Sunday, January 31, 2010

Are There Any Questions?

This sermon gives me the chance to use my two favorite analogies. Hopefully I'll have the time to get a paper cup and poke a hole or two in it for a visual.

If you ever get the chance, read Dr. Edward Welch's book "When People are Big (and God is Small)." It's about overcoming codependency and peer pressure, but the lessons within (like Derek Webb's song "Wedding Dress") should be included in the New Testament canon.

What follows is either an OK, if longish, sermon, or the worst piece of crap I've ever written.

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the LORD."
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Ah, the “Love Chapter.” You've no doubt heard this chapter at weddings and such. It's one of those passages I love to read out loud just because it sounds so good, deep and profound and poetic and lovely. Reading it makes me wish my voice had the depth and resonance of, say, James Earl Jones. But if you've read the New Testament for any length of time, you probably suspect, like I do, that nothing's ever just poetic and pretty when it comes to the Apostle Paul... and this is especially true of his letters to the church at Corinth.

The church at Corinth had so many problems, and was doing so many things wrong... well, if the Jerry Springer Show married every reality-TV program ever married, the Corinthian church would be their child. They were fighting over who was better based on who baptized who, they were getting drunk during the agape meal, there were weird love connections going on, and in all of this they were forever at each others' throats over who was more spiritual.

The Corinthian church was broken, sick, and an embarrassment. There was only one solution, and it wasn't to disband the church and try to start over somewhere else; it wasn't to declare one “side” right and the other wrong, it wasn't to come in screaming and breaking chairs. The solution was love.

It's often been said that you can't define love. If we're talking about the emotion, the state of being, then that might well be true; I know I've never been able to do it justice with words. Yet right out of the gate, Paul is defining love by what it is, is not, and what it does and does not do. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

In reading that short definitional passage, it would seem that in all their struggle to be right, to be first, to be better than, more spiritual than, more important than, more right than, the Corinthians had become impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant and rude, they insisted on their own way, were irritable and resentful, they celebrated wrongdoing, avoided any truth that didn't agree with their preconceptions... in other words, everything that love is not.

They were, in that respect, not so different from the residents of Nazareth on the day Jesus preached in their synagogue.

Nazareth was a hard place in which to be a devoted Jew. It was too far away from the good influence of Jerusalem and the Temple, and too influenced by the pagan Gentiles and heterodox Samaritans that surrounded it on three sides.
The town, indeed the whole region of Galilee, had a bad reputation; that's why Nathaniel could say to Philip, when told about Jesus of Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

So it isn't a stretch to think that the townspeople were looking to Jesus to come and set things straight: restore right thinking and right practice to the faithful, drive out the evil Gentiles and Samaritans from the city limits, maybe do a few miracles to razzle-dazzle the crowd and drive his point home. After all, Jesus was a hometown boy, and he owed it to the place he grew up to take care of things at home first, right?

Well, here's what drove the crowd crazy, to the point of trying to kill Jesus: far from agreeing with them that the influence of Gentiles and Samaritans was a bad thing, he shared two accounts from the Scriptures where God had apparently shown preference to the pagans and the Gentiles! With all the widows starving during the famine, the one who was saved from death was in Sidon; with all the lepers suffering in Israel, Namaan of Syria was the one God cleansed! Was Jesus saying that God preferred those who worshiped idols? That those who chased after false gods were better than those who had given their lives to the one true God?

In fact, Jesus was reintroducing to the Nazarenes that central theme of the Law and the Prophets – a theme which Paul later reminds the Corinthans of, and which runs throughout both Testaments, and our readings today: Faith in God, devotion to our Creator, is not best defined by doctrines and theologies, not by lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors or (God forbid) people, not by buildings or memberships. If we can say, with the Apostle John, that “God is love,” and affirm that the focus of our journey is to become more and more the personification of Jesus Christ in our daily lives, then faith in God must be defined at its core by the pursuit and practice of love.

In his book “When People Are Big (and God is Small),” Dr. Ed Welch identifies one of the central difficulties many human beings have with this idea of practicing and pursuing love: it's a basic misunderstanding of the role of love in our lives and the lives of others.

In the context of love, whether the love of others or the love of God, the tendency is to view ourselves as containers to be poured into. “Love cups,” Dr. Welch calls them. The problem is that we aren't really made for the job; our love cups have holes in them... so no matter how much love is poured in, it's never, ever enough. We keep running out and needing more. No one can keep up with our demand to be filled and fulfilled.

