Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Unacceptable

Sermon Delivered August 26, 2012 
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Some things in life are simply unacceptable. People all have their thresholds, though. For example, there are some people who will send back an overcooked steak in a restaurant and some who will not. Everyone has his own reason. Maybe you feel that you should get what you are paying for. Maybe you don’t want to cause trouble. Maybe you want to be helpful by making sure the management and kitchen know the quality of their product. Maybe you’re with a group and you don’t want to hold anyone up.

As for me, I used to be a lot more picky about it than I am now. Part of me hopes that I am not jinxing myself or the lunch bunch [group that meets monthly in local restaurants] today, but I do believe that in this context coincidence is easier to justify theologically than instant karma. God’s love and activity is both bigger and more particular than my sandwich.

I am certain that God’s influence is in all things – even a sandwich, or a conversation, or the choice to act or withhold from acting. And I am certain that the temptation to make choices that are not in keeping with God’s will is in all things – even a sandwich, or a conversation, or the choice to act or withhold from acting.

It is for this reason that the Apostle said, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of [God’s] power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Now, I think it is important to note that the Greek cosmology was one of certain dualism. They believed there were two equal spiritual realities competing for dominance. They believed the mind and the body were separate realities to master or become enslaved to. Certainly the ancient Hebrews believed in right versus wrong and evil versus good, but the concept of God as a prize fighter for the good did not enter their conscience. The tradition of Jesus, and those of his time, is one that understood God’s will to be the ultimate force that moved and shaped all things – even our imperfect responses to God’s grace.

And our imperfect response to God’s grace and the limited nature of a creation that is not eternal sets things in motion that do not look like God’s will. And so the Apostle wrote to Greeks and Jews in community and offered a word of truth. And the truth is that there are spiritual forces set in motion that are not in keeping with God’s immediate will, and we have to deal with that just as we have to deal with being forgiven, with being loved no matter what, and with being expected to love in the same way we have been loved.

The benediction of the Apostle reminds the believers in Ephesus that they have some tools at their disposal. He uses militant language to describe the way their faith can protect and defend them: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God). “Oh, and make sure you have some comfortable shoes,” he says with a slightly paternal tone.

All of these seem very practical, if not particularly aggressive. Being on the offensive always feels good at the time, as long as you are not over-extended. But it strikes me that these are all listed as defensive options with a particular connection to certain aspects of our bodies. We may rise above our temptations. We may put aside our needs and wants for others, but in the end we are a little like the dad I met yesterday at a birthday party who stuck his foot in the pool and decided it was too cold. Of course, when his family and friends got in he was moved by his love for them more than his preferences for pool water.

In some ways, that is the effect of the Gospel. The teachings of Jesus and the reality of his death and resurrection move us to decide that some things which we once thought we just could not do become the things we simply must do. In other words, Jesus messes with our sense of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

That’s what is happening in John 6. With all the repetition about Jesus as the Bread of Life, you might think that this is the worst example of a classic sales technique. You know the one. Tell them what you are going to tell them. Telling them. Tell them what you told them. If that is what he is after then he’s terrible, because they are leaving him in droves and saying, “This teaching is too hard!”

Not only that, he moves from a teaching that is ultimately corporeal – eat my body and drink my blood – to a reality that is ultimately spiritual by saying, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” It seems like Jesus is chasing them away like some mad drunk. He looks at the remaining disciples and says, “Do you also wish to leave?”

Then Peter speaks and says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Really – they have nowhere else to go? These men who have left family and economic opportunity and Lord knows what else have nowhere else to go? Perhaps. In the ancient days of mariners, upon discovering a new land some would scuttle the mast – cutting it down to limit their options of retreat and force exploration. Maybe they have made similar decisions. Maybe they have redirected their lives in such a way that they cannot easily look for bread from some other hand.

Or maybe they have come to understand what it means to be the church – even for the one who will betray him.

It is here, in John’s Gospel, that the twelve are first set apart. It is here, in John’s Gospel, that the language and the experience of common union with Jesus in mind, body, and soul are expressed. And it is here that we can begin to see what God is offering us through Jesus Christ. God is offering us the chance to see that we – with all of our faithfulness and betrayal – are acceptable.

And that, I believe, is the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we have received it today! If I am acceptable then who, or what, else is? Who, or what, is not acceptable? I think I would be hard pressed to say who is not acceptable in the eyes of God, as I am not God. The question then becomes about the “what”.

We have enough food to feed everyone, but we still have famines – unacceptable. We have more legal protections against slavery and more people enslaved now than ever before – unacceptable. The church of Jesus Christ remains the most racially divided and discriminatory institution in our country – unacceptable. Good Christians are being motivated every day to act based on the politics of fear and anger rather than a theology faith and love – unacceptable.

These are big ticket items, and I wish that I had a simple solution to them. I know some people who do, though. The first person is Erik Wowoh. You may have seen him on the news a few years back. He was rescued from a Liberian refugee camp in 2006 where he lived in squalor after serving as a conscripted child soldier. He was discarded. I have seen his scars myself. In a recent email from his organization, Change Agent Network, he wrote:

I came to the United States, with one hand in the front and the other in the back, which in Africa means naked! I had no passport, no visa, no phone, no address, no job and no one I knew in a foreign country.

After my arrival in the US as a refugee in 2006, within my second year in this country, I was able to put together a 40ft or 18 wheeler size container of supplies including educational and household materials, computers, electronic items, clothing and shoes to be shipped to Liberia to help out.

A year later in 2009, I shipped another consignment to Liberia for which I got a ticket for $800 from the US Government for overload. I had over 80,000 lbs of supplies on Federal highways. It's truly amazing how I came to this nation "naked" and now I am being charged for overload. “Only in America!"

