Saturday, April 29, 2006

“Signs Of Life”[1]

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

The United Church of Christ has a commercial on TV. It shows a worship service in a beautiful stained-glass cathedral. It focuses on a nice, clean-cut, upper-middle class (white) family coming in and finding their place in a pew. Then it shifts to a young black (single?) mother holding a crying baby. All of a sudden, you see a thumb press a red button, and she is literally ejected from her seat! Over and over again, people who are “different” are ejected from the service—including a handicapped man, and a homeless woman. The scene fades with the message, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we.”

I don’t want to argue with you about some of the issues raised by this commercial—but it does raise the question of what defines “church” in a dramatic way. Since the days of John Calvin, the reformed tradition has defined the church as the place where the Word is preached truly and the sacraments are administered rightly.[2] Of course, this definition was directly related to the situation of the reformed churches of that day— they were struggling to define their identity over against the Roman Catholic Church.

While Word and sacrament are still important, I doubt that we’d want to put that in a commercial—we’re the Presbyterians, we insist that the Word is preached truly and the sacraments are rightly administered! I imagine most people would respond with a shrug of their shoulders. So how would we define ourselves as “church”?

In Acts, what defined the church was the fact that they were united, that they shared their possessions to meet needs, and that they proclaimed the resurrection with power. But if you think about how they were huddled in fear in the Gospel text, would you say they fit that description? What did the frightened disciples in the upper room have in common with the apostles who boldly proclaimed the gospel in Acts (besides the fact that they were the same people)? It was the presence of the risen Lord Jesus![3]

I think that what makes us a church is the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. If we want to testify to the resurrection of Jesus with great power as they did, it has to start with the realization that we must demonstrate in every aspect of our lives the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. It’s not the “perfect” preacher that does it. It’s not the perfect location. It’s not the perfect building. It’s not the perfect worship style. What attracts people to church is the presence of the risen Lord.

Most people would define the church in the US by many things. Their political stands—the church is against abortion, and for the death penalty (go figure!?!). Their social status—the church is getting more and more wealthy and less and less compassionate. And if you asked anyone aged 16-30, it would get worse—the church is out of touch, rigid, excluding, unsympathetic, unaccepting of any “square pegs” that don’t fit nicely into their round holes. Sounds like they see us as cowering in fear behind locked doors!

The question for us today is, how do we get from where we are to being known again by the presence of the risen Lord Jesus? The answer is one that we may not want to hear: we have to die! The Apostle Paul made it clear that the only way in which the life of the risen Lord Jesus would become evident in and through people like us is if the dying of the crucified Christ also becomes evident in us (2 Cor. 4:10).[4] He also said that we have to share the sufferings of Christ and “become like him in his death” in order to know “the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10).

What does that life look like? What does it look like to live in a way that we die to our selves and demonstrate the presence of the risen Christ?[5]

•Freedom from compulsions, oppression, fears;

•Service to one another, to the least, to the left out;

•Love for one another and for the unlovely and “unlovable”;

•Giving all that we have and all that we are to the one who made the ultimate sacrifice;

•Openness to embrace and show compassion on all, even those who are different, even those we hate!

It means being willing to give up privileges, rights, and advantages for the sake of those who have no privileges, rights, or advantages, just like Jesus did. It means being a disciple of Jesus the Christ; living what one scholar calls “the messianic life.”[6]

Then we will know the powerful presence of the risen Lord Jesus in our midst. Then people will be drawn to us because of the grace evident among us. May it be so. Amen

[1] A sermon preached 4/23/06 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV:1.9; see also Scots Confession 3.18, 2nd Helvetic Confession 5.134-135; Westminster Confession 6.143

[3] William Willimon, “You Call This A Church?”, a sermon preached on 4/6/1997, accessed at

[4] cf. Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 93

[5] See Moltmann, Church in the Power, 98-99, 104, 106-7, 166-196; see also H. Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 285-86; 297-312.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 192-93.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

“In Remembrance of a Shroud”[1]

Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8

We think of Easter as a time for joy. It’s a time for sunshine and freshly blooming flowers, pretty new dresses and colorful baskets full of goodies. But there is a troublesome reality behind it all. It is the reality of death. Death is the “shroud” that is “cast over all peoples,” as the prophet says. I don’t think he’s referring to the fact that we all at some point die, though that is hard enough. He’s talking about the way death is like a plague that infects everything about this life.

