Sunday, October 24, 2010

At a Distance

Luke 18: 9-14, page 742
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the others – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Leaving one church and going to another is not easy at all.
As word has gotten out that I’m leaving Good Shepherd for 1st Presbyterian of Columbia, Tennessee, I’ve been honored by emails, phone calls, and face book messages – all of which make me wonder how on earth I’m ever going to be able to say goodbye to all of you.
But in addition to your kind words that I’ve been honored to receive, though some seem to me to be describing someone else entirely, I also have to go back through the examination process.
Just as when a lawyer goes from one state to another, or when a teacher goes from one district to another, a Presbyterian minister, going from one Presbytery to another, must once again go through the tedious process of examination on the floor of Presbytery, fielding questions from any of the 150-300 elders and ministers present who want to give me a hard time.
Last Wednesday I was driving up to Columbia TN, thinking about the examination to take place the next day in Nashville, and I was wondering to myself: should I be honest about who I am, or should I play the part and just get through my examination?
It’s a long drive up there, and in addition to worrying about how I would answer their questions, I was listening to the new George Washington biography that was published earlier this month, written by Ron Chernow.
This new biography portrays our first president in a revealing light – dispelling the myths that many of us grew up hearing. No, that episode with the cherry tree probably did not happen, as his father, who in this story rewards young Washington for refusing to tell a lie actually died long before his son would have ever been able to lift an ax. The other myth – that George Washington was able to throw a coin clear across that great, wide, river seems also to be a fabrication.
These stories, however, while they are almost certainly not factually true, do point to some truths of Washington’s character – he cherished honesty for the most part, and, standing at over six feet tall, Washington was probably taller and stronger than the vast majority of men of his generation.
His greatness aside, there is more to the story, as like all great biographies, this most recent concerning our 1st president works to dispel myths of character in the hopes of getting to the truth. So his biography tells the story of a young man, thrust into adulthood early by the death or his father and his older brothers, who drove himself up the ladder of Virginia aristocracy by inflating his military prowess to heroism, a military career that was in reality up until the Revolutionary War, scarred by mistakes and redeemed by luck. Though a champion of freedom, Washington one of the largest slave owners in the state of Virginia, though remembered as a great politician, his early political gains were bought through bribery by rum, and though generally thought of as a Christian man, was a steady attendee of the Anglican Church, and took leadership roles therein, he never took communion nor made any outright profession of faith.
Biographies have a way or undoing the images we place upon people – for in biographies you are invited to see people for who they truly are.
It’s good, then, that biographies are most often only written after their subject’s death, as only after death can our society’s heroes and villains stop being who we need them to be.
Our nation needed Washington to be a hero, to be larger than life, and so he was – but in death this newest biography offers him the freedom to be the person he always was, the person history has been reluctant to let him be – a human being – exactly what he always was before God.
Before God there is no reason to pretend to be larger than life – before God there is no reason to be anything other than yourself because God already knows exactly who are you.
It’s a shame then that none of Washington’s prayers survived to inform his newest biography – they may have shed light on who he was and what he truly thought of himself.
Prayers do survive though – two of them – one from a tax collector and another from a Pharisee make up important parts of our scripture lesson for today – and these prayers both certainly shed light on the character of these two men.
These two men are alike in so many ways. They are both Jews – we know that because they both are granted entrance into the temple. They are both religious Jews – wanting to go to the temple at all. And they are both important figures in ancient Palestinian society – one, a revered religious figure – the other, a despised tax collector.
We are given an intimate look into their person through their prayer – though – based on who they were characterized as by their world, I can’t say that we learn much of anything new.
The Pharisee is exactly who society needed him to be – he was supposed to be better than everyone else, and so, in his prayer, he thanks God that he is. His congregation needed him to be exemplary, and so, in his prayer, we learn that he really does fast twice a week and gives a tenth of all that he receives.
The tax collector is also exactly who society needed him to be – he was supposed to be worse than everyone else, a cheater, a thief, a bad person, taking more than was his while the Pharisee willingly sacrificed, greedily getting as much as he can while the Pharisee willingly gives a tenth of his income away.
While they are opposites in some ways, each taking their respective place on the ethical scale of their society, they are the same in that their society needed them to be who they were, and they both perform their parts perfectly.
