Sunday, February 24, 2008

03 Lent 08
February 24, 2008

Psalms 95:1-11 (NRSV)

John 4:5-42 (NRSV)

The Juiciest News

We don’t have the town well anymore here in Deltaville. I don’t expect there ever was one. But there is and perhaps always has been some places the populace goes to share gossip and to keep up with things. I worked at the Little Sue, now the Seven-11, when I first moved to D’ville. I didn’t always work in the morning, but when I did, I saw a lot of the key characters of the town. The Little Sue was just part of the morning routine, where you got your coffee, your breakfast sausage on a bun, your slice of breakfast pizza, the new pack of cigarettes or snuff. But most of all, you got the scoop, the latest, the juicy dirt.

Of course, sometimes, one of the morning regulars would become a part of one or more of the juicy stories.

That regular would suddenly disappear.

This is why there was a solitary woman coming to the well at noon all those years ago in Samaria. Most people in villages like that go to the well first thing in the morning. This woman comes at noon. She has been the object of a lot of the juicy stories.

Jesus himself is at the well for not entirely happy reasons. He’s been targeted by the powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem as a troublemaker, and he’s basically fleeing to Galilee. The gospel notes that the time was around noon, and that Jesus was thirsty. Much later, there will be another day, and on that day, around noon, Jesus will again confess his thirst.

One of the first things I want to point out about this story is the weight of tradition that is clearly hanging over the whole story. The woman’s defiance of conventional righteousness, Jesus’ defiance of the religious authorities, the ancient history of the well, and the question of the Jews and the Samaritans.

Tradition! The Jews began with the patriarchs, Jacob and his sons, and the setting of this meeting is the well Jacob gave his son Joseph. After the sojourn to Egypt, the Jews returned to the land and again inhabited it, and there was a great period of glory in the early years. But the story soon soured and the kingdom was split in two, North and South. The Northern Kingdom was eventually overrun by the Persians and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. There they intermarried with the Persians. When they returned to the land, they were cast out of the Jewish community as half-breeds. They also continued to worship at the traditional holy places of the patriarchs rather than in the temple at Jerusalem.

Tradition! Add to this the traditional role of women. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were called the bruised and bleeding Pharisees. The reason for this was their habit of closing their eyes whenever they saw a woman, causing them to run into things or fall over stuff.

So when Jesus begins to speak to the woman, the whole of Jewish history is bearing down on them in the form of a million traditional taboos and rules and ancient stories.

But this Samaritan woman has a lively understanding of her heritage as a descendant of Jacob and Joseph, and she has a real expectation and faith that the Messiah is going to come. At the same time, she has to deal with the Jewish tradition of excluding her and her people as unclean. She is also keenly aware that life often takes a person outside the realm of conventional righteousness.

The Samaritan woman has what I would call a borrowed faith. When I was a kid, I remember once asking my mother what she believed, and she said, “I believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And she became very emotional. That impressed me tremendously. From that day forward, I was not quite as ready to mock Christian faith. I believed because my mother believed.

This is the first stage of faith, the faith we receive from someone we love, our mother or father usually or some other hero of childhood. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the message being transmitted.

Someone made the distinction: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” There are traditions that are living traditions. Our holy communion is an example. But there are traditions that are really dead, like sexism. An older member last week at the late service made note that all the deacons and elders serving were female. He could remember a day not long ago when women couldn’t serve in either role. This was a received tradition. It was found however to be traditionalism, a dead faith. Women clearly were leaders in the churches of the New Testament.

I guess you could say there’s tradition, and then there’s baggage.

We lug our baggage around like the great water jar the woman lugs each day to the well. But the source of that tradition wants us to drop our baggage, to free us from the water jar, to give us water that quenches our thirst forever.

For everyone with that borrowed faith, there comes a moment when what was borrowed becomes what is personal. There comes a time when we meet Jesus himself.

People sometimes talk about have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I resist the language because I work with a lot of what some are calling the “de-churched.” The de-churched are people who have had a really bad experience with people claiming to be Christian and with organizations claiming to be the church. Such people and organizations sometimes lay claim to traditional Christian language and the moment one of the de-churched hear certain phrases, they turn right off. Simply rephrasing the language can actually open the door to someone who might otherwise have been lost.

But when people talk truthfully about a personal relationship with Jesus, they are talking about an encounter, a real meeting. Most of us who have had this moment of encounter know just what it feels like. Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Go get your husband.” The answer of the woman is very nuanced. “I have no husband.” And Jesus goes on to tell her everything she ever did.

