Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent Conspiracy Report: Worship Fully

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
November 24, 2010 – Advent 1
Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Today is the beginning of something new, or at least it could be.  Today is the beginning of Advent, the Season of preparation leading up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Christ.  Of course the average person on the street or even in the pews of most congregations does not usually think about or talk about Advent except for when we light the candles on the wreath.  Think about it.  When was the last time you said, “Happy Advent!”

Then again, is that even appropriate?  Advent is a time of getting ready, anticipation, and stress.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Stress can be a good thing.  It indicates how important an activity is to you.  It reminds you what you care about.  Maybe we should say, “Anxious Advent!” just to see who is paying attention.

I can recall those days of retail, working in the Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant in the mall.  I used to wear a Santa’s hat to let people know where I stood on the, “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” issue.  Still, I tried to be respectful of others.  Apparently the folks at American Family Radio feel that they have had some impact on national marketing campaigns, stating that during the past few years of their protest the market share of nationally advertised companies that use the word “Christmas” in their marketing has risen from around 30% to about 80%.

That is nice, but somehow I do not think that marketing is the answer.  I don’t think that increased production and sales of mass produced and outsourced goods does much to proclaim the kingdom that Jesus came to announce.  I think we need something much more subversive, something that wakes us up and reminds us what we are preparing for and moving toward.  I think we need something that is more of a conspiracy. 

Now, in legal terms, a conspiracy means that two or more people agree to commit unlawful acts with at least one combined effort to further a particular agenda.  Although I am not advocating anyone to break the law, I am asking you to break with tradition, commit acts that might make others uncomfortable, and to blatantly disregard the culture of consumerism in favor of the economy of the Kingdom of God.

That’s what this Advent Conspiracy thing is about.  It started in 2006 with five pastors who decided to make Christmas a revolutionary event by encouraging their faith communities to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.  That’s all there is to it.  They founded a non-profit group to provide a website and share resources.  They took on a project to provide clean well water for developing nations, and they left it open for the Holy Spirit of God to move in and through the Body of Christ, which is the church!

You will be seeing suggestions for how to respond to this invitation through the bulletin and newsletter, and if you really want to see how far the rabbit hole goes we will have a meeting for conspirators to share and collaborate on Sundays at 9:30a.m. 

The jumping off point is “Worship Fully,” and I think it connects with the anxiety of Advent and the strangely unfulfilled hope that we celebrate and proclaim.  Isaiah reminds us that God alone is the source of salvation.  Paul reminds us to be governed by agape, not will-you-be-my-valentine, mushy, comfortable love, but tough love.  Love that is its own reward.  Love that demands and commands our attention.  He tells us to wake up and smell the Advent candles because something is burning!

Jesus tells us to stay awake.  Jesus reminds us that he will be coming back, and his return will be a complete interruption.  One is standing in the field and the other is simply not there anymore. Now, I want to step back here and acknowledge the discomfort of this passage.  For the first 1700 years of Christianity, the idea of a moment in time when Jesus came to take the good guys home was not a matter of doctrine.  Maybe it was just assumed.  We don’t know.  It did not become an issue until the time of the enlightenment and the development of critical methods of thinking.  The official stance of the PC(USA) on this idea is that Christ will return at a time we have no way of knowing.  We assume this will be the end of time, and that God will judge, redeem, and restore whom God wills to.  We do not believe in a time of tribulation or other tests and trials beyond the ones we face every day.  We believe that Christ is coming to make all things new, once and for all.

We also believe that we live in the mean time – the time in between.  We believe that God has not left us alone, and that through Jesus we may come to know and live in God’s presence here and now.  That reminds me of one of the videos on the Advent Conspiracy website.  A man from Liberia was talking about the gift of fresh water to his village.  He said very clearly, “You have brought heaven to earth, here and now.”

I imagine that is what you will see if you come to help hand out Christmas baskets for needy families with C.U.P.S. in the next few weeks.  Did you know that we have produced around 400 baskets for men, women, boys, and girls who would not have a Christmas present if it were not for you?  Over the past three months, the upper room in our Education Building has become a vital center of collaboration and conspiracy.  While others have eaten, worked in fields, and slept, elves from across denominations have put in over 60 hours of labor a week. 

