Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Fox is in the Hen House

Luke 13: 31-35, page 739
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I must reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Look, your house is left to you desolate.
I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Folks who have never been to Good Shepherd will sometimes ask me what this church is like – is Good Shepherd conservative, liberal, or moderate; what kind of people attend; where will Good Shepherd be in 15 years?
It’s hard to answer questions like these, as they are questions about a group of people, made up of individuals who may have differing opinions – so what I usually say is something like – there is a person at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church who felt so led as to donate her complete pay check from the last two weeks to the church in the hopes that this church would use her money to make a difference to someone.
There is a person here at Good Shepherd who was worried about the state of my dress shoes and so he took them all home and polished them – now, as you can see, they look good as new.
There is a person here who had a dream about helping organize the Small Groups at this church, and the next day she wrote me an email to volunteer, just a few hours after I had lunch with a couple telling them that I sure do wish there was something I could do to help them get into a small group but I just don’t have the time.
Good Shepherd is a church full of faithful people – some who are conservative, some who are liberal, some who love to hunt, some who are petrified of firearms, some who struggle to be faithful, some who hear God’s voice as clear as a bell.
So you see – it’s hard to tie down any group of people – we’re individuals – we’re different – but that doesn’t stop us from reaching certain conclusions – about churches - about race – about class – about age. And so the first verse of our gospel lesson is surprising – “some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
I thought all Pharisees were bad – but remember Nicodeemus, that faithful man of the law who came to Jesus three times in the Gospel of John, going so far as the assist Joseph of Aramethia in preparing Jesus’ body of burial.
Then there’s the Apostle Paul who completely turns away from his life as a Pharisee to follow Jesus, even to death.
On the one hand you have these two, Nicodemus and Paul, on the other you have those Pharisees who conspired to have Jesus killed – and in the middle maybe you have this group who didn’t want Herod to kill him, but weren’t ready to leave everything to follow him either.
In Bible study this past week Paul McDonald said, you might say they were hedging their bets – if he’s the Christ than they’ve done him a favor, if he’s not than no one has to know we tried to help him.
In some ways that is where I think most of us are – we’re happy to be Christian, as long as being Christian doesn’t ask us to do anything that might get us in trouble – we’re happy to follow Jesus, wear a cross around our neck, maybe even invite a friend to church – and even though we don’t agree with everything on TV we’re not lobbying for censorship – even though we don’t agree with everything that happens in public schools not all of us are ready to pull our kids out to home school or Christian School – even though we’re not completely happy with the culture in which we live we’re not fighting for a wall to be built to keep outside influences out.
For a long time the nation of Israel was different – literally building up a wall between themselves and the outside world. A part of that wall was uncovered this week by archeologists in Jerusalem – part of a wall built by King Solomon, who also built the Temple – the Temple that was rebuilt by Herod whose son is here plotting to kill Jesus.
While Herod did rebuild the Temple, he wasn’t able to rebuild the wall – in fact, the wall came down and Herod, rather than fight against the Romans who occupied his kingdom, bowed to them and became their puppet – maintaining his title while losing all his power; keeping the Temple intact while ensuring that the priests prayed for the Emperor; holding tight to the law and his culture in one hand while adopting the ways of Rome with the other.
I think this is something we all believe is possible – that we can be simultaneously Christian and American, that we can follow our faith without being too odd, that we can be a friend to Jesus without losing out place in Herod’s court.
Jesus seems to know that they have a foot in each camp and so can go between the two with his message – “go tell that fox” he says to them, knowing that if they could overhear Herod’s plot to kill him than they must have been close, though they may not have completely pledged themselves to Herod’s service, leaking this secret plot.
They couldn’t just up and follow Jesus you see – they had kids to feed, they couldn’t make the Empire mad or they might lose their influence, and they couldn’t make this puppet king angry or they might well lose their lives.
Normal enough I’d say – and you wouldn’t think they’d lose themselves in the process. They weren’t doing anything wrong – bowing to Herod, helping out Jesus a little on the side.
I tend to think this way of life is possible – that I can watch TV without falling victim to its hedonism – that I’m not really that affected by advertising – that I can watch shows about sin and vice without falling prey to sin and vice.
But this is a dangerous game to play.
Like fire – it’s fine as long as it stays in the fireplace – you can cook with it, stay warm by it – but give it an inch and your house is burning.
