Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

11 Pentecost A 08
July 27, 2008

Romans 8:26-39
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s Peculiar Love

We are unable by ourselves to manifest the image of God without suffering as Christ suffered. We therefore don’t even know what to pray for. In AA they have a saying, “I didn’t know; and I didn’t know that I didn’t know.” That’s our situation. We don’t miss what we need because we don’t even know what it is. The Holy Spirit is the means by which we pray for what we don’t know we need.

What comes, if we are truly open to it, is the power of God to transform us into something we can’t even imagine, something we don’t even think we need to be. Jesus was the Son of God, and we, if we follow him as our Lord, become sons and daughters of God like him. And we become these new beings in the same way he became who he was: by being chosen, called, justified and glorified.

“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” The whole message of Romans is not just that God forgives the sinner. The message is that God loves his enemies.

God sent his son into a world that hated God. And Christ died rather than to fight back against the world’s violence. In doing so he revealed the mysterious power and majesty and grace of God: God loves us, his enemies, and gives us life and blessings beyond all measure, despite our nailing his child to the cross.

Those who embrace this peculiar love as a way of life are those who have been chosen, called and justified. To be justified is to be made righteous, that is, to be made anew in the image of God, the image of a God who loves us, his enemies.

God loves us, his enemies.

And if this is so, how can we hate ours? To allow this possibility to enter our souls is to begin to enter into the kingdom of God. It is the very antithesis of all human organization, all human government, all human thinking, for human beings organize themselves against others. The purpose of every human nation is to defend its citizens with the threat of violence.

Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, that if it had been, his followers would have fought to protect him. And Jesus himself, perhaps the one person in all of history with the most righteous excuse to defend himself, chose not to. Quite the contrary. Hanging on the cross, he loved his executioners. This was his moment, this was his glory.

To be glorified is to be given the opportunity to love one’s enemies in the eyes of the world. The ultimate glorification, strangely, is to die rather than to fight, just as Jesus did. But this is not just a passive rolling over to die, but a very clear and significant choice, a choice that speaks love to the murderer. It’s no wonder that a centurion involved in the execution of Jesus converted on the spot.

This is not just living passively. This is seeking out the enemy and loving him or her. It is not just forgiveness, not just the willingness to be friends with someone you think is a sinner, though even that is a very good thing. It is to love those who hate you. It is to deliberately and lovingly and creatively engage people who stridently despise you and everything you stand for, and love them.

I recently read a story of a young Rwandan named Celestin who heard the call to the pastorate just before the explosion of violence there. He saw his ministry as a ministry of reconciliation between the Hutus and the Tutsis. He served in that ministry throughout the insanity of that massacre. Seventy members of his church, including people in his family were brutally murdered with machetes. And still he sought out the enemy, and tried to love them. He had been beaten, seen his family and friends tortured and murdered, but never, never did he give up. Today, there are many stories of murderers who have repented through Celestin’s ministry and are working at reconciling themselves to the families of those they murdered. One example: a Hutu who killed most of a certain Tutsi family, including several children, has dedicated his life to caring for an elderly grandmother in that family.

Africa is a deeply Christian continent, and there are a number of these reconciliation ministries going on. Interestingly enough, the international community is incensed. They want to have war crimes trials and execute the murderers. More death. Some are calling it “the myth of redemptive violence.”

I’ve read of a community in Philadelphia that is trying to practice this peculiar love of God. The story is told of the young pastor in that community walking in a dangerous neighborhood with an eleven-year-old member. They were haunted by a gang of teenagers obviously interested in a little of that incomprehensible violence-for-fun that seems to be all the rage in the inner cities these days. The pastor and the boy tried hard to simply ignore them, but it wasn’t long before the gang was literally beating them with sticks.

The pastor couldn’t think of what to do. Finally, he just stood up and looked into the eyes of his attackers and said something to this effect, “My friend and I can’t fight you because we are followers of Jesus. We believe you were made for something better than this. All we can tell you is that no matter how you hurt us, we will still love you.” This threw such a strange wrench into the process the gang scattered.

“Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

Paul is talking about those peculiar opportunities he and many of his compatriots experienced in pursuing the hostile world with the love of God. He is singing a hymn of praise because he is amazed that he and they have never given up, that those who have discovered this amazing, peculiar love of God are so filled with the Holy Spirit that they are able to live this very peculiar life.

We have spent this month thinking about Philippi’s future. We have used Paul’s letter to the congregation in first century Rome to frame our discussion.

What is amazing about Philippi is the emerging reality that there are people of widely divergent views who gather here together in Christ’s name. To me, this is a sign of God’s peculiar love.

Another story I’ve read recently involved a boy in an inner city congregation who had become the target of a bully at school. His teacher at church told him, “this is your opportunity to show that boy what it is to love.” The kid said, “Man, this love business is hard.”

It’s not just hard. It’s impossible. To love someone when they are firmly opposed to you, this is inexplicable apart from the power of God. And God is what people are looking for when they come to church.

And here at Philippi, we can feel just that power at work. Whatever plan we make for the coming years, I hope that at the center of the plan is the awareness of God’s love for us, his enemies, and that peculiar love as the center of our lives. I believe that awareness is the font of tremendous creativity.

G.K. Chesterton, who apparently devoted his life to coming up with quotable sayings about faith, once said that a Christian is wildly courageous, absurdly happy and constantly in trouble. If we are to embrace the love Christ showed us in the cross, we are likely to draw some fire.

Well, to paraphrase some general who once said, “Give ‘em hell,” I encourage you and our congregation to “Give ‘em heaven.”


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

10 Pentecost A 08
July 20, 2008

Romans 8:12-25
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The Birthday Party

As my daughter was being born, her mother cursed me. The women here who have undergone childbirth may remember doing similar things. One woman I know informed her husband that he would never get near her again. Why was this?

Of course, the pain is incredible. For us men, unimaginable. Some have said that kidney stones are worse, but not by much.

And yet many women do have more than one child. Some have called it the pain that is the hardest to bear, and the easiest to forget.

This month we’ve been reflecting on the question, “what does God want Philippi Christian Church to do and be?” We’re hoping that this series of sermons will help our vision team as they deliberate about Philippi’s future over the next five to ten years.

The first sermon had to do with our own inability to construct this vision out of our own minds and preferences and opinions. We discussed how we have to stand still and let God’s grace wash over us. At the same time, we realized that part of our mission as a congregation is to be that grace washing over every member and visitor.

Last week, we looked more deeply at the problem of receiving God’s direction. We saw that part of our work as individual believers and as a congregation must certainly be to try to identify and give up whatever blocks us from God’s Spirit. We spoke about how specific God-given instincts that serve us in many situations can come to dominate us in place of God.

And so it is we come to the question of just what the Holy Spirit does, if and when it comes to us and fills us. In our passage this morning, Paul is suggesting that God is preparing to transform the whole universe and the Holy Spirit is the advance guard of that new creation.

Paul’s vision if based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When he came out of the tomb Easter morning, Jesus was not a ghost. People touched him. He ate and drank. Certainly he was not the same. Many people didn’t recognize him at first. He did some interesting tricks like passing through locked doors and walls and appearing and disappearing. He seemed to have the ability to move between planes of existence. Now, I am the farthest thing from a supernaturalist. I’m always looking for the rational explanation. The gospels work very hard to make it particularly clear that Jesus was physically raised from the dead in a new and profoundly different kind of body. The tomb was empty, so it also seems clear that the new body was made out of the old.

Stay with me now. Strange as it may seem, this is all rather alien to mainstream Christian thought. I would venture to guess that most Christians do not seriously expect to physically rise from the dead.

Yet it seems very, very clear that this is precisely what the New Testament says. We are of course free to disbelieve what the bible says. Many people do.

