Sunday, April 21, 2019

What Do Trump, Pictures of Black Holes and Easter Have in Common? More Than You Think.

So many folks don’t get it.   Heck, I gotta be honest.  Sometimes, I don’t get it.  I don’t get what this whole day is about.  Do you get it?  In case you don’t, I’m going to show you a few things to help you.  So, let’s start with this one.  Can anyone tell me who this guy is?   Yep, that’s Donald J. Trump.   And what position does he hold right now.  He’s the President of the United States.  Now, whether you voted for the guy or not, that’s the facts of the situation, right?   That ain’t fake news. 

Ok, just to ease the tension a bit, let me throw something else up.  
Does anyone know what that is?    It’s the first picture of a BlackHole.   Now up until this picture (that it took eight telescopes working simultaneously around the world to even get) we were 99.9% certain these things existed, but now we know for sure.  That black hole you see up there lies 55 million light years away from us.  It is larger than our entire solar system.  And it is six and a half billion times heavier than our sun.  Six and a half billion!  That is amazing.

And this one, I didn’t want to believe was true.   Almost everyone in the world wished that.  But it happened.  Notre Dame, the magnificent church that has stood at the center of Paris for 900 years, went up in flames.   Miraculously, much of it survived.  But what an awful sight.

Why do I show you these pictures?  It’s because until you understand that each one of these pictures shares a crucial thing in common with the words you’re about to hear, you won’t really get the power of Easter.   But when you do understand it will change everything about how you see yourself, how you see others, and how you see this world.   So how do these pictures connect to Easter?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Do you get what Easter is?  Do you really get it?   Easter is news.  It just as much news as Trump getting elected or Notre Dame burning.   And until you get that, until you get that God is telling you something that actually happened, you’ll never get the power that Easter holds.

That’s why Paul uses the words he uses.  Do you see that word “proclaimed” as in “the good news that I proclaimed to you?”   That word proclaim is in Greek, Kerosso.  And it has a very specific meaning.  It’s what a kerox did, a herald. They proclaimed, they kerossoed, so to speak.    

You see.  In the ancient world, they didn’t have CNN or Fox or MSNBC.  They had heralds.  Heralds moved through the cities proclaiming the news.   And by news, I don’t mean 10 ways to reduce worry or what folks are wearing in Rome.  I mean news of wars won, emperors crowned, taxes raised, stuff that affected everyone, news that shifted history. 

And that same word for herald, Paul uses here.  All the early followers of Jesus used it.  They made it clear.  We are heralds.  We bring you news, news so momentous it has shifted everything forever.   That’s why they used the euangelion too, here translated as good news.  Greek speakers didn’t use Euangelion for just any good news.  They used it for specific news, typically news of a victory over an enemy.   And that word, euangelion, tells you how momentous Easter news is.  In Jesus, God has won a victory.  No God has won the victory; over everything that separates you from God, even death.   God isn’t giving you some inspirational story.  God isn’t giving you a philosophy of life.  God is giving you news, something that actually happened. 

Why do you think Paul talks about all these witnesses?  Paul is telling you.  Check my story out. Ask the witnesses.  Most are still around.  After all, Paul is writing just twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection.  That’s about as recent as 9-11.    

And if Easter means that, if it is news, then that news, it changes everything.  If God has defeated death, it means anything is possible, anything.   It means from nothing, even the nothingness of death, God can bring everything.  It makes what Jackie Pullinger has done make sense.

Do you know that story?  Jackie Pullinger, a twenty-something English woman showed up in Hong Kong in 1966 with less than twenty bucks in her pocket, wanting to be a missionary.   She had talked to some pastor who told her.  Book a ticket to the furthest place you can afford and get off there.  So, she did just that.  That’s how she ended up in Hong Kong, in Kowloon the Walled City, so awful a place its Chinese name was just one word, Darkness.   And there working in a mission school, she started reaching out to hard-core heroin and opium addicts.   Inspired by her own experience of God’s Spirit coming upon her, she told them.  If they prayed with her for four hours every day, God would give them the strength to overcome their addiction.   Since no one else was giving them any hope, they tried it.  And it worked.  As they prayed, God’s Spirit came.  Women and men whose drug use had reduced them to a living death, rose up and became free.   Her success became so stunning that the Hong Kong government even gave her land to build her own center to expand the work.  And so, the St. Stephen’s Society was born   Over 50 years later, thousands, thousands have become drug free through her work.    

