Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Second Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

May 25, 2008

Matt 6:24-34 (NRSV)

The Paradox

Have you gotten the email, one of those “forwards” entitled “the Paradox of our Time?”

“The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less. We buy more, but enjoy less. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life, not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We've done larger things, but not better things. We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships.”

Does anyone remember who it was attributed to? Well, whether you do or not, we’ll get to that at the end.

It’s a great thought, though, isn’t it? And it would seem to fit our passage so well. We’re so caught up chasing the almighty dollar, when we should be more focused on each other. End of sermon, everyone go home.

Our passage this morning is the last part of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. Great crowds had come out to avail themselves of Jesus’ healing power, and while they were at it, they stopped and gave his message a listen as well. Jesus was addressing his fellow Jews, fellow believers in God and practitioners of the Jewish religion. And his message was not about how to live or that what the world needs now is love, sweet love, but that God was actually coming into the world, and things were going to drastically change, and he was asking his fellow believers to get ready.

No, I am not a reader of the Left Behind series, though I probably should read it just so I know what kind of nonsense is being perpetrated out there. No, I don’t have any fundamentalist beliefs about plagues and battles and the anti-Christ.

But I do believe that our religion is not as much about going to heaven, as it is about heaven coming here.

Jesus came to announce to believers that God is coming to inhabit his people in the same way he came to inhabit his temple in the days of David. He is coming to light us up, to transform us completely, from the inside out.

It’s important to put this teaching in that perspective, because we too quickly domesticate this passage into a “don’t worry, be happy,” kind of message, and it isn’t that at all. It also isn’t really a condemnation of money or wealth. It is a call to the people who want to follow Christ, a call to people who feel within themselves the importance of the kingdom of God.

Jesus used the metaphor of salt. The people of God are to the world as salt is to a meal. The world tastes bad and it is spoiling. The people of God are the salt put into the meal to preserve it and to make it taste good.

Jesus is telling us that we, the priestly nation of God, are really here to flavor the world. Do you know what I’m saying? We aren’t here to force anything, to conquer anyone, to overthrow anybody. No, we are meant to season the world. The world taste bad. We’re here to make it taste a little better.

But if we don’t bear within ourselves the saltiness, why then, we don’t flavor anything. We taste just like everything else.

And so the sermon on the mount is about that flavor, that saltiness that we are called to have and be, and it basically is about not being anything like the world at all. While the world is caught up with the fine gradations of the law that everyone is trying to figure out a way to get over, we are to be people who want only to do God’s will. In a world of murderers, we are not supposed to even get angry. In a world of adulterers, we aren’t even supposed to feel lust. In a world of hypocrites, we are supposed to have perfectly pure motives. In a world that only gives lip service to God, we are to be his true servants. In a world full of people struggling for resources, we are to trust God for all our needs.

This is our saltiness, our flavor, and without it, we are nothing.

The saltiness Jesus is speaking about is our motives and not our deeds. We like to point to our deeds, because they are clearly visible, even if only to ourselves, and they are easily done even when our motives are cloudy. But isn’t it the difference usually perceptible? Don’t you think you can tell? It’s only when someone’s motives change that they really light up.

When it comes to wealth, Jesus is not telling us that wealth is bad. He is not telling us that being wealthy is evil. He is acknowledging that money talks and the rest walks. It is of tremendous importance. Whenever someone says to me, “Money’s not important to me,” I always respond, “Well then give me all of yours.”

Money is important. It’s terribly important. We may be discovering now that it’s more important even than guns and armies. It may be a nation can conquer the world with nothing but money. Our economy right now is going through a bumpy ride and it’s pretty scary. I would think for retired folks with limited means it’s particularly scary. And how can we say to people in Myanmar, “don’t worry about it?” We can’t say that.

This is not what Jesus is teaching. He is teaching you and me about how we are to be different from the world. While the world, quite normally and appropriately, desperately fears for its well-being, part of our saltiness in the world will be our fearless dependence on God’s care.

If this looks impossible, well, it is. God’s own being is the saltiness in the salt of God’s people. Money is desperately important to everyone on earth precisely because it is important. To be released from such a need is something only our heavenly Father can do, and he does it by sending his own Spirit to dwell in us.

To me, as a follower of Jesus, I look back over my life and see how I have always longed to serve him. I have always been ill at ease with the ways of the world and they have never worked for me. In fact, I felt myself trapped and bound and imprisoned, I felt like I couldn’t be who I really was meant to be.

