Sunday, June 17, 2018

What Are the Two Things that Lie Behind Almost Every Conflict You Have?

Everybody does it.   I mean, everybody.   And yet, I don’t know of anyone that likes it.   Yet, still everyone does it.   Everyone fights.   Spouses fight.   Siblings fight.  Co-workers fight.   Politicians fight.  Christians fight.   And now you have Facebook so you can fight random strangers all over the world.   And get this.  Most of these fights never need to happen.   Yet people still do them.  And all that fighting sucks joy and peace out of people’s lives.   It brings hurts and wounds, some that last years.   At its worst, it brings on death and destruction, not simply to individuals but to nations even.

So why do people do it?  Why do people fight?   More importantly, how does it stop?  How do you discover a way to relationships that have greater peace and harmony and even joy?  In these words, from Paul’s public letter to Christians in Philippi, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How does fighting stop?  How does peace come?   God tells you.  Peace only happens without when you have peace within.   And peace within only begins to happen when you discover the ultimate place where your worth can really be found.   

And that’s the problem to which God points to.   People fight because, in the end. they are fighting for worth in all the wrong places. 

Right at the beginning of what we just read, you get the idea.  Things aren’t going so peacefully in Philippi.  People are fighting over something.   And in Paul ‘s words, God is urging them passionately, urgently to get on the same page.   But here’s the funny thing.  God doesn’t take sides.   God doesn’t tell Paul to say to one side or the other.   “Hey, you people are on the wrong page.  Get with the program.”   

Instead God says, whatever your disagreement is, only when you change these two things will it get resolved.   And what are those two things?   Stop competing and stop trying to look good.    And in those two things, God is pointing to the two core issues that lie behind almost every interpersonal conflict you’ll find.

Competition might make sense between companies, but it makes no sense in relationships.  Yet people end up doing it all the time.    In marriages or any intimate relationship, couples compete over who gives the most or puts up with the most, who is the most loving, the most supportive. The list goes on.   In churches, people get wrapped up in arguing about who is the most devout or the humblest, or who does the most work or simply gets this whole Jesus thing most right.  

And do you know why that doesn’t work?  Jesus gave you the reason in the sermon on the mount.  He asked this question.   “Why are you judging the speck in your neighbor’s eye, when you have a log in your own?”    What did Jesus mean?  

Jesus was saying we always think we’re doing better than we really are.  And we also think that others are doing worse.   You see.  When you’re competing in relationships, that becomes a huge problem.   You’re grading your own paper, and giving yourself an A.    And then you’re going around and giving your partner or friend or whoever, a D.    And in both cases, you’re totally wrong.  

Years ago, I heard the British preacher, Nicky Gumble, show how this rigged game works.  On some mornings, he shared how he would bike into work, using the London bike lanes provided for that purpose.  And every time as some driver steered into the bike lane, he automatically thought.  “What a jerk.  That person has no respect for others.”   But here’s the twist. Some days Nicky took his car.  And when he ran into a traffic problem, do you know what he did?  He steered into the bike lane.   But do you know what he said to himself.  “I’m doing the Lord’s work.  I can’t be late to this meeting.  It’s ok for me.” 

You don’t compete in relationships because in those places, you can never ever figure out who won.   All you do is insure a situation where both folks lose.    And more than that, relationships don’t need competition.   They need cooperation.  That’s how they work.  Think about it like a symphony.    It creates amazing music with this huge variety of instruments, even with different folks playing different notes at the same time.    And all this difference creates this amazing unity because they are working together.     But what if the flute player said, “I’m going to blow this orchestra off.  I’m going to get a mike, stand up on my chair and go crazy with a solo.”   Would that work?      
So, why do people compete in places where competition makes no sense, where all it leads to is conflict and hurt feelings and pain?  They do it because of the second thing to which God points to that causes conflict, empty glory.

The translators here render that word conceit, but the word doesn’t mean that.  It literally means, vain glory or empty glory.   And in that word, God is pointing you to a problem that lies at the heart of almost every conflict, people’s hungering for empty glory. 

Now before you can understand what that means, you need to get what glory means.   And let’s be clear, glory can be a good thing.   For example, when a child does something really well, what do they do?  They’ll say.   “Mommy, daddy look at me.  Look at what I did.”  And when Mom and Dad respond. “Wow, what an awesome job” do you know what they are doing.  They are shining some glory on that child.   Glory is what you get when you win a medal in the Olympics or score a great performance review at work.   It’s getting recognized for doing something good.

