“I Thirst”: A Reflection on One of the Last Words of Christ

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This is a sermon I preached this morning to my congregation.  It is a sort of sequel to my homily on Ash Wednesday.  Then I spoke about true hunger and this morning I spoke about thirst.  It has occurred to me this Lenten season that the words “hunger” and “thirst” are forms of pain.  We are not called to want to want a better world.  We are called to actually experience discomfort and pain in making righteousness happen.  So this sermon, with Ash Wednesday, captures much of my own Lenten journey this year.

Introduction: A Very Human God

Two of the last words Jesus spoke from the cross were “I thirst.”  It is a rather short phrase but it is pregnant with meaning.

“I thirst.”

I remind you that this is Jesus saying this and it is John’s gospel which records it for us.  John also reminded us back in chapter 1 that Jesus is God.  He is the word made flesh.  He is the one through whom all things were created and without whom nothing was made that has been made.   This is the fully God who became fully human.

As such we are tempted to think of his thirst as the more human side of Jesus.  We might say that his thirst represents his humanity.  After all, this is a human body needing nourishment that only our physical earth can give.  We think back to that wonderful Latin word “humus” from which we get our English word, “humility.”  “Humus” does not describe the sauce made from chick peas but refers to anything that sticks close to the dirt of the earth.  Surely to be thirsty is to be “humus” or to be “humbled.”

There all kinds of humbling physical symptoms that come with thirst.  You get a pounding headache.  You have a dry mouth.  You get dizzy and your vision can become momentarily blurry.  The thirsty become lethargic.  They can’t seem to stay awake and wonder why it is always so hard to move their muscles.  These symptoms are debilitating and quite humiliating.  They make you pathetic as you desperately long for material nourishment for your physical body.

So when our Christ says, “I am thirsty” he is sharing in some of the ugliness of our humanity.  We might say he is becoming pathetic to save the pathetic.

In fact, around Christmas time we talk about the incarnation, that moment when God became flesh.  We sometimes give each other the impression that when Jesus was born the incarnation was completed.  Yet I do not believe God truly experience life as a flesh and blood human until that flesh was stripped and the blood was spilt.  In a way the cross completes the incarnation because on the cross Jesus didn’t just take the form of wealthy humanity or powerful humanity or even blue collar working class humanity.  On the cross he took the form of crucified, thirsty, criminal humanity.  A God who thirsts for material nourishment is a God truly experiencing a fleshly, humble existence.

Jesus, the crucified criminal says, “I thirst.”  “I need water.”  “I desire something very concrete, very material for my concrete, material body.”

All that to say, this is the God who created water now saying, “I need some water.”

 

God knows what it’s like to thirst.

The Concept of “Thirst” in the John

But when Jesus says, “I am thirsty” it refers to more than just a physical need.  After all, John’s gospel and the other gospels have spoken about thirst before.  They have taught us some things about being thirsty and those things hide behind the two words, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel tells of another time when Jesus was thirsty.  It is clear back in chapter 4.  Jesus is going through Samaria, a place where good little Jewish boys and girls avoided.  Jesus, not being a good Jewish boy, walked right through the heart of it.

In Samaria they stop at a town and he sends his disciples in to buy food.  While they are gone a woman comes to draw water from the well in the middle of the day.  Many have noted that in that time there really was only one reason to draw water in the middle of the day.  You wanted to be left the heck alone.  The middle of the day was when the horribly introverted drew their water.

Jesus crashes her “me time.”  He says, “Give me a drink,” which I think comes really close to meaning, “I’m thirsty.”

The poor woman is startled by this.  After all she wanted to be left alone and didn’t want to be around people.  That’s why she is at the well in the afternoon.  So she asks a deflection question.  She says, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water?”  You can paraphrase that as, “Leave me alone you outsider!  I don’t even like the insiders!”

Jesus’ reply is just as indignant.  He says, “If you would know who asked you for water, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water!”

She replies or rather argues, “Well how are you going to get it?  The well is deep and you don’t have bucket.”

Jesus says to her, “Whoever drinks this water will just get thirsty again but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst.  The water I give will become a well inside them bursting forth to eternal life.”

Jesus had a physical body that needed material substance.  The woman had a spiritual soul that needed spiritual nourishment.  There is a water better than H2O.

During the crucifixion, when John tells us that Jesus was thirsty, he is doing that on purpose.  He wants his readers to remember this conversation towards the beginning of the story and recall that there is a type of water that once drunk becomes a seed planted inside you that grows and creates an abundant and eternal life.

Thirsting for Righteousness in the Synoptics

We have hints of this in the other gospels too.  In fact one of Jesus most popular sayings was, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Don’t be scared of that word “righteousness.”  If you grew up in the households I grew up in righteousness often referred to that person who was legalistic.  They followed a list of archaic and weird rules and they were proud of it and very disappointed by those who did not do likewise.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that word “righteousness” doesn’t really refer to following a list of rules.  We are not righteous when we are legalistic and legalism rarely every produces the righteousness which God requires.

