Monday, October 20, 2014

All In (Acts 8:26-40)

(This message in one in a series called "Acts of the Spirit," and was given at the American International Church in London on 19 October 2014)

One of the things I’m noticing is that a fresh reading of Acts is changing how I see what the church is meant to be. Over these last few weeks we’ve been looking at Acts and following three separate themes:

· The miraculous origins of the church.
· The meaning and experience of God’s presence in the world.
· The call on us as the church in the 21st century.

Luke is telling the story here—it begins in his gospel and continues in the book of Acts. So it’s no surprise that the first thing he shows Jesus doing is talking about the Kingdom of God. Just to review: The Kingdom is not a place or a realm, with limits or boundaries. The Kingdom as Jesus talks about it is the experience of God’s reign—God’s values and ethics and authority over all things and all places and all people. Jesus comes back from the dead and talks about the Kingdom for 40 straight days—40 days of teaching the disciples and the early believers about that Kingdom of God.

As we come to our text this morning, the church is growing by the thousands each week. The first persecution is beginning to take shape, and Stephen has been martyred under the watchful eye of a Pharisee named Saul. Stay tuned: he’s going to be important very soon.
Acts 8:26-40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. 31 "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to  come up and sit with him.

32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

So where are we in this text? The early church is under persecution. Stephen has been murdered. A Pharisee named Saul is chasing the leaders of the church all over the region

Philip, one of the men chosen to manage the distribution of food, is on the run. He’s traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a road that passes by the city of Hebron, and the graves of Abraham and Sarah. He meets a eunuch. Eunuchs were men whose sexual parts were removed so they could be trusted to guard harems and run government offices. This guy was a treasury official in Ethiopia—he was a powerful man who was trusted to oversee the treasury of the queen. But there’s more for us to know here.

In the OT eunuchs are listed as permanently unclean and restricted from the Temple. Deut. 23:1 says: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Eunuchs were not permitted to the community of faith. Now we know there were all kinds of restrictions on people who were temporarily unclean for a whole range of reasons: touching various animals or bodily fluids, menstrual cycles, and a range of other natural conditions. All of these could be restored. People who had made themselves unclean somehow could ritually cleanse themselves and be back in the Temple the next day. Eunuchs were different. They were permanently, irrevocably barred from worshipping God in the assembly of the faithful.

One writer described it this way: “The law strictly forbids a eunuch from entering the temple. Their transgression of gender binaries and inability to fit into proper categories made them profane. They did not fit in the tent.”

But notice that the eunuch is on his way back from worshiping in Jerusalem, where in all likelihood he was turned away and prevented from worshiping. When Philip finds him he’s reading a scroll of Isaiah 53. Think about how hard it must have been for him to get his hands on that scroll. There was no Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s down the street—there were no Kindles with Bibles loaded into them. This man had spent a small fortune on a hand-copied scroll of the book of Isaiah, and he read it as a way to help him follow God.

Philip greets the man and hears him reading out loud from Isaiah. Riding in his chariot. Out in the desert. Still feeling rejected after his visit to Jerusalem. Reading out loud from the Scriptures. Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, and the man is a little exasperated, maybe from just being turned away at the Temple: “How can I understand it unless someone explains it to me?”

Turns out the eunuch is reading a passage we read every Advent season, from the heart of Isaiah 53, where the suffering Messiah is promised to us. How perfect is that? How perfect is it that his question is about who this prophet might be? The Ethiopian is watching and waiting for Advent, and Philip gets to tell him that it’s already here.

Philip takes the question and hits it out of the park, and this Ethiopian gender outsider becomes the very first non-Jewish convert to the Christian faith. They see a little pond or oasis or whatever kind of water you find on a desert road, and this Ethiopian government official says: Is there any good reason why I can’t be baptized?

Think about that question. There are a lot of things Philip could have said at this moment. He could have quoted that Deuteronomy passage and left him there. He could have said that his sexual identity meant that even if he believed, he could never be a part of the church. Of course that’s not what happened. Philip is a product of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Philip is a new creation. Philip listened to the risen Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God for 40 straight days, and in this story it’s clear that he understood what it meant.

In one of those unexplainable moments, Philip is taken out of the story. What’s funny is that the Ethiopian guy doesn’t even notice. All of his prayer and study and longing to understand God has led him to this encounter with someone who had the answers. He rides back to Africa singing songs.

This is a great story about being ready to share the faith. About being sensitive to the questions and searching of people around us. But here’s another thing in this story that we should remember:

We should never ignore the significance of the fact that the first Gentile convert in the Bible was a black sexual outcast.

This is Palestine in the first century, under the control of the Roman Empire. There were no diversity programs or sensitivities then. And yet the first recorded Gentile to accept the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was a black sexual outcast.

When you think about the miracles of the New Testament, never forget this one. Never forget how Philip the apostle lived the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he ran into an Ethiopian eunuch.

What do we make of this? It’s crucial to notice here that after Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion. Jews from outside the Holy Land; Gentiles from anywhere and everywhere; even those whose gender identities and lifestyles were outside the mainstream.

After Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion.

So what the heck happened? What happened to that inclusive trajectory? What happened to the church being a place that was always trying to outdo itself in welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the ones no one else would accept?

The truth is that it’s not long before the church became so deeply connected to the culture, that it came to reflect the culture’s biases and taboos and hatreds. There are all kinds of examples.

Women in leadership in the 1st century were edged out as the church gave in to the patriarchy of the surrounding culture.

The sharing and communal living of the early church is obliterated by individualism and the rise of private property and unrestricted capitalism.

Closer to home in American history: Slaveowners in the American South could celebrate passages that seemed to condone slavery as a perpetual norm—as something that would always be OK, while at the very same time their slaves could be reading the same Bible and longing for release from bondage to the Promised Land.

Maybe Ann Lamott puts it best when she says: “You know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.”

But that’s not the way it was supposed to be. That’s not the way Christian culture was meant to speak in a prophetic voice to whatever host culture it finds itself in.

The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.

