Sunday, December 30, 2007

When Will Restoration Come?

This morning’s scripture reading is Psalm 80, and can be found on page 419 of your pew Bibles.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel. You who led Joseph like a flock; who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken us to your might; come and save us.
Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
O Lord God Almighty, how long will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.
Restore us, O God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its boughs to the sea, its shoots as far as the river.
Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
Boars from the forest ravage it and the creatures of the field feed on it.
Return to us O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.
Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish.
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Coming back to my office after the busy Christmas season that began with a trip to Haiti has not been the most pleasant of things. When I walked into my office I added another stack of papers to my desk, moved another stack of papers away from the computer key board so I could type a little bit – at some point I am going to have to organize all this chaos that has invaded my office, but I haven’t quite gotten to it yet. Maybe this week I’ll categorize my paper, put them away into files, and then, maybe in a week or so, actually deal with them.
Scholarship often deals with the psalms in a similar way – organizing the psalms into categories before dealing with what they actually mean for the community of believers.
This morning’s psalm is categorized as a lament psalm. Not a psalm of praise surely, as the words “you have fed them with the bread of tears, you have made us a source of contention to our neighbors,” are not those of thanksgiving, but of sadness and complaint.
We hear the psalmist cry out to God, voice her predicament, finding words to describe her situation – to put words to a human calamity that cannot be filed away, but must be faced and dealt with.
What makes the words of this psalm so powerful is that the words of the psalmist are in fact timeless – for humanity’s need to lament and question God has not gone away.
And so, as we look out at the world – as we look at ourselves, or as we hear testimony like that of our guests the Allenbaugh family and those of other families still suffering from a hurricane that swept through two years ago, and to use the words of journalist Brandy Wilson, “is still a flood of suffering,” we have to ask God “Why?”Why have you “fed them with the bread of tears?” For in light of such a reality the words of the psalmist make sense again, her words speak to the seemingly timeless experience of human suffering – and the need to ask God “why”. The need to ask, “When will we be restored,” “when will restoration come?”
The psalmist speaks of Israel, a nation like a vine, plucked up and liberated from the slavery of Egypt, then planted in the Promised Land after God made a place for it through Joshua’s military conquest. This vine was able to prosper by the grace of God, “the mountains were covered by its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the sea, its shoots to the river.”
But then God seemingly abandoned the people, the walls were broken down, and all who pass picked its grapes.
The psalmist calls for God to return, “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand planted, the son you raised yourself.”
And like the psalmist, we call God to restore us, asking, when will you return, when will our restoration come?
Our cities and homes were prosperous, but then the winds and rain came and would not stop. Homes were flooded, lives were lost and others put at risk, and we called out to you for help.
But did help come? We still have faith, remembering the deeds of the past, how you liberated the people from Egypt, how you led them like a flock through the sea, how you created a place for them in the Promised Land and enabled them to prosper. But today, the government seems to have given up, leaving people to fend for themselves. Providing trailers or nothing at all, while the insurance companies do little more than find loopholes. So why will you look in the other direction while your people suffer?
The psalmist voices such concerns to God – attempting to make God aware of this situation. Knowing that if God only knew how the people suffered then God would once again provide: “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see!”
And the psalmist hopes for when God will see, providing a savior for the people. The psalmist looks to “the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up yourself.” The psalmist expects this man to provide redemption, liberation from the situation of want; the psalmist looks to this promised one for salvation.
And as Christians, we know this savior by name.
This savior who did not only look down from heaven on our situation, but was born in a manger and lived on earth as one of us. Who has not only observed our situation, but came to know it as his own. Who joined in our suffering – to the point of being crucified on the cross.
And the title given this King – in today’s psalm it is “the son of man.” In a sermon on John, the great United Methodist preacher, Grace Imathiu analyzes this title, saying:
“Jesus is human, he loves being human. Time and time again he calls himself human: Son of Man. And he came to teach us how to be human: Son of Man. You see, Jesus is the new beginning. Jesus is the new Adam. Jesus came to show us how God intended for us to be.”[1]
The Son of Man – the very title used by the psalmist, is the title that Jesus uses to refer to himself – the title that reflects, not Christ’s divinity or royalty, but that God chooses to be like us.
God does not choose to be like the government – fumbling through paper work or looking the other way, hoping for a scandal or celebrity romance to distract us from the failures that surround Katrina and the failure in honoring its charge to provide for those still without homes.
God does not choose to be like the insurance companies – seeking to preserve profits over care, finagling between what is flood damage and what is hurricane damage.
God choose to become one of us – knowing our pain, knowing our reality, and knowing what will truly bring restoration.
By living as one of us, God has broken the divide between the divine and the human – and broken down all hierarchy with it.
Rather than hear the psalmist’s cry to “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see!” God walked in our shoes, and gave up his life to save us, suffering on the cross, quoting the words of another lament psalm saying, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
And so we know that we worship a God who does not simply know our struggles, has not simply read about them or looked down on us from a heavenly throne, but who has born our struggle on God’s very body, becoming one of us.
And by becoming one of us, God affirms our humanity, and calls us to see each other as sister and brother.
By serving us, even washing the feet of those who followed him during his earthly ministry – God calls us to model such servant-hood by serving each other.
And by sacrificing God’s life for us – God calls us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of our fellow woman and man.
Only then will we become whole – by following the example of this new Adam – and we know that it is in following his example that we will know what it means to be truly human.
In doing – we model the life of Christ, and will no doubt find the restoration of a hurricane torn region too long left broken, and the restoration of our souls, too long left longing for something more.

[1] R. Grace Imathiu, Words of Fire, Spirit of Grace: Twelve sermons from on of the world’s best preachers

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Eve 2007

This evening’s Scripture reading is Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 20.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men and women on who his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
I’ve only met one shepherd in my life. She was quite a person. I met her in a really interesting place; a place that was foreign to me, though it was only miles from our house. I met this one shepherd in a maximum security prison. To get into this prison I would first show my identification, walk through a metal detector, then maybe get waved with the metal detector wand should I set off the regular metal detector, then pass through a series of gates – and as I passed through one door it would immediately close behind me, and only then would the next door open. It was a scary place to be; a place full of walls between the inmates and the outside world.
In the women’s prison there is one program that really does something to help people get rehabilitated. This program where the women train Seeing Eye dogs to help the blind was the place that really made me feel hopeful. I ended up spending a lot of time in their building because they seemed to have a hope that life could be better – that upon release they could make a new life for themselves – that they would leave these prison walls behind them. I used to love that hope, because here was this one place where I didn’t feel so obligated to offer something, to say something, or to do something. This was the place where I could just be, or just listen. Every where else I was trying to say the thing that God would have me say, but in this one bastion of hope and rehabilitation I could just watch the good things going on.
It was in this place that I met a shepherd, an inmate who told me how she raised Catahoula Leopard Dogs before she was incarcerated. This woman told me about how she would be called out to farms when the cows had gotten out. She would release her dogs, and they would run out into the woods, chasing and corralling whatever cows were still running amuck, chasing them all back into the fenced area. She told me that she remembered a time when a particularly rough bull finally came out of the woods, but with one dog clamped to his side, this dog had bitten down so hard on the bull’s side, she refused to let go and just hung on to the bull until it had been corralled to safety.
She told this story with pride, for her dogs were so well trained that they would never give up – even risking their lives to do their job.
The shepherds mentioned in Luke’s gospel, just like this shepherd I met in a maximum security prison who raised Catahoula leopard Dogs, are not the kind of people who church going folks are used to hanging around with.
In our society, maybe you saw them early this evening in the nativity scene here at church, you might see shepherds, but these shepherds were little boys and girls dressed in their father’s bathrobes; something completely unlike the shepherds that are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. At the time Luke’s Gospel was written, Shepherds weren’t well thought of. If you were an ancient Roman citizen you might walk into a wealthy person’s backyard and see a grotesque statue of a person with no teeth and shabby clothes.
These statues often depicted shepherds for they were considered to be a homely addition to any well manicured garden – an effigy of a person who worked on the outskirts of society, living in huts rather than houses, tending flocks in their fields rather than participating in the life city people considered normal.
At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees believed that if we follow the law to the letter then the Kingdom of God would come, that if we are stringent enough with our Sabbath observance, or are clean enough, or are devout enough in our worship at the Temple, then the Kingdom of God will surely come.
However, the shepherds of the day would never have been able to live up to any of the Pharisees’ standards. How could they observe the Sabbath fully by giving a full day of rest when their animals needed to be fed – there are no animals that only need to be nurtured six days a week after all? They weren’t clean either, rarely having time for baths or brushing their teeth, as ancient documents tell us that most shepherd’s teeth were black, and how could any shepherd make it to the temple when their vocation mandated that they live and work in the prairies and valleys where their flocks could roam.
They were surely not viewed as good enough by the standards of the time, surely viewed as having nothing much to offer, surely a group in need of help or guidance or charity.
When I think of such a people I feel pity in the pit of my stomach, and I feel responsibility bearing down hard on my shoulders. I feel guilt for all that I have, and I feel obligation – thinking of the things that I could do to break down the walls of injustice and inequality – hoping for a day when the wall of privilege that insulates us would fall to provide for those without enough.
If I could sit on Santa’s lap this Christmas that is what I would ask for. I would ask for justice, I would ask for peace, I would ask for hope.
But this Christmas I realize this gift is not one in Santa’s bag, but is a gift that the shepherds have brought.
For on the first Christmas Eve – long, long ago, God told the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. The most important event of human history was not broadcasted on the evening news, not announced to the president or emperor, but told to the shepherds in their fields.
The first ones to get the news were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel of the Lord said to them, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
These shepherds, these unclean, these seemingly dangerous, these illiterate, these virtually homeless, these poor were entrusted with the most important – the most vital information. It was from their unclean lips, from their missing, broken, or black teeth that the good news was first uttered for the good of human kind.
I am used to thinking that it is my job to say it, but here I know that I am to hear it, realizing what God has done and what the shepherds were able to bring.
We worry so often that the good news of Christmas will shrink to a whisper as political correctness encourages us to be respectful of the many faiths that now surround us, and so we say Happy Holidays or Seasons greetings rather than Merry Christmas.
We worry that our children will miss out on the meaning of this great day because it becomes a morning of presents and not a morning of celebrating the birth of Christ.
And we worry that this day may not turn out the way it is supposed to because the turkey gets dry, someone has more to drink then they should, nobody likes the new girlfriend or boyfriend, and everyone ends up arguing instead of getting along around the dinner table in their holiday sweaters.
But tonight we hear this good news – and it is not even our job to make sure that it is heard. Tonight we celebrate God’s message that we will hear, not because we say it, but because we go to the people who can tell us about it.
We are led to the prison, where the walls are so high and so real – but we go and hear the gospel from our sisters who refuse to give up, hanging onto life with a will that defies explanation, living with knowledge of hope that inspires and encourages us to never give up.
We sit at our Christmas feasts, realizing that our table looks less like our ideal and more like our reality but we are led to the manger, where the smell of animals offends our senses, where our class bids us not go, but where we hear the words of the shepherds leading us to the place where we find Jesus, forgiving us our sins, affirming our humanity, biding us together as one.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Truth is Marching On

