Saturday, August 28, 2010

Reserved Seating

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, LA
August 29, 2010 – Ordinary 22C

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:6-10 (sung with cantor)
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1-14


For those gathered who are not young children, go back in time with me for a moment. I would like for us all to think about what life was, or is, like for us as children. Particularly, I want you to consider the playground. It may be hard to remember, but think about those kids who just didn’t get it, the ones that didn’t fit in. Maybe you were that kid sometimes. I know I was. Think about the things that separated that kid from the others. Was it something they did or did not do? Was it their clothes or their heritage?

The playground can be a brutal place sometimes, so let’s come back to the present moment. Let us find comfort in the worship of God, and the fellowship of God’s people. Let us find healing for our wounds in the words of scripture.

Perhaps Jeremiah can come out and play! That’s how it was when most of us we were kids, right? When you needed another person to do things with, you would go to their house or have your parents call. When you met up with your friend nothing else seemed to be happening except for what you were doing. I think that is how God wants us to attend to scripture.

Now in our text from Jeremiah we find God involved in a role play. God is pretending to be the plaintiff pleading a case to the heavens. God is wounded deeply by the rejection he has felt from those he trusted. The people have turned to fertility Gods, and the priests, wanting to maintain status and influence, have gone with them. God has become the child in the corner of the playground to the Israelites, even though it is by God’s grace alone that they have a place to play. God cries out to the heavens and rests his case on the fact that not only have they turned from God, they have tried to provide something for themselves that will sustain them without God’s help. Their cistern, their water, their source of life is cracked and eroding because they have turned their devotion away from God.

All of us do this at times and in different ways. It is so easy to become something we were not, because the things we give our devotion to become the way by which we are known. He is a pilot. She is a mother. He is a dad. She is an editor. He is an accountant. She is a sales representative. Most of you are retired! It is impossible to avoid the temptation to be identified by what you do or once did. Sometimes that isn’t even enough, though. Sometimes we need more.

I think that is why the letter to the Hebrews is so important to us. Last week the passage just before this ended with, “Our God is a consuming fire,” and I suggested that the fire we are consumed with is love. Today we begin with, “Let mutual love continue,” and we are reminded of the opportunity of hospitality, that we might be entertaining angels (literally, God’s messengers) without knowing it.

The next part is not something we like to ponder. It is about as uncomfortable as remembering that time when you were stuffed in a locker as a kid (or whatever your childhood wounds come from). “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them.” Do you know anyone who is in prison? Sure you do. There are as many prisons as there are people. You may be in one yourself. We make places in our hearts and minds that keep us safe, but they can also become places of torment and seclusion where we replay the recording of our losses over and over again. We are also limited by disease or economics or anxiety. Hamlet, in that classic Shakespearean play, once declared Denmark a prison, and when Rosencrantz denied it he replied, “Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

For some of these prisons, there is no way to know if we are even in the same cell with someone else unless we take the time to get to know them. Most of you know each other pretty well here, though I am sure there are still stories you have kept from one another. The greater challenge this text throws at our feet is the opportunity to suffer with others whom we do not yet know. Why would we want to do that? How on earth could that be an opportunity?

I mentioned a few weeks back one of the many life changing events I’ve experienced when I shared with you the staff I picked up in Ghana. Treva and I were blessed to experience this trip together, and for a portion of the time we were the guests of the Pastor in a village called Vakpo. After the service they had a tradition of bringing forward items to be auctioned to raise additional money for a new church building. Some oranges were presented, and a bidding war broke out between a man and a woman. In the end the woman won, paying three times the value of the oranges. This was amazing for many reasons, but particularly because women had no source of income except for what they may be given or what they might make or pick to sell while raising children, keeping up the house, and raising whatever crops they might have space to grow.

We returned to the Pastor’s house to find the oranges waiting for us. God only knows how this decision impacted her life, but showing hospitality to us was worth the risk for her. She was moved by love to love. She made herself vulnerable because loving is its own reward. And though we were the rich Americans by comparison, those oranges met us in a place of need beyond description. She did not do this to be nice. She did it because she wanted us to feel cared for. She reached into our place of isolation and sat with us, providing for the hunger of our bodies and souls together.

