Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Stubborn or Tenacious

Hosea 1:2-10 Psalm 85:1-13 Colossians 2:6-15 Luke 11:1-13

Our Gospel Lesson today was recently the topic of debate in our Wednesday night book study, as it was featured in the book, Preaching The Hard Sayings Of Jesus by Dr. John T. and the Rev. James R. Carroll. The Carrolls – a father and son team – suggest an underlying current of tenacity in prayer as the essential teaching of this lesson. As I considered this passage and the related threads in the tapestry of God’s word for us today, I remembered the work of another theologian – the late, great Charles Schultz. Consider his perspective on the topic.

“Stubbornness is a fault. Tenacity is a virtue.” But how do we know? How do we know when we are being “merely tenacious” or just being stubborn? I think there is a fine line and a slippery slope at the edge of tenacity and stubbornness. Hosea – who is just a bucket of sunshine, by the way – spoke in a time when things were going great for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He also read the writing on the wall for a people whose stubborn claim of righteousness had become disconnected from their actions.

They knew they were God’s people, but they were also hedging their bets with sacrifices to local deities. And, as we heard from Amos last week, those in power were taking advantage of those without power – sort of like the way out-sourcing is supporting modern practices of slavery around the world and decreasing our own ability to create manufacturing opportunities here at home. All of this added up to one thing – a terribly stubborn position of self righteousness.

Hosea speaks of Jezreel, where Jehu put to death the line of the unfaithful King Ahab. Wait a minute. Why would God curse the line of the king who purified the line of kings? Because the House of Jehu did the same as Ahab. This is “second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.” By Hosea’s proclamation – Israel is done for, and Judah is saved to show that God is the tenacious one. God is the one seeking something worth redeeming. And even in that terrible, terrible phrase, “You are not my people, and I am not your God” there is still the hope that “the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.’”

Just as the prophet speaks of the writing on the wall, God offers the natural consequences. Some things in this mortal plane of existence can be so broken that they cannot be fixed, but God – who is beyond all things and yet as close as your breath – is always moving us toward redemption. If we are open to the tenacity of God’s active presence, then we may see what God is doing. We can get a glimpse of the hope that lies beyond brokenness – a hope that is not dependent on things getting fixed and working the way we expect them to.

That’s a very hard concept for most of us to understand. Most of us see life as a series of opportunities, problems, and needs that have to be assessed, accounted for, and resolved. And sometimes we are right. The problem is that 1)sometimes there are more variables than we can plan for or understand, 2)rarely will everyone in every situation agree on the need, and 3)that way of living leaves hardly any room at all for the Holy Spirit – victory or defeat is all on our heads, and there is no room for grace and mercy in our relationships.

That, of course, is why we need Jesus. I find it interesting that Paul’s words to the church in Colosae do not talk about having God in us, but rather that we are rooted in Christ. We are a part of what God is doing, but only when we hold fast to what is good. Our behavior is not a way to earn God’s love; it is the consequence of God’s love. God’s love is so severe, so tenacious, so transforming that those self-gratifying things that once seemed fun simply do not hold our interest any more.

And so we come to God, asking what now? How do I order my life? I think these are questions that we do not ask once. I think these are questions that we ask again, and again, and again. On one of these rounds a man asked Jesus to teach him how to pray. Jesus set the model – presumably saying, “This is what I pray about.” In the prayer of Jesus, God is honored as source and sovereign, repentance is made, and a desire to follow God is expressed.

But then Jesus offers a story about a man who begrudgingly helps his neighbor because he did not want to be known as the one member of the community you can count on to refuse to help someone in need. And if that guy is going to do the right thing just to save face, how much more likely is God to help you when you call out?

Nice. Neat. Incomplete. I can ask for a pony until I am blue in the face and it won’t happen. How many of us have lifted untold prayers into the ether with only silence in return? The simple answer is that sometimes the answer is “No.” The more difficult answer is that sometimes our prayers have slipped from tenacious faith into muleheaded stubbornness. On the fine line at the edge of that slope there is a rope that is braided with the ability to ask ourselves if we are being stubborn or tenacious.

