Sunday, January 31, 2010

These Three Remain

1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 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 posses 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 prophecy 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.
Weeks ago now, the nation of Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that took families and made widows and orphans, what were once homes are now rubble, and between 150,000 to 200,000 people in the capital of Port-au-Prince alone are now gone.
To some degree this news shook all of us, prompted many to give of themselves and their resources; the news coverage alone has us rubbing our eyes, waking us up to the cruel reality of life in a country not so far away.
The whole situation is unbelievable, the devastation impossible to understand, so troubling is this event that faced with it all we begin asking “why,” in the hopes that an answer will still the shaking.
Scientists offer an answer, explaining that this country lies on a fault line, a place where two plates of the earth’s crust often converge resulting in the release of stored or seismic energy.
Contractors have an answer as well, explaining that the buildings built in Haiti should never have been constructed on a fault line, as any building built in such a place must be built to some code should they hope to withstand the inevitable earthquake.
And Pat Robertson also has an answer based on the long standing tradition that Haitians, in their quest for independence from France, made a pact with the devil just before their battle for independence in January of 1804, only 28 years after our own declaration of independence. But because of their deal to ensure victory they have been cursed ever since. If you wonder why the country has been so poor, so devastated, than any hurricane, famine, earthquake, according to Rev. Robertson, can be chalked up to God’s righteous judgment.
Science’s laws, the codes of construction, Rev. Robertson’s theology, they answer the question “why,” and so tell us how this catastrophe might have either been avoided or at least prepared for. These answers give us comfort from the chaos – as according to science earthquakes are predictable in the sense that active fault lines are not random occurrences, but are measurable, foreseeable and can be prepared for through proper construction. Even Rev. Robertson gives us a means to prevent such catastrophe – simply don’t make a deal with the devil – if you do you can expect to be punished.
This question “why” is the question we often ask when faced with dismal circumstance because it can lead us to answers. This question why can lead to answers that will help us avoid the same fate in the future. When tragedy strikes we need to know why so we can avoid it striking again. When tragedy strikes our neighbors we ask why to either avoid the same fate or rest easy, trusting that we are going to be OK. In the face of divorce, infertility, unemployment, and death we want to know why for in knowing a reason we avoid the feeling that the world is chaos and tragedy strikes without provocation or cause.
Interesting though, “why” is not a question that our scripture lesson for today answers – in fact, Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth doesn’t explain suffering at all, simply acknowledges its reality, though seismologists today tell us that Corinth, like Haiti, was often ravaged by earthquakes, by virtue of the Anatolian Fault.
Paul, rather than answer our question of “why,” simply assumes that suffering is a reality as all things eventually come to an end – “as for prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” You see – the answer to the question “why” seems hardly worth pursuing for Paul who assumes that at some point we will all find the ground beneath us shaking, as we all stand on a fault line of our own.
The issue which Paul deals with is not “why” this happens – but what we have left when it does – after all, why is our question. The question of the victim is always – what now.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of sharing thanksgiving dinner with a bartender. A cousin of my wife Sara had brought this bartender as a date to the family’s thanksgiving celebration.
Awkward as it was, I a preacher, and this bartender a bartender, the bartender said to me to break the ice, “well, they couldn’t have put two more opposite professions beside each other.”
I thought for a minute and came to some bizarre realization, “I imagine that people come to the two of us looking for exactly the same thing.”
So often we hear stories of two siblings or friends with the same childhood – to come to grips, one turns to alcohol, the other to religion – not necessarily looking for answers, but each hoping to find some solace, some assurance that despite the chaos or heartbreak or devastation of their past, there is still a chance for a future, or at least a means to dull the pain.
Paul does not tell us why the earth quakes.
Paul does not explain why some marriages that begin with love end in divorce.
Paul does not offer us understanding, he does not tell us why.
Instead, Paul assures us that when the mountains shake, when prophecies cease, when tongues are stilled, and when knowledge passes away, what we have left is the only thing that ever mattered.
And now these three remain, he says, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
While you can’t build houses with these three, and I assume that many Haitians would gladly trade faith, hope, and love for food, water, and shelter, I guarantee there is no one in Haiti now rejoicing to uncover their wisdom from the rubble, that there is no one in Haiti now wailing over the loss of their privilege. What we mourn is losing the ones we love, and what we rejoice in is the gift of holding their hand for another day.
Only in the wake of tragedy is this truth often lived out though, but I charge you to remember that the opportunity to invest in the only thing that truly matters, the only thing that will last, has been there all along.
Now we see but a poor reflection of who we are and who we are capable of being, as though we only knew ourselves by our reflection in a mirror made of silver, dull and shadowed – but there will come a day when we shall see face to face, not only who we are, but who we were created to be.
You were not created to accumulate riches.
You were not created to lift yourself up above your peers.
And you were not created to judge yourself or your neighbors.
You were created to testify to the truth, that the God who created you out of love has given you the gift to love and to receive that same love in return.
For when all else falls away, these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

God with Them

Luke 4: 14-30, page 727

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.
The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,
The Lord has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.
The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
“I tell you the truth,” he continued, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.
And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
A good many of you are participating in a 12-week study called “Experiencing God” that meets on Wednesday nights and Thursday mornings.
I feel fortunate to be participating in this study as a group leader, as this study hammers home an important truth – that God is at work in our world, and that we are invited to participate in what God is doing.
The concept may seem obvious, that God is at work, but this concept assumes that God is already at work, not waiting for us to get started or give instructions.
The hard part here is that we are called to watch for God to be at work, aware that God may well choose to work in ways that we are surprised by, and through people whom we would not expect.
Such is the case in our scripture lesson for today – and while this hometown crowd is initially proud of their homegrown Jesus, the lesson ends with them leading him off to the brow of the hill to throw him off the cliff.
I assume that before Jesus walked into Nazareth he rehearsed this scene in his head and I bet this is not what he expected to happen – he had been baptized by John, then refused to fall to temptation in the desert, and following the bout with the devil he is praised throughout the countryside – a parade then does not sound inappropriate for his return home.
While maybe a parade wasn’t part of what Jesus was expecting, it would what I would have hoped for. All those people who thought I’d never amount to much – my baseball coach who didn’t let me play as much as I thought I deserved to, the Sunday School teachers who were rightly convinced that I was more interested in making people laugh than learning anything, the parents who looked at me suspiciously because of my long hear, patchy beard, and black and white checkered car.
I’ve never been invited to preach back where I grew up, and I guess I’m not surprised – it’s hard for people who know you at 15 to separate who you have become from who you were.
So the crowd knows Jesus, not as the fulfillment of prophecy, but primarily as Joseph’s son.
And while, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son” is not quiet “who do you think you are,” I think the crowd is getting pretty close to, “well that sounds great, you’re the fulfillment of our scripture lesson, so surely, now that you’re home you must be here to help us.”
But Jesus goes on with his lesson – “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard you did in Capernaum.’” I tell you the truth; no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
I know there are widows here, but like Elijah, I’ve been sent to serve the widows somewhere else. And I know that there are lepers here, but I have been sent to serve the leapers of your enemies.
With these sayings it becomes clear to the crowd that this boy has not only grown too big for his britches and forgotten where he came from – he’s clamed that God sent him, not to us, but to them.
Often the greatest stumbling block to knowing and doing the will of God is thinking that you already know and are already doing the will of God.
There’s a word for that – idolatry – and no matter the shape, a golden calf or a lion headed queen, thinking that you know who God would love, who God would serve, and what God came to earth to do puts God in a box.
Here Christ was saying, “Surely there were lepers in Israel in that time – but Elisha was sent out to Naaman, the general of a foreign army poised to invade Israel,” but how could God possibly be more interested in healing our enemies than us?
While Jesus is most certainly “God with us”, what made him unrecognizable to his own people was that Jesus was saying I am also “God with them.”
While I am your God, I am also God to your enemies.
While I came to ensure you of God’s love, I also came as a sign of God’s love for all people.
While I came to save you from your sins, I also came for the salvation of those whom you have judged undeserving of such grace.
And with these words they took him to the brow of the hill in order to throw him off the cliff.
In Christ there is much less room for judgment, vengeance, or wrath than we could have expected – as we cannot expect for God to take our side, but in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, we can only hope and pray that we are on God’s.
While, in our anger, we would rather sacrifice the messenger than entertain a grace so radical that her acceptance can encompass so many, what seems so true today is that Christ calls us not to sacrifice his word, but to sacrifice that which defies it.
That if we are so bold as to claim to be one country under God, our patriotism stands in the way of faith should we believe that we are the one and only country under God.
That if we are so bold as to call for justice - that our righteousness demands some reward, while others deserve punishment, we must not stand in the way of forgiveness, or we will risk losing it ourselves.
The bad news is that forgiveness is for our enemies, that miracles happen for those who do not deserve them, that Christ came to save sinners.
The good news then is that forgiveness, if for our enemies, is most certainly for us, that miracles happen for those who do not deserve them, and who can claim to deserve a miracle, and that if Christ came to save sinners, Christ most certainly came to save you and me.
Let us not be so quick to be offended by a grace that most certainly is greater than all our sins.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Of Bathtubs and Baptismal Fonts

John 2: 1-11, page 751
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
I’m not sure who came up with the technology – the CIA, Gestapo, SS – but because of the tiny little camera about our daughter Lily’s crib, my wife Sara and I are able to watch our baby sleep from the comfort of our own room.
I assume that at some point she will not be so accepting of this invasion of her privacy, and there will be things that she would rather her mother and father didn’t know.
Soon enough it will be a broken plate pushed under a rug, a dress she doesn’t feel like wearing ends up hidden in the trash, maybe a report card pulled from the mailbox before we have a chance to see it – soon enough Sara and I will not be privy to every event in our daughter’s life, as there will be things that Lily will not want us to see, there will be parts of her that will be better known by her friends than her parents.
But no matter how good children, teenagers, even adults get at hiding away parts of themselves; there is something about the way a parent knows a child.
So Mary says to her son Jesus, “They have no more wine,” knowing that her son can do something about it, that he has the ability to save this wedding feast from disaster.
And while it’s only a statement, not a request, not a question, not a suggestion, this son knows exactly what his mother means when she says, “They have no more wine” and is not so sure he wants to do anything about it, “Dear woman,” he says, “why do you involve me?”
You were probably thinking the same thing – what would Jesus have to do with providing alcohol to a wedding feast when all the guests have already cleaned out the bar?
But Mary apparently doesn’t care what her son was thinking – “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants – this son of mine is about to do something amazing.
Her motivation here could have been any number of things – maybe the crowd had gotten to the wine before she got to have a glass, maybe, having shouldered the weight of their gossip at her pregnancy she was anxious for her community to know what this son of hers was capable of, or maybe she was concerned at how embarrassed the bride and groom would be if the guests started leaving the party before it was time, there being nothing left to drink.
While Mary’s motivation isn’t clear, everyone follows her orders, Jesus included, calling the servants to fill six stone jars with water, six stone jars normally used for ceremonial washing.
We’ve heard this story many times, and so we know what happens next, but at this point in the story I think it would have been natural for the servants to stop and wonder what it is exactly that Jesus is planning to do.
Here are these huge vessels used for purification, and to some degree we know what these are – to wash away your sins, to be made clean, to be ritually pure is to be baptized, but given the size of these things – we are not talking about baptismal fonts – at 20-30 gallons we are virtually talking about bathtubs. Given the size of these things we grasp the place rites of purification held in the community, the emphasis these people put on making themselves pure before their God and each other.
Certainly, codes of purification are one of the elements of Judaism that always made the Jewish community different – Kosher rules of diet that kept them from eating many things that were dangerous to eat in the ancient world, most notably pork, a meat lethal if undercooked or spoiled.
There can be no doubt that these rites of purification promoted health, saved people’s lives, and made the community distinct, separated them from the greater community, enabled them to maintain their culture when assimilation while living in exile would have been likely.
These stone jars represent all that separated sacred from secular, Jew from gentile, religious from heathen and Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
But when we expect Jesus to go on with the purification ritual – clean the party goers, call them to repent for their drunkenness then baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, what happens instead is what was once water becomes wine – the party goers, having already had enough now have even more to drink and the party goes on.
This Jesus who we come to know here at church, who is our spiritual savior, who we are often wrong to confine to our prayer life and away from our real life, is not acting the way he is supposed to but is being completely present at a party – supplying the very thing it needs to go on – not ending the party with a sermon, not convincing folks to repent and be saved, unlike the other Gospel’s in which Jesus makes his public appearance through healing the sick, giving the blind their sight. In the gospel of John Jesus shows us who he is by being an instrumental part of the party – and if you are anything like me you are wondering what on earth that means.
I assume that many were thinking the same thing – if this guy is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for than surely he will be like us – surely he will be clean and good, attending our prayer meetings, going to church with us – surely we will see him and know that he is good as we are good.
But we are not known by God as we know each other – we are known by God the same way we are known by our parents. A mother who has watched her son grow up knows who he is better than anyone else – and while he may be one thing to you, I know exactly who he is, I was there changing his diapers.
So God incarnate does not come to us appealing to our holy nature – he comes to us appealing to our whole selves.
In this first miracle we receive a clear look at exactly who he is and what exactly it is that he came to do – and it is made clear that he is not primarily here to make us clean, but to be with us – that he did not come hoping to see us at our bests, but was just interesting in knowing who we are – that his purpose was not to show us how to separate ourselves from those around with our cleanliness, but to show us how to live and love all the people of God.
We Christians are tempted to come to this font of holy water and to become clean, thinking that being made clean makes us different, maybe even make us better.
But what if this font were not about making us different – what if – through the sure sign that God is with you – this font were about marking you to have the confidence to live this life as you truly are, and in so doing, enabled you to truly live, not pretending to be more holy than the rest, but resting in the confidence that being human is to be loved by God.
Jesus is Emanuel - God with us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

We've Been Gathered Together

Jeremiah 31: 7-14
This is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say, ‘O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’
See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return.
They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.
“Hear the word of the Lord, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: ‘He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
For the Lord will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord-
The grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord.
Why is it that we only appreciate things once they’ve been taken away?
That’s what’s so interesting to me about Henry Ford, the figure most responsible for the mass production of the automobile, which he produced at a cost so many could afford. His Model As and Model Ts, as well as his tractors, not only eased travel, but replaced the horse, donkey, and mule with the more reliable, never had to be fed or watered, automobile.
Some would say that, more than anyone else, Ford is responsible for closing one age and beginning another – closing the door on the time of small towns, dirt roads, slow work, and horse-drawn carriages – to invite us all in to the 20th Century – the age of speed, efficiency, electricity, and comfort.
But what is not widely known about Ford is that he spent the later years of his life spending his piles of money, not just on upscale living, but on antique collecting. He amassed so many signs of the age he helped replace that he was able to create a town time left behind – a town without electricity, no paved roads, and where no automobile could be seen or heard.
It was there that he sat, and when he was needed to guide the company he created and maintained, they knew where to find him, sitting on an old bench under a big tree, listening to the wind blow, not an automobile in site, and enjoying this small piece of “the world that was” before returning to the world he helped create.
Like the Israelites in Exile, he longed for what he once had now that it was gone.
The Israelites longed to be like the powerful nations they were surrounded by – to be like the great Assyrians or Egyptians – to be powerful and mighty – and so they adopted gods that were not their own, practiced the idolatry of abandoning the God who liberated them from the Egyptians’ oppression.
They turned away, and the God who they turned away from allowed the Babylonian armies to sack the cities and take so many people back to live in that foreign land.
You might say they finally got what they wanted – the opportunity to live as Babylonians and not Israelites – but we know that once they lost their homeland, once they were separated from their friends and families, plucked up from the land to live as foreigners, they longed to return to Israel.
While we have not lost our homeland – I’m confident that this notion of Exile is not completely unknown to us.
Those of us old enough to remember hot nights when we would have given anything for a cool breeze; and long, quiet, bored summer afternoons when nothing was on TV, now miss so badly that time – that time when we were forced outside, neighbors congregating on porches and kids playing together on the moonlit street.
Most of that way of life we have lost – and in many ways we have given it all away willingly – traded that community for air-conditioning, cable-TV, and privacy.
Besides the fortunate and the brave, we so often don’t know our neighbors; have never been in their homes and never them in ours. We are isolated, though surrounded by people, lonely, though the opportunity for community is barely a few steps away.
Gone, it would seem, are the days of kick the can in the street, neighbors at your door, ready to lend a hand or a meal during times of illness, to celebrate the birth of a new baby, to assemble, share memories, and help shoulder the burden of mourning a loss.
Gone are those days, left to memory, longed for by so many, but to return what was hardly seems possible, as our way of life has changed.
Those Israelites in Babylon must have felt the same way, their children growing up not knowing the old ways, adopting new ways of life, speaking a new language, replacing stories of the homeland in favor of the ways of the empire.
But hear the word of the Lord: “Sing with joy; shout for the foremost of the nations… See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth…they will pray as I bring them back.”
While our world still values being entertained over contributing, meeting your needs as individuals over fostering community, here, in this place, I have not only heard counter-cultural stories, I have myself been buried by casseroles in times of illness, been surrounded by celebration at a new baby’s birth, have prayed and prayed for those who are not blood but who are most certainly family.
It is so tempting not only to mirror our culture, but to judge ourselves according to it – to base our success or failure on our ability to entertain and meet ideological needs, rather than to judge our success on something that truly matters – our ability to embrace, comfort, and rally around each other – our capacity to gather together, forging friendships, bound together as one people in the midst of a world so prone to isolation.
How often have I been out to visit you in the hospital, only to be met by some other friend of this church just stopping by to say hello.
How many Sundays have we prayed together, even wept together?
I have watched as you have lifted each other up, nurtured each others’ children, and embraced as though you were but one family.
How many times have I been amazed by your capacity to serve those in this congregation during some time of need – filling up freezers, lending a hand, organizing a support network?
While the world seems to make it so easy to stay inside, convincing us, not of our strength but our weakness as only one person, here, in this church, God has called us out of Exile, brought us together to make us one body, one people, tied together again with bonds of love.
In a world so confused about what really matters – know that what you have here is all that really counts – here in this church you have each other.
While it is tempting to think that what we have is nothing so special, as we all know someone who has walked away in favor of something else, I tell you, it is most certainly a gift to be gathered here together.