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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Take Up Your Mat

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

I’ve been in the ministry now for over 30 years, as a volunteer in college, a youth minister, and as a pastor. In college I was a volunteer at Pendleton Prison near Anderson. A group of us went twice a week for three years, once a week for worship and once a week for what we called "Christian Dialogue." We met one-on-one with various prisoners just to talk.

Straight out of college I worked for Campus Life and then Karen and I were houseparents in a boys home. After that I realized that I was too old for youth ministry any more so I went into the pastorate. :-)

In those 30+ years, I couldn't tell you the number of times I’ve prayed for renewal of faith for someone, renewal of faith for myself, healing, wisdom, understanding and guidance.

In that time, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read passages like the Epistle and Gospel for today and I’ve wondered why not today: Where are the miracles? Where are the healings?

I've come to realize that passages like these tell us something pretty straightforward: The Christian Life is a matter of “being” not “doing.”
This simple change of perspective makes all the difference in how you live your Christian life.

Take a look at the peripheral issues presented in the healings in today’s readings:
* Who of us doesn’t have sympathy on the frailest in society? We naturally want to help the handicapped, less fortunate, elderly, etc.
* Who of us can’t relate to the encounters in these Biblical situations? We want to help panhandlers we think are genuinely in need, by giving to Helping Hands, Salvation Army bell ringers, etc.
* Who of us doesn’t do what we are able to do? We'll give a few extra dollars, make a donation of clothes, give a few hours to volunteer for a worthy cause.

These things are all well and good, but they speak to our matter of “doing.” Doing is in the present, a matter of the right now. We can see what we've done and feel good about it. But "doing" clouds our perspective: we want healing now, we want wisdom now, we want renewal now.

A mindset of "doing" shapes our expectations of God. We think, "He’s God, He can-should-will-must-would DO something."

It shapes our expectations of ourselves. We tell ourselves, "We’ve done good so we’re good; we do bad but we’re forgiven, so we’re good." Our logic tells us "We’re forgiven because of what God has “done” so I can do what I want."

Christianity is not a matter of "doing": it’s a matter of "being." You can’t “do” good at Church and then go home and “do” bad things. You are a Christian here and a Christian at home, at work, at play.

This reflects the nature of God. To Moses in Exodus God revealed His Name which is translated to English as "I Am Who I Am.” God's Name is a "being" verb.

As a Christian, "I am who I am" in Christ. I’m not a Christian because of what Christ has “done.” Note that. We are not Christians because a man was nailed to a tree. It is Who that Man is: We are Christians because the Son of God was nailed to a Tree.

We are Christians because of Who Christ is. Christ is the Savior, therefore I am saved. Christ is the Resurrection, therefore I have life in Him. Christ is the Good Shepherd, therefore I am in His care.

The healings at the Bethesda Pool and Lydda demonstrate this. Look at John 5:8. Did Jesus Christ pick the man up and put him in the water at the time of stirring?

No. He simply told him to get up and walk. He said this because of Who He is.

In Acts 9:34, did St. Peter make crutches or bandages and make the man better?
No. St. Peter simply said, “The Lord heals you.” Peter healed the man not because of who he is but because of Who Christ is.

This leads me to four simple observations:
1) God knew that both of these men needed His help before they were healed. The man in Bethesda Pool had been paralyzed since birth, 38 years. The man in Lydda had been paralyzed eight years. Do we really think God didn’t know about them before these encounters in Scripture?
2) In both cases, there were plenty of other people who needed healing and didn’t get it. All around the Bethesda Pool were people needing a miracle. Lydda was a typical small town with people of every condition you might find anywhere. Did God turn a blind eye to these others?
3) Do you think God doesn’t know that you need His help for whatever it is you’re dealing with?
4) Do you think God has turned a blind eye to you while He cares for others?

Being a Christian is a matter of God identifying Himself with you and you identifying yourself with God. It is a matter of Who God is and who you and I are.

How often do we want God to do something for us to prove Who He is? We want Him to give us a new insight into the Bible, so we go and get a Bible with helps, or a Bible with counseling, or a Bible for couples, or a Bible in a language I want to read. There are Bibles for charismatics, Bibles for Catholics, even a Bible for atheists.

