Tuesday, May 31, 2011

God's great reminder


CS Lewis was fond of saying, “people in the church don’t need to be instructed; they need to be reminded.” In other words, part of the Gospel’s difficulty is its simplicity, and the great task of the Christian is not to absorb the latest ideas but to return – time and time again – to the simple truth of the Gospel. Swiss theologian Karl Barth was among the most influential theologians of the 20th century, and over his life he wrote 13 volumes, which took 35 years, to explain the meaning of the Christian faith. He was once asked by a reporter if he could summarize those 13 volumes in a few sentences, to which Barth replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The Gospel’s difficulty is its utter simplicity, and we who call ourselves Christians don’t really need to be instructed, we need to be reminded.

Today, what I’d like to do is look at Paul’s speech to the Athenians, because in it I see for key reminders at the heart of Christian discipleship. And those four reminders can be stated as follows.

Everyone’s religious.
God can’t be served.
We were created to seek.
To the extent that we find we will repent.

Everyone’s religious

First, all people are religious. “Athenians,” Paul says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” You see Paul’s been walking around the city and can’t help but notice all of the shrines. There was a shrine to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty; Ares the god of war; Artemis, the goddess of wealth; and of course many more. Now, you and I live in a world that thinks there are religious people and there are secular people, but is that really how the world works?

You see that word religion – it comes from the Latin ligare, which means to “bind or to connect.” In other words, our religion is that which we bind or connect our hearts to in order to feel secure. Now, I seriously doubt you worship the god of war. But are you ever tempted to rely on your power and sense of accomplishment in order to feel secure? I know I am. And I seriously doubt that any of you have a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in your home. But is your wisdom – your knowledge and ability to speak eloquently about science or politics or something else – is that your primary source of meaning? We are all extremely religious. We all bind or connect our hearts to something or to someone to feel secure. That’s not the question – the question is always to what; the Living God or some other shrine made by human hands?

As Timothy Keller puts it, “We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. We may not actually burn incense to Artemis, but when money and career are raised to cosmic proportions, we perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting family and community to … gain more wealth and prestige.” In other words, it’s never a question of whether or not a person has faith. The question is always, who or what is our faith in?

God can’t be served.

That brings us to our second key point – God cannot be served. In the words of Paul, God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Doesn’t the Bible call us God’s servants? Isn’t “serving God” a good thing? And of course the answer is yes – and no. Today, I just want to point out one aspect of the servant metaphor that we need to avoid.

You see Athenians were incredibly superstitious. In fact, that Greek word translated religious can also be translated superstitious. For instance, no one worshiped the God of war because of the intrinsic beauty and splendor of Ares. No, they worshiped Ares when they were on the verge of going to battle – they served that God in the hope that Ares would return the favor in the form of a military victory.

Here’s the point that Paul’s trying to make. Every so-called god makes us work for them, makes us serve them. The perfect example of this is the Enuma Elish, which is the Babylonian Creation Myth, written about the same time as the Book of Genesis. In the Enuma Elish, there’s a battle of the gods, which the god Marduk wins. And so Marduk – to celebrate – decides to slash open the belly of one of the defeated gods, and from that dead god’s belly comes the earth – if you’re a young Babylonian student, this is just science 101. Anyway, Marduk decides to allow the other gods to live on the earth and enjoy its recourses. The only problem is, keeping up the earth is hard work, and so what do the gods do? They create humans to do all the work they were too lazy to do. Now, that’s just one example, but it does capture the worldview of the pagan world, and a lot of people in our world – we were created to serve the gods. But not the Living God, Paul says. The Living God is different.

Has anyone ever told you that God has no hands but you and that if you don’t come through for Him then God’s in trouble? If that’s really the case we’re in trouble. Because we don’t come through, and aside from our anxiety and our sin and our fear, there is nothing we can give God that He doesn’t already have. There is big a difference between Jesus Christ and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam won’t enlist you in his service unless you’re healthy. Jesus won’t enlist you unless you’re sick.

We were created to seek.

Which brings us to key point #3. If God didn’t put us here to serve him, then why are we here? We were created to seek God. We were created to love God. We were created to know God. As Paul puts it today, God created us to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Now, I had to look up that word grope because, well, it just sounded creepy. The Greek word literally means to “reach out expectantly hoping to feel something.” I spent Friday night with my goddaughter, who isn’t even 18 months old, and each time I picked her up she started reaching, sometimes pretty forcefully, in an attempt to grab my nose. That’s the image Paul’s trying to give us. We are infants in the arms of God. We are his “offspring” – it is in God that we live and move and have our being – and God created us to reach out, day after day, to find him.

