Sunday, December 27, 2009

Twilight.... No, Not THAT Twilight!

This past Wednesday, the daughter of one of my parishioners passed away after a long illness. In a large church, one could be forgiven for sticking with the Lectionary text and letting the funeral do the talking for the loss, but in a church where, on a good Sunday, you'll see 25 people, that isn't an option.

So a few of you will read this and rightly accuse me of recycling an "old" sermon. While it hasn't been published on this blog before, I posted a version of it over on the "old" Circle Six Magazine forums sometime in 2008 or early 2009. By the way, give that magazine a look, I think you'll find it a really well-done piece of Internet.

I say all this because I don't like reusing sermons, and in fact my mentor and friend Rev. Dr. Doris Chandler was quite opposed to it - she never saved her old sermons, and only saved the children's sermons so she'd be sure to never repeat them. Yet when faced with the cold certainty of death, this is really the only thing I have: it's night, it sucks, and it's real... but the dawn is coming. I promise, it's coming.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This reading may be familiar to you as one of those that is most often read at funerals. And while it’s appropriate for funerals, it's also true that I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is brimming with reassurance for every time of life – expectation, joy, and hope. Maybe it isn't the traditional Sunday-after-Christmas reading, but I think you'll agree that it's one we need to hear, especially today.

Certainly, the first-century Christians for whom this Epistle was written would have needed all the joy and hope they could get. It’s an understatement to say that they let a very difficult existence. They were, for the most part, very poor people; servants, slaves, laborers, with a few people of means in their midst. They met in small groups in people’s homes, surrounded by a culture that most often despised their very existence.

The Roman philosophy of governing, you see, was built on a theocracy. The emperor, or Caesar, was regarded as a living god, but even in Roman culture he was one god among many. The Romans, like many polytheistic societies, had gods for every detail of life, from the successful conquest of war to the abundance of harvest, to the opening and closing of doors. The Romans assimilated gods from other cultures as well, and allowed people relative freedom to worship whatever or whoever they chose to… as long as, once a year, they burned a pinch of incense as a sacrifice to the god Caesar.

The Jewish people were exempted from this practice, and were hated for that exemption. Jewish Christians held the same exemption, at least until they were expelled from the Jewish fellowship in the 80’s AD, but for Gentile Christians, the first Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” flew in the face of honoring Caesar as anything more than a human being. Many people gave in to the pressure to sacrifice to Caesar, because those who did not give in risked loss of property, employment, home and family, freedom, and even their lives.

Add to this the fact that, in any social philosophy based upon religion, any misfortune that society suffers is generally blamed on those who do not hold the same religious worldview. Famine, drought, earthquake, attack from outside enemies, all of these were at one time or another blamed on Christians who, since they would not worship the gods of the culture, were regarded as ‘atheists.”

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the persecutions that these Christians were threatened with and subjected to every day, but I want to offer one example taken from the reign of the Emperor Nero.

In 64AD a fire started under mysterious circumstances and raged through Rome, destroying much of the city. Suspicion immediately fell on the Emperor Nero, not only because he was a complete fruitcake, but because he had made no secret of wanting to tear down much of the city and rebuild it on an even grander scale. Nero needed a scapegoat, and quick, and he settled on a much-hated Jewish sect called “Christians.”

No one knows how many Christians Nero put to death, but we know that he wasn’t satisfied to just kill them. He wanted them to suffer for the entertainment of Rome. Nero had some Christians sewn into animal skins and torn apart in the Circus Maximus by dogs and wild animals. Others he had dipped in wax, suspended from cages and burned to provide lighting on Vatican hill while he raced his chariot.

So you can see that it was not only unpopular to believe in Jesus, it was deadly.

When Paul wrote to the young church at Thessalonica, it was probably only about 20 years since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There would have been many people still alive who remembered Jesus, perhaps had heard him speak or seen him heal, and quite a few with firsthand knowledge of the Resurrection. Still, many members of the church at Thessalonica would have been Gentiles, experientially and geographically removed from the Resurrection, the event that defined their faith. Not so different, in other words, from you and I.

It’s no wonder then that this letter, the earliest written document in the New Testament, makes a point of reminding the Thessalonians that, no matter what, Jesus had triumphed. It’s a reminder we all need to hear, and often, I think.

We live, after all, in an odd, twilight time. It’s nothing new; we’ve been living in twilight for about 2,000 years. We know that Good Friday was not the end. We know that this Christ, whose birth we celebrated this week, utterly defeated death and conquered the forces of evil, ascended to heaven and sits in triumph at God’s right hand. We know that the Kingdom of God has been established in power.

Yet if all of this is so, why does so much evil persist in the world? How could centuries of persecution, as bad and even worse than Nero’s, have been allowed to occur, and why does persecution of Christians go on, around the world, even today? What about the evils of Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Darfur, just to name a few? Why do people still die? Is this Kingdom of God real, or are we the biggest fools in the universe?

The easiest answer, the most obvious one, anyway, is to say that the Kingdom of God is not yet here, that Christ’s final victory over sin, suffering, injustice and death will not come until the history of the world itself ends.

And since we can find evidence for both views in Scripture – the Kingdom of God has come, the Kingdom of God will come – somehow, both statements, though apparently contradictory, must be true. But how?

The late theologian and teacher Shirley Guthrie offers this story as explanation:

On June 6, 1944, at 6:30 am, Allied forces mounted the single largest invasion of all time against Nazi-occupied France. D-Day signaled the utter defeat of Nazi Germany and the absolute triumph of Allied forces in World War II. Yet the hostilities did not end until almost a year later – May 7 and 8, 1945, VE day, when Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered.

The Germans fought a number of desperate fall-back battles all across Europe. Many lives were lost and a lot of damage was done before the final surrender. Yet with that decisive battle in Normandy it was clear that the war was won, even if it was not yet over.

The decisive battle of human history took place when, in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God “invaded” the world, and conquered the ruling forces of evil. The Cross is a completed work, so the war has been won. Yet we await the final triumph of the risen Christ at the end of history. So between the times, in this twilight, the deadly battles continue, even though the outcome is already assured. We remember what God has done and therefore can have hope for what God will do.

I’ve used that word “twilight” several times now, haven’t I? I want to be absolutely clear on what I mean by this word, which is by the way Shirley Guthrie’s word. It applies in so many ways to the Kingdom of God, to our personal faith journeys, and especially to the life and ministry of Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church, this family of believers who is sharing this week not only in the celebration of the birth of Christ but in the grief at the loss of Evelyn's daughter. It applies, ultimately, of course, to life itself.

Because when I talk about the twilight we are living in, I don't mean the kind of twilight that comes right before the darkness of night falls, cold, silent, and impenetrable. That kind of twilight spells the end, and it's a twilight we're all too familiar with – we as a human race have been there, and done that... and in Christ, God has said “enough!”

Back when I was a youth director, I'd take a group to the summer conference in Montreat every year. Several of the regular conference attendees had a tradition on the last night of the conference. Everyone who didn't have to drive home the next day would stay up all night, and in the early morning hours a group would set out in the darkness to climb to the top of a nearby mountain. Saying it that way makes it sound like a harder climb than it really was. In reality it was a fun journey; there was a lot of stumbling and giggling and dropping flashlights and such. The goal of the trip was to reach the mountaintop in time to see the sky go from black, to purple, to steadily lighter shades of blue until the sky erupted into loud “hosannah's” of color as the dawn broke over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

That's the twilight I'm talking about – when the first rays of dawn are just beginning to color the eastern sky. Night is as good as over, the darkness is conquered, and we see the promise of a new day!

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died… For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever!”