Now, like every analogy, we can carry it too far. We Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit, so there are contexts in which being vessels to contain God's love are accurate. In the context of the kind of love which Paul speaks of though, the kind of love Jesus was an example of for us, who we are and how we function as members of the Body of Christ is in fact quite different, and it's related beautifully in a story shared by author Robert Fulghum:

"Are there any questions?" An offer that comes at the end of college lectures and long meetings. Said when an audience is not only overdosed with information, but when there is no time left anyhow. At times like that you sure do have questions. Like, "Can we leave now?" and "What... was this meeting for?" and "Where can I get [something to] drink?"

The gesture is supposed to indicate openness on the part of the speaker, I suppose, but if in fact you do ask a question, both the speaker and the audience will give you drop-dead looks. And some fool-some earnest idiot always asks. And the speaker always answers. By repeating most of what he has already said.

But if there is a little time left and there is a little silence in response to the invitation, I usually ask the most important question of all: "What is the Meaning of Life?"

You never know, somebody may have the answer, and I'd really hate to miss it because I was too socially inhibited to ask. But when I ask, it's usually taken as a kind of absurdist move – people laugh and nod and gather up their stuff and the meeting is dismissed on that ridiculous note.

Once and only once, I asked that question and got a serious answer. One that is with me still.

First, I must tell you where this happened, because the place has a power of its own. In Greece again. Near the village of Gonia on a rocky bay of the island of Crete sits a Greek Orthodox monastery. Alongside it, on land donated by the monastery, is an institute dedicated to human understanding and peace, and especially to rapprochement between Germans and Cretans. An improbable task, given the bitter residue of wartime.

This site is important, because it overlooks the small airstrip at Maleme where Nazi paratroopers invaded Crete and were attacked by peasants wielding kitchen knives and hay scythes. The retribution was terrible. The populations of whole villages were lined up and shot for assaulting Hitler's finest troops. High above the institute is a cemetery with a single cross marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans. And across the bay on yet another hill is the regimented burial ground of the Nazi paratroopers. The memorials are so placed that all might see and never forget.
Hate was the only weapon the Cretans had at the end, and it was a weapon many vowed never to give up. Never ever.

Against this heavy curtain of history, in this place where the stone of hatred is hard and thick, the existence of an institute devoted to healing the wounds of war is a fragile paradox. How has it come to be here? The answer is a man. Alexander Papaderos.

A doctor of philosophy, teacher, politician, resident of Athens but a son of this soil. At war's end he came to believe that the Germans and the Cretans had much to give one another--much to learn from one another. That they had an example to set. For if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.

To make a lovely story short, Papaderos succeeded. The institute became a reality--a conference ground on the site of horror--and it was in fact a source of productive interactions between the two countries. Books have been written on the dreams that were realized by what people gave to people for a summer session. Alexander Papaderos had become a living legend. One look at him and you saw his strength and intensity--energy, physical power, courage, intelligence, passion and vivacity radiated from this person. And to speak to him, to shake his hand, to be in a room with him when he spoke, was to experience his extraordinary electric humanity. Few men live up to their reputations when you get close. Alexander Papaderos was an exception.

At the last session on the last morning of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields who were recruited by Papaderos from across Greece, Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out. We followed his gaze across the bay to the iron cross marking the German cemetery.

He turned. And made the ritual gesture: "Are there any questions?"

Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. "No questions?" Papaderos swept the room with his eyes. So I asked.

"Dr. Papaderos, what is the Meaning of Life?"

The usual laughter followed and people stirred to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.

"I will answer your question."

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this:

"When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

"I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine--in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

"I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light --truth, understanding, knowledge--is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

"I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world--into the black places in the hearts of men--and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life."

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Much of what I experienced in the way of information about Greek culture and history that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.

One of the earliest names given to those who followed Jesus was “Christian,” meant disparagingly and translated originally as “little Christs.” The idea was that these early believers were acting like little replicas, little reflections of their God. Not “love cups,” not “masters of their own domain,” or “first among equals,” ot “the most spiritual person,” but reflections.

