Friday, December 24, 2010

God Is With Us (sermon for Christmas Eve based on Matthew's Gospel)

A whisper: "God is with us."

When I imagine this story I hear the angel whispering. It's the middle of the night, and Joseph is rolling around in bed in a troubled sleep, when somewhere behind him in the dream, something great and terrible whispers: "God is with us."

Before he takes us to Bethlehem, Matthew takes us to a cemetery. It's the family plot and the tombstones go back to the beginning of the human race. There are all the ancestors. Adam, Abraham, the first dreamer Joseph who went to Egypt as a slave, King David and any number of other kings, and then finally down to, well, Joseph.

Except there's a curve ball, a kind of a mess. Today, we wouldn't give Jesus all these ancestors. Jesus couldn't claim to be a descendent from any of them. Because, from our point of view, Joseph wasn't really Jesus' father.

Yes, then as now, this situation was a mess. It was even more of a mess back then. In those days, getting betrothed really was just the first stage of marriage. It was a real contract, legally binding. If the bride got pregnant during the betrothal period, that was adultery. And according to Leviticus the punishment for adultery was death.

Mary was pregnant. And it wasn't because she'd had relations with Joseph. There was only one explanation as far as Joseph could tell. It was a mess. And it had to be cleaned up somehow.

You know, I truly rejoice with those I know who grew up in wholesome, happy families, where everyone kept their promises, where moms were self-sacrificing saints and dads were all-knowing heroes of strength and character. There really are families like that, you know. Families that are more or less sane, that gather for Christmas in peace and happiness, that get through the whole holiday without anyone getting drunk or making a scene or announcing that they were leaving and would never see any of the family again.

But my family wasn't like that, and there are many, many people I know who didn't have families like that, and don't have families like that today. Most of those people, sad to say, aren't in church. They assume church is for those people who have it all together, whose families are strong and sane and stable. And Christmas, strangely enough, is that time of year when it really comes home just what kind of family you really have, for better or for worse. For a lot of us, Christmas as it's celebrated reminds us how messed up our families were or are.

Why do we celebrate Christmas in this way? Matthew tells us that Jesus' life begins with a messy family problem. And even before he does that, Matthew makes sure to point out the gravestones of only three women in Jesus' family cemetery: Tamar, Ruth and the wife of Uriah, or Bathsheba, all three of whom represent messy situations. Tamar was Judah's daughter in law, but also bore him a son. Ruth was a non-Jewish foreigner who seduced Boaz. Bathsheba was of course the wife David stole from Uriah, his neighbor. Messy stuff.

Of course there's nothing wrong with having a sane and healthy and stable family. Nothing wrong with all the children being born in wedlock and mom and dad staying together for sixty years and everyone being responsible and slim and prosperous and popular. There's every reason to be grateful for such good people and to celebrate them.

But for the rest of us, who went through divorces and failures and poverty, who experienced bouncing Christmas checks and broken Christmas promises, it is a wonder and a grace and a joy to welcome the savior into our messy lives in the way that old Joseph welcomed him.

First of all, it's important to note that Joseph, even without the angel's intervention, decides to protect Mary from the harsh law of Israel. Separate from her quietly, let her go off somewhere where no one knows her to have the baby, and her family would then put the kid up in someone's house. In the male-dominated world of Joseph's day, this constituted amazing grace. Joseph, we learn right away, is a good, good man.

But Joseph is also like that old Joseph in the family cemetery, the one who had all the dreams from heaven, for in the darkness of the night the angel visits him and tells him a wonder. The child in Mary's womb is from the Holy Spirit, and he is to be called by two names.

Names were very important to Jews in ancient times. Every name was a sentence that said something about the person. Jesus means "God saves." And Emmanuel, as Matthew tells us, means "God is with us."

"Joseph," the angel whispers, "God is with us." And to all of us who notice at this time of year how imperfect are our lives, how messy are our families, how short we fall of wholesomeness, the angel whispers in this dark night, "God is with us."

Where did we get the idea that Christmas is up to us? Where did we get the idea that holiness, goodness, righteousness or justice is up to us? Where did we get the idea that what we do or fail to do has anything to do with how God feels about us? It's all part of our perverse and sinful pride, isn't it? The angel slips past our defenses, comes to us in the dark, in the dream, and reminds us, "God is with us."

My family and many others are full of messes, but strangely and marvelously and shockingly, they are also full of grace. There are many broken hearts in my history, many messes that have never really been cleaned up, but strangely and marvelously and shockingly, there is also forgiveness and mercy. And these things, these marvelous and lovely things, did not come from earthly sources, anymore than did that baby in Mary's womb.

(Whispered) God is with us.

Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Least in the Kingdom (sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent Year A 2010)

What do you expect of Jesus?

There are some very successful preachers out there, much more polished and sharp than me, that promote a view of Jesus as a kind of magical helper. And so someone gets sick in the family and the family gets together and prays and they collect all those tracts and pamphlets out there that say if you visualize healing and your faith is strong then Jesus will heal your family member. But the person isn't healed. The family is offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

Others might think of Jesus as the power that could stop natural disasters or who could miraculously give food to the hungry or who could prevent terrible dictators from rising to power. But we see in the news all the time about disasters that happen and thousands die or lose their homes. We hear about the millions who go to bed hungry every day. We know there are vicious and sadistic despots in power all over the world. Those who expect an all-powerful ruler over history are offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

Others think of Jesus as the king of niceness, the Lord of good manners, a deity for the cultivated. And when they come across a church where people are shouting or dancing or where everyone isn't wearing nice clothes, they are deeply offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

There are still others who think that Jesus is the Lord of some other world, and not of this one, and who expect see him only after death. So when they hear about people who follow him in their business practices or in their political activities, they are shocked. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

There are a few who think of Jesus as a kind of guru of happiness. They think of Jesus as a way to deny the pain and suffering of life and just float along on a pink cloud of peace and joy. And then, inevitably, some trial comes along, something that just can't possibly be denied, and they are shocked and offended. What kind of Christ is this?

"Are you the one, or are we to expect another?"

In Jesus' time, people had just as many expectations of the Messiah. Some thought he should have taken a vow of poverty, lived in a hovel in the desert and talked about letting go of material things. Others thought he should have been a fiery rebel organizing a bloody revolution to cast the Romans out of Israel once and for all. Others thought he should have been a noble political genius who might even have taken over the Roman Empire. Others thought he should have been a kind of super-Moses, waving a staff that brought floods and famines and plagues on all those who had ever offended or oppressed Israel.

Jesus, in his own teaching, seems most indebted to the prophet Isaiah's vision, and we hear today some of Isaiah's expectations. Isaiah painted a picture of a road leading home, a clear and straight path through hazardous and desolate wilderness, a wilderness now miraculously blooming into a verdant garden and protected from all predators. Isaiah was almost certainly talking about the return of the exiles from Babylon to Israel. This miraculous return home was metaphorically compared to the blind gaining sight, the deaf gaining their hearing and the dead being raised back into life.

Five hundred years later, Jesus takes up Isaiah's words and applies them to himself, and to John. Now Israel was not in exile, but was again at home in the land. Now Israel was occupied by the Romans. Now Israel was led by powerful Jews who collaborated with the oppressor. In Jesus' take on Isaiah, John the Baptist was the one who prepared the way in the wilderness for the people of God to go home.

Home, however, was a different place now. Home now was the realm of God, and the realm of God was no longer a geographical location, a particular hill, a certain country. The realm of God was a way of seeing, a way of hearing, a way of walking, a way of living.

The realm of God was no longer dependent on the actual conditions or locations in which people were living, but rather on the living they did in the places and conditions in which they found themselves.

It was no longer about whether John the Baptist got out of prison. It was now about how John understood his prison, and what his imprisonment would accomplish. It was no longer about whether Jesus would be defeated by the powerful Jews and their Roman friends, but how Jesus would understand what that defeat might accomplish. It was no longer about what would actually happen. It was now about how--first Jesus, and then we--would see, hear, walk and live through it. This is the realm of God.

So what kind of Christ is this? This Christ would give sight to the blind, so that they could see the truth. This Christ would unstop the ears of the deaf, so that they could hear God's word. This Christ would give mobility to the paralyzed, so that they could go where God was leading them. This Christ would give eternal life to the dead, so that they could take part in what God had been doing before they were born and what God would continue to do long after they died.

Christ didn't come to transform conditions; Christ came to transform people.

Jesus points out to the crowds that in John the Baptist they might have expected the kind of prophet that moved in the high circles, who had influence with the big cheeses. Even old Isaiah had been a priest in the temple and would have had the ear of the king. The Jewish king of Jesus' day, Herod, put out a coin with a reed blown by the wind on one side and Herod's face on the other. But John the Baptist was not a temple priest and clearly didn't impress Herod, who had arrested and imprisoned him, and would eventually execute him. Nevertheless, Jesus says, John is greater than any human being born of woman up until that time.

But Jesus doesn't stop there. He goes on to say that "the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."

The Christmas miracle is the miracle of the Spirit of God taking residence in a living human being in such a way that a human being becomes the living embodiment of God in the real world. We celebrate Christmas not because 2,000 years ago something happened that would never happen again. In Jesus, God came to live among people. In us, God continues to do so.

