Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Libation


What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word, “libation?” I hate to admit it, but the first thing that pops into my head is a song from the Gangsta’ Rapper Tupac Shakur. He was part of a violent sub-culture birthed from poverty and expressed through poetry, movement, and film. Only shortly before his life was claimed by the society that he spoke out against from the inside, he sent a message to the masses by pouring a cherished bottle of take-home pay on the ground to honor his dead friends and loved ones.

Hip-hop may not be your thing – but the concept of giving over something you value in honor of something you value even more is something with which we all need to be challenged. We can laugh about Tupac’s example, but those affected by inner city violence understood what he meant. They understood the message that life matters. I wish that meant that it stopped the violence – and maybe that is why we find it laughable – but at least he gave voice to those who were silenced by pain.

Likewise, the Prophet Joel spoke about a time of famine. He spoke of locusts as the army of God. Of course we know that all of these things can be explained by weather patterns and migration patterns, but they did not; and their pain and anxiety were real. So Joel promises the abundance of early and late rains – the perfect balance for a perfect harvest – and the knowledge of God’s presence through visions and dreams. But none of that will compare to the terrible day of the Lord!

Our passage leaves us with a cliff hanger, because no one really knows what that looks like. We know what it looks like when things are going well. The Psalmist is clear about that. We also know how it feels when we have done everything we can possibly do, and yet we still face opposition and despair. Paul says, “I am already being poured out as a libation.”

A libation is something we don’t have much of a concept for these days. It was a drink offering, usually alcoholic, poured out on an altar or on something being sacrificed for a God. In a time before the knowledge of water filtration, alcohol was a purified drink. It was life giving and restoring – as long as you didn’t have too much. It was a gift from God that was returned with gratitude.

So Paul is a libation. He did all he could. Timothy is being encouraged to imitate Paul, and therefore so are we. I have to say, that’s a tough row to hoe. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try. I’m just saying that a tent making pastor that wrote the majority of the New Testament (at least by attribution) might be conceptually impossible to match up against.

Fortunately we also have the words of Jesus, as we have them from Luke, to help us out. Jesus tells us of two men in prayer. (I would make a crack about women not needing to, but they weren’t actually allowed at the time, so this is what we get.) One is thanking God that he is not like the other because he knows the other guy is a tax collector and could not possibly tithe and fast and pray as well as he does. Meanwhile the other guy is truly aware of and anguished over his own sin. So Jesus tells us that this man is the one who goes home justified before God.

Moral of the story – tithing doesn’t make up for being a jerk. Not only that, being a jerk doesn’t mean that God is not able to love you. Of course, this is not simply about morality. It is not a story about my character or yours. It is a story about the way in which the God of the universe is pleased to dwell with us in all of our foolishness and perplexity. It is a story about the God who pours about blessing upon blessing and the opportunity to become as a libation poured out in thanksgiving to God!

On the surface, the Pharisee seems only concerned about the chance to feel better about himself by demeaning the tax collector – but his prayer was still a faithful prayer. It was good and right to have a way to know that one was following God’s will. He was thanking God for the knowledge that he was able to see and participate in the will of God. Yet Jesus said that this man was not justified by God. Instead, the tax collector – the collaborator with those who opposed God and God’s people – was pouring out his heart and soul as a libation. He was justified, forgiven, and received as a child by God.

It seems to me that the common thread in all of this is the idea of our response to God’s providence. Perhaps it is the season of ministry I am tending to, but everything strikes me as providence. It’s like the parable of the old farmer whose son captured a wild stallion. “What luck!” his neighbors said. “We’ll see.” he said. The son broke his leg while taming the horse. “How terrible!” his neighbors said. “We’ll see.” he said. The army came through and took all the young men who were healthy to fight for the king. His son was spared. “What luck!” his neighbors said. “We’ll see.” he said.

Relying on the providence of God means that everything, for good or for ill, can move us toward greater faith, greater wisdom, and a deeper understanding of the God who is with us. And the deeper our understanding of God, the deeper our ability to respond to God’s grace becomes.