If we’re going to get this one wrong, then it should be on the side of being too generous—too open—too loving, and not the other way around. That’s what Luke is showing us in the stories of the Acts of the Apostles. That’s what this church can be when we allow the reign of God to cover this place.

What can we take away from this text this morning? Three crucial things to remember.

First, God is already working in the hearts of people all around us, even on the margins. Maybe especially on the margins. That Ethiopian was searching for God on his own, desperately waiting for someone to share the Good News with him. He didn’t get any help from the religious establishment of the day. People all around us are searching for God on the own. Our job is to enter into those conversations with our own stories.

Second, the gift of the Holy Spirit trumps everything—even the limits God himself placed on the life of faith in the Old Testament. This is the hardest one for us. My own denomination is tearing itself apart because it’s forgotten who it was called to be—not a keeper of rules, but a demonstration of grace.

And finally, because of that, we’re called to remember that everybody is welcome here. We’re called to be agents of that open, flexible, grace-filled love that Philip showed the Ethiopian. No matter where they’re from, or who or how they love. If they’re willing to seek the God of the Bible through the ministry of Jesus Christ, then we should be looking for the nearest puddle to baptize them in.

Acts is getting interesting, isn’t it?

Just remember this: The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.

May that be true in this place, and in every place that claims the name of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012: Whatever is True

(On Thanksgiving Day, the American community in London gathered in St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate this special holiday. It was my honor to give the message for the service--the text of the sermon is below.)

I want to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving today. It is a gift to be able to gather and celebrate in this beautiful place of worship. We are, as always, grateful to the people of St Paul’s for welcoming us on this special day.

Thanksgiving weekend is the biggest travel period of the year in the US. Airports are packed and highways are filled to capacity as people are headed for reunions with families and friends. I know that many of you have family members visiting today. I also know that many of you are here in London and missing your families—missing your homes.

Most of us will try to soothe those feelings later with a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and all the trimmings, different regional touches to the meal, pies and cakes and all kinds of treats. If we’re all very quiet we could probably hear our collective stomachs growling.

And of course there’s football. Not the elegant, non-stop version they play here, but the heavily padded, hard-helmeted, brutal, stop-start version they play in the States. It’s a beautiful thing. Sitting around with your friends and family, watching other people pound each other in front of massive crowds.

But as much as football is a part of this special day, Thanksgiving is a lot more like baseball than football. Remember what the philosopher said… And by philosopher of course I’m talking about the American comedian, George Carlin. Remember what he said about the difference between football and baseball:

“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz; sometimes he has to use a shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball, though, the object is just to go home.”

I know a lot of us are away from home today. Thinking about our families is a big part of the Thanksgiving holiday.

I read this past week about a family that wanted to do something special for Thanksgiving. Here’s how the story goes:

“The Taylors were proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower. They had included Congressmen, successful entrepreneurs, famous sports people and television stars. They decided to research and write a family history, something for their children and grandchildren. They found a specialist genealogist and writer to help them. Only one problem arose - how to handle Great Uncle Jefferson Taylor who was executed in the electric chair of the state prison. The writer said she could handle the story tactfully. When the book appeared the section about Jefferson read:

“Great Uncle Jefferson Taylor occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, he was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock.”

Now I got that story off the internet, and I have no idea if it’s really true.

Hardly a day goes by without someone sending me some story or claim in an email, or tweet, or a Facebook message, and I have to wonder if it’s really true.

We’ve all heard about how Bill Gates wants to send us some money or a new computer; we’ve heard that Walt Disney is actually frozen somewhere, hoping to be thawed back to life; We’ve been warned about the dangers of drinking Coca-Cola and eating Pop Rocks candies; some people have tried to recharge their iPods by plugging them into an onion (don’t raise your hands if you tried that); yesterday I saw that Marilyn Monroe’s recipe for cooking a turkey was going around; and we’ve all heard how signing on to Facebook will be the end of privacy as we know it. That last one might actually be true… For the most part, though, all of these are myths being spread around the world wide web.

Who can we trust when we hear strange stories on the internet?
What source can we rely on to keep us from taking these claims at face value?
Where do we turn to find out if any of these things are true?

The answer, of course, is is a website that researches the stories that circulate on the internet, and either confirms or debunks their details. It has become a regular part of my day to check the Snopes site when something crosses my screen that doesn’t look quite right.

In our text today, the Apostle Paul, writing to his favorite church, was acting like the Snopes site—he was trying to cut through the different messages that were being spread around the first century church. Paul was reminding the early Christians to keep their eyes focused on the truth that inspired their faith in the first place. He was reminding them that their hearts and minds needed protection—that they needed to be safeguarded from the messages going viral in that time and place.

He said: “Rejoice in the Lord always; Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

He follows that with this charge: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

“Whatever is true…” Keep your minds focused on things that are true.

Wouldn’t that be nice? In a political climate that has become less about ideas and more about discrediting people, wouldn’t it be nice if we could spend more of our time focusing on what’s true and just and pure?

Now the dictionary gives us a range of definitions for true.

To be true is to be accurate: getting the facts and details just right.
To be true is to be honest: being trustworthy and faithful in what we say.

Maybe for us it’s summed up best by being near to the center of the target—Elvis Costello can help with this one: “My aim is true,” he told us. To be true is to be steadfast and loyal; to be consistent and just.

“Whatever is true”, Paul says. Think on these things. Put them into practice.

Maybe for us today it’s most important to remember that truth isn’t just something we find when we look hard enough. Truth is also a discipline that we have to learn and practice and protect.

For Christians this means trusting that the work God accomplished through Jesus Christ is enough for all of us—for the whole world—that it has the power to restore our lives and this earth to the way they were meant to be. That’s the story of the Christian gospel, and it’s a great and wonderful story.

But whatever your faith tradition might be, the practice of knowing and telling the truth is essential for healthy, peaceful, honest living. Remember how Paul started our passage today:

“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds...”

Bringing our lives before God with thanksgiving in our hearts can be a source of peace. Being thankful is one of the ways we keep our lives centered—it can keep us from being too anxious—it can give us the peace that we crave.