This morning’s (second) scripture lesson is Colossians 1, verses 11 through 20.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Being strengthened with all power according to God’s gracious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to God, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son God loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. For by him all things were created: all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the first born from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all God’s fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
I have been thinking about it for a little while, and I have decided that I am not sure that it is at all appropriate that the Christmas Holidays follow so soon after Thanksgiving. In some grocery stores the Christmas decorations have been up as soon as the Halloween candy came down, and while this kind of thing certainly signals a rush to Christmas, even now I am wishing there was a little more time before we hit the official Christmas season.
While I am really happy to see Christmas Coke on the shelf, wreaths on street lamps and front doors, and Christmas lights, whether tacky or tasteful showing up in trees that are for the most part now bare of leaves, this year I feel like our rapid transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas is a little strange, too much almost.
Because we go from sitting around a common table, sharing a bountiful feast with friends and family, taking time to sit back and realize how good we really have it, being thankful for so many good gifts – to thinking about the things we want Santa to bring us.
We go from a spirit of satisfaction at Thanksgiving to a spirit of want – feelings of contentment to feelings of need.
We go from finally being happy with what we have to looking around us and thinking about what we would really like to have.
I think it is a sad situation; and while I certainly like Christmas presents as much as the next guy, I hate to think about how Christ’s birthday moves this country from its place of “we are so blessed with what we have” right back into our normal places of “I sure would like this” and “we don’t really have enough of that do we.”
Just what would Paul say to us I wonder. What freedom would he have to offer?
Some movements in Biblical scholarship over the last 150 years or so proposed that the author of Colossians sought to answer the same question. Such a proposal, the theory that Colossians was not written by Paul but by someone seeking to apply Paul’s theology to his or her contemporary situation, explains the difference in vocabulary used in this letter, the glaring differences in sentence structure that appears, and the way Colossians addresses problems in the church that did not emerge until after Paul’s death.
The new circumstances that some aspiring theologian hoped to apply Paul’s theology, while adding his or her own nuances, deal greatly with power and influence. Apparently some philosophy was exercising strong influence over the Christian community by claiming that some force other than God could control their lives and destinies.
Paul, of course, claimed that while we must live under the forces of government and empire, it is truly Christ who is Emperor or King. That while we do still live in a world where powers and principalities shape our existence, Christ will return “like a thief in the night,” “he will descend from the clouds at the sound of the archangel’s trumpet.”
However, while Paul urged the Christian community to be ever ready for this trumpet call, it never seemed to come. And while their ears were open they didn’t hear it, and so became distracted by the other forces which shape the world in which we live in, falling pray to philosophies and idols that seemed to give order and purpose to their lives.
Of course, we are not so different. While at times our ears are attuned to the sounds of the heavens, we are not a people of ever ready waiting. After all, there are presents to be bought, tables to be set, gifts to be wrapped, check-out lines to wait in, and credit card bills to try and ignore until after the New Year.
We have become distracted, we have tuned our attention elsewhere, and so the sound of trumpets is not what we wait for as we think about what all has to be done in the days ahead, days that do not resemble either waiting or the Thankfulness of Thursday that is by now a long past memory, cast in shadow by the commerce of Black Friday.
While we do not worship Apollo or some vague Philosophy that the author of Colossians seeks to combat, our thoughts and emotions are heavily influenced by a culture of want, a culture of greed, a culture that will mislead us all at some point in time because the message will be heard by us all many, many more times should we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Today we will not hear Jesus saying in Matthew, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. ….” But we will no doubt hear how Jared diamonds will adorn our fingers, how LL Bean will keep us warm, and how the new BMWs can get us everywhere we want to go while conserving fuel and keeping our families safe.
And in such commercials we all listen, because we seek meaning, purpose, and happiness; and so the idols of materialism have infiltrated our thoughts and homes, and even our religion.
We do not thank God for the rains and lakes that have been provided, think of ways to conserve this majestic creation, living within our means, valuing the ecosystem more than the economy – so we go back to God praying for rain like a child who’s traded his bicycle for a stack of baseball cards and now asks for a new one. How should we expect our God to respond, than with a loving mother’s voice saying, “you were not responsible with the first one I gave you so what makes you think I’ll give you another.”
For God does not dispense these things that we think we need as freely as God sets us free from the system that causes us to want more and more and more.
The careful study of this morning’s passage may well lead us all to conclude that this letter was not written by Paul but another, but our scholarship is wasted if we do not also pick up on the verbs of this passage, verbs that do not present a theory but a fact, verbs that do not present an opportunity but a reality – the forces which sway are thinking are not God, and in fact, God has already concurred these things.
This concept, that God has already conquered these forces, is the subtle nuance that the author of Colossians adds to Paul’s theology; it is a shift from focusing on the return of Christ that is to come to the reign of Christ that is already our reality. That while endurance is still needed, that while patience is still a vital virtue, we “have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son” – and here we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Such a statement does reflect a theological shift, a necessary theological shift, for Christ had not yet come back. However, by the inspiration of God, the theology did not allow Christ’s return to disappear into myth, but caused a shift in theology, a shift to focus on these great gifts that we have already, the gift that Jesus’ power already controls the destiny of the world.
For as we face Christmas, looking for things we don’t have already, Colossians calls us to look at the great gift that we do have.
That when Christmas morning comes, and the presents don’t make us as happy as those people in the commercials seem, we have already been promised that God entered our world, and did not condemn it but brought us redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection.
As we face Christmas – fall into the trap of thinking the world is here for our consumption, though after we gorge ourselves our souls are empty - we are invited to eat at this table, remembering again how love is evidenced through the simplicity of bread and wine – How our God is evidenced not through gold and diamonds and Mercedes Benz, but through the most common elements of Christ’s time.
And as we look and look, taking into account things that we want and don’t have, look here for all that we truly need has already been given.
For while Santa Clause is coming to town – the truth that Christ has come is already here;
And while the sales will end, our rush will slow by New Year’s, the truth of Christ’s love is marching on, never to be stifled by the forces that tell us we still need more.
That truth, his truth, is marching on.

