Sunday, September 27, 2009

God Is Not Absent! (Or, how to write a run-on sentence in 35 words or less)

Tons of run-on sentences below, so if you're poor-English-phobic I am not responsible for the convulsions you'll experience. I plan on giving the paragraphs on the Esther narrative in a run-on, hurried fashion, building to the absence of God from the narrative as the climax of the section.

It makes sense in my head... but, then again, I like Linkin Park, what do I know?

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Do you like stories with violence, danger, political intrigue, (dare I say “sex?), strong heroes and surprising plot twists? Stories that take you for a wild ride and leave you with a great ending but wanting more? Then I have a great book you’ve got to read! It’s not too long – in fact, it can be, and often is, read in a single sitting – and I’m betting everyone here already has at least one copy of it: the Book of Esther.

The Lectionary only references Esther one time every cycle, and when it does it’s the excerpts we just read. Now, this is a little frustrating because the Lectionary Elves missed most of the good parts.

The story is set in Persia. The Jews had been carried away to Babylon, and Babylon had been conquered by Persia. As our story begins, the Persian King, Ahasuerus (who was probably also known as Xerxes, a character familiar to anyone who has seen the movie “300”) is having a banquet, and on about the seventh day of drinking and eating and festivities he decides he wants to show off his beautiful wife, Vashti. Now, Vashti wants no part of all these drunk guys watching her dance or whatever, so she refuses, which results in her getting booted out of the palace by royal decree.
All of a sudden, Ahasuerus has no queen, so he decrees that the prettiest girls from all over his huge kingdom be brought in to spend a night with the King, and the one he likes the best will become the queen in Vashti’s place. One of the girls is an exiled Jew named Hadassah, or Esther, an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai. So the time comes for Esther’s turn with the King, and he fancies her, so he picks her to be the Queen. There was a banquet and all that stuff, because these people had a lot of banquets.

Meanwhile, a couple of the palace guards got disgruntled and plotted to kill the King. Mordecai, who sat at the city gate a lot, heard about it and told Queen Esther, who told the King, who uncovered the plot and had the bad guys killed. Or, some of the bad guys, anyway, because right here enters, dunndunnDUNNN, the villain of the story, Haman. He’s the King’s chief official, and everyone is supposed to bow down when he passes, but Mordecai refuses. Now, this enraged Haman, but he was too dignified to kill just one guy, so he decided to get all the Jews killed by tricking the King into making a decree, and by the way once Ahasuerus made a decree it couldn’t be unmade. So the King tells everyone to attack and kill all the Jews, but to wait until on the thirteenth day of the first month.

So Mordecai hears about it and is at the gate every day in sackcloth and ashes wailing and crying, and Esther asks him what the problem is and he tells her all about it and says that she has to talk the King out of it. This is a problem because anyone who goes to the King without being summoned is subject to death, and Ahasuerus hasn’t called Esther for a month. Well Mordecai reminds her that she’s Jewish, too, and if she doesn’t talk to the King she’s dead anyway, you know?

So she decides to do it, and everyone fasts and she comes up with a plan and walks into the court and the King is cool with her being there, so she doesn’t die. He asks her what her desire is, and he’s prepared to offer half his kingdom, but instead of telling him what she wants she asks the King to invite Haman and come to a banquet (because my goodness these people have a lot of banquets). So they’re at the banquet drinking wine and the King asks esther again what she wants, and she says if he and Haman come back tomorrow to another banquet she’ll tell him, and he’s cool with that, because like I said these people have a LOT of banquets. Haman goes home and on his way he sees Mordecai who doesn’t bow to him or act afraid of his power and it so enrages him that he has a gallows built in his yard so he can get the King to hang Mordecai the next day, by golly.
Meanwhile, the King can’t sleep, so he has some of his decrees and records of state read to him, I don’t know why, but the part they read is about Mordecai discovering the assassination plot and saving the King’s bacon, and the King realizes nothing has been done to reward Mordecai, so he calls Haman in and asks him what the best way for the King to honor someone is. Haman thinks the King is talking about him so he goes all-out: “Let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.’” So not only is it Mordecai and not Haman who gets honored, it’s Haman who has to do lead Mordecai through the square on the horse and do all that proclaiming.

