Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hate My Life

Sermon Delivered Sunday, March 25, 2012
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Everything is about social networking these days. Yoono you can Yelp a Tweet to your Facebook page about a place you found out about through FourSquare, but be sure to tell everyone about the deal you got through Groupon (which may or may not be as good as the one you found through LivingSocial). Now, chances are that many of you sitting in the pews have no idea what I am talking about; however, most of the folks that read my blog (yes, both of you) know exactly what I am talking about. In fact most savvy social networkers (a term itself that is becoming passé) would roll their eyes as though I have just proclaimed 2+2 to be a complex equation!

Even though Betty White rightfully proclaimed on Saturday Night Live (in one of the funniest opening monologues EVER) that these social networks (particularly Facebook - where the campaign to have her on was started) are a colossal waste of time, the fact is that there has been a tectonic shift in the way that we relate to one another as a society. People will now post to the internet the most intimate details of things that do not need to be known by anyone. I realized this when I saw a tweet from an acquaintance noting the action of cleaning up after his dog.

One of the more peculiar of these “microblogs” (running streams of short expressions of thought or events) is something I will call HML. I’ve change one of the letters for the context of preaching. “HML” stands for “Hate My Life,” and it is a variant of a tag that people will add to the end of a statement to express utter frustration. The original version has a more visceral word than “hate” to communicate absolute dissatisfaction with life. These statements are collected anonymously and published on a blog for others to vote on and be amused by. A few examples include:

Today, at my grandmother's funeral there was a fight about inheritance. It was my teenage daughters arguing about what they get when I die. HML

Today, I bought medical gloves to protect my hands from various chemicals at work since I have eczema. I had an allergic reaction to the gloves, and now my eczema is even worse. HML

Today, I spotted a $100 bill on the ground. Being a little strapped for cash, I excitedly picked it up. I discovered it was one of those religious tract papers made to look like a folded bill, with a message scolding me for being greedy. HML

Now, I have to say - as unfortunate as those situations may be - I don’t think that is what Jesus meant when he said that we must hate our lives. Jesus was not talking about the inconveniences or even the abject suffering we all face. Jesus was talking about a lifestyle of transformation. Jesus was talking about grain. Imagine the dialogue between two seeds of grain. [This skit is original content, if anyone wants to use it they are welcome. Modify as the Spirit moves.]

SEED 1: Hey, Bob - you over there?

SEED 2: Yes, Jim. Just like yesterday. I’ve been here all Winter.

SEED 1: OK. Just checking. Isn’t it great being roommates?

SEED 2: Um, yeah. About that - you know things are changing right?

SEED 1: It...it has gotten a little warmer.

SEED 2: Yeah. I’ve been wondering about what’s up there.

SEED 1: Up there? Why would we want to go up there? No, it’s better here.

SEED 2: Well...something inside of me has been reaching up there for a while. I...I think I’m changing. Actually, I’m almost to the surface.

SEED 1: WHAT?! Are you insane! What...what are you going to eat - air?! Get yourself together, Man!

SEED 2: LIGHT!

SEED 1: Um...Bob? Are you...OK?

SEED 2: It’s so DELICIOUS! And there is so much of it. I never knew it could be like this, and there is so much that we can do! I’m going up, Jim. I wish you would join me.

SEED 1: Bob? Bob? BOB! I’m scared. I want to stay where it’s safe. I don’t want things to change. Bob?

A good friend once told me that we are either green and growing or brown and rotting, and though he had a heart that was not supposed to be working anymore - he constantly chose to be green. And I believe that is why he is alive today.

Ultimately, I believe that God’s choice is what gives us life in abundance. Of course we still have a part to play. And we still make choices that are not in keeping with God’s will. And we still experience brokenness that results from the choices of others. And we still need a way to know that God loves us no matter what.

Sometimes it may feel like our lives are not worth loving. That is why we remember. That is why we remember that God stepped into the occupation of Israel and said, “I get it. I understand that you cannot keep this covenant, and I love you. I want you to know that the brokenness of your bodies, your relationships, and your very souls is not your fault - even if it seems like you deserve it. I will take the blame from your shoulders. I will still hold you accountable, but I am going to right this new agreement on your hearts, in your minds, and on your very souls. And the covenant is this - I love you.”

