Tuesday, August 12, 2014

August 10, 2014 The Gift of Marriage: I Take You...Love Is A Choice

I am continuing to receive responses to the three questions I have asked in recent weeks.  Many of the responses are very moving to read, as they contain personal reflections on life and share some difficult circumstances.  I thank you for sharing your answers with me. 

Today I begin my first part of the new series of messages, based on your responses.  The first part of the series is a series within a series as I talk about marriage, using the traditional wedding vows as an outline.  Though not everyone in our congregation is married, obviously, the topic of marriage is always important and timely.  At some point in life, we all encounter someone who is going through marriage difficulties, so perhaps these messages allow you to someone who asks you for advice.

Allow me to make a couple of disclaimers at the outset.  First, no, I do not practice everything I preach when it comes to marriage.  I just know that someone is going to run up to Tanya to ask her if I live up to all that I say, so I’m going to tell you from the beginning that I don’t.  Second, the examples I will use will not be specifically from anyone here; they will mostly be composites or general observations.  And third, I do not consider myself a marriage counselor, although marriage counseling makes up a good deal of the counseling I do for people, and I have learned a few things over the years and I will share those lessons with you throughout this series.
I will also add that I believe that the love shared by two people is one of the great evidences for the existence of God.  If God does not exist, I don’t believe love can truly exist.  If we were to take the purely scientific, materialistic view of the universe and of creation, I don’t think we could “test” love in a laboratory.  The most we could say about love, if God does not exist, is that two people can come together and be bound together by shared biological urges or common neurosis.  Love, like God, is not something that can be tested and measured in a lab or with a science experiment.

I don’t know how many weddings I have performed over the years, and I don’t remember all of them, but some I certainly do.  The first wedding I officiated was in the summer of 1979.  One of my best friends from childhood asked me to officiate at his wedding and I was pleased to do so.  The wedding was in a park in western Pennsylvania, in a beautiful setting.  When I go to the vows I turned to his fiancĂ© and said, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?  She stood there and looked at me with a strange look, which I didn’t understand, because I hadn’t realized what I had said.  I wondered why she wouldn’t respond and she was muttering something under her breath.  I eventually realized she was saying it’s husband, I’m the wife!

There is nothing quite like love and marriage.  I can think of few things that bring so much joy, or, so much pain.  And yet for all the importance of marriage, for something that is at the very foundation of life, very little preparation is provided to people.  Most people learn about marriage by observing the marriage of their parents.  Think about that for a moment; your children will enter into marriage with a set of expectations and behaviors based upon what they have observed in your marriage.  How you treat your spouse may well be how they treat their spouse; how you handle conflict may well be how they deal with conflict; how you demonstrate love may well be how they express love.

How does that make you feel?  Does it make you hopeful or nervous?  And add to that the potential that your child may possibly marry a person whose observation of their parent’s marriage may lead them to hopes, expectations and behaviors that may be very different, even contradictory.

The first phrase of the marriage vows forms the basis of today’s message – I take you…to be my wedded….  I have titled this message Love Is A Choice.  Love is certainly an emotion, but love is very much a choice.  Every day we make a choice, either subconsciously or consciously to love; to love our spouse, our family, our work, our community – we choose to love any number of things.

1.  Make That Choice Every Day.
Tanya and I are not plant people; we don’t have plants in the house because we neglect them and they always die.  We have two big plant pots on our sun porch – and they’ve been there for months – with dead plants in them.  For anything to flourish – be it a plant or a relationship – it takes time and nurturing.

A relationship doesn’t end after the wedding.  You can’t assume love will continue to grow and blossom totally on its own after the wedding; love needs nurturing and time and care or it will wither and die.

Too many times in marriages, people stop nurturing their relationship.  Before you get married you take the time to be together, but after the wedding we get caught up in so many other responsibilities and obligations that we don’t even notice that we are gradually allowing neglect to settle in.

Make the choice every day that you are going to love your spouse, and show that love in some concrete way.  You cannot assume the other person knows; they need to hear it said and demonstrated.

2.  Honor That Choice Every Day.
A while back I was in a store and in front of me in the check-out line were two young guys talking to the girl working at the register.  Since they were taking up so much of my time I decided to listen in on their conversation. 

