Monthly Archives: March 2015

Opening the Door to Holy Week

When I arrived at First Church, I noticed a sign on the inside of the “front” door – the original main entrance to the church, before the parking lot was added, and people started using the “back” entrance as the main door of the church. The sign said, “Do Not Open This Door.” Not even “please leave this door closed.” Do. Not. Open. This. Door.

I preached about it. I asked the congregation to consider the implications of that sign. What did it say, not only to the community on the other side of the door, but to us on the inside? I mentioned it in Trustee meetings and Council meetings. It’s been a year and a half, and last Sunday, I asked if we could open the door for Palm Sunday and Easter, as a sign of radical hospitality to the many people who drive past our church on Sunday mornings. Continue reading

We Want to See Jesus – Sermon on John 12:20-33 Lent 5B

March 22, 2015

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. – John 12:20-33

When Bruce and I lived in Kansas City, we belonged to Westport Presbyterian Church. In the pulpit of that church, there was a brass plate, installed there by Stuart Paterson, who was pastor of Westport Pres for more than thirty years. Stuart read the message engraved on that brass plate every time he stepped into the pulpit, and he wasn’t alone. Apparently, during the middle of the 20th century in America, it was quite the fashion for John 12:20 to be posted somewhere in the pulpit where the preacher could see it. “Sir, we would see Jesus” encouraged a whole generation of preachers to remember their primary task: showing Jesus to people who need a Savior.

In fact, the entire Gospel of John was written with this very purpose in mind. Near the end of the book, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

If seeing is believing, we can imagine that these Greeks who came to Philip were hoping for more than a glimpse of a celebrity. They were hoping for more than an autograph. They not only wanted to see Jesus, they wanted to believe.

The phrase “we would see Jesus” or “we wish to see Jesus” can’t be fully translated into English so simply, but the literal translation sounds awkward to our ears. It sounds awkward, but to get a better understanding of what they meant, the literal translation might be helpful. Here’s what they were saying: “Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus.”

Not just “we’d kinda like to see this Jesus guy” or “we want to see him so we can tell our friends back home that we did.”

We are willing. Our desire includes the understanding that this encounter is going to change us in some way, and we are willing to take the risk.

We are willing to be perceiving. We want more than the opportunity to lay eyes on Jesus. We want to perceive him, to know him, to understand him, to recognize him as the Son of God. And we realize this isn’t a one-time-and-we’re-done sort of thing. It’s an ongoing relationship. We are willing to be perceiving Jesus now and indefinitely into the future. Mister Philip, sir, we want more than a backstage pass. We are willing to know Jesus personally, whatever that means.

John’s account doesn’t tell us if they get a face-to-face meeting with Jesus, but it does describe the way such an encounter usually happens. The Greeks approach Philip, and he goes to Andrew, and together they go to Jesus. Why do the Greeks go to Philip first, and then why does Philip go to Andrew? Their hometown was Bethsaida, a place that had a history of sometimes being Jewish and sometimes being Gentile. Philip and Andrew both have Greek-sounding names, so that might have something to do with it. It’s possible that these Gentiles came to Philip first simply because they were more comfortable approaching someone who seemed a little bit more like them.

That’s often how evangelism works. It’s a chain reaction. One person experiences God’s love, and shares that good news with a friend or family member. They usually don’t go out looking for someone they don’t even know to tell about Jesus – they share their experience with people they know and trust, people who are a lot like themselves. And when those people experience the same life-changing love of God, they tell their family and friends. And those people’s lives are changed, and they tell more people…

It works the other way around, too. If you are thinking about buying a new car, or maybe a computer, you do a little internet research, and then you ask people close to you for recommendations. You trust the people who are most like you to have the same values and viewpoint you do. As every marketing expert will tell you, word of mouth is the best form of advertising, whether you’re telling someone about your own experience, or asking them for advice and help.

So it’s no wonder that these Greek worshipers approach the disciples who look and sound most like them, when they try to get an audience with Jesus. But the very fact that Gentiles are looking for Jesus is a signal, and Jesus recognizes his cue.

The “very truly” (amen, amen) that opens verse 24 is an attention device: Jesus is about to say something really important. But what follows is not comforting news. He announces that his hour has now come, and the seed must die to bear fruit.

Jesus knows he has come to save more than the Jews – he has come for everyone, Jew or Gentile. Now that the Gentiles desire to “perceive” him, he recognizes that the time has come for him to die, like a seed planted in the ground, so that new life can begin. And it’s hard news for us, too. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Only by embracing death, hating life, and following Jesus through death to life can we be true disciples.

We might not like the idea of dying to self, or “hating” ourselves – it doesn’t sit well with our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem, and even Jesus said “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” But that isn’t what he’s talking about here. Jesus is referring to the life we live in this broken world, where self-centeredness prevents us from being God-centered. That life is doomed to death, but by dying to it, Christ offers us eternal life.

