Sunday, May 25, 2014

Welcome, New Readers from the Presbyterian Church of Lowell!

I am pleased, excited, thrilled, chuffed, and tickled pink to announce that I have been called as the new Pastor of The Presbyterian Church of Lowell!

Of all the emotions one feels at such a significant transition, the one of which I am most aware is gratitude.

I'm grateful for a Committee on Preparation for Ministry which has guided me for the last ten years.

I'm grateful for the First Presbyterian Church of Morganton, who helped raise me and train me.

I'm grateful to Columbia Theological Seminary, for taking a chance and giving me the opportunity to develop ministry skills.

I'm grateful for St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, for teaching me the difference between being a good seminarian and being a pastoral presence.

I'm grateful for the Designated Pastor Nominating Committee (DPNC) for their diligent work in discerning God's will for what is now our community.

But most of all, I'm grateful to God who has guided us through all of our journeys so that the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell and I can walk together for a time and be mutually encouraged by one another.

I'll be moving into my new study for the first part of the week, and would love for folks to drop by and introduce themselves. I also invite you to find me on Facebook, which will help me learn your names more quickly.

I'm so excited to get to know these people, to collaborate with them in ministry, and to participate with them in worship.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To an Unknown God

Acts 17: 16-34

16While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-Worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, "What an amateur! What's he trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods." (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. "What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean." (21They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

22Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown God.' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn't live in temples made with human hands, 25Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn't far away from any of us. 28In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, 'We are his offspring."
29Therefore, as God's offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead."

32When they heard about this resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, "We'll hear from you about this again." 33At that, Paul left the council. 34Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

The close of the Easter Season and the close of the Academic year often parallel each other, and this year is no exception. Around the country institutions of learning are celebrating the accomplishments of their graduates, faculty are awaiting their sabbatical leave even as they reach back to grade last term's papers and exams, and newly christened alumni listen with mildly bored expressions to commencement speakers who try in vain to teach one final lesson through the words of this poet or that philosopher.

And Paul, waiting for his companions, is deeply distressed to find the city of Athens flooded with idols.

Auditoriums swell with parental pride as the parade of graduates passes by to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." Churches hold special rituals to recognize the transitions that their youth are making from Youth Groups into whatever may be next. Students compare notes and final grades, celebrating triumph or commiserating about the teacher who "just didn't like me."

Paul talks to some philosophers who happen to be in the Athenian marketplace one day. They are unimpressed with his public speaking abilities, snickering to themselves even before he leaves earshot.

This time of year we see celebrations of graduations, as our brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, and sometimes parents and grandparents, are honored as learned ones. This amazing mind which God has given us allows us to stretch ourselves and discover more of the world around us, reaching for new understandings of creation, and seeking to know more about its creator.

Paul is taken into custody and brought to the council on Mars Hill. He's interrogated about this new teaching. They've surmised he is a proclaimer of foreign gods, telling him "You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean."

The philosophers of Athens are the height of pluralism, and our scripture passage points to why: they were after the newest thing. Their learnedness stemmed not from a quest for truth, but from wanting to push the boundaries of what the next big thought might be.

But no matter how big the newest trend might be, God is still bigger, and for all their philosophy and culture, the Athenians don't have a handle on the one true God.

It's human nature to try and make sense of the world. Though we catch glimpses of God's activity in creation, or in a still small voice, we cannot truly know the God whom we seek by our own insight. Since we cannot hold onto the vast greatness of God we carve him up into little earthly tokens, grasping only what pieces appeal to us, making idolatry out of God's glory. Or, as Anne Lamott put it, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do."

Once you've made that leap, as those who built the temples and idols that flooded the city of Athens, you're left with plenty of opportunities to pat yourself on the back for choosing the right combination of little gods. Then you can judge those who don't have their lives as together as you do. When they fail and you succeed, you can congratulate yourself for being so enlightened.

But Paul seems to have a different take on their broad swaths of enlightenment: "Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, 'People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an Unknown God,' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.'"

