Monday, June 23, 2008

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

06 Pentecost A 08
June 22, 2008

Romans 6:1b-11
Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

A Death Like His

I saw the movie Nanking last night. This is the film we’ll be showing next Friday at our first Thoughtful Christian Movie Night. It’s about the invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937. It was a nightmarish and awful event, one of the most violent and hellish in the 20th century. In the film, a number of Westerners decide not to accept the opportunity for evacuation and instead to stay and help. Most of them were missionaries. One said, “this is an opportunity for service of the highest order.”

Most of them said goodbye to their families. All of them risked their lives.

A pastor told the story to his congregation about Millard Fuller, a powerful businessman and millionaire who had an intense conversion experience and dedicated his life to Christ. He gave up his lucrative business and devote his considerable fortune to founding Habitat for Humanity. In doing so he gave up his lavish lifestyle. After the sermon, one of the pastor’s congregation came up and asked, “How old were his children when he did this?” His point was the Fuller had no right to deprive his children for the sake of his own spiritual life.

Among people recovering from addiction in the twelve step fellowships there is a saying. “Whatever you put before recovery, you will therefore probably lose.”

So often people come to the fellowship and say, “My family is my top priority.” The sponsor will immediately tell the person, “Recovery needs to be your top priority, otherwise you’ll probably lose your family.”

Many, many addicts end up dead or alone or in institutions because they decided to stay home from meetings to be with their families or to work some extra hours. Without the spiritual medicine the meetings provide the addict, he ends up drifting inexorably back toward the problem. The addict finds this mystifying. “Doesn’t God want me to be with my family? Doesn’t God want me to be a success in my job? Aren’t you people telling me if I do God’s will I won’t use or drink?”

The great wisdom here is that it is not the doing of sinful things that is the primary reason people sin. People sin most often because they think the matter so important that God’s rules can be suspended. When it is a matter of some exalted value, like family, personal fulfillment, patriotism or financial security, people think, “well, surely God didn’t mean this situation.”

God said, “Don’t murder other people,” but he surely didn’t mean for us to apply that to a self-defense situation. God said, “Don’t commit adultery,” but surely he didn’t mean when one’s marriage is really, really miserable. God said, “you shall have no other Gods,” but surely he didn’t mean we should put him first in everything. God said, “you shall not steal,” but surely he didn’t mean I couldn’t take a little from the expense account, particularly since I’m underpaid.

I read portions of a study of religious-based warfare and insurrection, and found it very interesting that the deeper causes of such conflict were thought to be found much more in the bonds of family than in religious beliefs. The way people got into the fight was when a beloved uncle or aunt was killed. This fuels the battle much more strongly than do religious differences. Religious differences are brought in to legitimize simple vengeance.

Some of you may have seen the television documentary some years ago about the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland. One of the things the interviewers asked was, “what are the religious issues that separate you from each other.” Those being interviewed had no answer. “They’re protestants, we’re catholics. That’s all I need to know.” Deeper questioning revealed many memories of beloved relatives murdered by the opposition.

Putting one’s family above all other things is one of the great values of human society. And yet, this great value becomes the fuel for great societal evil.

Going back to Nanking, remember the quote, “service of the highest order”? The man who said that, and who became a hero in the story, was a card-carrying Nazi. It is possible for good people, for good reasons, to be drawn into great evil.

It is most often for the sake of something good that we stoop to the despicable. This is precisely why sin is so insidious. No one rises in the morning and says, "Today I will make the world a worse place than it was yesterday." Rather, people say, "Today I will do the best I can to live to the highest possible standards." And then, off they go to commit great evil.

How, to paraphrase Paul, can we be saved from this insidious sin?

Paul says “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

He’s talking about baptism. Now, I don’t want anyone to miss this. Baptism is the most important thing that has ever happened to you. I sometimes think we don’t talk enough about how important and singular and magnificent this thing called baptism is. Maybe it’s because Disciples got so caught up with how people should be baptized they forgot to talk about what baptism is.

What do you think baptism is? The washing away of sins? Yes. The promise of salvation? Yes. The initiation into the church? Certainly.

Paul says here that in baptism we are united with Jesus in a death like his.

