Monday, August 26, 2013

Exceeding Limitations

Well, it’s soccer season again, or it’s about to be. I have been coaching my son’s team for three seasons, and it looks like this is the first season that we will have most of the same players as the previous season – even though the last season was our least successful. I’m hopeful for a good season, and I’m learning a lot from these boys. Mostly I am remembering things that I have forgotten. Not just technical skills, but things like the idea that a great effort is a success.

These kids don’t have the technical skills figured out yet, and so a good effort means a good result. It would be nice if more of the world worked that way. I’m not saying that we should not try to achieve results, or that working harder is better than working smarter. I am saying that sometimes we put so much emphasis on results that we forget about the reasons that motivate us.

Jeremiah was a prophet who spoke in such a time as this. Israel and Judah were vassal states, and King Josiah led a reformist movement to reunite the people and claim independent sovereignty. Jeremiah spoke to remind the King and the people that none of that mattered if they did not have a unified spiritual identity. The people and their leaders were impatient with God, and the hedged their bets with sacrifices to other Gods (today we might call these pet projects and programs).

Our text is about Jeremiah’s call by God. Like Moses he says, “I’m not much on public speaking and stuff, ‘cause I’m a kid, sooo...yeah. No can do.” God – having heard that before – said, “No excuse. It’s going to be rough, but I will deliver you. Here, I’ll just stick my words in your mouth, so they can come out later. Oh, and because they are my words, they have the power to create and to destroy.” pressure there. Now, in the past I have mainly heard this passage used by youth who have felt the need to tell their congregations that they have a voice that needs to be heard. Whether that is a right interpretation or not, I think it is interesting that such an expression is part of the fabric of our identity as mainline Protestants. I’m reminded of Roger Nishioka who once told an auditorium full of youth that they are not the future of the church any more than the elderly are the past, and if we all want a future together we better figure out how to be the church today. Amen?

For our context, we have more members that question what to do in their later years. “But what could God be using me for?” we say. I don’t know. I know that Ben Franklin was 70 when he helped draft the Declaration of Independence. I know that Col. Sanders was 65 when he cashed a social security check and started his first KFC restaurant. I know that Judy Brenner ran the Boston marathon at age 70, and in 2007 she sprinted 100 feet to take down a teenage shoplifter.

I don’t say these things to make anyone feel bad, and I know we have some folks in our congregation that did some pretty amazing things in their 60’s and 70’s. The point is that God is never finished with you. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel that God just can’t do anything else with this hot mess of a life that I offer up. It is in those times that I realize that I am not doubting my own voice. I am doubting God’s. Who am I to say that God is limited by my inability to listen and respond?

Listening and responding is part of the invitation in the letter to the Hebrews, but it’s also more than that. First we are reminded of the story of the giving of the law at Mount Zion. Moses went up to be with God because the people fell back in terror. Of course they were commanded to stone to death even animals that may have wandered too close. There was fire and smoke and the shrill sound of trumpets! It was unearthly and unnatural. Then we are reminded that none of that is present in the proclamation of Jesus – except that it is also unearthly and unnatural to say that God is not condemning, but embracing. And the truth of God’s embrace is so unnatural – ultimate forgiveness pushes so hard against the fabric of reality – that it threatens everything in the natural order of creation.

Everything that is movable gets moved. Everything shakable gets shaken. Everything, in the end, is smoke and ashes by comparison to the permanence of God.

Several years ago I sat with a man who was dying, and he prayed with me. Most people ask me to pray. He prayed with me. I remember when he said, “Thank you God for purifying me through this illness.” This was a man who knew of his sins, and of his forgiveness. Suddenly I was reminded of the silver smith’s fire.

The smith heats the metal until it melts, then removes the impurities; the dross; the stuff that is not silver. Do you know how the smith knows when the silver is pure? It is pure when the Smith sees his or her reflection in the molten silver. I think that is what happens in life and in death, and – in the end – all that is left is that which is pure; that which has no end; that which is of God.

