Monday, November 28, 2011

Don’t Make Me Come Down There!

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
November 27, 2011 - Advent (B1)
Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Well, I am told that this is the most wonderful time of the year. Decorations of red and green have been in the stores since Halloween. Christian radio stations have been offering Christmas music on line since mid November for those who just can’t wait to go fa-la-la. Fundamentalist Christians and Atheists have drawn battle lines and announced add campaigns to slander one another. And so begins our annual preparation for the Advent of Christ.

I wonder what that means to you - preparing for the Advent of Christ? So much of our culture and even our religious tradition seems bent toward celebrating the Advent of Christ’s birth. It makes me wonder, is that what we have reduced Christmas to - a birthday party for Jesus?

Don’t get me wrong - I do think it is important to celebrate the reality of the birth of Jesus. I think remembering the birth of Jesus is essential to our understanding of God revealing God’s self through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Nativity sets have always been important to my preparation for and celebration of Christmas. My own children have a hand crocheted nativity set that has always been as much of a play set as it is an object of reverence.

Still, a phrase like “preparing for the Advent of Christ” is quite different from “getting ready to celebrate the birth of Christ.” I think that is why I like the car magnets that come out around this time of year that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Of course, people can have a wide variety of intention behind those magnets. My hope is that the majority are making the public statement that Christmas is not simply a culturally appropriate time to be nice. It is a time to become aware of God’s active presence while we await the final return of Christ.

That’s what Advent means, you know. It means “coming.” Jesus is coming. Salvation is coming. Freedom is coming! Resurrection is coming! Our scripture texts today are intentionally chosen to push us beyond the crèche and into the expectation of a people who live after the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus!

Now, that being said, the Isaiah text was not written to refer to Jesus specifically - rather the human condition of need and our relationship with God. It’s interesting that this portion speaks not for God so much as for the people returning from captivity. They have returned to the promised land and found that it has been used up and left in shambles. Some of them were returning from desperate situations, but some had been allowed to prosper in captivity. All of them wanted to be home, and most of them were still working out how they felt about this God who had allowed them to go through so much.

It starts with a plea for support. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Then there is the memory that the last time God “came down” they were conquered. Perhaps there is even the memory that God used foreign nations to purge them of the sin of not caring for the poor. That was the biggest complaint of the prophets, you know - economic disparity and its relationship to idolatry.

Yet even in their admission of guilt there’s the accusation that God turned from them and caused them to sin. But sin they did, and they are aware of being claimed by it. And so it ends with a plea. “Don’t be too angry. Don’t be exceedingly angry. And don’t forget that we are your people - all of us.”

And so the preparation for the return of God’s active presence begins with confession. And so the experience of God’s active presence begins with proclamation. It begins with a claim of identity and purpose that is connected to God’s activity above and beyond our own.

Once upon a time I took a group of high school students on a mission trip to Belize, and they taught me what it means to confess weakness, proclaim God’s presence, and become caught up in what God is doing. Actually it was the girls. Never underestimate the power and wisdom of a teenage girl.

We were there to build a church, or so we thought. These girls were every bit as motivated to climb scaffolds, pound nails, and mix cement with the boys, but it thoroughly confused the village foreman. At first they tried to trudge forward in true ‘Merican grit to prove what women can do. Then they realized that it was becoming a barrier to the project. We had a wise woman guide - an advisor with our group - who took the girls on a trash scavenger hunt.

Then they went to find the women of the village and join in their tasks. They attempted to make flat-bread over wood fired ovens. They tried to wash clothes in the river. Nothing worked. Nothing except the care they expressed to women who had never had a single missionary in over a generation truly appreciate their burden, their skill, and their contribution to the community. In the end, we built as much of the roof as we could - but those girls built people. They proclaimed a brilliant and beautiful type of acknowledgment and freedom by telling women of another culture and language that they were willing to fly a plane, ride a bus, and paddle a canoe to get to their village and fail at making flat bread because Jesus cares about them.