This is why we hope. This is why we believe. Despite sickness and crime and evil and persecutions, despite economic downturns and foreclosures and layoffs and political uncertainty, and even in the face of the ultimate night, the closed casket poised over the open grave, we hope!

Because, yes, Christ has died.

But Christ has risen!

And Christ will come again!

This is our amen!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary Sang and John Danced...

This sermon got its fuel through the generosity of my Twitterfriends. I started a conversation about us Protestants not knowing what to do abouot Mary, and received lots of suggestions and eye-opening guidance from Keke Pounds, Minister Bob Chapman, Rev. Heather Dethloff, and Rev. Katie Mulligan. While only Heather's quote made it into the sermon, they were all instrumental in helping me see important messages in the Lucan account of Mary and Elizabeth.

Honestly, it never ceases to amaze me, this phenomenon of social networking. This past week, the loose group that identifies itself by the #outlawpreachers hashtag on Twitter lost one of our own. Gideon Addington, whose Tillich quote helped write my sermon two weeks back, passed away. To one degree or another, many of us have been reeling from this, - shock, raqe, loss, it's all there. By all appearances Gideon should have been no more than a collection of letters in groups of 140 characters or less. Instead, I've lost a friend, somehow.

I've got no real smooth way to transition from that into the message, so I won't try. I look forward to your comments.

Luke 1:39-55
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the LORD,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

This is the Word of the Lord.

She woke up in that breathless, shocked kind of way that says she hadn't realized she'd gone to sleep in the first place. Her mind had raced all night, replaying again and again what she had seen, what she had heard, how she had answered when the angel revealed her destiny. It had been so exciting, the thrill of being used by God to bring the Messiah into the world!

But now, in the stark light of day, she began to see the trouble ahead. A virgin with child? Yeah, right. She was barely even engaged, and now she could kiss marriage to Joseph goodbye. Her parents were going to freak when they found out!

Just then she thought about Elizabeth, about that strange story circulating about her pregnancy – Her husband had been struck mute, hadn't said a word since the day he had performed his priestly duties in the Holy of Holies.

It had gotten out that he'd seen an angel who had prophesied about Elizabeth having a child, and lo and behold she was six months along by now! And oh, how the gossip mill was grinding over that one! Surely, if anyone would know what to do, if anyone would believe her at all, it would be Elizabeth!

Her parents were more than willing to let Mary go; Elizabeth was a relative, after all, and not getting any younger, so having Mary there to help around the house made perfect sense.

I can imagine that, as she walked the road to Elizabeth's house, Mary's spirits lifted and her thoughts soared. Imagine – God chose her, a teenager from a backwater town, as the one to bring the Hope of Israel into the world! At last, after all these centuries, these thousands of years of waiting, the Messiah would enter into the world!

It seems like we Protestants only really talk about this unwed teenage mother once a year, this Sunday before Christmas. Yet there she is, kicking up the dust of the narrow country road as she hurries to Elizabeth's house – she is what Reverend Heather Morgan Dethloff calls “the first evangelist,” and her response to Elizabeth's excited and prophetic greeting – “My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...” was “her first sermon.”

But this was more than a sermon, more than a song. It was prophesy.

God had for too long been transcendent, remote, and unreachable. In many ways, it could be argued that this remoteness was something that humankind – or at least the part of humankind with voice and authority – found comfortable. A God who was appeased by sacrifices and communicated to through a professional priesthood (if at all) was in many senses a predictable, a controllable deity. If the only way to God is through a priest or some religious official, then both the people and, in some sense, God, can be kept in a manageable position.

But a God that can be controlled, predicted, limited, held at arm's length? That is no God at all.

Anyone who reads Scripture consciously can see that this transcendent God fully intended all along to be immanent, to be present with Creation, to be involved and invested and immediate! All of the sacrifices are done away with in that once-for-all sacrifice of God made flesh! The barriers to all of humankind being in direct relationship to their loving Creator are, like the Temple veil, forever torn away! And now, as Mary sings her song, as Elizabeth's son dances in her womb, that great day of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is at hand!

At hand... but, as Mary sings and John leaps with joy, (and like so many things in our spiritual journey), not yet. Scripture tells us that Mary and Elizabeth stayed together for three months. Reverend Kate Huey quotes Henri Nouwen, saying “'For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them.'” Huey goes on, “As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: 'They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.'”

This final week of Advent, we are reminded that we, too, wait. And like Mary and Elizabeth, we wait not as individuals, but as community – as the Body of Christ. We wait not just to celebrate the fist coming of Christ as to experience that “meteor of grace” that will be Christ's second coming! Like Mary and Elizabeth, we wait in community... supporting, guiding, and most of all praying for one another. Timothy Mulder writes, "here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared.”

And we Resurrection people share not only with one another, but with the risen Christ, through that same Holy Spirit which gave the good news to Elizabeth, which gave Mary song.

Whatever gifts await us under the tree, whatever Santa brings, we share with one another that greatest of gifts – Christ has come, has died, and has risen again! And that same Christ both lives in us, unites us as His Body – and will come again!

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Share. Be Fair. Don't Bully.

Seriously, without David Lose or the folks at Preaching Peace, this sermon would have been a big ol' pot of I-don't-know. Good thing God knows how much help I need to be articulate, huh?

Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I would never dare to accuse the unknown Elves who put together our Lectionary of having a sense of humor, but this weeks' readings come pretty close to suggesting just that. We get “sing, rejoice, exhult, rejoice, rejoice again, do not worry.”

I confess that during this Advent season I've been looking forward to talking about the birth of Jesus, to reading about the star in the east and the shepherds and wise men, about the angels proclaiming the birth, and when I started reading this week's Lectionary texts I got my hopes up. “Sing, rejoice, exhult, don't worry.” All right!

Then this hairy guy dressed in animal skins, this John the Baptist, pokes his head up out of the wilderness and shouts “you brood of vipers!”

It makes sense, though, doesn't it? God is a God of surprises, after all.
The Gospel reading is a good example. John addresses the people gathered to listen – Pharisees and soldiers, poor people and merchants, tax collectors and artisans – by calling them all 'snakes.' He demands their repentance, foretells wrath to come, belittles their heritage, and the people respond not by arguing or threatening or throwing stones or even walking away – instead, they ask “what then should we do?”

Well, certainly, John's response, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” should have entailed something complicated. After all, the people he was addressing were steeped in religious tradition of one kind or another – traditions which demanded that prayers be said precisely, that rules be followed stringently, and that sacrifices be carried out meticulously. Repentance has to involve expensive gifts and time-consuming acts, sweeping reforms and some degree of public humiliation, doesn't it? Repentance has to be a big deal, and the fruits of repentance have to be cumbersome!

But what does John say? What are those fruits?

To the poor: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

What John says to the crowd is not at all complicated. It is simple. It is easy. It is attainable: Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Not the stuff of cathedrals and choirs and Damascus-Road epiphanies; more a kindergarten or playground lesson. Share. Be fair. Don't bully.

Simple, easy, attainable, but all too easy to misinterpret. Here's what I mean: If John were instructing these groups of people in how to gain a state of repentance, how to earn repentance, how to get to a place where you're allowed to repent, John wouldn't have been at all controversial, because he'd have been prescribing religious actions to a people steeped in the habits and attitudes of religion.

Now, I'm defining religion as (quoting “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” Religion, as such, is not a bad thing, but it is a template, a framework, a language and context from which one develops and strengthens a relationship with the Living God.

Yet what seems to happen all too often is that this template of religion – the rituals, devotions, the code – this template serves to supersede or to replace the relationship – the spiritual part of the formula. One of the best quotes I've read recently is this: “religion is for people trying to avoid going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” In this context, repentance is a spiritual act, not a religious activity.

