Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Enter the Opportunists

It has been a long week in Lafayette.  Last Thursday, the city that was selected in 2014 as the happiest city in America was shaken and laid bare for the world to see.  John Russell Howser, a man with a deeply grieved soul, shot and killed 33-year-old entrepreneur, Jillian Johnson, and Mayci Breaux, a 21 year old woman beginning to make her way in the world.  Nine others were injured before he took his own life.  Our police, our medical system, even our local news stations acted professionally, compassionately, and faithfully. 

As with other similar incidents in our nation, this has sparked conversation, arguments, and accusations between friends and enemies over gun control, mental illness, and the presence of evil in our midst.  I’ve heard it said that the shooter’s name should not be spoken, but instead let us only honor Jillian and Mayci.  There is some wisdom in that, but there is also wisdom in finding out what we can – if it will prevent another tragedy.  We need to know where we went wrong.  Perhaps there are enough guns out there that he would have found a way no matter what, but we do have laws and systems that are supposed to help prevent these types of things.  We need to know where we went wrong.

Of course, the national news and social media pounced on the event like buzzards.  Sadly, I must admit that I was one of them.  After making a comment about opportunists I was called to account by one of our elders with the realization that one of my comments had more to do with my own opinion rather than the facts of the event.  Sorting out what you feel and believe in community can be a slippery slope sometimes.  And although we can sometimes delete a comment on the internet, we cannot take back words we’ve given away.

And so this week, as I have been wrestling with the scriptures and the week’s events, I believe that God wants us to consider the reality of evil and the opportunity of faith.  We sometimes talk about sin and evil as ideas or things that bad people do.  Sure, we confess our sin, and we acknowledge the part we play in the sins of the world as members of the human race.  But let’s face it folks, most of us do not normally think of sin and evil as something that we do – at least not intentionally – but rather something that we endure (or maybe just watch on the news networks).  We think of sin and evil as the result of the actions of those with no common sense, or maybe just the result of senseless acts.  Yet sin and evil have nothing to do with a rational process.  They are the result of self-centeredness, like a broken compass that points to wherever it wants.

This week has certainly been about senseless violence.  This week has been about endurance.  Thousands of lives have been made to endure the repercussions of one man who acted as though he had power and authority over life itself.  I think it is somewhat providential that today we have a story of King David doing the same thing.  David was supposed to be a man after God’s own heart.  Saul was the bad king that God warned about – the one who would take your women, send your men into battle, and use your land as his own. 

As unsettling as it is, in this passage David breaks at least 4 commandments – directly or indirectly – to satisfy his own needs without concern for anyone else.  It all begins with David sending out Joab in a time “when Kings go out to battle” so that he can lie on his couch and survey his domain.  By contrast it is Bathsheba and Uriah, foreigners who are outside of the covenant, who follow the rules of purification and self sacrifice that God demands of God’s people.  Uriah clearly cannot be bought off or persuaded.  Even though all we hear from Bathsheba is her admission, “I am pregnant,” we are definitely dealing with an imbalance of power.  When the king says jump, you say, “How high?” or else you may not get to jump again. 

While there is so much more to this passage, essentially we have a parable to remind us that everyone is corruptible, and that the result of selfishness is pain and suffering for others – pain and suffering that we must also bear.  And so we must ask ourselves, “Where does my selfishness become a burden to others?”  And we must ask ourselves, “What are the opportunities to deny myself that will benefit others?”  And we must ask ourselves, “Where do I see faithfulness happening in those that I do not think of as faithful?”

As if it were an answer to these questions and to the sin of David, we have received John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand.  John tells the story a little differently than the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  In John’s gospel the story is set as a prelude to the Passover, and over the next few weeks we’ll be talking about Jesus as the bread of life.  Today, Jesus is concerned with feeding people.  He’s concerned with the way we see scarcity when there is actually a great deal of abundance. 

I love this version because it is the one with the boy who shares his lunch.  I’ve heard it said that the miracle may not have been some mystical metaphysical trick as much as it was the breaking of hearts that encouraged them all to share.  While I think there is something to that, I don’t have a need to de-mystify or rationalize the miracle.  Certainly we can be called to greater equality and sharing of resources by this passage, but I think there is something more to it than that.

That something more is that it is the presence of sin and evil that makes us believe that we never have enough, that we ourselves are not enough, and even that God is not enough to answer the place of need we find ourselves in.  And yet Jesus told this crowd of five thousand to sit down, for there was much grass.  And Jesus confronted his disciples with the need around them.  Then Jesus honored and blessed and distributed generosity – the smallest kindness he could find. 

And because their needs were met, the people wanted to make him king. They wanted him to keep meeting their needs.  And Jesus stepped away.  Then we have this weird telling of Jesus walking on the water and the boat arriving on the shore.  John’s gospel tacks this story onto the end as if to say that making Jesus king is missing the point.

It’s not enough to say, “OK, Jesus, you’re in charge now.”  The opportunity of faith does not begin and end with realizing that there is a God and it is not me.  The opportunity of faith is with us throughout, and it moves us to the shore when we recognize that Jesus is so much more than “in charge.”  Jesus reveals to us the height and depth and breadth of God’s love so that we become aware of the part we play.

