Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cisterns, Angels Unaware... Our Story Isn't Done!

Many thanks to TextWeek for their weekly banquet of resources for preaching and liturgy. There I was able to employ the help of Henry Langknecht, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, as well as Kate Huey of the UCC.

There's a song by the Foo Fighters called "Times Like These." I'd heard it here and there, but it really hit home to me back in 2005 in a small group at Montreat. I don't remember the context in whihc it was played, or what the small group leader said about it, but it became something of a statement of faith for me:

"It's times like these we learn to live again,
It's times like these we give and give again,
It's times like these we learn to love again,
It's times like these, time and time again."

Our story goes on. God isn't done with us yet.

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, "Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?" I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, "Where is the LORD?" Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children's children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place', and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Old Testament reading fairly cries out for one of those sermons where I talk about how bad we Christians are at being really faithful, listing all of the ways we’ve exchanged the joy of a life of faith in God for instant gratification.

I’ve done those sermons before. I think, or at least hope, that everyone who stands behind a pulpit has. They seem hard-hitting and insightful. They feel bold and edgy. They make us feel like Billy Sunday, pounding (at least metaphorically) our Bibles on the pulpit, itemizing the manners in which we’ve built broken cisterns for ourselves, and shouting imprecations against the avarice and greed infesting the modern day church.

But can I be honest with you? Sermons like that are easy. What’s more, I don’t think there’s a Christian in any church this morning anywhere in the United States that doesn’t know we do a lousy job of being God’s people. Do we really need another sermon bemoaning the way we’ve replaced God with possessions? I think not, honestly. We know that we take God for granted. We know we take God's providence and faithfulness for granted. We know that we put our time and energy into fruitless pursuits. We know that we are more zealous in spreading the word about our favorite college football team (or, in my case, my favorite NASCAR driver) than about God's action in our lives. We know that in putting our lives together we draw on the dry wells of human wisdom. We know this.

Here’s the mystery, though… God knows all of this, too. God knew about it when God called the Hebrew people, and God knew it when God called us. God sees us when we struggle to stay faithful, thankful, and zealous. When we go after worthless things because their "worthlessness" is deferred and their immediate payoff is so satisfying. We know and can say that God's acts of deliverance were amazing! But, come on, the thrill of walking between the walls of water in the Red Sea, the excitement of seeing the Ark of the Covenant danced into Jerusalem? That belonged to people long dead; those are just stories now.

We want our own vivid experience, our own memories, and (God help us) the stories being told on our little screens feel more real to us. God knows all of this, as well as – better than – we do… and God loves us anyway!

The thing we must remember is that the story – the one that includes walking through the Red Sea on dry land, the one that includes dancing with all our might as the priests carry the Ark into Jerusalem, the one that includes all of the failures and forgiveness of God’s people, the story that includes a baby in a manger and a cross on a hill, the story that includes an empty tomb on a Sunday morning, that story is not over! God is not done with us!

I sometimes wonder if the Lectionary Elves threw Bible passages up in the air, and put them into the calendar any which way they fell. But today’s readings go together in a kind of interesting way, I think. If the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah is the problem, perhaps the New Testament offers something of a solution.

Here’s what I mean. Israel was unique among all the nations of its day. They were surrounded by cultures which worshipped dozens, sometimes hundreds, of gods.

These gods all had temples, and all their temples had wood or stone or clay representations of that god in them. Yet Israel’s attention, their devotion, was to be focused upon one God, the true God. A God who had only one Temple, and contained no image, no physical representation of God. Perhaps that made it easy to slip away, to begin treating worship as if it was no big deal, simply rituals that must be performed to keep up appearances.

Perhaps that made it easy to begin experimenting with these other gods, to begin to forget how God had brought them from slavery and into a land of abundance. After all, sacrificing to a god you could see might have felt more “real,” more immediately gratifying. More like you were doing something constructive with your time. Besides, having a household god to worship meant you didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. Like building a cistern to catch rainwater rather than going to the river a mile away: the water wasn’t as fresh, but it was here.

But these cisterns, these false gods, these attitudes of going through the motions, could not hold water. God called out to the children, calling them back. The story was not over. God was not done with them yet.

If Israel was supposed to function as a people of God, then the modern church is intended to function in an even more closely-knit fashion. Paul refers to Christians collectively as the “Body of Christ” not because it’s a catchy phrase, but because, like a body, we are to function as a single organism, a collective unit of many disparate parts acting as a unit.

