Saturday, May 28, 2011

Guerilla Christianity

Thanks to Rev. Gene Anderson, whose blog post introduced me to this idea of Guerilla Christianity, and (once again) the Reverend Kathleen Lambert, whose incredible insight and heart gave me direction for this sermon.

Gene's blog contains the link to the article I quote in the sermon.

1 Peter 3:13-22
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Acts 17:22-31
hen Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Paul had been stirring up trouble. To anyone who has read the Book of Acts, this will come as no surprise; in the seventeenth chapter alone, by the time we get to Paul’s speech before the leaders of the city of Athens, he’d already been forced out of Berea and Thessalonica due to his habit of going and sharing the Good News of the risen Christ wherever he went.

And to be honest, Paul was only in Athens so that Silas and Timothy could meet him. His “handlers,” if you will, had deposited him there because it was a central location where the three of them could regroup and get back to the business at hand. The obvious course of action would have been to lay low, get some rest, and not cause trouble.

But did I mention that we’re talking about Paul here?

In Paul’s day, the residents of Athens were renowned for their love of things intellectual, and for their religious piety. I can imagine Paul walking the streets, and seeing, with every step, and with every corner he turned, another and another and another temple to this or that or the other god: gods for fertility, gods for good weather, gods to win battles, gods to prevent disease, gods to protect crossroads, gods to preside over the opening of doors, gods to preside over the closing of doors, and on and on and on.

Make no mistake, the temples were beautiful: brightly painted, adorned with gold and silver and marble, the idols within crafted by the best and the brightest artisans, no expense spared in honoring a given deity.

And, although he had been the most devoted of Jews before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had been raised in the Greek city of Tarsus, and was familiar with the ways of pagan worship.

Each temple had its own sounds, its own smells: in this one priests were chanting in unison, in that one a goat was being burned on an altar, in that other one someone was teaching a small group of young men, and in still another a poor woman knelt at an idols feet and wept. Here they were baking bread, there they were selling books, and in still another temple the prostitutes called out to passers-by.

Paul’s heart ached for these people as he walked, seeing all that energy going to waste on false gods which created false hopes, made false promises, promoted false ideals… what if all of that energy, all of that passion, were directed toward the true God?

And then it happened.

Paul walked around a random bend in some road in some corner of Athens, and stopped dead-still at a monument. It was a simple enough affair, yet no less beautiful than the grandest of idols he’d seen. Its inscription read, simply, “To an unknown god.”

Perhaps the idea had been to cover their bases, to have one more altar out there just in case the Athenians had forgotten to honor a given deity. But not for Paul. Paul, you see, was a Guerilla Christian, and like every good soldier, he was always prepared: looking for ammunition, for opportunities to advance the cause of the Kingdom of God.

This idea of Guerilla Christianity is not original with me. In fact, it is perhaps best described by Daniel F. Flores in an article for the Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research. He writes, “Historically, the term “guerrilla” comes from the Spanish resistance tactic of using irregular soldiers to conduct surprise raids against Napoleon’s forces. Quite literally, a guerrilla is a “little war.” This is distinct from acts of terrorism, often committed in the name of God, which operate by inflicting senseless violence for the purpose of causing widespread fear and panic. Guerrilla soldiers are not the elite crack troops such as the Green Berets, Seals, or Rangers. They are irregular fighters - the peasant resistance of the war effort against interloping oppressors… They do the work until the professionals arrive, whether “twelve legions of angels” or “the armies of heaven” being led by one called Faithful and True (Matthew 26:53; Revelation 19: 11, 14). When the term guerrilla is applied to the New Testament apocalyptic, it describes an aggressive action… waged against the realm of the present cosmos by the irregular soldiers of the Kingdom of God.”

Guerilla soldiers make use of their specific skills, the terrain around them, and the existing resources to do battle against invading armies.

Paul used this monument, this altar to an unknown god, as a tool of Christian Guerrilla warfare, to make the case for the one true and living God, who doesn’t operate through idols of gold or silver or bronze or marble, who doesn’t demand sacrifices and chants, and who is not hidden, remote, difficult to discern, impossible to know, but who has reached out to humankind, redeeming them through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now, I undertake the use of the term “Guerilla Christian” with some nervousness. Whenever we Resurrection People resort to the terminology of warfare, we run a great risk. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that in war, battles are bloody – people die, things get broken, lives are disrupted. While we honor our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, it is always with the hope that one day, there will be no more war, no more caskets draped in flags, and no buglers playing “Taps” as sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers are lowered into the ground.

