Saturday, September 6, 2014

Reconciliation...

Reconciliation is a hard subject. Here's hoping I did it justice.

MATTHEW 18:15-20
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

One thing people are really good at is arguing. Christians will argue with people who aren't Christians, or with people who are different kinds of Christians than we are, or with people who are in the same denomination as we are. People will argue politics, football, what state has the best barbecue, which Pokemon is the best, we will argue about anything.

A lot of times, arguments have to do with ego – I want to be right, and if I am right, you can't be. Other times, it has everything to do with context and interpretation.

One example of all of this happened with me this week. I was browsing either FaceBook at home, or Yahoo News at work, and I ran across an article: “Five Reasons to Suspect That Jesus Never Existed.” Now, the article's points were easy to respond to, and me being me, I did... I made a blog post. As of this morning, less than thirty people have seen the blog post, compared to the millions that saw the original article, but... that'll show 'em, huh?

One of the things that caught my eye was a quote by Bart Ehrman, which seemed to support the writer's contention that the existence of Jesus is a myth.

Now, Bart Ehrman is the James A Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's a graduate of Princeton Seminary, the author of twenty books, and he is a well known speaker. Some of the books he's written include “Misquoting Jesus,” “How Jesus Became God,” and “Did Jesus Exist?” - which is the book that's quoted from.

Bart Ehrman will never, ever get a prize for being the world's most passionate Evangelical. He is, in fact, an agnostic – someone who believes the existence of God is something we can not know. However, that is not to say that Ehrman thinks Jesus did not exist. He has said, both in the book the article quoted and in several interviews, that there is very little reason to doubt that Jesus did, in fact, exist.

Here's a couple of quotes from Ehrman from an interview on NPR: "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did, If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed."

Also, “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah, You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies.”

Pretty ironic, I guess, that the author of a book named “Misquoting Jesus” would, himself, be misquoted.

Taking words out of context, purposely misquoting people in order to make a point or to bolster your own position... these things happen all the time. Politicians do it all the time, and so do the news media.

And Christians do it, too, and we do it most often with the Bible. There are very few places this is more true, than with our Gospel reading today, what to do if a fellow Christian sins against you.

This Gospel passage has been misquoted, maligned, and misused as a way to protect the status quo, to keep people from speaking truth to power, to make the vulnerable even more vulnerable… Like far, far too many passages of Scripture, this has been a hammer to beat people down, rather than a beacon to bring them home, wings to lift them up.

What is Jesus really saying? If a brother or a sister does something that offends, hurts, or harms you, or if he or she is committing a sin – and yes, it is entirely accurate to include all of this in the Greek word “hamartia” which is taken from archery and means “missing the mark” – then find a space where you are both alone, and point out the problem. If there’s no meeting of the minds, no resolution, go back with a couple of witnesses. If that doesn’t work things out, take it to church, and if that doesn’t fix it, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Is this a justification for excluding from fellowship anyone who hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like? Is Jesus simply giving us justification for shutting others out, or is there something deeper at work here?

To be sure, if all Jesus is doing is offering us the mechanics of church discipline, the church as a whole does a really lousy job of carrying this discipline out. We seem to operate as if church discipline is a hammer, and people are nails... but I digress.

I want to suggest to you this morning that this passage speaks less to classic church discipline and more to personal discipline within the body of believers. If a brother or sister sins against you – you go… you take one or two others with you… you go to the church…

That’s hard, isn’t it? And we are wired so differently than that. It’s easier, almost more natural that, rather than face the person we have a problem with, in private, one-on-one, we tell someone else about the offense, who tells someone else, and on and on and on. It’s the easier, more face-saving option, sure, because all that gets out as far as we are concerned is our side of the issue, and it's fun, because it's gossip… but it all too often leads to churches splitting, fellowships breaking, or families being destroyed, when a simple conversation would have set the whole matter straight in moments.

Confrontation is toughand by “confrontation” I don't mean reality-TV style confrontation; rather I mean conversation, difficult talks whose foundation is love, speaking softly, with humility, and with an eye toward working things out. This is hard, hard work. But the Gospel is about relationship. Through Jesus Christ we are related to one another, and related to our loving Creator God, members of a singular body and a singular Kingdom of God.

And the Gospel is about reconciliation. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ is all about reconciliation, and the good news is that even here, even in this Gospel reading, the focus of what Jesus is saying is not exclusion or excommunication – not how to keep people out! No, the focus is upon reconciliation and restoration – how to keep people in!