Jesus was executed because he was more loyal to God than he was to his nation, more loyal to God to the popular religious leaders of his day, and more loyal to God even than he was to his own family. He regarded God as his only king, and therefore snubbed the emperor of Rome and King Herod of Israel. He regarded the scriptures as his only religious teacher, and so he snubbed the most respected and powerful religious experts in his time. Jesus welcomed as his followers people rejected by his religious community, and so really irked the religious leaders who depended on the divisions to keep themselves in power. He regarded his family as those who did the will of God and not his earthly mother or father or siblings, and so he snubbed the ancient convention of family unity. For all of these snubs, for the simple fact that Jesus lived his life toward a higher and better power, the powers of the world conspired together not only to snuff him out but to do so in the most horrific way they could think of.

This is the death of baptism. It is being removed from the power of the world’s conventional authorities and willingly accepting the punishment that comes with it, in order to be faithful to a greater and better authority, the authority of the living God.

To be baptized is to be killed. I’m putting it that way to provoke you, but it is pretty accurate. It is to be changed on such a fundamental level that the person you were ceases to exist.

Now we have said this for a few Sundays now. God’s righteousness is not like ours, God’s faithfulness is not like ours, God’s justice is not like ours. Christ opens the way for those things of God to be given to us. We are not born with them and the world cannot give them to us.
Baptism if the symbol of the process by which God transforms us.

A new person is born to take the old person’s place. Now even though the rite of baptism happens only once, the process unfolds throughout your life. By practicing the way of life Jesus modeled for us, by praying, examining ourselves honestly, worshipping frequently, giving generously and serving willingly, we grow into the fullness of our baptism. We die to sin and rise to Christ.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother would buy me jeans that were two sizes too big. I hated that. Did your mother do that to you? The idea was that you could roll up the pant leg and tighten in the belt to make them fit. First you’d have to roll them two or three times to keep them off your shoes. Of course, inevitably as you ran around all day, they’d come loose and you’d look like a goober walking around with your pants dragging behind you. So off you’d go and eat like a pig and play like there was no tomorrow and sleep the sleep of the dead in between. And then the day would come when you’d only have to roll them up only once instead of twice. And then you’d forget about it and eat and play and sleep and pretty soon, you wouldn’t have to roll them up at all. A little longer and your ankles would be showing and oops, here comes another pair two sizes too big!

Baptism is like that. It’s as if God put a big beautiful robe over your head that was three times bigger than you were. At first, you stumble around barely able to see, barely able to accomplish anything. But as you eat and drink of the grace of God and play in the garden of his love, you grow.

And as you grow, the robe fits better and better. It gets in your way less and less. Eventually it fits you just fine, and you are able to do everything in it.

This is what baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is like. It is like that robe. The robe is everything it is supposed to be, all given at once. But our response is not like that. Very, very rarely do people immediately transform. Instead, they practice the way of Christ, serving him and obeying him as a student serves and obeys his master.

And eventually, they come to share in the death like his, the crucifixion to all the things the world thinks are most important, and because of this, they are assured they will be raised into a resurrection like his, to transcend death and bless the world forever.


Monday, June 16, 2008

05 Pentecost A 08
Father’s Day
June 15, 2008

Romans 5:1-8
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

A Different Kind of Hope

We’d barely gotten to know Vic McLawhorn here at Philippi before he died way too young. As I spoke with his grown daughter, I learned of an interesting story about him.

It seems that after Vic’s kids had grown up and moved away, Vic and Marietta had all the windows replaced at their home. When the workmen took out the old windows, Vic told them to let him keep the upstairs front bedroom window, though they didn’t know why. Vic then called his daughter and said, “I kept your bedroom window. I thought that since you climbed in and out of it so often you might like to have it.”

Fathers have a way of holding us accountable and at the same time loving and forgiving us. I sometimes think this, and not the fact of gender, accounts for why Jesus referred to God as “Father.” This unusual way of loving is part of what Paul is talking about this morning.
And Paul is talking about hope in this reading. There are three mentions of the word in the passage.

