Sunday, August 22, 2010

When God Breaks In

(A sermon based on Luke 13:10-17 for Sunday, August 22, 2010)

While neatly defined categories don’t work, I can fairly say that everyone here today falls into one of three categories. First, some of us are broken down and busted up and messed up and we need God to put us back together. Second, some of us think we have it all together and have it all figured out—particularly when it comes to who God is and how God works and what God wants, not to mention what’s going in other people’s lives— and we need God to break us down so that we can be built back better. Third—and I imagine that the vast majority fit here—some of us are kind of busted up and kind of have it together all at the same time and so we need all kinds of help; we need in some ways to be put back together and we need in some ways to be broken apart!

Broken down

Jesus went to a synagogue on the Sabbath—the equivalent of going to church on Sunday morning in our setting—and there, just like he would (and just like we do) here, he encountered someone who was broken down. In that case it was a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years; she was perpetually bent over because, the text says, of a “spirit.”

That woman had been walking around looking at the dirt for eighteen years.

A lot of us spend a lot of time looking down at the dirt.

Lots of factors cause some of us to spend most of our time looking at the dirt.

It may be that we have a spiritual condition.
It may be that we have a psychological condition.
It may be that we have a spiritual condition.

Sometimes we choose to look at the dirt for so long that it becomes ingrained in us.
Sometimes we’re forced by circumstances to look at the dirt for so long that we don’t think we have another option.
Sometimes we have looked at the dirt for so long that it has come to affect everything about us.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus did not ask about or address what had placed the woman in the condition in which she found herself?

Jesus decided, even though the woman didn’t even ask him to do anything about her condition, that it was high time that she not have to look at the dirt anymore. So he touched her and healed her and she most understandably immediately began to praise God.

You may be one of those who is here broken, looking at the dirt—and you need to be picked up and put back together so you can see the sky again, so you can look people in the eye again, and especially so that you can look to God again.

God is that kind of God; Jesus is that kind of Savior. God will break into your life right where you are and right how you are and will do something about it.
A broken life can result in a broken heart and it is exactly that kind of heart into which Jesus can and will come!

If our God is that kind of God we want to be that kind of Christian body; we want to be that kind of church.

But sometimes we church people get too broken up about what God and the church are doing for and with the broken down!

In need of being broken down

And so it came to pass that the fellow in charge (beware of the person in charge!) of that local synagogue expressed his displeasure over Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath day. He said to the crowd (and thus indirectly to Jesus and to the woman in question—although isn’t it interesting that he didn’t address them directly?), “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).

You have to wonder: if that was the pervasive attitude among the leadership of the synagogue, how much help and healing really got offered on the other days? If that statement accurately reflects the level of care and compassion that was in the hearts of the people in charge, how could the atmosphere have bred much help and healing?

We want leaders in the church whose hearts are filled with compassion and caring and grace rather than with rules and traditions—don’t we?

Understand now that the leader of the synagogue was the type of fellow that most people in any time and in any place admire; he was, after all, the one who was aware of and who enforced the rules. We like such people and we frankly need such people. And the rules he wanted to enforce had as their aim the promotion of a healthy respect for a healthy practice, namely, the practice of Sabbath. It was out of concern for keeping the Sabbath holy that all kinds of rules had developed over what constituted working on that day and thus should be avoided.

The Sabbath mattered to Jesus, too; we have plenty of evidence that he observed it faithfully. But Jesus practiced what he elsewhere taught as the greatest commandments: he loved God and he loved his neighbor. And he knew and lived in light of the truth that God prefers compassion and mercy toward others as expressions of our love for God to the slavish following of all the rules and the following of tradition as an expression of that love.

To Jesus a broken rule was a small price to pay to help a broken person.

We have in our church hurting, broken people. We have in our community hurting, broken people. We have in our congregation today hurting, broken people. The Lord wants to help them and to heal them and to build them up and the Lord furthermore wants to do that through us.