In the old television show, The X-Files, there was often a poster in the background that said “The Truth is Out There.” But for us we know that sometimes the truth out there can be harsh and threatening. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson we learned in this last presidential campaign cycle.

After this past year of sniping and slandering and destroying—after this year of conflict over how governments should govern and how economies should work—after this season of disunity and bitterness—after all of that, what if we paused to be thankful for the freedoms we share, for the opportunities we have to change the world and make it a better place for the people at the bottom of the wealth chain?

Now that would be honorable and just and pure—it would be pleasing and commendable and it would be worthy of praise and celebration. Mostly, though, it would be true. It would acknowledge the truth that there is desperate need in the world, and that the combined resources and brainpower present in this very room, on this very day, could help to provide a solution.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to be reminded that our feasts today are only a part of today’s story. Our plenty tells only a part of what’s true about the world today. And if we’re to be the sort of people who experience that peace of God that surpasses understanding, then our celebrations and meals have to tell the whole truth.

Let me invite you, whatever your Thanksgiving holiday looks like, let me invite you to take a moment and talk about this around your table. Tell the truth today.

Not to feel guilty, but to sense the possibilities for solving some of the world’s most challenging problems.

Not to cast blame, but to join together in unity, and to refuse to let another year go by without learning more about how the other two-thirds of the world lives.

Not to be drowned in grief, but to be immersed in the hope that God has and shares for his world and his people.

Let your feast today, the turkey and stuffing, the bread and wine—let your feast today inspire you and your family to work for a day when everyone simply has enough.

Because that’s what it means to tell the truth. And that’s what it means to be truly thankful.

My son and I are learning the prayer of St Francis of Assisi—we say it together each morning on our way to school. The words of this prayer acknowledge the problems of the world, but they also ask for God’s help in being a part of the solution—they ask for the strength to live and share a different truth, one filled with justice and peace for all people.

Listen to these words, and make them your own prayer today.

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;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understoodas 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.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, and may God bless you today, and every day.    Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Closer Than You Think

(This is one in a series of messages on the Gospel According to Mark.)

Mark 1:14-20

(This message was preceded by the choir singing “Libera Me” from Faure’s Requiem.)

I have three pieces of classical music on my iPod, alongside my less-lofty music: Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, and Faure’s Requiem. I don’t know if that reveals an obsession with death or not, but the music is beautiful.

The words here are from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, which goes back to the 13th century when it used to be called the Black Mass. In the changes after Vatican II there was a significant shift in the funeral services used by the Catholic Church. The emphasis on sorrow and grief was replaced by a stance of hope and joy, based on trust in the saving work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The anthem we just heard said this:

“Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death on that dreadful day when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when thou shalt come to judge the world through fire. I quake with fear and I tremble, awaiting the day of account and the wrath to come.”

But the service ends with this prayer:

“May Angels lead you into paradise; may the Martyrs receive you at your coming
and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.
May a choir of Angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Let’s pray for a moment.

We continue our series on the Gospel of Mark today. From the very beginning Mark teaches the connection between the Jesus story and the story of Israel. For this part we need to have in all of our minds the words God said to Abraham when he called him in Genesis 12 and promised that he would be the father of a great and chosen nation. God said:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Let me make this part very clear as we move forward. Jesus came as the promised Messiah or King to complete the story of Israel that started with that conversation between God and Abraham. Then, as the King, he went to the Cross to take everyone’s sin and brokenness onto his own shoulders. That’s now he establishes his Kingdom on earth, and now he calls every person and every place to follow him and live by a new set of values and priorities and loves.

That’s the answer to the three big questions Mark is answering in his account of Jesus life and work:

Who is the Messiah?
What did the Messiah do?
What are we supposed to do about it?

We find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ in the answers to those questions.

Anything less ignores the continuity that drives the story of the Bible from beginning to end. Anything else doesn’t do justice to the mission of God among his people and in his creation. Anything that calls itself “the gospel” that doesn’t include this whole story, is catastrophically incomplete.

Today our text follows right after Jesus’ own baptism. It’s a great scene where Jesus comes out of the Jordan River and the heavens open and the Holy Spirit lands on Jesus like a dove. God’s voice comes from the heavens and says: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Not a bad start to his ministry.

In true Mark style, our text immediately follows the baptism of Jesus. If you’re able, please stand for the reading of God’s word today.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Mark’s story of Jesus gets exciting right from the start. Last week Mark led off with “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the son of God,” and immediately introduced us to the wild man we know as John the Baptist. Jesus own baptism and his temptations in the desert are taken care of in a mere four verses, and by the time we get to our text John is already in prison.

The silencing of John the Baptist brings Jesus into the full-on start to his ministry. “After John was put in prison,” Marks tells us, “Jesus went into Galilee and preached the gospel of God.”

The next section captures the essence of the message Jesus preached during his earthly ministry.

“The time has come,” Jesus said. This is a reference to Jewish expectation. The prophets had communicated God’s promise of a Messiah for centuries, but in the 1st century that had been reduced to a hope for a military leader who would drive out the Romans and who would purge Jerusalem of people who didn’t believe as they did—the faith as practiced had become self-serving. It had forgotten, as Israel had done so often, that being God’s chosen brought a responsibility with it: to communicate and share God’s blessing with all the nations. The prayers of Jesus’ day sounded a little like we all did as kids, sitting on Santa’s lap and reciting our Christmas list.

“The Kingdom of God is near.” I’ll confess here that I miss the old way of saying that: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s within reach. It’s getting closer all the time. The momentum toward the fulfillment of God’s promises is closer than you think. It’s worth reminding ourselves here of what Jesus means when he refers to the “Kingdom.”

We tend to think of kingdoms as places with boundaries and limits—places where you’re either in or out. But in the language of the New Testament we should see “kingdom” as God’ reign—the ongoing demonstration of his sovereignty over all people and all places—God’s power over all things, even death. When Jesus refers to the kingdom being near, this is what he’s talking about.

“Repent and believe the gospel.” This is the call of Jesus to strip away your self-serving expectation, and to believe that God has come to bring peace and justice and shalom to the world he loves.

