xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: April 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pants on Fire

April 28, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
The classic game show
To Tell the Truth was a little before my time, but I’ve enjoyed watching the reruns.  You’ll remember that the basic premise of the show was that a panel of three guests claimed to be the same person, and had to convince a panel of celebrity questioners that they were telling the truth.  At the end of the interrogation, the celebrities would decide which of the three they believed was telling the truth.  And then the host Bud Collyer would say, “Will the real person please stand up?”
The show later spawned imitation programs such as
What’s My Line?, I’ve Got a Secret, and, more recently, The Moment of Truth.  For some reason, the American public has always found the fine art of fabrication to be strangely fascinating.
And, to tell you the truth, so does the first epistle of John, the subject of our sermon series through May.  John has a fibbing fixation.  The word
liar is one of his favorite words, using it as many times in his five brief chapters as all the other New Testament books combined.  His letter reads like one long polygraph exam, rendering the following verdicts:
·     You know you are a liar if say you believe in God but refuse to keep God’s commandments (2:4).
·     You know you are a liar if you deny that Jesus is the Messiah (2:22).
·     You know you are a liar if you say you love God but hate another person (4:20).
·     You know you are a liar if you say you believe in God but not believe that Jesus is whom the church says he is (5:10).

Harsh words!  At the end you almost expect him to say that your pants on fire!  No other book in the Bible puts one’s convictions and one’s ethics under such scorching scrutiny.
But there’s more.  Before John gets to any of these indictments, he levies this one, the most brutally direct of them all:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us.  (I John 1:8-10)
It’s quite enough to see the self-induced consequences of our own incriminating actions.  But claiming that we are better than we actually are, or denying the severity and significance of our sins not only affects us.  It brands God as a liar.  
The logic is as follows:  If we claim to be sinless, then we undermine the very reason that God became human in Jesus to restore us and save us.  And if God did all of this under false pretenses, then we basically make God out to be a liar.
How does that set on your conscience?
The only real solution is to come clean about the sin in our lives, receive the forgiveness and grace of God, and determine to live a new life through God’s strength.  In short, it’s to stop living a lie, and start living in the light and love the resurrection.  As people called Methodists called to be perfected in love, these words ought to ring familiar:
But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him.  (I John 2:5)
Join us this Sunday as we continue our sermon series called “Bright New Day:  Living in the Light of the Resurrection” based on the book of 1 John.  We’ll focus on the second chapter, which calls us to live lives of honesty, purity, and love.
Now, will the real follower of Christ please stand up?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A New Song?

April 22, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s family,

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.  (Psalm 96:1)

When St. Paul’s debuts its brand new praise band this Sunday, it will seem, at first glance, to be a complete fulfillment of Psalm 96.  Sing new words? No problem.  There will be songs heretofore never sung in the St. Paul’s sanctuary.  Sing in a new style?  Check.  How about a mixture of up-tempo hand-clappers and prayerful, soulful ballads?  Sing with new instruments?  Indeed.  Thanks to a generous, anonymous gift, the praise band has been funded for the rest of the year, outfitted with brand new instruments and sound equipment.
But a new song?  Hmm.   Biblical scholars have run an exhaustive list of possibilities of what exactly made the song referenced in Psalm 96 a
new song.  Likely, this was part of a larger collection of enthronement songs that were sung by Israelites in the Temple, who celebrated God as their sovereign king.  Beyond that, there is debate about whether this song was about the past, the present, or the future:
·     Some believe the song they sung was the actual words of Psalm 96, constituting a new song for a new present reality.
·     Others say that the new song was a reframing of the words from the past:  Isaiah 42-43, which reminded people of God’s delivery of the people from slavery in Egypt.
·     Still others claim that the song was a fresh reminder of their future hope, which was the restoration of God’s kingdom in the world.
·     And others suggest it is all of the above - - past, present, and future.
So here’s the point.  Here’s why I am looking forward to this Sunday. It’s not that we will be singing new words, accompanied by new instruments, with a new tempo. What makes this all so new is not determined by guitar vs. organ, or praise chorus vs. hymn.  Rather, worship is new when it shifts our attention away from ourselves, and points us toward God.  Worship is new when it lifts us out of our egocentric tendencies and freshly directs us toward the God who has, will, and presently rules and reigns in our lives.  We sing a new song whenever God is the audience.
Frankly, this is nothing, well,
new.  It is my hope that this occurs every week, every time we worship together, no matter the service format.    And I suppose that’s the point.  Regardless of the labels one would use to describe the form of worship (for example, “traditional” vs. “contemporary,” whatever those words mean), worship is new, not when we move past old styles, but whenever we move beyond our old selves.  And to evaluate one’s personal worship experience against one’s stylistic preferences is to miss the point entirely.  Whether we sing, “O for a thousand tongues to sing, our great redeemer’s praise,” or “So, come let us sing a song / a song declaring we belong to Jesus,” the focus is never on ourselves.  It is on the God who created us, redeems us, and will perfect us in love.
So come this Sunday, and be drawn into the worship of God.  Clap your hands if you wish, sing along, or simply close your eyes in prayerful praise.  Be lifted beyond yourself, and experience a God who is making all things new.
Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Risus Paschalis

April 14, 2009

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Heard any good jokes lately?

Until recently, American churches have overlooked a centuries-old tradition of observing the Sunday after Easter as “Bright Sunday:” a day of parties, picnics, humor, practical jokes, and general merriment.  The custom was rooted in the convictions of early church theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, who interpreted the resurrection as God playing the ultimate practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead.  They coined the term “Risus paschalis,” or the “Easter laugh.”

