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?”


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


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.


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.


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.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Christ is risen! NOW what?"

I am indebted to the writing of Karoline Lewis and Kathryn Matthews Huey for their thoughts on this reading.

And because why not, here's an awesome version of "Kashmir:"

JOHN 14:15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Christ is risen... now what?

Yes, I know that the reading comes from a part of the Gospel of John that's before the Crucifixion, but remember when and for whom it was written – it was written for us Resurrection People, and, more precisely, a specific group of Resurrection People at the end of the first century.

I struggled with a word to describe what kind of situation these believers were in when they first read the Gospel of John, and the best I can come up with is, they felt alone. Orphaned. The Resurrection had happened something near seventy years back, which meant that everyone who had ever seen Jesus was very likely now dead, except perhaps for John himself... and who knows? By the time the Gospel got out to most of the body of believers, John was probably gone, too.

All they seemed to have left were the writings, the traditions, and the firm conviction that Christ had risen from the dead. And that's important, yes, but wasn't Jesus supposed to be coming back any day? Where was he? Maybe he had forgotten all of that, maybe there had been a change of plan or something, they didn't know. And the Apostles, the people who had seen Christ and heard his words, seen the miracles and felt his breath when he said, “receive the Holy Spirit,” the living connection these believers had had to the focal point of their faith, were gone.

So yeah, they felt alone. Forgotten. Orphaned. Without focus or direction.

Somewhere on a sunny, cool afternoon in the Roman province of Asia, which encircled the Mediterranean Sea, a group of people sit, huddle around the cooking fire in the open courtyard of a home. Most of them are slaves and women, and many bear the scars of persecution. Someone, likely a man, is reading from a codex – that's sheets of papyrus folded in to what you and I would think of as a book these days.

Last week, you'll remember, Jesus spoke to some of the things they had been worrying about. Already several of the listeners are looking up, listening intently as Jesus talks directly to them.

But can you imagine the feeling when Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned...”? When he promises, “I am coming to you”?

Faces that had been downcast, looking at the dirt, are now raised to the sunlight, and Jesus reminds them of something that, just perhaps, they had forgotten.

I think that a lot of people – preachers, at least – in mainline Protestant churches don't really know what to do with the Holy Spirit. We tend to leave talking about this Person of the Trinity to mentions in the Apostle's Creed and a sermon on Pentecost, for the most part. My own experience, coming from a decade in the Pentecostal Church of God, is to be very careful in my own approach. That tradition rather goes to the other extreme with the Holy Spirit, so I confess that it is more than a little difficult to find a rational middle ground.

But maybe it's time to let the Holy Spirit loose from the cage of Pentecost, and from the sole proprietorship of the Pentecostals.

Jesus promises to send “another Advocate,” which we know is the Holy Spirit, and he is careful in his language to connect himself with the Father and with the gathered disciples, and, yes, those believers in that courtyard and yes, with you and me. “ I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you...”

The catalyst in that connection is the Holy Spirit, unseen but active in the lives of those whose lives are in Christ.

The Holy Spirit is, of course, active in many ways, but (and I never do three-point sermons, but this is kind of unavoidable) I want to look at three specific activities that Jesus speaks of concerning the Holy Spirit in this passage.

First, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Last week, we read where Jesus revealed himself as the way, the truth, and the life. In the trial he will undergo before Pilate, the concept of truth will play a major role.

Jesus tells Pilate, “...the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” The truth is synonymous with Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Jesus promises his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Second, Jesus tells the disciples that they know the Spirit, and, we talked about this last week, the only real way to know someone is to be in relationship. The Spirit abides with you and will be in you... abiding is synonymous with “relationship” in John's Gospel. Third, the coming of the Spirit, the promise of the Spirit, means that the disciples, those at the table, those at the cooking fire, and those gathered here today, in this congregation, and in churches and fellowships everywhere, will not be orphaned.

