Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Endurance


I’d like to begin today by talking about the things that we might assume these texts are talking about, rather than what they are actually written to address. Our passage in Isaiah talks about salvation. It was not written to tell anyone about Jesus. Our passage in Thessalonians talks about idleness. It was not written to address welfare or any other so called “entitlement” program of the United States Government. Likewise, our passage from Luke was not written to describe a pattern of events leading up to a final day of judgment.

Now, let’s unpack this a little more. The book of Isaiah is believed to have been written during three different periods – before, during, and after the Babylonian captivity and exile of the Jewish people. Our section was most likely written before the actual exile, and it is accompanied with passages that speak of the judgment that was to come at the hands of a foreign power.

It was a terrible time, unlike any that we have ever known! Although there was a concept of eternal sleep (King Saul consulted the sleeping spirit of the dead prophet, Samuel, through a medium), scholars disagree about concepts of eternal bliss or punishment for the ancient Israelites. Salvation was not so much about individual eternal reward. Salvation was about justice and righteousness and release for those who suffer.

For those of us who live after the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can certainly say that the salvation Isaiah points to is found in fullness through Jesus! But when we do, we must be careful not to focus so heavily on the eternal reward that we forget the connection between salvation and the experiences of everyday life.

That leads us to the issues facing the church in Thessalonica. Paul was not writing them to tell them to get off their rumps and get jobs. Paul is telling them not to be deceived by those who tell them that Jesus has already returned, or that the return of Jesus (whenever he comes) means that they have no responsibility. On the contrary, the return of Jesus means that we have so much more responsibility, because our faith opens our eyes to see the work that needs to be done. Our faith forces our eyes open when we would rather shut out the image of the family begging to work for food, the veteran who can’t qualify for a job in her field because her certifications are military and not civil, the man released from prison who is still haunted by his past, and systems of government that reduce people into categories based on the preferences of those who have more power to choose than others.

So, if there is an “idleness” in our city, it is not the same as in Thessalonica, unless we consider whether we are working to build up the Kingdom of God or just waiting on Jesus to come back and fix it for us. Of course we all have our limitations – regardless of age and ability – and ultimately our hope is in the return of Jesus.

Our hope is in the return of Jesus in our hearts and minds. Our hope is in the peace we receive through the knowledge of God’s active presence in all things. Our hope is not in the adornments of a temple or the power and wealth of a nation. Our hope, as we have it in the words of Jesus, is actually in the fact that life will be hard, that people will disagree with you in matters of faith, and that some will even die because of the gospel of love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ!

Wow. How in the world did that message sell in the first place?! What kind of marketing angle was able to spin that into the faith of millions spanning the globe? Well, without getting into the dynamics of the struggles for power in the Middle Ages, it must be clear that the Holy Spirit was active in this process. Not only that, but this gospel – this word of truth – has never shied away from the fact that life is hard.

Matthew’s gospel reminds us that rain falls on the just and the unjust, and here (in Luke) Jesus takes a moment to respond to a request for a sign of troubles that are to come. It’s not clear who asks, and it doesn’t seem to matter, but someone in the crowd expresses amazement at the temple and its offerings. Certain types of offerings during certain seasons were put on display in the temple, and Jesus dismisses it all with a shrug, “This is all temporary you know. Not one stone will be left on top of another.”

This sets them off. “When?” they say, “What are the signs to know it’s coming?” I can imagine Jesus slapping his forehead. “Oy! Don’t you get it? Wars and famines come and go. The earth creaks and moans like an old house sometimes.” As the passage continues beyond today’s reading, Jesus does describe his return in connection with some cataclysmic events. But I would submit that Jesus begins by putting the focus on what they can expect in the meantime.

All these things that he describes – persecution in synagogues, before kings, and at the hands of next of kin – have happened. Whether or not Jesus was describing a laundry list for his return or just stating the obvious conclusion for those that follow him, the result is the same – following Jesus will get you into trouble at some point. The good news in that, is that the trials we face add truth to our story. The good news is that even when we do not receive salvation in the form of release from suffering now, we know it is coming one day!

And so it is through our endurance that we receive our souls. That’s a tricky sentence. Through our endurance we receive our souls. On the surface it is an affront to grace. I do not receive salvation because of my work, but only by the grace of God. And is my soul not mine to start with, or does one earn it like wings?

Perhaps if we focus on the concept of endurance, it might clear things up a bit. Endurance is a word that embodies struggle. To endure means to see something through to the end. Long distance runners develop the ability to endure longer and longer distances by repetition in training and adding a little more distance each day. Some runners describe what they call a runner’s high because of the endorphins the brain releases to counteract the stress and pain of over worked muscles. For the young, endurance is about pushing harder in the moment. Endurance is about extending the experience like the kid in the commercial who finishes every workout by doing “one more” of whatever he’s doing. For those who have experienced more years and days, endurance is not always as connected to an immediate experience as it is to the collection of experiences that make up a life.