One of the guys was just totally going down in flames as he tried to impress this girl, and his friend was just shaking his head.  It turns out this guy went out with her a couple of times, but he couldn’t remember that they had gone out.  She had to remind him they had gone on a few dates.
She was a really cute girl, and I’m thinking two things; how could you forget going out with her, and what was she doing going out with you?  He should have stopped talking but he kept going on and on.  His friend stood there shaking his head and finally said dude, just give it up.  He just kept digging his hole deeper until the young lady looked at him and said, well, you’ve certainly made me feel special.

We honor our choice to love someone by making sure they know how special they are, by telling them how lucky we are to have them in our life and that we thank God for them.  I am not totally foolish; I am well aware of how lucky I am that Tanya married me, but I can’t keep that to myself, I need to tell her that, she needs to hear it from me.  Once again, we must say it; God gives us a gift in our spouse and we honor the gift of that relationship by saying how much we appreciate and love the other person.
Everyday life will absolutely wear down a marriage relationship.  If you have the opportunity, watch a newly married couple and a couple that have been married a while.  When you’re out to eat take a look around the restaurant and you can usually tell the difference between the newly married and those who have been married a long time.  Those who are newly married seem to be very engaged in their conversation and their excitement is obvious, while those who have been married a while may be sitting and saying very little.  Now, I’m not saying this is always true, and that your conversation always has to be exciting, but life can wear down the excitement and enjoyment of a relationship, and you have to choose every day to work at your marriage.

You also honor the choice to love by accepting the person God has given you as a spouse.  Here’s the mistake that women often make as they approach marriage – I’ll change him after we get married.  And here is the mistake men make as they are preparing for marriage – after that wedding is over I can quit trying to impress her and just be myself.

I think we should always be working hard at becoming better people, and part of that effort is to communicate to our spouses that we love them and accept them as the person God created them.

3.  Protect That Choice Every Day.
One of the biggest misconceptions one can make about love is that it is primarily an emotional state of being, but it is primarily a choice.

There are so many things that attack the choice we make to love another person.  Our society is not kind to committed relationships and honoring the love between married couples.  We are preyed upon from all corners with images that will distort love and reality.  Advertisers and pornographers manipulate and profit handsomely by exploitation.  Questionable ideas of romance and love.

Protect your choice to love.  Be very careful about the images you allow into your mind.  Not just physical images but also images of love and marriage.  Don’t fall for the illusion that you are a failure if things aren’t always perfect.  Living with another person and sharing your life with them sometimes generates conflict, that’s just reality, it doesn’t mean you love has failed.

Protect your choice from the threat of other relationships.  Let me say something very important here – never allow yourself to linger where you should not be.  Never linger physically, mentally or emotionally.  Watch not only your eyes, but your minds and your hearts as well.

The nature of modern life means there are times you may be around other people more often than your spouse.  This is especially if you have young children and are working a lot.  Sometimes you will find you are relating to other people more than to your spouse.  Be very careful, because that is a fire just waiting to explode into disaster.

Most relationships begin the path of dissolving because of lingering where you should not linger.  It may be looking at someone when you shouldn’t, it may be allowing yourself to become emotionally attached to someone and it leads down the path of greater disaster.  You don’t get from point A to point Z in one step, and you don’t get back in one step.

Protect your choice to love your spouse every day.  There may be days you don’t feel a lot of love, but you make that choice every day and honor that choice.  The alternative is heartbreak.

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.  He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.  But for Adam no suitable helper was found.
21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.
22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

August 3, 2014

I Corinthians 12:12-14

Next Sunday I will begin my new series of messages, which are based on the answers I received to the three questions I had been asking in recent weeks. 

I was surprised at the most common answer I received.  It was not a question about the Bible.  It was not a question about a social issue.  It was not a theological question.  It was a very personal statement – my children and grandchildren don’t attend church and I don’t know what to do.  We’ll deal with that in some measure during the series, although there is no simple solution to that dilemma, as I’m sure you know. 

Many of the responses related, in fact, to family.  Next week I will begin a “series within a series,” as we study marriage, and we’ll do so through the phrases of the traditional vows.  One of the other family issues we’ll deal with is that of addiction.  We don’t talk much about addiction in churches, but we need to.  Some of the Biblical/theological questions we’ll address in messages but also in a Bible study format.  One of the ways we’ll do that will be in a study this fall about how we got the Bible.  Why do we have the Bible in its present format?  How did we arrive at 66 books?  What about other books, books of which you may have heard?

