Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sermon for August 30, 2009: "The Chasm"

Some notes: You may find that paragraph breaks and grammar are irregular; that's because I lay out the sermons so there are no sentence fragments from page to page, and I write like I speak: a middle-aged Southerner.

James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

For our Gospel reading this morning, I'm not going to skip through like the Lectionary suggests, rather I am going to read the full, uninterrupted passage. So our Gospel reading is the Book of Mark, the seventh chapter, the first through the twenty-third verse.

Listen as God speaks:

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God)-- then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.

He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I worked for a number of years with a nonprofit ministry whose stated purpose was to bring all Christians of every denomination together to positively impact the lives of teenagers. The organization is quite successful, and operates in cities in all fifty states, but they've never really come close to fulfilling that stated purpose.

The problem is this: the ministry was founded by a conservative Evangelical Christian, and is run on conservative Evangelical principles. As a member of a mainline, less conservative denomination, every time I would try and involve Presbyterians or Catholics or the less conservative members of the Episcopal Church in ministry activities, I would confront what I call “The Chasm.”
The Chasm, you see, is that place created by sharp differences in theology – where, because your views on baptism are different on my views of baptism, we can't really work together in ministry. Where your views about women in ministry are different than my views, so we can't work together in ministry. Where your views on the process of salvation are different than mine, so we can't work together in ministry.

You may not know about The Chasm, because for most of us it doesn't really exist. We have friends and neighbors and even family members who come from a wide variety of faith traditions, and we get along just fine, thank you.

Still, most of us have seen The Chasm in operation in one way or another. Most of us have a couple of neighbors or coworkers or relatives who are really “out there,” don't we?

Maybe it's someone who is a dedicated Conservative Christian, horrified at the thought of you attending a church where not only are women included in the leadership of the church, but allowed to preach and to pastor! Aghast at the idea of baptizing infants! Dubious about your relationship with God because your church doesn't have an invitation at the end of every service!

Or maybe it's the person who is a dedicated Liberal Christian, who thinks Obama is too conservative, refers to God as “She,” is aghast that you don't eat organically grown foods, horrified that you shop at Wal-Mart, dubious about your worship service because it doesn't include a time for spontaneous interpretive dance, and is still angry that the PC(USA) stopped boycotting Taco Bell!

Our Gospel reading today pits Jesus against the Pharisees, an elite group of Fundamentalist Jews who were shocked that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, chagrined that he dared to pluck and eat some wheat from stalks when harvesting was clearly prohibited on Saturday, and aghast that his disciples dared to eat with ceremonially impure hands!

The Pharisees had taken the Law of Moses and, over the years, had reduced its overarching tenets to minutiae: how far it was permissible to walk on the Sabbath, how much you could carry, what things and people and activities were to be considered ceremonially clean and unclean. In theory, it was a good idea, because if one could not work on the Sabbath, then it was important to know how, exactly, to define “work,” wasn't it? Yet as time went on and the expectations for adhering to every one of the tenets which had been applied to every one of the Laws, fewer and fewer people were able to measure up to the expectations.
Those few who had the time and the financial and natural resources to be attentive to every point of doctrine considered themselves alone to be the “true” Jews. The rest, which included just about everyone in first-century Palestine, were called “People of the Dirt,” not quite as bad as a Samaritan or a Gentile or a leper, but just barely.

Jesus' response here is similar in theme to the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, where he goes on a rant that would make Dennis Miller hang his head in shame. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

What Jesus is confronting is theological purity turned putrid: where the details of doctrine overwhelm and become the focus of faith. Where justice and mercy apply only to those who think, act, and look like us. Where being right is more important than righteousness. Where law smothers love.

Now, most of you know that I am a complete and utter geek for theology, and especially Reformed Theology. So the statement I am about to make may shock you: there are contexts and situations in life where theology does not matter.
Where theology, in fact, gets in the way. With the Pharisees, their theology got in the way of justice and mercy and faithfulness. To the Pharisees, it was theologically sound for a person to look at their aging parents and say, “sorry, I could care for you in your old age but, golly gee willikers, I gave it all to God! Sorry!” To the Pharisees, there were theologically defensible reasons to refuse justice, to withhold mercy, to misguide faithfulness.

For the Pharisees, the elite, those who had the means to do the things which were truly important, their theology got in the way.

