Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

12 Pentecost B 09
August 23, 2009

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
1 Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion.
6 Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.
22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23 He said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, 24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. 25 Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, 'There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.' 26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David. 27 "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28 Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
41 "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 --for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm--when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

Psalm 84
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! 2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. 3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. 4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah 5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. 8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah 9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed. 10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. 11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly. 12 O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

Ephesians 6:10-20
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

John 6:56-69
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

To Whom Can We Go?

To whom can we go?

The question in the first century, 2000 years ago, among Jesus’ disciples, is probably not a very different question than everyone is asking today.

Whom can we trust to distribute the resources that we share? Who owns them? Whom can we trust to resolve disputes between us? Whom can we trust to rule over us justly? Whom can we trust to identify our enemies and keep us from being harmed by them? Whom can we trust to ensure our welfare? Who owns us?

To whom shall we go?

The Jewish people of the day were being taught a different God than they saw in their own scriptures. This was because, just as Saul and David and Solomon and all the kings had before them, their leaders had betrayed God. The high priests and King Herod, along with the Sanhedrin, the circle of the richest people in Israel, were all trying to worship God and Caesar at the same time. This is very much like cheating on one’s spouse. It twists and distorts the whole relationship.

All four gospels tell the story of Jesus, a man of dazzling brilliance and great courage, who developed and executed a masterful plan of resistance, not against the emperor and all his minions, but against the spiritual forces at work behind them. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. The Spirit led him and the Spirit was his power and the Spirit did not let him down.

Jesus, in most of the gospels, steered well clear of the centers of Roman and Jewish power during most of his ministry. He made sure to wield his life-giving power among the multitudes of the working poor by healing the sick, feeding the hungry and raising the dead. And along with these miracles, Jesus proclaimed a gospel, a good story, good news. As Sig put it a few weeks ago, “God is in charge.” By implication, of course, Jesus was saying, “God is in charge, not the emperor.” He knew the ultimate consequence of making such statements. The spiritual forces of darkness would rush out into the light and crush him. But he, unlike Saul and David and Solomon and Herod and all the kings before him, trusted that God would raise him from the dead. His war was not against the emperor, nor was it against the compromised leaders of Israel. His war was with the darkness that had trapped them. In my view, Jesus was the greatest general in history, the most courageous soldier there ever was. He had the courage to go into battle without a sword or a shield, except for the whole armor of God, the belt of truth, the breastplate of justice, and the shoes of the beautiful feet that bring good news of peace.

The good news of God, the announcement Jesus gave his life to make, was very simple, but very hard to accept: “abundant life for everyone.” Forgiveness for everyone meant the end of violence, including in the name of self-defense. Truth for everyone was that the rich were free to share with the poor and the poor were free to ask. Justice for everyone was abundant life pouring forth from heaven, free for everyone, by the grace of God alone.

The question everyone who heard him had to ask themselves was, “to whom can we go?”

In chapter 19 of John’s gospel, Pilate asks the Jewish people if he should crucify their king. And they answer, “We have no king but the emperor.” The darkness had rushed out into the light, just as Jesus knew it would. His cross was the greatest accusation in history. It revealed sin for what it was and what it is. His cross said, “This is the injustice that hides in the dark.” It hides in my heart and yours. It hides in the hearts of the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, the religious and the unreligious. It is the betrayal of God, the opposition to the simple and amazing good news of God, “abundant life for everyone.”

The resurrection is the announcement of God that Jesus is in fact the only king we can trust, the only one to whom we can go with absolute faith, the only one who will rule with God’s own justice. His resurrection said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the savior of the world. He comes down from heaven not to condemn the world, but to save it.

Life, all life, belongs to God. The world and everything in it belongs to God. And his command is, “abundant life for everyone, right now.” To go to Jesus is to go to the only one who has the power and the wisdom to make that happen. Everyone who does has eternal life, right now, not because of anything within us, but because Christ has eternal life. It is his eternal life we receive, not our own.

It remains very dangerous to stand up and demand abundant life for everyone in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” Does it offend you that God pours abundance into the world and means for everyone to share it? Does it offend you that he throws a feast for sinners? Does it offend you that he offers the same wage to everyone no matter how hard they work? Does it offend you that he offers this abundant life to atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, gay, lesbian and straight, and to every nation on earth?

Today we still have competing views of God, just as the Jews who listened to Jesus did. Indeed we have competing views of Jesus, and this is perhaps the greatest tragedy.

