Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peacemaking

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God...Matthew 5:9
Peacemaking and peacekeeping are two terms that can often be confused with one another. The extremes of liberalism and conservatism each use these terms to benefit their own agendas, and often the meaning of peace making and peacekeeping become co-opted. Generally speaking, peacemaking tends to describe actions that bring about the condition of peace. Those who consider themselves peacemakers often use non-violent strategies that model and begin the implementation of peaceful resolutions.

Peacekeeping, on the other hand, is generally understood as the means of enforcing the conditions that allow for others to co-exist peacefully. The irony of the situation is that peacekeepers often do so through the threat of violence. Ideally this seems antithetical, but in reality there is evil in this world that must be restrained with force. Weeds must be pulled to keep a garden healthy. Terrorists attack without remorse or conscience. Disease infests our minds and bodies and must be destroyed or managed.

The true difficulty is found in the fact that while we have a certain responsibility to manage the conditions of peace, we are always in danger of becoming the monster we wish to destroy. That is why our true calling is to be peacemakers. Yes, the conditions that make for peace must be kept. But if we place our trust in human strength alone, we find ourselves in a position of weakness.

This month we will collect the peacemaking offering to support local, regional, and international ministries that create and maintain conditions for peace. Though peace can be elusive at times, I believe Martin Luther King Jr.’s position is consistent with the Bible and the PC(USA). Dr. King once stated, “peace is not the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.”

Justice, by King’s standards and by those of the King of Kings, means that human power is not the answer to the ills of society. It means that we, as the church and members of it, must seek ways to create opportunities for God to act within our hearts, relationships, and actions. Not because God needs our permission to act, but because God desires our cooperation. In our hearts, homes, and communities, let us be peacemakers, and to God be the glory!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Great Divide

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
September 26, 2010 – Ordinary 26C
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

In 1996 I stood at the top of a snowy peak in Colorado looking off into the distance of the continental divide. The grandeur of God’s creation was overwhelming, and I felt rather insignificant in the face of it all. As a group of young men in their late 20’s might, we marveled how you could spit in one direction and it would eventually make it to the Atlantic or in the other to contribute to the Pacific. Then we got into a snow ball fight that would continue through the remainder of our snow mobile tour.

That’s what we do when faced with the magnitude of life in its fullest. We focus on ourselves, on that which we can control, and we find some way to distract and amuse ourselves. It is only natural. Think of it as a more generalized fight or flight response. We don’t want to know how much is beyond our control. We don’t want to think about how we are a part of something larger than ourselves; something with a will and a purpose that affects us more than we can affect it.

Of course the “it” is not an it, but rather the very presence of God. Sure, we comfort ourselves with the idea that God is with us. We love the Footprints poem that reminds us that there are times when God carries us because we cannot walk. None of us would deny that in times of trial it is God alone that gets us through. But there are those who do. There are those for whom the idea of God’s will, or presence, or providence is just wishful thinking. I believe the church has a great deal of responsibility in this situation.

For too long we have feasted sumptuously on the idea that God has some mysterious will or plan to dictate the hours of our day, while poverty continues and the church moves slowly from the center of our society to the margins. We have silently acquiesced or fully endorsed a society that wants division, praises the few above the many, and values tenacity and resiliency higher than faithfulness and interdependence. But don’t feel bad. This is nothing new.

The Jews of Jesus’ day also developed ways to cope and succeed in Roman society. There were those who were successful and those who were not. There were those who had purple cloth, and those who did not. Incidentally, the Romans set limits on how much purple cloth one could wear. So those who wore it were limited, but they were also in good enough graces with the power of the state to wear it. The purple cloth mattered to the one who would be stripped, beaten, and dressed in purple before offering his life as a ransom for all.

This parable was something of a formula in Jewish teaching at the time, which is why it probably burned the pride of the Pharisees he was rebuking all the more. It makes me wonder if the Pharisees themselves were not wearing a dash of purple when they heard this story of the rich neglecting the poor and receiving God’s judgment. What was different about this story is that Lazerus had a name, and his name had a meaning. His name meant, “God has helped.” There is no connection between this Lazerus and the brother of Mary and Martha, except for the meaning of the name.

Lazerus is received into Abraham’s care, literally translated “into his bosom” signifying a very close embrace. The unnamed rich man identifies himself as a descendant of Abraham, and he is recognized as such. He begs for mercy, and he receives none. This is not an image of God, who seems absent in this story anyway, that we really want. Yet, the reality this points to is that there are times and places where we have the opportunity to be merciful. There are times and places where we choose not to be. These choices are like rocks thrown into a pond. There are ripples that follow that can’t be taken back.