Instead righteousness is a synonym of harmony.  Righteousness defines any sort of state or action where people do right by one another.  If I am righteous that means I am doing right by you.  I am treating you fairly.  I am giving you that which you deserve.  Of course there are some rules involved in that.  I think of the 10 Commandments.  If I am doing right by you that does mean I am not lying about you.  I am not coveting your stuff and thus letting jealousy come in the way of our friendship.  I am not lusting after your wife or your husband or your house.  I treat you like a fellow human being. If you reciprocate that, if you treat me fairly and squarely, then we call that state, “righteousness.”  So a righteous world or a righteous community is one where everybody does their best to treat each other fairly and live in harmony with each other.

Logically then, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is to long for a world where people treat each other with fairness and love.  It is to want it so much your are willing to experience pain over it.  Hunger and thirst, by the way, are forms of pain.  Think of the symptoms I listed earlier.  To hunger and to thirst for righteousness means you want it so much you are willing to hurt for it.

A Very God Human

So Jesus at the cross says “I am thirsty.”  The deeper meaning is that he is thirsty for a righteous world where people are treated fairly and squarely.  He longs for a world where we don’t cheat, lie and steal, where we don’t gossip and lie and where we don’t covet each other’s stuff.  He longs for a world where we don’t nurse grudges against each other, grudges that lead to murder.  He longs for a world where there isn’t bullying and intimidation but we all treat each other as friends.

In this case his thirst is not from his human nature.  This is a God natured thirst.  He is thirsty because he is God.  After all, if you read your Old Testaments, you will find that on almost every page God longs for a harmonious world.  Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures God says that God wants the world put to rights.  God is thirsty for righteousness and God longs for that world.

When Jesus says, “I thirst” he is not just physically in need of a material want.  His human mouth isn’t just dry but he is saying, “I thirst for the living water.  I thirst for the righteousness that creates an eternal and abundant life.  I thirst for a better world.”

Jesus’ thirst is a God thirst.

But on the cross, he wasn’t just thirsting after a better world.  He was also creating it.

His thirst for a better world was so great that he took up a cross and he carried it up to Golgotha and there died to give us a living water that wells up inside of us to eternal life.  He wanted the world to be righteous so much that he died to make it so.  He suffered the agony, the rejection, the humiliation and even the symptoms of dehydration to make the world more righteous.

If you want to know what hungering and thirsting for righteousness looks like, look no further than the cross.

And this is grace, a God who suffers to give us the righteousness that wells up to eternal life.

Conclusion: What Hungering and Thirsting Looks Like

But this is grace which calls us to emulate it.  This is grace that enables us to respond by suffering ourselves for the better world we long for.

On that note, I get a little frustrated by those who claim they want a better world but don’t ever sacrifice anything for it.  These are the people who want the world to become righteous so badly that they spend a good 15 seconds tweeting about it, then put their phones back in their pockets and live their wealthy existence.

Other people I know are so hungry and thirsty for righteousness that they tell everybody else how wrong they are.  They live in middle class mansions.  They have ready access to clean water and safe food at the local grocer.  But they are so convinced that everything is wrong that they make lists of rules for other people to follow.  Then they go around telling everybody else how unrighteous they are.  But they themselves never change anything about their lifestyle to make righteousness come.  They never sacrifice anything in their own lives to make the world a better place.

For this reason I have tried hard in my life to not express an opinion for which I do not suffer.  I do have strong opinions and I think one or two of those opinions may even be accurate.  But if I am not willing to suffer for that opinion I try not to express it.  Or when I find myself inevitably doing so I try to preface it with, “This is my two cents but am not in a position to do anything about it or test it out.”

If you are not willing to physically suffer for your beliefs, then don’t let them come out of your mouth!

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is not to make others suffer or to point the finger and play a blame game.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to suffer yourself, to hurt inside of yourself, to fast, to give of your money or your time in hopes of creating a better world.

This is what Jesus did on the cross.  The cross itself was God’s thirst.  He wanted a righteous world so much he was willing to be crucified for it.

And because of his suffering, living water poured out upon us so that all of us who will drink it will have a well of righteousness springing up inside of us to eternal life.

And blessed are those who do likewise, who are willing to actually thirst and actually sacrifice for a better world.

 

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Ash Wednesday Homily

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Hey everybody, sorry this is a couple days late but I wanted to share with you what I shared with my congregation on Wednesday.

One of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned in life came from my high school youth pastor.  I can’t remember the context or the setting but I remember that one day he explained to us that we had never and probably would never experience hunger.

Now I was a growing teenage boy who was skinnier than your average stick and who ran Cross Country and Track.  I lived my life under a constant state of hunger and so I immediately begged to disagree.

But then he explained to us the process of fasting.  When one fasts food entirely they go through various stages of discomfort but none of that discomfort is truly “hunger.”