I think that is why following Jesus is so good. Jesus refines us so that we can experience the pure and the good and the simple and true in this life. Jesus offers us the mirror to look into – even though we do not always like what we see.

That’s what he did for the synagogue leaders in our Gospel lesson today. He was teaching, and he stopped. As though distracted by something shiny he saw a woman in need – who would most likely not have been in the same area as the men – and he healed her. Suddenly, healing this woman was more important than reading or discussing the law. Suddenly, healing this woman was the fulfillment of the law. She did not ask. He did not ask her. He simply saw the need and healed her, and she praised God!

What is our reaction to this Jesus who offers forgiveness and release from suffering? Do we fulfill the law in the same way? Do we praise God when we are healed?

Of course the Synagogue leader condemned it. “Sorry folks, Jesus wasn’t following the rules. He’s new here, and quite frankly he is creating some problems I do not want to deal with.” Jesus responds with a mirror. “Look at yourself! You take better care of livestock than of this person!” What he goes on to demonstrate is the Jewish concept of Hessed – doing the right thing because it is simply the right thing to do. Deeper than compassion, this is a mindset that recognizes the natural connections we share as creatures of the creator.

That is easily said, but it is hard to do. We all have lives. We all have limitations, and people need to be responsible for themselves. Yet, God is without limitations, and it is the limitless presence of God that draws us to one another. It is the limitless presence of God that invites us to go beyond what we think we can do and to become a part of what we know God is doing.

Earlier this week, Antoinette Tuff – a bookkeeper in a school in DeKalb County, Georgia – found out what this means. A gunman walked into the school she served. Unable to run she called 911 (click here for audio), and became his mouthpiece. She spoke with compassion and sincerity. She related to him vulnerably. She told him she loved him, and that she would help him. Throughout the call, he confessed to being off of his medication and eventually laid down his gun. When the police rushed in, the first words she spoke that were her own were an emotional and heartfelt, “Oh, Jesus!”

Hopefully, none of us will ever endure her situation. Hopefully, we can respond to the situations we do experience with the same faith! We have real limitations. We follow a God who has none. We get impatient with the actions of an influential God who refuses to manipulate us, and sometimes we turn to other Gods. We listen to false prophets. We ask God, “Hey! What are you going to do about this?” Or we shake our heads because we assume that the only way the evil of the day could ever be resolved is by the mighty hand of God wiping the slate clean.

Personally, I would rather be like a certain 93 year old regular of our Agape prayer lunch. Last Wednesday he prayed, “Lord, don’t let us expect you to do everything for us. Help us to see what you want us to do.” Well, amen to that! Amen, amen, and again I say, amen!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Order and Chaos

As we approach the anniversary of the birth of our congregation, I am aware that there are a few other anniversaries around this time of year. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005 – followed by her sister Rita on September 26, 2005. These were two of the deadliest storms in our nation’s history, and although Lafayette is presently in a state of growth, the region will feel their impact for generations to come. Of course we also remember the tragedy of September 11, 2001, with the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentegon, and UA Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. The ripples of these events continue to ebb and flow around the world.

As some of the military campaigns that have attempted to respond to these tensions come to a close, our society will begin to see more and more displaced veterans with their families.

Perhaps it is something about the change of seasons, but it seems that the world is full of tension these days. Can you feel it? There is a pregnancy of emotion and political rhetoric that seems sure to deliver some radical, fundamental change in the fabric of our society. Yet as we are told in Ecclesiates, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and “all is a vanity, and a chasing after the wind.”

Our Old Testament reading begins in Hebrew with the words, “Tohu Va Vohu” meaning, “formless and void.” In some translations these words represent confusion and chaos. For the ancient Isrealites, there was no argument over whether or not God created everything out of nothing (Creation Ex Nihilo). There was no need to explain how things were made – as though the Bible were some kind of cosmic cook book! The creation myths of Genesis simply tell us that it was all God’s idea, and that includes you and me!