The writer of the book of Hebrews makes this clear: We are to love one another, and welcome strangers as if they were divine beings sent from God. When one of us is imprisoned or tortured – whatever that means for us in our nation where one isn’t beaten or burned for placing Christ as Lord above Caesar – we must feel it deeply and personally, as if our own hand or foot was enduring that torture. Our marriages are to be faithful, as examples to the community of the relationship between Christ and his church. Money cannot be our substitute god, nor can fear about the future. Our dependence must be upon God, and our example must be those who have walked the faith journey before us, especially Jesus Christ… who is the object of our worship and the reason for all the sacrifices we make.

Money isn’t the problem. Fame isn’t the problem. Power isn’t the problem. Influence isn’t the problem. Why and how we use the measure of money and fame and power and influence we have is what’s at issue.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich wrote about the recent death of a wealthy, prominent woman, Judith Dunnington Peabody. While we might expect someone of Ms. Peabody’s wealth and stature to enjoy all the privilege and comforts and prestige her money could afford her, what Jesus referred to in our Gospel reading as “the highest place” at the tables she graced, more than one article about Mrs. Peabody's life reveals a woman who understood – deeply – what it means to be a blessing, and what it means to love the strangers in our lives, not from afar, but sitting right down, next to them.

In addition to the traditional fundraising (among her "own") that most society matrons engage in, Judith Peabody worked with and for those in need, those whom most folks would have avoided, including, for example, a Hispanic youth gang in East Harlem. Her obituary, written by Bruce Weber, makes it sound as if she keenly understood Jesus' instructions about whom to invite to your table: “‘One night she invited them all for dinner to our apartment,’ Mr. Peabody recalled in an interview Monday. ‘The doormen were, well, a little surprised. It was a great night.’” Ms. Peabody also worked hard during the 1980's as a caregiver for people with HIV and AIDS, while others stayed away out of fear: according to one person who worked with Ms. Peabody, “There was this constant with her of consoling and holding people's hands.”

Trebay quotes a number of people who try to describe what made Mrs. Peabody so unusual, and such an inspiration for others: “That the people in her particular village were 'the most marginalized,' and often those furthest from her own milieu of 'incredible social privilege' was what set her apart, Dr. [Jonathan] Jacobs said." And William Norwich's reminisced, “What made her different was she was always going into areas where polite society didn't go….Friends of hers would tell her: ‘I can't believe you're doing that. We don't know people like that.’”

What separates you and I from Judith Peabody? Is it money? Fame? Influence? Power? No. What separates us is only that Ms. Peabody’s story ended this past August, and ours has not. Our stories – no, our story – goes on. What we have done, what we have left undone; the worship and sacrifices we have offered to Christ, and the worship and sacrifices we have neglected; the opportunities we have taken advantage of to be the hands and feet of Christ, and those we have missed, all of these are a prelude to what comes next.

God is not finished with us yet!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Breaking the Sabbath, or Restoring the Sabbath?

I like thinking, "what if?" We're always casting the Pharisees and religious leaders as the bad guys, the sinister characters lurking in the shadows of the Gospels, awaiting their opportunity to jump out and yell "BOO!" at the Messiah.

Real life is more nuanced than that, and I imagine that more than a few religious leaders actually heard and considered and were changed by what Jesus was saying. Perhaps this leader of the synagogue was one of them.

You know the drill: comments and constructive criticism welcome!

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."

Hebrews 12:18-29
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear.")
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven." This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken-that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Luke 13:10-17
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This is the word of the Lord.

I struggled for awhile to come up with the right adjective to describe this pericope, this account of Jesus healing a crippled woman. It’s a beautiful account, but it’s confusing. It’s powerful, but a little, dare I say, convoluted.

Jesus heals a woman who doesn’t ask for healing, and the leader of the synagogue doesn’t confront him directly about it, but shouts at the people. And instead of calling the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite, Jesus speaks in the plural – directed to the people gathered there, rejoicing? To the religious sect the leader of the synagogue was a member of? Perhaps the leader was joined in his protests by others in the synagogue. We don’t know.

The more I think about this leader of the synagogue, though, the more I think he gets kind of a bum deal most of the time. After all, we’re a people who don’t keep the Sabbath, we attend church on the first day of the week, Sunday, rather than the last day, Saturday. And while for much of the last century, many parts of America had blue laws, prohibitions against stores and restaurants and such being open on Sunday, for the most part all of those laws have been either done away with or are largely ignored.

