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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Seven Last Words: "Purpose Driven Death"

(The Sixth Last Word from the Cross)
John 19: 29-30
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Passion Sunday, March 28, 2010

This week in Washington and around the country people are wondering what, if anything has been accomplished with the signing of the Health Care bill?   I can imagine that much the same confusion took place around the cross.   What, if anything positive did Jesus accomplish in his terrible death?

But notice very closely, in this sixth word from the cross, that Jesus does not say, “I am finished”, but he says rather, It is finished.”    The English may be a bit ambiguous here, but the Greek is not.  

In English it could mean “It’s over,” “done”, or even “I’m done for.”  But in Greek it says, “It’s completed,” “perfected,” or at best “It has been accomplished!”   The Latin version gives the best translation of all:  “Consummatum est.”   When all seemed to be nothing but ugly, agony and defeat, Jesus announces God’s victory and that he has accomplished what God had for him to do. 

In John 4:34, Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish (or finish) his work.”    There is that word again.  Jesus says he has come to do God’s work.  The one who drank sour wine is also the vine and our very life source.   The one who is starving came to be the bread of life.  This one who thirsts offers us the living water so we will never thirst again.  The one who dies such a excruciating death promises resurrection and eternal life.   All God’s saving work is said to be accomplished through this Jesus, who is dying on a criminal’s cross.

You can’t miss the irony of it all.   Exactly when you think Jesus fails, this is when he is said to succeed.   Everything needed to be done to bring life, has been told to be accomplished a death on this cross.  But the truth is, we can look straight into this moment and still miss it.  Though the cross means everything to some, it still means nothing to others.  It is a mystery which either compels or it offends.   So, what is this saving work Jesus is said to accomplish?

When John the Baptist first saw Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be baptized he cried out: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”    But here is exactly the where the mystery starts.  How can the sin of the world be taken away when there is still so much sin around everywhere we look?    Almost every day we can hear of some new type of evil, new weapon or way of destructiveness, or new incarnation of evil that has been manifested in our world?   How can John’s gospel tell us that sin has been taken away, when sin, suffering, evil appears to be around just as much now, as ever before?      

A powerful illustration sin’s unrelenting presence is given by preacher Fleming Rutledge, who tells of a 2003 New York Times article which was written during the heat of the Iraq war.   The article describes the distress of a young corporal from Chicago, a gunner on an Abrams tank that had “Bush and Co.” stenciled on its gun barrel.   He was one of many idealistic, proud, even a little bit cocky, America soldiers fighting for his president and for the America way of life, and he stood well trained and ready to kill anyone or anything that got in the way.  But according to the article, all those dreams of “guts and glory” were tattered a bit by the fact that this “well-meaning” solider had killed two civilians by mistake.  Members of their families who were preparing the bodies for burial shouted at him, “Is this what you Americans call freedom?” 

The reported wrote that the young corporal’s face showed a “sadness that was beyond affection,” and he asked for a translator so that the could say something to the families.  “Tell them,” he said, “tell them the fact that I pulled the trigger that killed some of these people makes me very unhappy.  Tell them that America did not want things to happen this way.  Tell them that I wish Iraqis will live a better life.”  (From a New York Times article by John F. Burns, April 12, 2003  recalled by Fleming Rutledge in the Seven Last Words from the Cross, p. 65).

We can all appreciate and understand exactly what this young man said.  But no matter how good the words, they do not take away from the fact that even “unintended actions” have consequences---and even eternal ones.   Our actions, which are often destructive to ourselves, to others and to the “glory of God” are called by the Bible “sins” which cut short our lives and the very glory God has intended to be realized in our lives.   And what’s more, we also know that just as this soldier’s unintended actions had real and terrible consequences, so our sins too, both intended and unintended exact a cost for us and for others in this world. 

The Bible puts the core reality of our lives in a very direct, unmistakable way: “The soul that sins is the soul that shall die” (Ez. 18:20).    If nothing else gets our attention, this is the one reality should gain our fullest attention.  It is not just what sin does to Jesus on the cross, but it is what sin does to all of us that is revealed:  BECAUSE OF SIN….WE  DIE TOO.  Don’t think that any of us will get out of this world alive.  If nothing is done, if no action is taken, or unless there is some divine intervention, death is the ultimate fate awaiting every person.  “When you’re dead, you’re dead” is our final destiny, unless there is something God has accomplished on the cross.

Since the message of the cross is a matter of life and death, let’s understand how the cross of Jesus is believed to be an intervention on behalf of our sin and death destined lives.

Did you read the book or see the recent academy award winning movie, Atonement, by Ian McEwan which tells the story of a little sister who makes up a lie about her older sister’s boyfriend, whom she is jealous over.  The lie is so destructive that the boyfriend is charged with rape.   But finally, under pressure, the little sister finally tells the truth and her older sister and boyfriend are able to renew their relationship after a long time pain and separation.   But, unfortunately, as the story ends, you realize this is only a story that has been made up.   The younger sister is now and old woman, in the early stages of dementia and dying.   In reality the truth was never told and the boyfriend went to war and died in the battle at Dunkirk.   The older sister also died in the Blitz bombing of London.   The love they had for each other was forever lost because of the younger sister’s lie.  Now, the younger has rewritten the story to tell us the way things should have turned out, rather than how things actually happened.   She writes the truth for us, in hopes that by coming clean she can find some sort of “atonement”.  

That is a strange word, isn’t it, especially to our culture today?  Atonement refers to a way that is found to “make up” for misdeeds, sins or failures in a way that redeems or buys back life.   Is this something we can even grasp, with our lack moral seriousness or declining education in spiritual things?

My wife Teresa, recently told me of another movie talked about in her education class, entitled “From Homeless to Harvard,”  which displayed the importance education.  The story is about a young girl raised in a home where, because of mental illness and neglect, neither parent took time to teach her anything, even about the most basic lessons of how to change clothes and wash herself.   This young girl did not even know how to change her underwear, but would just wear them until they started feeling bad.  When she did try to take a bath, the bathtub was so filthy, black with grit that she had to use a pot she turned upside down upon herself.   It was so unbelievable that the girl, who eventually became homeless, practically grew up with a “blank slate” and knew practically nothing about anything normal.  But the miracle was, that somehow, she realized her deficiencies and self-taught her way into Harvard.  

The catch however was this: she had both the capacity and desire for knowledge.   Only when people “want” to know do they start to rise above their circumstances.     In the same way, we and our children will know nothing about God, about faith, about salvation, and about the cross, unless we teach them and unless they want to be taught.  

Without making any assumptions, what does the Bible teach us about the cross?   Can we even understand the cross when we’ve almost lost all understanding about what the Bible teaches about sin? In a ground-breaking work, (Sin: A History, Yale University Press), scholar Gary Anderson says that within the biblical story, sin is understood with three important images: First, sin is understood as a “stain” that needs to be removed, but can’t.  Secondly, sin is understood as a burden that is too be carried, but it gets to heavy.  Then, finally, and perhaps most dominate in the Bible is the image of sin as a “debt” that must be paid, but is impossible to pay back.   

When I think of sin as a “debt” that must be paid, I think of the historical sign I once saw on Highway 360 in Virginia on my way to work on my doctorate in Richmond.   The signs referred to the spot where a “debtor’s prison” once stood.  This was the place where they put people who got into trouble with their creditors, who pressed charges and had the “debtor” thrown into prison until their debt was paid.  The question I put to myself was this:  How does a person repay a debt when they are in prison and unable to work?   Of course, the answer is that that a person remains in prison until someone else raises the money and pays their debt, that is, somebody who thinks the person is worth it.

More than any other metaphor, the Bible says “debt” is what sin is and what does.   Sin creates a debt, a debt which requires payment and that most often results in a payment that is impossible for us to repay.    Think about what happens if no payment is made.   One of two things happens.  If the debt is owed only by one or a few people, then the debtors can be charged and then be held accountable and forced to repay the debt or punished?    But what happens when the debt is too big, or the debtors are too many?   Isn’t this exactly what has happened in our economy today?   Due to bad, irresponsible loans which don’t stand for real capital and due to irresponsible “hedged” investments standing for speculation rather than reality, the American and even the global economy has created for itself a debt which no government, bank, or any person can pay or is able to stand behind.   They tell us that overall, 40% of the world’s wealth has been lost.  What happens if the debt gets too big to pay back and the value of everything falls?  When I once asked my Father what is the standard that determines the value of money, of gold, of stocks and of bonds, my Dad gave me this ominous answer.  He said the true value is whatever someone is willing to pay for it?  If someone doesn’t guarantee the value, there is no value?   Value is only in the value someone is willing to pay.

Now, with this little economics lesson, we come back to the lesson of the cross.   What is the value of your life, my life, this world, even this world that can be so evil, sinful, broken and in need of losing all value,  unless someone stands behind the world to value it and pay off its every growing debt?  Unless there is a guarantor that stands behind life, what keeps life from becoming worthless?     

