Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Joanne

1 Corinthians 13, page 813
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain; faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The city of Corinth where the Church that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was addressed lies on the Anatolian Fault – the meeting of the Eurasian and Anatolian Plates. These plates have been going against and away from each other for as long as humans have been paying attention.
“Nowhere have civilization and nature waged more persistent war than in this part of the world,” writes Rick Gore of National Geographic.
It was near this fault line that the Colossus of Rhodes was constructed in the 3rd Century, BC, only to fall 50 years later. This region was the home of the Greek island of Thera, buried under two stories of ash and debris, to seemingly disappear and give birth to the story of the lost continent of Atlantis. It was also along this fault line that Antiochus the 1st built his tomb and monument to himself. “There he proclaimed, his mausoleum would be “unravaged by the outrages of time,” as though even the inevitable earthquakes would leave this monument to his life unscathed.[1]
Today the monument that he built for himself is cracked and toppled – his tomb nearly covered by rocks that have tumbled down due to the shaking of the earth.
Along this fault line – even the work of the most audacious human beings cannot last. Unlike the Pyramids of Egypt, the Aqueducts of Rome, the Sky-Scrapers of Dubai, the monuments built by human hands along the Anatolian Fault cannot stand the test of time.
Stone will crack by the forces of collision, the greatest of shipping vessels laid waste by the forces of subduction and extension on the sea floor, homes, stores, temples, and tombs have all been laid waste by the movements of the plates.
What can last then – Paul asks the Corinthians who know to well the earthquakes and volcanoes that can take away their life work. What will truly last the test of time?
Paul writes: “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
As though he knew that even the work of the ancients could not stand the test of time along the Anatolian Fault, Paul writes of something that can truly last the test of time: “and now these three remain: faith, hope and love.”
Beyond the moving of the plates these three remain.
Beyond the eruption of the volcano, these three remain.
Beyond death, beyond time, beyond the grave, these three remain.
Not far from Corinth, along the same fault line that they knew too well, Antiochus the 1st built himself a monument that he might be remembered as a great ruler throughout the ages. Out of stone he made a name for himself, but by the shaking of time his monument will soon turn to nothing more than a pile of rock – hardly a reflection of a great life lived, more a reflection of time wasted on something that could not last.
So you see – so you already know – Antiochus the 1st wasn’t like Joanne, for while the monument to Antiochus the 1st’s life will soon pass away to nothing, the monument of Joanne’s life isn’t built of stone, not carved out of rock, but built up by the love that radiated from her eyes to the hearts of a husband, daughter, and son who she loved so well. The work of her hands is a family who will never forget her name, her faith, her hope, and especially not her love; because she didn’t build up with stone – she built us up with her words – she built us up a monument to herself with love.
Today we gather here to remember a woman who will be missed, a life that was fully lived, and a heart unlike any we have ever known.
Today we must mourn exactly the gift of God that we no longer have with us – unlike the monument of Antiochus the 1st that fell, the monuments to the life of Joanne Hicks will stand forever.
Her faith in people and her faith in God that gave her peace.
Her hope in the future that enabled her to continue fighting till the end.
And the love she had for us – the love that she built with her hands, spread with her voice, and poured into her family – these things will never leave, will never be shaken, can never die.
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away; where there was suffering, it has ceased; where cancer crippled, it has been stilled; where there was worry, it has passed away.
While this time of mourning will certainly last far beyond today, remember, that now these three remain, and these three will remain with us forever: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest – the one that Joanne dedicated her life to – the one that will never die – the one that will bind us together forever – that will never be shake, that will never die, the one that still stands - is love.

[1] Rick Gore, “A History Forged by Disaster.” National Geographic, July 2000. 54.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wake Up!

Mark 13: 24-37, page 719
“But in those days, following that distress, “’the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“And at that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
There is a joke I just heard this past week, which was especially funny when I read it after reading this scripture passage on staying ever ready and awake for Christ’s return. A Sunday school teacher asked a class why it was important to be quiet in the sanctuary during the sermon – and a wise little girl perked up to answer – because people are sleeping.
Realizing how tempting it is to sleep during one of the busiest times of the year – the Sunday after Thanksgiving and two record setting shopping days – and during what must be one of the most worrisome economic climates of your lifetime – bringing with it worries over jobs, stocks, and paying the mortgage – though all your kids can think about is bigger and better toys that aren’t going to pay for themselves – the temptation to doze off is understandable.
Recognizing the many challenges we all face during these trying times, I would like to keep you awake this morning with a sermon full of exciting twists and turns – one that will keep you on the edge of your seat with an ever changing plot that keeps you wondering what will happen next. I would love to preach a sermon that is like a good book that you stay up all night to read – one that keeps you turning its pages, not even noticing how tired you are or how soon the sun will rise.
That’s what I would love to preach this morning.
However – our scripture passage today isn’t necessarily suspenseful, though it is mysteriously odd. Its meaning isn’t a mystery, though apocalyptic passages like this one have been made out to be clues laid out for the faithful by modern fiction authors.
Jesus, in this 13th chapter of Mark, doesn’t seem concerned with keeping the reader’s attention. This passage does not employ a tricky plot twist to surprise you or compel you to tune in for the next installment or episode - if anything Mark chapter 13 is the spoiler that gives the ending away 3 chapters early. Here, Jesus tells the disciples what is going to happen in the end. So, as the preacher, I guess I’ll go and do the same thing. The point of this sermon is – Christ is coming.
It feels weird to give the point away like that – but that’s it – Christ is coming. That’s what I have to say – Christ is coming.
I hope I haven’t ruined the sermon or given you permission to catch up on your sleep – but giving the end away is exactly what Jesus does in this 13th chapter.
It’s a lot like the way my wife Sara reads suspenseful books – if things get to be too nerve racking she’ll skip to the last page and read the end before continuing on wherever she left off.
And maybe that’s exactly what Jesus is doing here for the disciples. To relieve their worried minds he skips to the very end, and gives them the last line of the book – Christ is coming.
He had just told them some very bad news – he had just told Peter, James, John, and Andrew that they must be on their guard – for before to long “you will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them… brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All people will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
For the disciples, that is just what happened. After having their palm read by Jesus it’s a wonder they didn’t ask for their money back – truly a wonder they didn’t leave right then and go back to their day jobs. Their futures didn’t hold wealth, prestige, or even health, but according to the Historian, Hippolytus of Rome, Andrew eventually reached his end when he was crucified on an olive tree. James was stoned to death. John died in exile, and Peter was crucified upside down.[1]
Jesus warns them of the hardship that lays ahead, saying, sorry guys, but things are going to get pretty bad.
But then he goes even further here in chapter 13 – drawing them past a sobering, if cruel look at their end – beyond - to the real end – that in the end the owner of the house will return.
Jesus is clear, telling the disciples that hard times are ahead – hard times that may in fact get even harder – but the fig tree that Jesus withered up to nothing back in chapter 11 will soon have tender twigs blossoming with summer’s leaves. That the signs of rebirth – that the signs of Jesus arrival will be all around.
My good friend George takes Jesus’ arrival seriously with a bumper sticker on his car that says, “Jesus is coming – look busy”. The sticker is a warning that seems based on this passage here – “keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back.”
But this passage is not a warning for disobedient teenagers throwing a party, fearful of our parents’ return. This passage is for the children of God – who – after enduring hard times - times of worry, death, sadness, trepidation, facing a future that is at best unknown – and at worst, a future almost certainly worse than the present – that we, the children of God can look forward to the arrival of the one who will put things right.
To the poor and oppressed – your days of want and struggle are numbered – for your liberator is coming.
To the sick – to the heart broken – to the hurting – Jesus is coming – your healer is coming.
To the worried minds left awake at night, searching for some sign that bills will be paid and children provided for – take heart – Jesus is coming.
To the mourning – know that heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of the Lord will never pass away.
And to the given up – to the people of lost hope – Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming.
Do not give up.
For the words of Daniel quoted here in Mark are there for us – “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the starts will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” But these sights are only signs that the Son of Man is coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, “from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and it may look like winter out there – but look to the tender branches of the fig tree – Jesus is coming.
The leaves of this tree spring forth in a world that seems to be increasingly selfish, increasingly cold, but where, in a community where homelessness is rising, jobs harder and harder to come by, here we are - members of a church who has opened her doors to the world – a church whose members gave up their Thanksgiving to spend it with the needy in our Fellowship Hall – a church whose members took the time to bake pies and turkeys for people who they don’t even know.
Barb Kell wrote me an email last Friday with her reflections from Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner for the community in our Fellowship Hall. She said that “I am pretty sure that everyone who came to eat went home feeling the love of Christ shining through all those who served them today.” “That the light was shining and lighting the path, and while we may not know exactly where it leads – I know that the light is shining to show us the way during uncertain times.”
Today we are a people who know suspense – but it may well be the kind of suspense that burns holes in our stomachs rather than the kind of suspense that keeps us turning the pages of a good book. For that reason Jesus gives us the end of the story. He shows us where our path is leading.
Tomorrow may seem uncertain, but in case you didn’t here it before I’ll tell you the end of the story again – Jesus is coming – Jesus is coming – Jesus is coming.
Thanks be to God.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Who's Afraid of Molech?

