Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year C 2010

The Fountain of Living Water

So you open your mailbox and there's this official looking piece of mail. You know, with the printed return address. Something like Smith and Smith and Jones, Partners. Or maybe a deputy's car swings into your driveway, your old friend Jim gets out of the cruiser and comes to the door carrying this piece of paper.

You've been served.

You're being sued. You're being charged. Your stomach turns to ice water. This is going to be trouble. It's going to cost money. There's going to be conflict and arguing. You might not win. It might be you're guilty but just didn't know the law, or it might be that you're not, but the system is so screwy you get convicted anyway. Oh, Lord, why did this have to happen to me!

But then you see the plaintiff in the case: The Lord of Hosts, in the courtroom of heaven. Yow.

The prophets, as we have been saying, spoke for God. This is really the simplest and clearest definition of the word. Prophets speak for God. You might have noticed if you've been coming to church over the last month or two that very rarely have we heard prophets predicting the future. Yet predicting the future is the what lots of people apparently believe prophets are all about. Nope. Sometimes they do, but a lot of the time, they simply speak for God.

At this juncture, similar to Isaiah, Jeremiah is trying to convince the priests and rulers of Judah to stop trying to play power politics and straighten up the domestic scene. And by straighten up, he means, get with God. In this particular oracle from God, Jeremiah is using a classic prophetic form that shows up in many of the prophets, the lawsuit of God.

In a very real sense we all live in covenant with each other. A covenant is really nothing more than a contract, but in the form of the divine-human covenant, the partners make it something a great deal more remarkable. But we all live in covenant. The law of the land is something we all more or less recognize and respect. Until someone doesn't. What happens then?

Well, then lawyers and cops and judges get involved. If the lawyers and the judges and the cops get involved it means that the whole covenant thing isn't working. In church life, I often say that the bylaws come out when the gospel leaves. If we're all being serious disciples and doing our level best to grow in our spiritual lives together, there is usually no need for any rules. It's when one of us or a group of us stop trying to be disciples, and behave on the basis of some other set of rules of ideas, that's when people drag the bylaws out of the file cabinet and everyone tries to remember what the rules and regulations are.

A marriage is a beautiful and happy thing as long as the partners are passionately keeping their covenant with one another. But if one of them turns to someone else, the covenant is broken. There might be an opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation but the chances are just as good, maybe better, that lawyers and judges are around the corner.

Jeremiah speaks for a wounded spouse, sick of betrayal, who is saying, "That's it, no more counseling, I'm calling my lawyer."

And, just like a wounded spouse, God tells God's counsel the long sad tale. After all I did for my spouse, God says, look how my spouse has treated me!

Now to really get at Jeremiah's message though, we need to look at the gist of the accusation. It's not just betrayal that outrages and wounds God. It's that the betrayal is with empty things that really can't deliver anything God can deliver. Cracked cisterns that can't hold water versus a fountain of living water.

God, the creator and sustainer of all life, has offered to be our king and lord, and has asked us, if we would like to accept this offer, to renounce everything else to which we give authority. From God's point of view, and I suppose even from ours, this would seem a no-brainer. God, who makes everything that grows grow, that makes everything that breathes breathe, that makes everything that is born alive, is saying, "Give up all the things you are chasing after, and serve only me." Why in the world would we say no?

God offers to create a society of people who not only love their friends and family but also strangers and aliens. God offers to create a society free of violence and warfare. God offers to create a society in which all who are sick are cared for. God offers to create a society in which human beings are provided with all that they need, and in which everyone is safe from each other.

This offer begins with the Israel and extends to the church. And yet it seems that periodically, both Israel and the church simply say, "we like this other empty thing better than we like God." We like power. We like recognition. We like control. We like acquiring things. And as our psalmist says, it's the nature of God to let us have the consequences of our unfaithfulness.

What amazes me is that despite the many things that one can clearly find wrong with the church not only now but all through history, the fountain of living water is still pouring into the world in the work of God's people. If you just take a little time to read what Global Ministries is doing, or for that matter, what local churches all over the world are doing, you'll find that living water gushing forth in the wildernesses of the world.

Right here in our congregation, we have a boatload of people who I know routinely share with those who can't repay, forgive those who should never be forgiven, show grace to those who deserve none. God is good and is able to work with us, even as we follow after what doesn't profit, even as we dig cisterns that won't hold water.

And so it is that I'm grateful to old Jeremiah for reminding me and warning me and yes, even judging me. Such a word from God is a blessing that saves.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year C 2010

Do Not Be Afraid

You know I went by to see the Hatchers yesterday because their grandson, as many of you know, has gotten a very serious diagnosis and they've had a hard, scary week. He's doing better, and we're hoping he's going home tomorrow. We'll certainly be keeping little Griffin in our prayers.

