Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Third Sunday of Easter Year B 2009

03 Easter B 09
April 26, 2009

Acts 3:12-19
12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

17 "And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…

Psalm 4
1 Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
4 When you are disturbed, do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, "O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!"
7 You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

1 John 3:1-7
1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Luke 24:36b-48
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

No Change

Every other month at our board meeting the chairperson for the Philippi Memorial Gardens Committee gives us a report. It’s usually just two words: “No change.”

Cemeteries are lovely places for the kind of person that doesn’t like change. They’re always the same. If you want to find someone’s resting place there, the chances are you will always find it in the same place. The stones we use for markers are valued according to their imperviousness to the elements. The better the stone, the more likely you’ll still be able to read it hundreds of years from now. Shirley will tell you that there is a Philippi Memorial Garden’s fund, and the principal on that fund never changes, unless of course someone buys a plot. That’s the only real change that ever comes to Philippi Memorial Gardens. People buy plots and of course people die and their bodies are buried there.

Even spiritually, nothing ever changes there. Things unsaid remain unsaid. Mistakes made remain mistakes. Regrets remain regrettable.

Of course, there’s work involved in making sure Philippi Memorial Gardens never changes. The fund’s interest is used to pay Wayne Kennard to go there and cut the grass. And then someone has to pay the people who dig the resting places and fill them back in and make sure they’re level.

The grass grows whether we like it or not. The wind blows and the rain falls and the sun beats down despite our best efforts. The less expensive stones will wear down and eventually become indecipherable unless someone goes there and restores them. And of course, people keep passing away, so that’s another change we can’t really do anything about. To paraphrase the book of Acts, day by day, death adds to their number those who will never change.

Life on the other hand is all about change. Things are happening all the time. New people are being born every day. Things freeze and melt. The wind blows here and then there. The world itself is constantly moving. You think you’re sitting still but you’re actually hurtling through space at an incredible speed. The sun burns at a furious rate. Your cels are dividing as we speak, blood is being pumped through your veins sixty to ninety times a minute, thousands of chemical reactions are going on inside you every second.

And people all over the world are making plans you don’t know anything about. Billions of dollars worth of business is being done that you have nothing to do with. Whole species are dying out. New species are getting their start.

So people who want to keep everything the same have a lot of work to do. I can’t imagine they’re very happy. Their chances of success in keeping everything unchanged are slim. I suspect they’ll spend most of their lives frustrated, angry or disappointed. Still there are a lot of such people. Most of them, in fact. They ally themselves with each other and they’re able to get a lot done, it’s true.

But I don’t think God is on their side.

Because God is changing everything, whether we like it or not. If we don’t like it, we’re likely to be pretty unhappy most of the time. But we can learn to like it and if we do, we can certainly have a better experience. And if we learn to want it, well, it can be a joy.

God is changing everything, and he will work with us or he will work in spite of us. His kingdom is coming into the world and nothing we can do can stop it. The mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be lifted up whether we want it to happen or we don’t. The self-righteous will be judged and the sinner will be forgiven and there’s nothing to be done about it. The last will be first and the first will be last and as unfair as that may seem, it can’t be helped.

God has even changed some of the people who are buried in Philippi Memorial Gardens. You can look for them there, and maybe you can even find the markers with their names on it, but they are not there. In fact, they are here, alive and worshipping with us. There’s nothing we can do about that either.

Here’s the thing: God loves you whether you like change or you don’t. He’s crazy about you and he wants you to come along for the ride. He will forgive your desire to keep everything the same, he will welcome you into the process, and he’d really love it if you’d help him. His offer is open, but it may not be open long.

Of course you may disagree with me about God’s wanting to change everything. You may look around at things like Philippi Memorial Gardens and wonder whether anything is really changing at all. You might be so hurt by the loss of someone, or you might be so confused by other bad things that are happening in the world that you just find it ridiculous to hope for anything like the kingdom of God.