This morning’s message is a reworking of an older message of mine and serves as a transition to the new series as I answer the question of why I go to church.

One of my predecessors here at First Christian – Jim Collins – was here to speak a few years ago.  You may remember that he had copies of his book, Always A Wedding.  Jim had, at that time, officiated at about 2,500 weddings over the course of his ministry.  That’s an incredible number of weddings.

I think I will call my book Always A Meeting.  I spend a lot of times in meetings.  A meeting I attended a while back was interesting for a question that arose.  It was a meeting of some clergy, and as we talked about church and the challenges facing churches today, one person said do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we tell them why it’s important, or do we just assume they’ll continue to show up even as they wonder why it’s important to do so?

Those are interesting questions.  And they are important questions.  Do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we simply assume they will continue to show up in worship without being given a reason to do so?  Perhaps there are people who come to church looking for a reason why they should attend.

When I am thinking about a message, certain things capture my attention.  I guess because a certain topic is on my mind I will notice something I might not otherwise notice.  As an example, as I was thinking about this message I happened to notice a copy of the Atlantic magazine.  I noticed it because of an article written by Larry Taunton.  The title of the article is Listening to Young Atheists:  Lessons for A Stronger Christianity (you can read the article here - http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/). 

To be honest, I’m kind of tired of reading articles about the rise of unbelief, but this one was really fascinating.  What Larry and his organization – the Fixed Point Foundation – did was talk to college age atheists from around the country.  They simply wanted to hear their stories to see what moved people to give up their faith.  While almost all of them referred to the process of making a decision based on rationality and reason, Taunton and his group found there was almost always a deeper, more emotional reason for their choice.  Sadly, the choice was often related to the churches in which they were raised.  Some of them were not given a compelling reason to be a part of the church, or they never saw a good reason.

I begin with the assumption that a person who is a follower of Jesus is a part of the church.  I know that not all are active or attend, and I don’t condemn them when they are not.  I understand why people give up on the church, because there have been times when I’ve considered it myself.  There have been a few times when I really thought about it (does it surprise you to hear a minister say such a thing?)  I got a pretty good lesson in the kinds of things that can go on with churches as I was growing up.  I listened as my mom and dad complained and would practically grind their teeth after a difficult board meeting or contentious gathering at church.  I saw how people could act in very non-Christ like ways.  I’ve been in churches where there seemed to be little connection to the ministry of Jesus.  I’ve been in churches that seemed to be on their deathbed.

But in spite of all the negatives I’ve seen and experienced, and despite the fact that some people see today’s church as outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant, I’m not going anywhere, and I’d like to give you a few reasons why –

1.  I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and the church is his body to which I am called.
I received a call recently from a friend who was looking for a church recommendation.  They knew someone new to Shelby County and told me the family’s denominational background and asked for suggestions.  I naturally thought, how about ours?  My friend said, well, do you think your church would be too liberal for them?  Is your church liberal or conservative?  Is it formal or informal?  Is it traditional worship or contemporary?  Are we expressive or reserved?  I said yes.

Are we liberal?  Yes.  Are we conservative?  Yes.  Are we in the middle?  Yes.  Are we outgoing?  Yes.  Are we restrained?  Yes.  We’re all these things, and more, because we are a combination of all those things, and that, I believe is a good thing.  You see, church is not about finding a group of people who represent the same exact slice of society with whom you relate, but being a part of the body of Christ, which reflects all the facets of humanity, and we wrap it all under the banner of the great confession of faith made by Peter when Jesus asked who do you say that I am? 

As Disciples, we are very familiar with Peter’s great confession of faith – You are the Christ, the son of the living God (Matthew 16:13, Mark 8:27 and Luke 9:18).

Paul, in today’s Scripture reading, writes about the body of Christ, to which we are called.  To me, there is something greatly compelling about being part of something that is eternal, something that is beyond our own lives, something that existed long before us, and will long outlive us.

There is nothing else like the church, and for all its faults and shortcomings, I believe we are called to be part of this great, universal, and timeless body because means we are part of Jesus, and that really, really does mean something.