The Guerilla Christian operates differently than any other operative in any other army ever before. To continue with Daniel Florez’ article, “Guerrilla soldiers execute intermittent bursts of sorties to rescue prisoners and demolish the structures of the Enemy.”

The Christian Guerilla does not kill, the Guerilla Christian heals. The Guerilla Christian does not destroy, but restores. The Guerilla Christian uses the tools at hand to rescue the prisoners of despair, poverty, hopelessness – those who are the “lost,” if I may – and destroys the power structures that condemn and oppress, whether they be spiritual or physical.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean by “Guerilla Christianity.” The first time I heard the term “Guerilla Christian” was from Reverend Gene Anderson, a Presbyterian pastor now residing in St. Petersburg, Florida. Gene has been a friend of mine for a couple of years. I first met him when he was pasturing a little church in Mississippi. That church let him go unexpectedly, and he not only lost his income, but he lost his health insurance and his home. For many months, Gene lived out of his car, trying to hold down odd jobs, trying to piece his life together, and in many ways only falling farther and farther behind.

The Reverend Kathleen Lambert, who I mentioned to you last week, literally came to Gene’s rescue. She gave him a job, working with a mission in St. Pete, gave him a place to stay, and it is not an understatement to say to you that Gene has since blossomed… no, that’s not right, Gene has exploded, finding every opportunity and using every resource to show the love of God to St. Petersburg, Florida.

So example one of “Guerilla Christianity” is the Reverend Kathleen Lambert, who saw Gene in need and was able to effectively and immediately fill that need with resources she had at hand: a place to live and something to do

But Gene is example two of “Guerilla Christianity,” and he lives that example every day. When a pregnant, homeless woman showed up at the St. Pete mission, which is called Missio Dei, he stayed with her, helping in labor and delivery, and finding her a place where she and her new baby could stay.

Just last week, Gene went to a Presbytery meeting with Reverend Lambert, and when lunch was over, and the kitchen staff said they had lots of leftovers, please everyone come get some to take home, Gene went into action, convincing the Presbytery staff to donate the food to him. Not too many hours later, the hungry, homeless people in Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg were able to enjoy Ham and Turkey sandwiches, potato salad, cole slaw, apples, bananas, doughnuts and other pastries, eggs, fresh fruit, and more.

This Memorial Day weekend, we pay homage to men and women who died so that we could live in a land that is free and that has abundant resources. But resources without purpose are worse than wasted. As Resurrection People, how can you and I make use of the things we have at hand in a given moment to bring the Good News of hope and new life in Jesus Christ to a world which is sinking, every day, deeper into despair?

Make no mistake, when we do something as simple as listening to a hurting friend, something as easy as buying a hamburger for a hungry person, we are taking part in Guerilla Christianity, because we are helping to destroy despair, and immobilize hunger. When we pray for, or better yet pray with, someone who is seeking direction, someone who needs to respond to God’s revolutionary call to new life and eternal relationship through the risen Christ, we are laying siege to the final stronghold of the enemy, death.

This is no small undertaking, but we do not do this alone. As our Gospel reading affirms, we have God’s Holy Spirit within us, and as members of the Body of Christ we have one another.

We very likely will never find ourselves called, like Paul, before the city leaders, challenged to explain ourselves and the wild claims we are making for a new religion. However, we do find ourselves, every day, faced with new challenges and new situations in which we can bring the hope and love of Christ to someone we may not even know – like those homeless people in Williams Park in St. Petersburg, fed through the generosity of a Presbytery full of people they’d never met. So do we do what Paul’s “handlers” likely hoped he would do, blend in, don’t make waves, wait for someone else to show up and do the heavy lifting? Or do we stand up, get busy, and make a difference now?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Many Mansions...

I know the sermon title stinks.

My heart is honestly heavy for those families who invested their time and their life savings into preparing for the Family Radio Rapture. I've been speaking to different people about providing assistance to those who need help: material, financial, and spiritual/psychological. If you have ideas or resources, or know how to get in contact with people who lost everything following Harold Camping, please comment here, or on FaceBook or Twitter.

I especially appreciate the writing of the Reverend Kathleen Lambert, a dear and constantly supportive friend, who allowed me to echo many of her thoughts on relationship as it relates to our Gospel passage.

Acts 7:55-60
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

1 Peter 2:2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”
“A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

You may or may not have heard that, according to Harold Camping, millionaire owner of the Family Radio broadcasting network, Jesus was to have called his children home at 6:00pm yesterday evening. The event, which Evangelicals call “the Rapture,” was to have been followed by a devastating global earthquake.