Like love that you think you can keep at bay and next thing you know you’re doing things you never thought you’d do, saying things you thought you’d never say.
We think we can control that fox, bow to him Monday through Friday while maintaining our true allegiance to Christ – until one day we’re asked to choose sides.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Herod is a fox – and if you think you can serve two masters, if you think you can handle it all, you better be careful because given the chance Herod will eat you, take everything, and leave you empty.
Like the Pharisees before us we must navigate through two competing worlds – we choose to follow Christ to the cross while watching Olympians journey towards gold, American Idols journey towards fame, and our friends who are willing to compromise their values journey towards success, wealth and influence.
But don’t you see – the fox is in the hen house – and the fox is not in this for your salvation.
The fox is in the hen house – as the great evangelist of television preaches the gospel of pleasure through products and beauty as the great defining sign of worth.
The fox is in the hen house – as the news assaults us with a continual worry, fear for who is out there, and painting opponents as idiots and liars.
The fox is in the hen house – telling us working 60 hours a week will pay off in time, but when the budget gets tight the fox will lay you off and wish you good luck.
The fox is in the hen house – and if you think it isn’t real look where the path led the Pharisees – their house was left desolate as the Rome they had compromised with destroyed their Temple just a few years after Christ’s death.
We are in a difficult position – like the Pharisees we must, on occasion, bow to the fox – as there is money to be made, children to feed, and we don’t want to look too strange or we’ll lose all our friends – but do not be fooled – the fox is not worthy of our faith though the fox would like us to believe otherwise.
As people of faith in a culture of fear, we must be about calling the fox a fox, talking about truth in a world of misstatements, talking about what love really is in a world of pleasure and pleasing, prioritizing our lives by what really matters
We must be wise, we must speak out, we must because if we don’t the fox will do it for us and lead our children down the path to destruction.
While the fox may be more attractive, on TV, and ready to offer you quick fixes and easy gain, only the mother hen will lay down her life for her chicks.
The fox is in the hen house, and only Christ has laid down his life for you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

They Came Down from the Mountain

Luke 9: 28-45, page 733
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus.
They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, 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 he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone.
The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.
The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
“O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.”
Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.
While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: the son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.
As you may know already, there is a Thursday morning, Wednesday evening study going on right now, that about 50 people are participating in called Experiencing God.
Last Wednesday evening our group was watching the video for the week, and each week’s segment ends with someone’s testimony. This past week the testimony began with a woman who said she had never heard God speak directly to her. She was worried about that so she called her father who told her not to worry, as only ministers and important people get to talk to God.
I think that idea is important for my daughter Lily and my wife Sara to think about, as it’s easy to trust God’s word to ministers and important people if you don’t know one personally, but if you share a bathroom with a minister it’s easy to get worried about who it is that’s entrusted with hearing God’s voice.
The truth is that we all are given equal access to God, that we all have the same honor of listening and hearing God’s voice, opening our eyes and seeing God’s plan unfold, reaching out our hands and doing God’s work, but most of the time we like to leave all that up to those whom we believe to be more holy and more worthy.
I am every bit the same way, and find it easy to relate to the disciples who, though given the power to cast out demons at the beginning of our chapter, found themselves unable to do so after coming down from the mountain where they had seen Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, clothes so bright they appeared like lightening.
Like the disciples, so aware of their humanity at the sight of Jesus’ divinity, so convinced of their inability compared to the height of Jesus’ nobility, I grew up with a pastor so wise, kind, and good that I knew I would never be able to be like him, and though I felt the call to ministry, if ministry was being like Dr. Jim Speed I knew I would never be able to cut it.
I had it in my mind that if this pastor of my childhood were to walk up to a lake and spread his arms as Moses did to the sea than surely the waters would part and he would be able to walk through on dry ground.
And so I decided that I would just do something else with my life, though I dreamed of preaching.
I imagine that is what the disciples were feeling – that though they had been called by God, given the authority and power to drive out demons, cure diseases and to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick, that considering Christ’s transfiguration they began to say among themselves, “he’s a whole lot more holy than we are, he was just standing there with Moses and Elijah. If we can’t heal this father’s son than we can just wait for him, he should be down from the mountain any minute now.”