We are invited through this Christ to become Christmas miracles. We are invited into the realm of God, which is not a place or a set of conditions. It is what we ourselves become when we open ourselves to God's Spirit, when we remove all the obstacles to God's coming into our bodies, when we gladly and joyfully invite God to use us, when we let go of all our desires and dreams so that the greater desire and dream of God might come true in us. When we are able to do this, everything becomes possible.

So when someone is sick, they are blessed if one of us is around, who can without fear or anger attend to them. And when a natural disaster strikes, the victims are blessed if we are around to respond with care and support. And when some awful despot rises, the oppressed are blessed if some of us are there to speak the truth to power, no matter what it costs us. And if someone, anyone, is caught in the dark valley of despair, they are blessed if we, the least in the kingdom of heaven, are there to give them hope.

And blessed are they who take no offense at us.

Amen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Good Fruit (sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent Year A 2010)

I did a little reading about the miners that got trapped in Chile. I don't know all the details, but I'm sure someone is going to write the book, because it's really an amazing story.

It appears that they were without light or any sign that anyone knew they were there for some seventeen days. During that time, there was a very good chance that they would have despaired or turned against one another. It's what groups of people do oftentimes in crisis. Panicky people often struggle with one another for power, and while they're doing that, nothing productive is really getting done. It's the way of the world, I guess.

But not for the miners. They apparently made a decision that they would neither succumb to despair nor turn on one another. Instead they made--and lived out--a covenant.

Now, for those of you who haven't been with us for long, I'll say a few words about covenant. The Hebrew word we translate covenant most simply means contract. But the word eventually came to have a deeper connotation. A covenant is a free acceptance of a binding agreement between parties who love one another. A covenant most of us are aware of is a marriage. Certainly we would say that the binding promises people make to each other in marriage is more than a contract.

But the world covenant also bears the dimension of a contract that equalizes an unequal relationship, as with the covenant between God and Israel, and the covenantal social contract God required of Israel, in which the strong are obliged to care for the weak, the rich for the poor, the healthy for the sick, the righteous for the sinful, and so on. This is the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah paints a picture of in our first lesson: a society in which the predator peacefully coexists with its prey.

The miners established a covenant of hope, a promise they made to each other to believe that God had not abandoned them and that they would not give into despair. They got to know one another and probed one another for gifts and graces, just as they took stock of what meager supplies they had. They identified leadership, they appointed a chaplain to keep them in fellowship with God, they discovered who knew something about first aid and made that person the medic, someone who was a creative cook and put him in charge of the rations.

They made a covenant with each other to focus not on what they didn't have, but on what they did. They made a covenant to focus not on what danger they were in, but on what hope they had. They made a covenant to set aside their individual opinions and preferences to become one body, each one giving everything to the common good of all.

They became a church.

When they were finally rescued, the medical personnel on site were amazed at how little they had to do. A month later one of the miners ran a marathon.

What is the the good fruit that is worthy of repentance? The biblical word we translate repentance simply means a change of mind. But in the context of Jewish and Christian spiritual life, repentance has to do with covenant. It is a decision to enter covenant, to freely bind oneself to God and to God's people for the sake of the world God loves.

The Ten Commandments together comprise a covenant. They are not simply a law code. They are the way of life for a people in covenant with God. God says, I shall be your God and you shall be my people. By "you," God means Israel and the church. You shall not have any other gods, you shall remember and keep sabbath, you shall not misuse God's name, you shall honor your parents, you shall not murder, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness, and you shall not covet your neighbor's possessions or relationships. If you are a Christian, you have accepted these commandments as your way of life.

But as subjects of Christ and children of God, you have also accepted the New Covenant, which Jesus mentioned on the night in which he was betrayed. Jesus described the blood he was to spill the next day as the new blood of the covenant. He was referring to the practice of sacrifice as a way of sealing a covenant between God and God's people. Jesus' blood sealed a new covenant, a way of life now defined by Jesus. This is the reign of God Jesus spent his entire ministry teaching about, and that John was announcing before him. When we repent, we are repenting of our way of life, we are letting go of our learned ways of thinking and seeing and doing, in order to bear the good fruit of covenant faithfulness, of working for the purposes Christ has defined

The Pharisees come to John the Baptist to be baptized. John has some choice words for them.

John proclaims to them that repentance is a real change of heart and mind. He suggests to them that their ethnicity is not an entitlement but a responsibility. To be Jewish no longer means to be privileged. In the coming kingdom, it means to be responsible. It means to be bound to God and to God's people. It means to be committed to the peaceable kingdom of which Isaiah dreamed, where predators give up their predatory ways and become friends to the prey, and where the prey risk relationship with the predator, trusting that on God's holy mountain, none will hurt or destroy.

There are so many things we say we can't do. So many situations and challenges we evaluate as hopeless, both in our personal and in our world wide ministry. And yet it never ceases to amaze me how easily we find solutions and how quickly we can organize and how powerfully we can act, both as individuals and a congregation, when we have simply agreed to do so. And the reign of God, the covenantal life Jesus wants to bring to all of us, is pretty simple. It's the faith that God is still with us and that God can do what we can't. God who makes the sun burn, God who swings the planets in their orbits, God who whispered over the seas and life came into being, God can do what we cannot, God can make of us what we are not, God can accomplish what the most powerful and wise and rich cannot, God can do in us and through us things we could never do without God.

I was a part of a church-based organization in Boston over the years I was serving churches there. One year, six of our churches located in the poorest neighborhood in the city got their youth together, who then covenanted to work for the common good. The youth decided that they wanted to have a safe and wholesome place to go to have fun. They found out about an old skating rink that had been closed for some years. They got to work in the community raising money to get the rink going again. When they had over half of the money they needed, they arranged a public meeting with the city council members responsible for their neighborhood to ask the city to fund the rest of the project. They planned the meeting and set the agenda and ran the meeting entirely on their own. Not one adult did a thing except advise them in the process.

The meeting went smoothly, and the council was prepared to say yes. It was after all a political coup for them. After this part of the meeting, one of the council members got up and approached a microphone and started to say something.

The chairwoman, a seventeen year old girl, had been trained to stick to the agenda agreed upon. She told the council member that he'd already had his chance to speak and to please sit down. And he sat down.

Many of us in the aftermath of the event talked about that moment, when someone who had formerly been powerless and unknown told a powerful and influential politician what to do, and he did it. That young lady would never have risen to such heights without the covenant of the organization behind her. Good fruit indeed.

As we await the coming of Jesus, we are invited to open ourselves to God's Spirit. Essential to that opening is a decision to bind ourselves to God and to God's people, which for us is the church. This decision means nothing if we don't really intend to carry it out. If what we really mean when we repent is that we're a little bit sorry about being bad actors sometimes and would like a free pass so we can keep on doing what we've always done, then old John the Baptist is telling us not to bother repenting at all. He's suggesting we step away from the water if we don't really want to get clean.

But if we are willing to commit ourselves to God and to one another, if we are willing to set aside our private agendas, to let go of our old ideas, and commit ourselves together to the hope of the Messiah, Jesus, we might just find out way out of the darkness and the depths, and up to that magnificent and holy mountain.

Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Unexpected Hour (sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent 2010)

She whispered to me, "Do you know where I belong?"

I was in my early months at Philippi. I had gone to Mizpah Nursing Home to visit Cornelia Kennard. That was what was on my to-do list. I had a bunch of other names on that list, people I aimed to visit, and I had finished with Cornelia and was walking down the hall toward the door and my car.

For some reason there seemed to be a good bit of shadow in the hallway that day. And standing before me in the darkness was a tall woman, a very beautiful woman. Have you noticed how the very old often become strikingly beautiful? As I hurried by her, the new young pastor on the very important mission, she whispered, "Do you know where I belong?"

I was rather undone. I looked around for staff, but saw none. I felt a little panicky, truth be told. I told the woman to stay where she was and I ran back to the nurse's station and told them about her. I'm not sure why I felt there was such an emergency. People call out to you at nursing homes all the time. Often they themselves don't realize what they are doing. But with her I felt sure that she really needed help.

Her words began to haunt me as a drove to my next visit. And that haunting sense grew and grew. It finally dawned on me that I had missed a reign of God moment.

What's a reign of God moment? I'm glad you asked.

Years before the Mizpah incident, I was dating Liz, I was a divorced dad and there came a time one Advent season when Liz finally met my daughter Hilary, who was then nine years old. I believe it was at a Christmas party at Faith Lutheran Church, where I was pastor. In that setting Liz could meet Hilary without necessarily announcing that she was my girlfriend. In the course of chatting, Hilary, who was beginning to go through a pretty hard time, mentioned to Liz that she had begun to doubt that Santa Claus was real.

I suppose it was the next weekend, pretty close to Christmas, and I had Hilary with me. We'd gone to the movies. I don't remember what we had gone to see, but we'd planned it earlier that week. When we returned to the car we discovered that it was filled with Christmas presents. We could hardly get into the car. The first thing we checked were the little cards attached to each one. They were all meant for Hilary, and they were all, every one, signed "Santa."

Even I at that point had no idea where the presents had come from and I have to say I was awed. It was only later I learned about Liz' conversation with Hilary. But at that moment I was as stunned as Hilary and of course she was watching me carefully for signs of sneakiness, but couldn't find a drop.

