Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Abundance


We live in a culture of excess and extreme. We have invented entirely new forms of competition that encourage people to risk life and limb for the glory of a trophy, endorsements, and bragging rights. We have game shows that place people in situations they would not wish on an enemy. We hold contests that elevate talented individuals to the level of gods and encourage those who are desperate for attention to do things on stage that make you wonder if they just don’t have a momma to embarrass.

In some ways it seems like the coliseum of Rome is alive and well, except that people enter it all too willingly – and when they can’t get in they can still create their own version on the internet!

Yes, we are a culture of extremes – and we are bought and sold into slavery by the idea that we are always and forever in a position of need. We need the latest technology or else we simply cannot communicate or even handle the most basic of functions. It’s no longer as simple as keeping up with the Jones, because the comparisons are not limited to our neighbors. The true comparison is between the person you are now and the person that you could be if you had the right car, house, clothes, mobile device, etc.

Being a town so enmeshed economically in the oil industry, our economy is perhaps more extreme than many other parts of the country. Anyone who has been here for a while can recall times of boom and bust, and this congregation has a history of losing key leaders to the capricious corporate gods that move employees like chess pieces. Additionally, there are always people passing through town in search of work as though the promises made to laborers for jobs in California in the Grapes of Wrath are still being made in South Louisiana. Lafayette is a town of economic extremes, and we sit in the cross roads of the past and present holding a sentinel watch, helping where we can, and hoping for something better.

The church is not immune to this culture of extremes, either. Our congregation stands with a deep history, limited resources, and a strong desire to do the things we used to do. We are also trying to shed the weight of guilt over the loss of past identity and forge ahead to discover what God is calling us to do and to be today. With us in the coliseum of competing centers of worship are the gladiator strength mega-churches, the perfectly sized and terribly attractive program congregations, and the congregations of zombies and vampires that are desperate for new brains and new blood (and are also terribly resistant to change).

And as we look to scripture to help us understand how to be more faithful in all that we do, we get the example of the perfect church. Wouldn’t that be nice? Everyone shared everything in common. They sold all of their possessions, and no one lacked for anything. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of! Everyone was devoted to the teachings of the Apostles – devoted! That means they centered their lives and practices around the understanding they received. These concepts of grace and mercy and forgiveness were all new to them. I think that may be why it can be so very hard for us to live the faith we profess. We know this stuff like the back of our hands. It doesn’t confront us. Our relationships are entrenched. The stories of Christmas and Easter become enough to get us through the year, and the concept of discipleship becomes associated with more fundamentalist Christians that often use the term to say, “Just agree with us, because we’re right anyway.”

The reality is, of course, that no congregation is perfect. Whether it is an independent congregation, a close-knit house church, a connectional Presbyterian congregation that seeks to be a part of something bigger than itself, or even the First Congregation of Jesus Followers in Jerusalem. Absolute sharing of resources is simply not sustainable. Relationships open places of weakness and vulnerability, and people will naturally choose to protect themselves and those they love.

The good news is that our relationships also offer places to experience grace and mercy and restoration! I think that is one of the reasons that growth is so important to the church. New relationships create new opportunities to make mistakes, to step on toes, and to be confronted with the parts of discipleship that we forget about between Christmas and Easter. Telling our story – and hearing the stories of others – helps us to hear the gospel in a new way. Seeing the gospel come alive in the lives of others helps us see how it might be revived in our own lives!

Just the other day a Pastor friend told me of a new family in her church that had little to no church background. After hearing a sermon on reconciliation and forgiveness, the husband went home and called his estranged father that he had not spoken to in 20 years! Wow! Now, I can’t tell you if the hurts have been mended. There are usually too many variables in the lives of others to know for certain how things like this shake out in the end. The important thing is that there are people in our community that need to hear the gospel of forgiveness, and – more often than not – I am one.

