Sunday, November 15, 2009

A New Song to Sing

1 Samuel 2: 1-10, page 191
Then Hannah prayed and said:
My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.
There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by the Lord deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more. She who was barren has born seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.
The Lord brings death and makes alive; the Lord brings down to the grave and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth; the Lord humbles and exalts.
The Lord raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; the Lord seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; upon them the Lord has set the world.
The Lord will guard the feet of the saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.
It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be shattered.
The Lord will thunder against them from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
The Lord will give strength to the king and exalt the horn of the anointed.”
Last Sunday was a big day – 20 women from this church were on their way back home from a fantastic retreat at Camp Calvin, in between services we paid respect as an old flag was retired and a new one hoisted up the flag pole. In Fellowship Hall was another great talent show where Chris Manning won first place for his rendition of “Long and Winding Road” – and down Hwy 78 in Snellville our choir joined with other area choirs for an incredible concert of sacred music.
And at that concert, during the final hymn, the most incredible thing happened. For the final hymn, this choir made up of over one hundred members, representing five churches, the director from Snellville United Methodist Church chose a song made famous by a choir in Brooklyn New York – a choir with significantly different from the one I saw before me.
So I began to wonder how this song was going to go over – the choir had just sung songs many would say were appropriate for a bunch of main-line, middle class, folks – a mighty fortress is our God, written by Martin Luther himself from the Lutherans, some Beethoven and Handle from the Presbyterians – and now they were going to attempt something a little different, and honestly, I wondered how this choir made up mostly of white people were going to pull it off.
But the choir got going, and from the back of the sanctuary – the place where the trouble always gets started – you could hear the effect their singing was having on the congregation - as the Spirit of Rhythm was descending and we all were actually clapping in time.
At the end of the hymn the congregation was so transformed by the song we all stood to applaud and the choir was so led as to lead the congregation in an encore.
I don’t know if you would say we were possessed – enjoying an out of body experience or what – but the music last Sunday transformed a choir and a congregation in one fell swoop.
That choir might have gone back to their suburban homes, but they, if only for a moment, were a choir from Brooklyn New York with as much soul as any I have ever heard.
And that congregation might have looked like prim and proper Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodists, but we, if only for a moment, were so moved by the spirit someone wandering in from off the street might just have mistaken us for Baptists.
This ability to transform is a power that mothers have always known about – how a baby so worked up, face contorted in discomfort and frustration, back arched – can be transformed back into that angle you know and love with the right song from the right voice.
It’s this power that today’s scripture lesson posses, as I can tell you it’s not just a prayer. How would a prayer prayed for the first time have made it in the Bible – as no one was there to write it down, Samuel too young to do such a thing.
No, this is the song Hannah, Samuel’s mother, sang to her stomach when it finally began to bulge – years of waiting, years of frustration, years of disappointment finally over. “My heart rejoices in the Lord” she sang to the long-awaited baby inside.
Samuel had heard it so many times it was familiar to him before he was even being born; it was the only thing that calmed him down when he woke up in the middle of the night, tired but too frustrated to sleep. Every parent knows you’ll do or sing anything to get that child back to sleep in middle of the night, but Hannah already knew what to sing – it was the only song that would do as she rocked the baby who would become Israel’s prophet in her arms.
It’s a song he knew so well before he could even know his own name that even the first note brought a smile to his face.
So when Hannah brought Samuel to the temple, so grateful for him that she felt she needed to dedicate him to God, it was the song she sang to give her the strength to follow through with this promise I bet she wished she would had never made.
Singing this song one last time, a song Samuel knew better than any other, she wiped the tears from his eyes and walked away, no one to wipe the tears away from her own.
Leaving her son at the temple with one last gift, a song. But it was a powerful gift that she gave him – a gift that transforms reality.
This is the gift she gave him one last time the day she walked away from the temple leaving her son to be brought up in the House of the Lord.
When he woke up cold and alone on the temple floor, it was this song that kept him warm.
Homesick and hungry, nothing else could give him comfort, remind him of his mother’s love the way this song could – transforming his solitude, if for only a moment, to feel his mother’s arms around him once again singing the words: “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.”
Too small to defend himself against the abuse of the others at the temple, this song promised him a new day when the, “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.”
And as he grew up, old enough to notice the pain of his people, the struggle of the widow, the plight of the poor, so frustrated he just wanted to escape a world so dark and cold, he would sing this song and know justice, for “The Lord raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; the Lord seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”
You see, music transforms; and a song, the right song can tide you over until justice comes.
This was the song that carried Samuel through his struggle. It kept the light of hope burning brightly, when it was hopeless all around.
Like the slaves who sang, “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home”, we can sing of freedom – until bondage gives way.
The slave owners knew that song’s power, and so they took away the drums, policed the night for fear of such songs of freedom – but the slaves sang and they sang songs of thanksgiving and joy – praising God for a freedom that wasn’t yet here but surely on the way there.
They kept on singing as Samuel did, even though the world tried to silence them, tried to teach them a different song to sing.
Replacing songs of change with songs about how nothing will ever change.
Putting away songs of joy for songs of lamentation.
Songs that tell us that there’s no use praising God for what’s on the way, for the good old days are long gone – that tomorrow should be feared for don’t you know it just won’t be as good as yesterday. So we’ve been wishing we were something else, we’ve been regretting who’s won and who’s lost, and we’re already disappointed in what tomorrow will bring.
So Hannah comes with a new song to sing.
A new song, so rich and so true that when Mary found that she was pregnant with the Son of God, though she was afraid, though she was worried, though she was certain that she would be ridiculed and shunned as an unwed mother there was really only one song for her to sing.
Let us join her in singing Hannah’s song.
Because with our heads bowed low and our worries fixed in our minds there’s nothing but that tired, sad, lonesome, boring song that’s sticks in your head and is never going to get you where you need to go!
It’s time for you to sing a new song – a song about a new day that isn’t here yet – but you better know it’s on the way.
A song about a new world of justice and peace – that isn’t here yet – but you can sing it as we walk this road until we get there.
A song about hope, and change, and the God who is even now making a way, building up a new Kingdom, setting the captives free – and when that new day comes you better know the words to sing.
My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Prayer for Flag Dedication and Retirement