That first step Jesus talks about has a wonderful focus to it! “If [he or she] listens to you, you have regained that one.” Reconciliation!

That second step – having one or two others who can hear both sides, and help work things out! Reconciliation!

And what about that last, seemingly harsh pronouncement: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Think about it – the one who is speaking is the same Jesus who made it a point to specifically reach out to, eat with, care for, heal and feed the Gentile? Who not only ate and spent time with tax collectors, but even called one, Matthew, to be his disciple?

Knowing this, it makes sense that Eugene Peterson, in “The Message” paraphrase, interprets the “Gentile and tax collector” verse to say something shocking, something profound: “If [the sinning fellow believer] still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.”

Again, reconciliation.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Right there! “…I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

It is at once humbling and reassuring. Jesus does not promise to be present when we argue, or make blog posts, or share our opinions on Twitter or FaceBook. As much as I like to be right, God doesn't care so much if I am right. God cares if I am loving. God cares if I am compassionate.


It isn't about fixing people. It isn't about making you think the way I think, or making people agree with a given world view, or adhere to a given doctrinal position. The work of the Kingdom of God is found in bridging gaps rather than widening them, in opening doors rather than locking them, in welcoming rather than excluding... Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Something to Eat..."

I drew on my 2011 sermon on this Lectionary reading for the beginning parts of this sermon.

Matthew 14:13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus had just heard horrible news – the kind of news that hits like a slap to the face; gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, incapacitating news. His cousin: a man he’d grown up with and loved, a man whose willingness to baptize changed Jesus’ whole life – was dead. Killed at the hands of the despicable King Herod.

Most, if not all of us, have been in this place. Reeling from shock, confused, unable to think… of course his first thought was that he needed to be alone, to get away from the noise of the crowd, their neediness, the challenges of the scribes and the Pharisees, the pressure of proclaiming the Kingdom, if only for a little while.

So he got in a boat and set off across the lake. I can’t say if the disciples were in the boat with him; I suspect they watched him float away, looked at each other, shrugged and decided to walk around the lake to meet him.

As they trudged off for the long journey to the other side, word was spreading about what had happened. As the disciples passed through the villages, people laid aside what they were doing, tied on their sandals, and joined the trek. First, a dozen, then a few hundred, then, several thousand men, women and children, joining as one in a somber pilgrimage to meet Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why? Why would so many, already desperately poor, already teetering on the edge of starvation, drop everything, leave the paltry security they had, and with no thought of where they were going or what they would do to survive when they got there, just fall in line behind these disciples?

I mean, yeah, there's the standard response of “Well, they wanted to see Jesus, wanted to get healed, yada yada,” but I believe there is something more at work here.

John the Baptist had been many things: prophet, preacher, and perhaps above all, a reminder to these people in bondage that God was not done with them yet. And when Herod had forced his brother Phillip to divorce his wife, Herodias, so Herod could marry her, it was John who said what everybody was thinking: it was a shameful, disgusting thing, improper for a Jew (even one as nominally Jewish as Herod).

The word was that Herod had been pushed in to arresting John by Herodias, but no matter who made who do what, John was arrested, and with that it seemed some of the light had been stolen from the sky. Once again, the powerful exercised their will on the weak, and no one could do anything about it.

For a while there was hope. John's disciples made sure he had food, and brought back news that he was still alive, that Herod didn't want to kill him because he feared an uprising, even that Herod snuck down to the filthy dungeon at night to have conversations with the prophet.

Now, village after Galilean village learned the terrible news. John was dead, murdered as entertainment for a drunken banquet, his head displayed on a serving platter. So they walked. They walked to share their grief, they walked to try and figure out what to do next, maybe they walked because the one thing people need more than food or shelter in order to keep on living another day is hope, and they were fresh out and needed more – anything, something – to keep them going.

And I don't know this but maybe some, maybe all of them, knew who John had been to Jesus. Maybe they wanted to tell Jesus how sorry they were that his cousin was dead, to offer some kind of comfort in his grief.

I imagine Jesus there, alone, in the boat, probably paying very little attention to things like setting the sail properly, or rowing, or whatever it is one needed to do to get that particular watercraft from one side of the lake to another. It was a time to grieve and a time to cry. Yes, I’m sure there was prayer; probably along the lines of asking “why?” as his thoughts turned inward, ever inward…

Jesus was, of course, God-made-flesh. But how easily we forget that God-made-flesh was, well, a human being. Jesus was on a life journey, a journey where he learned and experienced and dealt with everything every other human being has ever had to do – potty training and learning to use a fork and learning to walk and read and talk, and, yes, to feel the crushing grief of losing someone we love to Death.