The value behind life depends on “who” will hold up it’s value?   At the cross, Jesus is declared to have spiritually entered God’s highest, holiest, most valuable place (Heb. 10:12), once and for all, and to have paid the great price for sin,  so that life’s value is redeemed from sin’s high, overwhelming costs.   Someone has rightly said that “the cross is the great “plus sign” which overcomes the and finally points us clearly to the positive value of everything based on the redeeming and reconciling love of God.  Even in the most negative moment imaginable, through the death his son, God forgives sin and God guarantees value to life which we can’t guarantee for ourselves.

If we have our spiritual eyes are open today, and if we really want to see, we can see perhaps more clearly than any illustration the Bible has ever given, that there is no sustaining value to life other than the value God gives.   Just as our money, our houses, our lands, and everything else we have loses all value when we lose honesty, integrity and a sense of reality,  our soul only retains its value when we ascribe worth to God and we claim his righteousness as necessary for our lives.    

Will God keep valuing this world as it is, and we as we are, or can the debt of sin become so great there is no value left because God becomes unwilling to guarantee it?   Do you think there can be point where even the great payment of the cross doesn’t have enough “capital” to stand behind the all the sin, greed, and evil of this world?   Can our world reach a point of no return, where there is nothing left to value?    I want to leave you today with two biblical images of our human options toward God’s divine accomplishment on the cross.  

The first image is from the Book of Hebrews which says we can “trample under foot” the blood of Jesus on the cross (10:29).   What the writer of Hebrews means is that if “after we have received the knowledge of the truth of what Jesus has done, and it no longer does nothing in us, then “there remains no more sacrifice for sins”  (10: 26).   The point is this: when we no longer understand the cross, no longer value the cross, then for us the cross has no more value for us and there is no more “Spirit of grace” coming to us in this world.  This is the fearful moment of “falling into the hands of the living God” without the atonement of the cross because there is nothing left but our sins calling for punishment and judgment. (Heb 10:26-31 KJV).  

In a world where the cross means nothing and where we see no value in what God has done to value us, just as the cross means nothing to us it has no real value and as the text says, there is “no more sacrifice for sins” and we are left with no other destiny than death in our sins.    For those whom the cross means nothing, it means nothing and nothing is gained and we have only our human destiny of death.

But the other image and option to us in understanding the cross is how Paul took the cross as the only “value” in his life.   Paul wrote at the close of letter to Galatians, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (6:14).  The cross means everything to Paul and it does everything for him.   He even writes a few lines later, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17).  By this Paul means that it is through Jesus sacrifice for him and his sacrifice for Jesus that his life regains its value.  And just as Paul bears in his body the marks of the Lord, it is by his “stripes that (he and) we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).   The cross is the way the value of life is bought back that we call redemption.
Do you remember that moving scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, where the dying Tom Hanks character—Captian John Miller is killed after his platoon has gone behind enemy lines to save Private Ryan, who is played by Matt Damon.   When Private Ryan approaches the dying Captain, the man who has sacrificed his life for him gives him these last words, “earn it!”    When the Captain says “earn it,” he doesn’t mean Private Ryan has to earn this salvation he’s given, because it is handed to him as a free gift.   But he is being challenged to live a life worthy of the sacrifice.   In the final moving scene Private Ryan falls down at the grave of the brave Captain who died giving him his life, and with tears, he declares he has tried to live a life worthy of the sacrifice.  

Let me ask you this final question.  How do you live a life worthy of his sacrifice?   Is your life a “trampling under foot” or is it a life that “bears the marks” of the Lord Jesus?   There no lasting glory or value in a world of sin and death, other than the hope given to us through the saving work of Jesus on the cross.  It’s all or nothing.   The cross is the great irony you simply can’t take for granted.  Either the cross is the greatest offense or it is the most compelling truth.  Either the cross gives your life back its value, or your life has no lasting value at all.  There no in between.  The cross that cost him everything must also mean everything to you or it will mean nothing to you.  And when the cross means nothing, it brings nothing and our lives remain nothing, because ‘nothing plus nothing is nothing.’  But when the cross means everything to us, the Father who stood beside his son in his death will stand behind our lives in our living and dying, and he will guarantee the value of our life with the gift of eternal life as we value the life and the death of his son who is our only true savior.  Amen. 

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Seven Last Words: “Dying for a Drink”

(A sermon on the Fifth-Last Word from the Cross)
John 4: 5-14; 19: 28-29; 
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 21, 2010

Humans are naturally hungry and thirsty for life. 

Who hasn’t heard a baby’s cry for food or a dying person’s last request for water?   Each and every day and several times a day, our own physical bodies are in need of nourishment, for replenishing and rehydration.  One of those times is coming up fast, so I’ve got to get to the point.

Our emotional psyches and spiritual souls are just as hungry and thirsty as our bodies.   Souls need replenishing and nourishment too.   If we don’t feed our spirits or quench the deepest thirst of our souls another kind of problem develops.  We begin to compensate. 

Often we compensate for our soul-needs by over-feeding or abusing our bodies.   This is when a person mistakes eating and drinking to live with living to eat or living to drink.   Any kind of food, drink, or other substance or even a “life” activity can become addictive and thereby, destructive.   Instead of bringing us life, this “over” feeding of bodies and addictive behavior that starves our souls, can bring death.  Our society is discovering this the hard way—that living only for whatever we want whenever we want it, leads to destructive behavior.

To avoid self-destruction, humans must learn balance and moderation.  But the most important and also most neglected form of ‘nourishment’ education is learning about the right “priority” we should have in life, not only the right diet.  All experts of human addiction, which includes addictions to both good and bad substances, will affirm that the problem behind addiction is not the substance itself, but it is a greater, unresolved spiritual thirst residing in the soul.
So, now, as we come to this fifth, last word from the cross, “I Thirst!” we must confront and consider this great thirst of the human soul.   Because, at the cross, we not only encounter Jesus’ physical thirst, but we will have to confront our own spiritual need.   And, if we will listen closely, we might discover what we are really thirsty for and we will also encounter God and his tremendous thirst for us.

On the cross Jesus is dying and he cries out for a drink, but this is not the ordinary cry of a dying man.   Jesus was more alive when he was dying than most of us will ever be in our living.  This cry of Jesus was not only a cry of a man dying for a drink of water, but this is a man who died showing us what we are really thirsty for.  

This cry of “thirst” for water from Jesus is an intentional quote from Scripture.    Do you see how the text reads in verse 28? “He said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty."   This is not an exact quote from Scripture, but it a reference to the negative experience of the Psalmist, who in his thirst had his own “tongue cleaved to his jaws” as he was “brought to the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15).  Instead of receiving the water of life, both Jesus and the Psalmist were given sour “vinegar” (69:21) to drink.  

You can’t miss the spiritual reference that Jesus is making.   This request for water is not only a physical request.  If you read Psalm 69 you will notice that the Psalmist who has a “parched throat” (69:3) is also the one who is up to his neck in “deep waters” with “floods” sweeping over him (69:2).  This is anything but a mere description of physical thirst.   Jesus is revealing his obvious thirst for water to reveal to us his thirst for life and thirst for God.   What Jesus is most thirsty for as a dying human being, we all have a thirst for; but the real question is this: “how” will this spiritual thirst be quenched? 

It was in my first pastorate, that, as a pastor, I attempted to help my first alcoholic.   I had been to college and had studied quite a bit of psychology, but it was not enough for me to know what I was doing at that time.  

When the man started attending our church, I went to visit him and he told me he was trying to recover from an alcohol problem.   I took him at his word.  This was my first mistake in dealing with alcoholism and alcoholics; you should never trust what an alcoholic tells you.  I realized this when the guy told he wasn’t drinking any more, but later I discovered that he was.   He was trying to fool me, his AA buddies, and even God.   He was so thirsty he learned how to realize he had a problem, but he had no ability to resist, and he developed a great ability to lie.   Even though he was a good, gentle, loving man, he continued to lie to try to cover up his constant, undying need for a drink. 

One day, after he had missed a couple of Sundays, I went to visit him at his home.  During our conversation, I discovered that not only had he stopped coming to church, he had also stopped his AA meetings.   What he hadn’t stopped was his drinking.   When I asked him about that, he was embarrassed and humbly asked for my help.   I wanted him to show me that he really wanted my help, so I asked where he was hiding his alcohol.   He was willing to show, at least some of it to me, and upon finding it, I proceeded to pour it all down the sink.  I’ll never forget the desperate look in his eye as I poured out the last drop.   I couldn’t tell if he wanted to thank me or kill me, but I thought I was doing him a great favor by getting rid of his drink.   Maybe I was and maybe I wasn’t.