But if we can suspend our disbelief for a moment, and just think through what this might mean, Paul’s words will begin to make sense. If Jesus was really raised from the dead in a new kind of Spirit-powered immortal body, this has real implications for the universe. Paul is saying that it’s not just going to be people who will be transformed. People, however, are to be the first fruits, the signs of everything else that’s going to change.

I don’t guess there was much knowledge of formal laws of physics in Paul’s day, but I’m sure most people realized that things tend to fall apart, to lose steam, to decay and finally to die. Things that are moving tend to stop moving. The resurrection of Jesus suggests that this fact may not always remain a fact.

Today, most physicists argue that the universe is slated for inevitable extinction. I don’t pretend to understand it, but the concept is called “entropic doom,” and it basically means that inertia is king. Things must inevitably stop.

But what if God intends to change that? And what if the resurrection is our sign that he does?

The church is a sign of the coming kingdom of God, carried out in the midst of the decay and death and strife of the current creation. We gather as church to celebrate a feast for which there is as yet no reason.

It’s like having a birthday party during labor.

Because, if we celebrate this hope every week, this amazing and insane idea that God might actually fundamentally transform the universe, the way things are will come to torment us. If we celebrate this hope, if we meditate on it, pray for it, calling on our Father in heaven to bring about this new birth, the very act of rehearsal will begin to bring the thing about, and if we do it right, it will cause turmoil.

I have never known things to change for the better without conflict. I have never changed for the better without suffering a great deal first. Human society has never changed for the better without tremendous bloodshed and agony. People who are benefiting from evil systems will not willingly give up those benefits.

We worship Christ crucified and risen. Without his death on the cross, without his conflict with the powers of the world, Christ would not have emerged triumphant from the grave.

One thing is for certain: to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to see the world through a new lens.
We see that the world is desperately lost, we see that the world is decaying and dying, we begin to feel the terrible pangs of new birth.

So many times, people have tried to pin me down. “Are you a liberal? Are you a conservative? Are you an evangelical? Are you agnostic?” It is absolutely true that God is at work bringing down the mighty and raising up the lowly, he is at work tearing down the temples and burning the abominations, but I continue to assert that the conflict is not ours to fight, though we may well receive the wounds of battle.

Someone has said, “choose your enemy carefully, for you will become him.”

Jesus taught in his parable on the wheat and the weeds that it is not up to us to determine who is faithful and who is not. It is not up to us to determine who will go to heaven and who will not. It is not up to us to identify those who are on the side of Satan. It is up to us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and pray for adoption.

When we are adopted, the way will present itself. And it is likely the enemy will find us.
But finally, our focus is not on those who are against God’s coming kingdom, but on the kingdom itself. We must remain busy celebrating the birthday even as we groan with labor pain. Whatever we suffer, just as with labor, will be nothing to the joy of the birth.

And so it is that hope is the basis of all that we are as the church, the hope that despite the terrible things that are wrong with the world, God is coming to make a change. We pray and work as individuals and as a church to somehow, some time, and in some way to let the world around us know that this great change is coming and to rejoice with us, despite the terrible cost we might suffer along the way.

This is why, if you have been with Philippi for some time, you might notice some differences between the world and our little community. God is shaping us to be that little taste of coming heaven in the midst of present suffering, an experience of coming wholeness in the present brokenness, a birthday party in the midst of the pain of birth.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

09 Pentecost A 08
July 13, 2008

Romans 8:1-11
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law--indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Spirit and Flesh

We are preaching this month about the process of discernment, particularly as we ask the question, “What does God want Philippi to be and do?”

This relates certainly to the question, “what does God want me to be and do?” And I suppose there may be people here this morning who are wondering about that as well.

Last week we spoke about standing still and letting God’s grace wash over us. More importantly, we spoke about relying on God and not on ourselves for the direction we need as a congregation.
This week we speak more directly just how does one rely on God for direction.

Discernment is a fancy word that basically means making choices. The root word in Latin means to “perceive apart.” How do we “perceive apart” God’s particular will among the many choices available to us?