Who knows how long that boat took to cross the lake? Who knows how deep Jesus fell into that well of loss, of sorrow, of grief? Perhaps, at last, the rocking of the boat coaxed him into a fitful sleep…

a sleep interrupted by the sound of voices. Lots of them. Thousands! A low murmer, bereft of shouts or laughter, just there. Jesus wiped the sleep from his eyes and peered over the railing toward the slowly approaching shore…

and something happened to Jesus. Our New Revised Standard Version translation puts it mildly enough, it says that Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion for them. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I want to suggest this morning that something far deeper, more seminal happened right then. You see, the Greek word for what happened in that moment, splagchnizomai, is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. It’s a much more decisive, visceral, even violent word, than what we understand “compassion” to be. Eugene Peterson’s “Message” translation of this Scripture says that Jesus’ heart went out to them, and that’s closer, but it’s much more like Jesus’ love for that crowd – his desire to help them, to heal them – that compassion was so great that it was as if his very heart was ripped from his chest.

And the miracles began. Jesus did what Jesus does – he loved them, he healed their sicknesses. And healed, and healed some more. For hours and hours.

I wasn't there, obviously, and I have no way of knowing this, but I imagine that this gathering was different from the one before, where the crowd had been so huge and pressing in so uncontrollably to see Jesus that he had to jump in a boat to keep from being crushed. I think the sorrow and the grief pressed down on the people so much that they just stood there. And Jesus walked among them, whispering, touching, maybe weeping with them, who knows? Who knows what was said, who was touched, what sicknesses were healed?

And you know what? I think that, as Jesus walked around from group to group, friends and families clustered together in little knots of grief, not only was he giving the people what they needed, he was getting what he needed as well.

After all, Zig Ziglar said, “you can't sprinkle the perfume of happiness without getting a few drops on yourself,” and that is so cheesy it sets my teeth on edge but it is true. In moving through that crowd, comforting, healing, loving, Jesus was receiving the comfort and healing and love that he himself needed in his grief.

I don't think I am straying off the theological reservation when I suggest that all of us – even Jesus – need hope, especially in times of loss and grief. That's what he went looking for when he got in the boat, and though it didn't look like what Jesus was expecting, it's what he got.

So he touched more, he healed more, he comforted more, hour after hour.

As the shadows grew long, his disciples finally came up to Jesus. Maybe it was Peter who whispered, “Master, it’s getting late, and these folks need to go find a village and get some dinner.”

Jesus never missed a beat, didn't even look up, going from person to person, touching, blessing, healing. “Nah, they don’t need to go anywhere. You give them some supper.”

Um, Jesus, not to argue with you or anything, but we’re not exactly McDonald’s here. Five loaves, a couple of fish, that’s our inventory.”

And I know that the Gospels don’t record it this way, but I can see Jesus looking up, smiling, and saying, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”

I suppose the disciples could have held back: “What are you, crazy? This is my lunch! I give this up, then I have nothing! Go get your own loaves and fishes, man!” – but they gave them over to Jesus, and the miracles began anew.

Thousands upon thousands of people sat on the cool grass as Jesus blessed and broke the bread and the fish, and passed them over to the disciples to begin handing out.

The disciples must have thought their Rabbi had lost his ever-loving mind. But they dutifully did as they were told, and walked out among the people with these meager fragments, passing out food. And passing out food. And passing out food.

There wasn’t “too little” after all. In fact, there wasn’t “just enough.” There was an abundance! Way more than they needed!

I have heard and read many, many explanations from theologians of all stripes of how and why the miracle of the loaves and fishes happened. Many point to Elijah and the miracle of the widow's oil, or of Elisha feeding a hundred people with a few barley loaves. Others suggest that what happened was a “miracle of sharing,” where people responded to the disciples' faithfulness by pulling out their own food and sharing it.

Look, it was a miracle, and I don't really care how it happened. Sorry. I think it's a waste of time to try and explain it, I think it misses the point.

And I really think it misses the point to make this a Prosperity Gospel reading, focusing on the fact that, because they were faithful in giving up the little that they had, they gathered up far more than they themselves needed. This isn't about giving money to a TV preacher so God will give you a Cadillac.

I mean, yes, this is an example of what Paul meant when he wrote in Phillippians, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” And we know this – we give glory to God for our successes, and lean on God when we are in need.