Whether it is in the immediate or in the long run, endurance is ours to do. And when I say “ours” I mean that in the sense of our common calling. Sure, we all have things to endure on our own, and sometimes the love and care of the church can even be too much for us to bear. But sometimes we can be as endorphins to one another and the world around us. Sometimes the stress of loving one another can improve us like steel sharpening steel! Sometimes the presence of Jesus can even be seen in the way we suffer with and for one another because we have been called to be the church of Jesus Christ!

It would be easy for a congregation like us to get down on ourselves. I haven’t heard it in a while, but I still do every now and then. You know what I’m talking about. Oh, we need new blood. Oh, we need new ideas. Oh, we might as well be vampires and zombies if that’s our only way of looking at ministry!

Somehow what I am hearing more about these days are comments about members checking in on each other in their distress. I’m hearing about Christmas baskets being made in record time. Last week we even sent 105 out to an interfaith prison ministry for families of inmates, and we’re on track to make and distribute 1,000 baskets by December 7th! We’ve redone our nursery to make it more hospitable and useable. We maintain ecumenical relationships that uphold ministries to the elderly and college students alike. We have a variety of study opportunities for those who want to grow in faith. This is not a congregation that is sitting idle! This is a congregation that has its mind set on enduring to the end and gaining the ability to tell a deeper and richer story with every passing generation!

That’s what it means to receive your soul through endurance. It means to hold the cup of blessing and let it be carved more deeply by life – even by sorrow if it must be. And so, as we read these passages and consider our salvation, perhaps it still leads us to some of those same questions about poverty and social responsibility that we naturally think of when we consider who seems to be “earning their keep” and who seems to be “free loading.”

Author Danielle Shroyer puts it this way in a posting on the lectionary blog, The Hardest Question: “Our world is filled with places and spaces desperate for what is ‘right,’ for what we call justice or shalom or the Kingdom of God. It’s not about having a right to work but about working for what’s right. So there’s our question: are we idle in doing what is right?”

Let us be guided and informed by the challenge to not remain idle in doing what is right, and to God be the glory – now and always. Amen.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sacrificial Living


Today is “Dedication Sunday,” and there are things that I love and things that I don’t love about this day. One thing that I love is that I get to to tell my bacon and eggs joke. Do you know how bacon and eggs demonstrate the difference between involvement and commitment? Because the chicken is involved in getting your breakfast to you, but the pig is committed to it!

Of course we are assuming the egg is unfertilized. I’m not sure that the pig was all that excited about the idea, either, and I would guess that if given the chance the pig would decline the invitation. Christian faith is, however, an “all in” kind of thing – or at least that is the description we get in scripture.

Our passage from Isaiah was written to a conquered people to demonstrate the hope that remained in their identity as the people of God. The “Suffering Servant” demonstrates perseverance and faith as a testimony to the people, but also as an example to us. Perhaps we could boil it down to say that faith does not protect us from evil – it simply helps see us through to the other side.

The Suffering Servant is not simply an example of tenacity, though. Earlier in chapter 49, God recounts the sin of Israel and names their self-centeredness as the cause of their captivity. Then in 50:2 we find one of my favorite claims in scripture. God says, “Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?”

Surely the Lord of all creation is not limited by my sinfulness, even if I still have consequences to pay for my actions. Of course I can endure ridicule and derision, if I am placing my faith in the One who is ever faithful!

Those are easy words to say from a pulpit while looking out at people who love me. It is not so in other places. On this day as we once again dedicate our lives to the ministry of Jesus Christ, there are still Christians being martyred for their faith in distant lands. On this day there are people in our community who are turning their backs on the church. On this day there are members of our Presbytery – with whom we are partners in ministry – who are in Cuba, worshiping the Lord and preparing to install solar powered water filtration units.

On this day, the ministry of the Synod of the Sun and of the Synod of the Living Waters become knit into flesh and blood through members of our Presbytery who love the Lord with all of their hearts, with all of their minds, with all of their souls, and who are seeing to their neighbor’s needs before their own because they are standing on the edge of the Kingdom of God – in Cuba!

How about us? How close to the edge of the Kingdom of God are we standing in the church today? The words of Jesus remind us to be comforted in the fact that the Lord is but one God, and truly there is no other. And because the Lord is one, there is no other source for our devotion – except to reflect our devotion to God in the character of our relationships. And the unnamed scribe said, “This is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Caring for others in the same way as we care for ourselves requires sacrifices. You simply can’t do everything you want to do while considering the needs of others. That’s probably a good thing. The words of Paul remind us to be living sacrifices.