I don’t think that we become any less opportunistic.  I think we just become more aware of the opportunities that reflect the heart of God.  And the heart of God is broken when we are broken.  The heart of God limits the powers of those that claim to have authority over life.  The heart of God inspires us to feed, love, and share well beyond our means – to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” 

Sometimes we accomplish these things together.  Like when the shots rang out in the Grand Theater, and on the other side of town the Lafayette High Band closed their practice session by singing the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

Sometimes we have work to do on our own, but I believe that everything we do impacts others and echoes in eternity.  One such echo was posted by John Petersen as he reflected on the loss of his friend, Jillian this week. 

John wrote, “Do good work.  I remember reading those words in Jillian’s ‘Be You’ feature in 2012 and thinking about how well they embodied her, both personally and professionally.  I saw her as a sort of den mother to the growing community of young entrepreneurs and creative professionals in Lafayette over recent years.

I never told her I viewed her that way, but I wish I had; and I’m sure many others admired and respected her similarly.  She had a self-assuredness, wisdom, and clarity of thought that are rare—and it was clear within minutes of meeting her.

She was an inspiration for how to live well—how to create, and explore, and build something meaningful—to do good work, and do it joyfully.

I’m heartbroken.

I’m also determined to see Jillian’s legacy live on; that we continue to become the community she envisioned and helped to pioneer; that we all live the values she should still be here to demonstrate through her amazing example:

Be nice.  Do good work.  Try hard.  Listen.  Love.

If there is a solution for ending senseless acts like this one, those values are a good starting point for reaching it.”

Be nice.  Do good work.  Try hard.  Listen.  Love.  That sounds like the type of opportunistic behavior that Jesus demonstrated for his disciples.  Let us resolve to seek opportunities to demonstrate God’s love in all that we do.  Let us resolve to challenge systems of power that limit and destroy life!  Let us resolve to answer the questions of sin and evil with the expectation of God’s abundant love that is so big that even the scraps can fill you up!

In all that we do, let us continue to look for ways to move from selfishness to service and from an expectation of scarcity to an experience of abundance.  And to God be the glory, now and always.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Christmas in July – The Struggle Is Real

Have you ever wished that there was a way to keep the Christmas Spirit all year long? I don’t mean all of the rushing around, eating too much, and feeling like something is missing. That stuff you can keep. I mean the sense of wonder, the hope that we truly can be at peace, and the moments of stillness when there is no time left to do the things that have been left undone. 

Oh how I wish we could bottle up the way people treat each other with just a little more love and charity during the weeks that lead to the celebration of the birth of Jesus! What would it smell like – fresh baked cookies, pine trees, or maybe just cinnamon? What would it sound like – favorite carols, Handle’s Messiah, or maybe just the story of the nativity of Jesus?

Of course there is a reason that we only celebrate Christmas once a year. It is because we need the anticipation of Advent and the revelation of Christmas Eve to demonstrate what we believe. And we believe that the God of the universe chose to be revealed in a special way through the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph and the vulnerability of the Christ-child.  

And today, while we remember the sights and sounds of Christmas and the good feeling we get from joy filled celebration, we remember that God is still with us – even as the world still cries out for salvation. Today we are bold to celebrate Christmas in July as a part of our continued efforts to integrate our calling to express the love of God with our practices as a congregation. Our vision, our sense of identity as a congregation is that we are “A Place to Experience, Explore, and Express the Love of God.”

Some time back the Fellowship Committee realized that our monthly gatherings for lunch were a perfect place to celebrate the various mission projects and relationships we share in the community. So, we started calling those lunches our “Express Lunch” where we “express the love of God” through these projects and partnerships. 

Today we are highlighting our relationship with the C.U.P.S. Basket Ministry. For those who are not familiar with it, C.U.P.S. (Communities Uniting in Prayer and Service) was formed after the storms of 2005 to meet the needs of those displaced by the hurricanes. One of the ways that we have continued to support them is by offering space and materials for gift baskets at Christmas, Easter, and throughout the year. C.U.P.S. produces baskets for birthdays for children at risk and as gifts for teachers, families of inmates, our Meals on Wheels Clients, our LARC cleaning crew, and even a few nursing homes. Sue Turner and her crew of elves take new and gently used items and make them into expressions of care and love for those who often go unnoticed, and we’ll be helping her with some of the basic preparations after lunch today.

Perhaps the basket ministry is an obvious proclamation of the Gospel, but I think there is yet more the scriptures hold for us today. Acts of charity certainly are an expression of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, but we must be careful to remember that they are the end result of faith, and not the means. Besides, it is easy to do something good and feel justified. 

The harder road is to recognize our own need for charity and how it intersects with those we think of as needy. The harder road is to consider the way our faith offers reconciliation not only with God, but with each other. The harder road is to consider how oppression affects the powerful and the powerless alike, and how God has called for an end to it through Jesus Christ!

Oppression is a good place to start. I grew up believing that oppression was outlawed in America, and technically it is. Oppression can be defined as systematic, ongoing, cruel or unjust treatment or control. Oppression can be something overt and intentional like slavery – which is arguably worse today than any point in human history – or it can be insidious and idealistic like racism or classism or sexism. So, yes, oppression still happens, even in these United States.

