Thursday, June 12, 2008

Baccalaureate Reflection on 1 Timothy 4

To The Class Of 2008 - Towanda PA

If I were a great preacher, I would have silver streaked hair and I would stand here and talk to you about how you are the future of the world. I would say something like, “Go forth into the world like Joshua, blow your horn, and take the world by storm, decimating the walls that divide people throughout the world. Instead of walls, construct a new heavens and a new earth where all will live in peace and harmony, and where we will preferably all make $100,000 a year. I just threw that last part in. A great preacher would not say that. But, I thought that those leaving High School and going into the theatre would really like that last part. They desperately desire to land a role other than, waiter. “Would you like some pepper with that sir?”

If I were a great preacher I would stir in your souls a vision of the athlete who works and works and works until their body is sculpted into perfect shape. I would instruct you in the ways of exercising your soul so that in time, in the future, when you really matter to society, you will be able to move mountains with your faith. But, not yet, now is the time to exercise. And, if I were super great, I would do it all with an amazing PowerPoint presentation of futuristic mountains shifting and morphing.

I would also use cyber lights. Oh how I wish we had cyber lights. They, of course, are the cool moving concert lights that automatically twist and turn and change color and shape. As they beam their light intensely on me I would say, “Now go forth, grow in your faith, and be the mountain shapers of the future.” And, the cyber lights would all move simultaneously to the back of the auditorium blasting open the doors and spilling their powerful light out into the world as if the children of God were just born and were soon going to conquer the earth.

That would be awesome. But, you didn’t get a great preacher, you just got me. I was cheap. Like, I cost nothing. Typically you get what you pay for.

Really, I am too young to preach something good to you. That is what I have been told anyway. I remember vividly the first time that I stood up to lead a worship service. I walked in front of the congregation, and just as I was about to open my mouth, a lady whispered pointing to me, “Isn’t that kid supposed to be lighting the candles?”

Another time I walked into a hospital room, offering to assist in any way that I could, “Hi, how are you today? How are you and God getting along?”

“When is the pastor coming in?” he replied.

When I told him that I was the pastor, he just laughed. He thought I cracked a great joke. He looked around the corner for the real pastor who was pulling his leg.

Now, I hate to say this but, don’t hate me just because I am beautiful and young.

If you have not heard it already, you will hear very soon, “Aren’t you a little young to be a doctor? Aren’t you a too young to be a lawyer? Don’t you need to be seasoned more to play in a professional orchestra?” “Do you really know enough or have enough experience to be guiding us in any meaningful way?” “You can’t really be 21; show me your ID.” And the grandest one of them all, are you ready, “you are the future.” If I am the future, what am I now? Dead air? “You are the future.” It seems like a nice sentiment at first, but if you really think about it, it sounds very much like, “Take a seat until it is your turn.” And, these words can zap the energy right out of you.

They were obviously zapping the energy right out of young Timothy as he tried to correct a Christian community which was driving itself off of a cliff. They were forgetting simple things like, “it’s OK to love each other and to even get married,” and “all things are acceptable to God, both food and people. Nothing and no one is trash to God.” Timothy knew these simple truths, but how do you do anything when you are simply a future and not a now? It is tempting to just say “whatever” and walk away.

“Don’t just walk away,” Timothy is encouraged in this letter to him. If you just walk away, you are doing the very thing that everyone else is trying to do to you, abandoning your God given gift. Christ chose you. “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” Christ chose you. “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

So, I am not the greatest preacher in the world, but Christ has given me something to say, and I am saying it. And, you are not great either. But, who cares? That means nothing. Christ has claimed you in love and has given you a unique gift also. Forget the dismissive words that a parent said to you in anger that one day, "You can't do anything right." Forget what a teacher said on a bad day or a frustrated coach one evening. You are a gift, and you have something to share now. You are not the future, you are the now. Hey, I think I just coined a great new catch phrase, “I am the now.” Alright, maybe it is not that great. “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example.”

In the end, I chose not to dismiss the woman or the man or the countless others who tried to brush me off as being too young. I wanted to; believe me. But, I took a chance that Christ actually gave me a gift to offer these people. So, I stood up straight and preached to the woman, and I asked the man in the hospital bed a second time how things between him and God were going. Soon after the worship service was over, the woman met me and said, “Thank you, Pastor.” And at the end of the hospital visit the man said to me, “Make sure you come back preacher kid.” Take the chance and use your gift. Christ gave it to you to be used. “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example.”

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Jesus has been spotted walking around with an interesting crowd of people, and it is causing people to ask you questions. Last night, a woman from a church just up the street told you that Jesus was spotted walking into the tavern with a couple of guys whose every skin pour reeked of whiskey. They had apparently gotten their fill of heavenly love constantly saying, “You’re great, I love you man.”

She badgered you saying, “These men haven’t spent a night with their family in weeks. And now, I saw Jesus’ hands with the telltale orange tint to them."

That is right, he had sat down with them at the bar and had some buffalo wings with them.

“Why does you teacher eat with slobs like that?” she asked?

Immediately, a man taps you on the shoulder with a somewhat perturbed look on his face. His lower lip quivers with barely concealed anger as he informs you that your teacher was seen on the television a couple of nights ago. Jesus was seen kneeling in a cell in Guantanamo Bay, praying beside a known terrorist and then laughing with the guy as he shared a simple meal.

“That guy hasn’t turned from his ways. What kind of teacher do you have?” He asked with disgust. “Do he and you support terrorists? Why does your teacher eat with terrorists?”