At the same time, in this nation where there is an abundance of food and clothing, where houses stand empty, something like fifteen point nine children – twenty percent of the child population of the United States – live in homes where they aren't sure where their next meal is coming from. Talk all you like about school lunch programs, I have spoken to many educators who tell me that, for far too many kids, that free lunch is the only food they can depend on.

In a nation of iPhones and Androids and fifty-two inch plasma TV screens, with a Wal-Mart and a Whataburger on ever corner, we worry that children surrendering at our Southern border to escape certain death might tax our resources as a nation.

Jesus isn't looking to us for a political solution. If we have learned anything over the past few decades in American politics, it is that Christians cannot depend on legislators to do the right thing, to act in ways that are moral without regard to the political cost. Without removing our responsibility as people of faith to always speak truth to power, Jesus looks to us.

After all, Jesus moves and acts in this nation and in this world through you and I, we are Christ's hands and feet. Jesus looks to us and says, “you give them something to eat.”

You give them something to eat.”

What does that look like? Does it mean we pack up everything and start going around the country, feeding hungry people? Maybe.

And maybe it means we start right here, doing what we can with what we have. Is there a person in need? “You give them something to eat.” Someone needs comfort, reassurance, hope? “You give them something to eat.”

Anne Frank wrote, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

Do we dare? Do we dare test that theory, giving ourselves over to the gut-wrenching compassion that compels us to do whatever we can to feed that hungry child, that grieving adult, that homeless family?


You give them something to eat.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kingdom Weeds...

OK, I confess... I posted this yesterday, knowing it wasn't really a completed sermon, but not knowing what to do with it. In the past, I've winged it from the pulpit, and I guess I've done OK.

This time, my friend Dr. Greg Brown came to my rescue. I am blessed to have many smart, spiritually insightful friends, including Dr. Brown, who can take a mess I've made and help me translate it into a sermon.

Kinda like Jesus does here with mustard seeds and yeast, huh?

I am also indebted to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into today's Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?” And his disciples answered, “Yes.” I find that just a little hard to believe, don't you? I mean, we go from last week's reading, where Jesus took the time to explain one parable, in detail, just so everyone knew precisely what he meant by sowing and seeds and ground... and here we are with five short, rapid-fire parables, and everybody understands completely.

I guess I'd have an easier time believing that everyone understood everything Jesus was saying here if it weren't for the pages and pages of scholarly commentary on different aspects of these parables. I try to resist that kind of thing, because if we understand parables as tales told in the moment to a specific group of individuals for the purpose of making a point, then dissecting each word at length misses the point. But I digress.

You may have noticed that our readings from the Lectionary, especially when it comes to the Gospel, sometimes tend to jump around a bit, skipping verses here and there. In this case, I think we miss something ery important in the missing verses. We don't see to whm and where Jesus is saying these things. What I mean is this: Jesus speaks of mustard seeds and yeast to the crowd in general. As far as we know, he's still on that boat just off the lakeshore where he told the Parable of the Sower. He goes into a house with his disciples and speaks of hidden treasures, found pearls, and rejected fish to his them alone. It is Jesus' disciples, not the crowd at large, who Jesus asks, “Do you understand?”

Good thing, too, because what Jesus said to the crowd about yeast and seeds might have taken them a minute to digest.

Yeah, mustard seeds are teensy, but they sure do grow up big; and it doesn't take a lot of yeast to make bread rise... but wait a minute! Why on earth, with so many possible metaphors available to Jesus, would he pick those? I mean, for just one example, Jesus and his listeners would have been familiar with the pomegranate. Pomegranate seeds are small, but the trees get big enough for birds to nest.

But no, Jesus specifically chose mustard seeds and yeast. Was he trying to offend the crowd?

Maybe.

Mustard for the first-century Judeans wasn't the wonderful condiment we know today. It was a pungent, pervasive weed. And in proposing that someone intentionally sowed a mustard seed, not only was Jesus suggesting that someone planted a weed in their own field, on purpose, he was in effect advocating an act that was, at the very least, problematic to the faithful Jew. Richard Swanson says, “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life.”

Furthermore, yeast, or leaven, was seen as a symbol of things unclean and corrupting. The Old Testament is filled with these kinds of references, and the New Testament repeats this view of leaven as a metaphor for moral corruption – the one rotten apple in the barrel – as well.

It's easy to miss these things in our day and time. I like leavened bread, and I really like mustard, too. So with the popularity of mustard and wonderful, yeasty bread, we don't hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and – just perhaps – we miss the power of what Jesus is saying.

