Monday, March 26, 2007

Why should be we do about the war?

I always wonder what the title of an article will generate. I can assume that some folks are looking for blogs and articles on the war in Iraq and may respond to this. And I also am sure that no matter what I say here, there will be someone who will disagree, but that makes our nation interesting. So let me begin by saying that I have no answers to that question. I wish I did.

I have been corresponding with a friend of mine who is a Viet Nam veteran and his brother as well as some other friends about the current world situation. Politicians seem to have all of the answers or at least it seems to me that they want everyone to think they are right. Some question whether or not the motives for going to war were pure. I think that is a waste of time. As has been said before, hind sight is usually 20/20.

I don't know why we are in the current situation. I know the answers that Washington gives and I know the answers that come across my desk every day. I suppose to find the answer, we really need to go back about 3,000 years. We are being drawn into an age old conflict and I think we will, unfortunately, remain in that situation for a long time.

So here is what I propose: I think every Christian in America and around the world should do exactly what Jesus taught us to do - Let's spend the next month, praying for our enemies. And no, I am not suggesting that we pray for their destruction as some of the Psalmist have suggested.

Jesus never was very clear about what he meant when he said to pray for our enemies except that to pray for them and do good to them, would be like heaping coals of fire upon their heads. I am not sure all that Jesus meant but I suspect he did not mean for us to actually heap coals of fire. Rather, he meant for us to take a different approach to being persecuted. He chose the hardest path of all and asks us to do the same.

There are some things that Jesus said that I am not sure I like and much that he said that I still don't understand - like praying for our enemies. So here goes. "Lord, you asked each of us to do as you did. You asked us to pray for and extend love to our enemies. I don't know what that means. So, I am praying that your Holy Spirit will intervene on my behalf and for the sake of all of your people. Give our enemies and our own leaders, the will and the ability to find a creative, non-violent plan to resolve our differences. I pray that all troops will get to be home soon and that the killing will stop everywhere. I offer this prayer in the spirit of Jesus. Amen"

Okay, some of you will say that I am naive and if I am then so be it. I just want to follow Jesus and I think that means the path is going to be very rocky. Right now, it is terrible. Well, that's my thought, what's yours? Allen

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Servant Leadership?

I have been talking for a few weeks on some aspects of what it takes to be a good leader. I know the topics may have seemed a bit strange but still, being a leader isn’t always about the glory or about the headlines. Being a really good leader involves so many things other than that. Last week, we talked for a while about the need to be transformed and how we as a congregation are a catalyst for the transformation of the world. We are the ones God has called to lead the way to a new creation.

In connection with leadership, I have been thinking about Jesus. I do occasionally think about him, after all, he is the one I work for. Jesus is our leader – my leader – and as I thought about him, I realized that leadership isn’t always a lot of fun. Looking at this prophecy about Jesus and then realizing that we are coming up on Easter week, we must realize that being a leader – being THE leader is sort of like putting a red and white target on your back and singing the leadership theme song: “Hit me with your best shot!”

Isaiah talks of the suffering servant leader. It describes him as not being very good looking but as one who takes on himself the sins of the world and gives himself so that the rest of us can have a better life.

A suffering servant? The passage in Isaiah 52 and 53 is usually reserved for Advent but perhaps it deserves a fresh look since we are so close to Easter.

I have been wondering what most people in the world think about when they hear the church talk about Jesus as the suffering servant. What image does that convey? The first one that comes to my mind is that of victim.

Jesus was a victim of the power struggle that was going on in Palestine. Jesus was the victim of the struggle between the religious leaders and the political leaders. Jesus was the victim of the greed and hubris of the religious leadership of his day. Jesus was the victim of those who were too cowardly to stand with him and for him – those who ran away at the first sign of trouble.

So what is the advantage of being a servant-leader? Right now we are in the beginning of our eight-year election process for president. And one of the characteristics that many people look for in a candidate is this: do they look presidential? Do they look like they are in-charge? Do they look powerful and sure of themselves? Do these candidates possess the characteristics of leadership that we need to guide us out of the distress we have gotten ourselves into? That’s what being presidential seems to mean.

