I have a good friend who has announced that she is only watching Netflix movies until November 9th – she will no longer watch regular TV for the time being because she simply can’t stand hearing one more political smear commercial. I think most of us are with her in spirit. We were warned that this would be one of the nastiest, most negative political seasons in living memory – and they weren’t kidding! Many pundits have said that we are now as divided as before the Civil War – a warning that ought to get our attention.
There are all kinds of reasons why a person will vote for one candidate or the other. Christians of good faith and conscience do not agree on politics, sometimes simply because they see the world from such very different vantage points and personal experiences. Christians must take care to not let politicians divide us with anger and fear. Every election season, I recall the advice of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, back in 1774:
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And,
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
Good advice even if it is 242 years old!
The fact is that after the election, things will not return to “normal.” In many ways, no matter who wins one office or another, nearly half our friends and relatives will be angry and disappointed and hostile. That’s the moment when our work as followers of Christ kicks in to high gear – to reach out in a spirit of reconciliation, to show that our spirits were not “sharpened against those that voted on the other side,” and focus with relentless energy on sharing the love of Christ.
There are many in our world that will stop at nothing to divide the followers of Christ, to set us against one another instead of working together to build the kingdom. Moravians have a great calling to model loving Christian community in a world that doesn’t see anything remotely like it! I pray that we will work towards that creative, healing goal with the same energy that the world puts into division and destruction!
- Pastor John
Where is Your Treasure?” is a sermon on Luke 12:32-48 preached by the Rev. John P. Jackman on Sunday, August 7, 2016 – Trinity Moravian Church
Last week, we thought about what happens when some terrible tragedy or unexpected news or massive change slices though our lives – and changes everything. Changes all our plans. Last week we heard Jesus’ parable about the wealthy man who had a bumper crop. He thought he would pull down his crowded, too-small barns, build newer, bigger ones to hold all the bounty. But he did not know that he was to be called home that very night. All of that work, all of the possessions, the wealth, the riches, all that stuff would be someone else’s.
And that’s really the reality of life – and in fact, this week we understand a little bit more, Jesus continues this lesson, and in fact, He tells us to be ready, to be prepared, but most of all to be paying attention! Something most of us don’t do well with.
We have some wonderful children here, and I’m happy to say, some more coming along soon! When you’re a young parent, all the old folks tell you to “pay attention.” When our kids were born, everyone told us that – “It goes so fast –as soon as you blink an eye, they’ll be in college!” And like all young parents, we thought, “What a dumb thing to say!” Time sure didn’t seem to “fly by” when there were the long nights when the baby wouldn’t sleep and when changing the six thousandth diaper of the week. It seems to drag out forever – it doesn’t seem to pass very fast. But before long, you’re joining the people saying “pay attention, because it goes by so fast!”
When our Abby was little, we always talked about keeping a diary of the things that she said. Because she uses words in a very creative way – we called them “Abbyisms.” She still does this. We never got around to keeping a diary, but we wish we did, because now, twenty-two years later, it’s hard to recall some of the amazing and funny things she said, things that at the time caused us to roar with laughter.
One of the great wise men of our times, Dr. Seuss writes,
How did it get so late so soon,
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
You know at some point, we can all relate to that. Life is really too short to waste. But we live in a world that encourages us to waste it. Not to pay attention to the things that are truly valuable. Life is really too short to waste on computer solitaire or pointless game shows. It’s too short to waste eating bad microwave pizza that tastes horrid but only takes seconds to heat, too short to read bad novels and watch bad movies (except of course the ones that are SO bad they become entertaining!). Life is far too short to have the most perfect lawn on the block or the cleanest gutters. Is that really the most important thing in our lives?
One of the things that Western Christians, especially American Christians, could learn from Eastern religions – I ought to piggyback on that here that we shcould learn this from most of the great Christian contemplative mystics as well – is to BE IN THE MOMENT, to pay attention to what is happening right now. In our culture, too many of us get caught up in planning what we will be doing next week, worrying about something we cannot now change three weeks in the past. And we live life completely distracted, not paying attention. And we let those wonderful moments that God has given us flit by without noticing. We don’t take the time to write those wonderful things in a journal so that we can recall it later.
We don’t take the time to pay attention. That’s what Jesus is saying to us – PAY ATTENTION. That has to do with the conversion of our minds from one that is obsessed with “I want, I want, I want,” and “I regret, I regret, I regret” to one that is calm and assured of grace, and able to focus on what God is giving us right this moment.