The great joy of my life is to find that there is nothing wrong with me after all. I am meant to be different from the world around me. To be unconcerned about my wealth or property is abnormal for citizens of the world, but for me it is who I really am.

Barbara Brown Taylor said, “The opposite of rich is not poor but free.”

That email sermon was attributed to George Carlin with a little parenthetical remark that he wrote it after his wife died. Well it’s true that Carlin’s wife died, but he denied writing the passage, calling it a sappy piece of— well you know George Carlin. It was also attributed to a student who had witnessed Columbine. This also is not true.

It was actually written by a pastor whom I will not name, of a very conservative independent mega-church that I will also not name. The congregation’s website declares the inerrancy of scripture and that the bible forbids female leadership. This pastor eventually resigned over allegations he had sexually molested a number of male church members, allegations that were eventually confirmed.

So here’s my addendum to this poor pastor’s irrefutably good sermon: The paradox of our time in the church is that we have great certainty but no faith, lots of bibles but few readers, lots of fire but little light, impressive deeds but doubtful motives, huge churches led by small people.
And didn’t Jesus give us the most important paradox of all?

3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
—Matt 5:3-12 (NRSV)


Sunday, May 18, 2008

First Sunday After Pentecost Year A

May 18, 2008
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

The Story in the Name

I started asking people yesterday about the Trinity.

I asked, “What do you think about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?”

One said she thought of the Holy Spirit as Tinkerbell.

Another one said, “I got the Father and the Son. It’s the Spirit I don’t get.”

Some just looked at me funny and changed the subject.

I’ve talked to some other pastors this week and they think today’s passages are about the great commission. Do you know that phrase, “the great commission?” Jesus gave us a job to do. Did you hear it in the passage?

Are you busy with that job? Are you working on it?

I heard a Christian this week having a moment of revelation. He said, “I’m finally seeing it. We’re all here to make Christians. We’re all here to help each other to grow our spirits on the inside.”

I heard another Christian this week telling me, “God won’t let me alone. I keep trying to walk away but he keeps coming back.”

What do you think about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?

My observation? Most of us in the moderate churches, what we call the mainline, have reduced God down to bite-size pieces, like those little wafers we use in communion. And we want our preachers to comfort us in this by offering up to us cute little stories that warm our hearts, by telling us, “that’s right, it really isn’t mysterious, it’s just what you’re already doing, it’s just what you already know.”

But this isn’t what faith is about and you know that. Because you walk out of here and go deal with children with brain tumors and typhoons that kill thousands of people and a society that is consumed with consuming and family members with incurable addictions and parents who abuse their children and losses in your own lives that are just not fair.

Because you think, really, don’t you, that if you ran the universe, things would be different. Don’t you really think that sometimes? You wouldn’t send a typhoon to kill innocent people if you were God, would you? Would you? And if you were God, you wouldn’t have this bad thing called death, right?

Don’t we really think we know better?

And don’t we know that our own motives are good? Don’t we know that the society we live in is just and fair? Of course, it troubles us that it doesn’t work. Because of course, we know it doesn’t. In fact, the whole world isn’t really working at all.

Now why is it, if our motives are good, that things aren’t working?

It may be that our ideas about the best way to run things is not actually a good idea at all.

The scriptures tell us this morning that we didn’t make the world, and we didn’t make ourselves. Did you hear the message?

There’s that old story about the scientist who told God he’d figured out a way to create a human being out of dirt just like he had.

God said, “Okay, let’s see it.”

And the scientist said, “well, first we take this dirt here.”

And God said, “Oh no. Get you own dirt.”

The story of creation and the story of the Holy Scriptures begins with the idea of purpose. Genesis is telling us we are made for a purpose.

Did you hear that purpose?

And God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. First off, God created humankind and not the other way around. And second, somehow, human beings, both male ones and female ones, are meant to represent God in the created world.

This is a little hard for us to get clear about now. But in ancient times, people made statues to represent their gods. The bible calls these statues “images” or “idols,” objects made to represent a hidden spiritual being. The God of the bible is therefore unique inasmuch as he fashions his own image or idol: us.

The contrasts are important. The idols human beings make to represent gods do not move or breathe or live. But the idol God makes to represent himself lives and moves and breathes. The principle here is that God lives, and is therefore represented by a living image, whereas all the other gods do not live, because they are represented by idols made of stone or wood or gold.

But humankind rejected their purpose and the creator that gave it to them. Why? Well, because we know better, right? We know better what is good for us, and more important, what’s good for everyone else. And it is this belief that runs the world. And it is this belief that ruins it.

What do you think about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?

Here’s what I think.