Love that bears all things and believes all things is not found in how spiritual we are, how pure our theology is, or how rigidly we hold to doctrine.
Love that hopes all things and endures all things is not found in taking care of number one, and is not a commodity we can own. The love that never fails is a thing to be done, and to be pursued, and shared, and enacted. Done. Reflected.

Are there any questions?

Let us pray.

Monday, January 25, 2010

No Room for a Vengeful God

I had no interwebs last night, so this has already been preachified. Click here for the "Far Side" cartoon I reference.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Let me ask you a question: in your understanding, your interpretation, your belief system, what kind of God is Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian God?

Is your understanding of God similar to a “Far Side” cartoon several years back, where Gary Larsen depicted the Almighty as a man with flowing white hair and beard (of course), watching on a computer monitor as a man walked under a piano that workers were hoisting to an upper floor, God's finger all the time poised over a big button labeled “SMITE?” Like some on the extreme of Christian popular culture, do you believe that unless you say the right prayers and worship and think and vote the right way, then God will surely smite you?

Do you believe that 9/11, Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti were all God's payback, and that God has is and will continue to smite all those who are not walking in theological lock-step with our particular understanding of God?

Now I know that I am grievously oversimplifying, and that none of us here this morning would answer “yes” to this caricature of theology. But isn't their room in Christian theology, indeed, is there not an imperative in Christian theology, for a vengeful, angry God who will punish wrongdoing and wreak vengeance on our enemies? Now, I am not going to answer that question this morning. What I am going to do is prayerfully and carefully explore the idea that, based mainly on our Gospel reading this morning, the answer to that question is “no.”

Jesus has returned to his home town of Nazareth. He's beginning to develop a name for himself, and every one of the two hundred or so residents is curious to see what Jesus has to say – after all, everyone knew all about Jesus, and about that cockamamie story his mother had made up to try and explain away this illegitimate child. Honestly, now, an angel? Really, Mary? You can't do any better than that, and yet poor old Joseph, God rest his soul, bought it hook, line, and sinker. Well, I know Jesus quite well enough, thank you.

Of course, I never let my children play with him, one simply doesn't associate with those kinds of people, but I've seen him around, and let me tell you, I've always known he was up to something, those kinds always are. We'll just go see what he has to say for himself!

All eyes are on Jesus as he takes the scroll of Isaiah and unfurls it to the section we know as Chapter 61, and begins to read. It is a familiar passage, and one can imagine almost everyone's lips moving in silent recitation. But something happens that day that is jarring, upsetting, disconcerting. Here, again, is what Jesus reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

While it is true that the Scriptures didn't have punctuation in those days; in fact, spaces between words was a foreign concept in most if not all written languages of the time, I can guarantee that where our Gospel passage places the period in Jesus' reading of Isaiah, no punctuation was intended or implied, and here's how I can prove it: The word which immediately follows the phrase “ proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" is “and.” “ proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God...”

If you ever want to drive a trained musician crazy, leave a chord unresolved. I don't know if the church has ever done the threefold “Amen,” but it's a good example of how chords are resolved. (Sing it) Now, if I were to sing only “Amen,” and go sit down, there are some of us in this congregation who would immediately start to twitch because there's this chord hanging out there that is begging to be resolved. Sooner or later, someone would have to sing “AMEN, AA-AAA-AA-AAMENNN” just to calm down!

And what Jesus has done right here appears to be the Scriptural equivalent of the unresolved chord. Every mouth is silently forming the word “and” while, inexplicably, Jesus simply rolls up Isaiah and hands it back! Um, hello? “And?” Um, there's more there, “the-day-of-vengeance-of-our-God” you know? He's putting the scroll back? No, there's more you gotta read! Come on!

Instead Jesus assumes the position of the teacher and simply says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This scripture: Good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor.

But what about my enemies? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to love them.
What about those who persist in sinning? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to forgive them. What about those who are different, who do not worship or believe or think or act as we do – the Gentiles and Samaritans? Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that we are to include them. It is, after all, no mistake that the woman caught in the act of adultery is forgiven, no mere chance that one of the earliest converts to what would become known as Christianity is a eunuch, no mere aberration that the star of one of Jesus' best-known parables is a Samaritan.

Yet isn't it fascinating that with all of this, Jesus had not changed a word of the Scripture – hadn't rearranged the sentences, hadn't altered the overall sentence structure beyond one simple punctuation mark? With a simple period, Jesus turned everything those Nazarenes knew about God, and the entire theology of an ancient culture, on its head... but Jesus did not change God.