What could we accomplish if we were truly assured of grace, confident of grace, resting in the grace of God? Instead of wallowing in guilt or trying to prove ourselves or earn grace, we could be spending our energies on loving others! Has anyone ever really tried it?
The great reformer Martin Luther wrote that each Christian had to go through three conversions. First is the conversion of the HEART, to feel closer to God; the second is the conversion of the MIND, so that your thoughts reflect God’s love; and the third is the conversion of the PURSE. What Jesus is talking about this morning is paying attention, and placing our treasure in the right place. Not misplacing our hearts and our treasure at the same time. The conversion of the purse is about that moment when we begin to use our gifts and resources in the way that God would use them, rather than ion the way that some advertiser wants you to use them – to misuse them. We’ve got a lot of distractions this way in our society, our society is really built on tempting us to misuse our resources. Pushing things that we don’t need, distracting us with entertainment that we don’t need, and really isn’t good for us.
There was an article was written a while ago about the health effects of our passive lethargic video game culture, and the title of that was Entertained to Death – came out of a study that indicated that the next generation will be the first that will have a shorter life span than their parents, because of our many misdirected habits.
We have to pay attention to life. Of course, when we do that, we find there are gems in the moments of every day, moments to savor and remember and value – moments which very often we miss completely, whizzing on by in our distractions.
There was another article published a few years ago that intrigued me. It pulled together several studies about happiness, and found that (contrary to what we’ve thought), money CAN buy happiness – just not the way we usually try to do it. What they found was that people who take their treasure, and use it to create experiences rather than buying things with the money, were happier overall, had stronger relationships with family and friends. To buy experiences with money instead of things!
In rereading that article, I started to look around the house and think about the stuff we have. We’ve got a lot of stuff, we need to get rid of a lot of it. Maybe you’re in the same boat. But as I looked around the house, I noticed that a great many of the things we’ve kept have stories attached to them. Don’t you find that some trivial souvenir from a trip with your children is far more meaningful – because of the memories – than some very valuable or exquisite thing that you bought.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that often the world has things really backward. The things they tell you to do are NOT the things that will really build your life – both in relationship with others and in relation to God. One of the things that has fascinated me over the years is to watch people going on mission work crews. From a worldly point of view, this makes no sense at all. A hard-working person takes a week of their valuable vacation, pays their own way to go — not to a resort — but to the smelly back end of some third world country, to work their rears off, sweat, and sleep in a the most uncomfortable bed they ever experienced. But in helping others, there is great reward. Over the years of organizing work crews, I hardly ever had a person come back who didn’t sign up to go on another – and often many more. And nearly all of them told me that they got more out of the experience than the people they were supposedly helping.
That’s sure not what cruise companies want to sell you! That’s not what the world sells.
Paying attention – being in the moment – putting your treasure and your time where your heart is can change your life.
I like what Dr. Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, NY has to say, I’m paraphrasing a little here:
- Life is short, so live every day as if it were your last, because some day you’ll be right.
- Life is short, so wake up, stay alert, be prepared, light the lamps, get ready. Listen for the knock, answer the call, serve where you’re sent.
- Life is short, so do what you love to do and give it your best. Whether it’s business or teaching or medicine, or the arts, give it you all.
- Life is short, so recognize that today is the only day you have, eat dessert first!
- Life is short, so listen to the people you love, tell them how much they mean to you, visit someone else’s mother in the nursing home.
- Life is short, so forgive. Look past the faults of others just like you hope they will do for you.
- Life is short, so be courageous, take a chance, live so that when your life flashes before your eyes, you’ll have plenty to watch – and not a lot to regret.
- Life is short, so celebrate God’s eternity, make time for the things that matter, don’t leave yourself regretting things you didn’t do.
- Life is short, so be an evangelist, tell a friend how God’s love has changed your life, be a person who talks about Jesus.
Buy Experiences, Not Things
This sermon was preached on June 21, 2016 at a hastily arranged joint service between St Philips Moravian Church and Trinity Moravian Church on the Sunday following the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
This has been one of those weeks where every pastor says to themselves, “What shall I say?” And as I looked over the service, I realized that the service we had planned, based on the prescribed lectionary readings, was uniquely appropriate for a time when we may be beset by fear.
