Friday, October 29, 2010

Dance Teacher

For most of her life my daughter has claimed that she wants to be a dance teacher when she grows up because then I can build her a studio and she can teach me to dance. Well, today was "dress up like the profession you want" day at school. When deciding between the pink and black leotard she said, very thoughtfully, "A Ballet teacher wears black." Putting her hair in a bun was an adventure (Treva was at work, and I had not done this before.), but I think it worked. I asked her for a picture and she immediately got into 1st position with head turned to profile.

She had a great day and would not take off her dance clothes until bath time. During prayers she asked God to bless her litany of best friends that live all across the Eastern Seaboard, and one I did not know. Turns out it was a little girl she met at First Christian Church last night. We went over because they were hosting a few families through Family promise (formerly Interfaith Housing). We told the kids that the children they would play with did not have a home like we did, and we were going over to make them feel loved. We were not to talk about their situation but only talk about their likes and dislikes and play games. At one point Zoe taught her new friend an impromptu ballet lesson. It was only natural to remember her in prayer after being in character all day.

How many times do we tell people we will pray for them? How often do we? It was nice to be reminded how serious this commitment is. It was nice to be reminded that it wasn't about commitment at all for Zoe. It is simply her character to offer to God those things that are troubling and assume that God is involved. I sure am glad she is here to teach me how to dance.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Can’t Buy Me Love

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
October 24, 2010 – Ordinary 30 C
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65 2
Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

This week brought forth an abundance of stuff, the likes of which I have never seen, in the Abundance Fest Fundraiser for C.U.P.S. There were several things that I found encouraging and exciting about it. First was the Session’s willingness to support this event. It is a strong sign of leadership that our Session is able to encourage the ministry of other congregations and non-profit organizations, especially those whom we have helped to form and maintain. As we move forward, our hope is to revitalize old partnerships as well. For now, there is a strong resolve to maintain healthy relationships where we are able.

Another thing that encouraged me is the support and involvement of the membership of this congregation. Members helped on every level of this event, as did members of the community, and even clients who have benefited from C.U.P.S.’ ministry in the past. It was especially encouraging to open our doors to ecumenical partnerships. Of course, we do that every week through meals on wheels, but this was an “all available hands on deck” type of event that brings people together in a special way through shared experiences.

I think that is one of the greatest values of our relationship with C.U.P.S., and I believe that is what happens routinely with the baskets upstairs. Last Sunday, Zoe and I went up to help make baskets, and we had a blast! Sue, Jessica, Edna, Zoe, and I learned more about one another by making baskets for complete strangers than we could have in any other event or activity.

Another amazing thing about going through all of the donations for the Abundance Fest and the Christmas basket program is the opportunity of touching things that have memories to them. Some items told stories of love and life and the pursuit of happiness. Some were never important. Some just got old or fell out of use. The sheer volume of stuff that passes through our lives makes it difficult for any of it to have meaning sometimes.

The old Beatles tune says, “I don’t care too much for money, cause money can’t buy me love.” It comes from a social movement of change that suggested that meaning and value were not commodities, and there is a lot of truth in that. I’ve been thinking about this idea while considering this week’s texts, particularly this past Friday morning when I had some time with Sam. He was playing in the carport (some version of Busytown, the Magic School Bus and some other game that he and Zoe cooked up), so I started sweeping the carport.

I suddenly realized that the main reason I was sweeping was not because I wanted a clean carport, rather it was because there was a clear goal and end product in my work. I had to ask myself, “Are love and attention products? Are care, concern, and involvement products? What am I giving my son right now?” I kept sweeping because I wanted to finish, but he interrupted me and asked to go inside. He wanted me to play with him in his “fun room.” that what he calls his room, because that's where his toys are.

Now, I know that, by the standards I am suggesting, independence is a product and loving does not mean smothering. I know that involvement does not mean manipulation or “hovering” over my children’s every move. But it does mean presence. Involvement means that there is a relationship with an active party constantly available, always interested, and always willing to participate in the greater good for the other. I am blessed to say that my parents, grandparents, and in-laws have demonstrated such a presence in my life.

Throughout the Old Testament, the idea of God’s presence is expressed in connection with providence and blessing. Joel is particularly clear about it. Those who have shamed them will be put to shame. Those who have mocked their God as absent will be silenced. In this pre-scientific and tribal context, God is present when things are good for you and for those who worship as you do. We may look at this and call it superstition today, but it was only common sense then. In fact, there could be no other reason for their enslavement than God’s desire to demonstrate God’s presence, power, and providence to the world! Because God is all knowing and all powerful, it was God who brought the invading armies and the plagues of locust and it is God who will provide security and a bountiful harvest.