Some of us enjoy Sunday as a day to rest, enjoy friends and family, watch a ball game or a race, and recharge for the coming week. But we’re not above doing some work if it needs to be done: an extra shift at our job, or some repair work on our home or car. We’ll drive to the grocery store, pick up a shovel or a rake, push a lawn mower, whatever needs to be done.

All this Sabbath-keeping stuff is long past us, so we view the exchange between Jesus and the ruler of the synagogue as little more than Jesus winning an argument. Jesus doing away with the idea of the Sabbath rest. We see it as a justification for working or doing whatever needs to be done on whatever day of the week it comes up.

But there’s something deeper going on here.

It helps to understand, first, that the ruler of the synagogue (and for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call him the rabbi during the rest of our discussion this morning) may not simply have been blowing his top over Jesus breaking the rules: “how dare he cause me to look bad in front of the congregation by deliberately going against the things I think are right!”

What if this rabbi’s outburst, his protest, was not a result of being offended, but rather out of concern that the members of his synagogue, his community, whom he cared deeply for, worship their God in the way he knew of as best?

Each of us knows that one of the Ten Commandments is to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” That’s Exodus 20, verses 8 through 11, by the way.

For the devout Jew, the words about no one doing any work are not a suggestion, not a commentary on the commandment, but part and parcel of the commandment, the “how” to the “what” of remembering the Sabbath.

Over the centuries men of faith had, through long discussion and serious prayer, come up with specific instruction aimed at properly observing the Sabbath. If one should not work on the Sabbath, then one must understand, in detail, and no detail is too fine, how “work” is defined.

There are thirty-nine categories of prohibited activity on the Sabbath. They are: plowing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, there’s the shearing, washing, beating or dyeing of wool, then spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, then scraping, marking, or cutting hide to shape, also writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object and transporting an object between the private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain. Whew!

Furthermore, while Jewish Law demanded that the Sabbath be broken in order to save a life or prevent death, but that was the limit. Healing, you see, may involve work.

Thus a plaster might be applied to a wound if the object was to prevent it from getting worse, but not to heal it. Life could be saved, but healing from injury beyond that could never take place on the Sabbath.

I can imagine this rabbi, having spent his life in the study of the Law, was sent from the Temple into a village in the Galilean countryside. There, working out of the tiny synagogue and simple home provided for him, he would have mediated disputes, written and read letters for the largely illiterate populace, counseled troubled people, comforted the lonely, rejoiced with the happy, officiated weddings, performed circumcisions, officiated funerals…

In short, he would have come to care about these people. He would have grown to love them. Nothing would have made him happier than seeing this woman, bent and in pain for as long as he had known her, standing erect, singing praise to the God who had healed her! But it was the wrong time for this to happen, weren’t there six other days in the week for healing? Why now, today, when the Law taught strictly that such things were forbidden?

And what should happen if everyone who was sick, crippled, and in some kind of pain came forward for a touch from this amazing man, this Jesus of Nazareth? The whole town would be breaking the Law! He had to protect them, he had to stop them from doing the unthinkable!

I’m approaching it this way because, when we read passages like this, we tend to see Jesus in opposition to angry, contentious religious leaders. We tend to hear the words in our head as if Jesus was having an argument with them, and winning the argument. That’s kind of true, but it isn’t precisely accurate.

Here’s what I mean. When people are under stress, when a problem or a challenge produces anxiety, they most commonly react not with logic or clear reasoning, but with emotion, operating out of the most primitive portion of the brain, what’s called the reptilian brain. They fight back. That’s why, when you hear two people arguing, and you’re not involved, it so often sounds confusing, and perhaps a bit silly, each one saying things that demonstrate that they’re not completely listening to one another. Each one is not so much trying to convince the other of his point as trying to protect his turf. Winning an argument isn’t as much about bringing someone over to your way of thinking as it is about verbally beating them into silence.

And while, many times, the scribes and Pharisees were, from their perspective, fighting for their own turf, Jesus didn’t have any turf to protect. His whole life, every word he spoke, wasn’t an effort to put people in their place, to demonstrate his verbal prowess, to highlight his intellectual superiority, but to speak the truth to people who were starving for it. Dying for it. He spoke words not to win arguments, but to change lives.

