Tuesday, February 08, 2011

True or False

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
February 6, 2011 – Year A, Ordinary 5
Isaiah 58:1-9a
1 Corinthians 2:9-16
Matthew 5:13-20

Today's texts ask us to consider what is true or false in our practice of worship, and it reminds me of a story about a guy named David LaMotte.  David is - or was - a singer, songwriter and storyteller from Montreat, North Carolina.  He grew up under the influence of one of our great conference centers in a region of North Carolina heavily influenced by the Presbyterian tradition of Christian faith.  After spending time in an intentional community for the homeless in Atlanta, he wrote a song called Butler Street.  The song is about experiencing God's presence by being in community with those who suffer.  The chorus repeats ironically, or perhaps sarcastically, "Sing me a song about Jesus, but please don't sing about the poor.  It's already been a long day.  I really don't want to hear anymore.  Sing me a song about forgiveness, that'll make me feel happy inside.  Sing me a song about Jesus, that'll make this lifestyle feel justified."

What's interesting about David is that he was transformed by singing these songs about Jesus.  He still sings and does a show every now an then, but he made a radical shift because of these songs.  He got married, had a kid, and did what most people do - put everything on the line to study peace, justice, and reconciliation!  He runs a non-profit that supports a school in Guatemala, and is one of the gentlest, most sincere Christians you will meet.   One particular moment in his transformation happened after a show.  He always hangs out afterwards to talk to people.  One night a woman approached him and said, "You know, you're right.  Sometimes I do just want to hear a song about Jesus without having to hear about those poor people."  Sadly, that is often the position of the church.  Look how we are fasting, O Lord!  Can't you see how hard we have practiced for the special music, O God?  Why is it that all our efforts seem to fall flat?  We are following the Book of Order and the Book of Common Worship to the letter.

Preaching!  That's the answer.  It must be because of the preacher.  This one talks too long.  That one stayed too long.  This one spent too much time doing the wrong things.  Yes, it must be because of the preaching.  Now, I don't mean to suggest that preaching does not matter any more than I would suggest that one person singing off key can throw off an entire piece of music.  Nor do I mean to show disrespect to John or our choir.  Often times the music is the only place that those of us leading worship are able to be led and to truly experience God's presence.

What I do mean to say is that there is much more to proclamation – there is much more to right and faithful worship – than what happens in here.  As I was reading and studying our gospel passage today I was struck by the idea of the church building as a bushel.  We have such good and faithful practices in our worship experience.  It is so meaningful to be held by the words of prayer and song and to be lifted into the very presence of God through our common unity.  Yet there comes a point where it is all for nothing if it is only for us.

As we have been journeying through 1 Corinthians together, Paul has been very clear about the difference between wisdom and faith.  He even criticizes his own preaching, basically saying, "Look, if you got something out of that it was by God's grace alone."  Today he is focusing on the wisdom of the Spirit.  I think it is important to remember a few things here.  One is that this was written before anyone had a concept of the Trinity.  Another is that wisdom and discernment were not simply characteristics or actions; they were archetypes and processes.  They were something to participate in, rather than something to have and do.  Human beings, therefore, can only participate in things that are limited to human experience.  The Spirit, the pnuema, the very breathe of God was the active presence of God.  The Spirit was and is the offering of experience beyond our ability to perceive.  The activity of God is not understood, but discerned.  It is experienced.  It is confirmed in the relationships we share, in our common experience of being united and drawn into something greater than our own desires.

In this way, we have the mind of Christ.  In this way, we are joined as different wavelengths and colors of the same light into something brilliant!  In this way we become light into darkness.  But to what end?  Certainly it is not simply to come together on a Sunday morning, go through the motions of worship, and return to our lives. Surely our tithes and special offerings are not some form of penance to allow us to feel justified in other areas of life.

Recently I have had a few people ask me why I felt called to come here.  My answer is always the same.  This is a community of people who are called together by God, who care about each other, and who care about the community around them, reaching out in service as well as they are able to.  Is that you?  Do you feel like I am talking about you? (I asked this rhetorically, then repeated it while asking for a verbal response.)

Paul is very clear that we have the mind of Christ.  This is a corporate identity.  Isaiah is very clear that the community of believers is responsible to care for those in need, and when we do we will find that God is in our midst.  Not because we have brought the presence of God with us, but because we discover God's presence in the midst of us, in the messiness of caring for someone else, and in the inconvenience of being responsible even for those who cannot or will not take responsibility for their own actions.

Although I am aware that I am suggesting a theology that effects our politics, I want to take it a step back from that and approach it from a more basic level – something more along the lines of salt.  Salt is something our bodies cannot live without, yet too much can also kill us.  Salt mines are found in every culture dating back to 6,000 BC.  In its purest form, salt can never loose its flavor.  The salt used in Jesus' day, however, came from salt marshes and had impurities.  If not stored properly, the flavor would leach out.  All that was left was something mildly corrosive enough to help keep the streets clear of other, less tasteful items.

Salt may be deluded and dissolved, but not without affecting the flavor of anything it comes in contact with.  I saw two little girls, who are a little less little every time I see them, become salt the other night.  Zoe had a sleep over with four other girls, and Samantha was one of them.  As we were getting them all settled in, Zoe asked if we were going to pray.  I said, "Sure!  If any of you girls want to join us you are welcome to, but you don't have to."  One girl said, "I don't pray."  Two others continued to read books, but Samantha jumped up and clasped her hands together immediately!  Zoe led us very meticulously through our ritual of thanking God, asking forgiveness (saying sorry), and asking for God's blessing on people we care about – very salty, those two girls, very salty.

Of course, the whole event of the sleep over was not without conflict or drama.  In fact none of our lives are.  That's why we say our "sorries".  That is why we come to this table.  We come to be reminded that there are those who are yet uninvited by us, and that God wants them here too.  We come to be transformed and to have our impurities washed away.  We come to be connected to something greater than ourselves, commissioned to experience God's presence in the messiness of life, and we come to be sanctified – set aside – for God's activity to flow through us and into the world.

I believe this old bushel has more life in it than any of us could imagine, as long as it is used as a lamp stand and nothing more.  As long as we continue to give care for the needy, seeking God's presence in the midst of our relationships… as long as we remember to offer a relationship with God through Jesus Christ… as long as we confess our faults when our actions don't line up with our calling as a covenant community and as individuals who have been given the discernment of God's Spirit… I believe we will be fine.

By the grace of God, as we have received it through faith in the Christ, revealed to us in scripture, we will be fine. Or, maybe more to the point, we are being refined, made pure, and becoming that which we were created to be – and to God be the glory, both now and always.  Amen.

 

 

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Foolishness

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana

January 23, 2011 – Year A O3

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

 

Do you ever feel like you have too much on your plate?  Sometimes life can be like this pile of rocks (picking them up one at a time and placing them in a plastic pitcher). Work… School… Healthcare… Retirement savings… Friends… Social Commitments… Bills… Taking care of your house… Taking care of your children… Taking care of your parents… Taking care of your spouse…  Time to play…

 

Sometimes that last one doesn't even fit in.  I haven't even mentioned church.  For a lot of folks the church has become one thing in a long list of things, and there just isn't any room for it anymore.  That can make those of us who do not see the church that way feel sad and resentful.  It can even call into question our own feelings of commitment at times. 

 

The problem is not the other stuff that we compete with.  The problem is that the church is not what it used to be.  In many ways, for many people, the church has become one those rocks, and you just can't fit it in.  What if the church were different?  What if the church was never supposed to be the way we have treated it?  What if the church was less like a rock and more like water (picking up and displaying a pitcher of water).   Perhaps instead of asking where is the church in all of this, a better question is: Where is God in all of this?  God is the ground of all existence, in whom we live and move and have our being. 

 

Zoe asked me the other day how God could be in heaven and with us on earth at the same time.  In theological terms it is the essential question of transcendence and eminence.  How can God be as far away as the farthest star and as close as our breath?  That is the question much of Isaiah attempts to answer.  How can a people who have been conquered, abused, and neglected believe in the promises of a God who seems absent?

 

As their spiritual descendants we receive this text in a time following Epiphany, the celebration of enlightenment, the awareness of God's active presence, brought on by the person, work, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For us, light has come; and this is the light that offers freedom.  Given the connection with Matthew's gospel, many have said that this text is about liberation.

 

For some, the idea of liberation is the central purpose of the gospel.  Liberation theology is based on the idea that God is concerned only with the poor, for the rich already take care of themselves.  The most confronting aspect of liberation theology for me is not about a God who chooses sides.  It is about the reality of oppression. 

 

I grew up thinking that oppression was a thing of the past.  I grew up thinking that racism was dealt with in the civil rights movement.  I grew up thinking that slavery was something that was now illegal.  I grew up thinking that the world was a level playing field, and that all anyone needed was initiative (at least in the USA).

 

The truth of the matter is that oppression exists, human trafficking is more alive than it has ever been, and we can't really talk about liberation without talking about bondage.  I could speak all day about the evils of the world and the role of the church, Western Culture, and globalization.  Arguments could also be made about the benefits of our free and civil society.  The truth is that none of this matters without addressing the bondage within ou

 

The best way to deal with that is to turn to scripture and ask questions that can only be answered through personal reflection and the actions of our individual and corporate responses.  What I find in scripture, then, is Paul telling the Corinthian church not to be divided by race, creed, or social class.  What I find in the Christian church today is an à la carte menu that people pick and choose from rather than face the difficulty of being in relationships with one another.