All of you are here, and the building is still standing, so I feel pretty comfortable in stating that Harold Camping was wrong. The late-night talk show hosts are getting their laughs in, Twitter and FaceBook are clogged with Rapture jokes, as well as with people calmly repeating Scripture to show that we cannot place a date or time stamp on Christ’s return. Verses like this: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority,” Acts 1:7; and “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Matthew 24:23-27, and so on.

People like Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired transit worker in New York, spent his life savings, $140,000, to warn people of the impending Rapture.

Robert and Abby Haddad quit their jobs two years ago to spread the news, but believed the whole time that their three children, Joseph, Faith, and Grace, would not be going to heaven with them. They told their three children that they would be left behind when the Rapture occurred! Can you imagine?

John Ramsey gave up his job as well, despite the fact that his wife is nine months pregnant.

So many people have given up everything in the hopes that yesterday would be the date that Christ would return to earth. Family Radio spent a million dollars on billboards and other advertising to promote the May 21 Rapture. So much money wasted, which could have fed the hungry, clothed the naked… you get the idea.

Rather than laughing at their stupidity, I pray for them in the disappointment, disillusionment, doubt and self-loathing they must be feeling. I pray for the many, many children who, like the Haddad kids, must suffer the consequences of their parents’ folly.

But, y’know, deep down I kind of see where they’re coming from.

In our Gospel reading today, it’s the night before the crucifixion, and Jesus is, in a way, saying goodbye. These disciples, who have known him for three years or more, are about to be left in shock, in terror, and without coherent direction.

And they are about to be left alone.

My friend, the Reverend Katherine Lambert is a mom, and she notices that her children (like young children everywhere) go into one degree or another of panic when Mom leaves. They don’t want her to go, because they can’t conceive of a time without her, or comprehend what it means when she says she’ll be right back.

For children, you see, relationship is defined by time spent together.

That’s not really fair, though, is it? We all define relationship by time spent together, don’t we? That’s the meaning of the word, after all, isn’t it? To be in relationship is to be in “the state of being connected or related.” You can’t have a relationship with a person you never meet, never speak with, never see, never make contact with.

We have countless methods through which we can initiate and maintain that connection – telephone, email, instant messaging, text messaging, Skype, and that old standby, face-to-face contact, but if that connection is severed, that relationship is severed.

And for these first-century disciples, who don’t have FaceBook or Twitter or email or telephones or Skype or even a Waffle House where you can have a chat over coffee, for Jesus to be gone – and gone in such a horrible, such an unthinkably permanent, way is too much to bear.

How can we follow you, if we don’t know the way? Asks Thomas. And Philip has the courage to demand what they’re likely all thinking: show us. Prove it.

And Jesus speaks about relationship – not relationship severed, but an ongoing relationship, in terms of time and in terms of space.

“Believe in God. Believe also in me.” When Jesus speaks about belief, it isn’t what we may think – mentally agreeing to a set of statements or doctrinal positions. He means something deeper: trust. The kind of trust that is born from knowing someone, from experiencing who they are and what they can do. When he talks about building dwelling places, when he reassures the disciples, and us, that he is in fact the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he’s really talking about fostering a relationship that isn’t broken at any point. He’s talking about time spent together in the same space.

He’s promising to make room for relationship, and providing that space for everyone.

Yes, relationship is defined by spending time together, and that is true of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. We understand it as time spent in worship, in prayer and meditation, and in study. And while these are indeed components, building blocks of our relationship with God, I want to suggest that this is an incomplete picture. By relying on prayer and worship and study we make relationship one-sided.

And this is why I really understand where the “May 21 Rapture” people were coming from.

The Evangelicals in Harold Camping’s sphere of influence have some very rigid beliefs concerning Scripture, concerning structure, concerning family. There are expectations which must be met, there are standards to adhere to. It is perhaps an unavoidable oversimplification to say that, to some or all of those who follow Harold Camping, the full weight of responsibility to initiate, maintain, and grow a relationship with God in Jesus Christ rests squarely upon the believer. It is, in effect, a codependent relationship.

So the Rapture becomes the confirmation that we’ve done everything right, and we can finally relax. God likes us, the pressure is off, we can finally breathe again.

But the completed work of Jesus, the reality of the now-and-coming Kingdom, isn’t an ideal we must attain, it isn’t something we must work toward, in hopes that if we do everything right, and think the right thoughts, and say the right things, and hang around the right people, then maybe God will like us enough to want to be around us. That is not relationship, that is monologue. We’re doing all the talking, we’re doing all the working, we alone are performing.