Monday, October 8, 2007

You intended harm, but God intended it for Good

-And now, continuing this epic into Egypt, many years later with Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, we turn to Genesis 50: 15-21, on page 40 of your pew Bibles.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘this is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
-The word of the Lord.
-Thanks be to God.
It has not taken me long to come to the conclusion that bad things do in fact happen to good people. While bad things also do happen to bad people, fair punishment is not the point of this morning’s scripture lesson(s). As in this morning’s scripture we step into a bizarre family drama, one where God’s will is not done because of the faithful, but despite the faithless, and so we enter a world that may seem much like our own. We come to know the brothers who out of jealousy threw their father’s favorite son into an empty well, then, rather than kill him as they had planned, sell him into slavery so that he is taken to Egypt. Such an act is simply horrible; worse than all kinds of things, certainly material too dysfunctional for even reality TV.
This morning we remember Joseph’s hardship, but we also look to events that occur years later, when Joseph meets his brothers, long after having been sold into slavery, finally seeing them face to face, he is finally given the opportunity to confront those who did him such harm.
Can you imagine the anger that must have built up inside of him? For while his brothers were safe at home, tending flocks that they had always tended, living life with the family they were born into, speaking the language they had always spoke, Joseph was a slave in a foreign land - his life in Egypt was no summer camp away from home, for aside from the obvious fear of living without his family in a region of the world he would have known little about, during his time in Egypt he worked without pay, was then framed by his owners wife, and imprisoned.
However, as Joseph meets his brothers, now as a powerful and trusted advisor to Pharaoh himself, he does not simply have his brothers killed, but chooses to forgive them.
It’s not clear whether these brothers were punished at all, in fact, Joseph seems to be completely unconcerned with their punishment saying, “Don’t be afraid.” And then asking, “Am I in the place of God?”
Such words seem so different from those of a rash and pompous child, one given a special coat, one who encouraged his brothers to bow down and worship him. The Joseph who the brothers meet years later, near the end of Genesis in chapter 50, is a very different person from the favored son who they threw into a well. This older Joseph speaks a different language, has asserted himself and risen in the ranks of Egyptian society, he has become a man shaped by his circumstance, a circumstance that would have been very different had he not been thrown into a well and sold into slavery.
As a powerful man in Egyptian society, he could have very easily had these brothers disposed of, their bodies thrown in the Nile; they could have been completely forgotten.
Completely forgotten, maybe by everyone but Joseph, as for Joseph their actions would not have been easily disposed of.
For the wrongs of his brothers were every where he turned. If it were not for their unfair actions, nothing in Joseph’s life would have been the same.
There would be no return to normality; their sins could not simply be washed away, for their sins had directed the course of his life completely.
For Joseph could simply not pretend that what happened didn’t happen. How could he forgive and forget as there would be no return to life before his brothers threw him into a well and sold him away to a foreign land.
For Joseph, forgiveness is possible though, but not because his brother’s actions could be undone, but because he has seen God’s purposes played out in the evil deeds of his brothers. To use Joseph’s words in Genesis chapter 50: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
This kind of acknowledgement offers distinctive theological depth to human life – especially to those people, who, like us, are constantly seeking a return to some kind of Eden, always looking for ways to start over, people looking inward, afraid to open our eyes to a world that seems to be going to the dogs.
For Joseph acknowledges that even in the worst circumstances, God has worked in his life, that even through those who wished him harm God’s mission to preserve the people has prevailed.
It is no easy statement – no simple theological claim – for it is so different from the pop religion that none of us can really escape. Joseph does not thank God for helping him avoid suffering, for Joseph has suffered. Joseph does not rejoice for he has been spared hardship; his faithfulness is not repaid by an easy life without violence. Rather, Joseph sees God’s hand at work, even through those who wished him harm.
Joseph does not claim that God threw him into a well, that God had him sold into slavery – but that God’s will has prevailed, that God’s will has been done, even at the hands of those who sought to do him harm.
From this perspective forgiveness is possible I think, but it is forgiveness with depth. It is not a forgiveness that offers a clean slate, not a forgiveness that allows anyone to turn over a new leaf, but a forgiveness that acknowledges there is more to life than sunny days, and that even at those times when we suffer; we are still being empowered to be the people of God.
Our hardships are not steps away from God’s plan, our mistakes do not throw us off the trail from grace, but every action, even the actions of those who wish us harm are all part of the victory of God taking place in our midst.
Such an outlook does not excuse, nor pretend that bad things did not happen, does not offer anyone blanket forgiveness for all that they have done, but calls us to see the greater scope of God’s purpose.
For too often we only seek to see what we presume is Godly, forgetting that it is our scars which give us the power to relate to the broken, that it is our experience with heartache that gives us the power to comfort the afflicted, that it is the knowledge of our own mistakes that give us the ability to forgive others.
For our God, is after all, the God who out of death brings us new life.
It is very different from the spirit of vengeance that surrounds us. For at this table it is the broken body that makes us whole.
Just as the evil deeds of Joseph’s brothers were the means by which God’s will was done – that it was the act of selling their brother into slavery that led to provision in a time of hunger – so at this table we are reminded that even in the death of Christ, God’s will for the salvation of this world is being made real.
It is this kind of theology of hope that closes the book of Genesis, and leads into the harsh slavery of the Exodus, for only such a theology can offer the perseverance needed to truly make it through hardship.
And it is only such a theology of hope that will offer us the sustenance to persevere when we are afraid, when we are in doubt, when we are angry, when we are lost, when we are faithless, when we face death – for even in such things we may take heart; that what may be “intended to harm you, God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.” - Amen.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Good News That's a Little Too Good