Hospitality and empathy of this sort go hand in hand throughout Jewish and early Christian traditions. Even in the Levitical code they were told, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Indeed, Israel’s lack of hospitality and empathy for others is often at the heart of God’s anger as expressed by the prophets. Jeremiah is more concerned with their allegiance to other gods, but one can assume that the two go hand in hand since adherence to the law was the way they expressed their faith in God.

So, it should come as no surprise that a leader of the Pharisees invited a homeless vagrant to dinner. We often talk about the Pharisees as the bad guys, but in their society they were the pillars of the church. They kept order and decency. Of course, they were not offering hospitality, or even charity; they simply wanted to find a weakness to exploit. They were watching, waiting, and Jesus gave them what they wanted, just not the way they wanted it. First he demonstrated God’s love by healing a man with dropsy. This was no parlor trick or party game. It was the love of God that rested upon the one that no one else wanted to see. After showing them what they did not want to see in someone else, he turned the spotlight on them. Surely these Pharisees were familiar with the proverb Jesus was referring to about not going before a king unannounced. Even for those of us who have no idea about scripture or tradition, Jesus makes it clear that when we choose a place of honor for ourselves we are always subject to being displaced. Kind of like the way that “King of the Hill” is a fun game for a little boy until his sister knocks him off and becomes “Queen.”

Then he goes even further to tell the host not to invite people because of the benefit. In fact, it’s not even about “quid pro quo” in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells them that, “If you really want to throw a party that offers you some reward, invite the people who could never benefit you in any way.” Note that Jesus isn’t just talking about a soup kitchen or a food bag. He is talking about a banquet. He is talking about the kind of social event that you prepare for like there is nothing else going on in the world. The kind of thing that might motivate a host to consider using place cards to designate the seating to ensure honor, encourage polite conversation, and create a more hospitable environment.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you imagine polishing your silverware and getting out the fine china for a homeless person? Every time I see the cup and chalice I am reminded that the finest bread and wine has been availed for me, a person who, without God, without the church, has no home. Yet, it is still hard to imagine becoming so vulnerable that I might risk the things I have, the things I love, to comfort someone who may not deserve it the way that I do.

And that’s the kicker, for though we may have become trustworthy enough to receive things or industrious enough to earn them, all any of us deserve is the opportunity for success and support during distress. That is what Jesus is pushing us toward. He wants us to know that we are loved beyond measure, and for us to love him we must love others. We who are consumed by love are moved by love. Love means vulnerability and risk. Love is it’s own reward. This congregation knows what this means.

A few Sunday’s ago I asked for emergency food bags, and now we have a pantry full, more food to back it up, and funds to buy more when needed. Programs that you have developed like the baskets for Christmas and Easter, and the way you redistribute usable stuff through this facility is tremendous. It was so much fun stuffing care bags for college students a few weeks ago. You guys get it. You really do!

But Jesus wants still more. Jesus wants us to find ways to interact personally, regularly, and intimately with those in need. Jesus wants us to give up our seats for someone more important, and that is anyone who is not here. Anyone who does not know the peace and joy of being part of this fellowship, of being a forgiven sinner through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ!

The seat you are in is reserved for you today. It is reserved for you to give away. We need not be concerned with attracting the right kind of people. If our hope is placed in those who can financially contribute or who have children, then our hope is placed in blood and money and our cisterns are cracked. In fact, we are called to do the opposite. We don’t need to worry about being taken advantage of. Our hospitality will be taken advantage of, and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Additional Resources
Website -
http://www.textweek.com/yearc/properc16.htm

Reference Books -
Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday's Texts : The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday'sTexts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Eerdmans, 2001.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A look inside my mind...

If you are looking for the sermon from 8/22/10, just scroll down to the next post, titled "You Are Set Free" or click here. If you want to learn a little about my thought process in writing it, just keep reading....

In case you have ever wondered how a minister organizes their thoughts, I thought I would share a bit of my madness/method. Generally I spend time in prayer, meditation, and study before I begin. Then I use a process called mind mapping to look for connections between the texts. From that I discern the essential truth of the texts. I will often use that as a direction to move toward, rather than a thesis to unpack or defend. So, my though process tends to be more inductive than deductive. Anyway, here's the mind map for my next sermon, "You Are Set Free."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

You Are Set Free

First Presbyterian Lafayette, Louisiana
August 22, 2010 - Ordinary 21C

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17


Today’s scripture passages speak of justice and of healing. The combination of these two topics has become, for many in this country, much like the command in the movie Ghost Busters not to cross the streams. These were, of course, two fields of molecular energy that, if they came in contact with one another could rip apart the fabric of the universe much like some feel the health care debate is ripping us apart. I do not believe the pulpit is the place to engage in this debate that so many of us are struggling with, but I do think we would be well advised to consider God’s word in the midst of it.