Leviticus 20: 1-8, page 85
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his or her children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him or her. I will set my face against that person and I will cut him or her off from the people; for by giving his or her children to Molech, he or she has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the people of the community close their eyes when that man or women gives one of his or her children to Molech and they fail to pit him or her to death, I will set my face against that man or woman and his or her family and will cut off from their people both him or her and all who follow in prostituting themselves to Molech.
“’I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute him or herself by following them, and I will cut him or her off from the people.
“’Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord who makes you holy.
Halloween is here – or just passed – and fit for the season is this scripture passage on Molech – an idol, but one with powers that make you wonder whether he is real or not.
Such was the case in Salem Massachusetts in 1692. Driven by the fear that three young girls had been afflicted by witchcraft the town took to the warpath. They first accused the most disempowered, the easiest possible scapegoat, a slave woman named Tituba. However her testimony only led to Martha Corey, an upstanding Puritan woman in the community. And while it may have been fine with those Puritans to think about that poor slave woman as a witch, Martha Corey was different – if she was a witch anyone could be a witch. So after her accusation and eventual execution failed to rid the town of witchcraft many more were accused. In the end, logic and justice were suspended. 19 were hanged, one crushed to death under the weight of stones and at least four died in prison while awaiting trial.[1]
The most interesting aspect of this tragic piece of American history to me is that Martha Corey’s execution didn’t solve the problem, but intensified it. Her execution didn’t rid the town from the evil, but the injustice done to her became just the beach-head evil needed to launch it’s attach on Salem. Her accusation and execution hardly rid the town from evil but made things worse as terror-fueled finger-pointing engulfed Salem.
Should someone stand up to question these proceedings, well, what better evidence that the questioner was a witch himself! Salem’s fear of witchcraft only intensified with each accusation, giving that dark magic more and more power.
It started with – our children are at risk! How can we protect them? That fear led the community to blame Martha. But when the problem didn’t go away things only got worse and Molech’s powers doubled, then tripled, until Molech had turned all of Salem Massachusetts into a great ball of fear and blame. They knew that Molech had to be stopped, that the children must be protected, but how?
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of their children to Molech must be put to death.’”
They had taken extreme measures – and not just one person but 24 had been put to death, but still the children were at risk.
“I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute him or herself by following them, and I will cut him or her off from the people.”
Indeed, the people of Salem were cut off from each other – cut off by way of fear and finger pointing. No one could be trusted, as anyone could be a witch. The witch could be next door, down the street – you might even be married to a witch.
Molech has to be stopped; the children are at risk, but how can we stop him?
Fear over communism swept through the United States through the 40’s and 50’s. During this time many thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and so became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies.
To McCarthy and his proponents, the investigations were necessary – as America could not fall into the hands of the Communists.
The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. The level of fear surrounding communism at this time was simply too great for real justice, so suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated.[2]
But the communists had to be stopped so what else was there to do but to suspend justice? However, with each accusation the communist threat became greater than it was before.
Molech has to be stopped, the children are at risk, but how can we stop him?
On September 11, 2001 the unfathomable happened. Many were murdered, as Molech was given a new face. Fear swept the county and along with it came water boarding, prisoner abuse, the suspension of rights and justice, and eventually war. To look at the last few years we know that Molech has been at work, but the most lethal weapon of mass destruction that Molech has used against us, the one that has caused the most harm to our country and our world is fear. Out of fear we suspended our values and our sense of justice, and began to look like the monster that they claim we are.
But Molech has to be stopped! What can we do?
We must storm his lair – kill his priests – burn his holy scripture – eradicate him from the face of the earth!
But the problem is that Molech is made of stone, and the only way to stop Molech is to take back the power we gave him.
So the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or ay alien living in Israel who gives his or her children to Molech must be put to death…because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy.’”
Molech – Witchcraft – Communism – terrorism?
They are not God. And their power slips away when they can’t feed on our fear.
So the Lord doesn’t command Moses to destroy or eradicate Molech – that would only validate his power over the Israelites and Molech isn’t responsible for the evil being done among the Israelites.
Molech – was Molech responsible? No – it was the Israelites who turned to this idol who were responsible for the horrors done to their children.
Witchcraft tore the town of Salem apart – but was some witch the source of the chaos? No, the chaos was a result of the people’s fear of witchcraft.
Communism ate at the seams of American society – but were the Russians truly that crafty? No, the injustice done was not a result of communism, but the people’s fear of communism.
And terrorism – could Osama Bin Laden have orchestrated the mess that we are in? Is he so powerful that he could have pulled the rug out from under the economy – certainly not? But isn’t what is happening now exactly what he would have wanted.
As the economy flops, as we react out of desperation and worry – our greatest defense against terror is to never fuel his strength with our fear.
We are not at the mercy of any idol or any person.
So Moses charges us – Do not prostitute yourselves to idols – do not give your power away.
Who is it that can hold you hostage? Who can prevent you from doing and getting what you want? Is it the democrats, the republicans; is it your boss, your spouse? Do you work at a job you hate, but feel as though you can’t quit because you fear losing security?
When we honor these other gods with our fear, we disempower ourselves and know the jaws of Molech.
For Molech – Witchcraft – the Communists – the terrorists – teachers – friends – drugs – alcohol – may have power, but what they intrinsically have is nothing compared to the power they posses when we give our power over to them through fear.
There is only one living God - and while this living God demands your life just as Molech does, it is not so that you might die – though even death has lost its sting by the hands of our God – it is so that in dying to the fears, wants, and worrier of this world that you might truly live.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Who Will Light the Way?