Society needs people who are particularly holy, people who they can look up to, who they can believe are closer to God, and so the Pharisee in prayer confesses to be just that. In the same way, society needs villains, people to look down on, people who can populate the bottom of the barrel so that most folks can say, “well, I’m not that great, but at least I’m better than him.” We need our villains so that we can feel OK about who we are, and so the tax collector plays his part.
But where this parable goes far off track is when Jesus says, “I tell you, this man [meaning the tax collector] went home justified before God.”
Why? Why is he the one who went home justified?
In prayer they are both in line with their respective characterizations – the Pharisee is good, and thankful that he is so good – and the tax collector is bad, and ashamed that he is so bad.
They are both playing their parts, and societal expectations would surely say that the Pharisee went home justified.
But based on the words of Jesus, it would seem that before God, it is better to be repentant.
That in our world, where we favor heroism above villainy, holiness above sacrilege, benevolence above selfishness, in the mind of God there is only repentance – or dependence on God’s grace – and self-righteousness – or the idea that you are good enough on your own, and you don’t really need God for anything besides an ear to hear how holy you think you are.
Our society asks much of us – and we all have parts to play – but God only asks us to be who we are – sinners in need of God’s grace for our salvation.
When we go before God, what we learn from this parable is that it is always better to be repentant, because in being repentant we ask God to enable us to be something more than we can achieve on our own.
What matters is not whether you are good or bad in the eyes of yourself or this world – what matters in the eyes of God is whether or not you are on the road to being better. Our world divides us up into simplistic categories, but in the eyes of God, there is only the self-righteous and the repentant – those who are justified in their own eyes and those who are trying to be justified in God’s eyes. Those who are praying about their own holiness, and those who are praying the tax collector’s prayer: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
No matter who you are or where you’ve been – what matters in the eyes of God is where you are going. Are you happy with where you are, who the world says you are, or are you appealing to God to have mercy, trusting that your weakness is the foundation for God’s strength?
God, have mercy on me, a sinner the tax collector prayed – if this is your prayer than you can be sure that in the eyes of God you are justified.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Will He Find Faith on the Earth?

Luke 18: 1-8, page 742
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
He said: In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘grant me justice against my adversary.’
For some time he refused, but finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for the chosen ones, who cry out day and night? Will God keep putting them off? I tell you, God will see that they get justice and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’
I’ve told you before that I used to work lawn maintenance for a company downtown. That I had a college degree didn’t really mean anything, but that I could speak English and had a driver’s license did and I was on my way up the ladder as far as lawn maintenance was concerned. Unfortunately though, I still had to pay my dues, and that meant being trained by Loco Lee.
Loco Lee, that’s what the Hispanic guys called him behind his back, and he was just that. Like me, he could speak English, had a driver’s license, and even a college degree from the Citadel of all places, but unlike me, he was crazy.
He would get mad and fly off the handle over the smallest things. His leaf blower wouldn’t start, so he’d throw it into the street. The truck’s transmission fell out, so he walked around it kicking and cussing it for a solid 15 minutes while I tried to keep the customers from seeing.
That kind of behavior shocked me, and certainly shocked poor Jorge who couldn’t understand what Lee was saying but knew it was bad. But what really made me afraid of Lee was the stuff he’d say while he was perfectly calm.
He lived in one of those pay by the week hotels, just like the ones on the other side of 78 from us, and while he had a driver’s license he didn’t have a car. One day I was giving him a ride home and he said to me, out of no-where: “You shouldn’t brush your teeth Joe. It’s a losing battle.”
“What do you mean Lee?” I asked.
“Our life spans are now longer than our teeth were built to last. Your teeth will make it, 40, 50 years max. Then they’ll just fall out. I don’t see any reason to fight it. I’m just going to let them go. I’ll have to get them all replaced anyway, why not give up now?”
Lee taught me a lot of things about lawn maintenance, but you’ll be relieved to know I haven’t taken any of his advice on dental hygiene.
Some people think this way though – knowing what the end will be, resistance seems futile. Fighting against tooth decay will eventually end in tooth loss sooner or later – you can’t win so why not quit now.
But that’s like saying – I’m eventually going to die – why should I fight it.
