Friday, June 23, 2017

Move: Proclaim!

Proclaim!        June 17/18, 2017
Matthew 9: 35-10:8

Today we are continuing our “Move” sermon series. We’re looking at the different ways Jesus calls us to put our faith into action and considering how the Holy Spirit helps us in that regard.

This is one of those texts that, with a bid of meditation, causes two visceral reactions inside of me: intrigue and intimidation. I’m intrigued by these words because they’re a reminder of the awesome power of God and the power God has granted us. Who can argue that such power isn’t a necessity today? Cast out demons? Heal? This is the Kingdom of God. When I read this, especially after hearing about last week’s shootings and the constant battles against evil and hatred, I find myself saying, “Amen! Let’s do this.”

But then I have a second reaction, one of intimidation. Again, these words are a reminder of the power God has granted us… and sometimes we don’t want the responsibility of using that power. And then I start to really imagine what that type of authority looks like when I live it out…and even the best in me begins to shrink away. When I was in high school, there was a big movement called “WWJD.” What would Jesus do? Remember that? Any one who was anyone had these pretty little bracelets that begged the question, “If Jesus were here today, or if he were in your shoes, what would he do in your situation?” And it was kind of fun ploy to get people talking about Jesus, but the more I think about it, that’s a dangerous question. What would Jesus do is a dangerous question.

Matthew’s words for us today are pretty clear. Jesus would go. That was his mission, his focus. He was born to go. Just think about the way he entered this world. He was sent, commissioned by the Father to dwell with us and bring us healing, redemption and hope. We call that the Incarnation. Philippians might say it best: Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking on the nature of a servant (Phil. 2: 6-7). That’s what Jesus does. He humbles himself. He goes where he is needed, and where he goes isn’t always where we want to.

Michael Frost, a professor and pastor says, “Jesus isn’t level-headed. He’s not reasonable” (Exiles). And that’s because He really believes that the Kingdom of God isn’t some type of metaphorical hogwash, nor some pie-in-sky fantasy, but a reality that can be expressed and lived out in our often ungodly world. And then he goes and he literally begins to build a new reality in front of our eyes. He calms a raging sea; he heals Peter’s mother-in-law; he tells a man who was paralyzed, “Get up; take your mat and go home.” All of this won him favor. The crowds continued to grow in numbers and in awe. Even those closest to him began to praise him.  And then he turns the tides. Looking at those who were doing their best to follow he says, “You know, there’s a lot more where this came from. There’s a great harvest out there. There’s more evil to be driven out, more sick who need to receive healing, more hope that needs to be proclaimed. But I need more workers. And I can just imagine the crowd affirming that need: “Yes, call them. Send them. Commission them. You can’t do it alone. You need help. We will pray for God to send you more workers Jesus.” And then he drops the hammer. I give you authority to go. And one by one, they are named, like a roll call. Peter, James. Philip. Bartholomew. Thaddeus. Oh, you mean us?

For the first 10 years of my life, the Kingdom of God looked like a community that sang songs every Sunday morning, listened to the preacher preach, and maybe attended a weekly Bible study. The stories of Jesus were, at best, hope-filled dreams and at worst, the stuff of legend. I’m not sure any of us really thought those stories could happen today, but we at least affirmed that somehow they were important. We couldn’t deny the evil in the world, but we thought, or at least, I thought, the missionaries and super-Christians would handle all the heavy lifting. And then Jesus started to name us. It began with a church merger and a couple named Chuck and Janet who reminded us of a “great harvest” out there. And then they really put their feet down. “Jesus means us, and we’re going. Our destination? Toledo Ohio.”

I had never heard of Toledo, Ohio and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find the Kingdom of God there. I WAS sure that we would find stuff we didn’t like: poverty, crime and smelly situations. As a 10 year old, that was NOT the vacation I was looking for. Somehow I confused “mission trip” with “fun vacation,” and it was most certainly not a fun vacation. The lasting image I have of that trip is standing in the middle of a room filled with bags and bags of garbage, and Janet singing praise songs for the whole world to hear. It was horrible. And yet I had this strange feeling, this questioning, why a group from Pennsylvania were the ones noticing the piles of garbage and bagging it up.

I wonder at times if we get scared off when Jesus says, “Go and proclaim the Kingdom of God” because we think that means you have to be a preacher or go to seminary or ask the question, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” Or maybe we’re frightened when we Jesus talk about bringing life to what is dead and casting out demons. But in reality, the Kingdom of God is simply noticing what is going on around us and leaving things better than how we found it. And when moved and empowered by God’s Spirit, we can all do that.