You may have seen Rembrandt’s painting of this story, the story of the calming of the sea. It is an amazing painting, showing the wave-tossed boat, the waves, the storm clouds. It was the only seascape he ever did. What is interesting is that if you carefully count the people in the boat, you will find fourteen — the twelve disciples, Jesus, and Rembrandt himself. Because he was making a statement, a statement that said, “I am in the boat fearful with the disciples.” Well, we are in the boat fearful today. It is so hard to wrap our minds around the terrible events in Charleston this week.
Some of us pastors have been talking both in person and online about what to say today. My dear brother Sam Gray, whom I always pay attention to, pointed out that in the first century they did not understand how the weather worked the way we do today. Of course, they did not have Accuweather, they could not go on Weather.com and pull up the radar, they did not have our local weather caster Laney Pope to pop up and say “Big storm coming!” They would have little notice, and had to pay prompt attention to the signs — the freshening wind, the change in temperature. They thought that the storm essentially was the symptoms that they could see — the waves and the wind and the billowing clouds. They did not understand scientifically that the thunder was the rapid expansion of superheated air around the lightning bolt, that the lightning bolt itself was caused by differential in electrical potential between the ground and the clouds. But above all, they did not understand that all these symptoms were caused by a huge low pressure system. A system much larger and more powerful than the symptoms they observed on the surface.
So too we look at the symptoms, we see the waves coming over the bow, we hear the thunder, we feel the wind, and we are scared of the symptoms. We humans tend to do that. We often confuse symptoms with causes and causes with symptoms. A hundred years ago, doctors thought that the blood clots they would find in arteries during autopsy after a heart attack were caused by the heart attack — not the other way around. Today we know that it is those blockages that cause the heart attack. Often the things we think of as incidental, as not mattering much, are actually the causes of the things we fear.
When we’ve had a week like this, when there is a terrible tragedy, it’s sort of a litmus test. There has been a lot of chatter this week, displaying the dividedness of our nation — what we say seems to depend more on our beliefs before the event than on the event itself. And I’ve heard many comments this week about symptoms.
I’ve heard it said that the problem is there are too many guns in this country, too easy access to firearms. Well, sure! There are way too many guns in the hands of foolish and misguided people in this country. It is too easy for an angry person to kill a bunch of people in seconds. But in 1981, Michael MacDonald was lynched with a rope — a rope that could have been used to save a drowning person or pull a car out of a ditch, but instead was used to murder. In 1965 at Selma, James Reeb was beaten and kicked to death, kicked to death with boots that could have been better used to march for good.
I’ve heard other people say that it’s our mental health system that is a mess. Well, yes, our mental health system is terrible. It’s had cost-cutting go on year after year until it is eviscerated and crippled, it’s had too many good ideas go awry. We don’t have enough beds and counselors to deal with even a tiny fraction of the problem. I can’t even describe how broken that system is. But we also know for a fact that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.
We have people who say “Our country has gone away from God, we need more God, we need more Jesus.” Well, duh. Sure, things would be better if everyone were to seriously try to live out the love of God. But sometimes when I pick at that and pull at it a little bit, I find that what they are talking about is a white Jesus who apparently belongs to an exclusive country club. And we don’t need any more of THAT Jesus, we need the Jesus of the Gospels who loved the outcast and reached out to all who were hurting and needed His love. That’s the Jesus we need.
And so we focus on one symptom or another, depending on what we already thought a week ago. And we say well, that’s the “cause” of all of this — but no, I think the cause is like the storm – it’s a huge system behind the symptoms that we can’t see and we don’t like to talk about and we don’t like to acknowledge. A big powerful system of hatred and racism and malice. And we like to pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore — but it does.
My friends, I will state it as plain as day: this young man said clearly that he committed these horrific murders of entirely innocent people BECAUSE THEY WERE BLACK. No other reason. Racist hatred had taken him to a place of darkness that I hope we don’t understand.
And God save us all, he sat there in that meeting and thought “maybe I won’t go through with it because these people are so nice.” Can there be any more specific definition of evil than someone who would have those doubts and yet still pull out the gun and shoot people who had been kind to him?
It’s easy for us to look at the symptoms and say “that’s the cause” and then say, “It has nothing to do with me.” But it does have something to do with us. It has something to do with every one of us on both sides.
Those who were killed included four pastors, one retired, a track coach, a choir member, an elderly aunt, a college student who was her nephew and who stood between her and the bullet. We are those pastors, we are that choir member, that coach, that aunt, that nephew. But we are also the perpetrator. For every one of us has participated in that system of oppression, that judgment and condemnation. Even when we try hard, we fail, we move forward and we slip back. When we look the other way, when we laugh even uncomfortably at terrible jokes, when we passively accept the wrongs that are perpetrated, we are part of that big system that produced Dylann Roof.