There is a base assumption here that we tend to gloss over. Did God want hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children to die from sword and famine? Did God’s presence actually leave them like some teenage parent abandoning her child in the street? No! Certainly not!

Reformed theology traditionally chalks this kind of thing up to the mystery of the divine will. Though I do not propose to know the mind of God, I say this is an irresponsible, head-in-the-sand response. As people of the resurrection we know that God is with us in all things. Even though some may disagree about how faithful we have been or whose fault it is that we are in the situation we are in as an aging church, we cannot deny that God is with us! If God can take a broken and abused Hebrew people and demonstrate grace and providence in a new way, then there is no doubt, no mystery, no chance that God will not do the same with us!

As I walk through this building and see relics from our past, the memories proclaim an experience of loving and being loved, the pains of separation, and the joy and peace of being God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. The story of this church is one of faithful people struggling to get it right, however imperfectly.

That’s what makes it hard to choose the character with whom to identify in this parable. For the Jewish audience of the day (Luke was written to a Jewish and Gentile audience) the Pharisee’s prayer was not out of line. He was simply stating the obvious and giving thanks for it. Pharisees were the ones who defined Jewish culture in the face of Roman occupation. They were the pillars of the community, and there might not be such a thing as Judaism without them. Tax Collectors were the opposite. They were the tools for extortion that financed the occupation of Rome.

What mattered to Jesus, and what the author of Luke wants us to know, is their awareness of God’s active presence. What need does a person who always follows the rules have for God, especially when he or she is the one making the rules? How much greater an experience of God can you have than acknowledging the disconnect between God’s active presence and your life? The tax collector gets it. God is God, and he is not. It seems so simple, but how often do we live this way?

The question that remains for me then is this: Are we the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in this parable? I imagine we are each a little of both, and Jesus tips us off to our place in the beginning of the story. He told it to some people who “trusted in themselves” and who “held others with contempt.”

We had a lot of people come through here yesterday. All were greeted with smiles and hospitality, but I’m not sure if any were invited to worship. I confess to you that I found myself torn between a desire to invite and a fear of rejection, but when I looked deeper into the looking glass I found that there were some people I was more excited about inviting than others. I realized that I had become as the Pharisee. I realized that I had become imprisoned by my own sense of who and what it means to be a Christian. I spoke with a CUPS volunteer about this, and she said, “Funny how we wouldn’t worry about the way someone would feel about inviting them to a party, but church?” Paul, himself once a Pharisee, reminds us from prison, “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”

There is little doubt that our strength and freedom come from God. There is little doubt that when we reject God’s providence we put ourselves at risk. There is little doubt that our strength and freedom are given to us to use for God’s glory and not our own. God is in our midst, and we are all given the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God so that we might be truth tellers (prophets) and visionaries (dreamers). And when we are not, the reality of our separation from God’s activity makes us do no less than beat our chests in anguish - not because we fear God’s wrath or absence, but because it is our character to live in God’s presence and to act toward others as we believe God has acted toward us.

Love is a product we cannot buy. We can receive it. We can give it, and the giving of love produces truth. Truth is a product of our love. We cannot make it up, but we can tell others about it. Telling others about truth inspires a vision of a new life. Vision is a product of truth telling. In the Kingdom of God, love, truth, and vision are tangible things that lift us up, sustain us for a life that is truly living, and move us into action in response to God’s grace. Here, in this place, we are experiencing God’s active presence.

I want to invite you into God’s presence now. I’m going to give you just a moment to consider what God may be saying to you today through the word read and proclaimed. In these few moments, I invite you to Practice the Presence of God. Consider in the silent chapel of your heart the word you have received today and the way you might respond with your life as we move forward together…..

May God continue to transform and reform our hearts and minds till our wills are so knit with God’s that there be no distinction. Amen.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Return To Sender

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
October 10, 2010 – Ordinary 28C
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 2
Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

I remember, as a child, going on trips to my grandparent’s cabin in North Carolina. There were barely three channels on the TV, but we did not care. God provided so much more entertainment than the human mind could fathom. The tin roof would serenade us when it rained, and we would pull out the old board games. On the inside of the lid to the scrabble box one can still find in my mother’s adolescent scrawl, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Return to Sender.” These were words written into the ether with the idea that they had intrinsic value for all eternity. And maybe they do.

