Monday, April 28, 2008

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year A 2008

06 Easter A 08

The Unknown God

April 27, 2008

Acts 17:22-31

What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Who, or what, do we worship really? In the ancient world, worship almost always involved sacrifice. So maybe that is the real question. To what do I make sacrifice?

This story from Acts is an excellent introduction to a very central New Testament figure, Paul of Tarsus. Paul showed up in last week’s lesson under his formal moniker, Saul. Between that story and this one, there’s a famous story of Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. This led to his belief in Jesus.

As he began his ministry, he found that many who were not Jewish (in fact, more who were not than who were) received the message. He may have remembered, along with some of the other early Jewish Christian leaders, that the purpose of Israel was ultimately to reveal God to a world who had forgotten and rejected him. The story of Jesus apparently worked in a surprising way to achieve this end.

The issue that stirred Paul to action in Athens was idolatry. For a Jew of the first century, idols were actually almost disgusting. The foundation of Judaism is the concept of one transcendent God, that is, a god who is not made up by people.

A false god is a god that demands your sacrifice and gives you nothing in return. The living God gives you life and demands nothing in return.

If you think the world has changed all that much, think again. Americans are just as religious as the Athenians and in just the same way. Our world is filled with gods of our own making that demand our sacrifices and finally give us nothing in return.

The most powerful deity in the western world today is not the God of Abraham or Jesus or Mohammed. The most powerful deity in the western world is the self. The cult of individualism, bolstered by the deification of money, is the god that rules the world. We say we separate politics from religion in this country, but we don’t really.

As Homer Simpson once said, "I've always wondered if there was a god. And now I know there is—and it's me."

We have thrown out the religion of our forbears in exchange for the cult of the Me God.

The Me God religion is based on the sovereignty of the self in all matters moral and religious. Ultimately, even if I believe in the God of Israel or in Jesus or in Mohammed, it is because the Me God has judged the god in question and satisfactory for my needs. In our time, all spiritual paths, all deities, are subject to the Me God. My experiences, my ideas, my preferences, my lifestyle, my spirituality and my social group all comprise together my God, which finally and truthfully and really is me.

The Me God is as multiply variable as there are people who believe in it. The Me God approves of everything I do. The Me God shares all my political beliefs. The Me God wants me to have whatever I want. The Me God cares more about me than anyone else.

I remember one of Homer Simpson’s prayers:

"I put out these milk and cookies as a sacrifice. If Thou wishest me to eat them, please give me asign by doing absolutely nothing… Thy will be done."

And so it is that I live in a post-modern Athens, making endless sacrifices to a god of my own making, and I find myself puzzled and vaguely disturbed by the idea that God has raised a man from the dead in order to identify him as the one who will judge the world in righteousness. This is a God who is clearly not me, since I can certainly not raise anyone from the dead.

And Paul says this God who is not me, and is not made by me, and needs nothing from me, this God is not only not me, but I exist only because of him.

You know, it’s entirely possible to make up our own god and call him Jesus Christ. Rousseau saw this as long ago as the eighteenth century when he said, “God created man in his own image, and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

I am not different from the people of Athens. I am in just the same bondage. There are so many things I do with my time and my talents and my money that really yield me nothing at all. And yet I am trapped in my loyalty to these things to such a degree I can’t even see it. My motives are all twisted up with my self-serving desires. I sense God’s presence, and I long to serve him, but by the time that desire works its way through the twisted logic the world has imposed on me, I find I end up on my knees to something else.

Paul is speaking to me. Jesus is risen from the dead and he stands as judge over me, and I am found badly wanting. Not because I commit sins, though I suppose I commit my share, but because I continue to try to make God in my image, rather than to be made by him in his.

We live in a time of globalization, and a lot of the struggles that have been going on really over the last century or more have had to do with our shrinking planet. Is the world to be run by one particular nation, one particular race, one particular religion, one particular economic or political system? As human beings have grown to be a greater and greater presence in the world, the struggles between different beliefs and ideas and cultures has grown more and more significant.

World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and now what might be a religious struggle involving the top world religions, together with an economic behemoth that is the global economy and all the surprises it might hold for us, all tell the story of the nations and races and ideologies struggling for dominance in the world.

Paul seems to suggest that Christ is to dominate finally. But could this really be what he means? I remember a dialogue from Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

An Eskimo asked a priest: "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"

The priest answered, "No, not if you did not know."

To which the Eskimo replied: "Then why did you tell me?"

But perhaps Paul is not talking about dominance. Perhaps he is talking about judgment.

What does this mean?