Of course the story continues with our rebellion and a pattern of life that involves God constantly labouring to make order out of chaos. I believe that is why the story starts out that way, because it is the character—the very nature of God – to make order out of chaos.

Of course you can ask the question of who makes the chaos. We can ascribe that activity to a little guy with a pitchfork and horns, but that suggests that there is an agent that not only can but does compete with God. More likely, if God is truly God, is the idea that God created us with the ability to choose good and evil – first exampled by Adam and Eve – and also the reality that God allows there to be chaos, because the world is limited and temporal. It just goes hand in hand. People make choices that are opposed to God’s will. It’s been going on since the fruit, the flood, and the tower of Babel. All the while, the world keeps turning and with it continues a cycle of life and death, of tragedy and triumph, and of “rain falling on the just and the unjust alike.”

And Paul tells us that “all things work for the good for those who love the Lord, and are called according to God’s purposes.” Really, Paul? Really? Katrina, 9/11, and war work for the good? How many times has this passage been quoted to those who suffer – or even worse, the watered down version that says ‘everything happens for a reason’ – simply because we do not want to deal with the difficulty of suffering? What kind of hope is Paul suggesting that we wait for? Is he saying that we should just sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” and expect drugs and terrorism to go away, rent to be paid, and food to show up like magic for those who hunger? No. Is he saying that God wants or needs people to suffer? Is he saying that we need to suffer in order to understand things that are beyond our comprehension? No.

These words are certainly given as a measure of hope, but the hope is not based on miracle cures or sudden financial windfalls to dying congregations. The hope is in the presence of God. The hope is found in letting go of even our expectation that God will do what we ask. For “we do not even know how to pray.”

It’s not that we do not know the right words or phrases. Sometimes the problem is that our prayers are so full of sound doctrine and right theology that we really aren’t praying. So Paul reminds us that Jesus opened the way for us to realize that the Spirit, the active presence of God, is here with us. We can receive so much from that gift, if we can silence our own voices long enough to be open to it.

Mother Teresa once said that “The fruit of Silence is prayer. The fruit of Prayer is faith. The fruit of Faith is love. The fruit of Love is service. The fruit of Service is peace.”

In some strange way, her words were reflected in those of Jesus as we read them today. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

The cross was a political symbol of dominance. It was the Roman’s use of Deuteronomy 21:23, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Jesus is clearly saying that if we follow him, our sense of order is going to be distrurbed. If we are truly following Christ, we will naturally brush up against the forces and powers that try to create order for themselves without considering God’s vision of things.

As a congregation we are continuing to wrestle with the question of how to pick up our cross as we seek a New Beginning. The Small Group leaders met last week, and soon they will present some ideas for the congregation to consider – not a program, but more of a process to begin redefining our mission. We were discussing the idea of why we do what we do as a congregation and questioning whether we (as a congregation) all share the same assumption about why we do what we do.

We talked about the statement from the Book of Order that says that, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (F-1.0301) Leigh Rachal was reminded of a friend who is new to the faith who recently said that congregations should follow the example of Jesus so closely that they become uninsurable. It’s true. If we really followed Jesus, our behavior would be so risky that no one would insure us. Yet, the first question asked on any new initiative is – liability!

The reality is that we do have to consider the longevity of our ministry. The truth is that when we do, we place our hope in the things we can do, or touch, or see. The truth is that God not only creates order out of chaos, but God also allows chaos to be there in the first place. God certainly intends for all of creation to be reconciled and at peace, but God is not manipulative. God is influential. God’s will is strong enough to allow things to happen that are not in keeping with God’s will. In the end, what God wants will prevail. So, rather than saying that everything happens for a reason, I will say that faith helps me to find meaning and purpose in all things – even tragedies that make no sense at all.

In times of chaos I expect God to offer comfort, peace, and an understanding of God’s active presence. In times of order, I expect God to offer the opportunity for us to pick up a cross, move toward the grave, and expect resurrection to follow.

