God’s love for the city

Nine years ago, First Pres was considering calling me as its senior pastor. If there was one thing more improbable than me being a pastor, it was me being the pastor of a city-center church. It was something I’d never done nor considered.

But then I listened to a sermon based on Jonah 4:11, where God said to Jonah, “Shall I not be concerned about that great city?” In the sermon, Tim Keller poured out a vision of God’s love for cities, which are concentrations of God’s most beautiful creations: people. Could this be the message God was calling me to help proclaim?

In the 1980’s, Keller was part of a group of Presbyterians (PCA) that planted an evangelical church in Manhattan. Everyone told them they were crazy: New Yorkers were too hip; too unchurched; too sophisticated. But they spent a lot of time getting to know New Yorkers. They built relationships instead of a church building. They relied on orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. The centerpiece of their worship was a 35-minute, Christ-centered sermon.

Today, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has thousands in worship in services across New York. They’ve helped plant hundreds of churches in cities around the world. Suburban churches, including several in our area, are getting in on the movement.

Those churches want to be where we are.

Hundreds of thousands of God’s most beautiful creations live, work, or visit within a short walk of our church every day. Some are thriving, some are hurting, but like all of us, they need a relationship with the creator.

God has us right where we’re supposed to be. He wants us to share his love with the city.

 

No Jesus, no light

We’re just a week away from Light Up Night (November 17th) in downtown Pittsburgh. Maybe it has to do with the unseasonably warm fall weather, but everyone says that the holidays have surprised them this year.

But lights are going up all over town. Everyone loves the lights. But do you know why we put them up? They’re a reminder that Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, has come. The good news for the church is that we get to explain this.

No Jesus, no lights.

The recent terrible shootings in Nevada and Texas, and the terror attack in New York, have left people crying out, “Do something!” Yet few folks really believe that the human solutions proposed will really make much difference against the darkness. In their heart of hearts, they know the problem is something deeper.

Christmas lights are reminders that God is doing something about what’s really wrong.

Christmas says that God came into a world of darkness. The darkness was so threatened by Jesus that the king ordered the murder of all the baby boys in the region where Jesus was born. Jesus’ family had to flee into exile to escape the slaughter. God in Jesus Christ was subject to the worst the darkness had to offer.

So, we must stand up against the forces of darkness that lead to murder and chaos. This isn’t the same as trusting in human solutions alone. We stand with the one about whom John, the Gospel writer, said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.”

Hospital or museum?

Is the church a “hospital for sinners?” A “museum of saints?”

Is the church a place of safety and solitude, or is it an outpost from which to launch missions into sometimes hostile territory?

Every day, I have conversations with members and guests about what we’re doing as a church. Each person is shaped by strong views of what they think the church is or ought to be.

The Apostle Peter, the one on whom Jesus said he would build the church, had a bunch of powerful metaphors to describe it.

There is “living stones.” The church is a group of people, built together like stones in a wall, where the Spirit of God resides.

Peter said the church is “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation.” At the same time, he said church members are “aliens and strangers in the world.”

Together those metaphors, and there are lots more of them in the Bible, paint a wonderful, complex, and engaging picture of the church. There’s a lot there to both support and challenge our personal views. Clearly, Peter says the church is set apart in order to be a light to the culture. But, just by being the church, we’ll be treated as aliens and strangers.

The great thing about being a church in the center of the city is that we’re called to live into the fullness of Peter’s metaphors, in all their wonderful complexity.

 

Indulgence

This week we observe “Reformation Sunday.” Church tradition says that 500 years ago this week, a priest named Martin Luther nailed “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther objected to the Roman Catholic practice of selling “indulgences,” essentially a way of buying one’s way out of the consequences of sin. Luther argued it was wrong to make people pay for what God grants for free. Humans can do nothing to earn salvation; rather salvation is a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

But here’s why we still need reformation:

Deep down, we find the idea of indulgences attractive. Indulgences were degrading and came down hardest on the poor, but at least they gave human beings the sense of being in charge. If we can buy our way out of hell, no matter the cost, it means we’re in charge of our salvation.