God has always been in the business of redemption, restoration, and second chances. In our Old Testament reading, we can marvel at a group of people listening to the Bible being read for six straight hours, but we can miss the fact that for the vast majority of those listening to Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levites were hearing the words of God's Law, the foundation of their culture and the focal point of their almost-forgotten faith, for the very first time.
These were exiles restored to their homeland, residents of a city freshly rebuilt from ruins, followers of a God they had never – until now – met. They ate and drank in celebration of their redemption – their second chance.

Jesus did not change God, who, hundreds of years before Christ was born, proclaim that sacrifices were a poor substitute for mercy, who elsewhere proclaimed that justice, mercy, and humility were the sole requirements, who for the entirety of the existence of the Law of Moses had insisted that strangers and aliens be not distrusted or hated or mistreated but welcomed and cared for and respected.

Jesus did not change God. With a simple punctuation mark, Jesus changed the way we look at God, at Scripture, at those who are like us, at those who are different, at those who we love and who love us, and at those we consider our enemies: henceforth we see all of these things through the prism of the Cross.

The Cross is, after all, God's ultimate answer to and for humanity – redemption through the blood of Christ, reconciliation through his suffering, healing by the stripes he bore, power and victory over death through the Resurrection. Jesus did not change God. Jesus changes us.

I said at the beginning that I wasn't going to answer the question about Christianity and the concept of a vengeful God. Instead, I'm going to change the question. With the Cross as our standard, with our moral imperative set to attaining Christ-likeness – the Christ who calls us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor – how can there be room at all, anywhere in our lives, for belief in a vengeful, angry God who will punish wrongdoing and wreak vengeance on our enemies?

Let us pray.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

God Has Not Forgotten You!

I purposely do not use the name of that multimillionaire evangelist blowhard because I do not want to give him the publicity, even with my limited reach. He deserves obsolescence.

Oh, and John Stewart as God's messenger to the people of Haiti? Hey, why not?

Isaiah 62:1-5

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The year was 538 BC. Under a blistering summer sun, the travel-weary caravan neared the crest of the last hill before their destination, Jerusalem.

It had been a long trip from Babylon, the travelers pushing on day after day in the excitement of their newfound freedom. The exile is over, and at last the Jewish people can go home. The Levites spoke in hushed tones about how to handle restoring worship on the Temple mount, others dreamed about establishing their homes and livelihoods in an all-but-abandoned city which many of them had never seen.

When they topped that last hill and looked across to Jerusalem, their hearts sank. It was worse than anyone could have imagined. Much of the city was rubble. Little remained of the city walls, and the Temple was completely destroyed. What excitement had survived the long journey now evaporated, and in the hearts of the weary travelers, the same old nagging questions began to whisper, “Has God forgotten us? Has God given up?”

Less than seven hundred miles off the Florida coast, the tiny nation of Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake this past week. Much of the country is in ruins, corpses are stacked in the streets of major cities like Port-au-Prince, food and water are in short supply, and time is running out for thousands of people still alive but trapped in the rubble.

One can look at Haiti and wonder how much more a nation can take. Since declaring its independence from France in 1804, the island nation has seen dictatorships, military juntas, foreign occupation and de-facto enslavement, astounding and blatant political corruption, and war upon war, in an almost continuous chronological line. In the past 206 years, the world's oldest black republic, and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere has seen less than seventy years of truly freely elected democratic rule. The current elected government, in power since 2006, depends on the help of peacekeeping troops to maintain order. The people are profoundly poor, with few options and little hope in the best of times. And now, this. One could forgive a now-homeless and bleeding Haitian, digging by hand in the rubble of her home to try and find her children, of accusing God of having given up. Of having forgotten Haiti.

And then there are the smaller, personal disasters. Common to everyone from time to time, whether financial, medical, emotional or spiritual, even committed Christians experience devastating upheavals in life. Times when our own world shatters and we view the rubble and wonder if God has forgotten us, if God has given up on us. And all too often, either because we don't want to appear to be weak in the faith or because we have been taught somewhere that speaking negatively is unspiritual, the questions, the doubts, the fears remain hidden in our hearts.