And that’s true. We are, all of us, going to die eventually. But life is in the resistance to this truth – and I refuse to give up any earlier than I have to.
Our scripture lesson begins: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” To make any sense out of this introduction we have to deal with what came before it – we have to know why it was that the disciples were even thinking of giving up.
In the verses leading up to our scripture lesson for today is a section titled by your pew Bibles as: “the coming of the kingdom of God.” Our lesson, verses 1 through 8 of chapter 18 may well end the section titled “the coming of the kingdom of God” considering verse 8: “However, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus had been talking to them about what the end – the end of all things – was going to be like. As anyone who believes that the end is imminent, they were tempted to hole up in a cave with as many gold bars and canned goods as they could find until whatever was going to happen happened.
This kind of knowledge, knowledge about the end, is dangerous then – because faith isn’t just about waiting and watching, sitting back while God does what God is going to do. While faith is certainly about trusting that at the end of all things God is there, for sure, but it’s also about what we do in the meantime.
So “Jesus told them a parable to show them that they should always pray and never give up.”
In this parable there is a widow with no help in the world. Her husband is gone, no children are mentioned, and she goes appealing to a faithless judge who might at least be shamed into feeling sorry for her, but this judge doesn’t even care what anyone thinks of him.
Just the same, she goes to this judge while he’s walking from the golf course to dinner. She hassles him as he walks from his house to his girlfriend’s house (I’m filing in between the lines a little bit). She finds him wherever he hides, she’s on the steps at his office waiting as he pulls up – there’s no escaping her so appeasing her becomes easier than trying to ignore her.
This is what faith looks like according to Christ. This widow is who we are to emulate.
While we know that the end is coming, while we know where we will be and what will happen when it does, we aren’t to sit back and wait, but are called to go on harassing the judges of this earth – demanding from them justice.
Justice will certainly come when the Son of Man returns – but the faithful will not be lazily waiting for his arrival. The faithful will be busy doing the work of the kingdom.
This parable is certainly an important one – not just because it assures us that the unjust judges of our world – the faithless hierarchies of power, the bureaucracies and systems that care nothing for you or I – they’re days are numbered.
But this parable is even more important, because in addition to letting us know how the great cosmic story will end – we are instructed on how we are to conduct ourselves until he comes.
Knowing that Christ is coming is no reason to stop pursuing justice, just as knowing that your teeth are eventually going to fall out is no reason to put off dental hygiene.
In this time in between right now and the end – we are called to go on praying, go on fighting for justice – as there is life to be lived between now and then.
Ours is the time of widows who demand justice – and like the wives, girlfriends, and children camped out on top of the mine in Chile – we have no excuse for packing up and heading home. They all could have so easily rushed to the end. How many must have considered them widows already, but they refused to give in to the end though they knew in whom those miner’s fates rested. Rather than give into death, like widows at the door of a faithless judge they were relentless in their pursuit for justice, relentless in their belief that those miners were worth saving.
So many would have let a collapsed mind end the story – and trusted those minors fates’ to God – but like a widow demanding justice those women persisted.
One of the greatest works of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, was written for his dying father. I’ll share this poem with you now:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We Christians know how all of this is going to end – if our faith is sure than we are given the gift of easy sleep, trusting our destiny to the Son of Man, the one who was with us in the beginning and will be with us in the end. But such knowledge leaves us no excuse for not living today. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thank You

Luke 17: 11-19, page 741
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.
As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
I’ve been thinking about Bobby Cox a lot lately. I’m not just glad that the Braves made it to the play-offs in his last season as Head Coach, I’m thankful.
I don’t admire sports heroes as much as some, but I do Bobby because I remember what Braves baseball was like before he showed up.
Walking away from games with my head held low – embarrassed to wear a Braves hat outside the metro-Atlanta area – not just because it was baby blue either – because they were awful!
In reflecting on his career, some have said, “He should have coached the Braves to more World Series victories,” and it’s possible to say that – but only if you have no conception of where we were before Bobby Cox showed up.
Sure – Dale Murphy was great – but the Braves were bad. As folks think about Bobby Cox they need to remember that; you’ve got to remember where you were compared to where you are – if you don’t you might forget to say thank you to someone who deserves it.
