Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Same Christ

Hebrews 13: 1-16, page 853
Keep on loving each other as brothers or sisters. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said:
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “the Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
The book of Hebrews is a book about faith – a faith that leads to perseverance in light of the sufferings of the present. How the community the author of Hebrew’s addresses suffered has been debated, but regardless of the specifics, the book of Hebrews offers us guidance to hold fast to the faith when times are trying.
Like the passage from a few weeks ago in chapter 12, we are called to keep going: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
These inspirational words from chapter 12 make me think of running – but when I am running I can’t say that the inverse is true, that when I am running I think of those words from Hebrews – because when I am running all I can think about is the pain in my legs, my shortness of breath, and how good it would feel to stop and rest for a while.
My daughter Lily and I go running together now, she’s in the stroller of course, and to keep my mind occupied and away from thoughts of quitting, I’ve started listening to my IPod while I run. I download sermons or podcasts so I’ll have something to listen to and occupy my thoughts, and just last Friday while Lily and I were running I was listening to an episode of the radio show This American Life. The episode was titled “The Promised Land” and began with a commentary on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, especially the first song that snow white sings: “I’m hoping, and I’m dreaming of, the nice things he’ll say.” This song introduces Snow White and tells the audience what it is that she wants – a prince.
Snow White is not the only movie that begins this way – it’s just one of many that utilize what movie type’s call the “I wish song:”
“I want more…I want to be where the people are, I want to see, want to see’em dancing” is the song from The Little Mermaid where you learn that what she wants is to become a human, walk around on land rather than swim under the ocean, and meet a prince of her own.
Or the best is from the Wizard of Oz: “Somewhere, over the rainbow, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.”
This theme of wishing for something, specifically a land that I’ve heard of, is one of the primary themes of Hebrews; our lesson from two weeks ago speaking of Abraham whom God had promised the Promised Land; though he never saw it, “He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
The author of Hebrews seeks to encourage us that we might achieve the goal, and drawing from our lesson for today, the author brings attention, not only to our actions, but to the importance of our state of mind in achieving the goal.
Our state of mind matters – while I am running if my mind is focused on my body’s pain, longing to rest, I’m not going to make it very long. Or, I remember a friend on my baseball team in high school who had vowed to fast for 48 hours. The game was delayed due to rain and we had to lay out the tarp.
“Hey Todd,” I said, “how bout a stake.”
“You’re a real jerk Joe, you know that.”
“What are you talking about – I just need a stake to keep this tarp on the ground and there’s a stack of them at your feet.”
Poor Todd’s hunger kept his mind on food, and you can bet that his fast didn’t make it much longer.
Your state of mind then is what the author of Hebrews addresses here in chapter 13 – what thoughts to keep: “Keep on loving each other, do not forget the stranger, remember those in prison and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering;” as well as what you should keep your mind off: “Marriage should be honored – so you know what you should keep your mind off, and keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.”
The passage goes on to remind you to “remember your leaders,” and then makes the claim: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Yes – Christ is the same – Christ is the same calling us to love each other, to keep our minds on those strangers who wander into town looking for a place to stay and food to eat, and to never forget those who are in prison or those who are suffering.”
But just as Christ is the same – culture is the same – and culture would have you do just the opposite.
Rather than focus on the man huddled under the bridge, our culture would have you focus on the billboard selling you a nice cold drink.
Rather than focus on the prisoner, our culture would prefer that you focus on the swimsuit model peddling swimming pools.
And rather than focus on the suffering, our culture would like to sell you all the kinds of things that can keep suffering at bay.
Our state of mind then matters. What we think about matters, because it is the thoughts that go through our heads that inspire our actions and may well prevent us from getting where we want to go.
The author of Hebrews then calls us to focus on what will enable us to reach the kingdom – you’re not going to get there through adultery, so don’t think about your neighbors husband or wife, the model on TV, or the video so readily available on your computer – they will not get you where you want to go.
And you’re not going to get there by focusing on money – though our society has told you that money is exactly what you need to be thinking about, our economy just might collapse if all us consumers were satisfied – but the love of money will not get you where you need to go.
The only way we are going to get there is by keeping our thoughts on what matters – each other – the ones here who you love, the ones who wander the streets, the ones in prison who are too easy to forget, and all those who are mistreated who we would all rather turn away from.
It is by seeing your neighbor as yourself that you will know what it means to be like Christ.
It is by loving your neighbor as yourself that you will make it to the Promised Land.

