Tuesday, December 16, 2014

FEELS LIKE HOME


             Linda Rondstadt would probably be surprised to learn that a communion meditation sold one of her albums, but it did. When Judy, a few weeks ago, used a song from the album Trio, featuring Rondstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmy Lou Harris, titled “Feels Like Home,” Frances and I decided to get it.  I won’t try to repeat what Judy said but her theme deserves re-emphasis.  The verses of this Randy Newman song make it clear that the reason it feels like home to her is because  there is someone there who loves her. 

            I thought of this as I studied and began memorizing Psalm 84 last week.  The first four verses say: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.  My soul is longing and yearning for the courts of the Lord.  My heart and my flesh cry out to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself in which she sets her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.”  Clearly, the Psalmist feels he has found a home, the dwelling place of God, His temple in Jerusalem.  There he feels loved, secure, and safe in the presence of the Lord of hosts, his king and God.

            We too can find our home in the very place where God dwells, but it isn’t in the temple on Mt Zion in Jerusalem.  In the NT, Jesus refers to his own body as the new temple and Paul speaks of God living fully in Him.  Remarkably, the NT also speaks of us, the church, God’s people, as his dwelling place.  Ephesians 2:19 says, “You … are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.”  It goes on to say that the apostles and prophets are the foundation and Christ is the cornerstone and the whole building is “a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

            Today the Psalmist, if he were a Christian, would look at the church and say, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.”  That is what I want to say today.  This church feels like home to me because I sense God’s love through you in it.  It is a love that begins with God in Christ at the table.  Here is his overwhelming, unconditional love that was demonstrated on the cross and remembered by us at the table.  From this table his love flows out throughout his holy temple, his reconciled people, to you and me.  That’s why it is so good to be here.  It feels like home.

            How can we make sure it continues to feel like home?  The song that follows “Feels Like Home”on the album tells me how.  Sung by Emmy Lou Harris it is titled, “When We’re Gone, Long Gone,” and the chorus says:  “And when we’re gone, long gone, the only thing that will have mattered is the love that we shared and the way that we cared, when we’re gone, long gone.”


            It was love that created the church and it is love that will sustain it.  At this table we are reminded of where it all began.  If there has been a failure to love, let us repent, and resolve to love again.

Friday, December 5, 2014

WAR IS ALWAYS WITH US

            The gods of war seem to always be with us.  Last Veteran's Day many of us put out our flags.  It was a day of remembrance, a time to pause and say thank you to those who have given so much.  A spectacular picture was created in London where red ceramic poppies filled the moat surrounding the Tower of London in honor of the over 800,000 British citizens killed in World War I, the war to end all wars.  Of course, it did not end all wars.  I wish it had but history tells us that the gods of war seem to always be with us.

            Like some great drama such warfare with guns and planes, tanks and battleships, take place on the main stage of this world.  Behind the scenes another war is raging.  Paul speaks of it when he urges us in Ephesians 6 to “put on the whole armor of God, that you might be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” 

            In a sense, the whole book of Revelation is a commentary on this text in Ephesians.  It depicts in highly symbolic images the spiritual war that the devil is waging against God and his people.  Like any war, it is difficult and costly.  Winning freedom is not easy.  There are always casualties.  But if the book of Revelation says anything, it says that God is going to win.  If one statement could be picked to express this theme of victory it could be this one found in 12:10-11, Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down.  And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”

            They overcame him by the blood of the lamb.  Today we remember and give thanks for the greatest casualty of all, the one that secured victory.   I came across a little poem by one of the lesser known poets of the First World War, Edmund Sillito, that expresses this with a striking image of God.

             The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak.

             They rode, but thou didst stumble, to a throne.

             But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak;

              And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

           
            Yes, as Isaiah said, He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell on him, and by his scourging we are healed.


            For our wounded God of Calvary we give thanks and remember the words of Jesus who said of the bread, “take, eat; this is my body,” and of the cup, “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

That's Important to Me

     The country and gospel singers, Joey and Rory, have a song that I enjoy.  Joey said on one of the Gaither TV programs that she was reflecting on her life before and after she married Rory and ended up writing a song titled, "That's Important to Me."  In it she sings about many things like paying  our bills and staying out of debt, telling the truth and being real, and feeding my family a home cooked meal.  "That's important to me," she says.

     As I thought about this it occurred to me that what is important to us changes somewhat from time to time.  What's terribly important at age 16 is not so important twenty years later.  What's important to me when I have a young family is not the same as when they are grown and gone and I have reached senior citizenship.

     And yet, are there not values, actions, relationships that are always important to me?  Some that never go away, that always must be respected?  And then I asked myself, is there one, or perhaps two or three core values that rise above them all and are most important to me?

