Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Consecration

Words are important. That may sound like a silly thing to say, but words matter. Words help us understand and interpret our world in ways that no other creature can interpret. When words are foreign or unfamiliar they trip our tongues and leave us feeling embarrassed or unsure if we have even communicated what we intended. This happens in restaurants across the land every day. Ill never forget the night when I learned what steak tar-tar was, right in front of my date for prom.
Sometimes we even remake words to fit our own objectives. Although there are plenty of examples of public gaffs in the news, my favorite is a personal experience. Several years ago my father (pronounced in southernese as fah-thah) was writing down my itinerary for an international flight. I told him we would be flying into Accra. He asked me how to spell it. I told him. He repeated, Youll be flying into Ah-kra. I interrupted, No, Dad. Its pronounced like Uh-krah. He continued, Ah-krah. But I just let that one go. After all, we have a town in Georgia called La-fayet that is spelled just like Lafayette.
The thing is, its not just the way words are pronounced that matters although finding agreement with others is a big part of what makes us more or less comfortable. It is the choices that these words reflect that truly matters. For example, Consecration has been chosen over dedication or commitment to describe what we are doing today. But why?
It has been said that all you need to know about dedication and commitment can be found in a plate of bacon and eggs. The chicken committed its unfertilized egg to your breakfast, yet the pig was dedicated to it. But what about consecration? How much farther than the pig can we go? Consecration means being dedicated for a holy purpose. Consecration means making a breakfast that you will not eat.
Maybe there isnt enough bacon to share and you want to be sure that someone who is beloved to you gets the last piece. Maybe you are cooking for someone who is truly needy and would otherwise go without food. Or maybe you arent cooking at all. Maybe you are providing resources that will grow and feed others in the future like the community gardens and orchards that are popping up in several congregations in our Presbytery.
However it gets expressed, the idea of consecration requires us to think about the way that God is active and present in the world and the way that we might reflect what God is doing in our lives.
In our Old Testament reading, we find that Job realizes that even with all of his trials and losses he is still beloved of God. Job realizes that his friends have forced his hand into a fist shaken at God, and he repents. He turns from selfish concern and prays for his friends. And because Job recognizes his place before God, he is able to receive restoration from God. And because he understands that restoration comes from God he is able to share what he has with those who have known him all along.
This is not the prosperity gospel. Job does not give so that he can get. He does not receive so that he can give. He simply recognizes his limitations, prays for those of others, and shares what God has given him.
In the same way Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to tell them that their competing agendas were a denial of the active presence of God. In competing over teachings and leadership they were squeezing out the space for God’s active presence. He didn't use the words “repent” or “penitence,” but it seems clear that he was telling them to let go of personal agendas for a shared hope. And that hope is based in an understanding that while each of us has certain things to do planting, watering God is the one who provides the growth.
Not only that, but realizing that growth is in the hands of God moves us to build on what God has done through Jesus Christ. And because of what God has done, nothing will last unless it reflects the grace, mercy, and healing that we have received.
So, we have the opportunity to know ourselves as beloved of the God of all creation through the forgiveness that we have received through Jesus. Think about that. The One who spins quarks and planets and paints rainbows in the sky as a promise of peace cares about you. How else could we respond but to confess our lack of understanding? How else can we respond but to let others know that God cares about them, too?
Yet how often are we like the crowd that follows Jesus, totally self-absorbed and wanting to protect him from the voice of the one who is truly needy? But that doesnt really matter, because Jesus hears the blind. Jesus sees the blindness of the crowd as easily as the blindness of Bartimaeus, and he stops. He stops and reorients the crowd. Suddenly they change from, Hush. to This is your lucky day!
But I wonder if they see their own blindness. We dont know. What we know is that Jesus asks the man, What can I do for you? Well, duh. What do you think he wants, Jesus? Maybe a better question is, what does Jesus want? Jesus wants him to confess his limitation. Because it is through confessing our limitations that we realize that we need God. And then our faith which is made possible by God brings healing and restoration.
Of course healing may take a lot of forms, and it may not even be physical at all. What matters most is that we understand that God is with us, working in and through us in ways that restore life in all its fullness.