It would seem that when we get down to cases—“Should I do this or that?”—we are presented with a bewildering array of choices. So many good things we could do. What Paul is offering here is a bigger choice, a larger context in which to think about these things.

The word “Spirit” is mentioned ten times in this passage. The word “flesh” is used nine times. The theme here would seem to be obvious.

A choice is set before us. Spirit or flesh. What is meant by these words?

Paul says that the flesh weakens the law, so that the law cannot do what it was meant to do. Living according to the flesh is death. The flesh is hostile to God and does not submit to his law. The flesh cannot please God.

Paul is talking about sarx, which we translate into English as “flesh.” But sarx might be better translated as “instinct.” We all have natural instincts God has given to us. But if we turn to those instincts as ultimate things, which is our normal unreflective tendency, we become enslaved and caught up in sin. It is good to be married and have that pleasurable intimacy with one’s spouse, but if we want to have that same intimacy with many other people, we have become enslaved to our instinct. It is a normal instinct to provide for oneself and one’s family, but if we dedicate our whole lives to the pursuit of money, we have become enslaved to the instinct.

The law was given as a kind of dream of God to the people of God, God’s vision of how his people would relate to each other. But instincts, the natural desires God himself gave us for our benefit and growth, replaced God in the highest place within his people’s hearts. And so his law, his great vision for what his people would look like, was weakened, as Paul says, and was not able to do what it was meant to do.

Because these instincts for survival, in all their myriad forms, so easily take the place of God in the rule of our hearts, we really can’t completely trust our consciences. At the level of “sarx,” we are all hostile to God, because God calls us away from the things we hold the dearest, and demands that he take the top place. Paul even seems to suggest that the universal problem of death is due directly to this problem. The “sarx” is the present body that is decaying and dying.

In contrast to this, Paul says that the Spirit of God is a new kind of law that sets us free from this impossible situation. Those who live according to the Spirit are able to fulfill what the law was meant to do. The Spirit is life and peace. Indeed the Spirit is the Spirit of eternal life that is at work in each believer, transforming him or her into a new being, one destined to rise from the dead, one who is able to do what ordinary human beings are unable to do. Paul calls them elsewhere, “the children of light.”

A woman had a dream that she walked into a new shop in the mall and to her surprise, found God behind the counter.

"What do you sell here?" she asked.

"Everything your heart desires," said God. "Everything."

Hardly daring to believe what she was hearing, the woman decided to ask for the best things a human could wish for. "I'll take some peace of mind and love and happiness and wisdom and freedom from fear, " she said. Then as an afterthought, she added, "Not just for me. For everyone on earth."

God smiled. "I think you've got me wrong, my dear," God said, "We don't sell the fruits here. We only sell the seeds."

Perhaps we could think of the Holy Spirit as a seed, a very small thing, something you might miss if you didn’t look hard enough. It’s also rather fragile, particularly at the beginning of its life. It is implanted with the word of God, particularly that strange and disturbing and wonderful message, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”

Jesus tells the story of the sower in another passage appointed for this morning:

You remember the story? Some seed on the path that got taken by birds because it couldn’t even take root. Some seed went in the rocky soil where it couldn’t put down deep roots, so when the sun came out it withered and died. Some soil fell among the briars and so while the roots were deep, the briars choked the plant. But some seed fell on the good soil, took deep root, and produced much fruit.

And so the process we must turn to is the process not of trying to think up things to do, but rather of emptying ourselves of everything that could stand in the way of God’s spirit, clearing the soil so that our minds are no longer on the things of the flesh but on the things of the spirit.

What does this look like?

First off, I think a Christian community must be marked by self-honesty. There are those at Philippi that appreciate my self-revelation, my little confessions of fault. There are those who are made rather uncomfortable by them. I do them not to gain approbation or critique, but rather as an example to you of the self-honesty Christ calls us all to.

I’ll say it bluntly: if you can’t think of anything you do in disobedience to God, you are lying to yourself. No one can point these things out to you. God has not given that job to anyone but you. And of course, being bluntly honest with others about their faults is not being honest at all. It’s just being rude.

