Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Unknown God (sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter)

James Limburg, a seminary professor, in an essay on today's psalm, reports that in his grandfather role he is sometimes required to tell his grandchildren stories. He has therefore written up a number of bible stories in short form that he can tell children. As part of making these stories more interesting, he sometimes includes his own grandchildren as characters in them. Once he asked his grandson if his grandson liked the stories. His grandson replied, "Yes I do." The child thought a moment and then went on: "But I like them best when they're about me!"

We all like stories about us, about ourselves or people we know. I often hear that people like my funeral sermons, and I think it's because they are stories about people they know. Sermons that are actually about Jesus are often less pleasant, and this is because, well, this is a person we don't really know very well.

It is the nature of the sinful world humankind has made for itself that other spirits take center stage and the spirit of the creator is exiled from human community. God has therefore called us, God's people, to make it our business to know God and to make God known again, in the hopes of reconciling the world to God.

But knowing God is a tricky business. One of our new members, Bill Luke, has said that God is slippery. I think God is slippery because God is alive.

A living God continues to respond to a living situation. No book or statue or creed can stand century after century as the last word, the sole idea, the unchanging identity of God. Jesus Christ, a very specific and particular person, is risen from the dead. He is alive.

And so Christ today is the same person who was born in the first century, who went about on foot in a relatively small geographical area, preaching and teaching and healing, the same person who was arrested and executed for insurrection, the same person who emerged transformed from the tomb on Easter Sunday.

But now he has lived through the fall of the Roman Empire. He has lived through the rise of the European feudal societies. He has lived through the Reformation. He has lived through the colonization of the American continents. He has lived through the American Revolution and the World Wars and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

And Jesus is alive in all kinds of places, in China and Liberia and Indonesia. He's alive in Belize and Sumatra and Illinois.

And, like us, Jesus speaks and acts differently dependent on when and where he is. He doesn't become a different person, anymore than we become different people because we have aged twenty years or because we've moved to a different place. We behave differently in different places and times not because we are inconsistent or dishonest, but because we are alive. That's what being alive means.

At the same time, there is a core to each one of us, an unchanging identity, and this is equally important. The story of our lives, the succession of anecdotes we tell about what we did in different times and places, is about the only way we can really capture this core. This is what I try to do at funerals. One way we talk about this unchanging self is with the word "spirit."

Each person has a spirit, a characteristic center that doesn't change, even though it might manifest differently to different times and places. Nations and institutions have spirits as well. And the spirit enthroned above all these spirits is the God of Israel, the great "I Am."

But peculiar to Christian thought is the idea that this Spirit, the creator God, makes itself known through the human creature. So when we tell stories about this God, we are telling stories about God's people. And when we are telling stories about God's people, we are telling stories about Jesus. And when we are telling stories about Jesus and God's people, we are telling stories about us.

I think it awfully important that the church share some common ground with the place and time in which it finds itself, that it finds what recognizable landmarks it can so that people can feel some sense that the gospel is about them. But I think at this time and place in history we emphasize this too much. I think we have so identified the gospel with our preferences and opinions and culture that we have lost the core identity, the Spirit, of Christ.

A lot of my work over the past six years has been to teach and preach about this Spirit, to insist on telling the Old Testament stories, to insist on speaking about the particular person Jesus, to insist on disciples learning these stories and coming to know this Spirit, just as we come to know the story of some friend or family member with whom we live. Knowing these stories and poems and letters is the way we come to recognize the Spirit, a Spirit which is indeed alive and always responding as living persons do, uniquely to each unique situation.

These are my prayers of thanksgiving for you:

That Christ has so worked in you and among you over these past six years that many lives have been transformed, many who have lived in darkness have come out into the light, and many who have been imprisoned have come into freedom.

That Christ has worked through you to bless and grow and heal me.

That Christ has led you to become a disciple-forming church, one that welcomes and involves seekers in ministry.

That Christ has given you a sense of mission, so that you have begun to act with purpose and intention in your community.

That Christ has richly blessed you with the humble spirit of service.

And these are my prayers for your future:

That God's Spirit will open in all of you a deep wisdom in the stewardship of the gifts God has given each one of you, all the gifts, of time, talent and wealth, and that the bottomless generosity of God will richly flow through each one.

That God's Spirit will lead this congregation more deeply into a corporate life of prayer, that you together might pray without ceasing, giving thanks and pleading for the world every time you gather, so that the passion God has for this beautiful creation might be revealed in your worship.

That the Spirit might so richly dwell in each one of you that your story might become part of God's story, and that you might be able to boldly give account of your relationship to Christ, so that the community all around might hear the name of Jesus on your lips.