More often than not, when I see the gospel being experienced in your life, it makes me want to find a way to experience it more deeply in my own. That’s why letters were written in the tradition of Peter’s teaching – to encourage believers to know the opportunity of the good news of Jesus Christ!

And Peter begins with something along the lines of, “You got troubles? Cry me a river.” In his tough love approach, he seems to be OK with people being punished when they deserve it. More than that, the concern is not about punishment. The concern is about standing up for what is right, especially when it puts you at risk to do it. In fact, negative consequences seem to be more of a promise than a threat. Following Jesus will naturally put you in conflict – at some point – with powers that claim to be right, although their righteousness is more personally motivated than divinely inspired. That happens in every social institution – government, businesses, financial institutions, and even the church.

It’s interesting that Peter says that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the cross,” but he also describes our calling as one that involves suffering like Jesus did. Becoming free from sin allows us to see and to do what is right, but it does not protect us from harm. If anything, it may make us more vulnerable!

That’s why the words of Jesus as the good shepherd are so important to us. They demonstrate the length that God will go to in order to demonstrate love and the comfort that we can have – even in these vulnerable and often prickly relationships. First is the fact that whoever sets themselves up as gatekeepers, Jesus will come and draw us out. Next is that we will know it is Jesus because of his vulnerability and honesty.

Interesting thing about shepherds in an agrarian society – sheep are heard animals that have to get out and graze. Even today, there are shepherds that will take their sheep to grazing pastures that may be a day or two away from the shelter they are kept in. In order to protect the sheep, the shepherd will find an enclosed outcropping of rock or shrub, and then the shepherd will lie down for the night in the open space and become the gate.

Jesus is the gate to our common unity. Jesus is the one who demonstrates love and forgiveness. Jesus is the one who brings life in abundance! That word, abundance, can also be translated as “excessive.” Although we often talk about having more stuff than we need, a theology of abundance is really about having a life of excess – life that is so full that you have more than you need or want.

That doesn’t mean having more stuff. It doesn’t necessarily mean redistributing our stuff in ways that are more equal, although it doesn’t mean we can’t. A theology of abundance means knowing that there is more to life than what you can experience alone. It means knowing that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. It means believing that the limitations of this world do not define us, even if we must endure them for a time.

Although I want to boast that a life of faith involves extremes that go beyond the culture of excess that we create and swim around in, I have come to believe that they are apples and oranges. The excess of our culture is about transcending limitations through power, dominance, and influence – because the thief is selfish and bent on destruction for personal gain – but the excess of life that we receive through faith transcends the limitations of power through a more common union with God and with one another.

All of this leads me wonder if abundance is not so much about striving to be the perfect congregation as it is about recognizing our imperfections. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Pastor and author who recently described her congregation and its relationship to visitors this way, “This community will disappoint them. It's a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I'll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them …to decide if they'll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don't meet their expectations, they won't get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community's failure, and that's just too beautiful and too real to miss.” She goes on to say, “Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.”

Wow. Can we be that confident in the grace of God? I hope so. For we are an imperfect congregation of imperfect followers of the perfecter of faith in the God who creates, redeems, and sustains life in all its fullness. To that God be the glory, now and always, amen.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Blind Spot

Acts 2:14a, 36-41 1 Peter 1:17-23 Luke 24:13-35

One of my favorite, so called “reality TV,” shows is the one with the beefy Englishman who comes in and reconstructs a restaurant from the ground up. Maybe you’ve seen it? He takes a failing restaurant and lifts up the barriers to their success. It’s usually the same: uncleanliness (they get used to their own mess), overburdened menus (trying to be everything to everyone and losing a unique character), complacent staff (loss of vision equals loss of passion), and worst of all – bad food.

Some customers are brought in; sometimes neighborhood residents are even interviewed, to demonstrate the way in which people from the outside perceive the restaurant and its food and service. Usually the perception of those from outside of the restaurant (customers and neighbors) is quite different from those inside the restaurant (owners and staff).