OK, I was wrong, I don't want to talk about three activities of the Holy Spirit, I want to talk about four. Because this last one is a big deal. This last activity of the Holy Spirit keeps us from becoming a body of people intent on codifying and adhering to a strict list of rules and regulations, from leaving the worship of God for worship of doctrines, from living under the weight of condemnation for every mistake and sin we commit.

Jesus begins and ends our reading today by speaking of his disciples, those who love him, keeping his commandments. And oh Lord when we read that we can go wild with it, can't we? Over the last two millenia, we've put a lot of words in Jesus' mouth, about what day to worship on, about how wet to get when we are baptized, about what to believe when it comes to the Lord's Supper, about which people, created in the image of God, are loved by that God, and which of those created beings God despises, the kinds of war Jesus likes, what forms of government and which political parties Jesus supports...

But what did Jesus really say? What are his commandments?

Hear the Word of God from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, the 35th through the 41st verses:

“One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?'

Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'”

Again, the Word of the Lord from the Gospel of John, the 13th chapter and the 34th and 35th verses:

“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.”

I sense a theme running through these verses, do you?

Love God, love each other, love your neighbor – and if we learn anything from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is that our “neighbor” is anyone and everyone.

Anyone and everyone. Dang it. I can't do that.

Some people rub me the wrong way. They do things I don't do, sometimes they smell bad, or say things that offend me, or like things I don't like, or look different than me, or act in ways that make me uncomfortable, or believe things I don't believe, or vote for people I don't vote for, and I want to close and lock the doors and put an electric fence around the communion table and say, “not you!”

It is the Holy Spirit who works through me, and through each of us, to change that. Dianne Bergant puts it like this: The Holy Spirit “strengthens us, comforts us, guides us, and inspires us. It is the Spirit who enables us to interpret the signs of the times in ways very different from the ways of the world. It is the Spirit who works through us for the transformation of the world.”

I submit to you that this desire to protect my most precious prejudices, my most beloved hatreds, to sanctify my fear, is the definition of “the ways of the world.” Over against that, the Holy Spirit seeks to take down the fences, to throw the doors wide open – no, to break the doors off their hinges, put them up on sawhorses, to spread a meal and invite all who hunger to come.

That is who we are! We are Resurrection People, and we dare to bring the Resurrection with us beyond Easter Sunday, we are bold to free the Holy Spirit from Pentecost Sunday, and to say that, in the face of the unfathomable, egregiously lavish, belligerently generous love that God has shown for us, we must take this light of Christ that lives within us as the Holy Spirit and shine it in the dark corners, we must give of this living water that flows in us to all who thirst, we must throw our doors and our arms and our hearts open wide and welcome people in to relationship with the risen Christ, we must make it clear that whoever, whatever, whenever... God loves you.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter: The Cross, the Resurrection, What Does It Mean?

I am blessed beyond measure to have friends like the Rev. Debra Avery, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Jeffery, and Pastor Terry Ramone Smith. As you can see in the following sermon, the conversation with them this past Friday was crucial to the writing of this sermon.

Some of the words in this sermon are taken from an earlier sermon. Many are Kirk and Deb and Terry's words, and the words of many other scholars and friends I am blessed to learn from every day.

And because I like it, here's some music for your read:

MATTHEW 28:1-10
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. Easy, because, all too often, it’s just words, isn’t it? We are Resurrection people, after all. We live in this reality, the reality that says Jesus “is,” not Jesus “was.” We are Resurrection people. We associate springtime with resurrection because it’s an integral part of our vocabulary.

We forget, all too easily, that there was a time when, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “only place springtime happen[ed]… [was] on the graves, not in them.”