And finally, this is my benediction as I leave you:

May you tell the stories of God to each other so richly and so often that you will collectively come to know the God's Spirit with great clarity and certainty.

May you let go of your preferences and opinions and yield to the sure guidance of this Spirit, in peaceful unity.

May it be this Spirit, and not powerful or popular personalities, that will hold the church together, guide all its work and grow all its members.

May this Spirit knit you together with all the people of God everywhere, in this county, in this country, in all the world.

May it be this living Spirit, and not dead words or creeds or doctrines, that encounters each new moment and each new person both in this church and, through this church, in the community.

May you continue to make known the unknown God.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stones (sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter)

It couldn't have been easy to tear down the temple.

By the time John had written his gospel, by the time Luke had written Acts, and probably by the time this letter of Peter had been composed, the temple in which Jesus had been bar mitzvah-ed and circumcised, where he'd whipped the moneylenders and turned over their tables, and where the first disciples gathered after the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, was nothing but a pile of great broken stones. One wall only was left, and it still stands today. It's called "the wailing wall."

The temple had been an imposing structure. This was the nature of temples in the ancient near east. Each nation, and particularly each large imperial city state like Memphis or Babylon or Rome or Athens, had its god or gods, and each one expressed its power and vitality by building impressive temples. The second temple in Jerusalem was no exception. It was there to express that this nation, Israel, was protected and secured by a powerful god.

And for this very reason, empires that wanted to really crush an opponent nation would not only murder and enslave as many of the nation's inhabitants as it could, but would deliver the most stinging blow by destroying the nation's temple or temples. For the inhabitants of the conquered land, this was a visible sign of hopelessness. It told them that their god or gods had been defeated, that the god or gods of their conquerors were victorious.

There can be little doubt that bin Laden and Al Qaeda had this kind of religious message in mind when they flew their planes into the twin towers. The towers were to them the temples of the United States. Of course bin Laden and his group are not real Muslims, nor were the towers temples to the American people. What Al Qaeda did was simply an act of mass murder. Nevertheless the act produced in us the kind of horror that the Jews must have felt watching the Romans tear down their temple.

Of course the Romans didn't have today's technology. One has to wonder what kind of machines they had to use to so completely destroy a huge stone building. I presume we're talking about catapults, battering rams, team of horses perhaps. I don't think it's easy to take down a monumental building, particularly without the use of explosives. It would have been a pretty significant project. It would probably not have been quick. It would have been slow, brutal.

Stoning a person to death is not quick either. There's a very good but really horrifying movie called The Stoning of Saroya M. that does a pretty good job of showing how slow and difficult it is to stone a person to death. People stand at a distance and hurl stones at the condemned person. Many miss. Many hit other parts of the body, merely causing severe pain but hardly contributing to actually killing the person. It's the stones that hit the head that do the most damage, and the head is a rather difficult target. And even if one hits the head, it's surprising how many parts of the head you can hit and damage without causing death.

From the passage we heard this morning we don't necessarily get that Stephen is being stoned to death here, or why. The people stoning Stephen were not Romans. They were upstanding religious folk. In fact the stoning itself was a biblically mandated punishment for blasphemy. Stephen, recently ordained by the apostles as one of the first deacons, was preaching to synagogue leaders and prominent religious persons about how they had murdered the son of God and how God didn't only dwell in the temple in Jerusalem. These were deeply blasphemous and offensive statements, and this may be a little mystifying to us.

For the good religious people who stoned Stephen to death, God belonged to Israel and Israel alone. God didn't do things like forgive sinners or give sight to the blind. And they certainly could not possibly admit that they could collectively be wrong about any important religious matter, like for example the Son of God.

The blasphemy of Stephen was to suggest that the religious leaders of Israel didn't have God under their control. Strangely enough, many Christians still have this problem.

There were some Christians yesterday who expected the end of the world. Their leader thought he had God under his control. He might have denied this, but having the capacity to predict what God is going to do and when God is going to do it comes down, I think, to having God under one's control.

Other Christians think there is some simple list of things one has to believe in order to be guaranteed life after death. And while there are certainly some truth claims that come with a vital faith, this I think amounts to thinking one has God under one's control.

Others think that piling up good deeds will obligate God to give them what they want, whether its healing or wealth or eternal life, and this comes down to trying to have God under one's control.

And so we build our great monuments, our edifices, be they of stone or of rules or of claims of truth, and we identify these things we have made with God. In so doing however we forget the second commandment: you shall not make a graven image of your God. Nevertheless, these edifices are terribly difficult to destroy.

But destroyed they all will be. Because no matter how big we build them, no matter how heavy the stones, and no matter how large the army we assemble to defend them, sooner or later some bigger army will come along or some machine or bomb powerful enough to tear them down, or some more persuasive idea will tear down all our best ideas.