What I later realized I wasn’t doing was helping him deal with his undying thirst.   For this was his real problem.   He had attempted on his own to get rid of his drink, but the thirst kept coming back.   Then he came to me and the church, and what did I do, but the same thing he had done---tried to reinforce his sobriety?   This was good, but it wasn’t enough.  I was only addressing the drink and wasn’t addressing the unrelenting spiritual thirst in his soul.   

You don’t have to be an alcoholic to know that life can make you thirsty.   For all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways, life can give you an almost unquenchable thirst for something more.  

The way to quench this unending thirst is much less a question of  what you shouldn’t drink, but it much more about finding the right drink and from drinking from the right cup.  Like that alcoholic, we will never control ourselves or our destiny, if our only approach is learning what we must stop doing, even when it is killing us. 

You and I know people who will drink, smoke, eat themselves to death and they do this even when they know it is killing them.   They keep doing this because they’d rather be dead than thirsty or hungry.   The pain of thirst or hunger is so great and painful in their souls and their ability to quench it in other, healthier ways is so limited, that they have to cover it up or keep themselves numb to it.   This is why they attach themselves to some addictive, numbing, denying or even destructive behavior.    Because we don’t know how to ask for the right drink, we will go after whatever we can get that will cover up our unquenchable thirst.   The problem is that, while this substitute behavior may cover up our deep thirst, it never really quenches it.  In order to quench the greatest thirst we have, we must discover the cup of life we should be drinking from.  Only by this discovery, will we quench the thirst of our souls and learn how we should feed our bodies.

What is taking place on the cross is directly related to something that happened in Jesus’ ministry with the woman at the well in the gospel of John (4: 4-14).    As we hear Jesus ask for water on the cross, it echoes what Jesus said earlier, when he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from a well.   You already know, even before the story starts, that Jesus is not really trying to get a drink of water, but Jesus wants to give this woman ‘living’ water.   He wants to quench the thirst of her soul.  This other story is a strong clue for understanding Jesus’ fifth word from the cross.  

Do you remember how that conversation went?   Jesus goes up to a woman and asks her to give him something to drink.   Jesus knows what he is doing, but the woman does not yet realize it.  She reminds Jesus that he a Jew, should not be asking her, a lowly Samaritan for a drink.  But the Savior of the whole world would have been in greater trouble if he hadn’t approached this woman and broke this stupid law.    For you see, Jesus is not only reaching out to save her, but he is trying to save the whole Jewish understanding of Messiah as salvation.  

During their conversation, Jesus wants the woman to “ask him for a drink.”   “If you only knew who was asking you for a drink, you’d ask him for living water….” (John 4.10)?   Now, in these words, we can see fully who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in the world.  Jesus has come to give this woman, and every woman, every man, every girl and every boy, the living water of life.   He has come to quench the raging spiritual thirst of every human being and to pour out himself as the solution to our unending need and desire for God. 

But the question Jesus put to the woman, is the question that must be put to us, especially right here as we confront the cross:   Do you know how to ask for the spiritual drink you really need?   Do you know how to ask for living water for your soul?   Like this woman, many people can even have Jesus and his spiritual presence right in front of them, and they know he is the one who has in his hand everything they need or desire, but they still don’t know how to ask him for a drink.   Do you know how to ask Jesus for a drink?   

I knew a lady, who was very much like the woman at the well, but in some very unsuspecting ways.   She was very much a church person, even calling herself a Christian, her Father had been a pastor (who I knew well) but she had some unrealized and unmet needs in her life, which finally came out in some very tragic and even destructive ways.

When her new pastor came, she went to him as a leader of one church’s ministries, asking if there was anything he, as the new pastor wanted her to do.   From his standpoint, it looked like she was doing a good job and I told her to go out there and keep doing the good she had been doing.   This was not what she wanted to hear or needed to hear.   Her last pastor was very much a different personality than the new one.   Her former pastor had a need to control everyone and everything.   She had the great need to be controlled and her security was found in being told, especially by him and other men, what she should do.   Her new pastor didn’t know how to order women or people around like that.   So, in this way, he did not meet the unrealistic need that she had, and she came to believe that this new pastor should not be her  pastor.

But the real problem came when, instead of leaving the church to find the kind of pastor she needed, or instead of admitting her need to the pastor so he could address it, she wanted a different pastor, so she proceeded to use her tongue to destroy this new pastor.   She started protesting his messages and taking advantage of his weaknesses. In one opportune moment, she decided it was time to make a major strike.  She was with the Senior Adults on a trip and the bus broke down.   She called the pastor and told him they needed a replacement bus to pick them up.   The pastor called the associate pastor, who had been the community much longer, to inquire about a bus.   The associate pastor told the pastor that he would be glad to take another bus and drive them home.  So the pastor called another church to get the bus and the associate when to pick them up.   It all worked out wonderfully. 

But when the lady got home, because of her unmet need, she felt again that the pastor did not care for her and she got on the email and told church members how the pastor did not care for the senior adults either and would not come and get them.  Fortunately, most everyone saw through her story, because they already knew some of her manipulative ways.   But the whole episode still did personal damage to new pastor and to the church, especially to people who heard rumors did not know how to take them.  Eventually, the woman left the church, because she was wasn’t taken seriously.  But within a month or so of leaving, her husband, who didn’t want to leave, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.   All because of her unmet need and her self-destructive behavior, she had hurt the church, the new pastor and now, her husband was left to die without his church.    

What I want you to see in this story is how dangerous it is when people have hungers and thirsts in their souls and they don’t know ask for the drink they really need.   One of two things always happens when we who don’t how to get what we need in our soul.   We will either turn inwardly to address the thirst with some self-destructive or addictive behavior, or we will turn outwardly, lashing out and becoming destructive toward others, choosing to hurt them so we don’t have to hurt alone.  This is the way many will wrongly address the hunger and thirst of their soul, but there is another, better redeeming way.

How can we learn to drink from the kind of living water that will quench the deepest thirst of our own souls?   How can this thirsty Jesus dying on the cross, teach us what this water is and how we should drink it?   What can a dying man teach us about living?  

Maybe, he can teach us everything.  Maybe he can teach us how drink from living water by teaching us to drink from the right cup.  

Jesus was all the time speaking about the “cup.”  Don’t you remember about “the cup”?   Especially when Jesus came closer and closer to his death, he started talking about the “cup” he had to drink.   Once when Simon Peter pulled out his sword and attempted to save Jesus from those arresting him, Jesus turns to Peter and says, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"  (John 18:11).  Jesus even prayed not to have to drink this “cup” (“Father, if it be possible let this cup pass” Mark 14: 36), because the living water we must drink is sometimes like having to take your medicine, it does great good, but it even good medicine can also kill you (it has to at least kill the bad bacteria or bad cells). 

Jesus had a “cup” to drink from and it was a life-giving cup to all who would drink with him from his cup.  But for Jesus, giving us the cup of life meant death, but for us it means life.   Strange sort of talk, I know, but maybe if you’ll get it, if you’ll open your heart, and feel your deepest thirst that has parched your own soul.   For strangely enough, people who try so hard to “live it up” often kill themselves doing it, and people who try to kill themselves by denying themselves and serving others, often are the ones who find the very elixir of life that eludes everyone else.   

 What Jesus did, in his most masterful way, it make sure, that when he had to take the cup, he did not take the cup alone.  Do you recall what Jesus did right before he went to the cross when he was in the upper room?   The Scripture says, “
 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.  24 He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."  (Mark 14:23-25)  
What Jesus did, before he went to the cross and died so thirsty, not just thirsty for water, but thirsty for God and thirsty for us, that he made sure that he would not be drinking alone.   This is one of the worst things any of us can do, the experts say, is to start drinking alone.   It is only when we take the cup together, with Jesus, and with each other, that we can find the living water we all need.   This is what communion is about.  This is what church is about.   This is what living water is.   This is the right cup we all need to drink from.   We need to drink the cup of life and living together, and never to try to drink alone.   It is the most dangerous thing we could ever try to do, is try to get through this world, this life, without God and without each other.

In that same church, where I failed miserably to understand the undying thirst of an alcoholic, I also came to have one of my greatest moments of ministry.   During my pastoral visits I came across a man who had been crippled for life and lived with his mother.  Mr. Halley was a gentle man and he had a true faith in God, but he was, as they say, “having to go it alone”, and in a spiritual way, having to drink alone.  Mr. Halley could hardly walk, and if he did he stumbled and fell over his own feet.   He felt he was too much a burden to come to church. 

When I suggested that I would leave Sunday School and come to him up for worship, Mr. Halley felt it was too much trouble.    Both he and his mother agreed that it was just “too much” for him to bear, besides it would not be easy for me or the church either.   But I was a young preacher and I insisted and I kept insisting, until one day, Mr.  Halley, the crippled man, who’d been handicapped since birth, finally came to church.  

I’ll never forget the fear on his face and his resistance as together we climbed the 10 or so steps to enter the sanctuary.  Mr. Halley stumbled almost every step.  It was an effort for him and it was an effort for me.   But when we drank the cup together and when, even the congregation drank the cup of helping him, it was amazing the drink of life we were all receiving, because as we saw the joy on his face, it brought joy, hope and inspiration to us all.    

