Monday, January 25, 2010

Caeserea Philippi & The Playboy Mansion

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."
(Matthew 16:18)

It begins innocently enough.  "Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi..." Just another town in the Middle East, right?  We're not from that region of the world, so it doesn't mean anything to us.  That's how I used to feel.  But then I read something by Pastor Rob Bell that changed my perspective.

Caesarea Philippi was the home of the 'goat god,' Pan (yah, the one with the flute!).  And one of the geographic anomalies about the areas was that it housed a big cliff of rocks, with a giant crack in it.  Followers of Pan believed that the spirits from Hell would come and go through that crack.  In fact, it gained the nickname, "The Gates of Hell."  (Always a great name to ensure it's popularity as a tourist attraction!)

Worshippers of Pan built a temple next to that giant crack in the rock.  During the festivals to Pan, followers (amongst other things) engaged in sexual acts with goats, as a sign of their devotion.  Thus, Caesarea Philippii had quite a reputation, as you can imagine!  Few good Jews would even venture  into the outskirts of the city because of that reputation.   Then along comes Jesus and his disciples.

Many of us know the story of Simon... getting renamed "Peter" by Jesus.  "The Rock" (long before Duane Johnson was alive!).  Jesus told Peter that he'd be the rock on which he would build his church (Mt. 16:18)... and even "the gates of Hell" could not prevail against it.  I'd always thought that was just a cool promise that good triumphs over evil, in general.

I was thinking that it would be like Jesus today taking a group of followers to the Playboy Mansion (and not to picket/protest either!).  Can you imagine what those followers would be thinking when Jesus said, "Hey, let's go over to the Playboy Mansion... I want to show you folks something."  And then he gathers the group  around the infamous "grotto" area at the pool... and says something like, "My Father's mansion has many rooms - there's a place for everyone!"  Then he renames one of he disciples "Hugh" (or something).  "Hugh, you'll be the one to reach out to those on the fringes of society."

Jesus was (is!) very contemporary!  He's not worried aobut "social conventions" on what others think.  He's called by God to share the life-giving gift of the Kingdom of God.  Available to al!  Even the ones the rest of us have written off as sinners beyond grace (with our without bunny ears!).

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Lord! Lord!"

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name & cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?'  Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.'"
(Matthew 7:21-23)

The art of Name Dropping.  "So I was over at So-n-So's house yesterday..." or "When (insert famous name) and I were fishing the other day..."  It's great fun!  It impresses others and makes us feel important.  Name dropping.

In Matthew 7, we're warned against name dropping on God.  "When God and I were healing the sick the other day..." or "When I was serving food to the poor on a church outing," etc.  Matthew tells us not to do it.  Don't presume.

But why?  Is God like some exclusive Country Club admissions committee that wants to control the clientele to keep the 'riffraff' out?  I don't think so.  Do some people think they can live a reckless life and then simply say the words, "Lord! Lord!" and all will be well?  Possibly.  But given verse 22, there seems to be a different target audience here.  Could it be that this is for those of us who are already busy "doing stuff for God"?  We're on various committees in our churches... we've volunteered to do a bunch of projects (in Jesus' Name!)... we're regulars in worship, etc.  We really are "busy for God."  But despite all of what we've done FOR God, God laments that we didn't spend much time WITH God.

"I never knew you," God says.  Not "I never loved you"... or "I never died for you"... or "I never desired to spend time with you."  Just "I never knew you."

Could it be that we can get so caught up in what we think Go wants us to be doing that we fail to recognize that what God wants most of all is for us to get to know Him.  Really know Him.  Spend time with Him.  Be in God's presence.  Be loved by Him and radiate that love in our lives to others.  The "other stuff" will follow.  If we have a life grounded in knowing & being known by God, then everything else will fall into place.  We'll want to reach out to others to share that love in the ways that Jesus taught. 

Oh, Lord, Lord...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Go Figure!?!

"Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going to out him, and all the region along the Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many Pharisees & Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.'"
(Matthew 3:5-8)

I wonder if it was different back then?  Were they as impressed (infatuated?) with numbers in Jesus' day as much as we are today?  How many fans filled the stadium for the big game?  How much money did the new movie make in its opening weekend? What do the polls say about this politician's approval ratings?  How many came to worship last Sunday, in all services combined?  More = better.  At least, that's how we've come to equate things, hasn't it?

I started reading Matthew again today.  Early on we get the story of John the Baptist.  He's the forerunner to Jesus.  The set-up man.  His job is to get people ready for the Savior.  So he's baptizing folks, and they're coming out to him in the wilderness in droves.  AND they're confessing their sins.

But among the "many" who were coming were "many Pharisees and Sadducees," religious leaders of Israel.  The established church folk.  Taken at face value, I might have expected John to have been excited!  Even the religious leaders are coming to prepare themselves (this baptism ministry has gone mainstream)!  EVERYONE'S COMING!!! But John doesn't seem to be impressed with numbers.  He blasts the leaders and calls them a bunch of poisonous snakes!  "Bear fruit worthy of repentance" he adds.

Of course John knew the reputations of the Pharisees & Sadducees.  Couldn't they have been sincere here?  Maybe.  Then again, maybe they were simply "looking into" what was getting the people all excited.  And while the people came (for the most part) with honesty & sincerity, willing to earnestly repent of their sins, the leaders evidently didn't.  BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE.  In other words, "Walk the talk, don't just talk the talk."

I think there's a tendency for those of us who are pastors to get too focused on numbers (maybe it's the same for other professions?).  More is supposedly better, right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe we should be more focused on helping those who do come to "bear fruit worthy of repentance"?  Maybe how we live out our faith is far more important that how many fill our seats on any given Sunday morning.  Go figure!?!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Everything we do...

"Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you?  We are speaking in Christ before God.  Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up."
(2 Corinthians 12:19) 

Ulterior motives.  We, who are in positions of leadership, are sometimes accused of having them.  People may second guess or mistrust something we do because they believe we have ulterior motives.  We couldn't simply be doing them for the outward purpose it seems.  Or we're trying to "cover our backsides," so to speak.  If they are correct, shame on us.  However, if their fears are unfounded, we can look to Paul for encouragement.

Paul has quite a tenuous relationship with the church in Corinth.  He loves them dearly, but they tend to drive him crazy!!!  For starters, their behavior is quite often not up to God's standards.  So Paul then chastises them, which they don't take well.  They accuse him of false motives... of being too hard on them... of his trying to defend himself for them.

One sentence from Paul stops me in my tracks: "Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up" (v.19).  Wow.  Everything?!  What would it mean for me to have this as my "pastoral mantra"?  That everything I do for my church (and people) would be for building them up?  Or what about with my kids?  Or Jody?  Or my friends?  Heck, what about soccer referees (okay, that might be a bit extreme!)?

PRAYER: Lord, you build me up.  You do not provoke.  You bear patiently with us in our weaknesses.  Help me to follow your lead.  Help me to lead the church with that insight.  That everything I do will be to build up the church members.  May that be the mark of my relationship with Jody, Ezra & Emily, too.  Everything.  AMEN.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

abundance & need

"I do not meant hat there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of fair balance between your present abundance & their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance."
(2 Corinthians 8:13-14)

It's on many of our hearts right now.  The devastation.  The death.  The dire need.  HAITI.  In the aftermath of last week's 7.0 earthquake (with the latest figures being at least 200,000 dead and 1.5 Million homeless!), the world is reaching out to respond..  As it should be!

Haiti has always been an impoverished nation.  Add now this monumental disaster... and we cannot even begin to fathom the depths of suffering that's taking place there.

Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, is appealing to them to give generously to the collection he's taking for the churches in Jerusalem (who are economically suffering).  He speaks of a "fair balance" of wealth, challenging them to give out of their "present abundance" to the need in Jerusalem.

The Church, when at our best, is generous & concerned for the poor and those in need.  My trip to the Philippines with Compassion International last spring helped me see the face of poverty first hand.  There are other wonderful organizations worldwide that help us make a difference as we share our "abundances" (including the Red Cross, UMCOR, etc.)... and there's no doubt that we in the US are indeed blessed with abundance!  Now is the time for us to reach out in love and care to Haiti.