Fast forward to that night’s banquet, and the King asks Esther again what she desires, and she asks for him to spare her life and the life of her people, then she tells him all about the way Haman has duped him into ordering all the Jews killed. The King is really hacked off about this, especially when he finds out about the gallows Haman had built to hang Mordecai on.
Mordecai doesn’t hang there, Haman does. Since the edicts of the king can’t be undone, the Jews are allowed to fight back to protect themselves, which they do, and they are saved from annihilation, and then they establish an annual feast, called Purim, to commemorate Esther and what she did, and everyone lived happily ever after, except I guess Haman.

And all through this story, there is one name that never, ever, even once, gets mentioned. God. No talk of the Creator, no intimation of prayer or of Jewish religious practices, zip, zilch, zero, nada, nothing in the whole book. This has driven people crazy for millennia, so much so that at some point someone wrote extra verses for the Book of Esther that add all the God and religion that anyone could ever want. If you want to read that, just get hold of a Catholic Bible, because it’s part of the Apocrypha.

Sticking just with the original Book of Esther, though, it’s always been kind of a puzzle how something with no mention of God made it into the Scriptural canon. Sure, it’s the explanation for why the Jewish faith has the feast of Purim every spring, but that can’t be the only reason it’s there, is it?

My first position in the Presbyterian Church (USA) was as a youth director at a very small church that, well, had no youth at all when they hired me. I often say that I grew the youth group 500% during my tenure there – Judy may correct my math, but that’s going from zero to five – but when I left, I felt like a complete failure. You see, my whole concept of Christianity was, at the time, informed by nearly two decades in Southern Baptist and Church of God congregations, where the only way someone became a Christian was by walking the aisle and saying a prayer. That never, ever happened with any of the youth, even when I had more than a dozen at a three-day worship seminar thing. Not even one. Ever. Failure.

Then one morning, at a Christian club meeting at a high school, I found out that one of my core youth group members had responded to Christ, had become a Christian, not because of an event or a sermon or anything directly evangelistic that I had done or exposed her to, but because of a small thing I said –no more than a passing comment – while I was busy being a youth director. While I was busy trying to figure out what I was doing wrong so I wouldn’t do it again with this new, bigger youth group, God was and always had been at work in the lives of the young people around me.
I learned that day that God is active and working even when we think we have failed, even when we think that God is absent. I learned that God is never absent.

Sometimes we see God acting in our lives in big, obvious, exciting ways. A loved one recovers. A bill is paid. A job is obtained. A crisis is averted. And in most of Scripture, God acts in big, expansive, obvious ways. The Red Sea is parted. Fire falls from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice. Angels sing. A leper is healed. The five thousand are fed. A tomb is empty. That’s great, and we kind of know how to deal with that, right? Give praise and thanks to God, sing the Doxology, stand in awe, whatever, we know it’s God being God and doing God things. We can deal with that. We can celebrate that.

Sometimes, though, God moves in our lives in ways that seem behind-the-scenes, acting within circumstances and through others to accomplish God’s will. Sometimes we never even know it, and sometimes we only see it after-the-fact. Sometimes all the things that happen to make things work out look coincidental. Sometimes things don’t seem to – well sometimes they really don’t – work out at all. What then? Where is God? What is there to praise or be thankful or even be mindful of God for?
Where is God in the Book of Esther? Was God absent? Is it merely coincidental that Esther pleases the king? Is it coincidental that Mordecai catches wind of the assassination plot? Is it coincidental that Esther does not die when she approaches the King without invitation, and is Haman defeated because the circumstances worked out in Esther and Mordecai’s favor? Were the Jews saved from extermination because a couple of people knew how to work the system? Or was an eternal, sovereign Presence at work behind-the-scenes to bring these events to pass?

God is never absent.