So, what creates empty glory?  Empty glory happens when it becomes mostly about the glory, and not so much about the good.   So, you’re in an argument, and you realize painfully that maybe the other person is right.   But do you acknowledge that? Well, if you did that, you’d look bad.   You’d have to admit you were wrong.  You’d lose the glory.   So, you stick to your guns.    And in all that mess, the truth and the solution get lost.   Why?  Nobody wants to look bad.  Nobody wants to lose face.  Nobody wants to be in the wrong.   No-one says that of course.  But that’s what is going on nonetheless.

And this whole empty glory doesn’t simply affect you in conflicts.  It affects you in every area of life.   Why?  When you become so focused on looking good, you give tremendous power to other people’s opinions or simply what you think those opinions might be.  That giving over of power cripples your life.   And it cripples your relationships too.   It blocks the intimacy that every relationship requires.  Why?  You fear exposure.   So, you hide behind looking good, behind empty glory.

And why do you do that?  It’s because somewhere along the way, you got this very twisted idea.  You got the idea that your worth depended on that, on looking good, on being good, on getting that glory.   And because God knows that, he leads Paul to point you to the truth that shows how much a lie that idea is.  God tells you.   Look at Jesus.  

First, look at Jesus because Jesus didn’t care about the glory.   Jesus died a criminal.  He endured not only a brutal death, but the most shameful death possible for a religious Jew, naked, bleeding, nailed to a tree.   But more that that, God is pointing you to why Jesus died.   In Jesus, God died to bring you home, and that had death had nothing to do with your goodness.   In fact, in Jesus, God is dying to restore a relationship with the very people killing him.  God saw everything about you, the good, the bad, and the ugly, including the ugliness you hide so well.  And seeing all that, God still joyfully gave up everything to make peace with you.  Why did God do that.  Because God loves you.  Because your very existence brings joy and delights to God’s heart, so much so that wants to have you in his presence forever.   And when you know that, when you really know that, you know your worth.   And you don’t have to play the empty glory game.  You know the real glory, the God who so adored you that he gave up everything for you.  

And when you know that you can lose an argument.  You can lose face.  You can admit your faults and missteps.  You can even look bad if that’s what it takes to make peace.   Why?  You have a peace within, a peace that comes from knowing how infinitely worthy you already are, and what can be more glorious than that?     

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The One Thing to Know that Can Give You Joy No Matter How Hard Things Become

I keep telling these things to myself.   “Be grateful you don’t live in Syria. You have a roof over your head, a car, health insurance.  Heck, you can even afford to buy some things at Whole Foods.  How good is that?”    I know that’s all true.  But even with those blessings, I get weary.  I have tough days.  I get dark moods.  At times, life can feel really hard.   And I remember the words of a wise Scottish pastor from well over a century ago.   Ian McLaren said it well.  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”    Everyone you meet, McLaren said, everyone. 

You don’t have to be living in Syria to be fighting a hard battle.   In the midst of normal (whatever that is) life you can fight all sorts of things that threaten to bring you down.   No matter how wealthy, famous, accomplished you become, those battles they never leave you. The tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain show you that.  

But in the midst of life’s battles, you can find joy.   You can live in joy.   You can find a way to higher ground.   And in these words, written by a man full of joy even as he fought battles after battle, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you find joy in life’s battles?   How do you find that higher ground?  Here God tells you.   You find joy by realizing that even as you fight the battles, God’s love has already won the war.   And when you know that, then joy comes even in the toughest of circumstances, even in the hardest of times.   That’s what God shows you here in Paul’s letter.   Because Paul doesn’t find himself in only one battle.   Paul finds himself in the middle of three.   And, he lays them out here, one after the other. 

First, Paul talks about the fact the Romans have imprisoned him.  Day and night, Paul has a Roman guard chained to his body.   He has no respite, not even to use the restroom.  Every moment, that guard’s presence reminds him of how profoundly he has lost his freedom.    Yet Paul talks about it as a great opportunity.   He has a captive audience to talk about Jesus, and boy is he doing just that.  His example is even inspiring the Roman Christians to do the same.