How do you drink from the cup of life?  When the living water is Jesus and God’s love for us, it really doesn’t matter which cup we drink from, as long as we are drinking from the cup of life together.   The very salvation and redemption we all desperately need, never comes when we drink alone, but it only comes when we take the cup of life together with Jesus and with God’s people—his body, the churches of Jesus Christ.  

Jesus’ own thirst on the cross is exposed to show us, what we are most thirsty for.   We are people who are thirsty for life, but it is a life that is lived for God and with others.    We must take the cup together and never try to drink alone.   We must be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with---in his living and dying.    Because the only way Jesus could quench his own great thirst was to love and forgive us, even when it killed him.  And it when it did kill him, it was then, through his sacrificial death, that he quenched his greatest thirst---his thirst God and his thirst for us.   Will you drink the cup with him and quench your soul’s greatest thirst?  I hope so, or you’ll compensate with a substitute and it will not satisfy nor give you eternal life.   Amen.         

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Seven Last Words: “Living the Question”

A Sermon on The Fourth Last Word from the Cross:
Matthew 27: 39-50
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
The Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 14, 2010

As a child, sitting still and listening to a sermon was one of the most difficult and demanding things I had to do to obey my parents.   It might be one of the reasons I became a preacher, so I could talk and you do the listening.  But of course you don’t have to listen.  And with the spring finally in the air, I can understand when the world outside is more inviting than the words on the inside.

When you think about it, a sermon is a very peculiar thing.   It is normally about 20 minutes of listening to something that is often unpleasant to listen to and then, after the sermon is over you are supposed to feel better.  I know for a fact that shorter sermons make us feel better than longer ones.   

And what do you say to a preacher after the sermon is over?    The preacher preaches about having hope in hard times, getting through pain and suffering, caring for people you don’t care about, or bearing our cross like Jesus had to carry his.  You don’t exactly enjoy this kind of talk and it is very awkward, when you think about to tell the preacher you did.   Listening to a sermon is certainly not as nice as an afternoon stroll and definitely not as good as ice cream, but for some strange reason, at least sometimes, it might be what you needed even when it isn’t what you wanted.  What a strange and even risky form of communication?    

A story is told about a preacher who was on program at convention meeting to preach for twenty minutes. The other preachers from the district were sitting behind him in the choir section, giving him moral support, throwing in an occasional "Amen" to help him along. The preacher preached his twenty minutes and continued, despite the time limited allotted. 

He preached for 30 minutes, then forty minutes and then for an hour. He even continued for an hour and ten minutes.   Finally, a brother sitting on the front row took a song book and threw it at the long-winded preacher, still going strong with his sermon.  The preacher saw the song book as it was hurled his way and he ducked, something like President Bush did when that shoe was thrown at him.  But the flying song book hit a man sitting in the choir section.  As the man was going down, you could hear him say, "Hit me again, I can still hear him!   Somebody please hit me again!"   (From the Website: ).  

This Fourth word from the cross can also be a word that hits us hard, not in the head but in the heart.   As this “cry of dereliction” comes straight at us, we too might feel the need to duck, to want the preacher to stop; to tune out or turn away in repulsion.   Who wants to hear anyone, let alone Jesus, scream out these words: “My God, My God, Why have your forsaken me?”  

If Jesus was forsaken, what hope is there for us?   We too can react to such a word at the cross very much like those who were around his cross, being filled with so much anxiety and nervousness about this moment, we can’t help but mock the man who has brought this agony upon himself and makes us keep looking at it.       

But, knowing how demanding this sermon might be, especially if you come to this sanctuary hurting and to find sanctuary, let me give you this word of encouragement, even before I ask you to look straight into this very human and even divine darkness.   By facing the pain of Jesus’ words head on, though very demanding and difficult upon our psyche, “this is the saying of the cross to have, if you have only one.” (Fleming Rutledge).   Even though this is the cross “that causes us to tremble”, as the spiritual says, it is also the saying that probes the deepest depth, to build the firmest foundation of our faith where we find the greatest comfort.      

But first we have to look straight into this darkness.   And because we are far removed from the event of Jesus’ cross and so used to hearing of it, let me ask you to look into a darkness and dread you might not be used to.   Let me ask you to look straight into the most dreadful, awful, and painful thought or reality you could imagine.   This is not easy to do, especially at church where we normally come to hear a word of hope. 

Will Willimon (Thank God It’s Friday, p. 39) has said his own church doesn’t do very well dealing with the dark anymore.   With tongue in cheek but also with utmost seriousness, he says it all started long ago when they put Bonanza on Sunday night and his church stopped going to night services.  Since that day, in his church and in many other churches, many have moved out of the dark, and even Sunday morning doesn’t face the darkness as much, because it has become a place we must entertain people, rather than entertain in our minds the difficult, dark side of life which demands reverence, stillness and attention.   We prefer a happy church, with happy people, with upbeat music, and upbeat messages, instead of a real church, where we face life from all sides.  

I heard one very popular T.V. preacher recently preach a sermon and said: “If you have God you should have joy in your heart, and you should then notify your face.”  That wasn’t so bad, but then he added words that made me cringe: “God’s people should always be happy people.”

Maybe the preacher didn’t mean to sound like he did and maybe he had a good, expensive counseling service for all those people who’d come in wondering why they didn’t feel that way all the tiime.   But when I heard this, I wondered what that happy, smiling, very “plastic looking and sounding preacher would tell Jesus on the cross!  Could he even mention the cross on his national T.V. show and keep his big crowds coming?  

Getting back to the other preacher, Will Willimon tells of a woman who told him once, “I’m at a happy church, unfortunately.
“A happy church?”
“Yep!  Everything is so happy and upbeat.   The preacher jumps up on stage at the beginning of the service, just grinning and giggling.   It looks like he might be on drugs or something because he so unbearably and insufferably happy.   Every other word from him is “awesome!”   “Wasn’t that an awesome song?”  “Isn’t our praise band just awesome?”  The whole worship service, even the sermon is just so upbeat and giddy.  
Then she said:  “You know preacher, it’s a strange kind of living “Hell” to be going through a tough time in your life and be forced to worship in such a “happy” church.  Don’t they realize that somebody here might be dying with cancer?  Don’t they ever stop to think that somebody’s marriage might be falling apart or some parent is dealing with a difficult child?   

There is something wrong with the church or the Christian who avoids seeing the dark side of life.  Especially when have a “happy” life and attend a “happy” church there are good reasons to stop and look at the “real” cross, not just the one that we’ve decorated.  There can even be an emotional and spiritual reward in looking straight into our greatest fears which we all hope will never come.     

So, today, first of all, I want to ask you again not to duck, but sit up and dare to look directly into the worst thing you could ever imagine.   You can’t really see the cross Jesus died upon until you look at the hill you might die on or you until you dare to peer into your pain or the pain of others and worship a while in the dark.  If you are a parent, it might be the sickness, or the accidental death of your child that you can’t make yourself imagine.   If you are married, it might be the death of your marriage, or worse the death and suffering of your spouse.  It could be that this very day, right here and now, you are carrying a dreaded fear with you---a very real, tragedy, a sickness, a hurt, and a hidden pain, and carrying this “fear” around with you, you are looking around for something else, but you can’t see much of anything else.

Though we all have mental pictures of our own worse fears, we may not want or be able to face them.   But this is exactly what this Fourth saying from the cross asks us to try to do---to face the deepest feeling of dread and hurt Jesus felt on the cross so we can also face our own worse fears--our fears for others and our fear for ourselves.   What we need also to consider, is that by facing the worse, even by facing this cross that hurts Jesus so deeply and so much, this very painful, dark, and fearful cross, is also the very same cross that can save.  This cross which Jesus died upon and felt forsaken from, is the same cross that saves us from both the worst fears we have every imagined, and even from the realities we haven’t.    

When we watched as the Two Towers fell in New York City on 9-11, the feeling most of us confronted was shock and disbelief:  “I just can’t believe this is happening”, I felt myself and heard expressed from so many.   It was that same kind of feeling I had when at 17 I was seriously injured in a car accident which nearly took my left foot.   I remember my first thought in that moment was, “I can’t believe this is happening to me!”   The next feeling that came to me and comes to most of us after “shock and disbelief” is this question being raise up by Jesus on the cross:  “My God, Why?”   This is living question that has no living answer, or at least no answer we can fully understand in this life.  Why is this happening to me?  Now that I know it is true, I could manage it better if I only knew why?   Why God?   

This question which Jesus asked is the kind of living question that was asked before the cross and it has been asked since.  In fact, what Jesus is doing here is not only expressing his deepest emotion and feeling in this moment, but he is also quoting Scripture.   The Psalmist, whether he was David or someone else also felt what Jesus felt.   And the guarantee from the cross is that we, sometime or other will feel it to.