I have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with the show, because the part where the restaurateur is confronted with his or her sin is usually pretty harsh. What I love to see is the reveal – when they see their renovated restaurant for the first time. I love the way redemption takes place when their eyes are opened to see the futility of their past and the hope of their future.

Maybe I’m just an odd ball, but it’s hard for me to separate the experience of the impossible – or maybe a better word is improbable – redemption of a failing restaurant from the call to renewal, revival, and revitalization of the church. Our longing for redemption is not so different, but it has become so separated from our day to day lives that we sometimes forget how closely redemption and everyday living are interrelated. It is more convenient to place redemption in some future space and forget that when we say, “Christ is risen indeed!” we are telling people that the moments of our days are redeemed. The mistakes of our past are redeemed! The injuries we have received are redeemed! The opportunities before us are set as opportunities to live as a people who have been redeemed!

Sometimes it’s hard to see things that way. We have certain responsibilities. We have certain expectations. We have certain limitations. We have certain experiences that have proven to us what works, and we simply don’t have time or tolerance to re-invent the wheel. The problem is that all of these good and faithful things can coalesce to become a blind spot – just like the space in our vision that allows the nerves and vessels to carry information to our brains.

Even worse it can be like the blind spot in our car – that space that you can’t see no matter how you turn and crane your neck. Did you know that, according to Consumer Reports, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that almost 300 individuals are killed and 18,000 injured annually in backover crashes, with most victims being children and the elderly.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but the reality is that we are talking about life and death and the hope for the redemption of both. That’s what today’s readings are all about. The authors of 1 Peter, Luke, and Acts are presenting us with what some might call a “come to Jesus” moment.

Peter’s speech in Acts, to be fair, begins with a “therefore” that might need a little unpacking. This is the grand conclusion of the Pentecost experience when people of Jewish heritage have come from every direction throughout the Roman Empire for the Feast of Weeks – a celebration of the law received by Moses on Mount Sinai.

Peter and the Apostles (formerly known as disciples of Jesus) are preaching the message of Jesus’ resurrection in languages previously unknown to them. This is the day that we remember as Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was unleashed and those who followed Jesus became known as a distinct group of believers. The part we are missing is Peter’s testimony that the law and the prophets, the heritage of Jesus, and even his death and resurrection all prove that Jesus not only was but is the Messiah that will redeem Israel. Hearing that the only part they have played so far was to crucify him, the crowd is pretty quick to ask what they can do now!

And Peter’s speech comes back to the sermon and testimony of John the baptizer and Jesus himself – repent and be baptized – and Peter adds, “and receive the Holy Spirit!” Then they had the best problem any church ever had – 3,000 people said, “Yes! Let’s follow Jesus!” Of course we know that not every one of them truly repented. Of course we know that there were households baptized at the command of the landholder or Paternal figure. Of course the church has been arguing ever since about what it means to receive the Holy Spirit, and there are references in scripture to people receiving it before and after baptism.

I believe that the most important thing is that people are told to repent, and they make a genuine effort to turn from selfishness and to turn toward God centeredness. The tradition of Peter’s speech is continued in 1 Peter, where we find that the results of repentance will put us in the truly messy place of caring about what happens to one another. Nowhere does it say that we have to like one another – because my guess is that sometimes we just won’t – but Peter reiterates Jesus’ new commandment that we are to love one another deeply, genuinely, and from the heart.

That means that my salvation, my redemption, my purpose is intimately tied up with yours. It’s the theological version of the statement that “there is no I in team.” As challenging as this may be – or as comforting as it can be – we can still just as easily find ourselves walking down the road like downhearted disciples with Jesus in our blind spot while we look right at him and say, “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

But Jesus is persistent! Jesus revealed to them what they already knew but were unwilling to see – kind of like those restaurant owners that were unwilling to see the things that were blaringly obvious to others. The disciples did not want to know. They did not want to hear. For all they knew they had been duped into the biggest ponzi scam ever. Who knows why they were going to Emmaus – except to get away from Jerusalem, maybe find a job, and start over.

