Thursday, April 02, 2015

What is your favorite Easter memory?  This isn't a trick question, at least it shouldn't be.  I remember our church hosting an annual Easter Egg hunt at Ken and Janet Carlson's home.  They lived way out in the country and the eggs were really hidden.  The littlest kids had some eggs strewn about on the ground, but by first grade you were expected to really search for your eggs.  Even the High School students had a section of forest, and most of their eggs were high in the trees and deep under the brush.  They would often hide more than 100 eggs for the High Schoolers to find, but if we found more than 20 it was a good year.  There was a real hunt to it.  I remember in general the way that worship was, with a packed crowd and we always had balloons and lillies.

What is your favorite Christmas memory?  This is a much easier question, isn't it?  Christmas lasts from about September 3rd when the first Christmas song comes on the radio until December 25th at 4 PM when all the toys have lost their luster and everyone is in a food coma.

Even as a secular holiday, Christmas has Easter beat by a mile.  Santa Claus represents magic, warmth, love, and childlike wonder.  The Easter bunny is creepy.  How big is the Easter Bunny?  Is he a man-sized terrifying creature or a rabbit sized creature who can't carry a basket?  Maybe inbetween?  Have you ever seen one - just one - photo of a child with the Easter Bunny where the Easter Bunny isn't terrifying?

What is your favorite Easter song?  Your favorite Easter movie?  What's the best Easter present you've ever received?  These are silly questions, but certainly we all have a favorite Christmas carol, movie, and a favorite present.

Part of the problem is that Easter moves around so much.  The Easter Bunny and spring delight storyline falls apart a bit when we have to brush the snow off of our cars each morning.  Easter is a class C holiday in America.  It's up there with Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's day, but well below Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Even New Year's seems to be rising above it in popularity.

And I'm certainly not one of these preachers who's going to stand up and talk about how the Easter Bunny is evil, or Santa for that matter.  But I'll be the first to say that we need to get our Easter game together!

I read the most fascinating article last Christmas about how Americans celebrate Christmas.  The author wrote that essentially at Christmas there are people who celebrate the birth of Jesus and there are people who celebrate the idea that we used to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Even people who have no connection to a church or to any idea of God still enjoy the warmth and joy of the season.  Essentially, for many people, Christmas is a time to celebrate tradition.  It's like the cultures around the world who put shafts of wheat on their Christmas table to remember their ancestors who worshiped the old gods and the sun and moon.  It is easy amid the rush and bustle, the hubbub and merriment, the stockings and sugarplums to lose the meaning and to celebrate the stockings and sugarplums instead of the birth that they are meant to celebrate.

But with Easter, we don't have that.  We don't have the tradition and the wacky Hollywood hijinks and the sappy songs on the radio.  We have a week of commercialized bunny stuff merged with general spring celebration.

With Christmas, amid the frenzy and activity, amid the quest to make everything perfect, we have that beautiful Linus moment from the Peanut's Christmas special - that moment when the scrappiest of the bunch steps forward and reminds everyone of the real reason for the season.

Easter is nothing but the Linus moment.  There's not the same pageantry and pomp.  We don't get lost amid our boxes and boxes  of Easter decorations.  All we have is our simple story and the joy that lives in our hearts each time we hear it.

[Read Mark 16:1-7]

All we have is an empty tomb, and full hearts.

Easter is the highest of all holy days specifically because it is so simple.  Jesus lived on this earth, and he taught us how to live.  He loved the poorest of the poor, cried with the abused and the marginalized, he healed our every brokeness and disease - and then he followed that path up to the cross, to the most humiliating and painful death imaginable, and three days later he rose from the dead.  It's the most fantastic story the world has ever heard, but for two thousand years the followers of Jesus have proven the story true over and over and over again.

And so, this day, we share this simple story - that God loved you enough to die for you so that you may be made whole and live eternally.  We share this simple meal of bread and juice to remind us of what Christ did for us.  We take his body and his blood and know that He gave all so that we could be set free.

Dear friends, the tomb is empty, the table is set, and our hearts are ready to be made full.


Friday, August 08, 2014

I found this time capsule this week.  This is the year that we are supposed to open it.

I want everyone to take a second and think back to where you were in your life in 1989.  What were you doing?  How old were your kids?  What were your hopes and goals and dreams?

If I read your name (or what your name was in 1989) please stand up.

[I'm going to go through some items in the box - and highlight a couple of them]

This box will be left on the altar after worship if you would like to take a closer look at some of the items in this box.


This box was put together in 1989.  Ronald Reagan was in the White House.  Every Rose has it's Thorn by "Poison" was the most popular song in the country that year.  I was two years old.  The world was different.  The soviet union was our greatest threat. This church had 175 people in worship most Sundays that year.  Our pastor received $23,600 in 1989.  This sanctuary was probably filled with pastel colors and shoulder pads.

Things have changed.  We live in a different world.  Clairton has changed.  You have changed.  Your family has changed.  Your outfits have changed.  

As a missionary, I would leave America for a few years at a time.  It's funny the way things change when you're not paying attention.  I had heard Justin Bieber music, but I thought that Justin Bieber was a girl named Justin.  All the music changes.  Fashion changes.  Colors and styles change.  I had these professors in college who were missionaries in the jungle for 40 years.  They have this wonderful picture of their arrival.  They are in their 20s and he is giving her a piggy back ride so that her long wool skirt didn't get dirty.  And then there is a picture of them leaving the field when they were in their sixties.  And he couldn't give her a piggy back ride anymore, but she is still wearing the long wool skirt that was fashionable in the 1940s when they first left for the mission field.

Jesus came to the world during a time of scary change.  The Jewish people didn't have their own land, they had Roman overlords present at all times to keep them in line.