Kathryn Matthews Huey observes that “...our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn't 'give offense,' would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval?”

So, sure, maybe Jesus was either purposely offending people, and maybe he didn't care whether he caused an affront to their delicate sensibilities anyway...

Or maybe... maybe...

During this period of his ministry, Jesus is preaching in the towns of Galilee. He's a long way from the Temple, and probably not terribly close to any Roman garrisons. So it is most likely that Jesus isn't speaking to the powerful Romans, or to the wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather, in that boat off the lakeshore, he is speaking to a people oppressed on all sides.

The Roman Empire was a massive juggernaut, bringing its bloody form of “peace” to nearly every corner of the known world. When Rome conquered, the lucky ones were merely subjugated and taxed; more than once the Romans had completely obliterated whole societies, destroying cities and selling those they did not murder outright into slavery. The only people the “pax Romana” benefited were the Romans; to everyone else, the Roman Eagle represented harsh oppression. Talk as they would of the former glory of Israel under King David, it was easy to see one's self as small, insignificant, as utterly worthless as a tiny mustard seed.

Then there were the demands of Judaism – never mind the constant pressure to pay the Temple tax and to come up with the required animals and grain and what-not for the sacrifices, no one – no one – could be expected to live up to the reams of minutiae required to be properly holy. More than eighty percent of Judeans lived a subsistence existence, barely enough food to keep them alive, constantly hungry, and constantly aware that they were not good enough, not holy enough, not pure enough, for God. They were as cast out as the leaven at Passover – reviled, forgotten, worthless.

So perhaps, just perhaps, one of the things Jesus is saying to the crowd is that the Kingdom of God is more like them than it is like the powerful Temple elite or the all-too-holy Scribes and Pharisees. Maybe the Kingdom of God isn't so much about power as it is about pervasiveness – like a weed, growing anywhere and everywhere; like yeast, multiplying and spreading and growing and thriving.

No, a mustard tree doesn't look anything like the cedars used to build the Temple, it doesn't at all resemble the columns of Roman architecture... but birds find a home in its branches, and even those who have been oppressed and forgotten by society can find a home in the Kingdom of God.

That was true when Jesus said it, and it remains true today.

And that is dangerous. And offensive. And being dangerous and offensive isn't something that Western Christianity is used to.

Maybe it's time to change all of that.

In its earliest years, Christianity was known as a religion of women and slaves. In Rome, Christians would sneak out in the night and rescue abandoned babies, left to die on the steps of the Forum. Not all of them, probably, and not every night, but it made a difference to the ones they were able to save, didn't it? Now, we have people who proclaim themselves to be Christians, waving signs and hurling insults at children who surrendered at our southern border to try and escape certain death in Central America.

In its earliest years, Christians were tortured and killed because they refused to bow their knee to Caesar. Now, we require that a politician give lip service to God before they can be elected. The facade of faith trumps competence in far too many elections.

Is this the measure of Christian faith?

Who cares for the homeless, the forgotten? Who tells the person contemplating suicide that there is hope? Who comforts the sick, who visits the imprisoned? Who becomes the family to one who has been kicked out of their home because of their orientation? Whose heart is broken by suffering, and who resolves to use whatever means are available to alleviate that suffering?


I know who it should be.

I know it should be us, the church.

I know this because time and again throughout Scripture, and particularly here, in Jesus' choice to use despised, misunderstood, and rejected things as examples, Jesus is saying this: The Kingdom of God isn't like the empires you're used to. It doesn't look like Rome, nor does it look like the Temple.

The Kingdom of God looks like you. It looks like me. And it looks like every marginalized and forgotten person everywhere, whether in downtown Birmingham or in Gaza or in Mozul or Detroit. These are the people of the Kingdom.

Maybe we look like mustard seeds – worthless weeds, worthy only for the trashbin. Maybe we look like yeast – others see us as sinful merely because we exist.

The kingdom will grow from those who have been made to feel unworthy, the scorned, the abused. Jesus says to these "insignificant" ones, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. You are not worthless and neither are people you may see as "seedier" than you. It is from these – women and slaves, the despised and rejected of that society – I will build a Kingdom for all who dare come, a kingdom so large that there truly will be room for all.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Playground Theologians...

I am indebted to the work of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L, Chilton and Stanley Saunders for their insights into today's reading.