Yes, you are beloved of God. Yes, discovering that you are Gods beloved compels you to share that love. Yes, sometimes we share that love in ways that we never see the results of in fact I would say thats the way it works more often than not.
I learned of one such example in our last Presbytery meeting. It came in the form of a Synod report. The Synod of the Sun is a large region of Presbyteries that covers LA, TX, OK, and AR. We tend to think of them as a source of Administrative Commissions rather than mission and service, yet they are involved in projects that range from solar power for developing nations to racial reconciliation in the US. A small portion of our offerings support the Synod, and it’s important to hear this story.
While I did not record the names, the important details are that a congregation in a small town in Texas that was traumatized by a race related murder was wrestling with how to respond. It is a 20-member congregation with about a $30k budget and no Pastor. With the help of our Synod, they called a Pastor but not for themselves. They called a Pastor for the specific purpose of creating dialogue, reconciliation, and spiritual healing in their neighborhood. And that is exactly what she has been doing. The congregation planted the seeds. The Synod provided the water, and God is providing the growth.
That has been the theme of our Stewardship campaign this year, I planted. Apollos watered, and God provides the growth. A few weeks ago you heard about the ambitious conversation of the Session that the Rev. Barry Chance stirred up. Since then, our conversation has become more focused, and it has even taken on a confessional quality.
As we consider Gods amazing love for us, the history of this congregation, and the resources that weve been given, the Session has recognized three areas that we feel called to respond to with greater resources. The first is to continue increasing our commitment to the Presbytery. The second is to increase our resources for local outreach, and this is where it gets personal. While we have deep partnerships in the community, the Session believes that these resources need to be used to support our own efforts of outreach into the community.
Maybe this will take the form of a backpack ministry that feeds children who are dependent on school lunches. Maybe it will fund a music camp for underserved children. Maybe it will support some other ministry that you have been burning to get started in this community!
The third area of consecrated giving the Session is supporting is the continued development of our youth and childrens ministries. And before any of you tells me that they are the future, hear me when I say that they are a part of the present and that we will grow in faith with them.

Now, these are all great priorities, but first we need to plant the seeds. By now I imagine you have decided what a faithful pledge will be for your family. Some of you are able to tithe, and some are working toward a tithe. Your Session and I have already made our pledges as a demonstration of our commitment. But more than that, what I hope you will consider today is that you are Gods beloved, that being loved is not earned but it does compel a response. 
While your response is always a personal commitment to demonstrate Gods love, it always involves others. I pray that you and I may have the courage to call out to Jesus in our blindness, to reach out to those who call in their own blindness, and to demonstrate the growth given by God through the unity of our voices in this time and this place. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tragedians

As I think on the scriptures we have read today, I am reminded of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoddard.  The two lead characters stumble upon a traveling band of actors that call themselves Tragedians, because they only perform tragedies.  When asked if these were works of antiquity, their leader replies:
We're more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school.  Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive.  But we can't give you love and rhetoric without the blood.  Blood is compulsory.  They're all blood, you see.
Blood is compulsory in the story of human history.  Even as we continue to search for our evolutionary roots we cant help but ask questions about blood.  We spill it.  We keep it.  We honor it.  It doesnt matter if the blood indicates royalty, ethnicity, or just family blood matters.  Not only is it essential for life, but blood indicates our loyalties.  Weve all heard the phrase, blood is thicker than water, and it is true that most people would rather be with family or tribe than that which is foreign unless they are forced to leave.
One place that we find ourselves crossing the divide between strangers and friends is the church.  Ive even heard it said that your church is your family of choice.  As nice as that sounds, the idea of choosing your religion is fairly new.  As Nadia Boltz-Weber, a well renowned Lutheran Pastor, recently put it in an interview, people are now choosing symbol systems to help them make sense of the world, whereas those used to be inherited.  Sometimes these symbol systems include the church.  Sometimes they do not.
The good thing about this is that we are more sincere when we make these choices.  The bad thing about it is that we are more able to deny those relationships that make us uncomfortable.  Yet, we who follow Christ are truly bound by someone elses choice.  We are bound by someone elses blood.