Perhaps this altar to an unknown God was meant to be an expression of hospitality, inviting those whose worship practices were not represented elsewhere in the town. Perhaps it was a sign that their pantheon was constantly expanding, an adoptive tolerance of all new things. I tend to think it was a confession that for all their being "very religious in every way" something was still missing which their wisdom and philosophy could not fill. There's innate human desire to seek our creator, and Paul points out that "God made the nations so they would seek him," even though we are stumbling around in the dark on our own. The Athenians sense that their pantheon is just a bundle of idols, leaving them unsatisfied because it lacks truth.

Their quest for novelty thinly veils their longing for truth, as though their whole culture is saying "perhaps the next new thing will bring us wholeness." It's easy, in such an unfocused world as first-century Athens, to lose trust when each new "truth" fails in turn.

After all, in a universe that is constantly expanding, how can we really know anything? Science empirically describes the laws of nature with a little more precision each day, Arts intersect with the human experience in a few more places each moment, but they just give us facts and shadows, which can only give us passing excitement, rather than assure us of truth. In a world like first-century Athens, we can recognize the tendency toward abandoning the trust in an absolute truth. Perhaps there is only "talking about or listening to the newest thing." Are the objects of worship in the Athenian Pantheon, or even all the world's religions just different paths toward the same spiritual goal? Some universally accessible unknown god?


This stranger, amateur, proclaimer-of-foreign-gods named Paul speaks into the maelstrom of our moral relativism with conviction that can only come with personal experiences of God: "What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you."

Because although humanity cannot grasp our infinite God on our own, God reveals himself to us. Scripture is one such revelation, preserved by the Holy Spirit in a form that is meant to be a unique and authoritative witness, through which God is revealed. The way we truly know God, though, is through Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

The place where we know Jesus best is in the crucifixion and resurrection. At the crucifixion, God shows us that death, even death on a cross, is not enough to separate us from the God who loves us. Jesus Christ descends into total separation from God, crying out "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" But such a separation cannot stand, and the power of sin and death is defeated for all time. Nothing will separate God from those whom he loves, and "God has given proof of this to everyone," Paul says, "by raising [Jesus] from the dead." No matter what else may happen, we trust that God has us firmly in hand, and will not let us go.

In a world that is so frequently unfocused as our own, where science and art redefine the boundaries of human thought daily, it is a great comfort to me to know that God is wholly reliable. The truth of God is certain, even if our perception of the world is not.

Paul frames his testimony of the risen Christ as a call to repent, to "change our hearts and lives" in this translation. But when the truth is revealed, how can we not turn away from the idol distractions of the marketplaces of Athens and dedicate our lives to glorifying God and enjoying him forever? Christ has established a new model for what it means to be a human being, one grounded in obedient faith and relentless love for God and our fellow humans.

That's the next new thing that Paul offers Athens: a life liberated from slavery to sin, an opportunity to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, and the assurance that we are redeemed by a God who loves us. It's a new life, but an ancient truth that was established from before the foundations of the world. It also means leaving behind the habits we built in "our ignorance of these things in times past." That's a tough thing for those who have benefited from those old habits to do. Chasing each new thing has made them famous, or wealthy, or powerful, the truth of God promises none of these things. As one commentator put it, "Novelty attracts their attention more quickly than truth."

While we are pursuing the new and shiny, the truth of God pursued us and claimed us as precious, and honored in God's sight. Where Paul saw an altar to an unknown God, we have come to know God through Christ. We can walk, therefore, in newness of life, instead of just chasing novelty.

So, in that newness of life, let us establish a pluralism that isn't based on the newest thing, but is grounded in truth. Let us build a tolerance that isn't based on permissiveness, but which flows through righteousness. We have a God who is known to us, we know that "In God we live, move, and exist", and we live in a world that is seeking God. If that's not a call to service, I don't know what is.

But something seems to be stopping us. It's possible that we don't entirely trust this new opportunity to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we are afraid that like Paul, we'll be mocked. Perhaps we're worried that if we share too much of this news we'll have to change ourselves. Compared to the cost of discipleship, it's certainly easier to dismiss others while celebrating our own achievement.

There's a lot of self-congratulation among the Athenian Philosophers who mock Paul for his simple mannerisms and strange ideas, and I think that is a temptation for the church as well. When we look at ourselves as the enlightened ones we look down on the "others," whomever they may be. Occasionally that means non-believers, but usually it means people whom we have decided worship in the wrong way, or who do church differently than we do. It's easy to say that this group is too quick to follow the new and trendy, or to say that group is too slow and stuck in their ways. Either way, we take a moment to celebrate that we are wiser and more aware of the "real world" than they.

