Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost A 2008

16 Pentecost A 08
August 31, 2008

Romans 12:9-21
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Genuine Love

What would you say genuine love was?

Love which is not genuine is love that masks self-interest. The love men and women have for each other is in most real respects conditional and ultimately selfish. Erotic love is the desire to possess the other. Most marriages and love relationships are about scratching each others’ backs, as are most family relationships. One loves one’s children basically because one is biologically programmed to do so. One is really loving an extension of oneself. To love one’s neighbors in one’s own community is also somewhat selfish. By doing good for one’s neighbors, one earns respect and love that can be cashed in on when needed.

None of these things are bad. God has given us the instincts for the marriage relationship and the parenting relationship and the social relationship. These instincts help us to survive and thrive and enjoy our lives. Of course, if we desire more than our share of these things, we create situations in which we damage ourselves and others and create conflict and turmoil in our lives.

But desiring these things is not bad in itself. In this we differ from our Buddhist friends, who believe that the only true spiritual wholeness is in the decimation of all desire. Jews and Christians do not regard the desire for marriage, family and social connectedness to be bad desires, even though they are sometimes the cause of pain and suffering.

But it seems clear from the whole tenor of the letter that Paul is addressing the Christians in the church in the city of Rome about real love, pure love, unmitigated love. Genuine love, as he eventually makes clear, is the lived-out implication of God’s love. And as we saw in the early part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s peculiar love is for the very people who despise and ignore him. The Christian community manifests this genuine love in two principal ways: among themselves in community, and between themselves as community and the outside world.

In the community of disciples of Jesus, this love is manifest in the commitment to share in each member’s joy and sorrow. It is to practice mutuality in all things, that is, not always to be only a recipient of the community’s love, but also to give love to the community. It is to be generous to the community in giving time and money and talent. Genuine love in the community of the church is to seek always to make the other more important than the self, to encourage and honor and uplift the other. It goes without saying that forgiveness is at the very core of this practice.

Love is not genuine that cannot forgive.

God’s peculiar love is also manifested in the community toward the outside world. God loves those who have never heard of him, or have heard of him but ignore him anyway. Genuine love is therefore very intentionally welcomes strangers. Genuine love is especially for those who are outside of our various circles of concern, outside our marriage bond, outside our family connections, outside our religious community, outside our political party, outside our geographical and national neighborhood.

The only hatred we are to harbor in our hearts, Paul is saying, is for the evil that inspires more evil. Do not repay evil for evil, Paul says, because the moment you do, you have become a servant of the very evil you deplore. Genuine love repays evil with blessing, for this is the way God’s resurrection power works in the world.

We heap hot coals on the heads of our enemies by loving them. If any of you are angry at anyone, think of it. If you not only give up your claim on whatever it is you think your enemy has taken from you or kept from you, and turn instead to bless and care for him or her, you are guaranteed to freak them out.

Of course, to heap ashes on one’s head was an ancient rite of repentance, as we see at the end when Job says “I repent in dust and ashes.” Paul may therefore mean that by loving an enemy we help that enemy to discover the wrong they are doing and change their direction.

Of course, we must be careful if the enemy sincerely intends to harm us. I see nothing in the scriptures that encourages deliberate self-destruction. Someone said, “Forgive you enemies, but never forget where they live.”

But even if we must keep our distance, we can nevertheless pray for our enemies, and ask God’s blessing on them. I have tried this, and I can tell you that the results are often amazing.

And remember God’s word: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” I have to say, those words scare me. It’s written in Egeria’s diaries and in other early Christian documents that Christians used to have prayer services specifically that God would forgive their enemies and would indeed shower them with blessings. Can you imagine?

Another element of God’s love for us is his willingness to come among us and be our friend. If God, who is so far above us in power and majesty, sees fit to descend and be among us, how can we socialize only with those who live as we do? How many of us are close to people that are far below our class? How many of us care for and love people who have terrible reputations in the community?