This year's shipment has over twenty five thousand text books and other important educational materials for all levels of learning ranging from kindergarten through university. 150 pieces of used computers, thousands of clothing items, shoes and toys and an industrial generator to power one of our centers in the City View, Lower Johnsonville Community area in Montserrado County Liberia.


Erik has decided that it is unacceptable to let people live as he lived, now that he has received grace, mercy, and restoration. It does not have to be that big a commitment though. We all work within our limitations until God calls us to move beyond them.

Even children know what I mean. There was another birthday party yesterday that proved it to me. At this party a young girl turned eight years old. At this party an eight year old girl decided that she had enough stuff. At this party, an eight year old girl picked two animal shelters and asked for donations of supplies and other things for the shelters instead of presents for herself. Wow. What a profound witness!

As a congregation, we have a pretty profound witness as well. Of course there are times when we feel terribly limited, but I believe that is a good thing. It hurts to feel limited in our bodies and in our ability to effect change. Sometimes it hurts knowing that we cannot keep things from changing.

The good news in all of this is that we are not the ones to create stability or effect change. We are the ones called by God to be a part of what God is doing. We are the ones who have been set apart because we have said, “We aren’t going anywhere because only Jesus has the words of life and we believe that he is present in our common union!”

That, my friends, brings me to the really good part – prayer. If you cannot do anything – pray. If you are doing anything – do it prayerfully. We have all of these defenses against evil – truth, righteousness, and faith – but we have one tool for our offense. Pray in the Spirit. Talk to God. Ask God for the things you believe you need, but do not expect God to bend to your will. Praying in the Spirit – the life giving Spirit – means to become bent toward the will of God.

And I believe it is the will of God for you to know that whatever in the world is unacceptable, you are not it. You are more than acceptable. You are beloved, and so are they. The question of the day is not about the acceptability of persons. It is instead about the need to challenge suffering. Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you also wish to leave me?”

That is the question we must answer when we are challenged by the things we find to be unacceptable. I am hopeful that my response will be like the disciples, but I feel certain that our response as a faith community is just the same. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And through the grace, mercy, and providence of God, so are we – forgiven sinners one and all – as the Body of Christ, broken for the world.

May it be so with me. May it be so with you – Holy Ones of God. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Uncommon Sense

Sermon Delivered on August 19, 2012 
1 Kings 3:3-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Have you ever been so engrossed in a book or a project that you did not notice that the lights were still off until someone else turned them on? Or how about looking for your glasses when they are on your head or your keys when they are in your hand along with five other things? These are moments that make you say, “Duh.” These are moments that confirm our humanity by our obvious limitations.

These are moments that remind me of comments of elders from my youth. Comments like, “Don’t you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?” Or, “If your head wasn’t attached, I bet you’d leave it somewhere.” Of course whenever I would tell my mother that I was trying she would simply sigh and say, “Yes. Yes, you are.” Then again, one of my favorite of her euphemisms was, “Boy, you talk like someone a tree fell on.”

I’m not sure what the current phrase might have been for that type of thing in Jesus’ day – maybe they accused him of being in the sun too long – but I get the sense that the Jews who were following Jesus were thinking that he had gone a little loopy. Some of them had been following him around the country side. All of them had either seen or heard of his great miracles – particularly feeding the 5,000.

Some of them knew him beforehand. They knew his family. Maybe they had even been in Bethlehem when he had been rejected – unable to do any miracle except for healing a few unmentioned souls. Either way, the crowd was not buying his message. They wanted proof. They wanted an encounter with God on their own terms. They wanted another Moses to intercede and provide for them.

Now, before we discount the Jews as adversaries – or dimwits who cannot find the glasses on their heads – we must remember that these are a particular people who are coming from a position of need, real need. They do not want a metaphor. They do not want a different church where they sing more inspiring music, have a coffee shop, or use multimedia presentations. They want a political solution. They want to know that they do not have to live in fear for not conforming to the power of a state who declares its Caesar to be a God – and a very different one from the God who promised to keep them safe for generations on end.

And it is to these people he says, “I’m sorry, but you’re just going to have to eat me. It is not a metaphor. I am really the bread from heaven. I am really going to give over my life for the life of the world. Very truly – really, really – if you want to live, you have to eat of my flesh and drink of my blood.”

Now, this is a point where it is important for us to remember that the Gospel of John includes some things that the others do not. That is because this Gospel was written for a particular community during a particular time in history when division between followers of Jesus and Jewish leaders – and conflicts between Rome and Jerusalem – were at their height. Not only that but religious sects were already beginning within the followers of Jesus, and this Gospel had the task of making it clear who Jesus is, what he is about, and what it means to follow him.

And Jesus is, according to John’s Gospel, the Divine Logos. Jesus is light in the midst of darkness. Jesus – not simply the man, but the reality he expresses – is the creative energy through whom all things are made. Jesus – the man himself – was the very presence of God expressed in very real, very tangible, and very vulnerable human flesh.

And the thing he was here to do, the one thing he was here to do, was to let go of himself – his earthly desires, the expectations of others, and all the pleasures and pressures of a tangible life – to insure the ecosystem of eternal life for the rest of us.

In John 6:51b, Jesus says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is myself.” Literally translated from the Greek, the phrase “life of the world” is the system of life.

And so Jesus, as the Divine Logos, is not only the Author of life, but the Perfecter. He is the One who moves things toward the end that they were made for. And so Jesus tells them quite literally that they must consume him because he is life. And it sounds about as bizarre to them as it does to you and to me.

The thing is, this passage has to be taken as a metaphor – maybe even hyperbole, given the extreme that he is going to in order to make a point. Even though Jesus is clearly stating that those who want to live have to eat of his actual flesh and blood, we know that did not happen.