But Paul doesn’t have only the Romans to deal with, he has other Christians hitting him hard too.  We don’t get the exact context, but it seems not every Christian leader had Paul’s picture in their wallet.  Some may even have had it on their dartboards.   Yet, how does Paul react?  Basically, he says, Whatever.   He concludes.   As long as Jesus gets proclaimed, I’m not going to let that stuff rent space in my head. 

But then beyond those things, if that’s not enough, Paul has to battle an enemy within.   Paul knows he could die.    At any moment, the Romans could execute him or simply throw him into the certain death of the coliseum.   And that stress is hitting him hard, so much so, that he honestly admits.   I don’t know whether I want to live or die.   That doesn’t mean that Paul was contemplating suicide, at least as we think about suicide.  Honestly in the ancient world, people didn’t have that category.  The only suicide they knew was say if you were dying for a cause like the philosopher Socrates. And they might even see that sort of death as noble.   And Paul is likely thinking along those lines, how his death might inspire others.   And he still had a hope that the Romans might release him, that he might get out.   But still, teetering between life and death every day, it was hard.

Yet in the midst of those battles what does Paul say?   He says. “I will continue to rejoice.”  How can Paul rejoice in the face of all that?   He tells you.  He writes.  Even, if I die, even my death will turn out for my salvation.   How can he say that?   Paul knows, that even if he loses a battle here or there, even the battle for his life, God’s love has already won the war. 

Do you see what God is saying?   God is telling you, once you know my love, how infinite, how unconditional, how unshakable it is, you can face the battles, even lose some.   Why?  You know, my love has already won the war.   My love has already given you the victory, even over death   And, when you know that, it brings you to a higher ground; where you find perspective.  You realize.  You don’t need to sweat the small stuff.  And it’s all small stuff.   The only thing that ultimately matters, God’s love for you, you already have.   And nothing can take it away.  And how do you know that?  You know that because God didn’t just tell you that.  In Jesus, God came and offered up everything for you.  In Jesus, God defeated death and anything else that can separate you from God’s love.   Because Paul knew that he could rejoice in a prison, in the middle of battles within and without.   And when you know that love, it too will get you through anything.  Just ask Clarence Fountain.

You see, Clarence Fountain died this week too.   He didn’t kill himself.  His diabetes did that.  But in his 88 years, Fountain had joy, even when that joy didn’t make sense.   When he was 2 and got an eye infection, his caregiver thought a solution of lye might cure it.    And from that awful moment, Clarence Fountain never saw again.  When he was 8, his parents sent him away to the Alabama school for the blind.   And there, when he was a teenager, he and four of his blind classmates began singing gospel.   And together they became known as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.   For years, they had success, and then, well they didn’t.  When others, like Sam Cooke, crossed over to secular music, they kept singing gospel.   And it cost them.   But then thanks to the Broadway show, the Gospel at Colonnus, they returned to fame.   But no matter how their fortunes rose or fell, Fountain always had the joy.  When he performed, he’d say.   “I didn’t come here looking for Jesus. I brought Him along with me.”   And he sang he said not for fame or fortune but to bring people to the higher ground, the higher ground that had found him.   And ten years ago, when his diabetes forced him to retire, Fountain still lived on that higher ground. An interviewer asked him, if he was sad about no longer singing with the group.   And Fountain said, "with a voice as calm and quiet as a prayer. 'Everybody has a point in life when your time is out. Everybody’s time is coming. But I thank Him for letting me live as long as I have.'”    And that joy, that peace that Clarence had, you can have.  Everyone can.  And if you wonder what it looks like, well, let me let Clarence Fountain tell you – 

You can live on the higher ground.  You can be close to heaven right here on earth.  All you need to know is this.  No matter what battles you lose, Jesus and his love have already won the war.  His love has given you the victory, even over death.   His love has put you on the higher ground, and nothing and no one can ever take that away.        

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Why You Are Likely a Saint and Don't Even Know It

I have to admit.   I am a little bummed.   I really liked this joke, and now I wonder.  Can I even use it any more?   Ok, I guess it’s not so much a joke as a witty comment, but I still liked it. Someone would be talking to me about someone who was acting a bit holier than thou.   And I’d think.  Aaah, now I can use the witty words.   I’d say.   “Well, if someone thinks they are a saint, it’s a sure sign that they’re not.”    Now I realize how wrong those words were.