We are to take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. And the way Paul defines nobility is the willingness to not only forgive but to actively love one’s enemy. Such nobility creates buzz, to use the modern word. When people see such abnormal and unconventional behavior, they talk about it. It becomes news.

It is good that people love their spouses and the families and their immediate neighbors, but this is not news. News is when something changes, something unusual takes place.

Something like giving one’s life for one’s enemies. Something like resurrection from the dead.

Father Daniel Berrigan, a rather amazing figure in American history you should take some time to get to know, once said, "If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.”

Jesus commanded his followers in Matthew 16 to take up their own crosses in order to follow him. By this is not meant the usual suffering that comes into every life. Such suffering in unavoidable. God certainly wishes to walk with us through that suffering, but this is not the cross.

The cross is the power of the world in collision with the kingdom of God. It is loving a world that despises God. It is the quintessence of Paul’s command to overcome evil with good. For Jesus did not repay the incredible betrayal and torture and injustice and death that he suffered with violence or even with judgment. Instead he suffered it with the full understanding that God’s justice would finally prevail, if only he stood out of the way and allowed God to be God. Jesus was executed because he refused to bow to the powers of the world, and at the same time manifested God’s love for that very world.

The cross is God saying “I love you” to a world that is murdering him. And that love is more powerful than the worst violence the world can do. To believe this is to believe in Christ. To reject this is to reject Christ and everything he stood for.

This is why forgiving and being forgiven is at the very heart of following Christ. This is why bounteous grace and service flow out of the font of every faithful congregation to everyone who doesn’t deserve it in the least. Indeed this is the very heart of what we believe. It is the center. It is all that really matters.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A

15 Pentecost A 08
August 24, 2008

Romans 12:1-8
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Brought to Life

The world wants to conform us to it. By “the world” we mean those blind forces comprised of the collective and competing desires of a world full of people. In terms of the biblical witness, “the world” is the power of the empire, the top international dog, the one holding all the economic chips and protecting them with all the biggest weapons.

Whether you are a part of the empire or whether you are foreign to it, the empire will do everything it can on every level it can to make you fit into the smooth operation of power and resource gathering.

By the way, I don’t know for sure that the US is really the empire anymore, or indeed if it ever really was. I’m wondering these days if there aren’t bigger fish in the ocean. I really don’t see anymore how electing someone president will really change many things. A good person in office is as likely to mess things up as a bad person. The system seems bigger than any president can really deal with, or even any government.

Whatever the empire is, it’s there. It’s that behemoth that’s bigger than any one person within it. It demands that you fit the mold or it punishes you. It will take away your money. It will take away your house. It will take away your job. It will take away your family. Or maybe it won’t let you have any of those things to begin with.

Today I think the big message from the empire, the mold it wants to squeeze us all into, is that we are each of us the lord of our lives. It wants to drive wedges between people, the more wedges the better. It wants to isolate everyone in our own little prison of desire, so that loneliness will drive us to buy its products in a hopeless struggle to feel good. The beauty of the system is that if you don’t feel happy, you have only yourself to blame, because, after all, you are the lord of your life.

It’s also beautiful in that everyone else can be blamed for their various misfortunes and none of us have to help, because, after all, everyone is the lord of his or her own life. Sometimes we might help, but only after we’ve determined that forces beyond the control of the person we are helping somehow conspired to overthrow them.

All you have to do is play ball with the system and you will get its rewards. If you don’t play ball, then, well, you’re out of the game. Too bad.

God is at work however, and Paul spent the first eleven chapters of his letter to the Romans telling them about just how God is at work. God is loving his good creation despite the creation’s indifference to, or even hatred of, God. God is loving each one of us despite our indifference or open disobedience. God’s love is going to overcome our rebellion and is already doing so.