What did happen is that Jesus drew a line in the sand and dared them to cross over into a new reality. Jesus told them their ancestors ate mana and died, but they have the opportunity to receive him and to live forever.

Still, none of this made sense. Human sacrifices had never really been a part of Judaism since the release of Isaac. Even in regional cults, you never sacrificed a leader. Only the powerless were ever sacrificed, anyway. Now here we have a Rabbi – whom followers would typically imitate until they had their own following – suggesting that he has to die and be consumed by them if they want to live.

Of course, Roman Catholic Theology has been comfortable with this for centuries, having the view that the consecrated elements of communion are the very body and blood of Jesus. And when you take them in you become as Christ. I’ll never forget a friend of mine who grew up Catholic telling me about his first time serving communion as a Presbyterian Elder.

A cube of bread fell to the floor and he could barely make it through the service because of his anxiety over Jesus, The Host, being thrown carelessly to the floor.

The Reformers, on the other hand, took the position that the elements of communion are shared as a celebration of what God has already done through Jesus. And so when we take in the elements we are reminded of what God has done for us and we make a public statement of our desire to respond to God’s grace with our lives. Therefore we become as Christ through our common union as forgiven sinners.

Either way, once you get past the obviously grotesque aspects of the idea of eating Jesus, this claim of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is ultimately about intimacy. And intimacy is about knowledge. And the knowledge of God that we have through Jesus is that we have a part to play in what God is doing here and now. That’s what it means to be followers of Jesus. That is the new reality that we are being challenged into by these texts today. God wants to be known by and through each of us.

Even if you are in a season of waiting – even if you feel that you have already played your part, even if you worry that our congregation won’t survive, or that some other, more personal, issue is going to overwhelm you – you still have a part to play.

The letter to the Ephesians reminds us to be careful how we live and make the most of our time. It tells us to be strengthened by singing hymns and psalms together, and it reminds us that the noise of the world will never be distracted by the sound of one hand clapping! Duh.

Tonight we will celebrate the joyful noise that has resounded from this corner for 136 years. This congregation has done some amazing things in its time. We opened a pre-school when there wasn’t one in the community. We’ve hosted dynamic programming for all ages, including coffee house nights and musical events. We’ve used our facilities in conjunction with others and spawned ministries that are dependent on ecumenical partnerships like our basket ministry and the meals on wheels program. We’ve been a locus for so many on their journey of faith, and we have lived through conflict and found a place of deep solidarity and friendship together.

We are even bold enough to proclaim that this is a place to experience, explore, and express the love of God, because that is what we do here! And yet Jesus says to us, “Do not trust in your ancestry. Trust only in the intimacy of being my body, broken for the world.”

And so – as we have sung – let us be bread. Let us be wine. Let us continue to proclaim the grace, mercy, and providence of Jesus Christ as forgiven sinners living in the hope of the resurrection. And to God be the glory. Now and always. Amen!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Smells Like Team Spirit

Sermon Delivered on August 12, 2012 
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

In 1991 a brilliant and troubled artist let out a cry for help that became a short lived anthem for a generation of apparently apathetic teenagers who were raised in excess. Smells like Teen Spirit was both a pun and a rallying cry. It was a canary screaming garbled speech about those who were united through feelings of meaningless. The canary screamed before 9/11, before the term “school shooting” existed, and during a time of relative peace when I naively believed that our nation might have an entire generation live and die without partaking in the game of kings known as war.

What a different world it is today, and how I wish that we had the things to complain about now that we did then. I guess everyone who lives long enough says that at some point. Perhaps that longing for something more perfect is why we enjoy the Olympics so much. Competition is pure – or at least it can be. Perhaps that is why the Olympics have always held such promise of peace and hope. Perhaps that is why every developed civilization has had games of some form to settle disputes and demonstrate power.

The Aztecs settled wars through violent competition. The Romans held sway over life and death with the turn of the emperor's thumb. The Greeks, of course, hold the original tradition the modern games are derived from. Representatives of city-states competed to demonstrate dominance, alliances were made and broken, and Hellenistic culture with its art, philosophy, and religion was bolstered and spread.

I must confess that I have watched more of the Olympics this year than ever before. Of course that’s because there are more opportunities to follow events and athletes than ever before with streaming video of recaps, interviews, and live feeds of everything from Beach Volleyball to Speed Walking. And that doesn’t even include social media!

One could quite easily become obsessed with the triumph and hardship of these men and women of valor. There are so many stories that take place in a matter of seconds that yet preach volumes more than I can ever hope to. Even so, it’s important to remember the inherent risk in a theology of competition.

The biggest problem is the concept of redemption. Over and over again the commentators celebrate and condemn athletes and teams for their efforts to redeem themselves. Beyond that is the idea that some athletes suggest that God cares more about a particular performance than about the famine that continues to sweep across the Horn of Africa, or a family mourning the loss of a child.

With these risks in mind, I cannot resist lifting up some of the ways in which I believe these games affirm the proclamation of Christ that we have already received today. The letter to the Ephesians is somewhat of a reminder of the rules by which they are to play, but more than that it is a description of identity. This letter was not written to outsiders, or to encourage them to evangelize. This letter is somewhat of a “come to Jesus” moment where the Ephesians are being reminded of who they are and whose they are.

The author, whom scholars presume to be writing in the tradition of Paul, is not just concerned about individual behavior, but rather he is concerned about how they know themselves through their relationships. You’ve heard the campfire song, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” He is saying you will know you are a Christian by the way you all relate to one another.

He tells them, "Don’t let the sun go down on your anger." I have rarely heard that said except to married couples. This text makes no mention of marriage! This text is about being a group of people who sometimes tick each other off, but in the name of Jesus we better find a way to come to agreement or else we simply aren’t following Jesus. Worse yet, we are creating a space of hospitality for the one who is most opposed to the purposes of God. Wow. Who invited that guy? Truth be told – each of us could claim that one at times.

