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.

1 comment:

  1. Well Said John.

    Linda Turner

    MA Liberal Studies Program, Simon Fraser University
    Chair: Inter-Ecothee: Renew it. Do it. Green the Scene! Symposium
    Bethany-Newton United Church