Righteous God, you rule the nations.
Guard brave men and women,
Who risk themselves in battle for their country.
Give them compassion for all.
Give them hope for the nations in which they serve.
Keep our sons and daughters from hate that hardens, but fill them with the fruits of the Spirit: faith, hope, and love.
Though they must be at war, let them live for peace,
As eager for peace as for victory.
Encourage them as they encourage one another, and never let hard duty separate them from loyalty to your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
When all of us, here, safe at home, see this flag that we raise today, remind us of those who have fought and died for what it represents; remind us of those who serve in far away places for our sake. Help us to keep them in our hearts, that though they are separated from us, often by oceans of worry and fear, we might always be unified by a common faith in your son.
Holy Lord, look after our sons and daughter.
Keep them ever in your sight, watching over them that they might come home to us safe and sound.
[1] This prayer draws on a prayer from the Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 818.

What Does the Lord Require?

Mark 12: 38-44, page 718

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
They devour widow’s houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such people will be punished most severely.”
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth. This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
“Such people will be punished most severely,” Jesus says.
My goodness – they sound like a bunch of jerks too – always wearing those flowing robes like they’re something special – always sitting up front in the sanctuary for everyone to see them.
Sounds like you’re in big trouble choir.
But the truth is this passage isn’t an indictment of the synagogue choir, the teachers of the law were the ones who stood up in front of everybody, read scripture and interpreted those ancient words that the crowds might apply the Word of God to their lives.
They were uniquely powerful then, as no one could question what they were saying or how they interpreted the Bible, as no one else could read.
However – it’s almost the same power that all ministers have now, not because people can’t read the Bible, but because most of the time they just don’t choose to!
So you have ministers all over the place emphasizing the parts of the Bible that they want to emphasize, claiming to be pointing their flock in the direction of the most important parts – but really, who knows?
However, there’s no explaining away or avoiding our passage for today. It’s quite clear.
Should I abuse my authority – taking advantage of those who trust me to know the scripture – I can expect to be punished most severely.
As those poor widows having no knowledge of how to deal with their homes or property, were signing everything away to teachers of the law who they trusted – and they really have no recourse, because without a husband there is no one to help them understand what they are signing – and more than that, as illiterate, they can’t even read what they are signing for themselves. What we have in this passage is a strong case for literacy, because the ability to read a contract is pure power, that unchecked turns into corruption.
Such has always been the case, new immigrants taken advantage of, signing contracts they can’t understand, and forced to trust the untrustworthy to explain it all to them.
It’s a wonder then, that Christ, the man who stormed the temple, knew its abuses first hand, didn’t stop this poor woman from giving away her last two coins to an establishment he knew wouldn’t use her money responsibly.
What I want to know is why doesn’t he stop this poor woman before she spends her last two coins on the pastor’s flowing robe fund?
Why doesn’t he direct her towards some better use of her money – saying something like, “No don’t give your money to them, don’t you see it will just go to pay the CEO’s salary – give your money to the homeless shelter down the street – your money will go directly to the people who need it.”
Or better yet, “Keep your money. You need those two coins much more than the synagogue does. God knows your heart, and God doesn’t want you to go hungry.”
But that’s not what Jesus does.
Jesus doesn’t stop her from giving those last two coins away.
Jesus seems to know how important it is to accept a gift; how sometimes it is most important to let someone say, “Thank you.”
You remember the time a woman came in and anointed his feet with oil, oil precious and valuable poured out on his feet. Everyone was whispering, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages, and the money given to the poor.”
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing.”
I think it must have made Jesus feel guilty to watch this widow give her last two coins away – it may have even made him angry as he knew what those coins would go to pay for - but he lets her do it as he must have known why she would give, even her last two coins.
That she wasn’t concerned with helping pay for the teacher’s new robes.
That she certainly wasn’t about making a show of her generosity. It’s not clear that anyone even noticed besides Jesus.
And though then, like now, there were probably religious leaders telling her that if she gave her money to the church she could expect a great reward, I don’t think it’s likely that this woman thought she would be getting something in return for her show of faith.
In fact, while Jesus is clear about how the teachers of the law will be punished, there’s no mention of how this faithful widow is going to be rewarded.
It doesn’t say that she gets a new husband because of her faith.
It doesn’t say that on her way home she uncovers a treasure chest full of gold.
It doesn’t say even that in the next life she will be treated like a queen – there’s no mention of any reward at all.
What we readers are left to assume is that she’s already received her reward and that now she gives to show her thanks to God.
Sometimes it takes losing everything to appreciate what we have – and I assume that while he was alive this poor widow complained about toilet seats left up, mayonnaise jars left out on the counter, too much money spent on loose living – but now that he’s gone all she can do is think about what a blessing from God it was to have met someone who she could love and who loved her in return. She can’t give her husband that one last gift to show him how much he meant, but she could thank God for him and so she puts in her two last coins.
And what a blessing it was to have her friends gather around her as she wept, casseroles brought over, visits made – how could she ever thank all those who prayed and prayed that he would get better? They would never accept her gift, but she could thank God for them, and so she puts in her two last coins.
Then to hear words of assurance, that this good-bye isn’t really a good-bye, as the preacher said they’d meet again on some far off shore. How could she ever thank the writers of scripture for giving those assuring words, how could she ever thank the choir for singing those promises of God, how could she ever thank God for making those promises true? Who would accept her gift? No one would allow her to give her last two coins away, but she so wanted to thank God for what she’d received and so she puts in her two last coins.
What I learn today from this widow is not what it means to sacrifice, not what it means to give until it hurts, but what it means to say “Thanks.”
Like her, today we sit in this place where God is present, but I’m worried we’ve all been sitting here so long we forgot what a special place this is.
In the years I was in seminary, Sara and I floated from church to church, every Sunday checking the square, “I’d like to speak to a pastor,” but no pastor ever called.
The Sunday we visited this church, we first received a gift bag, the next day there was a fresh loaf of bread on our front door, and two days later Roy Brown was on the phone ready to visit us and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
How many places are there in this world where you show up and actually feel like you matter?
Three years ago, when I had just started serving this church as your associate pastor, I remember walking into this sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent, fighting off tears because as soon as I heard the choir and all of you singing, I knew that I was blessed to have been called to a church where the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ was an occasion worth celebrating with joy.
Where else is the good news read and sung, where else are the promises of God heard that you might be encouraged, empowered, and strengthened to live life.
I don’t know what your experience of this place has been, but I hope and pray that it won’t take a great loss to fully appreciate what all God has blessed you with in this place.
So don’t wait for that day. Today is the day to give like the widow, not because it’s easy, but because when you really think about it, there’s nothing else to do – there’s no other way to respond than to respond in thanks for this gift that you have received.
Give thanks to God for this place today – not because you should, not because you’ll be rewarded – but because this church is a gift from God to you, and it’s time to for you to say “Thanks.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Last Word

John 11: 32-44, page 761

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
There is a new book out by Dan Brown, an author whose book The da Vinci Code was greeted with widespread popularity as well as widespread controversy. His new book, The Lost Symbol, takes place mostly in Washington DC, and deals with ideas about the human capacity for greatness.
His main character, Robert Langdon reflects on principles of the world’s great religions; how the Buddha said, ‘You are God yourself.’ Or how Jesus taught that ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ and even promised us, ‘the works I do, you can do… and greater.’[1]
Always on the look-out for conspiracies as he was in the da Vinci Code, Brown’s latest book sees these ideas about the human capacity for greater authority and power, all around Washington DC, present symbolically in our Nation’s Capitol’s greatest monuments.
And it’s possible to read these same ideas into the story that we are faced with today – that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus, deeply moved by the people around him, is able to raise a man from the dead, saying to Martha, the sister of the dead man, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
As though faith could elevate Martha to a higher realm of consciousness, where what seems impossible becomes possible – and we should be encouraged to go and do likewise - the works I do, you can do… and greater.
Our culture may just be pushing us in this direction – as all around us are people challenging their humanness, fighting to become larger than life, to find a way out of poverty and into great wealth, to escape being normal by getting noticed and admired by peers, to ascend above the crowd to stand boldly under the limelight of celebrity.
We don’t like being normal, so we try our best to rise above.
We don’t want to be another Joe six-pack so we try for American Idol.
We don’t want to be hurt, so we put on a face of strong resolve.
We don’t want to be rejected so we pretend not to care.
And sometimes we follow this Jesus, thinking that he’ll help us get where we need to go – that he’ll set us apart and high up on a hill to be a shining light to the world, no longer imprisoned by the world, but set free.
It’d be good to avoid the not so nice parts of being human.
Avoid sadness, self-loathing, illness, age, and death – just rise above it all.
We are chained to these mortal bodies, flawed and limited, doomed to experience human emotion and grief – our savior should come to show us how to ascend above it all.
Maybe that’s what Mary was thinking when fell at his feet mourning the loss of her brother, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She assumed that he would have prevented it from happening – if only he’d been there sooner.
But this way of thinking misses a point made prominent by two simple words here in our scripture lesson for today. Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, but it says all that we ever wanted to know: “Jesus wept.”
To this show of emotion, some said, “See how he loved him;” But others said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?”
I think this is the question that we all ask.
If this Jesus were so great, then why is there still death? Why do we lose people who we love?
Jesus doesn’t stop Lazarus from dying, but stays away while death’s shadow closes in, and the stone covers the mouth of his burial cave.
4 days pass and we wonder why – why he had to go – why he had to leave us – why he wasn’t spared.
Limited then we might say – or insufficient. And many did - others saw weakness, vulnerability. So many others never even wondered if this man was who he said he was as God must certainly have power over death if God can give the blind their sight.
But this God who weeps doesn’t avoid death himself – and in this death we know that God didn’t come to earth to avoid the pain of human life, to avoid that most prominent feeling of loss, forgo that thing that we all fear the most – dying – but to face death himself, and to face it with human tears.
And just as Lazarus’ body was placed in the tomb, we placed him in the tomb.
And then the tomb was sealed – and the shadow fell.
But just when we thought death would have the last word, we hear the words: “Lazarus, come out!”
These words that break the silence, that shine a light that even the shadow of death cannot extinguish, come from one who did not spare himself, could have risen above, could have avoided it all, but choose to share our grief, share our limitations, share our fear, and even die himself that death while not avoided, might forever be concurred and forever prevented from having the last word, as the last word on death is not silence, but “Lazarus, come out!”
Today we remember men and women whom we have lost in the last year – and as we remember what we have lost, also remember this truth – that Christ, though divine, shares in your grief; and that Christ, though immortal, took on our human limitations that you might never face the shadow of death alone, trusting that the last word will not come from death, but from Christ, the one who has taken from death her sting.

[1] Ibid. 492.