With that in mind, let us turn our thoughts to the connection between God’s word and our own needs. All of us, in some way at some point, long for healing. Maybe it is for ourselves. Maybe it is for a loved one. Maybe it is something physical, and there is deep frustration over the inability of the vast armada of medical knowledge to fully diagnose or cure what ails us. Perhaps it is something deep within our souls that we can’t quite put a finger on, “like a splinter in your mind,” as I have heard it said. All of us long for the comfort of knowing that we, or those we love, are healed, set free, and no longer burdened by the things that have kept us from doing the things we really want to do. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus just touched me, or him, or her the way he touch that woman.

Human history offers a rich and varied tradition of the connection between faith in God and healing. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, it was fairly normal to think of healing as something that could only come from an external, supernatural force. Perhaps that was part of the leader of the synagogues frustration. Imagine it, performing the same rituals over and over again, knowing that some may be healed by some miracle of God and most will not. That would make me a little callous, too. Yet all believed that if one had atoned properly for their errors that God would offer them some favor. It is not hard to see why some might have turned to more than one source for healing. Nothing wrong with hedging your bets, is there?

In the modern, scientific era there is more of a separation between the activity of God and the reality of healing and disease. We know, of course, that a person’s disease is not because of sin. Disease… dis ease… Webster’s defines it as 1: a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms and 2: a harmful development (as in a social institution)[2]. Disease… dis ease.

It is always comforting when a physician, particularly a surgeon, initiates prayer before a procedure. I have always been honored to be called upon to pray with those in the hospital. It is a privilege of my profession. There is debatable scholarship surrounding the effectiveness of prayer and healing, but there is good evidence to suggest that those who rely on their faith to get them through are more at peace regardless of the outcome, and that is believed to lead to favorable results.

The Christian tradition itself has caused much of the rift between the reality of healing and the practice of faith. If you do not believe me, please look up “The Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey” on Youtube. It is 8:27 of your life you will not get back. I do not mean to disparage the young woman in the Event Staff t-shirt who claims to have been immobile from scoliosis, but I must take issue with the preacher who asks them to put their heads in and shake them all about because, “Alzheimer’s is not scriptural.”

We Presbyterians have often adapted the ancient tradition of anointing with ashes or oil. In doing so we have been very clear to acknowledge our powerlessness in the action of healing. Instead the anointing is, for us, a symbolic reminder of what we know to be true, that God is in the midst of our suffering, that we are never left alone, and that God has suffered and does suffer with and for us.

We don’t claim much more than that because we don’t want to be superstitious. Even worse, we don’t want to act like we can tell God what to do. And underneath all of that, some of us hold onto a little bit of skepticism about God working the way most people assume that God works. All of our need for healing and wholeness, our history, our culture, and our skepticism (or at least rationalism) come with us when we read these stories about the miracles of Jesus.

According to Luke, this is the last time that Jesus taught in the synagogue. So, in a way, this is a swan song. It’s his parting thought and the actions that go with it, as far as his pulpit ministry is concerned. The woman is not named. We do not know if she came looking for healing. All we know is that Jesus saw her, recognized her, and healed her. Then he touched her to confirm what had already taken place. Nothing is said about the breaking of taboos between men and women worshiping together, a single man touching a single woman in public, or the fact that Jesus himself was defiled by touching her before the Priest declared her to be clean.

The Synagogue Leader’s very protest betrays any authority he might have over Jesus, and he turns on the victim as those with power so often do. Jesus silences his opponent in the same way he did in the announcement of his public ministry when he spoke the words of the ancient texts, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus’ demonstration of the woman deserving better care than a farm animal demonstrates the connection between justice and healing. And at the same time they remind us of his earlier statement of our worth being greater than flowers and birds to the Creator who loves us.