Richard Foster wrote a great book called Prayer and in that book this is what he says. “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.” In other words, God wants to be wanted. God seeks to be sought. He longs for our presence. Augustine once said, “Our souls are restless O Lord until they rest in thee.” But, according to Foster and according to Paul, God also longs for us. His soul is restless until we rest in Him. We were created to seek him, for “we too are his offspring” – children created to reach out for God.

Now, what exactly seeking God looks like will differ for each one of us. We’re all different, and God deals with us differently. But I do know that at least three things are nonnegotiable – intentionality, scripture and community. Intentionality is obvious. No one drifts into a deep, sustainable relationship with God. Scripture – we can’t live the story if the story doesn’t live in us. And community – our faith may be personal but it definitely isn’t private. We need other Christians to help us find Christ.

To the extent that we find we will repent.

Now, to the extent that we do find – or to the extent that we’re found – we will repent, and that of course is key point number four. Now, the word repent – it does not mean to say we’re sorry or to feel bad for our mistakes. Both may be fine things to do, but it’s not what repentance is. The word repent literally means “to change our mind,” or “to turn.” Repentance is about changing our mind. It’s about changing our mind about the things we’ve bound or connected our hearts to and to acknowledge that they can’t give us whatever it is that they promise. It’s about changing our mind about the many ways we try and barter with God and to acknowledge the good news that we are not needed – just loved and celebrated and cherished, but not needed. It’s about turning away from a self-seeking life to a God-seeking life, and to acknowledge that God wants to be wanted, and seeks to be sought, and that God longs for our presence.

After all, Paul is clear – “God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness.” But for the Christian, that great Day of Judgment is not something that will happen. It’s something that has happened – once and for all – on Golgotha Hill. To quote Karl Barth again, “the Judge was judged in our place.” For that cross is God’s great reminder that God himself is also extremely religious, for he has bound His heart to us and will stop at nothing to get us back.

The only way we can serve this God is to know – and I mean know – that the Living God lives to serve us. And so as we go out into the world seeking God, may we never forget that God is always seeking us. And finally, in light of all this, as we ponder what it means to repent – to turn to the Living God – may we be reminded that in Christ the Father has already repented – He’s already turned – towards us with arms open.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Truth



Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Christopher’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I need apologize in advance if this sermon isn’t very good. I’m not sure if you’ve been following the news, but the world was supposed to end yesterday and so instead of writing a sermon I spent all of last week eating Mexican food. That being said and I guess I mean this in more way than one – I am really glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

On October 2, 2006 ten young girls were taken hostage in an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. All ten were shot, five were killed and the gunman committed suicide. But as you may recall, that wasn’t the story – what most of us remember. What we all remember was the response of the Amish community, who expressed forgiveness toward the killer, took up a collection for the killer’s widow and her three young children, and even attended the killer’s funeral. As one author put it, “Several Amish families, who had buried their own daughters just the day before, were in attendance as they hugged the widow and … other members of the killer’s family.”

Here’s the question I’d like to wrestle with this morning – how? In the face of unspeakable tragedy, where did this Amish community get the heart to respond with such forgiveness, love and compassion? I mentioned that my primary focus is in Christian formation, which has to do with that process by which our hearts are formed into Jesus’s heart – which is a heart that forgives, that loves and that absorbs pain rather than returning it. But how do our hearts actually change? Or, perhaps another example, how do we become someone like Stephen who, as the rocks pummel his body, still managed to pray, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them.” In a world where people hurt us and where we hurt people, how do we forgive? How do we love? How do we take the stones thrown at us rather than mindlessly just hurling them back? In other words, how do we acquire the heart of Jesus?

Here’s how the author of John’s Gospel would answer that question. We have to know the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” To live this life with Jesus’s heart – which is a heart that forgives, that loves and that absorbs pain instead of just inflicting it back – we have to know the Truth.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably suspicious of people that claim to have the truth, and the consensus of our culture is that we should all be free to figure out for ourselves what is true. As the U.S. Supreme Court declared back in 1992, “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” In other words, choose for yourself what is true – or the reason you exist – and you’ll be free. It’s that simple. Freedom, we think, is about choosing our own truth.

If it’s okay I’d like to meander for a bit, because it’s worth mentioning two philosophers in particular that were incredibly influential in shaping our culture’s view of truth – Nietzsche and Foucault – and this is what they said. “All truth claims are power plays. When people claim to have the truth, their real motive is to get power over others and control their behavior.” Now, perhaps you think I’m going to disagree and say what a bunch of hogwash but I’m not because on numerous occasions Jesus said the exact same thing. In particular, I’m thinking about the Pharisees. They were pretty obsessed with “God’s truth” and about who was in line and who wasn’t and time and time again Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that all they really cared about was controlling people and maintaining their power. I mean, why do you think they stoned Stephen? Because the truth Stephen preached was a threat to their power. And so Nietzsche was right. The people most outspoken about what’s true are often the most violent and coercive. I mean, let’s face it – Nietzsche, Foucault and Jesus Christ can all agree on something – it’s just got to be true! But – that doesn’t mean we can walk the way of relativism because in today’s Gospel Jesus is outspoken. “I am way. I am the life. I am the truth.”