Yes, like all relationships, a relationship with God is defined by time spent together. The Good News is that God created, from the beginning of time, a place for you in the very essence of God's being. A Way to enjoy relationship.

It is not our cognitive act of making time for God, by going to church or talking about God, or believing in the proper dogma or doctrine. We are not more Godly than the next person because we do or think all the right things. It is only out of the nature of God that there is time for us. But it is the nature of God to have time for us. God has created this.

God the Holy Spirit makes this relationship real, constant, and mutual. We experience God when we pray, worship, meditate and study… and we experience God when we drive, when we speak with others, when we give, when we receive, when we sleep, and when we awaken.

This is why Jesus says, “do not let your hearts be troubled.” By letting our hearts be freed we are letting go of the artificial requirements and the arbitrary limits we place on ourselves and on God. We are free to enjoy that relationship, rather than fret about being good enough to get the relationship in the first place.

God came to earth in Jesus Christ to serve people, to let the slaves go free, to heal the blind, to comfort the poor in spirit, to restore the earth to the year of The Lord's jubilee! God came to remove the fear that would trouble the heart. God came to restore people to a wonderful relationship with the creator as in the beginning. A relationship that is not defined by religion, law or dogma, but a relationship defined by enjoying time spent together.

Make no mistake, Christ will, indeed, come again. I do not see any Scriptural evidence for a specific date or time, nor can I ever support a person who claims to have it all figured out. But I can see the light breaking on the horizon, and I believe Christ’s words, as related by the writer of the Book of Revelation when he says, “soon.”

But Christ’s return isn’t about who wins and who loses; who gets “Raptured” and who is “Left Behind.” Christ returns to his family, and the joy is this: we will see him, and recognize him, and he will see and recognizes us, because we’ve been together with him all the time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Lord is STILL My Shepherd!

This is a re-tooling of a sermon I gave on April 25, 2010, called "The Lord (Not Wal-Mart) Is My Shepherd!" In that sermon I gave credit where it is most certainly due, to Jean Kilbourne, author of an excellent article, “Jesus is a Pair of Jeans,” and to Clinton McCann of Eden Seminary in St. Louis.

I'm still no fan of consumerism. I've seen companies use the Alabama tornado relief efforts as a sales pitch - and at the same time, I've seen companies like Jim N Nick's Barbecue very quietly do what they do best, feeding hungry people. No, I'm not advertising. I'm thanking.

Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

1 Peter 2:19-25
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Psalm 23:1-6

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It happens every time you turn on the television, or listen to the radio, or open a newspaper or magazine, or check your email, or look at something on the internet, drive or walk down the street, or get placed on hold while calling a company. It’s called “advertising.” It may be as complex as a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, or as simple as a familiar logo on the side of a building. From almost the moment we wake up every morning, to the time we fall asleep at night, we are being sold.

The key to sales is not providing information which will allow you to make an informed decision; rather sales are made based on emotions. If, as a sales professional, I can transfer emotion to you about a given product or service, I will be successful.

Part of the reason for the pervasiveness of advertising is that it is an impersonal medium trying to make a personal, emotional connection. The key is simply to make you believe that you need a given product or service. When you believe that you need it, you are unsatisfied until that need is fulfilled by purchasing that product or service. That’s why the same old things are suddenly “new and improved,” why this model year car has a nicer sound system than last year’s model, why the “next generation” cell phone has more things you can do on it (besides make phone calls) than the last-generation cell phone.

According to marketing analysts, Americans see some 5,000 advertisements every day. As those numbers have risen, the need for marketing which rises above the noise and catches your attention has grown as well. Where once advertisers promised better relationships through product purchases – buy this and you will be loved – it seems they’ve crossed into a realm where there is a promise of a relationship with the product itself: buy this and it will love you. Think of it: five thousand times a day, our deepest, most heartfelt emotions are trivialized, our emotions channeled into merchandise. You love your children, don’t you? You’d like to see them be safe, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you agree that purchasing this car will be good for your children?

You love your spouse, don’t you? You would do anything to keep your spouse happy after all these years of marriage, wouldn’t you agree? Doesn’t it make sense to buy this bracelet/ring/necklace/fishing rod/whatever?

Everything – people, relationships, nature, whatever – is trivialized, turned into just so much stuff to be consumed or used to sell us something. And the problem isn't necessarily that advertising whips up artificial needs from nothing, but that it exploits our very real desires.

We are not stupid: we know that buying a certain brand of cereal won’t bring us one inch closer to love, to peace, to fulfillment. But we are surrounded by advertising that yokes our needs with products and promises us that things will deliver what in fact they never can. In the world of advertising, lovers are things and things are lovers.