This is not like the system of the world that rewards merit and punishes disobedience. This is the awesome resurrection power of grace. It’s a whole different way of thinking that is absolutely unnatural and always, always opposed to conventional established wisdom.

Martin Luther King, in a sermon on our text, preached that most people “are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.”

People who open themselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the story that God has entered the world in Christ, was betrayed and crucified by that world, but rose from the dead and was seen by many, open themselves to a radical transformation that wrenches them away from the conformity the world demands. The gospel changes thermometers to thermostats.

There are two lovely parallel stories in our bible that speak about little people resisting in little ways that made a big difference.

One is the story of the midwives from the book of Exodus. They aren’t given names. They were ordered by Pharoah to execute any newborn Hebrew boys. They refused. And one boy in particular was saved by being floated in a basket out into the Nile.

Now we say, “well, for crying out loud, of course we wouldn’t obey such an order.” But we underestimate our capacity to conform. Human beings have a powerful reaction to authority.

Did you ever hear about the Milgram experiment? It was an experiment on the human response to human authority. Test subjects were told by men in white coats that they were to administer shocks to other test subjects if they failed certain test questions. Of course there were no real shocks, but the people being tested didn’t know that. It was found that the vast majority of those tested were perfectly okay with administering nearly lethal shocks to other human beings just because they had been ordered to by a doctor in a white coat.

The parallel story is in the birth narrative of Matthew, when the wise men refuse Herod’s order to return to him and tell him where they found the Messiah.

If such people had been tested in the Milgram experiment, they would have been the ones who would have said, “I don’t care who you are, I’m not going to shock anyone.”

Paul’s “therefore” has to do with the implications for you and me in this news about Jesus. If we believe that God’s love for the hateful world is greater than the world’s hatred of God, then we are ready for God to transform us by the renewing of our minds. Not only that, but we are ready to be given power to do what we could never do by ourselves. We can resist the world’s demands to conform, without recourse to the world’s means of resistance.

God’s power is in his love for people who don’t know him, don’t want to know him, or even know him and hate him. That power manifests in our lives when we cease to make distinctions between ourselves and anyone else, when we cease to be citizens of any kingdom but God’s, when we cease to be anyone’s enemy, when we cease to have any status greater or lesser than anyone else’s, when we cease to belong to any class or party or social group except for the body of Christ.

The body of Christ is the nation of baptized priests, ruled by one ruler and one ruler only, the Messiah of God, Jesus. The body of Christ has no army, no prison, no court system, and never should have. If it ever has had such things, it had ceased being Christ’s body long before. The body of Christ has no classes, no privileged group, no hierarchy. If it ever did, it had ceased being Christ’s body long before.

The body of Christ does not have a dog in the presidential race or in any other election. There is no “Christian” candidate for public office. Did you know that for the first three hundred years of the church’s history it was forbidden for church members to even hold a public office? What a change when the newly baptized Roman emperor made bishops officers of the state.

Are you someone’s only friend? Do you know what I mean? Is there anyone you stand by long after everyone else has abandoned them? That’s the kind of things transformed people do. I’m not talking about defending them or protecting them from the consequences of bad decisions. I’m talking about being their friend. Do you associate with the lowly?

I do, every time I look in the mirror.

And what about the church? Are you around the church or are you in it? I believe that everyone who is here on Sunday morning is here for a reason. I believe God has brought you all here, first of all to continue in the process of transforming you through the renewing of your minds, and secondly to put you to work as a part of the body of Christ. There’s plenty you are expected to do in your personal lives out there, and it’s beautiful all the things you all do. But there is a group effort going on here as well. And God put you here because you have something he wants you to offer to it.

One of Pastor Lew’s favorite passages is: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” When I heard him say that in a meeting recently, I perked up and thought, “wow, I should give some thought to this.”

