Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Public Servants

As some of you know, I had the unique experience of offering the opening prayer for the Stump Speech event at the Horse Farm yesterday.  I have done several of these types of public prayers over the last couple of years, and I must confess that it is always odd to me.  It’s odd because of the way in which our society has changed – such that the voice of the church has become one that blesses more than challenges. 

These invitations to pray at public events – that clearly have nothing to do with the church – are odd to me, because I am clearly a minority voice in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic culture.  The experience of public prayer is odd to me, because I keep calling for God to help us become more just to the poor, more able to confess sin for allowing conditions that contribute to poverty and suffering, and more willing to do something about it.  I keep expecting to have offended someone, and yet they keep asking me back.

It may be that I’m the only sucker willing to do it.  It may be that I wear a collar and my prayers are short.  Either way, I like to do it if I am available.  When else do I get to invite a group of 50-100 people to church all at the same time?  I do think it is important that the church offers a prophetic witness in public conversations, and I do think that we have a unique theological perspective that needs to be shared.  While I can certainly attempt to speak in that way, my voice is nothing compared to what we can say and do together.
For example, while I may have given a theological kick-off, there were at least three different emcees throughout the day, and most of the crowd did not arrive until after the second one took the stage.  Where was the prophetic voice? 

Several candidates did speak about their faith as a credential.  Some used their families in the same way.  All of them spoke about their hopes and expectations.  A few acknowledged the challenges we face as a growing community.  Fewer still acknowledged that there is suffering in our midst, even in the happiest town in the U.S. 

Several of these candidates talked about being accessible and working with local business and community leaders to find creative solutions to the issues we face.  And as much as I hate to admit it, listening to these candidates was both inspiring and confronting.  They, in some way, became as a prophetic voice to me.  It was inspiring to see people who were truly passionate about creating a community that people want to live in.  It was confronting, because it made me ask myself what kind of community member I have been called to be. 

I have to confess, the idea of community forums and governments is not exciting.  Don’t we elect other people because we don’t want to have to deal with these issues?  I guess that may be true in some ways, but when I lay that argument against scripture it doesn’t seem to hold up too well – particularly the passages we’ve received today.  These passages seem to form a chorus that remind us that faith may be personal, but it is never private.  For we are called to be a people of God, not just a collection of constituents of an elected official.

Our Psalm is, of course, about the history of salvation that had been experienced by the ancient followers of Yahweh God.  Their story is very clearly about God’s action to them as a people.  The pilgrims that would have sung this while ascending to the temple weren’t just saying, “Wow.  Good choice.  Without God that could’ve been so much worse.”  They were saying, “Without God, we would not be.”  God is not their God because they chose God.  God is their God because God chose them. 

Something that is just as important, though, is to recognize that God is not absent in suffering.  In fact, God is more real to them because they have suffered and have survived as a people.  In the book of James we find an even more intimate experience of God in community.  Now, obviously this was written before the discovery of antibiotics.  But there is still much to gain by thinking of the connection between sin and sickness.

I do not mean to suggest that illness can be prayed away, but I will say that prayer can make the difference between recovery and loss.  Prayer can help us understand the difference between brokenness and wholeness – between what is permanent and what is fleeting.  There are certainly those who have experienced God’s miraculous touch, and we should never presume to limit God’s hand.  God will do what God will do, and our prayers of joy and longing that are shared in community will move us into a deeper understanding of who we are, who God is, and how we might experience God together.

I say this because I believe it, and because you have shown it to me – here in this place!  Yet we also carry around with us the human tendency to go it alone, to neglect the needs of those in our care, and to become isolated by thinking that it’s easier to do it ourselves.  Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't, calls this bad habit “working in silos.”  We all do it.  I do it.

I realized how terrible I am about it a little over a week ago when I went to see Maisie out at Maison de Lafayette.  In her joy at seeing me I realized my own in seeing her.  In her confession of feeling isolated I realized my own isolation.  And as we shared a Coke I listened to her tell me how much she misses coming to church, she said, “My church is who I am.”

Even as I read the words of Jesus I realize that the same words are true for each of us – our church is who we are as a people of faith.  These words affect us such that sometimes we do not even realize that there are others following Jesus.  We feel competitive and anxious over our turf and our efforts, when the proof is in the casting out of demons.  Jesus turns the tables on us again and again to ask us where we see the demons of poverty, oppression, religious extremism, and indifference being cast out.

Again, these words were written well before the scientific era, but they remind us that the proof of faith is in the pudding.  Sometimes we adopt the words of our leaders that say, “Those who aren’t with us are against us!”  Yet Jesus clearly says, “If they are not against us, then they are for us,” and then he goes on to confront the disciples with their own behavior.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”  This was obviously not taken literally by the disciples.  There are no records of communities that practiced self-mutilation as a spiritual discipline.  While we can take comfort in that, let’s not lose the impact that Jesus is making here.  What we do and say in community has eternal consequences.  And those consequences – for good or for ill – begin in our relationships here and now. 

