Thursday, May 24, 2012

Belonging

Sermon Delivered May 20, 2012 – Easter (7B) 
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

As we begin to wrestle with these texts today - with their claims of exclusivity and condemnation - I’d like you to consider the idea of belonging. What does it mean to you to belong? Who, or what, do you belong to? Most of us have so many allegiances in our lives that we sometimes feel that we are in the midst of a competition, or perhaps we are being competed over.

We live somewhere in the midst of family considerations, Doctor’s orders, financial obligations, the needs of our friends, and - heaven forbid - even the opportunity for relaxation and enjoyment. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the people, places, and things that belong to us and the people, places, and things that we belong to.

Belonging certainly implies ownership, indeed “to be the property of a person or thing” is one of the definitions of belonging prescribed by www.merriam-webster.com. There is a lot more to belonging than that, though. Other definitions include:

1. a : to be suitable, appropriate, or advantageous <a dictionary belongs in every home> b : to be in a proper situation <a man of his ability belongs in teaching>

2. a : to be the property of a person or thing —used with to <the book belongs to me> b : to be attached or bound by birth, allegiance, or dependency —usually used with to <they belong to their homeland> c : to be a member of a club, organization, or set —usually used with to <she belongs to a country club>

3: to be an attribute, part, adjunct, or function of a person or thing <nuts and bolts belong to a car>

4: to be properly classified <you belong in the genus and species of homo sapien>

Somehow, in spite of the great possibilities for nuance in the English language we have boiled the idea of belonging down to make it synonymous with ownership.

Somehow, we have decided that belonging is not about mutual submission but instead it is about power. If you need proof, just turn on the radio and listen to any number of sappy, codependent, love songs found on any station and every genre.

Somehow, in spite of our hubris and pride, God still breaks in and breaks down our defenses.

Once upon a time there was a group of 5 year old boys playing on a hill behind a concession stand at a park while their older brothers were playing t-ball. On one run down the hill, one of the boys tripped and collided with the concession stand - knocking him out cold. One of the kids goes to get his own mom who scoops up the fallen child, brings him to his mother, and says, “Is this one yours?”

The woman graciously received her child and rushed him to the E.R., where he woke up dazed and confused - but unharmed. Each of them overjoyed to belong to the other. Each of them found ways to assure such an event would not happen again. Each of them, in their own way, was transformed by the experience of risk, longing, and resolution. Each of them continued to experience grace, mercy, and providence every day.

In fact, the boy - now a man - and his mother sat discussing our texts on her porch just a few days ago, and they (or should I say we) realized that these familiar and comfortable texts are not as familiar or as comfortable as we might want them to be. The Psalm is certainly a nice assurance, assuming that you are among those who meditate on the law of God with every waking breath.

Even so, it makes some pretty bold claims that are fairly difficult to see sometimes. Particularly I am talking about the idea that the faithful will be necessarily prosperous, and the wicked will be driven away. Tell that to the young woman with postpartum depression. Tell that to the amputee soldier with PTSD. Tell that to the couple who have worked, and saved, and lost it all! Tell that to anyone who has ever struggled to survive, and they might just tell you that God seems to be helping those who help themselves. And what kind of God is that?

God is, of course, not limited to our experience and understanding. In fact God is particularly beyond our ability to fully experience and to fully understand. That is what makes God, God. God is holy. God is separate. God is other. And yet, God has said to an oppressed people, “My name is I AM.” And yet, God’s activity is as simple as watering a tree.

Last night, Zoe and I talked about this passage and the way in which God’s word is like water for the tree. Of course trees cannot move, but we can. And through the proclamation of John we understand Jesus as the word made flesh, the divine logos, the fullness of the law - the water for the tree. Through the proclamation of those in John’s community, we see that there are those who have moved away from the fountain of life. These proclamations were written about a generation after the resurrection, and scholars will tell you that things were not much different than they are now.

There were debates over the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the spiritual or physical nature of the resurrection, and probably even over the flowers, paraments, and pew covers. Well, maybe not that last part, but they probably did have some conflicts over the hymnal since those who were not Jewish didn’t always understand the Psalms. Like I said though, not much has changed.

Don’t believe me? Just watch for bumper stickers. Eventually you will see one that says, “No Jesus - No Peace” on top and, “Know Jesus - Know Peace” on the bottom. While I bristle against the exclusivity of that claim, there is a lot of truth in it.

The fact is that we do need to be able to point toward the new reality that God has ushered in through Christ Jesus. We need to be able to look deeply into the dark places of our own souls and proclaim the light that we have been given - the light that leads us out of self doubt and delusion. For this is the light that leads us out of our vain attempts of claiming ownership of God and instead leads us toward the mutual submission that God is constantly inviting us into. For that is exactly what the God of the universe has intended for us, to be in a relationship of mutual submission where God will spare nothing - not even his own son - to make the nature of our relationship with God known to us.

