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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

the big sort

I have been reading lately about what is being called “The Big Sort.” It’s a kind of sociological observation (see www.thebigsort.com and also Michael Kruse's blog, where I first read of it). The gist of The Big Sort is related to the red state, blue state phenomenon, but is far more startling and comprehensive. The author looks at voting, religious preference, ethnicity, education, economics, and other factors at the county level across the nation, and the trend in almost every case is from a blended “melting pot” in these categories to an increasing withdrawal of like with like.

There is much more that could be said here, but the point I want to make is that evangelical Christians are participating whole-heartedly in The Big Sort, and baptizing the withdrawal into our all-Christian enclaves with Scriptural warrant where I don’t see any. In fact, this kind of withdrawal looks exactly like the American culture around us – our withdrawal is, in fact, a part of the world, not distinctly Christian behavior.

Let me say this clearly: it is not God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world!

Why can I say that so definitively? Listen to Jesus’ prayer in John 17…

I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. (John 17:15-18)
Jesus declares (and prays!) that we are not of the world. He prays for the Father to send us into the world, set apart (sanctified) by the Word and Spirit of truth.

We are not to withdraw! We are to turn from sin and cleanse our hands and hearts on a regular basis. But we are supposed to get our hands dirty. We are supposed to have friends who are not Christian – lots of them! We are supposed to leave our Christian enclaves and mix and mingle “out there.” We are supposed to be salt and light in the world, not a warehouse full of unused saltshakers and boxed light bulbs!

What about hot issues and thorny topics? While the exact strategy and words and tone will vary from situation to situation, I can tell you that we are supposed to be active, engaged, and plugged into the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. That is the commitment of our (Good Shepherd) leadership and something of which I am convinced. We may be convinced of the Bible’s clarity on issues of morality and sexuality, but if we either give in to the world’s view or cut ourselves off from those struggling with those issues, we have missed God’s mission altogether.

We know how to be a lighthouse – what to do when people seek out the church and seek out the Lord. But our great challenge and our great mission is to fully embrace our calling as a searchlight church – a sent church. God has given us all we need; Jesus has even prayed for that specific mission. That is our prayer; that is our mission!
Excerpted from the April 19 sermon - text and audio HERE.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

eyes open or shut (easter sermon)

April 12, 2009 – Easter Sunday
Sermon by: Robert Austell (cross-posted from sermon site HERE)

download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

An earthquake, a glowing non-human entity, security guards unconscious as if dead, and a missing body… CSI, X-Files, or the very heart of the Biblical story?

You know, Easter Sunday in the church is an interesting phenomenon. It’s probably the most highly attended Sunday of the year – which thrills me! – and it’s the Sunday we let all the crazy out. I mean lots of people come around Christmastime, too, but that’s sweet baby Jesus, shepherds, and the manger. Even if you throw the Virgin birth into the mix… it’s not quite as fantastic sounding as what you get on Easter.

But here we are and I make no apologies for what we’re going to talk about. In fact, I will go much, much further and say not just that this is one of the fantastic and miraculous stories of the Bible; it is THE fantastic and miraculous story of the Bible. And each of us must confront that story in some way, even if that means dismissing it.

My goal this morning is to be clear about why it’s so important… what’s riding on this fantastic story. You may have come here with eyes shut to God for any number of reasons. My goal is to invite you to take a good hard look with eyes wide open. Yes, we’re letting all the crazy out; but I believe it is a “foolishness” (as the Bible calls it) worth believing and even worth staking one’s life upon.

Easter Morning (Matthew 28:1-10)

You heard the story just a few minutes ago. That Jesus was and is risen from the dead is the central claim of Christianity. Why is that so important?

Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, said this about the Resurrection:

… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

In plain English, if Jesus died and wasn’t raised, then death beat him. That means at the least that death beats us. That’s all there is – this life, then you’re done. And that’s if you don’t buy the stuff about him being God. If he was God, then that means death beat God – and if God is God by any definition, He’s got to be bigger than death. So you’re really left with a short lifetime of seeking meaning in atheism or considering the claims of Scripture.

I understand the mental leap to believe in something like Resurrection and the miracles of the Bible. But really, they all pale beside the God question, right? If there is a God bigger than something you or I or some ancient fishermen cooked up, then that God is capable of all of this. That’s also what Paul means by “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.” If God can’t beat death or didn’t after all the build up to it in the Bible; really, of what worth is faith?