In a commentary called Feasting on the Word, Daniel Migliore describes the consequences Jesus warns us about.  He writes, “Hell is simply wanting to be oneself apart from God's grace and in isolation from others….  Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God.”

And so we who are the church must become a community of grace for one another again and again and again.  James tells us that we have to be willing to confront one another about it.  We must be willing to have difficult conversations that lead to salvation.  And he tosses out a carrot, telling us that if we do lead someone back into the covenant of grace our own sins are covered.  I don’t think that means that we can do what we want and God will sort it out as long as we end up doing what God wants.  That may be what happens, but that doesn’t really sound like a way to live as a people that demonstrate grace and mercy and forgiveness and kindness.

Our motivation for moving with one another toward salvation must always be one of love.  And love encourages confession.  And confession results in sacrifice.  But the good news is that there is grace in letting go.  There is freedom in sacrifice, and there is hope in love. 
I don’t know what the future holds for us as a people of God.  I do believe that we are at a turning point in our ministry.  I believe that new things will be required of each of us as the Kingdom of God unfolds before us.  It’s a little scary to think of things this way, but I tell you this.  You have my vote.  More importantly, you have God’s.  As a people elected for service in the Kingdom of God, there are no limits to our ability to demonstrate grace and mercy and forgiveness.

For we have been called to have salt within us.  If we begin to think of ourselves as the salt, we can become corrosive – or we can simply lose our flavor!  But if we have salt within us – that is the love of God in our hearts – then the salt becomes a preservative, and we become a people defined by the resolution of our conflicts.  Or, perhaps more importantly, we become a people who demonstrate, in the words of Dr. King., “the presence of justice.” 

That’s what happens when we have salt in us – the salt of suffering and loss that makes God’s presence undeniable – we become a people who cast out demons of indifference and oppression. When our personal faith transforms our public lives we find salvation together, and we realize that we truly are a people of God.  So, let us not stumble or cause one another to fall. And when we do, let’s be willing to talk to one another about it.  Let us be about the business of being God’s people here in this place.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Words Matter

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about the importance of actions, and we need to hold that in mind as part of the argument of the scriptures today. When I say argument I don’t mean that the readings are in conflict with one another. I mean that they have a point to prove, a proclamation to offer, and the intent of winning over our lives through their conviction.

We have small arguments like these all the time. I say small because – while scripture is concerned with our individual experiences – scripture is ultimately concerned with a greater reality than our personal preferences. One such small argument that happened in our house last week was over mayonnaise. 

Yes, I was shocked to find that my daughter – in a blind taste test – had the audacity to prefer a different mayonnaise than the one that I have raised her on. To her credit, I later found that her preferred brand is produced in Louisiana, whereas my beloved mayonnaise is from South Carolina. I later condescended to my own blind taste test, and was comforted that – while both are tasty – my preference remains loyal.

While this is a silly argument, it is packed with words that matter – words like “prefer” and “loyal.” Unspoken realities are also being expressed, like the connection between experience and location and heritage that help us interpret our world in order to make sense of it. Ultimately, that’s what words do for us and why they are so important. They help us to make sense of the world we experience. Words help us construct our realities and invite one another to be a part of the world we live in together even though we interpret it differently.

Interpreting our environment and making decisions that are not simply reactive but actually constructive are some of the characteristics that – according to anthropologists – define what it means to be human. Well, that and hand tools… and language acquisition… those are on the list of what sets us apart. Of course, some will argue that there are complex societies, languages, and problem solving characteristics in everything from insects to Banyan trees, and that our most unique trait is that we work together to intentionally destroy ourselves. 

And that’s why words are so important, and not just any words – but words that reveal the truth. Words that are used in the right way can put a person on the moon. Words used in the wrong way can send us into the depths of despair. 

I heard a news report the other day about the politics between calling those fleeing Syria “refugees” verses “immigrants.” Then I saw a picture of an idilic city street that could have been in any civilized country, but it happened to be in Syria. Then I saw a picture of the same street, having been reduced to rubble and ash – all because of the words we use to speak about our relationship to the greater truth of God.

Of course, the atheist and the agnostic will say that all wars are fought because of religion. While there may be some truth in that, wars are not fought because of God. They are fought because of the words we use to talk about God and the actions that follow those words. Well, actually they are fought because of economic realities of inequality, but it’s just so convenient to say that they are about God.

And in the midst of our war torn world we wage private campaigns for peace, for the protection of those we love, or just for our personal freedom to be who we believe God created us to be. And in this holy space of longing we hear the words of the Psalmist reminding us that God’s laws are good for us. Particularly, this Psalm is referring to the ten commandments and the way they frame our relationship with God and with each other. 

And through the example of Jesus we can see that the law of God is not a barrier to God or a way to be good so much as it is a way to respond to the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. And in today’s passage, Jesus is throwing out the biggest “spoiler alert” that he can possibly offer to his disciples and to the crowds that are following him. Now, these crowds must be a mix of people at this point.