Redemption is deeply connected to life and vitality, you know. So Jesus became known to them in the breaking of the bread and in giving thanks to God for the basic necessities that allow us to see where the sacred and the ordinary are actually the same thing. When we open our eyes to see Jesus, we realize that all of life is Holy! When we realize how quickly we can lose our vision of Jesus because we have chosen a self-centered path, we can do little else but run to find others to share what we have seen – even if it was only a glimpse of what God is doing.

It is in the tradition of recognizing our blind spots and coming together that we will celebrate opportunities to express the love of God today in our “express lunch.” Today we will acknowledge the work of our ministry partner, Family Promise of Acadiana. They have been one our ministry partners for many years, and they truly understand the relationship between redemption and daily living. Every day they work to keep families intact during periods of homelessness and financial strain. They produce amazing results. In fact they have an 86% success rate in helping families graduate into permanent housing. Although we give them a small amount each month, today we will give them an additional $500 from the Jack Henton Memorial Fund to demonstrate our love and support.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to share this news with you, because it represents a shift in our perspective as a congregation. In some ways, it is a shift back to doing some of the things we have always done. For over 135 years, this congregation has generously encouraged the well-being of the community. We have understood the words of Jeremiah (29:7) to the exiles, “…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.”

Yet, in recent years, we have been more focused on the challenge of the BeeGees – stayin’ alive! The shift that I believe we are seeing comes from a sincere desire to live out the Word we have received today – repent, be baptized (or simply remember your baptism and the claim that God has upon your life), and receive the Holy Spirit!

The questions that we are yet to struggle with as individuals and as a congregation are these:

Are we willing to see the barriers to participating in God’s will that others see, and are we willing to do anything about it?

Are we willing to see our redemption as tied up with each others and with theirs – whoever they are?

Are we willing to let love draw us into the uncomfortable and messy space of caring for one another, deeply, genuinely, and from the heart – especially when we don’t like one another?

Are we willing to let Jesus remove our blind spots by focusing on the day to day stuff in a way that gives thanks and glory to God for all of it?

Perhaps even more difficult than all of these is this: are we willing to let go of our expectations for how and what to do in order to see an entirely new possibility – a possible future that does not re-invent the wheel, because we realize that we do not even need the wheel that we are so used to depending on?

I believe these are questions we need to wrestle with as we get ready for our own Pentecostal moment. 3,000 new members would be a nice problem to have, huh? Then again, the Department of Transportation is projecting a population growth of 50,000 in the next 15 years. If we do not anticipate growth, then we might not be as open to the movement of God’s Holy Spirit as we think. Remember, our concern is not simply for their redemption, but also for the way in which ours is intertwined. Let us, then, be motivated by the command to love, by the claim that Christ is risen, and by the experience of redemption in this life so that we can have even more hope in the life to come. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Fear and Great Joy

Jeremiah 31:1-6 Colossians 3:1-4 Matthew 28:1-10

Those who know me well know that if I were to ever raise live stock I would hope to own a small herd of myotonic goats. These are goats that have been bread especially to highlight a certain genetic trait that otherwise would have been naturally eliminated. That trait is an enzyme which naturally constricts their muscles when they are startled, causing them to fall over. Yes, these are the so-called “fainting goats” who have the unfortunate flight or fight response of falling over.

Now, before you get carried away with the idea that I am simply a dark humored person who delights in the misery of a helpless creature, let me say that I am enamored by these creatures because I see myself in them. Fear of conflict is more apt to paralyze me than to motivate me. Fear of the unknown can make me want to hunker down and hope it will all go away. Those things that are beyond my control often make me want to exert more control over the things that I can control.