Now how can praying four hours a day free someone from a brutal addiction, I have no idea.  But it’s happened, again and again and again.  And that’s not fake news. You can look it up. Google it.   It happened.  It’s happening even as I speak.    Why?

Because in Jesus, God did something amazing, incredible, world-changing. God defeated death. And if God has done that, God can do anything.  From nothing, God brings something. Heck, from nothing, God can even bring everything.  And that’s good because two weeks ago on a Monday evening, that’s all we had, nothing. 

Two weeks ago, our church came together with 1400 others for a big assembly to change some things in our county.   We had made progress.  The new sheriff was coming.  We were pretty sure, he was going to say yes to what we were asking.   But on the big ask, we had nothing.   We had learned.  If you were seriously mentally ill, you needed supportive housing.  With supportive housing you live independently, but people check in on you, make sure you take your meds, go to therapy, stuff like that.  And this sort of housing saves lives, saves money even.  Yet in spite of that, over 200 people were still on the waiting list to get it.  We wanted that changed.   So, we went to a county commissioner to get it done.  And well, we didn’t get it done.  She gave us something, but something so low, it was really nothing.  And forget about her showing up at the assembly.  She wasn’t going to do that.

But when I walked in to that assembly that night, someone came up to me.  She said, the Vice-Mayor of Broward County is here.  But we hadn’t invited the Vice-Mayor.  We hadn’t even talked to him.   But here he was.  So, we asked him.  Would you support the funding to get those folks off the waiting list? He said, Yes.  You’ll say so publicly here? He said, yes.  It’s like God said.  “Why go for a county commissioner, when I can get you the vice-mayor?”   And out of nothing, not only came something, but with God’s help, will come everything for those 200 in need. 

That’s nice and all, but this news, this good news of Easter has to go further than that. Yes, it brings freedom from addiction.  Yes, it moves public leaders to do the right thing.  But on Easter, Jesus did more than defeat a drug or move a leader, Jesus defeated death.  That’s the news that changed everything.   But how can that be?  People still die.  But the news of Easter is.  Death is not the end of the story.  Because of Jesus, God’s love, a love that defeats even death, that is the end of the story. 
Last Sunday, after reading Jayson Greene’s story, I could hardly stand.  It shared news that terrifies me.    Jayson shared the news of the day his beautiful 2-year-old daughter, Greta died.   She was sitting on a park bench beside her grandmother outside her apartment building.  Eight floors above, a brick on a windowsill came loose.  It hurtled down.  It struck Greta.  The doctors did all they could, but Greta Greene died.

For months afterwards, Jayson, her father, writes he couldn’t go to the park to run.  That had been their place.  As he describes it; “The park was our place, Greta’s and mine — every tree, every leaf, every passing doggy belonged to the two of us.”

But one day, he feels compelled to go.  He runs past fields full of children, eyes fixed straight ahead.  But at the edge of the park something happens. “There at the park’s mouth,” he writes, "my heart stirs, and I feel a peculiar elation. I recognize her. Greta is somewhere nearby. I feel her energy, playfully expectant. Come find me, Daddy, she says. Tears spring and run freely down my face. I hear you, baby girl, I whisper. Daddy’s coming to get you."