Sacrifice, as it has been and in some places still is practiced, has to do with sacrificing life in order to appease some God. Sacrifice was a substitutionary thing. Some god is mad at me. I’m afraid, so I substitute an animal for myself and offer its spilled-out life in exchange for mine. At the end of the day, the god gets the spirit of the dead animal, I get its carcass for dinner, and everybody’s happy.

This is what I call a dead sacrifice, and it’s the normal kind. Paul however, speaks of a living sacrifice. This is reversed entirely. In the kingdom of God, it is God who is sacrificing himself for me, and I, far from being a target of divine murder, become a receiver of God’s own life.
A living sacrifice is not offered by being killed, but by being brought to life.

What a lovely phrase, “brought to life.” We don’t say, “enliven,” or “make alive” when we speak of the dead becoming alive. We use a phrase that suggests a journey, perhaps one that is made with the aid of a guide. One is brought to life. One comes to life.

Today we will baptize Austin Norwood in the waters of the Chesapeake. It is our prayer that she will be transformed by the renewing of her mind and that she will become a living sacrifice to the kingdom of God. It is our prayer that she will be brought to life.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

14 Pentecost A 08

August 17, 2008

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

The Reason You Got Picked

I’ve always been resistant to being a minister. I just couldn’t believe that any church in its right mind would want an ex-crazy person as a preacher.

Then I met other preachers and I felt better.

The great privilege God has given me to carry out this ministry isn’t really for your sakes, but for mine. God is working on me and has therefore called and commanded me to carry out this ministry. I can’t speak for other preachers, but God didn’t make me a preacher because I was holy, but because I wasn’t.

Did you ever think about that? Did you ever think you’re here in the church not because you’re good but precisely because you aren’t?

Paul has been wrestling in these last chapters of his letter to the Roman church with the problem of Jews who don’t believe in Jesus. Last week’s sermon, which everyone will probably remember as the Beatles sermon, was really about the problem of people who cannot believe in the risen Jesus. How can they encounter him?

We said that everyone who believes in Jesus has a story about him and his impact on their lives.
The reality is that the most powerful story you have to tell about Jesus will always be about your weakness, your failure, your sin.

Doesn’t our heart still beat when we sin? Don’t our lungs keep sucking in life-giving air? Doesn’t our magnificent brain and nervous system splendidly deliver a plausible story and a straight face to go with it when we lie? Doesn’t our adrenaline flow freely when we are murderously angry? And doesn’t our plate come back full all three times every day even when we are selfish and thoughtless about the poor?

Doesn’t the world keep spinning at just the right angle and doesn’t the weather refrain from wiping us all calamitously out even when we are dropping bombs on each other?

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. His promise to us is irrevocable. There is nothing we can do to stop him. Those whom he wishes to save, he will save, and for some reason, he particularly likes to save the ones who hate him the most.

Why is this?

I don’t know.

But it may be that because of my stumbling others are lifted up. And how much more will they fall to their knees in awe and love if he saves me, even me?

We started very early in this sermon series on Romans speaking about God’s peculiar love. Christ is the embodiment of that love, not just two thousand years ago, but as we sit now in the room, quietly enjoying the rich and outrageous gift of life given to us, God’s creatures, with a very specific mission, a mission we creatures really have done almost nothing to carry out. Quite the contrary.

So when it comes down to me, when it comes down to you, what does it come down to?

It comes down to that thing you can’t help.

Maybe you’ve already faced it, maybe God has already removed it. Or maybe it’s still with you.

Here’s the story. You have a problem, something you can’t help, something over which you just can’t seem to find any control. I’m saying, Paul is saying, and maybe the Holy Spirit is saying this morning that that thing, that little thing, is why you are here. You have been brought to this church because you have that problem, because that tribulation belongs to you, because that particular demon has you in its clutches.

You know that it’s an offense against God, and probably against your neighbor as well. You don’t want to be caught up in it, but you just can’t help it.

Paul says that God has imprisoned you in disobedience so that he can be merciful to you. I suppose that’s one way of putting it. God more likely has allowed you and me to imprison ourselves, in order that he will have the opportunity to set us free.