This song kinda fits:





MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30
But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a story told about a Hindu disciple who asked his master, “How can I find God?” Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river. They stood there awhile, looking out over the gently flowing water. Suddenly, the master grabbed his student and dragged him into the water, shoving his head under and holding him there!

It seemed to last a long time, the master fighting to keep the thrashing student’s head under. Finally, he felt the man beginning to weaken and let him go. The student sprung to the surface, only waist-high in water, and he coughed and sputtered and struggled to catch his breath.
After a few minutes, the master smiled and said, “So how did it feel down there?” The student glared angrily at the master: “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.” The Master said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then you will find God. Or rather, then you will realize God has already found you.”

The Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians, they appear to everyone to be seriously dedicated to finding God, committed to worshiping their Creator… but appearances are deceiving.

OK, maybe that’s not fair. They were dedicated to finding and worshiping God, or they thought they were, but somewhere along the way they’d gotten off track. What the Scribes and Pharisees and Saduccees and Herodians were all really looking for was a God made in their own image. They were looking for a religious experience that fit appropriately into their lifestyle, a religious experience that they could control and regularize. And when God sent messengers, they didn’t like them: John the Baptist didn’t match their expectations, and Jesus didn’t either.

Jesus compares them to children sitting in a playground and complaining because no one wants to play each other’s game: “We played ‘wedding,’ and you did not dance; we played ‘funeral,’ and you did not mourn.”

And there is a very good reason for that comparison – it was a game. You see, when the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees weren’t plotting together to destroy Jesus, they were at one another’s throats, fighting over who was following the rules the right way. The point was no longer finding God, the point had become being right.

And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We live in a day and age where complex political and moral questions are distilled down to soundbites, and where lines are drawn between “us” and “them.” Whether the subject is politics or religion, the one thing you can count on today is that people will fight – not to understand, not to persuade, not to grow and learn, no. People will fight to prove themselves right.

We even choose our news outlets based on which side we’re on. Conservatives have their news channel, Liberals have theirs, and these news sources specifically craft their news to appeal to their viewer base.

That means that the information we get – the wisdom we gain – when we watch these kinds of news sources, what we get is news that is specifically engineered, not to expand our horizons or challenge our preconceptions, it isn't intended to open our minds to a unique way of thinking or give us access to new information... no, the news we get is the stuff that's intended to make us feel right. Because then, we'll watch more.

And, to get back to the point of the Gospel reading, we can be so busy being right, that we aren’t listening anymore. When Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” he isn’t being anti-intellectual.

Rather, Jesus is referring to that false wisdom that people seek out not to expand their understanding of the world around them, but to reassure themselves that they are correct in their world view.

Back in February, there was a televised debate between a famous Christian and a well-known science educator. Ken Ham is what is called a “Young Earth Creationist,” a Christian who absolutely insists that the universe was created no more than six thousand years ago. In an effort to promote his Creation Museum, he challenged “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” to a debate.

Now, Ken Ham reads the same Bible we do. He believes in the same triune God that we believe in. He believes, as we do, that the triune God created all that is, seen and unseen. But he has decided, somewhere along the way, that anything which does not unswervingly adhere to his own rigid interpretation of the Bible must be – not simply rejected or ignored – but attacked as an enemy.

The most telling question of the night was, What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Ken Ham, the Creationist, said that nothing would ever change his mind. Bill Nye said, “show me evidence, and the evidence will change my mind.”

During the debate, Bill Nye also said, “It fills me with joy to make discoveries every day of things I’ve never seen before. It fills me with joy to know that we can pursue these answers. It is an astonishing thing that we are — you and I are one of the ways the universe knows itself.”

I want to suggest this morning that one of the most beautiful assets that God gives each of us is an innate curiosity about what Douglas Adams called, “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The joy of looking for answers, the thrill of learning a new thing, the pain of expanding our horizons beyond our narrow circle of knowledge, this is what I think Jesus means when he speaks of hiding wisdom from the wise and revealing it to the infant.

We humans try very hard, we always have, to put systems in place that quantify and categorize and explicate God. We desire certainty, security, even in those things which are beyond our limited grasp.

Ken Ham does it with Young Earth Creationism, yes, but there are untold numbers of theologies within Christianity, and they all have two things in common. First, by offering us easy answers to complex questions, they very subtly become a crutch to lean on, a panacea for the nagging doubt that is part and parcel of faith, something tangible that replaces the intangible and eternal.

Second, they break down somewhere, they are flawed, because we are flawed. We are the wild card in every theology, and in every moral and political system, every philosophy and grand design.

What Jesus offers us is a way out of the struggle.