I think that is what the Advent Conspiracy folks are talking about when they advocate “Worshiping Fully.”  They are not concerned with showing up at a particular time and place to perform a particular set of actions that someone else is telling you to do by way of a bulletin.  They are reminding us to do as Paul has said and “put on Christ” in a way that is demonstrative and obvious. 

I think that still leaves some ambiguity about how to worship fully, and I don’t think the question of how to worship fully can be answered in here.  It can only be answered out there.  It can only be answered by asking the question, “Does this glorify God?”  Without asking that question regularly, we become like a character in a film who is trapped in a dream, and the only way out is to love as we have been loved.  We have to wake up.  We have to become more than who we are by living the law of love, and sometimes that means breaking the laws of tradition.  For we may not know what hour Jesus is coming, but we know what time it is.  We know that we have something to look forward to and to hope for, and we know that we have something to live for today as well.

The Kingdom of God has come and is yet to be.  We live in it when we embrace the ambiguity of waiting, expecting, hoping, and working toward the goal of a better world.  The church is the unique witness of God’s presence to the world, but if we do not demonstrate it, we may never see it.  May God be praised with our voices, our thoughts, and the actions of our days.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jesus for President

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisianna
November 14, 2010: Christ the King, Year C
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday! I have to admit that I’m not sure what to do with that. Maybe there are some obvious things. We call Jesus Lord all the time, but I have been wondering about that lately. I’ve been wondering how we, the products of the most amazing social experiment in human history, can truly call Jesus – or anyone for that matter – King.

I was talking to a member of the PJC of the Synod of the Sun about governance this weekend during a Presbytery Council retreat. He mentioned being in Belgium during one of the elections and being startled by the way they were speculating about how much longer it would be before the Joint Chiefs enacted a coup or the Speaker of the House would rise up against the President. They couldn’t figure out how and why the checks and balances really worked.

But here we are, 200 years into this thing called a democratic republic. Incidentally it was the Presbyterians that had the greatest influence in forming our system of government. The only ordained clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian. The British even referred to the American Revolution as “that Presbyterian rebellion.”

Whatever concept we do have of Kings and Lords is derived from a European system of Lords, Vassals, and Serfs. In Jesus’ day the Jews were occupied by a foreign power – a foreign power that claimed divinity and had absolute power over their lives. Going further back we find that the temple itself is actually an attempt to pacify the Jews. The temple was rebuilt by the Assyrians to capture the God who says, “I am who I am - I shall be who I shall be.”

The Jews had some pretty high anxiety levels over all of this and they were looking to God, expecting the promised Savior. All of this leads me to wonder, what kind of Jesus are we hoping for? We live in a time where an unpopular President was followed by the election of a populist President. Even though the majority believes in our representative system of government there are those who dissent.

We have record levels of unemployment and though we complain about the economy, our nation has come through worse times than these. Our congregation was without Pastoral leadership for a long time; however its decline began long before that. In the Presbytery Council retreat, one of the things we talked about was the character of relationships within and between congregations. Sadly it is not only the storms that have battered us, but we have battered one another.

What kind of Jesus are we hoping for? What will his coronation be like? I’ve asked a few friends to help me with illustrate this point today. For a moment I want you to pretend we are in a fast food restaurant. We’ll call it “McJesus."  Leigh will be the cashier, standing behind the communion table.  The customers will be lining up on the lectern side and will come through one at a time.