But wait, there’s more. Christian thieves must stop stealing. Duh. But not because it is wrong to steal. They are to stop stealing so that they can have something to contribute for the poor. Likewise, those of us who – as a dear friend once counseled me – love to hear the sound of our own voices need to keep quiet unless we have something helpful to say. Speak the truth in love all day long, but if it does not move us toward the greater good then it actually grieves the Holy Spirit of God – no matter how true, correct, or prophetic the words may be.

Now here comes the big whammy – love like Jesus. Imitate God like a child imitates her parent – just like Jesus did. And our sacrificial living – as a community – will be like a pleasing aroma to God.

The smoke of sacrificial fire has always been said to please God. That is, with the exception of the prophet Amos – who denounced sacrifices that replaced sacrificial living. I guess the sacrifice can have the same limitation as competition. It is not the sacrifice that redeems. Only God can do that. The sacrifice can only and will ever be in response to the action of God.

Jesus was having his own, “Come to Jesus,” moment with the Jews about this very thing. He wanted to show them how to experience redemption and they wanted him to compete with Moses on the Prophetic High Dive.

The crowd that had been following him in earnest had suddenly become adversarial. No longer were they the faithful followers who wandered around the Sea of Galilee like some ancient version of ragtag Deadheads looking for wisdom and a dream they could still believe. Jesus draws a line in the sand and they have to decide whether or not to get on board with the messianic proclamation of Jesus or not.

First off, he tells them that they don’t really understand who Moses is. Moses was not the one who conjured up manna and quail. Moses was God’s faithful servant who still could not save the generation who ate manna, for none of them entered the promised land.

Next, he tells them that they do not know him. He is not “Joseph’s boy.” He is the bread of heaven directly from God. Not only that, but the ones who come to him the ones that God gave to him. This is all setting the stage for the real question – which is, “How are we supposed to eat your body and drink your blood? That’s nasty.” But, we’ll get to that next week.

The jagged little pill for today, however, is the fact that salvation and redemption come from God. It is not something we can do. We can – and should – make amends with each other and with God (apparently before sundown is a good time). We need to confess our need for forgiveness, but not in order for God to forgive. We confess these things for ourselves, so that we can see what God has already done. We confess and we make amends because we need to see and experience grace and forgiveness in order to offer it to someone else. We need an experience and an example to follow.

I think the place the Olympics and the Church – the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God – most overlap is through the examples they set. Not that any of us expects to compete in Rio in 2016 (though there was a 71 year old equestrian from Japan this year), but rather the fact that men and women from across the globe have come together to demonstrate faith in their God given abilities, mutual forbearance in team competition, and the opportunity for one person to stand and be counted as a nation of people.

There were thousands of Olympic moments of courage and grace, of tenacity and teamwork, of trial and accomplishment: The Fab 5 gymnasts, Gabby Douglas telling a reporter that reciting scripture calms her nerves, Aly Raisman’s floor routine tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre, Danell Leyva trusting his father’s training and earning a bronze medal, and the list goes on.

I have to admit, though, one of the most prophetic moments for me was the exchange of bibs between Oscar Pistorius of South Africa and Kirani James of Grenada after a qualifying run for the Men’s 400 meter race. Pistorius is the first double amputee to qualify for the Olympics. He is an international inspiration for those with disabilities. James was favored for that race and many others. He runs to promote the needs of his country and to give hope to its citizens. He lives – by choice – in the orphanage he grew up in. And so the greatest honor was given to the weakest competitor when James asked Pistorius to exchange their identifying bibs.

It was so simple – so pure. It was a small act barely caught on film that demonstrated what it means to be human and what it means to be a part of something greater. And I bet those sweaty men smelled very good to God.

There’s a reason the scriptures and our traditions of faith speak of the aroma of a sacrifice. Smells trigger memories. Just the mention of fresh cut grass or fresh baked cookies or a well chlorinated pool can bring back certain memories or evoke certain emotions. In fact, some say that any time you are showing a house for sale you should bake some cookies in the kitchen before the prospective buyer arrives.

Aromas indicate activities, and sometimes the more valuable activities have the worst smells. Paul, or someone like him, tells us to live sacrificially just like Jesus. And that can get kind of messy sometimes. Yet, we have been called by God to come to Jesus. Yet, we have been invited – even commanded – to consume Jesus in order to become more like him.

Here’s the thing about that. I don’t think we can make that happen by pretending to “do what Jesus would do.” But I do believe that when we take in the realty of forgiveness that we become compelled by the actions that God is still doing.

A man demonstrated this for me in restaurant several years ago. I had already printed his check when he asked for some coffee, so I did not add it to the bill. He demanded that I add it, and when I complimented his integrity he said, very simply and humbly, "It's not me but Christ who is within me." Wow. It's just that simple.

We do this all the time. As a community, we participate in what God is doing through simple acts of recognition and kindness. It happens from hospital beds to store rooms and from the sanctuary to the Elve's workshop upstairs. Sometimes all it takes is the exchange of a name and the recognition that everyone is valuable in the eyes of God. We can do that! In fact, that’s what we do best. It’s who we are. It’s what we do, and to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Rain

I hear a woman's chatter, deep and low.
Storms have uprooted cities
While she and her cats grimaced
With pearl and onyx.
Bangles on her wrist chatter as she rises
Whispering secrets of survival
And communion to her friend,
While I exist as a gnat on fruit
Sucking life from their conversation.
Still my joints ache from battles less sacred.
Still the clouds and their gray dresses
Appear as indicators of my distress.
And the women warriors to my left,
Having been drawn together by the same demon,
Speak of tenacity and expectation
As the path of salvation.
More so it seems that in the sharing of their pain
They have seen it's end;
Not to say that pain is over,
More so that it's purpose is made clear.