“Return to Sender” was a song about rejection and ambiguity (Lyrics, Listen). Why would his love tell the postal service to return his letter? I mean, this is Elvis Presley we’re talking about here. No such person? No such zone? This ambiguity left Elvis with the resolve to deliver the letter himself. If it comes back, then fine, they’re done. This may seem entirely unrelated to the Gospel, but I submit to you that we all have times when we feel like we are unsure of God’s presence and activity. Sometimes we wonder if we are just supposed to do it ourselves.

Sometimes we may feel like James Stewart in the famous prayer scene in the film “Shenandoah.” His character is a Virginia farmer during the Civil War. He’s a recent widower trying to honor his wife’s request to raise children in the faith. At dinner he prays, “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel. But we thank you just the same for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”

One commentary suggests that we imagine offering the same type of prayer at a church potluck. It might go something like, “Lord, we cleared this land, we built this church, we gathered the money and the people, and we worshiped. It would not be here; we would not be worshiping you if we had not done it all ourselves. We are dog-tired and not nearly ready for another program year and stewardship campaign and outreach emphasis, but we thank you just the same, Lord, for this church and the food we are about to eat. Amen.”

It is hard not to become anxious about our faith when we have invested our very lives in it and the results do not match our expectations. That is why Paul begins his claim with, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead…” and continues with the claim that even though he may suffer, and we may suffer too, the love of God cannot be contained, restrained, or chained.

You know, I don’t remember who called me first, but Paul's words remind me of the time I spent with Allison and her family when her boyfriend, John Bruner, died at the age of 19 while running a road race that included his father and other family members. John was a premier athlete, a good student, a faithful catholic, an eagle scout, and a good son. He died of a pulmonary anomaly that occurs in 0.01 to 0.05 percent of the population. The response within the community was massive, and the mourning of loved ones resulted in an annual race that raises thousands every year. What is interesting is that the money does not go to cardiac research or care. It goes to scholarships for young athletes and college students. Their communal response to loss is not an attempt to stop the loss of someone else. It is simply to encourage others to be like John.

Perhaps that was part of God’s message in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Jews. God’s instructions were more than simply, “Bloom where you are planted.” God was literally telling them to look the source of death and destruction in the face and find ways to support and benefit their captors. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…pray on its behalf…in its welfare you will find yours.”

It makes me wonder, who are we in this scenario? Are we the ones left in the city longing for the return of the Diaspora, or are we, in some way, experiencing a sort of exile from the city we once lived in? Have we become aliens in a foreign culture, needing a rising tide to lift us with it? The beauty of a metaphor is that either can be used to illustrate our common need, but I imagine that we will go further if we have a shared sense of identity. So, let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that we choose to describe ourselves as exiles.

Let’s say that we have bound together as a band of misfits because this culture does not provide a place where we feel that we belong. Somewhere along the way we realize that there is a man who can offer healing and wholeness, and his name is Jesus. That was the experience of the lepers, living on the outskirts of society. They lived in between Galilee and Samaria. They lived in a place that people passed by, and today it was Jesus who came their way.

Now, it was customary in Levitical code that lepers announce themselves as “unclean”. This was to protect others, but it also served as an announcement of their need. Approaching a caravan and announcing themselves would be fairly normal, but this group was more concerned with announcing Jesus and crying out for mercy. “Master,” they cried, “have mercy on us.” Jesus was traveling with a group of pilgrims to Jerusalem. We have no idea how many or if he was in the middle or the front. Most likely, someone in the group of lepers had a family member who knew Jesus was coming that way.

It really doesn’t matter how, but they recognized him for who he was. What’s interesting here is that he didn’t even touch them. There is no way to know if they even expected to be healed when they left to show themselves to the priests. Perhaps they all realized it at the same time. I like to think of them exploding with joy, skipping and jumping to go see the priests, doing whatever version of hi five’s existed in that time… all but one.

Now, we mustn’t look on the nine too harshly. They were doing what they were told. The priest was the key to rejoining society, and he had to declare them clean before they really were clean. But the Samaritan… well, he lived under a similar code. The rules of society for the Samaritan were much the same. He just did not have the same reverence for Jerusalem. But something else stopped him. Something else turned him and compelled him to look upon the one who had healed him.

Karl Barth is sometimes quoted as saying that the most basic human response to God is not fear and trembling, but rather it is gratitude, “What else can we say to what God gives us but to stammer praise?” Yet something in the religious tradition and ritual of the other nine kept them from seeing the source of their blessing. Maybe they had suffered for so long that they had become self-righteous and only thought, “Finally! It’s about time.”