That’s just the first two verses of our text, by the way. Remember that last week I said that parts of Mark’s gospel read like the executive summary of the Jesus story.

The next section shows Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to be his disciples. It’s fair to assume that they had already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, so it doesn’t have to be as abrupt as it looks on the page. But still the call was no less dramatic. Jesus said “Follow me,” and that was clearly a call to leave everything behind and surrender their lives and plans and even their values, and to follow the King.

Tim Keller, in King’s Cross, said that the difference between the Christian faith and other religions is this: Most other faiths require a series of behaviors in order to meet the divine—to gain ultimate consciousness—to earn the highest prize. What they often amount to is advice.

The difference between following Jesus and other religions is that while they give you a path to follow, Christ gives us good news. Keller has a great way of saying this:

“The gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a king. Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done—but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news.”

That helps us understand the way Jesus looked out at some men who were in the middle of their workday—it helps us understand how he could simply say “Follow me,” and have them drop what they were doing to follow him.

It’s also where Christ’s call translates for us today, here in this place, as we seek to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus. Keller adds this:

“Come, follow me, Jesus is saying.
Follow me because I’m the King you’ve been looking for.
Follow me because I have authority over everything,
yet I humbled myself for you.
Because I died on the cross for you
when you didn’t have the right beliefs or the right behavior.
Because I brought you news and not advice.
Because I’m your true love, your true life—follow me.”

Following Christ requires a surrender on our part. Not a surrender of responsibility or action, and not a surrender of vision or creativity, but a surrender of the idea that all of this begins and ends with us. A surrender of our secret belief that we’re in charge—that we’re the king of our own worlds. The call to faith in Jesus Christ is a call to surrender our values for his—our lives for his.

As we move through the Gospel of Mark over these next months, the idea of Jesus as King will be balanced by a reminder to us that if he’s the King, then we’re not. If he’s the King, then the call on our lives is to yield to him—to worship and follow him—and to serve the world that he loves, in his name.

It’s in that surrender that our preoccupation with sorrow and grief is replaced by a stance of hope and joy, based on trust in the saving work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Only one hymn will do when we’re talking about surrendering to God. Let’s stand and sing together: “I Surrender All.”

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Better News Than We Thought

(This message is the first in a series on the Gospel of Mark.)

Mark 1:1-8

This past week we watched a documentary about a series of protests against Apartheid back in the 70s. The protests focused on the South African national rugby team, and their tours of other nations. Anti-Apartheid protesters disrupted a series of matches, drawing attention to the injustices toward blacks in South Africa. There were interviews of participants on both sides. Some of those who were against the protests were convincing, but time has proven that they were mistaken—time has proven that they missed the point about what was really important.

Thirty years later they turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Apartheid was wrong—it was an example of a massive injustice inflicted by the strong against the weak—it was wrong, and getting rid of it without a full-scale war has to be seen as one of the great political victories of the last century. The final moments of the film showed the celebration among both blacks and whites, when the first integrated South African rugby team won the World Cup. It was so moving.

The Gospel According to Mark uses a similar strategy. It was the first of the four gospels to be written and circulated, and part of the point was a call to all of us not to be on the wrong side of history—not to miss the point of who this Jesus person was and what he meant and means for everyone and everything in this world. Mark’s story of Jesus is an expression of the central message of the Christian faith. It talks about three main things:

Who the Messiah is,
what the Messiah did,
what we’re supposed to do about it.

From the very beginning Mark teaches the connection between the Jesus story and the story of Israel. For this part we need to have in all of our minds the words God said to Abraham when he called him in Genesis 12 and promised that he would be the father of a great and chosen nation. God said:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Let me make this part very clear as we get started.

Jesus came as the promised Messiah or King to complete the story of Israel that started with that conversation between God and Abraham. Then, as the King, he went to the Cross to take creation's sin and brokenness onto his own shoulders.

That’s now he establishes his Kingdom on earth, and now he calls every person and every place to follow him and live by a new set of values and priorities and loves.

That’s the answer to the three big questions Mark is answering in his account of Jesus life and work:

Who is the Messiah?
What did the Messiah do?
What are we supposed to do about it?

We find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ in the answers to those questions.

Anything less ignores the continuity that drives the story of the Bible from beginning to end.
Anything else doesn’t do justice to the mission of God among his people and in his creation.
Anything that calls itself “the gospel” that doesn’t include this whole story, is catastrophically incomplete.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our text this morning is the first few verses of Mark’s gospel, Mark 1:1-8. If you’re able, please stand for the reading of God’s word today.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever spent much time talking with someone who can’t get to the point? Yeah, that’s never going to be your problem with Mark. This book gets to so many points, so quickly, that you can be out of breath after just a few chapters. Mark uses some variation of the word “immediately” 47 times in 16 chapters. This is the gospel for people with short attentions spans.

But the main point for us in this text is the definition of this “gospel” Mark is talking about. The church gets this part wrong far too often.

On the liberal side, Jesus gets reduced to being a great moral example. He loved the poor so we do too. He was tolerant, so we should be too. This side of things doesn’t take Jesus’ own claims seriously—it doesn’t see him as the Messiah, as the fulfillment of Israel’s story, or the one who came to redeem the world as its rightful servant king.

The evangelical side doesn’t do much better. A preacher posted this on Twitter the other day:

“The gospel in four words: ‘Christ in my place.’”

That’s not nearly enough. When personal salvation becomes the main part of the story, it misrepresents who Jesus was and makes it too easy to ignore the other main parts of the story. It allows us, by comparison, to ignore the poor or injustice or the environment, or to turn loving our neighbors and enemies into an abstraction that doesn’t really change anything about the way we live and love and work and spend.

It leads us into the lie that the Kingdom of God is some future place, instead of the reign of God at work in all times and in all places and in all people. “Christ in my place” is such a severely edited version of the gospel that it ends up perverting the gospel message.

Mark has a different definition, one that begins where we should begin, with God’s promises in the Old Testament. The Old Testament references from Isaiah and Malachi serve as a flashback right at the start of the book, to help us understand both the present and future.