I am so glad that we can come together today and enjoy one another, and celebrate our oneness in Christ, our love for one another. But the question is what are we going to do now? We need to move forwards with this. We need to move forward in embracing on another in love. We need to go ahead and stand against racism and hatred whenever we encounter it in our lives. And I mean right down to when someone tells a hurtful joke in our presence, a joke that tears at the humanity of people of color or of a different religion. We need to leave the room, we need to call out the joke-teller and challenge the casual racism that pervades our society. It’s time for us to have the courage to do what we know in our hearts to be right. We need to love like Jesus loved, fiercely and fearlessly.
Originally, I was planning to preach on the passage from 2 Corinthians this morning. But that also is so appropriate for today! Paul mentions the endurance of the disciples through afflictions and hardships, through calamities, beatings, imprisonment, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, that they had gone through to bring the love of God to other people. They suffered for the Gospel. And they participated in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to bring love to others. And he says “TODAY is the day, now is the acceptable time; behold, today is the day of salvation.” And today IS the day to start, the day to take action. Not tomorrow, not next week, not when we get around to it. And he goes on, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way.” What obstacles do WE put in the way of others in living out their faith, in discovering God’s love? How do we put that off and interfere with the progress that God desires for others? We have been through many years of the remarkable phrase that our Supreme Court invented, “all deliberate speed,” which basically means to make haste slowly. And we have turned that into deliberate foot-dragging. But God tells us TODAY is the day. Not tomorrow, not in a week, not in a few years, not in ten or twenty years. TODAY. Now is the acceptable time. Here we stand fifty years after Selma and while some people would say there’s been a lot of progress, I’ll stand up here and tell you that we have not made nearly enough progress. Still today, it is far too easy to be arrested or harassed when your only crime is breathing while brown or black, being in the wrong neighborhood when you are a person of color. Still today our society is divided, still today the effects of racism and slavery ring on in our culture.
Now I should mention something that is rarely referenced — blacks aren’t the only ones who have been enslaved in our history. There was a period in the 1600s when boatloads of Irish were shipped over as slaves in conditions not too different from those experienced by Africans. Even later on the system of indentured servitude came awfully close to slavery when it was abused, when tricks were used to keep servants in debt so that they could never buy their way out of what amounted to slavery. Much of our early prosperity arose on the backs of exploited and abused people, a system of owning human beings. When the Moravian Church in Salem during the eighteenth century made that terrible choice to purchase a human being, we took a giant step back from our ideals and our calling. It doesn’t matter that the church treated slaves better than anyone else, it was a betrayal of our very beliefs. In 2006 our Synod voted to apologize for our participation in slavery. But it took us over two hundred years to do the right thing, and in the meantime there were many other ways in which we fell short of the very beliefs that we espoused and preached.
There are many ways in which our culture has sought to keep different people down, economically and in other ways. The people who can end racism are those of us with light skin, those who have inherited the prosperity of the past that was created on the backs of slaves. We’re the only ones who can really put an end to it. People of color have been demanding it for years. It is the rest of us who have to get on board.
Sociologists tell us that as we do make progress, those who feel their power and privilege slipping away from them will become anxious and will lash out. That’s what was going on this last week. And so it seems that every time we take two steps forward, we take one back. This last week one hatred-filled young man tried to make us take a step back. But we must not let hatred win, we must instead take two steps forward, and if God is willing, THREE! We will persevere, we will move forward. Let “deliberate speed” now mean that we move forward with a deliberation and determination that cannot be sidelined, that cannot be diverted, not letting anything – ANYTHING — distract us or dissuade us. The course of history shall still bend towards justice — and together we will march in that direction.
- Pastor John
What a wonderful summer! August was a month of bubbling activity on our block and among the churches of the Salem Creek RCC! We started the month with our group of churches holding a joint Vacation Bible School, which was hosted by Trinity and Home Churches. Volunteers from Home, Messiah, St Philips, and Trinity helped make activities for all ages come to life as we studied the Bible as a library of books — and we were proud to have the Trinity youth volunteer to sing the 66 books without missing one! The strangest feature of the VBS was a mysterious “Bible Clown” who showed up briefly at the start of each program. Little Ann Workman found him quite terrifying. Several children noticed that they never saw Bible Clown and Pastor John in the same room at the same time – hmmmm!