Modern North Americans have a different indulgence problem.

Most of us have been indulged our whole lives. From the time we were old enough to hold a spoon, our preferences have been consulted. Life is all about us. We have the illusion that we’re in control of our lives. What need do we have of God, the church, or the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ?

 

Soft on the outside

This week I’m preaching on Ephesians 6, where the Apostle Paul writes about putting on the “armor of God.” The armor includes things like the “belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness,” and so on. If you Google “armor of God,” you get thousands of images with different ideas of what this armor looks like.

But I wonder if turning a metaphor like “armor of God” into religious clip art misses the point?

The armor of God is really our status as children of God, created, chosen, blessed, adopted, and redeemed by God. This status is who we are, not something we put on and take off when we’re under attack. And we are under attack. The Christian faith is realistic about the spiritual warfare going on all around us.

Eugene Peterson says that G.K.Chesterson once wrote that Christians, in relation to the world around us, are either crustaceans or vertebrates. Crustaceans have their skeletons on the outside; vertebrates have their skeletons on the inside. Crustaceans are solid on the outside, soft on the inside. Vertebrates are soft and vulnerable on the outside, solid on the inside. Peterson says, “It’s not difficult to recognize the higher form of life, Christian crustacean or Christian vertebrate. The armor of God is the embodiment, the internalization of the life of the Trinity—truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, word of God—Christ in us.”

The meaning of “armor of God” can best be understood in the church. That’s where we pray and worship and just hang out with other vertebrates like us, who are soft and vulnerable on the outside and solid on the inside.

The quotidian mysteries

Ever since I was little, I dreamed of growing up to do great things. My folks encouraged me to do my best in everything. In every job, every military assignment, I dreamed of making things the best they’d ever been. I really couldn’t imagine how to do things any other way. The bible encourages us in this. Ephesians 6:6 says “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”

Doing your best is the Christian thing to do, is it not?

I was blessed to be able to take a sabbatical this summer. This meant having the time to reflect on what it truly means to rest. One kind of rest, probably the most important kind, is learning to rest in God.

In preparing for the sabbatical, I read a bunch of books by Presbyterian pastor and author, Eugene Peterson. One of Peterson’s great gifts is his ability to point to the way God works everywhere, in every moment, in everyone and everything. The greatest force in every situation, is not us, but God. This means that seemingly menial, quotidian (routine, daily) work, like doing laundry or taking out the trash, has the same significance before God as, say, curing cancer or building a skyscraper.

Because God is in everything, absolutely everything.

If Peterson is right, and of course he is, it means we can do our best in everything, but it need not kill us, because God is the greatest force in every situation, not us. We have permission to fail, because we know it wasn’t all up to us. And of course, it means that when we do the quotidian things that make up most of life, we can rest in the knowledge that we’re working arm in arm with the God of the Universe.

*The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” is the title of a short book by Kathleen Norris.

Force of the nots

Surely one of the most powerful verses in the New Testament is Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We need to teach this to our hearts in divided times like this.

When you look closely at the sentence in Greek, you find that the word “not” is used three times, and the conjunction “and not” is used twice. Five “nots” in one sentence. Paul isn’t saying that our differences are unimportant, or that they’ve disappeared. And he’s certainly not justifying slavery. Paul is pointing to the impact of the gospel; what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came into the world. He lived the life we could never live and died the death we deserved. Then he overcame death. When we trust him in faith, he adopts us as “sons of God.” In effect, we’re like “mini-Christs,” not unlike Jesus himself.

This oneness in Jesus supersedes every human category. Each person is someone God chose to create, to love, and to be with God for eternity. Each person you meet is literally of cosmic importance.