That being said, I want to make it very clear also that admitting one’s faults as fully and as completely as one can is a great relief. It is part of a path to real peace. How much time do I spend justifying myself, when I could be spending that same time building up someone else?
But self-honesty is also about being self-aware. So many people seem to walk around with one of those lead vests they use to block x-rays, burying their feelings under its weight. Self-honesty can also be about removing that lead vest and feeling ones’ real feelings.

And there are those too who genuinely feel they are hopelessly bad and unforgiveable. That is as dishonest as thinking one is beyond reproach. The truth is that with God all things are possible.
Being truly honest with oneself is the spiritual work of clearing the soil, or to put it in Paul’s terms, getting the mind off the flesh so that it can focus on God’s Spirit.

Moreover, public sharing of the truth of one’s self can be encouraging to others who are afraid. This is another important aspect of congregational life. An atmosphere in which people publicly evaluate themselves, without commenting on other’s self-evaluation, is a safe place to grow.
Secondly, remaining open to God’s Spirit necessarily involves regular and frequent worship, prayer, study. Nothing will come out of the soil if there are no seeds. God is the sower and God gives the growth in the soil.

And thirdly, witness and service, that is, the public testimony to Jesus Christ and the resurrection through outreach and evangelism in his name both locally and around the world is a part of remaining focused on the things of Spirit. Part of this work is generous giving to the church, so that all that is done is done in Christ’s name. To paraphrase the old saying, you can’t keep Christ unless you give him away.

I said in a newsletter article three years ago that the church grows when people are growing. The only one who can truly give the growth is God, and therefore, if we are truly growing, God is here with us. When individuals in the church grow, the work God does through them also grows. Moreover, when individuals are growing, they attract a crowd.

As we reflect on Philippi’s mission for the next five years, each one of us might ask ourselves, “Am I growing in the Spirit of Christ?” If the answer is yes, we might then ask, “How and in what particular ways am I growing in the Spirit? What is Christ doing through me?” The answer to those questions could become your witness to your neighbors and friends about what Christ is doing for you. It could open the door to more ministries.

And if the answer is no, we might ask, “What must I do to ready myself for God’s power to work in my life? What is standing in my way? How can my pastor or my church help me?”

The same question can be asked of Philippi. Is Philippi growing in the spirit of Christ? How exactly and in what ways? Is there anything keeping us from growing into the fullness of Christ as a congregation full of the power of the resurrection in this particular place and time? In what ways are we focused on the flesh at Philippi, and in what ways are we obeying the Spirit?

More next week.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

July Drafts 2008
08 Pentecost A 2008
July 6, 2008

Romans 7:15-25a
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Rescuer

Philippi is beginning to ask itself the question: What does God want us to do and be?

We are each accustomed, I suppose, to being concerned with God’s will for us as individuals. But how often have we given thought to our purpose as a congregation?

Today’s lesson opens the door on what we might term the problem the church addresses.

Throughout my life I wanted to do not just the right thing, but the very best thing. I craved success in life, a kind of success that would change the world in some hugely positive way. And in the process of doing this, I got in more and more and more trouble.

Along the way, for the sake of what I thought was my great mission, I hurt all kinds of people, destroyed all kinds of relationships, and had absolutely no clue that I was in the wrong. Quite the contrary, I was sure that everyone else was to blame and I was just trying to be the best person I could be. I ended up in a dark spiritual prison of my own making, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually shattered.

In the midst of my despair, God reached out to me through a whole set of amazing people from all sorts of quarters around me.

I had a wonderful mentor name Willie Steinbach, a layman. Willie is dying now, a slow death in the twilight of stroke-related dementia, at his home in Urbanna. I have asked Philippi to adopt him and his wife Judy and I encourage you to visit him. If you’re lucky, he’ll smile at you and you’ll see in his eyes the great joy in his spirit.