When Jesus began preaching his radical ideas, you have to remember that his disciples felt that for sure Jesus was going to bring the political change that they had hoped for.  Jesus was going to raise up an army and defeat the invading forces.

And so, if we look right before this passage, we see that Jesus has just fed the 5000.  And everyone is stoked.  People are celebrating.  He works miracles.  The people are ready to put a golden crown on Jesus' head and make him their king.  They are ready to join the revolution and topple Caesar and win back their independence.

And Jesus sends them away.  They pin all of their political and military aspirations on Him, and he rejects them all.  And Jesus sends the crowd away - and then Jesus puts the disciples into the boat and sends them on their way saying that He will follow later.

And Jesus goes off to pray.

And the waves of the sea begin to church and the wind over the water begins to fiercely blow.  And, this is a tiny detail, but I think it's incredibly important.  Jesus put the disciples into this boat.  They didn't get into the boat because they were running away from Jesus.  They weren't disobeying.  They were exactly where Jesus would have them to be.  And the storms came.  And they were terrified.

And we tend to have this theology, this understanding of God, that if life is bad, if things are terrible, if life is scary that we have done something wrong.  That we have moved outside of the will of God - but this isn't necessarily the case.

This church has had some fairly major issues recently.  We have had to borrow money from ourselves and we have debt to pay back.  We are working our way back to a healthy footing.  I don't think any of us would have dreamed this dream for our church.  None of us would have hoped that our church would have a third as many people on Sunday morning as we did back in 1989.  None of us hope for challenging times, or times of struggle.  No one wants to be afraid.

And Jesus goes off by himself to pray.  He is alone and he sits with God and talks to his Father.  And in the light of the moon, he sees his disciples in the boat, terrified and being swept from side to side.

And Jesus walks on the water and walks to their boat.

And again they are terrified.  Not only is the storm here, but a zombie ghost monster is now coming towards them.

When Jesus speaks to them, Peter is still unsure.  He asks Jesus to call him out upon the water.  And when Jesus calls, Peter gets out of the boat.

Now, their little fishing boat probably wasn't much protecting against the raging storm.  There was certainly a chance that their boat would be capsized and they would be dead.  So Peter is leaving one safety net, - one that isn't very safe - and he's going to another safety net, one that is much, much safer.

Isn't that interesting?  2000 years later and we still read this story as if Peter is going from somewhere very, very safe to somewhere very, very dangerous.  But Jesus has called him out of the boat and onto the water.  Peter, always the quickest - the original YOLO-er, he's the first one to get that.  He's the first one to understand that the boat doesn't offer much safety - but Jesus does.  And so Peter steps out of the boat and walks on water.

What are we afraid of?

Are we going to be a church that hides inside of our building?  This building doesn't offer much protection.  This building doesn't promise us a future and a hope.  These four walls surround us with so many wonderful memories, but they can also be a barrier that keeps people out.

Well, I'll answer my own question.  No.  We are not a church that hides in our building.  We are not a church that is waiting to see who will be the last one out to turn off the lights when we close the doors for the final time.  We are a church that hear's Jesus call and we are a church that will keep on leaving the "safety" of the boat and walk to Jesus.

Look at these decorations.  Look at the ceiling.  Look at these waterfalls.  We are a church that is reaching out into the community.  We aren't afraid to do something new.  We are a church that is looking toward the future.

And Peter get's scared and falls into the water.  We will make mistakes.  We will pull back.  When we are all teaching our classes there will be days when we mess up and there will be times when we sing off key and there will be days when we wonder why we do such crazy stuff.  But Jesus lifts us up.

[about the Ukrainian revolution]

We must live our lives according to conscience and consequence.  The consequence of our silence might be far greater than the consequence of our actions.

Courage doesn't mean that you're not afraid.  It means that you're scared but you do it anyway.

Church, Jesus calls us.  He's calling us to get out of the boat.  This week our church will be filled with the future.  Jesus calls us.  As we sing our last hymn, I want you to know that this altar is always open for anyone who would like prayer.  Maybe you're nervous about what God is calling you to do this week.  Maybe you just want to pray for all of these littles who will fill these pews.  Maybe God spoke to you this day and you need to work something out.  This altar is always open.  Jesus calls us.


Friday, May 30, 2014

I've always been a little confused by this scripture.  As a child, I remember thinking - we made it through all of this, and Jesus waits until the last minute to let them know that he has the super power of being able to fly.  It just seems like something that should have come up in conversations before.

"Let me go get the ladder so I can change this oil lamp"
"Oh, it's ok - I got it" replies floating Jesus.

You know, it's easy for us to read this scripture passage and to really concentrate on the idea of Jesus being lifted up and flying away to heaven.  In fact, as I was thinking over all of the sermons I've heard on Ascension Sundays past, I think they all basically focused on the idea that magic Jesus swims through the air.
And as odd as it might sound, I don't think that's the point of this scripture.

I think the fact that they physically watched Jesus on his ascent to heaven is just a side detail in this story.  We can't see the forest because of all of the trees.

Jesus is surrounded by the disciples.  In this chapter they see him, they feel him, they feed him - they know that Jesus has risen from the dead.  They have all of the proof that his spirit and his body have resurrected from the dead.  But, it seems that they still don't quite get it.  Two disciples had walked with Jesus along the road to Emmaus - and until he broke the bread, they didn't recognize him.

It's easy for us to get that smug - "well, think how stupid those disciples were" ideas ... but we're still there.  We still miss the point, we still get things wrong, we still make mistakes, we're all pretty blond sometimes when it comes to understanding the words of Jesus.  And we get so stuck in our ways - we think that anyone who disagrees with our political views or our interpretation of the Bible must just be an idiot to not understand it the way that we do.