Jesus tells his disciples that they need to go because the people are helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd. The leaders who should’ve noticed their plight didn’t…or at least they didn’t care to do anything about it. Neither did their neighbors. Somehow no one noticed the depth of poverty right outside their doors. But I’m not about to blame them. I know how easy it is to build up my own little kingdom and forget about God’s. And I think that’s why Jesus speaks these words. Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is about proximity and getting close enough to see what is really going on. Like getting close enough to see the garbage and bag it up. I’m convinced that revival will take place when we get close enough to others to open our eyes to see the real needs. These weren’t lazy men who were living off the government. These were helpless sheep. Who do you need to see?

Proclaiming the Kingdom is also about presence. It’s about getting close enough to see others and then finding the courage to stand with them. When Jesus sees what is really going on, the text says he has compassion. What a great word that we have, unfortunately, neutered over the years. This word in its original language is “Splankna,” which signifies a deep pain in the gut. Compassion isn’t feeling bad for someone; it’s suffering alongside them, as if your intestines are being ripped out with theirs when you see their pain. Who are you called to “suffer with?” Not help, but suffer with. The Kingdom of God isn’t about hand-me-outs; it’s about taking your hand in mine and walking with you until this journey is fulfilled. And this takes courage, or as Danish pastor Kaj Munk writes, a “holy rage” against complacency. Munk, an outspoken critic of Hitler’s Nazi fascism (who was later martyred for his stance) talks about this strongly worded characterization in a poem I’d like to share with you:

"What is therefore our task today? Shall I answer: "Faith, hope, and love"? That sounds beautiful. But I would say -courage. No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature...we lack a holy rage-the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth...a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God's earth, and the destruction of God's world. To rage when little children must die of hunger, when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek that recklessness that will challenge and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God. And remember the signs of the Christian Church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish...but never the chameleon" ( 

What does Munk mean by recklessness and and rage? He means for us to be troubled and unsettled, afflicted with a discomfort of injustice and a compassion for the helpless. He means for us to be moved, just as Christ was, to abandon our safe havens and to go and root ourselves where life, salvation and healing are needed. And when we go spiritual strongholds will be torn down. Personal strongholds. Community strongholds. Systemic strongholds. To the naked eye, it might just look like shoveling garbage into big black Hefty bags, but to Jesus (and to us) it’s a sign that things CAN and SHOULD be different, because the Kingdom of God is closer than we think. That is true power and true authority. Amen.

Move: Empowered!

Pentecost 2017         Empowered
Scripture: Acts 2: 1-16

Growing up I never heard much about the Holy Spirit or this day we call Pentecost. I’m sure my pastors didn’t blatantly ignore this forgotten God, as Francis Chan likes to call the Spirit, but I just don’t recall our church ever spending too much time thinking about the Spirit. The Father was easy to talk about and Jesus was the focal point of every Sunday morning because we all wanted to be saved. But the Spirit? That’s another story. Maybe it was because we were jaded by stories of old-time revivals and people doing crazy things that we couldn’t quite explain. Maybe it was because we felt the term “Pentecostal” had been usurped by the certain groups of Christians and wasn’t relevant to our old Methodist style. Maybe the Holy Spirit just seemed too dangerous, too unsafe or maybe too scary? And in all honesty, the Holy Spirit’s activity is a bit unsettling. And unsettling isn’t usually our cup of tea. But what we did talk a lot about, and what’s easier for us to grasp, is how Pentecost began.

Every time I read this story, I’m tempted to stop with the first verse. And they were all together in one place. Doesn’t that sound nice, like the goal has been met? The people have been gathered and now they’re all together in one place. For many, that’s the definition of church. People gathering, worshipping together, having one mind, having fun. And doesn’t it sound so safe, like a piece of dry ground in the midst of the storm. Predictable. Controllable. Sensible. We might not say it aloud, but a lot of us wouldn’t mind church stopping right there. And a lot of times we do. Church as a safe place, a calm in the midst of the storm, a place to run AWAY from the world. But what happens in Acts 2 doesn’t let us stop there. It shakes us out of our comforts and complacency. It gathers us in, blesses us and then forcefully tosses us back into the storms we’re trying to flee.

Who were the people in that original Pentecost story? They were those who had given their lives to Jesus…but now Jesus was gone. They were ordinary people who had been so compelled by the story and life of Jesus that they just HAD to follow. He said he could make disciples out of fishermen and cause the blind to see. I mean, who wouldn’t want to give that a try? He called; they answered. He said, “Will you come and follow me?” And they of course said “Yes!” But that same group, once vibrantly following Jesus, now found themselves huddled behind closed doors, away from the very world Jesus said he came to seek, save and restore.