This morning’s scripture reading is Genesis, chapter 33, verses 1-17.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.
Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”
Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they two bowed down.
Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?”
“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.
But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”
“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”
But Jacob said to him, “My lord know that the children are tender and that I must care for the ewes and cows that are nursing their young. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die. So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the droves before me and that of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”
Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”
“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”
So that day Esau started on is way back to Seir. Jacob however, went to Succoth, where he built a place for himself and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place is called Succoth.
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God.
In a world that offers so many values that church going people don’t agree with, a nitch has developed in our community marketplace. As an alternative to those GI Joes’ which are so obviously violent, or those Barbie dolls, who can be overly sexual and certainly sexist, there is now a market for a cleaner, more wholesome brand of toys, and so the likes of Moses, Noah, Esther, and even Jesus have been cast into plastic molds, packaged, complete with accessories and staffs to hold onto, so that all kids can have appropriate toys to take to the sand box or doll house with them.
However, I believe that there is a great problem with Biblical Action figures. The main problem that I see is that the Bible simply does not lend itself well to the ways that our culture understands heroes.
Our culture tends to seek out heroes who are bigger and better than we are. What our culture seems to want is a Super Man – for Super Man is perfect. He is like us, but better, stronger, more heroic, more patriotic, and with better hair.
Barbie, in the same way, sets the standard of what it means to be the ideal – but it is an ideal set so high that no one could ever touch her. She is tall, slender, yet her feet are microscopic. She has no varicose veins, no cellulite – she is like a woman, but only in the sense that Super Man is like a man.
I worry too, as those parents who seek out a Christian alternative worry, that our children just don’t have enough good stuff to play with. But I also worry that our children’s toys symbolize one of society’s greatest problems – that is, that the bar is set so high that we are simply never good enough.
While I may be fast, I am not faster than a locomotive, and while you women may be beautiful, your feet are simply in a different proportion to your height – and so we are all left a little mediocre in comparison.
I feel like here is the tragic flaw in the Biblical alternative, for the Biblical Action figures that I have seen so far play by these same rules. Moses – while he does not wear his red underwear outside his blue tights as Super Man does, he is still muscle-bound in his plastic form – he could easily crush his Egyptian pursuers between his pectoral muscles and then use his staff as a Ninja Turtle’s Bo stick, spinning and whacking his foes from their chariots.
The doll Esther is barely different from Barbie in the same way that Moses is barely different from Super Man – as she has perfectly long hair, silky as a woman just stepping out of an Herbal Essence commercial, with eyes so big that they take up half her face, leaving little room for that tiny speck of a nose.
These similarities make me angry really, for while these Biblical Characters are in fact inspired by the Bible – they are so much more similar to their secular counterparts than the actual people that the Bible presents to us. It makes me angry, as we forget their humanity, and once again present our children idols that they will never measure up to.
So as I look at myself, realizing how unlike Super Man I am, I thank God for the people that the Bible truly presents to me.
For Biblical people were very unlike Super Man or Barbie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if these Biblical Action Figures were truly representative of their Biblical Counterparts then the Moses figure would have to come with a pull cord that made him speak – but with a stutter – just as the Biblical Moses was embarrassed by his lacking public speaking skills.
And the Esther, the true Esther of the Bible is no doll – she is strong, and smart, not to mention so brave that she infiltrated a king’s court to become a hero of her people. So how is her heroism to be represented by a doll with eyes too big for her head – this is supposed to be the Esther of the Bible and not the Esther of the Roswell New Mexico UFO landing?
And as we think about Jacob – the man our scripture passage leads us back to, we must wonder – how will the designers of the Jacob action figure emulate him. I have not seen his action figure likeness, but I can only assume that he would be muscle bound with a smile of perfectly white teeth – for this is the kind of figure that our children are used to playing with. Our heroes are bigger than life, seeking to characterize virtue, as opposed to vice; but when we truly take a look at the Jacob of the Bible, we do not see Super Man. We truly see selfishness and trickery – for the man presented in the Bible is no hero in our culture’s sense of the word. As we read this passage we do not see Super Man - in today’s passage we should all see one of the Bible’s great jerks.
In Jacob – we do not see the person who we can hope to be at our best. Rather, we see the person who we are afraid to acknowledge – the person we dread looking in the mirror, that is, ourselves at our worst.
For the Bible is not some shiny and idealized Obituary. This Bible of ours is not like the Newspaper who speaks so well of a grandfather as though he were an angel without flaw – our Bible may be more like a recording of what our grandfather’s old friends say about him in voices too soft for anyone else to hear. This Bible of ours is not like the memories of a grandmother, who now that she has passed on is only remembered for who she was on some idealized Christmas morning, for the Bible would record who she was at her worst – her alcoholism, her drug use, her anger.
The Bible is not some sugarcoated image of God’s people. It does not lift heroes up so high that we can never reach them. No, the Bible brings heroes down low – so that we may look into their eyes and realize that they are not so unlike us.
In this morning’s scripture reading we see first Jacob the coward, Jacob who offers his wives, concubines, and children as penance to his brother, and then we are led to the occasion when Jacob finally meets his brother Esau, who, for whatever reason forgives him. We read that “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.”
But how does Jacob respond – he should rejoice, he should celebrate – but no, in the words of the great 20th century scholar Gerhard Von Rad, we find “the mistrust of one who himself has often deceived.” For though Esau forgives him, Jacob will not trust this forgiveness – and when Esau asks Jacob to journey with him a while down life’s road, Jacob assumes that he is being led into a trap, and so he tricks Esau and goes down another road, a road that is lonely, but one that must be traveled because that forgiveness offered by his brother just sounded a little too good.
In Jacob we find how easy it is for God to forgive us, how Jacob is made a great hero of the Bible, not because of his own valor, but because God choose to do great work through him; but we also find how hard it can be to let forgiveness work in our lives – to allow ourselves to change our perceptions of the world and of ourselves.
In this area, the example set by Super Man, Barbie, or the Biblical alternatives all seem painfully inadequate, for what does Super Man or Barbie need to be forgiven for, what shortcomings must they come to terms with? It is in the example of Jacob that I see the true tragedy of living a life of deception, for after living a life earning his keep by trickery, we now find a man unable to trust in forgiveness.
By this Biblical testimony, we may see what it means to be a child of God, to come to terms with who we actually are rather than hiding and ignoring our flaws – for God does not choose to work through the perfect, as what do the perfect need with a God who forgives inadequacies. In Jacob we see a God who works through a dangerously flawed man, and come to know how God will love and work through us, despite our flaws, despite our trust issues, leading us all down the long, hard path towards living with ourselves, and accepting forgiveness.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Think Outside the Boat