I like the story I started out with, about needing God as badly as we need to breathe, but I worry a bit that it may paint the wrong picture. The point is not that we have to be theologically gasping our last breath, desperately clawing at the ring God tosses us, in order to find God. The point is that, in the same way that nothing is more important to a drowning person than air, nothing should be more important to the follower of Jesus Christ than, well, Jesus Christ. When we let go of being right, and let go of this idea that God is a thing to be found, and open ourselves to God, that is when we will find God, here already.

The Scriptural criteria for being a follower of Jesus Christ is not “being right.” It isn't rigid adherence to a set of doctrinal absolutes. As much as I enjoy theology, in the grand scheme of things, I don't really think God cares if I am Calvinist or Armenian, whether I am transubstantiationalist or consubstantiationalist or ordinalist or virtualist or participate in anabaptism or paedobaptism.

Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

That's it. Oh, I mean, there are details, like “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”and so forth, but that is almost commentary on the central truth of love.

The thing about love is that it tends to pull us away from our comfort zone. It is a natural human tendency to surround ourselves with people like us, after all. If I am Republican, I will be most comfortable around other Conservatives, if I am a Democrat, I will be more comfortable around other Liberals. I will have more fun watching a football game with people who are fans of my team.

But a hungry person doesn't care if they get food from a Presbyterian or a Baptist or a Methodist or a Mormon or a Muslim or an Atheist. They need food. The yoke of love that Jesus lays upon us, the light burden we are to bear, is to not worry about proving ourselves right to the hungry person, but to feed that hunger.

The Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees couldn't see God, right there in their midst, because God didn't meet their criteria. And that is the big secret: We don't get to decide what God looks like or how God acts!

Sometimes God looks like a kid, or a homeless person. Sometimes God has rainbow hair and tattoos, sometimes God has dark skin. Sometimes God smells bad.

But God always offers us a loving opportunity to expand our horizons, to think and wonder in new ways, to grow in relationship with one another and with God, to not accept this world the way it is but to see it as it should be, and to change it and in the process, change ourselves.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

So What Do We Do With Pentecost?

No deep words of wisdom in this preamble... Hopefully, the sermon makes some sense of what, for me, is always a struggle between the danger of attempting to define a Person of the Trinity and the relative ease of ignoring the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is dangerous.

And no, I ain't gonna explain what I mean by that.

Also, and probably unrelated to the sermon, I am unapologetically stating that Pharrel's "Happy" is my favorite song right now.



OK, here's the sermon.

ACTS 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be,God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What do we do with Pentecost?

We are Presbyterians, after all. We are a mainline denomination, we aren't Charismatics or Pentecostals. Most if us don't speak in tongues, we don't do many healing services, we lay hands on people only when we're ordaining them as elders or as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

Now, I've mentioned before that I was Pentecostal for about a decade. I've been in worship services that lasted for hours, where, in a sanctuary half this size, the preacher would scream into a handheld microphone, where people would be slain in the Spirit, where my ears rang, deafened by a cacophony of unknown tongues around me, in the shadow of a roomful of hands raised to heaven... I've been in a huge auditorium with an amazing choir singing, and I've seen a guy get so “in the Spirit” that he leaped to the back of the pew, ran along the top of it to the aisle, and down to the altar without breaking stride.

I have been awash in all of that excitement and passion and emotion, and I have subscribed to the misconception that Christians who didn't share in that kind of worship experience were missing out on all God had to offer.

And I think it is perhaps a reaction to the damage that this misconception has caused that makes so many mainline believers – or preachers, anyway – seem to shy away from the subject of the Holy Spirit. Oh, I mean, we mention the Holy Spirit in passing, the Apostle's Creed, blessings, things like that. But living, as we do, in a society where Christianity is too often defined by the worst of us – where God is used as an excuse for hatred and exclusion and bullying and bigotry – we spend a lot of our time, we mainline, less angry, more open and affirming Christians, on trying to say we aren't like them... and maybe, just maybe, we shy away from talking about subjects that might make us sound like “them.”

Like the Holy Spirit.

So what do we do with Pentecost?

Well, many churches, and I've been guilty of this, look at Pentecost as “the birthday of the Church.” It certainly is the point in history where the message of the Gospel caught fire and began to spread across the world, yes. But to say the Church started here is to miss the Resurrection – in fact, the very Incarnation – and it is to ignore the millenia of men and women and children who, by faith, followed the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who is the same God you and I worship in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Were they not also, in a very real sense, a part of the Church?