I wonder. I wonder if our presence as the church throughout the world is meant not to dominate but to season? I wonder if our purpose as the church is to agitate the world and its self-interested masses to a greater vision, one that keeps hope before us all? I wonder if our job is not so much to force anyone to do or believe anything, but rather by our example stir up the hearts of the world’s people to curiosity and the openness to an unknown God?

But how do we distinguish between a god we make up with our self-serving rationalizations and the God in whom we live and move and have our being? How do we stop sacrificing to Gods of our own making and rejoice in the sacrifice God has made for us?

My friend Vic McLawhorn used to argue with me about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was very important to him and he felt strongly that our denomination and indeed our congregation made far too little of third person of the Trinity. I was very skeptical of the Spirit as I see it described and taught in various Spirit-based movements going on these days. But Vic wouldn’t let me off the hook. He kept insisting that we really can’t be the church unless we are led by the Spirit.

These last two weeks have been a bit of a trial for me, but you know, I thank God for trials, because I’ve learned they are always given to me to transform me.

It occurred to me this morning in prayer that Vic’s word to me is a word from God. The Holy Spirit is the means by which we determine the true and living God from the gods of our own invention. And it will be the Holy Spirit that will give us the words to speak to the world of unbelievers.

The question remains as to how we are to receive that Spirit. But that is a sermon for another Sunday.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A, 2008

April 20, 2008

Acts 7:55-60

Of Rocks and Stones

Mark Twain once said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

If the story of Stephen’s death sounds familiar, just go back and read the story of Jesus’ death. A good man who does many signs and wonders and is adored by the common folk is arrested by the authorities and tried, then stripped and brutally killed by an angry mob. As he dies, he forgives his killers and commends his spirit into God’s hands. It’s not the same story, but it rhymes.

Having spent some time reflecting on two of the three activities that define the church, we now turn to a third. We’ve talked about baptism, we’ve talked about communion. Now we’re going to talk about ministry.

Ministry is work carried out on behalf of an authority. Ministry is the work of carrying out a mission defined by someone in charge. Stephen is perhaps the quintessential example of Christian ministry. He was one of the first deacons, ministers especially set apart to attend to the table, or the in-house work of the people of God.

The church is that peculiar place in which we ask to be confronted and to have our toes stepped on. The church is that peculiar place when we ask to be agitated and stirred up and troubled and bothered. We come in dead, twisted in the bindings of the grave, and we ask to be resurrected, untangled and set free.

But the dead sometimes want to stay dead. And to call them to life is sometimes to call them to vengeance. When Moses led the Israelites into the desert as freed slaves, they were not really very happy about it. They missed the free meals and the housing.

It seems to be the nature of the people of God that we forever are struggling among ourselves about our relationship to the world. It seems most of us want to accommodate ourselves, and to subject our God to the powers we are subject to, to use God to justify and maintain the way things are.

Stephen is not confronting an unbelieving world who has never heard of God. He is confronting people who have not only practiced their religion all their lives but have excelled in it enough to be considered the top leaders and authorities. He is stoned because he tells them they are hypocrites, people who claim to belong to God but who reject God’s commands. This is what we might call and in-house issue.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ, turns on the question of purpose. What is the purpose of the people who claim to belong to God? Why has God created this nation and made us its citizens?

Is the purpose to go along to get along, as so many seem to think? Is it to reinforce the rules of the society in which it finds itself and help people feel good about the way things are? Or is it to be something different, something powerfully unique and remarkable, something that stands out?

The resurrection of Jesus, according to Stephen and the other preachers of the day, was God’s seal of approval to a particular idea of purpose and mission. We are here to manifest God’s passionately loving presence in a world that rejects him. We are to manifest the image of the cross: God, dying without resistance, forgiving those who kill him. We are here to love those who hate us, just as God loves them.

That purpose has a way of getting mucked up in the messiness of human sin. “God, give me what I want,” instead of “Your will be done.”

Now there’s nothing really wrong with a world that makes a god of the self and preaches a gospel of chasing one’s own desires. To live according to such rules as people who belong to the world is perfectly appropriate. But is it okay for the people who call themselves Christians? Are we to adapt the message of the Scriptures to the rules of the world?

This is not a new question.

In the great Old Testament story, the purpose of the people of God got mucked up with a desire to be great in the eyes of the world. Israel wanted to be a big dog in the world of political power. It wanted the big king and the big palace and the millions of serfs and the glittering armies and the stockpiles of booty and the rich upper classes all the other nations had. So they pushed God aside, and with him anyone who spoke for him.

The purpose of the people of God got mucked up with human schemes of worth and value, this person being more valuable than that one, this person worthier of a more goodies than that one, this person more deserving of power than that one. And if anyone came and said, “No, this is not God’s way,” that person was rejected, and his God with him.