"Elated, I enter the park and immediately spot her; she is waiting for me, hiding behind the big tree in the clearing between the Vanderbilt playground and the duck pond. She appears from behind the tree with a flourish, giggling, just like in our old game [of hide and seek]. Standing in the park, staring at her, I make a strange and primal sound, deep and rich like a belly laugh, hard and sharp like a sob. You are here. You picked the park. Good choice, baby girl." 
Oblivious to the people around me, I run to her. She wiggles in anticipatory joy. Stooping down, I scoop her up under her soft armpits, her shoulder blades meeting at the pads of my fingers, and I lift her up into the sky. She is invisible to passersby — to them, there is nothing in the spot next to the tree where she stands laughing and clapping but a patch of grass, and there is nothing in my arms but air. But she is not here for them; she is here for me….I feel her presence filling up my heart, and with it comes a strange exhilaration. I feel like I’ve discovered an opening. I don’t know quite what’s behind it yet. But it is there.  I have been raised secular by my parents, and I’ve never set foot in a church for more than an hour. But I will do anything for Greta, I am learning. And that includes becoming a mystic, so that I might still enjoy her company." 
And as he leaves, Jayson gropes for his phone, and writes simply these words.  “There will be more light upon this earth for me.”
Easter is not some inspirational story or philosophy of life.  It ia news, good news, the greatest, most beautiful, most blessedly incredible news ever.  And because Jesus lives, Greta lives.  She lives because that empty tomb tells you.  Not even death defeats God’s love. 
Now you don’t have to believe that.  You can choose to think that hundreds of witnesses were wrong.  But if you get it, if you get that this stunning amazing thing actually happened, it changes everything.  You will know.  If death can’t defeat God’s love, nothing can.  Everything is changed.   It’s not death time.  It’s new life time.  It’s not Greta is gone time.  It is Greta lives time.   It’s not death has the last word time.  It’s love has the last word time.   This news tells you.    It’s resurrection time. And in resurrection time, anything is possible. 
Look at the miracle of Notre Dame.  What looked gone will soon rise again. But it is Notre Dame.  Of course, that would happen.  No, you know it’s resurrection time, not because of Notre Dame.  You know it because of three Black Baptist churches in Lafayette, Louisiana.   2 months ago, an arsonist burned down those churches.  So, the local Baptist association put up a Go Fund Me page to raise 1.8 million dollars to help them rebuild.  And a journalist named Yashar Ali saw it.  And tweeted that he was giving a thousand dollars, and asked others to join in.   And they did!   Within three days, folks had given over 2 million.  And it hasn’t stopped.  Now who is Yashar Ali?   He’s Iranian.  He’s Gay.  And he’s Catholic, devoutly so.     When an Iranian Gay Catholic leads the charge for Black Baptists in Louisiana, you know what time it is.   It’s resurrection time.
It’s not stand divided in hate time.  It’s come together in love time.  Cause, it’s not discrimination time.  It’s celebration time.  It’s everyone belongs in God's house time.  Because, it’s not death time.  It’s new life time.  It’s not death has the last word time.  It’s love has the last word time.  Sister and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time.  So, go out and live this news.   Practice resurrection. Together let’s make sure everyone knows the beauty and power of this news.   For, it’s come together and live the love time.  Because sisters and brothers, what time is it.  It’s Resurrection time.   

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Why Letting Go is the Only Way that Leads to Life

Do you like following people?   I don’t.     I’ll do it, but I don’t like it.   If I tell someone that I don’t know where something is, and they say something like, “Oh, don’t worry you can follow me.”   Do you know what I’m going to do?  I’m going to worry. 

Why do I worry.  I like to blame it on my dad.   My dad had a remarkable ability to forget that someone was following him 30 seconds after he got in the car.   So, you came to the first yellow light, and my dad sped through just as it turned red.  All of a sudden, you weren’t following my dad; you were chasing him.  And this all happened before the era of cell phones or GPS.  So, you either had two choices, be a responsible and safe driver and never get to where you were going or risk life and limb pursuing a car that seemed to be doing everything it could to lose you.    Talk about stressful!  

But it’s not really about my dad.  It’s about me. I don’t like to follow because I don’t like the feeling of dependence, that I need to depend on anyone else to get where I am going. I want to be in charge.  I want to be in control. 

But do you realize?  That way of thinking about life, not only will it ultimately destroy you, but it isn’t even true.   And only when you realize that will you be on your way to a life of true fulfillment and peace.  How can that be?  In this story, Jesus shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

Life can seem to feel better when you know you’re in control, when you’re in charge.  But here’s the truth, even when you think you’re in control, you’re not.  And only as you realize that, will you find the very life you’re seeking.  Only as you become willing to let go and follow will true joy and peace find you. 

Just look at this story.   These disciples had to let go and follow in some pretty bizarre ways.    