Now, you and I both know that there is more to the situation of need than meets the eye. Even people who are trying to be honest are probably lying to themselves at some point along the way. That is not the concern of today’s passage. There is nothing to tell us if Lazerus was a good man or if the rich man made his money by honest work. All we know is that Lazerus was left to the dogs and to whatever mercy might come his way by the will of God. Just like the guests in the parable of the Great Banquet, the rich man could have done something, but he chose not to.
One thing that we do know is that there are things we can do now. We do not have to give money to strangers, but we can care for them. We do not have to be able to fix the problems we see in others, but we can love them. In fact, I believe this is more than simply our duty. I believe, as some others have said, that our ability to see and care for others is intertwined with our salvation. I believe that our entrance into heaven or hell begins in this life right here and right now.

That is what the Pauline community was celebrating in the letter we received today! Life that is truly living means a life filled with the full range of human experience: joy, pain, suffering, and redemption. It means that the things I do as a response to the grace given to me are not things I want to do to please God. It means that the things I do as a response to God’s grace are often the things I don’t want to do, but I am compelled to do them because I know they will benefit someone else in a way that I will not see.

Come to think of it, standing at the Continental Divide does not give you a view of the ocean. But we know that the water is going to roll from the mountain to the sea. I think most of us would like to think about faith that way. Just like those commercials where someone smiles at someone and it starts a chain reaction of altruism. Random acts of kindness is a good ethical position, but it is not Christian theology. There is nothing wrong with it, but it won’t save your soul.

The parable of Lazerus and the rich man is a clear reminder that there is power in wealth and in poverty. It is also a clear statement that our salvation is not simply about faith statements, creeds, and doctrines. It is about the connections we make, break, ignore, and maintain with the powerless. We may hold the key to their opportunities now, but they hold the keys to ours in eternity. I don’t think that means that we have to give others everything they ask for. Experience also tells us that encouraging independence is far more helpful than simply giving hand-outs. Finding ways to depend on one another, creating interdependence, is a step further into the Kingdom of God.

What makes all of this even more complicated is that we are not, necessarily, the most wealthy in this town. Our congregation is small but strong, and I would imagine that there are quite a few of us on fixed incomes. Between a culture of living beyond our means, children and or parents that need support, rising medical costs, and living in a community that believes hospitality is as important as clean water, I doubt many of us feel very rich.

Well, have no fear the Global Rich List is here! I typed in my salary of just over $45k and found that I am in the top 1.59% of the world’s population. Now, I realize this is the same old “starving children” argument your mother used in 1952 to make you eat Brussels Sprouts. My point is not to make you feel bad. My point is to acknowledge that the reality of human existence and our position in it often makes people want to go throw snowballs because the big picture is just too big.

I think that is one of the reasons we get so anxious about the church being on the edge of the power structures. But I want to remind you that the greatest time of tyranny and oppression known to human existence took place under the watchful care of the church, as did the advent of modern slavery, and a whole host of other abuses. That’s why I think we are right where God wants us to be.

Just like Jeremiah, I think now is a good time to invest in some land! It is time to invest with our time, our talents, and our resources in ways that we have never done before. Why? Well, one common definition for doing the same things expecting new results is insanity. People thought Jeremiah was crazy, and people have called the gospel of Jesus Christ foolishness since it was first proclaimed.

Just like the Pauline community in Ephesus, I think now is a time for a more public witness. And just like the rich man I know that I resist the opportunity to truly be in community with others because I don’t believe that I can do anything for them anyway. But unlike the rich man in the parable, you and I have a chance to overcome the divides that exist between us. While we are here together in this earthly existence there is time.

There is time to make decisions that cannot be unmade. There is time to cross over the mountains that divide us before they drop away and become chasms that cannot be crossed. We believe and understand that nothing is impossible for God, but we also know that God has given us the authority and power to make decisions that have eternal consequences. Thanks be to God that we are not alone in making those decisions! Thanks be to God that we have one another to support and carry on! Thanks be to God that we have those less fortunate than ourselves who will offer us the opportunity to experience salvation here and now, and through all eternity!

Luke is very clear that our salvation is enacted through our relationship with the poor, yet I believe there is something more to it than that when we consider the whole cannon of scripture. Beyond physical poverty is the poverty of the soul, and the first poor person who needs our compassion is the one we see in the mirror. For until we see ourselves as God’s beloved it will be hard to view others in the same way. We must start within and move out, just as the waters move from the snow capped divide to the sea. God is calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. God does not mind if we need a break now and again. Snow, or something like it, will be provided for our enjoyment. But we must not neglect the poor within our reach, lest we increase the poverty within ourselves.