But it helps is we don't think of it as "charity work" or even "extreme benevolence".  Instead, I believe Paul would challenge us to see it simply as what we do as Christians.  As the people of God, there will be times when WE may find ourselves in need (physically, spiritually, economically, emotionally, etc.), and help/blessing may come from places we'd least expect.  Mutual love & reciprocation.  That's the Body of Christ.  And it all starts with God's amazing grace & abundant blessings.  How can we not respond in turn?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nice body!

"On the contrary, the memebers of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this."
(1 Corinthians 12:22-24a)

During times of emergency, the State of Hawaii designates its employees as either "essential" or "non-essential" workers.  Thus, they can declare that only the "essential" workers come to work, if needed.  Of course, I understand why this designation is made from time to time.  However, it's a good thing that God doesn't see us in those terms!

We humans still do a good job of differentiating ourselves and establishing hierarchy among one another.  Oh, we may not admit it, but we probably all have marks of gradation when it comes to sorting out one another.  And it's not just a "have vs. have not" spectrum... as if the poor and homeless are the only ones seen as "less than" (though that is a reality much of the time).  There are also those ego-centric, mean-spirited folks that can get on our collective nerves.  Anyway, we have our own lists of "indispensable" and "less respectable" members of society.

But Paul calls us to look at the human body for wisdom.  EVERY part is valuable!  Some just happen to be more "up front and personal," so they tend to get more attention.  But when you think about it, Paul says, those parts don't need to  be "clothed with greater honor" like some of our "less respectable" members do (clearly, this was written before the 'clothing optional' beaches became popular!). 

What would it mean for me to see EVERYONE I come in contact with today as "indispensable"?  (Whether they're closed with honor or not!?)  And how might I give greater honor to those who have not been granted much in the past?  All of the Body is important.  Amen to that!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Sadness

"So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified."
(1 Corinthians 9:26-27)

In early December, Sports Illustrated had a feature article on Tiger Woods titled "The Sadness."  It came on the heels of Tiger's admission to multiple affairs.  The article was a well-written journey into not only the sadness of all involved in Tiger's life (his wife, two kids, plus the various other women)... but also for those of us who are fans of his.  We tend to demand that our heroes be larger than life.  When one has grown as large as Tiger has, the fall can be quite steep.

The apostle Paul understood the challenges, struggles, and temptations that face people in positions of influence.  He lived it.  He even used the world of athletics to talk about the discipline of self-control needed - as an athlete trains & disciplines his/her body for the purpose of excellence.  The consequences of failing to do so - disqualification!

The occupation of pastor is no stranger to this very same controversy.  Marital infidelity and sexual deviation unfortunately crop up quite often among us pastors.  In fact, quite recently some high-profile clergy (both locally & nationally) have been "disqualified" from ministry because of infidelity.  This has devastating consequences not only on those pastors and their families... not only on the churches they've served... but on all those outside the faith who hear their story, then automatically equate God (and the Church) with the hypocritical actions of its servants.  Truly, Sports Illustrated had it right with its title: THE SADNESS.

So Paul calls us all to redouble our efforts toward SELF CONTROL.  Heck, it's one of the "Fruit of the Spirit" (see Galatians 5:22-24)!  It's evidence of God's presence in our life.  This doesn't mean it will be easy - as many, many, many, many, many people have (unfortunately) shown us.  May the grace and power of God help all of us maintain our self-control... to avoid the sadness.  AMEN.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"You may be right, but..."

"Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that 'all of us possess knowledge.' Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him."
(1 Corinthians 8:1-3)

Some people know a lot. A LOT! And some like to make sure that others know that they know a lot. Those are the annoying ones, aren't they?

In the 8th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a delicate issue. Corinth was a city bathed in religion. There were many different houses of worship - many requiring a sacrifice of food. Well, after the sacrifice was done, the religious leaders would sell the sacrificial food in the marketplace for a little "extra coin." The problem came when some new Christian believers began saying that eating this type of food was the same as worshiping those idols (or at least being unduly "influenced" by them). Others said, "Absolutely not! Food is food. God is God. Period." Ergo the trouble.