2.  Faith is not practiced in isolation.
We live in a highly individualistic society, but faith is not something that works in isolation.  By its very nature, faith compels us to be involved in the lives of other people, both in offering support and receiving support.  The foundation of the Christian faith – love – is not something that can be practiced apart from other people.  Jesus commands that we are not only to love God, but that we are to love others as well (Matthew 22:37-40).  Such a command is a reminder that we are created to be in community with others.

You can, certainly, find community elsewhere, but not like the church, I believe, because in the church you get the next reason –

3.  Where else do you hear the message of the Gospel?
Well, you can hear it on the radio, TV, and the internet, but that’s not quite the same as experiencing it in person.  Simply put, where else are you going to hear the message of loving your enemies?  I don’t hear that message outside of church.  Do you?  The gospel challenges me in ways that no other person, organization, or place will challenge me, and that tells me something very important about the church – I need to be here for that challenge.

The truth is that the church has a very unique message, and we are in need of hearing it on a regular basis.

C. S. Lewis wrote, When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=02-04-019-f#ixzz2VRsTsWTo)
That reminds me that –

4.  I can’t do faith on my own.
I’ve spent some time on golf courses and lakes and have felt close to God there.  Well, perhaps on the lake but not on the golf course; God seems to abandon me there.  What I mostly feel in those places is an appreciation for God and his creation, which is important, but not the same as worship.  It’s also not likely that anyone at the lake or the golf course will tell you what you need to hear, except that maybe you should give up golf.

In the summer of 1978 my older brother was in Israel on an archeological dig.  At the time he owned an MG convertible.  Since he was gone the entire summer he left it in my care.  I was living in northeast Tennessee that summer, near the campus of the college I was attending.  It was a great car to drive in the summer.  A little convertible with a stick shift on the floor, it was a lot of fun.

The gas gauge on the car did not work, but I would set the odometer and watch it closely.  Most of the time.  A friend and I, on a great summer day, were riding in the car up a mountain road when I suddenly heard a loud ticking.  I remembered my brother telling me that just before the car ran out of gas the fuel pump would tick loudly.  We quickly sputtered to a halt.

Fortunately, the car did not have power steering or power brakes, so we could coast.  It was very easy to turn the car around and start coasting back down the mountain.  We coasted a long way, and with the top down and the breeze blowing it was a good ride.

As we coasted to the bottom of the mountain there was a little gas station at the bottom.  We coasted into the gravel parking lot and right up to the gas pumps.  I hopped out of the car and went in to pay for some gas.  Sitting outside the door was one of the locals, leaning back in a chair with his hat pulled down low.  As I walked by he looked up and said, I believe that’s the quietest running car I’ve ever heard.  I didn’t want to admit to running out of gas so I said, yes sir, she sure does run quiet!  

The reality is that it’s easy to coast through life.  We want to minimize our stressors, our expectations, our responsibilities – church is one place where you cannot cruise, because the Spirit of God will move in us and push us beyond our own comfort.  If I try to do faith on my own I always run out of gas, so to speak.

I have to admit there are times when I wish I could just live in my own little world and worry only about myself, but that is not an option when we are followers of Jesus.  The trinity of our world has become me, myself, and I, and it is easy to want to cruise along and worry only about ourselves.  Except that there is no cruise control.  There is no “my own world.”

And that is why I go to church.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 27, 2014 A Much-Needed Vision

Acts 10:9-18

A Much-Needed Vision

This morning we are studying a sermon by Peter.  It would be easy to read this passage and think well, it’s a sermon, nothing unusual about that.  The Bible contains plenty of sermons.  But this is a sermon that almost didn’t happen.  It almost didn’t happen because God had to give Peter a vision in order to open Peter’s heart and mind to an important truth that enabled Peter to preach that sermon.  Let’s retrace the events leading up to this sermon.

Turn with me to the beginning of chapter ten.  Chapter ten opens with a man named Cornelius.  Cornelius was a centurion - a centurion was a Roman solider in command of 100 soldiers - and as a Roman he was a Gentile. 