I don’t think Jesus could have been elected president. He didn’t look very presidential. He didn’t come across as one who is in charge. No, Jesus is seen as a victim; a poor peasant teacher who traveled around on foot and was even seen washing the feet of his followers.

Leadership is about serving. Leadership is about transforming our minds to see things differently so that we can provide salvation to all who hear the good news we have to share. According to the prophesy, Jesus wasn’t anything much to look at. He wasn’t beautiful by the world’s standards. He wasn’t particularly powerful. He expected no one to bow and grovel at his feet – he even corrected those who referred to him as good. There was no pretense in the man. He barked no orders and carried no sword. And yet, people came to hear him, to see him, to learn from him by the thousands.

He was not the kind of leader who looked presidential or who would command a great army because of his stature. Yet, people followed him and people have died for him.

We have our image of what it takes to be a leader. We want our leaders to be, well, - presidential.

As I was thinking about leadership and Jesus, I came across the following quote from an article in the Methodist Reporter. This person was writing about the problems in the church and discussing the decline in membership that the church as a whole has been experiencing.

Here is what he said that got my attention: “we are losing members because we practice a lukewarm faith: our preachers preach a lukewarm gospel and our lay people practice a lukewarm discipleship.”

How do you react to a statement like that? In a recent pastors meeting, this statement got the dander up of most of the pastors in the room. None of us saw our church, our message or our members as being lukewarm.

What about you? Do you think of the church as lukewarm? So we discussed worship and sermons and other things. We discussed the fact that people want excitement in worship and courageous leadership in the church. Ah, there is that word leadership again.

What do you want in a leader? What do you think the world is really looking for in a leader?

To those questions, the church answers that our leader is a suffering servant. Our leader went to a cross and died. Our leader fed thousands and stooped to take care of a bleeding woman and wash the feet of his dusty, dirty followers. Our leader even said that we should also do as he did.

I’m not sure how you feel about someone calling your church lukewarm? When I think about Jesus and the price that was paid for this church, I get upset. I get passionate about telling the story of Jesus and I have given my life to encourage you to do the same.

The world is looking for a church that is a leader. The world is looking for a church that will go the extra mile and stoop down to wash its feet. The world is looking for a savior who isn’t afraid to get in the trenches with them.

But the world is also looking for a leader who makes bold and brash moves to bring people into God’s presence. Do you think of Jesus only as a victim – a suffering person who looks pitiful and weak? Or do you see the Jesus who marched into the temple with a whip in his hand and rage in his eyes to cast out those who made a mockery of his father’s house? Do you see the weakling man who spent time with the sick and the afflicted, or do you see a courageous man who was not afraid to touch a leper and walked up to a local politician to invite himself to dinner?

Yes, we present to the world a suffering servant. We present to the world a savior who faced death along with the rest of us and who walked into that death confident that he was going to overcome it.

There is a lot of talk in different church circles about how to present Jesus to men. It is a sad fact that only about 40% of men are active in any church. So now, there are “man-churches” springing up around the country. Churches who say they aren’t church. Churches who say they are tired of the feminine side of Jesus – that we sing too much and we hold hands too much. They are looking for a macho Jesus. They want to see the He-man Jesus – the one who kicks over tables and casts out demons.

Okay, there is that Jesus. But he is also the man who loved the unlovable and who walked willingly to his own death on a cross.

What kind of leader do you want? What kind of savior are you looking for? I’m sure the church is going to see changes made in the way we present the gospel in the next few years. We have seen changes before – changes are important to help us reach new generations.

What doesn’t change is this – we still offer to the world a brave, leader who suffered with us and who still calls us to travel with him to a lost and dying world.

What Jesus wants, it seems to me, is for men and women to be willing to follow him down the same road. Are you willing to go where he went? Are you willing to go where he sends you? The road may be rough and there may be suffering along the way.