John isn't inviting people on a journey to hopefully get to a place where they are allowed to repent. John is telling them how to prove they have repented.

The Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia,” which translates to “think differently after.” To change your way of thinking. Repentance is a thing which happens between ourselves and God, and from which we emerge thinking differently than we did before.

This is going to sound like John going off down a rabbit trail, but bear with me, and maybe it'll all fit together. I don't know if I've talked about “The Thump” before. “The Thump” is something that is almost unique to pastors and preachers, especially those of us whose full-time work is in the regular old business world.

It's where I'm talking with someone about anything at all, and somehow in the conversation it comes up that I am a preacher. I can almost audibly hear “The Thump.” The person I'm talking to may or may not have been using bad words, may or may not have been talking about a bar they had gone to, or whatever, but immediately the conversation will turn to how they go to church, went to church, like church, like God, love their mother, Jesus is their homeboy, whatever. Out of the blue, they're suddenly Joe Christian. Who knew?

I can, however, point to cases where “The Thump” didn't happen. Where the conversation did not change when my beloved vocation came up... because it did not have to, there was nothing to excuse or justify or build up. And it wasn't that they didn't cuss, didn't drink, didn't smoke, eschewed jewelry, said “brutha” a lot and wore long skirts. That may or may not have been true on any and all counts. It was that I was speaking to someone whose life was truly grace-filled, who was genuinely living what they believed.

What we see in John's words is that, when we think differently, we act differently. What we believe is evident not in our words, but in our actions. What we know to be true is what we act upon.

That can be enormously liberating to know. In some ways, though, that knowledge can be either mildly depressing or it can be paralyzing: I know, for example, that I can point to several dozen times in this past week alone where my actions and my words have not at all reflected my belief in the risen and soon-returning Christ. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have not loved the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. If I think that I have to do everything right all the time or else, I might decide to not do anything at all!

But repentance, like our overall relationship with the Living God, is in itself a journey and not a destination. In John's words we see not a complete and systematic theology, but baby steps within a state of being someone who lives the grace-filled life of repentance.

We've talked a lot this past few weeks about things we can do differently during Advent, not as a way to hopefully properly prepare ourselves for Christ to come and maybe we hope we'll be acceptable and all, but as a way of response to the love and grace of a God who has already sent Christ to us and for us, a loving Christ who will certainly come again. Whether it's taking part in the Advent Conspiracy or pulling down a particularly pesky altar in our lives, we've been talking about taking small steps in response to God's grace. Simple things, like buying one less gift and giving the money saved to a charity. And for all the thunder and fire and winnowing forks and worthy fruits, all the frightful imagery in John's pronouncements, he is in reality speaking of the same kinds of things – simple fruits, if you will. Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Think differently.

I don't know if Paul, who would have been Saul at the time, was in that crowd listening to John, but in his letter to the Phillipians, the Apostle writes about some simple and profound things which demonstrate what we believe. I want to close with that passage from our reading this morning, as found in The Message Bible.

“Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you're on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

Let us pray...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prepare the Way...

Thanks to Gideon Addington for the Tillich quote I mangle below, and to G. Kevin Baker for the big ol' chunk of text attributed to him below.

Weeks like this make me wish I had more opportunities to write and preach. Much could be written about the Uganda death-to-gays bill and about the continuing silence of certain Christian leaders on the matter. Then there's the ongoing struggle that a family in my church is having with addiction and its consequences.

But the beauty of serving a congregation is that there's always another week, another opportunity.

Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
This is the Word of the Lord.

By whatever name it's called – the Christmas season, or the Holiday season, or the season of Advent – these weeks leading up to Christmas are something of a paradox. This season is, in theory, a time of preparation, yet is in practice a time of distraction. Speaking about today's readings, Pastor G. Kevin Baker says, “While we are rummaging around in the closet for the silver tinsel, the prophet Malachi is warning of a refiner’s fire where silver and gold will be purified and refined. While we are raising a tree to anticipate the gifts that will appear beneath its branches, Zechariah speaks of a mighty savior raised up with the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, peace and redemption. While the malls overflow with people trying to find the best gift for Christmas day, Paul prays that the people in Philippi will be overflowing with love so that they may be found pure and blameless on the day of Christ. While the world announces preparation for a holiday, John [the Baptist] announces preparation for a way.”

And what a preparation, what a way! And, in John the Baptist, what a strange vessel God chose to proclaim that preparation. Luke provides a list of dignitaries and rulers as a way of pinpointing in history when John appeared: Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome, and by extension ruler of most of the known world.

Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, controlling armies and tax collection and holding the lives of every human being in Palestine in his grasp. Herod ruled Galilee, Philip ruled region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, where Cesaeria Phillipi was located, and Lysanias ruled of Abilene, where Damascus is located. The high priests of the Jewish faith were Annas and Caiaphas. These were men of power. Men who commanded authority. Men who got attention. Men who everyone knew. Men who could have changed everything with a single word!

Yet the word of God came to none of them. Rather, that word came to a strange man living in the wilderness, wearing animal skins and eating bugs and honey to survive.

So John went to the banks of the Jordan. Even today, the Jordan River symbolizes a boundary, the border between the nation of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. Hundreds of years before John the Baptist, the river stood as the last barrier between a tribe of runaway slaves and the land of promise they had dreamed of. That day, so long ago, the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the Jordan and the waters parted. But times had changed: the Ark was lost to history, and the priests were part of the problem.

John went to the banks of the Jordan. On the one side was the established world: Jerusalem, with its gleaming temple, the highways and towns of Judea, vineyards and olive groves and farms. On the other side was the wilderness, where John had lived, where so much was unknown and unexplored. John, in effect, invited people to leave the known and the comfortable, and to journey into the unknown, the frightening, the place of preparation.

Through the prophet Malachi, God had promised to send a messenger, one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Yet God did not choose the powerful, the famous, or the wealthy to announce the preparation, and for good reason.

Because however much people talk about change, however often politicians promise it, TV preachers proclaim it, and singers sing about it, it's generally true that anyone who has power or influence or authority does not want anything to change. Their power, their wealth, their influence and their fame is based on things being the way they are. It's true today, just as it was on that day when John went to the banks of the Jordan and began to proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah: the mountains of the absolute power of Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate must be, would be brought down, the valleys of the absolute debauchery of Herod would be filled in, the crooked ways of false piety and worship of power of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas would be straightened out. Change was coming, and it was not man's feeble attempts at modifying the status quo, this was God's kind of change!

No longer would humans be forced to search for God in temples and on mountaintops and at the sacrificial altars or behind the curtains of the Holy of Holies. Try as we might, humankind couldn't go to God... so God would come to us. “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John went to the banks of the Jordan and began to proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah: the mountains of our personal idols – greed and lust and jealousy – would be brought down, the pitiful valleys of self-loathing and jealousy and petty hatred would be filled in, the crooked ways of our own false piety and worship of power would be straightened out. God's change was coming, and part of the preparation for that advent was something more powerful than political upheaval or the ouster of the religious establishment: personal repentance.

This season of Advent and the season of Lent are opposite sides of the same coin: times where we who call ourselves by the name of Christ make time and effort to consciously and intentionally repent of sin. Note that I didn't say “repent of your sins,” or even “repent of our sins.”
There is no plural there, because, as the late theologian Paul Tillich put it, “sin does not mean an immoral act..."sin" should never be used in the plural, [it is] not our sins, but rather our sin [that] is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.”

I mentioned last week that, in Scripture, repentance isn't feeling sorry for the stuff we've done, sackcloth and ashes and all of that. To repent means to change – change one's mind, change one's ways, change one's direction. In the context of “sin,” it means to remove the obstacles separating us from a closer walk with God.