Our lesson for today is hard to understand – you immediately wonder why only one came back to say “thank you.”
Maybe he was the only one raised right – but plenty of people are raised right and still, plenty of people don’t say thank you when they should.
I think about my tax dollars. A gift, if you will, to our banks. A safety net, a bail-out, a big, big gift from you and I to virtually every bank in this country to save them from their own bad management.
But I haven’t received a thank you note. Have you?
You could make the case it was a forced gift – but then my joke doesn’t work.
It surprises me how quickly people forget. Or maybe it’s not forgetfulness at all. Maybe it’s something else.
Maybe the nine who didn’t go back to thank Jesus were just too excited; maybe they were so excited they couldn’t wait to go to the priest, be approved as clean according to his judgment by the law, and then, finally allowed to return to his family after being forced to live on the outskirts for who knows how long, quarantined for the good of his own family and friends, couldn’t wait a single second to get home.
Or maybe there’s more to it than that.
It’s hard to admit that we need help. And it’s even harder to say thank you when we’ve received something we couldn’t provide for ourselves, something we are embarrassed that we couldn’t provide for ourselves.
Sometimes out of desperation we call out for help, and as soon as we receive the help we so desperately needed we forget how bad off we were before the help came.
There was a great storm one night, and John Newton was on a slave ship, not below decks as a slave, but a willing participant and beneficiary of the slave trade. The night was so dark and the storm so severe that though he had made it through storms before he was afraid, and though he had grown up with no particular religious convictions, he called out to God for help.
There’s nothing so unique about that.
I think we’ve all been there before, maybe not in the midst of a storm on the sea, but certainly a storm of the soul. I’ve certainly been afraid before, and in my fear have more than once called out to God for help much the way the lepers in our lesson do.
But upon deliverance, once the storm has subsided, something happens in remembering. The fear, once so severe doesn’t seem so bad anymore. Without the wind and the rain to remind us – life goes back to normal – the illusion that we are in control and can save ourselves re-establishes itself so quickly.
Maybe that’s just how our memories work – our successes get bigger and bigger like old fishing stories, but the terror of the dark nights when we need saving fades.
It’s important then to know that for John Newton, the dark night never escaped his memory, and that storm on the sea became the inspiration for one of our faith’s most beloved hymns, Amazing Grace.
Our temptation so often is to just get on with our lives, forget how bad it was, go on home and back to life as normal, leave the leprosy behind, not even taking the time to say “thank you” because in saying “thank you” I have to be reminded of how bad things were.
In this story from Luke’s Gospel Jesus represents salvation – salvation from a state that those 9 never wanted to be reminded of again.
They didn’t want to think about their leprosy.
They didn’t want to think about their days of living on the outskirts of town shunned by friends and family.
They didn’t want to go back into that shack where they were reduced to a community made up of those whom society could do without.
They didn’t want to acknowledge what they needed Christ to save them from, so they went on with their lives.
But for the one – for the one who remembered – Christ was more - Christ was savior.
When we come to terms with who we were – when we don’t forget what we needed – Christ becomes more – for those in radical need of saving find in Christ a radical savior.
To be truly thankful that you’ve been found – you’ve got to come to terms with the fact that you were lost.
You want to know the sweet sound of God’s Amazing Grace – you can’t forget that you were once a wretch who needed saving.
You want your fears relieved – you’ve got to know your fear.
You want to see – then admit that you were blind.
You want to be saved – then come to terms with the fact that you need saving and you can’t do it yourself.
There’s strength in that surrender.
And there’s no shame in it – because who you are – who you were – what came before – is the foundation for your salvation.
To have a savior – you’ve got to know you need one – thanks be to God, Christ is ours.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

At This Table

Lamentations 1: 1-6, page 581
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!
How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.
Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks.
Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.
After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile.
She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.
All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts.
All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish.
Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease.
The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe.
All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion.
Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer.
October is pastor appreciation month, and even though I am one, I don’t think this is a very good time to be appreciating pastors to be quite honest.
The Pope has continued to receive harsh criticism for not confronting the evil of child abuses by clergy, and for maybe even knowingly ignoring the plight of the victims, maybe even turning a deaf ear to their cries for justice.