There are times even we Presbyterians, we Frozen Chosen, feel and see and experience God actively at work in our lives. And there are times when, even though we believe, even though we have not abandoned our faith, we feel like God is nowhere to be found – utterly absent.

But God is never absent.

With all its strange customs and ‘way too many banquets, one of the things the Book of Esther offers us in our twenty-first century world is the promise, the assurance that God is here, God is active, even when there is no open evidence of it. The Jewish race was saved from annihilation in Persia not because intelligent people worked a political system to their advantage, but because God worked through intelligent people to bring about the will and purpose of God, and that is something, for Christians, that can happen in our lives every day.

God is never absent.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

To be a friend of TextWeek is to be... ?

James 3:13 – 4:8a
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.

This is the Word of the Lord.

A funny thing happened this week. At my full-time job, we’re moving offices, and anytime you move a business from one place to another, things go wrong, usually at the worst possible time. Friday night, as I was wrapping up my paperwork, I noticed that the Internet connection had been lost. Beyond my dismay at not being able to access Twitter or FaceBook, or listen to music on Pandora, I didn’t think much of it… until it came time to put together the sermon.

For those of us who preach out of the Lectionary, there are a wealth of resources on the Internet: Commentaries and blogs and podcasts and sermons other folks have written, as well as prayers, calls to worship, and liturgies. Most or all of the sites allow use of the material if acknowledgement is given, which is why you’ll see a note in the bulletin most Sundays, and I’ll occasionally express appreciation to someone’s work for assistance in writing a sermon.

And all of a sudden, all of that was gone. I was left with a blank screen, a flashing cursor, and our New Testament reading from James. Now, I have to tell you that the Lectionary reading skips past part of what I read this morning, skipping from the end of verse three and picking up with verse seven. As a general rule, I ignore skips like that because I want to see what the people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary (not sure who “they” are, but I’ve heard them referred to as “The Elves”) were leaving out. What jumped out to me was this skipped passage, telling me that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God.

And I thought, oh, no. Oh, great! Of all the weeks to be without my online resources! Of all the weeks for that to be the passage that resonated! What on earth does it mean? We have to make friends with people who aren’t Christians in order to invite them into relationship with God, don’t we? Am I only allowed to have Christian friends? What about things like television and radio and the Internet? Are we supposed to refrain from these things, maybe only watch TBN and listen to Family Radio? Am I an enemy of God for watching “Mythbusters” or listening to “Car Talk?” Am I a friend of the world for listening to Flogging Molly and Apocalyptica? Wait, is the passage talking about possessions?

“…When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasure.” I really like sushi, but I can’t make it so I buy it… am I at enmity with God because of it?

Man, I needed some answers fast! How was I going to get a sermon done without my tools, without my stuff?

I am not one of those folks who claims to hear the voice of God audibly speaking to me. I tend much more toward hearing the “still small voice” like the prophet Elijah more than Paul’s blinding Damascus Road experience. My epiphanies are more like ideas than Peter’s earth-shattering vision of a sheet full of unclean food being lowered from heaven. And yesterday evening, just about the time I was beginning to run around in small circles and scream in panic, “WhatamIgonnado? WhatamIgonnado?” I got one of those little nudges. I remembered what Tim and Evelyn have said to me several times about not relying so much on outside resources. I began to understand what God was saying through James – at least to me – about how friendship with the world is enmity to God. I began to see that the key word is balance, that the key indicator is in who or what we place our ultimate dependence. In a word, it is a discussion about idolatry.

Now, this is going to sound like I’m going down a rabbit trail, but bear with me, and I at least hope it will all come together in a few minutes. I think we can all agree that there is a difference between someone who is an acquaintance and someone who is a friend. Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a small circle, with other circles going out wider and wider from there. Kind of like you’re the bullseye of a target. In that outermost circle, and it’s farther out for some people than others, there are people who are passing acquaintances.

