Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Unknown God (sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter)

James Limburg, a seminary professor, in an essay on today's psalm, reports that in his grandfather role he is sometimes required to tell his grandchildren stories. He has therefore written up a number of bible stories in short form that he can tell children. As part of making these stories more interesting, he sometimes includes his own grandchildren as characters in them. Once he asked his grandson if his grandson liked the stories. His grandson replied, "Yes I do." The child thought a moment and then went on: "But I like them best when they're about me!"

We all like stories about us, about ourselves or people we know. I often hear that people like my funeral sermons, and I think it's because they are stories about people they know. Sermons that are actually about Jesus are often less pleasant, and this is because, well, this is a person we don't really know very well.

It is the nature of the sinful world humankind has made for itself that other spirits take center stage and the spirit of the creator is exiled from human community. God has therefore called us, God's people, to make it our business to know God and to make God known again, in the hopes of reconciling the world to God.

But knowing God is a tricky business. One of our new members, Bill Luke, has said that God is slippery. I think God is slippery because God is alive.

A living God continues to respond to a living situation. No book or statue or creed can stand century after century as the last word, the sole idea, the unchanging identity of God. Jesus Christ, a very specific and particular person, is risen from the dead. He is alive.

And so Christ today is the same person who was born in the first century, who went about on foot in a relatively small geographical area, preaching and teaching and healing, the same person who was arrested and executed for insurrection, the same person who emerged transformed from the tomb on Easter Sunday.

But now he has lived through the fall of the Roman Empire. He has lived through the rise of the European feudal societies. He has lived through the Reformation. He has lived through the colonization of the American continents. He has lived through the American Revolution and the World Wars and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

And Jesus is alive in all kinds of places, in China and Liberia and Indonesia. He's alive in Belize and Sumatra and Illinois.

And, like us, Jesus speaks and acts differently dependent on when and where he is. He doesn't become a different person, anymore than we become different people because we have aged twenty years or because we've moved to a different place. We behave differently in different places and times not because we are inconsistent or dishonest, but because we are alive. That's what being alive means.

At the same time, there is a core to each one of us, an unchanging identity, and this is equally important. The story of our lives, the succession of anecdotes we tell about what we did in different times and places, is about the only way we can really capture this core. This is what I try to do at funerals. One way we talk about this unchanging self is with the word "spirit."

Each person has a spirit, a characteristic center that doesn't change, even though it might manifest differently to different times and places. Nations and institutions have spirits as well. And the spirit enthroned above all these spirits is the God of Israel, the great "I Am."

But peculiar to Christian thought is the idea that this Spirit, the creator God, makes itself known through the human creature. So when we tell stories about this God, we are telling stories about God's people. And when we are telling stories about God's people, we are telling stories about Jesus. And when we are telling stories about Jesus and God's people, we are telling stories about us.

I think it awfully important that the church share some common ground with the place and time in which it finds itself, that it finds what recognizable landmarks it can so that people can feel some sense that the gospel is about them. But I think at this time and place in history we emphasize this too much. I think we have so identified the gospel with our preferences and opinions and culture that we have lost the core identity, the Spirit, of Christ.

A lot of my work over the past six years has been to teach and preach about this Spirit, to insist on telling the Old Testament stories, to insist on speaking about the particular person Jesus, to insist on disciples learning these stories and coming to know this Spirit, just as we come to know the story of some friend or family member with whom we live. Knowing these stories and poems and letters is the way we come to recognize the Spirit, a Spirit which is indeed alive and always responding as living persons do, uniquely to each unique situation.

These are my prayers of thanksgiving for you:

That Christ has so worked in you and among you over these past six years that many lives have been transformed, many who have lived in darkness have come out into the light, and many who have been imprisoned have come into freedom.

That Christ has worked through you to bless and grow and heal me.

That Christ has led you to become a disciple-forming church, one that welcomes and involves seekers in ministry.

That Christ has given you a sense of mission, so that you have begun to act with purpose and intention in your community.

That Christ has richly blessed you with the humble spirit of service.

And these are my prayers for your future:

That God's Spirit will open in all of you a deep wisdom in the stewardship of the gifts God has given each one of you, all the gifts, of time, talent and wealth, and that the bottomless generosity of God will richly flow through each one.

That God's Spirit will lead this congregation more deeply into a corporate life of prayer, that you together might pray without ceasing, giving thanks and pleading for the world every time you gather, so that the passion God has for this beautiful creation might be revealed in your worship.

That the Spirit might so richly dwell in each one of you that your story might become part of God's story, and that you might be able to boldly give account of your relationship to Christ, so that the community all around might hear the name of Jesus on your lips.

And finally, this is my benediction as I leave you:

May you tell the stories of God to each other so richly and so often that you will collectively come to know the God's Spirit with great clarity and certainty.

May you let go of your preferences and opinions and yield to the sure guidance of this Spirit, in peaceful unity.

May it be this Spirit, and not powerful or popular personalities, that will hold the church together, guide all its work and grow all its members.