So what is this gospel Mark is talking about? Bob Guelich, who was my New Testament professor in seminary, summed it up this way:

“The gospel is the message that God acted in and through Jesus Messiah, God’s anointed one, to effect God’s promise of shalom, salvation and God’s reign.”

See how that ties everything together?

This is something that Scot McKnight and other writers are taking up with a lot more urgency these days. They see the huge impact of the true gospel being reduced to individual fire insurance—a ticket to get punched so that we can avoid eternal punishment. McKnight writes about the way of thinking that limits the gospel to “Justification by faith that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.”

In his book, The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight recalls a conversation with a pastor who believed this was the sum total of the gospel. He asked him: “So did Jesus preach the gospel?” The guy thought for a moment, and then said no, because Jesus didn’t preach about the cross and the resurrection and Pentecost. I’m still stunned by the gall of someone actually thinking that Jesus himself couldn’t have preached the gospel of, well, Jesus, because he couldn’t talk about the parts of his ministry that hadn’t happened just yet.

Do you see how this is a stunted view of the gospel? In our own text this morning Mark says that the beginning of the gospel is underway before Jesus even starts his ministry. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” Mark says.

And that beginning he’s talking about is John the Baptist announcing that the King is coming. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. When the good news for the whole world is reduced to the personal, it’s no longer the gospel and, quite frankly, it’s not very good news, either.

This is where it’s important to remember that the promised Messiah was a promised King. It was a King that would glorify and extend the reign of God himself over all things and all places. Anything less than that turns the message into something completely different from what it was intended to be.

In this election year everyone seems to be taking sides on what kind of politics Jesus would approve of. A Stanford psychologist measured the relationship between Christian beliefs and political views. The conclusion of the study was that most liberals understand that Jesus might have views that are more conservative than their own, but also at the same time that most conservatives agree that Jesus would hold more liberal views than theirs. (click here for the article).

The point here isn’t to suggest that we vote one way or the other. It’s to recognize this simple truth:

If you’re picking and choosing political views that you know Jesus wouldn’t agree with, he’s probably not the King and Lord of your life just yet.

The task for us as we make our way through Mark’s gospel, and as we try to make the gospel real in our own lives—all of that means we have to remember a few things:

Christ came to establish his kingship, not start a club.
He came to transform culture, not to be subject to it.
He came to complete the story of redemption that God started in the Garden.
He came to write the climax of the Bible’s story, of Israel’s story, the story of God’s blessing for all nations.
He came to heal what was wounded, restore what was broken, and to offer forgiveness for everything that has gone so painfully wrong in each one of our lives.
He came to do all that, and also to offer each one of us the chance to live with him forever.

“The gospel is the message that God acted in and through Jesus Messiah, God’s anointed one, to effect God’s promise of shalom, salvation and God’s reign.”

That’s the Gospel that Mark is about to show us. It’s a much bigger story, with more meaning for more people than we usually give it credit for. It is, at the same time, the history and the future of God’s people and his creation. It’s better news than we ever could have thought or even imagined. It tells us who the Messiah is, what the Messiah did, and what we’re called to do about it.

The gospel is the history of God’s active love for his people and this world. The invitation in Mark’s gospel is to be on the right side of that history—to be caught up in God’s redemptive plan, and to serve his world in his name.

That invitation is meant to begin with a meal together. The Lord’s Table is where we come to be nourished and strengthened for the journey of faith. It’s where we come in our weakness and brokenness and fear, and leave strong and restored and courageous. Come to the Table. Let’s pray together.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Through a Glass Manly

Over on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, she’s invited her manly readers to respond to John Piper’s latest comments on masculinity and faith, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Check this out before you read on:

These days some Christian men are talking a lot about being, well, Christian men, and a lot of it comes off as a little strange. Mark Driscoll thinks we should be reimagining Christ as a sort of 1st-century badass, shoving his way through Roman-occupied Galilee and giving Pharisees the finger on the way to the Cross. He likes to think that our inheritance from Jesus Eastwood is a life of no-tears faith, rockin’ worship and getting laid. John Piper takes a slightly less aggressive approach. He has long warned that women in leadership roles is an indication of a deep-seated problem with the church, and lately he’s come to the conclusion that God himself gave Christianity a masculine feel, whatever that means, and that women should accept and enjoy that.

So like I said, there’s a fair amount of manliness popping up in churches these days.

This is nothing all that new in American evangelicalism. Dwight Moody said similar things back in the late 1800s, but for far more sensible reasons. The massive shift toward industrialization and urbanization in post-Civil War America kept working men away from home and church for six or seven days out of every week. The work they did was often dirty, dangerous and dehumanizing, and their time off was spent sleeping or drinking. As a result the Christian faith became associated with the women who were its most visible practitioners, and Moody believed that if men were ever going hear a credible expression of the Christian message, preachers were going to have to butch it up a little. He didn’t say anything against women, though. He simply wanted men to feel more welcome—as men—in the Christian culture of the day. We can credit Moody with a part of our contemporary emphasis on reaching out to the marginalized people around us (the working men of Moody’s time), and making them welcome in our midst.

That’s substantially different both in motivation and tone than what Mark Driscoll and John Piper are selling these days. I honestly can’t say that I know what has them in such a state.

What I do know is this. The first two Christian leaders to take me seriously, questions and all, and to model the love of Jesus to me, were women. I grew up in Southern California, not too far from Fuller Seminary, and Kathleen and Mary were pastors-in-training, gaining experience by serving as interns in local churches. What I learned later was that they were also trailblazers, women who were clearly gifted and called by God into ministry, but who had to fight (gently and patiently, as it turned out) for the chance to serve the church—as women—as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Alongside the passages of Scripture that have been used to fence the pulpit for men only, I also see these two women who helped to shape me into the Christian and pastor I have become.

That’s a pretty significant set of data for my own understanding of how men and women and faith all go together. Here’s another.