May God continue to guide and bless us on this journey we share. Amen.

References and Inspirational Reading
http://www.textweek.org
http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_21_year_.html
http://www.globalrichlist.com

Achtemeier, Elizabeth. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Old Testament and Acts: The First Readings; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pp. 441-447).

Culpepper, Alan R. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Vol. IX; Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (pp. 314-320)

Shuster, Marguerite. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pp. 418-421).

Wall, Robert W. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pp. 438-440).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Good luck, y'all

One of the things I love about being southern is the fact that we are more than ourselves. Just before leaving Savannah, GA to move to Lafayette, LA I was at the bank finishing up some business and had some small talk with the teller about the  move. 

As I left she said, "Good luck, y'all!" Clearly there was no one else there but me. There is something strangely comforting to me to be part of a society that understands and expects our reality to be couched in relationships.  Of course our language does not always reflect our reality.  The south is often a segregated society.  We are kind and hospitable, but we keep to our own.

Paul told the church in Corinth, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Cor 66:19-20)"  Of course this was at the end of a section on sexual morality, but how often do we consider fidelity as a part of our connection to others?

In the deep south you might hear phrases like, "How's your mom an 'em?" or, "How are things in your house?"  We don't want to know about your mom or your plumbing.  We want to know about your root system, your support network, your family.  The true beauty of being southern is that it can also be a complete avoidance of the same concerns by seeking surface answers to these deep questions.

The church can have the same patterns, especially when we consider it as only a family instead of a community of faith.  It can be both, but sometimes the lines do blur a bit.  I have a dear friend who recently referred to me as a member of his "family of choice."  It is an honor and a privilege to be claimed by another, but we are not claimed for our own benefit.   We are claimed for a greater good, and ultimately, that is to proclaim the goodness of God.

We are not our own.  Even our bodies, the physical and metaphorical essence of who we are and what we submit to and claim to be a part of, belong to God.  The good news in this is that we are not left up to the chance of good or bad luck, but we are held tightly in the arms of providence.

That does not mean that everything will go our way.  It means we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  We are part of something that looks inward and takes care of our own.  We are part of something the reaches outward because of the love and care we have received from within.

Incidentally, the plural of "Y'all" is "All y'all," and it includes your family and those you are connected to.  May God's providence dwell richly within all y'all who read this, and may God's spirit move you to care for and include others in your family of choice.

Your Brother in Christ,

Zach

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Surviving Apprentice

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, LA
September 19, 2010 - Ordinary 25C
Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1 1
Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Reality TV is an oxymoron that has, unfortunately, been around too long to dismiss. Obviously there are a lot of people who like the idea of television shows that offer real people in unreal situations, and I will admit that we are far too interested in shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos and The Biggest Loser at the Sasser house. The Apprentice is a show I have never found interest in, but I think Jesus would have liked it. At least it would seem so, based on today’s gospel lesson.

For the audience of the day, the parable of the dishonest manager was as reality driven as a story could get. It’s full of sin, greed, and human failing, wrapped up in a resilience that wins the day. Perhaps it’s the title that kept it from getting the ratings that, say, “The Good Samaritan,” has gotten. People want to be “good.” People do prefer to survive, and who wouldn’t want to be the apprentice to the most powerful person in the land? So, let’s revisit and recast this parable. Let’s call it, “The Surviving Apprentice.”

Picture the scene in 1st century Palestine. A powerful land owner who everyone refers to as “The Master” is touring the city, showing a group of promising young tycoons his beautiful mansion, his fleet of camels, and his storehouses of goods. Each is entrusted to certain amounts of resources with specific tasks, and one by one they are brought into the dreaded and powerful tent of meeting, where they are evaluated and eliminated with the dreaded words, “You can no longer work for me.” That might be another reason why this parable wasn’t so popular. Maybe the Master needs a cleaner tag line when dismissing employees.

Anyway, one of the contestants sees the writing on the wall. You can tell by the look on his face as the camera pans the tent. Now the camera switches to a “candid” shot of this shrewd “fellah” thinking about his options. “Hmm...I know I can’t do manual labor. I bruise like a peach, and my skin is way too fair for direct mid day sun. I know! Since I’m getting fired anyway, I might as well do some networking while I’ve got the chance.” So he calls in all the indebted under his charge and has them rewrite their own bills for authenticity.