As I reflect on these words it reminds me of the story of Moses and the burning bush – a bush that burned but was not consumed. I think that is an essential task for those of us who follow Jesus. How do we live in a way that is ultimately concerned with the other without getting burned up or burned out?

I don’t have a five point plan for you on this, but I believe our scriptures may help. The first idea that comes to mind is to recognize that following God does not protect us from ruin. Sometimes we will suffer. I don’t believe God wants us – or needs us – to suffer. It’s just part of being limited by time, ability, and our own attempts at controlling the inevitable. The question is not will we, but are we willing to suffer?

I don’t necessarily mean martyrdom, although Christian faith does involve a constant death of self in order to experience resurrection. I mean letting go of our expectations of God in favor of God’s expectations for us. That’s what today is really about. It is not about making a financial commitment to the institution of the church. If that’s all it is, well then we might as well be the Kiwanis Club. Yes, I know the church needs money for paying the lights and the staff, but that’s not why we give. We give because it demonstrates what we value. We give because Christian Faith is not about one aspect of our lives, it is about every aspect of our lives. And today is about dedicating (or rededicating) our lives to the opportunity of loving as we have been loved.

Of course, some of us may leave our sword arms out when we come forward today. Maybe you’ve heard this story before, but the story goes that Ivan the Great, the fifteenth Tsar of Russia, married the daughter of the King of Greece. She required that he embrace the Orthodox Christian faith, and he and 500 of his soldiers were baptized in great fanfare. Well, the story goes that there was some conflict over whether or not a baptized Christian could willfully kill someone, and so the soldiers were all immersed with the exception of their sword arm.

Today we are invited to put our whole selves in, as we commit to loving God with all of our hearts, all of our minds, and all of our strength. One way of demonstrating that commitment is with a financial commitment to the church. What is more essential is the commitment of our hearts, and the connection between our desire to love, the needs of our neighbors, and the sacrificial living that glorifies God and fills our souls.

That kind of love transforms you. It changes priorities that you may not even think need to be changed. That’s what happened on a football field in Olivet, Michigan. You may have seen this viral video, but the team conspired to get the ball all the way to the goal line – without scoring. Then on the next play the team encircled a player named Keith, a boy with special needs, and paved the way for him to score a touchdown in a contest reserved for the strongest and most powerful.

It may not sound like much, but to Keith it was an opportunity he could have never realized on his own. What’s more, the player interviewed to tell the tale through tears said that he recognized through one simple act of selfless love that nothing matters more than doing something to “make someone else’s day.”

He was transformed. They were transformed! They were standing right on the edge of the Kingdom of God, on a football field. And so are you – right here, right now. The edge of the Kingdom of God is breaking forth in Cuba, in Michigan, and even right here in Lafayette, Louisiana. For that to happen, all it takes for us to do is to persevere in our belief that God is active and present, to let go of our expectations in favor of God’s, and to express our love for God through every chance encounter! That is the type of commitment I will make today. I invite you to do the same, and to God be the glory – now and always, amen.

Friday, November 08, 2013

How to Be a Saint



Although the landscape of North American literature is not quite as littered by self-help materials as it may have been in recent years, the “How To” and the “Idiot’s Guide To” Just About Anything You Never Wanted to Know, are still out there. In fact I would say that our general orientation has been slightly skewed to include looking for a step by step guide instead of thinking critically and problem solving.

Perhaps that is nothing new. The words of Habakkuk were written in a time when people wanted to know how and why they were experiencing misfortune. They wanted to know how God could be involved in it, or to at least be given a reason why God wasn’t. And God tells Habakkuk to write the vision.

“Write the vision? You don’t know what the vision is? All right. Wait for it…it’ll come.” That’s what the Lord tells Habakkuk. In the verses that follow, there is a bit more detail describing the people as selfish and contemptible. Is that the vision God wants written so large that passing cars can’t help but see it? I hope not, because I think that would look something like, “YOU STINK!”

It kind of reminds me of an inside joke in one of the youth groups I used to lead. It was a tight group and there was a healthy practice of moderating behaviors between peers. Confession was offered regularly, as there is always tension in small, close fellowships. Forgiveness was also offered regularly, and sometimes it was given with the phrase, “Yeah, you really stink at being a Christian.” The obvious implication is that being a Christian isn’t about being good enough at certain behaviors and attitudes – it’s about recognizing those times when we fail and knowing that God is going to use them to help us know how deeply we are loved.