The women weren’t going to the tomb that morning to check the status of the body. They were going to the tomb to grieve. This was the place where Mary Magdalene could get closest to the one person who had looked on her as if she were human, as if she were valuable, as if she, a woman, were equal. At least there, in the twilight before dawn, she could be close to him again, just on the other side of a stone, close enough to touch, really. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Do you see how it was? No one was thinking about Resurrection, not because of a lack of faith or because Jesus hadn’t told them again and again, but because it made no sense, it was dancing to architecture, it was painting with math, completely beyond comprehension.

Jesus was dead. End of story. All those years, all those miles traveled, the stories and parables and healings and dangers and triumphs and evenings in a group around a fire, everything, all of it, gone.

So Mary Magdalene walked with “the other Mary” toward the tomb in the darkness. But it wouldn’t be dark for long.
One of the things that is most interesting to me in the accounts of the Resurrection is that each Gospel account is different. Our reading this morning is dramatic: a mighty earthquake, big, bad guards fainting in terror, and an angel relaxing on a tombstone. The Marys see Jesus as they return to tell the disciples what has happened.

Mark's Gospel is (of course) brief; this time the other Mary is identified as the mother of James, and Salome is with them. No earthquake in Mark, they find the stone already rolled away. And instead of being told they saw an angel, they meet a young man robed in white. Mark's Gospel appears to end with the women telling no one.

Luke tells us that it was a whole group of women that went to the tomb. Again, the stone was already rolled back, and the tomb was completely empty until two men in glowing clothes appeared to announce the Resurrection. The women run back and tell the disciples, who don't believe them. Peter goes and checks it out, finds the body missing, and doesn't get it.

In John's Gospel, Mary Magdalen is alone. The stone is already moved, the body missing, and she thinks the risen Christ is the gardener.

Let me ask you something this morning: what does it mean to be Resurrection people?

Judging from the Gospel accounts, it doesn't mean we get the story right every time. The writers who tells us about the most important thing that has ever happened, the central event in all of human history, can't agree on the details.

This is true of the Cross as well. The Gospels tell the same story quite differently. The main points, of course, quite agree; it's the details that are fuzzy.

So being Resurrection People doesn't mean we agree all the time.

I had a conversation this past Friday with some friends: The Reverend Doctor Kirk Jeffery, an Episcopal priest; the Reverend Debra Avery, a Presbyterian pastor, and Pastor Terry Smith, who operates The Van Atlanta, a homeless ministry. Since it was Good Friday, the subject was the Atonement: why did Jesus die on the cross?

Please understand: we Christians all agree that Jesus died on the cross, and that the purpose of his sacrifice was to reconcile humanity to our loving Creator. Where we get fuzzy is in trying to articulate exactly how that happens. Is it Penal Substitutionary Atonement, is it Ransom Atonement, was the Cross an avoidable tragedy that God redeemed? Is it something else?
What I took away from that conversation was not a clarified comprehension of Atonement, and that's OK, that ain't what I was after. What I learned from that conversation, and from reading the Gospel accounts of the Cross and the Empty Tomb is that we see different things, we hear different things, we believe different things not because some of us are right and some of us are wrong... but because God meets us at the point of our deepest need and directly addresses that need.

We are Resurrection people, but we live in a place that, all too often, feels much more like that dark path through the cemetery than anything else.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. And how hard it is to make those words more than just that – words.

Perhaps there is a purpose to the Gospel writers varying so widely on the details surrounding the Resurrection: was it an angel, was it a man in white or was it two people in white? Was Mary Magdalene alone, with one other woman, with two other women, or a group of women? Did they tell no one, did they tell the disciples to go to Galilee, did Peter run to the tomb alone, did John run with him? Did Jesus appear to no one, did he appear to everyone at once, did he appear to the two Marys?

Perhaps there is a purpose to the fact that for two millenia, we Christians have struggled to explain what the Cross means: did Jesus take our place on a cross that we each, individually, deserve to bear? Did Jesus pay a ransom for our souls in his blood? Was Jesus' death an act of solidarity with all victims of death – all of humanity?

I think that the answer for all of these questions, all of them, is “yes.” The Cross and the Resurrection were, indeed, corporate acts, events intended for the salvation of everyone... but the Cross and the Resurrection were at the same time intimate, personal, individual.

We celebrate the Lord’s Supper this morning, in part because it serves as a point of reference, a reminder of the fact that, and I am quoting Romans 5:8, “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God has met us at the point of our deepest need - “while we were yet sinners” - and has specifically met that need.

The Cross, the Resurrection, and all of the questions and interpretations and scholarship and discussion surrounding these central events of human history are a reminder that we live in what the Arabic-speaking people call “al-fedjr,” the twilight that is just before the dawn. It's dark, we cannot see clearly... we see that the stone is rolled away, that the tomb is empty, and maybe we don't exactly know why... but because we really are Resurrection people, we know that someday the dawn will break.

Someday we will see the Risen Lord, and he will call us by name.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Laundry Lists and Love...

This isn't the best title for a sermon, but it is the best I could come up with. 

I think everything has to do with relationships. How we relate to God, how we relate to one another, how we regard the rich and the powerful and the poor and the marginalized. And no one relationship is disconnected from another.

Thanks this week especially to David Lose, Carla Works, and Peter Bush.

Finally, something that has nothing at all to do with the sermon, but it was part of my soundtrack as I was writing it. Javier Barria's cover of one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, "The Rain Song."

MATTHEW 5:21-37
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Wow. That is quite a list, isn't it? It's like Jesus is taking the Law and putting it on steroids. Many scholars call these the “antitheses,” because Jesus is saying, “you have heard... BUT,” putting expectations over and against established expectations.

Oh, goody, new rules. Peachy. And a laundry list of stuff, too... murder, anger, adultery, divorce, making oaths... and the punishments are over-the-top! For cryin' out loud, being condemned to Hell for calling someone a fool? Mutilating our body to refrain from committing sin? No wonder these fall in to the category that's called “the hard sayings of Jesus.”

It goes without saying that most Christians don't follow the letter of these sayings. We get angry. I know I do, anyway. Divorce is common nowadays, and in our lawsuit-crazed society we swear oaths verbally and with our signatures all the time. I don't know of anyone who has come to the Lord's Supper, then before taking part has left to go make up with someone they'd had a quarrel with. It has probably happened, sure, but I have never seen it. I don't know of anyone who has poked their own eye out or cut off their own hand to refrain from committing sin.

As a list of rules – I am gonna go ahead and just say it – these are unreasonable. If I have to treat this passage as a checklist of things I cannot ever under any circumstances do, or else, I give up. I can't do it. I mean, for crying out loud, I get upset at people's FaceBook posts, and don't even get me started about Twitter!

And let me go further: If we treat the Scriptures as a list of rules and regulations, a law-book, a Constitution... we will fail. Maybe not every time, on ever point, no. I may do OK not lusting after my neighbor's wife, but as soon as I get in a hurry to get from one job to another and Highway 280 gets backed up around the Summit, I can promise you someone is gonna swing in front of me from the other lane, cut me off, and I will at least call that driver a fool.

I can tell you that I know of at least one person who was mentally ill, and who obsessed over keeping every point of Scripture, and was constantly tortured that he could not do it all, to the point that, one night, he lay down on some railroad tracks. And no, the story does not have a happy ending.

But what if... what if the point of what Jesus is saying here goes deeper than keeping rules, following laws? Look at what Jesus is actually saying here, look at the focal point of his antitheses.

...If you are angry with...” “...if you insult...” “...if you say...” are some of the phrases Jesus uses to start off this reading, and he does it over against murder. Jesus seems to say anger is worse, or at least on a level, with killing... and to be sure, someone would have to be pretty angry with someone to kill them, you'd think. But I want to suggest to you that this isn't even about antecedents to murder.