Don’t those words sound good? And they are good. But it is still hard to connect this miracle story with something in our own lives. That is, unless you have seen a miracle. It is still difficult to connect injustice with pain and suffering. That is, unless you have experienced unjust pain and suffering.

I would imagine that many of you have experienced something you would call miraculous, something that can only be attributed to a force outside of yourself and beyond description. One of the most profound experiences I have ever had like this happened in Guatemala on a mission trip with a group of Doctors and Dentists. The organization calls themselves “Faith in Practice.” The greatest difference for me in this trip from others was the level of physical contact. I’ve built homes and churches and served in soup kitchens from rural Kentucky to Belize, but I have never seen the level of human contact offered by these doctors, nurses, and support staff. Of these experiences, one of the most difficult was in pediatrics.

I walked in to find an 8 yr old boy lay flaccid on a cold cement floor in the makeshift clinic we set up in a school in the village of San Marcos. He was smaller than my son, who was three at the time, and suffered from malnutrition, brain damage, and leg deformities. His mother carried him for days on her back to reach the American Doctors who could offer a cure or at least tell her how she could help him learn to walk. Poorly educated physicians who charged her for a diagnosis of surgery they could not even perform had already taken advantage of her. In my journal I wrote the following:
As my friend Beth, the nurse, told the Momma there was nothing that could be done I herd the Psalmist’s enemies cry, “Where is your God now?” Then I picked him up. We prayed and the little niño lay his head on my shoulder, his tongue sticking out and touching my scrubs. Then I carried him for his Mami, my sister, to the next line for a final surgical consult. When he became too heavy I set him on the edge of the desk. There she became my Mami too, taking the burden once again. Mami took him on her back and bound him with a cloth. Suddenly I thought, “There she is! My God is not limited by genetics. My God is limitless in the love of a mother for her child!”
He touched me. He touched me, and at first I thought I would be defiled. Then I realized that he was reaching out to heal me. He was reaching out to heal the hardness of my heart. The broken child within me leapt into his arms! Not because I realized how fortunate I was… Not because I did anything for them… but only because I saw my brokenness in his. It changed something inside of me, and I am forever grateful.

Oh how I wish that I could have been the one to offer healing. Oh how I wish his mother knew the ministry her son performed for me! Far be it from me to say that God cannot raise the dead and heal the blind and lame exactly as we have been told that Jesus did. But I believe in a God who is not even limited by leaving things broken. I believe that the most important actions Jesus did are the very ones we can do today. I believe those actions are fulfilled in the way that we challenge the dis ease of our society. I believe they are fulfilled in the presence of justice, and by justice I mean that we are caring for the oppressed. By justice, I mean what Jesus means, which is that those who have limits unfairly placed upon them by others are set free.

Again, these are beautiful words, which I doubt any of us disagree with. But we still have to ask ourselves, what is holding us back from our own healing. In Los Obris, the hospital in Antigua, Guatemala, I saw one of the most grotesque things I’ve ever seen. It was a dismembered crucifix. At first I thought it was broken accidentally. Then I realized this was a very intentional statement about how far Christ goes for us.

In my office you will find an entirely different image. It is an abstract stain painting depicting the spiritual reality of the crucifixion. In both cases the idea exists that if you put time on a line, all points have been fixed. As we look back, the moment of the crucifixion remains frozen in history in such a way that Christ is indeed crucified and risen for us at the same time. Where and when we are able to accept the risen Christ and be transformed from the inside out is also the time and space where we become aware of the resurrection in a way that we can respond to it. And we respond to the resurrection by offering the healing and wholeness we have found, even as our bodies are wasting away.

Bill McDaniel knew this. He walked in while Brenda, the Interim Pastor, and I were planning the Christmas worship schedule. We were so proud of ourselves for getting ahead of the curve, and hear comes an interruption. “Hi, Bill! Come on in.” She said invitingly. “Merry Christmas,” he said, a little hesitantly. “What’s going on, Bill?” Brenda asked. “Well, I just wanted to come by and bring you some peanut brittle. I didn’t have anything but North Carolina peanuts (where Brenda was from), but I made them anyway,” said Bill. After a few more pleasantries Bill said, “Well, I got a bad report from the oncologist yesterday. Yeah… at first I was pretty down. I decided that I could be upset about it, or I could just try to do something nice for someone else. So, I made you some peanut brittle.” Wow.