The Twenty-Third Psalm is a wonderful source of comfort. Its familiar words accompany most funerals, and remind us of God’s love, providence, and protection. And when viewed in the context of our noisy, consumer-driven world, they serve as a radical call to return our hearts to the One who can, and does, truly fill our needs!

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

To be sure, this first verse isn’t at all about never desiring stuff, but about having our needs – our real needs – met. In this verse, and in the one and a half that follow, our physical needs – food, water, peace and joy and restoration abound. When we walk with God, we walk in right paths. Even when our way leads through danger, uncertainty, loss and hardship, God is with us, taking us through. Even when we are surrounded by enemies – outside as well as inside ourselves – God is with us. When God is our Shepherd, we lack nothing.

Instead of being enslaved by what Alan Greenspan called “infectious greed,” where we have to have the next thing, the newest, the fastest, the shiniest, the best thing – In the twenty-Third Psalm, God reminds us that life is not a series of new-and-improved possessions, but a gift.

As last month ended, thousands of people were, in an instant, left without food; the water was undrinkable, and everything they owned was falling from the sky into someone’s yard a county or a state away. And as we speak, still others on the Mississippi delta are watching as their homes and livelihood are engulfed in flood waters.

Who could blame them if their cry was an echo of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
…You brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Instead, what do we hear from them, time and again? I’ve heard it from tornado survivors, and I heard if on NPR just yesterday, from a woman in Mississippi Delta country. In her 80’s, she was already forced out of her home by the flood, and was watching as the water line crept nearer and nearer her daughter’s back porch: “The Lord will make a way.”

So many of these people have learned that hard lesson about “things.” How, no matter what the advertisements say, there is no peace, and certainly no permanence, to what we possess. However expensive our car is, a falling tree can reduce it to scrap. No matter how nice a television we own, it can be washed away in a flood or blown into another zip code.

When we view life as a gift and not as something we earn or deserve, something that can be quantified by the size of our home or the digits in our bank account balance, the appropriate response is gratitude. Especially for those of us who have escaped the worst, knowing that the Lord is our shepherd sets us free to be infectious in our gratitude.

We are set free to share, quite literally, for God's sake – share our food, our drink, and our sources of security with those who are hurting, those who are dying, those who are forgotten, those who are lost – whether they be across the ocean or right next door. We are set free to share even with the enemies who are with us at the table God prepares!

If Psalm 22 is a foretelling of the Crucifixion, then let Psalm 23 be a joyous affirmation of the Resurrection, and let our infectious gratitude be a message to those who are hurting that, most assuredly, God has not given up. Not on them, not on us.

In times like these it’s not just comforting, it’s vital to be reminded that God has called all of us by name. In times like these it’s not just reassuring, it’s imperative to know that in life, in death, and in life beyond death we belong to God. In times like these it’s not just instructive, it’s a life-saving act to remind one another that this al fedjr, this twilight means the dawn is certainly coming. In times like these, when the skies fall and the floods rise, perhaps the greatest thing we as followers of Christ need to rediscover, and remind one another of, is the simple, yet profound truth that transcends theology, doctrine, denomination, race, or higher orthodoxy: God loves us, collectively and as individuals. God cares for us, deeply, nurturing us and protecting us as a shepherd to his sheep, as a mother hen to her chicks.

If I may paraphrase Max Lucado, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If [God] had a wallet, your photo would be in it. [God] sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, [God will] listen. [God] can live anywhere in the universe, and... chose your heart. What about the Christmas gift [God] sent you in Bethlehem; not to mention that Friday at Calvary. Face it, friend. [God is] crazy about you.”

We need to remember this – more than that we need to tell it, not simply in words, because words are just advertising. Love and faith and hope are not emotions, remember? These are verbs, action words, things which are done.

Whatever we do, whether it is a donation to a relief organization, a few hours spent serving meals or making phone calls or loading boxes of relief supplies, our unrelenting message of the Kingdom of God, as children of God, as sheep of the Shepherd, is this:

At those times when we are at our darkest, lowest points, when the sirens wail, when the levees break, when God seems far away: God has not forsaken them, or us. God has not given up on them, or on us.

God has engraved them, and you, and I, on the palms of God's hands.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Our Road to Emmaus

Thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey, "Preaching Peace," and my beloved pseudo-daughter Genevieve Turkett for inspiration and assistance in writing this week's sermon.