With acquaintances, we may share small talk, or just know them to look at them. I’ve traded comments with the Moderator of the General Assembly, Bruce Reyes-Chow, on Twitter, and we’re friends on FaceBook, but he doesn’t know me from Adam’s housecat. If I were to go up to Reverend Reyes-Chow and introduce myself, even with my Twitter username, I expect I would get a warm handshake and a smile, and a blank look in his eyes because he would have no idea who I was or what I was talking about. If he was backed into a corner and was feeling generous, Bruce Reyes-Chow might call me an acquaintance, maybe even call me a friendly person, but there’s no way either of us could honestly say we are friends. He would be in my outer circle.

Move in a little and you’d find Khad, who lives in Venice Beach, California and pastors Metamorphosis, a small-but-growing church that meets on Wednesdays at Saints and Sinners Bar in LA. I’ve known Khad for about a month, we’ve spoken on the phone for a few hours total, shared some text messages back-and-forth, have gotten pretty deep about theology and our lives, and are making plans to work together on some Internet broadcasts. I think it’s safe to say that Khad and I would call one another a friend, but so far our friendship is limited to common areas of interest: preaching, nontraditional worship, internet podcasts and reaching out with the love of Christ to the marginalized. It would be unfair to him, as well as presumptive and premature to call him my best friend ever.

Move in to my closest circle and you’ll find Ray, who I’ve known since we were in first grade. We grew up together, and even when we haven’t talked for months or even years, when we get together we pick right up where we left off. We know things about one another that no one else knows, and have talked about the deepest, darkest corners of our lives. I consider myself a wealthy man because as close as Ray and I are, he isn’t the only one in that closest circle.

And as far as they go, all of these are examples of healthy relationships. Each one carries an appropriate amount of intimacy and interdependence, and these are in balance. It is safe to say that God places people in our lives in all of these various circles for specific purposes in the Kingdom. The same goes for the tools and resources I was mentioning earlier, the commentaries and blogs and podcasts and online sermons. We can even add things like entertainment and income and possessions to the mix.

How ridiculous would it be if I felt like I had to have Bruce Reyes-Chow’s OK before I emailed the order or worship to Evelyn? How sad would it be if I made sure Khad approved of my sermon before I preached it? How pathetic would it be if I needed Ray’s approval to feel validated as a human being? In all of these cases, I would be bypassing healthy, interdependent relationships of one degree or another for relationships that are both unhealthy and codependent. What’s more, I would be participating in idolatry, because I would be putting these people in place of God. My friendships would become idols, and I would be at enmity with God.

It’s fine for me to read the sermons and the blogs and the commentaries online, but when I find myself unable to write a sermon because I can’t access them, and I need them so I can do a good job so I will sound learned and orthodox and oh yeah maybe it’ll be useful to the people who hear it I guess, the sermons and blogs and commentaries have ceased to become tools and have become idols.

But the more I think about it, it isn’t the people or the things that become idols, is it? Because I notice that all of the examples are about what I need. If we look at the text from James, the opposite of wisdom is envy and selfish ambition. The prayers are not answered because the object of my prayers is what I want and how I want to use what I ask for. So, really, the idol is not unhealthy friendships or possessions or anything like that. The idol is myself. I want, I “need,” I have to have… and like we’ve spoken about before, if we look at the world around us, we’ll hear how we need or deserve this or that thing – a cell phone so small it’s invisible to the naked eye, or a TV so large it doubles as a load-bearing wall.

What God expects from us is quite the opposite – not that we give up all earthly comforts, throw away our TV and live as hermits, but that we remove the focus from ourselves and place it upon God. What God wants from us is of primary importance, whether it’s our time, our talent, or our treasure.

Our reading today closes with these words, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” Scripture has a lot to say about submission, not because if we submit enough, if we give up enough stuff, if we try hard enough to place ourselves under the authority of god then maybe God will notice and love us and forgive us, but because God has already noticed us, already loves us, already forgives us. We submit to God because God, in Christ, has given all on our behalf. We draw near to God because God has drawn near to us.

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Pause...