Our Epistle reading this morning pits the writer of the Book of James against a group of elite Christians on the other end of the spectrum. For them, religion was a personal thing, an internal spiritual exercise. What you did didn't matter as long as you had faith, as long as you believed. In theory, this should have meant that all people were equal, but in practice church service became little more than an opportunity to show their status in the community by where they sat and what they wore. The rich were doted upon for what they could provide, and the needy were ignored.

They heard the clear message of Scripture, they knew, as the Pharisees had, about the command to, as Micah put it, act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Yet because they were convinced that faith required no action, this knowledge, this hearing, was not acted upon. It was, in their view, unnecessary. It was enough to look upon someone who was hungry and homeless and wish them God's blessing.

Their theology had defiled their religion, turned their church into a social club, and had put their faith on life support. James' prescription was simple: Don't just listen, do.

One of the interesting things about the Pharisees that Jesus confronted and the Christians that James wrote to is that, in both cases, their belief system caused them no real discomfort but harmed others. You can imagine them standing on either side of The Chasm, with the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the theologically imperfect, and the enslaved below. The people on both sides know the people are there, but they also know that the people in The Chasm don't matter. They are either repugnant or irrelevant.

The message of the Gospel and Epistle readings falls, then, to us. Those of us who are neither Fundamentalist Evangelicals or Liberals. Those of us who would be viewed, by one side or the other, as theologically impure.

Unlike the Pharisees, the Fundamentalists of Jesus' time, we understand that what James terms keeping ourselves “unstained by the world” does not mean adhering to a strict set of rules for behavior. Rather, we bracket our day in prayer and Scripture reading, and we make rational choices about what we watch or listen to or participate in. We trust the Holy Spirit as our guide and teacher, and do not ignore our common sense.

Unlike the Christians who James wrote to, we know that while we have been released from the Law and its requirements, the Greatest Commandment, to love God and love our neighbor is a non-negotiable standard. We know that widows and orphans of the first-century Roman Empire translate in our time to all those who are poor, all those who are needy, all those who are marginalized.

And though we do so in our imperfect, human, Chasm-dwelling way, we strive to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk on our spiritual journey both humbly, and ever closer, with our God.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Emailing a favorite niece: "What is communion?"

Her mother-in-law has end-stage cancer, and a chaplain is coming over to give the sick woman communion. Interestingly, she's never had communion before, and asked Annie (name changed to protect her privacy). Annie in turn asked her weird Uncle Tweety (Yes, that's my nickname, long story). Here's the text of my email to her:

Asking “what is communion” is a lot like asking “what is art?” Actually, in my case, it's like saying, “Hey, Tweety, please dump eight tons of theology on me, thanks!” I will attempt to address the former in some coherent form while resisting the temptation to do the latter.

Communion (variously also called the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, and sometimes the Agape Meal) is simply the sharing of food and drink among Christians. Usually, the food is bread or crackers, and the drink is grape juice or wine. Christians believe the tradition was started by Jesus Christ as a reminder of His sacrifice for humankind. The Lord's Supper appears in three of the four Gospels (John's Gospel substitutes Jesus washing the disciples' feet), and in Paul's writings.

For example:

Matthew 26:26-28

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. 28This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

I Corinthians 11:23-26

“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.”

I Corinthians 10:16-17

“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.”

Now, I mentioned that John's Gospel doesn't include the Lord's Supper; that's kind of inaccurate.

In Chapter 6 of John, Jesus feeds 5,000 men (as well as uncounted women and children) with five loaves of bread and two fishes. This section of Scripture ends with Jesus telling the crowds (I'm starting with Verse 48, and skipping a bit), “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world... I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Obviously Jesus wasn't advocating cannibalism. He was telling this crowd, which had followed him across the Sea of Galilee to either get another free meal or make him king by force, that he had not come to give them a full belly and freedom from the Romans. He had come to bring them eternal life.

He lays it all on the line there, and many of his followers bugged out because of it: “You seek the bread of death. I offer you the Bread of Life.”

So Communion is:

A participation in a symbolic act which reminds the believer of Christ's sacrifice for the world. As bread is broken, so was Christ's body broken for you. As the wine is poured out, so was Christ's blood spilled for you. Moreover, as the bread and wine bring nourishment to our physical bodies, so God the Holy Spirit indwells and nourishes us.