I wrote this poem as a pleasant distraction while studying the lectionary at a coffee shop. One of the women who inspired it noticed my copy of Feasting On The Word, and asked about it. Her name is Karen. Turns out she is living on Social Security and taking a course on Medical transcription or something like that. She gave me a big hug and asked me to pray for her. I did not show her the poem. I was too embarrassed to be caught spying. Besides, I needed to relieve the church member who was watching my kids for the afternoon. So, pray for Karen, for her friend, and for all who would be in dire straights without a social network of financial assistance. Not all recipients are like her, and some could not function even if they wanted to. Our system is imperfect and broken, but Karen is glad to be held from destitution while she works toward something better. And I am too.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Work of God

Sermon Delivered August 5, 2012

The bread of life, the bread of heaven – these are phrases that are typically only spoken in Christian worship. Here’s one that is a lot like it that I bet you’ve heard in a lot of different situations – the stuff of life. Now that’s one you could hear or say  just about anywhere! 

Sometimes “the stuff” is a really satisfying meal. Sometimes it is something less tangible like a memory or an observation of someone else’s experience. Children playing, a young couple struggling, a husband or friend sitting by a bedside in a hospital – that’s the stuff of life. We make it through life experiencing both joy and sadness, both hope and fear. 

Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Of course it does not feel that way when we are in the bottom of that cup. When you are in the bottom of that cup you just want to get out, to be comforted, to have some assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an incoming train.
Those are times when nothing is better than food to comfort the soul, and somehow bread, or breading, is often a part of it. That’s because bread has been a part of every civilized, agrarian culture throughout the whole of human history. In fact, wheat is so infused in our diets that those who have allergies to gluten find it pretty difficult to eat anything!

Bread, some say, is a cause for war and a means for peace. In fact, in ancient Hebrew, the word for bread and war is the same word, differing only in punctuation. Christians, it seems, have been concerned about hunger since the time of Jesus. “What do we do with this crowd?” they asked. “You give them something to eat!” he replied. 
Note that the disciples came to Jesus out of self concern. They were afraid of an unruly crowd. Jesus responded out of compassion for the crowd, not concern for his disciples. Now the crowd has come to Jesus directly, and it seems that they get the “Grumpy Jesus” that we have seen before. 

“You’re only here because I fed you!” he says. And they respond, as sheep often do, with something kind of like, “Ma-a-a-a. We’re hungry.” We have all done this, and some seem to craft a theology out of it – a theology of hunger and need, a theology that expects God and prayer to work like some confused version of a vending machine and slot machine.

Well Jesus does not seem to affirm that sort of thing here. He tells them that they have been putting in a whole lot of effort for food that is not going to last. Instead, they should be working for food that does not perish. Of course this peaks their interest. Notice that it is the crowd, not Jesus, who interprets the invitation of Jesus to be about the work of God.

Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” and tells them that God’s seal has been placed upon him, and the crowd responds with something like, “Wow! How can we be a part of what God is doing?” And Jesus’ response is at once too simple and too complex to comprehend, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

And that is precisely where the trouble starts. And that is precisely where the trouble always starts. We proclaim Jesus as Lord. We proclaim Jesus as Saviour, and somehow we still find ourselves queuing up in lines of support or derision over bread, over the stuff of life, over love, and over relationships. Sometimes it seems that the body of Christ is ever on its way to splinter and schism.

Yet Jesus still speaks to us and offers us release from the hunger that drives us to take control. Jesus still reminds us that God is in the business of sustaining us through faith. And faith is so simple, yet so complicated – it is, in fact, the stuff of life.

In a strange way I am reminded of a recent commercial for a truck. Two men meet at a block party and the truck owner is asked what he does. The truck owner looks stunned as he flashes through memories of hard work on a job site and tremendous adventures with his family. The point is obvious – this truck will transform your life. 

Maybe so, but not without proper credit and financing. Now, here is a good place for the obvious metaphor of Jesus as our creditor and financier. Let’s just step over that for a moment and get to the deeper issue. Nothing offers transformation apart from the love of God. Not only that, transformation is not a one shot deal. The human creature is too complex for that. Paper is burned and it becomes ash and smoke. 

A person is created and recreated again and again throughout a lifetime. So, when Jesus says that we will never hunger or thirst, he does not mean that we will not have needs. He means that our deepest need – our deepest hunger – has already been met. Now ours is to live as a people who are so certain of God’s active presence that we become the works of God through our belief! We become people of forgiveness and hope and – dare I say it – resurrection!

We become, as Paul said, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers so that we might equip the saints for the work of ministry – for the building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. And that requires us to be transformed again and again.

Do you believe that is possible? Metaphors for transformation can grow thin at times, but it does strike me as interesting that we often try to live like a butterfly – a being that has been transformed from the inside out for once and for all. Although I do think there is some truth in that – transformation should be radical and recognizable – I really like the idea of bread better.

Flour and sugar and other things are baptized in water, risen to new heights with yeast, and confirmed in the trial of the oven. We, as a people, have the opportunity to be transformed in this way in our worship. And we, as a people, become transformed over and over again in our life together in our prayer lunches and committees, in our phone calls and visits to one another, and in lives that reflect the grace we have received here in such a way that it shines into the hidden places of this present darkness.

Like the Israelites, we will grumble. Like Moses and the disciples we will turn to God out of a mixture of fear and compassion for those we have been called to liberate. And like God, for there is nothing to compare God to in the end, God will show up to provide the stuff of life – compassion, forgiveness, and sustenance.