What did Jesus feel on the cross?  Why was he quoting this Scripture from Psalm 22?  Perhaps Jesus had memorized it as a child in his prayers or at the Synagogue, and like many of us do in life, we have no idea what these sacred texts might mean.  Maybe when Jesus memorized this Scripture he had no idea, that when the time came and where he wanted so much to be the light of the world, that he too would have endure such extreme hours of darkness.   But there this Scripture was, there in his heart and mind when he needed it most to express exactly how he felt, not only in the good, but also in the bad and the ugly:  “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”   

To hear Jesus say these words, brings both fear and comfort.   If Jesus felt this way, so might we also feel this way.  Life can seem unfair.  Even the innocent suffer.   Bad things happen to good people and there is no “living answer” to why.  We have to learn to live the question without the answer.   Though we’d like to have everything nice and tidy in our minds and in our morals, claiming that there must be “cause and effect” and a reason for everything, here, at the cross we can clearly see that there is pain for which there is no understandable reason.  

While we might know that Jesus is suffering because of our sins, or because of the corrupt religion of his own people, or that he suffers because he was called to suffer, what we can never answer, is why he had to suffer in this most awful, despicable, destestible way, on the cross and why he had to feel that God abandoned him?    What do you see when you look straight into the cross?   Do you see how bad it was for God is to make his son suffer for us in this way, or do you see how bad humans can be?  And if we are this bad, why did God make us in this way in the first place?  Why did he make us so breakable?   Is there some rhyme or reason for what it takes to have life and to have love?  Why did this have to happen to Jesus  and why do bad things have to happen to us?   When heaven is in our future, why couldn’t we have a little more of it now, on earth as it is in heaven?   We pray with Jesus on this, but this does not begin to answer the “why”.   Why cannot be answered and will never be completely answered in our living.   Some things, and perhaps the greatest things, even life itself, can never be answered in our living, but will only begin to be answered in our dying.  

We all know this, but it needs to be said, so we will take nothing for granted.  The most revealing, important moment in Jesus’ life is not when he lived, but when he died.   Why is the cross right at the center of our faith?  Why not the stone that was rolled away?  Why not the dove that came down out of the sky and made Jesus feel special?  Why not the staff of his strength and promise to be our shepherd?  How does the cross get to be the central focus how we can we saved from what we come to know and experience in life, and also, how can the cross also save us from what we don’t know and can never know in this world?

If there was ever a time since Jesus that any person or people felt like the were being abandoned by God, it was the Jews during the horror of the Holocaust.   Eli Wiesel writes about one of the most horrible moments he observed, which still stands as the symbol of the worse thing that could ever happen.   A young boy was being hung by the Nazis on the gallows and he was struggling and not dying quickly.   The struggle against death went on and on and never seemed to stop.  The boy was fighting in every way against this unjust dying.  

Finally, after watching the boy struggle, someone can’t stand what they are seeing and cries out:  “Where is God, Where is God?”    After a few  moments of silence, and the boy gives up his life, an attempt at an answer finally comes.
            “There is God!   There is God, dead on the gallows.”  (As Remembered from Eli Wiesel's "The Night).

The apostle Paul says that and even greater mystery than Jesus dying on the cross, is the mystery that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.”    It is not God demanding justice through his son, or righteousness through his son, it is God surrendering himself, his own rightness, so that he can love the world that is broken with sin.    It is not justice that is on the cross, but it is love.   It is God who empties himself of his high and mightiness, without losing his holiness, and this is what makes us know, that no matter what we’ve done, or haven’t done, what the world has done to us, or what life hasn’t done for us,  that no matter how we might feel when darkness comes upon us, or great pain, even the great darkness of our own suffering and death,  because God is there, in Christ, on the cross, not abandoning Jesus, but being in and so close to Jesus, that even Jesus can’t detect his presence, this is the moment that God promises to us, that what his son feels, we never have to experience.  

The answer to our pain and our darkness is not an answer but a presence---a loving, forgiving presence that promises never to leave nor forsake us.   It is no accident, that one of the most moving and endearing popular poems in our time, our own time of brokenness is the poem entitled “Footprints”.    In that poem, a person who always walked with God and was used to seeing two sets of Footprints in the sand, complains to God because they look into the worse moments of their lives and see only one set of foot prints in the sand during those terrible moments.    Most of you know how the poem ends, with God saying to the perplexed person; when you only see one set of footprints, that is not when I abandoned you, but that is when I carried you.

Whether or not you are able to look into the worst thing that could ever happen to you, it is the cross that not only startles us into reality, it is also the place where we discover God’s loving promise.   Jesus felt everything in his own dying and death, and it is most important to know that he felt the worst thing, we don’t have to feel.   We never have to wonder whether or not God will abandon us.    Even when Jesus felt this way, he was still calling out to God.  He couldn’t help himself, for he and the Father were one.    If we will trust what God was doing through Jesus on the cross, we don’t have to understand it all, we don’t have to explain it all, all we have to do is trust him.   “Jesus has redeemed us from the curse,” because, as the Scripture says, “because he was made a curse for us.”  This is all we have to know.   And because we now know that nothing separates us from the love of God,  we still might experience the pain of life and death, we might even experience pain because we are innocent, not because we are guilty, but even then, we now know that “those who love God” and “are loved by God”, will never be put to shame nor ever, ever abandoned or forsaken.   He will be there with us, even when we don’t even feel it or see it and find ourselves living the question.  We can trust him, even without all the answers, because now, through the cross, we know God in the only way we need to know him.   Our God is only the God of Heaven and Earth, but as the great creed of the Church declares, in the cross Jesus has descended into Hell and God was still with him, even when he felt abandoned.  And if God can go there, God he can be anywhere.   This God  who did not spare his son going through this Hell, has come to save us from the worse Hell we can imagine.  God goes there too, will he will be there with us and for us, to do for us, what we can never do for ourselves.  Amen.      

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.         

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Seven Last Words: A “New” Focus on the Family

A sermon based upon John 19: 16b-27
The Third Last Word from the Cross
Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.
The Third Sunday in Lent, March 7th, 2010

Not a few Christians were stirred up a couple of years ago when the book “The DaVinci Code” came out.    The major controversy was its suggestion that the Catholic Church has been covering up the truth that Jesus was a married man and had a family and that the royal families of Europe are descents of Jesus.     

Several years ago, another controversial book (1960) and eventually a movie (1988) was made called the “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  The book stirred quite a controversy and was put on several “banned book” lists, because, though it maintained Jesus was free for sin, the author Nikos Kazantzakis, depicted Jesus being subject to every temptation we humans are, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, sexual desire and, perhaps greatest and last temptation, to avoid the cross, settle down and raise a family like the rest of us.   Kazantzakis argues in the book that  Jesus struggled to do God’s will,  but never gave in to any normal temptation of the flesh.

So, what’s the big deal?    What if Jesus had avoided or survived the cross and then settled down to raise a family like most of us do in life?  Since it is the priority of most of lives to grow up and raise a family, what would be wrong to have “Jesus” as a model husband or an earthy “dad”?   Is this really so bad?  Sometimes, even those of us believe in the Jesus of the Bible miss the Jesus of the Bible by making him out to be just another pro-family advocate.

For example, look at today’s third word from the cross where Jesus speaks directly to his mother and to John, the disciple who he loved.   While he is dying, a sight that must have been unbearable for any mother, Jesus’ first word to her is not a comforting, personal, last word to his dear mother, his, but a charge to a new future:“Woman, here is your Son…..” 

On one hand, reminding you mother you aren’t her son anymore is in no way to be respectful to your mother when you are dying, is it?   But if, you listen more deeply, to what John is telling us about Jesus, you will see that when it comes to “family” Jesus has a completely different agenda than we have.  Jesus was in no way anti-family, and most of what Jesus teaches us can be used to strengthen our own families, but to make Jesus a good, normal family man is nowhere close to what gospels tell us about Jesus.  

Jesus has done this before.  He does not always give us “family friendly” words in this strange gospel of ours.   When Mary came to Jesus telling him that the wedding has run out of wine, Jesus turns to her and speaks what seems to be very scolding words to her, “Woman, my time has not yet come!”  On another occasion, when Jesus was teaching God’s truth to the people, his family came to take him home, perhaps for his own protection.   Jesus responded to his family even more harshly in words that said, “You aren’t my family any more.  My family is only those who do the will of God.”  It sounds very cruel and even a little childish, don’t you think?   And who can forget Jesus’ response, when as a 12 year old, he remained behind in the big city and his terrorized his parents with the dire thought that he was lost.   When his mother rightly reprimanded him for what he had just put them through, Jesus answered, “Don’t you know I must be about my Father’s business.”  Again, is this any way to talk back to your frightened mother?  If our children follow Jesus, it is dangerous enough, but using these texts for making Jesus a model son does not work, does it?     