Have you ever thought about it that way that we are like blood brothers and sisters?  Maybe its a guy thing, but I have secretly always wanted to cut my hand and bind it with a friend like they used to in old stories before blood born illnesses made us crazy about hygiene.  And yet, I believe that is exactly what happens when we share our burdens and even more so when we experience life together.
I think that is why it is sometimes harder to share joys than it is to share concerns.  Ive seen this in prayer groups and worship service with people ranging from age 5 to 100.  Its always the same.  We are happy with and for one another when good things happen, but nothing unites you with someone else like sharing a burden especially when it is something that you have no idea how to respond to.
Of course, when we get pushed too far out of our comfort zone we can do and say some strange things.  Just look at Jobs wife!  Havent you suffered enough?  Just curse God and get it over with! says the woman who also lost everything, including her children and their families.
And Job corrects her, reminding her that God is the source of all of life in its fullness the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The thing that is hard for us as modern thinkers is that this was written at a time when the question of the presence of evil with a just God wasnt an issue.  The question that Job was written to answer is, Why do you believe?
Jobs friends come later and challenge him over his faith and practice, but they come up dry.  Eventually the drama plays out before God, and we find that the purpose of all the hardship was not only to prove that God was God but to prove that faith is not dependent on blessing.  If anything, faith is the essential tool for understanding and getting through suffering!
For us all the world is indeed a stage and we are all tragedians.  The world for all of its complexity and beauty is imperfect.  Sometimes screws fall out of the place they held together.  Sometimes people feel rejected and no one is there to tell them how unique in all the world they are except for those who tell them that power and dominance and violence are effective means of control.
And yet God suffers with them as God does with us, because God knows that suffering is not the last word.  The last word is the first word, which is the only word.  And that word is God. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God spoke the universe into being.  God corrected Kings and nations through prophets.  And God spoke a final and complete word in the person, teaching, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And that final word which makes everything make sense is redemption.
Whether we know it or not we need redemption.  It seems like that word gets thrown around a lot these days mostly in competitions.  More and more I hear of people saying that they need to redeem themselves, and maybe you can when it comes to a cooking show or a football game.  But the author of Hebrews reminds us that redemption doesnt come from covering up a failure with a success.  Redemption comes from recognizing that, no matter what we have done or had done to us, God is with us constantly choosing to love us into higher levels of response to Gods love.  In fact so says Hebrews 2:6 somewhere, somebody said that we have been given a lot of responsibility (its actually a quote from Psalm 8).  Yet we cant even see all that is under our care.  But we can see that Jesus suffered.
We can understand that we are united in the experience of suffering and limitation not just with Jesus but with anyone.  Through the suffering of Jesus we can know that we are a part of his family of choice, and through his resurrection we can see the possibility of peace and redemption for all of Gods creation!
And so we become a people that are able to say that all lives matter thats what the table of Christ is all about.  We become a people that are able to say that blue lives matter without denying the fact that black lives matter.  We can even say that black lives matter without denying that all lives matter equally.
And today with the help of Innerfaith Prison Ministries, we can even say that orange lives matter.  Innerfaith will be the local recipient of a portion of the Peace and Global Witness Offering, and Id like you to see how suffering and redemption come together in the work that they do.
Ive edited this video down a bit, but you can find the full version on their website.  I also want to acknowledge that our connection with them is through the C.U.P.S. Basket Ministry.  You will not see any gift baskets in the video, because the children get new toys.  The gift baskets C.U.P.S. provides are for the other family members that would otherwise be neglected.
Blood is compulsory.  Were all flesh and blood, you see.  As it has been said, What Christ has assumed, Christ has healed.  And today we celebrate with Christians throughout the world because God has chosen to be known to us in suffering and redemption, and God has given us faith to proclaim peace in a world bent on self destruction.  Its just that simple.  Its just that hard.

But hey, youre not alone.  We have each other, and in the space between us we might just find that there is more joy than we can contain, more hope than we can imagine, and a message that truly flows through us as a life giving force.  Let us then be drawn to the table of Christ that we might be sent into all the world, and to God be the glory, now and always.  Amen.