I cannot tell you what your cross will be. Jesus said there will be one to pick up every day. He did not say it was the same one. What I can tell you is that God is moving all of creation – and that includes you and me – toward completion.

Thinking of the chaos of this world and the hope we proclaim reminds me of a scene in the movie, Men in Black; Will Smith tells a woman who is being abducted by an alien that everything is OK. She responds with, “What part of this is OK?!” He re-collects himself and says, “It’s gunna be OK!” And again I am reminded of the comforting words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well. And All shall be well. And every manor of thing shall be well.” May it be so with you. May it be so with me. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

That’s Why They Call It Faith

The scripture passages we have received today remind me of the relatively modern invention of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. If you have not experienced this genre of children’s literature, each book has a central theme and puts the reader as a first person narrator in the story. At certain points the reader must choose what to do next and turn to the corresponding page (which is not necessarily the next page). The story continues until another choice is required, and the same pattern continues until you reach the end of a story line – whether by peril or success – depending on your choices as the reader.

I tell you this because I think there is a fairly simplistic story line that can be read out of these passages, and there are more complex threads to find if you are willing to “follow the white rabbit” as both Lewis Carrol and the Matrix invite us to do. So, from this point forward, we’ll explore a basic storyline, and then we’ll see how far the rabbit hole can go (in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book).

The simple story line begins with an historical declaration about a certain group of people, the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who were mistreating the poor and received God’s comeuppance (death by the sword of foreign powers, nasty stuff). Tch-tch... too bad for them. Psalms even seems to say that they had it coming. The book of Hebrews tells us that we can be different from them if we place our hope and trust in the idea that God offers us an eternal kingdom. Not only that but if we have faith in that promise, we will receive the kingdom – because God really wants to give it to us. Then Jesus comforts our fears about the possibility of loss and reminds us to be generous to others so that God will be generous to us – both now and in the life to come.

All of that is true. Case closed. Makes sense. Amen.

Except...except that the people of Judah are not just straw people propped up to tear down for the story of Jesus. They are God’s beloved. Not only that, but the prophecies of God are not simply historical documents, and the words of the prophets are not just written for one certain people. They are living, breathing indictments in a world where stop lights don’t usually go up until an intersection bears a fatality. In this world, international conglomerates, and even local businesses, do not become concerned about worker safety until people are grievously injured or more often until they begin to die – and even then not until someone else notices. 

And where is the church? Where is the prophetic voice of God in a state where 1 of every 86 adults are, or have been, imprisoned – many of them for non-violent crimes – in a system that breeds recidivism and tears apart families? Well, one might say that the prophetic voice of God is giving the church a royal and well deserved spanking! It is as if Isaiah is saying, “Do you think God cares whether or not you get things right in here when you have no impact out there? Yes, you support organizations that do, but what is the church doing? Does your arguing over who someone is allowed to love glorify God? Does your wrangling over correct or traditional or contemporary worship that is only relevant to the traditions of maybe 100 out of 2,000 years of Christian practice (let alone the historical faith of Judaism from whence you come) glorify God? As one commentary said, “Today’s critics of religion need to realize that the Bible has beaten them to it.” 

And so the first step in our adventure is a challenge to consider what we truly believe in. Why are we doing what we are doing, and does it matter to the purposes of God? Are we trying to cover our tracks, or hold down the fort, or are we open to the actions of God that prune us and anticipate our willing risk of everything in order to care for the lonely and the lost – particularly the poor and the oppressed – simply because it is the right thing to do?

From there we move in our Choose Your Own Adventure story to the Psalms. Here we are reminded to choose wisely, and then we are led to a room filled with a community of believers pouring over a beloved letter. It is roughly a generation since this Rabbi named Jesus was said to have risen from the dead, and the Jerusalem temple has been destroyed. They are mostly Jews, and they know the story of Abraham and Sarah. They know that God chose Abraham and Sarah and used them to demonstrate God’s active presence in a new way. This is the God that created a “sent people.” This is the God that is both the reason for moving on and the purpose for being. 