It is in these times – standing on that last hill, looking at the rubble-strewn Temple Mount in the distance, trying to understand... these times, looking at the images of impoverished human beings left utterly destitute by a natural disaster... these times, when our own life seems to be little more than smoldering ruins... that God has said and does say to each and every one of us, “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her...”

I think, or at least hope, that it is not my style of preaching to do “feel good” sermons, all butterflies and rainbows and God's love for you means you should always be happy and content, there are no problems, only opportunities, you know, the kind of things the TV preachers are big on these days. Still and yet I find myself, over the past few weeks, returning to this concept, this breathtaking theme of God's grace, of God's unconditional love, of how each of us, individually, are precious to God.

Sometimes it's important to remind ourselves that God has not given up on us.

Sometimes it's more than just comforting, but vital, to be reminded that God has called us by name, that in life, in death, and in life beyond death we belong to God, to be reminded that this twilight means the dawn is certainly coming. In this season of Epiphany, perhaps the greatest thing we as followers of Christ need to discover, or rediscover, is the simple, yet profound truth that transcends theology, doctrine, denomination, race, or higher orthodoxy: God loves us, collectively and as individuals.

If I may paraphrase Max Lucado, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If [God] had a wallet, your photo would be in it. [God] sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, [God will] listen. [God] can live anywhere in the universe, and... chose your heart. What about the Christmas gift [God] sent you in Bethlehem; not to mention that Friday at Calvary. Face it, friend. [God is] crazy about you.”

We need to remember this at those times when we are at our darkest, lowest points, when God seems far away, yes. God has not forgotten you. God has not given up on you.

God has engraved you on the palms of God's hands.

But like that first leper in the book of Mark, healed by Jesus and sternly ordered to keep it to himself, the knowledge that God is on our side is explosive. It's revolutionary. It cannot be kept silent!

The great good news of God's abundant grace, of God's unconditional love, cannot, and must not be, kept silent, and the events of this past week are a good example of it.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, a well known TV evangelist, a multimillionaire with his own TV network, blamed the earthquake on a supposed pact with the devil that nineteenth-century Haitian revolutionaries made in order to drive the French from their country. That this is simply not true is almost beside the point when you consider that this man took an opportunity to proclaim God's love, to pray for those devastated by the disaster, and to offer guidance in supporting relief operations, and squandered it by saying, in effect, that the Haitians deserved what they got.

But the fact that God's message of love – the assurance that God has not forgotten Haiti, that God has not given up on Haiti, cannot be silenced was demonstrated in a truly amazing way. Comedian John Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” quoted on his show just three examples from Scripture of the promises God makes to all those who are suffering, all those who face disaster, devastation, and ruin:
Psalm 34:18, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” the last part of Psalm 71:20, “from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up,” and finishing with Isaiah 54:10, “'Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,' says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”

And even though the Bible verses were quoted in the context of discrediting this particular TV evangelist, the message of those words calls out loud and clear. These are the things we need to be saying, and acting upon, whenever disaster strikes. The church must be in the forefront of relief and rebuilding efforts, and most vocal in reassuring the suffering that God indeed has not forgotten them, God has not given up!

And as individual believers, we must be at the forefront with support for relief efforts – if we can't go there, we must provide finances and material support in whatever way we can. You can even give to the Red Cross by text message these days! Our denomination's disaster relief program is in full swing in Haiti right now, and organizations like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability can offer guidance toward other trustworthy Christian ministries offering relief in Haiti.

Further, though, and with regard to everything else in life, we must be proactive in our support of one another, and for everyone in all facets of our life. Here's one example: do you ever get the notion, out of the blue, to pray for someone? Do, it, and let them know. Twice this past week, a friend of mine in another state has sent me a simple text message, a message I got at exactly the right time: “I'm praying for you, brother.” Simple things like that shout the grace of God into the lives of those around you.

God loves you. God loves (fill in the blank). God has not forgotten you. God has not forgotten (fill in the blank). God has not given up on you, and God has not given up on (fill in the blank). You get the idea. Now rejoice in the idea, and share that idea!

Let us pray.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I Have Called You By Name!

First off, I owe much to "Partners In Urban Transformation" for background on this sermon. Also, the opening story is taken from "Rebecca's Community."

As always, please comment, criticize, etc. as such things will make me a better preacher.