I think it’s a story, and the story is the greatest news I’ve ever heard.

It’s a story about Jesus whom we call the Christ.

The story is about how one man returned to his proper purpose and revealed a way for all of us to follow him back into the right relationship with God and with each other. In fact, this man shows us a way to go even farther. He shows us a way to a new creation, a new and better way.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is not a code of ethics or a system of living. This is a way to be transformed into something different than we are. This is a way to be re-created.

Disciples of Jesus seek to open themselves, as he did, to the Holy Spirit. And when we do this we are changed from creatures carved out of the mud and inflated with the divine breath. We become instead children, sons and daughter, born from God.

God is no longer God, some distant invisible and unknowable thing. God becomes our Father.
In the twelve-step fellowships, the poor addicts and alcoholics who come shambling in are convinced that they need to change their habits, that they need to control themselves and start making the right decisions, rather than the wrong ones. They imagine they must work very hard to do this.

But the old-timers there will tell them they’ve got it wrong. What they need to work on, if anything, is opening themselves to a spiritual awakening. If they turn their lives and their wills over to God, they won’t have to work at all.

They won’t have to work at all.

As disciples of Jesus, we seek the Holy Spirit. We seek to be awakened, and then to stay awake. With the Holy Spirit, we will not need to know anything about rules or ethics or laws. We will instead desire with our deepest beings to do the will of our loving Father, and as his begotten children, we will be infused with his power so that we can.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Day of Pentecost (Mother's Day) 2008

Pentecost A 08
May 11, 2008
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

The Mother of the Church

Pentecost is the holiday today, but it happens to fall on Mothers’ Day as well. You may not know that Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival with two levels of meaning. One was simply a celebration of the harvest, but it also remembered and celebrated the time in the wilderness by Mount Sinai when God gave Israel the commandments.

And well we all know: like Moses, moms sure knew how to lay down the law.

Take for example the Book of Mom’s Laws for the Table. I’ll read just a few. I’m sure you’ll recognize them.

“…if you are seated in your high chair, or in a chair such as a greater person might use, keep your legs and feet below you as they were. Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me. Yes, even when you have an interesting bandage to show, your feet upon the table are an abomination, and worthy of rebuke.

“Drink your milk as it is given you, neither use on it any utensils, nor fork, nor knife, nor spoon, for that is not what they are for; if you will dip your blocks in the milk, and lick it off, you will be sent away.

“When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table, and do not bite it upon its edge and by your teeth hold it to your face in order to make noises in it sounding like a duck: for you will be sent away.

“When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed, and do not open it to show your brother or your sister what is within; I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister has done the same to you.

“Eat your food only; do not eat that which is not food; neither seize the table between your jaws, nor use the raiment of the table to wipe your lips. I say again to you, do not touch it, but leave it as it is.

“And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table, even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why.

“Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.”

The Laws of Mom for Pentecost. They actually come from a book by "Lamentations of the Father" by Ian Frazier, though of course, they fit for mom too, don’t they?

When I think of my mother, Betty Cook, I find myself selfishly missing her. She died fourteen years ago, almost exactly.

I miss being able to call her and tell her about my achievements, most of them a bit exaggerated. I’d tell her about them because I was looking for that smile, that affirmation, that special glow that you get when your mom says, “You’re a good boy. I’m proud of you.”

Moms give us life, teach us right from wrong, comfort us when we hurt, encourage us when we doubt ourselves, and want nothing from us except that we grow into the wonderful people they know us to be. And for most of us, our mothers come to have almost mythical stature and power in our lives.

This relationship is almost a matter of instinct or reflex. Even in the most damaged and dysfunctional families, a child will most often excuse, pardon, forgive and love a mother despite abuse, neglect or complete incompetence.

In the best of situations, of course, this relationship is a life-giving blessing to both mother and child. I truly believe many of us, myself included, achieve many of the things we achieve throughout our lives seeking within ourselves the approving smiles our mothers. We are simply born this way.

And in the Holy Spirit, we are reborn.

Through Christ, God opened the way for us to receive the Holy Spirit, and thereby feel the same kind of passionate devotion for God that we have for our mothers. The Spirit of God wants to give us life, teach us wisdom, comfort us when we are hurt, encourage us when we doubt ourselves, and wants nothing from us in return except that we grow into the wonderful people God created us to be.