We must continually pray that God will open our eyes and our minds that we would better understand the scriptures.

Jesus calls his disciples to go out into all of the world - to spread the Good News of what they had seen and experienced - and as they continue to follow him, he leaves them.  He leaves them in the most dramatic way possible.  Jesus looks around at his disciples and he lets them know that there is work to be done - and then as he ascends to heaven - they understand that it is there job to do the work.

Friends.  It's our job to do the work.  

It is easy to find ourselves doing church work instead of the work of the church.

Jesus calls us move beyond these walls and to go into all nations.

There are so many wonderful details in this story - details that we miss because we're so busy picking our chins up off the ground after seeing Jesus float away.  Here's my favorite:

Jesus tells the disciples that they will share the Good News with the whole world beginning in Jerusalem - and then he leads them out to Bethany.

Bethany wasn't so far from Jerusalem.  Jesus has a long history in the village of Bethany.  The story of Mary and Martha, the sisters who struggle over how best to serve God, well that happens in Bethany.  And Lazarus, their brother, died and was buried in Bethany.  For three days they mourned his death in Bethany and it was there that Jesus called him out from his tomb and into new life.  Bethany was the city where Jesus' feet were anointed with oil.

And scholars have argued for decades and decades about what the name "Bethany" meant.  And if we have anyone named Bethany in the congregation, she should probably cover her ears or side with the less accurate scholars.  Because Beth Anya means "House of Misery or House of Poverty"  In the way that Beth El was "the place where God lives - Beth Anya meant - the place where misery lives.

When Jesus rode the donkey through the parade of palm leaves on his Triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he was coming from Bethany.  When Jesus led his disciples out of Jerusalem, he led them back to Bethany.

Because Bethany was home.

Bethany was a village founded by Galileans.  In the same way that Chicago has a huge Ukrainian population and Ukrainians who come to America go to Chicago first - in the same way Pittsburgh has Polish Hill and New York and San Francisco boast their China Towns and Little Italy's - when Galileans came to the big city, they stopped in Bethany.  As Jesus' disciples were mostly all Galileans, this would have been their natural stomping ground.  They would have found community, friends, familiar dialect, and comfort in Bethany.  This village was known for and even named after the shelter it provided for the poor and the suffering.  There was plenty of opportunity for the disciples to do good right where they were.

And Jesus leads them there - to this place that holds so much of their history and so much of who they are - and he leaves them from there.

But he told them to leave it.

He had told them to go back to Jerusalem.

And from Jerusalem to go to all the nations.

Jesus pushes us out of our comfort zones.

[Here I'm going to tell some story from my experience in Ukraine.  To be honest, my comfort level with the congregation will guide which stories I share.]

These four walls, our church buildings, our communities, our families - all of these things provide comfort and safety and peace - but Jesus calls us to leave them behind.  And there is a lot of good that we can do right here, but Jesus also calls us to leave this place and to go out into all the world to share the Good News.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ashley and I were classmates and we were both thirteen when the rumors went around our school that she had gotten pregnant and that she had an abortion.  I was a Christian, and after I heard the rumors, I told her that she was going to hell for murdering her baby.

I don't know if the rumors were true.  I don't know if she ever was pregnant, or if she had an abortion.  But I know that what I did and what I said was wrong.  I denied the power of Christ with my words.  I was so proud of myself for "taking a stand" and now, when I look back on what I said, I am so ashamed of the fact that I said that to her.  

If the rumors were true, she certainly needed a Christian friend to talk to openly and honestly - and I wasn't that.  

We believe the radical Gospel that Jesus loves sinners.  We believe that Jesus forgives whores and murderers and that Jesus welcomes them into heaven before us.  And with all of those beliefs tucked away in my heart, I told her the exact opposite.  I told her that her sins were too great to be forgiven.  I told her that she was going to hell.

As we continue our discussion on Evangelism, let's talk about the brutal reality that, like Peter, we deny Christ sometimes.  I don't know how often we openly deny Christ, I hope that we never find ourselves with so little faith that we deny God's existence or we turn our back completely on our faith, but our actions and our words often paint a picture that says that we believe something different than what we say we believe. 

Peter was so sure of himself.  Cocky and foolish.  Proud and stubborn.  When Jesus says that he will betray three times, Peter immediately denies this possibility.

A pastor friend once said that he only faced temptation in three circumstances.
1.) When he is at the bottom - when he is depressed and things in his life are going poorly
2.) When he is at the top - when everything is going well and everyone likes him
3.) the times in the middle.

Well, the temptation to deny Jesus is here - it is present.  Certainly at least once someone asked you where you go on Thursdays and you said, "to the movies" or perhaps you've never told your parents about Pilgrims ... well, each of us face different temptations and handle things in a different way.  Sometimes we are ashamed of our faith, or the way that our family practices their faith.  I was often embarrassed of the fact that no one in my family drank.  I didn't see alcohol until I was a teenager - but with my friends I would always say that of course I had tried beer.      


Today's scripture finds us in the courtyard as Jesus is being tried.  Rumors fly between the men and the servant girls whisper - but Peter needs to be close to Jesus.  He stands in the courtyard hoping to see his Lord one more time.  But this is a dangerous place to be.  If your Lord can be put to death, certainly you can be put to death as well.    


The first is a servant girl.  A child perhaps.  She says simply that she had seen Peter with this Jesus that was being tried inside.

Have you ever noticed how many horror movies are about creepy children?  Children can be terrifying.  This young girl could never beat up Peter, but her words could have condemned him to death.

Peter's denial is swift and thoughtless.

He really doesn't have a choice, does he?  He just says the first thing that comes to mind.  