Maybe they felt trapped by the rules and were simply trying to do the right thing. Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. Was that not the right thing to do? Was he trying to trick them? No…no... Obviously the right thing to do was to praise and glorify the source of blessing. But instead they chose to glorify the rituals that acknowledge blessing. Jesus was not trying to trick them, but he was giving them the opportunity to respond to grace.

Landon Whitsitt, the Vice Moderator for the 218th General Assembly, told a story at our Presbytery meeting the other day about an elder who said he finally understood the meaning of grace. This elder said, “I finally get the meaning of grace. It is God’s action on my behalf, acting toward me in ways I do not deserve.” Landon affirmed him and the elder continued. “I finally get it and I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it because it’s messing up my life.” Landon responded, “How’s that?” The elder continued, “It’s messing up my life because now I’m responsible. Now I have to care about someone else.” God is funny like that, you know? God will mess up your life.

This same idea came through over and again in Presbytery, as we reflected on the last five years since the storms. Again and again stories rang out to affirm that healing and wholeness are made complete when gratitude is put into action and one person coming from a place of need meets another in his or hers.

So here we are, having weathered the storms. Here we are, waiting for the return of those that culture, or the wars of life, have taken away from us. Here we are in exile, struggling to maintain our integrity as a people of God. Here we are, suffering in our own way for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here we are, calling out, “Master, come and heal us!” But even more importantly, here we are, facing the opportunity of running to the priest or turning to Jesus.

I do not know exactly what it will mean for us to be healed, except for the ways in which I see healing happening through our care for one another. I do not know exactly how we will be able to seek the welfare of the city around us, except for the ways in which we are already doing it through Family Promise, C.U.P.S., Meals on Wheels, and the UCO. What I do know that our future will not look like our past. What I do know is that we must seek God’s will together, earnestly and faithfully, for it to be revealed.

We have this letter in our hand from Paul that reminds us of the reality of the covenant God made with us in our baptism:
11The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
We have this letter in our hand from Jeremiah reminding us that our calling is not inside these walls but outside in the city “for in its welfare we will find our welfare.”

We have this letter from Luke, offering healing for our souls if we can just remember to turn to God again and again as the source of blessing to which we must respond.

Given the history of this congregation, I do not believe it is in our character to deny and return these hand delivered letters. It is instead our greatest joy to return to the one who has sent them and offer our thanks and praise while we look for new opportunities to respond to God’s grace. Today I want to invite you to join in a practice offered after the sermon at the Presbytery meeting. Landon calls it "Practicing the Presence of God." Join me in a few minutes of silence to consider how you intend to respond to what you’ve heard today (2min)…..Amen.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

It's what we do...

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26
Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Today’s scripture readings seem anything but comforting. We move from Lament over the loss of family, nation, and land into an intimate conversation between colleagues in ministry who suffer together the burden of faith in a time of persecution. Then, when we approach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Holy comforter, the Prince of Peace, we are called worthless slaves. There is yet hope in the midst of the messiness and misery of this proclamation, and it is found in the context. It is found in the corporate nature of our calling to bear burdens together and become blessed by God’s activity in our midst. Together we can see that we are not alone, and that has some value in and of itself. Together we can proclaim like the writer of Lamentations, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.”

There’s a song by Amy Grant that has been out for a few months now called “Better than a Halleluiah” that reminds me of the idea of hope in the midst of suffering. She sings:
God loves a lullaby In a mother’s tears
in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.
God loves a drunkard’s cry,
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

Mrs. Grant is not suggesting that God is some sadistic entity reveling in the schadenfreude of human suffering. She is reminding us that this is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the God who made us and loves us enough to allow us to become a beautiful mess. This is the God who suffers with us through our relationships with one another. Like Timothy and Paul, we find encouragement when we go to visit one another in the hospital, pray for one another on Wednesday afternoons, deliver meals on wheels, and take the time to call one another just to check in. We find wholeness and peace when we wrestle with each other over issues we do not agree upon. We find comfort in the knowledge that love is not diminished by conflict, but actually made stronger!

Today is a day set aside to celebrate the common unity that we have in the Christian faith. Today we will celebrate communion with Christians all over the world. Although this tradition started in the Presbyterian Church in 1936, it was adopted by the Department of Evangelism of the Federal Council of Churches (a predecessor body of the National Council of Churches) as World Wide Communion Sunday in 1940. World Communion Sunday is significant in that we affirm and celebrate the diversity of the church. For all of our divisions and differences, there is but one claim, and that is that Jesus Christ is Lord!

I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. What does it mean to us who live in a largely democratic, fundamentally market driven global economy to say that Jesus Christ is Lord? We have no more concept for Lordship than we do slavery. Not that oppression and slavery no longer exist. We are just so far removed from it in our daily lives that we do not have an experience to interpret these concepts with, or so we think.