At the time he became my friend, I was just coming back from a wild ride in Nervous Breakdown Land. I was deeply afraid of slipping back into the madness I’d been living in for some years previous. I used to call him up or get together with him and I’d lay out all the things that were happening in my life and all my fears about them. I’d ask him what to do.

He’d say, “Stand still.” Just “Stand still.” In fact, a number of people who had been helped by Willie used to call him “Stand Still Willie.” Sometimes he’d add, “Just let this thing wash over you.”

By “this thing,” he meant God’s grace and power. I had been so used to conquering my problems myself, facing them down in the street like some lone gunman in an old western. What I didn’t realize was that this very belief was the bondage that nearly destroyed me.

I had no idea what real freedom looked like or felt like. I had no idea how light the yoke of Christ actually was. But once I stood still and let the grace of God wash over me, I began to have glimpses.

An amazing new discovery in the Spirit was the experience of falling in love with God. This is not a romantic kind of love, but it’s more like that passionate love a boy has for his mother or a girl for her father. This kind of love has no concern about the law of God. Why does anyone who loves God need to worry about the law of God? The only thing one wants is to please God in everything all the time. When in the Spirit, there is nothing short of perfection that any child of God wants to strive for.

And there is no desire to take any of the credit for what God is doing.

I think this is one of the things people find most difficult to accept. That the only real power in the world is God’s. That human power is really nothing but a kind of mass delusion in which humankind is more-or-less hopelessly trapped.

In Matthew Jesus uses the parable of people refusing, on the one hand, to dance to the flute of the wedding, and on the other, to mourn when hearing wailing. He was speaking about the resistance he faced from the religious leaders of his day. John the Baptist was ascetic and people accused him of being possessed, while Jesus came celebrating and people said he was an alcoholic.

I remember seeing a woman at a wedding trying to get her six-year-old son to dance. The little boy was not getting something he wanted, so he was pouting and refusing to participate. The woman, possibly the boy’s mother, tried drawing him out for a slow dance and letting him stand on her feet, but he was wooden and sullen the whole time. Then, when a faster song came along, she wiggled and jumped and smiled encouragingly at him, but he only stood at the fringes of the crowd with his hands in his pockets.

The gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an invitation to live a life full of holy joy and anticipation. It is above all an invitation to shake free of the burdens imposed on us by the decay and death we see all around and even within us. But are we able to, apart from the power of Christ?

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul struggles with this question and tries to interpret it through the lens of the Old Testament. How did human beings end up in such a bondage that they are not free to be what they deeply and truly want to be. Paul goes all the way back to Genesis and the story of Adam in the garden.

“He started it!” Do you remember that playground defense? Somehow we think if the other guy started something, then we are justified in returning tit for tat. In fact, we are such social creatures, God has made us so, that we tend to take as permission everything everyone else does.

Do you remember the old dialogue with mom? She’d ask, “Why did you do that?” and you said, “Well, Frankie was doing it too.” And Mom said, “If Frankie jumped off a cliff, would you jump off the cliff too?”

The fact is, yes, we probably would.

A study was reported in the book The Tipping Point about a rash of suicides on an isolated island in the South Pacific. All the suicides were teen-aged boys. It was found that all had killed themselves over unrequited love. The study concluded that when the first boy killed himself, and the event was reported along with its cause, others suffering unrequited love were, in a strange subconscious way, given permission to follow suit. This is how human beings relate to one another. We naturally follow along with the rest of the group with which we identify ourselves.

Paul makes the point that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole darn bunch. Adam, by disobeying God, opened a Pandora’s box we are all absolutely unable to shut.

But Paul goes on to say that if one bad apple can spoil a whole darn bunch, one resurrected apple can make a bunch of spoiled ones fresh. If one man gave us all permission to disobey God, one man can also give us permission to obey him.

This is the message of the gospel. Christ is risen. Death is defeated and it’s only a matter of time before God sets everything right, every wrong will be punished, every victim redressed. Anyone who believes this good news begins to be transformed themselves.