We can see it all around us, if we have eyes to see. A motel where addicts smoke crack. A park where homeless people try to sleep. A bar where women take their clothes off for the men who pay them. A chemical company that pours “acceptable” amounts of poison into our air and water all for the sake of more profits. And beyond our corner of the world, there are even more—war, starvation, disease. There are a lot of reminders of the shroud of death that is cast over us all.[2]

The Shroud Lifted. I think one of the best modern-day illustrations of that shroud is the story of Jean Valjean (“Johnny Johnson”) in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” In the movie version of the story, after stealing food as a starving young man, Jean Valjean does 19 years’ hard labor in prison. There, predictably, he becomes hardened and corrupted by the shroud of death cast over the whole place.

When Jean Valjean is paroled, he meets a kind bishop who invites him to a meal and a comfortable nights’ sleep. In the middle of the night, he decides to steal the bishop’s silver. The police catch him and bring him back to the bishop, who insists that the silver was not stolen after all, but in fact it was a gift! The police are no more surprised than Jean Valjean, but the bishop tells him, “Never forget! You no longer belong to evil. I have ransomed your soul from fear and hatred. I give you back to God.”

And in fact, the Bishop’s kindness transforms Jean Valjean into a good and compassionate man. He becomes the mayor of a small town and runs a factory that is a model of economic justice for its workers.

The Shroud Embraced. One day, a figure from his past comes to town: Jauvert. Jauvert had been a guard in the prison where Jean Valjean served time. Eventually, Jauvert recognizes him and threatens to denounce him. Jean Valjean flees to Paris, where he once again becomes a model of compassion and grace.

Jauvert is exactly the opposite of Jean Valjean—while he has found redemption from the shroud of death and violence that was cast about him, Jauvert has lived as one who wrapped himself in that very shroud! Jauvert at one point says that he had spent his entire life trying not to break a single law—that was what gave him meaning! From this rigid perspective, Jauvert proclaims that all people are either law-breakers or law-abiders, and that a law-breaker can never change.

The Shroud Removed. After 10 years, Jauvert finally catches up with Jean Valjean. In his customary fashion, Jean Valjean sacrifices himself for those he loves and surrenders to Jauvert. But over time, Jauvert has seen first-hand Jean Valjean’s compassion. In fact, at one point, Jean Valjean has the power to kill Jauvert and instead sets him free. This creates a quandary for Jauvert. In the final scene of the movie, Jauvert takes his own life and sets Jean Valjean free—not only free from custody, but also free from his own past and from the shroud that had plagued him all his life. He walks away with a look of joy and relief—for the first time in his life he is truly free!

The Shroud Destroyed. That is the point of the resurrection. Not that we can look at life through rose-colored glasses, as if we don’t notice or don’t care about the reminders of the shroud all around us! If we do, we haven’t paid sufficient attention to the one who hung on the cross. That’s why we have the discipline of Lent.

The message of Easter is that in Jesus the Christ, God has “destroyed the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” In the resurrection, God has “swallowed up death forever.”

If that’s true, how can it be that we still see the reminders of death all around us? It is because the resurrection is a sign that points us to a reality that has potentially changed everything, but has not yet fully worked its way through all creation. It is a pointer to a new creation that is coming, and indeed in hidden and mysterious ways is already here among us.[3]

The resurrection is like a promise—a promise that just as God did not leave Jesus in the grave, so he will not leave creation in the shroud of death. It is a promise that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.[4] In a very real sense, we are all like Jean Valjean—because of the resurrection, we are all free from the shroud that still plagues so much of this world.

[1] A sermon preached on 4/16/06 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson. The title is a reference to a phrase from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 5, sc. 1, l. 376-8.

[2] William Willimon, “A Waiting Church (Isa.25:9),” Christian Century (April 7, 1982), 397.