That’s why you’ve been brought here to this community. That weakness is going to be the centerpiece of the story of Christ’s victory in your life. It’s going to be that particular weakness, that embarrassment, that shame, that is going to end up being the locus of your ministry at Philippi. By going through what you have gone through or are going to go through, you are equipped with a story, the story of the power and love and majesty of God.

And so, I invite you this morning to give it up. Just surrender. The battle is over. The thing you can’t win against, well, it’s time to admit you’re beat. It’s time to offer it up to God.

Because it is that particular prison God wants to let you out of. It’s that particular fault he wants to surgically remove. It’s that particular story he wants you to be equipped to tell.

Because there are so many others out there waiting for us. So many are waiting for the revealing of your story. There are twenty people out there who will hear your story and think: “if it can happen to him, it if can happen to her, maybe it can happen to me.”

But none of those people will be inspired by your sense of duty or your vague idea that it’s good to go to church, or that you feel better or cope with difficulty more easily because of church, or that the church is a pleasant and supportive social club for you, or even that you get a pleasant sense of exaltation by going.

Because they can tell you they fulfill their sense of duty to the community at other places than the church, they find ways to cope with difficulties through food or the bottle or an entertaining TV program or a nice country club, they can get a pleasant sense of exaltation by wandering around in nature. There are even special twelve-step programs that will solve difficult addiction problems.

But the unique thing the church does that none of these other places can do is facilitate the explicit encounter with God through Jesus Christ. And the distinct and unique presence of God in Christ is manifested in your transformation. God transforms you through Jesus Christ.

Those people will be struck and inspired because you will share with them that you were lost but now are found, was blind but now you see. The reason they will be struck by that is that there is nothing else in their lives or on their TV’s or out on the bay or in the grocery store or at the McDonalds or at the Galley or any volunteer organization that will transform them from the soles of their feet to the crown of their heads and set them free forever.

When people behave in outrageously merciful or gracious or generous ways, this speaks of transformation, because it is not the kind of behavior typical of the human being.

When people make themselves unpopular because they challenge some conventional wisdom that condones injustice, people notice, because it means that such people have been changed in some way, since it is more normal for folks to go along to get along.

When people are transformed, other people notice. When people are transformed, other people think about God. When people are transformed, other people come to believe.

Paul is teaching us this morning those people in our lives, maybe ourselves, that not only don’t get it but appear to be beyond forgiveness, beyond mercy, beyond grace. He is saying that God not only is able to save anyone he wishes to save, not only that he will, but that the very brokenness and hopelessness of each situation is the very stage on which we can display his mighty power.

This is the reason we bear with one another as a Christian community. Not because we agree with each other, not because we are all alike, not because we have all arrived at the happy place, but precisely because we don’t agree, we are not alike, and we have not arrived. In striving together to know and follow Christ, each one of us hopes to be set free, and live to tell about it.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A

13 Pentecost A 08
August 10, 2008

Romans 10:5-15
5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that "the person who does these things will live by them." 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);
9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Star Sighting

How many of you have ever seen a rock star? Or a movie star?

I used to see them fairly frequently in New York. I remember finding myself pawing through a pile of Thrift Shop clothes next to Sigourney Weaver on Sunday afternoon. I once passed Christopher Walken out “walkin’” his dog. Bad pun, I know. I cleaned house for Kathleen Turner. I had dinner once with Deborah Kerr.

I remember when I was about six or seven years old. I looked up the date on the internet: September 13, 1964. We were living outside Baltimore and I went to the movies with my mom to see Mary Poppins. It had opened in August, and in those days there were not many movie theaters out in the suburbs where we lived and we had to drive into Baltimore to see it.
The theaters in those days were often huge, with balconies and very wide screens. It was awesome. Part of the fun was that my mother was still driving a really cool sports car. I don’t remember for sure but I think it was a very fine convertible Aston Martin. It was a warm night when we left and mom put the top down.