He’s gone further up into gentile territory. Caesarea Philipi was a Roman held area that was formerly a place of worship for the Greek God, Pan. There was a cave where they made sacrifices, and it had these huge sculptures on display. The Romans also placed statues of themselves, and Philip II printed his image on their coins right around the time that Jesus came through, but certainly by the time Mark’s gospel was written. Just as in Syrophoenecia, there are people who are coming because he is supposed to have power – power to heal and the power to command the elements and feed the masses. 

They have come because whether they are devout jews or God fearing people who want Roman oppression to end, they want to know if he is the one whom God – any God – has sent to save them. And Jesus begins, this time, with his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets!” they say. Then he says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter nails it, “You’re the Messiah of God!”

Then Jesus says, “Yes, but tell no one. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to suffer and die and rise again.” Peter can’t handle these words. This is definitely not his brand of mayonnaise. He pulls Jesus aside. “So, I get it that you’re a little worried about our trip to Jerusalem, but let’s not get too excited. It’ll be fine. Really…” And for that he becomes Satan. Wait, what?

J. R. Daniel Kirk, New Testament Professor at Fuller Seminary and host of Lectiocast, suggests that Peter, the disciple, pulled the Rabi Jesus aside to instruct him. That meant that he was no longer following Jesus but attempting to lead him – and to lead him astray. So, when Jesus said, “Get behind me.” He was telling Peter to literally move back into a position of a disciple. The idea of “Satan” at that time was a way to describe opposition to God. So, Peter was representing Satan because he was not behind Jesus with the other disciples.

It makes me wonder. How many of my prayers are essentially requests for God to act in a way that I want God to act? How often do we look at prayer as a tool to clue God into what we want or need instead of seeing prayer as a way to align ourselves with what God wants and needs. That’s essentially what Jesus told the crowd when he told them to pick up a cross and follow him.

For this crowd, you have to remember that the cross was an instrument of death. Some of them may have already seen a family member on a cross. More than that, it was Rome’s attempt to say that they controlled the Jewish people in life and in death. For it is written, “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.”

So, this story is a turning point in Mark’s gospel from a Messiah who demonstrates cosmic power over the elements to a Messiah who is willing to suffer in order to reveal the power of God. Jesus reveals a deeper understanding of what it means to challenge earthly powers and he invites us to do the same. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Apart from military service, or some extreme voluntary role like Doctors Without Borders, it’s impossible for us to understand the call to the cross in any way other than metaphorically. I doubt that God truly wants us all to become martyrs. At the same time, I believe God calls us to constantly let go of the things we hold sacred and dear so that we can see what is of God and what is not.

Sometimes that means letting go of physical things that clutter our lives. Sometimes it means letting go of a destructive habit or relationship. Sometimes it means letting go of a belief or an ideal. Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping your mouth shut, thinking before you post something on line, or doing some research before you forward that email.

Ultimately our words matter, and they should line up with our actions. I’m not in the habit of quoting politicians, but I really like the way New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said:

Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people;

before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children;

before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors.

In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.

Now, may it be that our words and deeds reveal a deeper understanding of truth. May it be that our words and deeds help us understand our relationship with all of God’s creation. May it be that our words and deeds demonstrate more and more access to the love of God in which we live, move, and have our being. And to God be the glory – now and always, amen.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Humanity and Divinity

As some of you may know, I have from time to time taken to studying scripture in coffee shops instead of my office.  Something about the buzz of human interaction makes the gospel come alive.  Certainly there are distractions, but none of them have the weight of property issues or administrative tasks.

One such day I overheard two women talking about their past and current struggles.  They were both displaced by Katrina, and probably in their late 40’s.  One of them, who called herself Karen, noted my Bible and asked for prayer.  She was living on Social Security while getting certified as a medical transcriptionist.  I did pray with her, but I did not share the poem they inspired.  It seemed a bit much to tell a stranger that I wrote a poem about her, but I’ll share it with you now.  It was raining that day, so the title of the poem is Rain.

I hear a woman's chatter, deep and low.
Storms have uprooted cities
While she and her cats grimaced 
With pearl and onyx.
Bangles on her wrist chatter as she rises 
Whispering secrets of survival 
And communion to her friend, 
While I exist as a gnat on fruit 
Sucking life from their conversation. 
Still my joints ache from battles less sacred.
Still the clouds and their gray dresses
Appear as indicators of my distress.
And the women warriors to my left,
Having been drawn together by the same demon, 
Speak of tenacity and expectation 
As the path of salvation. 
More so it seems that in the sharing of their pain 
They have seen its end;
Not to say that pain is over, 
More so that its purpose is made clear.

In the wake of ten years of recovery and in light of the current crisis in Syria, today is a good day to recognize God’s grace and mercy.  By “grace and mercy, I am not referring to the fact that we are safe and sound and worshiping freely.  I am referring to the fact that God is active and present in this place as well as in places of pain and suffering.  By “grace and mercy” I am referring to what we have received and to what we must give.