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-13
You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you the gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men or women but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men or women, not from you or anyone else.
As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into the Kingdom and glory.
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of mortals, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.
Maybe I should have grown out of it by now, but the reality is that I am still pretty skittish about being alone in the dark. Left behind in a dark basement, on a trail through the woods at night all by myself, or swimming in a lake or pond where I can’t see the bottom I’ll start to worry about what might be there hidden by shadow without a light to show me exactly what’s there.
Just a few years ago I went to see a horror movie called What Lies Beneath. At some point in the movie a half-decomposed arm reaches up to grab a woman on the leg, pulling her down into the water – or that’s pretty much what happened. I don’t remember exactly what happened because I didn’t see it all. As soon as the arm reached up I screamed and covered my eyes. When I opened my eyes again it was to face two 10-year-old girls who couldn’t stop laughing at me.
I have been thinking about this fear of the unknown lately again, and though I didn’t react quite the same way, as Sara and I watched the presidential debates last Tuesday night I began to be afraid of what lies ahead – not in a dark basement, a trail through the woods, or at the bottom of a lake, but what is going to happen to this country in the next few years. We are approaching a new time in history, a time that seems like none I have lived through before, and so I am afraid, as the future is unknown without a light to show me exactly what’s ahead.
The debates opened with a question about the economy, to which each candidate opened with words that weren’t so assuring for me. Barak Obama opened his response with: I think everybody knows now we are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And a lot of you I think are worried about your jobs, your pensions, your retirement accounts, your ability to send your child or your grandchild to college.
And then from John McCain: you go to the heart of America’s worries tonight. Americans are angry, they’re upset, and they’re a little fearful. It’s our job to fix the problem.[1]
What I really wanted to hear one of them say would have been: “You are just having a nightmare. Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything is fine.”
But judging from the pictures coming out of Wall Street, most of which show a stock broker looking agonized with his face in his hands, this financial crisis is not like an imaginary monster hiding in the basement, woods, or at the bottom of a lake. This is a real problem that we are going to be dealing with for a long time, and I don’t know what to expect as there isn’t someone up ahead showing us that we’ll get through it soon enough.
But we are not the first community to go into uncharted territory. The Thessalonian Christians, by virtue of becoming Christians, turned their back to what they had known, what their parents had taught, they changed the course of their lives away from what was expected and controllable into the unknown.
They walked away from what was normal and predictable, and they left behind friends who would talk behind their back and parents who would wonder where they went wrong. These Christians stepped out into the unknown; walking towards Christ but away from what was predictable.
It’s possible that they didn’t expect this kind of sacrifice, so as they ran into persecution and discrimination from the Roman authorities, they must have played with the idea of heading back home, maybe not back to mothers and fathers who would tell them that everything is going to be alright, but back to the rhythms of life that they recognized, to the pagan religious system that was permissible.
Maybe in response to their waning faith, Paul addresses them like a brother, saying “you know brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure,” that you were led away from a pagan culture for a reason. To make the transition easier, knowing that starting a new life isn’t easy at all, Paul address them as a mother saying, “But we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” Then as a father saying, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God,” so that you might continue on despite the temptation to return to the way things were.
In this way Paul and his fellow evangelists step forward to light the way. In the vacancy of their earthly brothers, mothers, and fathers, Paul and his companions tell the Thessalonian Christians, that “this new faith is hard, you will encounter hardship as we have, but you have to keep the faith. You are a part of something more as God is at work in you.”
Words like these that can bring us hope as we step out into uncertainty, as these words can light the way. They are encouraging signs left behind by the faithful who have traveled the same path that we follow now.
They light the way, like my grandfather’s memories, giving me stories to help me believe that I really can live without cable TV, a car, or a daily trip to the grocery store – that the fact that my dogs love to chase after squirrels might not be such a bad thing, as he, like others in our congregation, know a good recipe for squirrel soup should we need to skimp on groceries.
Scripture lights the way, to remind us that even when the chosen people were exiled in Babylon God’s promises did not fade, that even when the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem seemingly lost, God was making a way where there was no way, leading the Israelites in a new song unlike the one they sang before.
I certainly don’t mean to say that our economic challenges are nothing; just that scripture tells us that where God’s people walk, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not consume it.
I don’t mean that life is without challenges or bumps along the road, that stocks that climb won’t come crashing down, but that generations rise and fall while the word of God endures forever.
I don’t mean that it won’t be seriously uncomfortable when the oil runs dry, but that there is no bottom to the depths of the love of God whose word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
So we cannot encounter hardship with complete fear, as the memories of those who have walked through hardship – through captivity, slavery, depression, heartache, divorce, war, hardship, poverty, and conflict go on before us to light the way.
We are a part of something bigger that is being done in our midst.
As a church, it can be easy to think that we will never get back to the way it was, and the truth is, maybe we won’t. We look out into an unknown future, wondering who we will be if we aren’t who we were? What does the future hold in a changing county, in a changing word? Scripture tells us that the word of God is at work in us, and that the chapter in the book of life on Good Shepherd is not closed, but being written now as we take encouragement from our past to lead us into our future.
As a people growing older, it can be easy to wonder about the future, what will happen next. The kids are gone, work is done, so what happens now? Have you reached the end of your ability to contribute to society? Are you spent? Hardly. You must hold onto the memories of your life, using those memories to light the way for generation who need you to light the way.
In changing family structures, being single may mean a longing for family made whole again. Wishing you could go back to the way it was because that is what seems normal. But don’t forget what God is doing – that we must keep going towards the joy that lies ahead.
Change is a part of our lives, and as our country changes some wonder if God can love the United States if the Christian majority is lost. Christianity is becoming another faith in an increasingly secular culture. In these times we must return to scripture to remember the Israelites who lived through Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, the Thessalonian Christians who lived through Rome despite discrimination – to be reminded that we are not a passing fad – that we are the people of god and that the word of God is working through us – living, breathing, bringing something new to a world that is not just running short on oil, but on hope, purpose, joy, and love.
God’s will is being done through us. We are a part of this great thing even now.
Thanks be to God.
[1] USNews and World Report, Hot Docs: AIG Bailout and Spa Visits, Sarah Palin's Assets, and Toxic Trailers, Posted October 8, 2008.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Maintenance of Divine Worship