To be reborn as God’s child is to become a part of a new and bigger family. This new family is not defined by genetic relations or racial similarities, but includes people of all shapes and colors and sizes. And just as those of us who grew up among brothers or sisters found that we had a certain role to play in the family organization, so in this new family of God we each have a role. And just as in our earthly families, we are each unique and wonderful individuals, but nevertheless born of the same mother, so in the church, we each have differing gifts to offer but receive them from the one Holy Spirit.

To become God’s child is also to become a citizen of a new and greater nation. This new nation is not defined as earthly nations are, with geographical boundaries and particular languages. The language is the word of God, and everyone who belongs to the Lord understands it. This new nation has no army, no police, no jails, no weapons. It is ruled by Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and it has no law but the law of love.
St. Paul writes that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. Until we have been adopted as children of God, we cannot have any real understanding of the only-begotten Son of God. Until we feel about God as a child feels about her mother, it will be very hard for us to understand the teachings of our Lord, and more importantly, we will be unable to sense his living presence in our lives.

For at the heart of this new family born of the Mother Spirit is the basic practice of forgiveness. This is a great deal more than simply bearing with one another. We forgive everyone in our new family not only for their sins, but for their differences from us. There can be no nationalism, racism, sexism, classism or imperialism in any of our hearts if we are to embrace this new community. There can be no greed or selfishness or arrogance. For the family of God is to be a kingdom of peace and justice, and forgiveness is the beginning of peace, and peace is the beginning of justice.

In the new birth from the Spirit, we lose nothing of what we were before, but gain a new eternal and universal perspective. We have not ceased to be Americans, and we can love our earthly nation, but we am now citizens of a greater, eternal kingdom, which we are called to love even more. We continue to love and honor our first-birth mothers, but also have a new spiritual mother who is truly all-knowing, all-loving and powerful enough to make us everything we are meant to be.

Here at Philippi I have two hundred and fifty brothers and sisters, and millions more in the whole church around the world. And now, most importantly, I am part of a great mission, a great kingdom goal, to let the world know how deeply God loves us all.

When Peter stood up that morning and spoke, his sermon inspired three thousand people to be baptized that very day. To my knowledge that record has never been broken. But such is the power of the Holy Spirit, the great Mother of the church, still flowing out from Jerusalem and the ancient world, through the centuries and across the seas.

I hope this morning you are thinking about giving birth to new churches and the special offering we are asking for that purpose. And I hope you are thinking about God’s love for those who are dying around the world, especially in Myanmar. And of course, I hope you are blessing God for the gift of earthly life as it came to you through your mother, and for the new life that came through the Mother of the Church, the Holy Spirit.
And maybe there’s someone here today that will make a decision.

Perhaps today someone will decide to join this great family, perhaps today someone will feel eternity tugging at their hearts, perhaps today someone will feel the arms of God opening to receive them.

Whether your mother is here with you in person or in spirit, perhaps today she will see you reborn, and rejoice.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A 2008

07 Easter A 06

May 4, 2008

Acts 1:6-14

The Path in the Woods

When I was a kid I used to come down here to Deltaville and I would stay with my aunt out on Sturgeon Creek at the end of Honeysuckle Lane. And in those days, a boy by himself could have a whole boatload of fun in Deltaville just by walking out the door in the morning.

All through my childhood, I was fascinated with the woods, the forest, the dense wildernesses flashing by along the highways. All those childhood tales of darkness and danger and mystery fired my imagination. The woods were full of promise and full of danger.

There were lots of woods around Deltaville then, and I suppose there are still today. In those fabulous free mornings I would wander down the lane and the woods would surround me and I would peer at them with wonder and maybe a little longing.

And there are lots of woods around our lives, aren’t there? Dark and dangerous and mysterious places some of us stumble into, sometimes dragging others along with us. Some of us wander away and get lost and don’t come back. Inexplicable illnesses, sudden accidents, seemingly insane choices that tear couples and families apart. Whole nations and peoples sometimes stumble off into the tangling branches and brambles and overgrowth. Sometimes we find our way out, sometimes we don’t.

Between God and the world we live in, there seems to be a dense and overgrown country, impassable, unknowable, even dangerous. We know in ourselves that this has not always been so. Somehow we know there was a time when God was with us, close at hand, and we could all see him as clear as day.

How did the woods get there? I don’t know. Does it torture the metaphor to say we planted that forest? We threw the seeds of our doubt and distrust far and wide till the wilderness that grew up got out of control and went beyond our capacity to clear it away?

I don’t know. But there is stands, the wilderness between. And somehow we know God is out there, on the other side.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her own sermon on the Ascension, reflected on the strange phenomenon of people returning again and again to gather on Sunday mornings to sing and pray and ask questions and listen to a God they cannot see, whom many say is not there to begin with. It is as if we were grieving the loss of someone they loved, so they keep going back to the last place they saw him.