I was without internet for part of last week. The sermon for last week exists, but it's on a computer without a current network/internet connection. Just saying I'll post it when I can, mmkay?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Take Up Your Cross" (A Sermon About Grace)

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Though it won't be obvious at first, this is not a message about self-denial or the evils of Christian pop culture or, really, even about what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
They're all in the sermon, yes, but this is a sermon about grace, about God's love and unmerited favor toward us. About how to face the challenge of Jesus' words in a real and effective and successful way.

I don't know if it started back in 2000 with Bruce Wilkinson's book on the Prayer of Jabez, but I think it's been going on a whole lot longer; this idea that part and parcel of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ should be a vehicle to personal wealth and comfort. It's a real multi-billion dollar industry, books and videos and seminars by celebrities and television preachers and megachurch pastors, all about how to be happy and successful using this or that prayer or this or that set of principles taken, ostensibly, from Scripture. Some of the titles I found on Amazon include: “Find Happiness, How to fill the void in your life, by Looking, Feeling, and Living better;” “How My Magic Refrigerator Sent Me To Paris Free. 7 Rules To Make Dreams Come True;” and “Spiritual Liberation - Fulfilling Your Soul's Potential.”

Now, there's a place for devotional reading, and some of the titles I saw were for books that really addressed problems like divorce and addiction. And lest we simply shake our heads in disgust or laugh at the rest, it's an indication that we Christians, like every other human being in modern American society, are largely influenced by the standards of that society. We are judged not so much on the content of our character as on our position in the corporation.
We are judged not so much on the breadth of our compassion as on the beauty of our appearance. We are judged not so much on the strength of our generosity as on the value of our possessions.

We are assaulted, like everyone else in our society, with advertising and media messages encouraging us to get the newest, the best, the upgrade, to supersize and go first-class, to get smaller phones and bigger TVs, faster computers and nicer cars, this season's fashions and this week's gadget. We are told that the economy depends on us replacing things that aren't worn out, upgrading things that are fine as they are, and owning things that have no practical use.

So it's really no wonder that this mad rush for wealth and popularity and acceptance would find its way into, and be celebrated by, Christian pop culture. But I wonder how Jesus would look on a book about happiness through being prettier or about magic refrigerators and free trips overseas. How would Jesus view this idea that He exists to make our lives easier?

I think he would say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Now, if this were a sermon about self-denial, or a how-to on taking up your cross and following Jesus, we'd spend the rest of our time this morning talking about things like paying less attention to what our co-workers think of us and more time working to stop the genocide in Darfur. Or being less concerned over the price of gasoline and more concerned over worldwide kidnapping and sale of one million children every year as sex slaves. Paying less attention to where we eat lunch after church and more attention to the plight of the homeless. That kind of thing is easy to talk about, and I've done it – in fact, those three examples are from a sermon I preached here in August of last year.

If Jesus were physically here today, and if he left the streets around Legion Field and the homeless shelters and tattoo parlors long enough to speak to these things to say “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” it wouldn't take very long for an author somewhere to develop a book called “Forty Days to Self-Denial.” Soon after, a publishing company would produce a series called “Cross-Carrying for the Soul,” “... for Teens,” “... for Dads,” “... for Busy Moms,” … you get the idea.

Because one of the things that the Christian pop culture industry has recognized is that we Christians love a program. Give me six easy steps or a forty-day devotional or a workbook or a video series and I am good, and about one time out of a hundred, I'll complete the devotional, master the workbook, and do more than one or two steps.
I might change some habits, develop new ones. Maybe not, but I'll know the rules, I'll know where the bar is set and what the expectations are.

But when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he isn't talking about mere self-denial. He isn't talking about just deciding to give up the big-screen TV and the new shoes and the nice house and car and brightest and best and most current. He isn't even talking about a three-step process of denial, death to self, and discipleship.

He's talking about one decisive and permanent change... a change that takes a lifetime and more... and it's a change we cannot make.

Well, not on our own.

The self-denial, the loss of life that Jesus is calling for is where you and I look to Jesus and say, “There is no more 'I.' There is only You.” Possessions and reputation and status and position become not just unimportant, but irrelevant.