     Maybe that is what Jesus was getting at when someone asked him about the greatest commandment and he replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ... The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:36-39).  Which reminded me of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13, "But now faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love."

     It becomes even clearer when we ask, 'what put Jesus on the cross?' and John answers: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son ..."

     When Paul told the Corinthian church that he was "determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2) it must have been because he saw love there most of all.  Yes, Paul knew all of the big theological words for it -- propitiation, redemption, ransom, and others -- but all of them fade into the background, overshadowed by love.  It is the power of love that Jesus spoke of when he said, "If I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32).  It is the magnetic power of love that draws us to him even now as we come to the Lord's Table.

The 17th century English poet, George Herbert, said this eloquently in a poem titled "Love (III)":

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lack'd any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful?  Ah, my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes by I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them:  let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

Love invites us here, to His Table.  That's important to me, as I am sure it is to you also.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The One Body

        "Several years ago popular church of Christ author Carl Ketcherside told of two elders who shattered the morning worship service when the got into a fist fight at the communion table.  They not only belonged to the same central Missouri church, but they were sons of the same parents.  Theirs was a classic case of sibling rivalry gone amok.  They had been growing angrier with each other for several months as each man accused his brother of pressuring their aged mother to change her will in favor of himself.

        On this Sunday, when one went forward to serve at the Lord's Table, the other also went forward -- to accuse him of being unfit and to order him to sit down.  Before the members could quite grasp what was happening the brothers' fists were flying.  They had to be physically separated.  The church chose up sides, some favoring one brother, some the other.  It took a generation to repair the damage."*

        Paul doesn't mention fist fights in his letter to the Corinthians but he is dealing with a similar situation.  He refers in chapter one to how they were choosing up sides and pleads with them to be united in one mind.  Their divisions were bound to affect their observance of the Lord's Supper.  It was their custom to observe it as part of a communal meal but they had robbed it of any meaning by their divisions.  Thus, he wrote in 11:20, Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.  The way they conducted the meal and the communion actually perpetuated the divisions.  Consequently, he drew a radical conclusion in 11:27,  Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.  To partake in an unworthy manner is to join with those who are guilty of crucifying the Lord.

        He goes on to give this urgent advice to all who would escape being guilty of crucifying the Lord, Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup,  for he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not discern the body rightly. 

        His use of the word "body" here does not refer to the physical body of Christ but to the church as the body of Christ.  To discern the body rightly is to see it in its beautiful unity and harmony.  One of the founders of the Christian Churches, Thomas Campbell, back in 1809, used this imagery of the body in a foundational document to describe the effect of division in the church of his day.  He saw the divisions as a sword thrust into the body of Christ mangling and rending it to shreds.  He too was pleading for the unity of Christ's body.

        The divided, warring world we live in today needs a model of unity, of peace and harmony.  May it see this in us when we gather around this table as the body of Christ.

*Carl Ketcherside related this story in Christian Standard (Oct 30, 1977).  LeRoy Lawson used it in a communion meditation in Christian Standard (Feb 4, 2007).
       

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Be Still and Know ..."

If I came to this communion table barefooted and with my hat on yo might wonder what was wrong with me.  It would be a sign of something but probably not of reverence.  But when Jewish men go to synagogue or to pray at the Western wall in Jerusalem it would be most irreverent to go with head uncovered.  When Muslims enter the Mosque they leave their shoes outside.  Muslims consider this a form of reverence and trace it back to Moses.  They point to Exodus 3 where the Lord told Moses, "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground."

Certainly, it is not the only sacred place where we can meet God but, if we are indeed standing on holy ground when we meet our Lord at the communion table, what does reverence require of us?  Are certain ways of dressing more or less reverent than others?  Or are certain behaviors more or less reverent than others?  Should we adopt certain actions like kneeling, genuflecting, or bowing our heads to the floor?  Is standing all of the time more reverent than sitting?  How do we express reverence, or do we even think about it?  Maybe that is the most important question.  Have we forgotten all about being reverent?  How should we "remove our sandals" and acknowledge that we are on holy ground?

Think of Moses again.  Before removing his sandals he had to pay attention.  Apparently, the bush was not directly in front of Moses because he said, "I must turn aside and see this great sight."  He could have kept right on leading his sheep and not taken the time to pay attention.  He could have thought, "Oh, how pretty.  I will have to come back some time and look at this more closely."  Turning aside from our every-day activities and putting ourselves in a receptive position is an appropriate, even essential, act of reverence.

But he also had to listen.  The bush did not explain itself;  it had no subtitles.  He had to listen to the word from God.  And to listen he had to shut up, to be quiet.  Maybe this is one key way to express reverence.  When you are in the presence of God be quiet and listen.  Be silent, get rid of the world's noise and distractions.  That's what I have to do if I want to hear Frances.  We sit only a few feet apart in our family room but for me to hear what she says the TV sound must be turned off.  Distractions and competing noise is more than my hearing can handle.  I think we all may have a similar problem when it comes to hearing God speak to us.  We need to turn off competing noises and listen carefully.

