Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Almost Christian 2009

Acts 26: 24-29

Today is Heritage Sunday. This is a day set aside by the United Methodist Church to remind it’s people of the strains of tradition that have come together unto the denomination we are members of today, and it is on the anniversary of the creation of the United Methodist church in 1968. Today’s hymns are all Wesleyan, and our statement of belief at the beginning of the service is the Covenant prayer of the Wesleyan movement.

The original sermon can be read by clicking here.

So, Paul’s been in prison for about two years at this point. He was first imprisoned by the Sanhedrin, the came body that tried Jesus in the middle of the night, and Just like Jesus, he was passed on to the Romans because the Romans have a death penalty and the Jewish council doesn’t.

Paul, however, doesn’t stand silently. He tells The council, then the Roman Governor, and finally Agrippa, who is the last of the sons of Herod to be king, his story of who Jesus is, How Paul used to persecute the Jews, how held everyone’s cloak while they stoned Stephen, how he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, and how he’s been in god’s service ever since.

The local governor, who’s in attendance at this hearing before King Agrippa, tells Paul that he’s out of his mind, because of too much learning. See, Festus isn’t Jewish, and so he doesn’t have the respect for the book and for learning that Paul is hoping Agrippa has, Agrippa, who is at least partially Jewish.

He argues to Agrippa that Jesus is just exactly what the Jewish prophets have foreseen, and since Agrippa is Jewish, he knows what the prophets said. Agrippa’s response is to ask Paul if Paul would make him a Christian so quickly? Paul basically responds with “you bet! You and everyone here, I hope becomes just like me, except for my being imprisoned.”.

It’s this seemingly smart-alecky line that Agrippa throws at Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” that John Wesley keyed off of in the middle of the summer of 1741, as he stood before the professors and students of St. Mary’s College, Oxford. He could see so many of the people he was about to preach to as good, basic, decent folks with potential.

This sermon became rather important for Wesley, and was listed as #2 in his list of sermons central to the Methodist movement, the list of 50 some-odd sermons that have been passed down to us as part of the foundation of what we believe.

The sermon was called the Almost Christian.

An almost Christian, he begins by saying, has the form of godliness, but not the power. An Altogether Christian has the power of Godliness, and the outward forms are the evidence of the inward power.

1. An Almost Christian is someone who has the virtues common to all decent people in society; they are just with their neighbors, they don’t rob or cheat them, they don’t pick on those without friends, and they pay their debts.
2. They tell the truth.
3. They feed the hungry and help those who are in need, generally.
4. They have the forms of outward godliness; they don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t engage in gossip. They dress well, modestly, but not so they are obviously rich.
5. They try as best as they can to get along, don’t practice in revenge, are not sarcastic, and they really do do unto others.
6. They are active in making the world a better place, by teaching, volunteering, exhorting the faithful.
7. They attend church regularly, and do with a sense of seeking the truth in a modest mode.
8. They pray alone and with family.
9. They are zealous, they are sincere in their seeking after Christ, they are faithful, and they really want to be stronger with God.
10. They take communion regularly.

Can one be and do all of these things and still be an Almost Christian?

Wesley says yes, and he was one himself.

Here is how one becomes an altogether Christian:
1. They completely love God and desire only him. God makes them who they are.
2. They love everyone. They have no prejudice, they don’t tell jokes in which people who are different from them are the focus. They love even their enemies, and by love, Wesley refers to 1 Corinthians 13; love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.3. They have a faith that produces repentance, love and good works. Good works are not the means of grace, they are the proof.
4. They have a faith that believes Christ is all you really need.

Now, Wesley realizes what standard he has set up, because so few people in churches actually can meet even the Almost Christian standard, never mind the Altogether Christian. He knows that given our faltering hearts and attention spans that equal a squirrels’, there’s no way at all that anyone could ever achieve this over a lifetime. Intention is not enough. That’s what the road to hell is paved with. (His line, not mine) This is why we need the love of God. Through God’s love, and only through God’s love, do we become able to love our neighbors. Only through God’s love for us can we learn what love is, and love God. and life is a journey, one where the goal is to be filled with this love. Only occasionally is someone actually among us who is full.

As I said, this sermon is one of the pieces of the foundation of what we believe as United Methodists. It is foundational that we can only approach God’s level of love by approaching God himself, and seeking after him through Jesus Christ. We can only know about God’s love, and what it means in full, by seeking after Jesus’ teachings. We can be nice to every one, we can feed all the hungry, we can defend the weak and object to people telling mean jokes, but unless we love God completely, we’re still only almost there.

