Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

19 Pentecost A 08
September 21, 2008

Phil 1:21-30 (NRSV)
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. 27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God's doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well-- 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

The Rabbit

Fred Craddock was visiting in the home of his niece. There was this old greyhound dog there, just like the ones who race around a track chasing those mechanical rabbits. His niece had taken the dog in to prevent it from being destroyed because its racing days were over.

Dr. Craddock struck up a conversation with the dog:

He said to the dog, “Are you still racing?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?”

“No, I still had some race in me.”

“Well, what then? Did you not win?”

“Well, what was it? Bad treatment?”

“Oh, no,” the dog said, “they treated us royally when we were racing.”

“Did you get crippled?”


“Then why?” Craddock pressed, “Why?”

The dog answered, “I quit.”

“You quit?”

“Yes,” he said, “I quit.”

“Why did you quit?”

“I just quit. Because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.”

The Egyptians offered a fake rabbit to the Hebrew slaves over which they ruled. The slaves did not have to worry about food or housing. All they had to do was chase the rabbit, all they had to do was obey everything their Egyptian rulers commanded them to do. For many years, this arrangement was fairly comfortable. But when the Hebrews outnumbered the Egyptians, the balance was thrown off, and the Egyptians became frightened of the slaves. Harsh oppression ensued. The unbalance grew worse.

Enter God. A new rabbit was offered to the Hebrew slave: God’s kind. This was an authentic rabbit, a future shaped by God.

And then again in the history of Jesus’ ministry, two kinds of rabbits were offered: the one the religious leaders were offering, a kind of twisted version of the faith in which personal piety was all that was required and therefore the world as it was could be accommodated, with all its injustice and cruelty, or an authentic rabbit offered by Jesus: a world renewed by God.

And so Paul is in prison, rejoicing so much in his hope that some of his jailers come to believe. He even sees his imprisonment as evidence of the coming kingdom, just as he tells his beloved Philippians that their opponents are evidence that what they are doing is real. If the world is leaving you alone, you aren’t really preaching the good news.

This is why I say that in my own life, disillusionment was a gift. When I saw how fake the rabbits were that I’d been chasing, and when I saw how real the kingdom of God was, how much more real it was and will be than the world we have made, I was set free.

I somehow know that to accept what is true is always the doorway to revelation, to epiphany. To accept the train wreck of my life, this is the key to true liberation. This is God’s great gift to me.
This is the great privilege of the wilderness. Of suffering with Christ. Suffering with Christ is not enduring the ordinary pain of living. Suffering with Christ is recognizing the fake rabbit and changing direction. It is quitting the race everyone else is running.

And so I don’t have a Pollyanna hope that all is going to turn out well because God’s got the whole wide world in his hands, no, I don’t have that hope, because I don’t think the bible really says that, and I don’t think it’s even a given. I think it has been offered to us to enter into the struggle, and know in the struggle the pain of God, and in knowing that pain, discover the joy of God’s passionate love.

It doesn’t matter what the rabbit is, how good it looks, family, friends, wealth, a good lover, community, faith, God, country. Disillusionment is a gift. It’s when real living begins.

Faith begins when you stop knowing. I heard a wise man say in one of those twelve step meetings, “the farther I am away from my last drink, the closer I am to my next one.” I heard him say that and I heard a lot of far less-experienced members chide him for being negative, but he wasn’t being negative. He wasn’t even saying he was going to take a drink: he was saying his growing wisdom was in just how little he had to do with not taking one. He was talking about real freedom.

The longer I live, the less I know. The close to death I get, the more alive I am. The greater my loneliness, the greater my love. The more of my family slips away from me, the bigger my family gets. All the rabbits I’ve been chasing all my life, none of them were real. The reality grows with the slow fracturing of the illusions I spent most of my life believing in. Is that the coming of the kingdom?