Let me be very clear in saying that God is not subservient to us. Even though we pray with great demands and we make exclusive claims about our individual salvation, God does what God does because it is what God does. And, fortunately for us, what God does is to love us. What God does is to sanctify us. What God does is to use us to announce the kingdom that is both present and yet to come, and that kingdom looks like a place where people know without a shadow of a doubt that they belong. They belong categorically. They belong because they are valued. They belong because the testimony of God, which is Jesus - love expressed through mutual submission - leads to eternal life, is written upon their hearts just as it is written upon yours and mine.

Do you know that? Do you believe that the testimony of God is written upon your heart? I once heard a story about a little girl at the Doctor’s office. The Doctor was well versed in children’s behavior, and as he looked up her nose he said, “I see Elmo!” and she giggled and said, “No, he’s on TV.” He looked in one ear and said, “I see Mini Mouse!” and she giggled and said, “No, she’s on my panties!” He looked in her other ear and - needing to recover and knowing the family from church - he said, “I see Jesus!” The little girl said, “No, silly, he’s in my heart!”

Somehow that becomes harder to believe the older we grow. Perhaps it is because we’ve had more time to make mistakes. Perhaps it is because we have had more time to be hurt or disappointed by others. Perhaps it is because we put the thought of having Jesus in our hearts in the category of childish ideals.

Yet we are told that we will be known to God because the testimony of God that Jesus offers salvation will be written on our hearts. Do you want to know how you can tell if the testimony of God is written on your heart? It makes people mad. In fact, someone, somewhere will hate you for the fact that you are here to express the opportunity of mutual submission with God. Hatred is not the result we want, but it is always a possibility if you are truly Christ’s disciple. Someone, somewhere will expect you to follow certain political perspectives or condemn you for the ones you hold. Someone, somewhere will tell you that God would never consider becoming vulnerable because they know for a fact that God cannot and will not do that. Someone, somewhere will tell you that salvation has nothing to do with the here and now and everything to do with the there and then - and somehow their version of there and then looks an awful lot like a cleaned up version of the here and now.

And I will tell you that here and now is where sanctification, salvation, and eternal life begin. It begins with the gift of belonging to God - both individually and collectively - in mutual submission to grace and mercy and the terrific claims they place on our lives.

I met a woman last week that I think demonstrates this idea of mutual submission pretty well. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado, and she was a speaker at the Festival of Homiletics last week in Atlanta Georgia. Her congregation describes itself as a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient - future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination. If none of those words mean anything to you, just know that they have been a gathering point for those who have not felt welcome or who have been downright excluded from the church and the Christian faith.

One of the issues her community has faced as it has grown is that a group of young professional suburbanites began to come - oh the horror - and she had some genuine concern for those who felt outcast by a similar group in the past. They held a church meeting, and a young gay teenager stood up to say, “I’m glad that there are people coming to our church who look like my parents, because it is good to know that I can trust people like them to love me - since I know that my parents do not.”

And suddenly the testimony of Jesus was written upon their hearts by a child the church would reject. And suddenly I became aware of what it means to belong. And suddenly the statement that Christ has no hands, or feet, or arms to embrace but yours and mine gained deeper and clearer meaning. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation or political agendas or worship styles. It has everything to do with asking Jesus to let me into the Kingdom by opening the doors for someone else.

The Kingdom of God is a place where all may enter in, where all may be transformed, and where none of us are in control. The Kingdom of God is here - inside each of us. The Kingdom of God is a place where you belong, and so do they - whoever they are. The Kingdom of God is waiting to be revealed - but not inside these walls. The Kingdom of God is both present and yet to come. We long for it. We look for it. We expect it, and we celebrate it when we experience it - both here and now, and there and then! And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Scandelous

Don't  you just love a good scandal? I mean - as long as it is not wrecking my life it has a certain entertainment value, no? I would love to earmark this as a sign of the downfall of modern civilization, or perhaps trash the feaux reality dramas like Desperate Housewives and GCB. Don't get me started on either of these or the way in which they do more to re-enforce negative images of women - and Christianity - than they do to empower real people who might actually be lacking in their options in life. Anyway, the reality they point to is that both Ecclesiastes and Carl Jung are right. There is nothing new under the sun and our collective conscience does love repetition - both for good and for ill.

Scandals are just plain yummy - whether they are real or imagined. Still, I'm not entirely sure where the need for the narrative of scandal comes from, but I would guess it is something close to schadenfreude - the sick pleasure of watching someone else get busted when you know it could be you. Maybe it is also a way to engage those terrible and wonderful fantasies that we would never admit to even considering - except in the silent chapel of our hearts where we cannot hide from ourselves. 