We want God to do something for us by giving us a new experience. Since I was in high school I've seen God do supposedly "new things": There were the “Jesus People” (God loves you, dude); the charismatic renewal with Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts; the televangelist phenomenon with Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, and Oral Roberts; the prosperity Gospel with Benny Hinn and Robert Tilton; the right-wing political Gospel preached by Pat Robertson and James Kennedy; the left wing political Gospel preached by Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis.

God isn’t trendy or faddish or whatever happens to be the latest thing on Christian radio. God is God!

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is God.
The God of Moses, Joshua, and Caleb is God.
The God of Ruth, Naomi, and Esther is God.
The God of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel is God.
The God of Peter, James and John is God.

God is the unchanging One. As we pray in the Communion Liturgy, He is ever-existing and eternally the same. He simply is Who He is. He is Being.

This is your faith and mine. Faith is not a matter of what God does in our lives, it is a matter of Who God is.

Is God any less God because you have or because you haven’t experienced divine healing?
Is God any less God because you have or have not had a miracle?
Is God any less God because you are rich or poor or somewhere in between?

No. God takes us through whatever it is we face in life because of Who He is. Experiencing these things in life makes us who we are in Christ. More importantly, the daily living of Christian life is daily living with God. Faith that experiences God in daily life is faith that experiences God’s Being and experiences all that God is:
- peace that surpasses all understanding
- joy unspeakable and full of glory
- love unbounded

These are the things that matter:
Peace in the tumult of whatever life brings you.
Joy in the face of hardship, adversity, and discouragement.
Love for everyone, the difficult and our friends, our enemies and our neighbors.

And if God throws in a miracle along the way, we’ll be ready to take up our mat and walk.

This is based on the outline for my sermon at Peoria Church, April 25, 2010, the Sunday of the Paralytic.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Country Speed Bumps

Rural living is not for "Type A" people.

Whenever we go to the city, I am amazed at how fast people seem to think they need to go. They hurry up and pull out in front of you. They rush to park close to the store. They can't seem to get from one place to the next fast enough.

I was reared in a city, so you might think I'd be a little like that. But I grew up close to downtown and walked or rode my bike everywhere. In my family, we walked to school, walked to the grocery, walked downtown, walked to Wilson's, the movies, the playground, the park and Church. Even though we lived in the city, we were pretty slow-paced and low tech.

Actually, my Mom was the epitome of slow-paced living. She lived two blocks from the Church and had a twisted sense of pride in the fact that she would leave the house for worship as they were tolling the bell for the beginning of the service. She had a gift for delay. Talk to the clerk at the grocery. Flirt with the waiter at Rocking U. Chat with the neighbors. If you happened to be running a few minutes early, Mom always found something important to discuss with the cat just to prevent you from running on time.

But I digress.

One of the things I appreciate about living in rural Indiana is the fact that there really isn't too much to hurry about. And just to make sure you understand this fact, there are several built in "speed bumps" to remind you that there's really no good reason to go too fast.

Turkeys are great fun to watch. Once I was on the way to work on the Laketon Road and a turkey hen was standing out in the middle of the road. She looked at me like Gandalf looked at the Balrog in the Moriah mines. She stared me down as if to say, "You shall not pass!"

I tooted the horn. I was in our 1970 Beetle and the horn seemed appropriate for the moment.

The turkey hen started to run. Not off the road, but straight away from me, down the center of the road.

I followed her about 1/4 of a mile and she ran faster and faster. Finally she looked back at me as if to say, "Apparently he's not going to leave me alone." With a flying leap, her four foot wingspan lifted her with grace over the fence. Two or three flaps of those beautiful feathered fans and she was in the middle of the field. An elegant touch down and away she went, likely to forget my blue Beetle as soon as I drove off.

No hurry could have appreciated the moment.

Our rural infrastructure is designed to keep things apace - slowly apace. State roads, county roads and township roads are sliced between fields of corn, soy beans and wheat. This is only natural: agriculture rules the roost here.