Of course, very few actually believe this. Very few want to believe it. First of all, it takes the whole process out of human hands and that is offensive to wise and worldly people who think human beings are quite capable of straightening things out on their own. Those who cannot are simply deficient and deserve whatever they get.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when the Disciples were really taking off, a guy named Miller thought he had figured out when Jesus was coming again, and he set a date. A lot of people believed him.

Many people sold everything they had and gave the money away. Lots of people paid off old debts and reconciled themselves with former enemies. Others wrote passionate letters to the government about various social injustices they felt had to be addressed right now. In short, the concrete expectation of resurrection made a huge difference in how they thought about their lives, their world and their neighbors.

Of course, thousands gathered on the day in question, which eventually came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Of interest is that some of those people clung to a belief that something cosmic had indeed happened, but had been hidden from view. That group went on to become the Seventh-Day Adventists.

We of course do not share these particular views of the coming kingdom. But it seems to me if we are going to think about our mission as a congregation, we need to come to some common understanding, however imperfect, of just what God is doing in the world through the church.

Today’s lesson from Paul gives us the beginning of an answer. People want to love God with all their hearts and all their souls and all their minds, and their neighbors as themselves, but they are prevented from doing so. It is our job to let them know that Christ offers us the power and the grace to be set free.

It is our job as a congregation to be that rush of grace that each new believers can just stand still and let wash over them.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

07 Pentecost A 08
June 29, 2008

Romans 6:12-23
12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Getting Used

Being human is about being used.

Most of us, when we think of being used, think about people manipulating us. It’s a vaguely dishonest thing. You know what I’m talking about. They come at you making it sound like they’re going to do something for you, but then by the end you’re the one doing all the giving.

Another way we talk about this is when we’re dehumanized by the world we live in. Do you ever feel like you’re a statistic? A demographic someone is trying to manipulate into buying or giving or serving or supporting? Do you ever feel like the world is this never-ending bartering game? The question is always, if you want something from me, well, what have you done for me lately?

Most of us think of ourselves individually as not participating in this syndrome. But really, what do we spend most of our time doing? If we’re not working for the boss, we’re working for the house, we’re working for the kids, we’re working for the spouse, we’re working for the community.

Being human is about being used.

People struggle very hard all their lives to get to the place where they are in a position to use others without being used themselves. A very few do attain this great goal. We call them the government.

Just kidding.

Make no mistake, you are being used. It is only a question of determining by what.

Certainly the economy is using you. The great and incomprehensible machine of world trade is using you. You bring your contribution and it is swept into the cycle and it spits out some of the things, though probably not everything, you want.

And yes, the government in all its varying levels is using you. It takes its bite out of your annual paycheck and spits out some of the things, though probably not everything, you want from it.

Certainly, your social circle is using you, your family and friends. You have a role to play that is important to them, and likewise, they have roles they more or less faithfully play, so that the whole thing produces some, though probably not all, of the things you want from your social circle.

We are so used to this world of barter and trade, this “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” culture, that we barely think about it. It seems, though, doesn’t it, that we all freely enter into these agreements, that we are choosing who or what uses us and to what extent they do. If we are used, we are allowing it freely.

But really, how much choice do we have? How much freedom do we have to willingly offer ourselves to any of these? What would happen if we stopped paying taxes? If we completely rejected any other human being from social involvement in our lives? What if we opted out of the economic system, stopped working, for example, or blew our pension and investments on movie tickets and dinners out?

Well, we’d have some consequences, wouldn’t we? We’d lose stuff. We’d lose security. We might be jailed or imprisoned. We might lose our lives!