Like John on the banks of the Jordan so long ago, God calls us to pull down the mountain-sized altars in our life – altars to gods of ambition and jealousy and harbored grudges. God calls us to fill in the holes where we hide the embarrassing stuff, the things we dare not admit to, and hope that somehow God doesn't notice. To straighten out the crooked paths we've beaten in the way we deal with people and issues and conflict...

...And on and on and on the analogy could go, and it could include things like altars to celebrities and to possessions and sports teams, valleys of how we use our money and our free time, paths of how we speak out for the oppressed and treat our family and pray and study Scripture, but the point is made, isn't it?

The word of God came to John, and John went down to the banks of the Jordan to prepare the way of the Lord. The Word of God, made flesh, has come to you and to me. What shall we do this Advent season to prepare the way for God in our lives, and in our world?

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Advent Conspiracy

Thanks to Kate Huey, Heifer Project International, and The Advent Conspiracy for resources in writing the sermon.

Seriously, folks. Heifer Project, Advent Conspiracy, and Living Water International. Get on board.

Luke 21:25-36

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Are we there yet?”

It's a pretty universally accepted truth that if you put kids in a car and go on a journey of any length at all, that question (or one of its variations) will be asked about a hundred times per hour per child. The excitement of going someplace, the anticipation of what awaits, and the tedium of long car rides are a pretty bad mix, so it's no wonder so many cars and SUVs come equipped with DVD players.

Now, as a child I'm sure I asked that question a lot when we went places, but I don't remember that. What I do remember is, when we were headed to one set of grandparents or the other, looking for landmarks that would tell me that we were almost there. When we went to Huntsville to see Grandma Hazel, my mom's mom, there would come a point after we passed the Jetplex that you could see, off in the distance, the very tip of a Saturn V rocket. The bigger and closer the rocket got the closer we were to Hazel & Hunt's.

When we went to Tuscaloosa, to my dad's parents' house, my landmark was the “Burger In A Hurry” at the corner of University Boulevard and 15th Street, it was a small building with a v-shaped roof and a big sign promising fifteen-cent hamburgers. That's where we turned, so I knew we were getting close to Hilda and Red's.

Though I may have asked, “are we there yet? How much longer?” and things like that, in fact when I looked at the signs around me, be it the jetplex or the rockets in Huntsville or the miles of kudzu and the long-since-closed burger joint in Tuscaloosa, I knew we were almost there.

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and the first Sunday in the liturgical church year. The Thanksgiving turkey is almost digested, we've just about rested up from Black Friday, and we're entering in to a wonderful season of building anticipation, waiting for the birth of our Savior and King! The Wise Men are scanning the heavens, the shepherds are moving their flocks through the fields, the angels are tuning their harps.

Yet we start this season of new beginnings with a discussion about the end of time – the words of a Savior not very far from the whip, the crown of thorns, and the nails. Because Advent is not just about Christ who has come, but Christ who will come again.

It's a strange mixture, isn't it? The wise men, the manger, the tree and the ornaments, the gifts and the kids who wake before the sun is up to see what Santa's brought them, peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind – and are we there yet?

Signs in the heavens and distress among nations, fear and foreboding and a roaring, unsettled sea, horsemen and trumpets and bowls and a great, final Resurrection, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord – are we there yet? How much farther?

Could it be that the message of Advent is not so much one of two arrivals, one past and one future, or of a great and glorious beginning and a cataclysmic and permanent ending, as it is about one thing: “God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth,” (to quote Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan)? I'm not suggesting just a transformed planet, some political Nirvana where wars have ceased and harmony prevails. This is what Crossan and Borg seem to envision in their book “The First Christmas.” Rather, I am speaking of a world full of transformed people whose needs have been met by God's people, and whose lives are defined and founded upon that Christ who has come, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again.

Are we there yet?

Crossan and Borg suggest that Advent is a season of repentant preparation – not “repentance” in the sense of being sorry you did something, confessing and promising to not do it again, as we seem to view it so often, but “repentance” in the original and correct sense of the word, where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, yes, personally, but also in a larger sense – in the lives and experiences of those around us and by extension everyone on earth.

When did the Christmas season become a time of stress and traffic jams, of holiday jingles playing and commercials running even before Halloween, of searching store after store for whatever the television tells us is this year's hottest gift, of endless shopping lists and Black Friday predawn sales, where all we're left with on December 26th is exhaustion and credit card bills and a stack of gifts to return?

I want to suggest to you this morning that Advent is not about commerce, but about worship: “It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus.” Is this not the approach God had in mind for Christmas? “A season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. ...a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath.”

Are we there yet? I can't speak for you, of course, but for me the answer is “no.”
Can we get there from here? Yes!

I always hesitate when I am about to talk about meeting needs in society and in the world, because I don't want to preach an unbalanced message. In the same way that the Gospel is not just about our personal salvation and our personal growth and personal relationship with the Triune God, the Gospel isn't just about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and speaking out for the marginalized. However, in a very real sense, what we believe internally, how we conduct our prayer life and direct our study of Scripture is both shown in, and informed by, our outward actions. People not only see what we believe in how we act, but the things we participate in with our time, our talent, and our treasure – whether positive or negative activities – impact how we pray, what we study, and even how we think about God. One always feeds the other.

With all of that said, a few years back, a few churches got together and started a worldwide movement that has come to be called the “Advent Conspiracy.” The idea behind it is pretty simple: to go against the Christmas season stress and hype, and to restore something of the joy and adventure of the Advent season.

They asked the members of their congregation to buy just one less gift during the holiday season, and to give the money not spent on a shirt or a tie or a DVD player or an X-Box or a Tickle Me Elmo to an organization like Living Water International or the Heifer Project, or to a local shelter or food ministry.

Americans spend about $450 billion on Christmas every year... but $10 can provide clean water for a child for a lifetime, and a hundred dollars gives a family clean water for a generation. $20 can buy a flock of geese for a family, $120 buys a goat.

I want to invite you to join me in a conspiracy – an Advent Conspiracy. There are people you know who will be happier to get a card saying that a gift was given in their honor than they will with anything you could buy them. And in that space we create by giving a gift instead of simply buying a present, where we help a person or family we'll never meet to have a better life, in that space is where we can begin to fully worship this amazing Christ of Advent, who for us and for our salvation came to earth, lived, died, and rose, and comes again.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King...

It's shorter than i had hoped for, but as the saying goes, the key to effective speaking is to say what you came to say and sit down.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

This is the Word of the Lord.

The church calendar marks this Sunday as Christ the King Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. As church festivals go, this is a pretty recent one, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, either as a concession to Mussolini or as a response to growing nationalism and secularism, depending on whose account you read. Its statement is simple: Whatever our country, our rulers, our philosophies or ideologies or beliefs or mores, none of these can or should be the center of our focus, the foundation of our lives. Christ alone must hold that office, that place in our lives. Christ alone is King.

Here's something interesting, though: Jesus never called himself King! In fact, over and over in Scripture, we see Jesus removing himself from situation where the crowd wanted to make him king by force, and in our Gospel reading today, Jesus never says, “Why yes, I am a king, thanks for asking.” If anything, in this whole account of the trial before Pilate, the title of “king” is used in an ironic sense.

You see, however sympathetically we tend to view Pilate in these readings – poor guy, torn between the bloodthirsty Jewish mob and the obviously innocent Nazarene nobody – Pilate was, by all historical accounts, just as violent, cruel, greedy and self-serving as any other governor or ruler or king in the Empire. He crushed people under the weight of taxes. He killed whoever got in his way. You followed his rules or you rued the day you were born. After all, anyone who employs, in crucifixion, a form of execution in which breaking your legs is seen as a merciful act is not a sympathetic figure.