Many of our members contributed school supplies to assemble the backpacks that were given away at the Anthony’s Plot block party, which had the theme “All Things Good in Our Neighborhood!” That block party was a smashing success, with almost 450 attending. Many Trinity members were present as volunteers, making the day happen smoothly.
The next day, August 17, the Salem Creek RCC sponsored a Children’s Festival at Bethabara Church, a celebration of the “children’s renewal” of 1727. Families from many outlying churches drove in to spend the afternoon at Bethabara park, enjoying games and crafts, and finally a wonderful children’s lovefeast in the sanctuary of Bethabara Church. Many Trinity youth were involved in serving the lovefeast, and the Trinity Puppeteers helped to present the story of the day, under the leadership of Jeannie & Tripp May! One of the puppets looked suspiciously like it might have had Carter Gentle’s hand guiding it. Pastor John, Doug Rights, Bishop Sam Gray, and Thomas Baucom led the singing during the lovefeast with guitars and Bishop Sam’s unique “wheelie keyboard!”
On August 18, the wonderful Trinity Zimmer-Lewtak pipe organ was featured in the “Sounds of Summer” organ series. We had over 160 people attend on a rainy Monday night to hear the concert — a great turnout!
The month closed with a special Vacation Bible School at St. Philips Church, specially designed to coincide with the week that the school lunch program is on hiatus. Volunteers from of group of churches came together to have a wonderful program for school-age children in the Bon Air and surrounding neighborhoods. Many folks contributed food, and in addition to joyous activities, the children had a hot lunch every day – which many of them would not have had without our work!
My heartfelt thanks to all the people who put in many hours of volunteer work to make these events happen! You’ve touched many heart with grace, children with fun and Bible stories, and fed some very hungry tummies! This was the busiest August I remember for many years, and it was fantastic!
- Pastor John
Today is August 13, a date that has no special meaning for most people, but has unique importance for Moravians. This is the anniversary of the renewal of the Moravian Church in Herrnhut, Germany in 1727. The church, founded in 1457, had been nearly destroyed by the Thirty Years’ War, and the church was outlawed in Bohemia and Moravia. A small remnant – what Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius earlier called a “hidden seed” – migrated to the land of a Lutheran noble, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf, a unique spiritual genius, permitted the “Herrnhuters” remarkable religious liberty for the day, but with the unfortunate (and perhaps predictable) result that religious excess and controversy exploded in the village.
The Count resigned his court position in Dresden to become a noble pastor to the troubled group, visiting and calling the people together for prayerful study of the Scriptures. During this period, the residents became convicted that their behavior toward one another had been inexcusable – that the Savior called His followers to exhibit love toward one another, to be “one” in His name. Out of this grew the remarkable document known in German as the “Bruderlisch Vertrag,” the Brotherly Agreement, now known as the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living. Rather than a doctrinal statement, the Moravians signed a code of Christian behavior. This was signed on May 12, 1727 by all the residents of Herrnhut. A few months later, at a special service of Holy Communion held on Wednesday, August 13, they experienced a powerful sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – and those who had been divided felt truly one in Christ. This reestablished the ancient call of the Unity – to live out the Great Commandment and the Beatitudes in community in a way that bore witness to the world of the love of God. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35, NIV. This is a call that the Unity has sought to live out for over 557 years, since our founding in 1457.
In a recent online discussion about this, I made the (almost correct) statement that the Moravian Church is the only mainline denomination to have never experienced a schism or split. I was properly corrected by someone who recalled that in the very early days, a group did split off over the issue of whether or not Brethren should swear oaths. That group reunited with the Utraquists, a group that eventually died out. But since that time, for over five centuries, we have worked to preserve Christian unity as a primary virtue and testimony to a religious world that is most often divided and bickering. That testimony is respected out of all proportion to our tiny size by larger denominations, who often seek to learn from us how to achieve what we do. Moravians have been pioneers in the ecumenical movement, calling denominations together in the name of Christ – and as a result, we have twice had Morvian clergy elected to head the World Council of Churches, and twice to head the National Council of Churches in Christ – despite the fact that we are one of the smallest member denominations.
So today we are faced with a decision: once again, as has happened in each generation, or probably each decade, we face a divisive issue that threatens to tear our unity apart. We have people who believe that their issue is one that is so important, they must leave the Unity if a vote does not go their way. Some of them want to form an “independent” Moravian Church, something which is really an oxymoron, since it overlooks the central tenet of being a part of the Unity – that is, to be part of the Unity!