I can’t begin to think of what went through the minds of those who were there, but I have to wonder if their thoughts weren’t all that different than the ones that run through our minds, or more personally, mine. Looking out at our world that seems so, well, lost, it’s hauntingly easy to feel so powerless. With Jesus leading the way, you can’t lose. But when he’s ascended and gone back to the Father, it can feel as if you’re fighting a battle that can’t be won. And it doesn’t stop there. We’re flooded with questions that have few answers; we might even face some fear, insecurity and even experience some loss. And when that happens, we face the threat of death. Not physically, but we die to the vibrancy God birthed within us. We stop dreaming. We stop visioning. We stop believing that things could ever be different. And instead we go into survival mode. Let’s just try to preserve what we have. Let’s love each other really well. Let’s just make sure avoid the bad things out there. Not altogether bad, mind you, but grossly devoid of the life-changing power Jesus spoke of.

Maybe that’s why the language of the coming of the Spirit is portrayed by forceful acts of nature: Wind and fire are words erupting with power, and only divine power can eclipse our apathy and fear and get us moving again, get us believing again. Our typical symbol for the Spirit is a peaceful dove, but these images of wind and fire stir up holy chaos in and sometimes that’s exactly what we need: we need less dove and more fire, less peace and more soul-piercing wind. I’m guessing that’s why my pastors never talked much about the Spirit. Wind and fire can be awfully difficult to control. They disrupt. They shake. They might even get us moving in ways we did not expect!

That’s what I find so fascinating, and maybe a little intimidating, about the Pentecost story: the church all together in one place suddenly becomes a church full of power all over the place. The proverbial walls come crashing down and the hell they were trying to avoid became the reality they could no longer ignore. There were people from nations from all over the world outside their front door. Parthians, Medes, Elamites. You name them. This must have been what Jesus meant when he said, “Go!” And before they knew what was happening, a power so undeniable and so beautiful gripped them. And this power was nothing to scoff at. It’s evangelistic and visionary. The first sign is their bold proclamation. The faith of these quiet disciples has been ignited, and led by big time denier, Peter, they begin to proclaim God’s goodness and faithfulness. When questioned by curious onlookers, Peter is ready for an answer: This isn’t fake news. This is God making good on his promises. God said he would it do. It just took a little longer than everyone expected. This was God coming through, just like he said he would. And then he takes them back to the words of old prophet named Joel. And sure enough, it was happening right there. Isn’t that good news?

Retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says, “What people say helps to determine the world in which we live.” We don’t need to look too far back in our history to see how words changed the landscape of our nation. We rallied around FDR when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And we rolled up our sleeves, went to work and refused to believe that we were doomed. We began to dream with Martin Luther King Jr. that equality could actually happen. We could see a world where our children, regardless of skin color or economic status, would learn, worship and play together. That first Pentecost speech opened up new hope-filled possibilities for the people in Jerusalem. So much so that thousands began to cry out, “How can this hope be real for me? What must I do to be saved?” All this from once timid disciples who were now charged up with a power not their own.

Sometimes we mistakenly believe that the true work of God’s Spirit is through signs and wonders. That’s not to say that signs and wonders aren’t important or authentic, because they are. But this Pentecost story reminds us that before the flashy signs and wonders, sometimes the Spirit’s most important gift is to help us dream again. And there might not be a timelier gift than that of God-inspired dreams.

I’ve heard some say that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, and I guess you could say that. But what might be more accurate to say is that Pentecost is the birth of a bold and inspired faith, a faith that doesn’t try to swindle or make cutesy theological statements, but one that really believes God is on the move and anything is possible. And this faith pours into everybody: men and women, children and servants, young and old. They all begin to dream new dreams. They all begin to envision a world where God breaks in and makes all things new. They all begin to see that God remains faithful and true to his word. No one is left out. And what’s the result? Acts tells us that 3,000 were so inspired that they said, “Sign me up. I want to be a part of this!”

I think it’s time for the old story to become a new again. I think it’s time for the Spirit to shake us from our dull gatherings. Not just for our sake, but for those waiting just outside these walls. I think it’s time for the wind to move our sails and the flame to burn within us a new passion, one that is filled with hope, faith and love. The same Spirit who rose Jesus from the grave and the same Spirit who filled that first gathering is the same Spirit who wants to give us power to believe again…that God still moves mountains, opens prison’s doors, provides good news to the poor, causes the blind to see and lets the oppressed go free. That’s the dream of Pentecost; that’s the countercultural, even perplexing narrative we are called to proclaim.

As I was writing this sermon, I found myself wondering what type of world my girls will experience when they are older. That thought came on the heels of a grotesque photo shoot by a popular comedian and the news that someone had sprayed racist graffiti over the home of NBA superstar Lebron James. “It’s always going to be this way,“ James said. That’s just how this world is. Is there any doubt, then, that we need fresh Pentecost dreamers and visionaries? Is there any question taht we need a fresh Spirit-inspired word that says, “No, this is not just that way it is because God has not forgotten us. He is still on the move.” So will you dream again. Will you believe again? And will you proclaim with power that God is not done? Amen.