None of us would object to helping someone on a Sunday so we might think that we don’t need to learn the lesson that the leader of the synagogue needed to learn. The truth is, though, that just like that leader got all bothered over Jesus breaking a Sabbath rule to heal the crippled woman so we might get all bothered by challenges to our set ways of thinking, to our assumptions about the way church—particularly polite, respectable, don’t rock the boat, maintain the status quo church—ought to be done.

For Jesus the bottom line was that a woman needed help and he helped her when the opportunity presented itself. One result of what Jesus did was that the assumptions and presuppositions and practices of the religious folks in the room got shaken up and turned on their heads.

In other words, God broke in.

God broke in, in the person of and through the actions of Jesus, to the broken down life of that broken down woman and healed and helped her. In so doing, God broke down the assumptions and practices—the very lives—of the synagogue leader and those who thought like he did. Who knows to what extent, if any, they adjusted. We’re only told that Jesus’ “opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (v. 17).

Do we need to be put to shame? Maybe—and if so, then let us be. If we need to be put to shame over the way we think about other people, if we need to be put to shame over how we value comfortableness over ministry, if we need to be put to shame over how we see people in need as an inconvenience rather than as an opportunity to show the love and grace of God, if we need to put to shame over our desire to preserve what we have rather than to share what God has given us, if we need to be put to shame over our focus on meeting the needs of people most of whose basic needs are met just fine rather than on meeting the needs of people whose basic needs aren’t being met, if we need to be put to shame over seeking even better news for us more than on sharing the Good News with those who don’t know it—then let us be shamed.

May God break us down if we need to be broken down.

But then—let us repent. Let us change. Let us turn around and go forth serving and helping and healing and rejoicing. Let us accept the grace and mercy of God and then go out to share that same grace and mercy.

Are you broken down or do you need to be broken down? Either way, God is breaking in…

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ruffin Men in Hawaii, Sixty-Something Years Apart

One day, when I was a boy and had never heard of Pearl Harbor, I heard my father telling a story to someone about something that had happened when he was in Hawaii during World War II. I asked him, “Was Hawaii in World War II?” When he stopped laughing, he said, “Yes.”

I was amazed; the scene that played on the movie screen in my brain involved people wearing grass skirts and leis, firing rifles and tossing hand grenades.

I thought about that and about a lot of other things when we visited Pearl Harbor a few days ago while in Honolulu for the Baptist World Congress.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I walked over those grounds, if I might be walking in the footsteps of my father.

Champ Lee Ruffin enlisted in the United States Navy sixty-eight years ago today, on August 14, 1942.

Between then and the day of his honorable discharge on January 6, 1946 he served in several places but, if I am interpreting his Notice of Separation correctly, he last served in Air Transport Squadron Eleven out of Honolulu. He served as an Aviation Radioman and I remember him saying that he served on a Navy transport plane and that he was based in Hawaii.

I would very much like to be able to ask Daddy about his time in the Navy; I would very much like to ask him if when he was stationed in Hawaii he might have walked where I walked; I would very much like to talk with him about his service to our nation during World War II.

Unfortunately, though, he died in 1979 at the age of 57 and, also unfortunately, I in the twenty years that I had lived to that point had not yet reached a point where I really cared to have a real conversation with him about such things. And he, like so many WWII veterans, did not readily offer much information about his experiences.

Were Daddy still living he would be 89 now and in my imagination I can see us sitting around talking, I about my peacetime trip to Hawaii for the purposes of fellowship and tourism, he about his wartime sojourn there for the purpose of saving the world from totalitarianism and fascism. I can imagine how the conversation would go as I would tell him about my experiences in Hawaii and as my stories would trigger his.

I wonder what he would remember. I wonder what he would tell.

I wonder what he would refuse to remember. I wonder what he would decline to tell.

Once, when I was around twelve or thirteen, my mother and father planned a trip to Memphis to visit their friends Ed and Melba Baldwin and their family. Because of my mother’s ill health at the time, Daddy decided that we would fly. That Delta flight from Atlanta to Memphis was the first flight of our lives for my mother and me; more significantly, I think, it was the first flight for my father since he had left the Navy some twenty-four years before.

I can still see Daddy, his face glued to the airplane window, as he looked down at the clouds during that flight to Memphis, and I wonder if he was in his mind’s eye seeing the clouds that hung over the blue waters of the Pacific as he flew over that massive body during his military service.