Sometimes, as in the letter to the Hebrews, God speaks and everything else falls away, for there are only two permanent things. The first is change. All things change. The second is the only thing that is unchanging, and that is the love of God. By the presence of love we know of the presence of God. In the presence of love we experience the presence of justice. In the presence of justice we experience healing that goes beyond our physical needs. You know, last I heard, Bill was in remission. I imagine medical science had a lot to do with that, but I bet the peanut brittle did, too. Of course the people in Guatemala are still suffering, but they, in their own way, are still spreading light in the midst of darkness. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Additional Resources
Websites -
http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20100816JJ.shtml
http://www.textweek.com/yearc/properc16.htm

Reference Books -
Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday's Texts : The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday'sTexts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Eerdmans, 2001.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don't Rock the Boat

First Presbyterian, Lafayette Louisiana
Year C, Ordinary 21
8/15/10
First Reading - Isaiah 5:1-7
Second Reading - Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Gospel lesson - Luke 12:49-56


I have a little bit of a problem. Well, not a problem so much as an opportunity. That’s what we used to say at Houston’s, one of the restaurants I worked in before seminary. At least that’s what the management called problems. They called them opportunities for success. Another restaurant that I worked in, Cow Tippers, was part of a smaller restaurant group. One of the owners occasionally worked management shifts to stay in touch with the business. He would often respond to his employee’s concerns by saying, “Is this a situation?” Meaning, is this something that happens often? This question would always be followed with, “Do we need a policy?” Meaning, do you need something to help you respond to this situation? It was all very helpful and positive, but we, of course, made fun of them in both cases.

Anyway, my problem is that I kill watches. Something about my body’s natural magnetic polarity kills watch batteries on everything but heavy duty, expensive watches or cheap digital watches. Yes, I know the chronograph kind would work for me, but they can be a bit pricey. I have a nice heavy watch that will work. It was my father’s. I wear it from time to time. Unfortunately I have an old injury in my wrist, and I can’t wear it for very long. Mostly I use my cell phone as a clock, although I did receive a call one time right in the middle of my sermon, so I’m not real fond of that option during worship. Some time ago I was given a pocket watch, and I’m trying it out today.

Problems are not bad things. They can be painful things. In its origin the word problem meant “to put before.” A tree falls in the road. You can try to deny it and roll on over it, or figure out how to move it. A problem, or more emphatically a crisis, forces a decision. How we handle problems often defines us. It tests us in the way that steel is tested by fire and friction. Do you know what happens? On a molecular level, the bonds become shorter and tighter. Of course molten steel must not be left to it’s own devices or it just becomes a useless, tight knit lump. It has to be further molded and pounded to become useful.

Relationships are like that sometimes. Families are like that sometimes. Congregations are like that sometimes. In fact, when Treva and I went to premarital counseling, our counselor said, “Next time we are going to talk about how you experience and resolve conflicts in your relationship.” We stared blankly at her, then each other, then at her. “We haven’t had any real conflict so far,” I said, in my naiveté. “Yes you have,” she said, reassuringly. Sure enough, we had a few things to talk about the next session. It’ll be 10 years this September, and guess what… sometimes we still have conflict. Conflict is just part of life. What matters is how we respond to it.

One summer a while ago I led river trips on the Shenandoah for Camp Glenkirk (which is now Camp Meadowkirk) of the Nation Capitol Presbytery. That particular summer the water table was unusually low. The river snaked its way through the mountains, as rivers are wont to do. The rock formations were made of shale and flint, and they formed diagonal lines across the river, creating a maze that required close attention to navigate and sometimes forcing paddlers to pick up their canoe and portage to get through. About halfway through the summer I developed a schpeal to frame the experience theologically. “This river is your life,” I told them. “The person who is with you in your canoe is your Christian brother or sister. Just like the opportunities that come along in your life of faith, the river will offer you opportunities to become closer and stronger or to become angry and resentful. It is your choice. Let’s go!”

And so we come to church this Sunday morning, hoping, needing, wanting to be comforted. We come here for stability and assurance, and the last thing we want is for someone to rock the boat. And what do we get but this passage from Isaiah comparing God’s elect who are unfruitful to a vineyard that is out of control and must be destroyed. God says, “I expected justice from you and all I see is self interest and bloodshed. I expected righteousness and all I hear are the cries of those who are being taken advantage of.”