But there’s one more text I need to address before we back this third word from the cross.  The most non-family friendly words of Jesus were not spoken directly to his family, but to those of us who would be Jesus followers ourselves.  “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple (Luk 14:26 KJV).  You can’t get around how inappropriate this language is for building what we normally think of as “family values.”   Reading what we want to read into the Bible can be misleading.  It’s like the joke about the “uninformed” driver who, who asked the mechanic for some “710” for her car.  When the mechanic looked confused, she pointed down to the upside-down cap in front of them.  As the mechanic focused his eyes, he realized the writing was upside down and OIL can be read 710.   (From:

The gospel of Jesus is written to make sure we don’t take anything for granted, especially here, at the cross.   These gospels are written by “evangelists” not family experts.  I’m sad to say that a lot of preachers today feel pressure to preach more like family experts than gospel experts.  But John’s gospel agenda is to preach Jesus and what he does on the cross.   No matter how hard we try to read Jesus into our family matters, Jesus did not come to be a normal, family guy.   Jesus had an agenda to save us, not just renew our family.  And Jesus does not save us in our family by getting us to focus on our family, but Jesus saves us and our families by giving us a new focus.  

Most of us work very hard to hold our family together, but this does not have a saving effect we wish.  If we are not careful, in our world to save family, we can end up losing them and ourselves in the process.   As we idolizing our children or our families, we forget that when we idolize anything, it becomes destructive instead of redemptive.   Instead of coming to help us hold our families together on human terms, Jesus says he came even to break families apart, and ironically, that is exactly how Jesus intends to put our families back together.  

Jesus came to put us back together not on the terms of “flesh and blood”, but on spiritual terms.  This is exactly the agenda Jesus has on the cross.   He is not simply asking John to care for his mother, but Jesus is creating God’s “new: family focus” and he makes Mary his mother the “mother” of God’s new family, which is the church.   This is why Jesus addresses her as “woman” and as John’s mother.   In this wonderful act of grace, Jesus acts to save his mother by placing her in God’s new family, where God’s new family has future potential and limitless possibilities.  When your earthly family dies or fails you, God’s family is more than a new family “fill in” for those you have loved, but finding love and family in God’s new family has the power to both redeem us, our family, and make both friends and strangers part of the promise of God’s presence in our lives, to be with us always, even to the end, no matter what we face         

In order to get a better handle on what this might mean for us, we can imagine why this moment at the cross was not the first “Mother’s Day.”   Unfortunately, in our churches, we sometimes do a better job as promoting our own “saving our family” agenda, than being adopted God’s family, or letting God adopt us.   Like you I grew up celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and I have done this for many years for very good reasons.   But let me tell you about a strange feeling I had once while our church in Greensboro was once celebrating Mother’s day a few years ago.  

We were giving roses to all mothers present, not just the oldest, the youngest, or the one with the most children.  We already realized that this could cause all kinds of misunderstandings, like promoting big families or young mothers, so we decided to give a single rose to every mother.  It was my idea.   Then, as we handed out the roses, and as we did I looked out an saw a woman who couldn’t be a mother because of infertility problems.   I looked out again and saw another woman who had a very bad mother struggling with her loss while we celebrated.   Finally, I saw mothers struggling because they were estranged from some of their children.   In that moment, when I was supposed to be celebrating, I couldn’t.  It kind of felt like eating a piece of candy in front of a child and not able to offer them any.  

I know we could say these hurting people who attend our church and struggle with our celebrations of family should stay home, or need to grow up and face their pain and not make the rest of us suffer for their losses.    There is, of course, some truth to this.  But something in me, deeply spiritual and deeply like Jesus, made me feel what I was doing in that moment is was less than what I needed to be doing.   Celebrating my joy of family at the expense of someone else’s loss of family, was not what it needed to be unless I offered them hope.  

It was on Mother’s Day that I realized why Mother’s Day is not in the Bible, nor was it Jesus’ agenda at the cross.   Jesus didn’t come just to be nice to his mother, but came to save his mother.   Jesus doesn’t just want to save those of us who have good families, but Jesus wants to save all of us, those of us with functional or dysfunctional families, and Jesus wants to save us by giving us a “family agenda” even greater than our own biological family.  

I’m not saying that we should stop celebrating Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in our churches, nor we that we should stop promoting family agendas.   I am suggesting, however, that we must remember that the agenda of the church is to both being family by heal each other’s hurts not just claiming or holding on to our personal hopes.   By calling us to a new family focus, expanding and transforming our family, and by even making “strangers” or “disciples” and also “others” our new family in Jesus Christ, Jesus calls us to the gospel that is the only way save our family.  And we don’t save family by holding on obsessively to them, but by letting each other go with roots and wings.   We don’t save our families by playing it safe together, but by taking risks and giving ourselves to something larger than ourselves, and we don’t save our families by just protecting or maintaining them as they are, or forcing them into what we want them to be, but we save ourselves and our family by becoming disciples of Jesus together and giving ourselves to Jesus’ mission for the world.   

This call to save family by giving ourselves to God’s family goes beyond the worn slogan, “The family that prays together, stays together,” and discovers that our family prayers and family altar is what leads us to open our hearts to serve Jesus together and to serve others in Jesus’ name.   Only when we join our family to God’s family, do we live as a people who, no matter what life brings, never run out of faith, never run out of hope, never run out of love and or course, never run out of family in our living and dying.  

In our society, the breakdown of the home and the family unit is one reason it’s getting harder to get people into our own small “family” churches.   They can’t celebrate what we have, because they don’t have what we have.   In order to be church in this kind of fractured, hurting, and broken world, we must be willing to move beyond celebrating what we have and move toward sharing what we have.  If we want to do God’s saving work and be God’s saving work in this world, we’ve got to join our agenda of family with God’s agenda for family.   Only when Mary lets puts her into arms of God’s new family, can she find God’s arms reaching beyond the loneliness and emptiness of the hurt of life.   

The other thing we see here, at the cross, is that Jesus came not just to make church a family, but he came to make our family a church, which is much more than getting our family into the church, but it is how God gets his “church” into our family.   Let me explain what this means with a story of a family in trouble who once came looking for help from God.  

When I was a pastor in Greensboro, a deacon once came to me requesting prayer for a friend of his, whose family were members of our church, but I had never seen them there.   He told me that the Father in this family was having trouble with his son and did not know how to respond to his “sin.”   Without giving me details of the son’s sin, he told me that the Father didn’t know whether to blame his son for the sin, or blame himself.   He didn’t know whether he should take his son to the “woodshed”, come to church, or go to a doctor.  There were all kinds of questions, all kinds of guilt, and all kinds of worry, anxiety and fear.  

The deacon went on to tell me that the Father needed my advice about before he made his next move.  What should the Father do in this situation?   Realizing already that this was the kind of Father already shifting responsibility by not coming to me himself and by not coming to church with his family, and also realizing, that since the son’s sin was not some “simple” wrong a Father, a preacher, nor even a doctor could correct, but it was the kind of “sin” the prophet said we’ve been “born into” and is also is “born in us” and there is no earthly cure for this kind of sin because, even our righteousness is still filthy rags.  

Because I knew this sin would always be this son’s struggle and this Father’s too, I sent only one bit of pastoral advice.   I told my deacon that what this Father needed to do, before he decided to do anything else as a Father, is become a Christian and follow Jesus.    First, he needed to follow Jesus by forgiving himself as a Father.   Then, he needed to follow Jesus by forgiving his son and God forgives us.   I didn’t mean that he was to condone his son’s behavior or justify it, but I told the deacon to tell him, before he can be the Father he needs to be, he must first be the Christian he needs to be and he needs to forgive. 

 And I would recommend the same to your family troubles, when things fall apart or your family members die, physically or spiritually.  “The forgiveness of sins” expressed fully by Jesus at the cross, is the only salvation we have.   Even before Mary realized what Jesus was doing, she was made a new person and given a new family through God’s mercy and grace.   By following Jesus’ word and letting him make us into new people, we become who we need to be so we can have who we need to have to be and have family in this broken world.

The other day I saw an article sent by email which caught my.  The title made a rather strange and shocking claim:  “Married to Five Women in One Lifetime”!   As I saw that title, all kinds of images popped in my head.  Did this guy have to have five failed marriages learn how to be married?   Was this guy a polygamist?   What was this article mean and why was it in a Christian magazine?

When I started to read the article, it started to make more sense:  The writer, Sam Davidson wrote:

 “Once I realized I would be married to at least five different women in my lifetime, it was a lot easier to get married.

You may think my wife would cringe when reading this statement, but by my count, I've already been married to two different women since Lynnette and I tied the knot in 2004. And she's been married to a handful, too.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'll always be married to Lynnette. But who Lynnette is will change – and should change – over the course of our life together. This is why, when thinking hard about whether or not she was the one for me, I felt confident knowing she'd be someone who would grow and change as I grew and changed.