I served a small church for a short time as a student pastor.  I was out walking around our village rather late in the evening.  I walked by one house that I knew well and saw that all of the lights were still on.  I had been to this house many times in my short time.  Most of the people who lived in the house had been in jail at one time or another, the three or four young children were left to take care of themselves (the number of children living with their father changed often depending on the weekly court decisions.)

Some of the teenagers who lived there were sitting on the front porch and invited me in to help.  The adults of the house had left several hours ago and left a 14 year old girl in charge of all of the children.  There wasn't any control, and I came in and sat all of the children down to do their summer school homework.  In between diaper changes and loads of laundry, all four of the summer school students got their math homework done and the 8 and 10 year-olds got ready for bed and I sang them a goodnight song.  I was feeling like quite an accomplished Mr. Mom as I finished the dishes and cleaned up the house with the older teenagers.

When I heard the roar of vehicles, I looked up to see that it was 1 in the morning.  The father came in first, with two guns hung on either shoulder and a gun in each hand.  His girlfriend followed with a whole suitcase full of guns.  And I joke about guns some time and I joke about the idea that Americans are gun crazy and my family has a few guns so maybe even we are crazy - but I had never seen anything like this before in my life.  There were all kinds of guns.  Big guns, little guns, automatic guns.

Everyone excitedly explained that the girlfriend's father had been arrested and they went to his house to get the guns and money before the police got there to search.  They woke up the 8 year old and the 10 year old so that they could see all of the guns.  It was one in the morning and the whole house was awake.  The guns were laid out like a breakfast buffet on the table.

And I left.  I didn't know what to do and I was scared that someone would get shot and I didn't know what to do so I left.  Well, thankfully the police made it there before I had a chance to call them and the situation was dealt with.  But, you know, I had about a million things that I wanted to say to the adults of that house.  I wanted to talk to them about paying attention to their kids, about helping them with their studies, about not having dozens of guns sitting around ... a million things - but I didn't say anything.  I should have picked up the children and left with them.  I should have called the cops immediately.  But I just froze.  I did the first thing that came to mind, and I showed who I really was. I showed that I was selfish and was looking out for myself above everyone else.  

Sometimes our silence betrays what we believe.  Sometimes our fear catches in our throats and we can't say anything that we want to.  I left six children in a dangerous situation because I was afraid that I would get hurt.  Because I was afraid to speak up.  I went with my first response and it was wrong.

And the young girl says that Peter was one of Jesus' followers and he immediately says, "No, not me."

[extinguish one candle]

The second time a servant girl accuses him of being one of Jesus disciples, he gives an oath.

I had promised in writing that while I was an exchange student in Russia that I wouldn't drink alcohol. Well, of course, I was living in Russia and I drank vodka with my friends.  I only drank a few times and never too much.  But I knew that it was wrong, I knew that I had given my word and signed my name, and I chose to do that.

Later, when I was telling me sister about my first time drinking, I gave all the excuses.  It's a funny story, and someday I might tell it - but I'll just say that there was a lot of pressure for me to drink.  I was telling my sister and I said, "so it wasn't even really my fault" and my sister got so angry with me.  Now, by this time she was a seasoned drinker and she wasn't angry that I drank.  She told me, "Michael, take responsibility.  You chose to drink.  No one held you down.  This was your decision."

She was right.  I signed a promise that I wouldn't drink during the program and I broke that promise and I needed to admit that.

And the second time a servant girl's gossip got him in trouble, Peter said, "I swear to you, I do not know that man."

[extinguish another candle]


I have this friend who loves making jokes.  He says that every time he got caught sinning he would just say, "I'm not sinning, I'm building my testimony."

This is the challenge of believing in a Gospel of grace.  We are not moralists who believe that by being good we will be saved - we believe that God really forgives our sins - no matter how many of them there are or when.  But the challenge is, how do we not look like "them."  I have the freedom in Christ to drink alcohol, but as soon as I drink too much and start slurring my words, I'm clearly sinning against God and others and I'm hurting my testimony.

Pastor Volodya and I decided that we needed to go where the people were.  Volodya came to me and said that we needed to go to a bar and talk to people.  That we couldn't hide inside the walls of this student center - that we had to be with students.  So we went to a bar - and the first bar we visited, I kid you not, we walked in and the whole bar said, "Michael!"  I'd never been to that bar before in my life, but a whole group of my friends was there and a whole table of my students from the university.  I worked the room, going from table to table greeting my friends and talking with them.  Volodya didn't want to go to any more bars with me after that.

If you're really good, God won't love you any more than God loves you if you're really bad.  As Christians, we choose to live holy lives because we celebrate God's great love.  We choose to work for a more holy society because we want others to see our God.

And Peter is brought with the final accusation - that he even sounds like Jesus.  That he talks the same way.

And I can't get the image of the woman caught in adultery out of my head.  The men who trapped her having sex.  The man she was having sex with who wasn't dragged forward to be stoned.  The crowd gathered around waiting for their chance to throw stones and condemn the whore to death.

Peter is trapped.  He shrugged off the first accusation without thinking, the second gave him pause, but he had to - right? But this third accusation - it's serious.

Everything Jesus has said.  he heard every word.  His feet are covered with the feet of the rabbi Jesus from walking behind him.  He watched Jesus heal and feed and raise people from the dead. He listened to every one of Jesus' sermons and he had late night conversations with Jesus and he spoke just like Jesus.
Living in Christ, it changes us.  It changes us radically and not everyone will like those changes.

When you stood up against the power of the former regime, you made whole countries tremble.  You followed God's leading on your lives and you stood up for your dignity and the dignity of your nation - and this made a ton of people super uncomfortable.  I'm so proud of you.

Living in Christ, it changes you.  The next time you stand up against a bully, you will see how unpopular that is - but you will see how very right it is.  When you quote the words of Jesus about topics like money, greed, and power - well, you'll make some enemies really fast and you'll get a lot of strange words.