Next comes the moment of truth in the tent of meeting. The Surviving Apprentice’s robes hide the sweat pouring from his body, though his composure is cool and collected. The Master reviews the records with a scowl. The Surviving Apprentice holds his breath, awaiting that vicious hand gesture that strikes the conscience like a snake. The Master knows he’s been had. He also knows that to show a lack of control over his willful employee bespeaks of his own weakness. For him to acknowledge the unclaimed debt would bring dishonor as the word of the Manager is the promise of the Master, and the promise of the Master is his very identity in the community(1). The Master looks around, and bursts into laughter. His associates and advisers look at each other in dismay and join in a confused, uncomfortable chuckle.

This is an entertaining story, to be sure. Those of us who always root for the underdog love this sort of thing. But in light of faith in Christ, it’s still a bit troubling. Is this a reversal of the beatitudes, claiming “Blessed are the clever(2)?” Is this some kind of hidden justification or manifesto for corporate greed? Is it a trick question? Perhaps Jesus is trying to see who’s paying attention.

As he often does, Jesus provides some explanation at the end. In vv. 8-9 Jesus says that the “Children of This Age” are more shrewd in dealing with each other than the “Children of Light.” Perhaps this is a throw back to the Deuteronomical code (Deut. 23:19-20) that forbids charging interests to fellow Israelites, though not to foreigners. Of course he never says who the “Children of Light” are, and even more perplexing is the idea that we should garner favors from the “Children of this Age” now, so that they may welcome us into eternal homes later.

In one commentary on the subject, Robert Tannehill suggests that, in light of the whole of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is indicating that all money is in some way tainted. Because of this, those who do not have the leverage of wealth in the decisions they make are the ones whom we should garner favor from, so that we will receive their blessing when we come to life eternal. In this strange twist of fate, the poor have become mediators of God’s grace, and those of us with wealth have become in need of their care(3). Perhaps Tannehill is reaching a bit here, but vv. 10-13 do seem to back him up. First Jesus says, “If it is your custom to be faithful in a little, you’ll also be faithful in much. But if you are dishonest when entrusted to little, you will be dishonest with even more.” That sounds a bit dogmatic, but it does make sense. What follows, however, is the plot twist I referred to earlier, “If I can’t trust you with the dishonest wealth of daily commerce, how can I trust you with heavenly riches?” And now the slam dunk. “You can’t serve God and Money!”

Through this and other texts related to wealth, Luke seems to be calling us to be ascetics who combine their property and live on mutual resources, eliminating class structures and personal debt. That’s really not an option for most of us. Or at least not one we will readily and willfully consider. Perhaps if we look at this from another angle it might help.

First, put yourself in the place of the Manager. There is a crisis; his superior has called him into accountability. Say what you will about his dishonesty, but he definitely knew what time it was(4). Knowing that he could not bring in all that was expected, he did two things. He brought in what he could, and he did it in a way that endeared him to the indebted rather than alienating them. He knew what time it was, and he acted decisively. Now imagine yourself as the indebted one. Imagine the sure knowledge of being forgiven you might feel when you wrote the new amount, one that you can pay, with your own hand. I wonder if any of you have ever felt this way? If you have, would it not be incumbent upon you to welcome the distributor of grace with open arms and to respond to this grace in all that follows?

There’s a woman who lives in Reynosa, Mexico named Melva. During the first international mission trip I led, my youth group worked on her house. It was a shack, really...with a dirt floor. She had eight children with another on the way. Her husband kept her pregnant to keep her in line, and he did not mind telling us that. We tore down a section of their house and dug trenches for cement footings. We left wondering if any good would ever come to her. We worried that she would die giving birth, or even worse, while trying to get to the hospital. We left the remainder of our trip funds with Puentos de Cristo, our mission partner, to use for her care.

Two years later we returned. Melva was unrecognizable, and it wasn’t just because of her haircut! Puentos de Cristo had given her prenatal and natal care that ensured a healthy delivery. During her recovery, they also provided her with the opportunity to have a tubal ligation. When her husband found out about it he left her, and she got a job in a community center associated with Puentos de Cristo teaching life skills to young girls. Other groups had come during the two years between our visits and had built real walls with a cement floor. Melva insisted that we come to her home, and she served us a cake that had to have cost her a week’s salary. On a wall one of the children had written, “My Home.” She said it was our home, too. From then on, throughout eternity, that group will always have a home in Reynosa.