Why?   Because I am a saint.  I don’t think I’m a saint.   I know I am.  Not only that.   I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of you here this morning are saints too.   How did you become a saint?   In these words, God tells you.   More crucially, God tells you what such saintliness means.  And as you learn of your sainthood, it will free you.  It will free you of fears,anxieties and insecurities that plague you.  It will free you to view not only yourself but others in ways that will liberate you and them like no other.   So, how does this sainthood thing work?   In these words, God shows you the way.   So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

Hello saints.  How are you doing today?  If you didn’t think that word applied to you, then if you are a follower of Jesus, it does.  God tells you here.  That’s exactly what you have become, a saint.    But knowing that doesn’t have as much power as knowing how it came about.   When you know that, it changes not only how you view yourself but everyone around you.   For how your sainthood came about has nothing to do with you.   

Right at the beginning, Paul lays it out there.  Paul doesn’t lay it out as if he is sharing some amazing revelation.   He says it in a very matter of fact way.  He writes.  “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…”    But hold on, the word saints doesn’t even exist in Greek.   The translators just use that word.   So, what did Paul actually say?   He called the folks in Philippi “holy ones.” 

And in those words, God is pointing to how your sainthood happened.   For what makes you holy?   Does holiness have to do with you being perfect or even really good?  No, when God calls you holy, God is simply saying this.  You belong to me.   I, God, have set you apart for myself.   Holiness doesn’t describe a way of life or behavior.  Holiness describes a relationship. 

When I look at my son, Patrick, I don’t see just any child.   I see my son.  And that relationship with him, sets him apart from any other child on earth.   But Patrick didn’t have to do anything special to get this relationship.  Patrick got it by virtue of being born, which to be honest, he didn’t have that much to do with either.    

And when God makes you holy, it happens the same way.  God is telling you.   You have a special relationship with me, one that sets you apart.    But you didn’t do anything extraordinary to get this relationship.  In fact, you didn’t do anything at all.   And that’s incredibly good news. 

When I was growing up as a child, sure I wanted to be good, well, most of the time.  But even when I wasn’t, I lived with one bedrock reality.   I could not lose my sonship.   I was Matt and Louise’s son.  Nothing could change that. 

In the same way, God is saying to you.   You belong to me.   Nothing can change your set apartness, your holiness.   That’s because the fact of your set apartness doesn’t depend on you. 

Did any of y’all watch the royal wedding a few weeks ago?   It was amazing, the flowers, the music, all the pomp and circumstance.  And the American preacher, Bishop Curry, he hit the sermon out of the park.  Now on that day, Prince Harry did the royal family proud.  But that hasn’t always been the case.  In fact, in the years before, Harry had done some painfully embarrassing things.  But in the midst of even his most un-prince-worthy moments, do you know what he always was?    He was always a prince.   That never changed, no matter how un-prince-worthy his behavior became.    In the same way, you are holy, even on your most un-holy days.

And the more you know that, the more it frees you from all the anxieties and insecurities that tell you that you are not enough, that you are not adequate or good or worthy.   No, instead, God is saying, you are holy because you are loved.  My love makes you worthy, and nothing you do can take that love away.   And when you know, really know that, it changes you like nothing else.   A brilliant man who didn’t even believe in God saw that.  As Sigmund Freud put it; How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.     

And because God has set you apart, God tells you here.  That means that I will never give up on you.  No, the work God began in you God says, I will complete.   But what is this work that God is completing in you?  

Paul tells you even as he closes this part of the letter.   Paul writes to the Philippians.   “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.”    Now, those words sound nice, but what is Paul actually saying?  What is God telling you in this prayer?

God is saying to you, as you see more fully how deeply I love you, it lead you to see others in the same way, as those too, whom I deeply love.   That means that over time, you will see the holiness in even the most imperfect and obnoxious people in the pew beside you.  And you will love them even in all their prickliness.   And for those who are far from God, even those that most disappoint you or even anger you, you will see them for what they are, potential saints, simply people who have yet to realize just how deeply God loves them. 