I imagine this rabbi, with conflicting emotions of joy at the healing of this beloved woman and fear at seeing his people profane a holy day, shocked at the harshness of Jesus’ words to him: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Luke doesn’t record the rabbi’s response. I’d like to think there wasn’t one, not immediately. Henry David Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear.” What if that rabbi, who was just as passionate about seeing the lives of these people he loved, really heard what Jesus was saying? Not immediately (being called a hypocrite stings a bit, after all), but after the shock wore off. What if he thought about what Jesus said, and understood… and was changed?

You see, when we get right down to it, Jesus wasn’t breaking the Sabbath! He wasn’t encouraging others to break the Sabbath! Jesus was returning the Sabbath to its original intention – a day of rest given in praise and worship of God. A day where the mundane and ordinary is set aside, and God is glorified.

Elsewhere Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for the man, not man for the Sabbath. Perhaps what the rabbi learned that day, and perhaps what Jesus is saying to you and I this morning, is that our faith is not built upon the rules we follow, or the words we repeat. Our hope is not predicated on the soundness of our doctrine, or founded on theological treatises. The woman in that synagogue was not healed to make a point, but because she needed healing. She was healed not to win an argument, but to glorify God.

It is that simple, and that profound. Christ was consumed with glorifying God in all things, and his message was always one of love. Far beyond rules and laws and doctrines and theological statements, this too is our aim: to glorify God and to love all those who God created.

It is that love which defines our faith.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Winners Never Quit...

If you've been living under a rock, you may not have heard about Anne Rice's decision to quit Christianity. While she remains committed to following Jesus Christ, she has, it seems, had enough of the homophobia and rank idiocy which appears to have infected much of what is most visible in the faith.

More power to her, says I...

...except one teensy little problem: Ms. Rice is making the common and understandable mistake of equating the loudest and stupidest segment of Christianity with the whole. And while, yes, all Christians share responsibility for coexisting with what I call the "FundieLoons" (and what John Scalzi so aptly calls "Leviticans"), the fact is that the part does not equal the whole.

Anne Rice said, specifically,
"I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."

I refuse to be all of those things to, vehemently. I'm still a Christian, though. In fact, I can introduce you to many Christians who similarly refuse to be all of those things, yet still embrace Christianity.

Anyone who has read or heard "The Sermon I'll Never Preach" knows that I think the organized church is broken, and badly so. I cannot, however, begin to imagine that the most effective way to promote growth and change in an organization is by telling said organization to sod off.

You can leave a church, yes. I have done so.

You can disassociate with a given theological position. I have also done so.

Ultimately, you can decide to quit organized Christianity altogether, and still operate within a framework of change. Many in the Emerging Church movement have done just that, and already the seeds of reconstruction are germinating within that loosely-defined system of association.

Choosing to eschew the whole of Christianity, though, leaves one with no framework, no reference point, no language, no template whatsoever; it becomes an effort much like dancing to architecture. Want to read the Scriptures? Thank Christianity for their existence. Want to pray? Thank Christianity for knowing how. Want to use language to describe your understanding of Christ, and how Christ relates/interacts/exists within creation, and within the Trinity (or, if you're so inclined, doesn't)? Thank Christianity for that language.

Worse, to me, is how, following the attention given to Ms. Rice's proclamation, it's suddenly becoming the "in thing" to "quit Christianity for Christ." I wonder if all of those on the bandwagon understand what they are saying: are you eschewing the organizational structure, or rejecting the whole of the historical and theological faith tradition?

If the former, you're not quitting Christianity, you're becoming Emerging or Emergent or an Outlaw Preacher or, I don't know, maybe a hermit. If the latter, you are doing the equivalent of quitting breathing for oxygen, or quitting eating for food. Does Christ exist independent of Christianity? Of course he does. However, without the current fellowship of believers, and the millenia of people of faith sweating out the details, we cannot - that's right, sports fans, I said cannot - competently or coherently comprehend Christ.

That alliteration was completely accidental, but I'll keep it.

Look, I know, from experience, what it is to be hurt by a church, and to some degree to be hurt by The Church. I won't bore you with details, because I suspect you really aren't interested (and the stories aren't all that compelling anyway). All I am saying - all I am saying - is that words mean things, and I contend that most, if not all, of those claiming to be "quitting Christianity for Christ" are using inaccurate language.