Now, this would be a perfect time to twist the knife of guilt to encourage a financial commitment to the church, especially a tithe. Truly, we are in the stewardship season, and this is the day that I have been asked to raise the awareness of our need for financial commitment. I think, however, that the Spirit is leading me to say that our need is not for financial commitment. Yes, we have a budget. Yes, we base our budget on the financial commitments of our congregation. Yes, the budget keeps the lights on, pays the staff, and allows us to maintain our institutional identity as First Presbyterian Church on this prestigious corner. Yes, a tithe (or a tenth) of your income is the Biblical standard for giving to the church, and gifts to other ministries and non-prophets should be made after the tithe and not as a part of it. That’s all the standard stuff that we say every year. It’s all true, and if you want to talk about it later I would be glad to talk with you about it.

Right now, what I feel compelled to tell you is that I know that not everyone tithes. I know that some of us beat our breasts in anguish over what we feel that we can and cannot give to the church. I know because I am that man. Between student loans, car loans, mortgage, medical bills, taxes, and all the incidental things that life brings, we don’t have as much pie to slice as we would like to have. Believe me, I know that these words lay open a lack of trust in God – and I do not make this confession lightly. The reality is that the average church member (nationally) contributes about 4% of their income to the church. In making my confession, I am not intending to give permission to negligence. I am hoping to give voice to an unspoken reality.

Part of that reality is that our giving patterns as a congregation reflect our belief in what God is doing through the church. Right now, our giving patterns reflect a higher priority on being the church on the corner than being the place where the kingdom of God breaks forth into our midst, transforming our lives and creating us as agents of transformation for the world in which we live!

My hope is to give you permission to let go of any guilt or feeling of inadequacy related to making a commitment of giving to the church, and replace it with a desire to increase whatever commitment you are already making. If you do not commit because you cannot tithe, then just commit what you feel you can. If you are already committed to giving to the church, consider increasing your commitment by a small amount – maybe a dollar amount like $5 or $10 (the same amount as a few overpriced latt├ęs a month), or maybe just one percentage point.

The point of all of this is that the waters of God’s providence and grace and mercy have not stopped flowing. Money is not the only indicator of a healthy congregation; in fact it is really more like the canary in the coal mine. You don’t really notice it unless it stops singing. Our voice, our collective witness, our proclamation that this is a place to experience, explore and express the love of God has a lot more singing to do!

Last Wednesday there were representatives from five different congregations across the Western Cluster of the Presbytery of South Louisiana seeking to redefine their mission, as we are, through participation in the New Beginnings initiative. The presenters asked us to consider the idea that we are looking at our current position as ending one season of ministry and beginning another. They went so far as to suggest that it is like building the plane that you are flying on.

As I think more about it, I think it is more like writing a book. I’ve never written one, but I imagine it must take a tremendous amount of time developing story lines, researching, and discovering new ideas even while formulating the one you began with. So, as we pray, as we study the scriptures, even as we beat our breasts in humble submission before God – instead of making a financial commitment – let us make our commitment a spiritual commitment before God. Then, and only then, our lives will be poured out as a libation before God.

Election


As we approach all Hallow’s Eve and All Saint’s Day, we find ourselves in the midst of another season in the rhythm of life in these United States. You may think that I am talking about Fundraising Season, but that is not exactly what I had in mind. Of course this is the time when every non-profit organization from public and Christian radio stations to organizations that promote physical health and social well being are hunting for donors. If you have ever supported any cause then this is the time of year that every communication device you use seems to have a target on it.

The church is, of course, complicit in the mix – yet we do have the audacity to suggest that we should come first. For most of my life, that argument has been boiled down to, “because the Bible says so,” even though there is a lot that the Bible says to do that we simply do not do. I think the question that should be on our minds and hearts is not one of obligation, but rather a question about priority and transformation.

