Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inconvenient Justification

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 27, 2011 – Lent: 3A
Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

How many of you played the game, Four Square, as a child?  Four Square has been around for a long time and is a favorite on many campgrounds and schoolyards.  The basic idea is a box divided into four squares.  The fourth square is for the King or Queen of the game, and this is the person who starts the game by serving a playground ball into someone else's square.  In some circles, the King or Queen can even make new rules at the beginning of a round of play.  As the ball comes to you, you have to hit it – flat handed – into someone else's square without letting it bounce more than once in your own.  If you mess up, you go to square one while other players advance.

There is a new kind of Four Square that the kids are playing today from their phones.  It involves a social networking tool where people can let others know where they are, make comments about the quality of goods and services, and basically try to look cool.  Here's how it works - imagine for a moment a young woman at a coffee shop.  She checks in on Foursquare and sees that she is not the only one who is using cool technology to tell everyone and no one at the same time about the details of her life.  She recognizes the icon of a young man who just walked in and sat in a booth nearby.  His status update says, "Anyone want to buy me a cup of coffee? LOL."  So, she sends him a text message, "Sure.  I'll buy."  He replies, "If you knew who I was – you would ask me for a drink!"

Wow.  That's awkward, isn't it?  If that really happened, most people would even think it was a little creepy.  But it really happened.  The woman at the well was so needy – and so used to seeking fulfillment in places that could never offer it – that even the boundary of social taboo that could have taken her life away was not a concern to her.  I wonder how many of us know how it feels to be that thirsty?

One summer I was in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, leading adventure trips for Camp Glenkirk.  On this particular trip I had a group of 9 and 10 year olds.  It was a light hike with a little elevation, a few switchbacks, and a swimming hole at one end.  We stopped for water breaks along the way, and I even lugged a watermelon on my back for our snack!  One of the kids did not drink his water, did not swim, and refused the watermelon.  As he collapsed from exhaustion we called for an ambulance to meet us at the trailhead and carried him as quickly as we could back down the mountain.

When I talked to him later, he just did not remember being all that thirsty.  Sometimes we do not even recognize how thirsty we are.  Of course there are other times when we become like the Israelites.  It is easy to condemn them.  With all they have been through, shouldn't they – of all people – expect that God would be true to God's promises? 

Yet, how often are we right there with them?  When the medical diagnosis comes back a little different than we want… when the child or grandchild looses a job, gets hurt, gets divorced, or gets hooked on something… when there is a miscarriage… when the bills simply won't get paid… these are times and places that make us cry out to God, "If you plan on doing anything, now would be just GREAT!"

Notice that with the Israelites, God moves right past the complaints.  God does not even address the question of God's presence or Moses' leadership.  God simply provides.  God uses the same staff that poisoned the water of the Egyptians to offer life-giving water to the Israelites.  God does it corporately, publicly, demonstratively, and definitively.

It's hard not to confuse God's providence for the Israelites with our individual desires.  It's easy to over simplify and say that God waits for us to cry out and then provides.  But that assumes that God is not with us until the need is crucial.  Paul reminds us that God most certainly is with us, and possibly even more so (if such a thing could be) when we are suffering.  We can even boast in our limitations because that is a place to say, "Look!  Look what God is doing!"  There is nothing easy about a life of faith.  In fact, I believe, that faith can make life even more difficult.  That is not because God needs it to be that way.  It is because we do.

We want life to be simple, answers to be final, and mysteries to be interesting but not perplexing.  We want to know how long it will take us to get to Canaan, when the next rest stop will be, and why did Moses take us into this valley when there is one right up the Euphrates (my cousin told me about it) that would have gotten us there much faster?

We want to be able to trust in our own limited resources as if they were unlimited.  We want Jesus to be available, but we do not want him in our business.  The interesting thing about all of this is that Jesus is thirsty.  Jesus is not thirsty in the way that we are thirsty – although he probably was in the story.  Jesus is thirsty because he has a need to meet with us in our place of need.

Now we can debate the immutable quality of God if we want to, but that is not the point.  God created us to be in community with God.  God has a need.  God has a desire.  God has decided to make just – to justify – even our imperfect lives.  God has decided to make justice happen even through our imperfect actions.

That's what the Easter Baskets are all about.  [Our 100 member congregation put together 300 Easter Baskets for needy children.  They were commissioned in worship.]  You could make the argument that these baskets are just affirming culture.  You could make the argument that these baskets are just a band aide for the gaping wounds of society.  You could be right – you would also be very wrong if you thought that was all there is to it.

You know what I think?  I think these baskets are the answer to a question.  J.J. Heller is a Christian artist with a song on the radio called "Love Me."  She says it like this:

He cries in the corner where nobody sees
He's the kid with the story no one would believe
He prays every night, "Dear God won't you please...
Could you send someone here who will love me?"

Who will love me for me
Not for what I have done or what I will become
Who will love me for me
'Cause nobody has shown me what love
What love really means.

Jesus meets the woman at the well, and she is a Samaritan.  He looks into her soul and shows her what love really means.  How else can she respond but to run screaming, "Come and see this man who has told me about everything I have ever done!"  And there is something more, something she is leaving unsaid – "and loves me anyway!"

So here we are at the watering hole.  Here we are as the Body of Christ, and we are thirsty.  We are thirsty for the opportunity to meet others in their place of need.  We are thirsty for righteousness, and we hunger for justice.  And because the problems of the world are too big for us to fathom, we pick one thing to do well.  We make baskets. We collect peanut butter.  We make food bags.  We deliver meals.  We pray.  We do all of these things and more because we do one thing.  We recognize ourselves as the woman at the well.

Maybe we have flirted with Jesus in the past.  Maybe we have called him a prophet or even the Messiah – the Christ.  We use his name in worship all the time.  But the question remains – how will we respond to the grace we have been given today?  How will we run from this place, telling everyone, "Come and see!  There is someone who knows all there is to know about me and about you, and we are loved no matter what"?