This morning’s (second) scripture reading is Genesis, chapter 8, verses 13-22.
-I invite you to listen for the word of God.
By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.
Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you – the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground – so that they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.”
So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds – everything that moves on the earth – came out of the ark, one kind after another.
Then Noah built an alter to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.
And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God.
Long car rides can be rough. This past weekend Sara and I were at her parents’ house not far from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and our trip there usually takes about 3 hours. For me, that 3 hour stint is a long time to sit in the car. Sara is always in a hurry to get there, thinking that a stop for me to buy a snack and use the bathroom will only impede the trip time, slowing us down, taking that much longer to get to our destination. I, on the other hand, love to get out of the car, if for nothing else, than to stretch my legs.
I guess that’s why the first thing I noticed when I really slowed down to read this passage is that even after the water dries up – which took just less than a year from the time the waters began to rise – Noah is in no rush to get out and stretch his legs.
Even once the ark is finally land locked with no where to go, Noah stays on the ark for nearly two additional months. He had in fact reached his destination, and still wouldn’t let anyone out to use the bathroom and get a coke.
It is not until God tells Noah to get out of that boat - demands that he evacuate his ark - that Noah lets anyone out.
I generally assume that I would have been beating the door down to get out of that place. Imagine how it smelled; imagine the piles of human and animal waste, the frustration of the horses who wanted to run and the birds who wanted to fly.
Even as gas prices climb, even as the summer air outside the air conditioned car gets hotter and hotter, even in the face of disgusting gas station bathrooms, I still want out of that car, and I am sure that I would have wanted out of that boat.
But let’s face it; the world is a scary place once you open the door to it.
Just as Noah’s world would have been a scary place to open the doors too. In chapter 6 this pre-flood world is described as violent and corrupted. In verse 5 of chapter six “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually”; and then in verse 6, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
As I read about the world that God destroyed in the flood, I think about our own world. I wonder if we are so different. We are most certainly violent – and we are no doubt corrupt. The violence on this earth seems completely insurmountable. I watch the news and I want to hide somewhere, or at least lock the doors and try to keep the violence and corruption out.
As I monitor the greater world through the lens of newspapers and TV it seems as though redemption and peace has no chance in much of the world. Despite many lives lost, despite many dollars spent, it seems as though Iraq is getting worse and worse and not better; that the fighting between Israel and Palestine will never cease, that genocide is still not an evil so great that it has seen its last day, that hunger and disease in every corner of the globe is attacking children before they even have a chance - and I wonder what God is thinking.
We live in a world that seems so far from what God intended – the world seems sometimes as though there is no hope of redemption - that things might be better off if the ice caps just melted and blotted out everything. Then the violence would stop, and then the corruption would be no more.
That was always my technique when playing computer games when I was in middle school. I used to play a game called Civilization where the goal was world domination, and if I made a false move, if things started going in a way I didn’t want them to, especially if I thought I might lose, I would just hit the restart button and begin again.
God has hit the restart button through the flood and Noah is the seed planted by God in the wreckage of a fallen world, an effort at starting over in this humanity project - but Noah doesn’t feel like playing any more. It looks like he would rather stay in the boat.
We shouldn’t be surprised, even though we can all imagine how good it would feel to get out of that ark after being on it for a full year, as our theological understanding of God and ourselves is not so different from Noah’s.
Noah knew what would happen to him if he messed up again. Yes, he was good, but he wasn’t perfect. What if things got going and violence once again broke out, what if he disappointed this very violent God who had proven his capacity to punish those who fall short.
Not unlike Noah, the pilgrims who came to this country on boats were also looking for a fresh start – an escape from a culture that seemed violent and corrupt, fallen – they wanted to start over in a new country.
As we all know, this country though, has proven itself to be less than the city on a hill – less of a haven for religious perfection and devotion to God than those pilgrims must have hoped.
Extremist Muslims certainly see us, not for the aspirations that we were founded on, but for the secularism that we export – they see us for our television shows and movies, for our economic policies and un-ending thirst for oil – we are seen as violent and corrupt; as fallen, and so many seek to take the power of God into their own hands, destroying our culture with their own flood of bombs and airplanes, seeking to wipe us out so that the world might start over.
But there are certainly many people beyond the scope of extremist Islam who maintain the same theological world view. There are those who would love to simply blast the Middle East back into the Stone Age, to start over, to begin again, to give up on those who seem lost, to destroy and plant a new seed.
I believe that such a world view could very well be the most dangerous theological conviction, not only for the future of the world but for the future of our very sense of self.
As we look out into the world, seeing ourselves in the same light that God saw before opening the windows of the heavens so that water would flood the earth, we must remember that Noah was afraid to leave his boat, scared to participate in God’s experiment with human kind once again.
How could he eagerly exit his boat, knowing the corruption that was sure to come as soon as he left his vessel, as all the needed corruption was already there in his own soul? How could he leave his ark knowing that the fallenness that God had tried to destroy lived on in him, lived on in his brokenness, his imperfections, his inadequacies; that the violence of the pre-flood world would live on because it had survived in Noah’s own DNA.
Noah knew that the perfect world God sought would never be a reality, that the fallen world God had destroyed in the flood would only be reborn again, that the world Noah would found would have to be destroyed, that the problem God saw in the humanity God had created would not be solved - because there is a tragic flaw inside each of us.
So Noah was afraid to leave the ark, for the same reason that I am afraid for God to see my imperfections.
Noah was afraid to leave the ark for the same reason that so many Christians point out other people’s sins rather than think seriously about their own.
Noah was afraid to leave the ark for the same reason that children do not easily admit their problems or wrong doings to their parents.
For they fear, as we all fear - that the acknowledgement of their mistakes and imperfections will surely be the cause of the end of relationship; that the love of their parents cannot be un-ending, unconditional, but must be contingent on their actions.
And why should they not fear when faced with such a fragile and shallow understanding of love.
And why should we believe that there is another, a deeper, a true love evidenced in each other and in God, as this theological assumption – the assumption that love is a contract that can be broken - runs rampant in our culture.
This kind of theological assumption is real in the God of the flood – in a God who destroys and starts over.
This kind of theological assumption lives on in the life of each person who believes that the middle east must be destroyed, or that New York City must come crumbling down so that a new world may be begun.
And this kind of God will also live on in our very souls for as we judge the world as being undeserving, unredeemable, in need of destruction and a new beginning.
Under such a limited theological assumption we cannot help but see ourselves in that same light, as the sin that we see out in the world is right here in this sanctuary, living and breathing inside this boat, because the fallenness that causes violence is simply a part of our humanity – so we too are afraid to leave this boat, for we believe in a judgmental and violent God who surely cannot love us if we reveal our brokenness.
So God calls Noah out of the Ark, because God must call Noah to come out of the Ark because Noah is afraid of God as he understood God in light of the flood.
For Noah expects to be struck down, if not now then two or three generations down the road – the next time humanity’s fallenness comes to the point that God will decide to send a flood down on the earth to clean up the mess humankind has made.
But Noah is not struck down.
For God promises not to flood the earth again.
And God calls Noah into a relationship, though God knows, as Noah knows, that the intended perfection, the foundation of a perfect world has not been achieved.
By this relationship Noah comes to understand God in a new way, and we may all be so bold to do like-wise.
A new understanding of God emerges that is made real as God calls Noah out of the Ark, but it is one that is rarely shouted as loudly as the image of a God who desires an oasis of faithful people in the midst of a fallen world, a new image, though it stands against the image of a God who is on the brink of destroying this whole world while saving the faithful in Rapture that is so popularly illustrated by the Left Behind series. A new image of God emerges that is in direct contrast to the image of God who invites us to start over, and who expects us to be perfect in every way – buying the right clothes, listening to the right radio station, buying books from the right kind of book store – and disengaging ourselves from much of the world around us – creating our own arks of faithful behavior in the midst of a roaring sea that awaits God’s next consuming fire.
But can’t we hear God calling us out of the Ark?
Can’t we hear God calling us into the world?
Can’t we hear God acknowledging our imperfections and loving us anyway?
Can’t we hear God calling us into a relationship knowing full well that the sin that God attempted to drown lives on in our very souls?
Can’t you hear God telling you that our God is not done with you yet?
God is calling us out of our Ark, but will we be bold enough to see what waits. That God does not meet Noah in his boat, but outside it, in the world.
So we must be bold enough to hear God in the words of music, whether it is on the Fish or not, whether it comes from the Contemporary Christian section or not.
We must be brave enough to learn new things about God from books, whether they come from the right book store or not, even if they are written by non-Christian writers.
We must keep our eyes open, because God is working in the world outside of our Ark, just as God is working in us, despite our sinful fallen nature.
So let’s listen to God as God calls us out of our Ark and into the world where God is at work.
Our world is full of violence, the sins of humanity are boldly vivid in our world, and it seems now more than ever. But our call is not to defend God; our call is not to look inward, hiding from a fallen world, as we are called out by God to see what God is doing.
The violence may not end, but our hopelessness will not help make this world any better.
As we must confess to believe in a God who has not left this world behind, who has not given up on this world and has not given up on us.
For we worship a God who calls us out into the world to boldly see what God is doing.
We too often assume that perfection is our goal.
But God simply calls us out of our boats into the world, where we may offer our gifts, and that God might find these offerings pleasing.
God knows our very souls, and still calls us into relationship.
In this relationship our sins are revealed, in this relationship our fallenness is visible – but more importantly, we see that we are worthy of communion with the most high. That God has not given up on us – that God does not seek to condemn us; that God seeks a redeeming relationship with us, saying “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” These are the words of the true God, so thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Marks of Jesus

This morning’s scripture reading is Galatians 6: 11-18 and can be found on page 826 of your pew Bible.

I invite you to listen for the word of God.

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised.
The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.
Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God
The cross is a symbol we see so often, that I wonder if we are not sometimes dulled to its harsh meaning.
We wear this symbol on necklaces, see it tattooed, painted on buildings, on bumper stickers and t-shirts; we see the cross all over.
So it’s hard to be shocked to the roots of this symbol.
For many Christians, we look to the cross for comfort, for support, for it is to many a tangible and constant symbol of God’s love.
However, it is also a constant and tangible symbol of our sinfulness; for it is by this cross that we executed God.
Not unlike the electric chair of old prisons, the plank of a pirate ship, or a guillotine from the French Revolution, this cross is a symbol of capital punishment, as this symbol has everything to do with death and violence.
In a time where executions are not public spectacle, a time where we put our prisoners to sleep peacefully rather than as painfully as possible as was the intention of the Roman Empire, we must strive to remember what this cross is all about.
Paul – unlike us – can’t seem to forget the pain of it all though, as this passage tells us that he wears the marks of Christ on his very body.
This statement is the most captivating of the whole letter of Galatians for me, for it makes me wonder, what is it that he is really talking about. Is he speaking literally, as through he bears the marks of the stigmata – the real and physical holes in his hands and feet – or is Paul speaking figuratively?
Regardless, we can be sure that for Paul the cross is a symbol that strikes pain in him somehow – the brutality of it all does not seem to pass far from his thoughts.
For in the cross Paul sees not only his own faults, but in the cross, in the marks of Christ, Paul sees the faults of the World.
Paul, now at the end of Galatians, seems to know these marks personally, for the world now judges Paul just as the world judged Christ.
Paul – like Christ – became a traitor to his tradition.
Those who oppose him accuse him of acting and speaking in a way contrary to what is in the Bible, just as they accused Jesus.
In this letter to the Galatians Paul’s most obvious charge is Genesis 17: 9-14, but most especially vs. 14 which says, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
It is based on such a command from God in the book of Genesis, that those who accuse Paul find the ground of their argument, for how can Paul say, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” matter, for such a statement clearly goes against what the Bible says. And not only against what the Bible says but what tradition says, what people grew up hearing and believing.
It was blasphemy; his teachers and his parents must have been very disappointed.
But Paul had seen the flaw in living his life according to such laws, living his life attempting to make himself pure before God, trying to earn his salvation. For Paul saw that life could not be based on such laws alone - when Paul saw the cross and some how realized that God was on that cross.
That God had been charged with breaking the laws canonized in our Bibles; that God had been found guilty by those judges that were to stand for righteousness so that people might come closer to God, that God had been executed by the Law.
So if the Law is God’s, how can God be guilty, Paul had to ask?
While Paul is charged with breaking one Law of Genesis, Jesus, God in human form, is charged with breaking even more.
For Christ did not live his life abiding completely by what was written in the Bible, for God was compelled to live beyond those regulations.
Christ was charged with breaking the Sabbath codes, laws created to emphasize the importance of abiding by this commandment, but God found it more just to heal the sick than to serve this law, he decided that loving his neighbor as himself is more important than loving the Sabbath, saying, “the Sabbath was created for man not man for the Sabbath!”
Just as Christ was compelled to serve those who were left out by the tradition founded on this Law rather than the tradition itself, so Paul calls us to serve God, not tradition, who convicted Jesus Christ.
It may sound easy – to live by obedience to our brothers and sisters rather than living in obedience to tradition, but for Paul this was no easy task.
Paul was faced with a very hard decision. He had the rules for his life, plain as day, just as we have. He knew what he should eat, how he should live, and what things to do to best serve God.
There are some who say that Paul, if he would have just stuck to the Law, that he would have been a made man – living an easy life in a high office, his future was set – but how could he go on serving God through tradition when he realized that tradition had sentenced God to the Cross?
That tradition had marked Christ a sinner, a Law breaker, for they would rather boast in those rules that they were not guilty of than see the sinfulness that Christ’s life made so apparent.
Standing for the truth marked Christ a sinner, and now standing for the truth has marked Paul with the marks of Christ.
These marks that Paul speaks of – I believe he could feel them, and they weren’t only the marks of a loving God, they were also the marks left by a family disappointed, the marks left by a good job he had to leave behind, the marks left by turning his back on what everyone expected him to do so that he could do what he believed was right. They were the marks left by those who attacked him, accusing him of ignoring the Bible, ignoring his culture and tradition, falling away from the right and just path.
In this last passage of Galatians, Paul does not sound as though the marks of Christ are something that he is proud of, that he boasts in, for he asks that no one cause him any more trouble, as though he has had enough, as though he doesn’t want to put up with it anymore. He is tiered, and maybe he even wants to go back to the life he had before, those days when life was easier, all you had to do was follow the rules and you would know that God loves you. All you have to do is be proud that you have been circumcised, and don’t worry about those who fall short of this standard. Boast in the marks that prove your innocence and God will love you, all you have to do is eat right and you will be healthy and happy.
But how could Paul go back, knowing that those rules had put God on the cross?
He could not, and neither should we, but we do. We look to the Bible to tell us that we are good, and that they are bad, that we are right and they are wrong, forgetting that doing so is not so unlike those who charged Jesus with braking the Sabbath, and those who accused Paul of breaking the circumcision codes.
For by using the Bible this way we may feel as though we are holy, as though we are just, as though we are righteous, but by doing so are we not just like those who Paul accuses of boasting in the flesh.
And if we use the Bible this way, do we not assume that God’s love is some how contingent on human behavior.
As we look to the cross, we must see the violence and self-righteousness that put God there, but we must also see a God who loved us any way.
For hear is a symbol of death, but because of the Love of God, the love of God for us that would not die though we tried to kill it, we see a love that we cannot win, cannot deserve, and cannot deny to anyone, lest we risk denying it to ourselves.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