But Stephen, like Jesus, is a part of a temple that has never been torn down, but has in fact grown bigger and bigger and bigger throughout all the years since. There are stones that make great buildings, there are stones that bring great buildings down, there are stones that bring great people down, there are stones that cover the tombs of the dead, but the living stones, the people who follow the risen Jesus, the cornerstone, are assembled into a great eternal temple that persists from generation to generation and grows and grows and grows. No army, no bomb, no angry mob can bring down this mighty temple.

For we belong not to a god of stone, but to the God of life.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Gate (sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter)

The rabbis tell a story about a tightrope walker who appeared in a little town and went about inviting everyone to come and see his act. The town had little to do in the way of entertainment, so everyone readily gathered near the two big trees he'd chosen for his performance.

He'd climbed to a dizzying height and attached a rope between the two trees. When the people saw how high he planned to go they were amazed. But when he said, "Do you all believe that I can make it across the rope?," the crowd, eager to see the performance, shouted as one, "Yes," and they all applauded loudly.

The tightrope walker then grabbed a nearby wheelbarrow and with the same excitement asked the crowd, "And who will let me push them across in this wheelbarrow?"

And all you could hear were the crickets.

We often hear people talking these days about the difference between spirituality and religion. The difference is between those who believed the tightrope walker could cross the rope and those who climbed into the wheelbarrow, which in this story and perhaps in many churches, are none at all.

Our passages today tell of a Jesus who practiced a spiritual path that he commends to us as a true and life-giving path. It's a path oriented to unending and depthless abundance and overflowing, eternal life, all flowing from the hand of the one God. It is one that is based on the expectation that all will be filled and satisfied and that true power is not in dominant control of the many by the few but in the liberating community of all for God and for each other.

It is above all a practice that Jesus offers. It is this practice that he described as the gate to eternal life, and he demonstrated by refusing to bow to Herod or Caiaphas or Caesar, by joyfully serving as a conduit of the awe-inspiring power of God to heal and forgive, by accepting the legal execution by torture that comes to all who buck the system, trusting in God to rescue and vindicate him, which God did by raising Jesus from the dead.

So assenting to a list of propositions, a bunch of doctrine, does nothing at all for any of us if it doesn't inform a practice. And I'm not talking about good deeds or adhering to a bunch of values, because in most cases systems of doctrinal belief are simply twisted around by the Caesars and the Caiaphases and the Herods of our time to bless and maintain the status quo. In fact, most people rightly sense that religion as we know it generally exists to prop up the dominant culture. Lots of people see going to church as submitting to the morals and rules of society, however this or that church defines those rules. But I don't think this is what being a disciple of Christ is about at all.

It is one thing to believe that God is going to make everything all right. It's another thing to be a part of what God is making right. It's one thing to wait passively for God to miraculously fix things. It's another to become God's instrument to do so. It's one thing to admire Jesus for forgiving those who colluded in his trial and execution, it's another to take up one's own cross in protest against the selfishness and violence of the world's false shepherds. It's one thing to stand in awe of God's generosity, it's another to be authentically generous oneself. It's one thing to hope for miracles, it's another to do them. It's one thing to pray for God's help, it's another to pray to help God.

Acts gives us a snapshot of the explosion that was the early church, the amazing new community that blossomed out of the resurrection of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts as a kind of sequel to his gospel, tells us about how people were living, not about what they believed. He talks about a community, koinonia, not just a potluck social club, but a communion that worships and studies in one accord. He talks about radical generosity, those who are wealthy voluntarily liquidating their resources and giving it to the church to redistribute. He talks about ongoing wonders done by the leaders of the community.

Acts and other sources from the period tell us that many early Christians called their movement "the Way." It was certainly not only about right thinking or believing or assenting to a list of impossible truths. It was a deeply communal practice of prayer and study and giving and serving that opened the way for the power of God to flow endlessly into the world. It was a way for people to enter the realm of God and a way for God to enter the realm of the world.

And Jesus tells us something about the differences between himself as the true shepherd and the false shepherds, the lords or the realm of the world. For one thing, the lords of the world are duplicitous. They don't come at you head-on, out in the open, above-board, but always sideways, with trickery, confusion, and spin.

Jesus tells us that there is a difference between where he leads and where the false shepherds lead. Invariably the false shepherds, the lords of the universe as some media pundits call them, want something from us, and almost always it will ultimately deplete us and enrich them, for their way is oriented to the fear of scarcity and death. They therefore chase wealth and control others with violence. Jesus, the true shepherd, on the other hand, is oriented toward faith in abundance and life. His way enriches us, but does not thereby deplete him. His way also calls forth our obedience with love and not with a club. Most of all, his way is blessed and accompanied at every step by the presence of God.

