.  In Jesus, God even became one of you.   In Jesus, he showed you that he cherished you so much that he gave up his very life for you.   And in that love, God relinquished control as well.  Even when you were at your worst, Jesus never condemned you.  Instead on that cross he prayed this for you.  Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.    As you see how God took the lead in loving you, through that grace and love you will discover more and more the power to take that lead in your marriage.  And as you see how God let go for you, how God always affirmed you, you will gain the freedom to let go of control and affirm your partner.    And as you do, your marriage will blossom and grow into the beautiful creation that God intended it to be, a creation that even mirrors God’s amazing love for you.