When Dustin Hoffman was given the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, he took the statuette, held it up to his eyes, and said: “Just as I thought. This has no genitalia.” I’ve always wanted to say that about God, too. Yes, he reveals himself as Father, and we need to believe that and wrestle with it and continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer as it was given to us. But we don’t have to overconclude from God as Father that he’s limited in any way to one expression of gender, or that somehow, as it seems to follow for Piper and Driscoll, mothers and daughters don’t measure up. We also shouldn’t overwork the traditional understanding of differences between men and women in such a way that limits either from being all that God intends. The kindest, most gently loving person I ever met was a man. Some of the toughest people I know today are women. So what? Those are personal descriptions, not prescriptions, and we forget that simple difference at great cost.

One of my favorite reminders from the Apostle Paul’s writings is that we see now as “through a glass darkly.” I’ve always understood that to mean that here and now, in our fallen and broken state, we aren’t always (or ever) going to grasp the full depth and measure of what the Gospel means in our lives and families and communities. It’s always made me a little suspicious of people who were a little too sure about things. Did they have a clearer glass than I did? The caution here is that we should be careful about letting our politics, or our traditions, or our manhood, obscure our vision any more than it already is. The glass is dark enough already. Let’s not muck it up even more.

So what do I make of all this? What do I—as a man who is also a Christian, a husband, a father and a pastor—what do I teach my son about men and women and Jesus and faith? On the one hand I’m thankful that in my denominational tradition he won’t see the issue in the same conflicted way that I did at his age. But with this resurgence of gender role navel-gazing, especially in its more testosterone-fueled variant, it seems more important than ever to make sure we give our son as clear a sense as possible of our equal value and freedom in Christ.

I choose to do that in stories. I’ll tell him about the way Kathleen took me under her wing when I was the most awkward 10th grader in history. I’ll tell him about how it felt when Mary sang with me and challenged me in college. I’ll tell him that life is best when we are willing to grow and learn from anyone who is willing to pour their lives into ours. I’ll tell him that right now, at 11 years old, I’m praying for someone to come into his life and help make Christ real to him, no matter what they’re packing under the hood (that was for Driscoll). I’ll tell him, well, you get the idea.

Maybe there are masculine qualities to the stories we see in the Bible, but every one of those has to pass through the crucible of Paul’s radical vision for Christian community in Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The point of Paul’s vision for the Christian church was for the barriers between us to be crushed and wiped away, not to be shored up and nurtured. That’s the church I want for my son. That’s the kind of Christianity I think we’re meant to enjoy. It’s an aspirational faith, one where we’re not limited by the prejudices and limits we inherit, but one that always moves, slowly at times, toward the joyfully inclusive celebration of the King’s banquet.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Christmas Eve 2011

In Small Packages

I saw an ad for a laptop the other day—it was a picture from the side to show how thin and light it was. Seriously—this thing was less than an inch thick, and yet it was more powerful than any computer I’ve ever had.

It seems like we’re always trying to make things smaller. Everyone gets a laugh out of seeing Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street, walking on the beach and chatting on a cell phone that looks about the size of a shoebox. I think they even called that model “The Brick” because of its size and weight. Now my Blackberry can create the illusion that I’m always in my office, and it fits in my shirt pocket.

For those of us who grew up with stereo systems that filled pieces of living room furniture, the iPod is still a little amazing.

If you’re old enough to remember Apollo 11 and the mission to get a couple of guys walking on the moon, it may surprise you to know that you have far more computing power in your laptop than they did at Mission Control, and that computer took up an entire wing of the building. And that’s not all. You have about 100x more memory in your smartphone than they did on the spaceship itself.

Cameras, computers, mobile phones and even cars—so many things are smaller and more efficient than they were in their original form.

Even Twitter is getting into the smaller-is-better game. Each message, or tweet, on Twitter is limited to 140 characters. Everything from messages about what people are having for dinner, to the real-time report of the raid on Osama bin Laden—all of that happens on Twitter at the tiny rate of 140 characters per message.

The main parts of the Christmas story that we’ve heard tonight can be told through Twitter messages:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child & give birth to a son, & you are to give him the name Jesus.” That comes in at a perfect 140 characters.

And how does Mary respond?

“My soul magnifies the lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble estate of his servant” Room to spare at 128 characters.

Meanwhile, the angels are surprising some shepherds in the fields. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you.” Just under the wire at 139.

The promise to Mary is pretty economical: “This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a mange” Just 89.

And the kicker, the praise-filled song the angels sing as the heavens are opened above some terrified shepherds: “Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace to all people on whom his favor rests.” That heavenly message only takes 86 characters.

There are a couple of newborns in our circle of friends these days. Our own son is 11 now, and one of the things you forget after a while is just how small a newborn baby really is.

In the Christmas story we talk about the angels and Mary and Joseph and shepherds. We even talk about barn animals that aren’t actually in the story. But we don’t often think about just how small Jesus was on that first night. He was probably 7 pounds or so—about 3 kilos—just half a stone.

But that little baby was sent—he was born and raised and shaped and called—he was sent to be the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people, the one who would reconcile God and all of his creation, once and for all. Such a huge gift in such a small package.

More than 500 feet underground, at the border between Switzerland and France, there is a massive circular tunnel—17 miles around—that is used to conduct scientific experiments.

Now I’m going to try to explain this without sounding like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.”

The Large Hadron Collider is a laboratory where particle beams of protons and other materials are smashed together to try and recreate the conditions that brought about the beginnings of the universe. They’re looking for a tiny particle, smaller than an atom, called a Higgs boson. Physicists believe that the Higgs boson particle is the thing that transforms energy into mass. In other words, it will help explain how solid things first appeared—and keep appearing—in the universe.

That tiny thing is often called The God Particle, because it has the potential to explain how everything got here—how this all got started—and maybe even where we’re going. All of these scientists and engineers—10,000 of them from more than 100 countries—all of these people looking for the meaning of the universe in something so small.

That’s why we’re here tonight. The Word of God, the meaning of the universe, the Messiah and savior of everyone and everything, came in the form of a small child, a newborn baby, and nothing was ever the same again.