You Are What You Eat

This morning’s scripture reading is Galatians 6: 1-10, and can be found on page 826 of your pew Bible.
-I invite you to listen for the word of God.
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God
Some would say that a German man named Karl Barth is the most influential theologian of the 20th century. In his most celebrated work, Church Dogmatics, Barth puts into writing his theology, much of which can be applied to our lives today if we take the time to understand what on earth he is talking about. In his volume on the church Barth seems to draw precisely on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and claims that the Bible must not become a rule book for our lives, for it offers something much more complicated than simple legalism. In fact, if life were a game of cards and the rules for this game were written down in the Bible, the outcome is already obvious, we have all lost; and while some of us will continue to attempt to earn salvation through doing good works, continue to see others as either better or worse than they are, those who read Paul’s letter to the Galatians and take his teaching on circumcision seriously must come to the conclusion that salvation is not something that we can earn through circumcision, through right diet, through living upright lives in any way – for salvation is a gift given by God through Christ’s crucifixion. However, while salvation is given and guaranteed, our happiness is not. While salvation will not come through abiding to the law, through avoiding alcohol, shrimp, or pork, we still are what we eat, and so in the first half of this last chapter of Galatians we find practical wisdom that sounds something like the saying that I have been hearing all my life, you are what you eat.
In our society, like all societies this is an inescapable truth, but in our culture of diet and exercise the saying takes on a particular meaning. As I asked a few people what they thought of when I said, “You are what you eat,” the reaction was always the same, if you eat healthy you will feel healthy, if you eat unhealthy you will feel unhealthy. This kind of option makes me think of the check-out isle of the grocery store where on one side stands the rack of magazine covers presenting women and men so skinny, healthy, and good looking they almost don’t seem real, and on the other side stands the candy bars. Which side will I choose? Will I side with the skinny celebrities or the delicious candy – what will I pick, will I stick to my diet as these celebrities are so good at doing or will I give into the temptation and bite into that delicious Snicker’s bar?
However, neither side of the check out line offers us the happiness that we seek. The candy bar may offer a momentary satisfaction, while the lifestyles of the rich and famous so often only offer a shallow smile that covers a life of insecurity, a truth we come to know too well when these celebrities fall from the pedestals that we place them on.
To a great degree, we are what we eat, and the pictures of celebrities’ show us just how true that is - especially as I think about their diets and the bodies those diets produce as compared to my diet and the stomach that my diet has produced.
But I have recently wondered how much do we really know about those things that we eat? We live in a world of constant spring and summer. The tomatoes that are only now becoming ripe in Georgia have been sitting proudly on our hamburgers all year round, though maybe not as ripe and juicy as they could be. We live in a world where we can eat a much greater variety of fruits and vegetables than what our local farmers can grow, and we so often eat potatoes from Idaho and Peru, Apples from Washington and Chile, not simply Georgia peaches and peanuts. If then, we are what we eat, what are we if we don’t even really know where our food comes from?
We are simply not the agrarian society that Paul addresses in this letter to the Galatians. He says: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
We are no longer a culture of reapers and sowers. We do not depend on the land that we live on to nourish our bodies, we do not worry about our livelihood during a drought, but only the health of our lawns; but we can be sure that Paul’s audience knew exactly what he was talking about.
If you only plant one kernel of corn you should not expect to reap in a full harvest, and if you plant just one seed you should not expect to feed your whole family through the whole winter.
Just as our lives are far from the reality of the Galatians, just as our culture of grocery stores is so different from their culture of farm land, just as we cannot be too sure of what we are for we hardly know what it is that we eat, we are also often misguided as we think of the realty and the consequences of what we sow.
So often we live lives unconcerned with the consequences of our actions. Our cars spew forth exhaust fumes but we wonder why on earth the city is covered in a grey cloud of smog. We sit in front of the TV for hours and wonder why we never talk any more, why we don’t know our neighbors (Pause).
Never was the harsh reality of actions and consequences, or sowing and reaping to use Paul’s language, more striking than when a drug dealer told me about the time one of her clients came to her door with her two children, soaked to the bone by the rain. This mother, addicted to the drugs that this woman was selling, brought with her two wet children, one with a diaper that it seemed had not been changed all day. The woman who told me this story said that she took the two children and told their mother to get clean, and to come back later when she could take care of her children properly.
She took in the children bathed them, held them in her arms and saw exactly how bad the drugs she was selling were. She was in the business of sowing drugs, and so on that rainy night she reaped in a harvest of child cruelty that resulted from those drugs.
This week in Washington it seems as though the same was true, as some of this country’s most judgmental representatives were judged for breaking the moral code that they so boldly preached. They sowed judgment and so they are now being judged.
Though in our own lives it is not often so obvious - but the same is still true.
Our society has sown an economy and a way of life dependent on foreign oil, and how can we expect to survive as the oil runs out if we do not develop new technologies?
If we sow relationships that devalue our bodies and our emotions, can we expect to reap the reality that we are one of God’s children?
In our marriages, if we sow adultery, pornography, or abuse, can we expect to reap happiness, mutual respect, and good self-esteem for our spouse?
In a society obsessed with low cost and good deals, should we be surprised to find low paying jobs filled by the most desperate to work, should we not expect to reap bad service and the end of Mom and Pop businesses?
In a world that sows war, we must ask if it will be through sowing war that we can expect to reap peace.
In a world that puts a priority on making more and more money, working longer and longer hours, who can expect relaxation, happy families, and good marriages?
In neighborhoods without side-walks filled with houses without front porches, who can expect to find the kind of community that we all need?
If we sow individualism, if we only look out for number one, what can we expect to reap but loneliness and isolation?
If we value money first and our families and friends last, will the money fill the emptiness that we are sure to reap?
If we don’t tithe, then can we expect to reap a church that can satisfy all our needs and that can be a strong voice in the community?
Just Friday over ice cream a wonderful person named June told me about an obituary that listed, “member of the Sam’s Club” as one of the recently deceased accomplishments. I hope and pray that my obituary will not be concerned with my ability to buy toilet paper in bulk, but that by the time I die I might be remembered as being generous, being kind, being a good husband, for it is in sowing these things that I believe I will reap happiness and joy.
The thought of such happiness helps me to remember God’s plan for us; that we find true joy – but we must remember that we will not find it in those places that the world tells us we will.
We must trust Paul, following our maker’s instruction, not so that we might avoid some eternal hell fire, but so that we might find the happiness that God wants us to have.
“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Well that Sounds Easy Enough