Maybe you think I’m being a little hard on myself, I mean – who doesn’t want to be in charge of their own life? Isn’t it a part of our human nature to limit risks? Aren’t the eldest among us the ones who have remained the least vulnerable for the most amount of time? You might think so, but that is not always the case. To live without risk is to live without learning and without loving – but not without losing. Fear is typically connected to loss, and if there is anything we cannot stand, it is losing the people and things that we hold dear. Fear, as it relates to loss, is simply a chemical response in our brains to something that seems harmful. The question is not whether or not we are afraid. The question is how we respond to it. Do we let it paralyze us like the guards in Matthew’s Gospel, or does it inspire us like the women at the tomb?

In today’s reading we find a similar cast of characters at the resurrection as we did in the crucifixion. The women and a Centurion watched as Jesus breathed his last, as the sky went dark, and as the earth trembled. The Centurion, interestingly enough, was the one who proclaimed, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” Was there regret, fear, or just reverent appreciation in his voice? We will never know. It does seem that there was some form of transformation, though.

As the story continues, Joseph of Arimathea – a wealthy disciple in this version – asks for the body, prepares it for burial, and places it in a tomb covered with a large stone to keep away animals and thieves while the women stand watch. It was customary to wait three days in the event that the person might not actually be dead. The Priests and Pilot conspire to put guards on the tomb to be sure this fanatic’s followers do not steal the body to claim that he lives, while the women watch.

That’s when it happened. Again, as in his death, there was a cosmic event that shook the earth. An angel descended and rolled the stone away, and the guards became as dead men. The irony hear must not go unnoticed. I can imagine this story being told ages ago with a delicious twist. “Then the ones guarding the body became…like dead men!”

Their fear had paralyzed them because it was based in a sure knowledge of their undoing. The universe had just unfolded in a way they were not able to handle, and they fainted like myotonic goats. The women were afraid too, but their fear was based in the knowledge that they were participating in something far beyond their control.

Their fear was not based in something that might happen to them. It was based in the the fact that they had experienced the active presence of God, and now they must share that experience because it had consumed them. It was so much a part of them that their identity made a shift from watchers to witnesses. The angel, acting as the agent of God, told them not to be afraid. He offered them proof that Jesus was alive, and he sent them to tell the other disciples. They leave with “fear and great joy,” and then they are met by Jesus himself. They fall to his feet and worshiped him.

Maybe this was to prove a point. Ghosts do not have feet. Certainly it was to confirm the hope that had already inspired them to action. Inspired – that’s an interesting word. It means to be imbued with, or animated by, some force beyond your own creation. Maybe you are inspired by a painting. Maybe you’re inspired by literature or film. Maybe you’re inspired by the ideals and actions of some great leader. Maybe you’re inspired by an act of kindness that is simple and true.

Whatever it is that moves you, claims you, picks you up and shakes you, even reforms you, and changes you from a watcher to a witness – whatever it is that inspires you to newness of life, especially a life that is lived in devotion to God – whatever inspires you is of the one Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. Whatever inspires you to greatness, and even to goodness, is from the Spirit of God – just as the angel who rolled the stone and sat upon it.

It is this God that allows chaos to be in the world. It is this God who moves us from chaos to active, creative engagement with the world. It is this God that moves us from chaos to order and back again when we forget the source of our inspiration and purpose. Again and again throughout history the song repeats itself. Faithfulness moves us to participate with God’s will. Selfishness blocks our path.

Jeremiah tells the Israelites that they will not only come home but be remade. The abused and used are called pristine by God’s choice, by God’s action, and by God’s desire for a new covenant. As followers of Jesus we cannot help but see the promise of Jeremiah apart from the hope for redemption we have in Jesus. For Jeremiah, the promise was not about Jesus. It was about a vision of hope for a people who have none.

That is what we are called to be – a vision of hope for those who have none. We cannot be that if we do not have our hope set in something greater than ourselves. We must, as Paul told the church in Colosae, set your minds on things that are above. There is nothing in there about institutional correctness. There is nothing about creating buildings or spaces to do things in that last for generations. There is but one thing to do – set your heart and your mind to be moved by the priorities of God!