It’s that moment when you feel like God is looking right into the darkest room of your soul. It usually comes through another human being or through an encounter with God’s word, or perhaps in a moment in the wonder of nature, but the experience is not usually about all that is good about you.

For me it came in a friend’s apartment years ago when I was homeless in New York City and he had put me up for a few nights. I had begun to attend church, and a spiritual director had assigned me to read Psalm 139 and to pray after I read it. I saw in my mind’s eye a vision of the Lord on the cross and had the clear understanding that he had been with me all along, despite everything I had done, good or bad, and that he was still with me and indeed loved me.

From that moment on, I ceased to have a borrowed faith. I had met the Lord and saw it as my job to tell others about him. Moreover, I realized that to give myself to obedience to God meant that I would never again truly want for anything. I had living water to drink, and food the world does not know of.

God has been very, very patient with me, and continues to be. Jesus looks at this Samaritan woman after what appears to be a whole lifetime of what the world might call sin, and still makes his offer.

God has been at work in everyone’s life, preparing them. It’s hard sometimes to see that, but Jesus frequently alludes to it. The hard work is in the harvesting. But this work is what Jesus is speaking of when he speaks of the food the world doesn’t know.

You’ll notice in our insert, we list the staff of our congregation. At the bottom of the list it reads, “Ministers: every member of the church.” We’re accustomed to thinking of ministry as a profession only a few people can enter into. But ministry is really the work of all the baptized people of God. It’s the work the Samaritan woman does when she goes around the town with the juiciest news of all: “He told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

And you’ll notice, she left behind her water jar. She didn’t need it anymore.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

02 Lent 08
February 17, 2008
Psalms 121:1-8 (NRSV)
John 3:1-17 (NRSV)

Spring Training Two

I was born in West Virginia, but I don’t think of myself as being from West Virginia. If anything I am from Baltimore, though my mother’s ancestors are from here.

Where I was born, who I was born from, is that important? Tell me what you think. Does it make a difference that you were born of Europeans or Africans or Asians? Does it make a difference if you were born into a happy family or a broken one? Does it make a difference that you were born in the USA or in some other country?

I think it does. Every movie I’ve seen, every book I’ve read, every friend I’ve made, every relative who has hugged me, every television news show I’ve seen, a million little facts, have all given birth to me.

I don’t even know how most of these things have contributed to my pre-conceived ideas, my ways of relating to others, my opinions about politics or religion or family. In most situations, I simply react and go with what I think I know, what I feel certain I can assume. I rarely think carefully about anything I do, except if I have some idea it might be dangerous. Otherwise, there is little conscious thought that inspires most of my actions.

Liz and I have been watching a series of documentaries from England called “7-Up.” The basic theme is that people are largely formed in the first seven years of their lives. Where we are born and who we know and what happens in those first seven years largely determines everything about us.

Where we are born, therefore, has a lot to do with who we are.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he himself has been born from above. Jesus invites Nicodemus also to be born from above. Nicodemus had difficulty understanding this and Jesus tries to make it clearer.

Nicodemus believes in Jesus because of the signs Jesus has done, but he nevertheless has difficulty accepting what Jesus is teaching. Jesus uses the wind as a metaphor.

I’ve been serving on the fire department and I am learning to be wary of dry windy days. The wind is a powerful force. I’ve now been to three fires that were caused by the wind knocking down branches that then knocked down power lines and started brush fires.

Of course we didn’t see the wind, but it was there, and we knew it was there because of what it did. Nevertheless, what it did was not what it was.

All us blow-boaters depend on the wind, and when the wind blows, our boats glide gracefully through the seas. But of course, if the wind blows too hard, our boats are tossed to and fro like toys in mountainous seas. We never see the wind. We see the sails filling. We see the seas building. But this is what the wind does, not what it is.

And this is what Nicodemus sees. He sees Jesus doing various deeds of power. But he is unable to accept what Jesus says. He sees the effects of the wind, and he acknowledges the wind is there, but he doesn’t know where it comes from.

I think a lot of us, myself included, gather around Jesus because we sense the power of God in him, but then a strange thing occurs. We are attracted to the power of God in Jesus, we acknowledge Jesus comes from God, but then we reject what Jesus teaches us.

We believe in the miracles, but we don’t believe we are supposed to help the poor, even the ones we don’t know, even the ones far away. Today’s offering is for people we don’t personally know, people who are suffering in various kinds of disasters. Jesus commands us to offer our lives for others, even those we don’t know, maybe even particularly for the ones we don’t know.