This morning’s scripture reading is Galatians 5: 13-26.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
-The Word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God.
In this passage of scripture Paul once again calls us to the freedom that Christ Jesus has brought us. He claims that the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself;” and that if you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer slaves to the law.” Paul claims that freedom has come, just as freedom came to many on July 4th, 1776, and then to many more nearly one hundred years after that.
In the year 1863 as the Civil War raged on President Lincoln by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed all slaves. But where the abolition of slavery brought freedom once the strength of Lincoln’s Proclamation came to fruition, it was not long before the powers of evil made slavery real once again through low wage jobs, denial of the opportunity for land ownership, and denial of the right to vote, not to mention the reality of the constant menace of racism most dangerously incarnate in the form of the KKK.
It is the gift of freedom that Paul asks us to remember for according to this example we must remember how easily freedom may turn back into slavery.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that the entire law is summed up in one command and it is one that is easy to remember: Love your neighbor as yourself. One command then, some might say, that sounds easy enough.
That we are to avoid things like sexual immorality, debauchery, and hatred, striving for things like love, joy and peace – yes, all of this may sound easy enough
That we are called to freedom, that we are to no longer be slaves to our sinful nature, and that we are to be led by the Spirit – that too may sound easy enough.
Paul, in this letter to the Galatians, calls us to something that may seem obviously attractive and blatantly simple. He calls us to freedom, to avoid many things that the vast majority of people know will not make anyone happy, and to strive for those things that will.
But most importantly it seems, Paul calls us to be free – but those of us who know our humanity well will remember how President Lincoln’s words set men and women free in one sense, while slavery reared its ugly head once again. Those of us who know our humanity well know that freedom is rarely simple, and that freedom from one thing so often too easily becomes nothing more than a transfer from one form of slavery to another.[1]
Paul issues these warnings for Paul knows that freedom is dangerous - that a society that attempts to exist without Laws faces chaos. For the Hebrew Laws that Paul seems to fight against offer a life that seems far from chaos. A life regimented by dietary codes, laws concerning clothing, laws concerning farming, codes of conduct, all of which can still be found in the first five books of our Bible, and all of which, for Paul, can be represented by circumcision – his main subject in this book called Galatians.
Given the importance of these laws and all laws, critics of Paul simply need to ask: and where would the Galatians be if all of these laws were abolished? If the freedom that you speak of were truly granted?
So Paul warns: “do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.”
In this phrase we may once again see the limits of our English language, for according to Bible scholar Dr. Charles Cousar this sentence might more appropriately be translated as “do not allow your freedom to become a beachhead for sin.” This past 4th of July many of us may have been reminded of what a beachhead is and how during WWII our freedom was threatened once again by a strong enemy. Just Monday the man who delivers our trash bags and toilet paper told me all about the day his platoon stormed the beach at Normandy. He said it was a day that he will never forget – his voice held the importance of that day’s victory. That success on that beachhead meant that the enemy was on their way to defeat –that the tide had changed – and Paul uses this kind of imagery to emphasize the importance of not allowing freedom to indulge the sinful nature.
For the fact is, freedom must be defended – and the defense of freedom takes constant discipline, for once you give in just a little, once the enemy storms the beach and establishes a beachhead the war is that much harder to win.
I thank God that our veterans won that day, but Paul urges us to not let sin sneak into our lives that same way for freedom must be defended.
Today new enemies creep once again into our midst. Our military is fighting a new war – but there is also a spiritual war raging in our society. The battle between right and wrong – the standards set by our for-parents seem to be slipping away for it seems as though the world is about to erupt into chaos and lawlessness. So many believe that we must fight once again, but I am not sure it is just that easy.
We live in a world in need of change – a world steeped in injustice – a world that once again must defend freedom.
But while we need freedom it is something that we also fear for we fear that lawlessness is the only force that will fill the void when the Laws are overturned – when the traditions of old are threatened as Paul claimed that the truth of Christ demands that we challenge those laws that we have always held so dear. But Paul does not advocate lawlessness – no – he advocates for freedom – and he calls us to remember that freedom must not turn into slavery once again.
He calls us to reform our society through the lens of the one law that completes all laws: that “The entire law is brought to completion or perfection when the single command: Love your neighbor as yourself” is applied for our freedom is threatened when our law does not enable us to do so.
Some would say that in this past week our laws have been threatened.
Scooter Libby, a man charged with lying on four different occasions – four lies that may have helped stop end an effort to discredit the Vice-President and President and their case for war in Iraq - a man charged with 2 and a half years in prison.
This week his sentence was commuted – and as I read this passage in Galatians I realize why it was.
Because in his case the law could not be blind, for in Scooter Libby the President saw his neighbor. He saw someone like him, someone from the same background, someone from the same class; someone like him and so the law had to be reformed.
But there is a woman at the Metro State Women’s prison who will not be so lucky. She murdered her husband – she was tried and convicted and because she is on death row when she walks through the prison compound everyone must stand 10 feet away from her as much of her right to basic human contact has been taken away.
But would the law not have been different if her judge could have loved this woman as himself – if her judge was a battered woman, and how different would her sentence be if the law was reformed so that we all could love this woman as we love ourselves?
How different our legal system would be if all people were tried by someone who could empathize, someone who could “love their neighbor as him or her self” as seems to be the case with Scooter Libby. How different would this woman’s sentence be if she were tried by someone who knew what it was like to have an abusive husband, who knew what it was like to fear for your life?
In some ways we are like her, we are not really as free as Paul would have us be. We are slaves to the law still, and so we are not always able to love our neighbors as ourselves.
So freedom must be defended once again.
May God open our eyes to the truth – that the world is made up of only our brothers and sisters in Christ. May you see your own face in every person that you meet.
[1] J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 485.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

What is Paul Talking About?

This morning’s scripture reading is Galatians’ 5: 1-11.
I invite you to listen for the word of God.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.
The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
I can’t say that I intended to preach about circumcision on Children’s Sunday, that’s just the way the preaching schedule worked out, but the good thing is, Paul wasn’t really preaching about circumcision either.
Paul, in this section of Galatians, was talking about human attempts to earn salvation; a task that Paul knows is impossible – and, ironic, especially as we Christians confess to believe that salvation has already been won by Christ’s crucifixion. That is the meaning behind this symbol which is our main symbol of Christianity, that by Jesus’ death, we have been saved, not through our own works, but through the work of God.
However, like the Galatians, we sometimes forget, and try to earn salvation ourselves, or at least order our society in a way that denies the power of the cross.
You see, because Christ earned salvation for us, there is no longer any reason to order society the way we always have. We like to order society by thinking about who is cool and who is not, who is good and who is bad, who is righteous and who is sinful, but Paul doesn’t seem to think we should be allowed to do that if we acknowledge that we are given salvation, not because we are good but because God is good.
We can be a lot like a bunch of yellow birds that Dr. Seuss told a story about. There was this group of big yellow birds who lived happily on an island. At least, they were all happy, until a man came around with a machine that could put green stars on their yellow bodies. Once one of the birds had a green star, all the birds had to have a green star to be like the bird who looked so special with that green star, but once every bird had a green star the man with the star machine had to figure out a way to keep selling stars so he convinced some of the birds that it would be better to have two stars on their yellow bodies. The birds with two stars walked around like they were better than everyone else, so the birds with one star naturally wanted to get two stars, so they paid the man to get two. Then some of the birds wanted three stars so they could feel like they were better or more special than the birds with two stars, but then all the birds with two stars wanted three, so some of the birds got three stars, and then four and then five, and on and on they went until some of those birds were covered in green stars, looking like they were more green than yellow.
Today, none of us have green stars on our chests, but we still do things to make ourselves feel special, to make ourselves feel like we are better than someone else. Sometimes we buy up the nicest things, the best shoes, the coolest cars, the biggest houses, the best video games, but once we get the thing that we think is so cool it’s not long before there is something else that we have to have, just like the birds with one star thought one star would be enough, but soon they wanted two and then three, and then on and on and on.
Here at the church we are sometimes guilty of doing the same kind of thing, just as this morning’s scripture passage tells us about. We all want to feel special - like we are special to God – so we buy things, or we do things to make ourselves feel more special. Maybe we buy something new, maybe we give something up, maybe we stand up for something that we really believe in - maybe we don’t put green stars on our chests, but we certainly take pride in ourselves for doing things that make us feel special.
But the problem is that we can’t depend on anything to make ourselves better than anyone else – because the fact is that we all mess up, we are all sinners. And when we try to make ourselves more holy than we are we end up just like those birds, with stars all over ourselves, looking less like the yellow birds that God created us to be.
For if we could make ourselves feel special, that God would not have had to offer us Jesus on the cross. Paul wrote that, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace.” In trying to make ourselves feel special, we deny the power of the cross, because it is this cross that is the ultimate sign of God’s love, the source of what makes us special, the reason we can all call ourselves God’s children.
Of course, just because God’s love comes for free, that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want, because we all know that if we did whatever we felt like doing without respecting each other and ourselves we would not be as happy as God would want us to be.
The point of the story about the yellow birds though, and Paul’s point in this passage from Galatians, is that rather than rely on our own ability to make us feel special, we have a God who has made us feel special. We are not special because of what we wear or because of what we do or don’t do, what we have done or haven’t done; we are special because God loves us. Because God knows who we are, God doesn’t expect us to earn God’s love; God just gives it to us for free – So that all people may know that they are equal in God’s eyes, as they should be in our eyes.
We are a long way from the kind of equality that Paul hopes for, that Paul believes is the necessary result of Christ’s death on the cross, but each time we come to this table I believe we know what it would be like if for only a second.
Because we are not invited to this table because we are good, we cannot earn our way up here. We are only allowed to come to this table because God has made it so.
But – we are invited to pray and live in a way that the truth of this table and the power of the crucifixion might be known throughout the earth.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Christ Died for Nothing?