But if you go- if you follow – if you lead and spread the gospel, the a world can be transformed again into what God wants it to be. Want to talk about it some more? Then come on by next Sunday and let's see what God would want. Allen

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Grace Beyond the Rules

One of the songs we sang this morning goes, “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear…” I like that song, mainly because it reminds me that Jesus was a terrific storyteller. Most of his sermons were probably about 10 minutes long and consisted of one or more stories that held people’s attention but always – always drove home an important point from God.

But he did more than just tell stories; his life itself was a story – the story - filled with emotion, conviction, and hope. Recently I have conducted several funeral services and at each of those, we usually read some of the information found in the Obituary. That column in the newspaper that some of you look at each day just to see if your name is written there. You know it is going to be a good day, if you are not listed.

An obituary is an interesting bit of journalism. I am not sure who came up with the idea of writing a death notice in the newspaper but it has been going on for a long time. Regardless of its origin, obituaries always contain some of the same information. They contain the name, age, date of birth and date of death. They usually list the towns where a person lived and some information about their occupation and hobbies. The end is usually saved for mentioning the surviving family members.

The person’s home address is no longer mentioned in most newspapers because family members have been known to come home from the cemetery and find that their home had been burglarized.

But the obituary notice is amazingly short on real facts about a person’s life. It is sort of like looking at a gravestone with the name and dates of birth and death on them with no further information. They just don’t tell us everything about that person’s life.

What we do in the funeral service is to take a few moments to remember the activities and important events in someone’s life so that we can begin the healing process. In short, what we do is tell the stories of someone’s life rather than just the facts. And what makes those stories healing to us is that by tying them together, we get a better picture of who that person was and why that person should be remembered.

While I was in Tennessee, I was once asked by a local funeral home to come to the cemetery to conduct a graveside service for an elderly man in our community. His nearest relative was a nephew living in Florida. When I arrived at the cemetery, the only people present besides myself was the funeral director and the gravedigger. No relative had come to say good-bye to this man. And I only knew his name, age, and information from the obituary. From my experience that was the saddest funeral that I have ever attended, much less conducted. There was no story to tell about this man. No comfort, no help but from the Bible and a short prayer.

That is the problem with reality television. I never watch those things like Big Brother, because they at not stories about people’s lives, they are only a chronicle, an observation. They are a neutral, meaningless, summary of information about people without any sense or purpose.

Jesus makes meaningful sense of life’s experiences and as he does so, gives us hope for tomorrow. “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear…”

The story we read this morning is one of those favorite stories. As the first lines were read, I am sure that most of us in the room immediately knew what was coming next – and yet, I never tire of hearing this story. Maybe you like it too.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best-known stories in Christianity … and indeed in the history of literature. It is so easy for us to identify with any of the three main characters, and to identify with the eternal internal struggle of the family.

Our heart goes out to the prodigal younger son, because we have all been young, foolhardy, selfish, impatient, and made a total wreck of our lives. Our heart goes out to the father, because we have all failed to be the parent we want to be, watched helplessly as our children hurt themselves, yearned desperately for their return, and worked tirelessly for the well-being of the whole family. And our heart goes out to the older son, because we have all felt unappreciated for our dedication, deserving of more than that which we have received, and jealous of the success of others.

With whom do you identify right now? With whom will you identify several years from now? Prodigal children grow up to be older brothers … and older brothers grow up to be worried fathers … and even worried fathers are tempted to chuck it all, divorce their wives, and run off to Vegas where they will squander their living and eventually end up in a pig sty. And yes, the same thing can be said of younger prodigal sisters, older sisters who stay at home to take care of the family, and their mothers.

It would be nice if Jesus also finished this story about how to solve these family problems, but he doesn’t. The story ends with no resolution. We don’t know if the younger son ever really grew up or even if the older brother finally went into the party and forgave his brother and his father.

The resolution of the pain in this family is going to require more than therapy, or some coaching on basic ethical behavior, or three people learning to suck it up and behave like adults for a change. I am not even sure if Dr. Phil could intervene here for a long-term solution. In this love triangle, the resolution literally requires a miracle.