We believe in miracles, but we don’t believe we ourselves are meant to change. We believe in miracles, but we don’t accept that we are to give ourselves to being transformed by God.

What if someone came and laid a whole new history over all these things that have shaped me. What if suddenly, the most important things about my background no longer to do with where I was born or what family I came from or what my citizenship is? What if, instead of being born of this or that family, I was born of God? What if, instead of having this or that life history, my history was the old and new testaments? What if, instead of being a citizen of this or that country, I was a citizen of the kingdom of God?

What if my story begins with Genesis, and ends with Revelation?

This is the mystification of Nicodemus, and it is ours as well.

And yet, this is precisely what our religion is all about. Any realistic and down-to-earth reading of the history of Judaism and the life of Jesus would lead us to understand that the people of God are the children of God, not just created by him but also raised and educated and clothed and fed by him, and if we want to be a part of that people, we are invited to adopt that whole history as our own.

Part of our Spring Training, then, is to review that history, and how we have or have not made it our own. Is this our history? Is this our identity? Are we born from it? Where were you born?
Of course, I continue to be the person who was born in West Virginia. I continue to be the person who came from a certain family, and speaks a certain language, and lives in a certain country. But laid over that, like a new set of clothes, is this new history, this new language, this new nation.

All of us who are coming to believe in Jesus have a Nicodemus within, a voice who says, “How can these things be?” The gospels are full of people who cannot understand what Jesus is teaching.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.

To believe in Jesus is to do as he does, follow as he goes, and trust in his way. His way is to offer his life to God so that God can use him to announce his love for the whole world.

Another quote from Mother Theresa: “I dreamed I was in heaven. God said, ‘God back to earth; there are no slums here.’”

We believe that Jesus comes from God. He invites us to be reborn as children of God like him, but this is a teaching we find very hard to accept, because it means that we must let go of all that the world has made us, in order to let God make us anew.

This morning, Christ again encourages and invites us. God wants to use us to announce his love to all the world.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

01 Lent 08

February 10, 2008

Psalms 32:1-11
Matt 4:1-11

Spring Training

OK, everybody up. Stretch. Lean to the left, lean to the right. Drop and do fifty.

Just kidding.

I think we could probably be sued for asking some of you to do fifty push-ups. But I do want to welcome you to this year’s Spring Training.

About twenty of us began Lent this last Wednesday. Pastor McPherren did a marvelous sermon based mostly on the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the Mount. And then we received the mark of the ashes, a sign that we are made by God, that we don’t make ourselves.

And so we are now on day five of our forty day journey. In our story this morning from Matthew, Jesus fasts in the wilderness for forty days.

It is really important to remember what just happened. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan. The voice from heaven had just told him, “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit had just descended upon him, filling him with the real power of God.

His status had changed.

Have you ever changed status or class in the course of your life?

I was a pastor in the Northeast for most of my career. But then I gave that up and fled down here to Middlesex.

Many of you know I spent the first three years living in Deltaville working at Little Sue. Then I went to work in a few retail establishments, and even dug ditches and worked on boats here and there. Then through a strange series of events, I became the pastor of Philippi.

A funny thing happened. People who had at one time barked at me and ordered me around and shown nothing but contempt for me were now greeting me by name and shaking my hand. Most of them didn’t even remember I had ever been that other person, the person in the silly blue apron that took their money and gave them change, or that guy by the side of the road in dirty clothes digging a hole.

Jesus’ status had changed. He was now imbued with some very real power. This attracts attention.

Therefore, before Jesus embarks on his public ministry, God must train him.

Most scholars believe that Jesus received a good bit of training from John the Baptist. When John recognized that Jesus was surpassing him, we think he announced to his disciples his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. We think Jesus then embarked on a solitary training period in which he engaged in serious spiritual discipline. These events have come to us in greatly condensed form in the scriptures.

Jesus had to be trained to become the Son of God.

In Lent we who follow him return to the theme of our training to become like him, children of God. Many of us forget, I think, perhaps because we never knew or had never been told, that being a Christian is a skill requiring ongoing practice and great discipline. And I’m not talking about the “no pain, no gain” thing here. This is a different kind of skill, a different kind of discipline.

The reason it requires skill is not because it takes skill to avoid temptation. There are all kinds of good reasons not to engage in the usual human offenses. Most of them come with their own price tag, and most of us don’t want to pay it.

No, the skill is in using the tremendous power that comes with being open to God’s Spirit. The way of life Jesus is leading us toward is a way of real power, power to really change the world. This kind of power is very difficult to manage, because when the other powers in the world notice that you have it and are willing to use it, they will do everything they can do to shut you down. And the things they do can be very, very subtle.