This week we’ll celebrate the Fourth of July. One of the key themes of that celebration is the notion of freedom. I’d like to read to you from a sermon preached by one of the founders of the Disciples movement, Alexander Campbell:

Talk not of liberty which only makes men greater slaves. Under the monarchies of
the Old World men are more free from themselves than under the free government
of these United States. The reason is, under this free government the citizens
have the opportunity and the liberty of improving and bettering their
circumstances to such an extent as to engross all their energies, to call forth
all their powers: hence, upon themselves they impose such tasks and inflict such
toils and privations as few of the monarchies of the East would be so cruel as
to impose upon their subjects. Here in this land of liberty we see all men
striving for power. The accomplishment of one or more projects does not diminish
their labor or their enterprise. Quite the reverse: the more successful, the
more eager to commence again. And how often, how very often, do we see men dying under the whip of their own cupidity, in full harness pulling up the hill of
their own ambition, when death kindly interposes, takes the burden off their
galled shoulders, and strips them for the shroud! Yet they boast of being free!
Free!—yes, to make slaves of themselves!
I think many of our members don’t realize how ahead of their time our founders were. Campbell said that while our system of government is a great blow against the idea of one person’s tyranny over another, it opens up and encourages a new idolatry, the worship of the self.

In the book of Genesis, when God began this great project of building a nation for himself, he called Abraham, who was old and married to a barren wife, and miraculously gave him a son. This was the greatest joy of Abraham’s life, and his deepest love. But then, in a somewhat horrifying story, he called upon Abraham to sacrifice that very son.

The story haunts us because it asks us about our priorities, about what we are devoting our lives to and why. What is using us, and to what end?

Paul speaks to us about presenting our members to sin. This would seem to be self-evident, given the way most of us think about sin. But sin, understood from Paul’s perspective, is simply that unreflective way most of us live our lives, the millions of little decisions we barely think about, the thousands of ways we buy into the powers that are using us, the things we do that really, at the end of the day, are about our own survival, our own power, our own superiority, our own status, our own achievements, our own family, our own nation, our own race, our own wealth. We present ourselves to be used, and the ultimate user is ourselves.

We offer ourselves to be used by whatever power seems to be holding the gun to our heads, or by whatever power removes it even for a time. We offer ourselves to be used by whatever power is holding the biggest gun, particularly if that gun is pointed at someone else.

And what is the final paycheck these things issue to us? What at the end of the day do we really get from any of them? You’ve heard all the old clich├ęs, haven’t you, about there being no U-Hauls on hearses? The final paycheck is death. Period.

But Jesus presented himself to be used by God. And God used him to reveal his love. God used him to announce that the terrible power of death would be defeated. God used him to heal and to forgive and to feed.

Jesus refused to be used by the biggest guns of his days, and they did exactly what they do whenever anyone defies them. They killed him. But then, three days later, God raised him from the dead. We know this because a whole lot of people at the time saw him. He was different than he had been before he had been killed. He was a new kind of human being. Yet he was real, and he was alive. He ate with his disciples. They touched him. God had defeated death.

If we believe this, nothing can ever be the same for us. The way is opened for us to present ourselves to be used by God.

Alexander Campbell completed his Fourth of July sermon with these words:
Conscience makes slaves as well as cowards of multitudes who boast of being
free. No person who is under the fear of death ever can be free. They who are
afraid of the consequences of death are all their lifetime in bondage. To escape
from this vassalage is worth of the greatest struggle which man could make.
This, however, is the first boon which Christianity tenders to all who put
themselves under its influence. It proclaims a jubilee to the soul—it opens the
prison-doors, and sets the captive free. The corruptions of anti-Christian
systems are admirably adapted to increase and cherish this fear, which tends to
bondage; but to those who embrace and bow to the real gospel, there is bestowed
a full deliverance, and gracious exemption from this most grievous bondage of
the soul.

This is the practice of our baptism, the principle of repentance as a way of life. The world and all its powers are constantly at us, constantly threatening us, constantly demanding our obedience. Repentance is turning away from them in an intentionally way and presenting oneself to God.
Christian practice, worship, prayer, biblical study, meditation, self-examination, confession, these are the intentional practices of repentance, intentional work that we do to turn our backs on the powers of the world and present ourselves to Jesus Christ.

Here’s a quote from a Bob Dylan song. You can get it on his album Slow Train Coming.
You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.