The answer is found in the Psalms today. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

When our concerns reflect the transforming love of God, they will be centered in the union of righteousness (the correcting of broken connections to God) and peace (the ability to rest in the presence of God). All the other stuff that gets in the way – selfishness, power, powerlessness – disappears, and the God who was remote and distant becomes understood as the God who is present and active in all things.

That does not mean that our opportunities, problems, and needs get resolved. In fact it means that sometimes our search for resolution can get in the way of experiencing God’s presence and participating in God’s activity.

The best way I can think to describe what I am saying is to talk about the Grand Canyon. An old Native American proverb says, “Strong rivers need firm boundaries.” I can find no stronger boundaries than the Grand Canyon. Yet, if you follow the course of the river you will see that it has changed over time. I see those several thousand feet tall walls as the hands of God, and the river as the life we dare to pour out (or perhaps the life God dares pour into us). In our stubbornness we might claim to be the ones who direct the flow or maintain the boundaries, yet if we hold fast to our faith we will find that it is God who is ever faithful, and we who have the joyful opportunity to be a part of what God is doing.

We should still pray tenaciously for God to help us however I think that we will find that the difference between stubbornness and tenacity is found in how deeply we are concerned with ourselves and those that are like us or how deeply we are concerned with that which glorifies God. We may all hold fast to the hope of living in the place where “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, and righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Amen.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Spare Noses

Amos 8:1-12 Colossians 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” has got to be one of the strangest expressions I have ever heard. When would anyone ever do that? Why in the world would you need to tell someone not to cut off her or his nose? Of course the expression refers to hasty judgement. In its origin it may have had more to do getting even with someone else, as John Haywood wrote in the 18th Century:

“If there be any, as I hope there be none,
That would lese [lose] both his eyes to lese his foe one,
Then fear I there be many, as the world go'th, 
That would lese one eye to lese their foes both.”

Even more severely, it may go back to experiences such as those of Saint Abbe of Scotland who led a convent to disfigure themselves to save their chastity from invading Danes. It worked, and the Danes were so repulsed that they decided to burn the entire convent.

All of us have, at times, made hasty judgements. All of us have, at some point, decided that if we cannot have it our way then we would rather not play the game at all. It’s easy to see it in children on playgrounds or in homes, but it is hard to see it in ourselves.

That is one of the many layers of instruction we can see in the story of Mary and Martha. There are so many wonderful themes, juts, and eddies of wisdom in this short passage. The characters are often debated, and there can be a good conversation about why Jesus stopped there and how these women remained in his ministry. Some have highlighted the boldness of Mary – a woman taking the position of a student in the rabbinic tradition – or the inclusivity of Jesus.

Either way, Martha usually gets short shrift – dismissed as someone who just does not get it. I wish I could tell you that I am going to do better by her, but probably not much. Except to say that I get her – I understand her. In a lot of ways, I am her. I remember being in a small group at a Montreat Youth Conference several years back. I was one of three adults with eighteen youth from all over the country. The leader asked us to identify with Mary or Martha and get into pairs to talk about the passage. I remember being shocked that it worked out evenly and thinking, “Who are these so called ‘Mary’ people?” Obviously they aren’t as faithful – or honest.

Martha is the one who cares for others. Martha is the one putting in the work. Martha is not just fulfilling the socially expected role of hospitality – she is laboring in love, and no one seems to care! So, in her zeal for offering hospitality she crosses the line. She makes the guest accountable by asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her. She cuts off her nose to spite her face.

In this time of great and terrible social change that we live in, I can’t help but think of Martha as the church. The church, which is the Body of Christ. The church, which has for so long known who we are by the fact that people have come to us for answers, for meaning, and for hope. The church, which has become so good at generating the product of religion that we seem to have have forgotten the true meaning of Christian Discipleship. The church, which is Martha – trying to make sure all the details are covered, because if we don’t who will... and if no one does then we won’t matter... and if we don’t matter then how can we matter now... and suddenly we stand with knife in hand – looking at our noses.

The good news is that the church is also in a brilliant position of attending to Jesus, of being disciplined, and of offering answers, meaning, and hope because we can ask this question, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” And we can hear Jesus tell us, “There is need of only one thing.”

That one thing, as Paul taught the church in Colosae, is to know that we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ! The mysteries of all eternity – the questions of life and its meaning and fullness – are all revealed in the fact that the God of all that is knows you and wants to be known by you. The God of all that is wants you to know that God’s love for you is unlimited in all of time and space, except for the limitations that you put on it.

