Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tell the Truth

By now most of you know that I am of the genus and species known as the “Extravertus Maximus.” As was once noted by a member of my kind – who happen to be my General Presbyter when I began seminary – we think by speaking. For us, a conversation is much like working out a math problem on a black board with a group of people helping. 

It is for this reason that there are few words that terrify me more than hearing someone say, “It’s like that time when you said…” because the good Lord may be the only one who knows what I truly said. Likewise, one of the most affirming experiences I’ve had in ministry was from a friend in Virginia who would occasionally respond to something I said in a discussion with, “Tell the truth!” Given that sometimes it is only God that knows  our hearts, and sometimes we only know that we have spoken truth when someone tells us that we did, I think we can all take comfort in the passages that we have received today.

John’s gospel speaks of the gift of the Advocate, the one who speaks on behalf of Jesus and even through you and me. For John’s telling of the Jesus story, it is essential that Jesus gets out of the way in order for the Advocate to come. And, ultimately, just as Jesus is the incarnation of God, the Advocate is the way by which God’s presence becomes known in and through each of us. We are, in a way, the enfleshed presence of God when we open our hearts and minds to receive what God has to offer.

And God offers proof that the world is wrong. The world is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we have come to know that sin and separation from God are not final. Instead they offer a constant calling to return to the one who loved us into creation in the first place. Righteousness has been overturned by the condemned man who was raised from death by the power of God. Judgement based on wrath has been upset, because the one who is condemned is the one who expects to rule through power and possession rather than faith and forgiveness.

We have received these good words – this promise of hope and restoration – on Pentecost Sunday, and this week it happens to fall on Memorial Day weekend. On this day we also hear the prophecy of Ezekiel to the valley of the dry bones. How real this passage must be to the loved ones of the recently fallen. How very real the hope for restoration must be for those who struggle with poverty and those who feel that they are targets of corruption.

This tension between hope and restoration is what were are drawn into today as God places us in our own “valley of dry bones.” And it is this very real need for restoration in our lives and in our world that connects us to the Pentecost story in a way that birthday cakes and red dresses and ties can only hint at. More important than marking the start of the proclamation of Jesus to the world, this day stands to remind us that we are called to be prophets.

For in those days God says, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

That’s what the Pentecost event was about. That’s what Peter, in the midst of the chaos, told the crowd. It’s what Jesus promised would happen, and when we say that the church, which is the body of Christ, began that day we mean to say that the People of God became all people everywhere who heard about Jesus and believed. They believed that just as God lived in and through him, God lives in and through you and me.

And because God’s spirit lives in and through you and me, we have become truth tellers. That’s what it means to be a community of Prophets. Our dreams and visions are not schemes and personal agendas; they are the result of aligning our hearts with that of God. You see, prophecy was not simply fortune telling. 

The influence of Greek culture connected prophecies with oracles, and the writings of the prophets were certainly understood as proven by the way they came to pass. But not all of them actually did come to pass, and the earliest traditions of prophets had more to do with being a person or a group of people who spoke for God. They were the ones willing to risk giving advice to Kings and holding the priests accountable when they abused the sacred trust of the people. They were the ones who encouraged the people to move beyond obeying the law and into lives that fulfilled the law.

So the task remains with us today to speak the word of God into the dry bones of the world around us. While that may seem intimidating, it’s really just a description of what God is already doing in and through us. Of course, we can sometimes get in the way of what God is doing, but that is why we have the table of grace and forgiveness to turn to. 

We have this visceral experience – this beautiful sensual reality of bread and juice and sound and touch – that reminds us that God is with us in all things. And through our common union we see through the racial divisions, the limitations of our justice system, and the places of powerlessness that seek to tear our society limb from limb, and we realize that their bones are our bones.

I think it is this kind of thinking that led me to follow up with some recent contacts I’ve made with a few decision makers in our community. With the help of one of our Elders and one of our Deacons I hosted a breakfast to talk about some of the gaps in equality in our city. We talked about the fact that those in lower economic brackets are less likely to move up in Lafayette Parrish than they are in the surrounding areas. We talked about sources of urban blight and some of the barriers to development. We did not arrive at any particular conclusions, but it did create some interest to continue the discussion and seek some positive solutions.