Put these words into your context for a minute.   You and Jesus and the guys are about to go to Miami, but you don’t have any wheels, so Jesus says, “Hey, I’d like you to go into Hollywood, and right by the McDonald’s you’ll see a Red Honda.  You’ll find the door unlocked and the keys in it.  Drive it over here.  If anyone asks anything, then tell them don’t worry the Lord has need of it.”   Doesn’t that sound a little crazy? 

And amazingly, it works.  But still, you might think.  Sheesh, you’re asking a lot here Jesus.  Let me do it my way. 

But here’s what we don’t often see.   When you are going through your life, seemingly doing your own thing, you’re not.   If you’re honest, all sorts of things outside of your control, affect you every day.   You don’t control the weather.  You don’t control the traffic.  Heck, you don’t even control your own body.   Try stopping your heart, or forget that, just try to avoid blinking.    And even the things you think you do control, you don’t really.   Every decision you and I made has all sorts of inputs leading you to that decision, a number of which you are not even aware.

This past Friday, I was getting ready to wake up my son for school, and I couldn’t find my phone.  What drove me nuts is that I just had been looking at it.   I looked everywhere for it, bedroom, family room, kitchen, living room, laundry room, bathroom even, but no phone.   Finally, after about ten minutes, I decided to look in the garage.  And sure enough, there it was.  But here’s the deal.   I don’t ever remember putting it there.  I obviously did put it there, but I have no idea why.        

Have you ever had a moment like that?   Here’s the truth.  Our sense of control is more an illusion than anything else.    But still, even if it is, why give up the illusion?  Why does it make sense to let go and let Jesus point the way?    

Well, why did the disciples do it?  It’s because they realize that it didn’t need to make sense to them, as long as it made sense to Jesus.  They’d seen Jesus do all sorts of things that didn’t make sense, but they worked anyway.   This is the guy who took five loaves and two fish and fed five thousand men not counting women and children.   If he tells us there a donkey and colt in town that is ours to take, then we’ll do it.  All we need to know is that is what he wants us to do. 

Outside of this chapel, we have a labyrinth.   It’s not a maze.  You can’t get lost in it.  If you follow the path, it will always lead you to the center.  But here’s the deal.   As you follow the path, it won’t always make sense.  It will seem to be taking you away from the center, but if you keep trusting the path, it will get you there.   And that’s why we put it there.   God works in our lives the same way.   And if you walk the labyrinth path, it has the power to remind you of just that.   

So, when Jesus takes his disciples on this winding path, they go. The truth is that this whole donkey thing probably didn’t really make sense to them until after his death and resurrection.  Then they went back and looked at the prophecies from the Old Testament and said.  “Oh, so that’s why he did it.”     

And once they realized that, they realized too, that Jesus was following too.   Jesus was following a path that would lead to his death.  And on that path, the most in control being in the universe lost all control, all power.    And why did God, in Jesus, follow that path.  He did it because only that way led to life, to healing, to wholeness. 

From the very beginning, God relinquished control.  In the garden, he planted a tree and then warned Adam and Eve not to eat from it.   Why would he do that?   From the beginning, God was willing to let go, to let those, whom he loved, make a choice, even if it was a bad one. 

And that choice in the garden ultimately led here to this story.  It brought God to this first step of a journey where, in Jesus, God lost control like never before or since.  And he went there simply because he loved us.  He loved us so much he was willing to let go like that, to even let go of life itself.    

Yet as we celebrate on Easter Sunday, that letting go didn’t shut things down, it opened things up.   It changed everything, even the reality of death.    And in that ultimate letting go, God shows you that the way to life lies in following that same journey.     As Jesus put it: “ Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”    As you and I trust this God who let go of everything for us, we will find, in that letting go, in that following, the very life we always yearned to have.   So, open your hand and receive what Jesus has for you.  For only in letting go, in dying to your own clinging to control, will you find the way to life.  

Sunday, April 7, 2019

What Does Gospel Actually Mean? Maybe Not What You Think

Have you ever had a conversation that sticks with you?  Somebody said something.  It really impacted you, hopefully positively, but maybe negatively too.   And those words you just can’t forget.  