Afterward, we were welcomed into another home in the same neighborhood. Not by someone requesting help, but just by a friend of Melva who wanted us to see her home and how she lived. She wanted us to pray with her. She wanted to welcome us into her world, even if but for a minute or two. We were welcomed into eternal homes! In retrospect, all I can think is, “My Lord and my God what beautiful gates your heaven presents us with hear in these heavenly homes! And how amazing it is that you welcome us into them through such humble means.”

In our abundance we are as needy as any. In our desire to secure our status, we must not neglect the security of faith. You see, this really isn’t a parable about money. It’s a story about the crisis that the “alternative lifestyle” of being a Christian brings into our lives, and it asks us, “Where do you place your trust?” and “How do your life, your resources, and your actions demonstrate that trust?” As managers of the gifts we’ve been given, including talents and other resources, our faith calls us to live in constant crisis. Every day is a new call to accountability, and a new chance to be both mediators and recipients of God’s grace.

That is a portion of how and why I have felt called to come here. In my conversations with the PNC we talked about management and leadership styles. I made it very clear to them that I believe in a priesthood of believers where ordained officers are not “Lords” and “Masters.” I believe we have been called into ministry together as partners, each having gifts to offer to the ministry we share. Because of those gifts, some of us are called to particular tasks. At the same time, all of us have a pretty clear calling. God wants us to acknowledge the reality of being forgiven. That’s what this parable is about.

Jesus is not telling us to lie or steel. He is reminding us that we do not come by grace honestly. It is, in fact, our failures that encourage us in our treatment of others(5). God expects us to respond to the forgiveness we have received by forgiving others and being an example of the new reality of Christ. And even though we may be drenched with sweat at the thought of being called into accountability, God will grant us the peace of knowing that we will be received into heavenly homes in this life, and in the life to come.

We are not waiting for a final, cosmic crisis to give us one last chance to decide. The crisis has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As for me, I can’t fire you. I can’t give you a raise. I can’t give you a failing grade, and I can’t kick you off of my team. All I can do is invite you into a life of joyful service in response to God’s grace. It’s a good and joyful life, and I praise God for the chance to enter into it with you today and re-enter it every day. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

REFERENCES
1. Tannehill, Robert C. (1996) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp. 245-249
2. Walton, Jon M.(1999) Teaching Sermons on Troubling Texts: Imperfect Peace. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp.103-112.
3. Tannehill, Robert C. (1996) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp. 245-249
4. Walton, Jon M.(1999) Teaching Sermons on Troubling Texts: Imperfect Peace. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp.103-112.
5. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/proper20c.htm

Sunday, September 12, 2010

God Has Remembered

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
September 12, 2001 – Ordinary 24C
Exodus 32:7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

I have a card in my wallet with my name on it. It is not so that I can remember my name. It is so I can remember my grandfather, Samuel Arthur Hutchins - Daddy Bill, who gave it to me years ago. I never asked him why he had it, but it effected me deeply to know that he came across it sometime, somewhere and was moved to keep it in his wallet.

The card tells me the meaning of my name, “God Hath Remembered.” I can tell you there were times I wish God would not remember, but that card helped get me through them anyway. It was the only thing remotely Hebrew that I knew the translation of before seminary. So, you can imagine how deflated I was in my late 20’s to learn that although the literal root verb was long memory, the associated noun was simply, “old man.”

Hebrew is, of course, a more poetic than literal language, and there is some poetry in the knowledge that as Daddy Bill aged he lost his memory, but never his faith. During those same years he gave me more encouragement than I ever acknowledged, by the act of a simple post card. About once a month I received a post card signed by 10-12 men I never knew with a note stating simply, “You were lifted up in prayer today by the men’s Sunday School Class of Highland Presbyterian Church.”

Though he is gone, he is not forgotten. We have snapshots and photo albums to help us remember. Our memories are important. This weekend is a time of memory. For the last nine years we have heard, read, and spoke the words, “Never forget.” Yet, I am afraid we have. I am afraid we have forgotten that on September 11, 2001 there were citizens of 76 nations that died in terrorist attacks on our soils. No one is truly certain of the religious and ethnic composition of the 2,987 victims in the planes, towers, and the pentagon or the 411 rescue workers that ran into the flames in hopes of saving someone. We don’t like to think about the men and women risking their lives right now, the 4,418 who have lost their lives in Iraq, or the 1,279 service personnel who have died in Afghanistan. And we especially don’t like to think of the estimates that more than 10,000 civilians including women and children have died in both countries since these wars began.