I think that’s a vision we can embrace and write large enough for passing cars to see. I often think about that when I pass the church. What do people think about when they see our columns? What do we want them to think? What does God want them to think? A little over a year ago the Session adopted a vision statement, and we started the conversation by talking about what we might put on a bumper sticker that could tell others what we are in essence. Since then we have been printing and stating that this is ‘a place to experience, express, and explore the love of God’ – and most of the time that is true.

I say most of the time, but not because I think there are times that we stink at being Christians – although if we are being honest, I am sure all of us have those times. I say most of the time because the reality of the gospel is that it must be lived. And so this, on our good days, is a place to experience, explore, and express the love of God – but you’ll notice the Session, as spiritual leaders open to God’s wisdom, did not say it is “the” place.

The church is a place of spiritual rebirth. It is a place to try, and to work out, ways to be in relationships that become places of transformation – even when they hurt. It is also the place that sets patterns for behaving in other relationships. So, in a way, it doesn’t really matter what sign we put on the building. What matters is the way we demonstrate the vision of faith we have received.

Imagine what it might be like, just for a moment, if every time you introduced yourself to someone new you added, “a member of First Presbyterian Church” after your name. Imagine what it would be like to have a button on your shirt that said, “Follower of Jesus.” I’m not suggesting that you need to do these things. But I am raising the question of proclamation.

I believe that is the point of the beatitudes of Jesus. He gives us three states of blessing: hungry, weeping in sadness, and rejected. He gives us three states of regret: rich, full, laughing. On the surface these seem a little backwards. Even if we think of it in terms of an eternal vision, no one really wants the blessings being offered here.

The deeper reality is that Jesus is telling us that our lives are an opportunity for proclamation. In hunger we are more aware of God’s providence. In sadness we are more aware of the depth of the love that is gone, and when we are rejected for the sake of loving we prove the need for love all the more clearly. When we are rich we can only spend what we have in this lifetime. When our bellies are full our hearts and minds will still yearn for fulfillment. And when we laugh, we receive the reward and lose it the moment the laughter stops.

And so today is a day to consider how our lives proclaim the vision God has given us. Today is a day to consider those who have gone before you and paved the way. Today is a day to consider how to be a Saint. Although the Roman Catholic Christian tradition began to venerate certain people as Saints as early as the first century, our Reformed tradition emphasizes the Biblical use of the term as a description of particular communities of believers. Paul writes to and talks about “the saints” in Jerusalem, Rome and Philippi. And the Greek word he uses simply means, “holy ones.”

Holy means separate, unique in all the world, and set apart. Could that be you? It sounds intimidating. It sounds impossible. It sounds like something claimed by those who think a bit much of themselves. Yet the point of the baptismal font is to say that God has claimed you even before you knew of your need for grace. God has claimed you and set you on a path of constant renewal. If a vision of constant renewal seems too impossible, just wait for it. You’ll see it soon enough.

Whether you believe in that vision or not, God believes in you. And God has sanctified you (made holy) by offering the sacraments (sacred making) of the church, because the church is the body of Christ – and we are individually members of it!

Let us resolve, then, to understand our hunger and pain as opportunities to proclaim God’s active presence. Let us resolve to think of our wealth, our appetites, and even our earthly experiences of joy to be fleeting and pale next to the knowledge that God gives us power.

God gives us the power to be defined by love without expectation. God gives us the power to recognize that sometimes we stink at being Christians, but always God is good at being God. And God gives us the immeasurable richness of knowing that through our participation as a community of forgiven sinners – through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ – we will not only have eternal life, but we will one day hug the necks and kiss the cheeks of those saintly souls that helped to guide us and have gone on before us.

Until then, we still have a vision to write – a vision to express in the character of our relationships – and we need to find a way to write it as large as we can. Suddenly I am reminded of a scene in the movie “Liar, Liar.” Jim Carrey is a lawyer who is cursed with the inability to lie. He takes a blue pen and tries to write, “This pen is red” on a piece of paper. He ends up in a wrestling match on the floor resulting in the hand with the pen attacking him and writing, “This pen is blue” all over his face.

And that’s where we are – wrestling with a gospel that we want to come out in some other way, and ending with the truth written all across our faces. That truth is that God’s love transforms the way we see ourselves. It transforms the way we see others. God’s love even uses our brokenness to move us – and those to whom we are given – into something beyond wholeness – even into holiness.

So, how do you become a saint? It’s as simple as accepting the common unity of other believers. It is as hard as letting go of the expectations of others in favor of the love of God. It’s not something you can do or claim for yourself. My bet is that, even if you sometimes stink at being a Christian, God is yet sanctifying you, and transforming you, and loving you into sainthood – right here, and right now. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.