Today, a growing number of churches across the denominational spectrum have “resurrected” Bright Sunday with new terms like “Holy Humor Sunday,” or “Holy Hilarity Sunday.”   People gather in worship to share their funniest jokes and stories, enjoy light-hearted skits, sing hymn parodies, and enjoy people in costume (think ushers in clown makeup and choirs in bathrobes).  And often, the sermons are filled with one stream-of-consciousness joke after another.  Like this one:
A minister got up before the congregation to deliver the invocation, only to discover a problem with the microphone.  He tapped it with his hand, blew into it loudly, knocked it a few times on the altar rail, not realizing he had failed to turn it on.  While fumbling with the switch, he muttered, “There’s something wrong with this thing.”  

To which the congregation responded, “And also with you.”

The point of Holy Humor Sunday, of course, is more than just jokes and laughter.  It is an affirmation of how wonderful and surprising the resurrection really is.  Like a good joke that catches us off-guard and puts an irrevocable smile on our faces, the resurrection of Jesus can bring lightness to life’s burdens and give our souls a lift with new hope and promise.

On a recent episode of Inside the Actors’ Studio with James Lipton, late-night comedian and accomplished humor writer Conan O’Brien was asked how much of comedy was a scientific formula, and how much was sheer spontaneity.

O’Brien responded:  

“There’s definitely formulas and we all fall back on formulas. When we’re looking at a sketch and we don’t know how to end it, there’s always the seven ways that you can end it that you’ve seen before, do you know what I mean?  There’s a couple [of] moves that (writers) use, and when you’re in this business long enough, you know ‘em.  So you’re watching Saturday Night Live and I say, ‘Oh, what are they gonna do?’  And then they do one of the seven moves, and you go, ‘Oh, okay.’  

But every now and then something happens that completely surprises you.  And that doesn’t happen all the time, but you’re always looking for that crazy, random, weird ending that no one expects, that is beyond formula.  You don’t know how someone thought of it.  You’re always hoping to come up with one of those.  They don’t grow on trees, but when they come along, it’s great. (Inside the Actors’ Studio, original airdate January 26, 2009).

It’s true:  with all the jokes that we’ve heard and shared, and all the one-liners that have tickled our ribs, the Risus paschalis breaks all the rules.  The resurrection smashes the formulas of life as usual, upends our expectations, and calls us to live an entirely upside-down kind of life.  It is joy in a time that tilts toward sorrow. It is hope in a world preoccupied with despair.  Death may be the set-up, but new life is the punch line.  It’s a “crazy, random, weird ending that no one expects.”  But it’s one that everyone needs.

So, enjoy this Easter in the way it was originally intended:  with a big, hearty Risus paschalis.  And bask in the hilarity of the resurrection.

Grace, Peace, and Laughter,


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Meaning of Communion

April 8, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
It’s true what they say:  children grow up to be much like their parents.  One night, during a dinner with Jessica’s father, our older daughter Grace spontaneously demonstrated her impression of her preacher daddy.  After receiving a freshly buttered dinner roll from her grandpa, she stood up in her chair, raised the bread into the air and spoke in the most dignified tone her toddler voice could muster:
“This is Jesus,” she declared.
Then, leaning over to Grandpa Elwyn, she whispered, “But it’s only make-believe.”
I didn’t know whether to beam or blush.

Intuitively, we know she was right.  We don’t believe in a literal transformation of yeast and dough into the cellular composition of the man from Nazareth.  Yet at the same time, we would never go so far as to say that what happens around the altar is pure pretense. Something real
is happening.  Isn’t it?
As we prepare for Maundy Thursday and the rest of Holy Week, it is always good to remember the words of Charles Wesley, the musical theologian of the Methodist movement, who offered his reflection on the meaning of communion through his hymn,
Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast, which we will be singing tomorrow night.  Each verse offers a different angle on the mystery of this holy sacrament:


COME:  Communion is an invitation for all of us to enter the presence of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ:  

Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.

CONNECTION:  Communion unites us as a body of Christ with Christians around the world and across time.  It connects us with saints past, present, and future:

Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.

COMFORT:  Communion affirms the constant presence of God in and among us, even in the midst of our most difficult trials:

Come, all ye souls by sin oppressed,
Ye restless wanderers after rest;
Ye poor, and maimed, and sick, and blind,
In Christ a hearty welcome find.

CONFESSION:  Communion acknowledges the grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit, prompting us toward confession and an experience of God’s forgiveness:

Come, and partake the Gospel feast;
Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of your God,
And eat His flesh, and drink His blood!

COMMITMENT:  Communion gives us the opportunity to recommit ourselves to following Christ, so that, in the words of John Wesley, the love of God “may be shed abroad in our hearts:”

My message as from God receive;
Ye all may come to Christ and live.
O let His love your hearts constrain,
Nor permit Him to die in vain.

CONTEMPLATION:  Communion helps us ponder God’s holiness and power, and reminds us of our utter dependence on God’s love:

His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to His love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.

COMMEMORATION:  Communion is a remembrance of what Jesus has done on the cross.  It is more than mere intellectual recollection; it is a dynamic re-presentation of Jesus, making him vividly real today:

See Him set forth before your eyes,
That precious, bleeding Sacrifice!
His offered benefits embrace,
And freely now be saved by grace.

CELEBRATION:  Communion express grateful thanks for what God has done, and reminds us of our future at the great banquet table of God.  

This is the time, no more delay!
This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call,
And live for Him Who died for all.

I invite you to come to tomorrow night’s Maundy Thursday service at 7pm and share in the gift of Holy Communion. And on the following night, we’ll join together in the solemn remembrance of Good Friday at 7pm, reflecting on the drama and passion of Christ’s great sacrifice and love.  And, of course, we’ll celebrate together the joy and triumph of Easter Sunday, with identical services at 7:00 and 10:10.
Come, Connect, and Celebrate!