Why waste time and energy trying to deny the truth? Why deny the truth about your successes and failures, your selfishness and your generosity, your coldness or your warmth? Why not just tell the truth to yourself about yourself? Why not get it over with, and be free? Why not tell the truth about your country, about what you really want, about the world and everyone in it, about the cold, hard hearts of most of humankind, including your own?

Why not live toward the truth that comes at the end so that the end ceases to be any worry? Why not be about things that the world will punish you for being about? Why not love someone who hates you? Why not help someone you don’t know? Why not go somewhere you know will tax you? Why not live toward the truth, and get in that wild river?

I love you all because the Holy Spirit is among you and you are welcoming her. I love you all because you are striving to be of one mind and one spirit. I love you because you are trying to quit chasing fake rabbits.

People wonder about hell. I’ll tell you what hell is. It’s knowing that you’ve wasted the precious thing God has given you, this unspeakably brilliant thing called life, on fake rabbits. Hell is when you see your life in trash pit, being burned, and you feel the burning, the burning of waste. You stand on the outside of the life that has been spent uselessly and you gnash your teeth in helpless frustration because you can’t go back, you can’t have it again, you can’t make it right.

Hell is turned loose in the world when a whole bunch of people get together on the race track and run after those fake rabbits, and knock each other over trying to catch them. We turn the world into a burning trash heap, and we cast ourselves into outer darkness, on the other side of what might have been. That’s the human kingdom the kingdom of God is coming to overturn, and it’s very powerful and it lays claim to all of us. We all belong to it.

Until we don’t. Until we’re ready to go wandering in the wilderness. Until we’re ready to give up the regular meal schedule for manna from heaven. Until we’re ready to work in the vineyard no matter what pay we might or might not get. Until we’re ready for the truth that God is king and no other. The only authentic rabbit is Christ and the kingdom of God he unveils.

When we, the modern Philippi, become of one mind in this, then the world will sit up and take notice, and maybe, just maybe, we will be offered the greatest gift: to suffer with the Lord.

Christ ever with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ to my right side, Christ to my left side
Christ in his breadth, Christ in his length, Christ in depth
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me.
—Breastplate of St. Patrick


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2008

18 Pentecost A 08
September 14, 2008

Romans 14:1-12 (NRSV)
1 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."
12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

What’s for Dinner?

A Rabbi and a Roman Catholic Priest were sitting next to each other at an Inter-faith event. When dinner was served someone thoughtlessly had placed a slab of ham in the Rabbi's plate. The Rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other things his faith and physician permitted.

The Roman Catholic padre leaned over in the direction of the Rabbi and said. “Rabbi Cohen, you and I know that the dietary laws from the Old Testament were developed at a time when pork meat was indeed dangerous due to lack of refrigeration and low heat in cooking. Of course trichinosis was rampant and your ancestors in the faith were right in prohibiting eating pork in order to save the lives of many Israelites. Those days are gone, pork is safe and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you eat your first mouthful of ham, Rabbi Cohen?”

The Rabbi paused briefly and then responded, “At your wedding, Father Maguire, at your wedding.”

Paul had not been to Rome, but had probably heard a number of stories about the community. It’s not certain how much he’d heard, but it appears that many of the very same issues that he’d already confronted in a variety of places were cropping up in Rome as well.

First of all, it was a difficulty to live in the Roman empire and be Jewish or Christian. Rome was the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world of that day. It was however pagan, and not only pagan but religiously pagan. Romans were not secular. They practiced their religion with real fervor and piety. They accused Christians and some Jews of being atheists, because they wouldn’t acknowledge the Roman pantheon of gods. Christians could not serve in political offices or in the military of Rome either, and this earned them a reputation for being unpatriotic or even traitorous. Early Christians were strict pacifists. Christians and Jews were considered humorless spoilsports because they refused to participate in any of the Roman festivals.