So it's one thing to stand on the sidelines and cheer God on. It's another to get on the playing field and get into God's team. It's one thing to believe that the tightrope guy will get across. It's another thing to follow him.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Those Who Have Not Seen (sermon for the second Sunday of Easter)

A reality check is rarely good news.

We use the words "reality" and "real" almost exclusively as correctives. We bring up reality when it seems that those around us are floating off into delusion or wishful thinking. Reality is often a counterpoint to a past or present viewed through rose-colored glasses, or an unreasonably hopeful outlook about the future.

The great reality check of the gospels comes in the aftermath of the triumphant procession into Jerusalem, when Jesus was celebrated as the Messiah ready to deliver Israel from its oppression and restore it to the glory of Solomon's day. Indeed Jesus had himself predicted this reality check and all but Thomas had refused to believe it. Indeed Thomas was always the one who seemed firmly connected to reality, who insisted on getting the real scoop. When Jesus plans to return to Jerusalem it's Thomas who fully expects and understands that Jesus will be arrested and executed. He's the one who says "Let's go die with him."

But Thomas' nerve, like the nerve of all of the disciples, fails him in the moment. This is his reality check, not so much the crucifixion, which he fully expected, but his own cowardice. Thomas abandons Jesus just like all the others.

And so we might say that the disciples are living in reality as the scene from John opens this morning. They understand that their movement is over, their leader dead, their own safety in serious jeopardy. They have heard the rumors that Jesus is not dead, that he's risen from the grave. But this news came from hysterical women. Certainly understandable that they would give into such a rosy picture. But the men, well, they face reality head-on. The dream is over. The best and wisest thing to do is to hide.

"He'll never change." "Those people will always be fighting." "We don't have enough." Reality checks. It's all well and good to talk about hope and goodness and changing the world. But it's also good to get a reality check now and again. Healthy.

People don't come back from the dead. People don't walk through walls. And most of all, people don't forgive betrayal and cowardice.

A number of preachers wonder about where Thomas was when Jesus arrived and appeared to the other disciples. John apparently doesn't think the reason is important enough to report and I trust John. The point was simply that Thomas wasn't there to see the risen Christ.

Thomas' own wounds can be heard in his anguished response about Jesus' wounds. His heart is broken. He is like the woman who has finally decided to divorce her husband but who is then confronted with some evidence that he has changed. Thomas had accepted the reality of what had happened. Jesus was defeated, and worse, Thomas himself had been unable to stand by the one he loved. Don't tell me that Jesus is risen from the dead. Don't say such things. When I can poke my fingers into the wounds of his crucifixion I'll believe it.

David Lose, a very good preacher, mentions Les Miserables in his sermon on this text. Hugo's hero, Jean Valjean, spends some nineteen years in a horrifying prison for a five-year sentence he got for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. During that nightmare, his degenerates morally and becomes a cynical and vicious criminal. Upon his release, he finds he can't get a job because of his record and he floats from town to town as a vagrant.

In one town a bishop invites him into his home for a meal and a night in a warm bed. Jean repays the bishop's kindness as all criminals do, by stealing some silver plates and running off. But he is caught by local police with the plates, which are recognized, and he is dragged back to the bishop's house.

When the police confront the bishop with the criminal, the bishop takes some candlesticks from the mantle, holds them out to Jean and says, "My friend! I'm glad to see you. You took the plates I gave you but forgot the candlesticks."

Jean is released and spends the night in tears, emerging a new person who goes on to do great good.

Many of us would say that getting robbed was the reality check the bishop needed to correct his silly interest in taking criminals into his home. But the reality check was not for him, but for Jean Valjean, confronted by the most shocking reality check of all: God's all-powerful grace.

"Peace be with you," Jesus says. You who hide, you who are disgusted by your own cowardice, your own inability to live into the hope that God has promised, you who hide in the dark because you fear the consequences of living in the light, because you fear the cost, you who think you understand reality, you who are sure that God really doesn't have the power to come through, you who betrayed and fled your God, to you God says, "My friend! You forgot your candlesticks!"

You will notice that Thomas doesn't have to put his fingers in any wounds. It is when Jesus offers Thomas forgiveness, when he says to Thomas as well, "Peace," that Thomas not only recognizes Jesus, but finally recognizes God.

And strangely, this very gift of grace, this offer to forgive the cowardice and betrayal, is the very power by which those disciples would go on to face their own trials and executions. It's by this power that the same Peter who denied Jesus three times to save his skin will boldly proclaim him right smack dab in the middle of the Jerusalem temple, and for Jesus will himself eventually die on a cross.