1 Corinthians 14: 22-33a page 814

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he or she will be convinced by all that he or she is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his or her heart will be laid bare.
So he or she will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, everyone has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to him or herself and God.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of the prophets. For God is not a God if disorder but of peace.
Paul writes this letter to a pre-denominational Church; a church where slave and slave owner, Pentecostal and Presbyterian, young and old all worshiped together in one place. There was no bulletin, no set order for worship, and no hymnal as know it. There was singing, and people spoke, but with so many different kinds of people celebrating God all at once without much organization, Paul, out of obligation and in light of his reading of Genesis, calls this Church to order. With the words, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace,” he calls the Corinthian Church back to the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth when God called order out of chaos.
With creation on his mind, Paul offers rules for worship as though he was a 3rd grade teacher calling order to a classroom: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to him or herself and God,” and so on. These words are challenging in that we know that Churches don’t like change, that we like to think that the way we have been doing is the way it has always been, just as God created it to be. We forget that worship, like creation, is not something God made and then left to its own devices, as God continues to work change all around us.
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
I don’t know how the Corinthian congregation reacted, but I am thankful I was not the one who, after giving the benediction, had to wait at the door to hear from every disgruntled parishioner as they left the service.
As a seminary student, that time at the door became one of my favorite parts of the service. I was encouraged to think of myself as a good preacher so I had compliments to look forward to. In fact, the seminary thought I was good enough for them to send me to different churches around the South East to promote the seminary while I was still a student, and on a trip to Jacksonville FL I was given the opportunity to preach at a church I had never been to before. I preached a theologically sound sermon, one based on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, centering on the Liturgical Season of Lent. I did well in the sense that I was preaching a sermon any lifetime Presbyterian would have been proud to hear, inspiring a sense of pride and confidence in the kind of students being produced by Columbia Theological Seminary.
After giving the benediction I walked to the door as the congregation left and as folks left the sanctuary I got handshakes and encouraging words making my ego just a little bit bigger. Finally the last to exit approached me, a man in a suit that looked like it had been slept in who had walked into the sanctuary half way through the service. He walked up to me and asked me a question: “son, what year are you in seminary?”
“I’m in my third year sir.”
“Three years of school then.”“Yes sir.”
He took a long look at me in the eye and said, “Well, they should have taught you something better than that by now. Non-believers would have walked out this morning just the same as they walked in.”
He wasn’t the first person to question my homiletical greatness, but no one had ever been quite so blunt before. I was also taken off guard as this man wasn’t a member of the session, wasn’t a founding member of the church, in fact, I later learned that this man had never attended that church before, so it was hard to see what obligated him to let me know his dissatisfaction.
He walked in late, dressed wrong, and spoke bluntly.
I wasn’t speaking in tongues, but this man who walked in the church service reacted just as Paul expected the unbeliever who entered the church in Corinth to react. What I said didn’t make any sense to him. It was inaccessible, and so meaningless.
We are short sighted if we read this passage from 1st Corinthians and think that Paul calls for orderly worship for the sake of those men and women who had already seen and heard the good news. Paul calls for orderly worship for the sake of those who are just now walking in, as well as those who aren’t here yet, but who are on their way.
For the Corinthian Church and for all churches, Paul claims that we must not speak in tongues if they cannot be interpreted, prophecy all at once so that no one can be heard clearly, houghty-toughty seminary jargon if it can’t be understood, or in symbolic code words if they only make sense to us, but to use language that is accessible, to worship in a way that makes room for the people who aren’t here yet but who are on their way.
The Great End of the Church that we are concerned with in the sermon for this week is the Maintenance of Divine Worship – maintenance, and not an ownership of worship. There is importance in that choice of words. If we have been given the responsibility of maintaining worship today we are obligated to remember that we only hold this honorable responsibility for a brief time, until the maintenance of worship passes to those who aren’t here yet, but who are on their way.
In some ways it would have been easier to get acclimated to that Corinthian Church. There was no Apostle’s Creed to remember, no Lord’s Prayer to recite with your eyes closed, no foundation of faith you’d be embarrassed not to have. Not only was it a time before the words, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,” but it would have been a time when we could have admitted we don’t know what those words really mean.
Like many Christians who have been in our shoes before, we have reached a challenging time in history, a time when the words we speak seem like another language to those just outside our door. It is a time when we must be bold to hold onto those tenants of belief that matter, but Paul reminds us that now we must be about teaching those tenants in a way that makes the truth they hold accessible.
Like the great Reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli, three men who did for the 16th Century what Paul did for the 1st, we have reached a point in time where we are called to reexamine tradition; asking if our traditions are accessible, or are we like the Corinthian Church, a litany of voices all at once in tongues that aren’t understood.
Just as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli called the 16th Century Church’s Latin mass to question – demanding that the words spoke in worship be spoken not in an ancient language but in the language the congregation actually spoke, so we are called to examine what we believe and how we articulate that belief.
We fight about what kind of church we will become – a Purpose Driven Church a Discipleship Church; a church with a mission and a mission statement.
Our struggles seem worth fighting for, as we know what they are about and what is at stake. But what does a struggle within the session mean to those who do not know what a session is?
In a denomination that argues over homosexuality, abortion, or translating the Bible, it is time to ask if these issues really matter to a society of people who struggle with home foreclosure, diversity, gas prices, or putting food on the table.
We are called to the maintenance of this divine worship – a responsibility that we will have to pass on as worship in this church will last far beyond our short time on this earth. Worship will go on in this place without us, assuming that we make room for the people who aren’t here yet, but who are on their way. Making room for the questions that need to be asked. Making room by speaking words that matter in a way that can be understood. Making room by bringing order to what a nonbeliever would see as chaos. Making room by remembering that we are not the owners of this church and her worship, and that the church’s future does not rest solely on our shoulders. Making room for those who aren’t here yet but who are on their way, that they might look at us and exclaim: “God is really among you!”

Monday, August 4, 2008

What Kind of Miracle?

Matthew 14: 13-21, page 692
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I saw a Haitian painting this last week, published in “The Wilson Quarterly,” a journal published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I’m not really a scholar, but one in our congregation bought me a subscription recently and I’ve at least been able to enjoy the pictures.
The painting, titled, “Paradise on Earth,” features Adam and Eve lounging under a tree, seemingly without a care in the world surrounded by animals and fruits to eat. Wilson Bigaud, the artist, looks on this scene with nostalgia it would seem. Looking back at the moment when Eve, seduced by the snake to eat from that one tree off-limits in a forest of plenty, reaches for the apple. Genesis tells it as though it were the decision that exiled human kind from a life that was easy, where there was plenty for everyone.[1]
It’s significant that the painting is from a Haitian painter, considering how far the Haitian people have come from a land of plenty. As rice prices climb, this country, close to the hearts of many in this congregation, is more in need than ever. Their situation is not unique, and according to the United Nations World Food Program, today hungry people riot in the streets of the world out of desperation with high food prices that threaten to plunge more than 100 million people into hunger.[2]
In one sense, it is in this context that Jesus responds, providing food to people who do not have enough, to people hungry, struggling to eek out a living.
But we know that considering the limitations of medicine in the ancient world, it was not only the poor who sought Jesus out, but also the wealthy. In need of a miracle, people who no doubt had plenty, if not more than enough to eat, also sought Jesus out.
Of course, they would have been amazed by this man who, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to haven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves,” then fed 5,000 men, not even counting the women and children and managed to have 12 baskets full left over.
But this kind of miracle wouldn’t have given them anything they didn’t already have. We know that the wealthy in Roman society often gave banquets celebrating with friends who would eat and eat to the point of explosion, often forcing themselves to vomit in the alley so they could return to the feast and do it all over again.
It’s true that prices have been rising in our grocery stores, causing us all to tighten our belts during an economic crunch, but I can relate better, even to this picture of the Roman elite than the poor in the ancient or modern world.
Like an Ancient Roman Banquet, my first trip to an all-you-can eat buffalo wing restaurant was not an exercise in restraint but excess, and it didn’t take me long before my pants felt too right, my skin felt clammy, and I was making my own trip to the bathroom, though I didn’t return to the feast so I might do it all over again.
I recognize then, that what I need is not a miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes, but something else.
Like Adam and Eve, tempted by the snake from the Garden of Eden to go for more, it is not want that I suffer from.
So it strikes me as miraculous, not only that Jesus fed these 5,000 men, in addition to all the women and children, but also, that the wealthy in the crowd “ate and were satisfied.”
While we do live in a society where our most essential needs are met, ironically, we don’t often experience true satisfaction. So for us, Jesus provides a different kind of miracle.
A journalist specializing in consumerism named Rob Walker recently wrote a book titled: Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. In this book he analyzes a study that polled middle class families, asking them: Which products could they simply not live without. They were asked about their dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, home computer, microwave oven, high-speed Internet service, air-conditioning, and especially their cell phone.
Their answers: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.[3]
Products like the cell phone, once considered a luxury item of “high-class extravagance” had become a tool Americans can’t imagine life without.[4]
But how has it happened? In a relatively short time, our lives have changed and adapted to new products, new ways of living, and once we have evolved to incorporate these new tools into our lives it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine ever going back.
We were once a country of one car, one-income households. We lived on less; we had more time for each other.
But today we are a country where many families own multiple cars, often duel incomes, and though we live on more, have more, we also work more to get things that we want – which, according to the findings of that recent research project, in a short time will become things that we can’t imagine life without.
According to journalists and sociologists, consumerism has convinced us that we need more, and commercials, like the snake from the Garden of Eden, meet us in our living rooms to tempt us away from satisfaction to pursue goods and services that we never even knew we wanted.
Convinced then, we work and work, buy and buy, drink and drink, shop and shop, eat and eat, as though we have lost the ability to say “enough.”
To save us from this cycle, that truly does enslave, God calls us to Haiti, into the presence of those who truly do not have enough, to realize the difference between what we want and what we need. There is a saying there, that God has provided plenty. However, God left it in our hands to share.
In our passage from Matthew we see that God does indeed provide, but the miracle Christ brings to the 21st Century American Church is that all, rich and poor, walked away from this great feast satisfied.
This miracle is significant, as we are not satisfied; but our dis-satisfaction doesn’t come from a state of hunger, as we have plenty to eat; a lack of shelter, as most have homes; but from a constant message telling us to buy more than we need, want more than we can afford, to never be satisfied with what we have. This message, one that is seemingly inescapable, is one we must learn to fight against.
We are all the victims of an unquenchable thirst for more, more, more. Today a feast is provided. This table is set for rich and poor, strong and weak, for the hungry and the full. Invited by Jesus Christ we are called here together, so that the hungry might be filled, and that we all would be satisfied.