Thank God for the thing called grace, eh? It brings to mind the best morning prayer ever:

Dear Lord,
So far today I've done all right.
I haven't gossiped, cursed, or lost my temper.
I haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or over indulgent.
I am really glad about these things.
But, in a few minutes Lord,
I am going to get out of bed,
and from then on,
I'm probably going to need a lot more help.
Thank You,
In Jesus' Name

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Only Love Can Leave Such a Mark

John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday, April 12

Magnificent, by U2 (2009)

Magnificent, Magnificent

I was born/I was born to be with you/In this space and time
After that and ever after I haven't had a clue/Only to break rhyme
This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue

Only love/only love can leave such a mark
But only love/only love can heal such a scar

I was born/I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice/From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise…

Only love/only love can leave such a mark
But only love/only love can heal such a scar

Justified till we die, you and I will magnify
The Magnificent/Magnificent

Only love/only love can leave such a mark
But only love/only love unites our hearts

Justified till we die, you and I will magnify
The Magnificent/Magnificent

This is where we live. This morning, this celebration, this observance. Easter. This is the day that makes us who we are. Christmas has its pleasures, and Pentecost has its significance, but we live in Easter. Every Sunday morning is a mini celebration of the resurrection of the Lord, and today the mini turns into the focus.

The original meaning of the eggs, and the rabbits, and the flowers, and the other stuff, they all meant something else originally, but it doesn't matter now, other than just knowing. It has all been bent to point to what Easter is about.

Christ is risen! Despite everything that was done to him, all of the horrible and brutal, cruel things that have been done to Christ, he rose from the dead.
The message went out, first by Mary Magdalene, then by the disciples, then by the church, down through the centuries, down from someone to you. And here you are.

He was born to sing for us--he was born to tell us of God's love. And the song we made him sing was one of love in the midst of cruelty. So he sang it. He was not born to die, like a clone or beef cattle, but when it became clear that this was the only way we were going to understand he walked that path. Now, through Pentecost, through the coming of the Holy Spirit after his death, he has given us back our voice. His voice is now heard in what we say, in what we do.

Only a love like his could have left such a mark. The marks on his hands, his feet, and his side. Only a love like God's could have healed such scars. Those Marks were what killed him, and the scars were healed. He lives!

Do we really have to have scientific proof of the possibility of resurrection to be able to believe that God does amazing things? Haven't we seen it in our own lives? Haven't we all seen things we can't understand? Is it really always coincidence? Why do we hesitate to attribute what we can't understand to the possibility of something in the world greater than ourselves? Do we really think we, 21st century humans, are the pinnacle of understanding and advancement? That nothing can evolve further from us?

So did the Roman Empire. So did Lehman Brothers. And there's the old poem about the traveler who finds, in the middle of the desert, the two tall legs of a statue, with the body and the head lying half-buried in the sand, no one for miles around. The base of the statue says:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Truth is, we are no different from the people who were in daily contact with Jesus. I see too much of Peter's acting without thinking, too much of Thomas' needing proof for everything, in us to think we are much different. We are them, they are us. And Jesus chose them to spread the word of God's love. Those ordinary, faltering, wrong-half-the-time disciples. And when he was raised from the dead, the first one to know was someone even lower on the social ladder then they were. They had to hear of it from Mary Magdalene, who was less than nothing in that culture. As the old Spiritual says, the bottom rung done got on top!

Jesus chose them, imperfect as they were. Jesus has now chosen us, imperfect, unworthy and clueless as we are. They succeeded. So can we.

Because we have the mark. Only love can leave such a mark. A mark that makes us different. Ruins us for the world. We operate with a shadow now, a conscience, a Spirit which is within us reminding us that we re marked. Only love can leave such a mark, but only love can then heal such a scar.

You and I are called to magnify to highlight God's love. This is our work. This is who we are, what we are. What we do to get a paycheck and feed ourselves is not who we are. We are more than P&G. We are more than nurses, we are more than retired, we are more than handymen, we are more than teachers.