[3] Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 223.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

“Suffering Love”[1]

Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11

There are a lot of places in this world that can feel hopeless. There are a lot of places in Dickinson, TX that can feel hopeless! Whether it’s a relationship that feels like quicksand, or a job that is suffocating, or an addiction that is slowly eroding your soul, any of us can find ourselves in situations that feel like we’re beyond even God’s help. But that is not the message of the Gospel! The good news of the Gospel is that because of Jesus’ death on the cross, there is nowhere we can go that is “too far” for God to save us.

Made Himself Nothing. The Scripture texts for today bring us face to face with what is most difficult in our faith. At the heart of the Christian faith, we confess that the one who shared the vast grandeur of God not only became a vulnerable human being; he also subjected himself to humiliation and actually tasted death. How does the one who is equal with God “empty himself”? How does his obedience to God lead him to death? The short answer, though not a simple one, is this: it is the mystery of God’s love. And as one of our confessions puts it, God’s love is a mystery beyond our understanding.[2]

Part of what makes the gospel of God’s love through Jesus’ death so difficult to grasp is that we rarely see it enacted in real life. Think about it: when was the last time you met someone who gave up the offer of prestige, or power, or better pay for the chance to give themselves away in sacrificial love? There have been people who did that throughout the ages—one that comes to mind is Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite writers. After holding positions at some of the most prestigious universities in the country, he chose to become the chaplain at the Daybreak Community in Toronto, a home where the mentally handicapped live with their caregivers. Nouwen was following what he called the path of downward mobility[3]—the same path that Jesus walked when he made himself nothing and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Into the Abyss. Why would the Son of God do such a thing? Again, the short but not simple answer is this: to recover us. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus went into the abyss of human suffering in order to redeem all of us who have been trapped there.[4]

One of my favorite scholars says it this way: “Through his forsakenness Jesus has brought God to the Godforsaken.”[5] In Jesus the Christ, God is revealed as the redeemer of the despised, as the savior of the hopeless, as the one who chooses the unwanted.

The good news of the Gospel is that there is no depth of suffering that Jesus in his abandonment on the cross did not reach.[6] Truly does our catechism state that “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[7] All the loneliness, agony, alienation, cruelty, abandonment, estrangement, despair, shame, rejection, self-destruction we could ever experience is redeemed by Jesus’ death on the cross.[8]

What this means is that no one can sink so deep as to be beyond hope, beyond the reach of God’s love. However far we may fall, the love of God has already been there in Jesus Christ, and is waiting there to bring us back home.

Unconditional Love. How can the willingness of God’s Son to experience the depths of our suffering miraculously save us from it? Once more, the answer is short but not simple: because the powerful love of God transforms us.

The good news of the Gospel is that the clearest demonstration of God’s mighty power to save is found in a broken and helpless man hanging on a cross. Jesus’ death as an outcast, as one of the “Godforsaken,” reveals the unconditional love of God more powerfully than anything else.

That love is powerful because it is unconditional: God loves us before we could ever love God. That love changes everything—changes who we are, changes our outlook on the future, changes our purpose for living; it brings us new life.[9] God’s unconditional love in Jesus’ death on the cross means that we don’t have to try to reach up to God, because God has reached us—wherever we are. Wherever we can go, God has already paved the way from death into his life.[10]

Conclusion. What does this mean for us? It means that, if we follow the one who identified with the outcasts in order to redeem us all, then we must do the same.[11] It means that we are not a fellowship of the righteous, but a fellowship of the godless who have been accepted because of Jesus’ abandonment on the cross. We are not a fellowship of the holy, but a fellowship of sinners who have been forgiven through his death. We are not a fellowship of the elite, the select, or the esteemed, but a fellowship of the excluded, the rejected, and the abandoned who have been reclaimed by the suffering of divine love on the cross. The death of Jesus the Christ on a cross shows us that God’s love is a love that will not rest until it reaches out to every God-forsaken place we can possibly go to bring all of us back home to God. That means that if we seek to follow Christ, we will also reach out to the abandoned, the excluded, and the Godforsaken with the love we have found in Jesus the Christ.