Yet we live in a culture that insists on labelling and categorizing everyone. Your group, gender, race, religion, preference, and so on, becomes what defines you. And however we see ourselves and others, we can find a cable channel or an internet site to reinforce our point of view, deepening our divisions.

We need to let the “force of the nots” act on our hearts. We need to stand up for the oppressed, and stand against every label that obscures our best and truest identity.

You are all one in Christ Jesus.

A bite of bread and a sip of juice

Once again, we are deeply hurting as a nation. Racism and patriotism pitted against each other. It’s personal for millions of us.

Can the church offer a way ahead that is neither left or right, black or white?

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday. The first Sunday in October has been set aside to remind us that we are part of one global community of faith. Christians from every culture break bread and drink the cup to remember and affirm Jesus Christ as Head of the Church.

World Communion Sunday began in Pittsburgh at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1933. Nazism was on the rise in Europe, and the US and much of the world were in the grip of a Great Depression. Church leaders had a vision of uniting and saying to the world that, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are all one.

For those who grasp this transcendent reality, differences begin to fade.

Dan, our new associate pastor for outreach, and I gathered with about 40 other pastors this week to pray and sing and talk and imagine ways in which the church can help to heal the divisions among us. We are convinced that our best hope is not in government or politics or power, but in the Gospel.

The Gospel tells us that we are each more evil than we know, but more loved than we dare hope. At the Table we are reminded that we have been reconciled to God and each other through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Each of us is someone for whom Christ willingly and lovingly died.

And so, we come to the Table again to take this great reality into the center of our being.

Through a bite of bread and a sip of juice.

 

Mission and rest

This Sunday after worship, Jana and I start a three-and-a-half month time of rest called a sabbatical. We have been blessed to help lead a church which allowed us this time of rest. The church is blessed with a wonderful associate pastor, staff, and lay leaders, and so we know things are in good hands while we’re away. We have also been blessed with a significant grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program, which will allow us to travel with our family. The Lilly folks believe that pastoral rest and renewal is so important that they have made over $6 million in grants to churches and pastors since the year 2000. Many of the church’s costs associated with our being away are also covered by the grant.

The grant application asks pastors, “What makes your heart sing?” It actually took months of reflection for me to answer that. If I had to answer, I would have said, “The mission.” I realized I’ve always been wired for “mission.” Whatever I set out to do became my mission. There’s always been something in my head screaming: “Never forget, the mission comes first!” And what could be more important than being on a mission for God? There are people all around who are hungry, a downtown growing with people who don’t know Jesus, members who need pastoral care, calls to make, emails to answer.

But when you turn a job into your “mission” it can be exhausting, for you and those around you.

What kind of mission are you on?

Are you wearing out yourself and those around you?

Let’s take a break.

For the next few months, my “mission” is to learn to rest. To remind myself that Jesus doesn’t actually need me for anything. To let Jesus teach my heart to sing: “I’m all you need.”

Pastors and Supreme Court Justices

Churches are often very conservative institutions. Churches don’t change easily or quickly. For the most part, this is a good thing. Churches handle the Word of God, which doesn’t change, so it’s entirely possible that churches will sometimes appear out of step with the world. So when something big changes in a local church, it’s important to take notice and celebrate.

This Sunday our church installs Dan Turis as associate pastor. Dan will become the first installed associate pastor here in nearly ten years. During that time, the church was served by an excellent interim associate pastor, but not an installed one.

In our tradition, it usually it takes a church a few years to decide what it needs in terms of pastoral leadership. A committee is then formed to work out the details and interview candidates. The congregation votes. Then the presbytery votes. It all takes about two years. The process of hiring a new head football coach or a Supreme Court justice is trivial by comparison.

Installation of a new pastor takes place during a service of worship. And it’s not the leaders of the church who preside, but a special commission of the presbytery. The music and words are different from Sunday worship.

I hope folks will come this Sunday at 2:00 to celebrate Dan’s installation.

Something bigger than any of us is taking place. This is God’s doing.