Cashier: Cha-Ching.... Welcolme to McJesus. May I take your order please?
Warm-fuzzy: Yeah, I'm not sure what you call it but I want the Jesus that gives me everything I ask for. You know, answers all my prayers immediately. And I've got a pretty long request list so you better make it with the works.
Cashier: I'm sorry, we're all out of the Sugar Daddy Jesus today.
Warm-fuzzy: Oh. Well, I guess I'd settle for a Jesus that won't ever let anything really bad happen to me. You see I don't like pain. Pain hurts me.  
Cashier: Oh! You want the Warm Fuzzy Jesus
Warm-fuzzy: Yeah, with extra gushy, mushy love.
Cashier: Give me a Warm Fuzzy - extra sweet! Cha-Ching.... Welcome to McJesus. May I take your order please?
Judge: I'd like the condemning Jesus #5.
Cashier: Will that be with or without mercy?
Judge: Hold the mercy.
Cashier: Will you have any lightning bolts with that?
Judge: Yeah extra lightning bolts.
Cashier: Wow, you must have a lot of enemies.
Judge: Well, I'd like to think that I'm just trying to clean up the world a little bit. You know, get rid of the liars, cheaters, prostitutes, drug addicts,
Cashier: Oh I see, kind of a selective early judgement day.
Judge: Yeah, and someone who'll let me hate these people without feeling guilty.
Cashier: You're in luck! We're running a special today on the Terminator Jesus
Judge: Righteous.
Cashier: Is there anything else?
Judge: I'll be back.
Cashier: Ba Bing. Next!
Sunday: I would like to buy three dollars worth of Jesus please. Not enough to make me a fanatic or drastically alter my lifestyle but just enough to make me feel comfortable. I don't want enough of him to make me love someone with AIDS or become a missionary or anything. Just give me a pound of the supernatural in a paper sack.
Cashier: Anything else?
Sunday: That's all.
Cashier: Give me a number 7. Cha-Ching ... Welcome to McJesus may I take your order please?
Jesus Follower: Yes, I'd like the real Jesus please.
Cashier: Will that be the real Jesus number 1, 2 or 3?
Jesus Follower: How can there be more than one real Jesus?
Cashier: This is McJesus, where you can have any kind of Jesus you want! C'mon have it your way.
Jesus Follower: I don't want him in my way. ... Maybe I'm in the wrong place. I want the one true Jesus. The one in the Bible.
Cashier: Oh the bible. Why didn't you say that before? You need to go to our McBible location on Southside
Jesus Follower: McBible?
Cashier: Yeah McBible. They have 33 different varieties of the good book to choose from. With or without miracles. No prophecy, extra prophecy. Cut and paste versions. You name it!
Jesus Follower: No thanks. I'll stick with the bible I've got.
Cashier: Suit yourself. NEXT!

It is hard to separate our wants from our actions, even as we follow Jesus. The Jews wanted a radical military leader and they got a baby born into exile and genocide. In the end, he was crucified on a trash dump outside the city. Yet his kingdom is without end. Why?

Well, before you jump to the resurrection I want to suggest that the story we have today is his coronation. In the book “Jesus for President,” Shane Claiborne offers a comparison between the coronation of Jesus and Caesar.

1.  Caesar is surrounded by the Praetorian Guard to be honored.
1.  Jesus is surrounded by the Palace Guard to be mocked

2.  Caesar is given a crown of golden olive leaves, a purple robe, and a scepter.
2.  Jesus is given a crown of thorns, a purple cloth, and a stick.

3.  Caesar walks to the Capitolean Hill, surrounded by soldiers and followed by a servant with a sacrificial bull.
3.  Jesus is surrounded by a crowd, carrying his cross, and becoming a sacrifice.

4.  There is slaughter, libation, and the claiming of divinity for Caesar.
4.  Jesus makes a final act of forgiveness and then becomes claimed, perhaps even consumed, by his own divinity.

Jesus becomes King because he demonstrates the weakness of human power even as he is dying on the cross. Jesus becomes King because he was already the Lord of Hosts, but he chose to show up in a dirty, nasty barn. He chose to show up on a cross outside the city, and he chooses to show up in places we do not expect nor want him to be.

Proclaiming Christ as King is not just a title. Proclaiming Christ as King is an acknowledging the fact that God is present in all things, even at the Presbytery Counsel retreat where we worked on a new vision statement. It is far from finished and will probably be revised, but there was something interesting that came out of that discussion that I just have to share with you. It is the phrase, “Joining Christ in the world…”

That is something new. It is a new thing to think about the world as the place to encounter Christ and the church building as the place where we celebrate those encounters and prepare for more. With Christ as our King we do not need to worry about how we can matter to others so that they might come in. Instead we become concerned about how they matter to us and how can we join them to offer and receive forgiveness, to demonstrate God’s amazing love, and to live as members of a kingdom that has no end!