Sometimes a scandal can help us feel superior. Righteous indignation is delicious and potentially addicting. It can also help us to forget the log in our own eye when the speck in our neighbors is getting all the attention.

Sometimes the scandals of our own narrative become so familiar that they do not seem all that scandalous. We just get used to the way Uncle Bob behaves at Christmas or to the stories of the exploits Brother Jim. We don't challenge them because we do not want to risk the loss or be challenged in return. Besides - it's just easier to love people as they are, right? Maybe, but I can tell you that if I ever have an open fly or a Klingon Cave Dweller on my nose, I would prefer you tell me about it than leave me to my own devices. 

Some how I've gotten on to the topic of enabling here when what I really wanted to talk about grace, mercy, and redemption. I guess it is unavoidable to talk about redemption without acknowledging the need for it. Whether it is because we enable others or live in denial, we all have a need for redemption at some level.

On this particular occasion, I am thinking about the scandal of Jacob. I've heard the story of Jacob stealing his brother's birthright and blessing so many times that it is kind of like background noise. It reminds me of a friend in seminary who used to have the movie Raising Arizona playing on his TV almost every time I walked by his dorm room. Something about it just made him happy. Anyway, I was reading Genesis with my 8 yr. old daughter tonight, and we read the story of Jacob lying and steeling his brother's blessing with his mother's help.

Wow. Talk  about putting the fun back in dysfunctional! As I read, with little to no dramatic flair, my daughter would gasp softly or say, "Oh no!" over my shoulder. It encouraged me to read with more emotion, and she responded accordingly. I thanked her for paying such close attention and helping me to remember how amazing the story is.  Then I tucked her in and went on my way.

Then it hit me. Jacob is the one through whom the self revelation of God moved from a person to become a nation, and from a nation to a person, and through that person God revealed Godself to every person.

Then it hit me again. If God can not only make use of, but actually choose to use, someone so selfish, base, manipulative, and easily influenced, then God can surely use me - and God can surely use you.

I talk a lot about participating with God's active presence, but I will confess that I often feel and act like it is all up to me. Thank God for the faith of a child which reminds me that the story of Jacob's scandal is my story! Thank God for the grace and mercy that God has been demonstrating for all of time! Thank God that we live not only in the hope of the resurrection but also in the experience of restoration!

May those who read these words be encouraged. Whatever you have done, whatever has been done to you, nothing can separate us from the scandalous love of a God who is ever faithful and ever encouraging us to greater faith.

Peace.

Love and Fear

Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

I have a love/hate relationship with exercise. I always have. God has blessed me with a high metabolism and with the lack of ability to sit still, so I have always been relatively fit. The only time I have ever attempted to lose weight intentionally was when the weight classes dropped half way through wrestling season in high school. I ended up staying the same, which bumped me into a higher weight class with larger, stronger boys that found me to be about as competitive as a mop.

Unfortunately I have never had much of a need to become more fit, other than general health and a nagging desire to fit into societal expectations of physical prowess. I’ve never had a real goal. I’ve never had any real motivation. As I get a little older - and I am well aware that I am far from aged - there are some new motivations creeping that are not apparent from the surface. Of course, the reality is that all of us, regardless of age and stage, need to care for the fragile vessel we’ve been given.

Yet somehow, we usually need some kind of external motivation to make the internal choice. Many of you know that our family has a new dog. Emma, the dog, has become my external motivation - and my new jogging partner. Yet there are still days that I just don’t want to do it. In fact, most days I would rather just let her run around in the back yard than go through the effort of physical exercise.

Most mornings that I take her for a jog I do end up feeling better for it - most mornings. Most mornings - and most days - I want to be healthy enough to run a marathon and strong enough to complete military style challenge courses. I don’t want to do the work - I just want the reward.

That’s a place of conflict that many of us live with - the desire for reward without effort. There are, of course, some generational differences. Those who have lived long enough and have struggled enough often smile and nod knowingly when younger generations complain. Yet all of us carry around a sense of entitlement at times, whether we feel that we have earned it or not.

Our scripture readings meet us in the place of conflict between actively seeking a reward and feeling that we deserve it regardless of our efforts. The Psalmist speaks of restoration at the hand of God, and the first 21 verses mirror the suffering servant in Isaiah and the gospel accounts of the passion of Christ.

Psalm 21 begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It continues with the enemy mocking him by saying, “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” And then they divide his clothes among themselves, and they cast lots for it. Sound familiar?

Yet the passage we read together today is about the other side of the tomb - it is about resurrection! And I believe that if the Psalmist can speak of his resurrection in the here and now, so can we! Of course, I am equating resurrection with restoration and perhaps even with atonement - but we’ll get to that in a minute.