The danger of all of this is simply that for someone of influence (and everyone has influence) to quit the faith may encourage others to reject both Christianity and Christ, and those "quitting" because it's the trendy thing to do are walking dangerously close to James 1:8 territory.

Take care that you mean what you say, friends.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Faith As a Verb Redux

I used to worry about repeating myself too much in sermons. What I've learned is that, however effective we preacher types are at communicating, most congregation members aren't going to remember what you said last week... and those that do most likely won't remember the week before.

In any case, some things bear repeating, and sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary (and, dare I say, the Holy Spirit) demand repetition.

I have to give a word of appreciation to friends on Twitter who helped me compile both bumper sticker quotes and "hot-potato" questions. I promise to miss someone: Heather Detloff, A. Theist, Kathryn Bell, S. Hamm, Rev. John Jensen, Grace, Shirley Ostrander, Rev. Deborah Matthews, Erica, and Crystal Lewis. Not only did they help me write this sermon, we had a howling good time doing it.

A note about the closing line: In the worship service, instead of intoning "Now let us recite the Apostle's Creed" or some such, I introduce that part of the service with a (usually) passionate exhortation: "Christians! What is it that you believe?" The idea is to encourage all of us to think about the words we are saying.

Comments and constructive criticism, as always, are welcome.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Luke 12:49-56
"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

What does faith look like?

Do you demonstrate your faith with a bumpersticker? “Honk if you love Jesus,” “Smoking or non-smoking? Make your eternal reservation now!”
“If God is your co-pilot you're in the wrong seat,” “My boss is a Jewish carpenter,” “1 cross+ 3 Nails= 4 given,” “REPENT OR BURN,” and “Real Men Love Jesus.” My second favorite one is “my other car is a fish,” but my absolute number one is this: “Jesus Loves Everyone... But I'm His Favorite!”

Is this what faith looks like? A bumper sticker?

Do you demonstrate your faith by where you go to church? Is a Presbyterian a more faithful follower of Christ than a Methodist, or is a Methodist a more faithful follower of Christ than a Lutheran, or is a Lutheran a more faithful follower of Christ than a Baptist? Is someone who goes to First Presbyterian a more faithful follower of Christ than someone who goes to Third Baptist? Is it more faithful to recite the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed? Is it more faithful to view Baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments, or as ordinances? Is it more faithful to go to church on Saturday or on Sunday?

Is this what faith looks like? Sitting for an hour or so in the right building?

It's no secret that we live in an impatient society, insisting on instant gratification, black-and-white positions, quick fixes, and easy answers.
We have internet banking, microwave meals, instant messaging and drive-through windows. We treat information much like fast food, expecting politicians to be able to state their position on complex issues within a television soundbite. We are a society which is becoming more and more dependent on pundits and talking heads to form our opinions, and as a result we are a society that is becoming more and more anxious, more afraid, desperate for answers, assurances, and security.

It's no surprise, then, that we too often expect to be able to encapsulate matters of faith into concise, easy to swallow, solidly defined statements: things which are right over against solidly defined things which are wrong; clearly understandable declarations short enough to fit into a standard cell-phone text message. We judge someone's level of faith – indeed, whether or not they have faith at all – on how they answer certain (usually hot-button) questions: “Do you believe the Bible is inerrant?” “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” “Do you believe in creationism?” “Should women be allowed to preach?” “Do you take part in Halloween?” A friend tells me she's gotten this one: “homeschool, christian school, or public school?” to determine how serious she is about raising her children in the faith. Some people will even draw conclusions about your level of commitment to Christ with a question like “are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Is this, then, what faith looks like? Saying the right things, giving the proper answers?

Do you demonstrate your faith by answering what Tony Campolo refers to as “hot potato questions” correctly? By way of answer, think about famous preachers and successful politicians, people who have enjoyed great success at putting the “right” answers to those kinds of questions. Now think of how many have been exposed as frauds, caught in illicit affairs, arrested on ethics charges, dismissed from their pulpits or impeached from office.

Clearly, what one says doesn't always reflect one's faith.

So... what does faith look like?

The writer of the Book of Hebrews contends that faith is not something that is said, but something that is done. Look at the words the writer uses: “conquered, administered, obtained, shut, quenched, escaped, won, became, put to flight”... and yes, also “suffered, persecuted, tormented, and wandered,” and that's not all of them. The point is that the “cloud of witnesses” we are reminded of in the Book of Hebrews were not seen as faithful because they had the right bumper sticker, or went to the right church, or voted for the correct people, or answered the questions the right way.