We will continue to struggle with our ability to assist those in need – as well we should – and we will do our best to provide those things we know that we can. Perhaps we cannot pay a utility bill or provide shelter, but no one ever leaves without the offer of food and without the prayers of our community. For we are a priesthood of believers, and we believe that the works of God are done through our hands – no matter how strong or frail they may be. That is, of course, why we pass the plates of bread and juice to one another during communion. 

As we do so today, I want to invite you to participate in a tradition that seems to be fading in the church today. As you pass the bread, I invite you to say, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” Or you might simply say, “This is the Bread of Heaven brought down for you.” As the juice is passed, I invite you to say, “This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” Or you might even say, “This is the cup of eternal life offered for you.” If you know the person’s name, please include it. 

I’ll tell you why it matters to say these words. This offer is from God, and it is personal. Faith may be private, but it dies in a vacuum. This table is not a place for the exercise of private religion. This table is the place to be transformed! This table is the place to become joined into the Body of Christ, so that we might be broken for the world! And to God be the glory for that, now and forevermore! Amen.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Cuba, Past, Present, and . . .


Notes from a sermon delivered on July 29, 2012 by Dr. Tom Tucker, PhD., Cuba mission partnership team member and Treasurer for the Presbytery of South Louisiana.


Job reminds us man is mortal.  He also reminds us that some of God’s creations have the capacity to regenerate.  More importantly Job tells us there is hope – hope that humankind might find eternity.

Jesus in his ministry traveled back and forth between Galilee and Judea, passing through Samaria.  On one trip he spoke with the Samaritan woman.  Jesus being fully human and fully Devine was thirsty.  The scripture goes on beyond quenching human thirst.  Jesus used the occasion to build the analogy of living water, that whosoever drinks of His living water shall not be thirsty for spiritual water ever again and those who believe shall have eternal life.

In Mark 12 Jesus is at the height of his ministry.  He has returned to Jerusalem knowing he is facing death.  He is teaching his disciples and has been engaging the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians in dialogue.  Some of this evolved into heated debate.  The common people were in the temple and heard these exchanges.  Mark says, “And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.”
Here we hear that power, prestige, position, wealth, even our beautiful churches and temples are temporal.  The body of Christ, however, is eternal.

La Iglesia Presbyteriana-Reformada en Cuba, The Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba, traces its origin to 1890.  Two names standout, Evaristo Collazo and Juan G. Hall.  Collazo contacted the PCUS in 1890 asking for evaluation of the potential for the Presbyterian Church in Cuba.  Rev. Anthony Graybill and Rev. Juan G. Hall made several visits from Mexico and Graybill ordained Collazo.  This work was interrupted by the War for Cuban Independence which became the Spanish-American War.

Following the War, both the Southern and Northern Presbyterian Churches in the US opened missionary work in Cuba along with 7 other US denominations.  Rev. Juan G. Hall returned to join Collazo and organized the First Presbyterian Church of Cardenas.  By 1917 the Southern & Northern Presbyterian Church merged their missions in Cuba and accepted transfer of the mission churches of the US Congregational and Disciples of Christ Churches.

In 1946, the Evangelical Theology Seminary was established in Matanzas jointly under Presbyterian and Methodist sponsorship, later joined by the Episcopal Church in Cuba.

The Presbyterian Church in Cuba thrived.  In 1958, Castro assisted by Che Cevera triumphed over Batista in the Cuban Revolution.  The Presbytery of Cuba supported and welcomed the Revolution initially.  Membership in all Cuba Presbyterian churches was 4,300 in 34 congregations.

Then everything changed.  The US broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and imposed an embargo.  The Bay of Pigs invasion failed miserably.  Castro declared himself Marxist and Leninist and declared Cuba socialist, communist, and atheist.  Schools and clinics of all churches were confiscated.  Churches themselves were not disturbed, but only communists could get work and only avowed atheists could be communists in Cuba.  The Cuban missile crisis erupted.  The Presbytery of Cuba suffered. More than half its members and ministers defected leaving the country.

In 1967 the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba was inaugurated as a result of action at the Boston General assembly of the UPC in 1966.  The 45th Anniversary of the PRCC was celebrated at the 220Th General Assembly of the PC(USA) early this month. Unfortunately the PRCC continued to decline after 1967, and was down to less than 1,300 members by 1979.  There were 3 Presbyteries: Havana in the West, Matanzas in West Central Cuba, and Central Presbytery in the eastern or oriental provinces. The Presbytery of South Louisiana began visits to Matanzas Presbytery in 1985 and the Presbytery of Long Island began visits to the Presbytery of Havana.  The Cuba Partnership agreement was adopted by PC(USA) in 1986.

The bottom came in 1989 when the Soviet Block collapsed causing catastrophic economic collapse in Cuba.  A group of religious leaders met with Castro in 1990 to object to oppression of churches in Cuba.  Castro admitted that religious organizations were providing important support for the Cuban people.  This was broadcast over Cuban national television.  1992, the Cuban Constitution was changed by popular vote to remove the description of Cuba as an atheist state and to redefine Cuba as a secular state.  Castro also changed the law to allow Christians to join the Communist Party.  Rebirth of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba began.

Today there are 3,000 members of the PRCC in Cuba.  The PRCC is now the Synod of Cuba and has the same three Presbyteries:  Havana, Matanzas, and Central.  Churches which closed are being reopened and mission churches are being started.  Growth pains abound.

So, what’s going on with Cuban people today?  They live in a mixed social environment that is in economic turmoil.  They exist usually at the extremes of their mixed lifestyles and rarely have any middle range or balanced experiences.