As a person in that room we would have heard the soothing words of the letter to the Hebrews telling us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” These Hellenistic Jews most likely spoke Greek, but from inside our book we can hear it in our own language. They probably heard these words in a way that meant something like “faith gives substance to things unseen.” As a people of the God who spoke creation into being this made sense. Faith is not about asking for things really, really passionately. Faith is about becoming open to eternal things – things that cannot be revealed in any other way during our lifetimes. And now another choice in our story stands before us. Do we accept the belief that we are receiving a promise that we may never see in fullness?

In the next page we flash forward to the labs of scientists and physicists studying forces of gravity, subatomic particles, and dark matter in the far reaches of space. Indeed, we finally realize, “that which is seen is made from things unseen.” From here we see images of far off planets that could bear life. This inspires us to look more deeply into our own humanity, and on the next page we find ourselves in the home of a single parent who lives just down the street. 45% of all children in Louisiana are born to unwed mothers, and her three are more than she can handle.

She is crying herself to sleep because she just doesn’t know how to make it. She wakes the next day, and resolves to believe that she will make it through that day. You can call it faith or tenacity, but there is not much hope. There is only a will to survive.

From here we turn to Jesus, because right about now we really need to hear him say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Of course we are immediately met with the challenge to sell all that we possess and give alms to the poor. While this is both confronting and confusing (becoming poor does not alleviate poverty), the parables that follow interpret the sayings of Jesus. While deeply concerned for the poor, Jesus is equally concerned about our priorities. Jesus wants us to know that our priorities must be rooted in our faith, our trust, and our hope in the coming and present Kingdom of God.

The story about the King who serves his faithful people and the thief in the night  certainly offer encouragement for being ready, but the greater issue is about being willing. Service and possessions given in response to God’s love are so much more fulfilling than waiting until the end and realizing that you just can’t take it with you. 
And so the final choice in our Choose Your Own Adventure story for today is whether or not we will live as members of the Kingdom of God here and now. The final choice is to decide how you will glorify God in all of your choices. The final choice is to recognize the things that are unseen that make up the substance of our world – things like compassion, relationships, and the recognition of those who suffer needlessly. 

We cannot fix the world. Only God can do that. We can live as a people who express forgiveness and reconciliation. We can live as a people who see our hopes fulfilled in the Kingdom that God is ushering in. That is why we say that we have faith. Not because we expect God to do stuff in a certain way that will benefit us and those we love, but because we can see what God is doing. We can live in a way that is not attached to stuff but instead demonstrates the stuff of life. We can be a part of what God is doing. In fact, if we want to experience the Kingdom of God, we must be a part of what God is doing – both here and now, and there and then. And may God be glorified in all of our stories, and even more so in the one we are writing together. Amen!

Monday, August 05, 2013

Oooh, Shiny!

I have been told that I am a non-linear thinker. Some would suggest this means that I am highly distractible by shiny objects and interesting things. I prefer to think of it as an openness to the complexity of life. For example, the other day I was walking my dog, Emma. She – also being ever driven by impulses – attempted to engage the attention of a cat, and may very well have eaten it if given the chance. This reminded me of a recent commercial with an alien posing as an exchange student that attempted to eat the family cat. That reminded me of the late ‘80s sitcom, Alf, whose lead character came from a planet where eating cats was a delicacy that took on near religious significance. Stay with me, I’ll get to the Gospel – I promise.

Anyway, I was reminded that during one particular episode Alf denied his instinct, going so far as to risk his own life in order to save the family cat. [This is the episode. Turns out it was a little different than remembered - but he does risk his life for the cat.] Preservation of his new life required denial of his old life. Being who he had now become (a member of an earthly family) required a denial of who he was. It required a denial of self. Suddenly it struck me that my dog’s inability to keep from chasing that cat is just like my inability to stop doing those things that please only me. It is just like my intolerance of views that differ from mine. It is just like my expectation that others should think and act they way that I do.

