Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Hands Tell a Story



I confess I’m a little embarrassed to show my hands. They look so…old.

I can’t hide them like I can the silver strands in my hair. I can only stuff them in pockets or cross my arms and hide them under my armpits.

But my hands can’t be hidden for very long. I have to expose them at the cash register or under the lights of the manicurist or at the dinner table with guests.

I don’t know if they even notice, but I do. And I see…and then reflect…

I see joints deformed from calcium deposits and aching after holding a trowel too long.

But then I reflect. I still have plants I want to plant. Dreams I want to dream. And I protest that I’m not ready to give them up. So I will push through the pain.

I see loose skin creating wrinkled landscapes on the back of my hands.

But then I reflect. These hands tell my story of learning to work hard and being willing to get them dirty.  Scrubbing out diapers in the toilet was hard. Keeping my sister clean while she lay dying was harder. I have always resisted wearing gloves and reached to touch whatever God placed in front of me. I’ve learned that life’s crap is fertilizer for life's fruit. And getting myself a manicure is a waste of money.

I see age spots like permanent cloud shadows on my hands, consequences of too much time in the sun.

But then I reflect. I don’t regret soaking in the rays. Each age spot holds memories of playing under the tropical sun of my childhood and under the Northwest summer sun with my children. And new memories are made as my hands push gently against the backs of my grandchildren while they can swing as high as they can to touch the sky. I wonder under which sun they will find God’s purposes for them.

I see and reflect and then decide there is no shame in knobby, wrinkled, spotted hands. Ask me how they came to look so old and I will gladly tell you their stories.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

My First Sermon

Evergreen Community at the Lucky Lab Pub in the Pearl District

In my last post I wrote about finally being in a church with egalitarian views and practices. I had just delivered my first sermon in my own home church. It was a moment of healing and redemption considering what my journey had been to get there. 

On the Monday following I met with the lead pastor and we made a plan for me to grow as a preacher. He also gave great encouragement as well as constructive criticism. I am EXCITED and GRATEFUL for the opportunity.


Many friends asked if the church had recorded my sermon but apparently something went wrong so there isn't a way to listen to it. (It may be cool to meet in a local pub in Portland on Sunday morning but the audio-visuals are challenging.) So the best I can do is offer the written form of my sermon which is definitely longer than I normally post for my blog. 


P.S. Most of the questions I ask in the sermon are actually not rhetoric. I am able to engage the people in conversation and responses which I thoroughly enjoy since my main spiritual gift is teaching. Also, after communion, I went back up to ask the closing question asked every Sunday by the preacher: "What do you hear God saying to you this morning?" I love this part of the service!


So here it is, my sermon from Luke 3.