And the people of the time understood this because that's what kings, what Roman governors, what despots and rulers from time immemorial and the world over did. Kings rule by fear and by force. They make treaties when it serves their interests, and break them when those interests are no longer served. They fight wars to gain territory, and live in luxury at the expense of their subjects. Even David, the model of Godly leadership in the eyes of the Jewish people in first-century Palestine, allowed the power of his office to corrupt him, to change him. As much an example of Godly leadership as he may have been, he also personified, in many ways, all that was wrong about unlimited power in the hands of fallible human beings.

The picture of Christ as King before Pilate flies in the face of this. If Christ is King, he is Christ the King under arrest and being interrogated. He is Christ the King being held hostage, a royal political prisoner, if you will. He is Christ the King soon to be beaten and crucified, Christ the innocent victim.

He is Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world. Who needs no armies, no police force, no tax collectors, no guillotine or gallows pole to maintain His rule. Whose reign shall never end.

When we call him “King,” he asks us, as he asked Pilate, “Do you [say] this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Do we know Christ as King, or do we call him King because that's what we're supposed to say?

After all, what does it mean to call Christ our King in the United States of America in the twenty-first century? We're most likely to apply the title “King” to people like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson or Richard Petty – and two of them are dead and the other is hawking Goody powders. The closest thing we have to a monarchy we can understand, Great Britain, has had a queen on the throne for forty years, and the places where kings actually sit, like Saudi Arabia, are for the most part incomprehensible to us.

To be sure, calling Christ “King” means that he has access to all areas of our life, and is at the center of all we say and do. No thought is off limits, no action unconsecrated. If you've perfected this area of your life, please let me know how, because I am definitely a work in progress.

Calling Christ our “King” means that we are striving to look and act and think like citizens of the realm. Over against the picture of Pilate and Caesar and the kings of history stands the picture of Christ as King – not the warring despot, ruling with fear and an iron fist, but the shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to find one lost, who would give his life in protection of his flock.

Calling Christ “King” means also that we are, in some ways, revolutionaries. The very act of praying “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” means that we are not at all happy with the state of the present world and we wish to see it change. This does most decidedly not mean praying for the President to die, as some Christians are doing, and no, I'm not kidding. Nor does it mean wagging our fingers at a person or group of people, demanding that they act in the way we think they should.

What it does mean is that we are constantly praying and working for change – whether that means supporting a ministry or action group with our time, talent, or resources, making contact with government officials to speak on behalf of an issue or group, or simply giving a homeless person a sack lunch. What it does mean is that we are not dependent on an administration or bureaucracy for our safety and survival, we are not hanging on the word of a politician or pundit or even a preacher for instructions on how to think, feel, and react.

Rather, we rely on the written Word of God and the active Holy Spirit for instruction, and on the Triune God for our safety and sustenance and purpose. We serve not because we must, not out of fear or obligation, but because this King has set us free from bondage to all the lesser political or theological or philosophical or even personal kings. Scripture tells us that who the Son has set free is free, indeed.

Pilate's response to Jesus, right after our passage this morning, is well-known: “What is truth?” Whether he spoke it sarcastically, or as a genuine question, we who follow Christ, who strive to make Him King, know the answer: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth? That's what set us free.

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Discussion about the sermon...

There's some great discussion concerning my last sermon post over on my FaceBook page. Give it a look and, if we aren't yet FB friends, add me!

Hannah and Hebrews...

(If you cannot yet tell, I dislike coming up with sermon titles.)

The Outlaw Preachers now have a Wikipedia page. It is, of course, a work in progress, and expect input from lots of folks, pro and con.

Now, on to the sermon. I include all three of the Lectionary readings, since I refer to each of them in the text of the sermon.

1 Samuel 1:4-20
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: "O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head."
As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the LORD."

Hebrews 10:11-25

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Hannah was trapped. There's no nice way to put it, she was stuck – stuck in a marriage to a husband shared with a spiteful, superior woman, stuck in a society which valued women only so far as they could bear offspring, trapped in a spiral of inadequacy and self-loathing. Her husband, Elkanah, loved her despite her barrenness, but he could not supply her with the one thing she needed: not a child, but love for herself.

They stood in the dusty street outside the temple, a group of traveling disciples and their Rabbi. None of them had been born when Herod began renovating and expanding the Temple, and work had been finished less than a decade ago. No one could resist the breathtaking joy or swelling pride as they approached the Temple Mount, its walls so white they almost glowed, the gold accents glittering in the sunlight, the air thick with the odor of sacrificed animals. At last, after five centuries, a Temple worthy of the God of Israel! Never mind the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets, never mind the heavy taxes and the criminals who hung from crosses outside the city walls, rotting in the sun. For the Jewish people, this building was proof that their God was supreme, the smoke from the altars was proof that their sins were covered.

But well before this century was gone, the people would be left weeping with Hannah, their souls aching for that which could not be. For this Second Temple would join the first, a smoldering pile of ash and rocks.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews very likely addressed a people who had run from the Roman army as it slashed and burned its way through the Holy City, a people who could no longer depend on the flash of the priest's knife and the stench of the burning flesh on the altar. The words of the Savior in our Gospel reading had all come true in a horrible and all-too-permanent way: not one stone of the Temple stood on another after Titus and his army was done with it.

In her brokenness, Hannah had known instinctively that her hope was not in her husband or in the double portion he gave her as a token of his devotion. In her desperation, she turned to the only One who could in any way help her – she turned to God. There's no way to know if Eli's blessing was a sincere response to her pain or simply something he tossed out in hopes of getting this crazy woman out of his Temple, but his blessing: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” was enough for Hannah. Having put her faith in God, having found in God her sufficiency, the matter was settled.

For Jewish believers in the first century, the central doctrines of the faith where, in large part, still being grappled with, still in the early stages of comprehension and articulation. By 70AD, Jewish Christians had not only lost the Temple, they had been barred from worshiping in synagogues. They were thus left without a focal point for their understanding of forgiveness and salvation. Not only were the sacrifices gone, but they had lost access to the practices that were actively incorporating into worship in synagogues to replace much of what was lost for the Jewish people.

One can imagine an early Jewish convert to Christianity saying, “OK, I know Jesus is Lord, has risen from the dead, but what about my sins? Are they forgiven, and if so, how? I have no priest to make sacrifices on my behalf, I can't participate in Sabbath worship at my synagogue, all this love and grace stuff is great, but what do I do about atonement?”

Here we are in the third millennium, looking back at the first, with all our theological understanding and confessions and teachings and historical studies and general Biblical knowledge and we're really still asking the same question: “what must I do to get God's favor? God's blessing? God's grace? How can I obtain and maintain a right relationship with God?”

The pen that wrote the answer to those ancient Hebrew believers answers us as well: All the doing – the sacrificing, the atoning, the forgiving, the accepting, all of that has been done, once for all on the cross. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

Once Hannah got her answer from God – the blessing of Eli – she went back home, ate with her husband, and didn't worry about her barrenness any more. In an exactly similar way, Hebrews tells us to “... hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

For Hannah, her sufficiency, her hope, was in the God of Israel. For first-century Christians, it was no longer in the blood of sheep and goats, or in the intercession of an earthly priesthood, but in the blood of Christ, the highest of High Priests, shed once for all. For you and I in the third millennium, our sufficiency cannot be in our possessions or our portfolio or in the good things we say, pray, and do. We do those things the writer of Hebrews encourages, yes: “provok[ing] one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching.” But we do them not because of what we wish to attain, but because of who we are.