 

Back in Corinth, Paul seems pretty absent minded about baptism, and one would think this is a pretty big deal.  His point is not to take it lightly, given that he later describes it as dying to the self and rising with Christ.  His point is the opposite, to raise the severity of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Paul is lifting up the reality of God's presence over and above the practice of Christian faith and the tradition of discipleship. 

 

Then, some time later, as the stories of the experience of Jesus began to be written down, we find this story of calling.  First it is Jesus, called into action by the arrest of John.  Jesus is preaching the good news of repentance that John "the baptizer" began. Yet, Jesus adds something to it.  The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

 

Next Peter and Andrew, then James and John drop their nets and follow him.  We do not know if it was a bad month for fishing, if they had heard him preach before, or anything else but the fact that they dropped their nets, their security, their livelihood, even their father to follow this man.  Something in their souls heard, in his invitation, their identity as God's children being proclaimed, and they let go of everything and followed him.

 

Now this is the point that always gets me.  This is one of those points where the bar is set so high that it becomes a deterrent to putting faith into action.  Sure, there are plenty of examples of people who dropped everything and started up ministries of healing and wholeness in the world, but not everyone can and not everyone should.  So, how do we, with our pitcher full of rocks, hear this call to be fishers of people? 

 

How do we… in this land of promise and prejudice… this society based on the rule of law that profits from outsourcing to countries with little or no standards… this place of grace and punishment… how do we drop our nets and participate in the foolishness of the cross? 

 

You probably already know the answer.  The first step is to repent, to turn from our desire to control and manage and turn toward the desires of the heart of God.  Before we can do anything about the poverty and oppression of this world we must attend to the poverty of our own souls.  Then, and only then, do we see others as God's own, holy and beloved.  Once we find our place before God we can see our place in the systems that create oppression or empowerment.

 

Paul is right that it does not matter who baptizes us; what matters is who we follow.  As the disciples followed Jesus into the Galilee, healing followed repentance.  Once again, this is a point that I have to throw up a caution flag.  I am always inspired by stories of physical and mental healing through prayer.  I believe in the power of prayer, and would never suggest that God cannot heal someone.  Assuming that God decides to heal some and not others can also be dangerous. 

What I believe, what I know, and what I have experienced is that the power of the gospel is not limited by our weakness.  The gospel message we have received today is that God breaks the bonds that hold us back from loving and being loved.  The gift that we have received by hearing the voice of God within our souls and following God's call is the church.  We can see it as a burden to bear or a treasure to protect, but I can tell you that it is neither. 

 

When the church becomes to us as water, then it is no longer a question of fitting it in.  It simply becomes a part of who we are.  When the water of the church is the same as the baptism we have received, then this building is no longer simply a place to seek God's presence.   This place is instead a rally point that moves us into the world to demonstrate the fact that our limitations do not stop God.

 

Need I remind you that this worshiping body of 65 people just distributed 500 Christmas baskets to needy families?  Need I remind you that Easter is coming and you have set the bar pretty high for yourself for when we offer baskets again?  Need I remind you that this congregation of old and young, rich and poor, black and white continues to support the U.C.O.'s food pantry with generous donations of peanut butter every month?  Perhaps I should also tell you that although there are people we turn away with tears, unable to help them, we never turn a person away without offering the emergency food baskets you helped create, and many of them take one.

 

This congregation has a reputation in the community for the strength of its witness because with all our imperfections, we know this: The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.  That means that we are not waiting for eternity to experience God's presence!  We are not allowing our limitations to define our witness, and we are offering a unified witness that Jesus Christ is Lord!

 

Right now we are a pretty agreeable group, and it is my sincere hope and my belief that others will be moved to join us in this witness.  Paul's words are pretty easy on the ears right now, but they do remind us what we have to watch out for.  Fred Craddock tells a story about a little country church that he served long ago.  This congregation took a stance that did not welcome the working class demographic that had begun to enter their neighborhood.  Years later he returned to find that it had become a BBQ restaurant, and the communion of strangers at table was better than the church had ever imagined. 

 

When people do come to join us, and they will, we will not be who we are anymore.  If we are to accept and involve new people means that they become a part of us and we become a part of them.  There may be some aspects of our fellowship that will not change; however, our focus, our opportunity, our calling is to proclaim the saving mercy of Jesus Christ through the actions of our lives and the fellowship of our common unity. 

 

May it be so with me.  May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.