By judging ourselves as superior to those on whom we shower our disdain, we are supplanting the true Judge - our Lord Jesus Christ - of whom we are called to be servants. Our task is not to judge the "unenlightened," but to love them, just as Christ first loved us.

Paul states that "God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed." But that should not give us anxiety. The man whom God has appointed to judge the world justly is Christ, who died for us, who rose for us, who reigns in power over us, and who prays for us.

The same one who judges us is also the one in whom we have our redemption. Though it will not make sense to any of our philosophies born of human observation, Christ's resurrection shows the truth of who God is.

Because the truth of God cannot be contained. The Roman Empire tried to crucify the truth, but Christ lives through the resurrection. "When the council of Mars Hill heard about this resurrection from the dead, some of them began to ridiculed Paul", and Lord knows God's petty people have found innumerable ways to misrepresent the truth over our history. But we know God is still active in the world, sometimes through us, sometimes in spite of us. Through all the hurt in our world and in our church, we do not seek "an unknown god." We pray to the God who is revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Pentecost is almost upon us, Easter season is coming to a close. Like the graduates commencing with the next chapter of their lives, we have been given the knowledge we need to begin. The only degree we need was conferred at our baptism. We are called to serve not because it's the next new thing but because it's who we are. Our identity is deeply rooted in the identity of Jesus Christ, who shows us what it means to be a human being. It's not enough to just say it in our buildings, we've got to get out and listen to the ways that our people are seeking God, and to find ways tell to them the truth that has set us free.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Emmaus Imagination

We're in this worship space celebrating the third Sunday of Easter. We're still here talking about the resurrection that happened, for us, last month. Some churches invite special guests musicians, or add an extra sunrise service, or do things in a generally "bigger" way than we worship from week to week. A lot of folks wear a special Easter dress, or a different suit. Did Don wear his pink bow tie again this year, or was that a one time thing?

In all the Pomp, we may be losing perspective on just how strange these events were to those who lived them. A handful of folks had been raised from the dead, but nobody had ever seen anything like a resurrection before, so the word was a little slow getting out.

Our morning worship, therefore, begins on the afternoon of Christ's resurrection. Verse thirteen: "On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem." 

One of the things that struck me in reading this question is why these disciples, who have heard the report of the resurrection, are already heading out. Our churches have been celebrating for two weeks, and have several more to go, and these two guys are skipping town. If we back up just a couple of verses into Luke's account of the resurrection, the women are telling the rest of the disciples about the empty tomb. But "Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn't believe the women."

It's possible to hear the good news of the gospel, the promise of the resurrection, and be struck as though it is nonsense. It's possible to witness the collapse of a ministry and not believe that something can be built from the rubble. It's possible to find yourself ready to leave Jerusalem on Easter Sunday because the Golgotha imagination can only see the end of a ministry, the death of one we had hoped would redeem Israel.

All of our journeys are going to have stretches when the good news of Christ's resurrection sounds like nonsense. That's part of our reality as Christians. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been chosen for an arduous journey, and as a church we choose to travel that path together, as faithfully as possible. There are obstacles on our path that challenge our ability to imagine what may be on the other side.

The ancient Israelites journeyed to the promised land and grumbled against Moses all along the way because they were only able to imagine life as slaves in Egypt, or the hardship of the wilderness wanderings. The people of Judah were carried into exile in the land of Babylon and mourned the total collapse of their society, they were only able to imagine that God had failed them and the idols of Babylon had defeated their Lord. The chief priests and leaders in first century Palestine killed a man who was the Christ because they were only able to imagine the weight of the Roman empire crushing their people if a rebellion sparked. These two disciples left Jerusalem and headed for a little town called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, because they could not imagine that God would resurrect their crucified redeemer.

But just as God sent a lawgiver who could imagine a land flowing with milk and honey. Just as God called prophets who could imagine a God that was with the people even in exile, working to bring them back home at the right time. So God sent a Messiah who could imagine redemption and resurrection for all God's people.