 And so Peter does the only thing that he can, he tries his best not to sound like Jesus.  He uses every Russian swear word he knows and says vile filthy things like the fisherman that he was would have said.  And he saves his life by denying Christ.  When we make others uncomfortable because Christ has changed us, sometimes we are tempted to go back, to do things the way we used to do it.  To deny Christ.


And I can't get the image out of my head of the woman caught in sin.  Lying on the ground, wrapped in a sheet - crying, terrified, facing death.  And Jesus stands between her and the mob.  He bends down, and he writes in the sand.

And Jesus asks that whoever is without sin can throw the first stone - and one by one those men they go away.  But, and this is the part that we miss -

who was the one who was without sin?

Who was the one who could have thrown that first stone?


Jesus should have thrown the first stone at that woman.  He was sinless and blameless and a dirty naked whore was brought to his feet - and he had every right to put her to death for her sins.
But Jesus doesn't.

We always read the story of Peter's denial with such shame and guilt.  Peter felt awful for denying Jesus.
Two men betrayed Jesus that night.  Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus.
Judas chose his own path, chose to hold on to his guilt and shame and killed himself.  Peter chose to turn back to Jesus. Peter chose to reverse his denial.
because this is part of our testimony.  Man, I messed up - but thank God, Jesus forgives me.  I'm not perfect, I'm just forgiven.  This is exactly what we believe.  This is how scandalous the Gospel is.  Jesus should have thrown the first stone, but he didn't.  Peter probably should have felt so guilty that he killed himself like Judas - but Jesus came for him and restored his life.  We should have been the ones on that cross - we deserve to die for our sins.  But we don't.  we live eternally with Christ because of Christ's sacrifice.  This is the scandal of the Good News.  We deserve hell and punishment and torture - and Christ takes all of that away and give us eternal life.

You each have a stone tonight.  This is for every sin, every denial, every wrong.  bring it up here to the table and place it around the cross.  Be reminded of the Great News that we share.  This day, this week, we remember what Christ went through for us - because of his great love for us. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Evangelism

Have you ever heard someone try to tell a joke and fail terribly?  This happens a lot when someone wants to tell about some funny situation in their life – and they tell the crowd … and when no one laughs … and there’s that awkward silence … they always say, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”
I can’t tell you how many times I tried to tell people about some crazy joke that my sister and I have … but all of these stories always end with awkward silence and the words “I guess you had to be there.” Because my sister and I basically have our own language. 
But have you ever heard someone tell a joke perfectly?  Have you ever been brought into the joke and laughed so hard you cried?
The difference is knowing what to tell and what not to tell – and how to tell it, and how to make it funny.  It’s not so easy to tell a funny story.
If someone is good at telling a joke, you don’t have to “be there.”  They can tell the story perfectly, as though you were there with them.
It’s the same with the people who create advertisements. Advertisers often have a hard job.  They often have to explain the whole premise of a tv show in just one picture.  Or they have to explain a difficult concept AND why their product is the best solution – all in one picture or just 30 seconds of ad time.
The ones who fail are the ones who try to explain everything, the ones who succeed are the ones who “show them” who make people understand.

 Jesus cares about communicating the message – the message is the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Everywhere that Jesus goes, he seems to draw a crowd.  He heals people, he teaches, he performs some other miracles and the people, they just come to Jesus.  It seems like everyone wants to come and see this miracle worker.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have any problem gathering a crowd.
In our scripture reading, Jesus sends out the twelve to go to other villages and cities to share the Good News.  And right before these verses, Jesus brings a girl back from the dead. It seems like if you raise a girl from the dead on Tuesday, you’re not going to have a hard time drawing a crown on Wednesday, right? I mean, I think that resurrection would probably bring some people out to see Jesus.
But Jesus gets done bringing this girl back from the dead, and then turns to the 12 and says, “Well, friends, I’m going to send you out ahead of me.  To places I haven’t been, to places that I might visit – and you will go there and tell them about me.” 
I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a famous person.  Or even an important person.  The ways that our stomachs get tangled up in knots and we don’t say the right thing, but we want to stay close.  And I imagine that these twelve, after watching this amazing miracle – that they all probably wanted to hold on to Jesus’ robe and wait for the blessing to flow.  I’m sure that they didn’t want to go and leave him at this time.

But Jesus sends the twelve out, and gives them instructions on what they should do.
For Jesus, the quest of gathering a greater number of believers was never primary.  In the scripture we see a great crowd following Jesus and he turns around, tells them some horrific or challenging part of Christianity, and cuts the number of followers down.  We never see Jesus begging people to come and be his followers. If the goal was to get more people, well, He’s God – he could just kill everyone right now and we’ll all be on our knees before God ... because once we are standing before God there is no way we can hold our own way as higher and better than God’s.  We will all just worship God.
Jesus wasn’t ever trying to gather some huge group of people – he wasn’t trying to make a huge music festival or conference or to build a bigger building.  Jesus was sending out the Good News that the Kingdom of God is here right now – with us.
Do you think that Jesus needs us?  God commands all of the angels in heaven, and, really - if God's main goal was to get everyone to believe in Him, I think a few dozen flaming angels or rock monsters would go a lot further than a dozen fishermen and tax cheats. 

Jesus doesn’t need us, but Jesus chooses to use us.  He leaves this in our hands, he trusts us with this great responsibility. He leaves this joy for us.  Our salvation might get us into heaven when we die, but through our life in Christ, we build a little bit of heaven here on earth.  This is what we pray over and over again – thy will be done one earth as it is in heaven – we pray this every day, and Jesus gives us the chance to live that every day.  We share our faith, because we build a little bit of heaven on earth when we do that.  We connect a human being with the Glory of God and we fill this world with just a little bit more light.