But as I was thinking about my sermon this morning, I was wondering how the Hatchers reacted when they got the call that Griffin was in ICU. I wondered if they said to their son, "We're not ready. We're not worthy to come and be with you and Griffin." Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? I didn't ask them but I'd be willing to bet they were in their car and driving in no time at all, praying all the way there.

God tells Jeremiah, "Do not be afraid."

What is it that Jeremiah is afraid of? Jeremiah's afraid that he won't have the guts to go to people who are incredibly powerful and tell them, in the name of the Lord, to shape up. He won't have the eloquence to argue with people who are older and smarter than he is.

Jeremiah is in the wilderness, cold and hungry, because he is evaluating his own fitness for the mission to which he is called. God is telling him to go and do this thing, God is inviting him to Mt. Zion, but he's still at Mt. Sinai going through the commandments and finding out how far short he really falls.

The Hatchers were in their car and on the way before they even thought much about it. Were they scared? Sure they were. Did they doubt that they could do much to help? Probably. Did any of that stop them from getting up and answering the call? Nope.

And yet when we're asked to take part in saving the world, when we get asked to come to Mt. Zion, we say, "No, we're staying out here at Mt. Sinai for a while longer; we've got a lot more self-improvement to do before we're ready."

Why do we do this? Is it because we're scared of the job? Certainly. Conventional wisdom and common sense tells us that we can't save the world. We have all kinds of smart people who tell us all the reasons why saving the world is someone else's problem. We just don't have the power, the insight, the reach.

But I think there is another kind of fear we have about this call. I think we can't let in the possibility that God really wants us that close to God, that God would really entrust something so important to us, that God would draw us that close to God's heart.

God's response to Jeremiah is God's response to each one of us here this morning, each one of us who have also been called to help God save the world.

God says, "Have you forgotten that I knit you together in your mother's womb? Do you think that your work depends on your skill and wisdom? Who do you think is the source of all skill and all wisdom?"

Our perennial problem is that we confuse Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. At Mount Sinai, we are meant to respond with fear, and on that basis, obey. And that is a step in the journey for sure. It's a necessary stop we have to make on our way to the kingdom of God. Mt. Sinai is the place where God's thunderous voice tells us right from wrong, and we shake in our boots because we know where we come out on that score.

But it's not the kingdom of God, no matter how many preachers like to preach from there. Yes, it makes more sense. It's a lot more like the way of the world. It's certainly gets our attention much more powerfully. "Do this and you will live, but fail to do it and you will die!" "Do this and go to heaven, but fail to do this and go to hell!" "Work hard and save your money and you will be happy, fail to do this and you will be sad!" "Be nice to your neighbors and you will feel good about yourself, fail to do this and you won't!" "Work for peace and justice, and you will be fulfilled, but fail to do this and you will be empty!"

All of these things are true, but God is inviting us to a new place, just as he invited Jeremiah.

Sooner or later, in the course of our journey, God invites us across a line. And the line is between Mount Sinai, where it's all about saving ourselves, and Mount Zion, where it's all about saving the world. At Mount Sinai, we obey God because we want his blessing and we fear his condemnation. At Mount Zion, we obey God because we're passionately in love with God. God invites us across the line from being good to being God's.

The synagogue leader is not a moral hair-splitter. He's not a religious hypocrite we need to dismiss. Yes, he's still at Mt. Sinai, but Mt. Sinai is a very holy place, and a lot of us are still there, stuck there, not really sure how to get away. The synagogue leader might have reasonably been concerned about forgetting the purpose of Sabbath, the day we're supposed to be in worship, by getting into a healing free-for-all. And to be perfectly honest, our culture has gotten pretty bad about keeping the Sabbath. We might do well to pay some attention to this man.

And Jesus, we must be careful to note, does not disagree. He doesn't dismiss the law. Mount Sinai is on the way to Mount Zion. But Jesus does invite the old rabbi across the line, where Sabbath-keeping goes from being something we do because we're seeking God's blessings and avoiding God's judgment, to something we do as the new creations of God, free of our crippling and fearful self-interest that keeps us bent over, staring at the ground at our feet.

Do not be afraid. God is leading you a whole new existence. Stand up, grow up, be what God intends you to be. Forget about whether it will make you happy or not. Just answer the call. Just go for it. Just give up searching for fulfillment and fall in love with God.