Isaiah 43:1-7
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth —
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
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."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Ella was fourteen when she ran away from home. She went as far as her meager savings would take her, and ended up on the streets of the community of King's Cross. Within days Ella came to the attention of a drug dealer who was skilled in the art of taking advantage of others.

For around two weeks he supplied her with free drugs, saying she could pay him back at a later date. He showed her how to shoot-up and supplied her on a daily basis. He also protected her from other drug dealers, pimps, and people bent on violence.

The aim, of course, was to get her hooked, and after using heroin for two weeks Ella was well and truly dependent, both on the drug and on the dealer to supply her fix.
It wasn't long before Ella's debt to the drug dealer totaled well over a thousand dollars, and he issued an ultimatum: She had three days to pay back the money, or become a prostitute in order to work off the debt. Do nothing, and her throat would be cut.

Elle became, in effect, the property of the drug dealer.

Fortunately for Ella, the drug dealer wasn't the only person on the streets of King's Cross who had taken an interest in the teenager. Numerous homeless people had warned her about the path she was going down. She was warned not to use drugs, not to build up a debt to a drug dealer. She had ignored every warning.

Now, fearing for her life and not knowing what to do she turned to some of the homeless people who had warned her. They knew, given the particular drug dealer involved that the threat on her life was very serious and there was no way out. There was no point approaching charities for help. What charity would pay money to a drug dealer? Informing the police was not an option. On the streets, “narc-ing” someone out is a death sentence in itself.

They could have told her to go away, that she should have listened to them in the first place, but she had made her bed and now it was time to sleep in it. Instead, over the following three days a small group of homeless people raised the money needed to pay off Ella's debt.

They paid off her debt with money that had been stolen, money that had been made selling drugs and money that had been made from prostitution. They redeemed Ella through the “commerce of the streets.”

The day these homeless people bought Ella's freedom, they issued their own ultimatum. They took her to the train station and gave her money for the train, and told her “Take the chance you have been given and never, ever come back here.”

Six centuries before the birth of Christ, much of Jerusalem was in ruins and nearly abandoned. The Temple itself was a pile of rubble. After years and years of running after other gods and acting in abominable ways, after years and years of ignoring warnings from prophet after prophet, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar, and the best and the brightest had been carried off to Babylon. More years passed, and the captives despaired. Psalm 137 remembers, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps.”
Into their bleak circumstance, God speaks hope through the Prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Not long after Jesus rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his followers, news came to the Apostles that the Samaritans, too, were responding to God's grace. The Samaritans thought differently, acted differently, worshiped differently, and were considered by the “good” Jews of the day to be beneath contempt. Yet as Peter and John lay their hands on these believers, they saw and heard irrefutable evidence that God had redeemed, had called by name, had claimed as God's own, even the Samaritans! That day the Apostles began to learn, as the Apostle Paul would write later, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

On the Christian calendar, we have left the season of Christmas for Epiphany. While the Feast of Epiphany remembers the Three Wise Men discovering the Christ Child, this season represents a time of discovery for all people, both in the church and outside of the church... an opportunity to discover the essence, the meaning of God's grace, an opportunity to see that God has called us by name.

Now in our American, twenty-first century culture, this idea of God calling us by name is kind of a nice, warm-fuzzy kind of thing, the stuff of a devotional book by Max Lucado. When we hear the phrase, “I have called you by name”, we interpret that to mean that God takes note of or recognizes us, and thus gives credibility to us.

For me it reminds me of growing up. Being called by name when you're a kid isn't always a good thing; you could be getting called home for dinner or called on the carpet for doing something wrong. Now, I could always tell which it was by how much of my name Mom used when she called me. “John” was OK, it was suppertime or maybe “Match Game” was on, but “John Richard” was trouble... and how much of the second syllable you heard was an indication of how much. “John RICHard!” was a talking-to, “John RicHRT!” meant RUN!

In the understanding of those who wrote and read the Scriptures, though, this idea of being “called by name” went much deeper. It is in fact a technical term used for indicating the establishment of sovereignty over a person. For a king to “call you by name” means that the king has selected you from his court to bring you under both his protection and his authority. For a superior (in this case, God) to call someone by name means that the superior is declaring sovereignty over the other.

The person named now comes under that sovereign’s protection but is also under his authority and is therefore accountable to the overlord. God says, “you are mine.”