We are more than Americans. We are fathers, we are mothers, we are Christians. We are justified in Christ, we are loved, we are called. This is where we live.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

It's Gonna Leave a Mark

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

Preached for the 5th Cooperative Midweek Lenten Service, at Evans Falls UMC, and then, with slides, on Palm/Passion Sunday in the Center Moreland Charge.

I have been playing the mandolin for about 15 years. It will be 15 years since my wife gave me what I now call Fiona, and I am still not at a place where I can say with confidence: "You go ahead and start and I'll pick up." But I have tried. And within the last three years, I am able to at least play in public, if I can see the music ahead of time. As I have played more, there's one thing that I have learned. When you commit to the mandolin, there is a physical change to you. The fingers of the hand you use to fret with, to play the notes on the neck, become sore and sting, the skin can sometimes peel off, and after a while harden into tough patches of skin. In other words, you form calluses. It's true for any string player.

If you were to see the left hands of any famous player, if you were to look at the fingers of Bill Monroe, the calluses would perhaps be smaller and harder than a guitar player because the strings of a mandolin are smaller and there are two of them for every note. You look at the right hands, and often they have grown out their nails to a hard and inflexible point; they are not practicing bad hygiene, they have grown out their nails to pick the strings with.

What this tells me is that if you commit to something, truly commit, it will change you. It will leave a mark. Committing to faith is no different. We live in a world where it is harder to commit to becoming a Christian. The worldview we have always understood as "Christendom", where everyone we know and everywhere we go is either majority Christian or a mission field, the way the world has been oriented for 1700 years, is now passing, if it has not yet passed. You can't coast by anymore; you can't drift along like a leaf caught in the current of a river.

If you look at a map of Yosemite National Park, in central California, it's a large park, it covers a lot of territory. By far the bulk of that territory is unspoiled wilderness, rarely touched by human feet, and sanctuary to a bounty of wildlife safely beyond the reach of humans.

But when most people go to Yosemite, they are not looking for the unspoiled backcountry. They want Yosemite Valley, the photogenic valley carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago, the old stomping grounds of Ansel Adams and Albert Bierstadt. They want to stay at the Yosemite Hotel, which is a full service hotel with a very strong wine list, cooking staff, and showers, saunas, and tennis.

There are people who will tell you, though, that the spiritual heart of Yosemite has been covered up by the blacktop, the hot dog shops, the buses, and the parking lots. To see what's left, you have to get away from the glitz, the day trippers, the millions of pounds of trash that are picked up in the valley every year. To truly get Yosemite, you have to put on your boots, strap on your backpack, and get into the high country. It's there you can hear the hawk call; it's there you can hear the Milky Way whooshing by at night. And be sure to pack the blister kit--because taking that hike up into what the true meaning of Yosemite is going to leave a mark.

Growing in faith, the way we claim is the way to salvation for us, is also like hiking a mountain. Yes, there are many paths to God, but you'll never get to the top by dabbling a little bit here, and a little bit there. It's a good way to circle the base of the mountain; it's a good way to stay in the Valley. To get to the top, you have to commit to one path, and walk it. And the walk will change you.

To be a Practicing Christian, Not one of Wesley's "Almost Christians", you have to open yourself up to it. You have to practice. You have to come to church, you have to take communion, you have to read your Bible, you have to pray. How? Doesn't matter. The time spent is the important thing, just like practicing a musical instrument.

You have to know what you believe, and make choices according to your beliefs. You have to live according to the choices you have made for your beliefs to matter. You have to commit in a way you didn't use to have to. To be a Christian is returning to meaning something. Perhaps not in the way that being a Christian got you thrown to the lions, like back in Rome, but we all know stories where there are people of our faith who have been killed for what they believe.

Mandolin players are known by their calluses. High country hikers are known by their blisters. Their commitment is known by the marks on their bodies.

How do we know you’re a Christian? It's more than jewelry. It's more than abstinence from alcohol. It's more than not smoking, though these things can be important for some of us. It's more than carrying around a Bible, or putting a bumper sticker on your car.

How do you love? How do you show mercy? How do you show the face of God to the world? How do you defend the helpless against the bullies? How do you name the injustices you see around you? Like the plaque in one of our Sunday School rooms at Center Moreland; if you were being put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

We know one who didn't hide his face from insult and spitting. We know one who gave his back to be struck. And worse. Our charge, our commitment as Christians is to grow into resembling him. To be as brave, as loving, as wise and as strong as he is.

It's gonna leave a mark. Are you ready to commit anyway?