What do I mean by “all the build up?” I mean the basic story of the Bible… that God created us in His image; we, like our first parents before us, disobey and fall short of what is right before God; and that is a problem so big no human can fix it. But God, from the moment of that first sin, promised to provide an answer – a “salvation.” And through Scripture, Law, prophets, and a people, God kept that promise through Jesus Christ. Resurrection isn’t just a fancy last miracle from a first century magician. It presumes the whole Biblical story of sin, consequence, atonement, and hope in life with God. That’s why it’s such a big deal and so central to Biblical faith.

Resurrection is also the basis for hope in something more than this life. That’s not just hope in something after this life, but hope for meaning and purpose in this life. I might say that another way, “Are we here for us or for God?” If God has an eternal purpose and plan for us, then there are implications for us here and now – how we live, what our goals are, the choices we make. If there is no Resurrection and no God, then that radically and fundamentally changes what we are doing here – and in an ominous direction.

Guarding Against the Miraculous (Matthew 27:62-66)

Now I want to focus briefly on two reasons we struggle against belief – against faith. The passages just before and just after the Easter story jumped out at me this year in a way they haven’t before.

You heard the story just a few minutes ago. I mentioned that there was a lot of build up to the story, and that build up was common knowledge in Jesus’ day and time. People were looking for God’s Savior, the Messiah. The common belief that the Messiah would be a political king became the pretext for arresting and executing Jesus. And that wasn’t enough. Those who wanted to defeat Jesus and keep him from having influence made sure that the grave was guarded and protected. Recalling Jesus’ promise to rise on the third day, the chief priests and Pharisees petitioned Pilate, the Prefect or administrator of the area, to station guards at the tomb. Pilate responded, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And not only did they secure the grave with a guard, they set a seal on the stone at the grave entrance.

What kind of fear and partial belief must one have to go to such extreme measures to guard against a truth one doesn’t want to hear? Why did they not want to see Jesus risen? Was it fear of loss of power? Was it fear that their lives and beliefs would be turned on their heads?

Sometimes those same questions go through my mind when I meet someone who has just as diligently guarded against belief in God or something like the Resurrection. “Why,” I ask myself, “would someone be so set on disbelief in a God who loves them enough to battle death on their behalf?” And some of the same considerations come to mind. Maybe it is fear of loss of control; maybe it is fear of beliefs and behaviors turned upside down. Or maybe that guarding against belief comes from a distorted view of God at the hands of mistreatment, abuse, or a lie.

The thing is, our disbelief doesn’t have a lot of power. We are no more capable of shutting God down than the Roman guards were of keeping Jesus in the tomb. I mean if Death itself could not contain him, what are our guards going to do? Really, we have only about as much control and power over a real God as a toddler has the power to make you disappear by shutting his or her eyes. Remember that? If children are young enough, they think that if they can’t see you, you cease to exist. Negatively, that’s why a child can get so upset when mommy goes out of the room. Positively, that’s why peek-a-boo is so engaging and fun… they are simply amazed at someone winking in and out of existence!

I recognize that people have good and not-so-good reasons for not wanting to believe in God. But that doesn’t make God go away, nor does it limit the power of the Resurrection. Instead, the most it can do is lead to a kind of shutting our eyes to God, and convincing ourselves that He has disappeared.

Lying to Ourselves (Matthew 28:11-15)

In the passage right after the Resurrection, we return to the chief priests and Pharisees. Realizing that Jesus’ body is indeed gone, they now commit to weaving together a big lie. Bribing soldiers and spreading lies, they spread the story that the disciples stole the body. Matthew notes that the story continues to this day – and indeed, he is right.

And the rationalizing doesn’t have to stop there. You heard the story just a few minutes ago. There was an earthquake, a glowing non-human entity, security guards unconscious as if dead, and a missing body. You can well imagine what we can do with those details to shut our eyes to God. The earthquake made the rock split or move, perhaps even knocking out the guards. The glowing non-human entity was a hallucination of the hysterical women who found the tomb empty. The missing body – well, we already covered that.