That said, I do want to take just a moment to be sure you are aware of what the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is doing in response to the current refugee crisis in Syria.  As you probably know, this is the first time since WWII that there have been more than 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world.  There were 59 million in 2014.  That means that, on a global scale, there are roughly 1 out of every 122 people that are displaced and half of them are children.  In and out of Syria the displaced number around 13 million.  In international crisis, the PDA tends to partner with other organizations so that resources and actions are more focused and connected to actual needs.  So far, we have partnered with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Libya to provide resources for infrastructure and school systems in Syria.  Meanwhile we are partnering with the ACT Alliance (Actions by Churches Together) to provide services for children in Hungary.  The need is great, and there are other organizations focusing on other areas.  But I wanted you to know about the work of the PDA.

Like I said, it’s a good day to think about God’s grace and mercy, especially when so many lives hang in the balance.  Such news leaves us asking what God might want us to do about all of this mess, and I believe that our scriptures are pretty clear today about what God wants.  Proverbs tells us that if the wealthy “despoil the poor,” God will “despoil their lives” in the same way.  James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that if we give a hungry person a prayer instead of food then our prayers are empty and our faith is void.  And then Jesus brings healing and wholeness to the gentiles to demonstrate that the abundance of God’s grace does not stop with loaves and fish but extends even to those who cannot ask or articulate faith in the way that others do.

At least that’s the big picture view of it all.  And maybe the summary is enough.  Maybe it’s enough to say take care of the poor, put your faith into action, and don’t try to limit the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet, without some conversation, those ideas can become what I call “shoulds and shouldn’ts.”  You know, like the way the guy in my neighborhood shouldn’t be operating a repair shop out of his garage but does it anyway?

So, let’s start with Proverbs.  Suffice to say that Proverbs is not just a bunch of bumper stickers.  It’s meant to be sound advice for the young men (sorry ladies) of the King’s court.  That said, the portion we have today is pretty good for anyone, because it reminds us that whether we are rich or poor we have the same kind of blood in our veins and we need each other. In the words of Maya Angelou, “The race of man is suffering.  And I can hear the moan, ‘cause nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.”

It’s no coincidence that we have the threat of our lives being despoiled as the backdrop for the words of James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  He would've been well versed in these words, and they would make sense to his audience.  Scholars believe that he was writing to smaller gatherings that were becoming divided between the rich and the poor, perhaps they were even courting larger donors – or the right kind of members – to keep the doors open.

Either way, he was pretty clear that God was less concerned about the reputation of the member and more concerned about putting faith into practice.  Showing preferences or favoritism is the opposite of faith.  I have to admit, that stings pretty harshly when I read quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. that criticized Sunday at 11a.m. as the most segregated hour in America.  Of course, this is not because we want it that way, but it remains our present reality such that we need to ask ourselves, “Are we doing anything about it?”.  It’s kind of like the way I recently realized I should not complain that I am not doing anything about my belly, because in truth I am doing something about it.  I’m just not helping it shrink.

And as though that 360º mirror of “faith versus personal preferences” weren’t enough, James goes on to tell us that, “faith without works is dead.”  Aha!  Those with a Reformed heritage will say, “Isn’t that works righteousness?  We can’t earn our faith no matter how nice we act.”  And right you are.  In fact, Martin Luther even argued against including James in the canon of scripture.  But here’s why it remains.  The words of James are not opposed to the words of Paul who said that we are saved by grace alone.  Instead, they are in response to those who believed that their actions did not matter. 

Our actions matter in the way that Jesus said, “Each tree is known by its own fruit.”  And what about this Jesus?  Have we let him off the hook by focusing on his willingness to include the Gentiles?  He was a little grumpy to that Syrophoenician Woman.  In fact he was downright rude, calling her a dog. 

Some have said that Jesus was using her request as a way to open the door to others. Some have said that he was just baiting her so that she might take a stand and be empowered to break through social taboos.  Personally, I have always felt that this passage is a great example of the humanity of Jesus.  What I think is so very “Jesusy” about this is that he is able to demonstrate his humanity and divinity in the same relationship.  Even though he may have been downright mean to her, he was able to “get out of the way” of the gospel – the promise that God is with us.

Korean theologian, Poling Sun, takes it a step further, though.  In his article, “Naming the Dog” he acknowledges Syria as a Roman province that literally took it’s bread from Galilee.  So, Jesus was essentially naming her as part of a system of oppression as if to say, “Look you’re already taking bread from the Children of God.  Now you want God’s blessing on top of it?  I don’t think so.”  But in her response – we know that she has heard of him and the recent feeding of 5k – she is calling him out on the promise that in God, especially through Jesus, there is always enough grace and mercy to go around.

Thinking about it that way, it may be that her faith is what encouraged Jesus to continue healing as he went out of his way to go deeper into Gentile territory “on his way” back to Galilee.  And the one person they brought before him was deaf and mute.  He could not have heard.  He could not have asked, yet God’s grace was given to him intimately and personally.  And even though he was told to keep quiet about it, the good news of Jesus was told all the more widely.

And so here we sit, longing for the table of grace and mercy like the Syrophoenician woman.  Let’s give her a name.  Let’s call her Karen.  Are we ready to name the injustices in our world?  I don’t mean in the sense of posting news channel talking points online, although that can certainly start some lively discussions.  I mean, are we ready to name injustice in a way requires us to act with the same grace and mercy that we have received?