Of course God did not stop there. From the beginning God’s covenant with Abram was to bless all the people of the earth through his descendants. And just as Malchizedek - the king and priest - brokered a deal with the King of Sodom for Abram’s safe passage by breaking bread pouring wine and giving thanks and glory to God, so Jesus has done for us. By his submission to God, even in death, Jesus demonstrated the way to know of God’s love and be moved by it into action!

And what is the action we are being moved toward? What is the surface we are reaching for? Ultimately, we’ll know when we get there. Immediately, we know that getting from here to there means sacrifice. Getting from here to there means knowing that you can’t get to the resurrection without the cross!

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that here is earth and there is heaven. I don’t mean to suggest that we can earn our way from here to there by suffering. What I do mean to say is that nothing remains without change - nothing except for God’s love. What I do mean to say is that we can participate in the changes God has in store, but it will require us to love what God loves more than what we love. It will require us to value people that we would rather dismiss.

Participating in the changes that God has in mind will cause us to let go of prejudices we did not even know we had. In fact it will change our very orientation from asking God, “Why aren’t you here for me!” to, “How can I be there for you today?”

Opportunities to serve God are abundant - just look at all of the Christmas and Easter Baskets we have produced! Maybe that is not your niche, but it is one way that we can collectively tell families that they matter to God, no matter what. We have such a great history of mission and service in this congregation, and every time it comes up all I hear is lament over what we used to do. Well, I’m here to tell you right now - stop it! That is not what Jesus meant when he said to hate your life!

Jesus did not mean that we should wallow in self pity. In fact he meant just the opposite. He even said, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

The thing is, we do not need to worry about what we cannot do. We need to think about what God is doing - even through us! We need to realize that there are still Greeks out there saying, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Lyda and Brian are two such people. They wrote a beautiful blog post titled, “Open Letter to Churches Seeking New Members” that includes several suggestions from their experiences in seeking a home for faith. Their suggestions include things not to do like singling them out or chasing them to their car to say “Welcome! Please come back!” They also include things to do like stating clearly what you believe, including explicit instructions in worship materials, and maintaining a website that gives clear and helpful information (for the curious, ours will be up soon). Most importantly, they ask to be remembered. Names are not important, but remember that they came.

Finally, they close their letter this way:

Finding a new church home is not always easy, especially if the one you came from was such an important part of both your faith journey and your personal life. We were very, very close to our previous faith community and it’s hard to think of anywhere else coming close. Or maybe we’ve never been to church and we want to explore that spiritual side of ourselves for the first time, but it’s all so new and confusing. Or perhaps we’re broken and we need a place where we can be broken and it’s still okay. Any number of the things that might bring us to your doorstep can make it hard to do much more than show up, sit quietly in the back, and sneak out afterwards. But that’s the beautiful thing about church communities – they bring new people into your life, they can open your heart and mind to new experiences, they can mend those deepest of wounds, and affirm your relationship with God. With all that on the line, don’t let the little things mentioned above get in the way of connecting people to the Good News.

In Peace, Lyda & Brian

As the season of Lent draws to a close, let us continue to consider the love of God that will not let us go. Let us continue to be urged toward the cross of Christ. Let us continue to consider how we might let go of our very lives in order to experience transformation - even resurrection - in the here and now. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Selling Out

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
March 11, 2012 – Lent (3B)
Exodus 20:1-20
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
John 2:13-25

Have you ever noticed that there are certain words and phrases that mean different things over the years? Take the phrase “selling out” for example. A generation or so ago it referred to scarcity, and - depending whether you benefited from it or not - it could be good or bad.

Either way, things used to be less disposable, and because of that you either worked harder to maintain what you had or you figured out how to do without. Many people still live that way, but most of us act as though there is no end to the supply. To some extent that is true. Globalization has provided many opportunities, not the least of which being the idea that labor or products can always be found cheaper somewhere - except when it can’t.

The truth is that no one’s hands are clean in the chain of supply and demand, and the best we can do is to become as aware as possible of the sources of our goods and services - knowing that some can only come from people and places that we would rather not know that they come from.