[1] A sermon preached 4/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Confession of 1967 9.15

[3] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 100-101.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91.

[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 94. Cf. also Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 242-43.

[6] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 95

[7] cf. Study Catechism, q. 45.

[8] Moltmann, Crucified God, 246, 277.

[9] Moltmann, Crucified God, 245, 248-49.

[10] Moltmann, Crucified God, 254-55.

[11] Moltmann, Crucified God, 19.

“Everything’s Changed”[1]

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-32

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples the meaning of the events that are about to take place. He is going to Jerusalem, where he will be killed by the Jewish and Roman leaders. What he wants them to understand, however, is that it will not be the end, but rather a new beginning. By offering himself as a willing sacrifice, Jesus will break the power of the ruler of this world. He will make it possible for all people to be drawn to him. His death on a cross will change everything.

C. S. Lewis, in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, tells the story of four children who discover a land called Narnia. It is a place ruled by a White Witch whose cruel and seemingly absolute power keeps Narnia in a constant state of winter. Although one might think that under those circumstances Narnia would be a lifeless, hopeless place, in fact many of the creatures of Narnia are filled with hope. An ancient prophecy said that when 2 Sons of Adam and 2 Daughters of Eve sat on the thrones at Cair Paravel, the lion Aslan, the true King of Narnia, would return to set things right. The children—Lucy, Edmond, Susan, and Peter—are the children of the prophecy.

A Light Shining in Darkness. For that reason, the White Witch entices Edmond to betray his brother and sisters to her. She does not want Aslan to come and interfere with her rule of Narnia. She thinks that if she can keep them from fulfilling the prophecy, she can be ruler of Narnia forever. But she is thwarted because when the children arrive in Narnia, they discover that Aslan is already on the move. The simple fact of his presence has already begun to change Narnia. When Aslan is there, he melts the perpetual winter the Witch had imposed over the land. His presence changes everything.

In a very real sense, according to John’s Gospel Jesus’ presence has much the same effect. As John can say, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5). The simple fact of Jesus’ coming means that “the ruler of this world will be driven out” (Jn. 12:31) just as surely as light dispels darkness. Jesus’ coming changed everything. What that means for us is that, instead of resigning ourselves to this world that can be just as cold and lifeless as Narnia under the Witch’s spell, we can live with a whole new outlook on life—one that is filled with hope.

Deep Magic. In the story of Aslan, the children make their way to the Stone Table where they will meet him. The Witch shows up and insists that Edmond belongs to her by right of the “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time.” The Deep Magic said that the Witch had the right to put any traitor to death. But Aslan proposes an alternative—he will offer himself to her in exchange for Edmond. Thinking that she has outwitted the lion, the Witch accepts his proposal. After Aslan is dead, she intends to kill the children and secure her rule of Narnia forever! But something unexpected happens. After Aslan is murdered, he comes back to life! By offering himself in place of Edmond, Aslan destroys the “Deep Magic” that had given the Witch her power over Narnia, and thus ensures her defeat. He changed everything.

That’s what Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross does in real life. By his death and resurrection Jesus revoked the power of the “ruler of this world.” The very fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection changed everything—as our scripture said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus changed everything.

Everything’s Changing There is one major difference between the story of Aslan and the story of Jesus. In Narnia, Aslan returns to life and leads the children and their subjects to defeat the Witch. They take up their thrones and rule for many years, bringing peace and joy to Narnia.

In real life, Jesus’ presence is like a light that dispels the darkness, but the darkness is still there. Although Jesus has broken the power of the “ruler of this world,” there are many people who still submit to him. This world really can be just as cold and lifeless as Narnia under the Witch’s spell! While it is true that Jesus’ life and death and resurrection changed everything, it’s also true that everything is still in the process of changing.

What enables us to live with hope in the midst of this world is the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection point us forward to a future when the power of evil will be no more, when he will restore everyone and everything. We can look forward with confidence the day when Jesus will draw all people to himself. As we live with that hope, we become signs of the future victory. But just as darkness cannot overcome light, so nothing can prevent Jesus from winning the final victory.