Now, that’s something I want to be a part of. I hope you do to, and I pray that God will be glorified by all that we do. For here we are 2,000 years into this thing called Christianity… this thing called discipleship… this thing called following Jesus… and the simple proclamation of forgiveness still rings louder and echoes more deeply into the depths of our souls than the shouts of thousands of Roman soldiers pretending that a man could be a god.

Yet Jesus Christ is Lord. I’m not talking about the man. I am talking about the reality of God’s presence that has been revealed to us through him. His kingdom is without end, and he is waiting for you and me to join him in the world he has created and is creating. Halleluiah! And Amen.

Membership Has Its Privileges

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
November 14, 2010 – Commitment Sunday – Ordinary 33 C
Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Well, it’s that time of year. All the shops are putting up their Christmas decorations, asking for the pledge of your commitment for their goods and services. Some have been asking since before Halloween. Advertisers are hitting us from every angle they can, and the church seems every bit as hungry for the almighty dollar.

On this Sunday, as we make our commitment to the church, we have to ask ourselves, “Why is our commitment to the church any different than our participation in the economy of this nation?” Maybe that seems like an odd comparison to you, but a lot of people (from inside and out) treat the church as a purveyor of goods and services. We all have assumptions about the church, whether we admit it or not. We have feelings connected to the bricks and mortar. We have expectations and hopes for the results of our investment.

That is not a bad thing. It is natural for us to make emotional connections with the people and places where we have shared experiences, especially those experiences that are meaningful to us. But I am afraid that is not the purpose of the church, and that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is not the privilege we are given through our affiliation with the church. It is instead what they call lagniappe. It’s gravy. It’s extra. It’s not the real prize.

Do you remember that old American Express tagline, “Membership has its privileges”? They wanted you to believe that if you used their card you would have something others do not have. If you used their card you could get things that others could not get, gain access to places others could not go, and experience peace of mind others did not have. Some churches treat faith that same way, but I do not believe that is the gospel of Jesus Christ either. Nothing we buy into, pledge to, or commit to can offer salvation, not even the church.

If you don’t believe me, ask the good people from Jennings. This week the Presbytery met in this very sanctuary to elect an administrative commission to dissolve the Jennings church, if that is their will. It was a tender, honest, and prayerful conversation. There were those that spoke for and against it, but what was clear was that some form of death must occur before resurrection is possible.

When asked how they got to be where they are, the Jennings representatives said, “Our parents, the greatest generation, did a phenomenal job building this church and educating their children. The majority of the children are gone now, and somehow we neglected the opportunity to fill in those ranks. We have been in denial for a long time, and now we are out of time.”

More conversation revealed that although they were out of time as the Jennings church, they are more concerned with the opportunity to move forward in a way that proclaims Jesus as Lord. Holding on to their old ways and their beautiful, old building was simply getting in the way of that. The building is probably the greatest place of regret, because it is a symbol of what once was rather than that which is to come.

Take that temple and add homes, businesses, and communities to that and we can approach the situation that Isaiah is responding to. Isaiah’s words of hope had to sound like pie in the sky. Do you know where that phrase comes from, “Pie in the sky”? It comes from the labor movement of the early 1900’s. Joe Hill wrote a parody of the spiritual In the Sweet Bye and Bye as a challenge to the idea that salvation was not connected to suffering.

I believe that suffering is so significant that it opens us up to experience God’s presence in a way that nothing else can. Suffering is not something any of us want, and we resist it when it comes our way. When we do experience it, we want it to mean something. We want to justify it and make sense of it. That’s the way they reacted to Jesus telling them that the temple will be destroyed.

“What?” they said. “This marvelous place will be destroyed? Prove it. Tell us what to watch for. Give us a sign.” Then Jesus talks about wars and natural disasters and the fact that none of this will help you to know anything beyond the fact that you are in the midst of suffering. The events of the world are the events of the world. They are not signs, and they have no meaning. Except for this… the difficult times offer you a greater opportunity to proclaim the goodness of God!

