Monday, August 28, 2017

Big Bang, Big Crunch, Big Bang

(A sermon based on 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20. Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Macon, GA on August 27, 2017)

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait …
It all started with a big bang! Bang!

We’d add a line before those that says, “And God said, ‘Let there be …’”

Still, the best we can tell, that’s the way God did it. It all started with this tremendously dense dot (scientists call it a “singularity”) that banged, and when it banged, boy howdy. The resulting universe is still expanding. Some experts think it will just keep on keeping on.

That’s also how God made the people that came to be known as Israel. There was this tremendously dense pair of dots—a “duality,” it you will—named Sarah and Abraham, and when they started expanding—well, actually, not much happened at first. It was all they could do to have Isaac. But eventually things took off, and boy howdy. Next thing they knew they were a multitude living in a relatively prosperous place under relatively successful monarchs named David and Solomon. God had told Abraham that he’d have descendants in numbers like the sands on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and, if we allow for a little divine hyperbole, he did.

But something—lots of things, actually—went wrong. Maybe one of the things that went wrong was that Abraham’s descendants never quite got, or never quite accepted, or never quite wanted to accept, that little detail in the promise to Abraham about how they were to bless other people. But differently, maybe it all became too much about their privilege and too little about their responsibility (that was in fact part of their privilege). In short, maybe it became a little too much about them and not enough about other folks.

So when the prophet whose words we find in Isaiah 40-55 told his listeners, “Look to the rock from which you are hewn” and identified that rock as Abraham and Sarah, the irony hurt. Abraham and Sarah had left Mesopotamia, gone to Canaan, and become many. Now their descendants were in exile in Mesopotamia, were exiled from Canaan, and had become few.

I mentioned earlier that some experts think the universe will expand forever. But others think that eventually gravity will take over and the universe will start contracting. They also think that it will contract until it becomes another singularity where all the matter in the universe will again be smaller than a subatomic particle.

So why are we here anyway? I don’t mean why are we here in the universe; I mean why are we here in church, worshiping God and trying to follow Jesus?

We’re here because somewhere along the way we began to realize who Jesus is. Maybe it happened in a flash; maybe it happened over time; maybe we just kind of always sort of knew. Simon Peter and the other disciples had been following Jesus around for a while, watching what he did and listening to what he said. So one day when Jesus asked them who they thought he was, Peter piped right up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus told Peter that he knew that because heaven had revealed it to him, that he was going to build his church on the rock of such heavenly insight, and that having such insight would give Peter important responsibilities indeed.

“And just think,” Peter might have said to himself, “we’re right here with you. I’m right here with you.”

You and us, Jesus. You and me, Jesus. It’s going to be great. We’re going to be great. I’m going to be great.

It’s understandable. It’s even good. We should spend as much time with Jesus as we can. We should get to know him as well as we can. We should develop that relationship as much as we can.

But think of the energy being with Jesus produces. What will happen if we keep on focusing it inward, if we let it all be about us, about me?

A big crunch will happens. And if we stay that way, we and the world will be the poorer for it.

A big bang needs to happen. All of that spiritual energy that is compressed in our relationship with Jesus needs to be turned outward.

And so after Peter said the right words about Jesus (“you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”), Jesus started telling the disciples what that meant.

He told them that he was going to suffer, die, and rise again. Peter didn’t like that. He said it couldn’t be. And then, when Jesus said that to follow him meant to lose your life, it probably dawned on Peter that what he was afraid of was true: it wasn’t just about Jesus and him. It was about Jesus and him and the world and everybody in it. It was about giving yourself away and taking others’ pain onto yourself. It was about loving your neighbor as yourself as well as loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It’s about turning the energy of our relationship with Jesus outward.

Some experts believe that the big bang that produced our universe is just one of a series. They say that every trillion years or so, a big crunch happens followed by another big bang.

Maybe every once in a while we need to go into big crunch mode: you know, let it just be about Jesus and us or Jesus and me for a while.

But it can’t stay that way, not for long.

There’s just too much love, grace, mercy, and peace to spread around.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Random Thoughts After Charlottesville

             1.  "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

      2.  Legend has it that a relative of mine named Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. I visited there last summer and there are exhibits that support the claim. So a Ruffin may have fired the shot that started the Civil War. I’m not ashamed. But I’m certainly not proud.