Automobiles are by far mid-1950 models.  The few newer vehicles are used by visitors, tourists, and an occasional dignitary.  The old cars are patched together – rust is covered with Bondo and paint – they look good.  Replacement parts are handmade because there are no actual parts available.  As these ancient autos give up the ghost, the people revert to bicycles and horse drawn carts.  Houses have electricity, but few electrical appliances.  They have broadcast national TV, but no cable or satellite.  At the other extreme cell phones abound.  E-mail is available on archaic DLS phone lines, but there is no internet.  Technologically the Cuban people are either in the 50s or the 21st century and nowhere in between.  

Those lucky enough to find work are paid in pesos.  They buy food – bread, milk, produce, meat – in pesos.  There are ration coupons for other goods if they can be found.  All other commerce is in Cuban United Currency, the CUC or cuk, which is convertible to and from foreign currency.  By the way, there is a 10% tax on conversion from US dollars.  So to buy anything else the Cuban people must spend CUCs and 1 CUC is equal to 24 pesos.  They get paid in a peso economy and live in a CUC economy.  In some ways it is good.  A loaf of fresh home-baked bread costs 3 pesos.  That’s about 12 cents in US.  Sounds good, except a gallon of gasoline cost about 4 CUCs, which is close to 100 pesos.  So you can see the economic inversion they have to live with.

The dual economy is evident in the collection plate also.  Poor working members contribute pesos.  Professionals are able to contribute CUCs.  The church pays its bills in CUCs.  The amount collected is not important, what is important is that everyone does contribute something.  

I saw an innovative idea.  It was a Spring Flower Garden fund raiser.  Members were invited to place money in homemade envelopes with their name or to honor someone.  A poster at the flower collection box had a hand drawn flower added for every envelope.  The stewardship committee then followed up to encourage everyone to make a regular contribution every Sunday.  I placed a 5 CUC note in an envelope.  That Sunday the church Treasurer took me by the hand, led me to the poster and pointed to a new flower – it was mine.  I made a second contribution.

Literacy is very high, in excess of 99.5%.  Castro set this as a goal.  What do the people read?  Communist Propaganda.  The school system is good and obtaining an education is a cultural commitment.  This is good because the Cuban people can read the Bible.  There are amble Spanish Bible available.  This contributes to calls for help interpreting the scriptures.  Pastors are begging for Bible Study partners for their members.

Good medical care is available.  Doctors and hospital are free.  Medicine is free if you can find it – doctors write multiple alternates on prescriptions and the patient hopes the government pharmacy may have one of them, but they often don’t.  The other extreme is when you go to the hospital you get good doctor services and nursing care which is limited to medical procedures prescribed by the doctor.  No other services are provided.  In other words, family members must bring food and feed the patient, they must provide hygiene and personal care, change beds and bed clothes, bath, escort to the bathroom, and watch the patient.

Over-the-counter medicines do not exist.  Pharmacies carry only prescription drugs and have very limited supplies of those.  You can imagine the gratitude the churches in Matanzas Presbytery expressed when over 100,000 doses of OTC pain relievers were delivered on our trip this May.  In addition to over the counter pain relievers we delivered 8 gross of crayons – they don’t have office supply stores.  Scores of pencils and dozens of pens were also delivered.  These simple, inexpensive supplies are common place for us in the US, but they are priceless in Cuba – literally, because there are none to price.

The infrastructure of Cuba is deteriorating.  Main highways are breaking down faster than road repairs can be made.  When returning to Cardenas from Santa Clara our driver said, “We’ll take the interior road even if it is longer because the northern road is in bad shape.”  Rural highways are becoming almost impassable in places.

What I did not see on the highways was semi-trailer trucks.  Cuba has little or no commerce to transport.  The Port of Havana is expanding and handles container shipments, but the containers are not being transported across the island.  Matanzas harbor has an oil depot, but no cargo docks.  The Port of Cardenas has been closed.

Castro provided housing for all, especially the peons.  In cities these are 3-4 story apartments – similar in design to Stalin’s housing in Russia.  In rural towns these are cinderblock houses.  They were built in the late 50s and early 60s.  They are small and closely spaced, but a major improvement over thatched huts.  With a poor economy there are no funds for maintenance.  These 50-year old structures are run down, unsightly, and beginning to crumble.

Church buildings, especially those in rural areas, have suffered.  I saw the literal destruction of buildings due to deterioration, age, and lack of care.  Other Churches are land locked.  They are crammed on narrow lots between other buildings.  The only options are to move or build up.

New construction is hectic.  Building materials are scarce.  Small quantities of unmatched materials are stockpiled on site until enough is accumulated to do the next construction phase.  Plumbing fixtures are almost non-existent.  Plugged pipes stick out of walls waiting for a faucet or showerhead.  Electrical boxes with capped wires are open in ceilings and on walls waiting for fans or light fixtures.

Problems, problems, problems, but the churches continue to meet and their congregations continue to grow.

The water and sewer systems have not been maintained.  Water pressure is low so every house and building has electric pumps to pump water to a cistern on the roof which provides gravity feed for water to the building.  Unfortunately, the incoming water pipes are old and have developed leaks – water leaks out and contamination leaks in.  So, bottled or boiled water must be used for drinking and cooking.

The water at Jacob’s well was not contaminated.  But Jesus used the distribution of drinking water from the well as an opportunity to propose partaking of the Living Water he provided.  Clean water quenches human thirst, but that thirst returns.  Christ’s Living Water is eternal, however, in order to partake we must first believe in Christ to obtain that eternal blessing.

Living Waters for the World is an appropriately named mission of the Synod of Living Waters, our neighbor to the East – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Through this mission, teams are trained and equipped to 1) partner with communities in need of clean water throughout the world; 2) install community-sized water treatment systems; and 3) lead health, hygiene, and spiritual education.