Then Jesus really lowers the boom on us! “You want peace? Too bad, I bring division.” Where is the Jesus that the angels sing of? Where is the Prince of Peace? And this baptism thing, I thought he was already baptized. Oh course John did say, “The one coming after me is greater. I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire!” Some scholars say that this is a forecast for the tongues of fire from Pentecost. Some have said that it is a warning about an apocalyptic day of judgment.

I say that it could be either, or it could be neither, or it could be both. What is sure is that Jesus is stating an action that will happen to him. His baptism will be made complete in his death on the cross. Then he is describing the repercussions it will have for us. “Father against son and son against father. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother,” he says. Truly that is what happened in the time following the resurrection. We may wish to deny it, but it still goes on today. I believe that the greatest conflict in the church today is not about who Jesus is or was. It is not about sexuality or ordination standards. It is not about how we receive the grace of Christ. It is about the way in which we will respond to it.

So then Jesus turns to the crowd. Just a few chapters back he admonished them for wanting a sign. “All you will get is Jonah. Remember that guy? Remember how the Ninevites repented just because he called them on their bluff? What more can I offer you but the presence of God, but you still continue in your sin! Somehow, you guys can figure out when it will rain and when it will be too hot, but you have no idea what time it is!”

The message of Jesus is about time. He is drawing a line in the sand and commanding a decision. In the words of the blues singer, Louis Jordon, he is saying, “Is you is my baby, or is you ain’t?” But in terms of the presence of God for all humanity for all space and time, this line in the sand is not a finish line (as so many of us want it to be). It is a starting line of a race that begins with our own baptism and continues on throughout our lives. It is a race that has been run, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, by many others before us. It is a race that will be run by many others after us.

And so we run with perseverance, knowing that we are never alone. We run with perseverance, remembering that unchecked self-interest slows us down and confuses us from being able to see the goal. We run the race knowing that those who have gone before us are a part of our salvation, just as we are a part of theirs.

That’s something to think about. In vs.39-40 the author, writing in the tradition of Paul, says, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

It makes me wonder. If they are a part of my salvation, and my salvation perfects or completes theirs in some way, who will be a part of mine? Who will offer the completeness of salvation for me that I am offering to them? We cannot see into the future, but unless there is some kind of magnetic field altering our watches, we can see what time it is.

For most of the history of Western Christianity, being a Christian has meant that you ascribe to a certain set of doctrines about who God is, who we are, and the relationship we share. That is not a bad thing. The trouble is that you just can’t define God and the experience of being in a relationship with God by a set of normative social contracts. You can’t legislate morality. You cannot know and have a relationship as creation with creator just because someone else has described it for you.

It’s like a ball game. Baseball has rules. It’s a simple game. But baseball wouldn’t be the game that I know it without the one time when my dad sat with me, pulled me in tight, and explained the ideals, the principles, and the opportunities that were taken advantage of, squandered, or not even considered. Baseball isn’t a sport to me, I’m not really that big of a fan. Baseball is a moment of deep relationship in the midst of great need. It is a stadium environment encompassing the pageantry of human existence. My understanding of baseball cannot even be put into words in a way that can be fully understood, even by those who have shared a similar experience.

That’s why doctrine is no longer answering the questions of those outside of these walls. I’m not saying that we need to throw it out. I’m saying we need to understand it as a home base to return to at the right time.

The concept of divine mystery just is not very interesting to a lot of people anymore. Maybe it is because we live with too much access to too much information. Maybe it is because of the vacuum of relationships being created by divided families who work more and have less quality of life. I don’t think that the problem is that people need a more specific answer than the church has been offering. I think they need less.

People do not believe in a one size fits all God anymore, and that is probably a good thing. What people are after is an understanding of how God might dwell in the midst of all things. That is not new. In the Reformed Heritage we call this the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And in the church today, particularly in the PC(USA), we don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit except on Pentecost. We don’t want to rock the boat.

In his book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yakonelli tells the story of a woman who raised her son in the church and taught him clearly about justice and righteousness. He was in college when the war broke out in Afghanistan. He decided to join a group of Christians who were going to stand in solidarity with Afghan Christians during the Shock and Awe bombing campaign. When she challenged him he said, “Didn’t you and the church teach me that Jesus was always befriending people who were weak and suffering?” Through tears she told her friend, “If I had known it would come to this I would have taught him to be a Chip-n-Dales dancer!”