Where there are no fields, there are marvelously narrow passes through woods and along the rivers, over 100 year old iron bridges and through romantic covered bridges.

These roads are made for meandering. How else can you view the great blue herons fishing? Or the turtles sunning themselves on the macadam? Or the birds playing in the trees over head.

Rural life and roads are designed to appreciate these sorts of things more than to provide a speedy means of going from Point A to Point B.

Finally, the ultimate country speed bump is the auction sale. (I know "auction sale" seems redundant, but that's what they are. Deal with it. :-)

An auction sale is no small event. It's part festival, part block party. In some ways it's our answer to the big box stores. There's also a measure of voyeurism: under the pretense of finding out what your neighbor has to sell you get a chance to see what he has in the back shelves of his closets, the drawers of his workshop, and the corners of his barn.

Auction traffic can frustrate town people because the lanes and ditches around the sale double as parking lots. Crowds of people swarming around the auctioneer move to the cadence of his call. Buyers make their way down the berm with headboards and mirrors, farm equipment, tools, and miscellany. They are as disinterested in the hurrying drivers as those in a hurry are disinterested in the auction.

The difference is that the hurrier is in rural Indiana and there is little to hurry about here.

No, rural living is not for "Type A" people. It's for the Type of people who take life a little more slowly, who appreciate everyday blessings. It's not for everyone, but it definitely is for me.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What Do You Expect?

Gospel Reading: Luke 24:1-12

I always like this Sunday when we remember the Myrrh-Bearing Women. It's always good to remember that great things can happen when no one cares who gets the credit for it. These Myrrh-Bearing Women were simply doing a basic task for Someone they loved, simply because it needed to be done. They didn't care who knew or didn't know. (Although they did get their names in the Bible, so that is some credit :-)

These women had expectations when they went to the Tomb, expectations that would be expectations you and I would likely have were we in the same position.

They expected to prepare Jesus' body for burial. (Luke 24:1)
They expected to find the Tomb closed and sealed. (v. 2)
Finding the Tomb open, they expected to find Jesus' Body. (v.3)
Finding the Tomb empty, they expected to figure out the problem. (v. 4)
Finding Angels there, they expected fear and harm. (vv. 5-8)
They expected the Apostles to believe their account. (vv. 9-10)
They expected wonderful things to happen. (v. 8)

On each count, their expectations were turned upside down.

Expecting to prepare Jesus' body, they didn't realize that this had already been done by St. Nicodemus and St. Joseph of Arimathea before they laid Him in the Tomb (John 19:39-42).

Expecting a closed tomb, they found the stone door of the Tomb rolled away, the seal broken.

Expecting to find Jesus' Body, the found the Tomb empty.

Expecting to figure things out one their own, they met Angels who greeted them, admonished them, encouraged them and commissioned them.

Expecting fear and harm by the Angels, they were filled with awe - according to Matthew 28:8, they were "filled with joy."

Expecting to be believed by the Apostles, they were not. Interestingly enough, even though each of the Gospels provides various details about the Resurrection, this is one detail on which they all agree: the Apostles didn't believe the women. Hmmm.

Expecting great things to follow, they did. Wonderful things happened on Resurrection Day and the forty days following - Jesus Christ met with the men on the Emmaus Road, He met with the Apostles that evening, He met them in the Upper Room a week later, He went fishing with them in Galilee, visited with them on a mountain in Galilee, and finally ascended to Heaven before their eyes.

All of us expect things from God, don't we?

Many expect God to be an enabler. They expect Him to help them out of every situation, to help them avoid or cover the consequences of their ungodly lives. They expect God to give them the means to continue their sinful ways. Some even expect God to bless their sinful endeavors, to bless their corrupt business practices, to sanctify their undisciplined lives, to approve their immoral choices.

Some people expect God to be their pal. You know, "Everything's cool with me and the man upstairs." They expect that God is Someone that would sit on the sofa with them and watch TV, but not challenge their life or lifestyle. These folks put too much emphasis on "personal relationship" and not enough emphasis on with God. Just like "pals" and "buddies" come and go, sadly so often goes their life with God.