If we ascribe to a Trinitarian theology – One God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – then we must recognize that God has always been Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel that Jesus was both present at, and active in, the creation of the universe. We know that God in the Holy Spirit was active in our Old Testament, speaking through the prophets, inspiring David to write Psalms, and on and on.

So if Pentecost isn't the birthday of the Church, what is it? What do we do with Pentecost?

You know what? That's a catchy refrain, “what do we do with Pentecost,” but it really isn't the question, is it? I'm guilty of doing what I was talking about before, of kind of shying away from the Holy Spirit... the real question is, what do we – Reformed, mainline, non-hand-waving-and-tongue-talking Christians – do with the Holy Spirit?

Well, we know that the Holy Spirit is what Jesus called “another Advocate.” We know from the book of Ephesians that the Holy Spirit is a seal, God's inscription upon us, identifying us as members of God's family, residents of the now and coming Kingdom of God. We know that the Holy Spirit is a Comforter, a teacher, and a guide.

So yes, even if we do not take part in the wild emotionalism and the sound and fury of Pentecostalism, we understand that the Holy Spirit is a gift from God that is uniquely for God's people, in whom we can abide and enjoy, and from whom we receive sustenance. The Holy Spirit reminds us that Jesus did not leave us orphaned, that in life and in death and in life beyond death, we belong to God.

And that would be a great high note to end a sermon on, but that isn't all there is to the Holy Spirit, is it?

Because the Holy Spirit is also a catalyst. The Holy Spirit makes things happen! Look at Peter, in our reading today. We make a lot out of this man, who was such a coward, denying Christ three times and all, finally standing up and preaching the Gospel so eloquently, and it's true, but the interesting thing is that the Holy Spirit didn't change the essence of who Peter was.

Think about it – who had the courage to reply honestly, from his heart, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Who had the guts to, however wrongheadedly, try to steer Jesus from all that fatalistic talk of death? Who stepped out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus? Who piped up at the Transfiguration and offered to build houses for everyone? Who, rather clumsily, tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the Temple guard came to arrest him?

Peter always had the courage. The Holy Spirit gave him voice, purpose, focus.

Throughout the Book of Acts, we see the Holy Spirit giving direction for evangelism, words for defense and for testimony, comfort in persecution, and evidence of faith. And that brings up yet another point: the Holy Spirit is for us, but the Holy Spirit doesn't belong to us.

There's a story told about a seminary professor who was asked to give a talk to a youth group about the baptism of Jesus. He gave his speech, all about the significance of the event, saying basically that it was about to everyone that Jesus was God. He finished, satisfied that he'd done a good job But, that was when this one kid, without lifting his head said, “That ain’t what it means.” So the professor asks, “What do you think it means?”

The youth says, “The story says that the heavens were opened, right?”

Right.”

The heavens were opened and the spirit of God came down, right?”

Yes.”

The boy finally looked up and leaned forward to say, “It means that God is loose in the world. And it’s dangerous.”

The Apostles would have been happy to keep The Way confined to Judea, to retain God as their sole property... but God had different ideas. Philip shared the Gospel with a eunuch, then he went, of all places to Samaria, and preached there! And if that weren't enough, Peter goes and has this vision on the rooftop and goes and preaches to Gentiles!

Then there was Paul... and you know where all he went!

Well, after Peter went and converted Gentiles, he had to go and defend himself to the others back in Jerusalem... and they argued, and they prayed, and they thought... and they concluded “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

God is loose in the world, wild, out of control, and dangerous.

So this is what we do with Pentecost – what we do with the Holy Spirit... we rest in the assurance that, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we are adopted into the Family of God, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we belong to God now and for ever.

And...

We rely upon the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in sharing the love of God with others through our own unique voice, our time, talents and treasures. God in the Holy Spirit speaks through us as God spoke through Peter on Pentecost, directs us like God directed Philip and inspires and teaches us as God inspired Peter on that rooftop.

And...

We watch God in the Holy Spirit move in unexpected and shocking – scandalous – ways. If we believe, as we say we do, that “God do loved the world...”, then when God moves in communities and peoples that we, ourselves, may think are “off limits,” our call is not to judge or limit or hold back, but to let go and say, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

So what do we do with Pentecost?

What we must do is have the courage to release the Holy Spirit from the confines of Pentecost, to take the risk and reap the reward of a God set free in the world, ebullient in love, egregious in forgiveness, bold, unstoppable and dangerous... whatever that means.


Let us pray.