So once again, our unity is challenged – as it has been so many times before. The Unity is a relationship – much like a marriage – which must be nurtured and maintained. Just as in a Christian marriage two people commit to relationship with one another – each also in relationship with the Savior – so too we commit to a relationship with one another, each also in relationship with the Savior. As in a marriage, we must overlook each other’s shortcoming and bear one another’s burdens, so it is in the Unity. We live together as sisters and brothers in Christ, not always agreeing in detail, but always agreeing in love – and seeking to follow the Savior together.
We have a choice today – as the Herrnhutters had a choice 287 years ago, and as the founders of the Unity had a choice 270 years before that. As indeed we have had again, again, and again: do we continue to bear witness that we are disciples, known by our love for one another? Or shall our differences consume us so that we break this astounding witness? We have a choice today, just as we will have a choice tomorrow: a choice to continue this witness of unity, or to destroy it and prove to the world that even the Moravians cannot live together in love. Which shall it be?
A few weeks ago, we viewed a brief video as part of a sermon called “The Science of Happiness.” If you missed it, you can view the video HERE. It showed in practical examples how those who expressed gratitude to others had measurable improvements in their mood and feelings. The mental “attitude of gratitude” is something that affects those around us – and affects us internally. It’s not just a psychological fact, it is a spiritual reality.
Scripture is clear on calling us to express our gratitude to God, and to those around us who have positively impacted our lives. Practicing acts of thanksgiving changes our outlook, makes us more hopeful and optimistic, and gives us the spiritual endurance to get over the inevitable potholes and speed bumps of life. Of course, the reverse is also true: those who constantly complain, who focus on the rottenness of life and other people, will feel more depressed and have less ability to weather life’s storms.
Some people dismiss this as a “Pollyanna” attitude. But over my years as a pastor, I’ve seen time and time again people who discovered the gift of gratitude, began to apply it, and had their lives affected for the better. Every day we have choices; we can choose to be grateful and focus on our blessings, or be resentful and ruminate on the rottenness of life.
The fact that the medical impact of thankfulness can be corroborated scientifically is fascinating. The scientists have all kinds of explanations for what happens: our endorphin levels rise, stress hormones subside, and so on. But I have a more fundamental explanation: this is how God made us! He intends us to be grateful, to express our gratitude, and to life psalms and songs of thanksgiving to Him! When we do that, we are “in tune” with our Creator, consonant with His will, resonating with His purpose. We feel better because we are better!
This month, as we gather together with neighbors and friends at our neighborhood Thanksgiving Eve Lovefeast, I hope you will take the opportunity to reach out and express your gratitude to someone else – and especially to our Savior!
- Pastor John
This past week the liturgical calendar recognized the Conversion of Paul on Friday, January 25th. Of course, like most stuff on the liturgical calendar, we don’t actually know the date on which Paul was converted, it’s just the date that traditionally has been used to remember the event – and an important event it was in Christian history, especially for those of us that are Gentiles!
Saul, as he was originally known, was a tradesman, a tentmaker from the town of Tarsus, a city in southern Turkey. Because of his residency, he was a citizen of the Roman Empire, something that would be important later in his life. Saul was a very religious man, a member of the Pharisees, a Jew of impeccable religious practice and credentials.
In fact, Paul was absolutely sure of his Phariseeical Jewish faith – of every bit of it, so sure that he was willing to participate in the stoning of Stephen without a moment’s hesitation – just as the torturers of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the 15th century – usually referred to as “The Spanish Inquisition” – were absolutely sure they were doing right as they twisted you on the rack. It was for your own good, for your ultimate salvation that they burned you with hot pokers. They tortured with absolute calmness of spirit, certain of the rightness of their religion. The only problem is that they were WRONG.
I know Christians today so perfectly assured that they are right, right about every doctrine, understanding, and detail, so right that they would not hesitate a moment to stand with Saul holding the coats, throwing the stones, or turning the wheel on the rack. They have confused their certainty about their personal beliefs with TRUTH, and confused their certainty about their own sense of being right with GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS. They are not the same thing. In fact, there are ways in which they are diametrically opposed!
This confusion between “I am right” and truth, between “my understanding” and God’s understanding, is one of the fundamental problems of religion through the centuries. The fact is that human religion is really based on “I am right,” rather than on “God is right” – even when they confuse the issue by whacking you on the forehead with a King James Bible. True faith derives from an encounter with the living God, not from a list of precepts.