I was able to view two of these installations in operation at Presbyterian Churches in Cuba and drank water exclusively from one of them for a week.  One installation produces and distributes 180 gallons a day and the other 350.  Water is available for a certain period, usually 4-6 hours, every day.  People from the neighborhood arrive with 2 and 5 liter bottles, roughly half and full gallon bottles.  A member of the church is on duty to rinse and then fill the bottles.  Some only get one bottle, others 4 to 6.  They carry them in canvas bags and baskets on bicycles.  While there, they are engaged in conversation and there is a bulletin board of church activities at the door way.  Personal hygiene posters for educational purposes are posted.

This last week a communication was received from Cuba.  It is their rainy season.  Stomach problems, dysentery & diarrhea, are rampart.  Lines have now formed daily that extend out the gates of the church and down the block.  The daily production of 350 gallons of clean water runs out.  People in line are upset.  The church works to calm them while another batch of water is processed.  A team is on the way to add additional storage at this church.  Another church in this city is already scheduled for a Living Water installation this November.

Presbytery has established a Living Waters fund for donations from churches and individuals so additional installations can be made in Cuba and around the world.

I saw some significant changes in lifestyle for the Cuban people as compared to last year.  Public transportation was a major bottleneck last year.  Old, broken down busses, long lines at bus stops, scores of hitchhikers, hundreds of old cars all fully loaded with people, dozens of motorcycles & motorbikes all with multiple riders and many with sidecars.  New busses were on the road this year.  They were Chinese, but they were keeping schedules and carrying more passengers.  The bus stop lines were shorter, considerably fewer hitchhikers, fewer old cars and motorcycles.

Speaking of the reduction of old model cars on the streets and highways, there was an increase in bicycles and horse drawn carts.  I suppose this is due to the permanent breakdown of 65 year old autos.  Bike and cart paths are being added to the shoulder of many roads.  Unfortunately these are dirt paths, so the slow vehicles will be back on the pavement when it rains – and it rains often in Cuba.

Operating tractors were seen this year.  They are from Russia.   They are underpowered, but they are better than horse drawn plows which we saw last year.  The US tractors given as ransom for the CIA mercenaries captured at the Bay of Pigs in ‘61 have completely worn out.  The down side is these Russian tractors can pull a sugar cane cart about 1/8 the size we see on the Louisiana highways during cane season.  This means lots and lots of slow carts clogging the Cuban roads during cane season.

Speaking of sugar cane – several abandoned sugar mills were pointed out.  But more prominent was the operating Havana Club distillery.  Havana Club is the Cuban government brand of Rum – Blanco, Oro, Negro, and Select.  And directly across the highway is a paper mill.  Cane pulp is made into paper.

Another change I saw, and it is major, is small businesses.  The Cuban government has just recently started licensing small businesses.  Of course, you have to pay a tax, but small businesses are being allowed.  Driving down a street we would see the porch on an occasional house with clothes on hangers for sale, or a table with small goods for sale.  Previously closed and boarded store fronts on downtown streets are open.  There are no window displays with lights and manikins, but the door is open.  The fact there was not a steady stream of customers indicated the stock available for sale was somewhat limited.  Nonetheless, these are small businesses that are being operated to make a profit for the proprietor – that’s capitalism, a crack in the dam.  We hope the little Dutch boy remains in Holland.

“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of troubles.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down;
He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.”
“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
That it will sprout again and that the tender branch
Thereof will not cease.”

Job speaks as if to the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba.  Collazo and Hall were laid to rest beneath Cuban soil.  But the Church continued.  The Cuban church was cut down, but the roots remained.  The shift in social attitude brought forth new growth.  This new growth brings new challenges.

Carlos Ham characterized the last two decades for all the churches of Cuba as “a tremendous religious revival.”  Many new members are filling the pews.  He notes three challenging characteristics of the “new Christians” in Cuba:
  1. They are academically well-prepared, and in many cases are professionals, unlike other ‘Third World Countries.’
  2. They are sensitive to the depths of their emotions and look for ways to express them.  In the context of a materialistic society, they experience deep spiritual needs and therefore try to meet them through the Christian faith.
  3. They are anxious to recover the time they have lost before coming to the Church and to participate actively in the programs of the local churches, including the development of social projects.
We met with the congregation of several churches.  I noted a multi-generational mix.  The elders are the officers of the church; they are the roots that sustained the church during its darkest days.  The children are active and enthused.  Teens are organized and involved.  The president of the young adults group and 6 of the young adults at one church met with us during a weekday.  Parents of the children and teens are active.

The multi-generational spirit, enthusiasm, unconditional love, and excitement of Presbyterians in Cuba are contagious.  Music, dance, scripture, and worship are exciting and powerful.  The closest I can come to that experience in the states is Cursillo.

Speaking of which, Bruce Turner is available to answer any questions you have about Louisiana Presbyterian Cursillo.  The next Cursillo weekend is August 23-26.  I will be there along with Bruce serving the participants, because this spiritual journey is so important to all of us as we continue to growth in our life with Christ.

With the growing membership in Cuba comes the need for spiritual leadership.  Over half the pulpits in Cuba are empty.  Numerous mission and house churches have been formed.  Pastors double up.  Retired pastors fill in.  Seminary students are assigned as pastors.  The Synod of Cuba has had to take charge of pulpit assignments across all three Presbyteries in an attempt to fill the need.

Prayer, Bible Study, Worship, Fellowship, and Service – the hallmarks of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba, and their urgent need is for support in all these area.

Let us pray.
O God, our God, be with us and sustain us as we seek to further your will on earth.  Continue to guide and strengthen our brothers and sisters in Cuba.  Help us to find effective ways to support and encourage their work and the work of the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ, throughout the world.  In His name we pray.  Amen.