My hope is that our congregation will be able to offer a prophetic voice in conversations like these in the days to come. One suggestion that came from the group was that we – those who were at the breakfast – define our target area (poverty, urban blight, etc.) rather than specific actions. Once the purpose is agreed on, the actions will come more naturally.

In many ways it is the same with the church, except that we know what we are about, right? We are all about experiencing, exploring, and expressing the love of God. If we can do that – when we can be about that – the bones of those who suffer will rise and take on new life!

That does not mean that we will get new church members, or that we are involved in some bizarre zombie cult. It means that we recognize that Pentecost is about more than celebrating the birthday of the church. It means that today, we reclaim that we have been called by God as a community of prophets! It means that today, we begin telling the truth of restoration and hope again, and it begins with the table of grace and mercy, and it spills out through the doors and into the world!

It may get a little messy, and that’s OK. The truth can be like that. And to God be the glory – now and always, Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.  
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.  
Wouldn't you like to get away? 
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.  
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. 
You wanna be where everybody knows Your name. 
That song feels great to sing, and for many of us it describes exactly why we come to church.  While these words may tell the truth about the longing of our souls, they don’t particularly describe the church.  Or at least they don't completely describe the church. 
Most of you will recognize this as the theme from the beloved sitcom about a bar named “Cheers,” and it could certainly be argued that this show was about more than a bar.  It was about a community of friends that were able to find solace in the world together.  I think it is fair to say that this is what many of us want the church to be as well, and that’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing for the church to be a place where we know and are known by others – a place where we bear our burdens and share our joys together.  It is good to feel responsible for and maintain our space and our relationships.  The question I would ask, though, is whether or not we own it?

It sure feels like it when the air conditioner goes down – again.  It sure feels like it when we put together policies and procedures.  It sure feels like it when we contribute to the building fund out of love and devotion for one another.  In fact, one of the most common descriptions of why we worship together is that it feels like home.  I even tell visitors to let us know if they are looking for a “church home.” 

But, sometimes I wonder if that’s the best approach.  Scott Dannemiller is a devout believer in Jesus who calls himself an “Accidental Missionary,” and he wrote a recent article for the Huffington Post suggesting that calling our church a home may not be the most faithful choice.  The basic idea is that he has observed in many congregations a sense of ownership that ultimately limits the church.  The problem, according to Scott, is not that we are not welcoming.  It is that we welcome people as “guests into our homes” rather than welcoming one another as people with a desire to experience God together. 
That probably sounds rather idealistic, but at the heart of it is the recognition that everything we have is a gift from God, and that no matter what we choose to do with it what God wants is ultimately what will happen. 

It was the same for the first disciples.  Imagine their realization that God’s will even embraced the choice of Judas – the one who betrayed their beloved teacher.  Judas was the one who led the soldiers to Jesus.  He was the one whose actions most directly led to the death of Jesus.  And yet, it was Jesus’ death that made everything else make sense – and not only his death, but also his resurrection. 

And Peter recognized the bigger picture and did what any good Presbyterian Ruling Elder would do – he called for a search committee.  Well, it may not say that explicitly, but he called for a replacement for Judas and “they” submitted two names.  The names were not just warm bodies or willing souls.  They were people who had witnessed the teaching and healing of Jesus first hand.  They were part of the crowds and the groups of disciples mentioned throughout the Jesus story.  But in the end, the choice had nothing to do with credibility.  They drew lots.  They drew lots, and Matthais was chosen to demonstrate that 1) they believed that God was active and present, and 2) none of their deliberations mattered without a basic trust in the choice of God. 

And so it is with you and with me in this world that seeks to own us and label us and separate us into nice, tidy categories.  While we may be encouraged by more and more avenues for personal expression, we are also terrified over shifts in cultural norms and values.  That is where the evil one hides.  That is why Jesus prayed for his disciples (Do you realize that includes you?) to be protected from the evil one.  Because each of us at any minute can just as easily support attitudes and actions that result in suffering as we could become involved in creating opportunities for healing and wholeness.

If we think that our salvation is set and our ticket is punched for the train bound for glory while our neighbors suffer, then we have misunderstood the promise of salvation.  We have misunderstood the prayer of Jesus.  We have misunderstood the fact that because of our salvation we are sent into the world to glorify the name of Jesus. 