What makes this story so powerful in our lives is that it is also our story. Somebody in the story that Jesus tells is morally, ethically, even literally “dead” … and becomes morally, ethically, and even literally “alive” again. Somebody else is relationally, emotionally, and even literally dying … and becomes relationally, emotionally, and literally hopeful again. Somebody else is selfishly, angrily, resentfully about to die … and is rescued for compassion, forgiveness, and love just on the brink of losing it forever. So it’s no wonder that they kill the fatted calf and rejoice. (easum/

Of course, this is a parable about God and the two basic kinds of people who make up God’s family. Those who are strangers to grace and have either walked away from the community of faith or never been a part of it, and there are strangers to grace who have remained involved in the community of faith out of habit or duty or something else.

This is a story about family squabbles and about broken relationships but it is mostly a story about forgiveness. I think I have mentioned to you before that forgiveness is probably the hardest concept within our faith that we have to deal with. We want forgiveness for ourselves but we are not sure if we want to extend it to someone else unless they demonstrate they are “truly sorry for their sins.”

A teacher once told each of her students to bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes to school. For every person they refuse to forgive in their life's experience, they chose a potato, wrote on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag. Some of their bags were quite heavy.

They were then told to carry this bag with them everywhere for one week, putting it beside their bed at night, on the car seat when driving, next to their desk at work.

The hassle of lugging this around with them made it clear what a weight they were carrying spiritually, and how they had to pay attention to it all the time to not forget and keep leaving it in embarrassing places. Naturally, the condition of the potatoes deteriorated to a nasty smelly slime. This was a great metaphor for the price we pay for keeping our pain and heavy negativity! Too often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, and it clearly is for ourselves! (author unknown)

But why is forgiveness so hard? After all, forgiveness is what separates us from the animals around us. The fact is that to preach forgiveness is easy but living forgiveness is what is hard. To forgive is to embrace humility.

Imagine that you are that son wasting away in a pigsty and wondering what in the world you have gotten yourself into. There you are in the midst of what you have done to yourself and knowing that you have hurt your family in so many ways. What do you do? How do you go on?

Of course, many people find themselves in this position and because they are so proud, would never admit that they had done anything wrong at all. So they just stay where they are and wallow in their pain – too proud to ask forgiveness and too proud to forgive themselves.

Then there is the older brother in this story. I can imagine him working every day alongside his Dad – doing whatever he could to make life easier for his father and every day seeing the pain in his father’s eyes. Year after year, hearing his father call out for the son that had left home – the anger and hatred for his brother growing day after day.

Then one day that brat of a little brother comes home and the old man throws a great party – fatted calf, jewelry and friends over for the celebration. And what does Dad ask the older brother to do? Come on in and join the party – let’s all forgive your brother – he was lost and is found – he was dead and is now alive again!

I imagine the amount of pride that the older brother would have to swallow in order to forgive that person who had caused Dad so much pain.

And of course, the main character in this story is the dignified father. The man who was a leading citizen – everyone knew what had happened. And every one expected the old man to punish this wayward son – but what happened? This dignified, well respected citizen of the community does the most unexpected thing of all – he opens up the kitchen door and runs – RUNS – down the road to meet his son and throws the biggest party ever on that ranch.

How hard is it for you to forgive someone this morning? Or maybe I should ask how hard is it for you to ask for forgiveness for something you have done?

Something is needed to bring this family together again – something tangible, touchable, a miracle. If only we could find a fatted calf to slay in whose body and blood we might all be reunited – one who could stand in absolute identity with God and with each of us as well. A miracle that could bring us all together again.

Of course, we have such a miracle. And it is pictured in the event we are about to do in a few moments. For in a few moments we are going to re-enact an event, which reminds us that God swallowed his pride- came and walked among us and then even died for us. But the event does not stop there – it also reminds us that there is hope for all who meet him here.

This morning I want to say to you that if you want to be a leader in the world, then do what the world does not expect – swallow your pride – get rid of it and come to the table. God has prepared for you – God has forgiven you – and God wants you to forgive too.

Our rules for living may say to us that we need justice – God says let’s break the rules and give grace and forgiveness even to those who don’t deserve it.