It was a smart professor and mentor who tipped me off to this notion. He told me, in his “controversial” style, that it would be best for me to be married to many different women.  My conservative self took offense at his suggestion until he broke it down for me. And it made sense.

Certainly I was going to change throughout the rest of my life. Why wouldn't I want to be married to someone who did the same? In fact, to expect someone to stay the same would be ignorant at best and oppressive at worst.

I had just turned 23 when I got married. My 29-year-old self looks at pictures of our wedding day and laughs in retrospect at the people dressed in black and white who said their original vows to one another while a barefoot guitarist strummed a song about stars. Our preacher handed us the rings to put on each other's fingers. We promised simple things to each other and pledged that we'd try our best to make this thing last. The people in the picture, though, are not the same people married today. ( )
Jesus did not want Mary to remain the same person after his death.   Neither does Jesus want us to say the same or be the same either.  This is why God gives us family at home and at church.  God gives us our earthly ‘family’ to grow us up to be what we can be, and then he gives us His family to save us from our family, and most of all, from ourselves.   This is how Jesus makes us new people and gives us a family that will be there always and forever.

So, now we all stand with Mary and John around Jesus’ cross.   We all have the option to accept Jesus and join ourselves with his new family, or we have the option to walk away in brokenness and face the loneliness that will come.  What God wants for us, however, is what Jesus gave Mary.  Jesus wanted her to see what is broken and make God’s family her family and give herself to the only salvation God gives.   In the same way, Jesus came to give us family that we can hold on to, only when we hold on to God.   Because only in God can we hold to the family that remains “unbroken” in this “broken” world.    Amen.  

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Seven Last Words: “Paradise Today”

A Sermon based on Luke 23: 35-43
The Second Last Word from the Cross
Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.
The Second Sunday in Lent,  February 28, 2010

If you could be anywhere but here, where would it be?

Now I ask this question very cautiously, because realize where you are at the moment and I remember very well that I spent at least half of my childhood and a portion of my adolescence not wanting to be at church.   How easy this answer might come, especially while you are trying to listen to my sermon.  How nice might it be to be somewhere else---lying on a sunny beach, taking a trip to one of your favorite destinations, or even spending quality time with family.    

But I find it rather interesting that this feeling of wanting to be somewhere else comes to a lot of us.   Even when we live (or at least used to live) in one of the richest nations in the world, and while most of us have far more than we need and we probably like where we live (at least when we take note of where the rest of the world lives), doesn’t it make you at least a little curious to reflect upon how much time we spend thinking about being somewhere else.    It can be much more exotic and exciting to think about going someplace special than making the place where we are more special.   And even for us as Christians, it has been much easier to talk about and even support missions “over there,” than it is participate in a mission in our backyard.  

I’ve not done any specific study on the matter, but what I have observed is when people become somewhat affluent and successful, instead of becoming more content with where, who, or what they have, people tend to do the opposite.   When we get or have the home we’ve always dreamed of, it is then that feel the need to have a second home and be somewhere else---our get-away as we might call it.    Or when we finally have the job we’ve worked so hard to achieve, it is then that we set our sights on something more fulfilling or we can’t wait until retirement.   Even if we make a decent living, especially in this economy, and we have enough money to pay our bills and buy our groceries to raise our children, and even though we still have more than most people in the world, there remains a nagging almost inescapable feeling, even among the wealthy on Wall-street as well as those of us who live more modestly on main street, that we seldom have as much as we’d like to have.  Is this just greed or could it be something else?

Some theologians and even not a few psychologists might say that the reason for our discontent, our unanswerable longings or our constant feelings of incompleteness could lie in our hidden need to find the “paradise” that we have lost somewhere along the way.   Maybe this “paradise” was something we held onto only as a dream, or got a glimpse of for only a moment, or maybe it is that primitive and primordial longing to restore the paradise that was once a kind of “Garden of Eden” for us in our lives.  Whatever it was, we humans would love to go there, or find our way back there.   But I still wonder if it would satisfy us as much as we think it would.  The Scripture itself implies that, at least this earthly paradise we long for can never be regained, at least not on our own terms.   In the primeval story, God placed a spiritual creature, the cherubim, with a flaming sword to guard the entrance to the garden that keeps people away from the tree of life in paradise of God on their own terms (Genesis 3.24).   

So, if we are looking for paradise, how do we regain it on God’s terms?   That’s part of what I think this second word from the cross is about.    What we know about the biblical image of paradise is that only three times does the word “paradise” appear in the Bible.  Perhaps it’s partly because this is a “foreign” word borrowed from the ancient Persians.   Only late, scholars say, and also very carefully, cautiously and sparingly (due to the danger of “fantastic ideas” says J. Jeremias in TDNT, p. 778) did the word come to describe the abode of God and the heavenly bliss of the redeemed.   Once, paradise was only an enclosed garden or “the hanging gardens”, which were royal amusement parks for the Persian kings of ancient Babylon.   Here in our text Jesus uses “paradise” to describe something much more.   Maybe he is hinting at the way we all kind find the kind of “paradise” we need the most.

What catches my attention first is exactly “where” paradise is spoken.   As far as we know, Jesus never used the word, until here, hanging on the cross.   Does that strike you to be ironic as it strikes me?  On this cross, Jesus is anywhere but paradise and his “hanging” is no garden amusement for him.  He and this dying thief seem to be as far away from the bliss of God as anyone could possibly be.  

In her own meditation upon this second word from the cross, Fleming Rutledge reminds us  that “crucifixion was for the scum of the earth.”  People who came from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, especially the white-collar criminal variety, would have never been crucified.  Then Rutledge goes on to say something I hadn’t quite thought of before.   She says, “Jesus did exactly the opposite of what you and I would do.   We would want to get away from the dregs of human society.”  “But”, she concludes, “Jesus voluntarily became a part of the dregs himself.  Neither did he spend much of his time among the best people or at the best places (The Seven Last Words from the Cross, by Fleming Rutledge, Eerdmans, 2005, p. 15).  

I recall meeting a German woman in Shelby once when I was pastor there.  She later became a member of our church.  When I ask her whether or not she missed her old home,  she told me that she could not go back to Germany because Germany wasn’t “German” any more.   Instead of national Germans, according to her, the country had been overrun with all kinds of foreigners, like Poles, Greeks, Turks, and many other foreigners and refugees who didn’t belong there in her Fatherland.  They made it so different from the “paradise” of her childhood.

We’ve all had these feelings haven’t we?   It is amazing how quickly people come up with their  own version of what paradise might mean, where paradise might be, or who we could or should not be with, which would supposedly bring “paradise” into our lives.   If only this would happen, or if only this wouldn’t, then we’d have our own “paradise.”  We’ve all got our own versions, don’t we?  I recall during the Civil Rights Struggle of the late 60’s, how I overheard people saying “those kinds of people don’t belong in our schools”.   I was too young to understand the politics of the moment, but I do remember the year they finally integrated “white” Harmony School with “black” Houstonville School.   What I remember is that some of those “kinds of people who didn’t belong there”, as it was said, became some of best friends I’ve ever had in my childhood. 
We all have our own definitions of paradise, which is normally a paradise we must have on our own terms.   I can remember thinking to myself, if I could only be like this or that person, if I could only accomplish that, or if I could only be loved by that person, it would be paradise.   I wonder, however, if you got to marry that person or you got to fulfill your dream, let me hesitantly ask how it turned out.  Good, maybe, great?  I hope so, but paradise?   That’s surely an over statement even in the best of situations.   

Maybe your life, if it is like mine, can sometimes ironically get closer to paradise when things “don’t” turn out as I had hoped.   When I have gone after “paradise” on my own terms, what I’ve achieved often ends up something altogether different.  My dreams of paradise on my terms, often appear as the proverbial “grass which is greener on the other side”, but it seldom remains as green as once seen.  This kind of irony, which happens often in life, is about as ironic as finding paradise on the cross.  

To be able to see paradise from the cross must see imagine something much different than our own versions on our own terms.    To see what Jesus saw, we might need to “burn” all the grass that we think is greener, letting go of our versions of paradise, and look more closely and intentionally at what Jesus was doing when he spoke this “promise.”  Whatever Jesus meant, even to speak of paradise in this moment, implies Jesus saw or knew something we seldom consider as the way to fulfill our deepest longings. 

Instead of coming into this world to succeed, Jesus came, as God’s “suffering servant” to fail, and I might add, to fail beautifully (as writer Fredrick Buechner once called it, a “magnificent defeat).”   Jesus came, as the prophet Isaiah hinted, not to be “numbered” among the elite, among the billionaires, among the good, the civic leaders, or the politically correct, as most people might dream about, but Jesus came to be “numbered among the transgressors” which means “numbered” among the dregs, the criminals, and the “bad elements” of society (to quote Fleming Rutledge again).   That doesn’t much sound like the way to paradise as we’d envision it, does it?   How could we hear such a word coming from the Jesus for ourselves?  How could we hear Jesus say to us “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” and hear these words on God’s terms and not just on our own?