The question put to you is the same question that has been put to Jesus’ followers since the beginning. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

A politician Jesus is not. Jesus is always eating with the wrong crowd. And, because of the fierce anger on their faces, you hesitantly give these two your answer, “My teacher eats with those who are sick, not hose who are healthy. You are right, those people probably haven’t turned from their ways. But, you have to understand, my teacher shows mercy. He doesn’t require anything to sit and eat with him; no money, no promises, not even repentance. My teacher believes in being merciful. Maybe you should give it a try.”

You move to walk away, but the guy grabs your attention once more, “If that is true, I saw your teacher eating with your pastor the other day.” You simply reply, “My teacher eats with sinners, with those who are sick.”

I assume that Jesus eats with you also. I assume that you welcome Jesus to your table and that Jesus joins you, eats with you, and mercifully accepts you as an eating companion, warts, sins and all. Too many people have the wrong impression of the church. Too many people have the sense that the church is a gathering of the righteous. I suppose that those of us who gather together may have contributed to that vast misconception, fancying ourselves as faithful and good, and presenting ourselves that way. But, the truth is; Jesus only eats with those who need him. We come to Christ’s table, because we are hurt, we have fallen short, and we have we sinned. We are not great. But, our lack of greatness leads us to understand a great many things; leading us to say the weirdest things.

This week, Brandon, Pastor Randele’s brother who lost his left foot because of a hit and run motorcyle and car accident, said the weirdest thing, “I’m not mad at the guy. I can understand how when you’ve made a huge mistake all you can think of doing is running. He didn’t have insurance. He probably felt trapped.”

For Brandon, there was no question that this man deserves a chance at mercy. This is the man whose carelessness changed Brandon's life forever. But, that is what eating with Jesus does, it changes us. We feed our fill of mercy and we cannot help but allow that mercy to spill out again.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 7:21-29

As I listened in on the conversation, I knew that the Christian community that I was visiting was different. Certainly, it appeared very different. The congregation met in a warehouse with couches for pews and home-created artwork hung all around us on the walls. A band played self created hymns quietly in the background. And while people ripped off huge chunks of communion bread from deliciously seasoned and baked loaves, with a glass of wine in hand, they talked. For a good fifteen to twenty minutes they talked. During Holy Communion, they talked. It could almost be considered rude to God if the talk were small talk. But, there was no mention of the mall, or where people are going for vacation this summer.

Instead, the talk seemed much more "holy." This was hard to believe as most people there were dressed in ripped jeans, t-shirts, and well worn sneakers. One kid literally had his skateboard leaning against one of the couches. I guess that was his transportation to church. Yet, the conversation was holy and I was soon convinced that somehow this small community of Christians has built their house upon solid rock.

As I walked around the Holy Feast…it was more than a feast, it felt more like an adult party…as I walked around this Christian party I heard words that rung of the Sermon on the Mount. I heard, “I am soooooo sorry, I just wasn’t thinking” come from the mouth of a young woman with a bandana tied to her head. Bandana girl had not yet taken any bread or wine, as if she were living out the words of Christ, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The woman she was addressing gave her a hug and I could not help but think that the hug spoke the words, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

And older couple walked up to the pastor and told him that they were willing to trek overseas and help cradle and rock orphans in a dangerous and hostile land (earlier in the service this opportunity was brought up). They were willing to give up a summer of golf and grandchildren, and go into enemy lands to walk the extra mile for children of the enemy. Christ’s words, “love your enemy,” and “go also the second mile” seemed to be imprinted on their souls.

On one couch a young guy patted the back of another. I walked nearby. At this point, I admit that I was prying. I did not care because I was fascinated by this community. A quick listen revealed them talking about a rocky marriage. Again, words from the Sermon on the Mount on lust, divorce, and forgiveness entered my mind as the man doing the back patting gave sage advice to his friend on that couch.

I do not know how they had done it, but this community had somehow figured out a way to live Christ’s teachings from his Sermon on the Mount in that warehouse. Many houses of worship appear to be blessed by God with fine towers of stone, huge choirs that reverberate down the street, and flawless worship. But, are they really? I cannot actually make that judgment myself. Perhaps, there is wondrous and amazing examples of the kingdom of God at work beneath the grand fa├žade. However, I fear that sometimes there is not, and the stone steeples of that church will quickly topple as its foundation washes away, because it has not yet discovered the wonderful gift of Christ and his Sermon on the Mount. This foundation…this teaching is already laid. It is rock solid. It is free. It is a gift. All are invited to build upon it.

The sermon is a wonderful gift that, if actually attempted, bolts the Christian community to a rock, serving to keep it strongly held together, forgiving of all, at peace with itself, loving of perceived enemies, and living God’s vision for the kingdom.

The power of that small community was not from its grand worship or its powerful presence in town. The power of that community came from its willingness to accept the gift of Christ’s teachings, and from its willingness to give them a try. They were a kingdom community, and people could sense that from the minute they stepped in the door. You could not help but be drawn into this kingdom living. It was powerful. It was strong. It was as if life were built on a rock, and it was. They were a kingdom community and I pray that more and more churches become kingdom communities. The world of suffering and chaos need us to stand strong and be who we are called to be: kingdom communities who do not ever forget Christ’s peace, Christ’s love of all, and Christ’s forgiveness.

God, help us stay away from foolishness. Help us stay away from building on sandy ground. Point the way to your rocky ground, that we may continue to build there. Amen.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.