Yes there is another Jesus we hear being proclaimed, one that teaches that God is angry with the world, so disgusted he plans to destroy it. This Jesus claims God is so bloody-minded and vengeful he can only forgive our miserable sinfulness by requiring his own Son to pay for it with a bloody and horrific death. The Resurrection of this Jesus is rescue from the destruction of the world, and this Jesus invites us all to go with him to heaven and desert the sinking ship. All that is left for us to do is to live our earthly lives by the law of God. If we do, our life in the hell of this world will be comforted with the foretaste of heaven, wealth and privilege and health. If we don’t we will get a foretaste of our eternal torment through poverty and disease and early death. Jesus is furthermore the commander of the engines of war, destroying the evil people who don’t believe in him, as a prelude to the general destruction of the world God so deeply hates.

To whom shall we go? Shall we go to the angry judge and pledge ourselves to the destruction of the world? Or shall we go to the courageous and brilliant prince of peace, the savior of the world? Shall we commit ourselves to systems that deny some for the sake of others, or do we commit ourselves to the strange and wonderful justice of God, abundant life for all?

Shall we go to the God who hates the world, or shall we go to the God who loves it?

To whom shall we go?

We have said that this communion meal is a meal of covenant, and we have compared it to a marriage. We have said, and we say again, that marriage is an exclusive relationship. So is the covenant with God. We can’t marry Jesus and have other lords on the side.

This bread is the bread of abundant life for all, offered to all, rich or poor, worthy and unworthy, sinner or saint. In it God says, “I will.” And when we eat it we say, “We will.”

And this cup, Jesus said, is the new covenant in my blood, offered to all, his eternal life, his eternal word of God’s truth and God’s justice. Jesus offers it, and says, “I will.” We drink it and we say “we will.”

There are not two Gods. There is only one. There are not two Jesuses. There is only one.

To whom shall we go?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

11 Pentecost B 09
August 16, 2009

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
10 Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. 11 The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.
3 Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. 4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you." 6 And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life."

Psalm 111
1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. 3 Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. 8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. 10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

Ephesians 5:15-20
15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

John 6:51-58
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 53 So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

Marrying God

There’s a story I’ve told before about the mom who spent most of her life fighting with her son over how messy his room was, how little he cared about his clothes or his appearance or his hygiene. By the time he was fourteen she’d just about given up. Then one day she walked by her room and noticed that the floor was clear and vacuumed, the closet was hung with neatly pressed and spotlessly clean clothes, the bed was made. Going a little farther down the hall she found him standing in the bathroom carefully combing his hair, his face scrubbed, his pants creased. To what did she owe this transformation?

A girl.

The Spirit of God is like that girl, full of power to transform.

I remember falling in love with my wife. It happened when I was visiting her while she was working a waitress at a restaurant. I was sitting at a table and I was watching her work. She always wore a man’s big shirt when she worked there, with the long sleeves rolled up on her forearm. I can see her just as vividly as if it happened yesterday. To me she seemed to glow with beauty and power. She was graceful and strong. I particularly remember how beautiful I thought her hands were, how the movements of her fingers were like the movements of a dancer. I just got plain stupid with love.

I wanted her with me for my whole life. I wanted to be one with her. I suddenly realized I was only half a person and she was the other half.

That’s how it’s got to be if you want the Spirit of God. You’ve got to fall in love with her.
Yes, I said “her.” Did you know that the bible closely associates Holy Wisdom, the wisdom of God, with the Holy Spirit? And did you know that the wisdom of God is usually portrayed in the bible as a woman? If you believe that the Holy Spirit is a person in the trinity, it would be entirely appropriate, entirely biblical, to speak of the Holy Spirit as a woman, to refer to her as a “she.”

Chapter 3 of Proverbs reads:

13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.

Oh, yes, she’s a luscious peach, is the Spirit of God.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This passage is often quoted. A lot of people have a problem with the word “fear.” I’m going to do another translation for you to help you. Let’s translate this sentence, “Falling in love with the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Now I want you to pay attention here, because there’s one big difference between falling in love with God and falling in love with your life partner. Every passage we’ve been studying since Pentecost eleven weeks ago has been about lords, human lords. Saul, David, Herod, Solomon, and of course Jesus. A lord is an authority, a ruler, a boss. A lord is someone you obey above all other authorities. So when you fall in love with God, you are falling in love with a Lord, forsaking all other lords. You are falling in love with an authority, forsaking all other authorities. That’s different from your relationship with your human lover, at least if we’re to understand Genesis. God created male and female to be partners, and in Paradise, the relationship was between equals. Not so with those who fall in love with God.

Apart from that, the bible uses the sexual relationship as a metaphor for the relationship with God very, very frequently. In fact that very relationship seems to be essential in some way to God’s identity. In Genesis God created humankind in his own image, “male and female he created them.” God’s word often compares the relationship between God and God’s people as a marriage, the failure of that relationship as a divorce, and unfaithfulness to the relationship as adultery. Jesus is called the bridegroom, and many of his parables and at least one of his most famous miracles have to do with weddings. It may be that the ode to a wise wife in Proverbs was included in the bible to suggest to us that the Father and the Spirit might be thought of as husband and wife. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we called the Holy Trinity “The Father, the Mother and the Son.”

If the Holy Spirit is also Holy Wisdom, well, Solomon fell in love with her. Solomon was about to take over the reins of power in Israel, as God’s anointed king. God, like a genie, offered to him whatever he asked. He could have asked for power and riches, but he didn’t. “I don’t care what else you give me, Lord, just give me wisdom.” Wasn’t that how you felt about your wife when you fell in love? “I don’t care what else you ever give me, Lord, but just give me her.”

The psalmist tells us what Holy Wisdom looks like. It’s remembrance of the mighty deeds of God. Falling in love with the Holy Spirit is remembering the history of God. When I look at my wife today, I remember on some level everything about the history of our relationship. I remember the dating and the conversations and the happy times and the difficult times. I don’t even have to work very hard to remember all those things, because I’m in love, you see. I remember the times when we were unsure about our partnership, and other possible partners were still available. I remember how much it hurt to think she’d forsake me and choose someone else. I remember the joy I felt when it became clear that I was the one she’d picked.

To fall in love with the Holy Spirit is to remember the history of God’s relationship to his people, to own it and make it our own. Most of all it is to remember Jesus, everything he taught and did, to get to know him as intimately as we got to know the loves of our lives. I’m here to tell you, to know him is to fall in love with him. To know him is to fall in love with the Holy Spirit.

Why fall in love with the Holy Spirit as the sole authority in your life? Well that’s what we’re here for, people. We’re here to tell the world why it should fall in love with the Holy Spirit. We’re here to tell the world why the Holy Spirit alone is worthy of ruling it. It’s very simple. Human authorities rule with the power of death, but the Holy Spirit alone rules with the power of life. Human authorities rule with the power of fear, but the Holy Spirit alone rules with the power of hope. Human authorities rule with the power of hate, but the Holy Spirit alone rules with the power of love. Human authorities rule with the power to punish, but the Holy Spirit alone rules with the power to forgive. The wreckage of paradise is our fault for trusting in human authority. The restoration of paradise is the Holy Spirit’s offer for trusting in hers.

Falling in love with the Holy Spirit is the beginning of wisdom. It’s only the beginning. There are Christian traditions that never get on to the courtship or the marriage. In fact I think that’s the problem with the church in the West these days. We like the falling in love part but we don’t like the getting married part. We like to keep our options open.

David married the Holy Spirit, but he cheated on her. Solomon married the Holy Spirit, but he cheated on her, too. In fact, the big problem that later developed with Solomon is that he married too many wives. Each wife came from some other nation that worshipped some home-made god that really amounted to human authority, some self-serving, self-invented deity that was really just an expression of human willfulness. It’s one of the most basic expressions of human sin, making up a god that justifies our self-will. He made deals with these false gods, these human authorities, through these marriages, most of which were diplomatic moves, and he got rich doing it, and in fact, Israel got rich doing it. But his unfaithfulness was the seed of disaster, and Israel was all downhill from there.

How many people here think that marriage is an exclusive relationship? Anyone think it’s okay to fool around? Falling in love is such a wonderful experience, isn’t it? Sometimes I see a beautiful young thing, and I think about falling in love with her, how pleasurable that would be. A friend of mine said that once you reach fifty, everyone under thirty is beautiful.

That’s the way it can be with marrying the Holy Spirit. Other beautiful authorities come around, with great assets, beautiful promise, look like lots of fun, wealth at someone else’s expense, death-dealing power to terrify the enemy, the purity of cold hatred, the warm fuzzy feeling of moral superiority, the thrill of fear. Beautiful young things, these authorities. Shapely, inviting. “Well I’m married to the Holy Spirit, but what the Holy Spirit doesn’t know won’t hurt her” or “what’s wrong with loving more than one person?”

I refuse to pursue those pretty young things because I am one flesh with my wife. To break my faithfulness to her is to tear my own body apart. Saul and David and Solomon and Herod pursued the pretty young things and they tore the body of Israel apart.

Jesus is different from Saul and David and Solomon and Herod in that he married the Holy Spirit and he remained faithful unto death. In Jesus, Spirit and flesh became one, and a new creation was born. Paradise broke through from heaven into the world in Jesus. The gates of hell could not prevail against it.

The Lord’s supper is the wedding feast of your flesh with the Holy Spirit. When you come to the table you are coming to a marriage with God.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

10 Pentecost B 09
August 9, 2009

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
5 The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom." And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. 6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. 9 Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
15 And ten young men, Joab's armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
31 Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, "Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you." 32 The king said to the Cushite, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" The Cushite answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man."
33 « The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

Psalm 130
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! 3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35, 41-51
35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42 They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?" 43 Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Ultimate Off-Road Adventure

In my office next to my desk is a framed envelope that came to me in the mail a few years ago. Someone mailed it from Deltaville, and it went all the way to Richmond, was processed there, and it came back to Deltaville. You can see the stamps of the post offices, so you know where it’s been. It’s addressed to the Reverend Mike Cook, Somewhere Out in Left Field, Deltaville, Virginia, 23043.

A few weeks ago I did a sermon contrasting David, who accepted the power God gave him to be the king of Israel and then used it to rob and murder the poor, to Jesus, who accepted the power of God to be king of Israel and used it to feed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. On the way to talking about David and Jesus, I said a few things about the science of economics.

A few weeks further back I did a sermon about God’s covenant with David and along the way I talked about marriage as an example of a covenant.

These sermons have led to some wonderful conversations, but it’s kind of interesting to me that some of the people I talked with remembered everything about what I said about economics and nothing about what I said about Jesus. They remembered everything I said about marriage and nothing about the covenant with David.

One of the most interesting conversations I had led to one of our members laughing and saying, “You know, Mike, you come right up to the edge, and then you stop. You’re right in the middle of the road.”

I’ve heard it before, people urging me on to take a stand, usually with them, wherever they are in the road. They might be to the left, they might be to the right, they might be in the middle, but they are all saying, “Go ahead, Mike, come over with us.”

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and today’s scripture, John’s Jesus saying “I am the bread of life,” and just this morning it came to me. I’m not in the middle of the road. I’m not on the road at all.

I guess I need to temper that statement. I am on the road, but the road is not where I’m coming from.

Starting last week, and for the next several weeks, we’re going to be listening to Jesus telling us that he is the bread of life, and explaining to us what that means. There’s been some good conversation around Philippi about the Lord’s Supper, this meal we share every week, and I’m going to take the opportunity to dig into it a bit.

First off, I want to tell you what’s unique about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Unlike almost every other denomination, we have an open table. We believe that Jesus invites everyone to share in this meal, that it is his table, and no human authority has the right to block anyone from it. Of course, the flip side of this is that excommunication, the act of blocking someone from the Lord’s Supper, is entirely self-imposed. So that’s important. You’re all welcome. Jesus himself invites you.

But we’re listening to the gospel of John and John’s version of Jesus.

Jesus in the gospel of John is a very simple figure. The language of the gospel is very simple. Simple clear words, like light and darkness, good and evil, the world and heaven, life and death. It’s what I like to call the black-and-white gospel. Almost every passage in it confronts us with a choice. It has a way of almost driving you into a corner, the way some hard-core evangelists are really pushy.

John is very forceful, very direct, very confrontative. But if you think that it has to do with church membership or assenting to some list of doctrinal statements about God, you haven’t really read it.

John’s gospel has a very simple shape. The word of God comes down from heaven, takes on human form, teaches and preaches and heals and does various miracles, is raised up on the cross, then raised from the dead, meets with his disciples, gives them the Holy Spirit, and then is raised further into heaven again, from which he will continue to send his Spirit down to earth again.

It’s a very simple pattern. Down, then up, then down again, then up again, then down again. From heaven to earth, back into heaven, back down to earth, and so on.

To eat the bread of life is to let Jesus take you on a trip to heaven and then to return you to earth. It is to be lifted off the road, from wherever you are on the road, taken into the kingdom of God, shown the history of creation and God’s desire to redeem it, shown how it’s all going to turn out, and then being dropped back down to the same place you were on the road. To eat this bread is to take the ultimate off-road adventure.

Now here is where John gets a bit annoying. Some of us are pretty happy on the road. The rich man came to Jesus and he said, “I’d like to take your off-road adventure Jesus!” And Jesus thought that was great. He loves it when people say that. The rich man said “I’ve kept the commandments since my youth.” Jesus loved that too. It’s good to keep the commandments. Jesus loves the commandments. And Jesus said, “OK, I’ll be glad to take you on my off-road adventure.” And the rich man said, “Well, hold on a minute, let me get my stuff.” And Jesus said, “You can’t take your stuff.” The rich man liked the road fine. He liked it so much he really didn’t want to leave it. He was a rich guy on the road.

Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, “I’d like to take your off-road adventure.” And Jesus thought that was great. He said “I’d be glad to.” And Nicodemus said, “Let me go get my book. I wrote this great book about religion and everyone’s reading it.” And Jesus said, “No, where we’re going is nothing like your book.” Nicodemus liked the road pretty well, because it was working for him. He was a famous religious guy on the road.

David had a few opportunities to visit heaven and come back down again, and he’d loved it. But then he’d used his power as king, power given to him by God, to rob a poor man of his wife and his life. And all of a sudden, he was cut off. No more off-road adventures for David. David’s road had become a dark and miserable place. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Let me take the trip again, I beg you. Don’t cut me off.”

It’s a lot easier to accept the invitation to the off-road adventure if the road isn’t working for you, if it’s become uncomfortable. The church in the Southern Hemisphere is booming, growing at an incredible rate. There’s one thing all these new-born Christians have in common. They’re all poor. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” I don’t like this road. I’m ready to go.

Now if you really take the trip, and I know some of you have, if you really get the view of what God has been doing all through the history of humankind, what he is doing now, and what he is going to ultimately do, if you get to see the saints who have died, the people you loved and lost, their lives kept safe in the mighty hand of the Lord, if you get to see the shining streets and the perfect love and the abundant tables and the joyful adulation, if you get to see the powers of the world arrayed around the throne of God, some of them terrible and some of them beautiful, and most of all if you get to see the wonderful day when heaven will finally come to earth and make its home here, well, you are getting a taste, and I do mean a taste, of the eternal life of God. And here’s the point: you are seeing something that isn’t on the road. It’s nothing like what’s on the road. It’s so much better than anything on the road. It’s not on the left of the road and it’s not on the right of the road and it’s not in the middle of the road. It’s nothing you know about, nothing you’ve experienced, nothing you know. It’s not on the road at all.

It’s holy. That’s what holy means. It means it’s not a part of your experience, at least not until you’ve been there. Holy means totally other, holy means totally new.

And if you eat it, if you eat Jesus, if you eat the bread of life, you are raised up, you fly up, up, up through the clouds, through the stars, out of time, out of space, into the glory of the Lord. But after you have eaten it, you are dropped back down, out of the heavenly places, down down down through the clouds and the reaches of space and time and you are plopped back down, bam, back on the road.

And you look around. And the people around you, many of them, have never made the trip. And now you have a difficulty. You have seen the glory of the Lord and now you have to describe it to people who haven’t. The bible is full of these stutterers and stammerers, trying desperately to describe something that isn’t anywhere on the road everyone is walking on, stumblers and bumblers trying to show something of the beauty of heaven as they walk among people confidently striding down the road of the world. Paul in Ephesians: “Well, it’s—how do I say this?—everybody just stop fighting and forgive each other and build each other up and don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t make room for the devil—I don’t know what to say!”

Other people are silent, they just give up. Instead of trying to describe it, they dance it with their lives. Either way, if you don’t want to take the trip, if you don’t want to take the ultimate off-road adventure, if you really don’t want to eat the bread of life, you might admire the great preachers, you might love the quiet saints, but you will have no idea where they are coming from.

But those of us who have made the trip, we know. We know just where they’re coming from. And we get together on Sunday morning and we try to tell the good news about what God is doing in Jesus Christ, and we come to the table of the Lord to take the trip again, just so we don’t forget it, just so we can keep our perspective. It’s addictive, you know, in a good way. We wouldn’t know how to live without it.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

08 Pentecost B 09
July 26, 2009
2 Samuel 11:1-15
1 In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3 David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, "This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." 4 So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5 The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, "I am pregnant."

6 So David sent word to Joab, "Send me Uriah the Hittite." And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8 Then David said to Uriah, "Go down to your house, and wash your feet." Uriah went out of the king's house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9 But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10 When they told David, "Uriah did not go down to his house," David said to Uriah, "You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?" 11 Uriah said to David, "The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing." 12 Then David said to Uriah, "Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back." So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13 David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 In the letter he wrote, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die."

Psalm 14
1 Fools say in their hearts, "There is no God."
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the LORD?
5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is their refuge.
7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Ephesians 3:14-21
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

John 6:1-21
1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 9 "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" 10 Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Why Jesus Is My Lord

We don’t usually use the word “lord” to describe people who have power over us. And the people we have power over don’t call us “lord.” It’s an old word and we associate it with kings and princes and forms of power we think we’ve gotten past.

As much as a man might like it, his wife doesn’t welcome him home with “Dinner’s on the table, Lord.” When your little child greets you, he doesn’t say, “How are you today, Lord?” When you’re employees come into your office in the morning, they don’t say “Good morning, Lord.” When the company you have most of your stocks in writes you a letter they don’t address it “Dear Lord.” But your wife knows you have a certain amount of power over her because she depends on your love and kindness. Your child knows you have power over him, that you can feed him or not feed him, beat him or hug him, and he really can’t do anything about it. Your employee knows you have power over how much money she makes, whether or not she keeps her job. You get the point. There are lords in our lives.

Lords have capital. There are many kinds of capital. Of course there’s money. That’s pretty serious capital, serious brute force. But there’s also reputation, popularity, talent, expertise. Capital is anything you have in more quantity than you need, anything you can hold out as a carrot or a club. Capital is bestowed on individuals, usually by other people. The power of a lord is based on how many people give him capital, and how much they give him. Taxes, payment, investments, obedience, even love. And here’s the thing: capital is bestowed on the basis of trust, trust that the capital will be used to the benefit of the people bestowing it.

There are also invisible forces that are lords in our lives. Right now there’s a lot of talk about the economy. The economy is a big system, far bigger than any of us, and it has real power in our lives. I am coming increasingly to the conclusion that what really runs the world is the marketplace.

I did some study of economics while I was on my six-week leave and I learned a lot. I never even knew what the definition of the science of economics was. Do you? Well, economics is the science of distributing resources in a situation of scarcity. It’s an interesting definition. I’ll repeat it: economics is the science of distributing resources in a situation of scarcity.

Adam Smith was an economist who wrote that we could trust free market capitalism. He wrote that a market, unconstrained by government intervention, will naturally drive down prices and increase the quality of life for everyone. Trust the self-interest motive, and everyone will prosper. He called it “the invisible hand.” I think the invisible hand is one of the best illustrations we have of the bible’s idea of “powers and principalities,” or “spirits of the air.” It’s a force that is not in any one person’s hands. It’s much greater than that. It is in fact a spiritual force. We have been told we can trust it. Just leave it alone. Don’t get in its way.

Of course, we keep running into what everyone calls “market corrections.” More importantly, we keep running into dishonesty. I read an interesting book on economics from a Christian point of view that suggested that a market cannot be free if people are misled. If people don’t know the truth about the products and services and deals they are invited to get into, they are not making free decisions. If they are lied to, manipulated, or if some of the facts are withheld or hidden, then the whole thing falls apart. Invisible hand indeed.

David had serious capital. God fell in love with David and made a promise he maybe shouldn’t have made. “I will make you and your descendants lords over Israel forever, and I will be with you all the way.”

And nearly the first thing he did with this amazing capital was to steal a poor man’s wife, then murder him.

A friend of mine who suffers with addiction finally found faith and recovery. Part of his ongoing ministry is to share with others his story. He says that back in the day when he and his wife were strung out, when all the money was going for drugs and alcohol, there was often nothing to pay the rent or to put food in the cupboards. He’d have awful fights with his wife over money. Well, one night they were going at it, and their little five year-old gingerly came into the living room. They didn’t even notice her, they were so busy trying to find ways to hurt each other more. When her mother noticed her she suddenly fell silent and her eyes filled with tears. Her father saw the tears in his wife’s eyes and turned to his daughter. The little girl was holding her piggy bank. “Will this help?” she said.

The horror of this story of David is the horror of that poor child offering her piggy bank to addict parents who are sorely unworthy of her trust. It’s not so much that David was faulted or that he was merely human. It was that he used the capital God had given him to rob and murder the poor. It’s the temptation of every lord who has been given a lot of capital, who have power over others.

We don’t call the people who drive the economy, the two percent of our population that controls eighty percent of the capital, “Lords.” I have however heard them called “Masters of the Universe.” The system we have, the “invisible hand,” is in truth not a bad system. But I wonder this morning whether the “Masters of the Universe” are really worthy of the immense trust we place in them, the tremendous capital we put into their hands. Some say we should transfer some of that capital to our government, but there are plenty of examples of bad faith in that history as well. I wonder this morning, who is attached to that invisible hand in which we have placed so much trust? The economists argue, and we take sides. The economists get very important at times like this.

Jesus’ disciples were good economists. Jesus told them to feed the people, and Philip said, “Jesus, we’ve done the math. There are 5,000 people here, not including women and children, so the total is probably more like 15,000 people.” We’ve got to let that number sink in. Think Woodstock, think outdoor concert, think stadium at a championship game. Got it? Jesus says, “Feed these people.”

Philip is a good economist. “Six months wages might get enough food for everyone to get a bite or two.” Philip was probably what we’d call working class wage-earner. Let’s think about how much he’s talking about given the news we got this week. Six months wages for a worker making $7.50 an hour? $7,800.00. Seven thousand, eight hundred dollars for fifteen thousand people. That works out to about fifty cents a person. We’re talking a bag of Skittles. I’m not even sure that would work. “Even if we had seven thousand eight hundred dollars, Jesus, which we don’t, it’s not going to work.” Philip is a good economist.

The first time I heard this passage preached was around 1987 in New York City by a pastor named Martin Hauser, and he brought up the boy, this boy. Apparently, this boy comes up to Andrew, probably too shy to approach the master himself. You can almost hear him asking, “This is all we have. Will it help?”

The gospel doesn’t tell us what Andrew was feeling when the boy handed him the basket with the five loaves and the two fish. But I wonder if his eyes were not filling with tears. I can only think that’s the reason he even mentioned it to Jesus. I’m glad old Pastor Hauser made sure to lift up this nameless boy, though. It’s obvious the boy trusted Jesus, believed in him. He was willing to trust Jesus with everything. He was willing to give him all his resources, invest in him. That’s what we do with a Lord.

But Andrew remained an economist. “The math doesn’t work. What will so little do for so many? How do you distribute these resources in a situation of such scarcity?” Jesus said, “Give it here.”

And fifteen thousand people sat down to dinner.

There’s another invisible hand at work here, friends, and that’s why I’m happy to call Jesus “Lord.” People focus on the magic and supernatural when they hear the story of Jesus walking on the water. But that’s because so few Christians pay much attention to the Old Testament. Genesis chapter one tells us about God’s creation of the world. It says that when there was nothing but chaos and nothingness, symbolized by a great depthless sea, God’s Spirit moved over the waters.

The struggle of the Christian to be filled with the Holy Spirit is very, very serious. Because once someone is genuinely filled with God’s Spirit, their power becomes very great. People will respond to that power, depend on it, expect it. It doesn’t matter if that Christian becomes a pastor or a bank executive or a real estate agent or a fisherman. Blessing and blossoming will happen all around them. Everyone they touch will be uplifted, the poor will be fed wherever they turn, the sick will be healed around them, and the chaos of life will recede wherever they go.
The struggle is serious because the temptation is great to allow one’s own selfish motives, even for those one loves, to drive the Holy Spirit out of one’s heart. The power of the Spirit-filled Christian depends entirely on the complete submission of the Christian to God’s will. It requires a level of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness that is nearly beyond human capacity. The Spirit is that pearl that the rich man sold everything he had to buy. The Spirit is the treasure of the kingdom of God. To be filled with the Spirit is to become rich in the deepest sense of the world, to become fed with a food that never ceases to sustain, to be made wise beyond any human understanding.

The riches of heaven pour into the world through those who call Jesus Lord, who give their money and their time and their talent to him. So invest in what you want, pay for what you want, gamble on what you want. Serve the lords that you think you can trust.

As for me, I’m putting everything on the man who walked on the water.