Evangelism.  Boo!

When we talk about Evangelism, we get a little scared.  I even feel a little bit uncomfortable about preaching about Evangelism because it's not something I really believe in.  I know this is a strange thing to hear, but give me a minute to explain.  I have taken classes on Evangelism - on how to talk to people and by the end of the conversation that person has decided to follow Jesus.  I've taken at least three classes, I've read books, and I've even taught other people how to do this.  But the whole time, I felt a little bit uncomfortable.  One day, I realized that I felt like I was selling used cars.  I felt like I had to give some sales pitch. To make a really great advertisement that explained everything.

But, friends, Jesus isn’t some used car.  He’s not a vacuum cleaner or a new type of soap.  Jesus isn’t a commodity to be bought and Jesus is certainly not a commodity to be sold.  We’re not in the sales business.  We’re in the people business.

Let's look at the word's of Jesus here.  Jesus sends these twelve men out and he asks them to proclaim, cast out demons, heal the sick, and cure disease.  Jesus doesn't ask these men to answer all of their questions, he doesn't ask the twelve to bring back new disciples, he doesn't ask the twelve to feed the people or give them money. 

Jesus asks the 12 to receive the hospitality of strangers, to share the Good News with them, and then to return.

Well - perhaps you are thinking, "we don't cast out so many demons, and we've never healed the sick or cured diseases."

Friends, this is a lie from the Devil.  We are so tempted to believe the devil's lie that we are powerless.  I watched with my own two eyes as you all have cast out the demons of wickedness, evil, corruption, and bribery.  I have seen you heal the lonely and sad, and I have seen you cure the disease of depression.  The devil wants us to believe that we don't have any of the power of the original disciples, but we do.  We cast out demons all the time, we heal all the time.  Every time you bright young people have a conversation with someone who doesn't deserve your time, you are healing them.  Every time you stand up against a bully, jerk, or politician you are casting demons out of the darkness and into the light.  We do these things.  I've seen you do these things.   And as soon as we believe in the power that God has given us for these things, we will do a lot more of it. 

But it is the proclamation part that we get caught on.  Because we believe the devil's lie that we are not demon caster-out-ers and we are not healers - we believe that we shouldn't proclaim the Good News either. 

Here is the devil's favorite trick.  He uses our desire to win to shame us.  He uses our desires to get things done, to have a result, to be right, and to be approved of.  We have come to believe that "proclaiming the Good News" means arguing with an atheist until he is crushed under our massive amount of faith and commits to following Jesus for the rest of his life.  And this is so far from what is means to proclaim the Good News.   

What does it mean "to proclaim"?  It means to say out loud.  Every time we tell a friend "God loves you and so do I" we are proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. 

"God has given you so many talents."  "With God's help I'm going to make it through this difficult situation." "I really messed up and I sure am glad that God forgives." 

Every time you say any of these things, you are sharing your faith.  Every time you tell someone about Pilgrims and worship and reading the Bible and prayer and what these things mean to you - you are sharing your faith.  "Oh, today while reading the Bible I found the most beautiful verse, can I read it to you?  Can I post it as a Facebook status without sounding obnoxious? 

Jesus specifically tells the twelve not to take their baggage with them. 

We have all these ideas about evangelism and sharing our faith and Jehovah's witnesses standing with books and Mormon's in their suits and all of these things, they destroy our evangelism.  Because Jesus doesn't ask us to do any of these things.  He doesn't ask us to keep a tally, to keep score of how many souls we've saved, to argue and convince people of our own rightness. 

Jesus doesn't need you.  But Jesus chooses to use you and me.  He chooses to use really imperfect, impractical human beings to spread the Good News throughout all the earth.  God promises that if we aren't willing to share the Good News, He will make the rocks sing out the Good News - but nowhere in the New Testament does anyone come to faith except through the work of a human being sent by God.  These twelve ordinary men went from town to town - and they didn't even take an extra pair of underwear - and they ate what was given to them, and they shared about their faith - and then they left. 

And history tells us that these 12 men took this crazy story of the rabbi/carpenter who died on a cross and rose from the dead and they told that same story over and over again and today people all over the world sing and dance in the joy of this Good News. 
Jesus doesn’t need us.  Jesus didn’t need to send these twelve men out.  Jesus could have done it better by himself.  He could have had the rocks sing.  But Jesus choose these twelve men and gave their lives an extra sense of meaning and purpose. 
And Jesus uses us.  We are God’s advertisement to the world.
And sometimes we’re not such great or clever advertisements, but we are the advertisements that God chooses to use. 

Dear friends, go forth this day and proclaim the Good News. 


Friday, April 04, 2014

On outdoor weddings.

[[I don't write here so very often.  I wish that I had more time for blogging - and I understand that at this point in my life, blogging just isn't as important for me.  There was a time when I constantly needed to express thoughts, but now it seems I am asked to express more than I want to express.  But, I've wanted to talk about this topic for a while, and I can't seem to find a buyer - so I figured I would throw it out to the internet peoples and see what  happens.  I feel that my English language skills are dropping over time - I'm sorry for this.]]  

My friends who get married very rarely have their weddings in a church.  

Now, to be fair, most of my friends aren't married - and they're not getting married.  Of my high school graduating class, I think that less than a quarter of us are married.  We all have rich and fulfilling lives.  It seems that there is no shortage of adorable baby pictures on my Facebook feed, but marriage is less and less important.  Marriage is an expensive extravagance.  I read these crazy statistics - the average wedding costs $30,000 - and I just can't believe their validity.  But I read my friends' woes on Facebook - a tooth needs pulled but the co-pay of $200 is too much of a luxury, hours are cut at their job, student loans piling up and still no degree, etc - and I understand that a wedding is just too expensive for a lot of people.  