Do we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is truly transformative? If we do, are we willing to be transformed by it – as a people and as individuals? Are we even willing to dedicate our time, our money, our skills, and our wills to a purpose that we cannot see, anticipate, or determine the end results of?

That’s what the Prophet Jeremiah told the exiled community of Jewish leaders to do. These captured citizens of Judah were the elite. They were the literate scholars and decision makers. They were the makers of infrastructure – the keepers of identity for God’s people. Among them a false prophet arose to console them with words about Babylon’s destruction. So Jeremiah, the true prophet of God, wrote them and said, “Hunker down.”

Perhaps it is only history that proves the false prophet from the true, and we will never know how much of the stories of prophets were written down after the events they foretold, so (as I have said before) I want to encourage you with the idea that a prophet is not a fortune teller. A prophet is a truth teller. A prophet is one who has the courage to speak the obvious truth that no one wants to hear. A prophet is one who demonstrates a new way to listen to God’s active presence. A way of listening that convicts and consoles our conscience and moves us from complacency to action.

As we listen, the Lord says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Are we not, for the most part, exiles in this community? Even if you have lived here for a generation, there are very few among us that are natives of Lafayette. So, we too have been sent here to encourage the welfare of this community in all of its complexity and diversity. Many of you do this in your own way, and to some extent the congregation is more of a launching pad for those who serve in their own way.

Yet the church is not simply a non-profit among non-prophets. We exist to demonstrate something more. We exist to offer a collective witness to the truth of salvation and wholeness through faith in Jesus! But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that we simply tell people about this man Jesus, and that his deaths made God – the author of all existence – decide not to destroy us for the times that we have already tried to destroy ourselves?

No. The truth of salvation is so much more! Not only does it mean that our soul, our life force, our very will to be, will continue living long after our bodies are dead and gone; it also means that we have been set aside for a very special purpose. That’s the season I never got around to describing earlier – election. Paul says that his suffering benefits the elect. Who could that be?

Well, as one of the oldest controversies in Christian history, I’ll simply say that “the elect” could be anyone. In fact, my hope rests on the idea that it is everyone – whether we know it or not. For Paul, there were but a handful of people in the world (even though thousands had been said to believe) that had received the revealed knowledge of God offered by Jesus. Logically, this meant that there were some to whom God had revealed Godself, and some to whom God had not. It had to be this way in order to demonstrate that God was not like any other deity. That is how God worked through the years. Over and over again God chose the weakest link within a covenant people through which to be revealed. God wanted to make it clear that whatever happened wasn’t from the strength of men and women, but only through the grace of God.

As time went on the idea of election was interpreted to mean that God knew, and therefore ordered or at least allowed, that some would repent and believe and some would not. Because we do not earn God’s love and forgiveness, then it is only by God’s action that some will be saved and enter eternal bliss and some will instead receive torment. For over a thousand years this has made sense, and to some it still does. The grand critique has always been free will, and the most historic answer is from St. Augustine, who said something like “we cannot even want apart from the will of God that makes it so.”

I have to say that I find that hard to swallow. Of course, St. Augustine lived in a time of violence and upheaval, so I can’t really say that he had no clue how bad things might get. I think the place where many of us struggle in this day and age is with the idea of a good, just, and merciful God that is limited by human concepts of salvation. On the one hand it makes absolutely no sense for God to be so capricious that salvation and good works have no connection. Good works may flow from salvation, but according to tradition, that’s no assurance that you are indeed of the elect. Still, if there were some kind of eternal kick back for good behavior, even the most saintly among us have anxieties and limitations that keep us from living a life that is worthy of salvation. So, if some are elected for salvation and some not, what does that say about God? That is why I rest my hope in the God of Isaiah who said, “Is there anything for which my hand is too short to redeem?”

That leads us to the most dangerous part of the gospel – the part with Jesus in it. Jesus is the one who sees the ten men who are leprous. In the NRSV it says, “ten lepers,” but the Greek indicates they were men who were leprous. That’s the first and most dangerous thing. The gospel of Jesus makes us see people for their humanity. Not only does he see them for their humanity, but he removes the thing that keeps others from seeing them as human. He sends them to the priest to fulfill the social obligations of healing, but also to be clear that what he is doing is a part of what God is doing.