It was an encounter with the risen Christ that changed Saul’s life and transformed him from a murderer of Christians to a believer himself. Like 007, he set off to Damascus with a “License to Kill” in his pocket, breathing “threats and murder” against those who followed “The Way.” But along the road to Damascus, he stumbled onto “The Way” himself when he met the risen Savior.
I don’t know exactly what happened or how it happened, but Paul’s experience was that of a bright, blinding light and a voice: “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul was knocked off his feet, he had the rug pulled out from under him. He went from an absolutely self-assured raging crusader to a blinded, helpless man whose world had been turned upside-down. But that’s what an encounter with the living God does to people! It turns their world upside-down, turns their certainties into doubts, and makes them sure of only one thing – that there is indeed a God, and they are not Him!
From this experience, Saul had to completely rebuild his life, had to turn 180 degrees and reverse the entire direction of his being. But the amazing thing is that God lets us take such U-turns, in fact He often makes them happen! Conversions do happen, they are real, and when they happen like this they are very fundamental in nature.
Paul, as he came to be known rebuilt his life on a new foundation – not the foundation of a list of religious beliefs, but the foundation of actual experience, an actual relationship with the very Savior he had once doubted with complete certainty. His new life was built on faith, not dogma.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” — Galileo Galilei
And this brings up an important point about faith – one that I often discuss with members and friends that experience times of doubt or pain of challenge. “Faith” is an abused and misused word!
Most often I hear the term “FAITH” used in a way that means “thoughtless belief without doubt in the impossible or contradictory or simply silly.” Many Christians behave as if willfully believing a certain list of propositions, no matter how silly or contradicted by reason or science, is what God wants us to do. No, I love the comment by Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
And the comment by our Moravian Bishop Edwin Sawyer: “The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”
“The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”
– The Right Rev. Edwin Sawyer
But when we use FAITH in a normal sentence – such as “I have faith that Joe will do the right thing,” or “I have faith in you.” Do we mean that we are stubbornly and blindly believing against all evidence that Joe, who is a crack addict in and out of jail who abandoned his family, embezzled from his employer, and has destroyed pretty much every relationship in his life will, because of our belief, suddenly turn around and behave completely out of character? NO! We mean that even in a new situation that we’ve never experienced, we expect that the reliable, good, solid person that we have watched in other situations over the years, will do the right thing – because that’s what Joe does. Our faith is based on our experience with Joe, in our relationship with Joe.
FAITH is based on experience – on relationship, not on willfully believing a list of particular silly things.
It is when we know another person that we are confident of what that person will do in any situation. One of my favorite bits from Count Zinzendorf is actually a footnote to a sermon on one of Paul’s letters, about a comment that is a little ambiguous and hard to translate. In the footnote, the good Count wrote: “I am sometimes confused about what Paul means here, but I am saved from error because I know the One about Whom he is speaking.” I know the One about Whom he is speaking!
Again, on the road to Damascus, Paul went from being absolutely confident of his own rightness, of being 100% unshakably certain that everything on his list of litmus tests for Jewish orthodoxy were RIGHT to a blind, shaky confused man who had actually experienced the presence of the Savior. He had to rebuild his life on that RELATIONSHIP and ACTUAL EXPERIENCE of the Savior now rather than on a list of proposition.
There are Christians, in fact many Christians, who will tell you that you are not a “good” Christian if you believe in evolution or the big Bang or that the Earth was not created on 23 Oct, 4004 BC (as Bishop James Ussher confidently decreed) or some other date picked out of a hat by another fundamentalist based on some other Rube Goldberg contraption of contrived logic. BALONEY. The True Christian life is based on a real relationship with the Savior, EXPERIENCE of God of Creation. As a result, the growing faithful Christian will often have periods of doubt and questions as he or she grows, as his self-assured beliefs are challenged by a Damasucs Road experience, as her childish beliefs have to fall by the wayside in the experience of grown-up situations that call for grown up courage and grown up faith in a grown-up God!
“Faith” is not pulling up your socks and turning off your brain and willfully believing in something silly or magical or contradictory. It’s not believing the impossible, as in my favorite bit from Alice in Wonderland:
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Now, the fact of the matter is that as we grow in faith – that being again a living relationship with a living Savior, not some superficial belief in a set of propositions – we will wrestle with new and deeper spiritual issues and questions. We will never be at the same spot on the journey of faith as someone else; and so inevitably some will see further down the road than others, one standing at the top of a hill will see beyond the valley that another is in. Both are on the same journey, following the same Savior, but at different points. And such differences in perspective inevitably cause differences in opinion and perception. How could it be otherwise? But the true test of those who are part of the Kingdom is that they are called to be One even when experiencing such differences in perspective.