And unlike some earthly king or ruler who captures and conquers and annexes simply in order to have more and more territory and control and possessions, God's claim over us is a claim not of property but of family. Our Gospel reading, Luke's account of the baptism of Jesus, is an opportunity to remember our own baptism, when we became members of God's family, adopted or grafted in, sealed into an ever growing, ever dynamic, ever deepening walk with our loving Creator, who has redeemed us.

When we Christians hear the word “redemption”, we automatically think of the act of sacrifice by Jesus on the cross that brought about our salvation, and while that's true, it is an adaptation of the word. “Redeem” actually means “to buy back” or “to repossess.” It's primarily an economic term, meaning to free one from a legal or financial obligation by a transaction or agreement that takes place. Thus, for God to say, “I have redeemed you” is to have God declare, “I have bought you back”. Back from whoever we have tried to become or whatever we have done or wherever we have wandered, all in search of something to fill what St. Augustine called the “God-shaped hole.”

God has redeemed us, yet God's claim over us is not a claim of possession but of love. Elsewhere in Isaiah, the prophet quotes God as saying, “See, I have engraved you in the palms of my hands.” This same Jesus who we see baptized in today's reading of course goes on to have his palms engraved by nails in an act of redemption for all humankind: The people who are like us, and those who are not. Those we love, and those we don't like very much. People who impress us, and people who scare us. All humankind.

Thus our epiphany, our discovery, is that the beauty of the Gospel message is this: Whether we are trapped like Ella, exiled and enslaved like the Jews in Babylon, despised and marginalized like the Samaritans, or just normal everyday people, God speaks to us in every place and time and says, “ I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Word became Flesh...

John 1 has always been one of my favorite parts of Scripture. I wish I could say it's only because of its theology, but honestly it's also because it reads like something you could read at a poetry slam. It's like a Jim Morrison poem in a lot of ways... only where Jim Morrison's poetry only sounded deep, John 1 has depth beyond measure.

Anyway, having now completely destroyed any credibility I may have, here's the sermon.

John 1:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The Bible is a unique book in a lot of ways. If one believes, as we do, that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are the written Word of God, then it follows that none of the words we read are unimportant – there's nothing in the Bible as filler material, nothing that simply serves as plot development or character background, no embellishment or digression or flight of fancy. It's all there for a reason.

One of the things that is most fascinating to see in Scripture is how our understanding of who Jesus is developed over the course of early Christian history. The earliest New Testament writer is the Apostle Paul. His writings stress the importance of the central event in human history – the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is understandable, of course; Paul was an eyewitness not to the life and ministry of Jesus, but to the resurrected and glorified Christ. Other Apostolic voices joined in with their knowledge of the earthly words and works of Jesus; the earliest Gospel, Mark, is understood as the collected memories of the Apostle Peter. Some of Peter's letters are included in Scripture, as well as those of James, Jude, and other Apostles. Matthew's Gospel followed Mark's, then Luke's, and as these writings appeared, Christian theology began to embrace not only Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah, but Jesus as Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”

It has been argued that Paul thought Jesus had become divine at the resurrection; that Mark thought Jesus had become divine at the baptism, that Matthew thought Jesus had been born both God and man, and Luke understood Christ to have been both God and man at his conception in Mary's womb. If this is so, it speaks volumes to those who believe that it is not the poor in spirit, but the pure in theology who will inherit the Kingdom of heaven, but that's another sermon for another day.

While disagreements and outright violence over the nature of who Jesus is would continue through to the Council of Nicea and beyond, it is in our Gospel reading this morning, the wonderful poetry of the first chapter of John, that we see the most complete theological statement of the nature of Jesus Christ.
Not at the resurrection, not at baptism, not at birth or even at conception did Jesus become God – Jesus had, in fact, been eternally God, present at and active in the creation of all that is.

This has been called the third Christmas narrative because it offers us a full understanding of Jesus not as a created being like you and I, but as the “Word made flesh,” God incarnate among God's created.

Now, aside from informing the development of our own twenty-first century understanding of the Triune God, These words were specifically pointed at a serious problem in that late first- and early second-century church.

I said that in the first century, Christian understanding of who Jesus is was developing, and anytime there are “gaps in the story,” if you will, there are always people more than willing to fill those gaps, and usually in wildly inaccurate ways.