And that knowledge will always lead you back to Jesus, to what set you apart to begin with.  For Paul doesn’t simply say, to all the saints.   Paul says to all the saints in Christ Jesus.  For your holiness did not come cheap.   No, in Jesus, God gave up everything even God’s very self so God could have you with him forever, so that you could be set apart like that.   That’s how infinitely loved you are, that God did this for you.   You were so lost that God had to die to bring you home, and you are so loved that God was glad to do it.   And when you know that love, when it overflows out of you with knowledge and full insight, then you know how preciously and beautiful set apart you are.  And you realize.  This is not your own doing.  It is the gift of God.  

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Why No Word for God, including "God" Ultimately Works

In the moment, you don’t even notice it.   You think.  I’ve made this wonderfully compassionate comment.  I just said something profound and insightful.  But then it comes, that awful moment.  You realize, your insight wasn’t that profound.   Your comment wasn’t that compassionate. It might have been even painfully embarrassing, like what I said when Sally, a member of the church I served in New York, shared about her husband, John and his prostate. 

In that congregation, you see, people shared prayer concerns during worship.   And that morning, Sally shared how John was having his prostate removed.   Now when Sally said prostate, I heard in my mind, gall bladder.   So, in my kindest pastoral voice, I said.  “Sally, don’t worry, my mother had that surgery last year.  She is doing great.”    Now Sally did look puzzled.   I did hear some laughter. 

But I still had no clue.   Only after worship when someone came smiling up to me and asked.  “Your mother has a prostate, really?” did I get it.     I, Kennedy had made a bonehead move.  
Fortunately, everyone laughed, including my mom.   But I haven’t always been so lucky.  A few weeks ago, I made a comment after a sermon on a particular provocative image of God.   I implied that anyone who was unduly disturbed by my talk could be guilty of idolatry.   I know what I intended by the comment.  But I still wish I hadn’t have said it.  It didn’t come across so much as insightful or profound as it did a bit smug and self- righteous.

And not because what I was saying wasn’t true.  It was.   It just wasn’t true enough.  Here’s the truth.  It doesn’t matter what word you use for God.  Every one of them can become an idol.   But when you realize that, it opens you up.  It opens you to see everything, yourself, this world, and above all God as more wondrous and amazing than you could have imagined.   How does that happen?  In this story, God shows you the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

How do you talk about God without making God into an idol?   In this story, God tells you.  God shows you that no matter what word you use for God, every word will fall short.   And when you know that, then who God is becomes bigger, grander, and more beautiful than ever before. 

Now, Elijah learns that very thing ironically after God gives him his great moment of triumph that then quickly turns into his greatest defeat.    How did that happen?  Let me give me some of the backstory.    Elijah served as a prophet during a time when a pagan god named Baal had become the god of the ruling elite.   The king, Ahab, had married, Jezebel, a daughter of the king of Phoenicia, who also served as a priest for the Phoenician gods, Baal and Asherah.   And Jezebel brought with her these gods.    And King Ahab bought into them hook, line, and sinker.  He built a temple for Baal smack in the middle of the capital city and supported hundreds of priests to staff it. 

So, Elijah called for a public showdown between Baal and the God of Israel.   Here were the rules.  The hundreds of prophets of Baal got an altar to sacrifice on.  Elijah got one too.   But neither could light the altar.  Only the Lord or Baal could do that.   Elijah even let the prophets of Baal go first.  But nothing they did worked.  They danced. They cut themselves.  They cried out.   But no fire.
Elijah was loving it.   He taunted them.   Hmm, perhaps Baal went on a trip.  May he fell asleep.   He even said.  Perhaps he is deep in thought (as the translators put it), but what he really said was; maybe he’s gone to the bathroom.    After hours, the priests had to give in. 

Then it was Elijah’s turn.   And Elijah had a flair for the dramatic.  He asked for water to be poured all over the altar, enough to create a moat of water around it.  Then he called on God, and boom God answered.   God sent flames that destroyed everything, not only the animals and the wood, but the water and the stones.   

And when that happened, the audience of Israelites that had been watching went nuts.    And Elijah took full advantage.   He told them.  “Kill these prophets.  Don’t let any of them escape.”    And they did.

But then, nothing else happened.  Ahab still remained king.  The temple to Baal still stood.  And Elijah had to flee for his life, from a very angry Queen Jezebel, who wanted revenge. 

And after a long journey along which God gave Elijah food and rest, he ended up at Horeb, the mountain of God a very depressed, a very discouraged prophet.   That’s where we take up the story as Elijah tells his sad tale.  Here I am, God, I’m the only one left. 