Weddings are a celebration of tradition and family.  If your family wasn't particularly great - maybe you don't want to celebrate those things.  If your parents don't want to pay for your wedding - for whatever reason - why would you go to the expense and trouble for a piece of paper.  

The most common sentiment I hear from my friends is that they want to be with a person because they love this person, not because a piece of paper dictates that they need to be with this person.  I agree with this sentiment.    

It seems that most of my college peers are married.  They mostly come from white, Christian, middle-class homes - so tradition and family are generally held quite dear.

But I notice that most of my college peers - who, almost without exception, have a very strong tie to a church and a community of believers - have their weddings at an outside venue.  Some of them pay thousands of dollars to rent the venue.  I even feel ridiculous writing the word "venue."  They get married on sand, by water, with trees as a backdrop, in a barn, under a canopy - but not in a church.  

Perhaps I'm WAY more conservative than I let on, but this bothers me.  I have a theory about this.  I think that most of these people come from more contemporary churches: churches that worship in glorified gymnasiums and churches that were built in the 80s and 90s.  I wouldn't want to get married in one of these buildings.  I've seen pictures of my friends' weddings where they had clearly spent thousands of dollars to try and mask the basketball hoop - but they weren't fooling anyone.  

In our little United Methodist church here in Lviv, we've never had a wedding.  Our space is small and dingy and it would be weird to have a wedding there.  Most of our girls wait until they have already had their big beautiful church wedding before officially converting to Methodism.  We've only had one wedding, and it was outside.  Little girls in Ukraine don't dream about marrying in a Protestant service in a dingy store-front space.  

Little girls in America don't dream about getting married in a big-box church or a 70s orange-carpet nightmare-cathedral.  I don't think we have space to incorporate guitar solos and drum-sets in our wedding dreams.  Weddings aren't "super casual - yo" and they don't fit very well into our contemporary worship experiences.    


I've read that for the average American family, Christmas is a celebration of tradition more than a celebration of Christ's birth.  This makes sense to me in a very profound way.  Why do we do the things that we do at Christmas time?  Tradition.  Why do we only drink egg-nog during one season? Tradition. 

I think that American weddings are moving in this direction.  We have weddings because the glamorous people in movies have weddings.  In our pop-culture collective imagination weddings only happen in massive cathedrals or on a beautiful beach.  

With a divorce rate that is astronomical, a government limiting who has the right to get married, and a five-figure sticker price ... I think that many of my friends have just decided that this is a tradition not worth celebrating.  


I talk with a lot of people about a lot of different things.  I've always been open and receptive to any line of conversation.  I'm also something like a pastor, so couples counseling is assumed to be part of my repertoire.  So sometimes I learn things that surprise me.  

It seems that more and more people I know are in monagamish relationships.  They live together, but he's allowed to have a little strange on the side.  She meets up with a 20-something from time to time just for fun and her husband is fine with it.  Threesomes happen sometimes, but all within well-defined rules agreed upon ahead of time.  These conversations usually begin with a very strong affirmation that "this" wasn't cheating.    

On one of my favorite shows, a woman's husband is found dead in a male-hookers bed, and the wife casually says, "Every marriage is different, ours was just a little more different."  

Marriage is a trending topic in Christian circles.  I would even push the idea that there are mega churches built on the foundation of family values instead of the foundation of Jesus Christ.  

We read the Old Testament accounts of the fathers of our faith and we scratch our heads and do theological cartwheels to form their "acquisition of women" into an appropriate message on family values.  "Solomon had how many wives? And concubines? ... And this is why you should wait until you're married to have sex."    

We hear the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, a 33 year old carpenter with 12 disciples (only one of whom has a wife to speak of, although he really doesn't speak of her very often) who mentions marriage once and promotes singleness just as much and we create an entire theology around family values.  

We read Paul's extortion toward singleness for the sake of the Gospel [in college I was taught that Paul achieved a rank within the Jewish community open only to married men, so he had to have been a widower ... but either way, we know that he was single when he began his missionary journey] and we push and pull his words until we find something [Paul's radical claim that women aren't property and should be treated with love - a verse that we often use to tell women they should be subservient, but I digress] that speaks to traditional family values and marriage. 


I won't speak out against marriage, and I won't support my monagamish friends in their sexplorations.  But I think that we as the church need to really re-evaluate our theology of family values in light of what the Bible actually teaches. 

Because our whole concept of Christian marriage is a celebration of tradition.  

We aren't celebrating the words of the Old Testament, the example of Christ, or the letter of Paul.  We aren't celebrating our faith, growing as disciples, or worshiping God during wedding services.  

We're bowing down to the pagan fertility gods by worshiping the concept of virginity over the faithful witness of grace offered by Christ to all.  We're bowing down to the American gods of greed, avarice, and wealth by spending more than we can afford for a ceremony that is only meant to impress other people (for God is certainly not impressed by our lavish feasts and decorations).  We're bowing down to tradition and claiming that it is Biblical even though almost none of our wedding traditions have any mention, bearing, or reflection of the words of scripture.  

I'm not calling for an end of marriage - I just think that we should call it out for what it is.  

Because I think we can do better.  


My closest friends have all had small, casual weddings with just close friends and family.  My sister had a Christmas wedding and didn't spend a dime on decorations.  One friend made her own dress, another wore her mother's wedding dress.  One friend will only have the communion liturgy read at her wedding.  

I think that in the future it will be much more common for faithful disciples to forgo the avarice and show and and to celebrate simply.  I think it will be more common for Christian young people to decide if they want to get married.  I think it will be more common for people to wait until they are sure that they have found someone they want to spend the rest of their lives with - even if that takes 30 years of searching.  