It was what they did that proved them to be faithful... and if we may use the example of the reading from Isaiah, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry,” it was what the children of Israel did that proved them to be unfaithful.

Actions, not words, are what faith looks like.

I am not about to suggest that we must “do” things to receive salvation. It is as true today as it was when it was written to the church at Ephesus: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” The grace of God is just that – grace, a gift freely given not when we decide we want it, or when we find it or say all the right things in a prayer, or when we finally somehow earn it, but grace given freely, extravagantly, audaciously! Grace given on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem, grace flowing from an empty tomb.

With that said, we must understand that when we truly believe something, we cannot help but act upon that belief – our core principles, our true convictions, these are at the root of everything we do. Our faith guides our actions. We do what we believe!

The story is told of a man who did not believe in the existence of God. He was walking one evening, and lost his way, and in the failing light he stepped off a sheer cliff. As he fell, he happened to grab hold of a small tree growing from a crack in the rocks. He held on for dear life, trying desperately to figure out what to do. He cried for help, but he was a long way from town, and no one heard him. His arms were losing their strength, and his grip was failing. He was slipping, and soon he would fall to his death.

Finally, with nothing left to lose, he cried out, “God! Help me!” Immediately a voice rang out from the heavens, “My child, do you believe?” “Yes, Lord, I believe!” “My child, do you trust Me?” “Yes! Yes, Lord, I trust You!” “Let go, my child, and I will catch you.” “...Is there anyone else up there?”

Now, you and I are not likely to be in a situation where the only thing between us and certain death is a branch growing off the side of a cliff. And whatever the pundits and prophets of doom may say, we aren't likely to ever be called upon to endure real persecution to test our faith in God. So what does our faith look like? What should our faith look like?

How do we respond when someone we do not know is in need of food?

How do we react when a group of people we have no connection to is treated unjustly?

When called upon to speak, do we use our voice? When called upon to give, do we open our purse? When called upon to act, do we move swiftly?

It's possible that you are like me. When I ask myself those questions, when I compare what I know about how God expects a person of faith to react with how I really do react, I'm not real proud of the results.

I'm too quick to judge, too quick to dismiss, far too swift to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, far too eager to say that I haven't got enough time or enough money and anyway it's someone else's responsibility. When I examine my heart and my motives, I have no other answer than that I am wrong. I need to change.

When the Scriptures speak of repentance, it isn't simply feeling sorry that we did wrong. Repentance carries with it the mandate to commit to change. The good news is that we Christians have a wonderful gift, the Holy Spirit, who acts as a guide, a teacher, a comforter, and an agent of change in our lives.

I am not alone – We are not alone!

Where I was silent, with God's help, I can speak. Where I was stingy with my resources, with God's help, I can become generous. Where I was callous and uncaring, with God's help, I can become compassionate. I can, and with God's help, I will.

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

With God's help, I can treat these words as more than a pretty saying from the Bible. I can look to them as clear direction, as an exhortation to respond to God's call to act on what I believe!

Show, don't tell: Christians, what do you believe?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Faith Lived as a Verb

I've done some "_______ is a verb" sermons before. I might even have said "faith is a verb." No matter; some things bear repeating, and the concept of our beliefs being more than a set of doctrinal statements is one that needs to be engraved upon our hearts.

Some housekeeping notes: I'm moderating comments now; certain individuals have taken to using the comments section of my blog as opportunities to take pot-shots at my (admittedly Progressive/Liberal) stated beliefs. While I welcome the opportunity to discuss, openly and at length, matters of faith, I insist on a level playing field for these discussions. Catch me on Twitter, or throw me a FaceBook message. Better yet, join me for a cup of coffee at the Huddle House.

As days progress, this blog will hopefully become more of a place where i not only post sermons, but actually do blog-like things: commentary and essay. I don't imagine I will be as good at it as Matthew Paul Turner or Roger Ebert, but it might end up being fun.

Anyway, here's the sermon. Feel free to comment, constructively criticize, or post your favorite recipe for pie.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Luke 12:32-40

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
"But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I'm going to ask a kind of dangerous question this morning: What is “faith?”