One such group was called the “Gnostics.” Taking their name from the Greek word for “knowledge,” the Gnostics believed that it was only though receiving special, secret knowledge about God that one could be truly saved.

Borrowing heavily from Greek philosophy, one of their core beliefs was that the material world, including our human bodies, is corrupt, inherently evil, and only the spiritual is pure and unblemished.

In practice, this manifested itself in either participating in whatever sinful activity suited one's fancy, because what the flesh did had no impact on the pure spirit, or practicing extreme abstinence, because only through strict purification of the corrupt flesh can one hope to inherit the kingdom. Further, this belief in the absolute sinfulness of the material world gave rise to some strange beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ.

For example, some believed that the human Jesus was a separate entity from the divine Christ. This separate entity Christ joined with Jesus at his baptism, and left Jesus before the crucifixion, choosing instead to appear on a mountain somewhere and have a chat with Peter while the human Jesus went through all that pesky dying business.

Others believed that Jesus wasn't an actual physical entity, but rather something of a purely spiritual being. Legend held that he never cast a shadow or left footprints in the dust.

Still others were of the opinion that Jesus might have been human, and might have been some kind of divine being, sort of, but any deity that would have anything to do with the material earth had to have been diluted. There was, with these folks, some kind of a theory involving progressions of gods from one pure and unblemished an perfectly holy God, down to lesser and lesser and weaker and weaker gods until one could derive something that could stand to be present in human form. Kind of like those Russian dolls, where you open one up, and there's another, smaller one, you open that one up, and there's another one, and so on and so on.

The problems with these kinds of theological views of Jesus Christ are not so much that they are ridiculous, but that they completely nullify any possible atonement Jesus might have made for mankind. If Christ was not present with Jesus on the cross, then there was no atonement in that sacrifice. If it was a spiritual being rather than a biological human on the cross, then there was no atoning sacrifice period. And if there is not one God but dozens or hundreds of progressively smaller and smaller gods, then this act of redemption makes no sense at all.

It was into this confusion and misinformation that the Gospel of John speaks clarity and reason:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”

Jesus didn't just happen. Moreover, neither the birth of Christ, nor the ministry of Christ, nor the death and resurrection of Christ was some kind of cosmic “Plan B.” God wasn't strolling the golden streets one day and decided to throw some Holy Spirit down on some guy standing next to John the Baptist – God had been planning this whole thing all along.

Neither was this the kind of thing where Jesus got up one morning, said “'bye, Dad,” and went down to earth to be born. Nor did Jesus slip out the back door and rush down here to do something to make up for humanity's blunders and appease a really angry God who was about itchin' to smite everyone.

Time and again throughout the New Testament we are reminded that the plan of redemption, which centered, as all of human history does, on Jesus Christ, had been set in motion when the universe itself was created. What's more, since (as we've discussed before), no act of a Person of the Trinity is made independent of the Trinity, all of God is present in all that God does, including the redemptive work of the Incarnation.

The Greek language about John the Baptist makes this clear in a beautiful way. Where we read, “There was a man sent from God,” the original Greek says “There was a man sent from the side of God.” The triune God – not a demi-god or some minor angel or heavenly file clerk, but the one true God – was personally and intimately involved in the commissioning of the one who would proclaim and baptize and become the first martyr for Jesus Christ!

What does this mean for us, on this first Sunday in 2010? Two millenia removed from the ministry of Jesus Christ, two thousand years into the twilight-before-dawn of Christ's return, we can rest assured that we do not worship a concept, or a set of principles, or an idea. We are not Christians because we like the songs or because there are donuts in the back room. We do not claim relationship with the Creator based upon adherence to rules or because we were born in the proper caste or class or country or political system.

We worship a God who is and has been intimately involved in the affairs of humankind – a God who loves us and always has loved us, no matter where we have been or what we have done. We are Christians because Christ really was born, really lived, really died and really rose again. We rejoice in relationship with God because in the completed work of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection, God has done everything necessary to make that loving, eternal relationship a reality.
We love because he first loved us!

That “the Word became flesh and lived among us” is not simply a statement of truth for the then-and there, but for the here and now. Emmanuel is present-tense, God is with us, through whatever 2010 brings our way – tragedy and triumphs, challenges and victories, questions and answers, failures and successes, God is with us!

Thanks be to God!