This is nothing new! Paul ran into this sort of thing right away with Peter, who after all felt that he was the proper head of the Church – and who at this point believed that the message was only for Jews, not for Gentiles. They had quite a wrestling match over this, in fact Paul’s calling to preach to the Gentiles nearly cost him his relationship with the Church in Jerusalem – and this tension was only resolved through Peter’s visionary experience, another intervention of the divine not unlike Paul’s Damascus Road experience.
Our Moravian Church has experienced such differences and struggles over the centuries, and will continue to struggle with these issues as surely as God made little green apples. If we stop having these struggles, that will be the time to feel for the pulse, shake the head sadly, and pull the sheet up – for we will be dead. Turmoil, differences, and struggle are not signs of weakness, they are signs of life.
So in all of this the question that I would leave you with is this: HOW DO YOU EXPERIENCE THE SAVIOR?
We are now in Ordinary Time! Sounds like H. G. Wells or Doctor Who or Star Trek – you know, after the USS Enterprise has emerged from a singularity that has created a tear in the space-time continuum, Mr. Spock calmly announces, “Captain, we have successfully returned to Ordinary Time.” But it has nothing to do with science fiction – it’s actually the portion of the liturgical year that is not Advent or Easter or Pentecost. There are actually two periods of the Church Year that are referred to as “Ordinary Time:” the period following the Baptism of Jesus until Ash Wednesday, and the period following Pentecost until the beginning of Advent.
I’ve always been a bit intrigued with the concept of “Ordinary Time.” Since most of our lives are lived in “Ordinary Time,” regular days at the office or at school or commuting to work, I think it can be a terrific symbolic reminder that God is just as present in those average days as He is in the mountaintop days; that He is with us in the trenches of daily life as He is in the moments of celebration.
This is particularly important to us here at Trinity this year, because we’ve just finished a year of celebration, a year of parties and luncheons and special events to celebrate our Centennial. And now it’s over, now we return to “Ordinary Time.” There are no big parties and special events for the second month of our hundred and first year – or for the second Sunday of the third month of our hundred and first year. It’s back to the regular work of being the Church. But that is a special as it gets, because it’s there in midst of the day-to-day ministry that the work of God really happens, that the Kingdom is made manifest. That’s the place where the sick are supported, where the bereaved are comforted, the needy find help, and the despairing find hope. Mighty important work, the work that is done in “Ordinary Time!”
- Pastor John
The theme that our Centennial Committee has selected for the month of June is “Grace.” If ever there was a topic broader or deeper, I don’t know what it is! For it is indeed the “amazing grace” of God that draws us together and that brings us into fellowship with Him in spite of our shortcomings and even rebelliousness. Every one of us needs the grace that God extends to us – and we need an echo of that grace from other human beings to reach over those moments when we all fall short of the mark.
The term “grace” has a variety of meanings, but they are all connected in some way. We might say that a dancer moves with “grace” meaning that her movements are smooth and flowing and beautiful, and not awkward or jolting. We say that a person is “gracious” when they extend themselves to us in hospitality or in overlooking a less-than-gracious action of our own. We say “grace” before a meal, because we are thanking God for the grace of the bounty we enjoy.
Ultimately, “grace” is about kindness and understanding even in moments when it is not earned or deserved. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he spells out the most dramatic example of grace: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus weaves a story of grace for us in the parable best known as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” In spite of the younger son’s poor judgment and ungracious behavior, his loving father waits patiently for him to come home so that he can be welcomed with grace and love. Indeed, theologian Helmut Thielicke insists that the traditional title of the parable has entirely the wrong emphasis: that we should refer to this as the “Parable of the Waiting Father.”
When we speak of grace, of course the hymn and story that most comes to mind is that of John Newton and his hymn Amazing Grace. It is a remarkable story, one I hope to put on film one of these days soon. It is a story of unearned and undeserved redemption, a slaver and one-time slave himself who found grace and ultimately became a crusader for the abolition of slavery. Our personal stories may not be as dramatic as Newton’s. Most of our stories would not make good movies. But if you have found the wonderful grace his hymn speaks of, your story is just as much a miracle as his, just as much a wonder of God’s patient love and gracious redemption.
- Pastor John