“…we boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God.” And then later, he says, “character produces hope” and that finally, “…hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

We talked a few weeks ago about God’s righteousness being different from ours. God’s righteousness is his faithfulness. He stays with us even when we don’t stay with him. Somebody wrote that human freedom is more about letting us hoist ourselves by our own petards. God wants us to go off and try to make our own future, and then when it all comes crashing down, we come back crying and he says, “So how’s your way working?”

Some of you might remember the TV show, The Twilight Zone. One episode, called “The Button,” told the story of a couple in desperate need of money. A stranger comes to them and offers them a button. He tells them that all they have to do is press the button and someone they don’t know will die and leave them $100,000. Well, they debate the question, how much they need the money, the fact they don’t know the person involved, and so on.

Finally they push the button. The stranger shows up and gives them the $100,000 and asks for the button back. They ask him what he’s going to do with it. He says, “Don’t worry, I’ll give it to someone who doesn’t know you.”

So God’s righteousness is different from ours. We’re on the tit-for-tat, “I’ll rub your back if you rub mine” program. I’ll do right to avoid getting punished and to get the reward. But God’s on the “I’ll be there no matter what” plan. He does right even when the reward is hatred and rejection.

In the same way, God’s glory is different from our idea of glory. My idea is that glory is getting exalted by everyone, being on top, getting praise from all sides, winning the big prize. And I suppose God’s glory ends up being that in the long run. But it doesn’t begin there.

It begins on the cross. It begins in the Christ, crucified and risen. Here’s the mystery from the heavenly places, friends, the mystical truth of Christian faith. God’s glory is his mercy.

God’s glory is that deeply entwined in his great power and superiority and perfection is his decision to forgive and love and bless those who hate, despise and ignore him.

That is God’s glory. Just as God’s righteousness is not our righteousness, so God’s idea of glory is different from ours.

I was talking with Mrs. Miller a few weeks ago about the propensity we humans have to hold grudges. It amazes me how I can nurse and nurture a grudge over a long period of time. There must be some pleasure in it I suppose, or people wouldn’t do it. But in a way, it’s a lot of work for not much payoff. Still, we can summon to mind the wrong that was done and it will awaken our rage afresh and we can rededicate ourselves to our everlasting condemnation of the wrongdoer.

There are a lot of other forms grudges can take. It can just be that one story we remember about somebody, some not-very-flattering story, and whenever that person’s name comes up, we remember that story. We might know a whole lot of stories about that person, but only the most unflattering one comes to mind. Worse, we might make a point of telling it.

I’ve heard a lot of those kinds of stories in this town, boy.

So Mrs. Miller and I were talking about grudges and at some point she sighed and said, “Why can’t we just give up and love everybody?”

It’s what we want to do, but well, everybody else just makes it impossible, don’t they? If you really were to love everybody, you’d not only have to forgive your enemies, but actively bless them and serve them. You’d have to give up on trying to change other people, and try to serve them instead. You’d have to give away what you had to anyone who had need.

And you know, those enemies, well, they deserve our anger, don’t they? It’s not our fault we’re angry. And it would be easy to love those people in our lives that need to change, they just have to change first. It’s not our fault they don’t see the light. And those people who don’t have what they need, well, they can go out and get it just like I do.

And besides, if I don’t fight back, that means the enemy wins.

Of course, God doesn’t stop blessing us when we turn against him. God doesn’t stop loving us even when we refuse to change. God doesn’t stop giving to us even when we are lazy. And God doesn’t fight back, but wins anyway. Christ, who was crucified because he refused to fight back, rose from the dead.

So this simple message is very troubling to the world and the way the world works.
The world doesn’t like God. The world, that is to say, the fallen creation in which we live, governed by greed and fear and brutality, does not like God.

God, however, loves the world.

The world doesn’t want God’s love. The world doesn’t want to dissolve differences, erase boundaries, or share equally. And the tit for tat, I’ll rub your back if you rub mine system is excellent for maintaining those boundaries. It’s what people like to call “reality.” But this is a misnomer. We construct our reality. It’s real because we made it.

Somebody said the church exists precisely for the people who won’t go near it. We who are called to this assembly exist to very intentionally proclaim this love from God that the world really would rather not hear about it.