Some people expect God's people to be perfect, just as He is. They blame God for things His people do. Who of us hasn't misrepresented God at some point in their lives? (I'm among the worst.) There are some who look at Christians instead of Jesus Christ. Others perceive Christianity to be too hard or too realistic. As G.K. Chesteron once wrote, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; rather, Christianity has been found dificult and left untried."

And there are some who expect God to be like them rather than expecting themselves to be like God. Have you ever noticed how both major parties make God follow their own agenda? (Aren't you glad God is neither Republican or Democrat?) Have you ever noticed that God is conveniently invoked as needed by both politicians and criminals? And have you ever noticed that when God conflicts with someone's ideals, suddenly He becomes irrelevant?

God turns these expectations upside down, too.

Expecting an enabler, we find that God works in a person's heart, at the root of the problem - sin - and change a person from the inside out. God doesn't bless our sinful ways; no matter how hard we try, we can't change our lives on our own. We don't need an enabler, we need God Who renews.

Expecting a pal, God proves Himself to be a truer friend than any casual "pal" or "buddy." God is a "friend who sticks closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24). When your pals and buddies have moved on, God remains.

Expecting perfect people, we realize that God sees everyone the same: none perfect, but all dearly loved. Perfection is not to be found in people. Perfection is only found in God.

Expecting God to be like us, we come to understand that the more we know God, the less like us we see Him to be and the more like Him we will want to be.

What do you expect from God?

Do you expect to prepare His body, though the task is already done?
Do you expect to find His sealed Tomb, though it is already opened?
Do you expect to find His Body, though He has risen?
Do you expect to explain the empty Tomb rather than listening to the Angels?
Do you expect fear rather than greeting and encouragement?
Do you expect to be believed by those who ought to believe?
Do you expect something wonderful to happen?

Remember His words.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Why I Love EWTN

My wife thinks that I am a closet Catholic. Over the years I've given her plenty of reason to think this:
- I love (LOVE) icons and crucixae.
- On family vacations we've been known to stop at Catholic shrines... Sorrowful Mother Shrine in northwest Ohio is a favorite and has yielded some wonderful (if not a little irreverent) pictures.
- I have a weakness for prayer books (although the 1928 Book of Common Prayer is my all time favorite).
- I own more rosaries than a Protestant ought to own.

BUT her biggest reason for thinking this is that I love (LOVE) EWTN. It used to be a treat when we'd visit my Mom in Findlay to be up early before everyone else to watch the Mass on EWTN (or to stay up late after everyone was in bed to watch the second 'encore' performance).

On vacations we'd stay in motels that had cable TV. (Until two months ago, we had only antenna broadcast TV.) Between trips in and out of the room, I could be caught catching the latest news on The World Over. Once Karen and I were babysitting our great nephews in Indianapolis while their Baptist parents were in Las Vegas watching Donny Osmond. For the boys' mid-afternoon nap, we watched Catholic cartoons.

I'm not really a closet Catholic. I have a very deep appreciation for Catholic spirituality and I think there's a lot we can learn from it. I respect their views on life issues, especially abortion and euthanasia, but I have issues with some little things: the Pope, for example, and purgatory.

My main reason for loving EWTN is because it just is what it is. It makes no pretense of being flashy or attractive or anything more than what it is: Catholic television.

Monks host talk shows. Nuns lead musical services. Mother Angelica leads chaplets and rosaries. Travel programs feature Catholic countries. Catholic movies made in Italy are shown dubbed in English.

It just is what it is.

That seems to me to be the biggest draw. It's actually my ideal for Church: Not to be Catholic but to be 'real'; To be who we are supposed to be and not to pretend to be something we're not.

Too often religious TV smacks of entertainment. It's all about the show, the 'pop', the act. They're trying to sell religion. And they beg for money. Beg. Ugh.

EWTN just shows Catholics doing what Catholics do.

I love EWTN because they aren't condescending about God. God doesn't need to be explained on EWTN, He is simply known and made known. They have programs that explain Catholicism, but Who God is is never doubted. Faith is a way of life for the folks on EWTN and there is simply no reason to doubt.