That is our privilege and our greatest joy. That is the work that Paul’s disciples are so concerned about in Thessalonica. Salvation through Christ is not a “get out of Hell free” card. It is an invitation to a life filled with conflict and suffering that still has meaning and purpose beyond surviving. Christianity is not about surviving. It is about dying and rising over and over until we see God face to face.

Following Jesus is not simply a religion, as we often treat it. It is a way to continue becoming what you were always meant to be. Like Clem told me a few months ago, he’s always getting better. Through Jesus Christ, we are called into lives of service to one another. In the past I have suggested that this lifestyle of mutual servant hood offers healing for our lives. I still believe that is true, but I have come to see that, too, as lagniappe.

There are some wounds that do not heal. There are some things in life that are beyond our control. That is actually a good thing. It is hard to imagine the destruction of the Temple, or the Jennings church, or even First Presbyterian of Lafayette as a good thing, yet it calls to question our ultimate system of value. It calls into question our center of worship and the actions that follow. Do we worship God, or a building, or a generation, or even our traditions?

In the letter to the Thessalonians we get a stark reminder of the importance of tradition, but the interesting thing is that these traditions are by no means an expectation to do the same thing in the same way. These traditions are about work. I think that one of the reasons the church is in decline today is because we use our traditions to take the work out of faith. No sense re-inventing the wheel, right?

Maybe not, but the reality is that not all wheels are created equal. As we move forward into this new year, we will have to decide what matters to us. We will have to decide what we value again and again. We will have to do some things that we have always done, and we will have to do some things we have never done before. We will have to look for opportunities to die and rise again. We will have to look toward a future that is so subversive to our present that we forget the events of our past, because that, friends, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is this: through attending to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we may experience God’s presence in suffering and in joy. We will be pushed into lives of servant hood. We will find hope and meaning through God’s presence with us, and we will find even more opportunity to express and experience God with us in our difficulties. In the light of this truth we have hope. In the light of this truth we make our stand. In the light of this truth we see and live in a kingdom without end, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Saints and Aints

Saints and Ain’ts
First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Loisiana
November 7, 2010 – All Saints Day (Year C)

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

I believe God’s word is contextual. It comes from a particular time and place, and we receive it in a particular time and place. The past few weeks I have taken advantage of the free internet and ambiance of C.C.’s Coffee Shop to receive and consider God’s word. Daniel Hixon, the Campus Minister we support at U.L., joined me for a portion of my study time, and then met with a college student who did not believe in God.

I’m not saying I was eavesdropping, but I can tell you that our support of Daniel is well placed. He was curious without demanding, assuring without condemning, and inviting without expecting. Daniel was a model for what I believe the scriptures call saints and a testimony to the faith handed down through others. This faith, as we have received it, surrounds us and comforts us like a warm blanket on a cold night, and Daniel was weaving threads in the hope that they might offer comfort in a dark and lonely world.

Today we remember and celebrate those whose quilts we wrap around ourselves, those saints of the Christian faith who have gone on before us. Now, I realize that you have to be careful about that in these parts. On the one hand there is a tremendous Roman Catholic influence on the region, and for another there is an even more zealous and evangelistic passion to support the New Orleans Saints. Each of them may offer something significant and unifying, but I do not think the interpretation of “Saints” offered by either meets with what we have come to celebrate today.

Interestingly enough, we have had this conversation more than once in our Adult Sunday School class. For the sake of clarity, let us turn to the scriptures. In Daniel we are given the promise by the attendants of God that God will give dominion of this world over to “the son of man” and through him to “the holy ones.” In Ephesians, Paul speaks of us as these holy ones. Those who follow the way of Jesus have inherited the kingdom because we have become the body of Christ in the world. Those he calls Saints are the ones we call Christians. These are not dead people.

Even so, we usually use the term saints to refer to people who were especially good when they were alive and who surely must be in heaven now. But we do them a disservice by doing that. They become the moral compass, the traffic light, the excuse for not measuring up, and the ideal that they never really were when they were alive. And we, well, since we could never live up to them, we can just shake our heads and say, “Isn’t it too bad that they are gone. If they were here things would be different.”