The relations between Roman soldiers and Jewish people were generally not very good at this point in history; in fact, the relationship was generally very bad.  But there was something different about Cornelius.  Verse 2 tells us that Cornelius was a God-fearer, which was a designation given to someone who had attached themselves at least partially to Judaism. A God-fearer was a Gentile who rejected the religions of the Roman Empire and accepted the one God of Israel and attended worship at a synagogue.  Imagine that our country is under occupation by a foreign power, mistreated by the soldiers of that occupation, and when you come into worship one of those soldiers is sitting next to you.  The bottom line is, Cornelius was exactly the kind of person someone like Peter would have been taught to avoid. 

Verse 3 tells us that Cornelius receives a vision and is told to send for Peter.  Cornelius dispatches two of his servants to find Peter, and while they are on their way Luke shifts the scene to Peter, who also has a vision.  Peter, at the home where he is staying, goes to the roof to pray, and while on the roof he becomes very hungry, and God gives Peter this vision – the sky opens and a great sheet is lowered and the sheet is full of all kinds of animals.  A voice tells Peter Arise, Peter, kill and eat!”  Listen closely to Peter’s answer, because he is speaking to God.  Peter answers by saying By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean (verse 14).  Peter has been so trained to think a particular way he cannot accept a direct command from God.  Think about this for a moment; this is really an unbelievable point we are reading.  It took three instances (sounds like another series of three, doesn’t it?  See John 21:15-19) of a direct command from God to begin to open Peter’s mind to the fact that he was freed from his dietary regulations and could eat whatever he wanted, but Peter still wasn’t entirely convinced.  Look at verse 17 - Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be...  Greatly perplexed?  Could God have made it any more plain for Peter?  He shouldn’t have been perplexed at all!  But Peter’s mind was so conditioned by certain beliefs he couldn’t open his mind to what God was telling him.

Remember who we are talking about.  This is Peter.  Peter was, arguably, the one human being who was closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry.  Peter was a part of all the significant moments of Jesus’ ministry and was one of three – along with James and John – that comprised the inner circle of Jesus.  Peter walked with Jesus for three years, he saw him crucified, he saw him resurrected, and yet, he still struggled to understand God’s desire to welcome all people to himself.  If this can happen to Peter, it can certainly happen to us as well.

Let’s be honest about ourselves – we are not where God wants us to be.  Peter – for all his talent and ability – has some pretty big shortcomings revealed in the Bible.  Are we closing our hearts and minds to what God is trying to reveal to us?  Have we stopped growing, stopped moving forward in our faith?
Sometimes we have to overcome what we have been taught; sometimes we have prejudices and stereotypes ingrained in us that keep us from being open to welcoming people and from loving certain kinds of people.  We don’t always free ourselves of these attitudes just because we are followers of Jesus, and Peter had not yet freed himself from some of his prejudices and attitudes.

This vision was to open Peter to the visitors he was about to receive and to open him to the gospel being for the Gentiles.  The barriers between people in the time of Peter are essential for us to grasp if we are to really understand this passage.  A very observant Jew in the time of Peter would not have contact with a Gentile, but notice what Peter does – when Cornelius comes to the home where Peter was staying, Peter invites them in and gives them lodging (verse 23).  That seems like such a small thing to us, but it was an enormous step to take in that day.

While Peter was puzzling over the meaning of the vision the servants of Cornelius arrive.  The Spirit of God tells Peter to Go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself (verse 20).  Peter goes downstairs, welcomes them, and asks why they have come.  The men say they are there to take Peter to the home of Cornelius so that he might hear a message from Peter (verse 22).

The fact that Peter welcomed these men and then agreed to travel with them back to the home of Cornelius was a remarkable step.  There were probably many people who saw them traveling and wondered what’s Peter doing with those people?

Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius and makes an amazing confession – you yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean (verse 28).

That’s a remarkable statement.  God has finally broken through to Peter with the truth that God’s love is for all people.  This was a tough issue for Peter.  Peter struggled with this so greatly that he was even confronted publicly by Paul (But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face; because he stood condemned – Galatians 2:11).

Here was the essential question for Peter – is the gospel for all people?  Would the gospel remain captive to the law that is reserved only for some, or open up to grace that is for all?

Over and over again, the gospel broke down human barriers that divided people.  It is typical of human nature to erect walls and barriers that separate people; it is typical of God to tear down those walls and barriers.  As the church – the people of God; those who bear the name of Jesus – we can be a part of tearing down those walls and barriers or we can be a part of building them.