The story is told of the turtle that wanted to go from Massachusetts to Florida. The weather was getting cold and he thought the sun would be nice. But he quickly realized that he moved too slowly to get there in any reasonable time, so he asked a couple of geese for a ride. He suggested the geese tie a line between their feet. He clamped on to the line with his powerful jaws and so, between their wings and his jaws, he was able to be carried on their flight. This all worked beautifully until one day someone on the ground looked up and said, “Why, that’s brilliant. Who thought of it?” And the turtle said, “I did.”

Now, we’re not accustomed to thinking about the faith this way. There’s a reason for that. Long ago, when the Roman Empire made our religion the official state religion, they changed it dramatically. They took out all the stuff about the power of God for the weak and the poor and made it about being a good citizen of the Roman Empire. What basically happened was that the devil came to the church and said, “If you bow down to me, I’ll give you the world.” And the church said, “well, that’s a small price to pay to get the message out.”

But it wasn’t a small price to pay at all. The empire twisted the church’s message so much that now most Christians have a lot of difficulty reading the bible, because the bible is so different from what they’ve always heard our faith was about.

Here’s another story. A guy named Smith, a Baptist, moved into a Catholic community. During Lent, all the Catholics in the community had fish on Friday. But every Friday night, Smith would be out at the grill cooking up a big juicy steak. The smell of that steak would waft through the neighborhood and get everyone’s mouth watering. Well, the Catholics got into an uproar. “This guy is tempting us to break our Lenten fast!” they said. But then they came up with a great idea. A bunch of them went over to Smith’s and persuaded him to become a Catholic. They took him to the priest and the priest sprinkled water on him and said, “You were born a Baptist, raised a Baptist, but now you are a Catholic!” So everyone thought the problem was solved until the next year when Lent came around again. Everyone was just sitting down to their skimpy fish dinners when that smell of steak wafted through the neighborhood. They all rushed over to Smith’s and there he was over his grill, sprinkling water on the steak and saying “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you are a fish!”

I tell this story not only to amuse you but to point out the faultiness of the idea that you become a Christian independent of any change in direction in your life. Being a Christian requires training.

The New Testament tells the story of God opening the floodgates of his power and offering it to human beings, so that his kingdom might flow into the world. The news I have for you is that you can be changed, you can be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that God can work through you in very palpable ways in the world. Some of you already have changed, and God is already at work in you.

New people are coming to Philippi, some of them new or newly returned to the Christian faith. Our elders have been talking about what this means. Nan Parker said at our last meeting, “You know, we really have to be able to tell people what we believe and how we live.” People are coming to learn how to be Christians.

In this particular story, we are called to reflect on this great power that is being offered to us. What are we to do with it? Are we to use it to improve our material well-being? Are we to use it to assure our ongoing health? Are we to use it to rule over others? There are many congregations, big successful congregations, who tell us that these are precisely the uses to which we put the power of God.

But Jesus himself rejects all three.

Here’s the first bit of Spring training, friends. To become a Christian, to be filled with the power of God’s Spirit, is not a promotion, but a demotion. You are transformed from the served, to the serving. You are called to submerge your allegiance to any other force in your life to your obedience to God, and your service is to the least of God’s creation. You are under the lowest of the low.

God’s will for you may not be for you. God’s will for you may not even be for those you love. God’s will for you might be for someone you have never met or never know. Next week, we’ll hear more about the Spirit’s mysterious power.

To become a child of God is a skill. How are you training this Spring?


Sunday, February 3, 2008

04 Epiphany 08
February 3, 1007

Ex 24:12-18 (NRSV)

Matt 17:1-9 (NRSV)

The Mountaintop

In Matthew, many things happened on mountains. Jesus was tempted on a mountain. He preached his most famous sermon on a mountain. He did his praying on a mountain. He took his disciples up a mountain to see him in his glory. And at the end of the gospel, he appeared to them on a mountain to give them his commission. It’s clear that in Matthew, Jesus is seen as the new Moses, the Moses with a difference. We’ll get to that difference in a bit.

Jesus leads us away from the familiar valley and up into the unfamiliar and inhospitable mountain. This is peculiar. Here’s a difference between him and Moses. Moses didn’t take anyone with him. He went alone.