First I want to come back to this abiding tension between reward and effort - between hope and expectation. Abiding tension - that is an interesting thought, given that we are told to abide in God so that we might know that God abides in us. And God is love. God is not tension. Love is not tension - or is it? Can you think of a single loving relationship you have ever had where there was never any tension? I can’t. Yet when we hear this command to abide in the One who is love, what feelings come to mind? I wonder if we could share that for a moment. Tell me, what feelings come to mind when I say, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them?” (Opportunity is given for response.)

Thank you. It’s very interesting - this idea of abiding. I’ve always thought of it as a very passive thing - like being held like a baby, caressed and cradled. Yet that is clearly not what the scriptures are talking about! We abide in God by understanding that God abides in us. God’s love for us is realized - literally becomes real to us - through our actions of love and care for others.

I think that is why the Fellowship and Mission Committees are so excited about our FPC honors CUPS event tonight! So much of God’s love was realized last Fall when we held a dinner to honor our ecumenical Meals on Wheels partners that some of us said, “Hey, let’s do that again!” I think the desire to experience God’s love is what drives our gift basket ministry. The 300 Easter Baskets kind of went by with a yawn after we did over 1,000 Christmas Baskets, but there were still probably over 1,000 volunteer hours that went into them.

And let’s not forget that we are also working on sending a crew to help with flood relief in Carencro. That’s pretty amazing for a congregation that some may think of as drying on the vine just because of our size and population demographics. Oh no, that is not the case! For we are in the business of bearing fruit! But before we get going too far down the road of self congratulation, I want to come back to the question of atonement.

Atonement in its origin is a particularly English word, having origin in the adverb, atonen, meaning "in accord." And so it literally means “to make unified” or “to become as one.” Now, the Greek word in the text is actually “hilasmon” which translates as “propitiation,” a word that means to gain someone’s favor by giving something up. So, there you have it. Christ atoned for our sins, turning the wrath of God toward some other pursuit as though it were the dreaded eye of Sauron from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Now, I do not wish to make light of the wrath of God - or the sacrifice of Christ; however, I will say that the idea of atonement is one of the most troubling concepts in Christianity for many who are believers and for many who are not. One reason for this, I believe, is that the concept of a God who is love is more reasonable to most people than the concept of an angry God who could love us if we would only say the right prayer or produce the right religious experience.

Still, we have this text that tells us to abide in this God who is love. We have this text that says to us that we will produce good things if we abide in God and become open to God who is within us. We have this text that says to us that apart from God we can do nothing, and that God will lop off and burn up anyone who is not a part of what God is doing. For that matter, even those who are producing good works are going to be pruned.

That does not sound particularly good on either account. Unless...unless, perhaps... perhaps it is not so much about eternal consequences as much as it is a commentary on the tension between living in expectation and living in hope. God is certainly going to do what God is going to do in regards to eternal judgement, but the point of atonement is not simply to issue get out of eternal jail free cards. The point of atonement is that we are loved into understanding that we are, in fact, lovable.

Then again, the natural limitations of time and physics tend to move us toward prisons of our own. Then we, like Milton’s Satan, often decide that the small space of our own pleasures is a heaven of our own construction that we can manipulate when needed. And it works, until someone or something that is entirely out of our control reminds us how inadequate we are for the role of being in charge of the universe. That is precisely when we need to know that we are not only lovable, but in fact, we are beloved!

St. Augustine said it this way, "But our soul... is unlovely by reason of iniquity: by loving God it becomes lovely. What a love must that be that makes the lover beautiful!" What love could it be that transforms us and claims us other than the love of God?

And we know God’s love in this way - by the experience of loving and being loved. We know God’s love by the experience of living in the tension of becoming vulnerable and risking rejection. We know God’s love by the experience being held in a way that encourages our active response - whether that be in the call to pray, the desire to support the ministry of the church financially, or simply wanting to experience God’s active presence through specific actions and expressions of love.

It doesn’t take a church program to do that. It just takes a church. It doesn’t take a church building to express the love of God. It takes church members who can’t wait until Sunday to be with God, because they know that God abides in them and they in God. That’s you. You are God’s beloved.

Some time ago I was wrestling with the idea of even being lovable, and I realized that I was already beloved. I wrote the following words in response. I call it the Psalm of the Beloved.


I am in the arms of my Beloved. 
It is Thee who gives me breadth. 
It is Thee who gives me depth. 
In Thee I am held more tightly than a babe. 
In Thee I am given freedom, 
to live... 
to move... 
to be... 
O, in Thee. 
I am even given my very breath, 
and often think of it as mine. 
But even that, Dear Heart, is Thine. 
So draw me in, and issue me forth; 
and let the smell please your nose, 
for I am Thy creation. 
In Thee I seek repose. 
I am in the arms of my Beloved... 

And so are you. 


Amen. Amen. And again I say, amen.