Then the Samaritan turns back. The Samaritan – the one who personifies defilement – comes back to thank him. Jesus asks, “Weren’t ten healed? Where are the other nine?!” Of course they were off doing what he told them to do. The Samaritan, on the other hand, was not bound by religious expectation. He was bound only by his gratitude, and it was his gratitude that transformed him and redirected his life!

That, my friends, is why the gospel is dangerous. It removes the masks we put up to keep others from seeing our flaws. It demands that we see others for their humanity – not for their masks of beauty and of shame, but for their character as reflections of the heart of God.

The truly dangerous thing about all of this is that we are challenged to look at the things we do that invite, that discourage, that transform, and that resist transformation. The nine leprous men did not come back because they were too busy fulfilling what they expected were the requirements of God! They were so anxious to get back to being and doing who and what they did beforehand that they missed out on the reality of God’s active presence.

The question they missed, and the question staring us in the face, is how to be a people of God instead of people who do what they think God wants them to do. How does being seen and touched and known by God help us to see and know and touch the humanity in someone else?

Today we will elect officers to guide us in this pursuit. The important thing to remember is that we believe in “The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation.” That is not a statement about church officers that we elect. That is about those whom God has chosen. Take a moment and look to the person to your left. Take a moment and look to the person on your right. When you go home, take a good look in the mirror as well. Officers may serve in a certain capacity, but all of the people have rolls to fulfill in proclaiming our collective public witness!

As we continue our holy conversations about the need for connections and relationships and resources in our community, let us not be so caught up in being the church that we neglect being the people of God. I would say that there is not a person in the room I would not vote for, but my vote does not count. You have been elected by God for service and salvation through the self offering love of Jesus Christ, and so have I. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!



Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Eve Was Framed!


“Eve Was Framed!” At least that’s what it said on a bumper sticker I saw some time ago. It was right next to one that said, “Question Authority”. I thought of these at the time – and remember them today – as signs of the times. The world used to be understood in relative absolutes. Right was right and wrong was wrong. There was no grey area in between – at least that is the way it seemed. And yet attitudes about the limitations of women and minorities live on from time before time, and many of these find their root in the story of forbidden fruit in an enchanted garden with a talking serpent.

Still, to say that Eve was framed and that we should question authority may even sound like an invitation to evil itself, but I would say that these statements are instead a call to greater and deeper faith. Without going too far into the concept of feminine evil, I will just say that the Achilles’ Heal of our doctrine of original sin is the idea that it all came about (sin and our separation from God) because Eve gave into the temptation of the serpent and then tempted Adam. It certainly is convenient, but it is also disingenuous, to interpret certain parts of the Bible literally and others as contextual.

The reality is that this is an ancient story that was told to answer eternal questions about whether or not God is active and present. It is a story to help us understand how there could be a good, just, and merciful God while there is yet suffering and pain that seems to be avoidable if someone were in charge of things who actually cares.

The thing that is easy to miss when we get caught up in the blame game between the serpent and Eve and Adam, is that evil was already there. The tree they ate from was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Unless we question the authority of the narrative that we say over and over again without even thinking about it, we will miss out on the serpent hiding in the woodpile of our faith.

The serpent in the story of the first sin is also the first personification of evil. We need that. We need to locate the evil in someone else. Sometimes we need to do that because it is too hard to see how we might be connected to the person in poverty who creates an act of violence out of desperation. Sometimes we need to locate evil in someone else because it is too easy to see it in ourselves.

The serpent in the woodpile of our faith comes out in the way we think of evil. We often think of evil as a force opposing God in some eternal, dualistic struggle. We define what actions and relationships are in opposition to God. We think of our faith as a way to keep us on the good side – to bail us out and keep us in the right. But that is not always the case. Even in the Psalms we hear a shift from the human plea for justice to the deeper motivations of the heart of God.