There is truth in that. Like a warm blanket on a cold night our memories can hold us tight and make us feel safe. If they were here, things would certainly be different. We cannot change that fact. But we can honor their memory. We can respond to loss with courage and see the comfort of memory as a challenge. This is about the point where Jesus comes in and yanks the blanket off of us, reminding us that there is more to life than loss and gain. There is more to truth than being right.

Daniel reminded me of this in the coffee shop when he acknowledged the context of the sermon on the plain. He said that Jesus was most likely responding to the culture clash between the oppressed Zealots who were planning a revolution and the Sadducees who were cozying up to the Romans. So in his blessings he was reminding them that the reward would come in heaven, and for the woes he was reminding them that trusting in worldly powers can only end in failure.

That leaves me to wonder, who are we – Zealots or Sadducees? Are we so fed up with the world that we are ready to take matters into our own hands, or are we playing the odds to see how we can make things work for us? I imagine, if we are truly honest, we’ll find that we are a little of both. Jesus leaves us to wrestle with this question, but he gives back the blanket at the end.

Last week, in the Lectionary Discussion Group that met in my office, there were two verses that stuck with people the most. The first is the command to love our enemies, and the second is the Golden Rule. The first is the pinnacle of discomfort, and the second is the most common thread of social morality you could probably find. Yet here they are, intentionally woven together.

A few years ago I was listening to a recording of an interview with a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed the atrocities of Apartheid in South Africa, one of the greatest social gambles of the last century. There is still debate about the effect of this commission, which offered amnesty and forgiveness to those who publicly confessed hate crimes. A woman told the story through tears of another woman whose husband and sons were taken in the middle of the night and killed without mercy and with great cruelty. When the men confessed to the crime she stood and said, “You have taken my husband and my sons away. You will now be my sons. I claim you as my own.”

Friends, that is what we have today through Jesus Christ. God says to us, “YOU. You are my son. You are my daughter. I claim you as my own.” Through our common union with all the saints, living and dead, we are so joined that we have the opportunity to look even those who hate us in the eye and to be moved by the compassion of God to see the humanity in each soul. Or maybe even better, we have the chance to become fully human by responding to the need of each soul to be recognized as unique, worthy of relationships, and offering us the presence of God.

That sounds real pretty (or at least I hope it does), but it is awfully hard to do when you have been hurt. It is awfully hard to do when you have been taken advantage of, or when you are expecting to be because it has happened before. To that I can say only this, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

We are the body of Christ, which is the church. We do need to pledge and give our resources to provide for the building and to maintain the heritage of our Fathers and Mothers. We need to pledge and give of our resources to maintain a budget to operate and function as an entity and an organization. But we need to be more than a group of people who come to a specific place to do a few specific things. When Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he wrote to a group of people who were not concerned about institutional correctness or even continuation.

He wrote to a group of people who had a particular experience of God’s active presence who wanted to live it out, share it, and be a part of something that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Is that us? Are we the church of Jesus Christ? I hope so.

I often hear how we have so many members who just cannot do what they used to. Unfortunately, there is truth in that too. All the same, there’s not of one of us that can’t pray. There is not a one of us who cannot express care for someone else in some way. In fact, there are several saints who do this kind of thing all the time. Come to think of it, there is a whole mess of hand knitted scarves upstairs to go in our Christmas baskets. Come to think of it, I saw about 50 college students with full bellies and thankful hearts last Monday. I’ve seen happy children who have a new Sunday School room, and I can’t tell you how many jars of peanut butter come and go through this place for the UCO!

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I like thinking of all these things as threads in a blanket or patches in a quilt that tells our story, but I wonder if a cloak would be a better image. I know, cloaks aren’t really in fashion these days, but I think we are called to something more than sitting under a blanket. We are called to be the Body of Christ, broken for the world…not sitting in hear, but acting out there as the saints of God!

Stanley Hauerwas has been quoted as saying that we cannot become saints by our own actions. Saints are not heroes or heroines. They are people like you and me who have become more than they are by being engrafted into the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which is ruled by forgiveness and love. May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Why Do We Pledge?