A conversation like that happened to me over thirty years ago, and it still sticks with me.  It happened in a cab in New York City.   My friends and I were heading to the hot club of the moment, Club Mars.  And as the cab went downtown, I chatted with the driver, who was Sikh, about religion.  Curious, he asked me.  What do Christians believe?    I rattled off something, nothing that profound.  Still one of my friends turned to me with the strangest look.  We got out of the cab.  And my friend said to me.   “I went to a Christian school for years. I never heard what you just told that guy.  If that’s what Christianity is, it’s pretty good.”

Now, why did that conversation stick with me?  It’s because, over the years, I’ve heard so many like it.  You can think you know Christianity until one day you realize. You don’t know it at all.   What is this Good News that Christianity proclaims?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

What is this good news that Christianity proclaims?  God tells you in only two words right in the first sentence you just heard.   It’s the same two words I just said.   It’s the words Good News.   In those words, God, believe it or not, tells you pretty much everything you need to know. 

And, to be honest, at least as Paul wrote it in Greek, the two words are actually just one word, Euangelion.  The Eu part is the good as in Euphoria or Eulogy.  And the news or message part is angelion as in angel.   Now, how can that one word, Euangelion, tell you so much?   It tells you because of how the Greeks used the word.   They didn’t use it for any good news.   Hey, we’re having a baby.  Wow, that’s Euangelion!   No, it’s not. They didn’t use the word for that. 

For the most part, they used it for just one thing.  They used it for the news of a great victory in battle.  

Imagine.  Your army has gone out to defend the city from an enemy seeking to enslave it.   Everyone is waiting to hear what has happened.   Will they stay free or become slaves to a conquering power.   A lookout from the walls see the messenger coming.    He is wearing the signs of victory.  The crowds begin to cheer.   Victory is won.   The messenger is bringing Euangelion, news of a great victory, a complete one.  

If the messenger had said.  “Hey, the army did a pretty good job. Only the last part of the enemy is coming now. So, you can just finish them off.”   That wouldn’t have been good news.   No, the messenger brings a message that goes like this.  “We have won a great victory on your behalf, a complete victory.   And because of that victory, you are free.”

Paul uses that particular word because Paul knows. That word tells you all you need to know about what God means by good news.  Do you understand how that is different than anything else?
Look, if you go to a church, and hear a message on how to live a moral and upright life, is that the good news?   It might be helpful news to you.    But it’s not the good news.  It’s not Euangelion.  It’s not gospel.

If you hear euangelion, good news, it leads you to feel liberated, overjoyed.    After all the news is telling you.   A battle has been fought for you, a great victory won for you.  As a result, you are now free, free like never before.     If you don’t feel like the Gospel of Jesus is the most wondrous and thrilling news you have ever heard in your life, then you have never really heard the good news.  Ok, so how does this wondrous News free you?  It frees you to become yourself. 

Too often, people think of freedom as being freed from something.  And sure, that is kind of true.   But it frames freedom only as a negative.    You get freedom from insecurities or debt or a bad relationship.  The list could go on.  But is that it?  Once you’re free from that, where do you go from there.

Freedom, true freedom frees you to something, not simply from something. It brings you somewhere. 

And the good news of Jesus frees you to become yourself.   What do I mean by that?
Take God.  God is perfectly free.  But can God lie? No.  Can God tempt people? No.  Can God break a promise?  No.  So, is God free?   Sure, God’s free to be God.  Look, people think freedom means you’re free to be whatever.  But the Bible says freedom means being free to become what you were always destined to be.  That’s freedom, freedom to become yourself.    

God has no insecurities, no bitterness, no fears, no shame. Why? God is free.  God is perfectly free to simply be God, nothing less, and nothing else.   And that is perfect freedom.

Think of it this way. Think of a fish.  If a fish were like a human being, that fish might think.   All this water is constraining my freedom.   I want the freedom to hang out in that tree, to spend some time in the grass.   But what if the fish does that?  That fish dies.  It loses the freedom to do anything at all.  Why?  That fish is denying its fishness.  But fish don’t do that. Why?  They’re perfectly free, just enjoying being fish.   That resting in their fishness is the ultimate freedom, nothing less and nothing else.