And what does that mean?  Does that mean, “I better not be making mistakes, because Jesus is watching?”  No.  It means we create the “wow.”  It means that we do things that make people say the name of Jesus with a sense of wonder and amazement! 

It means that we have to find ways, in the midst of our longing for belonging to be the church in the world.  A Pastor friend said it to me this way the other day.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I love to preach.  I love the music and the singing.  But what I believe we are here for is building up the Kingdom of God.”

I believe that is our deepest longing.  I believe that our spiritual home is found not simply by coming to a place with people with whom we love to experience, explore, and express the love of God.  I believe it is found when we take this place with us in our hearts so that it informs our actions and reforms our relationships in every place.  I believe it is found when we open our doors and become vulnerable to others for the sake of demonstrating hope and love and forgiveness.

That sounds kind of risky, but after 135 years, we’re actually pretty good at it.  We share space with C.U.P.S. for the basket ministry.  Did you know that they took a leap of faith this Spring and made teacher appreciation baskets for Alice Boucher Elementary School, and then they partnered with Jerusalem Christian to help some needy souls make Mother’s Day baskets.  Of course we’ve also kept up our commitment for peanut butter for the U.C.O., and we’ve even started a new relationship by collecting shoes through Soles 4 Souls! 

There’s lots more to come.  A new Outreach and Service Committee was formed last week, and Youth Parents are meeting tonight to make plans for the Fall!  But in all of these things, we have to remember that we are not building, naming and claiming something for ourselves.  And we have to be sure that we are not just adding more and more commitments to our plates. 

Instead, the things we do must flow from a sense of place and of purpose, from a sense of being and a sense of longing.  Jesus said that we do not belong to the world.  We belong to God – heart, mind, and soul.  Our location – our place to move from and to – is found within the embrace of God.  Our purpose – our deepest longing – is found when we share the transformative truth that God is active and present here and now.  Only when we realize that God is active and present can we demonstrate God’s Kingdom which is both present and yet to come. 

If we can do that, if we can be that, then we will be so much more than a place where everybody knows your name.  For we are a people of God, and through us in all of our perplexity and simplicity, God has chosen to be known again and again and again.  I suppose that if God can even use Judas, God can use you and me.  But let us be sure to follow Jesus as our example.

More than that, let us be transformed by what God has done through him.  Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, says it this way, “Faith does not mean mimicking Jesus, but participating in his self-giving love—not because we have somehow chosen to be like him, but because, incredibly, God has chosen to become like us.”

In choosing to become like us, God has redeemed us.  God did not become less than God was, and God did not remain like us. Instead, God has given us the opportunity to demonstrate who God is and what God is about. Let us, then, live as a people transformed again and again by God’s self-giving love.  For that is what it means to be the church, which is the body of Christ.  Amen.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Perfected Fruit

I have been accused, and probably sometimes quite accurately, of being a perfectionist.  Of course, we are actually a culture of perfectionists who are always trying to reach greater heights.  We go so far as to separate people into archetypes and stereotypes based on – among other things – those that are the high energy take charge, Type A, people and those who are the “slow and steady wins the race”, or type B, people.  The funny thing is that these distinctions are actually related to stress producing risk factors for heart disease.  And while science tells us that B is the better choice, our culture tells us that unless you are the lead dog in the pack the view will never change.

Scripture tells us something else, and thanks be to God!  It is God who is making all things perfect.  In fact, God’s love is being perfected through you.  That’s a fairly intimidating idea, but it is one we are told over and over in our scripture readings today.  Yet, it is still intimidating if we think of the idea of God’s love becoming perfect in us from the perspective of measuring up.  It’s intimidating if we think about our limitations.  If we think about our losses – or even those resources and relationships that we just can’t seem to attain – then we get lost in the negative space.

Every painting, every work of art, every expression of life and vitality has some negative space.  Shadows prove that the sun shines.  Silence creates space for music to flourish.  The awkward pause in every conversation gives space to consider the value of the person before you, and a confrontation creates the opportunity to demonstrate what we truly value.  So much of life is supported and given meaning by the negative space.  And while that space is important and meaningful, it is not the space that Jesus calls into.