May this Spirit knit you together with all the people of God everywhere, in this county, in this country, in all the world.

May it be this living Spirit, and not dead words or creeds or doctrines, that encounters each new moment and each new person both in this church and, through this church, in the community.

May you continue to make known the unknown God.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stones (sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter)

It couldn't have been easy to tear down the temple.

By the time John had written his gospel, by the time Luke had written Acts, and probably by the time this letter of Peter had been composed, the temple in which Jesus had been bar mitzvah-ed and circumcised, where he'd whipped the moneylenders and turned over their tables, and where the first disciples gathered after the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, was nothing but a pile of great broken stones. One wall only was left, and it still stands today. It's called "the wailing wall."

The temple had been an imposing structure. This was the nature of temples in the ancient near east. Each nation, and particularly each large imperial city state like Memphis or Babylon or Rome or Athens, had its god or gods, and each one expressed its power and vitality by building impressive temples. The second temple in Jerusalem was no exception. It was there to express that this nation, Israel, was protected and secured by a powerful god.

And for this very reason, empires that wanted to really crush an opponent nation would not only murder and enslave as many of the nation's inhabitants as it could, but would deliver the most stinging blow by destroying the nation's temple or temples. For the inhabitants of the conquered land, this was a visible sign of hopelessness. It told them that their god or gods had been defeated, that the god or gods of their conquerors were victorious.

There can be little doubt that bin Laden and Al Qaeda had this kind of religious message in mind when they flew their planes into the twin towers. The towers were to them the temples of the United States. Of course bin Laden and his group are not real Muslims, nor were the towers temples to the American people. What Al Qaeda did was simply an act of mass murder. Nevertheless the act produced in us the kind of horror that the Jews must have felt watching the Romans tear down their temple.

Of course the Romans didn't have today's technology. One has to wonder what kind of machines they had to use to so completely destroy a huge stone building. I presume we're talking about catapults, battering rams, team of horses perhaps. I don't think it's easy to take down a monumental building, particularly without the use of explosives. It would have been a pretty significant project. It would probably not have been quick. It would have been slow, brutal.

Stoning a person to death is not quick either. There's a very good but really horrifying movie called The Stoning of Saroya M. that does a pretty good job of showing how slow and difficult it is to stone a person to death. People stand at a distance and hurl stones at the condemned person. Many miss. Many hit other parts of the body, merely causing severe pain but hardly contributing to actually killing the person. It's the stones that hit the head that do the most damage, and the head is a rather difficult target. And even if one hits the head, it's surprising how many parts of the head you can hit and damage without causing death.

From the passage we heard this morning we don't necessarily get that Stephen is being stoned to death here, or why. The people stoning Stephen were not Romans. They were upstanding religious folk. In fact the stoning itself was a biblically mandated punishment for blasphemy. Stephen, recently ordained by the apostles as one of the first deacons, was preaching to synagogue leaders and prominent religious persons about how they had murdered the son of God and how God didn't only dwell in the temple in Jerusalem. These were deeply blasphemous and offensive statements, and this may be a little mystifying to us.

For the good religious people who stoned Stephen to death, God belonged to Israel and Israel alone. God didn't do things like forgive sinners or give sight to the blind. And they certainly could not possibly admit that they could collectively be wrong about any important religious matter, like for example the Son of God.

The blasphemy of Stephen was to suggest that the religious leaders of Israel didn't have God under their control. Strangely enough, many Christians still have this problem.

There were some Christians yesterday who expected the end of the world. Their leader thought he had God under his control. He might have denied this, but having the capacity to predict what God is going to do and when God is going to do it comes down, I think, to having God under one's control.

Other Christians think there is some simple list of things one has to believe in order to be guaranteed life after death. And while there are certainly some truth claims that come with a vital faith, this I think amounts to thinking one has God under one's control.

Others think that piling up good deeds will obligate God to give them what they want, whether its healing or wealth or eternal life, and this comes down to trying to have God under one's control.

And so we build our great monuments, our edifices, be they of stone or of rules or of claims of truth, and we identify these things we have made with God. In so doing however we forget the second commandment: you shall not make a graven image of your God. Nevertheless, these edifices are terribly difficult to destroy.

But destroyed they all will be. Because no matter how big we build them, no matter how heavy the stones, and no matter how large the army we assemble to defend them, sooner or later some bigger army will come along or some machine or bomb powerful enough to tear them down, or some more persuasive idea will tear down all our best ideas.

But Stephen, like Jesus, is a part of a temple that has never been torn down, but has in fact grown bigger and bigger and bigger throughout all the years since. There are stones that make great buildings, there are stones that bring great buildings down, there are stones that bring great people down, there are stones that cover the tombs of the dead, but the living stones, the people who follow the risen Jesus, the cornerstone, are assembled into a great eternal temple that persists from generation to generation and grows and grows and grows. No army, no bomb, no angry mob can bring down this mighty temple.

For we belong not to a god of stone, but to the God of life.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Gate (sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter)

The rabbis tell a story about a tightrope walker who appeared in a little town and went about inviting everyone to come and see his act. The town had little to do in the way of entertainment, so everyone readily gathered near the two big trees he'd chosen for his performance.