In the time of Isaiah oppression was fairly straightforward. It came in the form of the invading Assyrians who overthrew Israel. Having a border nation with a shared heritage overthrown will get your attention. The people of Judah saw the light. When King Hezekiah came in, he cleaned up all the religious places and kicked out the foreign Gods. The people, for a time, were safe.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel certainly knew that Isaiah was writing about Hezekiah, but he also knew that the struggle against oppression was still real. That’s why he used the prophecy to refer to Jesus. And although many will debate the virgin birth and the idea that all kings claimed some kind of divinity, that’s not really the point of the author of Matthew’s Gospel. His point is not about mystical revelation. Matthew’s Gospel is about faithfulness to God. Matthew is concerned about faithfulness to the God who redeems, and he is concerned with the response of God’s people. And he is not shy about the fact that faith is something that is both practical and risky. In the story we shared today, Joseph has decided to divorce (dismiss) Mary quietly – even though they aren’t married yet. 

In those days the engagement was as binding as the wedding, even though they were not supposed to be together until after the wedding. Mary has been revealed to him as pregnant, and although the text says “by the Holy Spirit” all Joseph knows is that Mary had another dance partner. Joseph is described as righteous because he is willing to divorce her quietly. He could go to court and clear his name, sort of. He might get back the bride price if he paid one. But he is unwilling to take away her dignity just to save his own. It is a lose / lose situation for Joseph, but he is righteous because he knows that being right is not always the same thing as doing the right thing.

Then Joseph takes righteousness a step further. An angel visits him in a dream and tells him that this child will be “Emmanuel, which means God with us.” And because of a dream – because of a belief in the active presence of God and his faith in the God who is remembered in song and ceremony for redeeming God’s people – Joseph makes the connection between righteousness and mercy, and he took Mary as his wife. And together they created a hospitable space in the world for the presence of God to enter in.

And isn’t that what we are called to do, even here, even now, even today? The struggle is still real. Opinions fly like sharpened knives over what it means to be courageous, over the free access to military grade weaponry, and over the reality of racial tension in our land. We segment ourselves off with other birds with similar feathers. We lob emails and articles and memes across the trenches of the internet, and we take positions of righteousness because we think we know what is best. And sometimes we do. But sometimes being right is not the same as doing the right thing. Sometimes we have to be willing to find the connection between righteousness and mercy in order to be faithful to the God who is in the business of redemption.

That’s why Paul told the church in Ephesus to remember how it used to be. He wanted them to remember how it used to be before they experienced God’s activity in their lives, before real faith began, before redemption made sense to them. For some of us that may be hard to understand. If you grew up in the church you may not have a moment when you did not know about God. But consider this, Paul said that redemption was both the Gentiles and the Jews.

All are in need of redemption, for in the same way that hanging out in a garage does not make you a mechanic, going to church does not make you a disciple of Jesus! But the church is still the place that God calls us to become. And the church does not become the church just because people who are nice to each other sing Christmas Carols. The church becomes the church when people who cannot even speak to each other for fear of losing status and resources and identity sit down to share a meal and find out that they are each beloved in the eyes of God.

In some small way, my hope is that the baskets we make this year will demonstrate the fact that we see people – people who normally go unnoticed – as God’s beloved. And yet I know that God is pushing us toward something more. For God has broken down the dividing wall between us and put hostility to death! I’m sure that those in the news media will disagree with that – given the inconvenience it would cause them – but I’ll stand by it.

I’ll stand by this text because I believe that God has put hostility to death in two ways. First, God has put hostility to death eternally. The end result of all things will be that God’s love consumes everything. All the hostility in the world is like a pebble in the ocean when compared to the love of God. And secondly, God has put hostility to death immediately between those who love God. God’s love is so enormous that hostility between those who love God lasts about as long as a candle under a glass. When we truly love God and express God’d love in our relationships, hostility simply dies. It has no fuel. It is snuffed out.

Then we become like building blocks – with Christ as the cornerstone – for a hospitable space in the world for the presence of God to enter in! That’s what Paul encouraged the Ephesians to become. And for a while they did, and they were safe. Historians believe they lasted for around 148 years

It does make me wonder – maybe safe is not the thing we want to be. Maybe we should be open to the struggles that are real and oppressive. Maybe we should be taking the risk of losing status and power in order to temper righteousness with mercy. Maybe we should be as worried about our own need for reconciliation with others as we are worried about our need for reconciliation with God.

Or maybe worried isn’t the right word. Maybe excited is a better word! After all, today we are celebrating Christmas, even in July, for we are a people of the story of redemption. And we have been redeemed so that we might become an example of the power of God’s amazing love. Somehow I see us as a part of that dome that snuffs out the fires of hostility and creates an open space for love to grow. Somehow I see us as the ones who bear that love into the world as our stories are woven with all who follow Jesus! Somehow, I still believe that God is active and present in all that we do and say.

So when you say, “Merry Christmas!” think of it as a shout for all oppression to cease. When you say, “Merry Christmas!” think of it as a call to righteousness that requires mercy. And When you say, “Merry Christmas!” remember that God is with you, molding and shaping us like clay in the potter’s hands into something ever more beautiful, ever more useful, and ever more faithful to God’s story of redemption – even here, even now. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tragic Backstory

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19   Psalm 24     Ephesians 1:3-14     Mark 6:14-29
As a media rich culture we produce and consume vast and untold amounts of magazines, books, music and video.  It seems that we are constantly consuming or communicating about some idea or some opinion about recent events.  Whether you blog, tweet, pin – or even read one of those newspaper thingies – we are involved in constant conversations about the world and its events.  And when we aren’t doing that, some of us love to escape the world in a good book or even a terrible movie.