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

So... Who's the center of YOUR universe?

First off, I have to mention Matthew Paul Turner,who does a better job of addressing the tomfoolery that is Joel Osteen than I ever could.

Haven't posted the last couple because, frankly, they were embarrassing. My church is extremely patient with me, though, and loves me even when I preach stinkers.

Please comment, even if it's hate mail.

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
This is the Word of the Lord.

Today’s Gospel reading is a study in extremes. On the one end, we see religious leaders whose chief concern was for their own comfort and fame. On the other end, there's a woman who is dependent on the church of the day for her continued existence, who faithfully gives every penny she has.

Now, I know that I've complained in the past about the way the Lectionary knocks passages together sometimes, and other times leaves a bunch of stuff out – our Old Testament reading skips over a lot of the story of Ruth, for example. But I think those cute little Lectionary Elves did us a huge favor in this morning's Gospel reading in treating this not like two separate events, but as halves of one whole event. If we are going to be faithful to the written Word of God, and in particular the Gospels, we can't look at isolated events, single accounts, parables and such without understanding them in the context of the overall Gospel. And to be honest, a lot of the commentaries and sermons I read this week seemed to emphasize the widow instead of the Scribes, and while I think that's a mistake, I also understand the reason behind it. It's easy to boo and hiss the scribes, or to wax poetic about the poor widow, and let that be that, or to look at the widow's side of the passage alone and thus avoid the danger of examining the Scribes too closely, and perhaps finding them a little too familiar.
First-century Palestine was a completely patriarchal system. Men ran the government, the religion, owned the businesses, sold the goods, handled the money, made the rules. In fact, it was a part of their daily ritual for a Jewish man to pray, “I thank You that I was not born a woman...” Women were regarded almost as property, and had no real rights. When a woman became a widow, she had to rely on family members to survive – and if there were no family members, then it was the responsibility of the Temple to care for her. This put them at the mercy of the Scribes Jesus was talking about. Too often, if it was a choice between the nicest robes and allowing a widow to stay in her home, the robes won out.

The Temple treasury would have been a noisy place. The collection boxes had brass trumpet-shaped receptacles for donations, and since there was no such thing as paper money, you could tell how much someone was giving by how loud and how long the coins rang as they were poured into the box. The widow's two small coins would have made barely a sound. Together the coins were probably equivalent to half a day's wages – around twenty bucks or so if you figure minimum wage – a respectable amount, and a big chunk of money when that's all you have.

Some preachers have painted the widow as someone who hid in the shadows, waiting for an opening where she could sneak up unseen and put her coins in, almost literally dying from embarrassment at how small her gift was. In fact, there's nothing in the Gospel account to suggest this; rather, she seems to have come up just like everyone else and dropped the money in. It wasn't a tithe or something given out of her abundance, she threw everything in the offering plate. Now, this is an important thing to see: Jesus praises the gift, but neither encourages his followers to do the same, nor disparages those who gave more, but out of their abundance. What's going on in the reading isn't at all about money at all! The focus is on priority, on what takes precedence in our lives. What the reading asks us, today, is this: who is the center of your universe – you, or God?

If we look at American Christian culture, whatever that means, we'll find that it mirrors, very often, American culture in general, and I think we can all agree that in American culture, the person is the center of the universe. It's all about “me.”

Walk in a Christian bookstore (and, increasingly, any bookstore, and even Wal-Mart) and you'll find lots of books by well-known preachers and authors that emphasize the WIFM – “What's In It For Me.” What started fairly innocently with Norman Vincent Peale and “The Power of Positive Thinking” has grown to a billion dollar industry.

Joel Osteen, a megachurch pastor in Texas, has become a multimillionaire by publishing bestsellers with titles like “Your Best life Now” and “Becoming A Better You,” all focused on how God is just waiting to pour abundant blessing on you if you'll do and say and think the right things and open yourself up to it! In a world where, just this past year, more than 176,000 Christians were murdered for their faith, the clear message of Osteen's “Gospel” is what's in it for you.

He's like a Christian version of Oprah, and he isn't alone. There are an abundance of television and radio ministries, and large churches, that espouse what is called “Word of Faith” or the “Prosperity Gospel,” where the measure of a person's dedication to God is how healthy and affluent they are. Poor and middle-class viewers of these TV Preachers are often encouraged to give what are called “seed faith” gifts of thousands of dollars to these ministries as evidence of their faith in God to provide for their needs. There's a story, hopefully apocryphal, about one of these preachers who was at a prayer meeting and accepted a donation from a woman. The story goes that after she walked away, he turned to his entourage and said, “See, boys? I got her last five dollars!”

The Prosperity Gospel, Word of Faith, Osteen and the rest feed on what Christian theology views as our fallen nature. In being separated from God through sin, we by nature view ourselves as the center of the universe.
Even when we respond to God's call to salvation and relationship, our automatic tendency, our nature, is to view that relationship in terms of WIFM – whether it's Prosperity Gospel or “fire insurance” or simply being “better than those sinners over there,” our nature is to be like the Scribes.

By contrast, the poor widow stands out as someone who was not the center of her own universe. Her comfort and security wasn't found in her meager possessions, nor did she need to show off her piety.

I've read and heard a lot about how she could have just given one coin and kept the other one. There's a story about a little girl who was walking to church with her parents. Mom gave her two quarters, one for herself and one to put in the offering plate “for Jesus.” As they walked the little girl dropped one of the quarters and it fell in a storm drain. “Oh, no!” she cried, “I just dropped Jesus' quarter!”

For the widow, I'd like to suggest that the struggle over giving half or giving all never even took place within her. She gave it all because that's what there was to give. The center of her universe was God, and God resided in the Jewish mind in the Temple, and if part of worship was giving, then that is what she would do. Her security was found in God, and that's all there was to it.
One of the observations about the widow is that, in giving all that she had, she was being just like Jesus, who not many days after he sat in the Treasury would give everything he had for you and I on the cross. I've actually witnessed this kind of selflessness firsthand.

This has been about 15 years ago, I was working in development and public relations at a home for abused children. Part of that is, of course, asking for donations, and one day the Executive Director came in to my office and handed me an envelope we'd received in the mail. In that envelope was, I think, a five-dollar bill and a handwritten note: “I'm sorry this isn't much. This is all I've got and I want the children to have it.” I've opened envelopes with ten-thousand dollar checks in them, and I've secured grants and in-kind gifts for probably ten times that much over the 20 years I was in nonprofit ministry, not to mention all the mass mailings and commercials and fundraising events I've done, but that letter with that crumpled five-dollar bill was the single largest donation I have ever seen in my life.

Who is the center of your universe? Is the question you ask “what's in it for me?” or do you echo the prophet Micah in asking, “what does the Lord require of you?” Is your security in your portfolio, or in your retirement fund, or in your stuff, or is it in God?

Again, this isn't about money. The session assures me that the church is in good shape financially and I don't want a raise. It's about taking some time to examine yourself and answer the question: Who is the center of your universe? If the answer is anything but God, then decide how your life, your decisions, your prayers and your worship would be different if the answer was God – then begin to act that way.

Let us pray, with St. Francis of Assisi,

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ol' Blind Bartimaeus

There's an old a capella Gospel song that starts with that line. A non-sequitor except that this week's Gospel reading is the account of Bartimaeus.

I even found a way to tie in Reformation Sunday!

I need to give a word of thanks to Rev. Kate Huey and "Weekly Seeds". Not only was the website and her writing a source of inspiration for this sermon, it's an almost inexhaustible resource for Scriptural commentary and daily inspiration. Check 'em out.