He'd climbed to a dizzying height and attached a rope between the two trees. When the people saw how high he planned to go they were amazed. But when he said, "Do you all believe that I can make it across the rope?," the crowd, eager to see the performance, shouted as one, "Yes," and they all applauded loudly.

The tightrope walker then grabbed a nearby wheelbarrow and with the same excitement asked the crowd, "And who will let me push them across in this wheelbarrow?"

And all you could hear were the crickets.

We often hear people talking these days about the difference between spirituality and religion. The difference is between those who believed the tightrope walker could cross the rope and those who climbed into the wheelbarrow, which in this story and perhaps in many churches, are none at all.

Our passages today tell of a Jesus who practiced a spiritual path that he commends to us as a true and life-giving path. It's a path oriented to unending and depthless abundance and overflowing, eternal life, all flowing from the hand of the one God. It is one that is based on the expectation that all will be filled and satisfied and that true power is not in dominant control of the many by the few but in the liberating community of all for God and for each other.

It is above all a practice that Jesus offers. It is this practice that he described as the gate to eternal life, and he demonstrated by refusing to bow to Herod or Caiaphas or Caesar, by joyfully serving as a conduit of the awe-inspiring power of God to heal and forgive, by accepting the legal execution by torture that comes to all who buck the system, trusting in God to rescue and vindicate him, which God did by raising Jesus from the dead.

So assenting to a list of propositions, a bunch of doctrine, does nothing at all for any of us if it doesn't inform a practice. And I'm not talking about good deeds or adhering to a bunch of values, because in most cases systems of doctrinal belief are simply twisted around by the Caesars and the Caiaphases and the Herods of our time to bless and maintain the status quo. In fact, most people rightly sense that religion as we know it generally exists to prop up the dominant culture. Lots of people see going to church as submitting to the morals and rules of society, however this or that church defines those rules. But I don't think this is what being a disciple of Christ is about at all.

It is one thing to believe that God is going to make everything all right. It's another thing to be a part of what God is making right. It's one thing to wait passively for God to miraculously fix things. It's another to become God's instrument to do so. It's one thing to admire Jesus for forgiving those who colluded in his trial and execution, it's another to take up one's own cross in protest against the selfishness and violence of the world's false shepherds. It's one thing to stand in awe of God's generosity, it's another to be authentically generous oneself. It's one thing to hope for miracles, it's another to do them. It's one thing to pray for God's help, it's another to pray to help God.

Acts gives us a snapshot of the explosion that was the early church, the amazing new community that blossomed out of the resurrection of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts as a kind of sequel to his gospel, tells us about how people were living, not about what they believed. He talks about a community, koinonia, not just a potluck social club, but a communion that worships and studies in one accord. He talks about radical generosity, those who are wealthy voluntarily liquidating their resources and giving it to the church to redistribute. He talks about ongoing wonders done by the leaders of the community.

Acts and other sources from the period tell us that many early Christians called their movement "the Way." It was certainly not only about right thinking or believing or assenting to a list of impossible truths. It was a deeply communal practice of prayer and study and giving and serving that opened the way for the power of God to flow endlessly into the world. It was a way for people to enter the realm of God and a way for God to enter the realm of the world.

And Jesus tells us something about the differences between himself as the true shepherd and the false shepherds, the lords or the realm of the world. For one thing, the lords of the world are duplicitous. They don't come at you head-on, out in the open, above-board, but always sideways, with trickery, confusion, and spin.

Jesus tells us that there is a difference between where he leads and where the false shepherds lead. Invariably the false shepherds, the lords of the universe as some media pundits call them, want something from us, and almost always it will ultimately deplete us and enrich them, for their way is oriented to the fear of scarcity and death. They therefore chase wealth and control others with violence. Jesus, the true shepherd, on the other hand, is oriented toward faith in abundance and life. His way enriches us, but does not thereby deplete him. His way also calls forth our obedience with love and not with a club. Most of all, his way is blessed and accompanied at every step by the presence of God.

So it's one thing to stand on the sidelines and cheer God on. It's another to get on the playing field and get into God's team. It's one thing to believe that the tightrope guy will get across. It's another thing to follow him.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Those Who Have Not Seen (sermon for the second Sunday of Easter)

A reality check is rarely good news.

We use the words "reality" and "real" almost exclusively as correctives. We bring up reality when it seems that those around us are floating off into delusion or wishful thinking. Reality is often a counterpoint to a past or present viewed through rose-colored glasses, or an unreasonably hopeful outlook about the future.

The great reality check of the gospels comes in the aftermath of the triumphant procession into Jerusalem, when Jesus was celebrated as the Messiah ready to deliver Israel from its oppression and restore it to the glory of Solomon's day. Indeed Jesus had himself predicted this reality check and all but Thomas had refused to believe it. Indeed Thomas was always the one who seemed firmly connected to reality, who insisted on getting the real scoop. When Jesus plans to return to Jerusalem it's Thomas who fully expects and understands that Jesus will be arrested and executed. He's the one who says "Let's go die with him."