[1] Daniel Akst, Cheap Eats, Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2003. 31.
[2] Sue Kirchhoff, Poll: Food costs a major worry for consumers, USA Today, 4/25/08.
[3] Farhad Manjoo, Branded, New York Times, July 27, 2008.
[4] Ibid.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thy Will Be Done

Romans 8: 28-39, page 800
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose. For those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of the Son, that the Son might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those God predestined, God also called; those God called, God also justified; those God justified, God also glorified.
What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?
God who did not spare God’s own Son, but gave him up for us – how will God not also, along with the Son, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who can condemn? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life” is a long awaited study on the Religious beliefs of Christians in this country of ever changing religious trends. The study reported that Americans are “quite accepting of religions other than their own,” to the degree that ““Seventy percent of those with a religious affiliation agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.””
This study gives us all something to think about; and I’ve been reading to find what the great theological minds of our day have to say about this interesting finding. The editors of the Christian Century, a popular religious magazine edited by a well known Presbyterian minister, John M. Buchanan, offers a warning saying:
Tolerance of others is a virtue, but it is a complex one. The Pew report is good news if it means that Americans are learning to know and respect neighbors who espouse a different religion and are coming to have a measure of humility about their own beliefs. It is bad news, however, if it reflects indifference to or ignorance about religion.[1]
The editors of the Christian Century offer a warning, that though tolerance is a virtue that “the virtue of tolerance should not lead us to think that religions are all the same.”
This warning calls us to a different option from the two we are used to choosing from: either believing that we Christians are the ones with the right answers, or that all religions point to the same God. I see the problems in each option, but especially the second, as I realize that while many Christians are not shy about what they believe, Presbyterians often shy away from the parts of our religious heritage that make us unique, not only when compared to the great world religions of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism, but those which makes us unique when compared to Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, or Pentecostals.
Fortunately, we have just read from a passage of scripture that calls us face to face with the word that represents how we stick out from our Christian brothers and sisters of other denominations – that key word that makes us feel like odd-balls in a culture where the theology of Billy Graham is certainly more excepted than that of John Calvin – here we read in our pew Bibles the word our New International Versions have translated as “predestined.”
We view this word as a drawback, as something we have to glance over and confine to the libraries of Seminaries, and so it’s a word many of us don’t understand or appreciate. In the interest of time I’ll make my explanation short and only deal with the purpose of the word. In his commentary on Romans, John Calvin, author of the theological foundation of the Presbyterian Church, says this in regards to predestination:
We indeed know that when salvation is the subject, men are disposed to begin with themselves…[2]
Calvin’s point is this: that salvation, like anything else, is not an issue of human will, purity, aptitude, or worth. Salvation rests in the hands of God, and that though we are predisposed to begin with our will at the center of all things, salvation is not in the hands of men or women. For Calvin, a person choosing God simply didn’t make any sense. The only means of salvation, therefore, is in God choosing us.
Because of this principle we should believe differently from most every other people on earth, for it is abundantly clear through this passage and Calvin’s interpretation of this passage that our destiny, and indeed the destiny of all of God’s creation, rests not in our hands, but in the hands of the one who created.
And maybe we ought to be afraid that the will of the creator would not be for our benefit, but would be set on our destruction. But Paul destroys this idea, calling us to know God through the lens of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. That by the testimony of Jesus Christ we know that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If our destiny rests in the hands of this God, then we above all people have nothing to fear, for nothing can separate us from the love of the creator.
Sounds easy enough. Sounds like something we should all take out into the world, giving us reason to worry less, to trust more.
But I know it’s harder than just that.
About a year ago I broke out in hives around my stomach. I went to the doctor I’d been seeing for 5 years, the doctor who I had seen since before seminary, and he looked at my stomach and said, “These come from stress you know. If you want them to go away you’re going to have to find a way to relax.” I looked at him and nodded my head. He seemed to know I wasn’t doing much more than nodding in agreement, so he said, “you have to find something to relax.” And knowing that I’m a minister he asked me, “Have you ever heard of prayer?”
It is no simply matter trusting that God’s will will be done. In the mind of our society it is our choices, our decisions, our worth that we believe really matters, but Paul truly is calling us to recognize something else at work – that even the wills of the Pharaohs were but tools of the will of God, that even the will of the Emperor was a means for the will of God to be done, and so even the will of me or you is a part of the next great thing God is doing in this creation.
If only we saw this kind of trust lived out, then maybe it would be easier to believe.
Often the church is the worst at trusting in the will of God, believing that some acts deviate from God’s will, while it is not completely clear that Paul believes such a thing is even possible. I read an interview with Bishop Gene Robinson recently when he spoke about divorce. He said that for his ex-wife and himself:
We both felt that if the church was going to bless marriages, it ought to be around in some liturgical way to bless divorces, too. It’s easy to be there when it’s all happy and there’s a big party. But it’s more important for the church to be there when it’s painful. There’s a lack of integrity about this…One thing I say to couples in premarital counseling is that the church isn’t kidding when they say this is forever. Even if you’re divorced in less than a year and you don’t see them for the rest of your life, you’ll always be emotionally connected to this person. I say this because I know. [My ex-wife] and I divorced in 1986, and I still love her.[3]
As though marriage were a part of God’s plan and divorce deviated from it, the church is present fully in one aspect of human life but not the other, but does this partiality do justice to the constancy of God’s love, and the unbreakable nature of God’s will?
Everyday of our lives, choices are made – we choose to marry, we choose to end marriage, but love is not so simple, especially God’s love. It is not as though we can decide to stop loving, or assume that God would ever stop loving us.
We Presbyterians must hear Calvin’s words again, taking the emphasis away from ourselves and our decisions, bringing it back to the God whose purposes and whose love will not be stifled.
Considering our denomination, just after its most recent General Assembly, divorce seems looming. Ministers and Elders have aligned with likeminded allies around the denomination, and in the words of the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, “we’ve talked with our friends and withdrawn from our opponents”[4] ending communication as though the marriage were already over.
In reading the minutes from our last General Assembly I am worried about what’s at stake. What concerns me the most is not what changes, or even if the denomination splits in a sort of divorce, but what is at stake for me is whether or not we will honor the words of Saint Paul and John Calvin. Will we show the world that the love of the church is contingent on likeminded ideologies, or is the love of the church truly like the love of God: unstoppable, undividable, constant and everlasting?
My worry is not that things will change, as life, and even the will of God is all about change. My worry is that in our changes and conflicts we do not honor the God who I know.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[1] Christian Century, July 29, 2008. 7.
[2] John Calvin, Rev John Owen, trans., edu., Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1947) 315.
[3] Andrew Corsello, Let God Love Gene Robinson, GQ, July 2008, 116.
[4] Jack Haberer, Presbyterian Outlook, July 21, 2008. 5.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What New Thing is God Doing?