Ever since then, I have been trying to match the proclamation of those silly, skinny, awkward, perfectly imperfect teenagers. It’s pretty easy to do in a village in another country, but it’s pretty hard in your own back yard.

I think that is why Paul wanted to start his letter by affirming the good he saw in the Corinthian Church. I think that’s why Paul was so clear about the source of that goodness. Paul was certainly looking ahead to a time when God will correct all the things that we can’t do anything about, but he was very clear about the fact that God’s actions do not depend on ours. God acts through us, and when we pay attention to it and join our efforts with others we can do amazing things.

And guess what else - other people hear about it. More and more people are realizing that this congregation of 60-70 worshipers, 30 + homebound or inactive members, and a handful of volunteers from other congregations are going to give out 1,000 Christmas gift baskets, a small forest of trees, and a hallway full of wreaths and other decorations! People ask me “How? Who pays for all of this?” and “Where does all of this come from?”

I tell them that it comes from God. It comes through you, and it is a sign of the coming reign of Christ. As subtle as fig leaves in the Spring or as grand as the opening of the heavens - if you keep watch - you will see that Christ has come, just as he is yet to come.

As to the apocalyptic language of the text, I can’t tell you for certain that God’s ultimate and final judgment will happen the way it seems to suggest. After all - this was written before we knew the world was round and people lived on every curve. Personally, I have no need to disagree with dispensationalists or millennialists who say there will be phases of rapture, tribulation, and a thousand year reign before clearing the deck chairs for good - even though these ideas are a product of the 1700’s and not in keeping over a thousand years of Christian history.

I have no desire to say that God cannot or will not do these things. I also have no need to believe that God will. What I do believe is that God loves me. I believe that God loves you, too. I believe that God chooses to act through you and me and even in others that I do not expect God to act through. And I believe that Christ’s return will be sooner than we expect if we can allow ourselves to confess our need for God, open ourselves to God’s activity, and join our efforts with one another for a more effective witness!

You know, as I think about the way we approach Christmas in these United States, sometimes I think it is more about keeping God out than inviting God in. It reminds me of the billboard that imagines God saying, “Don’t make me come down there!”

Really? Is that what God wants - for us to huddle in fear and hope our fig leaves are covering the right parts? No.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! O that we would realize that you already have! O that we might await with expectation for a sign of your activity! O that we might stay awake through the present darkness of this world and live in the light of your active presence! And to you - the God of grace and mercy - be all glory, dominion, and power both now and forever. Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Newsletter - Bearing God

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. Romans 8:22
 
We stand in a time between time. A new church year has begun, yet the calendar year is still moving toward its close. The days grow shorter as we move toward the longest night of the year. It makes sense that the founders of our faith would eventually move celebrations of Christ's birth to this time of year.  There is a sense of expectation in the air - something is happening whether we like it or not! Still, it is all too easy to step right past the uncomfortable space of expectation and take a peek at the gifts in store. That raises a question. If we already know about the gift of salvation we are to receive, what are we waiting for? What is the purpose of waiting? What is the purpose of remembering the story of a teenage girl visited by an angel and bearing the Son of God? Well, for one, not everyone knows about this gift. Even if they do, not everyone has received it. For that matter, those of us who have received the gift of Christ become unable to enjoy it when hold onto it as our own. The gift of Christ is not a thing to hold so much as something to be held by. In fact, in some ways, we become as Mary - the theotokas - the bearer of God. Let us move forward as a congregation filled with the expectation and wonder of life held within our womb - life we did not create; a life that creates us. May you be filled with the expectation that God will be revealed through you this Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany!
Grace and Peace,
Zach


The Least

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
November 20, 2011 – Christ the King (A)
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

The least – that’s a term that no one wants to be described as. Think of all the ways that word is used. “At least” usually precedes something worse that could have been. Comedian Chris Rock once had a routine about the phrase, “the least I could do.” He said that is like saying, “If I could do any less – I would!”