  As Peter moves into his sermon listen to how he begins – I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality (verse 34).  It’s rather remarkable to hear Peter confess that he has now grasped this foundational truth of the gospel.

In Peter’s day everything was about separation and partiality.  God was more partial to males than females; to Jews than Gentiles; to healthy people; to rich people.  Righteousness was demonstrated by withdrawing from certain groups of people rather than loving them and demonstrating compassion to them.  It’s no wonder then, that people reacted so strongly to the vision of Peter, and that he struggled with it himself.

The central aspect of God is love and compassion.  In one way of looking at the world it becomes a virtue to be separate and to separate one’s self from people; in the other it becomes a virtue to love and associate with those very people.  When Jesus touched a leper, when he touched a woman who was hemorrhaging, when he entered a graveyard occupied by a man full of evil spirits – these were actually sinful activities in the eyes of people of the day who thought themselves righteous.  This is also one of the points of the parable of the Good Samaritan – the priest and the Levite had bought into religious rules that allowed them to elevate exclusion over compassion and then be rewarded for their failure to be compassionate.  They didn’t avoid that injured man because of a fear they would be robbed and beaten; they avoided that man because of who that man was – their religious rules would not allow them to have anything to do with that man.

We are tempted to separate ourselves and to believe that God plays favorites.  Certain people don’t qualify as righteous because they don’t go to church; certain people don’t qualify as righteous because of their activities.  We go to church and we avoid certain activities so we are meet our own invented scale of righteousness while others don’t.

Who are the Gentiles of today?  Who are those to whom we need to love and demonstrate compassion?  If God were to give us a vision with the same purpose as the one he gave Peter, what would be in the sheet he would lower in front of us?

The table around which we will gather in a few moments is a very real repudiation of the separation of people.  One of the great symbols of separation in the day of Jesus was the dinner table; you simply didn’t eat with certain kinds of people.  Those who gathered around a table to eat told who was considered righteous and who was considered unrighteous.  It is interesting, then, that a table and a meal became one of the central elements of Christianity.

So here is the question to ask this morning – what’s in your sheet?  If God were to give you a vision of a sheet, who or what would be in your sheet?  Are there people – or kinds of people or groups of people – to whom you don’t want to extend the love and compassion of God?  This table is a repudiation of any separation we desire to make.  Jesus died for all, and he asks that we love all.

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.
12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.
13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.
18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 20, 2014 A Vision of Faith, Hope, and Love

July 20, 2014
I Corinthians 13:1-13

The Beatles were pretty close.

When the Beatles sang all you need is love, they weren’t far from the truth.  Love is the greatest element we need in our lives, but coming in a close second are faith and hope.

The realists among us would remind us that we also need food, clothing, shelter, and some other things to get us through life – and they would be correct – but today, let us think in terms more lofty and grandiose.

Many of you probably had this week’s Scripture passage read at your wedding, or perhaps it was read at a family funeral.  You probably know most of the first and last verses of the chapter by memory, and could fairly accurately guess some of the others. 

For all the beauty of the passage, it is also one that is extremely challening.

This morning’s message is one of vision.  It is not a vision that provides specific details of what we need to do, but rather a vision of who we are.  You have to be something, I believe, before you can do something.

If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Have you ever read anything that is so beautiful and at the same time so challenging?

I believe that one of the reasons why this chapter is so beloved is because it speaks to the hope we all have of living up to the ideals of love.  Not that we accomplish such a lofty goal, but we try, and we know we need to try.

At the end Paul writes, in verse 13, And now these three remain:  faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  In that verse is a vision, I believe, of three gifts we are given, and these three gifts are the foundation of all we are called to be.  These three gifts define who we are as the people of God.  These three are the qualities of who we are called to be before we do anything.

Faith has been a great gift in my life.  I can’t imagine life without faith.  Though we live in an age of growing skepticism, I continue to believe faith is a great gift to the world.  It is my hope we can present an image of faith that is far more appealing and far healthier than those narrow and dogmatic versions we see far too often.

When I think about faith, it is not in abstract terms.  When I think about faith, I think about the people who helped to plant faith in the heart, mind, and soul.  Faith is not merely an abstract concept, but a living reality that is transferred through flesh and blood individuals who have exercised great infuence over our lives.

