Sunday, June 10, 2012

Give us a king to govern us

1st Samuel 8: 4-18, page 251
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.”
Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only – you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you shall cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
This past weekend was a four day celebration in Great Britten called the Diamond Jubilee. I’ve never heard of it before, and I’m pretty sure someone in London just made it up to distract Europe on the eve of their financial crisis. President Obama urged European leaders to act quickly to resolve some big economic problems, and instead, Great Britten elected to spend a huge sum of money, so big that they’re still adding it up, to celebrate the Queen’s 60th year on the throne.
The banks were closed for four days. This was probably not a good idea, as just closing the banks is estimated to have cost the ailing British economy 1.2 billion pounds. The flotilla of boats that paraded down the Thames will cost taxpayers 10.5 million pounds, and used every single police boat and 6,000 officers of the Metropolitan Police Service.
One thing I thought as I watched all this is that it’s time to upgrade Mule Day.
The other thing I thought was it’s time for Europe to go looking for a real solution to their financial problems rather than this distracting substitute.
That’s generally the best substitutes can do. They can’t fill the need but they can distract us for a little while.
You substitute Miracle Whip for real mayonnaise and what do you have?
Substituting turkey bacon only makes me want the real thing more, and you can substitute what is human for what is divine all you want but you’re not going to get what you need.
That is what they were doing according to the Lord, substituting a king, a human, for God: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
The Lord ends this conversation by telling Samuel to warn them, so Samuel does:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons... He will take your daughters... He will take the best of your fields.”
He will take, he will take, he will take – six times the prophet describes what this king will take and not one mention of what this king will give. This speech is without qualification or exception – a king who takes is the only kind of king that there is according to the Lord’s prophet.
A king who takes seems like a cheap substitute for a God who gives, but the people don’t believe Samuel or at least they’re not convinced enough to change their plan and go on asking for this king, and in turn, they reject God.
The name for this sin is idolatry, and it is a common sin in scripture. It starts with Genesis chapter 3, our first scripture lesson for the day. God gives man and woman everything, only asking that they observe this one limitation: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
God gives them nearly every tree of the garden. Out of gratitude for this gift God asks only that they respect the limitations God has set. They decide themselves to do it anyway, and in so doing they are substituting their human wisdom for the wisdom of God – they are choosing to rely on their own logic rather than divine logic – they are putting themselves in the place of God.
Reading about it makes it clear that this is a bad idea and can only result in suffering – after all, who would substitute their own limited self for an unlimited, immortal, all knowing God?
But this is human nature.
Rather than seek out advice from those who are older and wiser we are blinded to our ignorance and chose to figure it out for ourselves. By so doing we make mistakes that could have been avoided if we just would have listened to a higher authority than ourselves.
We are warned, but either ignore the consequences completely or assume we’ll be the exception.
Society expects teenagers to act this way saying, “Those kids think they’re invincible.” “They should go out and get a job while they still know everything.” That’s how we explain their behavior but I want to know why everyone else hasn’t grown out of it. It’s not just teenagers who are too ashamed of their limitations to own up to them and give proper devotion to the God who is above all and beyond all. Rather than simply accept our place in the grand scheme of things – a place just lesser than God, we still put our trust where it does not belong, more comfortable often trusting ourselves to substitutes who can only take but can’t give.
The British sing, “God save the Queen,” as though the Queen had some kind of divine power to deliver the people of Great Brittan from economic disaster while the area in which she excels is receiving their tax dollars.
But giving devotion to those rulers who take is hardly uncommon.
We long for approval and give our devotion to the parent who only gives criticism and takes confidence and joy. Then we turn our back on the one who pours out love so freely we don’t trust it.
We give to the office that takes advantage of us, to the friend who always calls when he needs you but is never available when you need him.
We grant our devotion to broken churches that take our money, take our time, and in return shovel on guilt, and we take it because this kind of relationship we can understand.
We put up with the husband or wife who only wants more, more, more, without ever giving anything back, and we call it love though this cheap substitute is nothing compared to what real love is.
On this communion Sunday we gather around this table to take and eat the body and blood of our Lord. Whereas the temporal, human, flawed rulers of this world have subjected you to taxes, debts, bills, and late fees; while too often your broken relationships have left you empty; where by your complacency and participation you are stretched to the breaking point and still they ask for more; come to the table and experience something so good, so different, you’ll wonder why you have been slow to recognize it before. The king will take and take and take, but come to this table and know the one who gives – gives you his very life, his very blood.
It’s only at this table where you will receive more than enough grace, more than enough love, and more than enough salvation. It’s only at this table where you will learn that there is only one true king, only one Lord, and this one will not take but will give, and give abundantly.
Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