But Thomas' nerve, like the nerve of all of the disciples, fails him in the moment. This is his reality check, not so much the crucifixion, which he fully expected, but his own cowardice. Thomas abandons Jesus just like all the others.

And so we might say that the disciples are living in reality as the scene from John opens this morning. They understand that their movement is over, their leader dead, their own safety in serious jeopardy. They have heard the rumors that Jesus is not dead, that he's risen from the grave. But this news came from hysterical women. Certainly understandable that they would give into such a rosy picture. But the men, well, they face reality head-on. The dream is over. The best and wisest thing to do is to hide.

"He'll never change." "Those people will always be fighting." "We don't have enough." Reality checks. It's all well and good to talk about hope and goodness and changing the world. But it's also good to get a reality check now and again. Healthy.

People don't come back from the dead. People don't walk through walls. And most of all, people don't forgive betrayal and cowardice.

A number of preachers wonder about where Thomas was when Jesus arrived and appeared to the other disciples. John apparently doesn't think the reason is important enough to report and I trust John. The point was simply that Thomas wasn't there to see the risen Christ.

Thomas' own wounds can be heard in his anguished response about Jesus' wounds. His heart is broken. He is like the woman who has finally decided to divorce her husband but who is then confronted with some evidence that he has changed. Thomas had accepted the reality of what had happened. Jesus was defeated, and worse, Thomas himself had been unable to stand by the one he loved. Don't tell me that Jesus is risen from the dead. Don't say such things. When I can poke my fingers into the wounds of his crucifixion I'll believe it.

David Lose, a very good preacher, mentions Les Miserables in his sermon on this text. Hugo's hero, Jean Valjean, spends some nineteen years in a horrifying prison for a five-year sentence he got for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. During that nightmare, his degenerates morally and becomes a cynical and vicious criminal. Upon his release, he finds he can't get a job because of his record and he floats from town to town as a vagrant.

In one town a bishop invites him into his home for a meal and a night in a warm bed. Jean repays the bishop's kindness as all criminals do, by stealing some silver plates and running off. But he is caught by local police with the plates, which are recognized, and he is dragged back to the bishop's house.

When the police confront the bishop with the criminal, the bishop takes some candlesticks from the mantle, holds them out to Jean and says, "My friend! I'm glad to see you. You took the plates I gave you but forgot the candlesticks."

Jean is released and spends the night in tears, emerging a new person who goes on to do great good.

Many of us would say that getting robbed was the reality check the bishop needed to correct his silly interest in taking criminals into his home. But the reality check was not for him, but for Jean Valjean, confronted by the most shocking reality check of all: God's all-powerful grace.

"Peace be with you," Jesus says. You who hide, you who are disgusted by your own cowardice, your own inability to live into the hope that God has promised, you who hide in the dark because you fear the consequences of living in the light, because you fear the cost, you who think you understand reality, you who are sure that God really doesn't have the power to come through, you who betrayed and fled your God, to you God says, "My friend! You forgot your candlesticks!"

You will notice that Thomas doesn't have to put his fingers in any wounds. It is when Jesus offers Thomas forgiveness, when he says to Thomas as well, "Peace," that Thomas not only recognizes Jesus, but finally recognizes God.

And strangely, this very gift of grace, this offer to forgive the cowardice and betrayal, is the very power by which those disciples would go on to face their own trials and executions. It's by this power that the same Peter who denied Jesus three times to save his skin will boldly proclaim him right smack dab in the middle of the Jerusalem temple, and for Jesus will himself eventually die on a cross.

I am a little surprised myself by this. It would seem that forgiving such behavior would encourage it to continue. But this is not how it works at all. It is not indulgence we are talking about. The bishop that gave Jean the candlesticks buys Jean's soul back from hell with them, and so does the grace of Christ.

Tradition tells us that Thomas went into India with the gospel and eventually was executed there for Christ's sake.

I know it was my own understanding of Christ's forgiveness for my betrayal of God that opened my heart to the vision that redirected my life. I saw Christ on a cross suspended over a sea of tears. Like Thomas, I believed because I saw.

God has given me many reality checks ever since. And so I have learned that the reality checks that I hear most often from human beings are not reality checks at all, but are expressions of spiritual cowardice and betrayal. They are simply capitulations to the powers of the world, which are indeed impressive and frightening. And the kinds of reality checks most of us give into lead us into dark rooms where we can hide.

But Christ enters even there, and cannot be kept out. Christ comes, risen from the dead, with forgiveness for our cowardice, and with courage in his breath.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Spirit of Christ (sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent)

I remember once when a call came in from Donna Theimer. She was weeping, inconsolable. Lucille, her mother-in-law, was in her last hours.

"Please come," she said, "right away."

Lucille had suffered with the slow and terrible progression of Alzheimer's for years, was very advanced in age, confined to a wheelchair, living in a nursing home, the only place that could provide her with adequate care. Her son Joe, one of our elders here at Philippi, was a loving and devoted son, and his wife Donna adored Lucille as well.