And nothing draws us in like a tragic back-story – you know, the story before the story.  “Years ago you served my father in the clone wars,” said the princess, and we’ve been hooked to one of the most powerful film franchises in the universe for 38 years.  Perhaps it is because a good back-story makes us feel like their story could be our story.  We can believe a character’s pain is real when we know that it isn’t the first time they’ve been hurt.  We can feel their relief more deeply when we know that they have experienced loss.

Sometimes the back-story helps explain, or at least describe, why certain choices have been made.  Sometimes it helps us understand how a character might feel that there was no choice to make.  In terms of our own experiences, psychologists describe these events as a part of our nature and our experience of nurture – our natural predispositions and the events and experiences we live through.

As we go through life, we find ways to cope with life’s events.  Sometimes our actions are healthy.  Sometimes they are not.  Although there are entire genres of literature to help you decide which is which, I believe our texts today offer some insight that none of them can – if we consider the back-story as well.

First is the story of David dancing wildly before the Arc of the Covenant as he brings it home to the royal city of Jerusalem.  In the story before the story we learn that this is the “ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.”  That matters.  It matters because this is not a story about David making a scene.  This is a story about the Holiness of God – and God’s holiness will not be upstaged.

Just three months earlier he had gathered 30,000 of his finest troops and formed what probably looked like the biggest Second Line in the history of Mardi Gras!  Uzzah – driving the special, new cart with his brother Ahio – tries to steady the Ark when the Oxen stumble and God strikes him dead.  What?  Party over.  Special dance moves overshadowed.  Tragic back-story established.

David then chooses Obed-edom’s house to stash the Ark, because he sure isn’t taking that thing into the city. After all that he has been through to unite the tribes of Judah and Israel, he simply wasn’t going allow himself to be that vulnerable.  The text doesn’t tell us of how Obed-edom’s family felt about this or if they volunteered or were “voluntold”.

I guess it really doesn’t matter.  They were called, and they came.  Obed-edom was blessed while Uzah’s father, Abinadad, mourned.  David realized that the Ark was not only a source of suffering, but also blessing, and he brought it home.  But this time he began from a position of reverence.  Barely six steps into the journey they stopped and made sacrifices.  David stripped himself of anything that made him appear better than anyone else, and he danced and praised God! And then he made sure that everyone who came near had something to eat.

Of course, this is the same David that would later act like a scoundrel.  But his back-story remains one of reverence.  His compass – moral center – is found in recognizing that God is holy and that faith moves us from suffering to blessing. 

And then, on the other hand, we have poor old King Herod.  Herod tells his own back-story when he hears about the wonderful things that Jesus is doing and says, “It must be John the Baptist – whom I beheaded – risen from the dead!”  Of course he would think it was John.  Those who have the most regrets expect to pay for them more severely. 

In some ways, it may as well have been John.  Jesus proclaimed the same message as John.  “Repent!  The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Believe the good news!”  How can this news be good to a man like Herod?  He stole his brother’s wife.  He locked up the only person who stood up to him for it.  He paraded his daughter in front of his crooked allies (most likely Roman officials), and when he offered her a reward he was bound by his own word to give her anything she wanted.

Was he hoping to marry her off?  Was he trying to protect her by giving her a portion of his kingdom?  Was he simply a sad, drunk, Roman puppet – a shadow of his father, Herod the Great (who was actually a terrible man)?  Who knows?  What we do know is that this barbaric act made it clear – possibly to everyone but Herod – that Jesus was not simply John’s disciple.  It made it clear that Jesus was the one that John said would “baptize with the Holy Spirit of God!” 

The beheading of John was the antithesis of the reverence of David.  It was a Jewish King acting to preserve his own interests instead of acting to preserve the people of God.  And yet, even his failings proved the presence of God in the ministry of Jesus.  Even his tragic back-story is woven into the story of God’s desires for each of us and all of creation.

Just as Paul told the church in Ephesus, God is working “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  This has been the plan from the beginning, and it was revealed most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus!  Not only does Jesus give us hope that we will be included in the gathering of all things, but we have the opportunity to celebrate it!  We have the ability to look at the life we live and know that it is woven into a back-story that includes God’s choice.

And God’s choice is the same now as it was then.  God’s choice is to love us and to offer us redemption again and again and again.  Paul wasn’t playing around when he chose the word “redeem”.  In the Greek form, it specifically refers to the idea of “buying someone back - as from slavery.”  He wanted them to know – and God wants us to know – that no matter what you have done, no matter what has been done to you, God’s story is the one that defines us.

That may sound idealistic, but Jeni Stepanek is someone who knows what this means.  You may have seen her or her son, Mattie a few years back.  Mattie was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that later became evident in Jeni as well.  As early as age 3, Mattie began to compose poems to Jeni about the hopefulness that he felt for life.  Eventually these were published, and Mattie and Jeni began to spread Mattie’s message of hope.  His message wasn’t, “I need a million dollars for medical research.”  His message was, “Life is precious and good and beautiful.  We each have a ‘heartsong’ to sing.  Each one is different, and that’s what makes the world a beautiful place.”  Mattie sang his song for 13 years, and now others continue to sing it for him.