So Paul addresses the issue. His verdict? Food is food. God is God. Period. HOWEVER... just because one knows the truth doesn't mean one should use it like a club to batter one's opponents. "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." You may be right, but your "right-ness" means nothing without love. Eating food previously sacrificed to idols is no big deal, says Paul... but if it causes an immature Christian to lose faith when you eat that food, don't eat it. Period. Out of love for your weaker (less mature) brother or sister, abstain.

Wow. Sage advice. Too often today we (I?!!) want to be right. We take pride in our learning & knowledge - and justifiably so. We've worked hard to learn. But that doesn't mean that very same knowledge is the "end all and be all" of existence. Nope. Not even close. Love wins that award, hands down. So, you may be right, but...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Like childbirth...

"My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth, until Christ is formed in you..."
(Galatians 4:19)

I've heard the stories.  Pain.  Lots of pain.  Drama.  Struggle.  Joy  Relief.  CHILDBIRTH.  Women over the centuries know this experience.  Sure, some may have epidurals to help ease some of the pain... but it's still basically the same experience.  Childbirth is the end of the period known as pregnancy.  Life is stirring, growing, maturing until (hopefully) a fully-formed & healthy baby is ready to enter the world.  Nine months of hope, expectation and joy culminates in an intense period of pain.

Paul uses the imagery of childbirth to describe the relationship he has with the young believers in Galatia.  Their heart is in the right place, but they haven't matured enough to have "Christ formed" in them.  So Paul, as he wrestles with the issues the Galatians are struggling with, understands the "BIG PICTURE."  He doesn't get too discouraged with them, but sees it as the ongoing birthing (read "maturing") process, that will have pain associated with it.

As I prepare for my next sermon series this is also weighing heavy on my heart.  "THE SURVIVAL GUIDE" will be looking at essential practices to living out our faith as Christians.  Practices (worship, prayer, involvement, giving & small groups) that help one mature in such a way so that CHRIST IS FORMED IN US!  it is my prayer for my Confirmation Class - and my entire congregation... that Christ might be fully formed in them!

This needs to be my prayer.  Regularly.  And I need to keep my sight on The Big Picture.  Maturity.  Christ fully-present.  Thanks for the reminder, God.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

His dying breath

"Now when the centurion, who stood facing (Jesus), saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, 'Truly this man was God's Son.'"
(Mark 15:39)

I've had the privilege of being present when a few people have died.  It's an awe-inducing experience.  Not in the "Academy-Award-winning-death-performance" kind of way... nor in the Hollywood "shoot-em-up-dramatic-death" kind of way.  It's simply amazing to be there at the moment a human being breathes his/her last.  To know that the silver cord of life is being cut is quite humbling.

At the end of Jesus' life, one person in particular is deeply moved.  A Roman solider.  A centurion.  He responded by saying the now famous line, "Truly this man was God's Son."  I'd always assumed the magnitude of the entire crucifixion experience weighted heavily on his heart and he finally glimpsed the divine truth.  That still may be what actually happened... but today I noticed something Mark wrote, that I hadn't noticed before.  He note that t was when the centurion saw how Jesus "breathed his last" that gave him the revelation.  Verse 37 says of that particular moment, "Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last."  Was it the loud cry itself that did it?  Was it whatever words Jesus may have cried out?  Was it the way in which Jesus held his composure through that final moment?  We don't know.  But something about that final breath became a witness to that Roman soldier.

John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) once remarked that one of the distinguishing marks of a Methodist is that "we die well."  Again, I don't think he was referring to a motion-picture type of ending... but rather a peaceful calm in the face of death.  How one LIVES his/her life goes a long way toward how one embraces the end, I think.

As Christians, we talk about "living as one prepared to die."  Preservation of life (at least our lives) is not the ultimate goal... but rather living this life tot he fullest - in the way God intended.  That brings a peace and contentment that speaks volumes... even when you can't speak any more.  AMEN.