Romans 8: 18-25, page 800.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from the bondage of decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what one already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Celebrities are a big deal in the developed world today; this tendency is something I don’t completely understand, but am captivated by. I don’t know how newsworthy this kind of thing is, but it was certainly all over the news this past week: that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have new twins., always with up to the minute celebrity gossip reported yesterday that the labor and delivery were relatively painless, that:
During the labor and delivery, the couple "were talking, they were together," "It was an epidural, so [Angelina] was awake and speaking and laughing. They were happy."
By Pete Norman and Peter Mikelbank
Originally posted Sunday July 13, 2008 02:35 PM EDT
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt Photo by: Kevin Winter / Getty

Though we inhabit the same world, I won’t assume that all mothers who give birth can relate to Jolie’s experience. This inability to relate, I assume, is not confined to this particular birth experience, but, for many of us today, Jolie and Pitt don’t represent what is normal, but what is abnormal. They don’t look like us, they don’t dress like us, they don’t act like us, and they don’t deliver babies the way we did, do, or can expect to. Their relationship is different in that they now have several children but they are not married. They are beyond rich, beyond famous, beyond what we would call normal, and the birth of their new twins highlights their abnormality more than ever.
Birth, as Paul knew it, was something very different from Jolie and Pitt’s experience this past week as well. He was a Roman Citizen, though was not “Roman” in the sense that the congregation he addresses in his letter was “Roman,” but the experience of giving birth was relatively universal at that time. Private hospitals on the coast of France and epidurals were not reserved for the rich, but were unavailable to everyone as mothers gave birth naturally in the home with midwives and not doctors. We can assume that in Rome, as in all ancient cultures and still many cultures today, the rate of infant mortality was high, as was the chance of a mother dying in labor without the benefit of modern medicine. But the variable we do not take into account was the excepted practice in Romans society of exposure, as the choice to raise a child lay not in the hands of the mother, but in the hands of the father who would examine the newborn and choose whether to raise it or leave it to die, often on the street. The Romans thought it was strange that some nations subsumed by their empire would raise all healthy children, that Egyptians, Germans, and Jews exposed none of their children but raised them all.[1]
Paul must have seemed foreign to them, indeed, as he also seems foreign to us, but his words in Romans chapter 8 must have seemed strange; he writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
We can assume that the women in his congregation would have known exactly what he was talking about, that childbirth is not a time for laughter and conversation as it was for Jolie, but is a time of fearful suffering, great pain, and worry.
As they struggled for hours, risking their own lives and the life of that child who would be born, they, unlike Jolie had with them also a great worry – that all this work, all this pain, could be for nothing should the father choose not to raise this child.
As Paul elevates this image of the mother, using it as a divine image to explain the pain felt by all people, all of creation, we can assume that he not only sought to give an adequate metaphor for the new Kingdom that is coming, but sought to challenge the patriarchal assumptions of Ancient Rome – that the choice or decision made by a father was not akin to the divine working of God in creation, but the delivery of a new child by a mother, this glorious and unavoidable act was.
In this passage for today Paul elevates an image that we shy away from or try to avoid through the miracles of modern medicine. He lifts up an act that so many want to make less tedious, more convenient, and less painful – but Paul claims that the length of time, inconvenience, and even the pain of childbirth all appropriately describe the way God is working in our world.
I have no personal experience with childbirth, so for some perspective I called up my Mom to ask her for some help. She told me that childbirth is painful, but that is in the moment necessary and unavoidable. That if the mother stops pushing, if out of a fear of the pain the mother stops and tries to go backward, both the mother and the child will die. That it takes courage to face that pain, that it’s scary because you are in that moment completely and there is no going back. So you do it, and in the moment when you hold that child in your arms you know exactly why you do it.
I, like many in this congregation, will never have the privilege of giving birth, but we all can relate as we all live in the midst of a changing world, and for the most part, we don’t like or understand it.
We don’t like it when people stop going to church.
We don’t like it when people argue with us, challenge our beliefs, or try to change who we are or the way things are.
We don’t like it when our neighborhoods change. When people from other countries choose to move into a country we consider “ours”, and then seem to choose not to assimilate into our culture but choose to speak their own language and worship their own gods.
We don’t like it when people choose drugs, attempting to escape pain or boredom. We worry about the young and adults who turn to drugs and face addiction, not growing up into maturity, but running from it.
It seems as though the world has chosen the wrong path, and as a result of sin and bad decisions we feel pain. But Paul does not present the new creation as though it were a matter of choice, Paul does not portray creation as a Roman father who makes a decision to choose or not choose a newborn child, but as an expectant mother, giving birth to the new creation whether she chooses to or not.
We are used to choice. But the choice between obedience and disobedience does not paint the picture of creation in Romans. Paul does not liken the pain creation suffers to a Roman father who faces a choice, but a “creation” who like a pregnant mother, “waits in eager expectation” for the joy that is to come.
From this perspective Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” that though we experience pain, we do not suffer needlessly, but suffer knowing that our hardships are a part of the glory God is doing even now.
It is God who governs our existence, and it is hope and not disappointment that defines who we are as the people of God.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” and as we feel the pain of this childbirth what do we expect?
Out of sadness, regret, depression, disappointment we may expect the worse. Thinking that all pain and discomfort is to be avoided, we assume we have done something wrong to deserve this hardship.
But we are the resurrection people, who believe that out of the grave comes new life, and so we encounter hardship, not as pain to be avoided, but like birth pains, leading the way to new life.
We are the resurrection people, and so we encounter our mistakes, not as lost opportunities, not as wrong turns that have lead us off course, but as a part of an unavoidable process God is working in us and in the world.
We are the resurrection people, and so we look out into the world, not as disappointed judges of the failings of society, but as the hopeful trusting people of the God whose plans will not be thwarted.
We are the resurrection people, who like an expectant mother know that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us, because we are a people with a reason to hope.
[1] Paul Veyne edu A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 9

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Where is the Good Soil?