3.       Sometime during my boyhood, I was telling a friend how proud I was that our country had never lost a war. He said, “Well actually, Georgia was one of the Confederate states, so we lost the Civil War.” This upset me, since all children think it’s possible to win all the time. So I asked my father if the South in fact lost the Civil War. He gave me that sideways look and said, “Yes, and be glad we did.”

4.       Once a dear lady in a church I served placed a new headstone on the grave of her Confederate Army veteran grandfather. She told me she was going to hold a dedication service and asked me if I’d pray. So my Good Wife and I went to the cemetery at the appointed time. The program called for the saying of the pledge to the flag of the Confederate States of America before the saying of the pledge to the flag of the United States of America. My Good Wife asked me if I was going to say the pledge to the Confederate flag. I replied, “No, because I am not now, nor have I ever been, a citizen of the Confederate States of America.” Neither has anyone else who is alive today.

5.       The first sermon by an African-American preacher I ever heard was in a Mercer University chapel service around 1977. I don’t remember his name, but I remember something he said. He was preaching on the text in Genesis 2 about God forming a man from the dust of the earth. He said, “It’s hard to understand how one speck of dust can think it’s better than another speck just because it’s a different hue.” That made sense to me. It still does.

6.       General Robert E. Lee said this about putting up monuments after the Civil War: “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” We should have heeded his advice.

7.       The “alt-right” is all wrong.

8.       It’s a strange kind of Christianity that condones hate, much less honors and promotes it.

9.       Some of those white nationalists marching in Charlottesville on Saturday were probably raised in church. What on earth did they hear? Some of them probably went to church on the Sunday after they marched. What did their fellow parishioners say to them?

10.   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (using the words of the nineteenth century minister and philosopher Theodore Parker) famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Indeed it does.

11.   I am completely befuddled that any American can see swastikas on our streets and not be filled with indignation and sorrow.

12.   Heather Heyer cared deeply about people and tried to help the oppressed and disenfranchised. She was going to join those protesting against the Klan and Nazi marchers in Charlottesville when the car crashed into the crowd. She was killed. She was thirty-two years old. She is a hero.

13.   I understand dislike, irritation, and misunderstanding. But I can’t understand hate.

14.   “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” (Nelson Mandela)

      15.  "All you need is love. Love is all you need." (John Lennon)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Knee-Jerk Reactions

I was recently working on a story in the Gospel of Matthew (14:13-21). Jesus has just learned of the execution of John the Baptist, his kinsman and forerunner. He understandably wants to be alone, so he gets into a boat to travel to a deserted place. But when he arrives, the place isn’t deserted. A large crowd is waiting for him because they have needs they believe Jesus can meet.

Here’s the line that jumped out at me from the story: “When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). When he saw the crowd with their needs, “he had compassion for them.” He saw them and he had compassion on them. That was his knee-jerk, immediate, gut-level reaction. Then he acted in light of his compassion.

Later in the story, Jesus’ disciples realize that the crowd is still in need: they have no food and there is nowhere nearby to get any. So they suggest to Jesus that he send the people away so they can buy food. Jesus has another idea that involves turning five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough provisions for the crowd. The disciples don’t think they have sufficient resources to feed a large hungry crowd, but they learn that Jesus’ power could turn their little into a lot.

But here’s the question I want to ask: how do we react at the moment we see people in need? What is our knee-jerk reaction when we see the sick, the poor, the refugee, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What is our immediate, automatic, gut-level response?

Over the years I’ve had a hard time understanding people who profess to follow Jesus but whose knee-jerk reaction to people in need is apathy (“Not my problem”), selfishness (“Not with my money”), or even disdain (“We don’t need their kind”). Sadly, I’ve known a lot of people in the church with those reactions. I’m sure other folks have such reactions too, but I find them particularly troubling in people who carry the name “Christian.”

Now, I’m not claiming that my first reaction is always compassion. But I can testify that I want it to be and that it bothers me when it isn’t.

We can’t expect all Christians to agree on the best approach to meeting people’s needs. But we can and should expect all Christians to always be growing toward having the same knee-jerk reaction to human needs. And our appropriate knee-jerk reaction is compassion.

How do I know? Because that was Jesus’ knee-jerk reaction.

Christians follow Jesus. We should always be growing in his grace and love. We want our lives to reflect his ways.

When Jesus saw people in need, the first thing he felt was compassion.

Until that’s our knee-jerk reaction, we have a long way to go.