While it is sad that such a beautiful soul was trapped in a torturous body and taken at such a young age, I believe that he lived as someone who knew what it meant to “live for the praise of God’s glory.”  In just 13 years he published 7 books, communicated with dignitaries, and established a foundation for peace and reconciliation.  And at the center of it was a belief that God was with him, and that “Even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.”  I think the Apostle Paul would agree.

In tragedy and triumph, God is with us.  God holds our past, our present, and our future, and God weaves them into the story of redemption and hope that moves us always and forever from reverence into service and from suffering into hope.  The question is, will we remain perplexed over the will of God and self-centered like Herod, or will we become reckless in our praise and invested in our care for others like David?  My hope is that each of us might find a way to demonstrate God’s grace in our time apart as clearly as we do when we are together, and may God be glorified in all that we say and do.  Amen.

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

2 Corinthians 12:2-10      Mark 6:1-13

The last few weeks in the US have been charged with political energy and excited by social change.  News outlets and social media have exploded with those expressing a resistance to change, and with those who plan to make even greater changes.  It seems to me that flags are more central to these expressions than usual.  Flags of differing stripes have been waived, burned, and even used to advocate competing agendas.  Yet above it all there is a flag for our nation.  No matter what you call it, no matter what you do to it, our Nation’s flag still symbolizes the values that many in this room and many of our loved ones have fought and died for. 

I’m sure you know about the significance of the stars and bars, but have you ever wondered why the colors red, white, and blue were chosen?  When Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, explained the significance of the colors in the Great Seal of our nation he said, “The colors are those used in the flag of the United States of America.  White signifies purity and innocence.  Red [signifies] hardiness & valor, and Blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, & justice.”

I believe these values still lie at the bedrock of our culture.  With all of our corruption and arrogance, with all of our generosity and good intentions, we are a nation that longs for the good to prevail.  You can certainly argue that our history does not always reflect an ethic of purity, valor, and justice, but an equal argument can be made that we have held those goals and expressed them in ways we believed good and right as a society.  In other words – we haven’t always gotten it right, but we’re always working toward that end.  

Along these lines, many like to argue the point of whether or not we were founded as a Christian nation.  In that argument, we Presbyterians love to lay claim to the fact that the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian.  In fact, the English were said to have called the American Revolution a “Presbyterian Rebellion.” 

Often, when I find myself explaining to someone that Presbyterians actually are Christians, I can’t resist telling them that Presbyterian means ‘elder’, that we govern ourselves by representatives, and that they can blame us for the representative system that governs our nation today!  Of course, our influence did not just come from some innate desire to organize.  It came from a belief that God alone is Lord and that power must be shared by those who would naturally place themselves above others.  It came from a belief that governance is a gift from God that all should benefit from equally.

Now, in truth there were others involved in that process, and many were Deists that believed in a God that was somewhat like a watchmaker.  Creation was set in motion and governed by natural laws that we can figure out and live with.  But regardless of our credit or blame in the politics of the past or present, I think scripture asks the same question of us.  It’s the same question that I ask when I see manifestos of offense or shame made by those who would be better served to work toward a solution rather than deepen our complaints.  It’s a question I’ve been asked when I stick my neck out too far.  That question is, “Just who do you think you are?”

Paul seems to be answering that question in his letter to the church in Corinth.  Throughout the chapter he is calling himself a fool by comparison to others.  He begins with an amazing account of someone who really has something to boast about.  “I know a man,” says Paul, “who was taken up into the third heaven.”  It doesn’t really matter who this is.  It doesn’t matter if there are separate realms of heaven as once was thought.  The point is that the things worth boasting about are the things of God. 

And the best Paul can do is to tell you that he is being specifically limited by God so that he doesn’t forget who brought him to the dance.  We don’t know what the “thorn” was for Paul.  It might have been a physical thing – he was certainly beaten enough.  It might have been a person that he just couldn’t get along with.  It might have been a bad habit.  We don’t know.  We know he viewed it as something from the devil – something that was apart from God’s will.  Even so –whatever it was – it was blessed by God as a way to keep Paul in check and remind him that all he needed was found in God’s love.  “Well.  That’s rich, God.  If you love me then, why don’t you take care of me?”  How many times have I said that?  And how many times has God’s love been proved through something or someone that I never expected?  Every.  Single.  Time.  And in the end I think, “Well, who did I think I was to ask what God was up to?” 

“Just who do you think you are?” is the question that they even asked Jesus in his home town.  And because they could not see him as anything other than who they wanted him to be, even the power of God was limited.  We could argue whether or not God could have still done works of power, but it kind of reminds me of the age old conundrum, “Can an all powerful God make an object that that same God cannot move?” 

I believe the answer to that question is, “Yes.”  And I believe the unmovable object is the human heart.  Yet the heart is moved only in and through the grace and mercy of God.  That’s why Jesus sent his disciples from that place with nothing.  “Take only your shoes, a staff, and an extra tunic.”  Sound advice – as long as you have a clean tunic you’ll be OK.