Through our baptism we are united in the death of Christ so that we might share in the resurrection with Christ. This congregation is in a state of mourning right now, and for good reason. We have experienced many deaths, and much loss. Even so our text asks us today, have we died to ourselves? Oh, I hope so.

Are we, like Jesus, awaiting the kindling of the fire coming to cleanse, empower, and redeem us? Do we see the Education building as a failure to produce, or do we see it as a vital center of mission and proclamation? Do we see the needy in our midst as a problem to deal with or an opportunity to be the church? I can tell you where the Session stands on this, but you can see it in the policy we’ve put together to guide our active response to others.

I believe a great fire is being kindled here! And we are all, in our limited spheres of influence, the very saints of God that will help this world to see what time it is! It is so simple. Write a note to someone who has not come to church in a while, or better yet visit them. Fill an emergency bag for a neighbor in need. Bring in some peanut butter for U.C.O. Pray about God’s activity in your life, in someone else’s, and in the life of this congregation, and don’t keep it a secret that you did it! Share your ideas with each other for creative solutions to the problems you see, whether it is taking care of the building or reaching out to someone else who needs to know of God’s presence. You, yes you, are God’s beloved child; chosen, redeemed, and filled with the presence of God to share. None of this is because of our worthiness. It is only because of God’s willingness. For Christ’s baptism was not just completed in spite of the cross. It was completed because of it. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And may our proclamation be joined so that the sound becomes a deafening ring to silence the hatred of this world, to the glory of God, now and always. Amen.


References and Inspirational Reading

Bandstra, Andrew. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pages 510-514).

Butrick, George Arthur, Ed. The Interpreter's Bible: Luke, John; Abingdon-
Cokesbury Press, 1957.

Limburg, James. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Old Testament and Acts: The First Readings; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pages 298-301).

Write, Stephen I. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pages 386-390).

Yaconelli, Mark. Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus;
Youth Specialties, 2006 (page 43).

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!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Possessed

First Presbyterian Lafayette, Louisiana
Year C, Ordinary 18
8/01/10

What comes to mind when I say the word “possessed”? For many of us who grew up after the advent of such horror films like “The Amityville Horror” or “The Exorcist,” the word possession can bring up some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Perhaps if I ask the question a little differently it might change some of your reactions. What if the word is instead “possession”? Now what comes to mind?

We live in a world defined by things, for the most part, or by the activities that result in things. Our identities are often more attached to achievements than relationships. Sure, we begin conversations with “What kind of work do you do?” But chances are that those conversations aren’t going to go very far unless the “doing” that is described has some kind of value to us. This is nothing new, literature and social commentary about this goes back to the origin of society and recorded history.

John Calvin talked about our greed and self-centeredness as idolatry. On the surface you could say that we worship things. We say things like, “Isn’t that adorable?” or “I would give just about anything for that!” And on a deeper level, we are not just worshiping things. We are worshiping our own desires. We are worshiping ourselves.

In 1960, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about our culture as pantheistic, because we have so many different places that we turn to as a center of value (and that was before the internet, twitter, and facebook). A center of value is something we orient our decisions around. Niebuhr felt that when it came to making decisions about priorities, we use different things that seem to have some moral value on their own to justify doing what we want.

In the language of addiction, we value something so much that we think about it when we are not with it. We plan our activities around the opportunity to consume it. Our priorities become focused on an object or activity in a way that we cannot feel valuable unless we are connected to it. This unbalanced type of relationship can happen with any of us, and our drug of choice can be work, family, our social activities, or a computer as easily as it can be cigarettes and substances. I do not mean to down play the severity of substances. Instead I am suggesting that the struggle of holding onto God as a center of value is a human struggle, and that sometimes we even use our faith to justify our desires over God’s.

That’s what the man in the crowd was trying to do. Jesus had just finished condemning the religious leaders for their use of the law for selfish gain, and immediately an enterprising young man saw his shot. Now, it may seem odd that Jesus is using this guy’s request to divide up the family estate as a way to tell people not to be greedy. Isn’t the older brother greedy? He’s the one with all the family goods? The difference is that they lived in a society where the older brother had been entrusted to care for the younger. Trying to get his share before his time meant that he was trying to look after himself, regardless of anyone else.