John 3: 1-17, page 93 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can we enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Sermon Our first hymn today, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” is well known and well loved by our church. It’s so well known that I suspect many of you didn’t need the words Marcy provided, and it’s so well loved it’s surprising that she had to print the words and hand them to you on a separate sheet of paper because you won’t find this hymn in our hymnal. This one has been kept out of the Presbyterian hymnal for some reason or another, but our congregation has loved singing it for so long that when Lenora Parnell was the church secretary, she was asked to glue the words into the back. Lacy Coleman, who was the sexton at the time, brought those hymnals to Lenora’s desk, stack by stack, so that she could glue to words into each one. After a while he looked at the title to the hymn and said something like, “It’s a good thing we’ll know them by their love because we’re sure not going to know them by their words or actions.” As usual, Lacy was right. The hymn is about characteristics representative of Christians, and so it calls us to “walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,” but we’re often more interested in winning than walking with each other, so we break the bond and if we leave one behind in the dust, so be it. Churches should cooperate rather than compete with each other, but that’s often not the case. It’s nice that we play each other in softball, but I’m not slowing down to hold hands with anyone while I’m running the bases on the way to beating the Methodist Church. But on the other hand, there are so many great reasons to work together. “We will work with each other, we will work side by side,” the hymn goes, and what is this place but a great sign that we can do more when we’re working together than when we’re trying to see who is biggest and best. This camp and conference center is a result of the cooperation between churches from Nashville, Columbia, and Memphis – hence the name – Na, for Nashville, Co, for Columbia, and Me, for Memphis. Because of cooperation churches came together to do what no single church could have done on its own. We are called then, for the good of the Kingdom, to build relationships with each other even though relationships aren’t easy. It can be difficult to get the 15 members of our session to agree, but can you imagine having to get the 15 session members from 15 different churches to agree? It’s a wonder this place turned out as well as it did. The temptation is to simplify the process, to do it alone, to run ahead and leave the others behind, but that’s rarely what the Christian Church, or any Christian for that matter, is called to do. Going it alone doesn’t reflect what we believe about the Church or what we believe about God. In addition to being NaCoMe Sunday, today is also Trinity Sunday, the day of the church year when we are called to remember that God is not one but three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that within our God there is relationship. We read Psalm 29 and are reminded of the Trinity; that from the creation of the world there was one who sat enthroned over the flood, while the voice of the Lord was over the waters so powerful as to break the cedars. The voice of God was made flesh and dwelt among us in Christ, and he sent his word to remain with us forever in the Holy Spirit. These three – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – together they act and are one God. While relationship is modeled this way in our God, it is still difficult for us unfortunately. We were created in God’s image, male and female we were created to reflect the image of God, and while we need relationships to be truly happy, relationships also have a way of making us truly miserable. While attracted we are also pulled apart. While given the gift of speech we have trouble hearing each other. While forgiveness has been modeled by God, we are tempted to withhold it. And for these reasons and others, while we were made to be in relationships and were created in the image of the God who is not one but one in three, we have trouble with friendships, marriages, and bonds within our families, and too often find ourselves isolated and alone. There is always a knocking at the door however, and sometimes the one who wants to break through to us is right on the other side. Nicodemus goes to Christ at night. Of course, the kinds of relationships most people build during the night aren’t very wholesome. If it’s done at night it might be because you’re ashamed to do it during the day. That was the case with Nicodemus. He didn’t want anyone to see him associating with Christ. In fact, the world was pulling these two in opposite directions as is often the case. There are those whom you are supposed to associate with, and there are those who you shouldn’t be seen with. This is a tragic story – it’s Romeo and Juliet – their hearts say yes but their families, their friends, their whole world says no. Nicodemus sees something in Christ, but to follow and believe in him means to give up the position that he gained in society – he could lose his job, he could lose respectability, he could lose everything. Still he goes to Christ, and in an attempt to hold on to what he stands to lose he goes under the shadow of night. Once he gets there though, more problems emerge. Nicodemus makes a simple statement that longs for a simple response: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This is the kind of statement that begs a “yes I am” or a “no I’m not.” If only Christ could have given him a response so clear. Instead he says something that’s easily misunderstood: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus doesn’t understand what this means, and after trying to break it down into simpler terms Jesus gets frustrated: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” This isn’t something that’s ever happened to any of you is it? If only there were an easy answer, but the truth is that relationships require communication – and that’s the problem with all relationships. Somehow you have to learn to communicate what you mean in a way that he can hear it, but that takes this enormous step into an uncomfortable direction – in order to say something so that she can hear it you have to be able to imagine what it’s like to be her. That’s why the last two verses of this passage mean so much. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God sent God’s Son into the world to do precisely this: to bridge the gap between humanity and divinity, to form a firm relationship between God and you. That’s what all relationships take – someone has to give up something to make it work – and to make this relationship work God gave up everything. Thanks be to God. Amen.