And when we find that healing has come to us, will we keep quiet?  For, having been drawn together by the same demon, we speak of tenacity and expectation as the path that leads to salvation.  More so it seems that in the sharing of our pain we have seen its end; not to say that pain is over.  More so, that its purpose is made clear.

God does not want us to suffer, but it is through suffering – both ours and others – we find our true humanity.  And in those times of suffering we express the mercy that we need so much.  In finding that our neighbor is a part of us, we experience nothing less than the presence of God.  That is the hope we carry with us to the table today, and it is the blessing we bring with us to every table we are sent to – in our homes, in the café, and even more so with those whose poverty may bring us closer to the Kingdom of God.  At least I pray it may be so with me, and I pray that it may be so with you. All to the glory of God, whose kingdom is both present and yet to be revealed in fullness. Amen. Amen, and again I say, Amen.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Just Do It

Athletic products have some of the best motivational slogans.  As I reflect on the last few weeks of readings in Ephesians and John, I can’t help but think about the slogans “Is it in you?” and “Just do it.”  Both of these come to mind when I think about the last several weeks of scripture readings.  For five weeks, we’ve been talking about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  We have been talking about incarnation theology – that is the idea that God is made manifest in you and me through Jesus Christ. 

Those are some mighty fancy words.  I don’t mean to suggest that you or I do not understand them.  I mean to say that sometimes we like fancy words to make us feel good about our crumby world.  Of course there are many of us who understand those words but don’t quite feel up to them.  Maybe the idea of God peaking out through your eyes is a bit overwhelming.  Maybe you think that God only shows up when you do something good or nice.  Maybe you are a good Calvinist and you believe that we are just so inherently sinful that we just can’t be that good no matter how hard we try.

Wherever you are with the idea that God is made manifest in you, I think it is important to come into today’s readings with that idea in your mind.  Not only that, but I think we need to hold the idea of “God within us” in tension with the concerns expressed in Ephesians over the conflict between spiritual forces and our present reality.

And what is our present reality?  Although I could talk about violence and social strife, I’d rather talk about children.  They are not the future.  They are part of our present reality, and they have much to teach.  I received one such lesson many years ago on a playground in Savannah, GA; my son ran under the monkey bars at a playground before I could stop him.  One little girl had just made it across those same monkey bars and her older sister stopped mid-swing in the middle of them to avoid hitting my son.  Her sister saw her struggling and said, “Just drop and start over.”  This girl of about 5yrs. old grabbed the next bar, grit her teeth, and said, “Winning is a choice!”  As she made her way across, her sister rolled her eyes as if to say that she’d heard that a lot.

While I admired her tenacity, I think her story speaks volumes about our sense of self worth and the values we place on others in our society.  We are a culture of winners and losers, and if winning is a choice then so is losing.  We are constantly flooded with messages about the value of individual will power and getting what we deserve.  We are bombarded with cries for justice over things that aren’t fair, and we are confused over the difference between personal freedom and the liberty of our society. 

But that’s OK.  It’s not new.  It’s a part of the rugged individualism that has been both a blessing and curse to our nation from the beginning.  Although our community struggles with the tensions of poverty and race just as is every American city, we are also a community that shares in the grief and the joy of having been affected by the storms of 2005 – Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  While we cannot shy away from the 1,400 deaths, it is good and right to celebrate the resiliency of South Louisiana.  It is good and right to recognize the fact that this community became not simply a shelter, but a place of hospitality for the population increase of around 11,000 in Lafayette Parish. 

This number only continues to increase as industry grows and our community becomes more and more diverse.  And while we need to look at questions about our own congregation’s ability to grow in this rising tide, our texts today are about the deeper questions and statements of faith: “Is it in you?” and “Just do it.”

The book of James is pretty clear.  Don’t just talk about it.  Do something about it.  Practice what you preach.  Just do it, right?  Well, yes.  Although, just because the answer is obvious doesn’t mean that it is simple.  For one, we have to come back to that incarnation thing.  James starts with generosity as the motivator, and generosity is fundamentally an act of, for, and by God. 

God’s generosity doesn't require the kind of quid pro quo we find in today’s world where donations to charitable organizations are seen as investments that anticipate dividends.  Instead, God’s generosity is what allows us to get beyond ourselves.  And so it is both a gift and a command that James describes when he says be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. 

I’m sure it was no different then, but that seems the opposite of what we often experience today.  I shudder to think how often I have reacted with anger, spoken without thinking, and expected others to listen to me.  The key to it all, as James describes it, is vulnerability.  We have to get rid of all selfish and self preserving attitudes in order to see what God has in mind.  We must do this in our families, in our work, and in our schools.  Because when we become vulnerable to others we find that true religion is expressed in the care of those who are truly vulnerable.  In James’ day it was the widow and the orphan. 

Today it could be anyone who is without resources or relationships of support.  I have grown up hearing that the average American is a paycheck away from poverty.  My children are growing up hearing about the disappearing middle class and what it means to be “debt poor.”  And while we can lay blame and talk politics, the book of James simply says to care for the vulnerable and keep yourself “unstained by the world.”