In the course of prior conversations, Liz had gotten the scoop about where Hilary and I were going that day, without letting on her purpose. And then, while we were in the movie, she'd driven around the parking lot until she found my car. She had a spare key and put the presents in there. At least that's what I finally figured out. She never did admit it.

A reign of God moment had come for Liz, and she had been ready.

I've made up this term, "a reign of God moment." First off, I need to tell you that the word is "reign" as in "rule" rather than "rain" as in "water falling from the sky." The reign of God sounds less masculine and exclusive than "kingdom of God" but that's pretty much what it means.

There are three elements to a reign of God moment, and all three have to be present in order for the moment to be a true reign of God moment.

The first element is surprise. A true reign of God moment always defies expectation. You know, I've known people in the course of my life who think that such moments are their entitlement, and they become resentful of people around them for not providing them. This rather amazes me. If you expect it, it can't be a reign of God moment. It's not something people can do without divine inspiration. You can't expect people to have divine revelation whenever you want them to. A reign of God moment is always a surprise.

The second element of a reign of God moment is that it always summons to mind, immediately and undeniably, God. There are plenty of nice things people do for each other, all kinds of loving and sweet things, and some of them are surprising. But a reign of God moment is never about how wonderful a person is. It's always about how wonderful God is.

The third crucial element of a reign of God moment is that, despite the moment pointing to God, it is a moment brought about through a human being. I suppose there are some miracles that are simply the invisible hand of God reaching into a situation and doing something, and those are certainly wonderful. But a reign of God moment is when God takes over a human being and does something through that human being, something surprising and something that glorifies God. A reign of God moment is always carried out by a human being.

So a reign of God moment is when God uses an ordinary human being to bring about a surprising and wonderful moment that glorifies God. The key issue then is not how we do such things, but how we become ready to let God come into our bodies and take over whenever he wants to.

In the case of the poor woman in the nursing home hallway, it seemed to me there was an opportunity to really comfort that woman in a way she might never have expected, in a way that might have made God present to her right then. I was being offered the opportunity to be God's presence to her and I missed it. I wasn't ready. I was asleep.

Jesus teaches us quite a bit about readiness, about staying awake. And many people understand this to mean being ready for death, and many people understand this as being ready for the rapture, but I believe those things are bigger things than Jesus wants us to be concerned about, the wars and rumors of wars and the nations rising up against nations. Certainly we should work for justice and speak out about what we believe is right. But the reign of God moments are much more spontaneous and unpredictable than that.

An example can be taken from the civil rights movement in the sixties. I believe it was a white preacher who was marching with the blacks in Selma or someplace. One of the outraged bystanders walked up to him and spit in his face.

Now the issue of the day was the great issue, the issue of equal rights under the law, and that is certainly a good issue and it was a great thing that all those folks were there marching about it. But the reign of God moment was right there, right there when a violently angry person spit into a minister's face, the opportunity was right there for God to take over that minister's body. And the divine grace was there, and the minister was ready.

He said, "Do you have a handkerchief?"

And his enemy, without thinking, reached into his back pocket and pulled one out and gave it to the minister before he could even think about what he was doing. A perfect reign of God moment.

Christmas was the first reign of God moment, and the perfect epitome of all the others after it. It is the unexpected and glorious entrance of God into the troubled world in the form of an ordinary human being. God came in Jesus, and God wants to come in each one of us. I wasn't ready that day in Mizpah. But years before, when a troubled little girl confessed her dying faith, Liz had been ready, ready to receive the spirit of God, ready to become God's physical presence in the troubled world.

That's what discipleship is, friends. It's all about getting ready and staying ready, about watching and waiting for the unexpected hour. It's about longing to be filled with God's Spirit, to be the instrument of the surprising and glorious moment of God's coming. It's about becoming the Son of Man for that very special and healing moment.

It's about Christmas.

Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Food That Endures (sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday)

I went rock fishing with my wife yesterday during the short 36 hour visit she had down here before returning this morning to care for her mother in Boston. Our 10 hour trip yielded exactly three fish.

The ways of fish are impenetrable. Our captain, whose apt nickname is "Pudd'n," assured us that there were many fish, but that they simply weren't acting right. To bring home his point we were usually surrounded by large numbers of other vessels, their hind ends bristling with trolling lines, implying that like Pudd'n, the captains thereof were convinced of the immanence of fish.

For a time we were in the Piankatank, right where the river bends sharply northward toward the bridge. We circled there so many times, and passed the same homes so often, one of our group commented that we might send those folks Christmas cards this year. But while we were there, we did have the privilege of riding through one of those fascinating moments in the great cycle of nature, of which, of course, we were a part.

Waiting patiently on various docks around this particular stretch of water was a large flock of seagulls. At one point they rose as a body into the air and fell like kamakaze fighter planes on a little area just off our bow. This was one of those feeding frenzies brought on by the bait fish rising close to the surface, where the seagulls could get at them.

We rode right through it, our eyes fixed on our lines. Why? Because the rise of the baitfish to the surface most likely had been caused by the rock fish hunting them. Did we catch one? No, we did not.

Like I said, the ways of fish are impenetrable. My point here is that we were there and the baitfish were there, and the seagulls were there, all involved in the amazing dance that has gone on for lo, these many millennia. I have no doubt that native american indians had for hundreds if not thousands of years also been out there in their canoes doing just the same thing, albeit probably with greater success.

And at the same time, you know, we in the boat sidled back and forth, from port to starboard, following the sun on that crisp fall day. Whenever the boat would turn, the roof over the deck would cast its shadow and we would be too cold. A move to the other side put us in the sun, which quickly warmed us. I am sure there were any number of other living creatures, all around us out there, plants and animals of all kinds, that were similarly turning themselves to receive the warmth of the fall sun.

We caught three fish, but I also caught a powerful, almost overwhelming sense of the huge and loving and impartial generosity of God. The world was filled with light and air and warmth and food. Who did it all belong to? Certainly not me. And yet it was all there before me, like the table of a feast.

Much of the industrial food production system that we have created in this modern world is turning out to be not so good for us, if not positively bad for us. One of our party remarked that few rural people starved during the depression because the country was accustomed to growing and trading local foods, a practice that required no cash. Before the advent of the single-planting seed, seeds could be harvested and saved and planted again. When only local populations were eating the produce of the bay, fish and oyster and crab populations could easily stay large and vital. God provided pretty much all that was needed for life. Now, when very few people grow their own food, and even farmers have to purchase seed every year anew, and when seafood is shipped in great quantities all around the world, an economic crisis might very well leave people hungry.

In North America we produce enough food to feed the world, but how it is distributed and marketed somehow ends up leaving huge populations hungry. The weight loss industry in our country alone is worth about 45 billion dollars a year, and the impact on the health care system of obesity-related disease is in the billions as well. It seems every time we turn around there is another outbreak of some infection spread all over the country by industrial food production.

I believe it is a tenet of the Jewish and Christian tradition that scarcity is caused by human beings. And by scarcity I don't mean some spiritualized idea of poverty, but the kind of scarcity that actually causes people to starve or to die of diseases for which there is a simple cure. Scarcity is caused by fear.

Jesus invites his followers to stop orienting their lives and the morals and their choices around their fears of not having enough, and begin to live into the generosity of God. He'd just finished multiplying the loaves and fishes. The people were chasing him because it seemed to them that he could continue to feed them. Of course, Jesus feeding the five thousand was a concrete example of the power of God and of God's abundant provision for everyone. That was the lesson it was to teach, but the people were still being motivated by their fear.

Jesus is hoping that we might hear about the deeper significance of the feeding miracle. Jesus is hoping that we might see that the world as God has created it is a place of abundance and plenty for all of God's creatures, including humankind. Jesus is hoping that we might take in that the problem of scarcity is not caused by God not providing enough, but by the inequities of human systems of sharing.

Thanksgiving is one of the basic practices of Jewish and Christian people. Indeed one of the traditional Greek names for the ritual of the Lord's Supper means "thanksgiving." It's interesting to me that one of the levels of our Thanksgiving tradition is the remembrance of the ways native people helped the Pilgrims to make use of local foods, thus saving them from starvation. For the native people of the Americas, a person could no more own the land than own the sea or sky. Everything was there by the generosity of their idea of God. If the Pilgrims had been open to the native's beliefs, they might soon have discovered some real similarities to their own.

Thanksgiving is the way that God's generosity becomes ours. This story we heard this morning comes to us from the gospel of John, in which is written many a Christian's favorite verse. Say it with me now: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son." God loved, and God gave.

In our gratitude for God's provision is the seed of our own generosity. As we gather with our families, and give thanks for food and love and life and sun and children and old people, let's open our hearts to the marvelous truth of Christ: God provides enough for all.

Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A New Earth (a sermon for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost Year C, 2010)

Did you ever wonder exactly why early Christians got in trouble so much?

Most Jews were made very angry by Christians. They barred them from synagogue worship, they sometimes whipped them and even murdered them as blasphemers, and they also did what they could to get Christians in trouble with the Romans. What do you suppose made the Jews so angry?

And what was it about the Christians that made the Romans so nervous? They were more or less constantly hounding them, arresting them, torturing them and even killing them.