John uses two different words here for the word we see as “life.” When Jesus says, “Those who love their life” and “those who hate their life in this world,” the word for ‘life’ refers to our inward being, our sinful soul. But when Jesus talks about eternal life, he uses the word “zoe” – which means a way of living. So giving up our inward selfishness, dying to sin, as a seed planted in the ground must die, makes it possible for us to experience new life, an eternal way of living.

And this is what brings glory to God. Throughout the Old Testament, “glory” is used to describe the evidence of God’s presence among his people. God’s glory was the pillar of cloud or smoke that stayed with the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. This same cloud of smoke filled the temple to indicate God had moved into his home among the people of Israel. In the psalms, when David speaks of his own ‘glory’ he means “all my being.’

Likewise, a name embodied all of a person’s being. A name’s meaning described that person’s deepest identity. To be named is to be recognized for who we are at our very core. When Jesus says, “Glorify your name,” there are rich, deep layers of understanding involved. In effect, Jesus is asking his Father to make himself completely known to all humanity, to show that he is present among all people, and to reveal his core identity to everyone.

And a voice from heaven answers him. We have heard this voice in the other gospels at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, but in John’s account, this is the only time “the voice from heaven” is heard. What does that voice say? “I have already done it, and I’m going to keep on doing it. I have revealed the deepest core of my identity to everyone, and I will continue to do so.”

And what, exactly, is God’s identity? Love. God is love (1 John 4:8). God’s love has been poured out for us so that, “while we were still sinners” who didn’t deserve it, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus,” the guests from out of town said to Philip. “This is a sign that my hour has come,” answered Jesus. “Father, glorify your name. … And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

John writes, He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” But John means more than the crucifixion. He means the kind of death that also includes resurrection and ascension. It’s a three-way “being lifted up” – on the cross, from the grave, and into heaven, just as we sang a few minutes ago [Lord I Lift Your Name On High].  The kind of death Jesus was to die was the kind of death that leads to life and eternal victory over death. And Jesus invites us to that same kind of death that defeats death.

So, how do you perceive Jesus? And how can we help others to be perceiving Jesus, on a continuous, present tense basis?

On Thursday, I drove to a retreat center to attend the Clergy Leadership Academy. I’m in the second year of a three-year program, and we meet five times a year to work with a mentor, gather with our peers, and learn from experts who work intensively with us on many aspects of leading congregations well.

This week, Bishop Bruce Ough led our workshops on Radical Hospitality. Radical Hospitality refers to one of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, as identified by Bishop Robert Schnase. (The other four are: passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.)

To begin our discussion, Bishop Ough asked us to define “radical.” The first thought that came to my mind was “extravagant.” Others called it “extreme” and “beyond the call of duty.” But one person looked up the definition on her phone’s dictionary and said, “it means going to the root” and that was the answer the Bishop was waiting for.

Radical hospitality is not about the quality of our treats at Coffee Hour. In fact, according to our Bishop, Coffee Hour isn’t about hospitality at all – it’s about fellowship. That’s a different thing. A very important, necessary part of being the church, and good treats are important to fellowship, but Radical Hospitality is something different.

Radical Hospitality means going to the purest, deepest root of our identity as God’s beloved children, and finding ways to express that identity to others. Schnase writes, “Radical Hospitality in our personal walk with Christ begins with an extraordinary receptivity to the grace of God. In distinctive and personal ways, we invite God into our hearts and make space for God in our lives. We say Yes to God and open ourselves to the spiritual life. We accept God’s love and acceptance of us. We receive God’s love and offer it to others.”

Here’s the thing, though. As we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, he calls us to do what he did. He calls us to die to ourselves, so we can bear fruit, like that seed planted in the ground. He calls us to hate our life in this finite, broken world, so we can gain a way of living that is eternal. That way of living, dying to self, hating our earthly limitations, is the core of radical hospitality. When we open ourselves to others, we put their needs ahead of our own, we inconvenience ourselves for their benefit, we make sacrifices for their sake.

Isn’t that love? Putting another’s needs ahead of your own? And isn’t it a sign of being loved to know that someone has done that for you?

Radical hospitality is at the core, the root of what we do to open ourselves to relationship with God and with others. Just as glory and naming describe our core identity, being radical isn’t so much going to the extreme or being extravagant, but about going to the root of who we are as beloved children of God. It follows then, that radical hospitality is all about sharing who we have become as fully and honestly as we can.

What are some ways we could do that here at First Church?

What if we were to open the ‘old’ front door every Sunday, to show the people driving up and down Broadway that we are here, and we want them to know that the door is open for them?

Let’s take it one step further. What if we made it a practice to park over in the public parking lot, or at the attorney’s office across the street, and to walk to church, so that there would be room for more than one visitor space in the parking lot? In fact, what if we made all the spots in our parking lot into visitor or handicapped parking places?