To learn more about God’s invitation to paradise, look not only at what Jesus was doing, but also look closer at these two thieves dying close to Jesus.   All four gospels tell us about these malefactors because they represent the choice we all have to make in this life:  the choice of either living and dying on our own terms or freely, fully and finally giving ourselves to life and death on God’s terms.  

When this one thief asked for Jesus to “remember him”, he wasn’t simply asking for heaven, but he was asking to be a part of God’s kingdom which is to be on earth, as it is in heaven.   Because we normally only read our own versions of paradise into this story, we might overlook this.   We might even want to only read our own versions of getting into “heaven” into this story so we can keep up our stealing from God what he wants us to live and die for in this world and keep holding on to our own versions of having paradise on earth and on our own terms and then hoping that God will let us keep our own life was the cake, give us heaven as icing, and let us keep eating it too. 

But choosing to live life our own way, or only going after paradise on our own terms, is exactly what it means to be a thief of this gift of life which God has given to us.   So my main question to us today is this:  Which “thief” might we be?  Are you the “thief” who looks at Jesus and only wants this Messiah who “save others” to “save you” (vs. 39) from all your pain and trouble, or you are like this other thief, who, when he saw Jesus for who he really was, finally realized there God has other plans for our lives and signs up for the kingdom on earth, whenever Jesus is ready to establish it, on earth as it is in heaven.   Most interestingly, among these thieves, the one who asked for salvation directly did not gain it.  It is the only did not ask for salvation, but asked to be remembered for a job in the coming, earthly kingdom who gained the hope of paradise on God’s terms in the world to come.   Do you see the real difference among thieves?  

That really is the main problem, isn’t it?   We often miss God’s promise of “paradise” because, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we have come to take for granted that we know best what paradise should or shouldn’t be.  As a result, we go through life, obsessed or even possessed by our own versions, but still lonely and longing, outside the guarded gate and in a real way, we keep living like thieves, trying to “steal” our own way to paradise on our terms.  In her book, A People’s History of Christianity, historian Diana Bulter Bass tell one particular story about Christians who want to “steal” their way to heaven on their own terms, but miss the paradise God which only God can give on his terms, both today, as well as tomorrow.   She tells about a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee named John  (p. 140).  John was the pastor of an affluent congregation which had developed the finances and opportunity to open a “kitchen” to feed the poor in their city.   The church had grown during John’s tenure, even added over $500,000 dollars a year to its pledges and budgets.  John was a pastor of impeccable character and no scandal or impropriety mars his ministry, yet his termination was forced.  

When John proposed that his church organize offering free hot meals once a week in the church for the homeless and working poor, neighbors and some church members protested, insisting that the program attracted both criminals an unsavory characters.   But the pastor remained resolute; and the majority of the church was willing to number itself among the transgressors and learn a new vision of paradise, until one day, the congregation split over the issue of feeding the poor and forced John to resign.  John was forced to resign because he had a very different view of paradise than did the religious elite in his church, who had the final say.  Sound familiar?   Doesn’t Pastor John’s cross remind you of someone else?

Yes, of course, the promise of heaven is part of the promise of paradise but it is still a promise on God’s terms and not on ours.   And God’s version of paradise also includes “on earth as it is in heaven”, not “in heaven after we lose our paradise on earth.”  But I realize all too well, that not many people are going to seek “paradise” by suffering to do God’s will on this earth.   We still prefer our own versions.

At sometime or other, we will find ourselves asking God to help us or to save us, because the truth is, paradise can seem lost, far away, and hardly possible to find or hold on to in this world.   Some of us will only ask for God’s help on our terms and still remain thieves of God’s goodness and grace.   We will miss our opportunity to find what only God can give.   I see it all the time, when people come to church only to get what they can get out of it, but never once think about what good they can give to someone else.  

But some of us, at least a “few” of us, said Jesus, will find a way to paradise that breaks into this world here and now.    And Paradise can come to us in some unexpected and surprising ways of grace.  When we move from simply asking how can I get into heaven for tomorrow, and start asking how we might get heaven into us today, we might begin to realize what was happening to the thief even before he got to heaven. 

A week or so ago, I saw something that greatly moved me.   In Atlanta Georgia a family of four who lived in a 2 million dollar home, recently sold their dream home, which was their place for paradise, and surprisingly found a another kind of paradise they had hardly imagined before. 

One day, a 15 year old daughter, named Hannah Selwen, convinced her 13 year old brother Joseph, to go with her to ask their parents to sell their dream home and give the proceeds to help the poor in the Hunger Project.    When the mother heard the proposal, suggesting the family really didn’t need the nearly two million dollar house where they lived, and could donate at half the proceeds to the poor who don’t have what they take for granted,  and could live just as comfortably in a cheaper house, the mom almost fainted.    And even after their entrepreneur Dad was also hesitant, due to the economy and it being a buyer’s market, both of them finally caved, realizing that they indeed had the best “paradise” they could ever have asked for----they had children who were living out the values they had taught them, being socially responsible, self-sacrificing leaders in the community.       Now their children, instead of being in trouble, spend their time  traveling in the world of the poor, overseeing 2 feed mills the profit from the house had established.   Need I to suggest, that by giving up their own version of paradise, this family found another paradise, which came on God’s terms, not on their own?

Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that people find God’s paradise by just being socially responsible in this world, rather than giving our hearts to God, but I’ll tell you this there are two great commandments, not just one and in order to love God with all our heart, you must also love your neighbor in some obvious, responsible ways.  Just as you can’t find paradise on God’s terms by good works of social responsibility alone, but also won’t find paradise without doing the good works you are able to do either.   “Faith without works is dead, being alone.” 

Not only is paradise on God’s terms which can break through into our world today as we sacrifice ourselves for love, this paradise also comes, not by going after what we want, giving ourselves to what needs to be done.  If there was ever a modern day example of someone who put both faith and works together to find paradise on God’s terms in this world, it’s the fictitious but wishful character in John Grisham’s most under-read book, “The Testament.”   The Testament begins with a very rich man signing his will.  He has six spoiled and money hungry children and several ex-wives.  The man employs three psychiatrists to judge he is of sound mind and the whole procedure is taped.  Immediately after the taping Troy Phelan presents his lawyers with a will he has written himself, which supersedes the previous will, he signs it and jumps through a window.

His estate, all thirteen billion dollars is left to an illegitimate daughter who is now a missionary in South America.  Nate O'Riley, a litigator, is released from rehab, not for the first time, and dispatched by Phelan's law firm to find Rachel Lane and get her signature so she can inherit the billions.  To his dismay, Nate overcomes Amazon crocodiles and headhunters to find her, but when she finds her working as a medical nurse among the poorest tribe in the most remote place, she refuses the money and everything it brings with it.   Rachel Lane already has her paradise, and interestingly after meeting her, Nate finds that after struggling with his own demons, that, after meeting a girl like Rachel Lane, he will never be the same either.  Paradise will never again look he thought it did. 

So, at the close of this message, let me ask you what kind of paradise you are seeking.   Are you seeking paradise on your own terms, or are you seeking what only God can give you on his terms.   Only one of the two thieves found the right door to paradise, and it is a door that opens on earth as much as it does in heaven.   In fact, when Jesus promises this thief “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” I’m firmly convinced that this paradise is much less a specific “place” we are going to, than it is discovering who we will be with.   Even in heaven, it is heaven, not because of where it is, as much as that God is “in the midst” and the “lamb is the light.”

Pastor Will Willimon makes this point when he tells of a elderly woman who was near the end of her life, her already long life.  Now in her late eighties, her body was growing weaker as she gradually succumbed to congestive heart failure.  Then, pastor Willimon asked her, “What are your feelings now?  Are you afraid?  Regretful?  What do you feel?
And she answered, “No, not afraid.”
“You have lived a long and good life,” the pastor said.  “That must be a great consolation.”
“Some.  My main comfort,” she replied, is that soon I will get to be with Jesus.

That was her great comfort, as she came to the end.  She would be with Jesus.  Of course it was a great comfort to her because, in a deep sense, she was already with Jesus.  She had lived each day of her long life, for as long as she could remember, with Jesus.  For this woman, being with Jesus was not a future hope.  It was a present reality.  To be sure, one day before, she hoped to be with her Lord in fullness that she did not have now.  But what she had now enabled her to look in confidence toward what would come.   There is a real sense, that she did not have to wait to get to paradise, but she was in paradise with Jesus already  (From Will Willimon’s book, Thank God It’s Friday,  Abingdon, 2006, p. 17).   

We believe that tomorrow we will be with Jesus.  But this hope of being "with Jesus" is closer than we might think.  "Today" does not always have to wait on "tomorrow".   Paradise can breakthrough when we work, watch, and pray toward God's kingdom today.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.