I was reading Fred Craddock’s classic book on preaching, “As One Without Authority.” There’s a sermon on Mark’s Easter story called “And They Said Nothing to Anyone.” It refers to the strange line about the women, filled with fear, running off from the empty tomb and not telling anyone. Of course, as he points out, the literal translation of the Greek in Mark is “they said nothing to nobody.” Let me read:

The most common thing said to me in this church, which is run by volunteers,
people who are good people—they cut down trees, mow the grass, wash the windows, serve, fix the table, decorate, bring flowers—but the one thing I hear most is
this: “Don’t ask me to say anything.” I’ll do anything, but don’t ask me to say
anything. I’ll climb up and change the lightbulb, but don’t ask me to say
anything. Why is it that we can just chatter like magpies, but mention Jesus
Christ and it’s “Don’t ask me to say anything?” I hear an expression a lot these
days—it’s not enough to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. Well, that’s
nice. The trouble with it is, it’s backwards. It’s not enough to walk the walk.
You’ve got to talk the talk. Because the most difficult and most effective and
most profound thing you’ll ever do for Jesus Christ is to say something. And
when I ask for talkers, no one comes. If I say, “Let’s redo the building,”
everybody comes. This is no criticism of anyone, but an honest recognition that
the fundamental human sacrament is to say something important. And that’s hard
to do.

To say very simply that the crucified Jesus is risen from the dead is to say something very important, and it is to say something the world probably would rather not hear.

Now I want to quickly point out here that preaching condemnation is often taken as being bold and really getting into the gospel. It’s powerful in the world because it’s the world’s way. It’s the devil’s business to condemn, because it cuts people off from one another and from God. Lots of people confuse the devil’s business with God’s business, and of course, that’s just the way the devil likes it.

No, the really dangerous thing to preach is forgiveness. The dangerous thing is to remove the boundaries people erect to create their own peace. And interestingly enough, Paul says that the suffering that comes with giving oneself to this message is precisely the way God shapes us as his children, precisely the way we come to the place of hope.

Our hope is not for our personal fulfillment. We look forward to heaven, yes, but this is not the hope which Paul is teaching us. Our hope, my hope, is for coming to the place where I can show mercy, where, as Mrs. Miller has said, I can really “give up and love everybody.”


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Third Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

June 1, 2008
03 Pentecost A 08
Romans 1:16-17 (NRSV) Romans 3:22-28 (NRSV)

Bidding for Salvation

If eternal life were on eBay, what would you bid?

Would you bid your marriage? Was it a good marriage? Were you faithful the whole time? Never had a real argument?

Would you bid your military service? Did you serve with honor? Did you risk yourself for your comrades and your country? Were you wounded, perhaps?

Would you bid your church attendance? Have you been in church every Sunday for most of your life? Been in Bible study? Given a lot of money? Volunteered for everything?

Would you bid your kids? Did well, did they? Great jobs, good money, big achievements? Beautiful grandchildren?

Would you bid your career? Did you do something really meaningful? Get a lot accomplished? Manage a boatload of employees? Built something lasting and useful?

I will celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of my ordination this Thursday. How well I remember my first congregation. I remember riding around the little suburb of Boston and looking at the neat yards and well-kept homes and thinking warmly of the simple honest people there.

I remember too how once I was ordained and was wearing the uniform of the pastor people seemed to change whenever I came around them. There were even jokes. “Hey, Bob, there’s the preacher, better watch your language now!”

And I will never, ever forget how, during that first week after my ordination, a young girl came to my office and told me her father had been abusing her for years. And there were so many more like her. Soon those neat, well-kept homes became almost sinister. I wondered, what sadness and tragedy and pain did they hide?

Marilynne Robinson wrote a novel called Gilead from the point of view of an old preacher. It’s a wonderful book, full of wisdom and insight. At one point, the old preacher writes to his son:

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry.
People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those
very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.
There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice
and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to
find it, either.

The simple truth is there’s a difference between our public actions and images and what we feel deep within ourselves. Many of us hope our actions or at least our refraining from doing wrong will somehow earn our approbation before God. But then inside ourselves, we have doubts, resentments, fears.

If eternal life were on eBay, what would you bid?

A number of great preachers and thinkers of the church would probably agree that these passages from Romans are the most important verses in the bible. I would say, if you were going to memorize one verse, forget John 3:16, or Psalm 23. Make it Romans 3:28.