But there’s more.  Jesus gave them his authority and told them to expect hospitality.  For those that rejected the disciples were also rejecting God, and those that welcomed them welcomed God.  And they proclaimed the Good News.  And the news Jesus has been sharing since the beginning of Mark’s gospel is this, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.”  Repent.  Turn from self-centeredness.  Turn toward God-centeredness.  The Kingdom is near.

And just who do we think we are in this day and age?  We are the descendants of that Presbyterian rebellion.  We are a part of a culture that is becoming both fractured and more complex.  We are members of a society that is asking questions that it has not asked in generations.  People are in dialog about things we have just assumed that we agreed on, and we are finding that sometimes our assumptions are wrong.  We are finding that sometimes our beliefs can be strengthened through conversation, and we are finding that we still have a way to go to live up to the ideals of truth, justice, and liberty that formed our nation.

The good news is that we are also, like the disciples, sent into the world with the authority of God.  We are sent with the good news of Jesus Christ and we can say with the confidence of Paul that God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness are enough.  Everything else flows from the reality of God’s active presence.  Even our weaknesses – especially our weaknesses – become like a billboard advertising what money can’t buy, and that is the transformative love of Jesus Christ.

There’s a young woman named JoAnn who taught me this lesson in a profound way this summer.  She volunteers at Camp Agape and helps with Arts and Crafts.  She has a birth defect that has shortened her arms, and while she is bright eyed, she is often discounted as someone less capable than she is.  Toward the end of Camp she gave me a rock with “Psalm 139:14 – I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” decoupaged on one side and a dove on the other.  In that one simple act an entire week of preaching on the idea of power made perfect in weakness collapsed on top of me.  JoAnn gave me a rock that reminded me of my own worth and made hers undeniable.

In her simple act, and through the challenge of scripture, we became equally limited.  We also became equally unlimited.  We became equally able to boast all the more in the power of Christ to heal, to cast out the things that separate us from God and one another and able to demonstrate the kingdom that has drawn near!  And who are we, that we can do any less today?  As we gather around the table of Christ, we are saints with complex pasts.  We are sinners with brilliant futures.  We carry our thorns with thanksgiving in our hearts for the one whose grace is sufficient.  We lay down our flags, and we know who we are.  We are God’s people.  We are sent into the world to challenge, redeem, and heal in the name of the one who does the same for us – over and over again.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Keep Calm and Follow Jesus

During the second World War the British government began a campaign to encourage their citizen’s resolve in the war effort. There were a variety of posters with simple messages that all had a drawing of a Tudor era crown above them. The most memorable of them read, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. These were all discarded after the war and would’ve been forgotten if a trunkful hadn’t been found, quite by accident, some 40 years later. 

At first the phrase was re-introduced as “Keep Calm and Shine On” – a phrase that can mean anything from “be brilliant” to “be deceitful,” depending on which website you trust. Now you can find it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers with “Keep Calm” followed by anything from “and Carry Guns” to “Presby On.”

I’m not too sure about either of those, but given the range of emotion being expressed over current events it seems to me that we do need to take a collective deep breath before someone else gets hurt. Even as I say that I am painfully aware that while friends and family of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC considered the amazing grace of God four separate African American church buildings were burned by arsonists in NC, GA, and SC. 

And although this may beg the question of whether or not anything has changed since the 1960’s, it is undeniable that we are living in a time of deep and meaningful change. In some ways the events of the day are the product of these changes. In some ways the events of the day are creating changes in the very fabric of our society. That may sound threatening to some, but I believe that it can all be used to move us toward something better. For better or worse, we are moving toward a “new normal”.

Same gender marriage is now legal. The use of the Confederate Flag in governmental installations is being challenged through due process (mostly), and its distribution is being limited through supply and demand. War continues to rage in the Middle East, and we continue to wrestle with our level of responsibility as a nation of power. And even as we fight terrorists on other shores, we continue to experience the terror of school shootings, of violence between and within racial groups, and at the hands of extremist Christians. The ethics and standards of policing are being questioned, and our racial and ethnic diversity continues to shift in our cities – but not so much in our congregations. 

All the while, new technology is changing the way we do business, communicate, and function at levels unseen since the Industrial Revolution. As we become more empowered by our shiny toys the middle class continues to shrink, and those who have more resources are becoming more connected to those who have less. New business models are becoming centered on relationships. Some businesses are asking what people need to survive and thrive rather than determining how to pay employees as little as possible and still get the maximum product from their work.

The interesting thing is that every single phrase in every single sentence of the last two paragraphs will be celebrated by some and absolutely offensive to others. Loss and victory seem unclear as the very earth seems to shift underneath our feet. Into this confused space of opportunity and loss we hear the voice of David cry out. David – who was the anointed successor of Saul, the anointed King of Israel – cries out in anguish over the death of Saul, who was his pursuer, and Jonathan, whom he loved like no other. 

In his song and in our Psalm today we find many of the so called stages of loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I say, “so called,” because we do not go through these stages neatly and orderly. Sometimes we double back because we have not truly finished being angry or feeling bad. It’s also because I think we often confuse acceptance with agreement. Acceptance is not the same as agreement. Acceptance just means that you fully realize that there is no going back – whether you like it or not.