It would mean inconveniencing ourselves. We might have to leave for church a few minutes earlier, to allow for the extra walking time, but imagine what it would look like to our community to see 70 or 80 people walking toward our church from every direction on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings! And the front door would be wide open to welcome each and every one of us! How radical is that?

How does Christ’s death show God’s glory to all people of the world? By the way we, his disciples, die to self so others can experience God. Our radical hospitality introduces people to Jesus so they can perceive and experience that deep, profound love God has for each of us, so they can have eternal life.

This is the good news: God loves you and is always with you, extending to you radical hospitality by revealing his intimate self to you through Jesus Christ. As we die to self and engage in an eternal way of living, Christ calls us to extend the same radical hospitality to others that he has shown to us. It will mean inconveniencing ourselves. It will mean changing the way we do some things, so that ‘others’ can become part of ‘us.’

The hour has come. What shall we say, “Father, save us from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Help us to show radical hospitality to everyone who is “willing to be perceiving” you and your Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Road Trip

We could have flown.
But that idea isn’t so appealing, after spending 13 hours wedged into the middle two of four seats on an international flight a couple of months ago. We aren’t too eager to fly again real soon.

Besides, by the time you drive to the airport, check in, go through security, wait at the gate, and then on the plane for take-off, fly to the destination, wait for luggage, rent a car, and drive to the hotel – might as well just get in the car and hit the road. This way, we can leave when we want to, stop when we want to, and take our sweet time.

But here’s the real bonus: when you’re in the car, driving down the highway, there is absolutely nothing else you can do but drive down the highway. And that is precious. See you next week.

Instant Response: A Biblical Mash-Up

Traditionally, the response in worship to a reading from the Old Testament is the recitation or singing of a psalm. So it’s no surprise when the psalm chosen for a given Sunday reflects the Old Testament reading in some way. But what happens when you realize that a good chunk of the psalm for the third Sunday in Lent fits into an abridged version of the Ten Commandments, the text for the day? This litany, that’s what.

LITANY from Exodus 20 and Psalm 19

God spoke from the mountain and said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

The commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.

“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

The decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple.

“Honor your father and your mother.”

The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.

“You shall not murder.”

The ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

“You shall not steal.”

Moreover by your commands is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

“You shall not bear false witness.”

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

“You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

ALL: Almighty God, write your law upon our hearts.

Counting Past Ten – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17 Lent 3B

The school principal leaned through the classroom doorway
and caught the teacher’s eye.

“Could I have a word with you?”

It might mean any number of things.

Maybe the Board of Education had voted to give all teachers a raise.
Maybe there would be a fire drill in a few minutes,
or school was being dismissed early.
Maybe the principal wanted the teacher to take recess duty,
or serve on that new district-wide committee,
or turn in grades before the end of the day.

Maybe an angry parent had called.
Maybe contracts were not being renewed for next year.
Maybe someone had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Maybe someone had died.

“Could I have a word with you?” might mean anything at all.
It could be good news or bad news.
“A word” could be cause for anxiety or it could be a reason to rejoice.
It could be a word of warning or a word of promise.

As Moses met with God at the top of Mount Sinai, he must have considered all these possibilities. Continue reading

Hoping Against Hope – Sermon on Romans 4:13-25 Lent 2B

March 1, 2015

Out of the blue, we land in the middle of one of the Apostle Paul’s thickest chunks of writing this morning. If you were around during the summer, you might remember that we spent several weeks in the book of Romans, but please don’t feel guilty if that doesn’t ring a bell for you. Summer seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? For me, last Sunday seems like a lifetime ago! So here’s a little refresher course in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.

This was not a church that Paul had started, and he did not personally know the people who would receive the letter. At the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had not yet been to Rome. His letter was a kind of introduction to prepare the Roman Christians for a visit Paul was eagerly planning to make.

He had heard rumors about the church in Rome, however. He knew that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there were not in agreement, and he wanted to help them be reconciled to one another. Mostly, he wanted the Jewish Christians to recognize that faith in Jesus Christ did not require conversion to Judaism first.

In the passage we are about to read, Paul explains that becoming a member of God’s covenant group depends on one thing and one thing only: faith. And to prove his point, Paul holds up as an example the greatest patriarch of them all, good old Father Abraham.

 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25, NRSV)

In the passage we heard earlier from Genesis, the Lord appeared to Abram, and changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, or “Father of a Multitude.” The promise that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations” is only part of God’s covenant with Abraham, but it is the part Paul wants us to notice in this fourth chapter.

Paul wants his readers to recognize that God’s promise was to make Abraham the father of many nations, not just one great nation. And to drive home his point, Paul reminds us that even Abraham wasn’t a Jew. He was a Gentile, a pagan Gentile at that. Continue reading