This act also reminds the believer that he or she is a member of the Christian community (the Body of Christ is, symbolically, sharing the Body of Christ). One loaf nourishes the whole body, and in turn the body supports, guides, prays for, and nourishes all of its members.

Now, Communion is, by definition, not a “solo act.” It is intended to be done in a community of believers (note the similarity between the words, that's on purpose). This fact is of particular significance in your situation. For your mother-in-law...

Communion is:

A reminder that Jesus understands her suffering, can identify with her pain, has felt her fear, and responds with His peace, His joy, and His assurance of eternal life. Further, communion serves as a reminder that she is not alone, but part of a great body of believers in Christ who are praying for her, supporting her, caring for her.

I'm sure there's more, but it's late, and I can't think of anything else. Hug the young'uns for me.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inaugural Post: Sermon for August 23, 2009

I never title my sermons, since they are all generally Saturday Night Specials. The Lord's Supper follows the sermon, which should explain the odd ending.

John 6:56-69

"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am indebted this morning to Cynthia M. Campbell, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, for her insights in preparing this sermon.

"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

The words echo off of the stone walls of the synagogue, and the confused, shocked, horrified murmurs of the gathered crowd rise in answer.

They came looking for another free meal. They came looking for an earthly conqueror and king. They came looking for a show. If Jesus had been politically astute, if he'd had advisers around him, speechwriters and spin doctors and marketing experts, he would have given them a little of what they want – more food, a quick water-into-wine or parting the Sea of Galilee or something. He would have spoken more carefully, he would have generalized and given “big-picture” answers, inching his disciples ever closer to the knowledge of who Jesus was. Over time, in carefully orchestrated moves, he would have eased the crowd slowly into understanding that Jesus had not come to give them a full belly and freedom from the Romans. He had come to bring them eternal life.

But sugar-coating isn't Jesus' style, is it? No, he lays it all on the line, and in words both shocking and unmistakeable: you seek the bread of death. I offer you the Bread of Life.

Soon, in that hall where hundreds had been crammed in, only thirteen remain. Some had left in anger, certain that this man, this charlatan, this heretic would be the downfall of the nation. Some left, disappointed that they hadn't gotten more free bread, but otherwise unchanged by the experience. A few remained, not because they understood what Jesus had said, but because they trusted the one who had said it.

And that is the key, because, as those arguing about what Jesus said that day acknowledged, the teaching is difficult, and it goes to the root not only of who Jesus is, but who we as followers of Jesus are.

In our post-Resurrection world, we tend to interpret Jesus as the Bread of Life in terms of the Lord's Supper, the bread and the cup, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the theological viewpoint of the person and body of believers who participates. Yet while the act of receiving the elements is a sacred one, they are symbols – reminders of who Jesus is, and what God in Jesus Christ has done to restore humankind to relationship with God. The deeper question of who Jesus is and what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood – what it means to follow Jesus, to believe in Jesus, to be a Christian – remains unanswered. Or, put more precisely, it is a question that each age and generation has had to answer for itself.

Sometimes we've answered right – the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, for example, or the Reformation. Sometimes we've answered horribly wrong – slavery comes to mind, and the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials.

But the point is that we are still asking, even today, who Jesus is and what it means to be a follower of Christ. Those who left the synagogue, whether they were angry or apathetic, never looked back to wonder what it all meant. They had all the information they needed and no further discussion was warranted.

Yet for those of us who, like the Twelve, remained behind because we trusted the One who spoke even if we didn't understand the words, the question is ongoing – not unanswered, but re-answered in the context of the needs and challenges of each new generation.

It is, after all, not so much a question of getting the right data (or getting the data right); it is a question of faith and of relationship. Each generation, in its own peculiar and particular context, will have new questions and new insights. There will always be mistakes, and all our our scholarship will sometimes lead to dead ends. But because each generation of believers enjoys the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, even the dead ends lead to new insights and fresh understanding.

John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the most popular visual representations of Jesus in the early years of the Christian movement was the feeding of the multitude. Long before Christians portrayed Christ crucified they showed him breaking bread.

Jesus and bread, eating and feeding, table fellowship and faith, food and life, these things go together.

And look! The table is ready! Let us join together now with that great cloud of witnesses across the millenia, men and women who, with the Apostle Peter, have said to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”