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.


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.


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.


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! 

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.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Captives Before the Foe

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.