Lucille was Roman Catholic, but Philippi sort of adopted her as one of our own, and I'd visited her quite a bit before that day. Like a lot of people with Alzheimer's, she couldn't remember what happened a moment ago, couldn't recognize people she'd known all her life, but she could remember many of the prayers and responses from the Catholic mass. For example when I would give her communion, she would always say, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

I got the nursing home and Joe and Donna stood by Lucille's bed weeping. I myself felt very sad and already could sense the grief mounting in my heart. I had come to love Lucille as well. Donna and Joe spoke in hushed tones, choked with tears, about the illness that was taking Lucille's life and some of their hopes for the funeral. They wanted me to participate but they wanted to make sure a Roman Catholic priest would be there too. Lucille lay with her eyes closed, gasping slowly.

Finally, I invited Joe and Donna to pray with me. It is the work of the church to pray in the face of the hopeless, the despairing, to lift up our lamentations out of the depths. Remembering both Lucille's and Joe's background in Catholicism I began with the traditional address, "The Lord be with you."

And from the bed, in a loud clear voice, Lucille answered, "And also with you!"

Lucille lived another nine months.

Lucille's is a Lazarus story in more ways than one. Yes, it was funny in retrospect that we had written her off only to discover that God had a delicious surprise for us. But Lucille was Lazarus-like in other ways as well.

Lazarus, Mary and Martha were apparently well-loved people. John paints the picture of a pretty significant crowd gathering for the funeral. The crowd is positively distraught. This is not one of those deaths about which people say, "It was a mercy." No, this was a loss, a wrenching and painful loss.

The conversation at such funerals is often about the might-have-beens, the regrets, the missed opportunities, the guilt the survivors feel that maybe they hadn't done everything they could have.

"I wonder if I'd spoken to the doctor sooner..."

"If only I'd told her how I felt..."

"Do you think I did enough? Could I have done more?"

When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus' sisters cry out to him, they lament very much in the same way as our psalmist this morning. "Out of the depths, I cry to you." When was the last time you lamented, when you complained bitterly, to God? It is a great tradition, a basic skill of those who practice Jewish and Christian faith.

"If you had been here," both of them say. "but you weren't." That is the essence of lament. "Where are you, God?" is the cry. "Why have you forsaken me?"

In the Haddasah Hospital chapel in Jerusalem, the pulpit is actually in a sunken place in the floor. If you ask the chaplain why, he will tell you it is because all real prayer begins in the depths. I think, as much as we might wish it were not so, that the realm of God is not visible to those who are not in the depths.

Lucille had Alzheimer's. She was very old and sick. She was confined to a chair and could barely move at all. She couldn't remember what was going on from moment to moment. She couldn't recognize her own son or daughter-in-law. She lived in a place of which many people have a real horror.

But Lucille was one of the most joyous people I knew. And not only that, she was a Christian through and through. She was so Christian she could remember the responses in the order of the mass when we celebrated communion. She was so Christian she quoted the bible.

In fact she quoted the bible every time I saw her. Always the same quote. She would ask me if I knew the shortest verse in the bible. I would ask her what it was, and she would respond, "Jesus wept."

Jesus wept. A quote from today's story, and perhaps the most mysterious and wondrous revelation of the gospel. God is with us, yes, but more amazing even than that, God grieves with us. God hears our lamentations. And God is powerful enough to respond.

We hear all the time about the great billionaire philanthropists of this generation and how they are giving so much back. I think this is wonderful and we should celebrate it and rejoice in it. One of the things about which much is being written is how Bill Gates and others like him are not simply giving money away, but are bringing their significant business skills to the task of evaluating the programs asking for funding. The question always is, will this really help? And will this really help for good? In other words, will giving this money really fix the problem? Will the program it funds work?

A lot of church people say, "Hey, we should do the same thing. We shouldn't keep pouring money into situations that are beyond help. We should redirect that money to do things that really will fix problems people are having."

It is good to evaluate programs, good to work on truly fixing issues in a permanent way. And wherever possible the church has always done that very thing. But the deepest and most important thing the church does is to show up and stay put in precisely those situations that are beyond human aid. Because the issue for the church is not what people can do, what I can do, what we can do. It is what the God who is with us can do, the God who weeps with us in the midst of our deepest, most irreparable tragedies.

And this is why the church of Jesus Christ has always preached to valleys full of nothing but dry bones, why it has always stood outside of tombs to call forth the dead.

This is why it watches at the entry points of the wall between Palestine and Israel, why it sits at the bedside of African people dying of AIDS, why it embraces beggars in the streets of Calcutta, why it marches for justice and languishes in prisons and dies on scaffolds for justice. Do any of these things really make a difference? Would they pass muster with Bill Gates' evaluation of non-profits? No, they certainly would not. Because they are not just about what people can do, but about what God can do.