It is about how we think about – how we treat – one another. It ain't about rules. It's about relationships. God cares about our relationships. That is the thread that weaves this seemingly stream-of-consciousness reading together. It isn't random rules and threats of punishment. It's about how we relate to one another, and through that, how and if we relate to God.

Isn't that amazing? This is truly revolutionary thinking! God is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, nor does God see us as playthings, nor is God completely disinterested in God's creation. God is not simply a spiritual director or a dispenser of divine karma. God cares. God cares about us, and God cares about our relationships.

I know that sometimes people say or even do bad things, and our natural reaction is anger, our natural tendency is to strike back somehow. We have a right to! But at least in the Christian community, that right is less important than the responsibility, on both the part of the offender and the offended, to reconcile.

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships.

Think about it – when we hold a grudge, the person we are mad at is living in our head rent-free! It takes our heart and mind away from the things that matter, it causes stress, and stress can kill us. Better to forgive, even if we cannot safely forgive face-to-face. Forgiveness isn't about letting someone off the hook, remember, it is about allowing ourselves to move on and grow out of that and into our life in Christ.

And notice how the burden of reconciliation isn't just on the one offended – Jesus says that, whenever we realize we have offended someone, even if we are in the middle of church, even gathered around the Lord's Table, we must go and fix it right then, it is that important. Right relationships with one another both speak volumes to those outside of the faith looking in on us, and those relationships help to strengthen our individual and corporate walk with God.

Believe it or not, this dovetails in perfectly with Jesus' words about adultery, lust, and divorce, because if we value other people deeply enough to care about right relationships, one thing we are careful not to do is objectify other people – remove their humanity, define them as a body part or value them only for what the can do for us. We cannot treat people as possessions and truly value relationships with one another or with God.

God cares about us. God cares about how we care for and about others.

Now, treating people, specifically women, as a possession was exactly what Jesus was talking about when he was speaking of divorce. In Jesus' time, remember, women had no rights, no identity of their own. Rabbinic tradition held that a man could write up a “bill of divorcement” and leave his wife if she displeased him in any way. Women couldn't own property, had no legal recourse, could not work... for cryin' out loud, even the Ten Commandments lists “your neighbor's wife” in the same “Thou shalt not covet” sentence as his livestock!

A woman could be left homeless, destitute, starving to death, because she burned the toast.

So this isn't about forcing women, or anyone, to stay in bad, even abusive, relationships, it is about elevating women, and by extension all people, of any race or gender or nationality or orientation or identity, to the level of equal human beings.

I am serious. If we can get that one thing right, everything else will fall in to place.

If I consider every human being equal, then I don't have to worry about being greater than someone else. No one has to be less-than for me to feel good. If every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God, then my concern for right relationship with God compels me to act like it – to reconcile, to support, to heal.

If I am honest, it would be easier if our passage today was a list of rules and regulations, a checklist I could review every day and give myself a pass-or-fail. Relationships are messy, difficult things. I am a dyed in the wool extrovert (I know that is a shock), but there are days when I just don't want to be messed with. There are times when I get hurt or offended or wronged and, by golly, someone owes me an apology.


God cares about us. God cares about our relationships, and right relationships are more important than being right.

In the coming week, I'd like to invite you to join me in doing two things. First, call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you. One that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. What makes that a good relationship? Why is that relationship so important? Reflect on that relationship this week, and in your time of prayer and meditation give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.
Second, think about another relationship that is important to you, but it has suffered some damage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who was to blame for the hurt; rather, hold that person, hold that relationship in prayer. Offer that broken relationship to God as an arena of God’s help and healing. And here is the hard part: take some time and think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.
That's it. We start small. Just one.

Let us pray.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
We give you praise for our good relationships. Help us to see, and to focus upon, the things that are good and right and which bring us joy and life.
And because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,
give us the help of your grace to begin to heal those relationships which require reconciliation, and to practice forgiveness in those places where reconciliation is not possible.
Loving Creator, may we please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.