You see, the greatest power play of all is to go around telling everyone that their idea of truth is a power play, and the problem with Nietzsche and Foucault is that they went around popping everyone else’s balloon but never popped their own because there’s something they failed to see – we all make truth claims – we all hold deep beliefs about who we are and the reason we exist – and so it can’t be the belief in truth itself that kill freedom. It’s what’s in the truth claim we’re making. To put it a bit differently, we’re all fundamentalists. The only question is this – what’s our fundamental? What fundamental – what truth – is at the center of our life?

Now, stay with me because I know what you’re all thinking – “what in the world does any of this have to do with the Amish?” I’m getting there. You see, what we hold as the deepest truth about this world and the reason we exist will always shape how we live (2X). And John actually begins his Gospel by giving us that reason. “In the beginning was the Word – or the logos in Greek – and the logos was God and the logos was with God and the logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” Now, that Greek word logos – it’s where we get the word logic and the word reason. In other words, John begins his Gospel by telling us that there is a reason we exist, a logic behind the universe, a Truth with a capital T that each one of us were made for, and that this absolute truth is not a philosophy or a principle or an abstraction or set of commandments or even a creed, but a Person – a Person that embodied the fullness of God Himself, a Person whose commitment to truth led not to someone else’s death but His own.

And so once again, how do we acquire the heart of Jesus? How do we live this life with Jesus’s heart – forgiving, loving, and absorbing the pain other’s inflict on us instead of inflicting it back? Here’s where I think the Amish can help. After all, what we hold as the deepest truth about this world and the reason we exist will always shape how we live. For the Amish, the deepest truth they held in their hearts was a story about a man that embodied the fullness of God and yet still chose to empty himself and die for his enemies rather than crushing them. The deepest truth they held in their hearts was that they could have confidence that those little girls’ lives would go on after death because Jesus was preparing a place for each one of them in His Father’s house. For the Amish, the deepest truth they held in their hearts was that their mission in life – what made them “successful or unsuccessful” people – had nothing to do with power or status or money but with how well their lives pointed the world to Jesus. That was the deepest truth they held in their hearts. What’s yours?

I’d like to share a quote from the late Henry Nouwen. “In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, that cares, that reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no resentment and not a tinge of hatred. It is a heart that wants only to give love and receive love in response. It is a heart that suffers immensely because it sees the magnitude of human pain and the great resistance to trusting the heart of God who wants to offer consolation and hope.” (In the Name of Jesus, 24)

To be a Christian is to believe that that heart – God’s heart – is the deepest truth behind this universe, and that this same heart was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. It was on the part of God a powerless play. And in this world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women that know the heart of God. The Amish knew God’s heart. Stephen knew God’s heart. The question is, do we? Because I would submit that the heart of liberty is not to define our own concept of existence. The heart of liberty is to know the reason for our existence. In the beginning was the Reason – and the Reason was God and the Reason was with God and the Reason became flesh and dwelt among us – not to kill, but to be killed – full of grace and truth.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good shepherd, good news

To listen:

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you tonight at St. Mark’s Between the Bayous. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. Thank you so much for having me – it is really great to be with you.

There’s a question I’d like to reflect on tonight. What makes us valuable? In other words, why are we important? What makes us special? What gives us worth? Well, I want to begin answering these questions by reading you the first paragraph of an article entitled, “450 Sheep Jump to their deaths in Turkey,” which the Associated Press ran back in 2005. In case you’re wondering, the article’s about how 450 sheep jumped to their death in Turkey. This is how it begins. “First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the cliff. In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned.”

In tonight’s Gospel when Jesus likens us to sheep – it’s not really a complement. You see most animals when released will either go wild or just find their way back home. But sheep are different. The truth is, they’re not very smart, and sheep have absolutely no sense of direction. That’s why a good shepherd doesn’t leave his sheep because if he does they jump off a cliff.