Impossible, on our own.

And we know it! I hope I am not alone in all the times I have read this passage and heard this passage and felt the depth of my inadequacy to even understand, much less do, what Jesus demands. Yeah, OK, maybe I can skip a meal every once in awhile for a donation to a shelter, maybe for a week or so I can get up early and have a devotion time, I don't know, but the whole losing my life thing, I don't understand what it is that Jesus wants me to do. Deny myself how? Take up my cross means what? Lose my life in what sense?

If we could do it successfully – get rid of enough stuff, visit enough homebound people and prisoners, work in enough homeless shelters, care for enough widows and orphans, pray and preach and teach enough to become good Christians, we wouldn't need to be Christians at all, because Jesus would have never needed to take up his own cross.

Which is where the subject of this sermon comes in: grace. God's loving grace toward us is such that God never makes impossible demands. God's loving grace toward us is why, in the face of the demand to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, God's Holy Spirit is here, in us and with us, guiding and teaching.

The passage is not without its direct demands upon us, though. Today, we are being called upon to commit ourselves to denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus.
This may involve buying less, stuff, having more demands on our time, talent and resources, but that's peripheral at best.

Our call to commitment is to be open to being guided, every moment of every day, by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. To listen and to be guided every day by God's perfect love. How can I best follow Jesus in this business decision, in this purchase, in this conversation with a hurting friend, in my dealings with this cashier...

Will we get it wrong? Will we forget sometimes? Sure, but that's why it's called “grace,” isn't it?

Join me in prayer...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sermon for September 6, 2009: "When the Gospel Went to the Dogs"

Mark 7:24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am indebted to the writings of Sarah Dylan Brauer and Heidi Husted, who calls our Gospel reading “the day the Gospel went to the dogs,” for some of the ideas behind this sermon.

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

I am not the only preacher who has read our Gospel passage this morning and contemplated basing the sermon on the Epistle or the Old Testament reading. The Jesus we meet in today's Gospel reading, frankly, makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

We're used to seeing Jesus heal everyone who asks, and even a couple who don't ask. We're used to seeing Jesus lay the verbal smackdown on the scribes and Pharisees. But to refuse to heal? To use the common disparaging term of his day in calling this Syrophonecian woman, and by extension all Gentiles, “dogs?”

We're tempted to tap this Jesus on the shoulder and ask, “who are you and what have you done with the real Jesus?” After all, Jesus, you're traveling around in Tyre, for cryin' out loud. Gentile Central. If I go to a police station, I'll very likely meet a cop. If I go to a barber shop, I'll probably meet a barber (who will wonder what I'm doing there).

If you go to Tyre, you're gonna meet a gentile, dude. If you're not here to provide healing and teaching for the Gentiles, what on earth are you doing in Tyre in the first place?

Now, I do not want to suggest that my answer is the only correct answer; I don't presume to speak for Reformed Theology or have enough of a grasp on Biblical criticism to claim any authority. What I am suggesting is something we've done before; we're exploring a “what-if” scenario. With that said, I think the answer to what in the world Jesus was doing in Tyre that day is that Jesus was learning.

There are some apocryphal “Gospels” floating around out there, most notably the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” which portray the childhood Jesus as someone fully aware of Who they were, able to perform all manner of miracles and to make prophetic proclamations. This fictional child Jesus brings clay pigeons to life, parts the water in a pond, strikes some folks dead, raises some others from the dead... he is, in short, a monster.

No, the real Jesus had to do it the hard way – like everyone else. He had to be potty trained. He had to learn to feed himself. He had to learn to walk and talk and dress himself and everything else every human child has ever had to learn.

He learned Joseph's trade, he learned the Scriptures... he spent the first three decades of his life learning and preparing for his ministry.

Now, something that is important to remember in any context is that when a person stops learning – be they 12 or 30 or 48 or 65 or 80 years old – that person is either dead or dangerous. The old cliché, “you learn something new every day,” is true. Sometimes the lessons are painful, like finding out the heating elements in an oven are hot (don't ask). Sometimes the lessons are fun (for example, did you know that Brent Spiner, who played Data on Star Trek/Next Generation has a Twitter account? I'm a geek, I admit it). But the point is, we learn. We grow.