To do that – to truly give yourself over to God – can be a pretty scary thing to do. Giving yourself over to God does not come with any guarantees, except that you will move forward with fear and great joy! Even as “Hosanna” gives way to “Crucify” and anguished cry gives way to “He is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” – we are still left with the day to day question. How do we worship Jesus? How do we share the experience of God’s active presence?

Your life will have its own opportunities. Jesus will show up in ways that I cannot foretell or conceive. As a congregation, we must continue to tell one another about these revelations, and we must continue to seek a new understanding of the way in which God is forming and reforming us as the Body of Christ. The thing is, I don’t think it is good enough to simply be the church we have always been. Quite frankly, I don’t think that is even possible. As we seek a new beginning – not a new program or a new way to do the same stuff we have always done, but truly hearing God saying to us, “you shall be built, O virgin First Presbyterian!” – we must be open to what God is already doing in our midst. We must find ways to place our priorities alongside God’s, and let God shape and mold us.

Some time back I remember hearing about a congregation that began placing their priorities outside of their walls. They became concerned about the correlation between poverty and obesity and the lack of access to exercise equipment. They became concerned about their own levels of energy consumption and the way they effected the market for electric power. So they bought some exercise bikes, hooked them up to generators, and invited those in need of assistance on light bills and access to exercise equipment to come in and sweat right in the middle of their fellowship hall.

That kind of thinking; that kind of action; that kind of transformation is the kind of thing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has a bad habit of unleashing in the world. We can say, “He is risen!” [“He is risen indeed!” ] all day long, but unless we open ourselves to God’s active presence the inspiration will be short lived. Of course the good news is not limited to the invitation to participate in the will of God. It is not limited by our response to that invitation. The good news is good because even when reject it we are still held by it. Even when we fall like fainting goats and dead men, we are still held in the embrace of the one who once spread his arms wide enough to embrace every experience of sadness, every rejection and judgement, and every doubt and fear for all of humanity, for all of time and space, for all of creation. The good news is that this man, Jesus, who was despised and rejected opened the path from death to life eternal; from rules to relationships; and from estrangement from God and neighbor to an uncommon unity.

So, whether your faith is weak or strong; whether you yearn for transformation or dig your heals in against change; whether you are scared stiff or inspired by fear and the great joy of knowing, seeing, touching, feeling, and being forgiven through the love of God in Christ Jesus – this table has been prepared for you! And God has so much more in store for us. Easter is a time for new beginnings, and we shall begin again, this day, to open our hearts and minds to the priorities of God. And when we don’t, because sometimes we won’t, there is yet the table of grace that lets even our worst fears and most selfish actions proclaim a greater love. And all of this is because, “He is risen!” [“He is risen indeed!”] Amen.

Winning

My son's baseball picture came in. He has a winning smile, and a confident look in his eyes. It doesn't matter that some of the other teams he plays against also play in tournaments every weekend and treat his games like a batting clinic. It only matters that he still gets a base hit, and an RBI, and an occasional good throw to first base. It matters that he is learning humility and yes, it matters that he is having fun. Winning.

My daughter tried out for a musical, just for fun. It doesn't matter if she gets the lead role. It matters that she stood up before three strangers and sang a song that she chose because it seemed fitting for her voice and the particular part of interest. It matters that she read with inflection and enthusiasm. It matters that she stood (with toes in first position, no less) by a friend who was scared (but not really scared) during the dance portion. It matters that she demonstrated skills that she has learned through participating in activities provided through God's grace and our mutual initiative. Winning.

But, what really brought all of this to mind was the fact that my daughter joined me in an impromptu "Monkeys" style dance - walking and crossing alternate legs - across the kitchen this morning. Totally winning.

My Lord and my God, I never imagined that you would offer me such immeasurable riches!

Children are a heritage from the Lord , offspring a reward from God. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth. Blessed is the one whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court. Psalm 127:3-5 NIV

So, we'll call it a win/win. And thanks be to God. Amen.

OK, can't resist...winning!