In order to do this, the first thing I have to do is to find a Samaritan – an outcast, someone who is outside of the covenant.  Next is to recognize that I am a Samaritan in my own way.  Then, and only then, can my words and my actions become filled with the living waters of Christ.  Then, and only then, do the words of scripture become the story of my life.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done."… And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."

Jesus has come to make all things new.  Jesus is coming to make all things new.  Salvation has come.  Salvation is coming – through me, through you, and through the Samaritan next door – in Jesus' name.  Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflection

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 20, 2011 – Lent (A2)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121 (Cantor – Bruce Turner)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

I wonder how many of you have ever been in a house of mirrors? It can be a lot of fun wandering through halls – even running into walls you did not know were there. The curved fun house mirrors can be fun, too. I enjoy exaggerating the shape of my body, though I must confess that sometimes the flaws I deny become too real in those mirrors.

In the reality show "What Not To Wear" contestants are ambushed by friends to confront their unflattering and outdated clothing choices. One of the first steps in the journey of transformation for the contestants is to step into a booth with mirrors all around them to get a 360˚ view of themselves. No flaws are hidden from the 360˚ mirror.

That is what we have in the scriptures today, a mirror of our lives that offers no retreat from our past, present, or future. It is overly tempting to think of these stories simply as stories of other people's lives, but they are so much more than that.

How hard it is for us to understand and connect with Abram. He leaves his father's land to go somewhere that we know of because we have read the ending, but he did not. He left his social network, and I don't mean he simply "unfriended" people he wasn't really friends with. I mean he left all that could offer security, peace, and prosperity to go after a promise… and Lot said, "All right – I'll go too!"

Lot is an interesting character, and it seems strange that he is tacked into the last line of this passage. Yet there may be some connection to the idea that through Abram God will dole out blessings and curses. That's an attractive offer to be a part of! I can't say that Lot's motivation was purely selfish, but it is interesting to follow him as he journeyed with Abraham – moving through famine and into such wealth that they had to separate to keep the peace between their herdsmen. Then we see his final decline in a cave, barely surviving with his two daughters and nothing else. I wonder if there isn't something of Lot in each of us as we go to church and seek the blessing of God.

That's a view I don't want to look at in the mirror – the convenience of faith! Abram, who would become Abraham, did not have a convenient faith. Paul reminds us that the faith of Abraham was not about his works. Abraham did hear and follow God, but not out of obedience to a doctrine or a rule. He did not do it so that God might do something for him. He did it because God had already made the promise to him to bless him and to cause others to be blessed because of him.

His faith was reckoned as righteousness! That's one of my favorite Biblical phrases. It's like God said, "Well I reckon that's alright by my way of thinkin'." I reckon... I suppose... Sure... Whatever... All of these words carry some ambiguity. They are blessings and curses that depend on context and inflection to interpret, and God has given Abraham the green light to do both – to bless and to curse. Why? It is because of his faith. Not because of what Abraham has done or will do, but because of his openness to God's presence and activity. Sounds good, but it must be easy for him, huh? I mean, God talks to him in dreams and sends angels to him in the daytime. That must be nice.

Last Sunday night, several of us watched the movie "Brigadoon" together. It's a story about a mythical town in Scotland that only appears for one day every 100 years. Two American businessmen on a hunting trip wander into it, and discover its secret. One of them represents the lover and the dreamer; the other is a pragmatist, disbelieving all that the senses and the rational mind cannot confirm. Yet in the end both of them have a part to play in the salvation of this mystical community.

It strikes me how even today there are those who reject faith in God because they cannot see it, taste it, or touch it. It strikes me how this question was important even while Jesus walked among us, for he said to Nicodemus, "we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony."

What angles of the mirror do the words of Jesus give us? Do we see the reflection of the church in them? Do we feel the exasperation of witnessing to the tremendous acts of God only to be told that we don't offer the things another church does? Or maybe, just maybe, we see the reflection of Nicodemus. Maybe we have been devout followers of the way but never really seen or experienced something that we know without a shadow of a doubt is from God. Or maybe it's worse than that. Maybe we have become churchgoers – attending services and feeling affirmed but never challenged.

The tension in the church today, I believe, is found between the need for stability and the calling to leave it behind. That is the tension Nicodemus faces when he is told that he must be "born from above," because he cannot get around the idea that Jesus is not asking him to do something. Instead, he is asking him to realize what God has done!

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." This is what God has done.

And the amazing thing is this: God's activity includes Lot, and Nicodemus, and pragmatic skeptics who have never seen a miracle even though they are involved in one every minute of every day. All are part of the grand pageant that is God's good and imperfect creation!

I cannot tell you what God has done with horse and rider that were thrown into the sea or the Lots and Nicodemuses of this world. All I know is that Jesus Christ offers us the experience of Abraham. All I know is that our actions for good or for ill are woven into the fabric of the universe, for God justifies even the ungodly.

Paul doesn't mean just anybody. Paul is clearly setting up the idea that you don't have to be a Jew by birth to be adopted into the family of God. It is through faith in Christ that we become heirs to the promise of salvation. I do not know how far and how wide God's net is cast or what God will do with those of us who need more proof or call God by another name when the stage is struck and the cast of characters of all of human history take off their masks and costumes. But I know this. I know that I am caught up in that net. I know that salvation starts now. I know that miracles happen when any person of any age draws a breathe and exhales life for trees and plants. I know that all of this is because of God's action and that my faith - however puny it may be – is reckoned as righteous in the site of God.

Now here's the really good part: just as God promised to be reflected in the character of Abraham, so God promises – even elects – to be reflected in yours! In your suffering, in your adversity, in your joy and in your celebration, all of these offer the chance to experience and to express the hope, the providence, and the love of God Almighty!

Because of Jesus we can taste and see that the Lord is good. Because of Jesus we can hear and understand the miraculous as something that we expect. Not that God caters to our wishes, but that it is God who constantly, lovingly reaches out to us and offers us new life from above.

Zoe and I were listening to the radio on the way to school the other day. They told a story about a baby that appeared to have been sitting in the debris of the tsunami for three days. They called her "Tiny Miracle". Zoe said, "We should pray for them!" and we did. She prayed for the daddy to be able to care for the child without a momma, even though neither parent was acknowledged. Later that day the father was found, and the next day the mother was reunited with them as well. All three had been torn apart by the powerful waves. When Zoe heard the news she said, "That just breaks my heart!"

God certainly was not waiting around for Zoe's prayer, but through the miracle of faith she was attuned to God's activity. That is what the mirror of scripture offers us the chance to reflect. It is not up to us to determine God's actions. It is only up to us to reflect God's character. What matters most is that we become open to the transformation that God offers us, that we follow God – even risking our own security – when we would rather stay comfortable, and that we remember that God's offering of grace extends far beyond our own reach.

In fact, our ability to reach out in faith is simply the beginning of something even more incredible that God is doing, has done, and will continue to do throughout all of time and space. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory both now and always, amen!

The Devil Made Me Do It

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 13, 2011 – Lent 1A

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

When I was a boy I remember being fascinated by the way my big brother could shuffle a deck of cards by making a bridge and letting it fall. I could not wait until I was old enough – until my hands were big enough, strong enough – to shuffle cards like that. That memory makes it even more fun to watch my own children in their fascination when we play a game, and I shuffle cards.

When I think about the way the stories we have heard today are often interpreted it reminds me of a neatly shuffled deck of cards. Not just a shuffled deck of cards, but a stacked deck of cards - a stacked deck of cards that God has neatly ordered and placed before us.

I am not a gambler. My brain just doesn't work the way others do when it comes to gambling. I get the impression that there are systems and strategies that go along with a fair amount of boldness and initiative. I have to admit I admire the brash and over confident gamblers on TV. There is something attractive at a very base level in self-determinant risk taking. I can only guess that is why some people will watch a high stakes poker game for entertainment.

I will confess that we did play roulette for stuffed animals at the Festival de Mardi Gras. "Twenty-five cents to play, twenty-five cents to win!" called the barker. Two dollars later each child had a plush expression of affirmation from an unknown origin (most likely involving child labor) as I prayed for God to have mercy on my willful actions.

Those game attendants knew just what to say, "Hey Dad, let her play! Hey Mom, I'll let him win!" That snake knew just what to say, "You will not die. You'll just figure out how to do things yourself. You won't need God anymore. That's what he's scared of." So Adam and Eve (they were there together, you may have noticed) took the fruit, and the rest is, as they say, history.

A traditional, straightforward, and fairly reformed approach to these scriptures would say that this was all part of the plan, more or less. Adam and Eve made a choice that God knew they would make and opened the opportunity for the law to be given. (The following is read with a sing-song tune similar to "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly") The law was given to form the people, the people were claimed to demonstrate God's presence. They used the law for selfish gain, and Jesus came down to die for us. Some people accept it and some do not. John Calvin calls this election, and I don't know why God chose to do that – elect some to damn.

It does seem fairly simple, even elegant, to consider the idea that sin entered one way, salvation another, and that when it is all said and done Jesus will come back to clean up the mess. But there are still some cards in that deck that don't quite fall perfectly. Such a neat and tidy theodicy steps right over innocent suffering and the problem of evil. So here we go.

A week ago a tornado ripped through Rayne. Homes were destroyed and lives were shattered. Last Friday the largest earthquake in recorded history set off a tsunami with waves topping 500 miles an hour. All the while a protest over fair wages breaks out in Wisconsin and the instability of the Middle East continues – culminating in the violent oppression of the people of Libya.

The ancient Hebrews would have called these events evil, but they would have also said that they were from God's initiative. We can easily dismiss their ideas as superstition, but it wasn't that simple. Paul, a devout Jew, said that all of creation groans in labor pains as a result of human sinfulness. John Calvin referred to suffering and adversity as a means of perfecting us, challenging our faith and calling us to repentance.

Repentance, sin, faithfulness… these are not the things we think of when we turn on the news and see the violence of our world and the fury of nature. But sin is a good place to start. Sinful actions, or individual sins, are the way we usually think of the idea of sin or sinfulness. It started right there in the garden with a snake, an apple, and a woman, right? Well, sort of.

The story of Adam and Eve and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a story describing our natural tendency to make choices based on our own desires and needs rather than God's. To sin is to turn away from God for selfish motives. Repentance literally means to turn toward God. It means to have our choices and decisions oriented by God's desires. Faithfulness, then, is the expectation that God will be God – the expectation that we will be forgiven, provided for, and sustained through every trial. It is the expectation that the troubles of this world cannot define who we are or limit our experience of God's presence. In fact it is the expectation that our troubles will only deepen our awareness of God's work of redemption in this world.

Meanwhile… suffering is still real. Evil is still real, and the Devil is still at work. I must admit that our modern notion of Satan is one of the aspects of the Christian religion that I have the most trouble with. In Hebrew traditions the Satan was a type of messenger. After the influence of the Greco-Roman Empyreal culture and the development of the early traditions of the Christian church, the idea of the Die Ablo, or over-thrower, became closely attached to the concept of the Devil. The serpent, the Satan, the Devil all became personifications of a power struggle with God rather than a description of God's activity in the midst of a creation that had rejected her Creator.

Regardless of who or what the Devil is, we know that temptation is a part of being human. In the fullness of his humanity, Jesus was tempted. He was tempted to reject his own divinity by providing for himself apart from the creation. He was tempted to reject his own divinity by placing personal security over vulnerability, and he was tempted to reject his own divinity by exchanging unlimited power for the power to control particular people and events. In the end his faithfulness held true, and he was attended to by angels.

Paul talks about the salvation that we have received through Jesus as a means of understanding and becoming the children God created us to be. We were created in the image of God – an image smeared and marred by sin. Yet through Christ we can reclaim that image. We can become a representative of God's presence. We can stop denying our own divinity and trust God to be God, even working through and with our imperfect, forgiven, and sinful selves!

I like to think of it like a prism. Light enters and is refracted and splintered into all of its possible colors and hues. Its true nature is revealed! Suffering and adversity can do that for us. Whether we are impacted directly or moved to compassion by the pain of another, trials can often become the prism through which our true light can shine.

Darkness is real. Evil is real, but it has no power except for that which we give it. Not so with God, because God's providence is stronger than our choices. God's presence pervades human suffering. And through Christ we are not limited by our choices or the events of this world.

The world saw that in the headlines from Rayne last week. Jalisa Granger, a 21-year-old mother, died in that storm by shielding her child with her own body. I have no idea of her life choices or the sinful actions or attitudes she held. I have no idea if she is a Christian. What I do know is that she was not defined by her sin. She has been defined for all the world to see on national and international headlines for her self sacrificing love.

So that leaves me with a few questions. How are we to be defined by those who hear about us and see us? What are we holding on to and why? Are we holding on to a set of attitudes and assumptions about who and what we are as a congregation? Are we holding on to practices, relationships, or possessions that define us as individuals? Are we holding on to things that we think will provide for us, keep us safe, and give us some control? Or are we being held? Are we, perhaps, more like the child who has been held in the midst of the storm and must now decide how to respond to a grace that is more profound than anything we can imagine?

Yes. I am that child. Yes. You are that child, and God is watching and waiting to see how we will respond. To God be all glory, honor and power both now and always. Amen.

Wait For It

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 6, 2011: Transfiguration – Year A

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

What an exciting time we are having in the life of this community! What pageantry! What fun! What excess and wastefulness! In fact, I dare say that seven years of good parenting and teaching my kids to say "please" and "thank you" have been undone by watching their parents scream, "Throw me somethin', Mister!" while we step on toys and strings of beads to claim them for our children who climb from our backs to put their spoils in over stuffed bags.

One thing we do well here, though, is build up a sense of expectation. We've been waiting for Mardi Gras all year. The barricades were set out a week ago, and now time seems to be moving slower as the parades come and go and we savor each moment. Even in the midst of a parade there is anticipation for the beginning and celebration as they come. There is a sense of wonder and awe from the children with even the simplest of things – a string of beads, a plastic toy. As a float approaches we martial our energy and poise for action as if some animal instinct is moderating from the inside saying, "Wait for it… wait for it… now go!"

Oddly enough the idea of anticipation reminds me of the scene from the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson's character says, "Hold… hold…" while Englishmen on horses gallop unsuspectingly toward Scotsmen with spears they have yet to pick up. It may sound strange to you, but some would see Christianity this way. There are those who believe we need to hook as many as we can for Jesus, like fish on a stringer. Yet Jesus is the one who told his disciples to cast a net, and to throw it on to the other side of the boat from where they were expecting to catch fish.

I've been thinking a lot about our net. I've been thinking about our public witness to Jesus Christ in the community. We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to share. We have a lot to care for in the membership and facilities of this congregation. We have a lot of people that walk across our property during Mardi Gras. What is our public witness to them about the grace of God made known to us through Jesus Christ?

That is the question I have been asking myself as I get to know the patterns of this congregation and community. I mentioned last Sunday the need to be aware of our grounds, and I was encouraged by the number of you who jumped in and helped to pick up trash around the property. I got the impression that you would have done that no matter what I said. Either way, I was inspired by you and put up a sign out front to make our orange barricade a little more hospitable. Fortunately it weathered the storm on Saturday morning!

What a storm that was! It reminded me of the storm I flew through on my way to Indiana last week. You may recall that I went to a conference focused on discerning what is next for the church. What will the church be like in five years, or even ten?

I wish I could tell you what it will look like, but one thing that was clear is that a church based on my design or yours is not a church based on the design of the Holy Spirit. So, rather than tangible programs to generate specific results, we focused on priorities and hopes. The whole conference was recorded and is available on line, and I may tell you more about it on another day. For now I want to tell you about the characters from today's readings whom I met along the way.

In that bumpy air plane ride into Indianapolis I rode with a young couple who are spiritual seekers. He was a professed agnostic. She was a former Methodist who felt abused by the doctrine of Christianity. Both of them were more inclined to an individual sense of morality, and opposed to the church deciding what was right and wrong. They are typical for their generation. They are "spiritual but not religious." I listened as they talked about the hypocrisy of the church. I offered an open dialogue about the inconsistency of scripture and the blindness of church doctrine.

They asked me where I was going, and when I told them the young woman said, "Is that at Second Presbyterian? Because they are doing some cool things." Then she told me about a member who decided to buy a house in the inner city. He started a community garden in his back yard, and now he is encouraging those in his neighborhood to reclaim their lives and become more self-sufficient. "That's the kind of thing I'm talking about," she said, "no doctrine, just love."

"The beautiful thing is," I replied, "that what he is doing is one of the best expressions of our doctrine that you can find." We talked a little more about what that means while we waited on the tarmac for the lightning to subside. I gave them my card and told them I'd be available if they ever needed anything related to faith or wanted to continue the conversation in any way.

As I look back, I believe they are the people of Israel. I believe they were looking at the power and majesty of that cloud, knowing something even more terrifying and wonderful was on the other side. I wonder if we are all like that in some way? Of course we are. Even the august gathering of 200 or so ministers plus a handful of seminary students and elders could not deny that they were there for the same reason. We were there because we all have the distinct feeling and sure knowledge that our decent and orderly processes might make a lot of sense, but they will not save the church from decline or destruction. Only Jesus Christ can save the church. Only Jesus Christ can sustain the church, and only through Jesus Christ can we accomplish the true purpose of the church, and that is to be the Body of Christ – broken for the world!

Now, one must be careful about being too casual about claiming that one's experiences are corollary to Biblical narrative. I have had many "mountain top" experiences in my life, but can I claim to have experienced God face to face? Certainly not in the literal sense our texts offer today. Peter's caution is wise to remind us that it is not our ideas of God's word that hold truth, but only through experiencing God in a way that can be confirmed by others do we find true meaning and value. Some people experience God through community, others on retreat, and still others in works of art.

Herb Simon is one such person, and he has a life size replica on one wall of the portion of the Sistine Chapel where God imparts life to Adam through a touch of his finger. Herb is the owner of the Indiana Pacers and a member of Second Presbyterian. He has already lived several successful lives, and he fell in love with Michelangelo's work when living in Italy. He was there because he realized that he wanted more out of life than a business career could afford. He was there because it served as a home base for his work as the head of food distribution for the United Nations.

As I heard his testimony my heart softened and I was silenced to the core, because I had ridiculed this man in my heart when he greeted me at the door to his house by saying, "Lafayette? I almost bought a TV station there once!" As his story unfolded, suddenly he became somewhat of a prophet – speaking truth to power. He told us of his meetings with Popes and Imams alike, and the room was as quiet as if God had said, "This is my beloved son. Listen to him!" As he spoke of leading Pope John Paul in prayer for the least of these and asking the Grand Imam of Cairo if he cared for hungry children the same, whether they were Muslim or not, I realized that this was a man motivated by God's active presence in his life.

That same night, while at dinner, I sat with other disciples with whom I had faithfully followed Christ to this hilltop in Indiana. Robert Yahara sat next to me. He was one of the heavenly host from this 3,000 member church that tended to our needs. I noticed his name tag right away. It read, "Children's Ministry Volunteer." Robert has white hair, including his beard. He is 86 years old and is in good health. As we shared our stories the most amazing thing happened. Out of 3,000 church members, who should I realize was sitting next to me but the very man I heard about on the plane – Robert Yahara!

My, my… how far a little salt can go in the stew! My, my… how far a little light can go into the darkness! My, my… how important is our public witness? Just ask Peter, for he is reminding us that our stories, our testimonies, our experiences of God's grace are too good to be made up. They are too good to be kept to ourselves, and they carry too much truth to be manipulated.

But here's the kicker. Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about what they had seen until after his resurrection. We live after the resurrection. Even as we anticipate celebrating the resurrection on Easter, we live in the knowledge that it has already happened. We live with the ritual celebration of Christ's power over sin and death, and we even expect to share a common union with God through the sacraments we share with one another.

So, as we feast on the knowledge of the presence of God, let us remember there is no intermediary. There is only God. There is nothing to stop us from being transformed in the likeness of Christ, nothing except our own desires to build booths in an attempt to define and contain what we cannot define or contain. Let us not wait for the chance that best suites us to respond to God's grace. Let us simply move from worship into action, from being loved into loving. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Trust

First Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, Louisiana

February 27, 2011 – Ordinary A 8

Isaiah 49:8-16a

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

 

As we begin to explore God's word to us today I'm going to take a risk and ask you to play a little game called Word Association with me.  This is a game that can go horribly awry or can be terribly insightful.  With any luck – or maybe I should say, with God's providence – you may get more out of the game than anything else I might have to say. 

If nothing else, think of the game as a spiritual exercise.  God is in our midst, and if we open our hearts and minds we might just get a deeper understanding of God's presence.

 

So, here is how to play: I will say a word, and you will say the first word or phrase that comes to your mind.  Your word does not have to make an obvious logical connection, although it very well might. [The following words were given one at a time with time in between for verbal responses: Peanut Butter, Hope, Happy, Fidelity, Trust]

 

Thank you!  We ended with trust because it is the theme that flows through our scriptures today.  Can we, in the desolate places of our souls, trust God to restores us?  Do we trust that the judgment of God brings commendation rather than condemnation?  Can we trust in God to provide for our needs?  It is pretty easy to say "Yes!" to these questions, but it is pretty hard to do "Yes!" to them.

 

Really, telling us not to worry is like telling the wind not to blow quite so much.  Does Jesus not realize that anxiety is the primary fuel driving the engine of the largest economy in the world?  Yet overly confident consumers and investors focused only on short-term gain are the very things that almost drove our economy into the ditch only a few years ago.  The ripples are still being felt.  How dare he tell us not to worry about the future? 

 

Yet, the command not to worry is not uncommon in our culture.  Every generation seems to have an anthem that picks up this theme.  In the 1950's Judy Garland performed "Get Happy", an even older gospel tune that focused on what most songs of this nature do – the afterlife.  In the '60's the Beetle's sang "Money Can't Buy Me Love," one of the many songs that made Paul McCartney one of the richest performers in history – at least until his recent divorce.  In the '70's Bob Marley sang, "Don't worry 'bout a thing, 'cause every little thing's gunna be alright" in the song, "Three Little Birds."  Then in the '80's came the iconic, "Don't worry.  Be happy." by Bobby McFerrin.

 

There are plenty of other songs we can come up with.  Goggle the terms "Happy Song" and you will get 24 million options ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  What I think is interesting about these is the way they show us how God is so very present in the midst of our world.  While we hide in the shadows of our fears, God is present and active.

 

God is offering us the promise of eternal reward, and God is holding our hands and guiding our feet even as we stumble and turn and run like a child who just wants to see what is over on the other side of that barricade.  God is reminding us through music and conversation and the experience of skinned knees and hearts that things are not as substantial as relationships.  God is telling us through scripture and in our quiet reflection that our ability to control and make and manipulate is limited, but the work that God is doing through us is not! 

 

Unfortunately, I don't think that means that God is saying, "Don't worry, be happy."  Rather I believe it means that God is saying, "Yes – you have things to worry about, but don't.  Make a different choice.  Choose to trust me.  Choose to trust that I have something bigger in mind.  So, do not worry.  Worry leads to fear.  Fear leads to isolation.  Isolation leads to pain and suffering.  Choose to trust that I love you.  Choose to trust that I am with you even in places that are desolate and without hope.  Choose to be in a relationship with me, and let that relationship guide your destiny."

 

I once had a conversation with a young woman who was caught up in the web of this issue without even knowing it.  She was sixteen and her family members were pillars of the church.  She was actively involved in the youth group and very energetic about faith.  The thing I never noticed is that she always wore long sleeves.  One year at a youth conference in Montreat,  North Carolina, she said she had been struggling and needed to talk.  I asked her permission and had another adult join us.  Through tears and conversation she raised her sleeve to show that she had been cutting.


Cutting is the practice of making small cuts on a body part.  It is not suicidal behavior.  It is a way of focusing pain and suffering that you cannot deal with by injuring yourself.  It is as unhealthy mentally as it is physically, and it is very serious.  We talked about it for quite a while, and I asked her how this connected with faith.  Where is Jesus in this pain that you are trying to control?  She said that she knew that he died for her, and that maybe it is in the blood of the cross that he suffers with her.

 

Suddenly I was reminded of a friend who once made the distinction between a cross and a crucifix for me.  She said, "My Christ is alive!"  So, I asked this young girl what she thought about that.  I suggested that maybe, just maybe, she had not allowed the resurrection to happen in her own life.  I said, "Maybe Jesus remains on the cross for you.  Maybe it would help to begin thinking about Jesus as alive and that resurrection can happen in your life, too."

 

I wish I could tell you that it was a silver bullet.  To be honest, I'll never know.  I know that she continued to struggle, and I know that she continued to grow in faith.  I know she sought counseling from a professional therapist, and I know that her faith remains a fundamental part of her life.  We are still connected through the Holy Spirit, and Facebook.  She married her high school sweet heart.  I believe that she still worries about things, but I don't believe her worries own her the way they used to – at least not on most days.  In fact, there's even a picture on her Facebook page from a recent sky diving experience.

 

I believe that is the heart of today's message.  If God can take the Israelites out of slavery and isolation and move them into community… if God can take the church in Corinth and move them from condemnation to  commendation… if God can create a fertile earth out of the dust of the universe and whimsically paint flowers while intentionally filling our complex minds with thoughts and the ability to reason… if God can inspire us to tame the wind and send satellites into orbit… surely God can do more than we think or feel possible when we simply decide to trust in God's intention for our lives.

 

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, but what is the Kingdom of God?  Just ask Isaiah.  He knows.  "Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, 'Come out,' to those who are in darkness, 'Show yourselves.' They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them."

 

Where have you become imprisoned?  God is calling you and me to come out of the shadows and experience resurrection.  God will surely "bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart," but why wait?  Every one of us needs redemption, forgiveness, and resurrection every day of our lives. 

 

Most days we try our best to live like we are just fine or at least content to wait until judgment day for all of that resurrection stuff.  Right now we are in the midst of Mardi Gras season, and although I am an outsider – it's not hard to figure out what is going on here.  Over the next few days we will celebrate the uniqueness and the common unity we have as human beings.  We will celebrate the fact that we are limited, and many will do it by acting like they have no limitations.

 

That is essentially what Jesus means by saying that we cannot serve God and wealth at the same time.  He is saying, "Money can't buy you love."  God is telling us that we have been created, called, and ordered as a community to care for one another.  We have been given each other to experience the joy of what a friend recently called, "mutual submission."  We have been given to each other so that your needs may become my needs and mine yours.  In this way we realize that today's trouble is enough for today.  In this way we remember that God is both the Judge and the Redeemer and that judgment and redemption are active parts of our lives right here and now!

 

If we can do that, if we can trust in God's active presence, then we will probably find ourselves in a position to do the impossible – just like my young friend who moved from self mutilation to sky diving!  Her miracle was not over night, and it is very far from over.  But her miracle has become a reality through faith in Christ and the opportunity to respond to God's grace.  May it be the same with you.  May it be the same with me.  And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Perfect

First Presbyterian Church of Lafayette, Louisiana

February 20, 2011: Ordinary 7 - Year A

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

 

In just about every parental relationship there are some phrases that parents and children use to dig into one another's soft spots.  It's part of "leaving and cleaving" or, to put it in more modern terms, differentiation.  Sometimes I will bait my mother with the compliment, "That's perfect!"  She always says, "Well, you know how I do love being perfect!"  Then I, true to form, will say, "I don't think John Calvin would agree with that, given his feelings about inherent sinfulness." To which I receive the appropriate eye rolling and/or immediate change of subject.

 

My mother has no delusions of being perfect, of course.  The idea of embracing perfection is, however, a great comfort in her life for there is much chaos in caring for an aging parent with Parkinson's while managing rental properties and trying to survive.  The idea that there is something good we can cling to, be a part of, and even generate is a great comfort to anyone in this world of instability and constant change.

 

It seems odd to me that we even use the word 'perfect' to describe the events of our daily lives, but apparently we need it.  In reflecting on these texts I have found that I use the word 'perfect' more than I realize.  I like it.  I like believing that the ideal can become real, and that I can participate in it and become a part of it.

 

Even so, I think we use the word 'perfect' more freely than we should.  Or at least, I think we define perfect as individuals more often than we encounter the reality of something that is truly 'perfect.'  Here is what I mean.  If you go to dictionary.com you will find, 'perfect' typified as an adjective describing people, places, things, phenomena, and situations as:

1.    conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type.

2.   excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.

3.   exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose.

4.   entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.

As a verb (used with object), you get something like this:

1.    to bring to completion; finish.

2.   make flawless or faultless.

If we go to urbandictionary.com, where people post their own definitions, we get a slightly more contextual perspective:

1.    a word that describes a thing that someone exactly desires (especially relating to people and to relationships).

2.   something that has no flaws - a word that contradicts itself.

3.   (sarcasm) describing the state completely opposite of perfection or idyllic. As in, "A pipe is busted and water is gushing everywhere? Perfect."

4.   (sarcasm) not good, or more specifically something broken beyond hope of fixing. Such as, "My car is totaled and the other driver has no insurance? Perfect."

 

With all of this in mind, I want you to think about a time or place or event when you feel that you have experienced perfection.  What made this moment or this activity or this thing something perfect?  Was it perfectly good?  Was it perfectly horrible?  Was it perfect just because it was what it was, for good or for ill?  Hold onto that moment and that experience of perfection as we see how far the rabbit hole goes in the scriptures we have received today.

 

We have a difficult task in understanding and delving into the fullness of truth revealed to us today by the scribes who sought to capture for all of time the truth proclaimed by Moses, Paul, and Jesus.  The Levital text is part of what we call the Holiness Code.  This was the aspect of Levitical law that had the express purpose of transmitting the holiness of God through the Priests and into the people.  You see it did no good for only the priests to be set apart or different – that's what every religion did.  The holiness, the separateness, the otherness of God was given to the people so that the craziness of the world would not define them.

 

So Leviticus offers us a moral code, an ethic to define the Israelites for the entire world to see.  We do not normally think of rules like these as a place of grace and mercy – yet that is what these are!  Rules that are simply there to create order often define us from the outside.  There is some of that here.  The Israelites are being told to play nice and not to take advantage of anyone, especially those who are weaker than they are.

 

Here is the big difference between a basic moral code and the dispensation of grace found in Leviticus.  The actions of the priests and the rules of the law made the Israelites different from the world around them by pushing them into a deeper relationship with the world around them.  Being both separated from and integrated with others is the paradox of faith that Paul has been talking about. 

Why wouldn't someone harvest every square inch of her or his field?  Why would anyone make himself or herself more vulnerable to someone else?  Why on earth would we pray for our enemies, and how in the world could anyone love a terrorist?

 

Yet that is what we are called to do, and here is the key: "You shall not render an unjust judgment."  The literal Hebrew translation is "let there be no iniquity in judgement."  The NRSV goes on to say, "You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor." But the word translated as justice is actually "righteousness," and the word translated as neighbor is actually "companion." 

 

What does all of this talk of judgment, justice, and righteousness mean?  It means that we will go nowhere without understanding the humanity wrapped up in every situation.  It means that we, the church – the Body of Christ, are called to be something different in the world.  It means that we, as individuals, must consider the grace we have received in our own lives and find ways to interact with people we don't trust, don't love, and don't want to.  Why?  Because becoming vulnerable to the needs of others offers us a chance to respond to God's grace and a chance to understand our need for more of it.

 

I would guess that most of us know that we are not perfect.  The easy way out of these texts is to say that they are overwhelming or impossible, or at best they are a good goal to shoot for.  That may give me something good to confess and then feel good about later, but that is not what these texts are saying.  The text is saying that if I turn on the tap I get water.  If I have the love of God within my heart the actions flow in my relationships.

 

That is very confronting to me when I think about praying for and loving enemies, giving to others when I do not know if it is actually helping them, and truly seeing all people as equals, and therein lies the rub.  At the end of the day, there are people I do not want to see as equals.  At the end of the day, most of us don't really want to be perfect.

 

Fortunately for all of us, that is not exactly what the text means either.  The NRSV says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," but the Greek is literally, "then you shall be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." So, there is a sense that we are being perfected.  When we care for the needy, when we go the extra mile, when see the outcast as God's beloved child, and when we respond to the grace and forgiveness we have received then we shall be perfect.  Our response does not makes us perfect, but the grace of God that we are participating in does. 

 

Being perfected by participation in grace reminds me of a scene from the movie, Remember the Titans.  The film was based on the true story of a black football coach and his team in one of the first racially integrated schools in Virginia.  Coach Boone was a hard driving man who expected nothing less than perfection.  Toward the end of the film he is questioning whether he has pushed his team too far.  In the final locker room scene at half time, he is interrupted by one of the star players while trying to console the team.

 

Coach Boone: It's all right. We're in a fight. You boys are doing all that you can do. Anybody can see that. Win or lose... We gonna walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best. That's all anybody can ask for.

Julius: No, it ain't Coach. With all due respect, uh, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I ain't saying that I'm perfect, 'cause I'm not. And I ain't gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight. And, uh, if it's all the same to you, Coach Boone, that's how we want to leave it.

 

You and I were created in the image of God – but we, most certainly, are not God.  Yet God is not saying, "Just do your best."  God is saying, "I double dog dare you to become inconvenienced on my behalf.  Go with Myrna or Celia to the U.C.O.  Go with Rose to the Wesley Center.  Go with Leigh and Robert to CUPS.  Pick up some stuff from Sue and fill some Easter Eggs, or better yet - be here and help when we distribute the baskets!  Go write a card to someone who needs it.  Do something; just don't stop at being nice.  Don't stop at convenience.  Don't stop until you reach perfection."

 

You know it occurs to me that after the locker room chat in Remember the Titans the team prayed the Lord's Prayer before taking the field.  It also occurs to me that this is more like a locker room than we may want it to be.  If we believe that coming to this place, listening to me, praying our prayers, singing our songs, and putting money in the plate is the end to which God is pushing us then we are surely missing the mark.  What we do in here is simply a dress rehearsal and a pep talk.  It is only through our common unity out in the field that we can truly approach perfection.  May God continue to guide us in our lives as individuals and as the Body of Christ in the world, and may we continue to follow, however imperfectly, into the perfection that awaits us in this life and the life to come.  Amen.

 

 



Is You Is My Baby

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana

February 13, 2001 – Year A, Ordinary 6

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8 (Cantor)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

 

Some of you may have noticed a sign from a local high school about a play they are running called "Into the Woods."  It's a wonderful story that blends classic European fables into one narrative, finding common ground in the mythic quality of the woods.  The wilderness offers opportunity, conflict, and transformation.  What is even better is that they get to the normal happy ending by the intermission and are forced back into the woods for continued reform during the second half.

 

Life is like that.  We are always arriving and yet beginning at the same time.  One of those points in my life happened during a brief career as a restaurant manager.  I was assigned as part of a management team to a store that had been struggling.  The new General Manager called the staff together to address the issues they faced.  The one thing I remember from that meeting was his reference to an old Louis Jordan tune, "Is You Is My Baby."

Is you is or is you ain't my baby?

The way you're acting lately makes me doubt.

You's is still my baby, baby.

Seems my flame in your hearts' done gone out.

 

This was not an Alexander Haig "I'm in charge" moment.  This was a legitimate request for fidelity.  In our passage from Deuteronomy we find a similar plea for mutual submission in the words of Moses – so near to the end of his life.  Moses calls for fidelity as a people to the ordinances he has given them.  In what seems like a contract, Moses acknowledges the benefits and natural consequences of a lifestyle of following or denying God's laws.  At the same time, what Moses is describing is more than a contract.  It is a covenant – perhaps even a marriage.   Moses calls upon all of creation to bear witness to the agreement between God and the people of Israel.

 

Through Christ we have become recipients of this same covenant, but there are some tremendous differences that sometimes blur our vision and limit our ability to see what that means.  Theirs was a fundamentally communal and theocratic society. The choices of individuals, as they related to covenant community for the ancient Israelites, affected the character and nature of the whole community, and their government was believed to be directly from God.  Ours is a fundamentally individualistic and democratic republic.  The choices of individuals, as they relate to covenant community in these United States, are usually seen as personal decisions unless someone does something that harms someone else.  We value individual freedom, and we say that we will fight to the death anyone who tries to take away our collective right for individual freedom.  Yet with so much individual freedom, there is bound to be conflict.

 

The story goes that a young Rabi was astonished at the argument that broke out in his congregation over whether or not to stand for the reading of the Decalogue.  He decided to visit the former Rabi in a nearby retirement home to find out what the traditional practice has been.  The old Rabi smiled at the younger and said, "An argument over worship practices?  Yes, that is our tradition."  Sadly, the same story could be told in many Presbyterian congregations.  Even now there are those who are trying to force their hand in the processes that shape and form our denomination.

 

Paul's letter to the church in Corinth reminds us that this is nothing new.  Though I will say that I do not like his tone or his ecclesiology (he seems rather condescending and describes spiritual leaders as a separate class of believers), what I do believe to be faithful is his concern over arguments and misplaced loyalties.  What I do believe to be faithful is the way he reminds us that we are not acting as children of God when we are more concerned with being right than we are with doing what is right.

 

This week offered one of the most beautiful expressions of righteousness that many have seen since September 11, 2001.  While hired thugs tried to incite violence and trample peaceful demonstrators in Cairo, groups of Christians and Muslims took turns guarding one another with nothing but a circle of bodies and the clasping of hands during times of prayer and worship.  We do not know if the future will bring a military coup or a popular revolution and democracy for Egypt.  What we do know is that God is at work in the midst of Muslims and Christians and tanks and bodies.  And if God is active there, surely God is at work here!

 

For we are 'God's field, God's building.'  There it is again – that sense of being and becoming, arriving and beginning all wrapped up together.  Paul truly thought he was preparing the Corinthians for an immanent and immediate harvest, yet God must have wanted something more permanent to be communicated.  God must have had something else to do with them, and God must have something else in mind for us as well.  Perhaps salvation is not just about getting into heaven or protecting a way of life.  Perhaps salvation is about experiencing God's presence here and now and becoming more and more transparent and vulnerable.  That's what I believe Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. 

 

He began with the complete reversal of fortune in the beatitudes.  Then, last week, we heard about the imperative that we become the light to the nations.  Now he is interpreting what it means to live the letter of the law and fulfill the message of the prophets.  What I believe all of this comes down to is character.  For those who have dogs, I have heard it said that having character means being the person your dog thinks you are.  Then I have heard it also said that having character means being the person your God created you to be – a person who confesses limitations and responds to God's grace, however imperfectly she or he is able to respond.  Then I have also heard it said that character is not about what you do when other people are watching so much as it is about what you do when they are not.

 

Perhaps it is like the story of the signs the children saw in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nun made a note, and posted on the apple tray: "Take only ONE. God is watching."  Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies.  A child had written a note, "Take all you want. God is watching the apples."

 

Now, I do not mean to oversimplify the message of Jesus – but I do believe that the core of his message is about integrity in relationships.  Are we who we say we are?  Are we the church, the body of Christ that is broken for the world? Are we the body of Christ that is broken for the world when we step out of those doors and into the relationships that we cling to, navigate through, and seek out in our daily lives?  Do we listen as God croons for us, "Is you is my baby or is you ain't?" 

 

You see we have been given a choice.  We have been given a choice in the past, and we are given a choice today.  We have to decide who and what we believe and value.  Is it God's will and mutual submission, or is it our own will and the idea of individual freedom?  Like the Coptic Christians in Cairo, we have to decide who and what we are willing to protect - even though we disagree with every fiber of our being over that which we are protecting. 

 

Just as we have been given a choice, we have also been chosen.  We are called into a covenant community so that we may together become the construction site of the temple of God.  As God's beloved children, we can do no more than to be transparent and straightforward in our relationships.  We can do no less than to become vulnerable to one another under the Lordship of Christ, and by God's grace we can, we do, and we will experience the presence of God here and now and in the life to come.  May it be so with you.  May it be so with me.  And to God be the glory, both now and always.  Amen!