The Psalmist cries out, “Cut the lips off of those people who say that they don’t need God!” But what rouses God to action? “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord.

So, the presence of evil is messier than we want it to be, and the Bible does not necessarily answer the question of why evil exists. It simply treats the reality of sin and evil as something we must contend with – something we can only overcome through a higher power. In the Prayer of Jesus we are told to ask not to be “brought to the time of trial.” Some translations say, “Lead us not into temptation.” Although some manuscripts of Mathew’s Gospel say, “rescue us from evil” the NRSV adds, “rescue us from the evil one.”

According to Jesus, God has a role in our experience of evil – even of the evil one. In this most intimate of prayers before God – where we have establish our relationship as parent and child, as Creator and creature, as citizen finding order and meaning in a nation without borders, and as beneficiaries of Divine providence – in this Holy Conversation, the Prayer of Jesus, we also recognize that left to our own devices we will sail into the storm of self deceit and self destruction every chance we get!

Perhaps that is a pessimistic view, but it is nothing new. Confucius said it this way, roughly 500 years earlier than Jesus in China. “The small [person] thinks that small acts of goodness are of no benefit, and does not do them; and that small deeds of evil do no harm, and does not refrain from them. Hence, [that person’s] wickedness becomes so great that it cannot be concealed, and [that person’s] guilt so great that it cannot be pardoned.”

How beautiful it is that we know that God does pardon our sins! How beautiful it is that we have been given the prayer of Jesus to help us be moved not only to repent when we fail, but to guide us away from all that distracts us from the good, the meaningful, and the pure things in life! At the root, evil is a distraction from the good. Evil is found in our complacency that catches us off guard when we realize that things have gotten beyond a point that we can tolerate.

Evil is lurking in our willingness to support international commerce that requires slavery and injustice that we would never tolerate in our own country. Evil is active when we read the words of the Apostle Paul that say, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” and we respond by saying, “That’s too hard, impractical, etc.”

I can’t speak to international, or even national or local, politics on this issue – at least not without expressing personal biases from the pulpit – but I can tell you about my friend, Ken. Several years ago he found out that the Mars Corporation – which supplies the majority of the world’s chocolate – uses coco beans treated by chemicals that burn the hands of the children who pick them. So he made his house a chocolate free house. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but the volume of chocolate that comes through most houses with children is higher than you might imagine.

When I first heard about it, I thought there was some odd chocolate allergy. It was an odd allergy. It was an allergy to injustice that he described by saying, “I won’t let my kids have chocolate that other children can’t have, and I won’t contribute to harming someone else’s child.”

Since then he has found, to the appreciation of his family, that there are chocolates and coffees that are certified as safely harvested and fairly traded (like the coffee we serve here). It may not seem like a big thing, but his willingness to identify with the struggles of others allowed him to become removed from blind participation in something that is undeniably evil.

I think that is the heart of the matter in the Prayer of Jesus – removal of the blinders that cause us to participate in the evil of the day. I often hear people talk about the way this world must certainly be heading to an evil end, but the same was said by David in the Psalm.

You, O Lord, will protect us;you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Is evil the reason for wickedness? Perhaps, but maybe evil is more of a description of harmful things that we can’t understand or explain. Is there an evil one in opposition to God? Yes, and sometimes I see him in the mirror. I think a harder question to answer is whether or not I can see the face of God in a creature that seems determined to deny God, to cause pain, and to live for him or herself alone. An even harder question to answer is whether or not I can see God as active and present in war and famine, in disease and disaster.

I believe that through the Prayer of Jesus we can say, “Yes, God is active and present in all things!” As we pray in the way of Jesus – that’s what in means to pray in Jesus’ name, to pray as Jesus would – we can become more aware of the God we serve, who is bigger than the God we can conceive. We can stop framing Eve. We can stop feeling victimized. We can truly expect that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, and we can begin to see new ways to be a part of what God is doing.

I pray that it may be so with me. I pray that it may be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always, Amen.