Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6: 1-6 and 16-21, page 684

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before people, to be seen by them. If you do you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by people. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And continuing in verse 16:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to people that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The first time I came forward in an alter call, it didn’t take. So I tried it again, and that time I thought would do it, but it didn’t seem to, so I tried it again.
All in all I think I must have been saved six times.
I would get so caught up in the moment sitting in a pew not unlike the one you are sitting in, and I would force myself to come forward to give my life to Christ, but inevitably something would happen and I would begin to wonder again if I had been completely honest, if I had given my life completely over to Christ.
I tried my best to be the Christian I was told I should be, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t cut it going up to strangers and talking to them about what I believed in my heart, I felt funny lifting my hands during hymns. I always felt like a phony making a public display of the faith that I hold so dear.
Each time I would try harder, I would end back up at the front during the alter call, but each time it didn’t seem to work, and then one day I realized something – God had created me to be a Presbyterian.
So this passage for me became very good news. That faith can be personal and doesn’t have to be public and out in the open, that praying behind a closed door is just as good as praying around a flag poll outside school that committing myself to Christ wasn’t something I had to go back and do again every time I felt like I had slipped up.
This passage, at least during that time in my life when I was struggling to figure out how to best live out my faith, was very comforting for this Presbyterian.
But today I wonder, “doesn’t Christ call us beyond what is comfortable?”
In our time of religious phobias, where saying Merry Christmas has become controversial, does Christ not call us to stand up for what we believe, to come forward, to let it be known that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again?
Instead here in chapter 6 its as though he’s asking us to tuck our crosses into our shirts, keep our belief to our cubicles, and our dogmas off our car bumpers.
And on the one day of the year when Presbyterians are out in the open about who they are and what they believe, on the one day of the year when we don’t just put our belief out in the open but here on our foreheads. Presbyterians, notoriously uncomfortable with evangelism, with public displays of faith, walking through supermarkets with foreheads marked with ashes.
Based on this passage, what would Jesus say to us tonight? Would Jesus agree with someone like Ted Turner, who, back in 2001 at a meeting held on Ash Wednesday with CNN staff members, many of who’s foreheads still bore an ashen cross in observance of the day, remarked, ''I realize you're just Jesus freaks.''
Would Jesus tell us to wash off our foreheads before we go out into the world?
In his time what Jesus was proposing in Matthew 6, not wearing your faith on your sleeve, was equally radical to wearing your faith on your sleeve today in our culture of religious secrecy. In the time Matthew was written a secularized society where people were more comfortable keeping their beliefs to themselves would have been unheard of. Everyone had a religion, they weren’t all the same, but everyone subscribed to some set of belief, either the pagan religious system of the Roman state, the religion of the Jews, or something else. And to broadcast your belief was common practice. To show everyone how close you were to your God was exactly what was expected. To show the world how special you were through your alms giving, through your prayers, through your fasting was a vital means to gain respect and social status.
So for Christ to suggest giving alms in secret, praying behind closed doors, and fasting, but not letting anyone know about it, was radical.
To suggest that people miss out on an opportunity to broadcast their greatness was a foreign concept, it would be like asking the celebrities on the red carpet of Oscar Night to tone it down, to not try to out-dress each other, to not worry about how they look before crowds of adoring fans – to not worry about how you look before people, but how you look before God.
Today, just as in Matthew’s day, we want to look our best, for people to think well of us. So often it’s for this reason that we don’t broadcast our religion, but keep it quiet.
But what we don’t keep quiet are those things that do help us to look good in other’s people’s eyes.
We don’t pray on the street corner for the world to see, but don’t we do our best to drive the nicest car, to buy the nicest house. We are not so good at storing up our treasure in heaven, “where moth and dust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal”? If we were we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we are in today.
Today, the richest nation in the world, the nation that should have more than enough, is in debt up to her eyeballs. In an effort to make a good showing to our friends and neighbors we have bought houses we can’t afford, and things we don’t need. We haven’t disfigured our faces to show that we are fasting, but we have been more concerned with what people think than what God thinks.
And the God who sees us as we are, writes the psalmist, doesn’t ask for much, but welcomes the side of ourselves that we are afraid for anyone to see: “a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
This side of ourselves, the side that we are as afraid to show anyone as our religion, is the part of ourselves that we show the world today. Unlike the one who gives to the needy, not so God sees but so that people will see; unlike the one who prays, not so God hears, but so that people will hear; unlike the one who fasts, not so God knows, but so that people will know; unlike the actor or actress who dresses, not to celebrate his or her humanity but celebrity; unlike us, who live, not within our means but beyond them to be honored by people – today, we bear the sign of the cross, showing the world that we are in need of repentance – that we are not whole but broken, that we are not so close to God, but that our sins have made us distant, that we are not so good, but that we are in relationship with a God who is.
The problem with the hypocrites that Jesus preaches about in Matthew 6 is that they do not seek to glorify their God but themselves, and this is our temptation too. We worry what people will think, so we try our best to fit in and look good.
But today, thank God for today, we can stop pretending that it’s up to us, we can stop pretending that we have it all together to our friends and neighbors to celebrate the God who can do, who has done, what we can’t.
This lent we are offered the opportunity to come forward, just as I have many times before. But tonight it’s different – tonight it’s not about you getting it right this time, it’s about confessing that you will never get it right, but you know someone who has – it’s about confessing that you are broken, but you know someone who’s brokenness has put you back together again – it’s about confessing that I was lost but now I’m found – that I pushed away, but God has brought me home – that I am a sinner, but God calls me son.
This is the Good News of the Gospel. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Things Will Never Be the Same

Mark 9: 2-9, page 714

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.
Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
This wasn’t the first time Peter noticed Jesus wasn’t just a normal teacher. He had seen Jesus cast out daemons, heal his own mother in law as well as many others, and even calm a storm. Mark includes two miraculous feedings, in chapter 6 Jesus feeds five thousand, and in case Peter didn’t get the message, that Jesus can fill crowds of hungry people, he feeds four thousand in chapter eight. Jesus shows Peter who he is and Peter is convinced that he did the right thing in leaving home to follow this man, and is able to confess the reality of Jesus’ divinity before we even get to chapter 9. Jesus asks, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”
Peter speaks this truth to Jesus, Peter gets it, but after seeing Jesus in those clothes whiter than anyone could ever bleach them and standing there with Moses and Elijah he is so afraid he doesn’t know what to do, and like so many of us when we are afraid or worried, he wants nothing more than something to occupy his hands, to anchor his emotions which are flying around out of control, and so he says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Peter knows, and has known for a long time, that Jesus is special. His relationship to him has already so changed his reality, but it is one thing to know Jesus and it is quite another to know Jesus.
That difference seems something like the relationship I have with the new person who will be changing my life completely due to be born this April. I know that she is coming, I have felt her kick and I have seen her fuzzy little picture on the ultra-sound monitor, but it is one thing to know that she is coming and it is another thing to put together her crib in the living room, to touch that place where she will sleep… and then to bump up against the door way, trying to get that assembled crib out of the living room and into the nursery.
Sometimes the awesome takes a while to really sink in. For me it was seeing that crib, touching that place where she’ll sleep, and for Peter it was seeing Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah in clothes of dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
Here in Mark chapter 9 the full reality of Jesus sinks in for Peter, and for the one who seemed to know him the best this full realization is terrifying.
Jesus for Peter has already been hard to categorize. He has had glimpses of Jesus throughout the gospel, and each time Peter thought he had Jesus figured out, Jesus breaks the box that Peter had tried to put him in, defied his expectations.
Peter got to know Jesus the healer, and he was amazed by those healings, but when Jesus walked off to pray in a solitary place Peter frustratedly went looking for Jesus saying “everyone is looking for you!” There are people for you to heal Jesus, that’s what you are supposed to do, Peter thought. So Peter had to learn that Jesus didn’t come to earth to heal everyone who needed it, as Jesus pushed on to the next town.
Peter has also seen Jesus cast out daemons, and so knows that Jesus has power over them, an authority that not even the religious authorities have. But Peter has also seen Jesus silence them, demanding that they don’t betray his identity.
Peter knows Jesus, in a way he has him figured out more than anyone else, but when Jesus predicts his own death Peter tries to talk him out of it, and Jesus turns to him saying, “Get behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
It is one thing for Peter to know who Jesus is, to say, “You are the Christ,” but it is another thing altogether to know and to see him there with Moses and Elijah, because Moses and Elijah are dead.
The truth – the complete picture of Jesus – the fullness of what it means sinks in: following Jesus the Christ means going to the cross.
Peter isn’t alone in his discomfort with Jesus the Christ – like all those who are more interested in Jesus the healer or Jesus the feeder of thousands, Peter is inclined to emphasize a part of Jesus he’s more comfortable with, saying, “teacher, it is good for us to be here.”
You can teach us whatever you want right here.
But to stay awhile would have been like never letting a little baby be born, to never let a child grow into an adult, to never grow beyond what is right now into the possibility of what might be.
Holding tight to what we have, not knowing what we stand to gain, like Peter we want to stay up on that mountaintop, because we are afraid.
Why do we have to go now?
A good question, and a question to which Dr. Martin Luther King responded in his I Have A Dream Speech:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”
King was prepared to embark on a radical change, and it was one that scared a lot of people. It would have been easier for them if King had just stayed up on that mountaintop a little bit longer, delayed change for just a little while – because the change he was proposing meant the death of one thing in the name of the birth of another.
Peter fears where Jesus leads; he fears the loss of all that he has, and he doesn’t see yet what he stands to gain. All he sees is death, assuming the end of what he has known is truly the end, and not understanding that on the other side of death is new life.
That on the other side of segregation – is a whole new world of equality.
That on the other side of racism – is a whole world of possibility.
That on the other side of divorce – could be love and independence.
That on the other side of alcoholism – is freedom.
That on the other side of financial meltdown could be a culture where people have enough and not way more than they need.
That on the other side of death – that cruel, unavoidable mystery – is new life.
This is the place we always stand – change is always kicking like an unborn child in a mother’s womb.
And to get to know this new person I have to go down the mountain to a place I haven’t been before. We stand on the brink of possibility, and only fear can stop us now. Follow Christ, not occupying your mind with what you stand to loose, but with all you stand to gain.