Today’s reading from Hosea reflects the character of God, who suffers our selfishness like a parent whose love is never appreciated or understood. Of course children, as they grow, push away from their parents. But this is not just the lament over the angst of adolescence or an empty nest. Nor is it the wrath and judgement of a vindictive God. Instead, Hosea speaks tenderly of the sorrow of God over the reversal of the exodus. “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me”, says the Lord. This isn’t a judgement. It’s a statement of cause and effect. God seems to say, “I can’t help those that won’t help themselves.”

Yet God seems to follow that with something like, “Who am I kidding? They’re my children. Each one of them. I love them.” Not only that, but God expects the bond of love to be so strong that they will be drawn back to God – when God calls to them in their place of need.

All of us, in our own way, come to God more readily when we feel needy. Suddenly that strikes me as a terribly selfish way to approach faith, but let’s be honest – when we feel confident and self assured we are less likely to seek out the God of the universe.

I think that is where our checklist of moral failings from Colossians can help us. We had a bear of a time with Colossians last Sunday in Sunday School! We talked about the idea that this letter affirms the belief that we do not have to wait until we die to inherit the kingdom, and that eternal life starts right now. That statement was met with the wisdom of age when someone said, “You mean to tell me that it doesn’t get any better than this?!”

We resolved to say both yes and no. Through Jesus Christ we become open to a new way of living in the here and now. This new way of living is not just a technical change, like putting a fish on the back of your car. This new way of living is an adaptive change, like changing your entire attitude toward how you drive. It’s like changing from defensive driving to driving as a ministry of hospitality and peacemaking.

The checklist, that list of moral failings, is not a way to achieve salvation. It is the result of knowing that you have been saved. A friend of mine recently put it this way. She said, “I finally realized that I am not all that special. That doesn’t mean that I am not unique or that I am unimportant. It means that I don’t have to try so hard to become something that I am not.” It was her way of saying that God saved her from herself. I asked her how that connected with the idea of being made in the image of God, and we resolved to believe that what it comes down to is the difference between what you manufacture and what you manifest.

We spend lives building bigger barns and arguing over who deserves to have their basic needs met and how. Sometimes it seems that we are tearing our society apart in order to say who can have what, in whose barn, and how we can protect our own stuff. Yet Jesus tells us that all that stuff is just plain silly, for life is short – and you can’t take it with you. “So it is for those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.”

Can you have it both ways? Can you be frugal and generous and comfortable at the same time? Perhaps, but I think there is some aspect of the gospel that should always keep us from being too comfortable. The key to it all is orientation. What is your true North? What guides you? Is it a personal passion that gratifies you, or is your passion found in the hope that you might participate in something larger than your own comfort? Am I manufacturing valuable things, or am I manifesting – making known, demonstrating – the active presence of God?

In some ways, I think that our comfort (as the church) in correct doctrine and practice has become a distraction. It has become something shiny that we prize. There might be another way to think about shiny things, though. In the late 90’s there was a science fiction show called Firefly about a band of ethical space smugglers. Every potential payoff was described as “shiny.” As the show progressed, they routinely double crossed the powerful in order to care for the weak. “Shiny” became less about goods and more about the “good”. Shiny became the ideal that held them together and moved them toward truth – somewhat of a Holy Grail – that was always sought, sometimes glimpsed, , maybe sipped from, but never held.

So it is with us, a people who place our hope and trust in the cup of Christ. The cup and loaf become for us an experience of the ideal, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and the very real presence of God as we receive them with one another. In the past I have described our experience as one of common union. But, maybe it is something more. Maybe it is an un-common union, unlike any you find. In a life full of shiny distractions, this common loaf and common cup turn the world upside down.

Then the things that used to glitter seem dull and taxing, and the treasures of heaven – love, faith, acceptance, and redemption – all of these command our full attention. That is the fullness of the Gospel and the invitation of the table that stands before us. As we seek to adapt our lives and community to the ever changing call of Christ, let us be clothed with the new self and never distracted, unless it is by the chance to demonstrate the love we have received through Christ Jesus. Amen.