This is another ideal for Church, in my view. As a pastor I don't feel any compelling need to try to convince someone about God: He simply Is Who He Is and people can choose to believe in Him or not. I don't understand everything that happens in life or all the fine points of theology or why good people suffer or things like that. But I know God and love Him and I trust that He knows what's going on in life. He's never given me a reason to doubt.

Finally, I love EWTN because it is almost always positive. It is positive about its mission, it is positive about the Catholic Church, it is positive about living a life pleasing to God.

Much of life is not positive, and that often creeps into Churches. So many Protestants are into do's and don'ts, running down the government, alterior motives for giving, running down other Churches, Church marketing, and showmanship, it makes me sad.

Church ought to be life affirming, not just pro-life. The love of God takes us through dark times and the Church is a beacon of light, not a place for more shadows and more darkness. The Resurrection makes us participants in the new life of God; He lives and His Life lives in us.

I want to be positive about my faith. I want to be positive about my Church. And I try to be positive about living my life for God.

EWTN helps me do that.

Yes. Thanks, Mother Angelica (pictured above) for bringing EWTN to life. Even an old Protestant like me can grow in faith because of your efforts. :-)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Is Easter Over?

It's the Monday after Easter, or "Bright Monday."

I went into the break room at work and saw another Christian there so I said to her, "Christ is risen," expecting to hear back, "He is risen indeed!"

Instead, I got a dumb look. After a short pause, she looked at me and said, "Um . . .well, yeah."


A few minutes later I saw another co-worker, a Lutheran. I said, "Amy, you know what day this is?"

She smiled brightly, as she always does, "Sure do . . . it's 'Easter candy on-sale day'."


It's like Easter is over and it's time to move on to Mother's Day and "Dads and Grads." We haven't taken the time to savor the holiday, the meaning, of Pascha.

But today is just the second day of Pascha. Pascha is the Greek form of the Hebrew word for Passover, and, of course, Passover is the context for Christ's Last Supper (which we now recall as the Eucharist). In the original Passover - you know Moses, the Red Sea, the lamb, first borns, etc. - the Hebrews were delivered from their slavery in a miraculous manner by God.

Just imagine what it may have been like the day after the Passover, had the Hebrews sat down about a day's journey from Goshen (where they were enslaved) and said, "Okay, that's over. What do we do now?"

That's what it's like when we think that somehow Easter (or Pascha) is 'over'.

The whole season of Easter lasts forty days, an upbeat, joyful, counter-image of the pentitential, somber, fasting forty days of Great Lent. Lent reminds us through our own discipline, prayer, fasting, and sobriety that Jesus Christ experienced those things on our behalf, on His Way to the Cross. Pascha reminds us that one the other side of that, there is life.

Lent is a preparation time, anticipating the Death of Jesus Christ. Pascha is a celebration time, exalting in His Resurrection.

How can we possibly sit and think, "Okay, that's over. What do we do now?"

What to do on Bright Monday - and the remaining season of Pascha? Here are some ideas:
- Read and re-read the Resurrection accounts from the Gospels. Examine how the Apostles and disciples were changed by this event. How might you have been changed?
- Read again I Corinthians 15, St. Paul's amazing description of the Resurrection and our participation in it, both now and for eternity. Who do you know that has already shared in Christ's Resurrection (I know my mother and my father-in-law have!).
- Spend time contemplating the new life that is surrounding you this time of year. Hyacinths, tulips, jonquils, daffodils, cherry blossoms, etc., are all signs of new life. In the same manner, Christ has brought new life to us!
- Throughout Lent, many of us wore Crosses to remind us of our special commitment to God during Lent. What is something that you might wear to remind you of God's special commitment to you during the Paschal season?
- During Church on Pascha morning, we renewed our baptismal covenant. Where were you baptized? Why not go there and spend some time, praying and reflecting on your new birth? Write down the experience of your baptism and tell it to your family and friends.

Easter isn't over yet . . . it's just beginning! May God bless you now and throughout this joyous season.

He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!