Acceptance means a willingness to move forward. As followers of Jesus, I think there is yet another step that we can add to the way that we understand the changes all around us – and that is expectation! Paul speaks with expectation to the church in Corinth about their relationship to the churches in Jerusalem and Macedonia. Essentially this is his middle of the summer push to remind people about their pledges, but it’s not about money. It’s about recognizing their connection to each other through Jesus Christ. Paul wants them to see that faith creates expectation! 

The expectation of faith is that God is working in and through us, that God is active and present, and that we are to give in ways that empower others and in ways that encourage our own faithfulness. We talk about this a lot in Presbyterian circles. We call it “connectionalism”, and yet our experience of being connected to other congregations in the presbytery is usually limited to meetings that no one wants to attend. 

Yet this Summer I experienced a week of camp with children and youth from at least 10 of our congregations that was hosted by adults from at least 5 of them. Even now there are members of our Presbytery preparing for another trip to Cuba. Even now there are communities in the disappearing wetlands finding hope in the work of our Young Adult Volunteers who plant switch grass and educate communities about the care of God’s creation. Even now there are representatives gathering to create a web of awareness and care for food insecurity in families across the state. Even now there are congregations sharing ideas to become stronger in their public witness of a God who redeems and restores in the midst of every struggle.

And as good as that sounds, we still find ourselves reaching out expectantly with our own hopes and fears. Maybe we are like Jairus, the established religious leader who suddenly became interested in Jesus when he realized that his daughter was ill. I wonder, was he annoyed when Jesus stopped – knowing how sick his daughter was? As Jesus looked to the woman – an outcast who had asserted herself – was Jairus tugging on the other sleeve? 

Or maybe we are like the woman herself, desperate and willing to risk rejection – she would’ve already been seen as unclean. Yet it was her faith, her expectation that God was active and present, that made her well. And Jesus called her “daughter,” and proclaimed that she was clean. 

Or maybe we are like the onlookers who saw the little girl get up and heard Jesus dismiss the miracle as unimportant next to the need to give the girl something to eat. 

Or maybe we are like the girl herself, and we are waiting for the call of Christ to tell us to get up and get moving.

Wherever we find ourselves in the story, I believe we are being called to “Keep Calm and Follow Jesus.” We are being called to stiffen our resolve, not to close our minds. We are being called to place our trust in the hands of the one who brings healing and wholeness – the one who restores communities through their own faith and trust. 

We must expect that Jesus offers restoration, even to us. We must expect that the restoration we want may not happen the way we want it to happen. And we must expect that the most miraculous thing we can do is to care for the one that Jesus has touched and claimed as beloved. 

That will probably put us in some uncomfortable relationships, but it will also give us the opportunity to hear Jesus – in the midst of the radical changes all around us – call our names and say, “Little child, get up!”

Keep calm. Follow Jesus. Amen.

Life is not fair

This sermon was delivered by Leigh Rachal on July 21. Based on Mark 4:35-41.

Life is not fair….
Ever heard that before?
This phrase was told to me by various adults throughout my childhood.

“But Jenny’s mom is letting her go to the party. It’s not fair that my friends get to go and I have to stay home….”  “Sorry. Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”
My mom didn’t tolerate whining. So I learned to stop whining out loud. But I’ve never truly stopped whining. Because I still find myself whining (silently) to God…. And usually, my whine is: But, It isn’t fair….

For example:
Sometimes I whine to God when I hear the news of the day…. “God, it isn’t fair that people were shot and killed while they were faithfully attending a church gathering….” “God, it isn’t fair that people in some places in YOUR world can not walk down their neighborhood streets without worrying about bombs or guns.”

And almost daily I whine to God while I’m at work… “God it isn’t fair that some people do not have basic things like a safe place to live and the opportunity for purposeful daily activities. 

It isn’t fair. I stand by this statement. I have never “gotten used to it”… nor do I anticipate that I ever will.

When I was a child and I felt particularly gutsy, I would demand that if someone “REALLY cared about me” then they would make the world fair…. “If you really loved me, you would let me go to the party with Jenny….”

And as much as I don’t like to admit it out loud, I occasionally (ok, pretty often), get this gutsy with God…. “God, if you REALLY cared about YOUR people, you would…. make the streets safe. All of them. You would stop the bullets and bombs…. You would provide safety and security for all of YOUR people.” 

Come on, God. Don’t you care? Don’t you love your people?
Pretty gutsy, I know…. Or pretty childish, perhaps…. But that is where my faith is most days…..

And, this morning, I find myself in pretty good company. In Mark’s gospel today, the disciples say this same thing to Jesus: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing???” 

They are in the boat and the storm starts up. And the boat is being swamped… And Jesus is asleep. 

And sometimes when I’m observing all the chaos of the world today, I conclude, with those disciples, that God is asleep at the wheel and obviously does not care that we are perishing down here on earth.

For here we discover the age-old problem – coined “the problem of evil” – the problem Christians (and people of all theistic faiths) have had to wrestle with.
It is often termed as a duality:

Given the amount of evil in the world, either God is not all-powerful and CANNOT get rid of the evil.
God is all-powerful, but is not particularly good because God CHOOSES NOT to get rid of the evil.