From the very beginning of the “post 9/11 era,” there have been those who have become impatient while waiting for God to send someone down from the mountain. All of us, in our own way, experience that feeling of abandonment where we feel like saying to God, “If you care, why don’t you do something.” This is about the moment where most people do one of two things. Either we find ourselves opening up to realize what God is actually doing, or we turn inward to find ways to protect ourselves.

In the story of the Exodus the people have done the later. They aren’t actually doing anything they wouldn’t normally do. They are just using a statue because they are missing the point of who and what God is. God is wounded and angry over it. God disowns them, telling Moses they are “the people you led out of Egypt.” Moses in boldness and stupidity reminds God of the promises made to his ancestors. For the people are not a people without a relationship with the one true God. Moses asks God to remember the good of the past and hold it as a marker to move them forward into the future.

That is the idea expressed in Paul’s letter to Timothy as well. Timothy is reminded of Paul’s conversion experience. Notice, nothing of Paul’s theological training, skill as an orator, or anything about his particular skill set makes it into this argument. But grace and mercy, unmerited favor and undeserved forgiveness, are all that matter. In fact, he is more concerned about being honest about his sin. His calling card, the thing he claims to remember, is not the number of churches he has planted or lives he has touched. Instead it is the simple reality that he is a sinner and God has made an example of him. That is the snapshot in the memory book Paul wants preserved. “I am a sinner.”

Few of us want to make a claim on our weaknesses. But if we understand them as an opening for grace and mercy they can become our greatest strengths. The session will be considering what this means for us as a congregation over the coming months. We are reading a book called “Small, Strong Congregations,” by Kennon Callahan. The basic idea is to accept what others see as a weakness and understand it as a strength. We cannot do and be everything we once were. We cannot compete with larger congregations by trying to offer the same level of programming. What we can and must do is to highlight our strengths and build upon them.

That may seem a little too obvious, but the reality is that is our nature as individuals and organizations to fall into the familiar and forget who, what, why, and whose we are.

That is why the Pharisees have come to hear Jesus. Earlier in Luke Jesus has asked for, “all who have ears to listen.” Now they have come. They are traveling with him to Jerusalem, and they are still holding a grudge from the last time anyone complained about who Jesus ate with from chapter 7. Perhaps he was eating with shepherds and women when the comment was made. Perhaps it was his custom.

One commentary suggests that Jesus is not simply dismissing the Pharisees, but rather acting compassionately toward them. These were the keepers of the law. They were the ones who wanted redemption for Israel so badly that they were blind to it. So, Jesus, after a manor of speaking, is taking them by the hand and setting them next to the shepherd and the woman, calling them to join at the table of experience between God and humanity.

Now these sinners, as they were called, were not simply bad people. They were people with professions or life situations that made them “unclean.” Their sin was not a moral failing. It had to do with their connection to the community, and the need for the community to be separated from them in a pre-scientific time where medicine and health were based on experiences and assumptions.

Jesus turns to lift up a “Joe the Shepherd” type of person, and says, “Even this guy gets it!” The “it” is the reality that every sheep matters to the shepherd. The relationship with the sheep is what makes him a shepherd. Not only that, the flock seems to have little value apart from its connection to the shepherd and the one who is not there.

I’ve often struggled with what that means for us as the flock of the Good Shepherd. Lately I’ve decided that it is not something to think too much about. It could mean all kinds of things. What I believe it does mean is that we have a part to play in the acceptance and rejoicing over the finding of a single lost sheep. I also believe that it means that any of us have the opportunity to be on those shoulders, for all of us are at times weak. Even more so, I believe it means that my salvation is connected to that of others. I cannot simply sit in my office and be glad that Jesus loves me. My salvation is not complete without the relationship I share with those who are also in need of God’s care.

That’s where memory can trip us up. We remember that God has called us and claimed us. We remember that we are blessed beyond measure, and that is where we often stop. In our memories of the sacrifices others have made on our behalf, we are willing to celebrate resiliency and self-determination. But how often do we find ourselves, saying like Paul, that our greatest strength is found in the knowledge that we are totally powerless and completely dependant on God’s grace? What kind of world would this be if each follower of Jesus viewed everyone they met as valuable as the woman did her lost coin? What would the church be like if we took this idea of eating with sinners, meaning those who are separated from the church, to be our calling? In the Lectionary Commentary series, Roger Van Harn suggests that it would look like this:

That sounds like the kind of small, strong church we can be, but I do want to warn you. Seeking and saving can be dangerous work. Unless we are certain to remember who is doing the saving and who is truly in need, we are at risk of getting lost on our way to the table. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. May my actions depend upon this truth. May it be the same for you, and to God be the glory, both now and always. Alleluia! Amen.