The purpose of the people of God got all mucked up until the people of God become like sheep without a shepherd, stolen one by one by thieves pretending to represent God, who misled them and slaughtered them. And if anyone came representing the true Shepherd, the thieves drove him off, and the Shepherd with him.

But amazingly, God kept coming back.

And strangely, this message to us becomes a message about us. We, the people sent by God as a message of his love to the world, we become that man, pushed away, betrayed and murdered, forgiving still. This is our purpose in the world, to show the world that image, to be that image, of the God the world rejects and murders, who nevertheless forgives, and yes, comes back for more.

It is the religion of the rock that leads to the stoning. When faith becomes about maintaining stability and peace and certainty, it turns to a pillar of salt, a dead rock in a dry land. And woe unto him who would swing a hammer on that rock! The flying stones might kill him!

The deaf sometimes come to love the silence, and sometimes the blind cannot let go of their canes, and sometimes the lame have grown comfortable in their wheelchairs. To shout in their ears, to wrest their canes from their grips, to sweep them up on their feet, this is the ultimate in betrayal. They rush at the one who has disturbed them, crying out in anger, and fall on him in a murderous rage.

And as Stephen dies, the exaltation of the crucified one becomes clear to him. The son of Man, Jesus, is seated at the right hand of the Father, precisely because he showed us, the people of God, who God is and how we are supposed to manifest his image.

As Stephen dies in the same way Jesus died, Jesus comes again in glory.

It rhymes.

And if we see this, if we remember, if we repent, well then—

There are still some whose eyes are opened, whose ears are uncovered, who get up and walk.

All through history, real people of God have arisen among the great faulted institution of the church, and have been willing to stick to the mission, to be the image of our God, who comes into our troubled world and is killed again and again, but always, always rises again.

Thank God, nothing can defeat the true and undefiled church, for authentic people of God are still sprinkled here and there, like salt and light, shining like stars in the dark night sky.

God suffers when we push him aside. God even dies when we fail to serve him. He does not resist us, and even forgives us as we kill him.

But now it is Sunday, and the tomb is opened. And he is no longer there. He is risen, and we see him, seated at the right hand of the Father.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A, 2008

All Of Me

04 Easter A 08
April 13, 2008

Acts 2:42-47
I’ve heard it said that if you don’t believe every word of the bible you really don’t believe one. If it isn’t all true, then none of it is. On that basis I’d like to announce this morning that we’re all now going to be selling our possessions and putting them all into a common fund to be administered by the leaders of the church. When you get a paycheck, just hand it over to us and we’ll decide how much of it you can keep for yourself and your family. Each year, we’ll review your salary based on your faithfulness to Christ and your willingness to serve the church.

The idea here is that everyone should have what they need, you see. Jesus Christ is risen and he rules this church. Everything you have comes to this table and is put in the offering plate, and Christ through the Holy Spirit will bless you. Unless, of course, like Ananias and Sapphira, you hold back. This will unfortunately be fatal.

Of course, we’ll be selling off some of you homes and combining households. We’ll decide who needs TV’s or computers. We’ll decide together how much each person needs for groceries.
Yes, the old way was to give a tithe, but now we follow Christ, who gave everything. The new norm from now on is to give everything we have.

Well, before you all start heading for the doors, let’s think together about what is happening here.

I said in this month’s newsletter notes that, to misquote Forrest Gump, “the church is as the church does.” The church does three basic things: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and ministry.
The first Sunday after Easter, Pastor McPherren spoke with you about the sermon of Peter on that first Pentecost morning, the word of God at its most basic, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

In that early time immediately following the resurrection, the Holy Spirit was poured out abundantly in Jerusalem, particularly on that morning of Pentecost. The tremendous tension under which Israel was living exploded in joyful response to the news of Jesus’ resurrection. The good news was that God had defeated the Romans in a way no one could have expected. God simply dismissed them and all their power with the flick of his finger. He showed his people that the only power that evil has is the power to take life, but that he had the power to give it back.

Last week, I spoke at Ashland on the lesson from Acts, in which three thousand people were baptized following that amazing first sermon of Peter. I spoke about baptism as one of the three basic things the church does. And you heard from Pastor Reinger about the walk to Emmaus and the two disciples who encountered the risen Lord without even knowing it, until the breaking of the bread when he was revealed to them.

Today, we’re speaking more about the breaking of the bread. It’s mentioned twice in the lesson this morning. Once it was discovered that Jesus was revealed in meal, it seems it became central to the lives of those who believed.