In early December an article was published in the Daily Beast after an interview with a Portland businessman named Grant Chisholm. Chisholm does street preaching on the side.
The writer said this about him: “According to his sidewalk rhetoric, God hates strip clubs, “homosex”, Catholics, football, and probably most Portland residents.
The title of the article was “The Hipster Fred Phelps,” meaning Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist, the ultra-conservative church with the website "godhatesfags.com." They also made national news when they picketed military funerals. 
But Chisholm’s stated opinion was that Phelps was a horrible person. He told the interviewer, “He’s a hate-monger. I absolutely despise his existence.”
A follow up article in the Oregonian a few weeks later revealed that as a result of the connection to Phelps, there's been a call in Portland to boycott Chisholm’s business. The article described the painful economic and emotional toil on him. But in the article Chisholm admits this:
“I love controversy. I love arguing. I love being in people’s faces because then I see more evidence of lives being changed than I ever did handing out sandwiches or free haircuts.”
I don't want to judge his motives so let’s assume that Chisholm loves God and sincerely cares for people's souls. What is your response to this? Or to any street preacher you run into? What feelings or tensions do you have when you listen to hellfire and damnation preaching? (Responses ranged from admiration to embarrassment to rejection from the congregation.)
This morning we will be taking a look at Luke 3, a pivotal chapter in this gospel. We'll be reading the story of John the Baptist the way Luke tells it. I have heard some preachers refer to John to support their confronting style.
I’ll just say up front I don’t believe Luke is giving anyone permission to use John as a model of preaching, at least not in the way people typically understand him. Pay attention to any details that stand out to you as we read the passage.
Luke 3:1-20
It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.
At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness. Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. 
Isaiah had spoken of John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him! The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth. And then all people will see the salvation sent from God.’”
When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, (This is where I had a little fun. I got up on a footstool and yelled at the top of my lungs this part of John's rant along with some finger pointing.)“You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. (I quit yelling and got down after this, not wanting to push my luck.)
Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry."
Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, "Teacher, what should we do?" He replied, "Collect no more taxes than the government requires."
“What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”
Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. John answered their questions by saying, “I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
John used many such warnings as he announced the Good News to the people.
What are some things that jump out at you in this passage? What comparisons or contrasts would you make between Chisholm and John? What questions come to mind as you read this?
Let's work our way through the passage as best we can. I can't unpack it thoroughly but I want to highlight some thoughts including the ones you have offered.
Historical Setting (Luke 3:1-2a)
I’m not going to go into detail on who all these people were and what their titles meant but there are a couple of things to understand from this list.
First of all the historical details tell us that Israel was in a really bad place. They were suffering under tremendous political oppression under Roman rule. In fact they had been under foreign domination for nearly 800 years.
There also was turmoil in the religious community. Several groups including the Pharisees and Sadducees were competing with each other on what it meant to obey God and how they could go back to being one nation under God or rather how they should respond to Roman rule.
Also apocalyptic literature was flourishing during this period. Along with their dualistic views of good vs. evil and God vs. Satan, apocalypticists warned that the end of the age was coming soon and the Jews would finally be vindicated. But it wasn’t going to be pretty.
It had been 400 years of silence since the last prophet or visitation from Yahweh. The people were losing hope and getting desperate. The biggest question on their minds was, “Has Yahweh abandoned us and forgotten his promises to Israel?”
John’s Calling (Luke 3:2b-3)
In the midst of oppression, poverty and a spiritual wilderness, John enters the landscape with the voice of a prophet. Considering their history of failure as a nation, prophets usually equaled judgment. Meaning not so warm and fuzzy messages.
So the word of God comes to John setting him apart as a prophet. But this time the message seems different, even hopeful, maybe comforting. Really Harriet? Where do you get that? OK so let me explain why street preachers shouldn’t use John as support for their rhetoric.
Everything about John was different. And not just his camel hair vest and diet of locusts and honey, a description Luke doesn’t even bother including. Of course, John would have fit just fine in the Portland scene.
His baptism was not what they were used to. Up to now the Jews understood baptism as either a repeated ritual for cleansing from sins or as an outward expression for Gentiles who converted to the Jewish faith, similar to how we view baptism in the church today.
But I don’t believe this is what John’s baptism meant. His was a unique baptism because of his unique calling during a unique historical context. He was born to prepare the people for the arrival of the Messiah.
And John’s message was different too. The repentance John called for was much deeper than just a rejection of sins and a change in behavior.
John’s role was to prepare the people to take a certain heart posture that said, “I will abandon my ways to find security, wholeness and even favor with God and I will be ready to walk the new path God is providing back to Himself.”
Darrell Bock in his commentary on Luke describes John this way:
His ministry in the Jordan River region is designed to get people ready for the arrival of God’s salvation by having hearts open to respond to the coming Messiah.
Isaiah 40 (Luke 3:4-6)
Understanding John as a prophet and transitional figure is so important that 3 out of the 4 gospels connect him to Isaiah 40. But by quoting a few verses from there, the gospel writers intended to use the broader Old Testament passage to inform the reader. For a culture that relied on oral history, these quotes were meant to stimulate the memory to make deeper connections to past history and writings.
If you’ve read the book of Isaiah you know that there is a major thematic break between chapters 39 and 40. Isaiah chapters 1-39 is all doom and gloom, judgment and wrath for the Jews. Then suddenly, the tone and content changes in chapter 40.
Let’s read some key passages from Isaiah 40 and see if anything that helps us understand John’s message in a different light:
Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned. Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over for all her sins.” (40:1-2)
Then comes the passage quoted in Luke:
Listen! I hear the voice of someone shouting, "Make a highway for the LORD through the wilderness. Make a straight, smooth road through the desert for our God. Fill the valleys and level the hills. Straighten out the curves and smooth off the rough spots. Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The LORD has spoken!" (40:3-5)
Verse 9 offers the first OT reference to the “good news” or gospel:
Messenger of good news, shout to Zion from the mountaintops! Shout louder to Jerusalem -- do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, "Your God is coming!" Yes, the Sovereign LORD is coming in all his glorious power. He will rule with awesome strength. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. (40:9-11)
The crowds in our story have been living in the first half of Isaiah, in the doom and gloom. John’s job is to transition them to the second half, to bring comfort and hope not fear. God is a shepherd, not a judge. He has not abandoned them. He has seen their troubles and things are about to change. Just not in the way they expected.

Luke is the only one who quotes a few more verses from Isaiah 40 than the other gospels do. (Luke 3:5-6) Last week Dustin pointed out the bookends of the theme that God’s salvation is for all nations which can be found at the beginning of the gospel and the end of Acts of Luke's two-volume set. This theme is found again in these verses from Isaiah 40 with the metaphor of leveling the landscape so all peoples will see God’s salvation.