Christmas Eve is as good a time as any to remember who this Christ-child was and is. In one of our confessions we say this:

In life and death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
The love of God,
And the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.

We trust in Jesus Christ,
Fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
forgiving sinners,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.

All of that began with the birth of this one baby: Jesus the Messiah.

If you’re searching or wondering about this Jesus we’ve been going on about, don’t let another Christmas go by without looking for the answers to your questions—without praying and asking to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That gift is always there for you—always waiting to be opened, even when we come with more questions than answers. If you’re curious, and you don’t have a Bible to read, let me know and I’ll get you one that you can keep. Don’t let another Christmas go by without finding out for yourself who this Jesus is.

For tonight, though, as we prepare to have meals and give gifts and wear bad sweaters and all the other things that go into this day. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, never forget what God did—and what he promises to do—in the birth of that one baby boy, on that one holy night. Amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:46-55

At the end of the Cold War someone found a book from the 18th century buried in some papers in East Berlin. The book was about 100 pages long, and it was filled with symbols and words that no one could translate. The book was in a code so unbreakable that it had lasted for almost 300 years without being cracked. That is, until a few months ago.

The book is known as the Copiale Cipher, and it was finally translated by three scientists—one from the States and two from Sweden. As it turns out it was the manual for a secret society in Germany. It described their rituals and practices, and also their fascination with ophthalmology and eye surgery. Strange club.

The story of how they broke the code is interesting, and it reminds us of how hard it can be sometimes to understand what God is trying to teach us in the Scriptures. That’s not the issue in today’s text.

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

I’ve said before here that Mary is one of my favorite people in the Bible. She’s a young single pregnant teenager in a culture that wasn’t all that forgiving. But she’s been told by an angel that she’s carrying God’s child, and she responds with such faith and courage that it’s hard not to admire her.

Let’s remember just how courageous Mary is being at this point.

God calls all kinds of people to do his work, and most of them respond with excuses or try to get out of it. Abraham says he’s too old, and so does Sarah. Moses suggests to God that he made a mistake, and recommends that God try his brother. Jonah flat out runs away. God calls him to a task and he turns around and does a 100-yard dash…that is, until a fish gets him to come back.

Jesus—even Jesus, when he is in the garden of Gethsemane—even Jesus asks if God can come up with some kind of a Plan B.

Mary, though, somehow gets it and is willing to hear God’s call no matter what. Remember what she says to the angel just a few verses before our text:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Mary’s full response comes in the form of an outburst of praise. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. What we have after that is a song where Mary shows how deeply and completely she has absorbed God’s plan, even if she might have been terrified.

Mary didn’t misunderstand.
Mary didn’t try to haggle with God.
Mary didn’t have to decode God’s call in order to know what to do.
Mary understood God’s call on her life, and she responded by singing his praises.

We learn some things about God in Mary’s song:

First, God calls people to come to him in faith: “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Second, we see God’s sovereignty: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Third, God nourishes us for the calling he has given us: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” That’s not just a slam on the rich. God is calling out anyone who thinks they don’t need him—that they can take care of themselves apart from God. Mary describes a great feast that is open to anyone who admits their need for God.

And finally, in Mary’s song we see the fulfillment of God’s promises and the foundation for the promises to come: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” If God could be trusted then, then we can trust him now.

I like that there is an image of a meal here, which shouldn’t really be a surprise if you know me. I like the picture of a feast for anyone willing to trust God more than they trust their own power or money. This meal is where we’re filled with “good things,” with God’s mercy and forgiveness, with his salvation and Holy Spirit.

When the group of scholars cracked that 18th-century cipher, they were quick to say that it was their ingenuity and not fancy technology that got the job done. “This is something humans did, not something computers did,” they said.

What we celebrate during this season isn’t anything humans did. We celebrate God reaching down to all of us with the gift of his son—the gift of a way back to living the lives we were meant to live all along.

When we come to the Table we remember something crucial and life-changing that we were not able to do on our own. The sacrifice of Jesus is what we’re called to remember as we take the bread and the cup. It’s a sacrifice we can’t make for ourselves.

Mary helps us understand that. As we come to the Table this morning I invite you to say a prayer of thanks that a teen-aged girl in the first century was wise enough and brave enough to hear God’s call and say: “May it be to me as you have said.”

My prayer is that we can all show that kind of faith this Advent season. Let’s pray.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Message 2011

(This message was given in St Paul's Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day 2011.)

Ephesians 2:14-22

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Good morning, and Happy Thanksgiving. It is truly an amazing thing to be able to worship together in this beautiful cathedral. We’re honored to be here.

According to the website, these are the Top 5 Family Thanksgiving Traditions. This is really the only day when I get to use material like this, so bear with me.

First, there is the turkey dinner, though there are regional variations on how that’s prepared. There’s the traditional roasting; in New England you can have a salt-encrusted turkey; in Hawaii apparently they rub coffee on the bird before roasting—that may be a way to try to prevent falling asleep immediately after the meal. And somewhere in the south, God bless ‘em, they’re deep-frying turkeys today.

Second, of course, is football. Now for our English friends—or really anyone not from the States—we’re not talking about soccer here. We’re talking about heavily padded, fully helmeted, oversized American football. It’s a part of the holiday to sit and watch football before and after the big turkey dinner. I have three NFL games recorded at my house, just so we can have them on in the background today.

Third are the parades, though that really means the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And fourth is fighting over the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey. Apparently the tradition of breaking the wishbone and making a wish dates back to the ancient Etruscans in the 4th century BC. Aren’t you glad you came today?

Finally, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somehow pausing to give thanks for the blessings in our lives. Even in hard times, it’s important to be thankful for the gifts of life and family and friends, even if we’re separated by distance or time. We’re here today to join together and give thanks, and it’s a blessing to be here.

Unlike a lot of other American holidays, Thanksgiving is celebrated at home. In the States people get away from home whenever a long weekend comes along. Martin Luther King Jr weekend in January means a ski trip, and if the snow holds out so does Presidents’ weekend in February. Memorial Day is the start of summer, so we go to the beach or the lake. The 4th of July is for picnics in the park. For Labor Day weekend we’ll try to squeeze in one more outdoorsy vacation, and on it goes.