There was a little teenaged Christian who lived in the fourth century, and her name was Egeria. She made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and wrote a diary as she went. In it she participated in quite a few holy communion services. But she didn’t call them communion, or Lord’s Supper, or eucharist or anything like that. She called the meal “the offering.”

It seems that whenever she came across a community of Christians, she would offer them everything she had. And they would do the same for her.

The Offering. We now think of the communion as something we receive and the offering as something entirely separate. But in the early church, the main thing most poor folks had was food. They brought their food to church on Sunday morning, it was gathered at the table, the apostles and elders blessed it, and the food was shared with the gathered assembly. Very little was eaten; the idea was to have a lot left over. Some went to support the apostles and elders, but the rest was given to the poor members of the community. So that a poor woman who brought a crust of bread would go home with a week’s groceries to feed her children.

The offering and what we do with it, this is the communion. It is the offering of our lives, our time and talent and money, to each other and to the world. And this offering of ourselves makes Christ’s offering of himself, which many might see as a thing of the past, into a thing happening now. It makes Christ’s ministry something that has not ended, even though he has been executed. It makes his resurrection a real thing. As you and I, living breathing people, offer ourselves to one another now, Christ appears among us.

When Jesus described himself as the good shepherd he was comparing himself to all human kings and governments. The false shepherds want our allegiance to take from us. The good shepherd wants to offer us his life.

Remember he taught that whoever would be great among his followers would have to be least among them, a slave to them all. The ethos of the kingdom of God is offering all of oneself all the time to all the people.

It is this power that is eternal and it is this life that is indestructible. The power of the resurrection comes from the free and complete offering of all of oneself to God and to others, all of one’s time, all of one’s money, all of one’s talent, by all the people under Christ, who was the first one to go down this path. As each one does this, the risen Christ appears in the world.
Gilbert K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Psalm 23 is perhaps the most oft-requested scripture for funerals. It may be so because it is one of the few passages people know by heart, like John 3:16.

Have you ever noticed the line in there, “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies”?

That one has always clunked a bit for me. Here’s all this pastoral splendor and peacefulness, leading beside still waters, lying down, dwelling in the house of the Lord and so on. Then all of a sudden there are enemies present.

So here’s the spectacle presented to your enemies: you are seated comfortably at the table. God, the creator of the universe, is bustling around bringing you your supper. Maybe he’s got a little apron on.

What do you think your enemies are going to make of this?

If this sounds irreverent, it is. It is not meant to suggest, as many are preaching with great success, that you should actually take such an attitude toward God. Nor is it suggesting that God has got your back against those people you don’t like.

No, the idea here is to fill you with wonder and joy. God has freely chosen to make himself your servant in the presence of those arrayed against you. And the ones that are arrayed against you are those powers and forces that are far more powerful than you. Powers like greed, hatred, fear, sin and death, the powers that victimize just about everyone in the world, rich, poor and in between.

And so finally, this word from God is a word about how you understand everything you do and everything you have. It’s not so much that you change the way you give, it’s how you see what you have. What if your work was all for God? What if your money was all for God? What if you property was all for God? Certainly God expects you to keep what you need. But what about the rest?

The community we are creating all over the globe is meant to be a vision of hope and yes, judgment, for all the human governments of the world. We are not fomenting revolution. We are more like a separate nation woven into and among the nations of the world. We don’t need guns or prisons or jails. We are ruled by God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. We share because we freely choose to from the bottom of our hearts.

This is not about guilt or duty or obligation. This is about joy and generosity. And haven’t we seen it here at Philippi?

Christ is risen. And we see him now in our sharing with each other, in the breaking of the bread.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

A New Way of Seeing

03 Easter A 06
April 6, 2008

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

I have one of those friends. I don’t know, you might have one yourself. Years ago I went through a particularly bad patch. I guess you could say I had a nervous breakdown. I fled to Deltaville where my aunt had left me a little house. I got a job working at a convenience store and started hanging around with people who had boats.

One of them was a guy I’ll name Bob. Bob has a screw loose. He has a similar history actually, a bit of a nutcase, and we started hanging around together. Bob, well, there’s no other word for it, Bob is just obnoxious. He’s not really dangerous and he doesn’t really hurt anyone, but boy, most people can’t be around him for more than about ten minutes before they just want to pick him up and throw him in the river.

As it happens I was enough of a nutcase myself that I could more-or-less get along with him. At least until we decided to take an offshore cruise together on Bob’s 27 foot boat. I can’t say there has ever been a time in my life when I have sincerely considered murder, but on that cruise I came close.

But then, not long after, Bob decided to sail on out of Deltaville and go on an adventure. I think he made it as far as Manteo and decided to stay there for a while.

