Monday, March 18, 2013

Who are you?

Philippians 3: 4b-14

 Who are you?

We all define who we are in a variety of ways.  We may define it by answering what our heritage is; where we grew up, went to High School or College, who our parent and grandparents are, what our profession is, where we go to church and our faith.  Maybe we answer it with a title; mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, wife, husband…
Some of these labels we were given at birth and we are very proud to take as our own.  I know when I meet a group of people for the first time, especially at Conference Church events- someone inevitably says “your Sara’s daughter!” and I happily accept that comparison because I love my Mom and she is well respected and loved by others.

Some of them we spend our whole lives running away from. 
Maybe an angry Mom mumbles under her breath to her son- “You’re just like your father”.  Either way, we are guilty by association.   

As I get to watch my now teenage nieces and nephew grow up, I get to see them live out how to answer this question.  They try on different attitudes, taking risks, seeing exactly what they can get away with and if they really believe what their parent’s told them to believe.  They cut their hair, color it bright pink, get piercings, try a beer, say a cuss word- trying their hardest to go against what their parents taught or said they weren’t allowed to do- just to test the water.  Find their identity.  They aren’t any different than other teenagers in that respect. They slide around on the continuum of normal until they find out who they are and where they fit in this big world.
We have all been there- very few people know at a young age exactly what they want to be when they grow up and do just that.  Some of us still have an identity crisis on occasion as adults. Maybe it’s the proverbial mid-life crisis- we change jobs, get sports car, or learn a new hobby.

In our scripture lesson today- Paul is doing just that.  He is explaining his decision to change his identity from Jew to Christian.  He has been challenging the Jewish culture and belief system and has gotten a lot of flak for it.  He has been very critical of their exclusiveness and their desire to keep everyone out who doesn’t look and think the way they do so he makes sure they know who he is and why he has a right to criticize-
He once believed exactly what they believe.  He was them- he is not only criticizing the religious status quo- he is criticizing his own past beliefs, his own heritage.  It is easier to dismiss someone who is an outsider- who you can accuse of making stuff up or not understanding what really goes on here. 

Paul goes out of his way to say- nope- I know this because I was there.  We are one in the same- same heritage, same faith, same practices, I did everything I was supposed to do- all my life but I was wrong-
I have learned something better a better way and a better life.  It is an evolution of thought and belief that takes place in all our lives. 

All that stuff, which the Jewish faith required of them to do.  And, all that stuff that was being used to falsely elevate the status of some and make others seem to be unworthy was garbage. 
I am not who I once was- It is Paul’s claim and is our claim.  There is no rule that says our identity is set in stone.  Paul was the worst of the worst and became the most zealous spokesman for the Church. 

Because of Christ, we are no longer defined by who we once were and the mistakes we’ve made.  We do not get our true identity from our successes and failures in life and we are not defined by the reputation of our parents and the choices they made- good or bad.
Instead, we are defined by who Christ is, what Christ did for us.  We are children of God, we are loved, and we are forgiven.  It is not a love we can earn- it is given to us, balance paid and however we chose to respond is not to bring us glory and recognition but to direct that praise away from ourselves and become a reflection of Christ alone.  Paul wants us to understand that all things come from God and the only thing worthy of claiming is that we are loved enough that Christ was willing to die for us. 

Paul has realized through his encounter with Christ that nothing we do matters without a relationship with Christ.  There aren’t enough rituals, prayers, and good deeds to equal what Christ did for us on the cross. 
Paul goes on to say that this relationship with Christ is not an intellectual one.  Memorizing scripture, study and education, although are good tools, are not necessary to know God.  It is a personal and intimate connection that can never be broken, forsaken or lost. 

We often hear the relationship between Christ and the Church explained as a marriage.  It is the most intimate relationship we as humans can understand.  
Fred and Gloria had that ideal marriage.  They were college sweethearts, inseparable from the beginning, never one without the other.  They were married at 22 and quickly started a family and a business.  Times were hard at first but they made it through- he would pick her flowers when he couldn’t afford to buy them and she would cook him breakfast, even if it was just a piece of toast to express their love for one another.

They raised 4 boys and were blessed by a successful company.  They were active in the church, well known and well-loved in the community and it didn’t seem to matter where they went they were hand in hand.
Even as they aged the spark never seemed to fade.    At 82 years old Gloria got sick.  Fred was still healthy and cared for her daily even when he was no longer able to do it on his own, he never left her side.  After 60 years of marriage they had a bond that could never be mistaken.  They could understand each other with just a glance.  Words weren’t  necessary when they understood the language of love. 

Right before their 61st wedding anniversary, Gloria passed away from her illness and Fred was lost.  They had been together for so long he didn’t know who he was without- her.  His identity was Gloria’s husband.  Even though he was healthy, within a few weeks, Fred died too, some say it was of a broken heart- maybe he really couldn’t live without her. 
Not every marriage is a fairytale like that one but that is the kind of relationship we are called to have with Christ.  Life is not worth living without him.  Thankfully, Christ has promised to never leave us- in times of our deepest sorrow, greatest joy and beyond the end of our physical days, Christ will be there. 

Just as Gloria didn’t do nice things for Fred because she wanted to earn his love and Fred didn’t bring her flowers because he thought she would love him any more- they did these things to show their love for one another and deepen their relationship. 
The same is true with Christ.  We cannot do anything to earn the love of Christ but he blesses us anyway.  We each have gifts from God some tangible skills, the beauty of nature, a unique personality and we respond out of love by using them to bring glory to God.  It is the circular and deeply intimate love of God that urges us to live a life which is honorable and pleasing to God so that the relationship will continue to grow and deepen. 