Though they tried, as the child’s father tells us they tried, they apparently tried reluctantly, “I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
What happens next is a little surprising – you would think that Jesus would do what we all imagine Jesus would – he’d come down from the mountain, maybe not with a big grin on his face, but certainly with the look of peace about him. Then he’d talk with the disciples who weren’t able to heal this boy, say something that your Mom would say after you just missed the shot that would have won the game, “I know you gave it your all and that makes you a winner in my eyes,” then he’d first give this father a firm hand on the shoulder that would communicate how Jesus understands the severity of the situation, but also that he’s here now and everything is going to be alright.
Then and only then Jesus would kneel down next to the boy, look at him with love in his eyes, and cast out the evil spirit.
If I weren’t actually reading this story, that’s what I’d expect to happen.
But instead Christ, seemingly un-Christ like, addresses not only the father, his disciples, and the crowd, but the entire generation of which they are apart – “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?”
This is the kind of instance that we just have to sit with and ponder over, the kind of thing that really makes you wonder who this Jesus is; it’s the kind of revelation that almost makes you wish Martin Luther had just left the Bible in Latin so we didn’t have to read the real thing and understand it, and our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus does could be based on something more comfortable like those pictures of Jesus as a sweet little baby you see in children’s books.
This picture here of Jesus is disarming, and maybe even a little scary.
And it takes something to weather this kind of shock.
I mentioned before one of the ministers who influenced me growing up, but there was another. This other minister took over just after Dr. Speed retired, and I don’t know if he ever wrote a sermon himself, but at some point or another it came to light that most of his sermons came straight off the internet.
By the time I found out I knew plagiarism was bad, but this was a lot worse.
And it shook my faith. I thought ministers were better than that, more holy and more important than the rest of us, that they lived by a higher standard, a code of conduct worthy of their calling.
All these years I thought ministers were so much more holy than I was, and then one day here’s one’s imperfection made public for everyone to see.
It wasn’t long after all this happened that I applied to seminary, and now it’s hard for me to say which pastor of my childhood was more influential – the one who was so good he convinced me that I could never measure up, or the one who was so bad, so human, I knew I could do better.
What I am sure of is that Jesus intends for us to do the work he came to earth to do, but so often we are reluctant thinking that the work of God is better left to the holy, the important.
When the disciples were tempted to believe the same thing Jesus came down from the mountain of transfiguration to accost not only a crowd, but a whole generation, and in losing his temper he showed the disciples that doing the work of God does not require an audience with Moses and Elijah up on a mountain top, as the work of God is to be done by people – the kind who lose their temper, the kind of fail, the kind who worry that they aren’t holy or important enough.
Ministry is too often left to the ministers, and too many ministers would lead you to believe that it truly does take a dash of holiness to do the work of God – but Jesus who knew he would be leaving soon, making his way to Jerusalem and the cross, entrusted his work to you.
Hear this call, and trust that by the grace of God all things are possible, through you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Let Down the Nets

Luke 5: 1-11, page 728
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch people.” So they pulled their boats up on the shore, left everything and followed him.
Telling a grandmother you’re not hungry when she thinks you need to eat is the definition of a pointless exercise. Any protest, “I don’t have time, I’ve already eaten, I’m a vegetarian,” can’t stop her once she’s made up her mind that you are too skinny, and it is better just to sit down for a while and start eating.
My own grandmother has been buying my sister Elizabeth poppy seed muffins from Sam’s for years. Every time my sister goes for a visit she eats these muffins bought especially for her, even though she hate’s them.
Neither of us can figure out how my grandmother got the idea that my sister loves poppy seed muffins, but when it comes to grandmothers or really anyone we love, we’ll all sometimes do things that we wouldn’t normally do, go along for the ride against our better judgment, eat muffins whether we like them or not.
So Simon, soon to be renamed Peter, goes along with Jesus even though he knows no fish will be caught. Like a grandmother who wants to feed you, sometimes it’s better to sit down and eat than try to explain the intricacies of fishing to someone who doesn’t want to hear your excuses. Simon just swallows down his grumblings, what comes out is polite, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything,” and don’t you know that if he didn’t love Jesus already he could have said all kinds of things - that we’re tiered and ready to go home as we’ve already fished all night, that trying to catch anything now is pointless as fish don’t school at this time of day, or “why don’t you trust me Jesus, I’m a fisherman, what can the son of a carpenter possibly know about fishing?”
We’ll always give it one more shot, even against our better judgment for the ones we love, so Simon Peter, though he already knew what would happen, says to Jesus, this man who had just raised his mother-in-law from the dead, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
It may be easy enough for you to relate and find where you stand in this passage of scripture already. In one sense it isn’t profoundly faithful to go along reluctantly, but sometimes faith is just that – common sense tells you nothing’s going to happen, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Maybe you’ve sent out a million resumes already, and common sense has convinced you that it’s not worth it to face rejection on more time. The ones who love you can’t understand why you won’t but to you, one more letter of “we have received countless impressive résumés, but at this time we have decided to go with someone else” could break something that has been broken too many times already. In times like these faith can be as simple as, “I already know the answer will be no, but because you say so, I will try again.”
When people let you down, break your heart more often than any heart should be broken, common sense might say it’s time to get used to being alone – it hurts less than rejection after all – but when a dinner invitation comes, even though experience tells you how it’s going to end even before it begins, faith can be as simple as willingness to go anyway.
Simon, despite his better judgment goes along with Jesus – out to the deep water – prepared for nothing to happen, but just to be polite pretends not to already be disappointed, and lets down the nets.
The result of his mustard seed size faith is a mountain of fish, so many fish that the boat starts to sink.
And all at once Simon realizes what is going on here, who this Jesus is, and he is met face to face with the cruel realization of who he is. “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!”
In some ways his reaction is surprising, you would think he would be happy, but like the prophet Isaiah, holiness so close shines like a bright light in a room built for interrogation. There’s nowhere to hide, there’s no secret you’ll be able to keep, and only condemnation can result if you believe yourself to be deserving of condemnation.
I think it’s a sad coincidence that the only two places left that still use pews are churches and courtrooms, making judgment maybe a subconscious theme of religious intuitions.
I know no one did it intentionally, but religious bodies often tend towards a self-righteousness that makes those outside their doors seem a little reluctant about how they might be received if they go in.
There’s a reason Jesus goes out to the seashore then. He had a message to bring, and it wasn’t just for the folks in the synagogue, it was for the folks who felt like they were too poor, too unclean, and too sinful to go where all the holy people go.
What developed in ancient Israel were an inside and an outside, a dichotomy of holy and sinful, a problem that came to the forefront in this country on buses where there was a front and a back.
Tiered of this kind of segregated society, African Americans organized a strike.
What we know is that throughout history societies have made it convenient for some to see themselves as better than others. Out of a desire for cleanliness, to preserve their lives, the religious in ancient Israel called crustaceans impure. Not meaning to, I assume, the bad thing is that the folks who handled those crustaceans on a daily basis sitting out on the shore cleaning their nets started to think of themselves as impure too.
It should be no surprise then Simon’s reaction to Jesus – what would a holy man be doing with a man who handled impure things, who had begun thinking that he himself were impure as well.
“Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!”
But again, Jesus, like a grandmother dead set on filling up an empty stomach, refuses to give up on a fisherman, refuses to see what society, what the synagogue, called unclean given his proximity to shellfish, refuses to relent his pride in this man un-successful in the eyes of the crowd given his lack of fish, refuses to give up believing in the value of this son un-worthy in the eyes of himself.
Where Simon had virtually given up, was washing his nets, ready to pack them up for the day, all that was left, a willingness to give it one more try, not because he thought it would work, but because Jesus who he loved asked him to; where Simon had given up not only on his catch of fish, but his worth in the eyes of God, having been beyond the teachers realm of influence, this teacher, this healer, this Jesus goes out to find him, not only to help him fish, but to help him see himself again.
So here we are.
Our failures have convinced us that it’s not worth trying again.
And we, ourselves, must be convinced that we are not the cast away-es of society, but are worthy of our value in the eyes of God.
So you must let down your nets if you don’t believe it, and see what God has in store.
Let down your nets and see that the God of all grace is not a cruel judge, but a grandmother who wants to fill you up, wants you to believe in yourself again.
Let down your nets in a world so secularized, so convinced that the only things of value are wealth, youth and beauty. Let down your nets in a world filled with men and women who are convinced that some are more important that others and that God would rather not have anything to do with them.
Let down your nets, if for no other reason than to prove wrong everyone who has ever doubted your worth. Because let me tell you something. No matter what anyone says, God wants to have something to do with you. Let down your nets and see.