Last week our Agape Prayer Lunch got into a discussion about recent photos from the Hubble telescope and the possibility of habitable planets. We concluded that if God is God here, then God must be God there. And though it is interesting to think about what that means for our relationship with other beings, the Prophet Amos reminds us that we have more immediate concerns.

Now, it is one thing to say that we should take care of the needy because it is the right thing to do. It is also true that being overly hasty or vengeful can hurt us in the long run, and if those are the things you take away today I’m fine with that. But I think the God thing here is this – because of our relationship with God, if we systematically neglect the poor, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.

If we support a system that depends on a larger number of people making below a living wage so that a smaller number of people can live with comfort and ease, then we are not only hurting them – we are hurting ourselves. Amos, the farmer prophet, uses a bowl of Summer fruit as an object lesson to show that something good has been held too long. And though it may be hard for us to connect with the gloom and doom he predicts for Israel, it is not too far a stretch to say that expecting everyone to love us because we are working hard to be the church is not the same as being the Body of Christ – the Bread of Heaven – broken for the world.

Amos speaks of a hunger for something more than bread and tells us that the Words of the Lord will be hard to find. Another prophet, Jeremiah, speaks of a new covenant with the Word of the Lord imprinted on our hearts and minds. Which of these times are we living in today? Is there a hunger for the Word of God? Is the Word of God imprinted on your heart and mind?

I think both might be true, and I can tell you how I know. Every time I meet someone outside of the church and I describe our location I find that people know where Dominoe’s is better than where we are. Sure, Dominoe’s has millions in advertising, an iconic brand, and an easily consumable product, but is that really an excuse? People are hungry. People are hungry for the Word of God. The Word of God is not bound in a book. It is lived and breathed and experienced in our common unity.

Some time ago a United Methodist congregation about our size in Marietta, GA was facing similar constraints to ours. The neighborhoods had changed. The congregation was older. Well, somehow they decided that they would do better as a homeless shelter than a place of worship, and they opened the Elizabeth Inn. One thing lead to another – during the course of over ten years – and they became MUST ministries, focusing on basic needs. According to their annual report, last year they provided 82,071 hot meals, 145,991 safe nights of rest, and have returned an estimate of $6,000,000 to the community through their employment services by offering job training and placement. And all of this because they attended to the one thing – Jesus Christ offers salvation in this life and in the one to come.

We do not have to close our doors to attend to that. In fact, we do it pretty well with them open. Last Sunday you empowered our children to make and send Gift of the Heart School Kits to students in disaster torn areas. Many of you helped kick off the gift basket ministry for this Fall and Christmas. New drivers have stepped up for Meals on Wheels. A new group has expressed interest in managing our emergency food basket ministry. And right now, in someone’s heart and mind, God is planting a desire to support or begin some new expression of hope. It might not even be something church related – unless by “church” we mean the Body of Christ which is beyond these walls. All of this will be fulfilled in God’s good time if we can simply attend to one thing – that Jesus Christ offers salvation for this life and the life to come – and then let all our other actions flow from that truth.

Otherwise, all the stuff we store and all the plans we make may just as well be drawers full of spare noses we have bent out of shape and collected over the years, and that would just be gross. Thanks be to God that there is more to it than that. Thanks be to God that there is more to you than that. And may God bless us as we seek greater spiritual discipline under the Lordship of Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hubris and Humility

Hubris is a rather fancy word, isn’t? It almost makes the user seem as self important as the one being criticized. In Greek society the word carried a legal penalty with it for offenses that were power related and unjust – perhaps even similar to crimes we would call “heinous” today. For us, hubris is just a high dollar word that implies overconfidence to the point of an overblown sense of self importance.

As a nation that occasionally refers to itself as the last remaining Global Super Power, it seems reasonable to consider whether or not our sense of self worth is entirely accurate. In fact, I would suggest that some level of self critique has been as much a part of our culture as fireworks and flags. The sacred tome – or at least a good catch phrase – for such a concern is the novel titled The Ugly American, written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958. I say catch phrase because the irony is that we often use that phrase to describe people who are obnoxiously and unashamedly culturally unaware. In truth, the hero of the book was literally an unattractive US architect who lived in a foreign land with indigenous people in their villages and helped empower them to come up with creative solutions to meet their needs.