That is what selling out means to most people today - it means denying our principles in some way, shape, or form. There’s a song on the college scene by Butch Walker and the Black Widows called Synthesizers that speaks to the anxiety of this age over authenticity and the degree to which we live under the expectations of others. The lyrics pine:

For once, once in your life
Won’t you do what feels right
Instead of waiting for the next big compromise

The satire of the song and the corresponding music video is the idea that living without compromise means living with reckless, hedonistic abandon (at least once). Have you heard this anywhere else? What happens in Vegas... doesn’t really stay in Vegas. As tempting as it sounds, the result of living without compromise is a life that has been compromised. Life is filled with compromise. Living without compromise results in alienation and loneliness - a compromise in and of itself.

A compromise implies an agreement. It requires both parties to give and take. The Ten Commandments, believe it or not, were a form of compromise. The Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things seen and unseen agreed to become known to all nations through a relationship with one group of people who had nothing - politically they were nothing. They were less than nothing. They were slaves. They were the property of another nation.

Yet God agreed to be known through them - through presence and relationship - regardless of land and nation. God sold out, and so did they. Selling out for the Hebrew tribes meant absolute devotion to God. And absolute devotion to God was expressed in their relationships with one another - and you can see it in the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments are all about their relationship with God. I’ve modified them slightly based on the work of Thomas A. Stobie and restated them as “shalls” instead of “shall nots”.

1. You shall worship God alone.

2. You shall only make things that glorify God.

3. You shall respect the Lord’s name above all others.

4. You shall devote time on the Lord’s Day to worship, praise, and rest in the providence of God.

I like thinking in terms of shall instead of shall not because it seems a little more permission giving to me. The other side of it is that not complying puts the weight of condemnation on me. God is not waiting for me to mess up so that God can condemn my children and grandchildren. God is letting me know the natural consequences of my actions. Forgiveness is not easier to gain than permission. Permission to be in this relationship has already been given. Breaking the trust of any relationship takes time and shared experience to heal.

The relationship God has offered through the covenant of the Ten Commandments is one that offers the experience of God’s presence in our relationships.

5. You shall respect legitimate authority, fulfill your responsibilities, use authority wisely, and love your family.

6. You shall respect all human life.

7. You shall be faithful in covenanted marital relationships.

8. You shall respect the property of others and only use goods entrusted to you.

9. You shall respect and honor the truth in your words and deeds.

10. You shall live humbly, thanking God for all things.

Of course the obvious myth in all of this is that the Ten Commandments were followed. The reality is that they were not - not completely - and they never really have been. Yet God has remained faithful to God’s covenant to be known in their relationships - and in ours!

It is no wonder the Jews demanded signs in Paul’s day - as they also did with Jesus. That is how they knew God - through God’s active presence. It is no wonder the Greeks wanted wisdom - for the claims of gods using people as pawns had confused their understanding of the relationship between creator and creature. And since the reasonable experience of God was being turned into a religion that limited that experience to certain occasions and rituals, God did something unreasonable. Since the prevailing understanding of God was manipulative, God became malleable.

The Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God was supposed to be a conquering hero. Instead he died a horrible, publicly humiliating, and political death. He knew it would happen, too. According to John, Jesus practically dared them to destroy him in the early stages of his ministry. He was not reckless. He simply knew that his death would be the natural consequence for speaking truth to power.

All of this - the covenant of the law, the foolishness of the gospel, and the zeal of Jesus to protect the relationship between God and humanity - all of this means nothing to us, unless we are willing to find ways to let it into our lives. It means nothing unless we are willing to compromise. It means nothing unless we are willing to accept Paul’s challenge to look in the mirror and see what it is that makes us special.

And what makes Christians special? Nothing - unless we are sold out. There is nothing uniquely wonderful about us other than the devotion God has for us. There is nothing particularly good or inherently better about a follower of Jesus other than the relationship that we can point to. And when we point to the grace of God that we have received through Jesus Christ, when we point to the experience of a God who is never manipulative and ever faithful, when we point to the knowledge of God found in the space between us - well, that is nothing short of everything!

I felt God creep into that space - I saw God creep into that space - on Saturday in the opening ceremonies for the Lafayette Little League. It wasn’t during the opening prayer - though that did set the tone. It was later, after all the teams of all ages had assembled on the field. There were at least two teams of kids who were differently abled (or with special needs, as we used to say). A few of their members were called forward as representatives from the pantheon.