But then God shows up, but not immediately.  Before God shows up, God sends three demonstrations of power, a mighty wind, an earthquake, and then fire.   But in each one, God doesn’t show up.   Only in the end, in a moment of sheer silence does Elijah sense God’s presence.   What is God doing?

To get that, you need to go back to the story where it all began.  After, God sends the fire.  Elijah brings some fire of his own.   He orders the Israelites to slaughter the prophets of Baal.   It seemed the right thing to do.  Cut this spiritual cancer out by cutting down its prophets.  But is that what God wanted?   From what happens next, the Bible implies, maybe, not so much. 

First, his prophet massacre doesn’t defeat anything.  It only incites more resistance from King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel.   Violence doesn’t defeat violence.  It just creates more violence.   But more importantly, Elijah doesn’t find himself full of joy.  Instead, he finds himself collapsing into despair.  He falls into the deepest depression of his life.  

And God is saying.  You are depressed, Elijah, because you don’t know who I am.  You think that if something impressive or amazing isn’t happening, then God can’t be there.  You think God only shows up like that.   But, God says, don’t limit me.   Impressive things can be happening, and I am not in them at all.   On the other hand, even in sheer silence, I will show up.   Basically, God is saying.   Elijah, don’t assume you know who I am or what I want.  I am always bigger than you think.

And if Elijah doubted that.  God then tells him that not only is he not the only believer, but God has thousands of others, Elijah doesn’t have a clue about.   Then God gives stunning marching orders. He tells Elijah not only to anoint a new king and prophet in Israel, but to go and anoint a new king for a pagan country, Aram (what we now call Syria).   God is saying.  I’m so big that I will even work through a pagan king, Elijah.     

You see.   In all of these orders, God is saying not only to Elijah but to everyone.  I am always bigger than you think.  That’s exactly why God shows up here in silence.  Not only will no act, no matter how miraculous, tell you all that I am.   No word will either.   When it comes to me, God says, words will always fail.

Now, when you think about it, doesn’t that make sense?   Don’t words fail in describing you?  You could describe me in any number of ways, by my name, Kennedy or with words like pastor, father, husband, bald guy, Southerner, lover of fried chicken, the list could go on.   But I don’t care how many words you came up with or even I came up with, it still doesn’t fully describe me.  It’s why I hate when people put labels on other folks, and act as if that label defines them.   No label defines anyone, not even a whole bunch of labels.  Each of you, each of us, encompass far more than that. 

Not if that’s true of you, how much more true is that of God?   No word, no matter how powerful, can ever describe God, not even the word God.   That’s why the first name, God gave to the world through Moses will simply, this: I am who I am. 

Over the last several weeks, we’ve spent some time looking at images of God from the scripture.  The Bible has described God as clothing, as a smell, as fire, as a mother even.   In each of those images, you get a glimpse of God, but you definitely don’t get the full picture.   No words can do that, not even the central words we will use in just a moment, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In fact, those words describe something that essentially can’t be described, a God that exists as a Trinity, one God in three persons, a living relationship that is God.   If that befuddles your brain, it should.     If God could be comprehended, then God wouldn’t be God.   And the very difficulty of those words is what makes them central.    

And we do still need to use words. After all, no one word may encompass you, but if someone wants to talk to you, they have to say something, right?   And words do matter.  Some words for you describe you.  Some words do not.   And not every word describes God.   For example, if you call God, Baal, then you and I are probably not seeing God in the same way.  And that’s important.   

Still, no word, no matter how wonderful, describes God fully.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t know who God is.   Obviously, Elijah did.  When God showed up, Elijah recognized God’s presence.   What did he recognize?   He recognized the God who in his despair, didn’t condemn or judge him, but fed him and forgave him.  He recognized the God who loved him.   And you have more than Elijah had.  For God showed up in an even more unexpected place than silence.  God showed up in a human being.  No, more than that, God who showed up on a cross, where in Jesus he gave up everything to bring you home.   And that’s what you need to know most, that this God, who is beyond words, loves you in that same way.  This God loves you with a love so infinite, so beautiful that no words will ever adequately describe it.   And what is more wondrous or amazing than that?        