Would anyone have thought in the early 19th century that all the preaching of the churches against slavery would have actually ended up stopping it? Would anyone have thought that all the churches preaching about the equality of women would actually have brought about a vote for them? Would anyone have thought that the martyrdom of countless Christians in South Africa would actually end the system of apartheid. Would anyone have thought that a fellowship of alcoholics and drug addicts could actually find the answer for the disease of addiction in the practice of prayer, meditation, self-evaluation and reconciliation?

This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, standing in the midst of long-dead remains and preaching with a hope that will not give up. This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, weeping in the midst of unredeemable tragedy, and calling out the dead from the darkness of the tomb. This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, who is willing to change places with the dead, to offer its life for those who are beyond human aid.

Lucille was a person in whom the spirit of Christ dwelt, in which a shining light could not be extinguished by any combination of hopeless situations. Indeed it seemed that the more awfulness descended into her life, the more brightly she shined, the deeper into the depths she descended, the more clearly she rose from the dead.

God wants us to cry out to him from those dark depths. God wants us to open the tombs of our hearts, the cold dark places where we have buried all of our impossible hopes and dreams, and he wants to call them out.

And give them life.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Christ Will Shine On You (sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent)

At one point in my earlier career, I had a favorite suit. In those days of course all my suits were black. I liked this suit because it was a nice flattering cut, the looser-fitting cut tailors call the American style. I'd had it a long time and I wore it a lot.

Liz and I were newlyweds and I suppose as a kind of newlywed thing she bought me a whole drawer full of boxer shorts with cute messages on them. One of the pairs was white with little red hearts and the words "I love you" printed all over them.

One afternoon I had lunch with the chairperson of the church board, wearing my favorite suit. After lunch I got up and dropped something, I think it might have been a napkin, on the floor. So I bent over to pick up the napkin only to hear the board chairperson giggling behind me.

Apparently the suit had worn out somewhat in the rear end, and the "I love you" shorts were clearly visible.

In the story of the man born blind, I see a guy whose blessing wore him a little bit thin. And I think it's the way the whole Christian life works.

First off, there's this rather dramatic encounter. We could go wandering off wondering about the whole reaction of the disciples to the man born blind, and the bookend comments of the religious leaders at the end of the story, the assumption that he or his parents had committed sin, and while that's a fruitful road for sure, we're not going there right now. Suffice to say that Jesus, in a gesture that stirs recollection of how God created the human creature out of mud, makes a little mud out of some dirt and his own spit and gives the man, who had never seen anything, his sight.

Then, as Fred Craddock pointed out in an article for the Christian Century, Jesus disappears for the bulk of the rest of the story. The poor man is left at the mercy of his home town folks and the leaders of his local synagogue. You'd think there'd be celebration and gladness about the good news. The poor man sees finally! Isn't that great?!

But no. Instead they doubt it's the same guy. Now isn't this something? And doesn't it tell us a lot about the ways of human community? Do we really want to fix things? Really? It's a funny thing, but to fix something you really have to face a loss. You have to face the loss of all the things you might have formerly hung your hat on. I'm sighted because I'm blessed, while that guy who was born blind was cursed. God is in his heaven and all's right with the world.

But now the guy comes around with no cane, looking around, seeing fine. Maybe he's applying for a job, offering to pitch in to help around the community. No no no. That's can't be. Something's wrong here.

"Who healed you?" they want to know, and probably not for a nice reason. "Where is he?"

The man born blind says, "I don't know."

He's not around at the moment, the man born blind says, I'm on my own with this new blessing of mine, this blessing that is turning out to be more complicated that I would ever have thought.

Off they whisk him to the local authorities, who happen also to run the synagogue. And you know they continue in this same vein, rubbing away at the man, rubbing away with their interrogation. How did he do it? Mud, spit? What? On the sabbath? Righteous people don't do things like that on the sabbath, do they? Controversy, fighting, all kinds of what we called up north "hate and discontent."

I'm reminded of people questioning me about my own healing. I call it healing, others call it getting my life together. I insist that I didn't get my life together. I insist that it was a miraculous healing by God in Jesus Christ. I had almost nothing to do with it. I don't remember making a decision, following any line of reason, exerting any particular willpower. I didn't do it, plain and simple. I'm not even sure I asked for it.

This apparently disconcerts people. Surely that can't be. Surely you did something. No. No. Really. I didn't. Really, it was all Jesus.

The parents, remember the parents of the man born blind? The disciples wonder if it was their sin that caused the man to be blind. They get called into face the interrogation squad, probably because they had been told all their lives, "Yes, you know, you must have done something to have a kid with that kind of problem. Notice our kids all can see. That's because God has blessed us."

Have you ever thought how it sounds to a person whose childhood or family was a disaster when you say things like "I was blessed with good parents. I was blessed to have good kids." So my kid, who had all kinds of problems, was my curse? My absent father who suffered with alcoholism and depression was my curse? I was his? Really?

I'm blessed to have a good wife or husband. I'm blessed to live in a good country. I'm blessed to have had nice opportunities. What are we really saying here?