The (unintentional) streaker!

"A certain young man was following (Jesus), wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked." 
(Mark 14:51-52)

"There are no small roles, just small actors," the old theater adage goes.  There are your Leading Actors/Actresses... your Supporting Cast... you Ensemble... and then the occasional 'Minor Characters'.  This last group is often quite quirky & memorable.  Such is the case today.

Mark 14 is a massive chapter, seventy-two (72) verses in all.  It runs a span of 2 days... and encompasses (amongst other things) the Last Supper and Jesus' betrayal/arrest.  This quintessential final meal between Jesus and his closest followers ends with the disclosure that they'd all abandon him.  'No way!' they'd insist.  But, sure enough, when it went down, "all of them deserted him and fled" (v.50).

This is precisely where our aforementioned minor character enters the scene.  Described only as a "certain young man," we know nothing else about his background.  Had he followed Jesus before?  Maybe.  But he wasn't one of the 12 disciples, or they would have named him.  Was he an innocent bystander, merely caught up in the drama of the night?  Possibly.  But the phrase "was following (Jesus)" seems to indicate a bit more intention.  Some scholars suggest it might have been the author of Mark himself.  We really don't know.

Whomever it was, he was following Jesus on a night when ALL of Jesus' closest friends had abandoned him.  ALL OF THEM.  And he wasn't dressed for travel, it seems.  He merely had a "linen cloth" on.  Pajamas?  "Hang out at home" clothes?  Had he recently bathed and just threw something on when he heard the commotion out in the streets?  We don't know.  We can imply, however, that following Jesus that night was of more importance than putting on "decent clothes" before venturing out.

And he wasn't lurking in the shadows, keeping a safe distance, either.   He was close enough to touch.  Close enough to be grabbed... but not apprehended.  It cost him his "linen cloth," but he escaped the hands of the angry mob.  Naked.  (Streaking in the Bible?!?  Who knew!?)

What was it that compelled this "certain young man" to risk getting so close to Jesus on this night of nights?  Could it be that he had a sense that Jesus was the kind of person who'd risk everything for him later that same day?  Now that's PASSION!

May I not be content to merely play it safe in my following of Christ.  (Though I'm not sure I'm ready to start streaking for the Lord!  LOL)

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Vineyard is...???

"Then (Jesus) began to speak to them in parables.  'A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country...'" 
(Mark 2:1)

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  It's not one of Jesus' more 'high profile' or widely recognized parables... but it's familiar enough, nonetheless.  Basic story:  a man plants a vineyard, gets it all set up & operational, then leases it to tenants.  When it's harvest time, the tenants beat up the messengers sent to retrieve the owner's fair share of the crops.  Multiple attempts are met with similar (or worse!) outcomes.  Finally, the owner sends his only son.  Same story.  Son is killed.  the owner then casts them out, completely.

Originally, this parable was told to (about!) the Jewish religious leaders.  Of course, Jesus' own life story would follow this same storyline.  Actually, this is the storyline of all of human history - at least from a faith perspective.  We, as the tenants in God's vineyard, have not recognized the relationship with have with the Owner of the vineyard.  We haven't returned to God what's rightfully God's.  WE not only ignore but have abused his messengers over the years.

So is this a parable about stewardship of the environment?  The earth being God's vineyard, and we're all hired tenants?  Maybe.  But if this parable was told against the religious leaders... then maybe there's a more specific focus.  Maybe the vineyard is humankind... and the tenants are us spiritual leaders (pastors, priests, church leaders, etc.)?  Are we preparing the people for service to God, or simply using our church members for our own purposes (to make us feel good about ourselves?)?  Kinda dark when you think of it that way, isn't it?  THEN AGAIN... maybe the vineyard is our lives... and each of us is the tenant of that field.  So the big question is are we keeping our lives for ourselves (and our own enjoyments) or have we willingly given the rightful share to the One who "planted" (created) us?  Are we content to be self-sufficient and isolated?  Or can we embrace our relationship with our Master wholeheartedly?

I guess the true power of this parable depends on how you read it.  And what the vineyard actually is for you?!