But there’s a twist in the plan of salvation. The leveling is not quite so benign. Leveling requires the removal of the obstacles and the obstacles turn out to be the Jews themselves. The plan of saving all nations will have collateral damage, not by God’s choice but by their choice. His own people will reject Jesus and this becomes the means for saving the world.


Let me insert a caveat here. I recognize that not all Jews rejected Jesus. Many believed and became disciples. So I am referring to the rejection mostly of those in power, especially the religious leaders.


The cause for Jesus’ rejection is Luke’s secondary theme. Whereas the other gospel writers build up to Jesus’ rejection, Luke introduces it much earlier – we see in the next chapter when Jesus is nearly thrown off the cliff in his hometown.


Confrontation (Luke 3:7-9)

In this next section of our passage we get a clue to the “why” of the rejection. These verses are also found in Matthew nearly word for word except for one detail. Matthew identifies the “snakes” as being the Pharisees and Sadducees. But Luke says “the crowds”. Why does the difference?


Because a broader group fits into Luke’s theme of how Israel as a nation will respond to God’s new plan. John’s rebuke to the crowds is pointed to all the Jews who are relying too heavily on their connection to Abraham to be spared God’s wrath, a wrath that is probably being preached more by the apocalypticists than John who is preaching hope from Isaiah 40.


Luke makes clear God’s new plan has nothing to do with heritage. The old covenant tree, the Law, never produced the fruit God intended and it must be cut down. This is an obstacle to be removed from the landscape to bring God’s salvation to the nations. And most of the Jews are not going to accept this.


Practical application (Luke 3:10-14)


Luke goes on to describe a scene that is only in his gospel – the response of the crowds. Their question is a direct response to John’s exhortation to “prove by the way they live that they have repented of their sins and turned to God.” I personally prefer the more literal translation: “Produce fruits worthy of repentance.”

As you imagine the scene in your mind, you don’t get the sense that John is targeting any specific sins except one – relying on their Jewish ethnicity to save them. Now a sense of panic sets into the crowds.

Their question “What should I do?” becomes the natural response to being told Judaism is no longer the path to God’s favor.

John can’t answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” since Jesus hasn’t started his ministry yet. So he tells them, the kind of fruit that is worthy of repentance is the kind that shows how well you treat others.
The Jews should not have been too surprised by John's answers. Everything from the Torah was intended to impact their relationships with their neighbor in a redemptive way.
In essence I believe his answer means this, “The Messiah is soon coming with salvation. While you're waiting for him, one thing has never changed in his plan. Those that want to show they are on board with God, that they have repented and turned to God, can obey what he has always commanded: Love your neighbor.”
Interestingly only Luke tells the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus identifies the good neighbor – it’s the one who shows mercy.
In each of John’s responses you see that the nature of one’s fruit is specific to the individual and their particular sphere of influence or impact.
I don’t hear a voice of condemnation or judgment. I hear a preacher responding to people who are trying to process this shocking news.
Luke is very much concerned with social justice issues, which you see throughout his gospel and into Acts where the young church shares all their possessions with each other so no one is needy. But Luke is careful to address social justice from the beginning point of a repentant heart. The heart behind any social action should be, “I am just as much in need of mercy as the person I am feeding.”
If you notice, you don’t know if the crowds followed through with John’s suggestions. The question still hangs in the air, “What should I do?” Both John's and Luke’s ultimate answer is:
Look at Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Soften your hearts towards Jesus.
Unfortunately, we know later in Luke that the Jews reject that answer. They repeat the mistake of Isaiah 30:15:
The Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says, "Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.
John the Messiah? (Luke:15-18)
The people sense that things are about to change, so they think John must be the Messiah. But John quickly squashes the rumor that his baptism is the end game. He points to the Messiah who has a greater baptism, a baptism of the HS and fire, which anticipates the Day of Pentecost.
I interpret the metaphor of the threshing floor to mean the same thing as the ax at the root of the tree. Jesus’ baptism is the real deal now, the wheat, not the chaff of the OT system, a new branch not the old tree of the Law. This repeated warning again sets up Luke’s explanation of Jesus’ rejection. The religious leaders are not going to like this twist in God’s plan.
Luke further foreshadows Jesus’ rejection by telling us of John’s not-so-happy ending (Luke 3:19-20):
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others.
Jesus' Ministry (Luke 3:21-23)

Here is the turning point of Luke’s story – the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that will now take center stage.
One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. And a voice from heaven said, "You are my beloved Son, and I am fully pleased with you. " Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry.
In this one brief description of Jesus' baptism, all three persons of the Trinitarian Godhead are present. But all eyes are only on one - Jesus, the dearly loved Son of God.

What is going to play out in Luke’s gospel is the inconceivable but historical event that heaven meets humanity in the form of the God-man Jesus.

So Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Does this raise a question for you? It did for John. We know from Matthew that John wanted Jesus to baptize him. But Jesus insists John do the baptizing. Here's the question: Was Jesus baptized as an expression of repentance? Well, yes and no. I see the significance of Jesus’ baptism as two-fold.
First, as a connection to the OT through John. We get this from Matthew’s account where Jesus tells John he needed to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus is the fulfillment of the hope and promises of God given in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah 40.
And second, yes, as a baptism of repentance…but not from sins. This is where we need a deeper, more robust understanding of repentance. Remember, the essence of repentance is not a change in behavior or remorse for sins, though it certainly can include those aspects. It's much more than that.
The essence of repentance is a posture of the heart, a heart ready to respond to God and Jesus does that without sinning. In the rest of the gospel we see Jesus living a human life with a heart always turned upward, in complete obedience to the Father and dependence on the HS. Jesus did not repent or turn away from sin because he was sinless. But he set aside, or “turned away from” his divine powers (see Philippians 2) and lived humbly and obediently as a human.
Luke gives us a glimpse this heart orientation toward God by telling us the heavens opened while "he was praying," a detail left out of the other gospels. In fact Luke has more references to Jesus praying than any other gospels.
Genealogy (Luke 3:23b-38)
I want to stop here because what’s next is a genealogy that’s no fun to read out loud but it’s still significant in Luke’s overall purpose to his gospel. There are a number of differences between Luke’s genealogy and Matthew’s, which I don’t have time to get into. But one main difference is important.
Matthew starts with Abraham and moves forward through David to Jesus but Luke goes backward in time... through David... past Abraham... and on to Adam.
Luke’s main point is to connect Jesus to Adam to prove he is fully human and representative of all humanity. By linking Jesus to the first Adam, Luke subtly but forcefully moves past the arrogance of those who think their connection to Abraham gives them a privileged and protected place in God’s plan.
But he doesn’t stop with Adam. Luke keeps going and says Adam was the “son of God,” an echo of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. With his genealogy, Luke drives home the point that God from the beginning of creation has had all of humanity in mind in his plan of salvation.
He also spells out the ultimate reason for Jesus’ rejection. Jesus is fully human as son of Adam, but also fully divine as son of God. And the Jews are really not going to like this.
So what I see in John’s life is not a model of preaching hellfire and damnation. When I listen to him I don’t hear words of wrath but words of comfort and hope. When I hear the word “repent” I don’t hear a judgment but an invitation to be open to God’s plan and presence. When I consider what sins require repentance, I shouldn’t think about a certain list of sins, which only give me reason to think I am superior to others who have greater sins.
I should think first about one sin, one that levels the playing field – my efforts to control my own life or as a friend of mine likes to say, "my way rather than Yahweh." Yeah, I groaned too whenever he said that.
When I look at Jesus I see God who enters into humanity to show us how to become more human the way he created us to be, to model dependence on God through the HS, to walk with us in the midst of our dark places, to show us God’s heart, not one of wrath, but of compassion, gentleness and humility.
It took me a long time to really believe this for myself. I have a personal metaphor of a dark tunnel to describe the difficult periods of my life. I’ve learned that every tunnel has an end where I come out into the light, even if the tunnel is life threatening and the end is stepping into eternity, something that helped as I journeyed with my sister and her cancer until she passed away last spring.
It’s not so much the end that causes me to doubt. What’s difficult is knowing how to walk in the dark until I get there. I have the type of personality that says, “I will figure it out myself. I will fix whatever is broken.” And then my strategies don’t work and I am miserable and angry. Or in one dark tunnel that lasted 7 years, I lost my faith. What I have discovered in each tunnel is that repentance from my strategies opens the door to God’s presence. His wisdom, strength and love are all the light I need while I finish the tunnel with him.
Communion
From our passage this morning, I invite you to consider two questions. 
(1) What is my heart posture today? 
(2) And what should I do?
These questions are the starting point for every single one of us whether you're contemplating a faith in Jesus or you have walked with Jesus for many years.
It doesn't matter who you are...
your ethnicity or your education,
your social or economic status,
your gifts and passions or your sexual preference.
What matters most to God is fruit coming from a heart of repentance, fruit that naturally grows from the mercy of God.
A willingness to repent with a heart posture that is open to God and a response of "What should I do?" may lead to a question that Luke hopes you'll ask, “What would encountering Jesus, the son of God and the son of Adam mean for you, especially since he came with hope, not wrath?”
As you come to the table, another place where heaven meets humanity, please come to engage God in whatever way you need.
As you take the bread and the juice or wine, which represent Jesus' body and blood, I invite you to ask Jesus what you need to understand about Him. Open your heart to Him. Repent.
Let's pray:
Father, open our ears to receive a word from you.
Jesus, open our eyes to see you in the place we are this morning.
Holy Spirit, open our hands and move our feet to love others in the places we need to go.
God, give us hearts of repentance. Amen.