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Why the Church I Serve Will be Flying the Rainbow Flag This June

I gotta admit.   I honestly didn’t how it was going to turn out.   But today, in worship, a bunch of Presbyterians spoke in tongues.
These Presbyterians didn't speak in the sort of tongues people associate with churches with a more Pentecostal flavor.   I have seen Presbyterians speak in such tongues.  I have spoken in a tongue like that myself.   So, when I say that, I don’t intend any disrespect.

No, the tongues folks spoke today reflected what miraculously happened on the first Pentecost, on the day that the Spirit of God came upon the followers of Jesus.  On that day, God did something quite unusual.  Instead of doing a miracle where God delivered a universal message in a universal language.   God delivered a universal message in all sorts of different languages.   And so on Pentecost Sunday, we did our own reenactment of that miracle as we retold the Pentecost story in Acts Chapter 2.
The English version of the story appeared on the screen, and then folks spoke a verse in all sorts of languages from Italian to Portuguese to Serbo-Croatian and even Urdu, ten or so different languages in all.   And it was pretty cool.  
But it was more than just a gimmick.  What we did there, what God did in this story, tells you something crucial not simply about how you have a relationship with God, but a relationship with anyone.  In fact, when you get what God was doing at Pentecost, it will help in every relationship of your life.  In fact, when people don’t share the message in the Pentecost way, often the message doesn’t get delivered. What is the Pentecost way?  In these words, God tells you.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Acts 2:1-13           

In this passage, God tells you something crucial about how not simply a relationship with God happens, but how any relationship happens.   It only happens when you speak in the language of love, and that language can be more different than you think.

What do I mean?  I’m talking about an insight that made the counselor Gary Chapman millions of dollars.  But as Chapman would tell you, he didn’t have the insight first.  God did.   And what is that insight? 

Everybody needs love.  But for everyone to receive the love, that love has to be in a language they understand.   Now how did Gary Chapman make millions off that idea? Chapman realized that in marriages or any intimate relationship, people speak different languages.  For example, some people show the one they love how much they care by acts of service they do.    They are always doing things for the one they love.   And why do they do that? That’s how they feel the love.   That’s their love language.  But here’s the problem, their love language is not the only one.   So, what if their love language isn’t the language of their spouse?  What if their spouse feels the love through physical touch or gift-giving or quality time or words of affirmation.    Do you know what happens?  That spouse thinks, my beloved is always doing nice things for me yes, but why doesn’t she ever say she loves me or why doesn’t he ever hold me in his arms.    In other words, Chapman pointed out, if you’re not speaking in the love language of your spouse, then that spouse isn’t going to feel your love.   It’s like someone speaking Swahili to someone who only knows English.   No matter how hard you try, your message just ain’t going to get there.  

Chapman took that idea and turned it into a book called the Five Love Languages.  That book has sold over ten million copies in English alone, and that doesn’t even count the 50 other languages that the book has been translated into.   It’s become the bestselling marriage book of all time.

And this insight Chapman applied to marriage lies behind what God does in the miracle of these languages at Pentecost.   God knows.  Everyone doesn’t speak the same love language.   After all, God could just have enabled everyone to understand one language on Pentecost.  But God doesn’t.  Instead, God enables everyone to hear this universal message in their own particular language, the language they heard growing up in their family, at their mother’s knee.   Do you see why that matters?

You can learn another language, sure.  But it won’t feel the same as the language of your birth. That language has a special place in your heart.   It’s why Russian Baptists meeting in our church's chapel each Sunday.   Sure, most, if not all of them know English.  They could go to another Baptist church. But hearing the message in Russians, well, it just feels like home.