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
October 31, 2010 – Stewardship Sunday; OC 31
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:131-133; 140-144 (with Cantor)
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Today is the day of the ubiquitous and unavoidable stewardship sermon. That means that there are certain things you probably expect me to say, and usually there is a joke to make us all feel better about it. So, does anyone know why church membership is more like bacon than eggs? Well, the chicken is involved in the process of providing breakfast but the pig is committed to it.

Now, I do not mean to make light of the stewardship campaign or the reality of God’s calling to redistribute our wealth. In fact, this being my first official stewardship sermon in 10 years of ministry, it’s a pretty big deal to me. My hope is to offer something you do not expect to hear and to find a way to affirm the calling we share as stewards of God’s good creation.

Typically we entertain ideas about being created and given dominion over the earth. Dominion is further defined through the quality of our relationship with the earth and with its resources. That leads us to the way in which we share and distribute those resources, and ultimately to the way we are in relationship with one another as God’s representatives in the world. Pretty standard stuff so far, right?

About now is when we bring up the idea of tithing as a responsibility and an expectation, and that is right about where some people tune out. Tithing is a standard set throughout the church, but we live in a time that resists standards as strongly as it resists change. Some of us live on fixed incomes. Some of us have made commitments that have gotten out of control. Some people think of charity as charity and see the church as one of many. I would suggest that the church is unique, and that a person’s generosity should start there.

These are all very practical considerations, but I don’t think they get at the heart of the matter. The texts we have today offer us something to consider about the choice before the choice. Before the actual gift is the decision to give, and the culmination of that decision is the pledge.

There are those who simply do not believe in pledging, and nothing I say can or do will change that. I respect that. I am not about to tell you that if you don’t pledge you are not acting in accordance with God’s will. I will say that in light of our heritage and the practice of being the Body of Christ, which is the church, I believe the scriptures we have received today offer us an opportunity to experience God’s faithfulness and to express our appreciation for God’s decision to love us unconditionally.

That’s a little different than you may have heard from the chain emails that threaten disaster if you break them and promise blessing within ten days if you forward it to ten friends. God’s faithfulness is not magic. It does not protect us from hardship. God’s blessing is not something we can earn. It is a free gift we can only respond to. That, too, is pretty standard stuff, but I don’t think we can say it enough.

In our Old Testament lesson, Habakuk is wrestling with the idea of God’s faithfulness and arguing with God. How can God bring such hardship on God’s own people. God is good, not evil. In the few verses we skipped, God claims responsibility for sending the Chaldeans. God also claims responsibility for sustaining the Hebrews and promises restoration. Habakuk still doesn’t understand, but he makes a pledge. “All right,” he says, “I’ll stand and watch. I’ll wait and see.” God pushes him further, and tells him not just to wait for God to prove something to him but to be part of the proof. God says, “Go put up a billboard!” It kind of reminds me of those black billboards with white letters, all attributed to God, that were placed anonymously around the country for a while. They said things like, “I Love You…I Love You…I Love You,” and “Need Directions?”

It makes me wonder what our vision might be. Of course we have our mission statement, printed on the front of your bulletin:

We at First Presbyterian Church are seeking the wholeness we believe Almighty God, our Creator, promises through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
That first sentence reminds us of our brokenness, and the promise of wholeness we find together and individually through Jesus Christ.

Through our worship, study, and life together, we are finding God’s wholeness for ourselves
Notice that these are not presented a la cart, but worship, study, and life together are parts of a whole.

and, guided by the Holy Spirit, seek to share it with our community and our world through prayer, service, outreach, music, and fellowship.

Again, prayer, service, outreach, music, and fellowship are parts of the whole expression of God's grace that we offer to the world.

That’s a pretty good vision! But I wonder, do we write it in a way that those passing by on their way to work, school, Mardi Gras, or on their way through town can not help but see it because of the size of the letters? Now I’m not talking about a physical sign, necessarily. I’m talking about our public demonstration of the presence of the Kingdom of God! That’s something we have to be intentional about, prepare for, and make commitments to. It is also something that has to be woven into the fabric of our character. In some ways it already is, but in others it is yet to be.