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Let anyone with ears Listen!
Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in the heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the one who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since there is no root, this one lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, this one quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the one who hears the world, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the one who hears the word and understands it. This one produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
In this passage Jesus is having a problem that I would love to have – that when I come here to preach on Sunday morning the crowds would be so great that I would have to sit out on a boat to avoid being consumed by the growing crowd on the shore.
But while I know that is not our problem this Sunday morning, in this church, like many churches, there was once a problem of space – the congregation outgrew the old worship space that is now the fellowship hall and so this new sanctuary was built to facilitate the growing congregation.
As a seminary student I learned that church growth is a slippery concept, that it’s elusive, and can’t be simply tracked back to one reason or cause. We want facts though, things that we can do or change, forces that we can control. We see that some churches prosper when led by certain pastors, while others don’t. Or that those churches with a certain theology or worship style attract people, packing worship services with excited people, and we begin to wonder what we’re doing wrong.
I grew up in a church that grew dramatically, especially under the care of one particular senior pastor. While this man was the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, membership increased in ways you wouldn’t believe, to the point that the occupancy of the sanctuary had to hold much more than twice what the old sanctuary did, as membership had increased into the thousands.
In so many ways I was intimidated when my former pastor asked me to lunch after graduating seminary. For me, as a child who had witnessed the church grow and expand, this man was larger than life, surely the most intimidating model for ministry I could imagine. After lunch I asked him what words of advice he had for a young man seeking a call to a church. I asked something like, “as far as having a successful ministry goes, your time at First Presbyterian can’t really be beat. What’s your secret?” His answer surprised me, and really, the fact that he would have lunch with me at all surprised me, considering how most senior pastors rarely take the time to meet with anyone, much less a young aspiring minister. He said, as he looked me in dead in the eye with a gaze I had to look away from, “Joe, you have to know what is in your control and what isn’t, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn’t really that much that is in your control.”
In him I saw a man who had earned the right to pat himself on the back, but I then realized I was face to face with a man who knows the wisdom of the parable of the sower.
In this parable we hear about a farmer who has gone out to sow seed. The farmer seems careless, sowing seed along the path where birds would eat it up, on rocky places where the plants would sprout quickly, but with shallow roots that the sun would scorch, other seed scattered among thorns that would out grow the plants and choke them out – seed going all these places besides its intended destination, among the good soil.
This parable describes a farmer, but surely not a farmer who knows what he’s doing. There is no mention of plowing the field, irrigating or fertilizing it. The farmer seems to carelessly sow seed without thinking much about the maximum yield of his field, depending on a miracle for any kind of harvest at all.
Modern farmers don’t depend on miracles, but plan ahead, plowing, irrigating, and fertilizing – minimizing waste by sowing with some precision, recognizing that minimizing waste means maximizing profit.
But Jesus admires this less economical farmer, and he interprets his parable far away from the crowds so that only the disciples hear; the disciples, who, in a way, are like sowers, sowing the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
We know that they found good soil, as the church that began with 12 disciples has today grown to billions, spreading the Good News over the whole world. We assume that they must have been skillful in casting their seed out over the earth, finding that good soil.
But Jesus doesn’t offer us a parable about a farmer who tended a field with precision, who counted the seeds he had wasted among the path, the rocky soil, and the thorns. Jesus offers a parable about a farmer who sows his seed and leaves the rest up to God.
My pastor knew that First Presbyterian Church grew not because of him, but because the seed he sowed fell on good soil, in a city booming with young families looking to the suburbs for a place to raise their kids. That the church he served grew because the city the church served grew, and though he and the church did their job of casting out seed, the harvest was plentiful because of many factors that were completely out of their control.
Like modern farmers we are used to believing that we can control every aspect of production. We can maximize the soil’s fertility, adding in Miracle Grow ourselves, not leaving any part of the process up to chance or up to God.
When we seem to be successful, the temptation is to take the credit for a job well done; and when we seem to struggle, we assume we have done something wrong, we haven’t planned enough. We want to maximize our yields, minimize our waste, and with the opportunity to control more and more, to know more and more, we run the risk of forgetting that ours is a vital, but ultimately small part of the great miracle God has been doing in our world since the dawn of creation.
Our seed must be sown or there will never be a crop, but by no means is the harvest all up to us. We must sow the seeds, but we must also trust that what will grow will grow, and what doesn’t is out of our control.
Likewise, parents have no choice but to sow seeds of love and guidance to their children, but at some point parents are also called to trust, not attempting to control something that is no longer, and maybe never has been in their hands to control.
Jesus entrusted 12 people with the future of the church, 12 people who launched a campaign of evangelism that changed the whole world. The mainline church in the United States worries over losing members, but even if we get back down to just a dozen we may be in the exact position God wants us to be.
We are not in control of the harvest, so go throw out your seeds with joy, giving thanks to God.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Struggle for Freedom

Romans 7: 15-25a page 800
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The 4th of July is a pretty great holiday. It gives us an excuse to wear clothes that we don’t usually wear, to light fireworks, to cook out, and to be proud of our country at a time when so many people are uncomfortable doing so.
My Mom used to wake us up early on the 4th of July, drive us out to the square where the parade would march by, hours before the parade would actually march by.
She wanted to get a good seat so we could all see the marching bands, fire trucks, politicians, and veterans, all celebrating the birth of our country, only leaving at the sad moment when the men with the trash cans walked through picking up all the garbage the parade had left.
As the veterans would march or ride by, we would all get a face to put on dates and events that can be hard to relate to through only the lens of our history books. In the 4th of July parade we look and see a real face, a vivid picture of heroes to think about for our image of the good guys, leaving our image of the bad guys who they fought against to our own imaginations.
We look to the veterans of WWI and WWII, Korea, Panama, the first and now the second war in Iraq, we imagine their hardship, their sacrifice, and maybe we even imagine what could have happened if they would have lost.
On the 4th of July we celebrate who the wars of our history have made us, honor the people who through their military service got us to where we are in their fight against the forces that this country has stood against.
It is easy to think about the 4th of July with a kind of duality, though, and maybe that is the way it should be – that on this one day we can lift our hats to the men and women who make this country great – though Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to call us to recognize something else.
Just a few days after the 4th of July, just a few days after celebrating all that is great about America, the good of our veterans and the evil of those forces they fought against, Paul calls us not to celebrate all the good we have defended and the evil we have fought against, but the good and the evil that exists within us all.
From the words of the psalmist we know that both good and evil are at work in the world, and that “with a scepter of justice our God reigns over all the earth.” That our God who reigns loves justices and righteousness, and so cannot help but hate tyranny and injustice.
To simplify our humanity is to believe that because God loves us because we are just and righteous, and that those forces that God hates - tyranny and injustice - must be altogether separate from who we are. But Paul’s words stand in the face of this kind of duality, forcing us to see that even within Paul, even within this hero of the faith exists an inner struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, a struggle that may have forced Paul to ask himself how our God, a lover of justice and a hater of sin could go on loving him given the existence of both good and evil within his very body.
On the 4th of July we rightly celebrate our inclination to justice and freedom, our stand against the sins of the world with parades, cook-outs, and fireworks – but Paul calls us to see that all the pomp and circumstance does not represent all sides of our existence – and so he asks us to consider the parts of our lives that don’t deserve the parade, those parts that we would rather turn our backs to.
Revealing a part of himself, showing his weaknesses with an honesty that in no way resembles the politicians of our time, Paul writes, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
In a society where leaders admit that “mistakes were made,” but are reluctant to take responsibility for making them, Paul’s honesty is shocking. If he were running for office he models a losing campaign according to the standards of today. We don’t want a leader who shows this kind of weakness, this kind of regret, admitting to a war raging in his own mind making him a prisoner to the law of sin. How could such a person lead us, we might ask? How could a human like this lead our country where we need to go, epitomizing all that is good about us, minimizing what is bad rather than calling attention to it, sweeping the sins under the rug or leaving them on the street for someone else to pick up.
In some ways it’s not really what we would call the patriotic thing to do, certainly not the normal thing for a leader to do. We have to wonder, if this is who Paul is, how could he ever be the person who God has chosen to take us where we are supposed to go – how could this broken man be the one who God has called to lead us onward to the Promised Land?
Paul rightly knows his own limitations, and knows also his role to play. He is not independent, not secure in his own means; he does not even stand on his own feet but asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
A temptation Paul does not fall prey to is one that seems entrenched in our own society. We want to celebrate what is good, reluctant to draw attention to what isn’t. We want the history of our country to be like one long 4th of July parade, highlighting the evil forces we have defeated, though we know that our history is not only one of evil abroad, as it is also a history of sin within.
But we hide this side of ourselves, assuming hiding our sins from God and each other is the only way to deal with the fact that though our values and intentions are good, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
I have to believe that this reality Paul describes is not only his own, but all of ours, that we are all asking, “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
This is our reality, the truth that we cannot lead ourselves, cannot save ourselves from the prison that sin holds us to, and so we fear that if God knew how sinful we truly are God would surely hate us, that if we admitted to ourselves our selfishness and foolishness we could not go on. Shortsightedly we assume that the only solution must be to celebrate what is good and turn our backs to the reality that we are in fact both good and sinful.
But Paul, though he surely was kissing his political career goodbye, is brave enough to admit to the sin within him.
Through Jesus Christ Paul learned something that so many have forgotten, that God’s love did not depend on the people of God, that God will not stop loving humanity when our sinfulness comes to attention. Paul saw that the love of God continued on, that even as the people of God called for Jesus to be crucified God still went on loving.
And so, this radical love set Paul free from his prison, and he could claim all of himself, not just the parade of great accomplishments, but the trash he left behind.
He was set free, not because he deserved it, but because of the love of God made real to him through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

He Descended

Matthew 10: 40-42

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
This passage from Matthew comes at the end of a vivid description of the reality the disciples can expect to encounter as they go out into the word spreading the Good News. Jesus, surely not in an attempt at convincing them to become disciples, but in an effort to warn them to the reality of their call, tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Honest about the magnitude of their mission, the danger and violence they can expect to encounter, he seems to arm them with absolutely nothing saying, “Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.”
You have to wonder how this group of men would stand up against the streets of Atlanta – resembling not a militia of freedom fighters, not a celebrity in a limo, resembling the homeless who line Ponce de Leon, but even then, without a shopping cart or bag filled with meager possessions.
We know that Jesus calls this twelve to drive out evil spirits, to heal disease and sickness, but we wonder how they will do it, and with what?
To think of all they were up against then, and to imagine what all they would be up against now, they seem ill equipped, truly like sheep among wolves.
Then they were up against a great challenge going out into Ancient Jerusalem, armed with nothing much more than a will to make a difference, and thinking about it in our context, it’s hard to say whether they were up against a greater challenge going out into Ancient Jerusalem then they would on the streets of Atlanta.
Today, like during the Civil Rights movement, those who seek social change are often met with fire hoses rather than the flogging that Jesus warns the disciples about; and where Jesus warns the disciples of arrest, we can be sure that the modern jail surely has more to offer her inmates than the ancient jail. But as for the people themselves, we know that the disciples expected to encounter a culture that had hardly heard of Jesus. While most have heard of Jesus in our culture, so many have forgotten, and while they may know where the church is, should they walk through the doors, worship in the sanctuary, how many could remember the words of the Apostles Creed, much less know what the words mean?
Most of us here today know the words, but the meaning can be something different. I have struggled, as I know others have struggled with the words, “he descended into hell,” that we say each Sunday. A couple weeks ago someone asked me if we really mean that Jesus went to hell, a question I didn’t know the answer to exactly, but fortunately I knew the right book to look in. The line, “he descended into hell,” wasn’t added to the Creed officially until the 9th Century, though it was included unofficially beginning in the 4th. Those translations were most likely in Latin, and translating the word “infernus” into English adds another layer of complication.
A great Historian of Christianity, Justo Gonzalez writes that whether we say Jesus descended into “hell” or if we say, as many do, that he descended “to the place of the dead,” isn’t really the point, as “infernus” can mean either. The point, according to Gonzalez, is that, “As one reads the Creed from the declaration that Jesus was born to this point, the movement is clearly downward. The eternal Son of God descends to earth through birth, and at his death continues descending to the lower places.”[1]
This descending nature of Christ then that we affirm in our statement of faith, directly contrasts what is a given in almost every area of our lives. In the Apostles’ Creed, what we declare about Jesus is that rather than climb the latter, rather than elevate himself, rather than associate himself with those who society considers great, Jesus in his life and in his death descended.
From heaven he descended to earth to be among us, we who are human, earthly, and unworthy. Then as a human being, he did not create for himself a palace that he might use to make his way in the world as what we would call a great man, he did not ride through the cities in a parade of extravagance as those Pharos who claimed divinity did on the streets of Ancient Egypt, but lived simply, associating with the poor, the prostitute, the outcast.
So he called his disciples to do the same – to go out into the world like sheep among wolves, not armed, not separating themselves from those who they served, not decorated so that the villages they approached would recognize them as great men, but penniless, without even a bag, or an extra tunic, not independent, but completely dependent on the people they met.
The challenge then became, or the question that I wonder about, is how would the village recognize these divine messengers when they saw them? If they don’t identify themselves as Ancient Israelite society would expect great men to identify themselves, if they didn’t come rolling into town with an armada and a legionaries’ escort, how would the village know what important men were approaching?
The question for us today is no different. If disciples are out there in the world today, if God is sending us messengers of the Good News right now, how will we recognize them if their greatness is not symbolized by the pomp and circumstance we are accustomed to?
We are used to human beings who try their hand at ascension, attempting to make themselves bigger than they are, but divinity as we know it in Jesus Christ is not only known through Ascending into heaven, but also descending to earth, and even to hell.
If divinity then has descended, if knowing God comes through knowing Jesus who has descended among us – and that knowing Jesus comes through knowing these disciples who he has sent, how will we recognize divinity when divinity has descended from the majesty of heaven to the streets of the city?
We know from our passage for today, that any one who receives a prophet, a righteous person, or one of Christ’s disciples will receive a reward far greater than what they deserve, but how will we receive that reward if we don’t know who to give that glass of cold water to, not being able to recognize them from the homeless on the street?
As Christ descended among us redefining our understanding of what it means to be great and important - God, taking the form of not a king, but a servant, not a rich man but a poor man, not at the center of society but on the outskirts – our hospitality, the way we interact with each other, the standards of class that divide rich from poor, black from white, upwardly mobile from downtrodden all must change.
Creation groaned with this kind of change not long ago. In this part of the country, and in so many other parts, as African-American people began to claim their equality in an unequal society, like the disciples they were like sheep thrown out to the wolves. They were met by barking dogs, angry mobs, not with a cup of cold water, but high powered hoses that attempted to beat them to the ground. Their voices were not heard over the roar of a fire hose, and so the sin of segregation that plagued all of society continued on. But imagine if instead of a fire hose, the police offered the protestors a cup of cold water.
We cannot know for sure who Jesus is among us, who he has sent to do his work, who he has empowered to take his ministry onward, but as our passage from Matthew claims, “if we only greet one of these little ones because they are his disciple, I tell you the truth, we will certainly not lose our reward”.
But… it is a reward with a price. Unlike a fire hose that attempts to keep things the way they are, the gift of a cup of cold water is an invitation to see another person in a new way, to hear the Good News of the Gospel, and so to challenge the structures of society that divide us.
By inviting a disciple to a cup of cold water Jesus was calling society to meet a poor man face to face, and to hear the lesson he had to teach.
By inviting those who marched for equality for a cup of cold water Jesus called white society to meet someone different, and to see that Christ shown in their eyes.
It is a radical thing really, a cup of cold water, because it calls us to identify with another just as God identified with us through the descending Jesus Christ, and to be changed.
So we are called to offer a cup of cold water to those who are different. To sit down with the poor, the laborer, the waitress; to quench their thirst, to listen to their dreams and their hopes, and to identify with them as Christ identifies with us.
We are called to offer a cup of cold water to the teenagers and the children of our church. To sit down with one of his own, to quench their thirst, to listen to their struggles, to identify with them as Christ identifies with us.
It is so different from what we often do – to silence those who are different and who call for change with the roaring of a fire hose, but just as Christ descended among us to quench our thirst, so we are called to sit down with each other. We are called to make their struggles our own, to know their story, and to sit down together as equals.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 49.