And God knew that same feeling would happen when all those travelers from other places heard God speaking to them in their own tongue.   Sure, God’s message of love is universal, but the language in which the love comes can’t always be the same.  Sometimes, that language has to be very different
That’s what Don Richardson discovered over 50 years ago in the jungles of New Guinea.  Don and his wife Carol and their 7-month old baby, went there to live with the Sawi, a tribe of cannibalistic headhunters.   Why did they go there? Don and Carol were linguists.  They had come to learn the Sawi language, and to do so with one goal, for the Sawi to have the Bible in their own language. 
And Don got the language down, even though it was amazingly complex.  Sawi verbs have 17 tenses.  English verbs have three.   But Richardson had a bigger problem.  The Sawi idealized treachery and betrayal.  So, in the Jesus story, the Sawi thought Judas was the hero, for pulling a fast one on this dupe, Jesus.  For them, Jesus was a joke. 
But then something happened.  The Richardsons shared how they were considering leaving. Now the Sawi might not have gotten the Jesus message, but they liked Don and Carol.  They liked the medicines they got them, the help they provided.  So, to keep them, the Sawi villages decided to make peace.  For years, they had been at war.   And when Don saw how they forged this peace, it became clear.   A family in one village gave one of their children, a peace child, to a family in the enemy village.   Through this peace child, the peace came.    As Richardson wrote, "if a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!"   And Richardson realized.  That’s how the Sawi will get the message.  Jesus had come from God to be the peace child to end the war between God and people.   Richardson called this way of sharing the gospel, a redemptive analogy.  
And with this redemptive analogy, the Sawi got it.   This good news of God’s love came alive for them.   And the Sawis because Christians by the hundreds, then the thousands.  The love God gave in Jesus, that message is universal.  But for everyone to hear it, it has to be particular and personal.  It has to come in a love language they understand. 
But on that day, God didn’t only go particular.   God went universal too.  God used something everyone could see, fire, flames above the apostle’s heads. That’s why the color for Pentecost is red.  It stands for the fire.   And yes, fire can be scary, like with that volcano in Hawaii.  But mainly, fire means warmth, passion, love.   And when God spoke in the love language of each person gathered there, those folks saw what that fire meant.  It proclaimed a God who loved them, right where they were.          
In the church I served in New York, God led us to our own particular way for people to see the love.  In that congregation, we had folks from so many different countries.   We wanted to find a way to celebrate that.  We started with doing a multi-cultural food fair, like we do here.  Everybody loved that.  But then we wondered.  How could we do more to visibly show everyone that in God’s family, every culture could feel welcome and affirmed.   So we decided to hang flags.   We invited people to buy a flag of their homeland to hang in our sanctuary.  Funny enough, we got the idea from a Pentecostal church that had done the same thing.    And it worked.   Just seeing that flag, folks from Trinidad or El Salvador or Cuba or Ghana; the list could go on, felt that God loved them, right where they were. 
And when the church I serve now started flying two Scottish flags on either side of our sign for our Kirkin’ of the Tartans, our celebration of the Scottish heritage of Presbyterianism, our leaders began to wonder.   Could we fly other flags there as particular signs of God’s love to folks in our community?   And we decided.  Let’s try it out.  So, beginning in June, we are.  
And what flag will kick off this new way of reaching our community?  Since June has become the month that honors the Gay Civil Rights movement, we decided to start with the Rainbow Flag.   We did that for one important reason.  We knew that many in this community had gotten a message that God’s love was not for them, including often from other Christians.  And this flag would show our GLBTQ neighbors and all our neighbors, that in this church, we welcomed everyone.   After all, this church has baptized the infants of same sex couples.  This church has celebrated same sex marriages.  We have ordained gay and lesbian leaders.   But if we didn’t speak that message of God’s welcome in this particular way, in a language that our neighbors could hear or rather see, than God’s message of love and welcome would get lost.  
Let me also tell you what our church did not intend by flying this flag in June.   We didn’t intend to make a political statement on one issue.   And we didn’t intend to exclude folks in our church, who have more conservative perspectives on what the Bible says about same sex relationships.  And we didn’t intend to say we are a Gay church any more then we when we flew the Scottish flags, we intended to say we were a Scottish church.   We simply wanted to say to our LGBTQ neighbors that if they came to worship, they would not feel judgment or exclusion here.  They would feel the love of this God, who in Jesus gave everything for them.    And we wanted to speak that universal good news in a language that they could hear and see, and so we decided to fly the flag.  Now in July, we’ll fly a different flag (the American one for Independence Day), and we are asking folks for suggestions and ideas on what flags to fly in that space at different times.  But with every flag we fly we want to share the same thing, God’s amazing love for every human being on this planet.   
When I was growing up, in my Sunday School, we used to sing a song that celebrated that love.  It came from a verse from that Biblical love song, The Song of Solomon.   There, the woman tells of how her beloved welcomed her to his table by flying a banner that proclaimed his passionate love for her.    And in that love song, followers of Jesus found a redemptive analogy, one that pointed to God’s passionate love for you and for me.   That’s the message this story proclaims, that all the flags we fly will hopefully proclaim, that God’s love is for everyone, that his banner over everyone is love.