I am a little surprised myself by this. It would seem that forgiving such behavior would encourage it to continue. But this is not how it works at all. It is not indulgence we are talking about. The bishop that gave Jean the candlesticks buys Jean's soul back from hell with them, and so does the grace of Christ.

Tradition tells us that Thomas went into India with the gospel and eventually was executed there for Christ's sake.

I know it was my own understanding of Christ's forgiveness for my betrayal of God that opened my heart to the vision that redirected my life. I saw Christ on a cross suspended over a sea of tears. Like Thomas, I believed because I saw.

God has given me many reality checks ever since. And so I have learned that the reality checks that I hear most often from human beings are not reality checks at all, but are expressions of spiritual cowardice and betrayal. They are simply capitulations to the powers of the world, which are indeed impressive and frightening. And the kinds of reality checks most of us give into lead us into dark rooms where we can hide.

But Christ enters even there, and cannot be kept out. Christ comes, risen from the dead, with forgiveness for our cowardice, and with courage in his breath.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Spirit of Christ (sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent)

I remember once when a call came in from Donna Theimer. She was weeping, inconsolable. Lucille, her mother-in-law, was in her last hours.

"Please come," she said, "right away."

Lucille had suffered with the slow and terrible progression of Alzheimer's for years, was very advanced in age, confined to a wheelchair, living in a nursing home, the only place that could provide her with adequate care. Her son Joe, one of our elders here at Philippi, was a loving and devoted son, and his wife Donna adored Lucille as well.

Lucille was Roman Catholic, but Philippi sort of adopted her as one of our own, and I'd visited her quite a bit before that day. Like a lot of people with Alzheimer's, she couldn't remember what happened a moment ago, couldn't recognize people she'd known all her life, but she could remember many of the prayers and responses from the Catholic mass. For example when I would give her communion, she would always say, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

I got the nursing home and Joe and Donna stood by Lucille's bed weeping. I myself felt very sad and already could sense the grief mounting in my heart. I had come to love Lucille as well. Donna and Joe spoke in hushed tones, choked with tears, about the illness that was taking Lucille's life and some of their hopes for the funeral. They wanted me to participate but they wanted to make sure a Roman Catholic priest would be there too. Lucille lay with her eyes closed, gasping slowly.

Finally, I invited Joe and Donna to pray with me. It is the work of the church to pray in the face of the hopeless, the despairing, to lift up our lamentations out of the depths. Remembering both Lucille's and Joe's background in Catholicism I began with the traditional address, "The Lord be with you."

And from the bed, in a loud clear voice, Lucille answered, "And also with you!"

Lucille lived another nine months.

Lucille's is a Lazarus story in more ways than one. Yes, it was funny in retrospect that we had written her off only to discover that God had a delicious surprise for us. But Lucille was Lazarus-like in other ways as well.

Lazarus, Mary and Martha were apparently well-loved people. John paints the picture of a pretty significant crowd gathering for the funeral. The crowd is positively distraught. This is not one of those deaths about which people say, "It was a mercy." No, this was a loss, a wrenching and painful loss.

The conversation at such funerals is often about the might-have-beens, the regrets, the missed opportunities, the guilt the survivors feel that maybe they hadn't done everything they could have.

"I wonder if I'd spoken to the doctor sooner..."

"If only I'd told her how I felt..."

"Do you think I did enough? Could I have done more?"

When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus' sisters cry out to him, they lament very much in the same way as our psalmist this morning. "Out of the depths, I cry to you." When was the last time you lamented, when you complained bitterly, to God? It is a great tradition, a basic skill of those who practice Jewish and Christian faith.

"If you had been here," both of them say. "but you weren't." That is the essence of lament. "Where are you, God?" is the cry. "Why have you forsaken me?"

In the Haddasah Hospital chapel in Jerusalem, the pulpit is actually in a sunken place in the floor. If you ask the chaplain why, he will tell you it is because all real prayer begins in the depths. I think, as much as we might wish it were not so, that the realm of God is not visible to those who are not in the depths.

Lucille had Alzheimer's. She was very old and sick. She was confined to a chair and could barely move at all. She couldn't remember what was going on from moment to moment. She couldn't recognize her own son or daughter-in-law. She lived in a place of which many people have a real horror.

But Lucille was one of the most joyous people I knew. And not only that, she was a Christian through and through. She was so Christian she could remember the responses in the order of the mass when we celebrated communion. She was so Christian she quoted the bible.

In fact she quoted the bible every time I saw her. Always the same quote. She would ask me if I knew the shortest verse in the bible. I would ask her what it was, and she would respond, "Jesus wept."