On the way back, my mother took a back way through Baltimore to avoid the traffic that was coming out of the stadium. Apparently, the Beatles had been playing that night and the show was just getting out as we were coming home. We pulled up to a red light and stopped on a dark and secluded back street.

Now you may not believe this, but while we were sitting at that light, a limousine glided up next to us. We looked across into the open window of the back seat, and there were the Beatles.

Apparently their driver had also sought an alternate and less-travelled route. They were sitting in a row not more than four feet away from me, looking right at us, no doubt at the rather cool sports car and the good-looking woman driving it. They may not have noticed the kid at first.
I think my mother shouted something. I seem to remember “Ringo!” who was her favorite. I stood up on my seat to get a better view. Ringo was sitting the farthest away, and he leaned forward and waved. I remember they were smiling.

Of course, we would not have had any such experience if we had not known how fab the four actually were, had we not seen a million pictures of the Beatles, or if we had not heard a thousand news stories on the TV and radio. People had to have gone to see them, gone out and talked about them, drawn attention to them.

And why did people spread the news about them? Why did the news media take off promoting them? Because when you encountered them, when you heard them sing, when you saw their smiling and youthful faces, they filled you with that amazement and joy and hope that you couldn’t even quite understand yourself. They gave you something you didn’t even know you needed.

That was why we were both on that secluded street in Baltimore on September 13, 1964. Because so many people wanted to be near them, see them in person, even if they were nothing but little specks on a distant platform, so many people, especially teen-aged girls, almost certainly had prayed all that week that they might have a chance to come close to them, perhaps even touch them. In that stadium that night, the audience could not even hear the music because the crowd was in such a frenzy simply to be there in their presence.

Were any of you there in the Baltimore stadium on September 13, 1964?

This was also why we were all so horrified to hear John say two years later, “We’re more popular than Jesus.” His point was not that he thought the Beatles better than Christ. He was instead simply amazed that in the modern world, people could worship a rock band. He confronted us with our own idolatry and we didn’t like what we saw.

The fact was and still is that many Christians will go to greater lengths and suffer more hardships for any number of people or things than they will for Jesus Christ. They will think about them more, chase after them more, consider their thoughts and insights more often, obey their rules far more readily.

And this is not new. The Old Testament tells story after story of just how difficult it was to get even God’s people to focus and remain focused on their God, even after he had showered miracle after miracle into their midst. Almost all of the practices of Judaism, and indeed our version as well, have to do with helping us to encounter God, to see him, to hear him, to be in his presence.

And even in the new testament, Jesus taught a number of parables about the many ways that people cannot seem to remain faithful, to keep their focus. Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on the water is transformed into a story about focus. When Peter gets out of the boat, as long as he is focused on Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. The moment he took his eyes off Jesus, he sank. As Peter Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard once said, “I sometimes get that sinking feeling.” Don’t you?

But this is not the focus in this chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The focus Paul is bringing is not so much on the easy ways in which we turn away and forget God. His focus is on how those who have wandered off . As with the Beatles, we must first come into the presence of God. We must first encounter Jesus in some way. And there is no way to encounter him without coming into the presence of witnesses who tell us about him. I suppose if God wished to, he could walk into this room right now. But for whatever reason, he has chosen to manifest his presence in Jesus, and to manifest Jesus’ presence through witness.

It is not possible for us to climb into heaven and bring Christ down. It is not possible for us to descend into the grave and bring the risen Christ out. But God has made it abundantly possible for us to encounter the Christ.