“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works prescribed
by the law.”
The book of Genesis tells us that God was rejected and ignored by humankind, and yet continued to be faithful to them. He was within his rights to destroy the world, and he almost did, but he nevertheless showed mercy to Noah and his family, along with all the creatures of the earth, and then he made a promise that he would never again destroy the earth, despite the fact that humans really hadn’t improved at all.

This is God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness is not some high standard of personal morality. God’s righteousness is in God’s continuing love and care for people who ignore, reject , mock and even try to kill him.

This is not remotely like human ideas of goodness or righteousness. People think in terms of tit for tat, an eye for an eye, the time for the crime. Humans, each and every one, are therefore enemies of God, not because they do evil things, but because they base their faithfulness to God and to each other on the question, “What have you done for me lately?” or “How have you hurt me lately?”

There is no such thing as good guys and bad guys. There is one good guy and the rest are bad. Even Jesus refused to be called good, saying “No one is good but God alone.”

Now, this consignment to judgment sounds like one of those hellfire and brimstone sermons, doesn’t it? I don’t find it so. Tell you the truth, I find it a relief. If anyone is righteous before God, well then, my hope is lost. But if we are all sinful, if we all fall short, I am still in the game, there is still one possibility left: that God can do for me what I cannot do for myself. What a relief. No one is good but God alone.

And the goodness of God is precisely in his faithfulness. The story of the bible tells us that God remained faithful no matter how we have ignored him, rejected him, spat on him and hated him.

God called Israel to be his servant, and they struggled against their calling, but in the fullness of time, a child was born, not of the flesh but of the Spirit, who finally revealed God’s image in himself. God was revealed to us as a man broken and rejected and yet who nevertheless forgives, the dying man on that cross. But this was not all. Jesus, the Son of Man, accepted the judgment of God and still gave himself in faith, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and immediately thereafter, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Do you see? The two are mirror images. God remained faithful in spite of our rejection of God and Jesus remained faithful in spite of God’s rejection of humankind. It is therefore only in Christ that we can find this God and receive him into ourselves. This is the only salient truth for us. God is faithful no matter how much we say “no” to him.

So if eternal life were on eBay, how about bidding our sin?

How about bidding our dishonesty? How about bidding our malice and anger and judgment of others? How about bidding our loneliness? How about bidding our lust? How about bidding our racism or sexism or classism? How about raising the bid and adding on our greed? How about bidding our self-righteousness? How about bidding our desire to control others?

How about bidding the truth that is in us, the truth hidden under the well-kept home and the neat yard?

This is what Luther called “the blessed exchange.” We offer our sin, which is precisely our tit-for-tat faithlessness to God and to each other, and Christ takes it all upon himself on the cross, and in exchange he offers us a new righteousness that is not our own. We human creatures do not love our enemies. Are you kidding? We don’t bless those who curse us. You must be out of your mind. This is not human righteousness, but God’s righteousness, the righteousness of a God who loves us, his enemies, and blesses us, who curse him.

So, when we receive this righteousness from him, we become faithful no matter how much he says no to us and we become faithful to other human beings no matter what they do to us. We remain faithful toward God despite his condemnation, and we remain faithful to our enemies despite their hatred, we remain faithful to the sinful despite their sinfulness, we remain faithful to the self-righteous and the judgmental and the deviant and the lazy and the cruel. We don’t give up on God, we don’t give up on each other. We are made new. We are no longer merely human. We have become children of God.

If eternal life were on eBay, we could offer a bid of all the wealth in the world, of all the good deeds of Mother Theresa and Ghandi and Mrs. Miller and St. Francis and every great saint of the past, and Jesus would still say to us, “I do not know you.”

And he would be right, because we would not have truly given him ourselves.

But if we offered our loneliness, our dishonesty, our malice and all the things that spring from our self-centered fear, then God will offer us salvation. God will offer us himself. God will put within us his own faithfulness, the faithfulness that cannot die, the faithfulness that loves all humankind in the face of the worst that humankind can do, a faithfulness that will enable us to do what we cannot do, to love God even in the face of the worst that God can do. This is eternal life. This is salvation. As Charlotte Eliott in that well-beloved hymn:

Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings
and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come.