And she says, “You cannot miss what you have never known, which makes our sense of absence—and especially our sense of God's absence—the very best proof that we knew God once, and that we may know God again.”

God has wanted to come to us. And when God wants to come, God finds a way.

One morning all those years ago, I dared to wander off the lane and through a yard to a little opening I’d spied in the wall of trees. We had very little respect for other people’s property in those days, as I recall. I can’t remember seeing a single “No Trespassing sign” anywhere and if I did, I expect I ignored it.

When I went in there I found a world like I’d never seen before.

It was a path, a wide path, with trees old as Moses rising up on either side of it, big thick pines going up and up forever it seemed till they joined hands like celebrants high above and made a kind of natural cathedral roof. The light back there was magic light and it took your breath away. For a boy like me, alone in the woods, well, I took it for granted it was holy ground.

I used to wonder, who wore out that path? You know? You looked to the left and to the right, and you saw thick forest, dense and dangerous and overgrown, no way to get very far in and once in you’d probably never find your way out. But there in the middle, it was wide open and, it seemed, well-trod.

No fresh cut branches, no obvious tree stumps. The path was old and it had been there a long time. It was a path people made, some people still living, and probably some people long dead.
How can I say this? They were all there on that path. Their feet had worn away all that obstacles.

God wanted to come to us, and God found a way.

He came to that oak in Mamre to Abraham and he came down the ladder to Jacob and he came to the bush for Moses and he came in the still small voice to Elijah and he came into the Holy of Holies for old Isaiah and he even brought those crazy heavenly creatures with him.

God and his angels wore out that old path through the woods, and Jesus found it.

The Ascension of Jesus into the heavens is the cosmic equivalent of that path in the woods. Now I think a lot of us are nodding along here thinking, “right, right, Jesus shows us how to get to heaven.” And I would say, yes, that’s true, but there’s more.

I got so I loved that path, you know, that path I found when I was a boy. I’d seek it out from time to time. And every time I’d think it had disappeared, and every time I’d walk right by it, and every time I’d have that moment when I’d think, “it was a dream.” But there it would be and in I’d walk, and my private cathedral opened its arms to me.

And I’d stroll down it, and I found out it led to the water somewhere. I don’t know what water it was, a stream or a creek, but I remember water. Most paths around here lead to water. But then the hour would come when I was hungry and I’d need to go back to my aunt’s house and raid the fridge. And the path was there to lead me home.

The disciples stand, mouths agape, watching Jesus disappear into the clouds. And two mysterious men in white robes arrive and ask a question. Do you remember it? “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This same Jesus will come in the same way you saw him go.”
Do this sound like another question asked by another angel? It does to me. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

Is the path our way out? Or is it God’s way in?

A real live human being is nothing more than a living spirit in a living body. When the Holy Spirit of God inhabits a living human body, then what exactly is the difference between that person and Jesus the Christ?

I suppose it is as much of a difference as we insist on.

Why do you stand looking up into heaven? This same Jesus will come again in just the same way as he went, that is, just as he ascended into heaven, so he will descend from heaven. Why do you stand looking up when you should be looking from side to side?

Why are you hoping to go to heaven, when heaven is trying to come to you?

Next week, we’ll take a special offering for the start-up of new congregations. This is important not because of this or that individual who will somehow shine like a star. It’s important because as that congregation goes to work, the hungry get fed, the thirsty get water, the imprisoned get set free, and Christ comes into the world, and the world gets a little taste of heaven. Maybe not a full-course meal, but a taste, like a bit of good bread, or a sip of sweet wine.

Will we turn the world away from violence? Will we heal all the divisions and save all the children? Will be rescue all the perishing and heal all the sick?

Jesus tells us that these are not things are not for us to know. These are the kinds of questions that separate the Holy One in heaven from the holy ones on earth. Our job is to wait, to pray, to be open to the Spirit when it comes to us, and when it comes, to obey it.

The path Jesus found is his way of coming into the world. And you are the vessels of his coming. Does that surprise you? Do you think you are not up to the task? Oh, that’s not for me, you think. That’s for someone holier than me. But it is for you. Why do you stand looking up at heaven?

Annie Dillard writes in her book Holy the Firm:

“A blur of romance clings to our notion of these people in the Bible, as though of course God should come to these simple folks, these Sunday School watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves, while we now are complex and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? There is no one but us. There is no one to send nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time. But there is no one but us. There never has been."