In the early years of Christianity, the religion was officially pacifist. Soldiers, if they wanted to be Christian, had to resign from soldiering. You couldn't even hold office in the Roman government because the government engaged in warfare and a violent system of punishment for crime. The point here is that Christians were utterly unarmed and were strictly constrained from doing violence for any reason. What therefore was threatening about them?

We know that many Christians came together to live in community. We know all of them that were wealthy voluntarily liquidated much of their property and contributed it to the community to be redistributed. We know that the church sought out and supported widows and orphans, people too old or too young to work and who were not being cared for by their families.

We know these communities had rich worship and prayer lives and that from the very beginning they celebrated baptism and the Lord's Supper. We know they didn't have buildings, but met in people's homes. We know they were egalitarian, mixing many ethnic groups and classes together, and empowering leadership regardless of ethnicity or gender or class, at least until late in Paul's life, perhaps even later, when women's equality was again brought into question.

We know that evangelists, deacons and apostles travelled far and wide and that they performed miracles not unlike the ones Jesus had done before the resurrection. They healed the sick, raised the dead, fed multitudes, travelled supernaturally, stilled storms, and cast out spirits and demons that possessed people.

What is it in any of this that might have caused the Romans or the Jews so much anxiety?

It appears in Acts that the Jewish authorities were really angry that the Christians kept saying that Jesus wasn't dead, even though everyone had seen him get crucified on Good Friday. The Jewish authorities kept telling the Christians to stop saying that, but the Christians wouldn't listen. The reason the Christians gave for bucking the Jewish authorities? They had to obey God rather than people. God apparently had commanded them to announce that Jesus was alive, and to keep announcing it.

Why was this so upsetting?

In Acts, it appears that there were economic consequences to this message. Paul healed the slave girl with the demon and deprived her owners of the rich income she brought. Paul got everyone to denounce idols and the city's lucrative idol factories died for want of customers.

But this wasn't all. In this same letter of Paul to the Thessalonians we heard this morning, Paul goes to some length speaking about the "man of lawlessness," which modern Christians maybe think of as the devil. But many of us believe it much more likely that Paul was talking about the emperor of Rome.

A very small percentage of the people living under the Roman Empire lived well. That being said, there were a lot of people living under the Roman Empire. So that small percentage of wealthy people made up a pretty big number. Merchants, politicians, officers in the military, tax collectors, local royalty, priests of various religious sects, these were the people who had the resources to live what must have been pretty delightful lives. But the vast majority of peoples living under the Romans lived miserable, short and desperate lives, because the fruits of their labor and toil mostly went to the delightful lives of the relatively few.

The promise of Isaiah, that laborers would not have to give up the fruits of their labors to oppressors, came to pass, but in a strange and miraculous way.

The Christian communities, at least at the beginning, really seemed to bring about justice. The few who were well-to-do used their resources to re-endow those who had been robbed of theirs. We have evidence also in Paul's letters that resources also flowed from well-to-do congregations to those suffering want.

Now it's important here to recognize that there is no evidence that the Christians had any agenda to get the Romans to adopt the Christian way of life. They certainly were not a political party. But it was obvious to many of the poor just whose side the Christians were on. And I suspect it was obvious to the Romans as well.

It's also obvious that then as now, some folks sought to take advantage of the Christians. They probably were pretending to be teachers like Paul and demanding that they be taken care of. We think this because Paul calls them "busybodies," presumably because they were sticking their noses in everyone's business instead of actually preaching and teaching the gospel. Jesus warns about them in his sermon today, saying that many will come claiming to be him, but not to believe them. Paul doesn't deny that apostles and teachers should be cared for by the congregation, but he has the number of those idlers who were using the churches as a means to an easy life.

The Romans and their local minions were constantly pouring out propaganda to the poor about how Roman exploitation of the poor was actually good for everyone, and every once in a while the Romans would stage big impressive entertainments and pass out free bread to convince the poor they actually were taking care of them. It was very important for the Romans and the Jews who were getting rich and powerful under Roman rule that the poor never wake up to their majority, and never recognize what was really being done to them.

The Christians were gaining supporters for themselves from among the poor, who were very very many, and these poor people, because of the concrete generosity of the church, began to believe in Jesus and not in Herod or Caesar or the rest of the ruling class, who were rather few, comparatively speaking.

And so it was that Christians were turning the world upside down. Making a new earth is a tumultuous and rowdy business. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God threw down a glove. God announced in Jesus that God's kingdom was henceforth impossible to keep out, impossible to knock down, impossible to reject, no matter how powerful the human kingdom that tries to knock it down, keep it out, or reject it.

Philippi is a warm and lovable bunch of people. Almost all of them are involved in the community, doing all kinds of loving service. Indeed, many of our members are greatly admired and loved by their neighbors.

What, I wonder, might we do to get in trouble?

Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Hope To Which He Has Called You (sermon for All Saints 2010

The Hope To Which He Has Called You

The story is told of a Sunday school class of children. The teacher asked, "What do you have to do to be a saint?"

Of course, none of the children said anything. So the teacher said, "If I sold everything I had and gave it to the poor would that make me a saint?"

And the children said, "No."

So the teacher said, "What if I went around always being nice to everyone all the time, would that make me a saint?"

And the children said, "No."

"What if I were able to change the world and make it a peaceful and happy place, would that make me a saint?"

And the children said, "No."

So finally, the teacher asked, "OK, then, tell me, what would I have to do to be a saint?"

And one of the children said, "You have to die!"

Of course, All Saints Day has traditionally been about honoring those who have died. But in the protestant tradition, we have rediscovered the word in both the old and new testaments, and we see that a saint is not just those who have died, but also those whom God has made saints.

So let's ask, what do you have to do to be a saint?

St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, said that there are three gifts of the Holy Spirit that are eternal, that never pass away, faith, hope and love. And he said, the greatest of these is love. And certainly, we would say, one has to love to be a saint. And not just any love, as Jesus himself pointed out in this lesson from Luke. We'll talk about that later.

Today, I think the focus is on the second of St. Paul's three eternal spiritual gifts, that of hope.

A saint is a person who hopes.

The hope is not just any hope, but the hope to which God has called you.

Hope, according to Webster's, is a desire with an expectation of fulfillment. We're not talking about pipe dreams or wishful thinking or even optimism. We're talking about honestly taking stock of the real world and expecting confidently that God can and will transform that world from the inside out, starting with us.

Do we have this confidence? I don't know. When I listen to people in my daily rounds, I don't hear the beatitudes of Jesus. I hear a different set. It goes something like this:

"Blessed are the rich, for they have earned it.

"Woe to the poor, for they are lazy and irresponsible.

"Blessed are you when people speak well of you, because reputation is everything,

"Woe to you if they revile you, because you are an annoying troublemaker and deserve everything you get.

"Hate you enemies, and do not bless them. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, shoot them in the head.

"Love those you love you, and ignore the rest."

The world's beatitudes have not really changed since Jesus' day. They are still just as central to the way lots of people think. The beatitudes of Jesus are not difficult to understand, but they fly so much in face of the wisdom of the world as to simply be unacceptable. The good news is that Jesus is not pronouncing a final judgment. He's pronouncing hope. Hope for all of us.

The hope to which God has called us is the hope that the poor will inherit the kingdom, the sorrowful will be comforted, and those persecuted for declaring that hope will be vindicated. It is the hope that the humble people of God, the ones who practice love for their enemies, will triumph over the much more impressive powers that practice domination and vengeance.

All Saints began as a day to remember those who were martyred in the early years after Jesus' resurrection. The people of God from the very beginning strove to keep in remembrance those who refused both to obey the law that said they had to worship anyone other than Christ, and more importantly, refused to hate or to even resist those who badmouthed, persecuted, tortured and even murdered them. Many of these people they knew, but there were many more who simply disappeared, anonymous Christians who were chewed up in the maul of the Roman machine. Early Christians established All Saints Day in special remembrance of those nameless witnesses, who forgave the crowds that cheered for their blood and died praying for them.

They did these things because they practiced the hope to which God had called them. They sold off possession to give them to the poor in order to practice this hope. They gave up their homes to be used as places of gathering and worship as a way of practicing the hope to which God had called them. They prayed for people that hated them, hoping as God had called them to hope. They gave to everyone who begged from them, no questions asked, because they hoped as God asked them to. If someone stole from them, they offered the thief more of their possessions in the hope that their generosity would inspire him, as God had called them to hope. They responded to evil with good, in the hope to which God had called them.

The love, the eternal and unstoppable love which Paul said was the greatest of all God's spiritual gifts, is very specific and amazing: it is love for one's enemies. It is this love, above all others, that saves the world.

So let's take some time right now, friends, to remember any and all who have gone on before us into the heavenly places that practiced this hope for God's kingdom, and love for their enemies.

(Candle lighting ceremony.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Righteous Live by Their Faith (sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost)

"God, I have a problem with you."

So begins a conversation between a prophet and the God of Israel.

We can see in scripture that there are no illegal prayers. Here Habakkuk asks "Why?Why must I endure all this injustice, all this mistreatment of the poor, all this corruption in both government and temple? Why, God, aren't you doing anything about these things?"

Now you'll notice that we skip over the rest of chapter one in this morning's readings, and since we won't get another chance to read Habakkuk together for another three years, I'll tell you what God said to Habakkuk.