One last thing: My friend Khad Young has posted the first "Outlaw Preachers" podcast. Listen to it now, so when it goes viral and people are listening to it across the planet, you can brag about how you were listening to it before it was cool. (You will, of course, be wrong, the "Outlaw Preachers" podcast was never not cool. I will, however, never point that out to you in front of your friends.)

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here."
And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Standing by itself, the Gospel reading today is a really interesting and instructive account of the healing of a blind man. Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, and having heard about the miracles the itinerant Rabbi has performed, won't be quiet until he gets what he needs. He is rewarded, of course, and it's the last time Jesus heals anyone in the Gospel of Mark. There are important lessons here about faith, about persistence, about understanding our own need for restoration and healing in Jesus Christ.

More than that, though, Bartimaeus' stark, unpretentious faith stands in stark contrast to some of the people and situations we've discussed over the past couple of weeks or so.

Look, for example, at what Jesus asked when Bartimaeus jumped up and came to him. In last week's reading, James and John approached Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus' reply to them was, word-for-word, the same question he asked the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John had been with Jesus the whole time, and they understood, in part, who Jesus was – Peter had said it himself, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Most High God.” Yet James and John, for reasons of personal reassurance or ego or whatever, asked for positions of highest prominence and authority in the coming Kingdom. They wanted to be the drum majors, and the other apostles were angry not at the insolence and impropriety of the question, but because James and John asked first!

Bartimaeus wasn't looking for a throne or for recognition or wealth or prominence. The blind man simply wanted to see again.

Now, before this day, as far as we know Bartimaeus had met Jesus a grand total of zero times. He hadn't heard Jesus preaching, had not seen the miracles, hadn't eaten the bread with the 5,000 or watched Lazarus walk out of the tomb. People who had witnessed some or all of these miracles still disagreed about who Jesus was! The Pharisees had seen miracles and responded not by praising God but by plotting to kill Jesus!

Yet this blind man, whose whole world consisted of a patch of curb on a roadside in the outskirts of a violent little town, called out to Jesus with the title reserved for the Messiah, the Savior of Israel! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Small wonder that so many in the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus up, because not only was the title “Son of David” accurate, it was guaranteed to get a person either stoned by the Pharisees for blasphemy or crucified by the Romans for sedition!

But Bartimaeus wasn't looking to overthrow the Romans or discredit the religious leaders. He wasn't looking for free bread or to be entertained by a miracle or two. The blind man simply wanted to see again.

Perhaps in speaking to the blind man in precisely the same words he had said to James and John, Jesus was showing the Apostles what they should have asked. “Jesus, we've heard you talking about going to Jerusalem and being killed by the authorities and rising on the third day and we simply do not see. Our minds are blinded to what you are saying, that's why we're arguing over who is first, we just can't see the truth of what you're saying. Jesus, heal our inner blindness. We simply want to see again.”

Let's back up a little more, to our reading two weeks ago, where the rich young man runs up to Jesus and falls at his feet, desperate to find out what he must do to be saved. He was following the rules, keeping the laws, trying his hardest. Jesus said to him, “"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Yet this one thing was too much, and the young man left, imprisoned by all that he possessed.

Bartimaeus owned just one thing, his beggar's cloak, and by the time he walked up to Jesus that had been left behind, because the blind man simply wanted to see again. And when Jesus said, “Go,” Bartimaeus instead followed Jesus as he continued his journey toward Jerusalem.

In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, as Jesus watched the rich man depart, the disciples were quick to point out all that they had left behind. Perhaps one difference between the disciples and the rich man is this: when something we own is left behind, there is at least some expectation that it will be there when you come back. When Jim and Carol leave the lake house, they expect it to still be there when they drive up again, right? I don't forfeit ownership of my car when I walk away from it to come into church.

We know that the disciples still had access to the fishing boats and nets they had left behind, because not long after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to them on the shore as they fished. This is in the 21st chapter of the book of John. They had returned to the security of what they knew – fishing. On the shore that morning, Jesus challenged Peter, and by extension the rest of them, to once and for all give up the safety of boats and nets for the Gospel.

And this was the opportunity that Jesus was offering the kneeling rich man: not to leave it all behind, but to destroy it completely, to let it go and to never come back. To have the freedom Bartimaeus enjoyed – the freedom to simply follow, to have no reason to look back over his shoulder.

Whether we're blinded by what we own, like that rich man, blinded by the correctness of what we believe, like the Pharisees, or blinded by our ambitions or need for security, like James and John and the apostles, we are as blind as that beggar on the Jericho Road – until, like Bartimaeus, we respond to Jesus' call.

This Reformation Sunday, when Protestants remember Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, one of the things we are reminded of is the motto, “reformata et semper reformanda” – “Reformed and ever reforming.”

The beauty of the faith journey is that Christ's call and our opportunity to respond isn't a one-time event, but a series of chances to go deeper into relationship, to venture farther into the adventure of faith, to swim deeper into the ocean of grace.

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Will we respond with pleas for position, for security, for things to “do” in order to earn God's favor... or, in whatever context applies for us in that place and time, will we simply want to see again?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Eye of a Needle

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I went to find the pot of gold
That's waiting where the rainbow ends.
I searched and searched and searched and searched
And searched and searched and then -
There it was, deep in the grass,
Under an old and twisty bough.
It's mine, it's mine, it's mine at last...
What do I search for now?”

Shel Silverstein’s poem could have been written for the man who runs to Jesus and falls at his feet. This guy knew the rules. He followed the teaching of the Pharisees. He had all the stuff he could ever want, and in the culture of the day it was obvious to everyone that God was blessing him above others.

Yet it started deep down in his spirit, but grew every day – the realization that in spite of all his strict observance of the law, in spite of his comfort and wealth, something was missing. Something big.

I know I’ve talked before about Douglas Adam’s five-book trilogy, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In one of the stories, scientists build the universe’s largest computer in order to answer the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything. It takes this computer seven and a half million years to come up with the answer, which is… 42. The scientists, or I guess their distant descendants, then have to build an even larger computer to figure out what exactly is ultimate question that answer applies to.

I say all of that as a very poor way to set up what is going on in this man’s life: he knows the ultimate question, not the one “42” answers, but the real one. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It would be easy to paint this guy as arrogant, wanting just to get his actions rubber-stamped by the Savior. But when he affirms that he’s done all the things Jesus listed, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother,” he doesn’t get up to leave, satisfied with his righteousness. He knows there’s more!

And Jesus gives him the ultimate answer to that ultimate question: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The man gets up and walks away sad… not angry, convinced that Jesus has asked too much, but knowing that the Lord is right. And watching him walk away, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

There is, of course, a strong temptation to water these statements down, to make it easier, more palatable to our 21st-century consumerist minds. To make believe that Jesus is not making the hard demands on the believer that he seems to be making here, where this living word of God cuts us to the core. To lessen the impact of the statement that if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away. By rights, I should get to this part of the sermon, let the tension hang a moment, and give a theological interpretation that makes us all feel better about our faith journey as it is. I should be able to give an explanation like this:

For years I was told that, in the “eye of a needle” statement, Jesus was referring to an actual location familiar to everyone in Judea. You might have heard this too: In Jesus’ day, when travelers reached the walls of Jerusalem after dark, and the main gates were closed, the only way into the city was through a narrow passage called the “Eye of the Needle.” They would have to take the packs off of the camels, and make the camels squat down on their knees and crawl through the gate to get into the city. Then they would follow, dragging the camels’ burdens behind them. It was a dreaded, difficult, time consuming process, almost impossible.