Fred and Gloria didn’t have a perfect relationship- there were bumps along the way- couches slept on, arguments had- love wasn’t easy but their identity was intertwined with one another- their love for each other was who they were- it was worth fighting for. 
Life with Christ isn’t easy- mistakes will be made, some days are easier than others, there will be shouts of joy and cries of agony but when we claim our identity as Christian we know that Christ will never leave our side. 

Christ doesn’t expect us to be perfect but what he wants is for us to keep trying, practice, learn from the mistakes, confess, repent and trust that we are still loved no matter what.  The marriage vows through our baptism are sacred to Christ- until death do we part- except with Christ there is no death- there is life eternal in an even more wonderful relationship with him- it just keeps getting better and better.
Our mistakes and the challenges of life are what make us need a savior.  A life of faith brings us to the foot of the cross but it is the Love of God alone that allows us to share in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through the resurrection of Christ. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Parable of the Lost Son

Luke 15 1-3, 11b-32                                        

                 This story is one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament- many of you could probably tell it from memory.   We love this story because at different times in our lives; we have been each of these characters. 
We have been the elder son, jealous of the help and attention others are getting when we feel like our good behaviors are going unnoticed and unrewarded.
We have been the slaves- watching from a distance as a friend’s family is going through a similar situation- missing our own families.
Sometimes maybe we’ve even felt like the father.  Joyous when a long lost friend has suddenly come back into your life and a relationship is mended. 
Many of us have also been the youngest son. Leaving the church to explore the world and our own freedom- only to realize as an adult how much we truly needed God and the church.
That is one of the reasons this story is so powerful.  It’s not about someone else, it is about us!
On some level we can all identify with this story.  When I read this scripture for today I realized that we often forget about the characters that prompted Jesus to tell this parable- the Pharisees.
Maybe we’ve been them too- looking at a newcomer to a class or group hesitant about welcoming them in, thinking oh- they wouldn’t fit in with us- they aren’t like us!  We don’t want to put in the effort to get to know the real person- so we don’t.
It is hard sometimes for us to realize in the moment who we are- we tend to put values on people’s roles in society, wealth, looks, and position that we often get lost ourselves.  We read this story and we forget that all the characters are lost- not just the youngest son.  Yes, he is the obvious one but not the only one. 
The Pharisees are lost- they have gotten so caught up in living a self-righteous life focused on order, power and determining who is worthy of God and who is not;  that they have lost touch with who and why they worship.  All they can see is how they have been made worthy and others are not.
The eldest son is lost- not physically but for whatever reason, he feels neglected, unappreciated, and undervalued.  He’s lost in self-pity and doubt which causes distance and hard feelings towards his father and brother.
The father is lost too- Lost in worry about his children.  He loves them each so much.  He has lost both of them to the temptation of freedom and sense of entitlement.  He’s torn between wanting to connect with them both and loving each without receiving that love in return.
The point is we are all lost.  We all need the unconditional love and open embrace of Jesus Christ in our lives.  At least the younger son knows it.  He may have had to learn it the hard way and it may have been a painful process but he fully realizes he has hit rock bottom.  He is desperate for the only relationship that can save him. 
Life, culture and personal bias prevent us from seeing the truth in others and ourselves.  Seeing not the reflection in the mirror but what God sees- our hearts. 
Sometimes we project an image of power, self-control and togetherness- We see a successful business man in a tailored suit with a wife and family, nice house and car- we see someone who seems to have it all together when God sees a broken hurt and angry child just playing dress-up.
Sometimes when we look at others we see the outward person- the drug addict, person with mental illness, homeless and emaciated from hunger maybe we see the image of the prodigal son-  He’s dirty and smelly.  He probably hasn’t had a bath in a while; his clothes are torn and need to be washed.  His breath may reek of alcohol- he’s too skinny and needs a haircut.  He’s got pig slop on his shoes. 
Maybe we think he’s gotten what he deserves- if he had just listened to his parents and stayed home.  Maybe we look at that person at the soup kitchen and grumble under our breath- why don’t they just get a job?  While God sees a solider home from war- with all the scars on the inside crying out for help that isn’t there.   Would we be willing to welcome him with the open arms of Christ?
 What does God see in you?  Are you being true to whom God wants you to be? Are you aware of just how much you need Christ?  Are you taking the time to be in prayer and reflection to deepen your relationship with Christ?  Can you admit that you are lost and in need of saving?
Are you willing to welcome people into your life who God sees as worthy- even when they don’t fit our ideal exterior expectations?
What about this Church?  Whether it is showing the open arms of Christ by the opening the doors of this church to children taking music lessons, giving AA a place to meet in order to support their recovery or sponsoring an Easter Egg Hunt at the neighborhood child care center.
 These are living examples of how we share the love of Christ to our community- some of these people; children and adults may eventually join us for worship and I know that you will be able to extend that welcome to them with the open arms of Christ. 
The love, forgiveness and salvation of Christ is for all who seek to be in a relationship with him.  Yes, he came to save the imperfect but righteous- the disciples, those who have dedicated their lives to God but Christ also came to save the lost- those who have never heard of his love, those who society tells them they don’t deserve God’s love- it is especially for them.
 This story of the prodigal son is an illustration of that love.  No matter how far we’ve traveled, no matter the decisions we made right or wrong, no matter how long we have been separated – God is running to us with open arms- pleading with us to come back and be in a full relationship with Christ. 
In a few weeks we will see a similar story arise with the thief on the cross- It’s never too late to come to Christ! You can go home again.  Let us be the arms of Christ in this church, in this community and in this world.  Let God use us and our love for the lost to lead them back home into the embrace of a God who loves them.