But Thanksgiving is about being home, or at least in someone’s home, and about sharing our homes with those who are far away from theirs. It’s about opening our doors and welcoming family and friends and even strangers to a time of food and football and fellowship.

I remember the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. We’d been married for just a few weeks, and even though I knew the people around the table, I was still a little nervous. More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is steeped in very specific traditions. How you prepare the turkey, what kind of pies to serve, what do you do with the sweet potatoes, and then there’s the cranberry sauce.

Seriously. Let me just pause here for a moment. I‘ve seen people get in heated arguments about whether or not canned cranberry sauce is acceptable for a Thanksgiving table. Even now I can feel the tension in the room. Personally I love a good slice of canned cranberry sauce, complete with those little dents and ridges from the inside of the can.

But what made that first Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s family so special, was how they included me and welcomed me to their table, and how they tried very hard to add a few of my own traditions into that first celebration together. It was wonderful to be included that way. I didn’t feel like a stranger or visitor at all—I felt like part of the family from the very first moment.

That’s what I love about the passage we heard from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians a few minutes ago. It’s a beautiful statement of the unity we’re meant to have as people of faith. Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we all have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

And then Paul gets to the point. “So then,” he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”

“You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Rena Garcia was my friend in elementary school. This past summer we caught up at our 30-year high school reunion, and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before we shared a very special Thanksgiving memory from our childhood days. We grew up in Southern California, a part of the state that was filled with people from somewhere else. It was good preparation for living in London—we were surrounded by people and languages from all over the world. Half of Rena’s family was from Spain, and the other half from Mexico.

I remember that on the day before Thanksgiving each year, Rena came to school dressed like a Pilgrim—a carefully made black and white dress that looked exactly like the pictures of pilgrims we were reading about in our lessons at school. The teachers loved it so much that they passed Rena around like an artifact—she went from room to room where the teachers would show her off or use her as a visual aid for their explanation of that first Thanksgiving. I can still picture her—her brown skin and beautiful smile all dressed up like a 17th-century English dissenter, the people we grew up calling Pilgrims.

I think I may have felt sorry for Rena. I found out later that her mother had made the dress, and then sent her daughter off to the dangerous jungle we knew as primary school. I felt sorry for her, but one of the great things I learned later was that she wasn’t nearly as embarrassed about wearing the costume as we thought.

Because in Rena’s family there was a point to wearing that costume to school. Rena’s mother dressed her that way to make it clear to everyone that she was an American —that she belonged—that she was part of the family now. For her it was a gentle way of asking to be accepted—of wanting to fit into her country. At our reunion a handful of us shared our memory of the dress with Rena, and she couldn’t wait to go back and tell her mom that we’d all remembered it.

Thanksgiving is a time of gathering and reconnecting and accepting and remembering—it’s a holiday that’s perfect for looking a loved one in the eye and telling them how thankful you are that they’re a part of your life—how thankful you are that you get to be friends or family together.

Thanksgiving is also a time to welcome new friends. I’ve been hearing stories this past week of families who always set extra places at the table on Thanksgiving, just in case someone didn’t have a place to go. Some people invite students over, and others include a member of the military at their family gatherings. Homeless missions across the US today are serving turkey and all the trimmings to men and women and children who don’t have anywhere else to go.

All of this is a way to say what Paul said to his friends in Ephesus: “You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

Paul’s letter was to a city that needed to hear a message of reconciliation and hope. The people of Ephesus lived under the threat of persecution; there were social and religious conflicts; and even within the fragile early church there was a danger of losing touch with the message that brought them together in the first place.

It’s a relevant message for today, no matter what your own faith tradition might be. For Christians this is a call to unity—unity of belief and unity of purpose made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. But whatever you believe today, for all of us there is an invitation in this passage to come together and share in a common purpose and mission.

“You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

As we look back on it, Thanksgiving didn’t really get off to a very easy start at all. Not long after the first Thanksgiving feast, devout pilgrims changed everything and celebrated the day of Thanksgiving with fasting and prayer. That doesn’t sound nearly as fun as a big joyful meal together.

Later, when Abraham Lincoln officially established the holiday in October of 1863, America was in the middle of the Civil War. The very first Thanksgiving was celebrated just months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in the war.

Thanksgiving—this special day of giving thanks for the blessings in our lives—Thanksgiving has survived some very difficult and painful times.

The Occupy protesters outside today remind us that we’re in hard times again. But they also remind us that we have neighbors, people God calls us to love, who have experiences and fears and concerns that might be very different from ours.

And maybe one of the blessings of a protest here, today, just outside these doors—maybe the blessing for us on this Thanksgiving day is that the people who are most vulnerable and who have been affected most deeply by our wounded economy—those men and women are no longer strangers. They’re with us this morning, here in this place.

One way we can celebrate this day of thanks—along with the food and football and fellowship—one way we can demonstrate our gratitude is to listen to the voices of those who struggle. We listen, even when those voices provoke or irritate us—we listen, because we’re not meant to be strangers anymore.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, even in difficult times. Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times this week, told the story of a teen-aged boy who is a gifted pianist. He broke his right arm recently, but instead of giving up he went out and bought a copy of Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand and learned to play a new way.

Maybe that’s good advice for all of us this Thanksgiving. Clearly something is broken. Clearly we can’t go on the same way we’ve been going. But maybe, if we look hard enough, we can find other ways to live and grow and serve and make something new and beautiful together. Maybe, if we can turn the heat down a little and look for the light, we can find a way ahead that is more just, and more fair for everyone.

Maybe that makes all of us pilgrims, in a way. We search for ways to heal our hurts and those of our neighbors—we move around looking for better ways to raise our families and engage the world around us. Maybe we’re all pilgrims now, looking for God’s blessings as we work and study and play.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, but today, on this Thanksgiving Day, we pilgrims can be drawn to the promise in Paul’s words. “You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless you, today and every day. Amen.