Today, as we continue to our Galatians’ series, our scripture reading is Galatians chapter 2: 11-21. It can be found on page 824 of you pew Bibles.

I invite you to listen for the word of God.

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
-The Word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God
For many of you who are reading from your own Bibles, some of the words I just read may have been slightly different from what you see in your own translations. The pew Bibles, which offers the same translation as the one I just read, is called the New International Version. Some of you may be reading from the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, The King James, the New King James, the Message, or the New Living Translation.
All these translations have aspects that make them unique from the others. In seminary we always used the New Revised Standard Version, so that translation is the one that I always read first when preparing for a sermon for through the course of seminary I wrote a whole bunch of notes in the margin, notes that some times offer good ideas, or pictures that remind me of how board I was in a particular class.
Translations of the Bible are important because not Jesus, nor any of his disciples, nor any of the great hero’s of the Old Testament, spoke English. As I am sure many of you know, our Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and while Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew in much the same way that Haitian Patois is a dialect of French, the New Testament was written in Greek because Aramaic was considered to be too vulgar a language to be worth writing, at least that is what the ancients thought.
Because of these issues, sometimes the Bible seems like a story that has been passed from one person to another as children often do in a circle playing a game we used to call telephone, where the original message ends up getting muddled up as it is whispered from one person to the next. Often though, the original Hebrew or Greek author’s message ends up getting smoothed out, where a translator or scribe some where in the thousands of years of history tries to change a word just so slightly as to make the intention more plain.
Such is the case with a very simple word in today’s passage: “Peter.” It is a word that may make you wonder how it could be messed up at all, and indeed, the original writer’s intention remains intact, it’s someone’s name, and in English we almost always refer to this person as Peter. However, Jesus never called this person Peter, and neither did Paul, the writer of this letter to the Galatians. In the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 42, Jesus first meets this person that we call Peter and Jesus says to him, “you are Simon, the son of John, you will be called Cephas”, and then the author of this Gospel adds, “which is translated Peter.”
The reason I go to all this trouble of discussing a single word is simply to say that Jesus calls ol' Simon son of John “Cephas,” an Aramaic word that literally means Rock. This name that we may all assume had never been given to anyone before this incident, as it is an incident that predates even Rocky 1, not to mention Rocky 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. But the name makes sense in Mathew’s Gospel when the same incident is retold and Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” This verse didn’t make any sense to me until I found out that the Greek word “Petros,” just like the Aramaic word “Cephas,” means Rock, so that the original Greek translation of Matthew’s Gospel reads much more like “And I tell you, you are to be named Rock, because you are the Rock that I will build my church on.”
To kind of sum things up – the name Peter that our pew Bibles’ use is OK, because it is the English way of saying the Greek word Petrus, which is a translation of the Aramaic word “Cephas” which literally means Rock.
But not everybody knows that.
It is something that we too often take for granted, that our English translations give us exactly what we want from the Bible – that there are no mistakes, that there has been no error made, but the sad truth is that as English speakers we sometimes miss out on cool stuff like this part about Peter really meaning Rock.
However, no editorial change or my explanation can take away the strength of the last sentence in our passage from Galatians, for this sentence reads the same in Greek or English or Aramaic: “for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Even if we were like the Muslims who only recognize the Koran in its original language, Arabic, and do not recognize translations as we do as having equal authority, this closing to our scripture reading would read with the same strength, with the same peculiarity, forcing us to ask ourselves, how on earth could Christ have died for nothing?
But, I have found sense in this claim when I think about Peter, not only the character himself but the actual word - as we now know it is a word not perfectly represented by the English name, and that our Bible, as it stands before us in English, does not always tell us exactly what we need to know, but reading and understanding our Bibles necessitates real study, interpretation, grammatical explanation, group discussion, the willingness to question things we have always been told, and, above all, the workings of the Holy Sprit. For the truth of the matter is that this Bible of ours is not perfect, it has been translated and retranslated, told and retold, used to justify slavery, the subordinate role of women, discrimination of gays and lesbians, tainted by the sin that resides in the human hands who shape its words and their meaning. In other words, we cannot trust in the goodness of this book as it stands alone, for this book is not the Word of God because it is perfect as it appears before us - but because God has chosen this medium to work through.
The same idea should be applied to our friend Peter, or whatever you want to call him, as we read in today’s passage.
In this passage Peter has been tempted to trust in his own goodness, his own potential for perfection. He has been tempted back to trust in his own ability to achieve perfection, his own innate goodness, rather than trust in the God who works through him.
Peter, like this Bible, is not the Rock that the Church is built on because he is good, but because God is good and God has chosen Peter to work through.
Paul, who wears his life as a persecutor of Christians as a constant reminder of his own sinfulness and a real sign of how God worked and is working in his life sanctifying him for the work of the church, must remind Peter of his dependence on the grace of God and so Paul takes Peter aside to say, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
It may be hard to navigate this thin line between right and wrong that Paul draws in the sand, this line between trusting in our own goodness rather than trusting in God’s goodness, trusting ourselves to achieve salvation rather than trusting in Christ’s salvific work for our salvation, because we do as Peter has done all the time.
I say from personal experience that the temptation to trust in the Law or in myself is especially strong for clergy – the world seems to think that we are special, especially good, especially wise, especially holy – as some people still hide their drinks from my judging eyes at parties, seeming not to notice my hair which signals exactly how far I have strayed from sainthood.
The Bible is the same - as some still attempt to trust in the words alone without realizing they use these words for their own human devices, condemning what works for the good of one group but threatens the needs of the powerful, as the Bible was used to justify slavery in this region of the country, by people who mark the Presbyterian Heritage that I hold dear.
But in this realization lies the reason Paul calls Peter back to trust in Christ and not in the Law, lies the reason Paul claims that “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
For if we could be justified by our own goodness, if righteousness could be gained through the Law, if we could be perfect by our own actions, had the capability of serving God out of our own volition – than God, the judge and arbitrator over us all would have to be exactly that, a judge and arbitrator, judging us on our ability to serve and obey according to the statues of tradition.
If this description were the true identity and role of our God than there can be no doubt of God’s judgment over each and every one of us – God will proclaim us all guilty.
But God has not chosen to do so, God has not chosen to judge us according to the standards set forth in the Bible, in tradition, or by our own self righteousness – for our redemption comes not through our own actions, but through Christ’s.
The God embodied in human form who gave his life for us is not the image of a judge, but a savior, and so we must affirm that it is not we who are good, but it is the goodness of God that works in us.
So why then would we, like Peter, raise ourselves behind the great desk, holding the gavel that God has willingly vacated?
We are the church, and those outside too often see us as the self-righteous judges of this society, though we, more than all people know that the God who has the right to judge us chooses not to.
Just as the Rock, the foundation of the church, Peter, fell into the temptation to find status and justification through the works of the law, so the church that has been built on that foundation does the same.
By doing so, we boast in ourselves, but we also willingly place ourselves back in the prison that God liberated us from – “for if justification comes through the Law, than Christ died for nothing.”
But, just as this passage reads, God will not be a servant of sin, and the truth of the gospel will rain forth – the sign of God’s presence will be vividly displayed in this place, not because we are perfect, as we have faltered and we will falter again, but because God works in this place, through us, in us, and despite us.