In addition to tensions with the Roman empire, there we tensions as well between Jews and Christians. Many Jews did not see the evidence for Jesus’ being the Messiah as compelling.
Given the importance of such a claim, they regarded those who went around claiming Jesus as the Christ to be really causing trouble. The Jews had a much better relationship to the Romans than did their Christian cousins, so they were able to exert a fair amount of persecution against Christians, as Paul himself knew well, having been one of the chief persecutors himself.

A third tension was between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Jewish Christians expected Gentiles to adopt all the practices of Judaism along with their faith in Jesus. Paul argued that the gift of the Holy Spirit more than fulfilled the law for anyone who believes, no matter what dietary or purity laws they followed.

Of course, going back some thirty years or so from when Paul was writing Romans, we have Jesus himself, striving to bring together the many different kinds of Jews, the Pharisees against the Sadducees, the righteous against the tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus frequently found more faith among marginal Jews like the Samaritans or even entirely gentile people. Jesus himself was accused of failing to keep the Sabbath and ignoring various Old Testament laws about ritual purity.

So what is this like? It is like disagreements between Christians who wear fancy vestments and those who wear Hawaiian shirts, those who believe in transubstantiation and those who don’t, those who believe the scriptures are inerrant and those who don’t, those who pray from books and those who pray extemporaneously, those who baptize by sprinkling and those who baptize by full immersion.

It’s interesting though who Paul calls “weak in faith.” The less faith one has the more laws are necessary. The more faith, the less law.

Now it needs to be said here that the law is good when it is needed. Even in church it is not a bad thing to have structure when the people of the church are weak in faith.

I just attended Sharon Watkins’ pastor’s conference and in discussions about the current Mission Alignment process, a lot of pastors were talking about the lack of accountability in all the expressions of the church. The freedom of the gospel is not license. It is not the freedom to do what you want. It’s the freedom to do what God wants. If we do not want what God wants, we are not free. If we are enslaved to sin, then we surely need all the law we can get.

I know a lot of alcoholics and I can tell you that drunks think that when they’re drinking they are expressing their freedom. “I have a right to drink,” they will tell you. “There’s no law against it.” Or they might even be proud of themselves. “I’m a rebel,” they’ll say, or “I don’t give in to the crowd.”

I can tell you as well that the alcoholic absolutely regards giving up drinking as bowing to some law imposed on him by the self-righteous. Such alcoholics are absolutely doomed until they realize that far from expressing freedom, they are enslaved.

The same is true of people who are sexually promiscuous. They believe they are free, that they are simply expressing their liberty. But most people who are chronically promiscuous are actually enslaved.

The rich young ruler in the gospels must surely regard his wealth as liberating, filling his life with many options, including an active pursuit of his faith. When he comes to Jesus and asks him about following him, and Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor, he confronts the ruler with his enslavement to material wealth.

In our congregation, we are free in the gospel to do whatever we want, as long as what we want and what God wants are the same thing. Because if we do what we want and it is not what God wants, we are not expressing freedom, but slavery. For this reason, we balance liberty with law, freedom with rules, because none of us, not one, is so full of faith as to be utterly sure what God wants.

And it is for this very reason that we must be very sure that forgiveness and mercy and grace is the law among us above all other laws. This is not license, but the recognition that we are all of us struggling against our sinful natures to be free to do God’s will. Our community cannot survive or grow or prosper if we are ruled solely by law.

A general once said to John Wesley, "I never forgive and I never forget." To which Wesley responded, "Then Sir, I hope you never sin."

The world is still ruled entirely by the law. You know I don’t seek out such footage because I enjoy seeing it, but last night watching a documentary, which I recommend to you all called The Sierra Leone All-Star Band, about refugees from the conflict in Sierra Leone, I saw a brief clip in which an unarmed man lay in a ditch by the side of the road. Over him stood a man in uniform carrying a large automatic rifle. The man in the ditch was raising his arms in entreaty. It seemed as if he were saying, “Stop, please. Forgive me whatever it is you think I have done. Don’t do this.” But the soldier fired into the man’s back without mercy. This is the ultimate outcome of the rule of law, because sooner or later, someone must be punished.

Moreover, all of us suffer under the law, for none of us who really take it seriously can find ourselves anything but guilty. At my particular season in life, I often find myself nearly overwhelmed with regrets, real anguish about hurt people, lost opportunities for healing, unfinished business. And I know that if I suffer so, there must be many, many others.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story called The Capitol of the World about a boy named Paco who had a falling out with his father. In anger, he ran away to the city of Madrid, where he gave himself recklessly to the sport of bullfighting. Paco’s father decided to forgive his son and placed an ad in the Madrid paper:

“Paco, meet me Hotel Montana, 12 noon Tuesday. All is forgiven. Papa.”

As it happened, Paco was a common nickname in Spain. The father arrived at the Hotel Montana to find eight hundred young men waiting to be forgiven by their fathers.

The world is hungry for forgiveness. It is the closest thing we can offer to life. It is the closest thing to resurrection we have to offer.

If anyone here is in need of forgiveness today, I want to let you know that you are forgiven. And if you know anyone who needs forgiveness, I want you to invite them here on Sunday morning, because that is what God wants to offer them.

But I particularly want to offer a word from God to those who cannot forgive, for those of us who withhold forgiveness are in the deepest pit of all. It is so hard to see when there is an obvious and unforgiveable wrong being done, that anger and judgment are in fact of no use whatsoever. It is hard to see because everywhere in every facet of the so-called civilized world, vengeance is the normative way to respond to wrongdoing.

A great pastor and theologian Freidrich Buechner wrote: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Strangely enough, the moment we forgive is the moment that real power begins to flow into the problem. I can tell you from experience that the only power greater than the wrong any human being can do is the power of the love of God.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is about that power, the power of the resurrection. It is the power of a God who loves a world even as that world hates him. It is the power of the peculiar love of God.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A 2008

17 Pentecost A 08
September 7, 2008

Romans 13:8-14 (NRSV)
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.


I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s about food production in the US. In one section the writer explores the so-called organic food industry. He speaks about the 60’s and the idealistic communes and farm coops that started the organic food movement. One major player in organic growing movement had since more-or-less sold out to the big agribusiness conglomerates, telling himself that he was getting at least some of the values of organic growing back into big farming. At one point he says, “We can tell ourselves that it’s holy, that it’s communion, but to the world, it’s just lunch.”

The culture of Rome, like the culture in which we live, was shot through with what I might call “little idols.” Little idols were seemingly harmless opportunities to worship the culture’s deities, opportunities usually to have fun or to gain some advancement. In those days, dinner parties were usually dedicated to some pagan god or another. The idea was that you would invite all your friends and associates to your party, which would begin with the sacrifice of grain or fruit or some animal or another, which would then be prepared for a feast which all the guests would enjoy. In a way, the average dinner party was a pleasurable meal in honor or even in the company of some god.

These parties were the core of a lot of social and even business transactions, and I think we can assume they were pretty darn fun. These were the places one met potential spouses, where one negotiated business contracts, where one got to know the people one needed to know for social or political advancement.

The problem for Jews and Christians was that going to such parties meant breaking the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods,” said the Lord. You can’t eat meat sacrificed to such gods and still be a believer. But then how were you to get along in the world? How were you to do business? Make friends? Meet your husband or wife?

For Jews, there were many other ways that they defined a boundary between them and the rest of the world. Dietary laws were big. To really be Jewish, you had to refrain from eating many of the foods the rest of the world ate. The reason for this was probably partly just wisdom gained from centuries of experimenting with the relative health benefits or detriments of various meals. But the deeper religious meaning had to do with the line of separation between God’s people and the rest of the world. The special diet of Jews tended to require them to stick together as a community no matter where they were. It helped to define their culture apart from their geographical and political situation.

The point here is that God wanted his people to be distinct and separate from the rest of the world. He wanted them to stand out. Now some Jews saw laws about foods and eating as marking them as God’s people without any sense of what kind of people they were meant to be.
Other Jews saw more properly that the laws about foods were only one aspect of a far bigger difference between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were expected to live together and to order their society very differently than human governments and businesses and other social groups did.
God expected his people to be different in salutary ways that drew attention to the kind of routine injustice and violence that everywhere marked human society, simply by being free of that very violence and injustice.

But throughout Jewish history, it was a very significant struggle to maintain this separation. The rest of the world developed civilization around the idea of empire, that is, a central suzerain or group that organizes an unbeatable military force that more or less enslaves a huge number of people to benefit a very small group of people, whose language and culture would become the norm for all their conquered people. As emperors got better at empire, they realized they could control their underclasses by convincing them that the empire protected them, much the way organized crime works with small businesses. An empire gives you security, access to goods and services unavailable otherwise, and even advancement, providing you are willing to go the distance for the empire.

One of the most important ways to dominate a foreign culture is to impose one’s gods on them. As people worship, they give themselves to the values of those gods. The empire’s gods valued the empire. To worship them was to fall in line, to do one’s part as a citizen.

Against this, God set himself up as the suzerain, the emperor, and commanded that instead of being enslaved to other human beings, his people would be enslaved to him, and in this way they would enjoy the only real freedom possible. His people would not need security for he would be their security. His people would not need a class system because they would all be equally well-cared for by him. His people would not need access to more goods and services because all they needed would be provided by him. God’s people would live peaceful lives in a just and equitable and eminently hospitable society utterly different from the stratified and deeply unjust society in which the world seemed to glory.

God’s strategy was that the rest of the world he had created and which he loved, would eventually come to see the injustice and misery of human-run empires and the comparative joy and peace of his people, that they might be slowly brought around to his way.

But even God’s people had difficulty with this strategy, because they themselves coveted the riches and benefits of the imperial system. They were forever inching away from God’s plan, until inevitably they had sold themselves down the river to some foreign god or another.

The world has not changed. The empire is still the pinnacle of human achievement. We’re still trying to build that tower of Babel. We are still trying to make a name for ourselves. We aren’t just tempted. We’re wholly committed. There is no alternative. What other plan could we have?
The world is constantly at us, the world that values human empires above all other things, inviting us to just have a little fun, to indulge ourselves, because nothing after all is really sacred.
It’s not communion. It’s just lunch.

In the book of Exodus, probably the most powerful identity God ever gave his people was on the terrible night of the Passover, when he invited all those who believed in him, all those who saw they were enslaved to the greatest empire of that day, to slaughter a lamb, to smear the blood on their doorways as a sign to the angel of death God was sending against their oppressors.

It was no laughing matter. To eat such a meal was to express one’s complete faith in a God that was opposed to the powerful and violent rulers of Egypt. If that faith had been found wanting, all Pharoah had to do to bring the revolutionaries to justice was to roam the streets and look for the blood on the doorposts. It was a meal of tremendous importance.

It was important because it meant committing to freedom. It meant giving up the protection and food supplies and housing provided by the empire. It meant wandering off into a wilderness with no assurance of food or protection or places to live. It was a very, very important and meaningful meal.

To eat the meal with us this morning is equally important. It is to say, this God is my king. It is to say, I am first a citizen not of this world or this country, but of the kingdom of God that is coming and will not be kept away.

Do I want to go through life in the pleasant sleep of the womb? Barely moving, barely breathing, infinitely comfortable? Or do I want to risk loving and losing? Do I want to quietly hoard everything I receive so that I can grow fat in the hammock of wealth, or do I want to leap off the cliff of self-giving, trusting the Father’s waiting arms will catch me? Do I want to burrow into a cocoon of self-protection or do I want to open myself to critique and contempt by telling the truth and shaming the devil? Do I want to “go along to get along” even with evil, or do I want to risk loving the world enough to tell it the truth? Do I want to live comfortably or do I want to live brilliantly?

The meal that I eat is not just lunch.