My prayer is that as you read it, Christ will be made known to you.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

1 Peter 1:17-23
If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Have you ever wondered why only one of the people who Jesus joins on the road to Emmaus has a name? There’s a lot of speculation about it. Some commentators suggest that the person traveling with Cleopas was a woman. Others say it was Luke himself. Really, though, it could have been anybody… and perhaps that’s kind of the point.

These two are members of a group of people who pinned all their hopes on an itinerant Rabbi from a Galilean backwater, a man who not only spoke the oracles of God, but who could perform mighty miracles, things never before seen! Perhaps Cleopas and his friend had eaten the bread and fish when Jesus fed the five thousand. Perhaps they had gasped in amazement when lepers were cleansed. Perhaps they’d reeled in shock when Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Perhaps they’d hidden a smile when Jesus put the Pharisees in their place, and had actually read what he wrote in the dirt while the angry crowd waited to stone the woman caught in adultery.

Perhaps, but all of that was ancient history now. Because they’d stood at a distance, watching Peter and John crouched at the fire, and heard the rooster crow as Peter ran away, they’d been in the crushing crowd, terrified to speak out as everyone around them screamed “Crucify! Crucify!” They’d followed at a distance as Jesus fell under the weight of his cross, and a man was forced to carry it for him, and they’d watched from a safe distance as he breathed his last.

I doubt either one of them knew why they’d stayed in Jerusalem after that. Perhaps it was the comfort of having others around to share the grief, to try and process all that had happened, to try to make sense of their world coming apart around them. But that morning, things had started getting weird.

First, some of the women of the group woke them all up, babbling about the tomb being empty. It made no sense, but when a couple of the disciples ran down to see for themselves, sure enough, the tombstone was rolled back and the slab where the body was supposed to be laying was bare, except for the wrappings. And there was crazy talk of angels, and confusion, and it only got worse throughout the day. There had been no time to process the horror and loss of death before the insanity about angels and rising from the dead had begun, and it was at last too much to take. Cleopas and his companion had to get out of Jerusalem.

Emmaus was seven miles from Jerusalem, but it might as well have been seven million, because of what it represented. Frederick Buechner speaks of it as a place they go – a place we go – or, better put, a place to run to when we have lost hope or don't know what to do. Emmaus is a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too.

Before April 27th, I might have struggled to come up with a way to convey this sense of shock, of loss, of confusion that drove them to run away to this town of warm springs. We don’t have to dig very deep to understand this, though, do we?

I imagine Cleopas and his companion walking down what was once a quiet residential street in Pleasant Grove or Pratt City, or past the remains of a strip mall in Fultondale, or the rubble of downtown Hackleburg or Cullman, or past the terribly empty spot on McFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, that place where there used to be a Chinese restaurant. My family tradition was to have Christmas dinner there, after we visited our family in Tuscaloosa.

I think of what my friend Genny Turkett wrote in her blog this week. Genny was in my very first youth group, and lives in Tuscaloosa. She writes about seeing what has happened to her adopted home: “There is ache harder than relationships, than drug addicted boyfriends, than car accidents, than failing math class, than losing friends, than losing everything. There is this bigger, different hurt, of overwhelming disaster and death right down your street. There is a house a few blocks from my own with one of those wretched X's on the door. The last number is 1. That nameless storm killed someone in my neighborhood, it orphaned a dog, it destroyed a family. And dear God I am just so furious.”

And in the midst of this unfocused rage, this anger that drives them to run away, go somewhere, go anywhere, but do it now, the stranger draws near, asking what they’re talking about. The two travelers are dumbstruck: is he stupid? Is he blind? They are aghast! Why, can’t he see what has happened to our lives, to our world?

Cleopas and his companion had the common Jewish view of a view of Messiah who was a political redeemer who would achieve victory through the use of force or exercise of absolute power. Now, they were not wrong to have such high expectations of Jesus. Where he disappointed them was precisely in his inability or unwillingness to defend himself, his refusal to achieve victory with shock and awe.

So they reasoned that Jesus was not the Messiah. He was just a fool, and they were the greater fools for having put everything behind him. He let himself get killed, and God’s emissary would never let that happen! God is all powerful, so the Messiah would absolutely exhibit similar traits.

But gently, as the miles tick off underfoot, this soft-spoken stranger speaks of God’s love and grace, bringing clarity and comfort from the Scriptures. Slowly, they see that Jesus’ vulnerability is the veil behind which God hides. Jesus’ openness to love and forgive is the camouflage of the heart of God.

Their cold hearts were warmed by the growing understanding that God judges in order to forgive. God loves, and does so without shadow of turning, without reservation, even to the point of embracing that thing we all fear most, death, and thus conquering it.
And then, as they rest from their journey and take a meal, this nameless traveler takes bread and breaks it, and they see him at last for who he is.