God said, "Don't worry. I'm going to do something about this situation. I'm going to send the Babylonians to destroy Judah."

Well, this horrified Habakkuk even more. The Babylonians were everything God despised in human society! They were violent, godless, oppressive. To Habakkuk it was bad enough that God's people had become corrupt, but it was completely unacceptable that a nation like Babylon should have its way with them.

In fact, the whole situation was unacceptable. Centuries before, God had promised Abraham that God would make of Abraham a great nation and give him a land flowing with milk and honey. And only a few hundred years ago, God had told David that God would establish David's royal line forever. And all along, God had promised to protect and defend God's people forever.

But nothing was working out the way God had promised. God wasn't keeping any of these promises. Soon, the nation would fall completely to foreign invaders. No land, no son of David, no defense.

All the prophets wrestled with this same question. When God doesn't appear to be keeping God's promises, there are only a few possibilities:

Either God had been lying, or we hadn't understood what God had promised to begin with.

The prophets answered the question the second way. God had not been lying when God promised all these things. God had intended to keep all these promises. But we didn't understand at that time exactly what God had meant.

In the black church we sometimes say, "God doesn't always come when you want him, but he always comes on time." Habakkuk understood this and metaphorically put himself on the watchtower, like the guard of an ancient city, who might watch for years before seeing any threats. This is called in some circles "keeping vigil."

Habakkuk was waiting for this transcendent vision, this deepened understanding of the promises of God. I encourage you to go home and read Habakkuk. God told him to write it so that people could read it on the run, and he did that. Just three chapters. But since we won't get another chance to talk about him, I'll tell you what God gave to Habakkuk.

Habakkuk was given a vision of a transcendent God, one that worked under the radar, one that infiltrated and subverted cultures with a strange and powerful gentleness, rather than one that rose up like a storm to burn or drown or destroy. Destruction and bloodshed would henceforth be the work of humans, not of God. Unjust cultures would bring about their own demise. Indeed that had been true from the beginning. The proud and all who trust in them always bring about their own punishment.

But the righteous, Habakkuk says, live by their faith.

The salvation of God is not in the facts but in the faith. The salvation of God is not in how God loves us, but in how we love God. We are saved in loving God for who God is. We are saved in believing in his transcendent presence. A saving faith is a faith that finds God particularly in those places everyone knows he could never be. In the midst of disease and death and disaster, in the hearts of the worst sinners, in the middle of a barren wilderness, in the stranger, in the alien, or in the worst failures.

God might even be at work in the oppressor. Let's take a look at Zaccheaus the tax collector.

Today I didn't read the NRSV translation word for word. I translated it differently from the Greek. If you consult your bibles you will see that Zacchaeus, when he welcomes Jesus into his home, says, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."

But what the Greek actually says is "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much." For all you King James Version people out there, take heart. This is one time when the King James has it right.

The NRSV, and other translations as well, put the tax collector's words into the future tense, as if this is something that Zacchaeus will do now that he has met Jesus. But in the Greek, the verbs are present tense. Why did the translators change the tense? Because the story didn't seem to make sense to them. The tax collector is by definition an evil man. He couldn't possible already be doing good before Jesus comes along. That's not how it works. This must be a story about repentance.

But it isn't. It's really a story about how Jesus reveals God working even in the midst of evil. This tax collector is like Schindler during World War II, the supposedly cold-hearted Nazi businessman who used Jews in his factories. He appeared to be a vicious Jew-hating German, but in fact, he was using the evil system itself to save Jews from the death camps. The short tax collector who goes to the extreme of climbing above the heads of the crowd just to lay eyes on his savior was a man hated and despised by all, a sinner of the worst order. Who else do we know who was up on a tree whom many despised as sinner?

Zacchaeus was using the tax collection system set up by the Romans to funnel large amounts of money back to the poor. Whatever fraud he may have practiced toward the rich, he paid back fourfold to the poor. Zacchaeus was a man with no friends off his own class, who was barred from the temple, called a traitor to his people, and cast out of both Jewish and Roman circles. But there were poor people who knew who he was. Oh yes. I suspect that Jesus had heard of him before he even got there.

The righteous live by their faith, says Habakkuk. Faith saw Zacchaeus for what he really was, not just what he appeared to be. Though he appeared to be the most evil of men, yet he was truly a child of Abraham. This is the salvation of God.

Let's hear what a saving faith really means, in the last verses of old Habakkuk's prophecy:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Will Pour Out My Spirit: sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

When I was in college I wanted to be a rock star. Of course I was in the wrong business really. I was studying to be an actor. But that was the time of the great glam rockers, the hugely concerts, the incredible seemingly world-shaking events, and I loved to imagine being the guy who made such things happen.

One of my roommates taught me how to play a few chords on a beat up old guitar and I started dutifully practicing. The guitar was a cheap acoustic/electric model, kind of tinny and stiff. I started sounding pretty good, or so I thought.

Sooner or later I got my own guitar, a pretty expensive Fender Stratocaster, the guitar of choice for such blues-based rockers as Jimi Hendrix. That guitar was beautiful. Very very sensitive. You could touch a string in a thousand ways and get a thousand sounds.

What this amounted to for me however was that I could hear every single mistake just as loud as you please. Apparently, the better the guitar, the worse I sounded.

It seems almost like an act of God that I lost that guitar in a fire.

Joel preaches a God who will do two things that appear to be tightly intertwined in Joel's vision: first, God will restore the desolate and wasted land to the paradise of plenty it had once been. Closely connected to this restoration, God will make God's people whole by pouring out the Holy Spirit.

The gift is somewhat strange, It is first of all egalitarian; it's not just for certain classes or ages or genders. Second, it appears mainly to enable a kind of prophetic sight, a God's-eye view if you will. Third, it seems to be connected to a kind of world-shaking cosmic disturbance, darkness and blood and so on. Finally, it seems to enable God's people to escape this disturbance.

Why is it that this gift, which we might expect would lead us to happiness and fulfillment, is connected to this cosmic disturbance?

I think it has to do with the Stratocaster principle. By having our eyes opened to the amazing providence and grace of God, by seeing clearly how little we have to do with the blessings we receive, by understanding on a deep level how abundant God's creation is for all, we are automatically and inescapably confronted by the terrible conspiracy among the human race to pervert and twist and deny and reject that spirit of abundant grace.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the six stage pain scale in use in some places, and how she had used it during a hip replacement experience. She reported that she had often used the highest levels of the pain scale to describe her pain. But then she read that level five was supposed to be the kind of pain that might actually drive you to suicide, while level six was simply and utterly unbearable for even a second. It led her to think about about how many people in the world endure various kinds of agony without a single pain medication, not because they choose to but because the world marketplace denies them any mercy.

And the sky grows dark and the moon turns to to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord. The grating and sour notes of our self-deception ring out starkly in the brilliant glare of God's Holy Spirit.

It's my belief that a deep involvement in the bible, a regular and disciplined life of prayer and study, leads us above all other things to an understanding and recognition of God's Holy Spirit. God's Holy Spirit is more than conscience. It is a living and real being, outside of us, or perhaps buried or locked deep within us, that we are trained by our culture to reject or perhaps suppress. It is indeed a supernatural being. It is not simply to be identified with the wonders of nature, but the wonders of nature are indeed good indicators, good descriptors, as Joel himself points out: the fall of rain that nourishes our crops and feeds and washes our bodies is a wonderful metaphor for the supernatural spirit that nourishes our community and feeds and washes our souls.

God's Holy Spirit is also a spirit of wisdom; it allows us to sit, as it were, on God's shoulder, and see what God sees. Because the human condition is what it is, that is, because we suppress or reject the spirit of God, we commit ourselves to all sorts of rash and disastrous decisions, and those who receive the Spirit of God see from God's perspective the disasters that are here, and the disasters that are coming. And those who are sitting on God's shoulder are also enabled to call upon God for salvation, while those who are perishing in the midst of the disaster know of no God they can call.

The Spirit of God is also a Spirit of deep darkness and cosmic disturbance inasmuch as it reveals to us how deeply and helplessly we are caught up in the web of the world's sin, how completely we collaborate with demons out of self-centered fear, self-deception and self-justification. And this is not, friends, God putting his seal of approval on our weakness. The tax collector doesn't go home with God's approval for his vicious betrayal of his countrymen, but rather God's acceptance of his simple honesty. God can work with tax collector's honesty, but he can't work with the Pharisee's blindness.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a trap, and a very efficient one. Jesus leads us into a comparison between two people and just as we identify ourselves with the humility of the tax collector, we are caught, for we have become the Pharisee. The impulse for self-justification is perhaps the most damning of sins and the most difficult to escape.

God pours out his Spirit, and it is like trading one's cheap and tinny instrument for a finely tuned and sensitive masterpiece. It's first gift to us is the harsh light of truth, so necessary for us to even be able to see the disasters that are unfolding, much less to be saved from them. With enough practice, with enough familiarity with that beautiful Strat, I might someday play very well. But I will first have to face my mistakes every time I touch its strings.

God will pour out his Spirit, but this is not the Spirit of positive thinking or of health and wealth. It is the Spirit of truth, unvarnished and naked. Our motives are false, our desires are selfish, we have just enough faith, as one preacher has said, to hate, but not enough to love. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we're good people in the worst sense of the word. God's Spirit gives us the wisdom to see our own desperate need of him.

God will pour out his spirit on all flesh, no matter what age or station or race or gender, no matter whether blameless or willfully sinful. In Jesus Christ, God opened the path for all of us to receive or reveal the Holy Spirit within us. And for us and for our world, this reception or revelation is like a birth, beautiful and dangerous and hopeful and painful and bloody and messy and awe-inspiring.

The humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled. Salvation is at hand. The kingdom has come near.

Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A New Covenant: a sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

...I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
---Deuteronomy 5:9-10

So here you are, raising your children in Babylon, where there's a different god on every corner, where your kids play with idol-worshippers all day and come home and ask why it is they can't go to temple with their friends, and why they can't eat the pork that smells so good in their friend's homes.

"Well, you see, honey, we live in covenant with our very special God, so we don't eat certain foods and we certainly don't worship any other gods but ours." And our kids, being the above-average young folks they are, are curious. "Well, what has our God done for us lately?"

"Well, honey, lately we had this wonderful fertile land God had given us, but we were disobedient, so God sent the Babylonians to conquer us and take us into exile."

"Well, I didn't live there and I didn't disobey, so why do I have to suffer?"

"Well, honey, back when our people were at Mount Sinai, God said he would punish to the third and fourth generation those who rejected him."

"That's not fair!"

The new covenant that Jeremiah announces this morning had to do with this experience of the children in Babylon, who suffered exile without enjoying the sins for which it was punishment. God was saying, "You will no longer suffer for what your parents and grandparents did; I will forget their sins and no longer charge them to your account. And out of this forgiveness I will build a different kind of relationship with my people than I had with them since Mount Sinai."

Now before we jump forward to Jesus, which we will certainly do, let's make sure we understand Jeremiah, who was not actually thinking of Jesus when he wrote this. Jeremiah was not outside of the realm of Judaism at all, as we see this morning in Psalm 119. God's goal had always been that God's people would gratefully embrace the way of life God offered them at Sinai, that they would love it and cherish it and chase after it with all the intensity and focus that most people chase after their own self-centered desires.

I have known some addicts who have gotten into recovery, who will tell you that they were always very determined and willful and persistent people when they were drinking or using. They would walk barefoot through a snow storm to get their drug. If they lost a dealer, they would get on the phone all day until they found another one. They would go to any lengths to get the money they needed to pay for the stuff. Some people think addicts are lazy, but they are in fact highly motivated, dedicated people.

In recovery, when they find themselves balking at the difficulty of something they must do to stay clean and sober, they often remind themselves of how dedicated they had been to their addiction. I've heard them say, "I need to work as hard at staying sober as I used to work at staying drunk."

What if we worked as hard on God's will as we have worked on our own goals throughout our lives? What if we applied the same creativity and focus and determination and willingness to learn that we applied to our own ambitions? What if we truly cared more about the kingdom of God than about ourselves and our immediate circle?

The first person to fully and truly model this kind of passionate obedience was our Savior, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus of Nazareth.

So when God is talking about a new covenant, I'm not sure how new it really is. I think it's new because people are never ready for it until they're ready for it, not because God just now thought it up. The new covenant is always new, because every generation starts off focused on self-centered interests, on me and mine. But from God's perspective this is not a new covenant at all; it's what God has always wanted.

We start off our relationship with God basing it on the "what have you done for me lately" model, and our relationship, like all our relationships, is governed by the desire for rewards and the fear of punishment. Some of us never leave that mode, and it is indeed a mode in which God relates to people.

But the new covenant, the one Jeremiah and David both dreamed about, the one that is in Jesus Christ, departs from the inheritance of tradition with its privileges and restrictions and opens itself to the newness of passionately loving God and God's will. What makes it new is not that it is a new list of requirements and rules. What makes it new is that the requirements and rules are no longer necessary to make it happen.

What does it benefit us to be generous? It doesn't. What does it benefit us to forgive those who wrong us? It doesn't. What does it benefit us to love our enemies? It doesn't. What does it benefit us to care about people who don't live near us, who aren't like us, who don't care about us? It doesn't. What does it benefit us to help some congregation we've never heard of? It doesn't. What does it benefit us to build a school we will never go to? It doesn't. But all these things please God. What if we so passionately loved God that we wanted to do these things for no other reason than that?

The things God wants, the things that please God, don't change and have never changed. But the difference between a covenant between two parties that are suspicious and distant and one between parties who love one another may be the same covenant in terms of the rules and regulations, but in the living out, the latter is utterly different from the former.

It's awfully hard to imagine. I was going to use the model of a family to talk about it, but my own experience and the experience of many others is that family members can and do walk away from each other, do abandon their covenants with each other. They do it all the time. And there are certainly families that stay together in ways that are deeply unhealthy. It's hard to imagine, yes, but we usually know it when we see it, strangely enough. It's as if we have some memory deep within us, even though we may never have actually experienced it, a memory of paradise.

The new covenant, the kingdom of God in which God's children know and love God from deep within their hearts out, is new because it is created anew with every generation, every individual. It is new because it is never a place we have been before.

Henry Ford once said, "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." It's hard to give oneself to the newness of the new covenant, because there are by definition no promises or threats. It is a kind of relationship most of us have never had. We can't imagine it. We can't predict it. We can't depend on it to deliver what we think we want. The promise is that it will deliver to us benefits we could not have imagined, blessings beyond our wildest dreams, a land we have never been to, flowing with milk and honey.

Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Five Brothers and a Bag (Lyle Predmore's sermon for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost)

Today’s sermon is about a bag and five guys.  Just wanted to let you know.   
 
So, what did we hear from the scripture lessons that we can fill the sermon time with?  These are all familiar passages, and they seem to be pointing to a common theme.
 
We know from the OT passage that for the past several weeks Jeremiah has been the OT reading, and as Mike has mentioned that it is not a very happy time for the Israelites.  The Golden Age of Israel under King David has come to an end.  Solomon his son came next, and things started going down for Israel and up for the surrounding countries, especially the Babylonians. VS 32:2  It says: “the army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem”.    
 
And what does Jeremiah do?  He buys some land.  In an economic down turn – a time when the stock in Judah must be going south fast, the wolf is at the door, the Babylonians are in Jerusalem, and this guy is dealing in real estate.
 
Why?  Because Jeremiah has a faith, a faith in verse 15: “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: houses , fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land. 
 
For Jeremiah that faith is all he needed. To Jeremiah it the national ruler could be the king of Judah, the King of Babylon, the Wig Party or the Tories – his faith was not in the White House.  His faith is in the future,  that God will still be in control regardless of what is going on around him. 
 
I Tim 6:6-19
And then there is our NT reading, Paul’s instructions to Timothy.  Did you hear these words of Paul?  Some often quoted thoughts here such as:  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it ---  and (10)  For the love of money is the root of all evil. 
 
And then to our Gospel lesson, Luke 16:19-31.  Here we have one of Jesus best known parables.  What is it called?  The Rich Man and Lazarus.  Every bible with headings probably titles it this way.  They are two main characters here.  The rich man dressed in purple and fine linen living in luxury.  Lazarus, the poor beggar who lived just outside the gated community. He waited day after day for the garbage truck to leave the high scale neighborhood.  Maybe there would be some good things drop off as the truck made that turn onto the highway.
 
And then they are in the afterlife.  The rich man buried in hell.  Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham. 
 
And the teaching?  Abraham says to the rich man: Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted. You are in agony. 

The lesson?  Today, these passages are being used around the world by preachers who use the lectionary scripture readings week after week.  A couple of days ago I received the weekly church news note from the Bukit Doa International Church in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.  This is one of two English Language Congregations that Hiroko and I are involved in when in Indonesia.  Another retired pastor and friend, Dan Bruch is the current pastors at Bukit Doa.    Concerning today’s Gospel lesson Dan wrote:
 
 “Have you ever looked for yourself in this parable? In the parable, Lazarus and the rich man have lived out their earthly lives and gone to the life beyond death, but the five younger brothers are on this side of death. Consequently we are where they are. We are in the same place. The characters of the rich man and Lazarus are important to us, and we can learn from them, but the point of the parable is most powerfully made in our lives when we see ourselves in relationship to the five brothers. We share a common ground”
 
See his point?  We can listen and consider the Rich Man and Lazarus, but they are not where we are – or we are not where they are.  They are in an afterlife, one in hell, one in the bosom of Abraham. But the other ones in the parable that we forget about are the Rich Man’s five brothers.  They are where we are today.  They are among the living, the living of this world – like you and I.  And the Rich Man wants to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn them of their rich and calloused ways of treating the poor. 
Abraham’s answer is, they have Moses and the Prophets – if they will not listen to them, then they will not listen to someone returning from the dead. 
 
See Dan’s point?  We are one of the five brothers - we know and live a life on this earth.  And Jesus answer for the five brothers is the same answer for you and me – we who are among the living of a earthly life of four score and ten or twenty. 
 
And the answer Jesus leaves us, and the five brothers with; – “Listen to Moses and Prophets.” 
 
And we have the benefit of one who has returned from the dead, Jesus the Resurrected Christ.  So what do we do?  What can we learn from Moses, the Prophets, the Resurrected Jesus and these scripture lessons that are for our study and sermonizing? 
 
 Maybe the answer is in the bag!? This is a bag that Clarksbury UM has distributed in our community this past week.  We are to fill it with food items and leave it for pick up today.  Then it will be distributed in their food bank this coming Saturday.  The instructions are on the bag.  There is an article in this past week’s Sentinel giving the same information.
 
 Last night Hiroko and I stopped by Wal-Mart to buy a few extra things for the bag. 
 
And it occurred to me that in our choices of things for the bag we had different visions of how to do it.  I looked for the boxes of Macaroni & Cheese.  Great Value brand, 50 cents  a box.  For four dollars I can get eight boxes – that is half a bag full.  Right? 
 
Hiroko starts picking up Hormel Roast Beef & Gravy in little cans.  $4.18 a can! 
 
$4.18 a can?  Eight cans, quick math, 8 x $4 equals $32!
 
I suggest to Hiroko that my math works out better – half a bag for $4 as opposed to $30.  Her response is’ “well people without much money can buy the Macaroni & Cheese, but they can’t afford the much better and tasty canned Roast Beef and Gravy”.  
 
I am interested in filling the bag and getting what I consider a good value on my dollar.  She is interested in filling the bag and given someone a better meal than they might have otherwise.  Both will help a hungry person, or a hungry family. 
 
Who is right?  We have Moses and the Prophets and even the Resurrected Jesus for guidance on this. We are the living brothers of the parable living out our faith on this side of the grave.   
 
How are we going to fill the bag?  Marconi & Cheese or some of the good stuff? 
And the parable doesn’t stop with this shopping bag – it starts with the shopping bag.  It starts with serving those close by, with the Clarksbury Bag, with the Cryer Center, HANDS, HFH and other community bags.
 
The bag includes own congregation, for this is the vehicle that comes together once a week for worship, to share God’s word and Jesus’ table.  But it is a vehicle, an instrument of God, the Body of Christ in our midst.  And there is another bag.  Called an offering envelope.  How are you to fill it?  How comes our budget is 10 or 20 thousand behind?  Have we forgotten the bag?  $1000 a piece today from ten or twenty people here would bring us up to date.
 
The bag includes the work we do together as Disciple Churches.  There are a number of things we do better joined together as a Region.  One is the Craig Springs camping program – for our own youth and a special camp for the Lazarus’s children in our Commonwealth.  How are we going to deal with that bag?
 
And the bag goes around the world with the Body of Christ that we are a part of – how do you and I and the Rich Man’s brothers deal with that bag?  The bag includes Global Missions.
 
There was an article in Thursday’s Daily Press about Global Poverty.  Did you know that the international poverty level is $1.25 per day?  Internationally, around the world, anyone who makes less than $1.25 is considered to be in poverty. 

The map goes from 5.3 % for the Commonwealth of Independent States (much of the old USSR) to 50.9% for Sub-Saharan Africa. 
 
As residents of North America we set on a piece of the wealthiest real estate in God’s entire creation.  More water, good soil, climate, natural resources, mineral deposits etc. per capita than anyplace else in the world.  We have fish in the sea and cows in the pastures.  In the Parable as residents of the North American Continent we are the ones wearing the purple robes and the linen garments. 
 
What do we do with that bag? 
 
 May we mix in a little of Jeremiah’s faith - a faith that God is ultimately in charge.  Jeremiah’s faith is steadfast even when the Babylonians are burning Jerusalem. Even when land prices are going south – it is okay to believe that God is in ultimate control.   
 
So – there we have the same challenges as the five brothers. We are to hear God’s word and put our priorities in order.
 
And – don’t forget the bag! 
 
Amen. 

The Welfare of the City (20th Sunday after Pentecost)

We three kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts we travel afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star...

Remember the magi? They appear in Matthew's Christmas story. Astrologers, holy men, possibly ruling class. This morning we heard Jeremiah bringing God's word to the Jewish exiles in Babylon in roughly 500 B.C. Five hundred years later, these non-Jewish holy men from Babylon will come looking for the Jewish Messiah. Exactly how did that happen, I wonder?

Last week we talked about the rapid changes we have experienced in our world in recent years. Without a doubt, these are the most rapidly changing times in the history of humankind. Our culture and its moral compass seems to be swinging wildly in all directions.

If we are getting a sense that the culture around us is more and more distant from us, it is I believe a great opportunity to rediscover our true purpose and mission. There's of course the old line we often hear that we need to accommodate the culture more thoroughly, and we see preachers doing that right and left, with some success, or might I say, some institutional success, that is, more people and more money. And we have those superficial Christians who identity their faith with a set of Victorian morals that really don't have anything to do with the bible, the so-called old-time religionists, who manifest themselves in the conservative churches. They are somewhat popular too.

But I think the good news is that neither of these strategies are working anymore. Both of them are failing. Why am I happy about this? Because at last we might really turn to scripture and really attempt to understand who God really is and what God really is working toward.

It seems to me that the word from God today directly addresses us in our present situation. It encourages us to continue to understand ourselves as a separate people, or if we haven't understood this, to rediscover our separateness. It encourages us to figure out what it is that makes us separate. Is it a particular family structure? Is it a set of morals? Is it only rules for living? Is it a particular kind of etiquette? Is it just about being nice?

It's worth noting today that when the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom and carried off its people, we never heard from them again. The remnant left behind in what was then called Israel eventually became the hated Samaritans, a kind of hybrid ethnic group that retained a portion of the Jewish tradition but was also seriously influenced by and racially intermingled with Assyrian culture.

Of course, Samaritans become for Jesus a kind or object lesson for the dissolving boundaries around the kingdom of God. The Good Samaritan is one of his most famous parables, so much so that the word Samaritan, which then meant "hated foreigner and heretic," now means "someone who helps his neighbor." In today's story, the only leper that shows gratitude for his healing is the Samaritan. The meaning in those days was "an ethnically inferior and heretical foreigner has more gratitude than nine Jews."

So the Northern Kingdom disappeared into the mists of time, but the southern Kingdom of Judah did not. It retained its identity even as it went into exile, even as it lost all its national and religious trappings. No land, no palace, no army, no temple, no king, but strangely, still God's people. Stuck in a hostile land, filled with violence and false religion, and under their conqueror's rule, but strangely, still God's people.

Jeremiah, who up until this morning seems to have had nothing positive to say about anything, encourages the Jews in exile in Babylon to marry each other and have children, to setting in and settle down, to dig in for the long haul. You'd think maybe he'd have a word about how God was going to come and smite those darn Babylonians and get everyone back home quickly. But no, he says, we're here for the foreseeable future and we might as well get used to it.

What he says next shocks us even more. Imagine for a moment that your homeland has been decimated by a foreign invader, your friends murdered, your family separated from you, perhaps forever, you've been dragged in chains to the foreigner's homeland and forced to work for him. Now your minister comes along and says, "Well, the word from God is we're not going anywhere." Certainly that's bad enough. But then he goes on to say, "And by the way, God wants you to pray for the foreigner. Remember, his welfare is your welfare."

So many of us think that Jesus was some kind of revolutionary prophet that departed from Jewish tradition. But here we see the roots of his teaching.

It's in loving the enemy that our light shines the brightest in this dark world. It is the practice Jesus commanded that I think separates the real Christians from the false, to use the old somewhat sexist saying, it's what separates the men from the boys.

We tend to have a scattershot approach to ministry which came about as the result of having churches packed full of everyone in town, a situation that pertained in the 60's and has been long over, never to return. And so it is that we always remind ourselves that we should keep on doing everything we have always done, and keep on adding new things too, because if we don't we might leave something out.

But all this effort amounts merely to the endless pining for those big steeple days of yore. If the Jews in Babylon had acted as we act, they would never have unpacked their bags. They would have got up every morning and expected to go home. They would have spent their days miserably remembering how good it once was, and how everything would be fine if they could just go back.

Of course, if they had done that, they would have been fooling themselves. The fact was, as Jeremiah had so clearly said, the seeds of their exile had been in their faithlessness and sin. In our current situation, we do not do well to imagine that all we have to do is go back to something that we once were, to pine for a past that we have dressed up in fine clothes, but which in fact was the very cause of our current exile. In that very past are the seeds of the chaos in which we now suffer.

The great mystery, the wonder and beauty and awe-inspiring majesty of God's love, is that even as we have turned our backs on God, even as we have set ourselves up for exile, God was nevertheless faithful, nevertheless loving us, even as he brought us to ruin, even as he threw us into a terrifying future. Even as we turned our backs on him, he was preparing us to do as he has done for us. Just as he has loved us as we fought against him, so we are now called to love the world as it fights against us.

The news machines of the demonic forces in our world today are extremely powerful. Compared to God's little church, they are like those Babylonian armies, thousands of highly trained, well-fed soldiers clad in glittering armor, armed with razor sharp steel and bristling with arrows, riding the latest, fastest chariots, all against our ragtag few with our tiny slingshots.

And so it seems to me that we need to pick up the one thing that makes us greater, the one thing that cannot be defeated, the one little pebble that is enough to crush the skull of Goliath. And that one pebble, that one amazing difference, is loving our enemy.