And so in the ancient near east – which was Jesus’ world – a sheep with no shepherd or a sheep with an incompetent shepherd was completely hopeless and vulnerable. And so to speak of Jesus as our shepherd – this isn’t really a sentimental image. But it is a powerful one. Perhaps you’ve heard the 23rd psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul, and guides me along right paths.” What makes this psalm so powerful is that it speaks to the deepest desire of the human heart. I mean, isn’t that what we all yearn for – someone to take care of us that knows us better than we know ourselves and that wants to give us abundant life? A Shepherd who, in the midst of a world full of fear and anxiety and uncertainty and war and death and disease, longs to lead us to calm places so we feel safe and satisfied and at peace. I don’t know about you, but for me this image awakens something so deep within. Because I would submit that we’re all following someone; that each one of us is tuning in to someone’s voice – or to multiple voices, which are probably contradictory and scattered – to make sense of who we are and what gives us value. Tonight, I’d like to focus on Jesus’s voice, and to tune in to what he says about value.

That word value – it’s a word tied to worth and importance. In other words, to say that we’re valuable is to say that we’re important – that we’re “worth something,” which let’s face it, is something we all need to know. There’s no depression like the depression of thinking our life isn’t valuable, and even though I seriously doubt that’s where most of us are, that doesn’t mean we don’t ask the question, if only at the subconscious level. Why am I important? What makes me special? What gives me worth?

Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death, which he begins by making the claim that a child’s need for self-worth “is the condition of his life.” And God knows we seek that worth from whoever we think can give it to us. I know I do. As Brene Brown puts it, we “steal worth.” We become the funny one or the attractive one or the athletic one or the rich one or the smart one or the successful one because if we’re not that then who are we?

Well, at the heart of the Christian Gospel is an answer to this question – this question of what makes us valuable. Remember, that word Gospel means good news, which is not the way we always feel about our relationship with God. Far too often we get stuck in that dead paradigm that says Jesus came to offer us good advice – advice on how to be good or to get in good with God – but Jesus did not turn the world upside down by offering good advice. No, His Kingdom revolution began when he went public with some very good news – good news that’s captured in part by something he says tonight. “I call my own sheep by name.” I’ll say that again. “I call my own sheep by name.”

What makes us important? What makes us special? What gives us worth? Here’s what I think tonight’s Gospel is getting at. What makes us valuable, what makes us important, what gives us a “name” has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Jesus’s call. We matter not because we’re good but because God is; not because we’re lovely but because we’re loved; not because of what we do but because of what Jesus did on our behalf. “I lay down my life for my sheep.” What gives us a “name” has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Jesus’s call.

But hearing that call and re-learning how to live this life deeply centered in that call – that’s a different story. After all, there are so many wolves and hired hands and incompetent shepherds and thieves out there, and they’re all out to steal, kill and destroy our real sense of worth by offering us a false one. “Try harder. Follow the rules. Lose ten pounds. Be good. It’s a dog eat dog world. If you want someone to scratch your back then scratch someone else’s. Be funny. Be smart. Be pretty. Don’t be boring. Nothing in life is free. Obey your thirst. Just do it.” There’s a lot of bad advice out there, and Jesus doesn’t have time for any of it. When it comes to that question of what gives us worth Jesus refuses to offer advice. But he does offer us news. Good news. “I know my own. I call each sheep by name. I know my sheep. I love my sheep. I lay down my life for my sheep.”

I want to go back to that article and read you some quotes from the shepherds themselves. “There’s nothing we can do.” “They’re all wasted.” “It’s going to be hard for us.” You see what these quotes capture is how devastating the loss of these sheep was to the shepherds. Because like in Jesus’ world, these sheep weren’t pets. They were the shepherd’s life! You see a shepherd’s wealth, livelihood, and glory were bound up with the safety and care of his flock, and what tonight’s Gospel is trying to get at is simply this – that Jesus, the One for whom and the One through all things were created – feels this way about each one of us. There’s this great verse from Ephesians, where Paul prays that we’d know the riches of Jesus’ glorious inheritance among the saints. Most people, when they hear that verse, mistakenly assume that Paul prays that we would know that Jesus is our inheritance and be thrilled with how great that all is, but that isn’t at all what text actually says. It doesn’t say that Jesus is our inheritance. It says that we are Jesus’ inheritance. And that’s what Paul wants us to see – that Jesus sees us, that He calls us by name – because we are His inheritance. And to me that is so important, because before we can ever live for Jesus we have to know that Jesus lives for us. We are His wealth. We are His livelihood. We are His glory.

And so I’m not going to end this sermon by offering any advice. There’s far too much of that already, but I will give you some good news – news that perhaps you’ve never heard, or that you may just need to hear again. You are not your reputation. You are not what you feel. You are not your mistakes. You are not your achievements. You are not your portfolio. You are not your IQ. Your name – your worth – has nothing to do with that. Because you – you are Jesus’ inheritance. You are worth dying for. You are his wealth. You are his livelihood. You are his glory. The God of the universe knows your name. And because of that, you are far more precious than you could ever dare dream.