A 12th century theologian by the name of John of Salisbury wrote we are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.  We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

My faith, like yours, rests on the shoulders of many people.  My faith is not mine alone.  I have faith because I was raised in a household of faith.  My parents modeled faith to me.  Other people modeled faith to me.  My faith has been strengthened by people who were, and who are, living demonstrations of faith to me.  Some of them are still among us, while others form part of the great cloud of witnesses spoken of in Hebrews 12:1. 

It was through my family and others that I learned not only the value of faith but also the importance of being a part of the church.  I have served in churches where saints modeled faith to me and taught me what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Many people have invested in my life; many people have had faith in me.  I have not arrived at this point in life on my own or by my own doing.  And I am grateful I have not come to this point in life on my own, and that I do not continue from this point on my own. 

At camp I thought a lot about people like Bob Mack, Joe Bliffin, Karl Marshall, and Gene Carter, individuals who were so important in my faith development.  I thought about the saints in my home church who invested so much into my life, such as Mrs. Poland, my junior high Sunday School teacher.  We wanted to hurry out the door to get to Wilson’s Grocery to buy some candy between Sunday School and church, but Mrs. Poland stood at the door and took each of us by the hand and told us of how she believed God would use each of our lives.

When I came home from camp and announced that I felt called into ministry my mom told me two things – one, there is never any shame in leaving the ministry.  Isn’t that an interesting response?  That might tell you something about my home church.  My mom had seen it all and knew what I was getting into. Two, I should spend a week with Reverend Norris, our minister at the time, to see what the life of a minister is like.  I never did the second, spending a week with Reverend Norris, unfortunately, but I haven’t done the first either.  I haven’t quit, although there have been times I have sure thought about quitting.  But even when I thought about quitting, even when I really wanted to quit, I couldn’t, and it was because of hope.  There has always been hope that continued to pull me along. 

Where would we be without hope?  If you’re a golfer you understand hope.  I am not a very good golfer.  Some of you have invited me to play a round of golf, so I've been trying to get my game in decent shape so that I won't embarrass you.  Let me say something this morning - I generally don't get a second invitation to play golf, after accepting the first one.  Don't feel bad if you don't want to invite me to play again when you see how poorly I play.  I did have one great shot though, back in the 1980s.  I was playing in Harrodsburg and made my only eagle.  It was the 18th hole, a par 5, and my second shot landed about six inches from the cup.  I think I took half an hour to line up that put!  I was not going to miss it, because I knew it would probably be my only shot at an eagle, and because the restaurant in the clubhouse looked out to the 18th green and I wasn't going to miss an eagle in front of that audience!  Although I had a terrible round overall, I had one great shot, so of course, I was convinced I was becoming a good golfer.  Now that's hope!  

Hope, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
What a beautiful way to phrase the reality of hope – it perches in the soul.
It is my prayer that hope is so deeply embedded in your heart and soul that it never stops at all.  Never let go of hope.

So much has been written, so much said, about love, that it’s easy to ask what else is there to say?  Whatever I can think of to say about love, someone has already said it, and said it better.

My task is not to find something new or earthshaking to say about love, but to remind us of its centrality in our lives.  Love is the foundation to everything that we do and everything that we are.

When I lived in another community I used to drive by two houses that were situated side by side along a highway in the countryside.  They were the only two houses within sight of each other along that part of the highway.  There was something very striking about these two houses – both were surrounded by very tall privacy fences, one slightly higher than the other.  Every time I drove by those two houses I wondered what took place between the two families to cause them to erect those fences.  Why was the first one erected?  And was the one that was slightly higher, as was my guess, the second one erected?

I see those two houses with their high fences as a metaphor of our world.  Those fences represent the brokenness and alienation between people.  Those fences represent the fractured relationships that litter the landscape of humanity.  Those fences are present in real and in spiritual ways in our own community, in our own families, and perhaps our own congregation.

Today, tragically, religion sometimes contributes to the fractiousness of our world.  Sometimes religion functions as a wedge between people rather than as a bridge or a bond.  Sometimes religion concerns itself more with building fences rather than lowering them.

We are living in a truly transformational time, and we struggle with how to stay relevant and with how to capture people’s time and attention.  People no longer look as quickly or look at all to churches for their answers.  But the needs of people have not changed, and these three gifts – faith, hope, and love – are still much-needed by humanity.  They are the answer.