References and Inspirational Reading
http://www.textweek.org
http://www.gothamgazette.com/demographics/91102.shtml
http://www.iraqbodycount.org/
http://icasualties.org/

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Old Testament and Acts: The First Readings; 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's Texts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Eerdmans, 2001.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Unfinished Business

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
September 5, 2001 – Ordinary 23C

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33


Hate is a word that we really don’t like to use in polite conversation. Well, I guess if it’s used sympathetically that works. “I just hate it when that happens,” or “I’m so sorry. I hate that for you.” These phrases can take on any even more delicious character when said by a gentile, southern woman of a certain age.

I have a good friend who will not even let his children say the word “hate.” He corrects them, telling them to say, “I strongly dislike spinach,” or whatever the case may be. The truth is, we really don’t like to hate things. Maybe we have seen too much of it. Considering the wars and the events of social change experienced by many in this county, one can see why. Hate, as we know it is a destructive, relentless, and unforgiving force that can twist even the purest motives into chaos.

Yet we have Jesus, the One without sin, the One we are to imitate, telling us to hate. And he is not just telling us to hate someone or something that is harmful. He is telling us to hate our family, those closest to us. Unfortunately, I would imagine that each of us have experienced some level of brokenness in our families. Slammed doors, raised voices, and (even worse) silence can often accompany the laughter and joy of family togetherness. I once heard it said that you cannot hate what you do not already love. Somewhere in my life’s experience I let that enter my soul and realized that hate is not the absence or opposite of love (as we are taught as children). Apathy is the absence and the opposite of love.

Hatred is also based in another core emotion, and that is fear. Fear can come from the experience of loss, a response to being threatened, or just the rejection of things you value. Love is intertwined in all of these things because loss, threats, and rejection do not matter unless they are connected to something you care about. That’s why some people decide all they need to care about is themselves. It just seems safer that way.

Is that what Jesus is saying here? Surely not. This is one of those points where we have to let go of our way of seeing things and remember that this scripture was written for a different people in a different time. It was written for us as well, but it will mean so much more if we can look at it from another perspective. Kind of like the way you can tell if your brakes are squealing from the outside, but you don’t know if it’s the pads or the calipers without taking a look inside.

Hate, as we have it in the scriptures, is fundamentally about your center of value. In the Greco-Roman world, security and identity were connected to family[i]. Jesus was challenging these social norms to say that the only thing that can offer security, ultimately, was devotion to God. In challenging the crowd he is calling them on their bluff in the same way he does in chapter 6:46 when he said, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only [the one] who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

In the Jewish tradition, to hate was more about preference[ii]. Leah was said to have been hated because Jacob preferred Rachel, but they still had seven children together! God is also said to “hate and despise” the very festivals of worship that God instituted, preferring justice and mercy for those in need over a decent and orderly worship service. So Jesus is telling us to consider what we are getting into by following him. He is telling the crowd to be careful what they wish for, and he is telling us that no relationship will ever offer us what he is offering. Then he offers the cross. He is making a clear statement that the way to follow him leads naturally into conflict with the structures in society that maintain order through abusing power.

It’s hard for us to get that, or to hear it the way they did. We have decorative crosses on our walls and hanging around our necks. The cross is a thing of beauty for us, a symbol of freedom, grace, and love. For them, it was like saying, “Go stand in front of a firing squad and see if you still want to follow me.” It wasn’t symbolic or metaphorical. It wasn’t a way to identify with being in difficult situations or living with disease. It was a real instrument of terror used by the Romans to keep people in line.

After daring us to cross the line, Jesus gives us the logic behind the choice. Is a builder going to build a tower without a plan? Of course not, he’d be laughed out of business! But this is the point where we have the advantage, because we are on the other side of the resurrection. We know that we can plan all we want, but we can never see around the corner to know what the ultimate goal is. We know that Jesus was mocked, and that the cross was supposed to be the final insult, leaving his work unfinished. We know that no one can truly be Christ’s disciple without turning away from everything else that we place our trust in and laying it before God. We know that everything we do is a response to God’s grace, and the things that are not are things we should turn away from. We know this, but sometimes the doing is not quite as easy as the knowing.

That’s why we come here, is it not? That is why we break the bread and drink from the cup, to proclaim the new reality of forgiveness for those of us who simply aren’t able to be a disciple of Jesus. That’s something that one commentator pointed out. In the passages just before this Jesus gives a parable of a great banquet that all the guests make excuses about attending. They can go, but they choose not to.