But I believe in these changes because I have seen them. And I believe in these changes because other people have seen them. God wants us to see him, he wants us to see what he is doing. I believe God is changing the world because a man named Peter touched a lame man who only wanted a little breakfast and through him God gave that man the ability to walk. I believe God is changing the world because a man named Jesus taught a bumbling and cowardly fisherman and through Jesus God made Peter into one of the most powerful and courageous preachers of all time. I believe God is changing the world because the world killed God’s Son by nailing him to a cross but God raised him from the dead three days later.

I know this because I used to live in a grave of my own making, on a mat I couldn’t get up from, in a house I hid in because I was afraid. I’ve told some of you about it, I’ve shown some of you my old wounds. Not pretty I know, but God wants you to see him. He wants you to see how he has changed me, so that you can believe in the change he is bringing to the world.

We spoke on Easter morning about the recent report that fewer and fewer people believe in Jesus Christ. The same report tells us that people who don’t believe in Jesus or in any other religion nevertheless describe themselves as “spiritual.” What this tells me is that people are looking for a God that will change the world, but that they are not finding him in the churches. They want to see, they want someone to show them, they want to believe, but when they come to the churches, all they find are cemeteries, where everyone is working very hard to keep everything the same.

Peter reminds the people who were staring at him after he healed the lame man that they all knew that man before. They all knew that he was lame. They’d seen it. Peter reminds the people that everyone had seen Jesus crucified and dead, but that he and the other apostles had seen him since, alive. They’d seen the wounds of his crucifixion, and they’d seen him eat and drink.

God wants to change you, and God wants everyone to see the change. God wants everyone to see who you were, and God wants everyone to see who you are becoming. That’s how we become a part of the change he is bringing, that’s how we help it to come. You have a story, a story of who you used to be, a story of what God has done to change you. And if you don’t, you can, and it can start today.

The churches in North America are declining and dying not because of the world, but because of the churches. The world still hungers to see the power of God, it still cries out for hope. The harvest is still plentiful. But the churches seem to have gotten stuck. They seem to be filled with people who don’t change, don’t want to change, and don’t want anyone else to change. A church where nothing is changing is a cemetery and not a church.

Of course, God loves you even if you really, really don’t want anything to change. He will even give you what you desire. I don’t know exactly what it looks like. Jesus talked about it in various ways. Sometimes he spoke of something like a brush pile. Sometimes he spoke of a place of eternal darkness. Ashes don’t change. Darkness doesn’t change.

But God is going to change the world, that is certain, because he raised Jesus from the dead. He is going to change the world whether we fight him or we help him. Today is the day we can give up trying to stop God, and if we do, if we give ourselves to helping him, everything will become new, as new as a bold and powerful preacher who used to be a coward, as new as a running and leaping man who used to have withered and useless legs, as new as an eternal king who used to be a dead criminal.

And someone might see it, and believe.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Easter Year B 2009

01 Easter B 09
April 12, 2009

Acts 10:34-43
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
"His steadfast love endures forever."
14 The LORD is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
"The right hand of the LORD does valiantly;
16 the right hand of the LORD is exalted;
the right hand of the LORD does valiantly."
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the LORD.
18 The LORD has punished me severely,
but he did not give me over to death.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the LORD's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain.

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

John 20:1-18
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." 16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It’s All About the Witnesses

She was alone when she saw him.

If it had been up to me, the first appearance of Jesus would not have been to only one of his closest friends, a woman no less, one with a questionable past, alone in the dark by his tomb. Out of control with grief, who might very well, through the power of wishful thinking, confuse an early morning gardener with the risen Jesus.

When she found the tomb open, she ran and got some men. Men are much cooler, much more objective, don’t you think? They came and looked, and the one Jesus loved, took it more-or-less on faith that Jesus had come back from death as he had said he would. But then they left, Mary was alone.