And it’s the “almost” that would make the statement OK, wouldn’t it? It would go from “impossible” to “possible, with the right tools.”

But even though that explanation for Jesus’ words has been around since at least the fifteenth century, and maybe as far back as the ninth century, it is painfully obvious that there is no historical or archeological evidence that the story of the hole in the wall is in any way true. There is no “Eye of the Needle” gate in Jerusalem or anywhere else. The hard statement, the perplexing problem of possessions (that alliteration was completely accidental, by the way) must stand as it is.

So… what do we do with it? How do we address the words of Jesus to the rich man: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me?”

Surely, we can claim that it doesn’t apply to us. After all, wealth is relative, and we can all point to Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Ted Turner as examples of wealth who could stand to spread some of their billions around.

It’s always easier to point to someone else and decide what they should do, though, isn’t it? Instead, let’s dare to look inward, at ourselves, shall we? I look at my own situation: I work two jobs and still don’t earn anywhere near $40,000 a year, it never seems to be enough for the bills and all the things I want to do and think I need to do, and yet I am in the top 4.33% of the richest people in the world according to the internet site, “Global Rich List.” Even when I was working that temp job last year for ten dollars an hour I was in the top 11.6%!

If I was that man on his knees, and Jesus made the same demand, would I give up my own riches? Could I sell my car, my guitars, give up my cell phone and cable TV? Could I give up lunches at Sonic or my health insurance?

I have to say… maybe.

But is that all there is to it? Just getting rid of stuff? What if Jesus looked down at me with the same love he showed that rich man and said, “One thing you lack, John: give up your political beliefs, your love of Reformed Theology, walk away from that list you’re secretly so proud of, the semi-famous people that follow you on Twitter, and walk away from the pulpit as well. Leave behind your family and friends and everything that defines you, everything you hold dear and rely upon. Follow me.”

I am afraid that I, too, very well might walk away mournfully, just like that rich man.

What Jesus calls us to is a relationship where nothing – nothing! – is more important than following Him. Jesus calls us to the place where the camel meets the eye of the needle, where we can go no further.

That day as the rich man walked away, Jesus’ words astonished his disciples. For people in first-century Palestine, wealth was seen as evidence of God’s favor. If a person so loved by God as to be wealthy could not attain eternal life, what hope is there for anyone?

Today’s reading calls us to serious reflection, challenges us to give up the things dearest to us in order to walk more closely with Jesus. This is something we must confront on a daily basis, through prayer and study. And when we reach the eye of the needle, and agree with Jesus that with mortals, this is impossible, there is a wonderful promise awaiting us. “For God, all things are possible.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

World Communion Sunday

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It all started with some motzah and a glass of wine, at a dinner of bitter herbs and sacrificed lamb.

The room was stuffy now with the smoke of lamps and soft, worried conversations murmured around the table.

Jesus reached for a piece of the motzah – this shocked some of the disciples, who knew the blessing of the wine was supposed to come first in the seder meal – and blessed it: “Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechen min ha-aretz:

“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the ground.”

Breaking the motzah, he gave it to his disciples, and his words shocked, frightened, confused and revolted them: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Then he reached for the cup of wine, and blessed it: “Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, boray p'ri ha-gafen:

“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”

He gave the cup to his disciples, and after they had drunk from it, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many…”

None of his disciples understood yet, but not very many hours would pass until the meaning became all too clear. Little could they know in those dark hours following the crucifixion that the ritual of sharing the bread and the cup would become an act of celebration, a joyous event in the life of the church.

And little could they know that a simple piece of bread and a cup of wine would be the focal point of so much separation between groups of Christians. We have never been able to agree on what, exactly, this act of sharing bread and cup means.

Painting in broad strokes, there are four basic ways that different groups of Christians view this act of sharing which is variously called the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist and the Agape meal.

As most theological positions go, they run the gamut, and most center around the interpretation of one phrase: “the Real Presence,” that is, if and how Jesus Christ is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

On one end of the spectrum are the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as some Episcopalians and Anglicans. The belief is that, from the time Jesus first uttered the words of the Institution until today, when the Eucharistic elements, that is, the bread and the cup, are consecrated, they become, quite literally, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is known as the doctrine of transubstantiation. The outward appearance of the bread and the wine are not altered – it still looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine – but what is called the “inner reality” is changed. The person participating in the Eucharist quite literally ingests the real, physical body and blood of Jesus, and more than that, Christ as a whole is present in the elements – body and blood, soul and divinity. Thus the act of taking the elements is a means by which salvation is imparted to the participant. Thus to be barred from communion – excommunicated – is to be barred from salvation, doomed to everlasting punishment.

The idea of transubstantiation may go back as far as the second century, though it wasn’t until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the word itself came into common use.

During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, at least three other theological interpretations of the Lord’s Supper came into use. As you might imagine, each of these doctrines was controversial at the time, not only between Protestants and Catholics, but among the Protestant reformers themselves.

Martin Luther introduced a different interpretation of how the elements of the Eucharist are affected by consecration. In the doctrine of consubstantiation, the physical reality of the elements is unchanged – they are still bread and wine – but the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ are "truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms" of consecrated bread and wine. Those who participate eat and drink both the elements and the true Body and Blood of Christ Himself. This is the theology of the Lutheran Church, of course, as well as the Moravian church and some Episcopal and Anglican churches.

It has to be said, by the way, that neither the doctrine of transubstantiation nor the doctrine of consubstantiation attempt to explain how the elements are physically changed or inhabited, only that these things occur in consecration.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Baptist Church, as well as most related evangelical denominations, who practice Memorialism. Huldrych Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther who led the Reformation in Switzerland, developed this theology of the Lord’s Supper. His view was that the bread and wine are not changed at all when consecrated, that the elements only signify the body and blood of Christ, and are not changed in any way. Zwingli’s argument appears to be that Christ is physically present in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and thus could not be physically present in the Eucharist in either physically altering the inner reality – transubstantiation – nor physically present in, with, and under the forms of otherwise unchanged elements – consubstantiation. Congregations that practice Memorialism, in general, do not hold Communion as sacramental; rather, it is considered to be an act of remembrance of Christ's atonement, and a time of renewal of personal commitment.

The Reformer that Presbyterians talk the most about is, of course, John Calvin. This brings us to how Presbyterians and members of the Reformed tradition view the Lord’s Supper.

I wonder if you’ve noticed that, unlike worship services in other denominations, most Presbyterian worship services include a Call to Worship, but no Invocation? That’s because we believe that whenever Christians are gathered together, Christ is present with that group through the Holy Spirit. It is thus unnecessary to invoke God, or ask that God be present with us. God is here with us this morning, and every time we gather.

When we Presbyterians look at the Lord’s Table, we see what theologians call a Pneumatic Presence. I love the term because I think automatically about drills and tires, but the term comes from the Greek word for “spirit,” “pneumos.” The understanding is that the elements of communion do not change, but that Christ is present in a spiritual sense – present though the Holy Spirit – providing nourishment to those who believe, strengthening us in our faith journey.

Notice also that we Presbyterians always celebrate the sacrament in the context of a congregation or gathering of believers. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 17, the Apostle Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Communion only makes sense in the context of community.

In some sense we share this loaf with every believer in every place and time who has ever broken off a piece of motzah, or torn off a bite of bread, or had a wafer laid on their tongue, or selected a square cracker from a passed plate… or who ever will. More immediately we Presbyterians believe that we share this loaf and this cup in common with loaves and cups and wafers and chalices all across the world, not just on World Communion Sunday, but every time the table is set for this most wonderful and mysterious of meals.

And look! The table is set! The meal awaits us. Thanks be to God!

(Move directly into the Invitation and Institution)