We are those travelers on the road to Emmaus. All too often we face fears, uncertainties, grief and loss. We seek escape, we go down our own road to Emmaus, and God finds us in that place, on that road, and speaks peace to us, and our cold hearts burst into flame.

We are the travelers, but we Christians are something more, aren’t we? Our hearts are warmed for a purpose! Sometimes, you see, we are the vessel that God uses to reach out to someone else on their Emmaus road. It wasn’t much, that breaking of the bread, but was what Cleopas and his friend needed. Sometimes that kind word, that late-night phone call, that cup of coffee in the Waffle House just off the interstate is all we need. And sometimes it’s all someone else needs from us.

Sometimes we’re the travelers on that road to Emmaus. But sometimes we are Jesus.

There’s a story told from World War two, and it’s never meant more than it does right now. In Italy, an American soldier came across a statue of Jesus which had been damaged in a bombing raid. The statue’s hands were missing, and nowhere to be found. The soldier took a piece of paper, wrote a quick note, and left it at the base of the statue. The note read, “Christ has no hands but yours.”

Christ has no hands but yours.

Right now, in Cullman or in Hackleburg or Sawyerville or Cordova or Henager or so many other communities, someone’s walked a long way from where their home once was, where they’ve been searching through a pile of sticks, looking for family heirlooms, throwing busted glass into the back of a pickup truck, shoveling shingles into a pile, maybe struggling to not think of their lifelong friend or close relative who didn’t make it through the storm. Right now, they are walking into an open-sided tent where a few tables are set up. Right now someone they don’t know hands the weary, soul-sick travelers a sandwich and a bottle of water.

And they sit down at last, open the water and unwrap that sandwich. It isn’t much, no. But it’s what they need. And in that moment Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of bread.

Let us pray.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Disaster Strikes: Asking "Why?" and "Where?"

I am indebted to Richard Schwedes, pastor of Portland Heywood Lutheran Church, and for one of the RevGalBlogPals, whose name is listed only as "Katherine," for their instructive guidance in crafting a sermon which addresses natural disasters.

The radio station I mention in the sermon is WAPI, and the telethon was put on by ABC 33/40. Please consider giving to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and/or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as efforts continue in providing relief from this week's deadly tornadoes.

Don't "give until it hurts." Give until it finally gets better.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Early this past Wednesday morning, many of us were awakened by tornado warning sirens. Some communities were hit by either a small tornado or straight-line winds (Tim’s property had some trees down, and they lost power), and at least one person was killed while clearing downed trees. It was bad, make no mistake. But it’s Alabama in the springtime, and to one degree or another, we’re used to it.

But nothing could have prepared us for what was coming that afternoon.

Before 3 that afternoon, a tornado slammed into the downtown area of Cullman. This one, as well as the massive EF-5 tornado that would devastate much of Tuscaloosa at a little after five, was caught on live television. That same tornado then set its sights on Birmingham. For awhile, it looked like the downtown area of Birmingham would be hit. The weather service even specifically mentioned my own community of Tarrant as a target.

In the end, the media was calling it the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes since 1932. Pleasant Grove was destroyed, as well as Pratt City, and Forestdale suffered extensive damage as well. It is safe to say that, even now, we do not know the extent of damage to homes and businesses in the Tuscaloosa or Birmingham area. Whole neighborhoods are not simply destroyed, they are missing altogether. And lest we forget, Huntsville, Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Rainsville, Argo, Margaret, Odenville, Sawyerville, and many, many more communities were damaged or destroyed as well. At last count, 250 people are dead in Alabama alone, over two thousand, two hundred injured, and many hundreds are unaccounted for.

All of our families have been touched, to one degree or another, by damage or death from this tragedy.

As Christians, of course, our first thought is to pray: to pray for the victims and their families, to be thankful that we were not killed, our homes not destroyed.

But if you’re like me, after the prayers are said, a question hangs in the air, unanswered: Why?

Why did this happen?

This question has its sibling, of course: where? Where is God in all of this?

Why do some people suffer, and not others? Were the tornadoes really an act of God? Was God angrier with Pleasant Grove than with Tarrant? Or did God favor Hoover over Tuscaloosa? Does Montgomery hold a dearer place in God’s heart than Henager?
Oh, there are those who are more than ready to point out supernatural causes for natural disasters, folks like Pat Robertson, who was more than happy to blame Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti on the sins and shortcomings of the victims themselves (or their ancestors!). These folks are quick to grab hold of a text like Micah 5, which concludes with “I will take vengeance in anger and wrath upon the nations that have not obeyed me.” They’ll jump to Psalm 106: “Fire blazed among their followers; a flame consumed the wicked,” and then there’s always selected readings from the Book of Revelation!