[1] A sermon preached 4/2/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

“Who Can Forgive Sins?”[1]

Mark 2:1-12

No matter how “Christian” we may profess to be, we all tend to operate by “schoolyard ball” rules. Whatever our personal experience may be with being chosen first or last, when it’s our turn to choose, we always pick the best players first.

A Rebel With a Cause. One reason why I like the story of Patch Adams is that it turns the way we operate upside-down. You may remember the 1998 film starring Robin Williams as a medical student who “breaks all the rules” designed to turn physicians into “supermen” who dispense medical “knowledge” without stooping to get their hands dirty. Adams discovers that healing people is a lot more satisfying and successful than trying to heal diseases. [2]

What you may not know is that the movie is based on the real-life experience of Hunter “Patch” Adams. Adams founded the Gesundheit! Institute, a community in West Virginia based on the idea that the health of an individual cannot be separated from the health of the family, community and the world. Patch Adams’ brand of medicine combines “clowning” with medicine and social action in a way that promotes care and compassion that seeks to change society as a whole! His slogan is, “Please join me in working for peace, justice and care for all people on the planet!”

Patch Adams isn’t your normal, everyday sort of doctor. In fact, you might say that he has turned the world of medicine upside-down at the Gesundheit! Institute. Instead of medical training being a path to privilege and wealth, it is the basis for a lifetime of service—offered at no charge!

Turning God Upside-Down. Our Gospel text for today gives us a hint that what Patch Adams did to the medical community, Jesus the Christ did to the religious community of his day. He turned it upside-down. Instead of viewing faith and piety as boundary markers that separated the “clean” from the “unclean,” the “holy” from the “unholy,” the “righteous” from the “sinners,” Jesus offered God’s grace to anyone. And as the Gospels demonstrate, he offered grace particularly to those who were outcast as “unclean,” “unholy” and “sinners.”

In order to understand how this scandalized the religious people of his day, you have to know that the terms “unclean,” “unholy,” and “sinner” did not necessarily refer to a person’s moral character. Rather, in Jesus’ day the average people were “unclean” due to their work, or they were “unholy” due to their health, or they were “sinners” simply because they could not afford the luxury of devoting themselves full time to the study and practice of the Law![3]

But the real scandal behind the way Jesus offered God’s grace to all is that it turns one’s view of God upside-down. Instead of a vindictive God who refuses to get involved with outcasts, or a vengeful God who condemns “sinners,” Jesus presents a God who prefers lawbreakers to the so-called “righteous”, who offers grace and mercy to the “godless.”[4]

Schoolyard Rules? We see this reflected in the interchange over healing the paralytic. When he offers forgiveness to the paralyzed man, the “righteous” object that Jesus has blasphemed. They insist, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” It seems that they would rather leave the man paralyzed and exclude him from forgiveness and healing than to risk God’s image by dragging him into something as messy as a real human life!

Or perhaps their real concern was to preserve their position as privileged insiders, the chosen ones, regardless of the cost for those whom they excluded from God, like this paralyzed man.

But Jesus will have none of their safe, selfish, so-called “righteousness”; he not only pronounces the man’s sins forgiven, he also heals him. Jesus grants him free access to God’s mercy apart from any prerequisites, conditions, or qualifications. This encounter is one of many illustrations of the way in which Jesus proclaimed in word and deed the good news that “anyone may freely receive the grace of God”![5]

So instead of picking the best players first, those of us who follow Jesus the Christ are called to pick the left out players first, those who are normally passed over, the rejects. The object is not to have put ourselves in a position to “win” and make others “lose,” but rather to build a community based on grace, mercy, and compassion. It seems to me that if we claim to follow Christ, we can do no less!

[1] A sermon preached 2/19/06 at First Westminster Presbyterian Church, Baytown, TX.

[2] A review of Patch Adams by Cinema In Focus, accessed at

[3] Cf. Joel Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 84-88.

[4] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 189; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 142-43.

[5] Green, Theology of Luke, 82.