I hope that in the future, we will be able to more fully live into the complex and complicated theology of family, love, commitment, and example that is set before us in scripture.  I hope someday that we will not treat marriage as a victory dance before Pagan gods, but as a solemn promise before a loving Savior.  I hope someday our theology grows to embrace all the couples that God has brought together and not just those who look like us.  I hope that someday marriage will be seen as a possible step towards completing God's plan for our lives instead of an obligatory march toward parental expectations.  

I think we can do better.            


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Preaching Again

So my co-director has been preaching these last few months.  As he will be the director soon, it is important that he is seen as a leader in every area.  He did a great job, but I am excited to be back preaching again.  I do miss preaching when I don't get the chance.

Luke 5: 1-11, 27-32

When I was a child we used to play a game called "duck,duck, goose"  The person who was "it" would walk around in a circle tapping the heads of each person and saying the word "duck."  duck, duck, duck, duck, duck ... this could go on for as long as the person wanted, until finally he or she would choose someone and say "goose".  The "goose" would stand up, chase the person around the circle, and try to tag him or her before they made it back to that spot.

It's a fun children's game - really a lot of fun.  Even as a child, I didn't like to run.  I felt foolish jumping up and running after someone.  I was always slower than others and I would lose.  But, still, when the person was going around the circle saying "duck, duck, duck, duck" I always hoped that they would choose me as the "goose."  There is something so powerful about being chosen.  Being selected.  Getting in to the university and program of your dreams.  Being picked to lead the team.  Being chosen as the teacher's favorite student.
No one likes being passed over for a promotion, not getting the job you interviewed for, or being rejected by someone.

And so it seems a little odd to me that when Jesus was choosing the twelve, the disciples who would take the Good News to the ends of the earth, that Jesus wasn't a little more discerning.  To my knowledge, none of the twelve had an advanced degree, none had relevant job experience, and more than a few were relatives of Jesus.  Jesus had the chance to choose a team of twelve people to carry on his mission and vision, and by our standards, Jesus did a terrible job of choosing.

Jesus chose men that you wouldn't want to be around.  Jesus chose men who stank of fish guts, men who betrayed their country, men who were wanted for murder, and his teenage cousins.

When I read the story of Jesus choosing the twelve - it forces me to re-examine my understanding of leaders and leadership.  We all too often have this idea that we should choose the people with the best leadership skills to lead us - but what if we chose the people who would be most committed?  Or the people who were most teachable?

Cara's story.

Jesus transcends the idea of choosing.  In the same breath that Jesus chooses these men, he lets them know that they aren't special - this isn't a small club - this is a huge movement. They will spend all of their time as his chosen ones choosing others and making the circle wider.  They will grow the ministry, invite everyone else in, and train those people to also invite everyone in.  Jesus chose choosers.

Jesus sits with these sinners in the den of the tax-collector, and Jesus calls all of them to something better.  Matthew will follow, but what of the others.

What if the first time you were invited to Pilgrims, we said "now go and bring back three friends and we can start worship."  How bizarre would this be?  But this is exactly what Jesus is doing.  Jesus is trying to paint a very clear picture that this isn't a secret, hidden, private group.  This is a message of openness.  All are welcome, all are invited - but not everyone will choose to follow.  We invite them anyway.

Do you notice that Jesus doesn't make any promises to the disciples?  He doesn't promise that they will be healed (he doesn't heal any of these men ... although he's healing others), he doesn't promise them the power to heal (although they do heal people), he doesn't promise them money - power- women - fame.  The only thing Jesus promises them is that they will be his disciple and that they will call others to the same thing.  Jesus doesn't explain the fact that 10 of the 12 will be executed for following Jesus.  Jesus doesn't explain that he will be killed on a cross.  Jesus only explains that they will call others to be Jesus' disciples.

I have more than a few friends that I have thought about inviting to Pilgrims but haven't invited.  I've thought ... well, maybe they won't fit in or maybe they will make other people feel uncomfortable.  Or maybe they just won't like what we have here - maybe it's not for them.  How sad that I live among this amazing, loving community and I choose not to open that option up for those friends.  If we are a group of people who believe what we say we believe - if we believe that Jesus really walked on this earth, died for our sins, and calls us to share that Good News - then we need to go out and do that.

Charles Spurgeon was a famous evangelist.  He told this story of a priest who served a prison.  One of the hardest criminals in the country was condemned to the electric chair.  As was customary, the priest would walk the condemned man to the electric chair.  Along the way he would talk with the condemned man one more time and offer him the chance to accept Christ's forgiveness before he was executed.  He had visited this criminal many times and he knew that the criminal was a hard and cruel man who was proud of his crimes.  The priest went through his speech anyway - and quickly explained that Christ had died for all that all may have eternal life.

Suddenly the prisoner stopped and turned to the priest.  He asked, "do you really believe this?"

The priest was a little surprised.  "Of course I believe this.  I'm a priest.  I work in a hard prison with hard criminals."

The prisoner looked back at the priest and said, "because if I believed this, I would crawl across this entire country on broken glass so that others could also believe this.

These are hard words for me.  They convict my soul.  I'm up talking about this, because it's a theme that I need to hear.  If I believe this Good News, far be it from me too keep it from anyone - especially my friends.

Dear friends, I'm convinced that we are a people who believe the Good News.

Let's not forget how very good this news is - we are not keeping some secret ... we are publicly celebrating God's great love.  If we believe this Good News - we need to share it.

Over the next few weeks, we're going to look at the ways that Jesus challenged his disciples to invite others - and we're going to talk about what this means for us and the ways that Jesus challenges us to invite others to follow Him.