There Jesus is transformed in our sight from an ordinary human into an eternal being of light. This is also not really that much of a surprise. We’ve heard of such mountaintop of experiences before:

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
Ex 34:29-30 (NRSV)

God speaks and names him his beloved son, the title given only to the king of Israel, the Messiah. We’ve rather been expecting this. Peter has only recently stated it, that unmentionable possibility: this is the one who will set Israel free. But now God confirms it by calling to mind a scripture

Psalms 2:1-7 (NRSV):
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, 3 "Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us." 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill." 7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, "You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

So this is the one, this Jesus. God commands us to listen to him. I don’t think this means we’re to passively sit by and hear him out. I think it’s pretty obvious we are commanded to obey him as a subject obeys a king.

We want to stay in that moment forever. Peter wants to build temples. But there is no response from Jesus on this. It appears we must leave this wonderful moment.

We really need to beware the temptation to get addicted to the spiritual experience. There are a lot of experiences we can have that come close to a real spiritual awakening. We can feel excited or sentimental or peaceful or ecstatic, but these are just feelings and are not necessarily a spiritual awakening. In fact, there’s a theory out there that addicts are people who are really trying to live in a constant state of spiritual ecstacy or peace. Some churches knock themselves out trying to get some kind of emotional rise out of people, but I would submit that it’s not up to us when or how we get invited up that mountain, and it’s not up to us what we are shown there. In fact, for me, that understanding is one of the keys to my own spiritual awakening.

God doesn’t always speak. God doesn’t always act. God doesn’t always choose. One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, once said, “Only an idol always answers.” Beware of preachers who want to sell you a god in a box that you can take out and use when you want, and put away when you don’t.

So we can’t stay on the mountain. We have to go back down.

Someone else has said,” we visit the mountain, but we live in the valley.”

Strangely, Jesus orders us not to reveal what we have seen until after he is risen from the dead.
And this is the way that he is showing us. This is the teaching we are asked to listen to. He is with Moses and he is with Elijah, but it’s our turn to stand on the mountain and get lit up with God’s Spirit. But lest we think this is some kind of happy Crystal Cathedral dose of cock-eyed optimism, Jesus instructs us to wait and see where this all leads us.

It’s going to lead us to the cross.

This is the real revelation: Jesus is pleasing to God because he is ready and willing to pour out his life for the sake of God’s kingdom. And this is the teaching God is asking us to listen to. This is the path God is asking us to follow. It is this willingness that opens us to the light from God. And when we are given that light, others see it, and the kingdom of God comes near.

Peter, years later, will pour out his life on an upside-down cross, and he will do this for the sake of the kingdom. Before he gave his life he wrote this in his second letter:

2 Peter 1:16-18 (NRSV)
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
This seems such a dark message to some people. Offer myself as a sacrifice? Give my life for the world?
But I want to tell you it’s not like that. It’s a hard concept to get a hold of, but there’s a lot of joy in this thing, friends. After twenty years of following the Lord, I can tell you I have a vision of a world transformed someday, a vision I’m coming more and more to trust and believe. I also think the road to that vision will be brutal and terrible, and I don’t mean in any supernatural sense. We don’t need leathery demons to come and help us hurt each other. We’re doing fine with that all by ourselves.
But I believe at the end of it all people will finally come to have a lot more reasons to love God than not to, and I believe at the end of it all, while there might not be many of us left, we’ll finally know what God was trying to tell us all along. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll see that world in any way I might recognize today, but I’m coming to believe that in some mysterious way, I’ll be there.

You might remember another mountaintop experience from the Old Testament:

eut 34:1-5 (NRSV)
1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain--that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees--as far as Zoar. 4 The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." 5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD's command.

When I was a boy, I saw a preacher on TV. I want to read you what he said about a different promised land.

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountain top. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

He was shining that night. Shining with a light from God. Do you see how it works? The vision’s enough. It’s all we need to light us.

I once worked in a carnival. I ran a very elaborate haunted house with a full staff of live actors. It was a lot of fun. I was taught by the carnies a basic tactic. It was called “building a tip.” The idea was that you should always have a tip, or crowd, around your attraction. This attracts people who are walking down the midway. What do you think is the best way to build a tip for a haunted house? You’ve got it.

You send them out of the house screaming. There is nothing that will attract a crowd to a haunted house more than a steady stream of grown men and women running out of a house screaming. I won’t tell you what we did to get that to happen, but I’m not sure it was strictly legal.

What draws a crowd to a church is a steady stream of people being lit up. I don’t care how much money a church has, how big their building is, how entertaining their programming or how great their preacher is. What draws people to a church is people being lit up.

I’ve seen some of you coming to the mountaintop. I’ve seen some of you lighting up. And I think the community around here is seeing it too.