A surgical procedure like that sounds intimidating, but I can tell you that it is already happening. I can tell you that people in other congregations in our Presbytery are saying that something has woken up at First Presbyterian Church in Lafayette. Like those leaders in the church in Thessalonica, I have received emails from leaders in our Presbytery (bet you didn't know they emailed back then) thanking God for your willingness to host events and offering prayers for our strength, knowing that as we grow in faith we will grow in our ability to glorify God. That’s a pledge they have made to us, just as we make pledges to pray for and financially support the ministry of our Presbytery. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to others in a way that offers a deeper, wider, and larger proclamation of God’s amazing love than we could ever hope to offer by ourselves.

Now this is something God is doing, but not without inviting us to be a part of it. The choice before the choice is not actually ours. It is God’s. The pledge to love and forgive us is the choice that opens the door for our decision to commit our resources, our time, our very lives to whatever we choose to commit them to. This is true in marriage, in friendship, and in church membership. It is true for parents, children, and grandparents. It is true in a job, in your lifestyle during retirement, and in the way you pursue your dreams as a student.

Now, I will admit that Zacchaeus’ story seems somewhat the contrast to that, if you just take it at face value. He ran ahead of the crowd, climbed a tree, and when called for he ran down before Jesus and pledged to give away half of his possessions and refund everyone he had cheated by the Deuteronomic standard of returning four times the amount. He did a lot of stuff before Jesus proclaimed him a child of Abraham, or so it seems.

Scholars have often taken the path of assuming that Jesus knew what was going to happen, and that’s why he called on him. That would be an easy way to save face for Jesus and for Zacchaeus, but I don’t think they need it. Zacchaeus was a “Chief Tax Collector.” That means he was probably hated by all, richer than most, and regularly benefited from the extra fees that the other tax collectors lived off of. His stature, whether tall or short, was small in the Jewish community. So he ran ahead of the crowd, but he still climbed a tree because the front pew was just not a comfortable place for him.

Jesus had a habit of picking the outsider. He came to seek and save the lost. Who else would he pick than the guy in the tree? Jesus picked the guy who made a commitment above and beyond the rest - the one who did not feel worthy of the grace freely offered to all. Jesus chose him because Zacchaeus offered more of an opportunity to demonstrate grace and mercy than anyone else.

Jesus stopped the parade, called him out of his tree, and rudely invited himself into Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. There is an urgency to all of this. “Come here quickly,” he says. “I must stay at you house today,” he says.

Zacchaeus’ response is the real kicker, and traditionally it has been used as an example of what we do when we truly come face to face with the presence of God. We let go of anything that could get in the way and keep us from God’s presence. Now, for most people, the closest thing they can claim as an experience of being face to face with God is something like a near death experience, but something about Zacchaeus’ experience suggests to me that there may be another way.

One thing that scholars have pondered for years about this text is the fact that the verb forms in this text are active and present. He is literally saying “I am giving” and “I am restoring.” So, one could say that it is not his pledge to do something, but it is his statement about who he is and what he does. Jesus tells him in the presence of witnesses that he is restored to the community. Jesus proclaims Zacheus to be a good Jew not because of what he will do, but because of who he is and how he responds to God’s redeeming love.

So, God calls to us in our tree house fort along the parade route and says with great urgency, “YOU, come down here! I must come into your house to stay.” And here we stand with the urgency of the request and the opportunity to respond. How do we respond? What will we pledge? Why do we pledge?

We pledge because, like Habakuk, we want to see what God is going to do next, not to test God or wait to see if God will do what we want God to do with our money. We wait to see how God is going to weave our vision into the restoration of the world. We pledge because we, like Paul and the early church, want to glorify God. We want to be encouraged by others, and we want to participate in something far bigger than we can conceive. And we pledge because, like Zacchaeus, it is our way of claiming and proclaiming the fact that we are a community of believers in the way of Christ that offers healing, hope, and acceptance to all. That is why I pledge, and I hope you will too, in your own way, as you feel God is calling you to pledge.

And now I want to invite you to practice God’s active presence. Take a moment to 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. Let us practice the presence of God…

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.