I think the idea of how culturally aware we are is particularly relevant to the church today, because we have found ourselves in a foreign land where values have shifted and the culture is not our own. Anthony B. Robinson, in his book, Transforming Congregational Culture, suggests that there are a few different things that have happened to move us culturally without moving us physically. One of the biggest is the influx of immigrant populations and a shift in the balance of pluralism. Another is a change in generational perspectives.

We’ve been talking about the generation gap all of my life, but we have always approached it from the perspective of making a bridge from us to them so that they will come and be more like us. Here’s why that will never work – we are strangers in a foreign land. Things that used to matter – obligation, loyalty to institutions, creating and maintaining the status quo, finding and giving the right answers, and to some extent even national pride – do not matter the way they used to matter. Things that matter now include: making a difference (or at least working to change things for the better), a feeling of belonging and community rather than joining or becoming a member of something, gaining new perspectives on issues that do not seem to go away (poverty, homelessness, even cancer research), seeking truth that is not dependent on one right or wrong answer, and finally – national accountability as opposed to pride. Don’t get me wrong, the desire for accountability is born out of the same love of our nation that bore national pride. That is simply the way that love is expressed today.

So, today we hear this word about a foreign power – a General, who thinks pretty highly of himself – and a prophet who demonstrates the God who is not confined by circles of power. Naaman is a man of power, and he knows the way to get things done. So, he gets his King to send word to Israel's King – leaving out the fact that this came at the suggestion of the servant girl – expecting Israel’s King to “make it so.”

The King, of course, thinks this is a provocation and tears his clothes (although he conveniently has ten new sets to choose from). Elisha hears of it and returns the favor with a message to the King, “Oh, you tore your clothes. How sad. How about we all remember that there is someone who speaks for God in Israel, and it isn’t you.” In this case it is not hubris. It is a call to humility. As the story follows, that is the key to Naaman’s healing – humility. True humility that leads to reverence and true reverence that redirects an understanding of self in relation to God and others.

So it is with the early church in Galatia, as Paul reminds them not only to bear one another’s burdens but not to expect someone else to carry their own. Could it be that the 20/80 rule was present even in the early church (20% of the people doing 80% of the work)? Possibly, but the proclamation at hand is not about pointing fingers. It is about reaping a good harvest.

Jesus also uses the harvest metaphor to describe the work of those being sent out, “as sheep among wolves.” I think this is a very difficult passage to connect with for the post-modern church. In some ways it speaks our unspoken fears that we are in a minority of opinion and belief. At the same time, this initial experiment of sending out itinerant disciples does not relate to our experience as disciples except for the fact that we are also sent out by Jesus. It is certainly easier to expect the scorpions we tread on to be more metaphorical, yet we are called to proclaim something so counter cultural that it can poison our relationships and damage our opportunities.

The thing is that Jesus sends his disciples out – and that includes you and me – with the confidence that we have been given what we need. He sends us out with the knowledge that not everyone will accept what we have to say. He sends us out with the understanding that all will not go the way that we want, but everything will work to the glory of God in the end.

The report of the 70 who return is, of course, ecstatic. Who wouldn’t be if they realized that they had just exercised super natural powers! (Maybe that is why some say that it feels so good to serve others in the name of God.) In the end, Jesus cautions them to remember that what really matters is that their names are written in heaven. What matters is not the exercise of power, but the knowledge of its source. What matters is the result. What matters is that we realize the eternal consequences of our actions.

Reinhold Niebuhr said it this way, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

As forgiven sinners we approach the table of grace and mercy today because we believe that the love of God matters. We come as invited guests for a foretaste of the spiritual communion that we will share in eternity, when all that is bad falls away and only the pure image of God in which you were created remains.

Here and now we will proclaim in humility and faith some of the bedrock values of our nation – reverence, grace, and mercy – although these values are not what make us US citizens. They make us citizens of the Kingdom of God, which has come near in the person and work of Jesus, which is present and yet to come in the person and work of you and of me. Thanks be to God that our names are written in heaven. Thanks be to God we might even write the names of others in heaven as well. Hallelujah! Amen.