The first stage starts around 10am the morning the fast began.  If you awaken and don’t eat breakfast at your usual time, your stomach eventually figures it out.  After waiting a couple hours it sends signals to your brain that get translated not as pain but as “indigestion” or a small discomfort sometimes signaled by stomach groans.  It does this for a couple reasons.  First, at this point your stomach only has acid in it because a well regulated body knows when to expect food and dumps a bit more digestive acid into your stomach to prepare.  If this acid has nothing to digest it makes you feel uncomfortable.  Second, your body is expecting sugar to dump into your blood stream.  If it doesn’t have the usual dose of it, it sends a very early warning signal to your brain.  People call that warning signal, “hunger” but it is not.

Shortly after this early warning sign, some people might start shaking.  The shakes occur because your blood stream does not have the sugars it expected and didn’t yet know it was supposed to break into your fat reserves to find it.  At this point many people will add an adjective to their hunger and say, “I am so hungry” and the more dramatic will say, “I am starving.”  Yet at this point they are neither hungry nor starving, just a bit shaky while your body breaks down the fat and dumps its sugar into your blood stream.

In fact, the third thing that happens is your body eventually figures out you are not going to feed it and it begins to break into your fat reserves to find the necessary sugars it needs to continue your daily activities.  At this point your stomach stops growling, the shaking stops and suddenly you completely forget that you are fasting.

Day two works much like day one.  Around breakfast, lunch and dinner you feel a little bit uncomfortable.  You get episodes of shakiness that soon resolve themselves and then your body finds the necessary sugars in your fat stores to keep going.

By day 7 of the fast, most bodies have recalibrated themselves and the person fasting reaches a new equilibrium where they do not feel hungry or shaky at all.  This equilibrium can last for quite some time, depending on how much fat you have stored in your body.  Most people can survive and feel just fine for 30-40 days.

When the fat stores are gone is when true hunger begins.  Like most of you I have never felt this sensation but from what I understand it is debilitating and painful.  True hunger begins when your body does not have the nutrients or the calories it needs to sustain your lifestyle.  It begins by shutting your body down for longer periods of time.  You sleep for 12 hours a day and take long naps.  It gets worse when your body begins to eat your muscles to find the fat stores.  As it digs into your muscles, you experience awful spasms accompanied by jolts of pain every time you move.  If you can manage to move, you become dizzy and disoriented.  At this time, your nails become brittle and begin to break off of your fingers.  The same goes for your toes.

After your body is done eating your muscles, it starts in on your organs and bones, causing massive and extreme internal pain.  Eventually one of those organs will fail resulting in death by starvation.

When you hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” that is the type of pain, discomfort, fatigue and longing for calories that he describes.

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit uncomfortable with the sin in their lives and the evil in the world.”

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit sad because someone said something mean.”

And he is not saying, “Blessed are those who are saddened by the amount of unsaved people or who feel just a little bit guilty about the sinfulness in their own lives.”

He is saying, “Blessed those who long so much for righteousness, who long so much for the world to become a better place, who want the sin and the evil in the world to go away that they hurt and they ache and they get dizzy over it.”

I am not advocating anorexia today and I am not advocating a type of “spiritual anorexia” where Christians remain in a constant state of bawling, crying and feeling guilty all the time.

But I am trying to remind you that unrighteousness and evil is a big deal.  The things we do that hurt others, or hurt our planet or violate the ethos of a loving God are severe.  The things that go wrong are worth hurting over and crying over and groaning those groans too deep for words.

This is why we ask you to suffer with Christ during Lent.  This is why we ask you to give up something you like for 40 days.  I would hope that you picked that “something” well.  I would hope it is something you are going to dearly miss on a daily basis so that when you long for it, you can remind yourself that is what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I hope it hurts you just a little bit so you can be reminded of how much Christ hurt over the awfulness of our world.

But we also ask you to begin this journey knowing that Easter is coming where the other half of the beatitude will come true.  For those of us who ache, long and hurt for the kingdom of God, Easter is that morning where God says, “Let them be filled.”  For those of us who are willing to hurt over the kingdom of God, to cry the tears that need to be cried, to suffer under the agony of a fast, please know that a blessing is coming called Easter morning, where we are reminded that our suffering only last for a night but joy comes in the morning.

And in the Easter season you will get to feast for 50 days that which you only fasted for 40 so that we can remind ourselves that the awfulness of our world is passing away so that God’s righteousness may reign.

2017: The Year I Kept On Running

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There was a moment last May when I stopped a quarter mile short of finishing a marathon.  I am tempted to call it a bad decision but it was not any sort of conscious decision that I made.  It just happened.  The cause was a cobblestone intersection which happened to be raised 6 inches from the road feeding into it.

I would venture a guess that most of you sometime in your lives have climbed 6 inches in elevation and I would also guess you didn’t even notice that you had.  But at the end of 26 miles of running, 6 inches may as well have been 5000 feet.  My calves tightened up, which lit off the pain sensors which shot up my spine to my brain with an urgent message, “We done.” (You read that right.  Pain sensors don’t use proper grammar.)

I did finish the race of course.  I stood there for a few seconds and stared at the finish line, realizing that it was kind of stupid to run 26 miles and not run the .2 to reach a finish line that would simultaneously qualify me for Boston, gain me a 7th place spot in one of our state’s more prestigious races and be a 5 minute personal best.

I sprinted to the finish line.

There were other moments this year when the going got just as tough.  Life’s hardships got too constant and too great.  The littlest of situational elevations stopped me short and made me want to quit.  These were not any large crises or shocking life events.  Those are quite bearable and even understandable.  Instead, there was just the daily drudge of living life in this cold, lonely world with people who just don’t seem to understand themselves or this God of love  who lavishes us with mercy.  Before you assume I am casting blame, know that I count myself as one of those.  So life gets to the point where even one little bump in the road can stop you short of the goal.

The most notable happened a month or so before that marathon.  There was one very dark day in late March when it all came crumbling down upon me.  The circumstances of that day are not too relevant or even appropriate to share.  But there was a day spent crying, screaming and shaking uncontrollably for hours on end.  All of that was followed by a brief moment, right around 6pm when suddenly I realized I was done being a pastor.

That was a great moment.  I stopped crying and started laughing because the whole thing was pretty ironic.  I stopped dwelling on the past and starting dreaming for the future.  In 10 minutes time I had recalled every “Help wanted” sign or ad I had seen and every conversation with very successful friends whose employers were looking for someone with my skill set.  I would make more money.  We could buy a house.  We could refresh our 401(K)’s.  We could actually have health insurance!  I would have colleagues.  I would have friends.  I would have career mentors and advisers but most of all, I would have the utter joy that comes from learning a new skill and a new way of life.  Gray skies were behind me.  Blue skies lay ahead.

As I said above, that lasted a good 10 minutes.  Sometime in minute 11, I remembered that moment on a playground in Coeur D’Alene, ID on July 21st 2004.  I was 19 years old and I had just completed a very fruitful and awesome day of ministry.  The day had closed out through an honest conversation with my pastor who in so many words told me, “You have the gifts and graces to do this for life and we need you.”  So I rode my bike out to that playground, climbed to the very top, saw a shooting star and told God, “Fine, you got me.  I’ll do this ministry thing.”

I also remembered another moment in a shack at a campground in mid October, 2007.  I was telling God that I wasn’t going to do ministry after all.  I didn’t want to do and besides, “I have no idea why you called me when there are so many other fitting people for the job.”

God replied, “Of course there are and I’ve called them too!  Don’t you worry about them.”  So I didn’t and my calling was refreshed.

Then I remembered another cold day in February, 2012 when I got a call from a now close friend and Assistant District Superintendent who said there was a small church in a small town who for some reason or other was impressed by my resume.  That same month I was offered a full time management position at the homeless shelter where I had worked.  I still miss that wonderful rescue mission and leaving it was hard.  But my wife and I reasoned that for many, many years I had planned on pasturing a church.  It was only logical that at one point a church was going to call me and only reasonable that I should say, “yes.”  So we did and left that wonderful homeless shelter behind to this new life of pastoral ministry.

I took me about 60 seconds to recall all that and what followed was a realization that the race wasn’t over and it would be stupid to stop now.

So I kept running.

And the rest of the year is now history.  But God has been good and gracious and all the things we claim this God is.  The outpouring of blessing that followed as I have run is downright amazing.

So into 2018 I run.

 

500 Years Later, We Doth Protest Too Much!

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On October 31st 1517, 500 years ago yesterday, a German Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the Church on the door of his local Cathedral.   For a few centuries before him the church in Western Europe had been in severe moral decline.  There were certainly many who remained faithful to the gospel but there was a general sense across Western Europe that Christianity as a whole had strayed too far from its roots.  Martin Luther’s 95 complaints began the process of reforming those wrongs.  Luther and his followers were very quickly labeled, “Protesters” or “Protestants” by their critics.  It was thought that all they did was protest.  However, they called themselves Reformers because they wanted to reform the church into something resembling its earliest roots.

When I teach classes about this time in history I always end up talking about one thing Luther had that nobody before him had, namely the Printing Press.  Before Luther, someone could write something in England and someone else would write the same things in Austria or Egypt and they never would have known about each other.  It took information a long time to circulate and because it traveled so slowly, it was easy for those in authority to stop the spread of ideas before they could take off.

Then came the printing press and suddenly all it took was a month for information to circle the continent of Europe.

As I explain to my classes, the Reformation did not begin when Luther nailed his 95 complaints to a wall.  It actually started when someone took the complaints down, ran them through a Printing Press and circulated them across Europe.  Luther was one of the very first historical figures to experience the odd sensation of going viral.  In no time at all he was both famous and infamous.  Within months his name was well known but he was also being accused for heresy and treason.

As people joined his cause and started a movement, Luther’s followers gained a popular nickname by their Roman Catholic countrymen.  They called them “Protesters” or “Protestants.”  It was thought that all they did was protest.  They protest so that they can protest so that they can protest some more.  Their critics cast them as ugly, violent protesters who were lazy and uneducated.

Some of them kind of earned it.  The first generation of Protestants were more violent and more vitriolic than we are today.  Some of those who read Martin Luther’s 95 theses responded in obscene ways and the German people ending up staging a brief but violent revolution against the Roman Catholic church.  Some of them went around burning down entire towns and doing all kinds of ugly things in Luther’s name.  Luther, of course, denounced all of it but when you start protesting you give the violent a means of exercising the violence that is within them.  Some people go around looking for any and every reason to do harm and Luther unfortunately gave them one.

Now I reside in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and our piece of this narrative is a little bit more insane.  Twenty years after Luther posted his complaints, a hormonal king named Henry VIII decided he was going to protest his wife and he asked the Pope for permission to divorce her.  The Pope refused so Henry protested the Pope and he left the church to start his own church.  Strangely, though, Henry could never quite figure out if he was Protestant or Catholic and this created an identity crisis in England that resulted in hundreds of years of civil unrest and war.

This century of church-inspired violence led the early American forefathers to stage their own kind of protest.  Along with taxation without representation and divinely endowed monarchies, they also protested having a state sanctioned church.  Tired of the Protestant Vs. Catholic Vs. Quaker wars that had defined England, our founding fathers decided to not establish a national church.  The phrase that one of them chose to describe it is “separation of church and state.”

But after 240 years many have noted that we haven’t separated churches from the state nearly as well as we have separated churches from each other.  By not having a state sanctioned church we have given anybody permission to do what Henry VIII did.  Any dissatisfied soul can start their own Protesting Reformation and start their own church, making up their own doctrine.

I know of at least three or four churches that have had a Protestant Reformation in the last six years.  In these churches a group of people got angry about something trivial.  They didn’t like the songs.  The pastor wasn’t Republican enough or Democrat enough.  The women’s ministry stopped doing the afternoon tea social.  The denomination wasn’t firm enough on “key” convictions.  So they went to their social media and posted 95 theses for all to see and then they took their cronies and like Henry VIII started their own church.

They have staged these coups using their own version of the printing press, the internet.  In fact, historians believe that the internet is the most significant invention since the printing press.  Some of you have perhaps heard the famous quote by Eric Schmidt who said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

After the printing press it took a month for ideas to circulate the globe.  After the internet it takes mere seconds.  The internet has made posting complaints and protests on walls one of the most popular things you can do.  Social media has made us all Martin Luther. Or are we Henry VIII?

The Printing Press started the Protestant movement.  The internet has completed it.  But some of us are wondering if all this has made us Protestants the very thing we have been protesting.  Many of us in fact have begun to ask ourselves, “Doth we protest too much?”

I’ll be honest when I look at our modern day Protestant movement I don’t see much of the gospel.  Instead I think that our protests have made us the very opposite of that which we claim to protest.

By protesting we have rejected Christian charity for secular hatred.

We have also rejected the peace of Christ for the wars of the principalities and powers.

We have rejected the unifying power of the cross for the divisive rhetoric of useless doctrines.

We have rejected the justification that comes from God for the self-righteousness that comes from thinking I am right all the time.

We have rejected Scripture’s repeated and clarion call to “be quiet,” “be still,” (Psalm 46:10) “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” (James 1:18) and to “live quiet lives among the pagans.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

In sum, we have rejected the Spirit’s quiet wisdom and guidance to chart our own noisy path to destruction.

The Protestants doth protest too much and after 500 years I think maybe it’s time to end the protestant part of our movement.  It is time for us to stop protesting and stop complaining.  It’s time for us to shut our big mouths and stop our quick fingers from typing.  After 500 years it’s time to do what Scripture commands, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”  (James 1:19).

As Protestants we doth protest too much.

But We Doth Reform Too Little!

But Martin Luther’s followers called themselves by another name, that is Reformers.  The title “reformer” signified a hope that both drove their protests but was much deeper than protest.  The word “Reformer” hinted at the deep and abiding conviction that the church and the world could be better.  They would tell you that they were not just protesting to protest.  Their goal was not a never ending protest but they protested because they believed that all of us could do better.  More than that, we could be better.  We could work harder and think longer and study the scriptures more diligently.  They believed that we could love the poor and that we didn’t need to tolerate systems in government or church that oppressed them.

They started the Protestant Reformation not because they were self-conceited but because they were hopeful for a better world and a better church.  Not all of them were angry just to be angry.  They were angry because they believed in a better world and in a heavenly kingdom that was and is still coming.

By the way, their hope was rooted in the Scriptures.  They believed in the kind of church that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 12-15.  They believed that we could have a church which is for all people, not just for the rich and powerful.  They believed in a church which welcomed outsiders free of charge instead of making them buy indulgences to be among the in-crowd.  They believed in a church devoid of arrogance and pride but instead built on the humble love of God given to us through the Holy Spirit.  They believed in a church which is not led by hypocrites who tell the everyday people to do something while they do the opposite in private.  They believed there could be a clergy class defined by the fruits of the spirit instead of their opposite.

They were not just hoping to protest those things.  They were hoping to reform them.  And we have now spent 500 years working towards those goals.

In sum, we do protest too much but after 500 years we have not reformed nearly as much.

We need to stop the protests but keep up the reformations.

For us every Sunday is reformation Sunday.  Every Sunday we gather around the Scriptures and the table and ask God to reform us.  Every month our board meets and we do reformation meetings.  We talk about how to continue reforming our local congregation so that it can better resemble the love of Christ to this sinful world.  Every bible study we use the Scriptures to hold each other accountable to the Reformation process.  Every time I meet with someone over coffee or breakfast or dinner, I am hopeful for a Reformation.

In conclusion, over the last summer God gave me a wonderful verse.  I was revisiting Philippians and I was enlivened by Paul’s admission:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

After 500 year, us protesting reformers have not laid hold of that for which we are laid hold of.  We have not attained to the perfection to which we were called.  But for 500 years now we have pressed on and I hope for 500 more years we will continue to press on toward the goal.

A Sunday Sermon: Thinking and Praying for Houston and SE Asia

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This is roughly what I offered my congregation yesterday in light of the devastation that floods have wrecked across our world this week.  It is a bit long but I hope it helps you as you “think and pray.”

Introduction

I want to begin by sharing about how I was awakened to the fact that this Houston tragedy was “the real deal.”  I have been super busy the last three or so weeks, busier than I have been in a long time.   That is a good thing but in my busyness I haven’t been able to pay attention to national headlines as much as I usually do.  That is also a good thing.

So I heard rumors of hurricane Harvey but what I initially read seemed minor.  It appeared to me that Hurricane Harvey was one of those headlines that was exaggerated by the media in an otherwise low news cycle.  Even the articles I did read said that Harvey only barely reached category 4 status before being downgraded to a tropical storm shortly after going over Houston.  That’s all I read and I figured, “no big deal.”

But Harvey’s problem was what came behind it.  Although Harvey itself was not that bad as far as winds go, it was the wettest hurricane on record in the US.  To make it worse, several rain storms followed in its wake so that Houston got hit again and then again and then again resulting in the catastrophe that it now is.  It took me until about Wednesday of this week to realize that this is the real deal.  This is pretty bad.

Right around that time I came across the pictures from southern Asia.  For those of you who don’t know, there are several countries and areas under water all across the Indian Ocean shores.  This started happening in June and has continued to get worse until now when most of the shoreline is uninhabitable along with several inland areas.  Thousands have died due to the flooding and millions of families have been displaced.  Flooding  is a global concern right now.  We have millions suffering in Texas and tens of millions more in Asia.

“Thoughts and Prayers”

About the time the gravity of all this occurred to me, another feeling came over me.  I think  this feeling is common nowadays.  I am going to call it “overwhelmed apathy.”  This is not apathy that overwhelms.  It is apathy that comes from being overwhelmed.  I was so overwhelmed by the pictures, the stories and the amount of neediness that I had no idea how to respond.  So I didn’t.  I shrugged and went on with life.

There is a phrase which “overwhelmed apathy” loves to utter.  It is, “Thoughts and prayers.”  Those of us who are so overwhelmed say this often as a way of trying to convince people we actually care.  Sometimes I wonder if that phrase is thrown about because we have no idea what else to do or to say so we say, “Thoughts and prayers” as a way of trying to signal that we are still decent people.  Thinking and praying are not bad but some people throw that phrase around as a way of trying to convince others they care when they really don’t.  They are more worried about showing they care than actually doing anything that would actually be caring.

Thursday night, about the time the gravity of Houston was dawning on me, I had a conversation with the daughter of a recently deceased mother.  From the minute she answered her phone, I noticed that she didn’t sound so happy.  She sounded like someone who is grieving.  She sounded like a daughter who doesn’t have a mom any more, at least not on this side of eternity.  She also sounded like someone who was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to close out a person’s estate.  It was a rough conversation.

Guess what I heard myself say to her, “Well, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  I hated myself for it!  It sounded so shallow.  What I hated even more was that I wanted to do something tangible but I seriously could not.  There was almost nothing I could to help other than listen.

In my defense, I have been thinking and praying for this family a lot.  If you were to somehow measure how much time I have spent thinking and praying about the various areas of my life, that family would top the list.  Every time I think about them I offer a prayer for them and that prayer is offered with a tear or two.  I miss their mom and I hurt for their loss.

Yet here is another tragedy which is a lot closer to home than Asia or Houston.  It only involves the fifty or so extended family members but it is no less a devastation.  Death is a tragedy.  I think we are numb to it, especially when people die in their 80’s, but it is no less a violation of God’s original plan for creation.

Actually Thinking and Praying

So that happened Thursday and then Friday morning came.  I was at a worship service and they had an extended prayer time.  Prayer times can be awkward, especially for pastors.  I felt like I had to pray to sound “spiritual” but I didn’t know what to pray for or about.  Somewhere in that, it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to actually think and pray for Houston and for Asia so I started to think and pray.

I immediately had another problem.  I had no idea what to pray.  Everything obvious seemed so cliché, like a million other people had all ready prayed it.  What good would it do to echo popular, overly simple sentiments up to the heavens?  “God be with them.  .  .even though I am sure you are and probably don’t need me to ask so that you can be with them.  God I wish I could do something but they are there and I am here.  God, um this is kind of sad.  .  .Amen.”

I also didn’t know what to think.  These floods are devastating and so senseless.  There is no rhyme or reason to it and the rhymes and reasons others have offered seem so trite and shallow.  When we “think and pray” for such tragedies there is a very real danger we end up as callous as Job’s friends in the ash heap.  “This happened because of sin!”  “You should have moved away from there!”  “Those guys deserved it for not evacuating!”  How cruel can you be?

So I had no idea what to think or what to pray.  I just stood there, overwhelmed and apathetic.

Then another feeling came over.  Even though I had no words to say and no thoughts to think I found that I had an incredible longing, a longing for a world where these things do not happen, a longing for Jesus and his kingdom.  This longing itself was my prayer but it was one those prayers that was too deep for words.  It could only be expressed in sighs and groans.  It is a prayer of lamentation.

Mark 13

Then I remembered Mark 13.  The chapter opens with Jesus leaving the temple.  One of his disciples marvels at the beauty of the buildings.  Jesus plays the role of the downer.  “You see these great buildings here? Not one of them will remain standing!”

They sit atop the Mount of Olives and his core group asks him, “Well when will this happen?  What are the signs that this is about to take place?”  We now know the answer to that question.  In 70AD the Roman Empire, the “abomination that causes desolation” sacked Jerusalem and tore down the temple and those in Judea who went back from the fields were raped, enslaved and slaughtered.  Jesus was right.  The Roman conquest of Jerusalem was a tragedy unequaled too from the beginning and never equaled again (though the Holocaust came close), at least for God’s chosen people.

We know this now but Jesus didn’t answer their question, at least not directly.  Instead he seems to be more concerned that they not be deceived by false answers to the question.  He tells them to be careful not to listen to false prophets or pay attention to false signs.  He say, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”

There is a very shallow reading of this passage and its companion passages in Matthew and Luke that thinks Jesus is telling people that things like wars, famines, earthquakes, floods and pestilences are signs that Jesus is about to return.  The people who argue this have a very inadequate understanding of history.  They seem to think that right up until 1960 there were never any wars, earthquakes, tornadoes or floods.  They think pestilences are this brand new thing.  But trust me, there have always been wars or rumors of wars.  There have always been murderers.  There have always been floods.  There has always been death.  There have always been terrorists and terrorism.  Pick a year in history and you will find a war or a rumor of war.  Far from being new, these tragedies are a very old part of our dying world.

In Mark 13 Jesus is not saying, “See this paradise you live in without wars or famines or hardship or death?  Well in 2017 that won’t be the case anymore but don’t worry I am coming back in 2018!”

Instead Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be deceived by the false Christs and false prophets who point to wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and the like.  Those things will continue to happen and unfortunately, must happen.  When they do happen, stay faithful and remain smart.  But when the end of the world does happen, you will know it, because you will see the Son of Man coming on clouds!”

So when we have things like wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes, famines and yes, even floods, they are not a sign that Jesus is coming back soon.  Instead they are a sign that Jesus has not come back soon enough!

The hurricanes and rain storms happening all over the world today are signs that this old, broken world continues to be old and broken.  The mom who died on her bathroom floor one night is a sign for us that death still continues.  The victory is not yet won.  Sin continues to be sin.  Death continues to fight.  Creation still groans under futility, waiting for the children of God to be revealed.  Our bodies are still subject to decay.

God has not yet sealed the victory.

We are still between the times.

Proclaiming Our Hope!

So Friday morning there I stood, between the times, thinking, praying, sighing and groaning my longing for Christ, my hope for the final healing and victory!

And as I cry the tears of hope and groan the compassion of Christ I can boldly proclaim that even though death, destruction and decay still seem to reign, one magic day the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to blood.  The heavenly bodies will be shaken and we will see the Son of Man coming with great power and great glory.  He will send his angels and gather us up from the four winds!

Likewise, to those of us who have lost loved ones, I can proclaim the hope of the Apostle Paul who said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

And to those suffering under natural disasters I can proclaim the hope that John the Revelator offers when he tells us,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

If you find yourself “thinking and praying” for the tragedies surrounding us, there might just be three words to offer and they comes from the very end of Revelation, the very end of our Scriptures.  Will you pray it with me, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord.  .  .”

Why, “You’re Too Nice” Is The Best Compliment That Sounds Like An Insult There Is

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On October 5th, 1971 the Rock and Roll star Rick Nelson was invited to play at Madison Square Garden.  He opened his set playing his well known classics.  The audience cheered, applauded and sang along.  However, halfway through the set he switched to a newer sound, including a countrified version of a Rolling Stones hit.  The crowd turned vicious, booing and jeering him until he left the stage.

He wrote a song about the incident called “Garden Party.”  The low key, melodic chorus teaches us the lesson he learned from the fiasco:  “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”

As a Christian pastor I definitely relate but I also disagree.  Anybody who works with people quickly realizes that you can’t really please anybody.  As I have been in ministry I have learned that on an instinctual level most people want control.   They know insulting others is the best way to gain control.  This is true even of myself.  We don’t even realize we are doing it.  We just sense that we are not in control and we begin to criticize others as a way of gaining it back.

So as a pastor I have learned that criticism is unavoidable.  In fact the measure of my faithfulness is not if people are booing and jeering me off the stage but rather what they are booing and jeering me for.  If I can’t avoid criticism, I would rather be criticized for the things that matter.

On that note I have been accused several times of being too “nice.”  The people offering that criticism have good intentions.  They truly believe that if I were just a tad bit more confrontational, a tad bit meaner, a tad bit more firm than the church would grow, the kingdom would come and everybody would get saved and sanctified.

Sometimes this criticism has appeared amidst personal conflicts.  Someone is mad at someone else and they want me on their team.  So they argue I am being too nice to “them” and if I would just grow some pastoral cahones I would be mean and confront that person with their “sin” and all heaven would break loose.  At times I have quietly reminded that person that the minute I start being mean and judgmental I am probably going to start first with myself and second with them.

At other times I have broken down and actually decided to be mean and judgmental and not surprisingly the people who criticized me for being too nice were the first to cry foul when I was “too mean.”

Then there are the more academic critics who have said the reason I am too nice is because I am too afraid.  If I would just be less afraid I would be more confrontational.  They read that in some psycho therapy book and assume it applies to me.

I am not going to say that there isn’t some truth there.  To deny I am afraid would be to deny my very humanity.  There is a type of person that does scare me and I do avoid them in order to protect myself from severe harm.  I am still not entirely sure I should but in this fallen world it is the only option.

But beyond that my “niceness” does not come from fear.  It comes from a life devoted to the Scriptures, particularly Paul’s epistles.  My “niceness” comes from passages like 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4 and Philippians 4.  I could also include the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus in Mark 8-10.  These passages teach me that God is patient, therefore I must be patient.  God is kind, therefore I must be kind.  Jesus was silent before his critics and accusers.  Therefore I must also be.

I am not passive, patient and kind because I am afraid.  Quite the opposite my passive, patient kindness is borne out of hope.  Yet it is not the hope that patient kindness might be the most effective manipulation tool.  I am not that naive.  I know that passivity and patient kindness get you crucified and that quite often.  People take advantage of me constantly.  Even my closest friends and family members take full advantage of my kindness.  They take me quite for granted.  People in my churches have and continue to get away with things they wouldn’t under a more manipulative leader.  So my hope is not that I will somehow control people more if I am passive.  This is not a political strategy like “non violent resistance” or what we blandly call, “pacifism.”

Instead my hope is in a coming Kingdom, a coming glory, a coming King.  My hope is that some glad morning when this life is over the trump will resound and the Lord will descend and when it gets to be my turn to face him, he will smile at me and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  Forget mansions in glory.  That’s all I want, a smile from the King and a nod that says, “You tried your best, even if you did fall short.”

Maybe that means I would edit Nelson’s song to, “You can’t please everyone, so you better please the Lord.”  But maybe that sounds too hokey.

Not that I have attained all this.  I am not saying I am the perfect specimen of passive, patient kindness.  In fact, several times over the last several years I have spent days angry at the world and angry at the people who have taken advantage of me, who have gossiped and lied and yelled and scream and booed and jeered.  I have sat with my back against a wall and shaken my fist at the air and thought about all the mean emails I want to send and all the angry things I want to publicly say.  Then I calm down, cry a little and ask God for the strength not to do that.  In those moments I remind myself that crucifixions are what I said “yes” to so many years ago.  And I have begged God for the strength to get up again, go out into the world smiling, answer the cursing with blessing, the insults with compliments, the abuse with love and the anger with patience.  I’m not sure I am doing very well and sometimes God hasn’t answered that prayer and I have let a harsh and careless word slip but I have always been quick to apologize and that too has taken a toll.

But surely the fact that people are still telling me, “You’re too nice” means I am getting closer to my reward.

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.