You're headed for Mount Zion, to the company of all the saints, to the festal gathering, to the feast to end all feasts. Yes, we know you've never been there before, and the freedom of the place may feel like falling off a cliff, but this is what it means to be a grown-up Christian. It's not about you anymore. It's not about what choices you make. It's not about what you get out of it.

It's not about saving yourself. It's about saving the world.

Do not be afraid.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost Year C

The Vineyard of the Lord

In out modern culture there has been such an abuse of authority that we have all become leery of experts. We are all aware that so-called experts can barrage us with statistics and authoritative sources and convince us of one thing, until the next so-called expert does the same thing to convince us of the exact opposite. And so we simply make up our minds in advance about the camp we'll stick with and only respect the experts that already agree with us. The days when we could rationally weigh factual evidence and come to a reasonable decision are over. If any of us genuinely try to wade through the monumental sludge pile of facts and figures to try to get at the truth of a thing we find ourselves exhausted.

Or is the truth more that the whole idea of reasonably making a decision based on facts was misguided to begin with? Isn't it more likely that in everything except perhaps the laws of physics it's not really possible to talk about facts? Isn't it more truthful to say that we have theories that seem to work and so we stick to them, sometimes even when they don't work? Don't we gravitate toward those who agree with us and avoid those who don't? Isn't our self-esteem wrapped up in what we believe to be the right map for living, so that we are genuinely offended if someone or some group convincingly challenges it?

How do we decide what's really going on? And then how do we figure out what to do about it?

I think there's a clue in Isaiah's beautiful song of the vineyard. The song is really a parable, and Jesus used it hundreds of years later in his own teaching.

You can open your bibles to it if you want to Isaiah 5. Old Testament, toward the end. The form here, this song, sounds something like a love song, something like the Song of Songs, in fact. I like to call this Isaiah's country western song. It's a lament about betrayal. God loved God's people, but the people done him wrong.

I went to visit Gene Blake last week and every time I go to see him he shows me his tomato plants. He has them in big planters on his porch. Earlier this summer he was proud to show me how big they were getting. He was pretty excited. But last week he was not so proud. "Do you know," he said, "I haven't gotten a single blossom?" And sure enough, there were the big tomato vines, just as healthy and green as you please, and not single flower on them. "Not tomato one," he said. I wondered why and he did too. He opined that it might have been for lack of bees. Who knows?

I suppose all of you gardeners and farmers out there know just what is being said here. One chooses a good spot for a garden carefully. One prepares the soil. Lots of effort goes into planting and watering and weeding, doesn't it? A good gardener has success most of the time, but sometimes, inexplicably, the whole effort comes to nothing.

And Isaiah says this is a metaphor for God's view of the then-current situation. He doesn't try to explain why the vineyard produced the stinky fruit, which is a better translation than "wild grapes." But the metaphor is a good one for describing why it is that Israel is lying in ruins to the north and Judah is about to follow suit.

We may not understand how an ordinary person can have a vision from God, but God doesn't understand how an ordinary person can't.

This is a parable about heritage. The people of God have forgotten all that God had done for them, all that God had promised them, all that God had commanded them, all of their experiences with God over many generations. And for this reason they had not seen what was really going on, and they had not know what to do about it.

If we claim our heritage as God's people, and work at remembering it, we all become prophets. It's not easy, but it's not rocket science either. Nor is there any guarantee that it will make us happy or fulfilled in the usual sense of the words. Sometimes our heritage will give us to courage to stick to an unpopular course for the sake of the truth. Sometimes it will turn even those we love away from us. Sometimes it will cost us. But the joy and peace that we derive from this heritage has to do with the salvation that God is working through us.

What our heritage gives us are the perspective we need in order to know what's really going on and just what to do about it. Our heritage gives us the ultimate vision, an idea of the right kind of soil to plant ourselves in, and the kind of grapes God is looking for.

If there was a picture album of the most influential people in your life, who would be in it? Who are the people who taught you how to figure out what's going on and how to decide what to do about it? That's your heritage. That's the vineyard you're planted in. And God is asking you and I today, is Abraham in there? Moses, Elijah, Isaiah? Is Paul the Apostle in there, and what about Luke and the early church?

With the perspective of our heritage as God's people, we can evaluate with confidence the evidence of whatever expert comes along. No we won't get answers to scientific matters. We will not be able to get clear direction on the specifics of moral questions our ancestors never had to answer. What we will get is a good idea of what we can expect of human beings, where God might be in all of it, and what the best bet is for the next right thing to do.

It's never too late to get to know the cloud of witnesses, the heritage of God's people. It's never too late to be planted in the vineyard of the Lord.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost Year c 2010

August 8, 2010

Isaiah's Vision

This morning we're presented with a vision of the prophet Isaiah, and it's been on my heart to speak to you about prophecy, so let's take a look at old Isaiah, shall we?