That may be why the Lord says to us in Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God."  And the prophet Habakkuk reminds us, "The Lord is in his holy temple.  Let all the earth keep silence before him."  Or, as Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, "There is a time to keep silent, and a time to speak."

Perhaps when we come to the Lord's Table it is a time to be silent, to listen, to focus on the Lord, to think about our relationship with him.  Must we always have some music playing, or something else to distract us, or in a sense, entertain us?  Can we not sit quietly before the Lord and listen for his still, small voice?

This is holy ground.  Please join me in listening, in being quiet before the Lord, as we remember the one whose pierced body and blood are represented in these elements.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

CELEBRATE FREEDOM

On the 4th of July, but other times as well, it is good to remind ourselves that God created us with free will and gifted us with the freedom to use it.  But, of course, we had to foul things up.  When Adam and Eve sinned it opened the door to all kinds of captivities that profoundly affect our liberty.  As Paul put it in Romans 6, we became slaves of sin and slaves of uncleanness.  It is a terrible thing to be a captive.

May Angelou describes it in her poem, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," this way:

A free bird leaps on the back
Of the win and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange sun's rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage.
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

In 1776 the politically "caged bird" broke out and declared his independence and so we celebrate freedom each Fourth of July.

The children of Israel were like a caged bird for hundreds of years in Egypt.  But finally God gave them freedom and they have celebrated it ever since in the Passover meal.  Their celebration meal includes four cups of wine which was considered a royal drink and symbolized freedom.  The use of four cups is based on God's promises in Exodus 6:6-8 where four terms are used to describe God's action in achieving their freedom.  First, "I shall take you out"; second, "I shall rescue you";  third, "I shall redeem you"; and fourth, "I shall bring you out as my people."

The third cup is referred to as either the cup of redemption or the cup of blessing and it was probably when they came to this place in the meal when Jesus took the cup and called it "the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you."

When Jesus began his ministry he saw that all people, not just Israel, were like birds in a cage, captives of sin and death.  The first thing he did was to give a defining speech in the Synagogue of Capernaum when he quoted Isaiah 61 and said, in part, "He has sent me to proclaim releases to the captives and ... to set free those who are oppressed" (Luke 4).  Then, as his ministry reached its climactic point, just as he was about to give his life to set the captives free, he gave us a way to celebrate our freedom.  Not with war-like rockets and firecrackers, not with loud, blaring noise, not with some stirring extravaganza, but with the simple elements of bread and wine.  And so let us celebrate our freedom, made possible by his body, given for us, and his blood, shed for the remission of our sins.

Monday, May 26, 2014

REMEMBERING FALLEN HEROES

On Memorial Day and on this Sunday we remember fallen heroes.  The news keeps us painfully aware that war always produces fallen heroes, and I'm sure that we all agree that they deserve to be remembered and honored.

Our national remembering  began when General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed May 30, 1868 to be a day of Memorial for soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War.  Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  However, the southern states did not recognize this day and observed other days for honoring their dead until after World War I when Memorial Day became the day to honor those who died fighting in any war not just the Civil War.

In 1915 Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, "In Flanders Fields," contributed her own short poem that led to wearing poppies in honor of those who died:

We cherish too the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

At this particular moment, at this table, we focus on a fallen hero whose life was given in the greatest battle ever fought, and whose blood, as the poem says, "never dies."  Every human war ever fought is simply a microcosm of the deeper, greater spiritual war that goes on behind the scenes.  As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the ... spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."  We are still engaged in this struggle and we come today to remember and to celebrate the fallen hero who won the decisive battle.

It has been said that every war has a decisive battle.  In the 2nd World War the decisive battle came on D Day and the successful invasion of France.  While many battles were yet to be fought, the war was essentially won with that battle.  There were many fallen heroes on the beach whose sacrifice ultimately led to victory.

Today we remember another fallen hero -- but with a difference.  He fell, but rose again, enabling Paul to say in Romans 5:10, "If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, so much more, having been reconciled we shall be saved by his life."  Reconciled by his death -- saved by his life  Death and all of this world's sin and evil met its match on Calvary when Jesus Christ became our fallen and risen hero.  We celebrate victory won for us by our fallen and risen hero.

Therefore, on the first day of the week, on each resurrection Sunday, when we break bread and drik the cup I like to  think it is accompanied by those described in Revelation 5, "... myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might  and honor and glory and blessing."  As you take the Lord's Supper this morning, listen for the Hallelujah chorus.