So, what is your humanness, what makes you, you?   Essentially the Bible says that God created you in God’s image, God’s likeness.  And at the heart of God lies love, a love that surrounds and fills everything in the universe.  And the more you live into the love, the more yourself become, the more free you are.  Why do you feel anxious or insecure or simply alienated from your life?  It’s because you have not yet become free to become you, to become who God created you to be.

Look a coffee pot is built to make coffee not concrete.   If you put concrete in there instead of coffee, that coffee pot will experience alienation, anxiety, insecurity and shame, well at least as much as coffee pots can.   And why?   It’s violating its coffeepot-ness, what it was created to be.   

Don’t you get it.  Freedom isn’t ultimately freedom from anything.  It’s freedom to, freedom to love, freedom to become yourself.   And when you have that freedom, only then, do you become truly free.  And in that freedom, insecurities fall away.  Fears and anxieties fade.   You experience peace, peace with yourself, peace with others, peace with the world.  You still live your life, deal with your problems, but you do so from a place of freedom. 

How does this freedom happen?  How did God liberate you to become yourself?  It has to do with Jesus, but not so much what Jesus said.  Jesus said great stuff, but that’s not what liberates you.  What liberate you is what Jesus did.   It’s why Paul spends most of this passage telling you that in detail, names of witnesses, the whole deal.     What is the good news you need to believe to become free?   

You need to believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has won the battle for you.  God has gotten the victory.  That news, that is the good tidings.  In Jesus, a battle has been fought for you, a victory won.  And that victory has freed you forever.   That is the ultimate euangelion.  And that truth has such power, it shows up everywhere, even in a cartoon.

Have you even seen the movie, Frozen?   I have, approximately 26 times, because that’s about how many times my son has seen it.    He can’t get enough.   I want to tell him.  Let it go, let it go, but he doesn’t.  He loves that movie!

In case you haven’t seen it, the movie centers around these two sisters, Elsa and Anna.  Elsa has a tremendous power to make ice and snow, to freeze things.   But she is terrified of it.  She doesn’t feel free to be herself.    All that fear leads to disastrous things, Elsa’s flight and isolation, a perpetual winter she brings to her homeland, and finally a deadly wound she gives to her beloved sister, Anna. 
Anna then learns that the only thing that will heal her wound is an act of true love. Otherwise, she will become frozen forever.  Now, she thinks this act of true love will be a kiss from the man who truly loves her.   But that’s not how the movie works out.   Instead as the love of her life tries to reach her, Anna turns.  She sees that the villain of the movie has drawn a sword and is about to kill her sister, Elsa.   So, Anna with her last bit of strength leaps in front of the sword, and it strikes her.  Immediately the sword shatters, and Elsa is saved.  But Anna turns to ice.   Yet as everyone grieves her loss, that ice begins to melt away.   Anna returns to life.   Her sacrifice for her sister, Elsa, that was the act of true love that healed the wound.   And when that act of love happens, it frees Elsa from her fear.  She restores the kingdom to its rightful state. She finds the freedom to be herself and use her power wisely and well.

Now as I watched that final scene, I realized.  Holy moly, Anna is Jesus.  She sacrifices her life for her sister.  And in her act of true love she wins the battle. She frees her sister from her fears, and her kingdom from winter.   And the more you look everywhere, you will see the same story. The hero or the heroine out of love sacrifices.  And that sacrifice brings victory and freedom.   Why does that story appear everywhere?  It’s echoing the story, this story. 

But this story, this Good News here, no one made that up.  It happened.  All those witnesses Paul gives you tells you that.   And in that sacrifice of love, Jesus won the victory for you.  Why? In then end, the ultimate lie that infect human beings is that God does not love them, that God doesn’t intend the best.   That lie leads to distrust, to fear, to suspicion, to blame, to so much that is not God created you to be.  But Jesus act of love destroys the lie.  As you realize God loves you like that, enough to give up everything to bring you home, it liberates you from the lie.  And as you trust in the reality of God’s love for you, you find that love growing within you, restoring you to who you have always been destined to be, giving you the freedom to become yourself.  And as that happens, you will get it, how wondrous, how thrilling, this euangelion, this good news is.   For in its power, you will have become free, free to become the very person you yearned to be all along.