What an awkward phrase that is, “Keep yourself unstained by the world.”  James comes from a tradition that views our self-centeredness as a stain on the image of God that we represent.  So, in the same spirit, Jesus tells the Pharisees that tradition is not the rule – honoring God is the rule.

When Jesus turns to the crowd he isn’t just being flippant or combative to the Pharisees.  He honestly wants the people to understand that actions speak louder than words.  He wants them to know that you can spend your whole life going to worship without ever once worshiping God!  He wants them to know that ritual purity is not the same as being pure.

Then he pulls his disciples aside to explain – revealing deeper truths as he does in Mark’s Gospel.  I love that he begins by saying, “You understand that I was talking about digestion and excrement, right?”  Then he goes past the literal truth to explain the real truth.  Everything from pride to murder and all points in between come from the intentions of the human heart.  It’s not because the devil made us do it.  We do it, and we love it.

In a way, he is yet again asking us that deeply theological question, “Is it in you?”  Are you motivated by something that makes you feel good, or are you motivated by something that demonstrates how amazingly good God is?  In our work, in our play, in our studies, in our service to others, in our time with our loved ones – in all of these things we must look beyond what is inside of us and move toward a deeper understanding of what we are inside of.

And ultimately that is nothing short of the embrace of God.  And in the embrace of God my poverty of spirit is related to someone else’s poverty of riches (and v/v).  And in the embrace of God, questions like “Is it in you?” and statements like “Just do it,” become reminders of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law.  Jesus demonstrated and summarized the law as the love of God with all that we are and the love of neighbor as the love of self.

It’s just that simple.  It’s just that hard.  Don’t be stained by the refuse we cannot help but create, but be moved by the compassion of God.  For if God can be compassionate with me and with you, there is no end to God’s love for others.  And if there is no end to God’s compassion, then there can be no end to ours. 

Let it be so this day, and may God add even greater understanding as we live and love and put God’s grace into actions of mercy and justice in God’s world.  Amen.

Thin Places

I wonder how many of you are already tired of the political posturing and public debate that has gripped our nation?  And just think, the debates have only just begun.  Yay!  Politicians and pundits are sharpening their words to play upon our fears, to villainize their opponents, and to demonstrate their ability to save us from our next big crisis.  But don’t hate the player.  Hate the game. I have hope that God is still present, even in the imperfect and impure political systems we continue to abuse, reform, and venerate.

Meanwhile our criminal justice system is on trial – with the finger pointing at “bad cops” or “agitators” or “profiteers” who have made an industry out of incarceration and fee collection – and the news media is feeding the fires of social media in such a way that it is hard to tell what stories are simply the result of a particular situation and what is generalizable to the communities of our nation.  All of this leads us to make claims about where God is or isn’t and who is faithful and who isn’t.

Yes, my friends, we are in what Marcus Borg calls a “thin place.”  Of course he didn’t make that up.  He borrowed it from the Celts.  Thin places were particular locations where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was thin enough for one to affect the other. In Borg’s description a thin place can be any place, but it is essentially experienced through an opening of the heart.

This is not to suggest that we just need to sit in circles singing “Kumbyah.”  Borg is referring to the heart in the sense of the Old Testament idea of the center of our being.  He is referring to it in the New Testament way of understanding it as the union of our bodies and our minds.  He is referring to it in the sense of a five-year-old girl named Heavenly Joy, who captured hearts on a national talent show by telling them that if she won the million-dollar prize she would use it to help the poor.  Then she sang and danced and the judges of earthly powers stood and clapped and told her that she must have a little bit of Shirley Temple inside of her.  Incredulous, she said, “No, Jesus is inside of me!”

Hearing her simple faith touches those parts of us that shrink when politicians and community leaders use the name of God while demonstrating indifference to the poor.  It helps us to see that thin places are not only the result of suffering but also the experience of profound joy.

Even as hatred gives birth to crime – and punishment becomes a training ground for further criminal behavior – we see that God is still active and present in the voice of child, in expressions of care that move beyond words, and in the presence of the church as a place to gather and give glory to God.

That’s what we have been from the very beginning.  That’s what the Temple was intended to be – a place to gather and glorify God.  Before the Temple, the Arc of the Covenant was in a tent – a tabernacle – and God’s presence, the Shekinah, the glory of God was believed to be received there.  So, when the Arc was placed in the inner sanctum of the temple where only the Priests could enter, God’s presence literally chased them out.  For, no one can stand in the presence of God and survive. 

Then, Samuel did what would be disastrous for any other king. He acted as both Priest and King and prayed before God.  In essence, he called God’s bluff by acknowledging what God had agreed to do.  God said that God would be faithful to all of David’s descendants as long as they were faithful to God.  But Samuel didn't stop there.  As the spiritual leader of his people, he reminded the people that God cannot be contained or managed or expected to be in a place.  God is the Lord of all of creation, and this little ole temple is just a place that helps us all come together to remember to get tuned in to what God is doing.

But then he went a step further – from preachin’ to medlin’ as they say.  Solomon said, “Likewise when a foreigner… comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.”