Elsewhere in Luke, the same word is used to describe someone who is not able to do something, like in the story of Zecharia. He wanted to speak, but he could not. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that following him is something we could do but we do not, but maybe the door is also open for those times when we simply are not able to do what we believe we should. It is in these times that if we turn to God “our ‘I can’t’ opens the door for God’s ‘I can’.” [iii]

A few weeks ago Glance and Nici joined the church, and we were all reminded of the responsibilities of membership that binds us all in our response to Christ. Here are the responsibilities of membership from the Book of Order, along with some interpretation:
  • Proclaiming the good news: St. Francis once said, “Proclaim the good news everywhere, and if necessary use words.” Presbyterians like this idea, but if the words are never said, is the gospel proclaimed?
  • Praying, studying Scripture and the faith of the Christian Church: In all of the dozens of premarital discussions I have had with young couples that only ones that have said they pray together were seminary students. Prayer is deeply personal, but it can also be a way to experience God’s presence together. The best example of studying scripture I can remember is staying at my grandparents and waking up to see them reading the Bible together. Studying the Bible is more than going to church and Sunday School. It means immersing yourself in scripture as often as you can. The faith of the Christian Church is best described through our creeds. As we move forward, we will be exploring ways our confessions express what we believe.
  • Giving of your resources - money, time, and talents: Our congregation is financially solvent, and that’s a good thing. I have heard that we might be subject to the 80/20 rule. Do you know that rule? 20% of the people doing 80% of the work? It’s just something I’ve heard… Anyway, I can tell you that Robert took care of some weeds around the sanctuary. That’s a good thing, because he’s the Property chair. Of course, he’s also the chair of Outreach and Service. So, I imagine that he would be glad for anyone to come pull a weed or two anytime.
  • Participating in the governance of the church: This sounds like a big, cumbersome task. It’s as simple as considering what you are passionate about and contacting one of the elders to see how they can support you.
  • Demonstrating a new quality of life within and throughout the church: Everyday is new, the church is here but cannot demonstrate anything without each of us working together.
  • Serving others in response to God: This is the easiest, because it can be the simplest act of kindness. For it has been said that all the darkness of the universe cannot extinguish the light of one single candle.
  • Living responsibly in all relationships, and...
  • Working for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment: These last two are where the hate comes in, not to destroy, but to turn from those things that limit us and our relationships and others. Turn from those things that limit others in their opportunities to be whom God has created them to be.
This is not a laundry list to check off. It is a description of the cross that could be really uncomfortable if we picked it up and took it seriously. Kind of like the way it could have messed things up for Philemon to receive a run away slave as a brother. Where are the runaway slaves we need to accept? Do we see them in the mirror or on the street? And are we as ready as Paul to accept them before conversion, or do we want to be like Philemon and wait for someone else to do that? No matter where we are in relation to this challenge, one thing is true. Only by returning to God, again and again, can we take the form most needed to serve. Mike Foss comments about this sort of thing in his book, Power Surge. He has a shorter list that he calls the marks of Christian faith, but the content of our responsibilities is about the same. He says:
The marks of disciples have nothing to do with a legalistic, law-oriented approach to Christian faith. The purpose is not to create super Christians or any kind of spiritual elite. No one earns salvation or gains any special favor from God by practicing the marks. They are simply habits of the soul that open us to the wonder and mystery of God's active presence in our lives. They keep us focused; they fix our attention on the things of God.[iv]
The potter’s wheal is a good place to be, but our form might not always match the function God intends. Are we willing to be broken down and rebuilt again as a body. Are we willing to be the Body of Christ, broken for the world? I believe that we are, and I hope that is true. As we approach the table today, I want to leave you with a challenge that I found in an online commentary[v]:
If someone says, "I want to be a Christian," or "I want to follow Jesus" or "I want to be a member of your church," what should we tell them? What does this text say to them? These questions raise another issue, if no one is asking us those questions, why not?
We have some unfinished business to take care of at First Presbyterian. Thanks be to God that it is not our business alone, but God’s entirely. It started with Christ’s death and resurrection. It started for each of us at the font, and it continues as we join in this meal. The body of Christ has been broken for you. Will you, the church, be the body of Christ broken for the world? May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always, amen.

[i] http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost15.htm
[ii] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm
[iii] ibid
[iv] Foss, Michael W. Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church. Augsburg Fortress, 2000 (p.106). as quoted in http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm
[v] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm