Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Same Old Song

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
August 28, 2011 – Ordinary (22A)
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:23-26
Matthew 16:21-28

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? It’s not so bad if it’s a song you like. Somehow it seems to me that it is more likely to happen with a song I don’t like. I must admit that I take a certain pride in dropping a line or phrase from a song that will make another person continue to think about the song until it gets stuck in their head. Do you know what that’s called? Earworming.

An earworm is a word or phrase intentionally planted in your mind in a way that compels your thoughts to center on a given topic. It works best when the bigger idea is simple and connected to experiences and emotions. Why, all I have do is say something like The Lord of the Dance  or AmazingGrace, and some of you will be off to the races!

For me, one of the biggies is the hymn, Here I Am, Lord. I’ll admit that over the years I have had a love/hate relationship with this hymn. I think that is because this hymn is so beloved by an institution that is both very human and very divine at the same time. I think it is because, when I am truly honest with myself, I realize that there are times when I have sung these words sincerely and failed to back them up with my life. I think it is because I know that I have had times when I have denied God’s voice because I did not see a burning bush, or because I did not think I was good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough.

I’ve asked a few friends to help me reflect on these types of experiences with you. They are going to share with you now a Reader’s Theater piece from the book, The Next Voice You Hear: Sermons We PreachTogether. This story is called, Here I Am, Send Claude.

Reader 1:    The thing about burning bushes is –
they get our attention!
                    It’s not that Yahweh God
                    Loves showing off,
                    Or anything like that.

Reader 2:      “For my next trick, I present – a burning bush!”

Reader 1:       Burning bushes come in many forms,
                      In all sizes and shapes.
                      We are going about our own business,
                      Like Moses there at Horeb,
                      And suddenly our attention is captured…

Reader 2:        By the number of homeless ones in town,
                      Or the treatment of the misfit at work,
                      Or the weeds in the church garden,
                      Or the suffering of a good friend,
                      Or whatever…

Reader 1:        We see a need,
                      By George, someone ought to do something!
                      Golly, someone has got to start caring!
                      We can stand it no longer;
                      The problem cannot be ignored.
                      It will not go away by itself.
                      Something must be done.

                      And lo and behold, we are there,
                      Standing at our burning bush.
                      God has captured our attention,
                      Pinpointed a particular need,
                      At work… in the neighborhood… at church
                      In the family... in the world…
                      Someone has to start doing something!
                      That is clear at burning bushes.
                       
  But who is going to do it?
                      That is not so clear.
                      Who will tackle the job?
                      This is the part of the message
                      We have trouble understanding.
                      The need is clear,
                       
  But the name we keep hearing
                      As we stand by that bush,
                      The name of the doer God has in mind,
                      Must be a mistake.
                      It is our own name.

Reader 2:        Moses! Moses!

Reader 1:        Here I am.

Reader 2:        Moses, go down to Egypt Land;
                      Tell old Pharaoh,
                      To let my people go.

Reader 1:        Right, Lord, something must be done in Egypt;
                      Someone must help your people there.
                      Thank goodness you see the need.
                      It is about time you got around to acting.
                      Congratulations, Lord. I am all for the project.
                      Here I am, Lord,
                      But send Dottie.

Dottie:           Here I am, Lord,
                     But I am already serving on three important committees;
                     Send Gladene.

Gladene:        Here I am, Lord,
                     But I have a house full of reweaving to finish;
                     Send Carol.

Carol:            Here I am, Lord,
                     But working full time, and running a hotel for relatives,
                     Is all I can do;
                     Send Dave.

Dave:             Here I am, Lord,
                     But I’m completely tied up in the World Wide Web;
                     Send Sue.

Sue:               Here I am, Lord,
                     But I’ve got to find a job;
                     Send Bill.

Bill:               Here I am, Lord,
                     But it is not in my job description;
                     Send Claude.

All:                Who’s Claude?

Reader 2:       Here I am…Send Claude!
                     It is natural, one supposes, to feel somewhat inadequate
                     When confronting burning bushes.
                     It is natural, one supposes,
                     When we really have our attention
                     Directed to a crucial need in human life,
                     To feel our own resources are not sufficient.

Reader 1:       At burning bushes, we empathize with Moses,
                     As he shouts out…

Reader 2:       I am not religious enough for this job, Lord.
                     I can’t go to Egypt; I am a wanted man there.
                     I am not a public speaker.
                     Here I am, but
                     Dottie is friendlier;
                     Send her.

Dottie:           Gladene is more conscientious;
                     Send her.
Gladene:        Carol has been a member longer;
                     Send her.
Carol:            Dave is taller;
                     Send him.
Dave:             Sue has seminary training;
                     Send her.
Sue:               Bill has more experience;
                     Send him.
Bill:               Here I am, Lord;
                     Send Claude.
All:                Who’s Claude?

Reader 1:       The trouble with burning bushes is
                     They don’t go away.
                     At burning bushes, we see a need.
                     We may feel inadequate.
                     We may be sure someone else could do it better.
                     We may not want to be bothered.
                     We wish the bush would go away.
                     But burning bushes are very personal;
                     That burning bush is for me.

Reader 2:       Not Dottie, Not Gladene, Not Carol, Not Dave,
                      Not Sue, Not Bill, Not Claude…

Reader 1:        The burning bush I meet is my own.
                      It is my name I hear called.
                      There God calls me
                      To meet the particular human need I see.
                      No matter how I try to escape,
                      The name that is called remains the same.

Reader 2:        Moses! Moses!
Reader 1:        It is my name.
Reader 2:        Moses! Moses!
Reader 1:        Here I am; send Dottie.
Dottie:            Send Gladene.
Gladene:         Send Carol.
Carol:             Send Dave.
Dave:              Send Sue.
Sue:                Send Bill.
Bill:                Send Claude.
All:                 Who’s Claude?

Reader 1:         But the burning bush is not for Claude;
                        It is for me.
                        Claude has his own bush.
                        The bush I see,
                        The need God puts before my eyes,
                        In my mind, on my heart,
                        Has my name written on it,
                        And my name alone.

Reader 2:         “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
                        ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
                        Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me!’”

Yeah! That feels good. Here I am, Lord! Send me! It is good, and right, and important to know and to understand that we are called by God. It is good, and right, and important to find some way to respond to that calling. It is also very normal and very human for us to immediately disregard a calling that tells us to let go of our need to define and control so that we can be open to God’s will for our lives. It is very normal and very human to hear God’s calling to a life that involves constant death and resurrection and to look Jesus in the eye and say, “Get outa’ here! You gotta be kiddin’ me!”

And for that Jesus calls Peter, Satan. Peter – the one to whom Jesus just said he would give the keys to the kingdom and on who’s faith he said would build his church – this Peter has become Satan to him?!

And so do we – we become Satan to Jesus in those times when we focus on our desires rather than the will of God. And what is the will of God? As we have it today, the will of God is to be known as the God who was, who is, and who always shall be. The will of God is to be known through the story of a particular people. The will of God is to be known through our willingness to let go of our needs in service of God’s needs, and it is the will of God to offer the opportunity of experiencing heaven here and now through our attention and response to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Now, I realize that all that sounds great. I also realize that it can be as comforting as an old song that reminds us of the glories of days past. Not only that, the idea of experiencing heaven here and now, well, it just doesn’t sound very practical. I mean – how do you do that, anyway? Let me give you an example.

In 2008 the Faith Christian Lions of Grapevine, Texas had secured their spot in the state playoffs for their division – private schools. It was the last game of the season, and they were playing a throw away game against the Gainsville State Tornados. Gainsville State is a youth penitentiary school, and the team was filled with players that had about as much hope in their lives as they had chances of winning that game – none.

The Tornados players were incarcerated students who had earned the right to play football. They did not have a field and always played as visitors. Their only fans were the few staff members that accompanied them, most of whom were on security detail. They entered the locker room under tight security with their heads down, and they emerged that night to find something they had never experienced and never expected.

The Faith Lions fans divided. Men, women, and children formed a spirit tunnel stretching 30 yards, complete with a banner for them to tear through at the end! The JV Cheerleaders cheered for them on their side! Programs were made just for their team. Lions Parents were given the names and jersey numbers of Tornados players, and they sat on the visitor’s side and cheered for the Tornados players by name as they crashed into their own children in the fiercest night of competition the Tornados had ever participated in. Afterward, both teams joined for prayer – and members of both teams prayed for and with one another.

It wasn’t that big a deal to the Faith Lions fans and players, but it was the first time many of the Tornados players had ever been given something to hope for. More than that, it was a particularly Christian witness of hope from a particular people of God.

It is my hope, it is my prayer, it is my belief that we are a particular people who are responding faithfully to that call. When I tell people that this little congregation of just over 100 members (and a few friends from other congregations) made over 500 gift baskets for Christmas last year, their jaws drop. I cannot wait to tell them that this year we will make 1,000!

We have a lot to be hopeful about, even in the limited programming and outreach of this small, intimate, welcoming, and vital congregation – especially when we remember the risk we are taking by following Jesus. All of us long for resurrection, but none of us want to die. Yet God’s calling is clear. Moses, the murderer, is being sent back to the scene of the crime to proclaim release. And so it is with you and with me.

May God add an even more particular understanding to all who have received these words, as we continue to seek new ways to respond as individuals and as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved. Amen!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Civil Disobedience

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
August 21, 2011 – Ordinary (21A)
Exodus 1:8 - 2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Aw-kward (said with high pitched first syllable) – that is the common vernacular for an uncomfortable moment. We’ve all had those moments where someone has said the wrong thing at the wrong time, stood too close to you, or just did not pick up on the social cues we all give off from time to time. You know – phrases like, “Thank you for coming by,” or “Let’s do that some time,” which of course mean, “You can go now,” and “That would be nice, but I have no intention of committing to it.”

Somehow it has become commonplace within certain circles to name the elephant in the room, and the elephant’s name is – Awkward. Of course, a slightly subtler approach is to simply say, “Crickets,” indicating a silence so severely uncomfortable that you could hear crickets chirp. Then there are even those who are less subtle but more tech savvy that will play a sound effect from their phone. (Crickets) Thank you, Owen.

Whatever your comfort level or style may be with acknowledging the discomfort you feel, we all have moments like these. The thing about these kinds of moments is that they are not particularly bad, but they are not particularly good either. There is the potential for both good and bad to result from an awkward moment.

I think that is how the disciples must have felt in today’s reading. Jesus has just played a veritable Who’s Who with them to determine who they believe others are saying he is. Then he turns the question to them – asking, “Who do you say to others that I am.” Peter steps up and nails it, “You’re the Messiah, the Son of living God.” Jesus says, “Yes! Obviously you are attending to God’s Spirit – there is no way you could have come up with that on your own.”

Well. That was a little awkward. Jesus goes on to make promises to Peter that no mortal should ever receive (we’ll see why next Sunday), and then tells them all that they cannot tell anyone that he is the great liberator of their people. What?

(Crickets)

What? You just confirmed that you were the one who will set us free from Roman occupation. You said you would end the suffering of my loved ones. And now you say that I can’t tell anyone that freedom is coming?

Of course it makes sense to us. The disciples did not understand, but it makes sense to us that there really was not much to proclaim without the resurrection. It wasn’t time yet. Yet we receive the same information – that Jesus is the son of the living God, the Messiah who died and rose that we might know the lengths God will go to out of love for us – and we are left with the same awkward question: Now what do we do?

Some have received this information – the idea that God has revealed Godself in the person, work, and resurrection of Jesus – and responded to it like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. You may recall the famous scene before hearing the British general deliver his demands. Wallace’s colleague asks him, “What are you gunna do?” Wallace replies, “I’m gunna pick a fight.” His friend responds, “Well, we didna’ get dressed up fer nuthin’.”

Righteousness feels good. It feels really good to say, “I’m going to stand up for what’s right!” But the difficult part, in our context, is figuring out how and when to do that. The difficult part is looking in the mirror and realizing how much we crave and need stability. The difficult part is realizing that we have to consider how much of the status quo we want and need. Even more so, the difficult part is asking ourselves, “How much of the status quo does God want or need?”

Shifra and Puah asked themselves this question. We hear hardly anything of these two women – before or after their appearance. Yet they set in motion one of the most crucial events of history – the Exodus. Scripture says that they were motivated by fear of the Lord. Pharaoh had unleashed horrors on their people and demonstrated absolute disregard for the lives of all Hebrews, yet they were afraid of God?

How do we truly understand what it means to fear God? We live in a Democratic Republic with elected officials. We live in an age of reason that has separated our experiences of things that are physical from that which is spiritual. Some people may use God as an excuse for things (Oh, I must have had that coming to me! – or – You must be living right!), but most people do not believe that God is going to drop a tree on them if they do not feed the homeless or go to church. We aren’t even afraid that God will stop loving us; if we really understand what God has done through Jesus Christ.

One thing we do understand is reverence, and by that I mean respect, giving allegiance too, and allowing something outside of ourselves to have authority over us. About the best we can do with Shifra and Puah is to see their actions as reverence to God. Reverence to God is what made them disobey the power of the state, and their small act of defiance set off a chain of events that allowed others to make even smaller acts of defiance – not that throwing your baby in the river in a miniature ark is a small thing. Not to say that a slave approaching the daughter of the man who ordered the death of infants is a small thing. Not to say that nursing your own child without ever telling him who you are and giving your own son away is a small thing.

These were all spectacular things – bigger than we can imagine! They were all dependant on risk and vulnerability. They were all connected to a basic reverence for life. They were all actions that resulted in drastic changes for the ones who took the risk. They were all acts of civil disobedience to an organized power that was made of flesh and bone.

Now there’s an awkward phrase – civil disobedience! Throughout all of recorded history there have been organized and accidental acts of individuals and groups that are opposed to those who govern them. Our very nation was born from one, and our heritage reveals a dance between accepting the staus quo, no matter how harmful it might become, and throwing off the chains that bind us. And the church has often been a partner to both the crime and the punishment – the problem and the solution.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring...and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

These words are bittersweet when we consider the changes that followed them. These words are bittersweet when we consider the collective silence of the church during the time he wrote them. These words are bittersweet when we consider the power of individual Christians who heard them and responded in love, risking themselves – one for another.

Of course the beautiful thing about reminiscing over the past is that we can claim victories that others have won on our behalf. That’s a good thing. But the hard thing, the awkward thing, is determining what to do next.

We live in a time of war that we are insulated from by the commitments of our loved ones and the actions of our government. We live in a time of prosperity for some and scarcity for others. We live in a time of great and powerful change that is masquerading as the status quo.

And in the midst of this we have Paul writing to the Romans. Paul is not writing from a study carrel in a library. In fact it is difficult to say exactly where Paul is writing from, except that it is probably toward the end of his ministry. He, too, is living in a time of change and uncertainty. He’s been beaten, shipwrecked, and run out of more towns than most of us have been invited to. So, his comments about becoming a living sacrifice are less of a goal to move toward and more of a comment on what we do as followers of Jesus. 

And here is where it all comes together! The tension between the call to action and the awkward silence of knowing who Jesus is while waiting for the resurrection is broken by nothing less than the call to sacrificial living that honors and glorifies God!

Several years ago, a good friend of mine named Todd Davidson helped me see what sacrificial living means – through a piñata. We were part of a group of youth ministers that combined our groups for worship on occasion. This night there were about 70 of us and my congregation was the host. He was delivering a sermon on Romans 12, and he pulled out a piñata and a stick. He had the kids shout out the pressures they experienced while he beat open this piñata right in the middle of the Chancel. All I could think of was how much trouble I was going to get in tomorrow. He then removed the piñata and held up the candy and spoke of the transformation that God works even in the times we suffer – in fact especially in the times we suffer.

So here we are – the community of the redeemed, the candy from the piñata, the ones transformed by God into teachers, ministers, truth tellers, encouragers, generous givers, and leaders. Here we are – members of the institution of the church. Here we are – the ones being called peddlers of religion by the very people we want to reach. Here we are – the ones who have proclaimed Jesus as Messiah – and we are left with this awkward question: Now what are you going to do?

The answer will be different for each of us, I am sure. But one thing is certain, without risk there is no need for faith. May God, like some divine midwife, push us into and pull us through the awkwardness of responding to God’s amazing love together. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Crumbs

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
August 14, 2011 - Ordinary (20 A)
Genesis 45:1-15
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Leftovers, lagniappe, crumbs - Oh my! Leftovers, lagniappe, and crumbs - these are a few of my favorite things. My children often give me the fried crumblings left in their chicken nugget boxes even before I request them. It’s not exactly heart healthy - I do confess - but sometimes the crumbs are the best part. I imagine that’s where things like cracklin’ came from. In just about every culture you find things like cracklin’ because someone has taken the leftover and made it into a main attraction.

Of course, not all leftovers are created equal (see Robert Burns’ Address tae the Haggis), and some crumbs are not pleasing to anyone. Why else would we refer to a bad day as being crumby? Maybe that’s not too common a term these days, but we all have days where the one thing we desire or feel called to is just out of reach. Sometimes I call those days “linebacker days” because it feels like every time I get close to my objective a linebacker takes me out. We all have days where the things we turn to for substance simply crumble. We all have times when we come to the table, and we are hungry.

Of course I am speaking of a general condition of need here, but there is also a fine line between symbols of need and needs that are specific, actual, and very real. When Joseph’s brothers came to him there was a famine going on. They were hungry - really hungry. As it turns out, their need was a good thing.

We don’t really know what Joseph was planning. At first it seemed he was angling to get his little brother and his father near him and throw his other brothers in jail (sounds about like what I would have done). Then he loses control. He reveals himself, and in his vulnerability the will of God is set loose to redeem and to save. God saves them through their own confessions and through silos of leftover grain from the harvests of years past. And Joseph assures them, as he assures us, you did not do this!

It makes me wonder - where are the leftovers in our lives? Are they in the keeping of someone else, or are we holding them in trust - waiting for the opportunity to lose control? Or maybe we have become as the ones expecting the law to save us. Christians often speak of grace, but we can become as much of a bunch of decent and orderly legalists as anyone. That’s where Paul comes in to assure us whether we are banking on our heritage or whether we are banking on our willingness to follow, our salvation is deeply rooted in God’s decision to love us.

God’s grace is lavish and unnecessary, and in that sense it is lagniappe. It’s the batter you lick off the spoon. It’s the way by which we might know that God is beyond our capacity to conceive and control, and yet God is closely and intimately involved in our lives. Our response does not determine God’s, but because of God’s response to our lives we can participate in something that is simply over the top. We can respond in faith.

I imagine that is what the disciples felt that they were doing. They knew the Canaanite Woman was not supposed to be speaking to Jesus. First off, she was a woman approaching a man in broad daylight. Next, she wasn’t even a Jew. So they did the logical thing. “Hey Jesus, we get it that you love and accept everyone - but she’s barking up the wrong tree. Can’t you just make her go away?”

Now, this story is one that a friend of mine ruined for me a while back, and I’m going to try to do the same for you. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that once you have seen something you can not unsee it. Anyway, my friend David - who happens to be an African American, and a pastor, and a lot of other good things too - once challenged me by acknowledging the fact that, although Jesus responded to her in a way that was correct by law and by culture, Jesus responded to her with a racial slander. He called her a dog, and he did it because she was not a Jew.

Now, why does that matter and what do we do with it? It matters because Jesus knew that there were rules to follow. It matters because Jesus knew that the rules were more important to us than they have ever been to God. It matters because in this simple moment of fatigue, or hunger, or whatever burden he was consumed with at that moment - Jesus demonstrated his humanity. It matters because in the Canaanite Woman’s vulnerability God opened up a window to demonstrate the fact that the light of faith can penetrate any darkness.

What do we do with this? For one we can realize that even Jesus had a bad day every now and then! For another we can come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be faithful. For Jesus, faithfulness was not simply about being an all knowing, all powerful super hero. Instead, faithfulness was about attentiveness to God’s will in all things. Jesus was, at first, responding to the situation based on the law and the expectations of the covenanted community (not a very Jesus-like thing to do in my opinion). Then, in hearing her response, Jesus could do nothing short of acknowledge the truth in her claim - her claim to a share of God’s love.

You see, it wasn’t simply that she accepted a position of subservience; it was the fact that she spoke a word of truth about the Master! Even the dogs are allowed crumbs! Could this Jesus who proclaimed the value of flowers and sparrows deny God’s providence, God’s grace, and God’s mercy to this woman? Surely not! What’s more is that it was not simply the woman who was blessed - it was her daughter!

Wouldn’t that be a switch to the prayer chain emails that promise blessing if you forward it to 12 people in the next 5 minutes? Perhaps we should start one that says, “Tell God you want to be given the dregs of someone else’s good pleasure, then forward this to 15 friends. In the next 24 hours you will receive nothing, but someone you love will be blessed beyond measure!”

Believe it or not, there is some truth in that. I know, because I have seen it. I’ve seen it because people come here when they are hungry. I’ve seen it because people come here with a hunger to care for their neighbors in need. I see it regularly in our fellowship events, in our study groups, in the passionate care and reverence we show for God’s property, and especially in our outreach and care for others.

And that’s a good thing. I believe it’s good because it is through our hunger and vulnerability that we open up windows for light to shine into darkness - not only the darkness of the world, but even the darkness of our own souls.

And it can happen right here. Lagniappe, leftovers, and crumbs - oh my! All the providence, mercy, and grace we have been hearing about today is coming true here and now. After church we will have a luncheon today that extends the love and joy of worshiping as God’s chosen people, holy and beloved. That’s lagniappe - so don’t forget to lick the spoon!

After that some will join the C.U.P.S. elves making gift baskets for needy families for this Christmas. Why are we starting so soon? Because there are more leftovers in our silos than we can handle, and because this year we will make 1,ooo baskets! As I think about this little congregation making that many baskets, it occurs to me that we are not just opening a window - we’re nocking down walls!

Let’s see. That takes care of the leftovers - what about the crumbs? What about those who are outside our reach? What about the opportunity to tell people that we do not normally talk to that this is a place to experience the compassion of the Master’s table?

That’s a tricky one, and I want to be very clear here in saying that I am not just talking about people in different income brackets. I’m talking about anyone who may have a need to experience the presence of God. I’m talking about anyone who might benefit from a kind word, from the offering of care, and from the witness of faith you might offer.

I could tell you about programs like our upcoming Community Grill that offer the opportunity to invite others, but I think there is something deeper than a program that has to be considered first. I think the first step any of us might take is to realize that we were once outside of the covenant. We must first realize that we are not by birth the children of the Master’s table. Once we realize that we have no more claim to God’s grace than the next person - then and only then - we will see abundant opportunities to extend the grace that we have received.

In fact, I believe that it is only when we realize our own hunger and vulnerability that we find and receive the salvation of God. And I believe it comes from people and places we never suspect it to come from. I think that is what people are after, not a program but a real community of people sharing their burdens and celebrations and giving thanks to God. That sounds a lot like what we do here - crumbs and all! Let us continue with all that we have, all that we do, and all that we are. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

ICON Blog

A while back I started a blog for youth at a church I served in Savannah, GA. God called me to move on before the blog had a chance to take root, but I kept it open for a while anyway. The posts were reflections on life, faith, and pop culture. Recently I closed the blog and imported those posts into this blog just to keep them. The name of the blog was I.C.O.N. and it was an acronym for: I need God. Christ died for me. Only God can save. New life starts now. In some ways it was a play on the American Idol concept. If anyone is interested, you can find them tagged as ICON Blog.
Peace,
Zach