Jesus wept. A quote from today's story, and perhaps the most mysterious and wondrous revelation of the gospel. God is with us, yes, but more amazing even than that, God grieves with us. God hears our lamentations. And God is powerful enough to respond.

We hear all the time about the great billionaire philanthropists of this generation and how they are giving so much back. I think this is wonderful and we should celebrate it and rejoice in it. One of the things about which much is being written is how Bill Gates and others like him are not simply giving money away, but are bringing their significant business skills to the task of evaluating the programs asking for funding. The question always is, will this really help? And will this really help for good? In other words, will giving this money really fix the problem? Will the program it funds work?

A lot of church people say, "Hey, we should do the same thing. We shouldn't keep pouring money into situations that are beyond help. We should redirect that money to do things that really will fix problems people are having."

It is good to evaluate programs, good to work on truly fixing issues in a permanent way. And wherever possible the church has always done that very thing. But the deepest and most important thing the church does is to show up and stay put in precisely those situations that are beyond human aid. Because the issue for the church is not what people can do, what I can do, what we can do. It is what the God who is with us can do, the God who weeps with us in the midst of our deepest, most irreparable tragedies.

And this is why the church of Jesus Christ has always preached to valleys full of nothing but dry bones, why it has always stood outside of tombs to call forth the dead.

This is why it watches at the entry points of the wall between Palestine and Israel, why it sits at the bedside of African people dying of AIDS, why it embraces beggars in the streets of Calcutta, why it marches for justice and languishes in prisons and dies on scaffolds for justice. Do any of these things really make a difference? Would they pass muster with Bill Gates' evaluation of non-profits? No, they certainly would not. Because they are not just about what people can do, but about what God can do.

Would anyone have thought in the early 19th century that all the preaching of the churches against slavery would have actually ended up stopping it? Would anyone have thought that all the churches preaching about the equality of women would actually have brought about a vote for them? Would anyone have thought that the martyrdom of countless Christians in South Africa would actually end the system of apartheid. Would anyone have thought that a fellowship of alcoholics and drug addicts could actually find the answer for the disease of addiction in the practice of prayer, meditation, self-evaluation and reconciliation?

This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, standing in the midst of long-dead remains and preaching with a hope that will not give up. This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, weeping in the midst of unredeemable tragedy, and calling out the dead from the darkness of the tomb. This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, who is willing to change places with the dead, to offer its life for those who are beyond human aid.

Lucille was a person in whom the spirit of Christ dwelt, in which a shining light could not be extinguished by any combination of hopeless situations. Indeed it seemed that the more awfulness descended into her life, the more brightly she shined, the deeper into the depths she descended, the more clearly she rose from the dead.

God wants us to cry out to him from those dark depths. God wants us to open the tombs of our hearts, the cold dark places where we have buried all of our impossible hopes and dreams, and he wants to call them out.

And give them life.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Christ Will Shine On You (sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent)

At one point in my earlier career, I had a favorite suit. In those days of course all my suits were black. I liked this suit because it was a nice flattering cut, the looser-fitting cut tailors call the American style. I'd had it a long time and I wore it a lot.

Liz and I were newlyweds and I suppose as a kind of newlywed thing she bought me a whole drawer full of boxer shorts with cute messages on them. One of the pairs was white with little red hearts and the words "I love you" printed all over them.

One afternoon I had lunch with the chairperson of the church board, wearing my favorite suit. After lunch I got up and dropped something, I think it might have been a napkin, on the floor. So I bent over to pick up the napkin only to hear the board chairperson giggling behind me.

Apparently the suit had worn out somewhat in the rear end, and the "I love you" shorts were clearly visible.

In the story of the man born blind, I see a guy whose blessing wore him a little bit thin. And I think it's the way the whole Christian life works.

First off, there's this rather dramatic encounter. We could go wandering off wondering about the whole reaction of the disciples to the man born blind, and the bookend comments of the religious leaders at the end of the story, the assumption that he or his parents had committed sin, and while that's a fruitful road for sure, we're not going there right now. Suffice to say that Jesus, in a gesture that stirs recollection of how God created the human creature out of mud, makes a little mud out of some dirt and his own spit and gives the man, who had never seen anything, his sight.

Then, as Fred Craddock pointed out in an article for the Christian Century, Jesus disappears for the bulk of the rest of the story. The poor man is left at the mercy of his home town folks and the leaders of his local synagogue. You'd think there'd be celebration and gladness about the good news. The poor man sees finally! Isn't that great?!

But no. Instead they doubt it's the same guy. Now isn't this something? And doesn't it tell us a lot about the ways of human community? Do we really want to fix things? Really? It's a funny thing, but to fix something you really have to face a loss. You have to face the loss of all the things you might have formerly hung your hat on. I'm sighted because I'm blessed, while that guy who was born blind was cursed. God is in his heaven and all's right with the world.