And those two disciples on the road from Jerusalem? "While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey."

I think what happens next is one of the truest parts of the gospel narrative. Although it only appears in Luke, there's so much power in it to expand our imaginations and shift our lives. Even before they believe, or even know, what God is doing in their midst, they proclaim the gospel. They can only imagine Calvary's suffering, and the news some women from their group brought them seems like nonsense to them. But when a stranger whom they do not recognize asks them what's happening, they tell the story even if, at that moment, they cannot believe it.

God's action is not limited by our ability, or our imagination. God's ability to use us for ministry is not bound by our belief. God interrupts us on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, "What are you talking about as you walk along?" and then takes over so that the gospel may be preached even in our unbelief. The good news of Jesus Christ is so powerful that it is proclaimed even through our weak faith and limited imagination.

So they tell Jesus his own story, not imagining that they are telling the most important truths of human history. ""The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago.

"But there's more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn't find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn't see him."

The resurrected Christ responds to the testimony of their Golgotha imagination by breaking down all of scripture, giving them the truth of the arc of human history. His response is not without judgement. ""You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Essentially: "You should have known!"

We should have known that God would not be stopped by something as limited as death. All death can do is carry us to our graves, but God is capable of anything. I was at a wedding yesterday, and the minister read the scripture that says "Love is strong as death.
" He then pointed out that the resurrection demonstrates that love is stronger than death. Jesus gives the disciples, and us, just a taste of judgement for not having the imagination to recognize how God was at work, for not having the faith to believe that the cross would not stop God's redemptive love.

But Christ's word of judgement, "You foolish people," is ultimately a word of  love. "You should have known better, but since you didn't, here's what's going on." He's not willing to leave behind these disciples who are trying to get out of Jerusalem because all they can imagine is faith that has died. "Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets."

But the disciples were still prevented from recognizing him.

When they were unknowingly preaching his death and resurrection, they did not recognize him. When Christ was lecturing them on the theology of the Old Testament, they did not recognize him. When they were walking along the road to their homes, they did not recognize him. When they invited him into their home, they still did not know who is was who was in their midst. "After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him,"

It is at the breaking of the bread, the enactment of the Lord's Supper, that we encounter the risen Christ. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that elevates us to dine with Christ at the Lord's Table, and that encounter gives us an Emmaus Imagination, where we can catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God already in our midst. Our eyes had been clouded with the heartbreak, heartbreak that the one we hoped would redeem Israel was handed over to be crucified. Now, however, we have seen the Lord and know the truth of those words that had once seemed to be nonsense.

Christ is certainly present with them throughout this whole story, and I have every confidence that Christ is present with us throughout our stories as well, whether we are able to believe it or not. Christ's presence among us is very real, although it is not in a physical way. Since we cannot experience Christ through our senses, it is left to our Emmaus Imagination to open our eyes so that we can recognize someone who's presence is more real than any sight or touch or smell.

Perhaps the strangest, most complicated, mysterious branch of theology is how we understand the sacraments. Most people just say they don't know how it happens, only that it does. Sharing in the Lord's Supper is one of the central acts of the worshipping life of the church, because it's how we recognize Christ in our midst. One commentator remarked on this Emmaus story saying, "There is no doubt that Luke is serving not only the story of Jesus but also that of the church which knows him in these ways.

Once Christ breaks the bread and the disciples' eyes were opened, and they recognized him, he disappears. The two disciples, who had left Jerusalem because they could not imagine the nonsense of the women from their group being truth, leave after it's already dark and walk, perhaps even run, seven miles back from Emmaus to tell their friends and colleagues, their brothers and sisters in Christ, what they have seen.
So even though the word of Christ's resurrection has gotten out slowly, spreading through the testimony of those who have gone from inability to believe to absolute faith in the resurrected Christ, the story is still told, and we still encounter Christ. We share in the first-hand experience of the resurrected Christ with these disciples who have returned filled with Emmaus Imagination.

The nonsense of the women at the tomb has become these disciples testimony too, and in turn has become ours. We have seen the LORD, the Messiah of the resurrection, whenever we gather around the bread and the cup, which awaken us to the real presence of Christ in our midst.

Alleluia, Amen.