I’ve shared my views about this kind of “preaching” before. I have no patience for it. It paints God as a malevolent force, bent on exacting retribution for real and imagined wrongs, not caring if innocents are destroyed in the process. What’s more, such a view blatantly ignores huge, well, slabs of Scripture, for example 1 Thessalonians 5:9 – “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet this kind of view, this idea that God causes tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis speaks to the natural tendency of human beings to invent explanations for the unexplainable, to place blame where none is deserved, all in an effort to make natural disasters on a scale like we’ve experienced this past week make sense to us.

Perhaps blaming God does, on some level, make sense psychologically… however, it makes absolutely no sense theologically, because the idea that tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes or tsunamis are instruments of God’s judgment and wrath ignores one very important, blatantly obvious, person: Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, Jesus, God-With-Us, does not incite the storm on the Lake of Galilee; he calms the storm. He soothes the fears of his disciples. If we believe that Jesus truly reflects the nature of his Heavenly Father, then what we see in Jesus is a loving and merciful God who would not cause tornadoes to come, lives to shatter, and human beings to go missing.

Indeed, the Gospel of John tells us that "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (That’s John 3:16-17 from “The Message” version)

Make no mistake, God does judge us, but most of the time that judgment comes through the Word.
We are judged when we look to Scripture and discover therein that we are living far from what God expects.

That judgment isn’t intended to destroy us, but to compel us toward relationship with Christ, understanding that only in Jesus can we truly live God’s life.

But the question remains: If God did not cause these events, why did they occur?

The short answer is sin.

Now, we often view sin as an action, something we commit, but sin is more than just an act, it is the nature of this world. This world has been infected and affected by sin, and Scripture teaches us that it is because of sin that we have trouble in the world. Natural disasters are not a product of a wrathful God, they happen because it is the nature of the world we inhabit, period. It is a sad truth that, as long as we live in this world, our life can never be truly peaceful. Yet we have hope, because we serve a God that, in Christ, has conquered this world of sin! Hear the Word of God, from John 16:33 – “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

God wants to save us, not judge us!

God wants to give us hope, not despair!

But knowing that, what does it mean, in this specific context, when in our Epistle reading today Peter speaks about suffering trials, about having our faith tested by fire?

Were those who lost homes, families, and their very lives being tested? Is the natural disaster itself a trial by fire?

I want to suggest… no, that’s not so. I want to proclaim to you this morning that where we who follow Christ are tested – where we who call ourselves “Christian” are tried – is not in the event, but in our response to the event. In this world of sin, things happen, and very often these things are horrible beyond words. How we respond to these very bad things as Ambassadors for Christ either brings praise and glory to Jesus Christ, or proves that we do not believe what we claim to believe.

The tragedy that this state has endured this week begs description. The response continues to be so overwhelming that it leaves me gape-mouthed in wonder.

I have held hands and prayed with a first responder, a battle-hardened veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan as he wept openly, mourning the fact that his team, searching for survivors in one twisted pile of rubble after another, found no one alive.

And I have watched as a graduating nursing student, someone who was in my youth group not too many years ago, gave her time and energy to the victims of the storm.

And I have seen car after car after car line up as armies of volunteers descended on them to unload donations – so much water that the local Wal-Mart sold out, so much food and soap and diapers and batteries that they broke a trailer! And I’ve seen these trailers, seven so far, hauled off directly to the hardest hit communities.

I’ve seen churches open their doors wide, offering meals to whoever wants them, and teams of volunteers with chain saws going door to door to remove trees from roofs.

I’ve seen a local radio station suspend their regular programming, giving up day after day of revenue from national programs in order to provide people a venue to call in, ask for assistance, and offer assistance. I’ve seen a television station organize an almost impromptu telethon and raise over half a million dollars. I’ve seen our own Presbyterian Disaster Assistance commit to being in the area, and helping wherever possible, for the long haul.

And I’ve fielded offer after offer of assistance from Twitter and FaceBook, arranging for donations to be sent to shelters and relief organizations from as far away as Chicago and Texas.

People have been offering help where they can, with the resources they have.

Disasters will happen – some will be huge, affecting many thousands of people; others will be much more localized, affecting a family. In times of need, will we point fingers, will we turn inward, or will we respond like Matthew 25 Christians? “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Let us pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.