I wonder if somewhere in his mind he stopped for those brief moments being Department Manager of the Finishing Division of Thomaston Mills Champ Ruffin and became once again Aviation Radioman Second Class of the United States Navy Champ Ruffin.

I wonder what he saw as he peered out that airliner window.

But I wonder even more what he saw as he walked around Honolulu and as he flew over the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps there are some men left out there who served with him and who could share some memories with me. I have undertaken a very belated effort to find them if they exist.

We’ll see.

Regardless of how that search turns out, I am grateful that our trip to Honolulu prompted me to think about these things.

I am grateful that they prompted me to think about the service of Aviation Radioman Second Class Champ Lee Ruffin of Yatesville, Georgia, who on this date in 1942 committed himself to doing his part to serve our country and to preserve our freedoms.

I wish I could tell him how proud I am of him.

I hope he knows.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Dinner with Jesus

(A Communion Meditation based on Matthew 9:10-13)

Whom would you invite to have dinner in your house?

Most of us would not invite someone with a bad reputation or someone who committed obvious sin. Most of us would not invite someone who was an outcast from society, whose presence in our home would make our friends and neighbors look upon us with suspicion.

Moreover, we usually want to be comfortable with our dinner guests, so we do not invite someone who has great need and who will wonder if we will do something to meet that need.

We probably would not eat in the homes of such people, either.

In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were outcasts. They collaborated with the hated Roman occupiers and were seen as traitors to Israel. They were often cheats and criminals. They were not admired by the Romans, either, so they had no friends except for those who were like they were.

So it is amazing that one day Jesus called one of those tax collectors to be his disciple. His name was Matthew. Matthew immediately invited Jesus to his house for a meal.

And Jesus went.

Matthew invited many of his friends and cohorts to join in the meal. They were other tax collectors and “sinners.” It was natural that Matthew would invite those folks because he wanted them to know this person who had accepted him, called him, and changed his life.

It was also natural that the puritanical Pharisees would criticize what was going on. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked his disciples. You see, Jesus was breaking ceremonial laws by eating with “unclean” persons. Besides, it could only hurt his reputation to dine with such riff-raff.

Listen to Jesus’ reply: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

If Jesus was here in the flesh today, with whom would he eat?

Would he eat with those self-righteous ones who believe that they are better than anyone else? Would he eat with those who put “purity” above the needs of people? Would he eat with those whose circle is so small as to include only those of like biased mindset? Perhaps he would; he did sometimes eat with such folks when he was walking the earth. But he can’t help such folks because they don’t believe that they need any help.

Jesus would definitely eat with those who are sinners and who know it.

He would dine with those whom he could help because they have no illusions about their condition. He would go to the homes of the alcoholics and drug addicts who wallow in their despair. He would go to the homes of the AIDS patients who feel helpless and hopeless. He would go to the homes of the poor who are outcast because of their economic state or to the homes of those who are outcast because of their minority status.

But would he come here? Would he come here, to this church, at this time, to eat with us?

Now, this no longer a hypothetical question, for we have come here to eat the Lord’s Supper. We are assuming that he is here. We are assuming that he is present with us as we eat the bread and drink the cup.

But is he?

He is if we recognize ourselves for what we are: sinners. If we still see ourselves as in need of his presence, he is here. If we still see ourselves as in need of repentance, he is here. If we still see ourselves as people who are falling short and who fail him all too often, he is here.

Is he here for us? As we prepare to come to the table of the Lord, let us ask ourselves: are we among those poor, needy, outcast sinners with whom Jesus gladly sits at table?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Baptists United

A very wise man in a church I once served as pastor liked to remind us, “That which unites us is stronger than that which divides us.”

That’s a good principle by which to live whether it’s in a church fellowship or in a fellowship between churches or in a larger fellowship between smaller fellowships of churches.

While that principle is not spelled out in the official statements of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), it nonetheless lies at the foundation of that fellowship. What unites the member bodies of the BWA is much stronger and more significant than what divides them.