There isn’t a one of us that does not want to be able to make the least effort for the most gain. Every plumber knows this – because every plumber knows that water will always run down hill in the most expedient course. It is not a bad thing or a sign of laziness to want the most gain for the least effort. It is simply the nature of things, even the created order of the universe, to move in ways that result in the greatest reward for the effort exerted.

So, like it or not, we all seek to find out the answer to that question – what is the least I can do? There is even a book out called, What Is The Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian? The book’s author, Martin Thielen, is a United Methodist Pastor who says the book came from conversations with a friend who claimed to be an atheist. Through their conversations, the friend came to admit that he did not have a problem with Christianity as much as he did with its expression.

That’s a fairly common critique in today’s world. It is not a particularly new critique, but it does seem to be growing in strength. It can be a hard pill to swallow for a congregation of members who invested their lives in the development and maintenance of the church. It seems oddly out of place in congregations of members that are no longer able to do what they once did and do not understand why people no longer seem to hold the values they once did.

In some ways it can leave those who used to be the star players feeling like bench warmers, or worse – the last one picked. What a lonely place it is to be the last one picked. What a lonely place it is feel thin and pushed out by the larger, fatter sheep.

How joyful and wonderful it is to hear Ezekiel’s words of hope and restoration! How wonderful it is to know that God is yet at work in our midst! God is certainly at work and will ultimately decide between sheep, yet we have choices to make in the meantime. In the meantime – literally a time with meaning in between two events. It is a time with an intention, a purpose, and a desired result.

There is no question whether or not time has purpose. The only question is what we will do with it – how we live into that purpose. Time is a limitation. Time leaves us feeling that we have done the least we could, even if we have given all that we could.

Recently I saw an interview with a soldier amputee who escaped an IED that his fellow soldiers did not. He continues to serve others by supporting other veterans – even founding a nonprofit organization for wounded soldiers - but he sees his service as limited in comparison to others. He thinks it is the least he can do. He simply serves because it is his nature to do so.

Some would say that the church is in a similar position, weakened and wounded by conflict within and without. To some extent that is true. To some extent that is also the place of our greatest strength.

The church that is aware – beyond the shadow of a doubt – of its own limitations will more easily see the needs of others who are in the same position of need. The church that is aware – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that its members need one another will be described in terms of genuine community. The church that knows that it is a skinny sheep will be described as a place where the extremes love each other.

Now before I get too carried away on describing the church, let’s not forget that these texts are as much about individual responses to grace – maybe even more so – than a corporate one.

All of them point to a time of restoration by the hand of God, but they are not without the edge of condemnation as well. That is the tricky part – not simply avoiding the penalty, but avoiding the temptation to think that our eternal rewards come to us because we have earned them. Because the very next step is to think that the rewards in this life have come because we have earned them. And the very next step is to say that those who do not have the same rewards we do simply do not deserve them.

For the Lord said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And when we ask when and how, God responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

There are two things that fascinate me about this passage. The first is that the presence of God is defined by human suffering. There is no question as to whether this person made poor choices or has been victimized by some one or some system. God is simply, palpably, and experientially present in suffering. The second is that most people hear this and then assume that God is present when they act on the need of others. Most people assume that their act of compassion is the presence, the witness of, and the proclamation of the gospel.

But that’s not what it says. It says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Now, I’ll admit that taking this too far could put you in a life of guilt and poverty that serves the world less creatively than you otherwise might. The point is not to hold you over a barrel or compel you with guilt. The point is to open up the opportunity of being in relationship with others. The point is to recognize the eternal consequences of every choice and every interaction.

The point is to see that the riches and glorious power we stand to inherit are found in the here and now. It may sound funny, but it kind of reminds me of the movie, The Sand Lot.

Truly a modern classic, this is the story of a kid in the early 60’s who moves to a new town. Scotty Smalls has no friends and no athletic ability, and his only chance for finding friendship is with the neighborhood gang that hangs out in the sand lot, playing baseball. For some reason the star player takes pity on him and takes him under his wing even though all the others are making fun of him. He even gives him his baseball hat, since Smalls’ hat is more of a fishing cap.

I think that’s a nice image of the church. We pick the ones nobody else wants. We give of ourselves to make them understand they are chosen, beloved, and accepted. We are as affected by them as they are by us, and together we become more than what we were when we were apart.

You know, come to think of it, there’s a communion scene in that movie. Well, not a traditional communion scene – unless your theology is broad enough to accept s’mores as incarnational. The boys are gathered for the ritual, but Scotty Smalls has never heard of s’mores. He doesn’t understand how he can have some more of something he has not had. The conversation goes like this:

Ham Porter: Hey, you want a s'more?
Smalls: Some more of what?
Ham Porter: No, do you want a s'more?
Smalls: I haven't had anything yet... so how can I have some more of nothing?
Ham Porter: You're killing me, Smalls! These are s'mores stuff. Now pay attention. First you take the graham. You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then, you roast the mallow. When the mallow's flaming, you stick it on the chocolate. Then you cover it with the other end. Then, you stuff. Kind of messy, but good!
Sometimes I think God looks at us and says, “You’re killing me (your name here)! It’s so simple. Just love each other the way that I have loved you. It’s kinda messy – but it’s good.” As a friend of mine is known to say – It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard. Amen.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Timing Is Everything

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
November 6, 2011 – All Saints Day / Ordinary (32A)
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25:1-13

Do you enjoy a good riddle? I’m not very good at them, but I like riddles – especially if I already know the answer. In the classic tale of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds himself in a battle of wits with a nasty creature named Gollum, and he almost looses his life over this one:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town
And beats high mountains down.

The answer? Time. Oh, if we only had enough time. Time is about the only thing (other than money) that can make us feel utterly and totally limited. Even so, I believe there is a certain amount of grace in our limitations. Garrett Hedlund wrote a song about this idea called Timing Is Everything, and it starts like this:

When the stars line up,
and you catch a good break,
and people think your lucky,
but you know it’s grace.
It can happen so fast,
or a little bit late
Timing is everything.

We are reminded in Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything, yet somehow we only hear those words – we only hear and really listen to those words – at funerals. We hear that there is a time for everything and we place all of the burden on God, and we forget that those words exist to remind us that we are responsible for the actions of our days.

In the same way, the passages we have read today confront us with our responsibility. They draw a line in the sand that I do not like to look at. I do not like to look at that line because it makes me realize where I have fallen short, and where I will probably fall short again.

I look at that line in the sand and the God who seems to have drawn it, and I get a little confused. Is this the God of grace and mercy that I have come to know through Jesus Christ? It seems to me a riddle of sorts – this command to choose and this parable of the wise and foolish.

Joshua 24 comes at the end of the conquest of Canaan, and it has the form of a covenant renewal – much the same way that Moses did before he died. Some scholars suggest that it is as much like a treaty as anything else and it reads like the treaties between conquered people and their conqueror.

Representatives of the people are summoned. Their shared history is reviewed. Expectations are set with benefits and penalties, and finally the people themselves are witnesses – signing the document with their words. What’s interesting to me about that is that in an illiterate culture a person is their word. So by their submission they become a living, breathing contract.

Then Joshua responds to them in what could be just as well summed up in a line from A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s character responds indignantly, “You don’t want the truth! You can’t handle the truth!” Joshua was, of course, not saying this to justify his actions, as Nicholson’s character was. Joshua was trying to prepare them for that which was to come.

The tribes had come to a new land with no overlord. They had chased out or subsumed the inhabitants, and they were no longer going to be driven by hunger or need. Somehow they still had false Gods amongst them – even after the long journey in the wilderness – because sometimes they just could not leave it up to God to provide. Sometimes, they just had to hedge their bets. Joshua knew all of this, and he knew that the only thing he could do about it was to confront them with their duplicity.

It makes me wonder – are we like that? Do we ever turn to the quick fix because we have lost patience with God? I’ve heard it said that even those of us who claim to be Christian in Western society are not truly monotheistic. To be monotheistic means that there is one center of value that we use to direct and guide all decisions. It means that all our priorities come from one center, and that is God.

I don’t know about you, but so often I feel like a compass with no true North because of all the competing interests in my life. I think that is why I identify more with the foolish virgins than the wise ones. Maybe they had a lot going on that day. Maybe they were pulled in too many directions and did not get to the store. I like to think they may have been helping someone in some way. Certainly they did not expect the Groom to be so late!

Now obviously this is all metaphorical, and Matthew’s presentation of Jesus is deeply connected with a community of believers that was becoming more and more at odds with the Jewish authorities. So, I think it’s irresponsible not to acknowledge that there are some obvious digs at the old guard – the religious ones who think they have easy access into the banquet.

That is all true, but I also think it would be irresponsible not to receive this as a critique for ourselves as well. I find this critique sadly lacking in our debates over the Christian character and heritage of our nation. Why does our heritage matter if we are only using it as a way to say that we have a reservation for the banquet? It doesn’t. Our heritage matters only in that it reminds us where we have come from and where we are headed. And unless we are wise, we may find ourselves outside of the banquet hall anyway.

These wise virgins – many have said that their oil represents virtues of character and righteousness. Yet, I can’t help but wonder why they were so stingy! Why didn’t they share? As I have wrestled with this uncomfortable passage I have come to realize that it is not about virtues or preparedness or fatigue or rejection. It is about our human limitations.

Taking this passage in light of the whole cannon of scripture – the story of who God is, who we are, and what our relationship is all about – it is clear to me that we are the ones who are limited. God is, was, and always shall be in a relationship with us just by the shear knowledge of God as our Creator.

The beautiful thing is that we are given the option to determine the nature of that relationship. God is infinite. Our relationship with God is infinite, but our ability to experience God here and now is limited. Our experience of God’s active presence is limited by our decisions to seek things that please us without considering the impact on others. Our experience of God’s active presence is limited by the number of hours in the day. Opportunities come and go with every chance interaction, and we simply can’t attend to them all.

The more I think about this, the more it puzzles me. The more I read Joshua’s statement that “you can’t really worship God”, the more I think about the likelihood that I would not have gotten extra oil before the party, the more I begin to wonder, where is the God of grace and mercy in all of these things?

Then suddenly it hits me. Were I not so limited, I would never need God. Were I not so limited, I would not value the beauty of a tear, the warmth of a handshake, the quickening chill of a cold morning, and the experience of receiving compassion. Were I not so limited, I would not know how to be compassionate to others. Were I not so limited, I might never see the active presence of God in which we all live and move and have our being.

Even though I am limited just by being human, sometimes I become a little too comfortable to realize my limitations. Sometimes I become a little too proud and vain to know and experience God. I think we all do.

It is in those times that I find myself beating on the door of the banquet hall and screaming to God, “Why won’t you let me in!” It is in those times, as I slump to the floor, that I realize that God is not only inside the banquet hall, but God is even in the outer darkness holding me as I cry.

The limitation of the parable is this – God is. God is not locked in heaven or hell or some far off land. God is, and because God is – we are. The invitation of scripture that we have today is to choose this day who you will serve when you are confronted with an opportunity to meet with Jesus. The invitation is to fill your lamps with oil and get a little extra for the road, for you will need it.

And where does one get this oil? We get it from the same source that beckons us to wait. Surely Christ has come. Christ is coming. Christ will come again. While we must prepare for Christ to come, we must also recognize that he is here with us – beckoning us into the banquet hall that we enter through every chance encounter, every opportunity to offer kindness, and every opportunity to forgive and be forgiven.

That song I mentioned a while back, Timing Is Everything, ends like this:

Well you can call it fate, or destiny.
Sometimes it really seems like
it’s a mystery.
‘Cause you can be hurt by love,
or healed by the same.
Timing is everything;
and it can happen so fast,
or a little bit late.
Timing is everything.

May all our limitations become as God’s grace to us as we await and receive the return of Christ. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!








The Commitments

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
October 30, 2011 - Ordinary (31A)
Commitment Sunday
Joshua 3:7-17
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Today is commitment Sunday, and my job is to make you feel that your commitment to the church is somehow more valuable than any of the thousand other commitments in your life. At least that is what it feels like from my side of the pulpit. Truth be told, that is what I often feel like when I forget my place.

God has a way of putting me back in my place, and usually scripture is a part of that action. Today’s texts are a reminder that it is God alone who makes us low or raises up. Our various commitments may be a part of that experience, but they do not determine our value. So, for that reason, it is kind of silly to think that one commitment or another is more valuable in the eyes of God.

Yet all of our actions and decisions affect our ability to experience and express the active presence of God - who is in our midst. Maybe the mountains of laundry, bills, homework, medical appointments, needs of family members, and other commitments make it seem like God is absent.

Maybe there is some part of you that is waiting for God to step in and stop up the river so you can just get across. Maybe there is something about the church that draws you in and makes you feel like you can find some footing to move forward. God calls us in so many ways, and we come because we know that there is a need; a hunger deep in our souls. There is a need in all of us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves - something we come from and move to at the same time.

In an odd way it reminds me of a movie from 1991 called The Commitments. It’s a movie set in Dublin, Ireland in the late 80‘s. A disgruntled and unemployed young man decides to recreate his destiny by forming a band - but not the rock or punk bands that typically expressed the angst of the day. Oh no, Jimmy Rabbitte wants to start a soul band. As he recruits the band and instructs them in the way they must follow, he shares this vision with them.

Soul is the music people understand. Sure it's basic and it's simple. But it's something else 'cause, 'cause, 'cause it's honest, that's it. Its honest. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there's a lot of different music [out there] but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you ...and lifts you [up].

Jimmy continues, making a connection between the angst of living in high unemployment and war zones between Catholics and Protestants. [Don’t you] get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.

As the movie continues the band endures internal conflict and coalesces under their charismatic leader only to fall apart on the eve of their breakthrough. In the end The Commitments turn out to be a name that is disconnected from the reality they hoped to represent.

That is the razor’s edge that any of us who dare to touch something deep and holy walk upon. That is the danger of feeling like I, or you, or anyone has the right or responsibility to moderate or mediate the active presence of God. Note that I did not say participate.

I did not say participate, because that is the invitation that is ever present through the greater reality the church represents - the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples and the crowds to do as the Pharisees say but not as they do, and the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have immediately connected this story with the Sermon on the Mount. They would remember that Jesus said not to give to the poor in a way that others will see - for praise on earth is the only reward they will receive.

Certainly keeping our good deeds secret is one way we can participate in the will of God, the active presence of God, the very Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hearing that almost makes me question Paul’s claim to the Thessalonians. Paul seems to say, “Hey! Remember how wonderful we are - how hard we worked and how much we loved you.”

And as bold and self serving as that may sound, I believe Paul was yet bound by the words of Jesus (which he neither heard nor read) that said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

With Jesus as the interpretive lens for Paul, his words remind me of something my father had on his desk. It was a simple piece of paper that said, “People will forget what you say. They will forget what you do. They will remember how you made them feel.”

So Paul reminds us who we are as the church, and through the Gospel of Christ his words become a signpost pointing to where we have been and where we must go. His words, then, are no longer about what he has done. His words become a plea to remember anything they have done together that points toward the active presence of God.

Considering the 136 year history of this congregation, there is much to remember about the things we have done together that point toward an awareness of God’s presence. Truly, that is what we are committing to today.

We are committing to accept, maintain, and expand the covenant of our common unity in Christ. We are committing to individual lives of response to God’s grace. We are committing to be taught by Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and to know and participate in God’s will through mutual submission.

That last part is the hardest - that whole last shall be first thing. I used to have some kids in a youth group that would always fight to be last in line. It was cute, and a good start - but a little misplaced. Being humble with the expectation of blessing is not really being humble. True humility is like true love. It befalls you. It chooses you. It becomes you. True humility is not a means to an end. It is an end that begins. It is the doorway to becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves.

And so today we will make commitments to God and to one another. The money is just a symbol of that commitment. It is an important symbol - but the commitment of the soul is what matters.

I think that is why this is one of my favorite services of the year. I used to be intimidated about all the talk of money, but now I know that it is about something else. It is about being connected. Connected to God. Connected to one another. Connected to ourselves in our inner most being.

Funny thing about that band, The Commitments. In the movie they split up because they could not suffer their own egos. In reality they stayed together and have been on tour ever since. It seems that they touched something real in their expression of resilience in the midst of pain and suffering.

I believe that is what God does through the church. God offers us something to hold on to, to be held by, and to respond to when all the world seems to demand more than we can give. In the end it is not our commitment that saves us. It is God’s. When we get that - when we really get that from nose to toes - everything else is simply a response to the grace of God in which we live, move, and have our being.

In a few minutes we will all have the chance to come forward with our commitments, our tithes, and our special offerings. This is the one time of the year when I am reminded of the church in Ghana, where they dance their offering down the aisle with joy and praise. This is our chance to say it now and say it loud, “I follow Jesus, and I am proud!”

May we do so in all humility and faithfulness - hoping and trusting that through the church we may experience, explore, and express the very presence of God in our midst! All praise and glory be to God, now and always. Allelujah! Amen.

Impossible


First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
October 23, 2011- Ordinary (30 A)
Psalm 90:1-6
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22:34-46

Last Saturday I went down to New Orleans for my brother-in-law’s wedding. If I were a person who believed in a vengeful God or instant Karma I would say that my recompense for missing the Presbytery meeting was to get lost in the French Quarter. When I finally arrived I had actually missed the ceremony, but was still well received for the reception.

I only knew about 5 people out of the 150 that were present – and that included the bride and groom. I was, of course, introduced to those I met as a minister. I am certainly not ashamed of that honor, but it is always interesting meeting folks in that way. One never knows the baggage or expectations that may be encountered.

I met a man – whose name I have sadly forgotten – who surprised me more than any I’ve ever met. He was in his 60’s and from his reaction I could tell that he was probably a bit more conservative than me. Red flags of impending judgment and ambush were waiving in my head until I realized how genuine this man’s interest was in another person who believed in Jesus.

He wanted to know about our church, and he was excited to hear about our various ministries and the quality of our fellowship and our deep relationships. He was not interested in determining the correctness of our theology or practice. He was truly interested in – and affirming of – the differences that strengthen the witness of the church. This man did not speak of his own authority. He spoke with the humility of a person who is aware of his own sense of revelation. Yet he was also aware that the more he knew, the more there was to know.

Honestly, I did not think it was possible to be that comfortable in your own spiritual skin before meeting this man. Even though I do not remember his name, he has become quite dear to me – as Paul says about the Thessolonians.

The scriptures we read and proclaim today speak of impossible things. The Psalmist reminds us of our limitations and of the limitless actions of God. It reminds me of the prayer of a good friend and mentor who used to say, “Thank you for being God. Thank you that I am not.”

God is God and we are not. That seems pretty basic, but from the tree of knowledge to the Tower of Babel, and on through the prophets, and into the ministry of Jesus – we are constantly working to exhibit what we do not have: control.

Of course it is not only impossible but down right irresponsible to suggest that we should not try to find and create order in the world. After all, we are created in the image and likeness of the one who is, was, and will be in the habit of making order out of chaos. Yet, if nothing comes into being without God, then God must have some part in the creation of chaos as well.

I think that is why the concept of giving ourselves over to the Lordship of Christ is so hard. In the children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis uses a lion named Aslan to represent God. The classic and crucial description of Aslan is that he is not a tame Lion, but he is good.

God is not tame, but God is good. There is still risk in allowing God to rule our lives, but even so God is still at work in us – maybe even in spite of us. And God is good. Allowing God to be in control is what the heart of the Gospel message is about, you know. Jesus is quoting passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and invoking the authority of Moses, the tradition of priests, and the prophets who spoke for God – all to say that we can and must allow God to be God.

And the risk in that is found in the command to love God in a hokey-pokey, whole self in kind of way! The risk is found in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The risk is found in understanding our neighbors – no matter how much “we” don’t like “them” – are not only a part of us, but they are the venue for loving and experiencing the very presence of God!

Understand that Matthew is not particularly talking about the poor or the downtrodden here. Matthew’s version of Jesus summarizing the law is not really concerned with describing the neighbor at all. He is describing an ethic of participation in the lives of others.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for those of us who are the product of two centuries of rugged individualism. For us, this command to love others usually comes across as an internal thing – a moral expectation of the way we should feel about God and others. We hear “love God and neighbor,” and we think of things like giving thanks to God for our blessings and being nice to those who do not have what we have.

Not so for Matthew’s audience. For a first century Jew, Matthew is describing a pattern of behavior that expresses allegiance, fidelity, and concern for something more than the self. Matthew is describing something that is not based on what we feel internally but on what we express externally – not simply works righteousness but more of a reflection of our true identity.

It’s kind of like saying, if we love God with all that we have and all that we are, then we will also love what God loves with all that we have and all that we are. That may be true, but what about the times when we do not live up to that standard? Where is the grace of God in all of this?

Well, just as we ask that question Jesus turns the tables once more by asking this weird question about the lineage of the messiah. Why does this matter? It matters because the Pharisees could not understand God’s saving action outside of their own desires. It matters because this was Jesus’ way of saying once and for all that God is God, and we are not.

That turns out to be a good thing. Remember the unnamed wedding guest that I mentioned before? Well, I was telling him about all the incredible things this little congregation does. I told him about the Community Grill and the new ideas that are bubbling because of the fun we had honoring our Meals on Wheels drivers. I told him about C.U.P.S. and the Christmas Basket Ministry. I told him about the emergency food bags that you have provided for others. And there is so much more with our work through the Presbytery, the Wesley United Campus Ministries, and Family Promise. We’ve even started supporting a Girl Scout Troup. Volunteers of America is going to hold their annual worship service here this December. We’re even going to sponsor a pet adoption in November to care for neglected animals.

As I talked to this man, I got so excited about who we are and what we are doing – but I did have to admit that I have some questions about how we are going to move faithfully into the future. I’ll never forget his response. He said not to worry, because any vision that you can objectively expect to come out in a certain way is probably not of God. The only way to be certain that your vision is in keeping with God’s will is to be sure that you are trying to do something that is so big that you could not possible accomplish it without God’s help.

Salvation will not come from a king, an elected official (including the ruling or teaching elders of the church – of which I am one of the later), or any human lineage. Hope can only be fulfilled by stepping into the space between “us and them” and “me and you”. Hope cannot be determined by my comfort or yours, and it is perhaps most evident when we choose to become uncomfortable for someone else – for therein lies the space to know and experience the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. God is God, and I am not. But through Jesus Christ we can make the bold and ridiculous claim that we can speak the word of God and participate in the actions of the God who is ever present and ever loving – even here, even now – and for that I give thanks! Hallelujah! Amen.