And so, church, there is your chief mission. How do you come to love those you believe are destroying your way of life?

Today is your deciding place. Maybe you need to leave the church. Maybe you can't accept such a mission.

Or maybe you'd like to be free. Maybe you'd like to join the little ragtag, outnumbered gang standing up to the mighty empire of hate, with a few pebbles of love.

And so it was that five hundred years after the Jews went into exile, Babylon had been so affected by their presence among them, that three non-Jewish holy men of their religion traveled hundreds of miles to find the Jewish Messiah.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Captives Before the Foe

video



Captives Before the Foe

Every five hundred years Christianity blows up.

And you know, before that, it was true as well. Every five hundred years, Judaism blew up.

It seems there is a cycle of renewal in our tradition. The event Lamentations is talking about, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, happened at about 500 years before Christ. Five hundred years later, well, Jesus came along. Five hundred years later, the Eastern Church split with the Western Church over the creed. Five hundred years later, Charlemagne changed Christianity into the imperial hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Five hundred years later, Martin Luther tacked his revolutionary declaration on the door of a church and the Protestant churches were born. Interestingly enough, one of the most famous essays Luther ever wrote was called "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church."

Five hundred years later: us.

There is a major shift happening in the church today and Philippi's right in the middle of it.

Now let me stop here a minute and deal gently with those of us who think that the Christian faith has been one long uninterrupted institution of peace since Jesus. I know there are people who think that the religion of their mothers and grandmothers is old-time religion, and that if they just hold fast to that they'll be okay. It's good to honor your parents, as the scriptures tell us, and its good to remember what they taught us, just as Paul instructs Timothy to do today. But even as we do this we need to remember that Timothy's mother was not Christian, but Jewish. Clearly Paul didn't want Timothy to reject Jesus, as many Jews of that day did, but he nevertheless instructs Timothy to hold fast to his mother's teaching.

Let me also take a moment to lovingly address those who think that everything Christianity has done before Philippi is evil and best forgotten. If only it were so simple. Like most individual human beings, the church has not been wholly evil nor wholly good. Yes, there are examples of terrible wrongdoing. But there are also many examples of soaring beauty and goodness.

Nevertheless, every five hundred years, it all just blows up. That's my overstated way of saying that major change happens, major reinvention.

The reason Christianity blows up is because the world blows up. Judaism, if it was to survive after the fall of Judah, would have to reinvent itself, and it did. Five hundred years later, at the zenith of the Roman Empire, it had to reinvent itself again. Five hundred years later, as that same Roman Empire was itself crumbling, it reinvented itself again. And when the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages began to crack into pieces, old Martin Luther came along.

Now, change is happening on such a huge level that people don't even know what to call it. All we can say is that certain things are over. The modern era, when we believed that reason and science would solve all the problems of humankind, is over. The great era of the nation state seems to be falling apart with the advent of global economies. The debates in the public square, whatever they are about, are standing on theories that are no longer applicable.

Even in our little town of Deltaville, younger people are living in arrangements and family structures that look nothing at all like even one generation prior did. The great institutions, including the church, which people have believed in and invested in for several generations, are of no interest. I know a lot of people think this is a normal cycle and by the time these young people get to be fifty, they'll be in church. But there's a big difference between them and today's fifty-somethings. They can't return because they never came to begin with.

At the same time, these young people are very concerned about the world, very concerned to make a difference, and very interested in spiritual matters, maybe even more than their parents and grandparents. What they are completely uninterested in is any kind of institutional entity with doctrine and dogma. They have no interest in becoming a member of anything. They aren't interested in buildings or hierarchies or party lines.

I sat on a plan with Mitch on my way home from the church conference I attended. It was Mitch's first time on a plane, first time out of Indianapolis. He was twenty years old and he was heading for boot camp in Indianapolis. I learned a lot about Mitch. He shared very openly with me. He came from a broken family. He had a stepfather and a mom. He was a high school graduate, and though he appeared bright, just couldn't get into college. He had no opinion about politics. He had no opinion about the economy. He really didn't have any attitude about our country. He was joining the army because of one reason. He needed a job that paid reasonably, because he was in love and wanted to marry a beautiful girl, whose picture he showed me.

Mitch had never been to church. Let that sink in, friends. This is the future that's coming. Lots and lots of people who have never been to church.

I think it's a marvelously inspiring and exciting time, but I recognize for many people, Lamentations says it best. If feels as if we are being led to some captivity in a foreign land.

The citizens of Judah didn't know what awaited them in Babylon. They didn't know what challenges they'd face as believers in their God. How would they continue to be faithful as exiles in a foreign land full of foreign gods?

When his disciples ask him to increase their faith, Jesus answers, "What faith?" The crisis we face as the church is not a cultural issue. It's not a crisis of too much education or too little. It's not a crisis of political leadership. It's not an economic crisis. It's a crisis of faith. And by faith we mean the passionate and exclusive love for God. Glenn Beck and his ilk want to say we need to return to God. I would say we might never have been with God to begin with.

But the good news friends is that it's not just a question of our being faithful. When they went into exile they found that God was still with them, God still spoke to them, God still encouraged them with words of hope and promise. God was faithful.

We may not ever have been with God. But I am certain that God has been with us.

And God will be faithful to his people now as well. God will be working wherever people are struggling to put him first in their lives. And wherever there is even the faith of a tiny mustard seed, the world will be changed.

Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

No Balm in Gilead: sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Year C 2010

No Balm in Gilead

There is a Balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work's in vain.
But then the love of Jesus revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

This hymn comes out of the black church tradition, probably developed in the slave churches in the mid-nineteenth century. It's interesting to me that they used this very despairing phrase from Jeremiah and changed it.

Jeremiah is involved in a kind of three-way dialogue. We hear the people and we hear God and we hear Jeremiah all commenting in this passage. In the line in question, Jeremiah asks if there is no balm in Gilead, if there is no physician there? As if answering some unseen person who has said "Of course there is," Jeremiah says "Then why has the health of my poor people not been restored?"

Jeremiah is continuing with his terrifying vision of destruction and despair. We need to remind ourselves that Jeremiah was not preaching about something that had already happened, nor was he preaching about what was certain to happen. He was lifting up a very significant possibility, a likelihood. We might say that this is the flip side of God's promises.

When Jesus says, "I will be with you until the end of the age," we must remember that he prefaces it with a serious command to go and baptize and make disciples of all nations and teach them everything he taught. So if we don't do as Jesus commanded, what happens? Is he still with us? Jeremiah's vision tells us, no. No, he isn't.

But the enslaved black Christians of the American South didn't let old Jeremiah have the last word. No, no, Jeremiah, there is a balm in Gilead. They insisted on this despite their awful situation.

It interests me that slavery has been abolished since then.

We heard from Jon and Dawn Barnes yesterday about their ministry among a people who live with 40 percent unemployment, whose homes are literally shacks made of cardboard and tin, who don't make enough money to pay even the $10 that it costs to send a child to public school for a year. And yet they, and everyone else who went to South Africa who was at the Assembly yesterday testified that the faith and joy of the Christian communities there greatly outshines their counterparts in the US.

Yet here in the US it seems we hear of nothing but anger and fear and hopelessness. What do you suppose the answer would be to a survey if we put it out in our culture? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no God present who really can fix us? A bunch of us shout "yes, of course there is!" But the answer comes back, "then why are we so messed up? Why haven't we changed already?" No, there's no balm in Gilead.

What is this balm? We know the physician is God, but what is this balm that God uses to heal the people? Is it the right economic program? Is it the right political system? Is it the right military strategy?

Jesus us taught us to pray "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." In the ancient world, the system of debt was essentially a system of legal robbery, a simple means for powerful people to snarf up the ancestral lands of the poor. While Jesus may have been using debt as a symbol for sin, I believe, as do many other scholars, that he was also talking about literal debt. In any event the two are closely related.

Whether someone owes us money or owes us restitution of some other sort, it is this situation that gives rise to a simple choice, and surprisingly enough, that choice is the main seed from which our future will sprout.

Do we forgive the debt, or do we insist on our rights? If we insist on our rights, if we give free rein to our resentment, our choice will give birth to all manner of misery. But if we restrain our anger and fear, and keep our eyes and our ears open, and let go of our right to a pound of flesh, new possibilities arise like water in a desert.

The balm of Gilead, wielded by the great physician God, is first and foremost the balm of forgiveness. The healing doesn't end with the forgiveness, but it must and always does begin with forgiveness. The future might be very very dark, but only if there is no forgiveness. And if we are not the ones doing the forgiving, then the forgiving doesn't happen. God's forgiveness, friends, never comes until we forgive.

Jon told a story of a friend of theirs who had been a pastor during apartheid who had led his congregation to cross township and racial lines to help less fortunate people and who had been arrested for treason. He spent a year being tortured in prison before the UCC managed to get him released and out of the country. After spending some years in the US, he returned to work for the new post-apartheid government. He got a house in what had been the white town he'd previously lived near. While working in his garden one day, he saw one of his neighbors walking a dog. The neighbor had been in charge of his torture while in prison. The neighbor recognized Jon's friend and froze. Jon's friend struggled with himself and finally made a decision. He crossed his yard, walked up to his former torturer and wrapped his arms around him.

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Let's sing our answer.

Amen.