But now the guy comes around with no cane, looking around, seeing fine. Maybe he's applying for a job, offering to pitch in to help around the community. No no no. That's can't be. Something's wrong here.

"Who healed you?" they want to know, and probably not for a nice reason. "Where is he?"

The man born blind says, "I don't know."

He's not around at the moment, the man born blind says, I'm on my own with this new blessing of mine, this blessing that is turning out to be more complicated that I would ever have thought.

Off they whisk him to the local authorities, who happen also to run the synagogue. And you know they continue in this same vein, rubbing away at the man, rubbing away with their interrogation. How did he do it? Mud, spit? What? On the sabbath? Righteous people don't do things like that on the sabbath, do they? Controversy, fighting, all kinds of what we called up north "hate and discontent."

I'm reminded of people questioning me about my own healing. I call it healing, others call it getting my life together. I insist that I didn't get my life together. I insist that it was a miraculous healing by God in Jesus Christ. I had almost nothing to do with it. I don't remember making a decision, following any line of reason, exerting any particular willpower. I didn't do it, plain and simple. I'm not even sure I asked for it.

This apparently disconcerts people. Surely that can't be. Surely you did something. No. No. Really. I didn't. Really, it was all Jesus.

The parents, remember the parents of the man born blind? The disciples wonder if it was their sin that caused the man to be blind. They get called into face the interrogation squad, probably because they had been told all their lives, "Yes, you know, you must have done something to have a kid with that kind of problem. Notice our kids all can see. That's because God has blessed us."

Have you ever thought how it sounds to a person whose childhood or family was a disaster when you say things like "I was blessed with good parents. I was blessed to have good kids." So my kid, who had all kinds of problems, was my curse? My absent father who suffered with alcoholism and depression was my curse? I was his? Really?

I'm blessed to have a good wife or husband. I'm blessed to live in a good country. I'm blessed to have had nice opportunities. What are we really saying here?

The poor parents are terrified. They have to live in this town. The synagogue is the only one for miles around. "Who did this?" the authorities want to know. "We don't know," the parents carefully say. "We don't know how it happened. Ask him."

Back comes the man born blind, once more on the firing line, once more being worn down, worn down, worn down with the questions. "Who did this? Isn't he really a sinner, a blasphemer? Come on, admit it."

Amazingly, the man born blind doesn't back down. You could see it happening. "Oh, for crying out loud, whatever you say. Just leave me alone and stop making me account for it." But no. I rather like this man. I would like to be like him. He sticks to his story. And he finally even fights back a bit. Pretty clean logic, simple. "The way I figure it, someone who can make the blind see has got to come from God. And you guys, who teach the faith, don't know where he comes from?"

Ooooo. Them's fightin' words.

As Wallace Shawn wrote in his award winning play The Fever, "we need the poor." We don't want to fix poverty. We don't really want to fix addiction. We don't really want to fix anything, because our whole society is structured around these things. The problems of others are how we know we're blessed. Attending to the problems while secretly making sure they are never solved is how we make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

God is only God if God keeps the system working. It couldn't be God who comes along and actually fixes things. Those are just those dangerous revolutionary people, those troublemakers that mix things with religion that shouldn't be mixed, the way Jesus mixed healing the blind with the sabbath day.

The man born blind says, "I don't know about any of that. All I know is, I was blind but now I see."

Jesus finally shows up and he vindicates the poor guy. And we see in this story the only time that anyone kneels down to worship Jesus.

The man born blind, like my old suit, had been worn through, so you could see the Christ within.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Poured into Our Hearts (sermon for the third Sunday in Lent)

I don't drink beer anymore, but it's almost axiomatic that a cold beer after a hard day of hot work in the sun tastes pretty darn good. I myself prefer Pellegrino. It's a sparkling water from Italy. If you get it real cold and serve it in a cold glass with no ice, it's way better than any beer. When you are really thirsty, you gulp that baby, I'm telling you.

To wander in the wilderness is to become thirsty, just as Jesus got thirsty wandering from the north of what the Romans called Palestine down through Samaritan country toward Jerusalem. It's a dry place, the mission field. It is not comfortable. Fruit is not growing on the trees. There is no Walmart nearby.

In returning to this Exodus passage God knows how many times, I finally asked myself what exactly is so sinful about getting thirsty in the wilderness. And a closer reading of the story shows me no anger in God. God never says in this story that the Israelites were being unreasonable. He never says they have no faith. If anyone is being kind of ridiculous, it's Moses who is not so concerned about being thirsty as he is about being stoned by the people.

But God doesn't criticize the people. Instead he simply gives instructions to Moses about where to find water.