Jesus calls us into the light and tells us that he wants us to bear good fruit!  Have you ever thought about what this might mean?  For that matter, why does he describe us as branches that abide in the vine?  Where else is a branch going to live?  Then there is the whole threat of pruning and being thrown into the fire.  No thanks. 

I understand the metaphor.  Fruit is produced to reproduce the plant and provide resources for other organisms.  A vine has to be pruned so that valuable resources and metabolic processes are not spent keeping branches that will not produce any fruit.  The problem is that if we apply this directly to the church and we get a punishment and reward system that only values production. Not only that it can justify those feelings about how much of the load is being carried by the few who really seem to care. 

Somehow I don’t think that’s what Jesus really had in mind.  More than what we can do, this is about what God is doing.  This is not about what I can do or what you can do.  This is about the connection that we share that spills out into our lives, but is always grounded in our common unity as followers of Jesus. 

The fruit we produce is not for us to consume.  It is to share with the community that surrounds us.  The fruit is not a product that we trade, it is the result of who we are.  And who are we but a people of God?  Who are we but a people with a legacy of faith to share, and prune, and grow in a way that demonstrates the active presence of God?

And how do we do that?  We do it by loving others.  I don’t mean simply being polite and considerate.  I mean loving others by valuing their unique contribution to the song of life.  When we do this, love testifies to love.  When we look others in the eye and go out of our way to treat them with dignity then love has been perfected in us.  But what happens when they don’t love us back?  Mother Teresa said it this way:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.
Mother Teresa spoke to the sense of futility that all of us feel sometimes, and while I think her words are true, I would argue on the last point.  While I agree that God’s approval, our ability to love, and the love of Jesus are not dependent on others, I believe they find their fullness in our relationships.  I don’t just mean the “How do you do and shake hands, state your name and business” relationships.  I mean the type of relationships you find in community or maybe in an organism like a vine.  There are those among us in all walks of life that we are related to simply by being alive.  All of us together abide in – we live in, we exist in, we are immersed in like fish in the ocean – God’s love.

And we who bear the mark of Christ have certain fruit to bear.  That fruit is borne when we testify – when we tell people that our story of redemption makes sense because of Jesus.  Because this Jesus welcomed outcasts and ate with sinners and told people like you and me to go and do likewise, we believe that we can.  And so, the fruit of redemption is produced for giving away.  And this fruit – this perfect love – is not perfect because it has no blemish or scar.  It is perfect because it includes the honesty of the cross.  It includes our loss and pain.  It includes the negative space that gives life depth and meaning.  It removes fear so that fear is not even part of the conversation.  The conversation is only and ever about reflecting the image of God in all we say and do.

While I think it is important to keep our focus on positive opportunities, the reality is that we are still limited and there is much anxiety and fear in the world around us.  That’s actually why we are here – to demonstrate something better.  Meanwhile, so many reports and arguments are flying back and forth after the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore.  You may have heard the story of the Southern Baptist Church of Baltimore.  Although I can tell you their story, I think it will be more powerful if their Pastor, Donte L Hickman Sr., tells you himself.

The extension was called the Mary Harvin transformation center.  It held 60 units of senior citizen housing.  The lower level held workforce development and human behavioral services including life coaching and mortgage lending services.  This does not seem like the type of branch that should be thrown in the fire!

Yet even with the flames burning in the background, this church produced fruit that demonstrated power and faith and love beyond anything that can be touched or built or destroyed.  Pastor Hickman spoke of eternal things.  He spoke of the resiliency of their faith community, of redemption, and of forgiveness. Even when the reporter tried to push him into a place of fear he responded by saying, “I’m a man of faith, and I see every negative as an opportunity to fight back with another positive.”

That’s what love perfected looks like – it sees even the deepest of human suffering as an opportunity for the greater good.  The fruit we bear is simply the result of recognizing that God’s grace and mercy are active in all things.  And we know that it is real in the fact that others can see it, feel it, and even taste it!  As we come to the table today to be reminded of God’s love for us, let us seek to bear fruit that proclaims God’s grace and mercy, removes all fear, and finds its expression in love for loves sake.  And to God be the glory for that.  Amen.