The poor parents are terrified. They have to live in this town. The synagogue is the only one for miles around. "Who did this?" the authorities want to know. "We don't know," the parents carefully say. "We don't know how it happened. Ask him."

Back comes the man born blind, once more on the firing line, once more being worn down, worn down, worn down with the questions. "Who did this? Isn't he really a sinner, a blasphemer? Come on, admit it."

Amazingly, the man born blind doesn't back down. You could see it happening. "Oh, for crying out loud, whatever you say. Just leave me alone and stop making me account for it." But no. I rather like this man. I would like to be like him. He sticks to his story. And he finally even fights back a bit. Pretty clean logic, simple. "The way I figure it, someone who can make the blind see has got to come from God. And you guys, who teach the faith, don't know where he comes from?"

Ooooo. Them's fightin' words.

As Wallace Shawn wrote in his award winning play The Fever, "we need the poor." We don't want to fix poverty. We don't really want to fix addiction. We don't really want to fix anything, because our whole society is structured around these things. The problems of others are how we know we're blessed. Attending to the problems while secretly making sure they are never solved is how we make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

God is only God if God keeps the system working. It couldn't be God who comes along and actually fixes things. Those are just those dangerous revolutionary people, those troublemakers that mix things with religion that shouldn't be mixed, the way Jesus mixed healing the blind with the sabbath day.

The man born blind says, "I don't know about any of that. All I know is, I was blind but now I see."

Jesus finally shows up and he vindicates the poor guy. And we see in this story the only time that anyone kneels down to worship Jesus.

The man born blind, like my old suit, had been worn through, so you could see the Christ within.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Poured into Our Hearts (sermon for the third Sunday in Lent)

I don't drink beer anymore, but it's almost axiomatic that a cold beer after a hard day of hot work in the sun tastes pretty darn good. I myself prefer Pellegrino. It's a sparkling water from Italy. If you get it real cold and serve it in a cold glass with no ice, it's way better than any beer. When you are really thirsty, you gulp that baby, I'm telling you.

To wander in the wilderness is to become thirsty, just as Jesus got thirsty wandering from the north of what the Romans called Palestine down through Samaritan country toward Jerusalem. It's a dry place, the mission field. It is not comfortable. Fruit is not growing on the trees. There is no Walmart nearby.

In returning to this Exodus passage God knows how many times, I finally asked myself what exactly is so sinful about getting thirsty in the wilderness. And a closer reading of the story shows me no anger in God. God never says in this story that the Israelites were being unreasonable. He never says they have no faith. If anyone is being kind of ridiculous, it's Moses who is not so concerned about being thirsty as he is about being stoned by the people.

But God doesn't criticize the people. Instead he simply gives instructions to Moses about where to find water.

But it does say that God was "testing" the Hebrew ex-slaves. It becomes the name of the story. And later, the person who wrote the psalm will interpret the story as one about how faithless were the wanderers. But I think the Hebrews passed the test. The test was to see if they'd give up and go home in the midst of real difficulty or whether they'd stick it out and try to see what God had in mind for them. If anyone failed the test it was Moses. God's people turned to him, as they should. He was after all God's guy. But he was the one who really doubted. Hadn't God done everything through Moses that God had promised to do? In fact at the end of the journey God will punish Moses for his faithlessness, even as God hands the promised land over to Moses' followers.

Now our Moses today is not a pastor or an elder or the moderator of the board or the leader of our men's or women's groups. Our Moses is the Christ. The Christ is our only human authority. And for us, the Christ is Jesus, who rose from the dead and is eternally on the throne of our nation. Jesus Christ doesn't lose faith. Jesus Christ doesn't doubt God or worry about us stoning him. Worse has already happened and he's on the other side of it.

And even in his earthly ministry before his followers did exactly what Moses feared the most and rose up to crucify him, Jesus was the Christ. The world in the gospel of John might itself be seen as a kind of wilderness, and the mission of the Christ and the mission of all his followers might be seen as a sojourn in that wilderness.

From John's point of view, Jesus and those who follow Jesus come from heaven, and have descended into an alien and hostile world, a world ruled over by the devil, as the advance guard, as it were, of the realm of God, the marines of heaven, to use a rather unfortunate but apt metaphor.

And it's in this very sojourn that the Hebrew slaves and Jesus and we were and are transformed. It's in the dry and dusty wilderness of the mission field, the wild place free of the fleshpots of slavery, the place where there are no props and no anesthetic pleasures to dull our vision, the place where we are not quite sure of what to do, where we are uncomfortable in our ignorance, where we don't know really what is right, where the world is at its most damaged and hurt and broken, whether its in the ruins of Japan or in some backwater town where a lonely sinner waits for God. It's in those places, and those places alone, that God pours his Spirit into our hearts.

The psalm encourages us to see God in this way, as the all-sufficient king of our lives, to turn away from all the things the world gives us, the temporary pleasures of slavery to a dying culture, and risk the emptiness and the rare but deeply satisfying rewards of the wilderness.

Because what must it have been like to finally drink the water from the rock? Have you ever been really thirsty, really thirsty for a protracted period of time? How did that water taste when you finally got to gulp it down? That cold beer, that Pellegrino?