But it does say that God was "testing" the Hebrew ex-slaves. It becomes the name of the story. And later, the person who wrote the psalm will interpret the story as one about how faithless were the wanderers. But I think the Hebrews passed the test. The test was to see if they'd give up and go home in the midst of real difficulty or whether they'd stick it out and try to see what God had in mind for them. If anyone failed the test it was Moses. God's people turned to him, as they should. He was after all God's guy. But he was the one who really doubted. Hadn't God done everything through Moses that God had promised to do? In fact at the end of the journey God will punish Moses for his faithlessness, even as God hands the promised land over to Moses' followers.

Now our Moses today is not a pastor or an elder or the moderator of the board or the leader of our men's or women's groups. Our Moses is the Christ. The Christ is our only human authority. And for us, the Christ is Jesus, who rose from the dead and is eternally on the throne of our nation. Jesus Christ doesn't lose faith. Jesus Christ doesn't doubt God or worry about us stoning him. Worse has already happened and he's on the other side of it.

And even in his earthly ministry before his followers did exactly what Moses feared the most and rose up to crucify him, Jesus was the Christ. The world in the gospel of John might itself be seen as a kind of wilderness, and the mission of the Christ and the mission of all his followers might be seen as a sojourn in that wilderness.

From John's point of view, Jesus and those who follow Jesus come from heaven, and have descended into an alien and hostile world, a world ruled over by the devil, as the advance guard, as it were, of the realm of God, the marines of heaven, to use a rather unfortunate but apt metaphor.

And it's in this very sojourn that the Hebrew slaves and Jesus and we were and are transformed. It's in the dry and dusty wilderness of the mission field, the wild place free of the fleshpots of slavery, the place where there are no props and no anesthetic pleasures to dull our vision, the place where we are not quite sure of what to do, where we are uncomfortable in our ignorance, where we don't know really what is right, where the world is at its most damaged and hurt and broken, whether its in the ruins of Japan or in some backwater town where a lonely sinner waits for God. It's in those places, and those places alone, that God pours his Spirit into our hearts.

The psalm encourages us to see God in this way, as the all-sufficient king of our lives, to turn away from all the things the world gives us, the temporary pleasures of slavery to a dying culture, and risk the emptiness and the rare but deeply satisfying rewards of the wilderness.

Because what must it have been like to finally drink the water from the rock? Have you ever been really thirsty, really thirsty for a protracted period of time? How did that water taste when you finally got to gulp it down? That cold beer, that Pellegrino?

Wandering thirsty in the wilderness of our mission is in fact the way that God teaches us to see in God the true and lasting salvation, as Paul says. Paul is not talking about the routine suffering everyone endures. Nor is Paul talking about putting up with abuse or going without in an unjustly compensated job or tolerating active addiction in a family. He's not talking about getting our kicks from masochism or about making ourselves impressive to others by our willingness to be walked on.

Paul is talking about the suffering of following Christ, of entering into the mission, of becoming one sent from heaven. In this passage from Romans this morning he's talking about peace with God, being reconciled with God, and he's talking about suffering, incredible suffering, suffering that comes from the world rejecting and attacking the ones sent by God from heaven. And he says that this suffering, the suffering in the wilderness of mission, is part of what actually transforms us into the ones sent from heaven.

Indeed it is in the experience of rejection and hostility that we enter into God's own experience. As I have been preaching for the last six years, the world as we have made it is neither good nor just nor heading in a positive direction, and it hasn't been for the past ten thousand years. The only thing that has been very gradually changing over that time is that more and more people, through a variety of spiritual paths, are waking up to just how completely off the track humankind has been.

The world that most people still think of as fundamentally decent and good and just, the world people have made, is in fact a horrific and disastrous misuse of the good creation of God. We are making of that good and fruitful creation a desert, a wilderness with nothing to sustain us. God saw it coming a long time ago, and God still sees it coming. It's not getting better, it's getting worse. There are more and more people and the resources of the world are being shoveled up the food chain to a smaller and smaller percentage of the whole, so that humankind on a global level is getting steadily poorer and poorer.

This world is still very much in the business of rejecting and attacking the ambassadors of the realm of God. But strangely and marvelously, just as the cross of Jesus was the instrument of glorification, so the world's battering of the sons and daughters of heaven is itself the path to transformation.

For as we struggle to share the good news of Christ's rule, which is a rule of peace and reconciliation and humility, as we find ourselves going long distances in empty wastes, we will sooner or later find ourselves at Jacob's well, and that remarkable and surprising person will see us for who we really are, and will see themselves as well. And a little more of the world will be saved. One more child of heaven will be born.

And we will gulp that water down, and it will taste pretty darn good.