October is also a month when we will be giving extra attention to the Bishop Eddie Long who stood in the pulpit last Sunday morning, “looked out over the thousands assembled to hear him speak, and talked of his congregation as a family that gave him great comfort in a time of pain.”
There’s something wonderful about that, I think. There’s not much better than family to back you up when you need them – and there’s not much better when the church is that family – but there is something sinister when the church is rallied around Bishop Eddie Long, promising their support of him, labeling his accusers as liars, calling their testimony a betrayal, when those accusers are a part of that church family as well. In demonizing them a church family turns its back on four of its brothers. Four young men who may well have been injured beyond repair by a man whom they trusted as a father, their voices are not heard but ignored. As victims, victims that they very well may be, they are not comforted but silenced.
In the words of Jay Bookman, who wrote an opinion column on the subject for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “As family counselors and child-abuse specialists can testify, that’s not surprising. The dynamics at New Birth [Missionary Baptist Church] are painfully similar to those in families all across the country… In a church as in a home, it can be far less painful to suppress the claim than to demand accountability from those with power.” And so, to avoid even the thought that the pastor they see as being so close to God might be a wolf in sheep’s clothes, a conclusion that would threaten the very foundation of their church and their faith, the victims’ testimonies are doubted, their voices silenced, and their words that may well be the truth that seeks to topple a system of abuse by the hand of a powerful man are ignored.
The book of Lamentations is an often-ignored book. It’s words are not easy to hear speaking as they do of suffering, but we must listen to this voice, for in ignoring any voice of lamentation, be it children abused by priests, or young men accusing a respected figure of wrong doing, ignoring the voice of the downtrodden allows the injustice that they suffered to continue, allows for systems of oppression to go on oppressing, allows for all the wrong in the world to never be made right.
That the book of Lamentations is even here in the Bible seems a miracle, but it is read today as it has been read for years, in the hopes that the system that the prophet Jeremiah prophesied against, the system that God allowed the Babylonians to topple, the system that resulted in 70 years of exile for the Israelites, would not be repeated.
This book is read today to help us to question the way things are that we might avoid the failures of the past, as Laminations is a song written from a place you never want to go, a destination you never want to end up in, it is a warning – your path may be leading you here, and here is where you do not want to be.
Hear these words of warning – do not ignore its voice.
But too often we do – and lost in a place we don’t want to be we wish we would have listened.
The hierarchy of the church, rather than hear the testimony of the abused wanted to go on believing that Priests were not capable of such crimes, and now hundreds of children have been violated.
And what destiny awaits New Birth? Rather than hear the testimony of the abused, many seem to want to go on believing that their pastor is as holy as they want him to be, and how many more young men will have to be violated before it stops?
Then there are the voices that cry out in the world – the hungry children cry out – but do we hear their voice or go on down the path that we are set on going down?
The orphans of war – will we hear their voices that question our violence?
The sick without care – will we hear their groans or go on living as though everything were fine?
The solider with nowhere to go and no one who understands – will we stand by him as we once did or leave him to fend for himself once he’s done what we asked him to do?
The battered and the beaten who demand that we question our lives, wonder how if the way things are results in their pain, than is this the way things have to be?
We would too often rather go on living our daily lives than question where our way of life is taking us; we too often silence the voices of descent because they put our way of life into question; but their voices are warnings: “You do not want to keep going down this road.”
The voice of Lamentations is a warning, just as the cross stood as warning to Rome. As the great critique of Empire – what you call peace is not peace, what you call justice is not justice, your system, how can you call it righteous when your system put Christ to the cross?
And his words are here for us now.
That when you think that the cries of the world are not worth hearing, he reminds you that we are all part of one body.
When you think that you are all alone, he reminds you that we all eat from one common loaf of bread.
When words of suffering make you too uncomfortable and you are tempted to ignore them, he calls you to drink from the cup, poured out of his blood.
Today we celebrate world communion, celebrating the great feast of the Eucharist together with Christians from one corner of the globe to the other, and we are called to hear their voices that cry out to us, calling us to change our ways that the world might not be broken up into friends and enemies, but united as brothers and sisters in Christ.
His voice at this table calls us back to righteous living.
His invitation to you is to come and be made whole.
I’ll close with a Franciscan Benediction:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.