Debra and I just returned from the 20th World Congress of the BWA that was held in Honolulu, Hawaii and we were struck, as I was when I attended the 19th Congress in Birmingham, England in 2005, by the unity in the midst of great diversity that characterizes the Alliance.

When I was a child I would sit in the Children’s Department Sunday School Assembly at Midway Baptist Church four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia while we sang with great gusto “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Beyond having both girls and boys in the group, we who were singing were not a terribly diverse lot, although I’m sure that we meant what we were singing as much as we could.

At the BWA World Congress, though, representatives of all of those children so loved by Jesus—red and yellow, black and white—gathered together to worship, to fellowship, and to learn. Some 4000 Baptists from 105 countries attended the Congress and they came from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. About 1000 more who had registered were unable to attend because the U.S. government denied them visas; among the countries affected were Angola, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, and India. Still, the display of diversity was impressive.

“That which unites us is stronger than that which divides us,” my friend said. In a fellowship made up of such diverse groups from so many places—the BWA is made up of some 219 Baptist conventions and unions comprising a membership of more than 37 million baptized believers and a community of 105 million—there is ample opportunity to find things that divide us, be it differences in culture, language, theological interpretation, or approach to social or political issues.

And there is no doubt that, if I wanted to do so, I could examine the various conventions and unions (and the various other conventions and associations and churches and individuals that comprise them) until I found something with which I disagree or that I don’t like about every one of them, including the member organizations with which I am most closely related, namely, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia (whose pastor really gives me problems!).

Indeed, I could probably find reasons not to associate with every group that associates with the BWA; for that matter, I could likely find reasons not to associate with every Baptist church and every Baptist group and every Baptist person in existence until there was no one left with whom I could associate except me and then I would really be faced with a dilemma since I would be confronted with the wisdom of Groucho Marx who said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

In life we all have to make choices. Some Baptist (and I’m sure this is true of other Christians but I know Baptists best) people, as they make decisions about their association with other Christian people, choose to place great value on purity (as defined by them) of doctrine and/or practice; it was out of such a motivation, along with other motivations, that the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago withdrew from the BWA.

As for me, I choose to seek grounds for cooperation based on shared Christian values and shared Christian mission and am willing to accept, embrace, and even celebrate the diversity that exists within the unity of Baptist and other Christian fellowship organizations and to seek unity within that diversity. I am comfortable being guided by the well-known dictum "in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity."

I therefore choose to be a supporter of and a participant in the world-wide fellowship of Baptists known as the Baptist World Alliance.

What are the Christian values and mission championed by the BWA? The BWA vision statement says,

The Baptist World Alliance is a global movement of Baptists sharing a common confession of faith in Jesus Christ bonded together by God’s love to support, encourage and strengthen one another while proclaiming and living the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit before a lost and hurting world.

That’s a vision worth supporting and working to implement!

The theme of the 2010 Baptist World Congress was “Hear the Spirit” and the BWA theme for the next five years is “In Step with the Spirit.” At the conclusion of the Congress, a message was issued that summarizes the Congress experience. It reads in part:

Now, in step with the Spirit who gives and redeems life in Jesus Christ, we confess anew that all persons are created in the image of God and are therefore worthy of receiving his redemptive grace.

In step with the Spirit, we renew our commitment to: communicate, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the truth of God in Jesus Christ as the hope of the world. Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, we have been anointed to:
--develop greater familiarity with the teachings of Christ.
--cultivate a rich prayer life.
--bear witness to the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.
--provide examples of godly living reflecting the values taught by the Lord of the church.

(And, in step with the Spirit, we renew our commitment to:) support the values reflected in the UN Millennium Development Goals. Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, we have been anointed us to:
--remove the scourge of poverty and hunger
--support efforts to provide universal education
--work for environmental sustainability
--promote gender equality
--improve child health and maternal health
--combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
--develop global partnerships

Enabled by the Spirit, let us commit ourselves to create an environment in which God’s mercy and truth become evident. Let us shine the light of God’s love in every place of human need.

Indeed, let us.

And let us do so together—because that which unites us is so much greater than that which divides us!