I'd like first to get past some common misperceptions. While prophets often wrote about things God was going to do in the future, they were not fortune tellers or seers in the usual sense. Prophets were really interpreters of current events. The mode of their interpretation was to speak in God's voice. The most common phrase in prophetic literature is "Thus saith the Lord."

You'll notice if you look at your bible that Isaiah begins with a historical setting. In this particular time and place, God spoke to Isaiah. During the reign of the following kings in the southern kingdom of Judah, God spoke to Isaiah and told him to tell the people thus and such.

Now this morning's reading jumps over some verses that describe a terrible disaster, the northern kingdom, Israel, lying in ruins. Judah, the lower half of the land God had given to the Jewish people, still barely standing, now surrounded by powerful empires all spoiling to tear Judah apart. God is grieving over Israel, who turned away from God, and therefore experienced this awful destruction and desolation. God speaks of Israel as God's child.

But of course, Isaiah is a priest of the temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. We met him, if we read our bibles, in the latter part of the Second Book of Kings. His prophecy is for Judah.

God begins by speaking about worship. Isaiah would have seen a lot of worship in his day to day job. There can be no doubt that Isaiah believed in worship and practiced worship with real devotion. But Isaiah also saw what was going on outside the temple.

It might be that the people of Judah, particularly the upper classes, thought themselves superior to the people of Israel because they did worship right. They had the temple after all, and believed that God had commanded the building of the temple and had forbidden the old worship in the so-called high places, where the northern kingdom people had worshipped.

Well, now, God really showed those bad old Northerners, huh? Wiped 'em right out. Sent the survivors into exile. But that won't happen to us. We have the temple.

Well, God says, temple shmemple.

Judah had the same problems Israel had. They were infatuated with and terrified of the tremendous power Assyria and other empires around them were developing by creating big hierarchies, vast slave labor forces and well-trained, well-equipped armies. Nothing succeeds like success, you know. The promises of God were all well and good but look at those buildings! Look at all that shiny armor! Look at all those horses and chariots! Yes, it means a huge poverty-stricken labor force, yes it means widows and orphans will die of starvation and neglect, but hey, that's just the price of doing business, man. Who needs widows and orphans? They're a drain on the system. They can't fight and they don't generate tax income.

The temple itself was a doubtful proposition to begin with. It seemed like it was more something the people wanted than God wanted. The king deal was the same way. The people wanted a king like all those other empires had. God was not so sure that was a good idea, but God said, sure, why not. But then, all those other emperors had big palaces. David and then Solomon thought that God had to have one of those too. God was doubtful, but then he said, sure, why not.

Before you knew it, the temple and all the impressive rituals going on in the temple got to be more important than the God for whom it was built. The love affair with empire building went on, and God's rule was more-or-less forgotten. Judah, just like Israel, wanted to run with the big dogs.

Well, God says, if you're going to worship and then ignore my law, you're going to end up like Israel. So all your worshipping just makes me tired. I see just where you're headed, and the worship just makes me feel worse. It just makes me sick.

God had demonstrated again and again through the time of the judges that the people didn't need all the trappings of empire to be safe and secure. They didn't need the king, they didn't need the temple, they didn't need the standing army, they didn't need the big palace bureaucracy. God would keep them safe, as long as they were willing and obedient. But the people didn't believe God.

And this is what Isaiah is on about here, friends. The people didn't believe God's promises, so they operated out of their fears and infatuations, and this, God says, always leads to disaster and ruin.

But, God says through his prophet Isaiah, it's not too late. You can still change your attitude. You can become willing and obedient and all the terrible things you've done while you were building your empire will be forgiven and forgotten. And God makes it very clear what God means by becoming willing and obedient.

God says, rescue, plead for and defend the poorest and weakest people among you. Isaiah uses the widow and the orphan, because in the patriarchal system of that day, to be without a husband or a father was the most desperate situation anyone could be in.

God is not saying that God doesn't want his people to worship. Worship is indeed the main work of God's people. Isaiah certainly wasn't preaching that the temple should be shut down or that people should stop worshipping. God is saying that worship's purpose is to inspire a living and active faith, a belief in God's promises on which God's people act willingly and obediently.

Who are the widows and the orphans among us today? And when I say "us" I don't mean Philippi or Deltaville or the United States. When I say "us" I mean the world-wide church. Who are the people who have no one in their corner? Who are the people on whose backs the rest of the world stands?

Might God be wearied of the worship of the church in these days? Could God be a little tired of our preoccupation with pretty buildings and entertainment worship? Could it be that the economic wastelands we see today might spring from the same causes as Israel's desolation was caused by?

God has made a simple promise that is hard to believe. Plead for, rescue and defend the weakest and the poorest, and we will be fine. Fail to do that, and no matter how lovely our buildings or how inspiring our worship, desolation will be the end.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tenth Sunday Fter Pentecost Year C

Raised with Christ

I'm a chronic worrier you know. My wife calls me her little dark cloud. One of the many things that has always troubled me is the idea that I would die in the middle of something stupid or unworthy. You know, have a heart attack while arguing about a restaurant bill. Or drop dead while committing adultery. I've wondered about the stuff people would find in my house, the things I've written, things I've read, the stuff I eat and drink. Would I be at peace with everyone, or would there be a bunch of enemies out there that I died in the midst of battling? Would there be people openly or secretly dancing on my grave?

If I died today, what sort of conversations would people remember me having in my last days? What would people remember me being concerned about or interested in?

This isn't such a bad thing to think about, as Jesus himself reminds us this morning.

But something I haven't thought about as much, and I suppose I should, is what it would be like if I died and came back. And in a very real sense, this has happened to me, not once, but three or four times that I can remember, and that's just talking about physical death, moments when I literally came close to leaving this beautiful world and didn't.

There were also many times, even recent times, when I have died and returned to life in a spiritual sense. But even this is not exactly what Paul means.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he was transformed, or "transfigured," as the story of his mountaintop revelation says. He continued to be a person who ate and drank and touched people, but he also became a person who could walk through walls, materialize or dematerialize at will, or appear in forms unrecognizable to his friends. He was still a human being in the most ordinary sense of the term, but he had also become a divine being who could ascend into the hidden world of heaven, and even come back again.

When Paul says that we have been raised with Christ, he is suggesting that we have become ourselves such beings. Indeed, the stories about Paul in the book of Acts have some of these kinds of resurrection body miracles.

Obviously, we have never dematerialized in the literal sense. We can't walk through walls. But it may be that what Christ and his apostle Paul demonstrated to us in such a powerful literal way is what we are able to do in a figurative and spiritual way.

I whimsically suggested a trip to heaven and visits with angels a few weeks ago, but isn't this what Paul really is talking about? Isn't he suggesting that we can and should have a resurrection relationship with the risen Christ, that we should make the trip to heaven and worship the Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father?

Now we're Disciples of Christ, and we like to keep things real, you know. We have a certain rational, down-to-earth heritage that kind of goes against such mystical ideas. Let me see if I can break it down for us this morning.

If we absorb the stories of Jesus from the four gospels, if we absorb the stories of Israel in the Old Testament, these stories will begin to resonate in deep ways in our minds and hearts and spirits. They will become for us a kind of lens through which we look at ourselves and the world. Most importantly though, they will give us a means by which we can discern the presence of the living God, the creator of all that lives.

And then if we enter into relationship with this God, we will inexorably be led to building community with all who call on God's name. In building this community, we are further shaped and find more and more ways to see and experience God's Spirit.

Jesus so deeply entered into this world, the world of scripture, the world of his Jewish heritage, and most importantly the vision of the living God, that he renounced all that was powerful and impressive in his world in order to worship and love God alone. In turn he embraced all his brother and sister Jews, no matter what their sin. His renunciation of the world was so complete that the powers of the world executed him for it. And yet they could not defeat his God, who raised Jesus from the dead as the first gesture in making a new creation.

This is the resurrection we also can enter into, and the resurrection Paul is talking about. If we have been raised with Christ, we no longer are ruled by the desires the world tells us we should have, along with all the fears that come with them. If we have been raised with Christ, we are no longer angry about anything because nothing of real consequence can be taken from us when God is our Father. We never need to lie or twist the truth because we will not have anything to hide when our inappropriate desires and our anger and wrath has died on the cross with Christ.

You know, there are character defects of mine, sins, I guess you could call them, that have died on the cross with Christ. And you know how I know they've died? Well, first of all, I don't act on them anymore. But this is not why I know they've died. I know they've died because I grieve them the way I grieve the death of an old friend. They're like ghosts, sometimes I feel them hovering around me, but they are no longer real.

It's obvious from reading Paul that this is not the all-or-nothing, once-for-all thing some people make it out to be. Paul wouldn't be preaching these things if everybody got it right the first time. No this process of dying and rising, of being put to death for renouncing the world and then raised by the God we renounced it for, this process goes on and on. It's a way of life, an ongoing transformation God is working that Christ has opened for us.

Maybe my worrying will get fixed too, and the little dark cloud will dissolve in the sun.