It's a dangerous question for a few reasons: first, it's broad. My Uncle John was a professor of drama at the University of Alabama before he retired, and directed countless plays, both for the students and for the Tuscaloosa community theater. He tells of the time he went on a local television show to give an interview about an upcoming play. The camera came on, and the interviewer leaned in, fixed John with a sincere, intense stare, and asked him, “what do you think of art?” Just like any opinion of the nature of the universe of artistic expression will fall short, any answers we find this morning concerning faith are bound to be incomplete.

Second, the concept of “faith” has been so often miscast, misused and misinterpreted that, like the three blind men who attempted to describe an elephant by feeling only the part of the animal in front of them, we can't always be sure we're talking about the same thing. Is faith a thing which assures us we will never lack? Does faith manifest itself in perfect health? Is faith something acquired through believing certain doctrines, or mentally assenting to a given theological ideal? Is faith a vague, indefinable state of eternal hopefulness, or else an unattainable ideal, with such stringent requirements that no one since Abraham has ever really “had” faith?

And let's be honest, the writer of Hebrews doesn't give us a whole lot of help. I mean, as a definition, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” well, it doesn't top the list of definitive phrases in the New testament, does it?

It doesn't help that the original Greek for what's translated as “assurance,” hupostasis, only appears in one place in the entire New Testament. It appears in Christian theology in arguments over the nature of Christ in the fourth and fifth centuries, something that fascinates me but has no real relevance to the discussion today. Here the word hupostasis refers to the essence of faith. What faith is made of.

I wonder if you've heard this verse used in as many different settings as I have, as everything from a kind indeterminate of motivational quote to a justification for believing that if you aren't rich, healthy, and popular you aren't “Christian” enough? It's no wonder that faith is such a wide and confusing subject.

The word “faith” occurs in Hebrews more times than in any other book of the New Testament, and twenty-four times in the eleventh chapter alone. But what is faith? Is it quantitative (a matter of degrees), where you can have measurably more faith than I, or someone else have more than either of us? Is it qualitative, where his faith is “better” than her faith, or the faith practiced at that church is better than the faith practiced at another? Is it a spiritual gift from God? Is it a natural human characteristic?

Well, for the book of Hebrews, Frances Taylor Gench contends that the way the writer of Hebrews uses faith “is closer to the meaning of faithfulness. It speaks of faith as active obedience.” (Italics added)

In other words, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, far from simply mentally agreeing to the concept of God's promises, responded actively to that promise. They lived in that promise. Their faith was not a thought process or a subject of study and discussion. Their faith was something lived. Something that was done, performed, acted upon. Their faith was a verb.

To the prophet Isaiah, to live faith as a verb meant not simply performing the rites, attending to the details and going through the motions of worship. When a person's heart is turned against the needs of the poor, the orphans, those suffering injustice and oppression, the act of worship is, if I may use Isaiah's exact word, an abomination. To put it more precisely, worship is not an event, but a lifestyle. Professor R. B. Y. Scott wrote that worship must be “the expression and symbol of reverence for the moral character of God and the corresponding moral standards which should characterize his people.” Human conduct must be a reflection and imitation of God’s justice, goodness, truth, kindness and mercy. Worship, like faith, is a verb.

Our passage from the Gospel of Luke paints faith-as-a-verb in terms of what, and Who, we hope for. Jesus had just finished telling his disciples to consider how God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, comparing it to the foolish man who had built larger barns to store his goods, relying on his own accomplishments.

Faith as a verb understands that our possessions are tools for the Kingdom of God, and nothing less. Faith as a verb understands that the Kingdom of God is here, now, and in the future, that the same Christ who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven will be returning. Faith as a verb understands that being ready means being active. Worshiping in our actions toward all God has created.

William Barclay, in his commentary on the Book of Hebrews, wrote that “faith is a hope that is absolutely certain that what it believes is true, and that what it expects will come. It is not hope which looks forward with wistful longing; it is hope which looks forward with utter certainty. It is not hope which takes refuge in a perhaps; it is hope which is founded on a conviction.”

Faith is our attitude, conviction or trust that there is an invisible, spiritual realm or energy which not only influences but actually created and determines what happens in the visible, external environment in which we live from day to day.

That's the faith that treats worship as something we do every day, with our hands as well as our hearts, with our pocketbooks as well as with our voices, with our talents as well as with our presence.

That's the faith that depends upon God, that understands the Kingdom of God as the reign of God, “where abundance flows out of God’s own sufficiency and generosity.”*

That's the faith that is a verb.

*Quoted from Sharon H. Ringe