They ran with reckless abandon and waved their hats to the delight of all. A few people laughed, but not maliciously. It was overshadowed by the applause anyway. I found myself clapping louder for them than my own son’s team, as did a lot of people. As they frolicked to the front I realized that this is one of the few times and places that these kids will be treated with dignity and praise, and I wanted them to milk it for all they could.

And so did God. I believe God was right there in our midst showing us what special was all about. Special was not about being an all-star. Special was about being authentic and true and vulnerable, knowing that God will take care of the rest. Special is not about having land or control over governance. Special is living with God in a covenant we know we cannot fulfill and trusting God to love us, forgive us, and be faithful to us no matter what. Special is not about big buildings, or worship attendance, or money, or anything other than being a community that experiences, explores, and expresses the grace of God together!

I think we can do that. I think we can agree to be a people who are absolutely devoted to God’s grace - if we are willing to make a few compromises here and there. I think we can make compromises without losing our principles - if we can love others as we have been loved. I think we can be sold out without selling out, and I think there is no shortage of the love, grace, and mercy that we so desperately need.

God’s covenant is to bless all nations. God’s covenant is to be merciful. God’s covenant is to offer grace. This, we know. This, we have to share. This, we have to share. May God give us courage for the days ahead, for this journey is far from over. Amen.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Hope Against Hope

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
March 3 , 2012 – Lent (2B)
Genesis 17:1-7:15-16
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Some of you are aware of my not-so secret habit of writing sermons and doing research in one or more of the coffee shops around town. I’ve even been so bold as to claim one of them as an “adjunct office.” There are many reasons I can give to justify this habit. The simplest is the fact that I am too easily distracted by the myriad of possibilities and assumed responsibilities of the office or of my home.

The distractions of the coffee shop are far less important to me, though no less appealing. The parallels between the coffee shop and the church often fascinated me. Sometimes the coffee shop seems equally sacred.

Usually I observe others as a fly on a wall while I read commentaries and make notes. Sometimes I meet with colleagues to discuss the lectionary, discuss the work of the church, and hold one another accountable. Sometimes a complete stranger will share some sense of the divine in ways that are both obvious and instinctive.

For example, the last time I was there I saw a young woman holding court. First she met with a young man, and later with a woman slightly older than she, to discuss her small group Bible Study. They discussed things like topics, resources, and whether or not to include opposite genders. Others came and went while she studied some college text book - something medical I think. She solicited each visitor to join for an upcoming mission trip and got several commitments.

Across the way, two young men sat discussing what sounded like the week’s lectionary texts. They had earphones stylishly draped around their necks and open iconically matching laptops offering a portal to the vastness of the internet - including access to everything from pop culture to the foundational theology of every faith there has ever been (no, I am not referring to Wikipedia).

Along with all of this dynamic engagement with God’s active presence, there was a sense of community in the place - and not just because it was in the name of the coffee house. There was a sense of awareness of the weight, dignity, and presence of everyone around me - even those who came in to escape in a book, or computer game, or really decadent pastries.

I don’t know, maybe that last part is a stretch. Perhaps I am projecting a little bit. Ever since the TV show, Cheers, it seems everyone has wanted to pretend that there really is a place where everyone knows your name, where what you do and say matters, and where you can walk in and everyone will shout your name at once.

That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it? The reality is that a sports bar or a coffee house is not the church, although sometimes they can become the church. Now hear me out on this, because I have worked in both (though technically not a coffee house). The reality is that any community has the opportunity to become inwardly focused or outwardly motivated. Every member has the potential to attract or to exclude - and I have done both, even when attempting to be faithful and loving in the way that God has been faithful and loving to me.

Any watering hole - be it for caffeine, alcohol, or the true cup of salvation - can become a place that offers a sense of common unity or exclusivity, and most of them do both (depending on the person, the day, and the given activities). The challenge that scripture puts before us today is to become aware of who we are and what we are a part of.

And who are we, if not a part of the legacy and spiritual ancestry of Abraham? Not only that, we are a part of the desire of God to become known by all as the one who is ever faithful, ever loving, and ever forgiving. As a certain people who believe in the covenant that God made with Abraham, we actually work to fulfill God's desire when we act on our faith, when we bless our food, when we act kindly to a stranger, when we pray for and with one another, and when we reach out to others through our partners in ministry.

I swear to you that I saw all of these things happening in the coffee house the other day, and it made me a little bit envious. It made me want to know why this wasn’t happening in the church - not necessarily ours - in any church. Then again, maybe it is. We have small group studies on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. We have members that care for and talk to one another throughout the week. We have ministries that are bigger than we can handle on our own. There are not a lot of congregations - especially decently and orderly Presbyterians - that would intentionally support ministries which they cannot do without the support of other congregations.

Come to think of it, last Sunday night I was here with a group of folks that offered what no bar or coffee shop could ever offer. Many of you may not know it, but there is an AA group that has begun meeting here on Thursdays and Sundays. I went to their open meeting and listened with amazement to everyone introducing themselves, not proudly nor necessarily humbly - just matter of factually - as alcoholics. I could not just say, “Hi, I’m the Pastor who is better than you by default.” So I said, “Hi, I’m Zach, and I’m a sinner. I also happen to be the Pastor here, and you are welcome. I just wanted you to know that I need the love and forgiveness of my higher power just like everyone else. So, I am a sinner, and you are welcome.” It probably did not come out quite that eloquantly, but that is at least what I meant to say. They, of course, responded, “Hi, Zach” with polite smiles, and moved on to the next person - as well they should have.

But for a moment, everyone knew my name. For a moment, everyone one knew everyone’s name. For an hour, people were gathered to listen to a person’s experience of God’s activity and to agree to accept the claim God has on their lives. That sounds a lot like the church to me.

That sounds a lot like the covenant God made with Abraham. There is one part that the lectionary leaves out, though. The chunk of verses we skip is God’s demand for circumcision. This, along with the passage in Mark about picking up crosses, amounts again to a really bad public relations move by God.

I say this because there is no one else who ever has or ever will get a majority of the world to sign up by expecting (not just asking) them to mutilate their bodies and die a humiliating, public, and political death. That in and of itself should be some proof that this covenant is from God - no?

No wonder Paul uses the phrase, “Hoping against hope.” I looked at a variety of translations - and even the Greek itself - to get a sense of what this really means. The best I can come up with is from the God’s Word translation. It reads, “When there was nothing left to hope for, Abraham still hoped and believed.”

When there was no way that this could happen - it was, to the best of his knowledge, physiologically impossible - Abraham still believed and trusted that God would do what God said God would do. Of course the first thing he did was to fall down laughing. But no matter - in the end he did what God asked, and he expected God to do what God said God would do.

And so the question comes to us, what has God said that God would do? What has God expected of us? God has not said that our building will last forever or that worship styles are never to change. God has not agreed to make things safe or to preserve the status quo. God has only given us the invitation to lay claim to the identity of Jesus - to claim him as Messiah.

God has offered us the opportunity to pick up a cross and follow in the way of our great teacher, Jesus. And God has challenged us to do it in a way that lets everyone know that Jesus is the Host who offers salvation. Jesus offers salvation here and now - and there and then - for forgiven sinners like me and you. We are forgiven sinners who are compelled to sin again and again by refusing to let go of our designs and desires for our lives and for those we love.

Sometimes letting go can leave us feeling a little hopeless. Sometimes the natural limitations we face (such as decreased resources and aging members) can leave us to say that we hope for new life, but we just don’t see how. In that place of doubt and remorse we look to the experiences of those who have come before us, and we look to the promise that God has given us. The promise is not for the temple. The promise is for the people. The promise is to assure our faith. The promise is to inspire us to hope in something that is beyond our ability to conceive and give birth to (literally).

Believe it or not, I found something in a coffee shop that led me to a quote by Louis L’Amour that sums all this up quite nicely. “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.” Our end is found in our beginning, and both are met in the table of Christ. With all that we are and all that we do, let us glorify God and place our hope in results that we can’t plan for or consider. Let us be a people who know that God is yet active, God is yet present, and God will accomplish what we can barely imagine - even through me, even through you, even through coffee shops, and bars, and congregations just like ours. Amen? Amen! And again I say, Amen.