Never mind that the authorities couldn’t produce the body. Never mind that the soldiers guarding the tomb had to be bribed to keep silent or perpetuate the lie. Never mind that it would be unthinkable for a few fishermen to overwhelm the soldiers – plus, the fisherman had scattered and were hiding for their lives. And never mind that a living Jesus appeared not just to a few women, but also to the disciples at a different time and place, and to hundreds over the next few weeks, producing multiple corroborating witnesses.

If you aren’t going to believe it, you aren’t going to believe it. It’s not a puzzle to figure out all the earthly explanations, it is a miracle of God. It’s supposed to defy belief… and inspire belief.

Are you looking with eyes wide open or are they scrunched tight, guarding against what it might mean - not just for the world, but for you - if it’s true?

What Could it Mean?

The chief priests and Pharisees were committed to not seeing God at work in Jesus. They guarded diligently against any possibility of God showing up, and then when He did, they started lying to themselves and others to keep their eyes closed.

The women went looking for Jesus. It’s startling to notice how many times in the Easter story that there is language of open eyes, seeing, or looking. Starting in verse 1, the two Mary’s came to LOOK at the grave. The APPEARANCE of the tomb, stone, and angel are described in detail. In verse 5, the angel notes that the women are LOOKING for Jesus’ body. The angel goes on to say, “COME, SEE the place where he was lying.” In verse 7, the angel tells the women to carry a message to the disciples – they will SEE Jesus in Galilee. And they saw Jesus along the way and worshiped him. And then he told them in verse 10 that the disciples would SEE him in Galilee.

Later, Jesus would appear to disciples and other followers. Some would see him immediately and believe. Others, like Thomas, had doubts, but came to believe through earnestly seeking truth. Still others, like those on the road to Emmaus, didn’t see at first, but came to believe as they heard the Scriptures and God opened their eyes.

What is the big deal about Easter and Resurrection? The fundamental meaning of Easter Resurrection is that it testifies to a real and powerful God – one bigger and stronger than death, which would otherwise be the most powerful force we know in a godless universe. And it not only testifies to the existence of God, but to a purposeful and loving God, who has beat death, not just because He can, but for our sake, that we might know Him, love Him, and live with Him.

So yes, I understand that it is, well, miraculous… and thus hard to believe. That’s why it’s called faith. And that’s why real Christians look and sound just a little bit crazy – because they believe in Someone bigger than time and gravity, human imagination, and even death itself. Are there ways in which you have shut your eyes to God or tried to guard against acknowledging Him as God? The invitation of God through Easter Resurrection is to open your eyes, heart, mind, and spirit to what God has done and what God is doing. Will you?

If you will, commit to it between you and God – I’ll pray for that in a moment and your ‘Amen’ will mean “let it be so with me.” If you will commit to opening your eyes to God, I also urge you to tell someone today, whether that is me at the door, someone you came with, or someone you know will “get it.” I started by saying we were letting the crazy out; but in reality, this may be the sanest, wisest thing you’ll ever do. Amen.

Let us pray…

**This and other sermons at Good Shepherd can be found at the sermon site HERE.

Friday, April 03, 2009


This was a special week in terms of visiting with folks across the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

On Monday and Tuesday I traveled to Montreat to meet with Paul Detterman (Exec. Dir. of PFR) and the conference planners for Presbyterian for Renewal's "Christian Life Conference." I will be leading the worship music with a small team from Good Shepherd at the conference this summer (July 4-7).

On Wednesday, I was pleased to host Linda Valentine, the Executive Director of the General Assembly Council of the PCUSA, at Good Shepherd for a time of conversation with area pastors and elders. She shared with us some of the responsibilities of the "mission and ministry arm" of the denomination, some of the recent budget challenges, and she listened attentively to questions and concerns from those gathered. In her own blog, she mentions the visit HERE.

Then today I was privileged to have lunch and spend some time with Bruce Reyes-Chow, the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. He was in town for a meeting in his official capacity; it was especially meaningful to me that he would take time to pursue a friendship with me that started online (playing Scrabble) and has deepened through General Assembly matters and subsequent correspondence. While he and I both enjoy the connections possible through the Internet, it is of immense value to ground those in real face-to-face interaction. I continue to appreciate Bruce's transparency, collegiality, and his love for the people of God. His multiple blogs are well worth reading to get a sense of his calling and leadership. Here is a link to the moderator blog.

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