It begins in the heart. And the faith of the heart is not just in the goodness of humankind or in being nice or in the awesome loveliness of creation. It is faith the Jesus is in fact one’s Lord, one’s ruler above all other rulers, one’s absolute focus, taking priority and precedence over all others, and it is secondarily that this Jesus is risen from the dead, never to die again. Why this second affirmation? Because his eternal life is also his eternal Lordship. There is no earthly power that can do anything to him or to anyone who follows him, even if they kill them. The kingdom of God as it is developing in the world needs no army, no prisons, no police. Those who believe are free from all such needs. Our defense system is God and God alone. To say that Jesus rose is to say that the people of God have the most powerful defense system in the world. We are unconquerable, unassailable, invulnerable. Christ is truly the prince of peace. This is the faith that sets us right and sets us free.

And such a faith, truly grasped and felt, is a greater joy than all the stadiums full of screaming fans ever felt.

But it is the witness that brings us into eternal life. When we witness from the heart, Christ becomes present in us. For those who experience genuine witness, the genuine sharing of what God has done in one’s life, the transformation he has effected, with real honesty and joy, it is as if Jesus rolled up right next to them and smiled and waved.

In the twelve step fellowships they have a term for the story members tell about their drinking or drugging. They call it their “qualification.” The story of the desperate struggle with addiction and the triumph of God in their lives is their qualification for membership in the fellowship. Do you have such a story? Do you have a story of the before and after?

You almost certainly do, even if you have never thought about it. If you do think of it, and you find a way to tell it, the eternally living Jesus Christ will become present in you to anyone you tell. You can give them the thrill of a sighting of the greatest star the world has ever known.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost Year A

12 Pentecost A 08
August 3, 2008

Romans 9:1-5
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit-- 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

The Unacceptable God

I overheard a strange conversation in line at the bank on Friday. A man was reporting that he’d hunted some squirrels on his land because they’d been getting into his bird feeder. Having grown up hunting, he considered that anything one killed one should eat as a matter of respect. So he skinned the squirrels and cooked them for supper.

It seems his mother-in-law happened to be coming by for dinner. She asked him what he was serving and he said, “Squirrel.”

She looked at him quizzically. “Squab?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “Squirrel.”

She paused, staring at him in incomprehension, “Did you say grill?”

“No,” he said, “Squirrel.”

She looked around the table at the other family members, still perplexed. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she said, poking at the meat with her fork. “You’re not suggesting this is squash, are you?”

I don’t recall all the different things she suggested, but the idea that they were actually eating little furry nut-gathering rodents with big fuzzy tails was apparently unacceptable to her, so unacceptable that her mind simply screened out what he was saying.

We cannot underestimate the power of the human mind to deny what it refuses to believe.

For whatever reason, our larger culture, aided and abetted by mainstream churches, has created an idol I call the pop-god. When most people out there hear the word “God,” they don’t think of the God described in the bible. They think of the pop-god.

And so when we go to bible study, it’s the pop-god we’re looking for, and when we don’t find him, we just tune out whatever it is we’re reading. “Sooner or later,” we think, “if we just keep reading all this irrelevant stuff, we’ll find the god we’ve already decided to believe in. Sooner or later if I keep tasting this strange piece of meat on my plate, it will evolve into some food I would consider eating.”

The pop-God has many contradictory characteristics. The pop-God has all power and all knowledge and all goodness, yet he makes babies die in tsunamis. The pop-God is a puppeteer manipulating every facet of history, making everything that happens happen, and therefore must have a reason for everything, even killing those babies. The pop-God is in heaven and plans to stay there; he wants everyone to go there when they die, since the pop-God is eventually going to destroy the world. The pop-God gave us all free will so our choice to believe or not is what ultimately gets us into heaven or dooms us to hell. The American Pop-God favors America in all wars and prefers democracy over all other kinds of government, provided of course only Christians are elected. The pop-God judges our individual habits and those who have good ones go to heaven and those who have bad ones go to hell. The pop-God has very little to do with Jesus, who is really more of a kindly ghost waiting to hug us when we get to heaven. For some, Jesus is the ultimate boy or girl-friend, always with you, ready to listen, totally supportive, and never, ever challenging or judgmental, as opposed to his Father who is always smiting people. For some, Jesus paid for our sins in advance, giving us a “get-out-of-hell-free” card for the low, low price of believing that he did. And finally the pop-God gave us the bible, which is the guidebook that tells you how to get to heaven and stay out of hell.

Very little if any of this is in the bible, however. Almost none of it can be found in Jesus’ teachings.

And many people, quite reasonably, refuse to believe in such a God. But many don’t realize that what they refuse to believe isn’t what the Christian religion was ever supposed to be about in the first place.

But this is the pop-religion that many have learned somehow somewhere, probably mostly from TV. Most of these things are the things people mean when they argue about religion, some for the truth of the pop-God and some against. And so often when someone wants to encounter the living God, they go to church and find out that the pop-god is what is being worshipped. This is the kind of thing that breaks your heart, as it broke Paul’s heart all those years ago.

A number of people have asked me recently why the church is so enamored of the bible. Aren’t there all kinds of salutary spiritual texts out there that could accomplish the same goals better than the bible does? Stories and letters and volumes written by people closer to our own age and facing the same kinds of things we’re facing?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question. The reason the bible must remain normative is because almost everything it says has been completely incomprehensible to the majority of people who have read it. The truths it articulates, far from having been long understood and accepted, are in fact still largely ignored. For those who encounter it and grasp its message, it is as new and fresh and alive as it was two thousand years ago. For the rest it remains an inscrutable mystery, like a plate of squirrel to a person who cannot entertain the notion of eating such a thing.

And most of the more contemporary texts that say anything like the bible says would be just as incomprehensible without comprehending the bible first. Indeed most of them were written by people who themselves would have been the first to defend the authority of scripture, who themselves had been deeply shaped by it.

The story is told in Genesis that one night long ago, old Jacob was jumped by God by the river, and Jacob wrestled with God with the goal of mastering him. Jacob wanted God’s name. If he got it, he felt sure he could command him. But God turned the tables. Not only did he refrain from giving Jacob his name, he gave Jacob a new name: Israel, “human striving against God.” This story was included because it is a wonderful metaphor for the whole story of God’s creation of a people for himself. It is as if God were some football player who tackled a whole nation. God pins them down and says, “You will be my people and I will be your god!” And the people say, “I’m sorry, what was that? Did you say that you will take care of us and do nice things for us no matter what?”

Long ago, when I was just beginning my search for a spiritual life, I remember telling someone, “I don’t need just any god. I need the big one.” Strangely enough, the only truly powerful God is the one who refuses to be pinned down, who refuses to play by human rules, who refuses to fit our preconceptions, who will ask us to live and to be exactly the opposite of what makes the most conventional sense. And yet this is the very God most people find as impossible to swallow as that poor woman found that squirrel.

We live in a culture that more or less accepts the segregation of Christians of color from Christians of European descent. Nothing can be done about it, most of us think. Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), attended the Chi-Rho Camp at Craig Springs that our two boys, Zach Brown and Gray Dickerson, just attended a few weeks ago. The camp was an inspired vision of a pastor in Newport News named Terrye Williams, who saw it as an opportunity to open young minds to Christ’s message of reconciling love among even very different peoples. She just sent out a email letter to every congregation in the United States and Canada. She wrote that the “Reconciliation Camp gives me hope for the future. If we can raise our children to see beyond stereotypes, to value the variations in culture as a gift, and to thrive in a world of diversity, then I see the reign of God drawing near.”

God is God and there is no other. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy. Give everything you have back to God for his use.

“I’m sorry. What did you say? God is good and there are lots of other things that are better? Love those who love me? Hate my enemies? Give only what is left over after I take all I want? I don’t believe I understood you.”

Jesus is our Messiah, our Christ, because he raises us out of ourselves and into the light of God’s infinite possibilities, because he carries us along into a new world God is already creating.