The argument can be made that the Pharisees stopped learning, because at some point they decided that they knew everything there was to know about how to rightly keep the Law and the Jewish faith. In our own time, people like Fred Phelps and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church could safely be accused of no longer learning, with their hateful websites and angry picketing at soldiers' funerals. Try as I might, I can think of no positive example for any person or any group that ceased to learn.

So is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Jesus was in Tyre because his Father wanted to show him something?

To be sure, not compassion, and not an openness to including the marginalized in his ministry. After all, this is the same Jesus who touched lepers, ministered to Samaritans and even made one the hero of one of his most famous parables, who ate with tax collectors and sinners. That the Syrophonecian woman dares to speak to him at all, and that he actually acknowledges her right to speak to him, is an astounding departure from the cultural norms of the day. People are always more important than propriety.

Yet up to this point in the Gospel, Jesus has been ministering to people who are ostensibly Jewish in that they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles, on the other hand, would have been members of one pagan society or another, worshiping a plethora of greater and lesser gods. Whereas Jesus shared a common culture with the Jewish people, Tyre was given over to Greek ideas and lifestyles.

And as much as Jesus tried to keep his presence in Tyre a secret, word got out, and it wasn't long at all before a woman came in the house where he was staying and fell at his feet. She needed healing for her daughter, and whatever gods she worshiped, whatever things she believed, she knew that this Jewish prophet had healed people before, had cast out demons before, and it didn't matter if he said “no,” she'd heard “no” before; it didn't matter if he called her a dog, she'd been called a dog before; she was not going to stop until he did it again.

I don't want to read too much into the story here, or to suggest something that may be unScriptural, but I wonder.

I see the scene: Jesus standing in the middle of a room in a Greek-style home, a woman crumpled at his feet, pleading for her daughter. When he speaks to her, it's not in a dismissive, angry tone, but in the voice of someone who is trapped by policy, who can't do what needs to be done because that's not in his job description: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

I see the woman look up at him, fire in her eyes. The fact that she would reply at all is breathtaking, I mean, that sort of thing just wan't done in those days – her courage radiates even through the fear for her daughter. She answers in a strong voice: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

I wonder if Jesus had an ah-ha moment? You know what I mean, a moment of realization, where you learn something you didn't know before, and it changes everything. One thing is certain, from that moment forward no one, Jew or Gentile, is excluded from the healing and teaching and attention and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Now, if this is true – if that's what happened – then we have both a glorious promise and a life-and-death directive.

The Syrophonecian woman prayed earnestly, and was unwilling to give up until her prayer was answered, and as a result, everything was changed. The glorious promise then is summed up in the words of an old bumper sticker: prayer changes things! Scripture tells, time and time again, of events and judgments and outcomes that were altered by prayer... and we can rest assured that events and judgments and outcomes are changed still today when we pray.

The life-and-death directive is to follow the example of Jesus – to be open to having our minds changed, to bne open to new experiences and new people and new ideas that alter the course of our faith journey, that change our lives. If we had a few hours I could give examples of how that's happened in my life – how a group of teenagers at a Waffle House in Vestavia made me a better Christian and a better person – and I'm sure you could tell me similar stories.

When we are no longer open to change, to growth, to learning, we cease to function as Christians and as human beings. We are on a faith journey, and as long as we have a pulse the journey continues.

How will you be changed today – this week – by the people God brings into your life?

Almighty God,
We pray that we are challenged daily... hourly... moment by moment, to see all people as beloved community. To see all people as worthy of our attention, our advocacy, our thoughts and our prayers. Help us to be like Jesus, to engage with one another outside of our comfort zone, and stretch us
mightily for your work in this world.

We bring confident prayers this morning for (prayer needs list)...

In the name of Jesus, our Lord and savior, who taught us to pray... (Lord's Prayer)