Wandering thirsty in the wilderness of our mission is in fact the way that God teaches us to see in God the true and lasting salvation, as Paul says. Paul is not talking about the routine suffering everyone endures. Nor is Paul talking about putting up with abuse or going without in an unjustly compensated job or tolerating active addiction in a family. He's not talking about getting our kicks from masochism or about making ourselves impressive to others by our willingness to be walked on.

Paul is talking about the suffering of following Christ, of entering into the mission, of becoming one sent from heaven. In this passage from Romans this morning he's talking about peace with God, being reconciled with God, and he's talking about suffering, incredible suffering, suffering that comes from the world rejecting and attacking the ones sent by God from heaven. And he says that this suffering, the suffering in the wilderness of mission, is part of what actually transforms us into the ones sent from heaven.

Indeed it is in the experience of rejection and hostility that we enter into God's own experience. As I have been preaching for the last six years, the world as we have made it is neither good nor just nor heading in a positive direction, and it hasn't been for the past ten thousand years. The only thing that has been very gradually changing over that time is that more and more people, through a variety of spiritual paths, are waking up to just how completely off the track humankind has been.

The world that most people still think of as fundamentally decent and good and just, the world people have made, is in fact a horrific and disastrous misuse of the good creation of God. We are making of that good and fruitful creation a desert, a wilderness with nothing to sustain us. God saw it coming a long time ago, and God still sees it coming. It's not getting better, it's getting worse. There are more and more people and the resources of the world are being shoveled up the food chain to a smaller and smaller percentage of the whole, so that humankind on a global level is getting steadily poorer and poorer.

This world is still very much in the business of rejecting and attacking the ambassadors of the realm of God. But strangely and marvelously, just as the cross of Jesus was the instrument of glorification, so the world's battering of the sons and daughters of heaven is itself the path to transformation.

For as we struggle to share the good news of Christ's rule, which is a rule of peace and reconciliation and humility, as we find ourselves going long distances in empty wastes, we will sooner or later find ourselves at Jacob's well, and that remarkable and surprising person will see us for who we really are, and will see themselves as well. And a little more of the world will be saved. One more child of heaven will be born.

And we will gulp that water down, and it will taste pretty darn good.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Born from Above (sermon for the second Sunday in Lent)

Almost everywhere else in the world, people drive on the right, so that when you step into the road you look left. It's the way things are everywhere.

But not in England. In England everyone drives on the left. This means that when you step off the curb you have to look right. The British has found that foreign travelers were getting hit by cars so often because of this problem that they finally put two words on the street just in front of the curb, so that when you look down to step off you can see them. "Look right."*

When one steps off a curb in England, one has to resist what one knows in one's very bones. One has to do the opposite of what makes perfect sense.

So it is with the realm of God.

No, it doesn't have to do with driving right or left. Nor am I talking about political orientation. It has to do with a whole host of givens, a whole list of what the world takes as true, a whole system of what passes for wisdom that must be abandoned, left behind, even denied, when one is to enter the realm of God.

Now the way Nicodemus would tell his story is something like looking left when one crosses the street. It's the most natural story in the world. It makes perfect sense. It fits all the facts.

Nicodemus would say, probably in a kindly and self-deprecating way, but he would say it nevertheless, that he was a good Jew from a good family who worked hard all his life to do the right thing by God and neighbor. And because of all his hard work, God had rewarded him, he might say graciously and generously, but he'd still call it a reward, with a happy, prosperous life, and the opportunity, he would probably call it, to lead the Jewish people in a time of great trial and difficulty.

And Nicodemus would not be the only person who would tell that story. Probably most people in Jerusalem knew his name. In all likelihood everyone who was anyone would have heard Nicodemus preach at synagogue. They'd know about his achievements, his awards and honors. They'd know about his brilliantly shrewd business dealings and admire them. He was Joel Olsteen and Warren Buffet rolled into one.

The life of Nicodemus, his identity in the world, said a whole host of things about the world and about God. It said for example that God blessed the righteous. It said hard work pays off. It said that its entirely possible to be a shrewd and prosperous businessman in the Roman Empire and a blameless religious leader at the same time.

But that's the story if you're looking to the left. In the realm of the world, it's a true story. It's patently obvious that it's true. There's abundant evidence. There's a bank account with so much money. There's a curricula vitae with all the facts. There's family, friends, business associates, political leaders, who would all line up and give testimony.

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is told by John, doesn't look left, because it isn't told from the perspective of the world. The gospel looks right.

Looking right, we see a moral coward, a man who knows who Jesus is but is afraid to publicly acknowledge him, who sneaks off to see him by night. We see a man who has been made great not by God but by his own determined efforts. We see a man whose real motives are all caught up with how he looks and what religious piety gets him, namely importance, attention, and connections to all the right people.

Nicodemus was also almost certainly the kind of preacher who taught that Abraham was a hero because he had courage, because he was an adventurer. Abraham was the father of Israel because of what a great man he was. