Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Acts 11:1-18, "Terms of Service", 5th Sunday of Eastertide, 2013

One of the hallmarks of post-modernity is the high volume usage of the internet to obtain information, to remain connected and to receive services. If you wish to participate in any of these "signs of the times" you must first read (which many of us don't do) and then check the "terms of service" agreement box. By checking this box you are agreeing to whatever terms the provider has laid down in exchange for the information, participation or services renders on that particular site and if you don't check "I agree" than you don't get to play. Really what you are agreeing to are terms of dis-services or better yet..."terms of servitude." You are agree to what you won't do and agreeing to what they are allowed to do with your personal information and personal data that you provide as part of participating in that site. It's public knowledge that sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yahoo store, sell and disseminate your information to the highest bidder, to target you as a consumer and to better understand your internet "surfing tendencies" and you and I agree to all this digital abuse by simply checking "I agree" on the terms of service box. 

On top of this 21st century breach of privacy we have a service industry, the "traditional" version, that is really not service anymore. Good examples of this is airline companies and gas stations. Now when you fly you are charged for everything including your lungage. You also pay for snacks and beverages when you use to get a full meal and even alcoholic drinks...all included in your fare. The stewardesses use to make you feel like royalty, now they just make you feel like crap! Gas stations use to check your oil, tiers and even pump your gas. Now you get to do all that yourself! My family has owned a services station in Northville, MI (a suburb of Detroit) since 1948. My Grandfather (may he rest in peace) opened this station after returning from World War II and after having worked for Ford for one week, realizing that factory worker life was not for him. He took his first and only weeks wages and purchased a Pure One Oil Service station. All of us boys took turns working as "pump jocky's", checking oil, pumping gas and gauging tires, during our high school days. In return for a day or two of hard work we got free gas. That station is still there and it's still FULL SERVICE. In an age where nothing is FULL SERVICE, our families little gas station retains its commitment to serving fully. Service use to allude to sacrifice in some way, in some way those who provided services gave up something in order to be part of the industry, now...GOD forbid it! Now professional service industries, everything from cable to hospice, is about the bottom line... are we making money and how can we make more money? 

In the way of Jesus the only term of service our Rabbi ever taught was the term of love. When Jesus laid down the expectation of believers they were wrapped in terms of humility, compassion, sacrifice and love. This is seen in Johns version of the passover or Lord's Supper when Jesus stooped so low as to wash the feet of his disciples and told them that they will never be greater than their Master. Meaning that if the Master does the work of a gentile slave and is not above that service than neither are they! Again Jesus only term is love and it paid off drastically in the first 2-3 centuries of Christianity. Church Father Tertullian says that the reason for such growth had to do with Love. He remarks that the common response to or opinion of Christians in his day was "See how these Christians love one another." Houston Smith, a Methodist Missionaries kid and Church Historian says in his book, "The Soul of Christianity" that "it was for the sake of Love that people flocked to this new religion." He gives an example of how when the poor would die and not have enough money for a proper burial or a burial at all (the bodies of the poor would be thrown into a fiery pit called Gehenna which is the root of the idea of Christian hell, but thats another story) the church would purchase land or tombs so that their dead could be disposed of and remembered properly. It is for this love that the Kingdom of God is progressed upon and it is this kind of love that the church today really knows nothing about.

Our passage this week begins with Peter being ridiculed by the leadership of the church for not requiring new gentile converts to "check the terms of service box" before being allowed access to Jesus. That "term of service" was circumcision, a term that plagues the church all the way into the 2nd century of Christianity. The leaders of the church said "why were they not circumcised and why did you even go to them?" So in response to this Peter tells the leadership about his ham sandwich, bacon, lobster and crab nightmare that lead him to Cornelius's house and to the conversion of a whole family. He said at first he refused to obey God, but then was convinced that he should do what the spirit says. When he got to Cornelius's home and prayed for him to receive Christ he saw that the Spirit had the same gifts and responses to Cornelius as it did on him and the other disciples. Thats when he realized that God had no requirements for salvation other that faith in Jesus. Peter then responds to the Jerusalem gang that "Who was I to stand in God's way?"

Last week our nation was still reeling from the senseless violence that killed and 8 year boy and several others and wounded a great number of people. We live in a world where anyone and anything is apt to be recorded and the bombing was one of those things. As I watched the video of the first bomb go off I was amazed at the response of the first responder medical personnel that was on site. They heard and saw the blast and when others ran away they ran toward and begin helping as many people as possible and because of their quick response saved several lives. You see they reacted out of love, compassion and sacrifice, not under some pretentious terms of service agreement, they just did what was right. Man I wish more people, especially more church people where like that! One of the more heroic stories of the bombing was of the man whose tip led to the apprehension of the second boy. Apparently the man noticed that the tarp on his boat was bloody and torn and so he notified the police. He didn't stop there though. He also got a ladder and climbed up to his boat to look under the tarp and thats when he realized who was under there. If you ask me his actions amounted to see something, say something, do something, and be something. This is the way of Jesus.

We should all as christians see what Christ is doing in our world today. We should say what he is doing by preaching and proclaiming the gospel and the teachings of the church. We should be about doing kingdom work by joining in on what Jesus is doing in the world. Do actions that are compassionate, humble, and sacrificial..actions that reflect the love of Christ. And we should as Christians be transformed so much by the love of Christ that the world can't help but notice how different we are from the rest. We should simply be people rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.

Ever heard the phrase "scared the bejesus out of me!"? It's kind of an old timey way of covering up our profanity. Now a days people are more apt to say "sacred the hell out of me!" or "Scared the shit out of me!" But in Puritan England one could be arrested on the charge of blasphemy for using profanity so people would use the preface "by Jesus". They would say "you scared the By Jesus out of me!" Our they would say "By Jesus you will!!" to their teenaged sons and daughters when they would talk back :). What it really is saying is that something is so terrible or so frightening that is caused you to renounce the commitment to Jesus that you had made. The "by Jesus" eventually become "be Jesus" and is now "baJesus". The truth is we all as Christians are called to "be Jesus" and unfortunately we often act in such away that the "be Jesus" is scared or better yet tempted out of us as we try to serve God and the church and others on our terms. If the our terms of service box is not checked, we don't serve.

There's a story about a women who lost her husband to cancer. After his death she become very introverted and depressive. She was seeing a Psychiatrist to help with her depression and emotions. The Doctor noticed that the women was getting worse and more inter focused. Instead of prescribing more meds the Doctor told her she should take time once a week and go visit people in the oncology ward of the hospital. She was reluctant at first but then agreed to do it once, to get the doc of her back. She agreed to do it on her terms and her terms only, but after a few months of visiting her mood improved and she began to feel like he old self again. Why? Because she served unconditionallly. She let go of her preconceived notions and her "terms of service" boxes and served humbly, compassionately and sacrificially and God blessed her.

How many of us Christians are serving without terms? How many of you will only do something for your church if you get paid, or if you get a title? How many of you will serve without reward, without recognition, without notice? Unfortunately today most church people will only serve a church if it agrees to their terms of service. If the pastor preaches a certain way, if the music is done a certain way, if the denomination believes only certain things, if the leadership is all republicans. And if the church can't meet their "terms of service" then they just won't help and in fact most of them will just simply go somewhere else. The church is dying in North America not because of liberal preachers, pathetic programing and lousy music, but because of Christians and it's because of Christians that the indictment of recently passed theologian, Brennan Manning still rings true, ""The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." God calls us to serve him, each other and the world without terms, but with sacrifice, compassion, humility and most of all...LOVE. Get ride of your useless "terms of service" and just serve.

Pastor Josh

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Revelation 7:9-17, " The Cleansing Power of Tears." Eastertide 4, 2013.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the people of the gulf coast, especially the people of New Orleans, had there lives turned upside down. Nothing was normal. Normal was a luxury for these 1000's and 1000's of people. All the things we all take for granted like electricity, phone service, retail and other basic necessitates of the American life were no where to be found. Another simple and basic necessity that we often take for granted is cleanliness and this basic need also became a luxury for the victims of Katrina. Even though there was a massive storm that devastated 1000's and put lives on hold dirt didn't get the memo. People still got dirty. Onesies, undies and all still got stained and crusted and yet there was no clean water even for drinking let alone to wash clothing. Tide had and interesting response to this crisis that they called "Loads of Love". Eight semi trucks filled with 32 high capacity washers and dryers each rolled into the gulf coast and provided the clean clothing everyone needed so desperatly. Tide was able to wash over 10,000 loads of laundry a day during the first several months of the Katrina disaster and even though it wasn't "the same" it helped bring a certain amount of peace and stability to the lives of those displaced people.

I wonder who said "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" first? I'm almost certain it was someones mom or girlfriend or had to be a women. You fella's and I know that left to our own devices our apartments, rooms, houses and dorm rooms become very nasty very quickly. When I first moved to college and lived in my own apartment it wasn't pretty. After awhile I met my wife Amanda and she helped instill in me the importance of cleaning, i.e if you don't clean I want be coming over :). Even as nasty as use boys can be I think for the most part we appreciate fact I would go as far as to say we love clean. Nothing impresses us more than a clean house or clean car or a freshly moped floor (I love pine-sole!). When clean is gone or we are unable to clean or get clean we are miserable, our lives are in chaos! And if we go long enough in unclean conditions we get sick. Histories worst epidemics are the result of unclean, unsanitary conditions. Colerea is the result of unclean water supply. The bubonic plague was the result of unclean and unsanitary living conditions. The list goes on and on and the bottom line is if we are unclean and unsanitary we die.

Truth is we know we are dirty, we know we stink. We're creatures, we sweat, we stain, we excreat all kinds of nasty things. Thats why we bath, we ware perfume and deodorant (some of us) to cover up all the stink and dirt. One of the most universal spiritual experiences we have is the recognition that we are spiritually unclean. Just about all religions start with humanities estrangement from the creator and our filth that estranges us. They all run with the same theme of needing to be cleansed, redeemed and reconciled to our creator. In our case it's through Jesus Christ. From the beginning of our holy scriptures this is the case. Adam and Even hid themselves from God because they knew they were unpresentable and needed to be cleaned.

Our passage this week brings us into the presents of God where John the Revelator witnesses a vision of a great multitude praising God while warring beautiful, sparkling clean white robes. These robes were so white any wife and mother would have been proud. :) But how'd they get the way? They were washed white, but not by the volition of any of the multitude, not by any effort or works on their part, but by the blood of the Lamb! Jesus washed them clean, he redeemed them and reconciled them to God so that they stood perfect, clean and holy before the father. Jesus gave them the gift of cleanliness! :) These multitude were not good people or bad people, but they were people who had been cleansed of suffering, who had been tormented, who had been hungry, tortured, lost and abused and had experienced loss. They are you and me and so many others. They are the people of Boston and the participants in the marathon. They are the family who lost their eight year old child...they are the terrorists who planted the bombs. All needing to be cleaned, all needing to be redeemed, all needing to be reconciled from the filth and dirt of this world. And lets be honest often tragedy happens because of our own selfishness. Often the very things we need to be cleansed from the most we bring upon ourselves. All these things are the things that bring about tears, sorrow and weeping in our lives.

It's been said that tears are liquid prayers. The bible is full of tears and weeping. Hagar wept for her son Ishmael when she thought he would die. Esau wept when we learned we had lost his birth right. Jacob wept when we finally was convicted and apologized to his brother for stealing that birth right. David wept over the loss of his good friend Jonathan. Jeremiah wept has he watched Jerusalem fall at the hands of Babylon. Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazreth and at the corruption of his faith as he gazed upon Jerusalem. Peter wept when he realized he had betrayed his best friend and teacher. And even St. Paul who was known as a rather stoic person wept when facing the fact the he might never see his friends and brothers at Ephesus again. Author Trevor Hudson said, "Every person sits next to a pool of his own tears." Tears really are just water and water has an amazing cleansing effect. Our baptism in water is symbolic of that cleansing in water, cleansing us from our sins and unrightousness. In away our tears do the same thing.

An old proverb says that tears keep the soul clean, clean from guilt, fear and condemnation. When the strongest and most powerful emotions show up, the ones we have the toughest time handling, so do the tears. An old Jewish Midrash (teaching) on Adam and Even says that when the couple was expelled from the garden the emotions were so great they had no way to express them and were therefore tormented, but as they left God gave them one more gift, the gift of tears and said, "for all of life's strongest and most difficult times these tears will release and bring peace." The white robes of the multitude would not have been possible without the cleansing blood of the lamb, but the blood would have never flowed without tears flowing first. Jesus suffered. He experienced loss, disappointment and death and none of those things ever come without tears. Also the good side of tears. He experienced laughter, joy and celebration, which are also normally accompanied by tears. The truth is all the torments of this world can be quenched by the gift of tears.

This week if you are facing a terrible and difficult time, let the tears flow. If you are feeling lost and alone, let the tears flow. If you have experienced loss, if you are dumbfounded by the senseless tragedy of the Boston bombing, let the tears flow and remember what Jesus said, "Blessed are those who weep and morn, for they will be comforted." I'll leave you with this old Rabbinical saying, "In the desert of the heart, let the healing tears start."

Blessed Easter Four,
Pastor Josh

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

John 21:1-19, Third Sunday in Easter, "Casting our nets."

Every town that has at least 20,000 people in it always seems to have a store that specializes in lighting. Smaller towns, I assume, figure you get lighting where you can, even if by candle ;). These stores have a multiplicity of lighting apparatuses and lighting systems, from very big, to very small, from very elaborate to very simple...and everything in between! There was a great big lighting store in the area I grew up. I remember going into this lighting store with my parents and being told very seriously...."look, but DO NOT TOUCH!" It was a challenge for me, as it would be for any red blooded 8 year old boy not to want to touch those bright, shining and sometimes very awkward and, looking back on it, very expensive lights, but I managed to go in there at least three times during my childhood and not break a thing (notice I said not break, not "not touch, but not break ;). There's a story of a little girl who also went into one of these very exclusive lighting stores with her parents. Unlike me she minded well and did not touch. When they left the store her mother asked her, "What light did you like most?" The little girl responded, "The ones that lights shine out!" There are currently 300,000 different churches in the US today, and like the light store with its verity of lights, they all differ in many ways. Some are big, some are small, some are all white, some are all black, and some are a combination. Some speak English, some speak Spanish and some speak in languages no ones ever heard of. Also like those lights in the lighting store some shine bright, some are dim, and some are just plain turned off and even unplugged! I think if we asked God the same question the little girl was asked, but instead we asked about the various kinds of churches, God's answer would be the same as that little girls, "The ones that lights shine out!"

Thats what God wants from God's church, lights shinning out, but how do we shine in this new word with its new challenges coupled with its old issues. This new world where there are still wars and rumors of wars, where there's destruction and violence and uncertainty, but now on top of all that there's a new society where church matters less than organized sports. Where families spend their Sundays at baseball diamonds, hockey rinks and basketball courts instead of in worship. We still live in a world of hopelessness and despair, we still live in a world that longs for meaning and fellowship, yet the people in our world seem to be finding all those things in other places! The truth is our post-modern issues of the 21st century aren't too much different than Jesus' antique issue found in the 1st century. Jesus' world was teetering on madness, filled with wars and rumors of wars, famine, a world lost hopelessly in despair filled with people longing for meaning and purpose, yet they found it in the person of Jesus Christ and that hasn't changed...Jesus is still the answer!

Our passage this week, like last weeks, comes from the gospel of John. John is a unique gospel. The others are unique as well, but John says something’s that, in many ways, are much different than what the synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have to say. The Gospel of John is the most recent of the Gospels written. Scholars estimate that it was written between 92-105 A.D. This gospel has a high Christology, meaning it focuses on the divine nature of Jesus more than his human nature. Since it's newer it has more developed theological terms and assumes there are just some things the readers already know and believe. A community of faith known as the Johanian Community preserved this Gospel. They were a community of believers, maybe a church or a district or conference of churches, but whatever they were called they were devoted to St. John's vision of Jesus and the Gospel. It's widely accepted that the person who authored the first 20 chapters did not author the last chapter. Chapter 21 has a different author, was not John or some kind of second-generation disciple of John. Either way the community of the Johanian Church accepted it as a divinely inspired work and added it. 

This passage is one that my Systematic Theology Professor, Dr. Chun, would say is "pregnant with infinite possibility." Meaning that there is so much here for us to discuss and "unpack." First this miraculous catch is just like the miraculous catch when they were called to follow Rabbi Jesus. Is this somehow a second call or a reminder of their first and only call. Next we see both Peter and John (the Beloved as the Gospel of John refers to him) recognize Jesus and respond. One responds in word (John, "It is the Lord!") and the other responds in action (Peter, "jumps into the water and swims to shore."). This is important because it demonstrates the full and complete response to the gospel, word and action, finally there’s this issue with the number of fish that was caught that morning. The Gospel says there was 153 fish caught, as if someone counted them all. Why 153? This number has keep bible scholars and End time fanatics busy for a millennium! Personally I think there's a simpler, more practical answer. If there are 153 fish someone had to count them, it is a specific number and not an outrageous number. One thing this number does is give weight to their testimony about the risen Christ. Someone was there to count the specific number of fish therefore it must of have actually happened…that’s one reason. St. Jerome taught a more allegorical meaning. He said that the 153 fish represented all the fish species in the world. (There are actually more than 230,000 fish species that we know of today) St. Jerome believed that this was symbolic of all the nations of the earth...after all they had been turned from fishers of fish to fishers of men. This was all Jesus’ way of telling them to cast wide nets for the hearts, souls and lives of mankind. One other interesting fact is that the nets never broke. The passage goes on and on about the enormity of the catch and that the nets held regardless to how many jumped in. Why? Because Jesus not only calls his disciples to cast wide nets over all of humanity, but he promises that he will not lose them.

Some people we wish would get out of the net, some races, some religions, some nations, some sexual orientations...even some other kinds of Christians. For those we would gladly cut the nets open and allow them to swim away, but that's not the plan, nor is it the purpose Jesus has for his disciples. Contrary to its reputation, John is one of the most inclusive stories of Jesus out there. Despite this being the Jesus whom my Comparative Religions Professor, Thomas Tangeraj said was "A narcissist" I find the message of this gospel to be one of universal salvation. Yes Jesus said we has the way in John and yes he said there is no other way, yet it's clear that it's his way of living that is the way and the only to the father is living this way and then there's this invitation to all who desire to "jump in the nets" to join him and then there's this mandate to his disciples to spread wide those nets and catch any and every fish that jumps in and keep them. 

This week we hear loud and clear Jesus calling to any and all who would receive him. Most importantly for the Christian, Jesus is instructing us not to count anyone out for any reason, but to cast wide nets and trust that he will not lose any of them.

Blessed Easter three,
Pastor Josh

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

John 20:19-31,"We live to tell the story", Eastertide One, 2013

The fastest growing venture in our nation today is security. There are a multiplicity of security firms all over our nation and our world. Some specialize in finance, or internet and network security and others personal security and of course a long time main stay since the 1980's...home security. Another very lucrative security venture is national security. In the US we spend 6.9 billion dollars in homeland security and another 526.1 billion dollars in defense spending (defense spending = military spending). The US can't afford universal healthcare so the 50million people or so who are uninsured can have adequate health coverage nor can it afford to increase or simply maintain Social security and medicare benefits for it's citizens who have worked their whole life for those benefits, but we can continue spending 7% of GDP on military....just a thought ;). BTW thats more than the next 10 nations combined. Anyway, if you have invested in security over the past 6 years you are probably doing better than the majority of Americans who lost their life's savings in the recession, in fact you just might have made money especially if you are a defense contractor. Since 2001 the US has spent 7.5 trillion dollars in defense and homeland security. Did you know that there are apps you can load onto your smart phone that allow you to lock your car doors and even start your car? There are also apps that allow you to lock your home doors, turn your home lights on and even monitor both the inside and outside of your home while you are not there! There are security firms that specialize in home monitoring that can detect when your children come and go and that will also allow them to check in when they come home via video...all this accessible on your smart phone or tablet! AMAZING! We have amazing capabilities for security purposes in our country and maybe it's well needed, maybe it's over the top, but either way it's all very impressive.

Jesus' first appearance to the apostles after his resurrection was to a frightened bunch locked securely within the walls of an upper room, but the security of locked doors and closed windows was not enough to keep them safe from the glory of the resurrected Christ. Unlike most people who break into buildings with locked doors who desire to steal and bring fear, Jesus breaks into the lives of these disciples and gives hope and brings peace. His peace translates into wonder and then into joy. So Jesus came to his disciples bring both peace and joy...and a call. Often we see ourselves as called, which we are. Jesus' message as he breaks into their security bunker is an affirmation of that call, a call to be son's and daughters of God just as he is the Son of God, but this call is coupled with a purpose and with that purpose we are sent. Jesus says to them, "Just as I was sent, so I send you", or in the King James, "So send I you." What are we sent out to do? To preach a message of the forgiveness of sins, not on our behalf but as an ongoing witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I love stories, in fact you'd be hard pressed to find another human being that does not appreciate a good story. Our favorite stories are about people. The best selling genre of literature in the world is the biography, not sci-fi or romance, but stories about real people in real life situations. We find those stories meaningful and we are inspired by other people who overcome similar or worse situation than we face. When it's all said and done Christians, we are story tellers, who tell the story of a man who overcame everyones greatest fears and doubts, including and especially death. Scholars debate what was at the heart of the first proclamation of the story, called the kerygma by early Christians. Was is the combination of a life of ministry to the poor and oppressed and a death at the hands of oppressors and the symbolic resurrection that shows that evil cannot triumph where there is good? Or was it the story of a God/Man who triumphed over the spiritual forces of this world in order for us to have eternal life in heaven? I think it's a combination of the both. I think any thoughtful Christian would feel the same way. We are sent with a story about a God with the capacity to become human and the will to save humans, not just from spiritual death and not just from the things that cause death, but from both. This is a message of holistic redemption and no one, regardless of security precautions are safe from God's message of Love as long as we who are sent refuse to stop telling his story!

Happy Easter!
Pastor Josh