Well.  Isn’t that special?  Clearly this is a different context than the debates we have today about border security, fair wages, and national sovereignty.  Clearly there is an expectation that God is not limited to one nation, but is Lord of all creation.  Clearly there is a belief that the place they have set up is the thin place where earth and heaven intersect.

Interestingly, some would say that this prayer was just as political as many of the claims we hear today about immigrants and nationalism.  This prayer laid the groundwork for the conflicts with Samaria that were still in place when Jesus defined the neighbor by the compassion of a Samaritan.  And it was in the aftermath of this temple’s destruction that the Gospel of John was written.

Rome had finally taken over and crushed the Jewish rebellion with an iron fist.  Christians were suddenly unwelcome in Jewish synagogues, and some were claiming that Jesus was really more of a Divine spirit than a man.  Then this story begins to spread about Jesus telling his followers that he is so very real that they have to eat him in order to live.  Although we can dismiss this as a metaphor, there is no way to deny the words that Jesus said or their impact.

We are told that he is teaching in a synagogue at the time, so many of the curious onlookers in the crowd would have faded away. It was a crowd of disciples – devoted followers – that said, “Yeah, you just kinda’ lost me there, Jesus.”

But then Jesus goes one further.  “Does this offend you?  What if you saw me ascending to heaven?”  Now, this is the point where you may be thinking, wouldn’t cannibalism be more offensive than Jesus rising into heaven?  Maybe, but you have to remember that the idea of a person claiming to have direct access to God was a challenge to the notion of God.

The reason a person cannot be in the same space as God is because God is pure and perfect.  For a person who is limited and imperfect to be in the same space as God would mean that God wasn’t really Divine.  So, Jesus is claiming that he is made of the same stuff that God is.  Then he says, “How do you like me know?”  And several of them walked away, because they just couldn’t believe it.  Then Jesus looks to the ones who are left and says, “Well, do you want to follow them or me?”

And I love Peter’s confession.  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  In other words, “I really have no idea what you just said, but I believe that you are from God.  And I’m not going anywhere.”

In the same way, you and I hear these words about eating the flesh of this Jesus who is of God, and we are left with the same question, “Does this offend us?”  Does it offend us to consider that we are told to consume the One who has become the temple – the point of access between God and humanity?  Does it offend us to expect that God is active and present in the request of the foreigner?  Does it offend us that the church is not the only thin place, but rather the place that tunes us into what God is doing in every place?

Perhaps not – perhaps  we are so used to the language of faith that we assume that God is working somewhere in the background like some divine operating system.  But I think there is still something that offends us, whether we admit it or not, in the idea that God really is available to you and to me through Jesus.  Because believing in Jesus means changing our lives – not just once, but over and over again.  It means redirecting our hopes and fears through faith and expectation.  It means that we don’t look to our arsenals of words and weapons.  It means we look to our faith to inform our relationships. 

It means that we look past our reactions to phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” in order to understand why they matter to others.  Oh.  Did I offend you?  Perhaps you think that I’ve just joined Solomon in moving from preaching to meddling.  Yet we live in a time when a politician’s fans can brutalize an immigrant, invoke his name to justify their actions, and all he can say is, “The people that follow me are very passionate about fixing America.” 

We live in a community where a parent entered a local bookstore just this week looking for resources to help teach tolerance, because her child has gone to two day care centers and been rejected by other children because she is brown.  This is a daycare.  These children were taught to behave this way in 2015.

And it’s not just race or immigrants or crooked politicians that matter.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 

Our struggle is against ideas and attitudes that come to life in ways that destroy life.  And that is why Jesus came to demonstrate what it means to be life giving. In Jesus the word of God was made into flesh so that we might know that every human heart is a temple, every human heart is a thin place in which God is pleased to dwell – even yours, and even mine.

And in our coming together we may not always understand what God wants and how best to follow, but we will always know that God is with us. So, let us put on whatever shoes make us ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.  And let us seek to be the thin place between heaven and earth that someone else might need today, tomorrow, and every day that follows.  And to God be the glory, now and always, amen.

Get Real

Let’s get real.  That’s what people say when they feel that they have some undisputed – and uncomfortable – truth to share.  I think our readings approach that phrase in a different way.  I think they speak to us today about what it means to be “real” to find and know and understand our identity and purpose.

At least, that is where we begin with Solomon.  If you read chapters 1 and 2, you’ll get a little more detail.  In fact, you might find it to be like a Spark Notes version of the Game of Thrones (sex, betrayal, vengeful bloody transfer of power)!  In fact, the last several weeks of Old Testament readings have been like that.  The Psalms have complimented them, and have been woven between lament over our sinfulness and praise for the way in which God is always faithful – even when we are not.

The letter to the Ephesians has been telling us about the calling to unity in the Body of Christ and the different quality of life that results from our coming together.  Today we are told why – because the days are evil.

And in John’s gospel, Jesus keeps telling us, “I am the Bread of Life, and if you believe in me you will not hunger.”  Then he said, “I am the Bread of Life, and I give you life because I am from above.”  And today he tells us, “I am the Bread of Life, and you must consume me if you want to live.” 