Enter today’s gospel message into this, and we find a passage that John that Shelby Spong, whose book we are studying on Wednesday nights, would call a text of terror: a Bible passage that supports and affirms the unhealthy traditions of society that the church continues to bless and promote. The parable of the unworthy slaves begins with the disciples begging for more faith, more ability to respond to grace, more of God’s providence, for they have just been given an impossible task. They have been told to forgive, not just once but 70 times 7 (basically without limit). Jesus at first seems dismissive, and then gets downright mean. “Why do you expect a thank you for doing what you are supposed to do? You are a worthless slave.”

The word worthless is the most problematic and hurtful. Some of the original Greek manuscripts do not include it, and some other translations have chosen to soften it by saying, “unworthy”. But the older manuscripts have it, and so does the NRSV. The obvious problem is that it disturbs our sense of being created with any goodness or value at all. Bishop Desmond Tutu, in his book “Made for Goodness”, suggests some reasons why this abiding lack of self worth is so damaging. He writes, “What difference does goodness make? Goodness changes everything. If we are at core selfish, cruel, heartless creatures, we need to fight these inclinations at every turn and often need strong systems of control to prevent us from revealing our true selves. But if we are fundamentally good, we simply need to rediscover this true nature and act accordingly.”

I realize that the staunch Calvinists here are shaking their heads, but I submit to you that even Calvin would agree that through Christ we are being perfected and returned to our true nature as created in the image of God and therefore very good, indeed. The truth is that God’s grace is not about our goodness, but about Christ’s willingness to submit to the will of God. In some ways, that becomes a paradox, since Jesus was very God and very man at the same time. The best I can say to make sense of that is that Jesus, the man, was the embodiment of God’s will. So, doing God’s will was not a special thing. It is who he was. It is what he did. And in the doing of God's will he reminds us that we do not need more faith. We just need to respond with what we have. Jesus, the one who came not to be served but to serve, addresses the disciples as masters. “Which one of you expects your slave to eat with you?” Then he twists it on them in the end, because their response to grace, their faithfulness (which they begged for more of even though they did not need it) is not something of value but rather an appropriate response. It is interesting to me though, that the one who tells us not to expect to be called to the banquet is the very one who invites us to this table.

The movie Places in the Heart is set in the Dust Bowl of America during the Great Depression. Edna, played by Sally Field, is facing a harsh reality. After her husband dies in an accidental shooting, she must find a way to provide for her family and keep up the mortgage payments on the family farm. Salvation comes with the arrival of an itinerant black man and a blind white man who add their support to her efforts to bring in a cotton crop. The closing scene, set in a church, has the characters that we met during the course of the film including Edna’s husband and the man who killed him as well as others who are both living and dead, enemies and friends. All are sitting together in worship, sharing communion.

The message is clear. It is through our common union in Jesus Christ that we are gathered and given purpose and meaning. Our purpose is to proclaim the forgiveness and peace that is made available to us through Jesus Christ. That is what the Peacemaking Offering is about this Sunday. That is why we collect Peanut Butter on Communion Sundays for the United Christian Outreach. That is why we have helped to form and sustain the ministry of C.U.P.S. That is why we have the ability to say that we helped form Grace and Trinity as daughter congregations. Proclaiming peace and reframing the world we live in through forgiveness is why we are here. It is what we do.

We do not come to be comforted and coddled. We come here to be sanctified, encouraged, redeemed, and sustained for lives of faithful service. We come here to be reminded again and again that we have the ability to be makers of peace in this world! Each of us has a far greater reach of influence than we imagine. Not because of our worthiness (or lack thereof), but only because of Christ’s willingness to put death to death!

We are all connected to something much bigger than our own interests, our own needs, hopes, and fears. Through God’s will and by God’s grace all things do work toward God’s good intention for humanity. Though we can envision a scene where friends and enemies have come together, it will never happen unless we look past our own limitations and become as Christ to one another. We have to do this as individuals, as a church, and in our relationship as a body with the community that surrounds us. If we can embrace our commonality in all aspects of our lives, we can live as citizens of God’s Kingdom here and now.

As we take the bread and the cup, let us be mindful not only of the part it plays in reminding and confirming our own salvation, but also the part we play in one another’s salvation and in the coming of God’s kingdom. Until God’s promised rule comes in completeness, offering forgiveness and working to make the world a place where we all get a glimpse of the kingdom is what we do. It is who we are. And to God be the glory. Amen.