Monday, August 16, 2010

When Israel was a Child

Our scripture lesson for today from the book of Hosea is one that translators have wrestled with mightily for some time. Generally our pew Bibles offer an excellent translation of the Hebrew words recorded so many years ago, but in the case of today’s passage from Hosea I believe that the New Revised Standard Version gives us a slightly more accurate translation, so today I’ll be reading from this version while I invite you to follow along in the pew Bibles.
Our 2nd Scripture Lesson for today is Hosea chapter 11: 1-11, page 642
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
For I am God and no mortal, the holy one in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Being a Christian isn’t supposed to be glamorous.
I’ve found myself in some pretty interesting places because of the ministry that I’ve felt called to – like many of you I’ve been to some foreign shores, but not to enjoy their beaches, to be a witness to their slums. I remember well one particular outhouse I used. It was a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of rotting plywood and crowned with a porcelain toilet. I had to go pretty bad before I could summon the courage to use it.
But this is part of the deal – you can’t go out into the world preaching the gospel through word and deed by staying isolated in the safety of your home. We Christians are called out into the world.
So like many of you I’ve been to 3rd world countries, soup kitchens, bread lines, villages of homeless people with only sheets of cardboard separating them from the elements. Hospitals, houses, and nursing homes.
There’s something unique about the air of some nursing homes – the bad ones carry with them the stench of urine, but the air in all of them is heavy with memories.
I’ve been listening to a book on tape for the last couple weeks – Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other,” the book begins – the main character narrates from an old-folks home where he has grown tired and grumpy beyond measure, terrorizing most of the nurses, starting a fist fight with another resident named McGuinty:
“I used to carry water for the elephants,” says McGuinty. I drop my fork and look up. He is positively dripping with self-satisfaction, just waiting for the girls to fawn over him. “You did not,” I say. There is a beat of silence. “I beg your pardon?” he says. “You did not carry water for the elephants.”
This conversation soon elevates to name calling until McGuinty stands up out of his wheel chair only for his legs to fail him, sending him falling to the floor.
The narrator knew that McGuinty had never worked in a circus carrying water for the elephants you see, as elephants drink too much for anyone to bring the water to them, you have to bring the elephant to the water.
In this way the book opens to reveal the story of a grumpy old man – looked over and ignored by most of the world, but those who take the time to listen find that he had lived the life of a teenager who ran away to join the circus.
We humans are tempted to disregard such things – we too often forget that what we see on the surface is only a peel – what lies beneath is life lived, heart ache, adventure, pain, joy.
We humans are often too busy to listen – but God – God remembers.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Israel I called my son.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
One of the most wonderful things about a funeral is that we are invited in to see a piece of such memories. Not long ago a woman died – for so long she was just the frail old woman who came to church every Sunday, sitting in the same seat near the middle isle week after week. Only in sitting down with DeeDee did I learn that she left home to become a model in New York City, married a Jewish man to the disdain of her family, and with him lived around the world – a spectacle in the Philippines on the golf course where no one had ever seen a woman take up a set of clubs.
The same is true of our friend Jim Greene. I knew he was a football star, but it was only near the end that I learned he played as a professional in Canada, coached for years at the black high school in Summerville, SC only to lose his job to the white coach when the schools integrated.
In this month’s newsletter is a story like it – in the hopes of getting to know each other a little bit better a family from the Hispanic ministry tells their story.
I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, as it’s so easy to underestimate people – and maybe that’s what some want to forget the past and leave it behind. Old heartbreaks, too much damage done to remember.
But God – God refuses to forget.
So God roars – and like birds from Egypt, like doves from the land of Assyria – the people return trembling, our lesson tells us.
Maybe it’s because they’re afraid.
Afraid of God’s wrath?
Or afraid of God’s terrible love that knows exactly who we are and loves us all the more because of it.
“That’s a mother talking,” Jane Edwards told us in Bible study this past week – and like a mother our God has been hurt by our disobedience – but who refuses to give up on the child she has loved so well, come to know more that most any ever could.
God is God and no mortal our lesson tells us – as we humans so willingly forfeit our ability to see people as people. We know some as friends, others as enemies, but God knows us all as infants once held close to the cheek.
In our God’s refusal to give up on us, in our God’s refusal to forget who we are, we see the model for the truest form of human love that we are called to emulate in a world that gives us all permission to dismiss, tear down, and ignore voices based not one who they are but the groups they represent.
It is a dangerous world that we live in today – not just because of what people are saying and doing – but because what people say and do rises to inhuman proportions when we fail to realize that all of us have a history, a story to tell, and a precious value in the eyes of God.
What we see in our lesson for today is the truth – that people are people – that all people, whether the represent a different ideology, social group, or social demographic, are individuals with hearts, souls, histories, and cheeks that have been kissed by the lips of God.
It’s easier to ignore each other when we don’t admit to ourselves our common identity in our one God – so our lesson for today demands that we honor one another, expecting to be surprised by what we hear when we do not dismiss difference too quickly.
When we do model this kind of love we prove that we were created in the image of God.
When we refuse to give up when so many would cut ties and go their separate ways.
When we determine to see beyond labels, generalizations, to see people as people with stories worth knowing.
When we determine to keep our arms open when we have every right to turn away.
Love one another then – as God first loved you, so you must love one another.

Now Faith...