So Jesus tells a story, reminding us of the difference between possessions and relationships. If you have not been to the new C.U.P.s building, perhaps you have not seen the “Bumper Sticker Theology” wall. It is a bulletin board filled with bumper stickers that make faith statements. Verse 15, where Jesus is reminding us that life is more than possessions, reminds me of one that I saw some time ago. I’m not sure if this one made it to the wall, but I remember it clearly from a bumper. It simply said, “Your stuff will own you.” Jesus is reminding us of the difference between our stuff and our identity as children of God.

As I looked through this passage I was particularly struck by verse 21. The verb for “store up” can also be translated as “placing in tomorrow,” and the phrase for being rich can be translated as “being rich into God.” It seems that the emphasis is on the location of our intentions. Do we place our hope in something we have placed into the future, or do we place our trust in God? How silly it is that we try to place things of today into tomorrow. For we live only the days we have to live, and our value is never found in the things we do or do not have, but only in who we are. When I consider the idea of possession from this perspective it reminds me of breakfast. Not just any breakfast, it reminds me of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s

For those cinematic sinners who have yet to see this triumphant film about modern life, it is the story of two young adults trying to find meaning and love in the early 60’s. Audrey Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a young woman who moves in between social circles and won’t let anyone pin her down. More than a shrew, she is an enigma, and her greatest fear is being defined, named, and owned by someone else. She won’t even name her cat because if you name it you own it, and it loses its identity and becomes a thing.

In the final scene her love interest, Paul, calls her bluff, “You know what's wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You're chicken, you've got no guts. You're afraid to stick out your chin and say, "Okay, it's a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that's the only chance anybody's got for real happiness." You call yourself a free spirit, a "wild thing," and you're terrified somebody's gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you're already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it's not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It's wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”

The idea that we are independent is a myth. In truth we are, if anything, interdependent. We are interdependent because we need each other. We need the resources of the earth, and we need a way to experience God’s presence. We understand God’s presence most fully by loving and being loved. I’m not talking about mushy, gushy Hollywood love. I’m talking about the love of deeply knowing someone and being known, named, and claimed.

Love chooses us. Love befalls us, binds us, and gives us a sense of meaning. God is the origin of love. We are not the object or possession of God’s love. We are the subjects God has created to be in a relationship with. We are subjects with our own wills and desires, and the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ provides the opportunity to align our passions with God’s.

Because God wants to be in a relationship with all of creation, then so must we. Our true North, our center of value, must be God’s will. That’s what it means to “be rich toward God.” God’s desire is that our treasure, our comfort, our ultimate sense of security be in the knowledge and presence of God’s love.

I hate to say it, but that is a lot harder to do than it sounds. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that I can tell you what it looks like on a daily basis. The extension of the logic is that we should just give away our possessions, work only when we have to, and expect God to take care of things like retirement, health care, and poverty. Does God really think that savings and insurance plans are corrupting us and making us deny God’s love and providence? Surely not, though I would imagine that it’s not out of the realm of possibility for us to become so focused on saving ourselves that we might forget who our Savior is. That’s why we come to this table, to remember who our Savior is. We get a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are forgiven, all are cherished, and all are claimed, named and loved.

I heard a story not too long ago about a group of church members, C.U.P.s volunteers, and some folks they just did not want to leave alone who stayed at the church during Hurricane Gustav. As Leigh tells it, five guys from Illinois just happened to show up with a bulldozer asking for shelter and preparing for clean up work from the incoming storm. During the course of the event one of the walls was ripped from the old C.U.P.s building, and those five guys from Illinois jumped in to help. Apparently they still come through from time to time and check on C.U.P.s. John is the name of the crew leader, and because of the shared experience, there is a relationship there.

You can call it luck or fate if you want to. I’ll just give thanks to God that it happened and call it providence. That’s what happens when we set our minds on things that are beyond our reach but resting gently in the arms of God. That is what it is like to live in this world of uncertainty with a sense of hope and peace that is not manufactured by our efforts, but is dependent on the mercy, grace, and providence of God. So come, again and again to this table, and taste and see that the Lord is good. And to God be the glory, both now and always, Amen.