Is God All-powerful? Or is God Good? It is hard to see God as both. For some, the answer has been: There is no God. For others, the answer has been that God is an Angry God or a Vengeful God. Still others maintain that God exists, but that God is somehow absent during evil. That evil is the result of the absence of God.

For me, none of those answers to the “problem of evil” are acceptable, partly because my understanding of God is not that of a Being that either exists or doesn’t. 
My concept of God is more like Paul Tillich’s The Ground of all Being. That is, that God is not A Being, but rather the Essence of Being. The Is-ness of all that IS – seen and unseen, like we say in our creeds. 

Or to use words from Scripture: God is the great “I AM”  in which we live and move and have our being. God IS Emmanuel. “God is with us.” Always. The God of our creeds, the God of our Scriptures, is not an absent God. 

So when faced with the problem of evil or how to respond when the world does not seem fair and the storms of life overwhelm us (and we are certainly faced with that, plenty!), we might, with many throughout history, turn to the book of Job. 

When bad things happen, we struggle between the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to whine that God must not care and the “faith” of Job that refused to give up the concept that God is Good and Fair and could be trusted – despite mounting evidence to the contrary. 
Just before today’s passage, in the story of Job, Job has suffered tremendous personal and financial loss. And he finally gets up the guts to whine to God that it isn’t fair that he has been so good all of his life and that God is allowing all kinds of bad things to happen to him. And Job sort of demands that if God really cares about him, God will at least explain Godself.

And the answer from God sounds a bit like, “don’t you take that tone with me, young man.”

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!” This slightly sarcastic God goes on and on and on, really making His point. God sort of reminds me of the mother, whose son gets a little too big for his britches, putting him back in his place: “I carried you around for 9 months and then changed your diapers. If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be alive” And depending on the level of anger, I’ve heard this exchange include a line about how that “being alive” part could easily be reversed! This exchange is usually enough to remind a child that they are not in control. There is a more-powerful being in control of their lives. This is usually enough to get the child to back down a bit.
God’s words in Job seem pretty clear: God created the world and doesn’t need any mere mortals questioning God’s work.

Or maybe God is even saying, “Yep, the world isn’t fair. Get used to it.” But just a couple chapters later, when God’s rant is finally concluding, we get a larger picture:

God tells the story of two creatures – monsters, really – creatures that even God has a hard time controlling. And yet, God controls them. God says “I made this world. But I didn’t JUST make it, I made it safe and inhabitable for humans. I put a limit to how far the tides of the seas can go, created light for the day time, and  brought rain to deserts.”
God even created those monsters – that so-called-evil – that came from God, too. 

The author of When Good Things Happen to Bad People, Harold Kushner, argues that the monsters in the story of Job are symbols – symbols of powers and principalities that are capable of good, but also capable of evil. Like every aspect of Life. Like you, like me, like every person on earth – with Good and Bad in us. All humans. All institutions. All of the created world, including nature and all of its forces. Fire, is perhaps the best example of this. Fire can be warm and life-sustaining, but it can also be destructive. 

Life, it turns out is not a series of either good or bad event performed by either good or bad people. Life is just not that clear cut. Are guns evil? Are people who shoot guns evil? Is this particular person evil? Were these other particular people good? Are we good? Are we bad? What about our thoughts, are they good? Bad? Do we even know the answers? Might the answer be yes and no? I think all things are both good and bad. I believe God created the world, with so much potential for both good and for evil, and yet God declared it Good.

But that potential for evil – in the world and in ourselves – is scary.
And back on the sea with his disciples, when the storm has been calmed, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “why are you afraid?”

And I wonder if they were more afraid of the storm or of Jesus’ power to control the storm. But regardless, fear seems like a perfectly rational reaction to either. As I identify strongly with these disciples, I want to respond: “Jesus, why are we afraid? Are you kidding? Storms kill people. Don’t you watch the news? Storms kill people, and bullets and bombs kill people – and yes, people kill people. Shouldn’t we be afraid? Isn’t that a reasonable response? What do you want from us?” Jesus’ response: “Have you still no faith?”

And indeed, have we no faith? Can we not proclaim along with Paul that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”?

Do we not know when faced with what feels like chaos or evil – when it seems like the good guys are losing and the forces of evil are taking over – do we not know that God is in control? Do we not know that none of the created things can separate us from the love of Christ? Do we not know that no matter the level of evil that is contained in our world – or even in our own hearts, that God is big enough and loving enough to contain it? 

Do we not know that God is big enough and loving enough to take all that is evil in us and in the world into Gods own self and to forgive it? Do we not know that God has the final word – even over death, even over the death of many, even over tragedies that we cannot make any sense of – even when we do not understand or see the Good at all? 

Even then, God is the One in whom we all live and move and have our being. All of us. Those who are shot and those who shoot. Those who attack and those who defend. Those who praise God and those who curse God. Those who believe and those who doubt. All of us have, as the Ground of our Being, the same God. This God who is an all-consuming, all-powerful force described by Ken Wilbur as a “love so fierce that it adoringly embraces both light and dark, both good and evil, both pleasure and pain equally.”

Don’t we have faith?
Sometimes we can see this so clearly.
Other times, the tragedies and the storms overwhelm us. And we join the disciples in asking if Jesus even cares.
But when faced with the cross, even Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
So we are in good company in our faith and in our doubt.

And the Good News is that God is with us in both.