Meanwhile, the good Lord saw fit to help me along, mostly through the ministrations of inexplicably good and generous people who loved me, and through an amazing, almost biblical sequence of events, I ended up being called as the pastor of the Philippi.

God has been good, and things have gone well, and I seem to keep on getting better. I have a lot of friends of all types now, and while I have a boat, I almost never see it and probably will sell it. Just too busy, and too happy being busy, I guess.

Well, who should sail on back into Deltaville but Bob. Bob had gotten worse. I can’t go into all the details, but Bob’s life was really a shambles. And if it is humanly possible for a person to go beyond obnoxious, Bob had. He tried to move back in with his parents for a while, but they threw him out and he came back to live on his boat.

Finally, he called me, because, he said, he didn’t have anyone else he could call.
I have to say, it made me groan. Everything was going so well. And here comes Bob out of the past to mess it all up.

Everything I had to do for Bob embroiled me in the turmoil of his crazy life. Eventually, I was able to find a treatment center that could help him, but of course it was 150 miles away. Given that we had trouble finding it, I ended up being in the car with him for more than four hours.
I think the only reason I didn’t strangle him was I had my hands on the wheel of the car. When I dropped him off at the intake of the hospital I couldn’t wait to get home.

St. Peter is our preacher this morning in the book of Acts. This was his first sermon ever, and it puts to shame all us poor preachers who came after. But then we didn’t have Jesus himself as our seminary professor. Peter had been following him for at least a year, maybe a couple of years, and for most of that time, of course, he didn’t have a clue what Jesus was talking about.
And when Jesus was arrested, Peter lost his nerve and ran. When Jesus was tried, Peter denied him. And when Jesus was dying, Peter was in hiding, and he was still in hiding when Jesus rose from the dead.

This sermon is preached fifty days later, in the immediate aftermath of that great wind that blew through the house on the day of Pentecost. What drew the crowd was the spectacle of twelve Jewish peasants preaching the gospel in all the languages of the Empire.

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Can you imagine such a sermon?

When I heard these words, I found myself thinking of other strange sermons Jesus preached. And I found myself thinking about the strange stories of his resurrection.

I bet you can think of some sermons Jesus preached that really surprised you, stories that took strange twists Jesus often left unexplained, so that they end up haunting you and coming back into your mind again and again.

How about the Prodigal Son? The son who was disobedient and rebellious is the one the Father throws the party for. How strange. How about the parable of the sheep and the goats? “When did we see you, Lord?” Remember? “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
And what about the stories of resurrection? One of the stories in the lectionary today is from Luke’s gospel, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now these disciples had known Jesus for years and had been in his company, but Luke says they were kept from recognizing him until the breaking of the bread.

And remember when Mary sees the gardener in that strange dawn light, but then realizes that he’s Jesus? And remember how in Matthew many saw the risen Lord, but quite a few doubted?
And remember the parables of the kingdom? The kingdom of God is like a treasure in a field or a beautiful pearl or a woman who has lost a coin.

The Spirit of God is here in these stories and in this sermon and in this community and in the church, and the Spirit, if it is anything at all, is a new way of seeing.

Peter does what all great sermons are supposed to do: he gives the people a new way of seeing. Jesus, the dangerous and blasphemous criminal, as it turns out, has been raised from the dead by God. There can be only one conclusion we can draw from this reality: he is Lord and Messiah, the one we have crucified.

Is there someone in your life that really makes you mad? Is there someone in your life who has done you wrong? Is there someone in your life who has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed? Is there anyone in the world you count as your enemy?

Could it be that enemy is the risen Christ for you?

Peter’s sermon resulted in 3,000 baptisms that very day.

I looked up our region’s records and saw that there were 250 baptism in 2006 in the 189 congregations of Virginia. Philippi had one baptism that year and that was a little below average. Bill Lee’s church, Loudon Avenue in Roanoke, had the best record, twenty-five.

Now if we look at our whole denomination in 2006, there were 8,520 baptism in the US and Canada in Disciples churches. That works out to about 163 baptisms per Sunday morning. That’s pretty good, really.

Still a bit short of 3,000 in one day. Could it be we have forgotten that the gospel is a whole new way of seeing, a way so radical it is like being wounded. The scriptures says “They were cut to the heart.” When was the last time a sermon cut you to the heart? Sermons like that lead to baptisms. How many have you had here this year?

My friend Bob has since come out of treatment. I wish I could say he was a great guy today. He isn’t really. He’s still pretty obnoxious. But I woke up this morning thinking about this sermon of Peter’s, and Bob came into my mind.

Could it be I have seen the risen Lord?