The other three gospels at least put more people there. More women. Hysterical women, delegated, as women were then and often still are, to the more distasteful and difficult tasks. Still, though. If I had been running it, there would have been more people, at least a few of them men.

As Fred Craddock said in one of his Easter sermons, “This is no way to run a resurrection.”

So Mary was alone when she saw the angels. Sobbing over what she took as a desecration of his grave. John calls the two figures in the tomb angels but Mary hardly seems to notice them as such. Really, she’s so out of control. I can’t help but think of a child whose beloved pet has died, sobbing and asking her mother again and again, “But where did he go? Who took him? Why can’t we go and bring him back?”
She was alone in the darkness before dawn when she turned and saw him, so she said. She admitted she didn’t recognize him at first. The crucial moment for her was apparently when he said her name. She must have rushed the poor man and grabbed him.

She was alone there, throwing herself at this man who might have been the gardener, and she claimed he told her not to hold on to him, that he had to go. If he was the gardener, this would make a certain amount of sense. But she claimed also that he told her he was going to the Father and to go and tell the disciples.

So the first resurrection story is told by a hysterical woman running to the house where the disciples were hiding, saying “I have seen the Lord!” Of course, they didn’t believe her.

Thank goodness there were more sightings. At the same time, it seems like the gospel writers are determined to plant doubts in our minds. Thomas had trouble recognizing him. The disciples on the road to Emmaus spent a whole afternoon with him before they realized who he was. Matthew tells us he appeared to a big group, but some of them didn’t believe. All the gospels report he ate and drank with them, but some tell us he could appear and disappear and walk through walls like a ghost.

If I were running the resurrection, I’d try to make the story consistent and undeniable. Wouldn’t you?

But the one who was running it had different ideas. It seemed that he wanted certain people to be the evidence. If I had been running it, I would have had Jesus appear to the emperor of Rome and all its senators and to the chief priests who’d condemned Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees and maybe old Pilate too. I’d want to rub their noses in it. Nyah nyah, you were wrong!

But no, the one who was running it left it to some obscure fishermen, a woman of questionable character, some reformed sinners, and various desperate unnamed funeral attendees.

It all came down to the witnesses.

A recent report has been in the news. A lot of people including our regional minister have brought it to my attention. Have you heard? It appears that there has been a significant decline in the number of people who call themselves Christians. People are leaving the church in droves. A lot of people in the church want to blame somebody. The secular humanists. The socialists. The atheists. The world just plain going to hell in a hand-basket.

Ah, for the good old days, they say, when people came to church because they didn’t have a choice about it, when religion was taught in the public schools, when the Ten Commandments hung on the walls of courtrooms.

Two thousand years ago, in the months following the scene at the empty tomb, thousands of people were baptized. The church spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire. Of course, the Roman Empire was a pagan culture, very permissive, very liberal, very violent and bloody. No one was teaching about Jesus in any schools. In fact, merchants were selling every kind of idol you could want. Temples to every god you could think of dotted town squares and marketplaces. The Romans even made their emperor out to be a god and forced that religion on all their subjects, putting people to death just for refusing to kiss his statue. It’s hard to imagine a more hostile culture. Even Jesus was put to death by the Romans because the Jewish commoners of the day wanted to prove they had no king but Caesar.

So it all came down to the witnesses. They stuck to their admittedly inconsistent story, you’ve got to give them that. They were arrested, beaten, tortured, imprisoned and even executed by Jewish and Roman authorities alike, but they just wouldn’t back down. They drew a sharp line between themselves and the other religions of the day and most people called them atheists because they refused to believe in the gods everyone else believed in. They didn’t take part in pagan rituals, they shared everything they had and the rich gave to the poor. The put women in charge of churches when no one put women in charge of anything. The upper classes, Africans, Jews, Greeks, Asians, Romans, both slaves and free people all worshipped together as equals. The lowly were lifted up and the powerful were demoted.

The story they told boiled down to four important things, just the basics. “We saw Jesus do such wonderful things and we heard him say such amazing things that we are convinced God was with him. We saw Jesus arrested and crucified by the Roman and Jewish authorities and we saw him die. And after three days, we saw him alive. We ate and drank with him. We therefore believe he is our eternal king, appointed by God.”

But perhaps the most surprising thing about those early witnesses was their attitude about violence. They were not scared of being arrested or tortured or killed, nor were they ever tempted to resist or respond with violence. They gave their testimony publicly with the full knowledge it could get them killed. And here’s the most amazing thing of all: even as they were slaughtered, there are countless stories of them going to their deaths blessing and forgiving the very people who were killing them. This was what serving the crucified and risen Lord meant to them.
It all came down to the witnesses.

Peter, the beloved disciple, Paul and Mary Magdalene were all eventually executed. They went to their deaths forgiving and loving the ones who killed them, and they never took back their testimony that Jesus was risen from the dead.

Early Christians loved their enemies. Even a centurion, one who might very well have been part of the crew that whipped Jesus, spat on him, gambled for his clothes and drove the nails into his hands and feet, even that centurion was welcomed and baptized.

Early Christians loved their enemies and forgave them even as they were murdered by them. They gave up fighting for survival, for wealth or for power or for status and they let God fight the battle with his love and forgiveness. I wonder if people are leaving the churches today because the witnesses are fighting, fighting each other, fighting the world. The one who is risen did not fight. He loved, he forgave, but he did not fight.

So is it really the socialists or the secular humanists or the atheists that are at fault for the decline in faith in Jesus? Or is this also all about the witnesses?
The resurrection is the testimony of God to the crucified Jesus. He is Jesus’ chief witness. He is the one who says that the new covenant is one of love and forgiveness and grace, that the fighting is over.

Do you believe him?

I had a friend who was a black pastor in South Africa during apartheid. He was arrested for speaking against the racist system. He was put in a metal box a little smaller than a coffin that was then laid in the hot sun. He suffered miserably for hours, unable to sit up, unable to turn over, even soiling himself while he was in there. When he came out he smiled warmly at the ones who had put him in there, not to mock them, but to let them know he still loved them. When he was released, three hundred people were waiting at his church to be baptized.

If you don’t like socialists, go find one and love him. If you hate Republicans, go find one and hug them. I can point a few out to you if you’d like. If you think Democrats are destroying American, find one and give her a big old boozer on the cheek. If you don’t like undocumented workers, give one a job, pay him a lot of money, then call the sheriff and tell him what you’ve done. When he comes to arrest you, tell him you love him too.

If you believe the crucified one is the one God raised from the dead, give up fighting and start loving.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Palm Sunday Year B 2009

Palm Sunday
April 5, 2009

Mark 11:1-11
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
"His steadfast love endures forever."
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the LORD's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

The Rider

My mother started me riding I think when I was about four years old. I can’t remember much about it, just little snatches of being high in the air looking down at the pony’s neck, standing in a review line with my pony April to receive a ribbon. I remember the ribbons hanging in my room for years afterwards, though I don’t know whatever happened to them. I remember getting thrown one time and crying and refusing to get back on the pony, my mother trying to explain to me that getting back on was very important, that if you didn’t get back on you’d never get back on again.

After the divorce, we couldn’t afford to have ponies or horses so I didn’t ride again until much later. When I was a teenager we moved on to a pretty big property and we boarded horses there and I sometimes got to ride them. It was a wonderful experience. The horses were so beautiful and strong and most of them were very well-behaved.

There’s quite a lot to riding a horse. You have to learn how to sit and how to use the reins and how to relate to the horse, how to hold on with your thighs. But if you learn how to do those things and you treat your horse nicely, boy, you can go anywhere and you can go fast.

I’ve never ridden a donkey. Philippi member and chief of our fire department Jimmy Walden has some experience with riding donkeys. Some of you might remember the fire department’s donkey-ball game a few years ago. It was a fundraiser. It was basically baseball played on donkeys. And the donkeys were, well, not exactly cooperative. At the time Chief Walden was a little plumper than he is now and that was probably a good thing as he spent a lot of time flying through the air and landing hard in the dirt. The chief has suggested quietly that other types of fundraisers be done in the future.

Maya Deren was a very eccentric dancer in the early part of the last century who also happened to be a brilliant anthropologist. She wrote a very famous book about the practice of voodoo. It’s still I think a standard in the field. It was called “Divine Horsemen.” I recommend it. It’s not only a brilliant study, it’s beautifully written and it teaches many things useful to spiritual practice.
Some may not know that the main object of the practice of voodoo is possession by one of many African gods. The image of divine horsemen came from voodoo priests themselves, who described possession as “riding the god.”*

Clearly a horse is far more powerful than a human being. Of course, human beings are smarter in some ways, but a horse is pretty smart. If you love it and care for it, get to know its nature, what it wants and what it likes, well, you can put a bit in its mouth and a saddle on its back and it will cooperate. It will help you. It will take you where you want to go.

It also makes you more powerful than others. Horses were used in warfare for centuries. The cavalry was the real killing machine in any army. You’d send in the foot soldiers to chop down the ranks, then when your enemy was all bunched together fending off your foot soldiers, in would ride the cavalry, circle the enemy’s foot soldiers and chop them to pieces. It’s really hard to stop a trained rider on a horse.

Gods for most people are powerful spiritual beings that help those who worship them. Many who believe in the God of the bible even think of him this way. People who talk about “having God” in their lives or in their hearts seem to me sometimes to be talking about God as if he were a horse we could ride. And it seems some churches put forth this idea of God and encourage it.

In some churches I’ve seen it’s the often the healthy and wealthy and smart and polished that are respected and looked up to, the ones who have it all together, who dress well, have happy families, who never seem to make very big mistakes. They seem to pray for the things they want and get them. The understand how to ride God. They tell us that if we believe the right things and do the right things, then God can be our horse too. If we’re not getting what we want out of life, it’s only because we just don’t know how to wrangle God. Here, read this book, believe these things, obey these simple laws, and you’ll have a happy life. Put your foot in the stirrup here, get up on the saddle there, move the reins this way, and make sure to thank him when he does well for you.

This is not a surprise. If you read the bible itself, you see this very idea. Many of the stories are stories about people trying to ride God like a horse. But if anyone is riding such a horse, there’s a problem. The horse isn’t God. It may act like God, it might even be beautiful and powerful like God, but it can’t be God.
Because God doesn’t want to be ridden. God wants to ride.

We weren’t made to be riders of God. We were made to be ridden by him. The religious leaders of Israel didn’t understand this. Not because they were Jews but because they were just as blind as the rest of humanity, just as blind as the Romans and everyone else in the world. God had spent centuries teaching them to be his horse, and they spent centuries trying to make him theirs. They didn’t want to be ridden. They wanted to ride.

Jesus was the first to figure it out. Jesus was the first to stop trying to get on the horse the world called God. He was the first to take the bit in his mouth and the yoke on his back, the first one to get down on his hands and knees and consent to be ridden.

And a marvelous thing happened. God came riding into the world, plain as day and big as life, healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, restoring hope, revealing the truth, showering his bottomless love and grace on everyone.

And you know what? It turned out that God’s yoke was easy and he didn’t weigh much at all. Jesus revealed to us what it really means to be free, what it really means to be what you were made to be.

A lot of what people come to me about has to do with power over other people. We all have someone in our family or circle of friends that we know has just got to change. When some of us get frustrated, we go to the pastor. I wonder sometimes if people think I’ve got some influence over God’s power and can just wave it over the person in question and get them to do what they should do. Maybe they see the pastor riding God like a horse, I don’t know. Or maybe they’d like me to tell them how to ride, so they can swoop into someone else’s life and force them to do what they want them to do.

But God doesn’t want to be ridden. He wants to ride.

I think the deepest meaning of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is to be found in that young donkey he rode. The passage from Zechariah reads:

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

I think it’s telling us about God and God’s people. Stubborn, foolish, ridiculous and way too small, God will nevertheless ride the thing, no matter how much it bucks and snorts and tries to go its own way. And because God is God, victory will be his, no matter how big the horses of the world may be and no matter how well-trained the world's cavalry might be.

The power of God can be yours. You can be a miracle worker. The power of God can flow through you into the world. All you have to do is stop trying to get on the horse, get down on all fours, and take the bit and the saddle. Let God get on, let him take the reins, and watch all the powers of the world fall like flies before him.

It’s not easy is it? But it’s what we are all about. I can tell you I’m a lot like that young donkey that has never been ridden. I want God to ride me, I want him to lead me where he wants to go, but I find I nevertheless resist and fight him.
What’s amazing to me is how easy it all gets when I stop fighting. It amazes me to be along for the ride, as it were, to watch as God does the things he wants to do.

I’d like to close this morning with a poem by G. K. Chesterton. It’s about the donkey Jesus rode that day.

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.


*Member Annie Fitt pointed out that the title "Divine Horsemen" actually referred to the gods themselves, not to the possessed. Pastor Mike should have checked his facts! Even then, the book is a good illustration of the ridden/rider relationship between human being and God.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B 2009

05 Lent B 09
March 29, 2009

Jeremiah 31:31-34
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Psalm 51:1-12
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Hebrews 5:5-10
1 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
"You are my Son,
today I have begotten you";
6 as he says also in another place,
"You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek."
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

John 12:20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 30 Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Giving Up Your Name

In the Twelve Step fellowships, there is another set of twelve called “The Twelve Traditions.” These traditions are the guiding principles not so much of the individual alcoholic or drug addict seeking relief and healing, but those of the whole Twelve Step Fellowship, be it for alcoholics or drug addicts or overeaters or whatever. Twelve Step fellowships have no paid therapists, no bosses, no presidents, no rules. They have traditions, and the only enforcement needed is the disease itself. If a group follows the traditions, its members get sober. If it doesn’t, they don’t.

The twelfth tradition reads, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all these traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

Anonymity, of course, means “without naming.” Most of us probably assume that the anonymity of these programs is to protect members from the embarrassment of their illnesses being publicly known. But the Traditions take this idea to another level. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of everything the Fellowship does, so that what is known about the Fellowship is only that it seeks to bring people suffering from addiction to recovery and wholeness. There are no famous recovering addicts. There are no poster children for Twelve Step Fellowships. There are no spokespersons, no popes or ministers or elders or saints. The Twelve Step Fellowships stand for helping people recover, period.

Following Christ into the kingdom of God means letting go of your name. It means getting swallowed into a big organic being in which you become but a part, a cell, a bit of tissue. It means subsuming all your claims to fame, casting your crowns before him, all your achievements and whatever you think you’ve accomplished, whatever you think you’ve done that’s worthy, just tossing it at his feet and giving him all the credit and all the power to do with it as he wishes. It means that from the time you go in and on into eternity, you are a living member of a much greater body, the body of the eternal Christ.

The cross is the gateway to the kingdom. It’s the nearly insane willingness to lose everything you love most, to give up everything you value, in exchange for entrance to the kingdom. Jesus went through that entrance and many witnesses testified that he made it, he got there, he was raised from the dead as the new being, the being for whom the barrier between heaven and earth is nothing more difficult to cross than air, a being immune forever to aging or death or disease, a being who has become entirely obedient to God, and is therefore given full access to God’s power. A human being, but more than a human being. A child of God, begotten by the Spirit of God.

Another tradition of the Twelve Step fellowships reads, “Our public relations policy is one of a attraction, not promotion.” The successes of the Twelve Step fellowships, the joy of those who have recovered, their meaningful lives, their spiritual awakening, these things are communicated with hardly any effort at all, the word just spreads, and the word is not about individuals who are good or well or successful, but about a fellowship that works. In the same way, the tradition of the church is that the spread of the gospel is a matter of attraction and not promotion. People may come to the church because of other people, but if they stay, they stay because they have met Christ. We exist to attract the world to Christ, to lift high the cross, as high as we can, so it can be seen at the greatest distance, to the ends of the earth. “This is the way to eternal life.”

We exist so that people will say, “I want to meet Jesus,” not only so they will say, “I want to go to a nice church,” or “I want to be like Sue or Judy or Jacob,” or “I want to be accepted in good society.” These things may all come to pass, but these are not the reasons the church exists. The church exists not to glorify its members, but to glorify Christ, and to bring the spiritual adventurer to his cross.

All this Lent we have been reading the book by Martha Grace Reese called Unbinding the Gospel. It’s about evangelism. Yes, that’s a scary word that brings to mind rude people shouting bible verses and sticking their feet in the door jamb to keep you from closing the door. But this book has shown me that the work of evangelism is really the work of telling others about the new life Christ offers, and the path to the cross that makes it possible.

Was it really necessary for Jesus to die? Yes, it was, but not because God required his blood in order to forgive humankind. It was necessary for him to die in order for God to amaze the world with the resurrection. It was necessary to show the world that you could stand up against the insanity of the human-run world and survive, even thrive, despite the world’s worst hostility.

Jesus knew quite well that if he told the real truth about God, that God is love and has no darkness in him, that God abhors most of the main principles and values that the world accepts as conventional wisdom, that God is opposed to any system that produces haves and have-nots, that God opposes murder in all its forms, “legitimate” or not, that displays of righteousness for the sake of making one’s name is no righteousness at all, the world would demand and require and even force upon him silence, permanent silence, the silence of the tomb. He didn’t need any angel to tell him that.

But he prayed earnestly, as Hebrews teaches us, that the Father would save him from death, so that all the world could see that God would and can and will keep his promises to those who love him, and God did. And so the cross of Jesus becomes for us the gate and the shepherd and the way and the truth and the light. It is our sole promotional device.

The cross is the only way to resurrection. It’s the only way that you’re going to become a new being. It’s the only way that you’re going to be able to cross the boundary between heaven and earth, it’s the only way that heaven will come to earth in you. And for those who are called to this, it’s worth it.

It’s worth everything you own. It’s worth your family, your children, your husband, your wife. It’s the treasure hidden in the field that you go and sell everything you have to buy. It’s the one perfect pearl that’s worth your life savings.

All you have to give up is your name. Give up your name and take on the name of Jesus Christ. Give up your individuality and become one with the body, one with the whole church on earth, one with everyone else who calls on the name of the Lord. When you feel about the body of Christ the way you used to feel about your family, when you think about the kingdom of God the way you used to think about your greatest ambition in life, when you feel about every person in the world the way you feel about your most beloved child, then you can enter, then you can traipse right in, then you can put on the robe and dance barefoot on the streets of gold.

Then you don’t have to worry anymore about what you have to say or what you’re going to do or how long you’re going to live or what you’re going to do about the pain and grief of life, because none of those things will matter anymore. You will be an eternal being. You will enter into a life that began before the beginning and goes on long after the end.

So what will you say? What do you feel? Is your soul troubled? It should be. You’re thinking about leaping off the cliff and expecting to take flight. Is this what you want to be saved from? You want to be saved from having to leap off the cliff, to take up your cross?

Or do you want God to be glorified? Do you want Jesus Christ to be lifted up for the whole world to see? Do you believe that God can glorify himself in you?

What’s your name?