Hebrews 11: 1-3 and 8-16, page 851
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for God has prepared a city for them.
Every summer for five years now I’ve spent a few days in Montreat, North Carolina on a study retreat. I read books mostly, books that I’ve not gotten around to reading during my normal schedule.
This past week while I’ve been away, the most memorable book I read was a book on funerals by the great preacher, Thomas G. Long, professor of Homiletics at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.
It is morbid to read a book on funerals, but the funeral is something that every pastor wants to do well, but rarely has a book come along to give any kind of instruction on the subject. On the chapter on preaching at a funeral Long gives the following advice:
The indispensability of shouting out the good news at a funeral gets highlighted when we realize that there are actually two preachers at every funeral. Death – capital D Death – loves to preach and never misses a funeral. Death’s sermon is powerful and always the same: “I win every time. I destroy all loving relationships. I shatter all community. I dash all hope. I have claimed another victim. Look at the corpse; look at the open grave. There is your evidence. I always win!
The congregation, then, must choose who to listen to at a funeral – both preachers are telling you how to respond to what you see. Will you listen to death’s sermon and embody the fear that death is truly the end of all things? Or will you listen to the pastor, who, based in the promises of God charges you to have the faith that beyond death comes new life – that in fact, in Christ Jesus death has lost its sting.
The congregation doesn’t all know for sure who is right – judging by the corpse, the open grave, the reality presented, it would seem as though it were death, but the congregation has a choice – listen to Death and give up or have faith.
I believe that in all of life these are our two options: fear frames reality in one way while faith frames it in another.
I learned last week by reading a framed copy of a wanted poster for Billy the Kid in a Mexican restaurant that this cold blooded killer was 5 foot 7, 125 lbs, and 18 years old. Now I haven’t seen 125 lbs since 9th grade or so, and I can tell you it would have taken a whole lot for anyone to be afraid of me – but the right amount of preaching from the wrong pastor can do amazing things. The whole world can be chilled to the core by what we would normally not take a second look at. The whole world can be thrown into fear, can give up, and can lose faith when bad things happen, Death’s in the pulpit telling you how to understand it, and the Good News is nowhere to be heard.
This past week we were reminded of the greatest culmination of national uncertainty that I have ever known. There has been so much talk of a mosque being built so close to ground zero and our nation has been brought back to all those feelings from that horrible day in September, our anger at those who took so many lives not only in destroying the Twin Towers but the two wars that have followed, and our fear of what is going to happen, who have we become, what will they do next has flooded TV, radio, and email inbox.
It’s all about a mosque – and our choice is how we respond to it.
Like the body at a funeral it’s something that our society has been told to fear so we are all around looking in, we know it’s there, and there are two preachers telling us what it means.
One is there telling us that our world is threatened, that we are in danger, that Christianity is dying, and that the powers that be who have let it happen must be out to get us as well.
But there is another voice.
“Do not be afraid,” Christ said. “Do not be afraid.”
Fear tells us one thing – that the future is uncertain and not dependable and the only thing that is sure is that things are getting worse, that you should be afraid, and that you have reason to despair and worry.
Faith tells us another: that we may be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Or, as Marilyn Eckman put it so profoundly on a yellow sticky note she handed me right before this service: “Faith is learning to live in peace in the very center of all the things that don’t seem to make sense.”
We read in verse three that God spoke the world into existence out of nothingness, and verses 8 through 16 focus on Abraham, the great patriarch of monotheism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claiming him as their own. Here Abraham’s faith defines him – By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
He was looking forward to something he had no assurance of – he was looking forward to a city while he lived like a stranger in a foreign country – he lived in tents without any place to call home.
Abraham could have looked at that tent and thought to himself – this is as good as it’s going to get – he could have looked in the mirror and in taking in his wrinkles and gray hair been sure that he would never have children – forgotten about that promise from God sure that God must not have known what God was talking about.
Faith is the assurance of what’s not seen – confident in what you can’t see or know or touch or measure.
Taking uncertainty, doubt, fear, violence, and understanding it all, not according to what the preacher Death has told you, but according to the faith of our forbearers, the faith of Abraham.
What we have when we are presented with reality is an option.
When we are presented with death, when we are uncertain about the future, when our world is changing for what may seem to be for the worst – we can be afraid, we can give up, or we can try to change things on our own by taking up arms, fighting, voting, and protesting – but Abraham’s example offers us something else that is more important than all of that.
We can have faith.
Abraham had faith – and so he didn’t have to do it on his own.
He believed that God was at work and so when all he had was tent with nowhere to go he still knew that God would take him to the city.
Death would have told him to give up and he’s a pretty good preacher.
But he’s wrong.
Have faith. Believe that what you can see is not all that there is. That what you can do is not all that matters. That your power may be weak, but our God is strong.
Our God is strong enough to speak creation into existence with words. Strong enough to make a great people out of an old man, strong enough to save the world, redeem a people, and take your burden from you.
You don’t need to worry – you need to believe.