Sunday, August 08, 2010

Ready for Action

First Presbyterian Church Lafayette, LA
Year C, Ordinary 19
August 8, 2010
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-6 (sung responsively)
Hebrews 11:1-3
Luke 12:32-40

What child does not dream of being a super hero? OK, maybe that’s a boy thing. About all that girls have had to choose from for some time now is Wonder Woman or Cat Woman. Of course now a days there is a pantheon of super heroes, both male and female, and some in between. Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of them, and there are entire movie franchises are dedicated to certain characters. I’ll tell you my favorite, though…Spiderman.

I love the transformation that takes place because of something that selected him apart from his will. A radioactive spider, that’s how he receives his power, bites Peter Parker. I love the idea of responsibility that comes with power. I love the way Peter Parker struggles with keeping an identity of his own while being a part of something bigger than himself.

There’s a great scene in the beginning of Spiderman 2 where he has temporarily lost his powers because he is so conflicted internally. He has to run inside a hotel and take an elevator up to the roof to try to catch the bad gut. On the way up a tenant joins him. After an uncomfortable moment of riding in an elevator with a guy covered in Spandex, a forced dialogue begins. “Nice Spidey suite.” “Thanks” “Where’d you get it?” “I made it.” More awkwardness until they part.

Sometimes I think that is what the church is like. We are so internally conflicted that we only offer an awkward appearance that others see as an imitation of who we are and what we should be.

That was the situation in Isaiah’s time in Jerusalem. Isaiah spoke during a time of relative prosperity. Anthropologists say that housing was changing around that time from multifamily dwellings to single family dwellings. The gap between the rich and the poor was widening, and Isaiah spoke warnings about the troubles to come. I wonder how many people listened and how many thought he was just a cook.

Prophecy is something that I have always had trouble listening to. Maybe it is because the idea of it sounds a little superstitious to me. Maybe it is because I am afraid there is some truth in it I do not want to hear. The thing that finally helped me to listen and understand is learning what the word prophecy actually means and the context it comes from. It means truth telling, and the context is often a commentary on things that have happened, an expectation of things to come based on current events, or an encoded message to people who live under someone else’s authority. Put simply, perhaps too simply, prophecy can mostly be understood as “I told you so,” “Here’s the writing on the wall,” or “Secret instructions enclosed.”

Either way, prophecy is a way of experiencing the present with a window into the future. I believe that is what much of our lives as sanctified sinners is all about. I like that term, “sanctified sinner.” It doesn’t come with a cape, but nobody wears those anymore anyway.

The letter to the Hebrews is good enough for us. One commentary I read said that this passage, plus the examples of the patriarchs included later, suggests that we are called to live into the promise of salvation even though we may not see the results in our lives. We live as a people who know that God’s will is going to be done in the end. As some others have said, we plant trees that we will never sit under the shade of.

I once heard of an old country church with columns much like our own. There came a time when the columns needed to be replaced, but they did not have the resources. As they trudged through their church records someone came upon the information that there were trees planted on the property at the same time as the columns were erected. Those trees were planted expressly for the purpose of replacing the columns of the church! What foresight! What a vision for ministry! Even so, I have to tell you that I think our passages push us harder, and expect more out of us. For that which is seen comes from that which is not seen. God creates out of nothing, and only by God’s word do things come into being.

This does not mean that we should not plan for our future. It means that if we expect our future to look like our past, we will be sorely mistaken. The past is not something to be taken lightly, though. In fact, in interim ministry training you are taught that one of the essential tasks for a congregation to move forward is coming to terms with their past.

Here’s the way I see it. I have this walking stick I picked up in Ghana in 2000. It has a bird, technically an eagle as it was told to me, craning its neck impossibly backward to balance an egg on its tail feathers. Why? It is a parable. To ensure one’s future one must look the past, while at the same time, to ensure one’s past one must look to the future.

So here we sit, in our Spidey Costumes that we wear to church, looking toward a real future where Jesus will return in glory. At the same time, we are looking to our past to ensure that we have held on to the things we believe in and trust. Yet all the while there is this present reality where we meet with, walk with, and look for Jesus in our daily lives.

Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, little flock.” And once again tells us to take all of our stuff and give it up to charity. This follows the famous passage that is repeated in Mathew where we are told not to even worry about food, clothing, or shelter for God will provide. Don’t be afraid. Don’t store things up because you are afraid you won’t have what you need, for where your treasure is, there is your heart also. That is not meant so much an indicator of greed as much as it is about value. We put our resources into the things we value. We allow our energy to be blocked and our minds to be burdened by the things we care about, whether we can do anything about them or not.

The most stunning example I’ve seen recently comes from a group of billionaires. You may have heard about this amazing turn of events where Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates are giving away millions and trying to get others to do the same. What fascinates me about Warren Buffet is not what he is giving, but rather what he is not. In his letter on the website http://givingpledge.org he writes:
Bill and Melinda Gates and I are asking hundreds of rich Americans to pledge at least 50% of their wealth to charity. So I think it is fitting that I reiterate my intentions and explain the thinking that lies behind them.

First, my pledge: More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day.

Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.

Moreover, this pledge does not leave me contributing the most precious asset, which is time. Many people, including -- I'm proud to say -- my three children, give extensively of their own time and talents to help others. Gifts of this kind often prove far more valuable than money. A struggling child, befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check. My sister, Doris, extends significant person-to-person help daily. I've done little of this.
That’s why it really matters that Jesus tells us to be dressed for action. Maybe the Spiderman thing doesn’t get it for you. Let me offer another illustration. In his book “Organic Church,” Neil Cole describes the church as an old woman in a sitting room wearing a wedding dress and trying to look presentable. Now I do not believe Mr. Cole meant to offend to those women in our congregations who have grown more graceful than others, nor do I. However, the point he is making is that organizations, especially churches, get stuck on maintaining themselves and sometimes loose the ability to be themselves.

I want to contrast that “Zombie Bride” image of the church with a real person. I’ll bet you know someone like her. Nancy Porterfield was a member I knew and loved in Virginia. She was in her 80’s at the time, and her health was beginning to decline. Still, she made the effort to come out every Tuesday and Thursday to work as a tutor in the church’s after school tutoring program. She contributed financially to the church. She brought items for the silent auction to support youth mission trips. She was one of the most active members and faithful Christians I have known. One day I was stunned to hear her say that she was still trying to find her purpose in life. She was still unsure why God gave her the life she had, and unsure if she was even using it the way God wanted her to.

All I could do was try to hug her with my arms and my words. How vigilant a servant she was! What a testimony to vitality and faith she is! We have people like that here. I have met some of you. I am looking forward to meeting more of you! It is a comforting thought to read these words in scripture and know that we have an ultimate reward coming, even for those of us who are weaker than others. Together we keep each other awake. Together we have something to look forward to.

And that’s right where Jesus flips it on us. All of a sudden he is no longer the master but has become a thief. Jesus is reminding us that he doesn’t make appointments. He doesn’t come around on Sunday at 11 a.m. God didn’t create the Sabbath for God’s benefit, as we read in Mark. The Sabbath was created so that we might be still and know of God’s constant, abiding presence. Jesus, well he just breaks in whenever he wants to.

Jesus breaks in when you hear a call for empty egg cartons to help Robert get eggs in bulk for meals on wheels. Jesus breaks in when you hear Dorinda ask for help stuffing welcome bags for the college students. Jesus breaks in when you bring peanut butter and jelly for the U.C.O. food pantry. Jesus breaks in when we make gift baskets during the holidays, when people gather for a meal or come by to receive assistance, or even better yet to offer it, at C.U.P.S. Jesus breaks in when you come to Sunday School or Wednesday night fellowship and argue with someone you love about the best way to respond to the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ! And Jesus breaks in when you least expect it, when you are at the gas station or grocery store, when you are at work or school, when you are out with a friend, and when you are alone with your thoughts.

The thing is, no matter your age or shoe size, life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it. So, whether your hero is Spiderman or Nancy Porterfield, or Bill Vildebill, or Leigh Peterson be dressed for action, because through Christ you are someone’s hero, too. God is in our midst in a way that is yet to come, but also very real, very present, and very active. And to God be the glory for that, both now and always. Amen!
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