All in all, these texts are about wisdom. They are about God revealing God’s self to us, and because of that they are about understanding what it means to be real and true because God is real and true.  They are about living in fullness in the face of our worldly limitations.  They are an encouragement to live as “wise people.”

I think we like to think of ourselves as wise – as a congregation, as a community, as a nation. That’s not to say that we always act like we are wise. Of course, in the age of information, we often confuse knowledge and wisdom.  I think there is some irony in the fact that a recent quote from Arianna Huffington’s book, Thrive, that went viral states, “We are a generation bloated with information and starved for wisdom.”  We are so starved for wisdom that we’ll share our hunger with anyone who will like, re-tweet, or pin these words to an imaginary page. 

The Psalmist reminds us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  That may sound strange – or at least culturally misplaced – but let’s not dismiss it too quickly.  First it reminds us that there is a God, and it is not us.  Beyond that, fear may be the beginning of wisdom – like the first time you burned your tongue on hot chocolate – but fear certainly isn’t the end result of wisdom. 

Scripture tells us that perfect love casts out fear, and that love is perfected in the sacrificial love of Jesus.  And so wisdom begins when we realize that we are not the center of the universe, but it doesn’t end there.  In fact it never ends.  It simply moves us toward a more complete understanding of life in all its fullness.

So it was with Solomon who was faithful like his father, except when he went to the high places that people used to make sacrifices without the tabernacle priests.  These “high places” were thought to be closer to whatever deity ruled over crops and rain and ruled the sky.  It was seen as the closest you could get to the heavens.  So, Solomon was in the wrong place – hedging his sacrificial bet – and yet God showed up.

Interestingly, Solomon didn’t ask for wisdom.  He asked for a certain knowledge of good and evil. Sound familiar?  Adam and Eve took the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and they were punished.  But Solomon asked for it.  He wanted it to know how to be a good king.  He wanted a moral compass that would help him serve God and guide God’s people.

All you have to do is read the news to know that we need that moral compass now as much as we ever have, and not just for our leaders but for all of us.  We are a culture marked by a history of imperialism, genocide, and protests over everything we think that it is our right to own, posses, and evaluate.  At the same time, we are part of a nation and a community where creative responses to the issues of the day are constantly being generated.

Just last week I became involved in conversations about a partnership between Catholic Family Services and the Sheriff’s department about opening a new facility to address issues related to homelessness and vagrancy without locking people up for being poor or having addictions.  In our congregation we continue to support C.U.P.S. and Family Promise and the U.C.O., and yet we find ourselves constantly in need of wisdom and discernment about how we relate to the community around us.

And that’s a good thing.  We are approaching 140 years of ministry in this community, yet we still find ourselves asking how we can become better connected to the community.  Although we will certainly continue to answer that question through our ministry teams and committees, the Session has also appointed a commission to create a new initiative to involve the church in the community. 

Why are we doing this?  Because the days are evil.  I don’t mean to say that we should live in fear, but I have come to realize that the days are evil because they are fixed. Living in the limitation of the days that we have lived is to move away from God.  So, we must live in a way that pulls every little gratitude and expectation out of every day and pushes us further into God’s embrace!

That’s where we find true wisdom – through realizing that God is with us in all things. Not only that, but we have this gift of revelation in Jesus that allows us to recognize what God is doing in and through us.  I think that’s what Jesus meant when he told the Jews to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

In some ways, I think those words were meant more for those of us who are reading than the ones in the story. Jesus, according to John, is the “word made flesh.”  He was, as I’ve heard it said, God choosing to experience the creation through the filter of Jesus.  In that way, God became real through Jesus. 

So, when Jesus tells us to “eat his flesh,” he is telling us to become “real” in the same way.  Only through understanding that we are a particular expression of God’s self can we find true meaning and purpose.  Only through recognizing that each person we meet is not simply potentially an expression of God’s self but actually an expression of God’s self can we come to see God acting in and through them.

When we begin to see one another in this way, I believe we will find that the fertile ground between acceptance and tolerance between love and indifference – is the space where wisdom takes root.  To be real – to have a sense of purpose and meaning through God’s active presence – requires us to let go of our presumptions and recognize that we are bound by one another’s struggles yet free through the life giving love of God! 

If that sounds too theoretical, then maybe you can just do what a woman named Brooke did.  Brooke Ochoa is a young white professional.  On her way to lunch she noticed an older African American woman who struggled to get in and eventually made it a to a seat all alone.  So Brooke asked if she could join.  She found out that the woman’s names was Delores, and that she had been caring for her mother until her recent passing.  The two women found so much healing and value in their time together that they now meet, religiously, to share a meal on Thursdays.  At the risk of sound trite, I think Jesus is on that menu.

Yes, we have received a knowledge of good and evil.  Yes, we can become more real in our relationship with God through our relationships with others, and through those relationships we can discern the will of God for all relationships.  At least I pray it will continue to be so with me, and I pray it will be so with you.  And to God be the glory.  Now and always.  Amen.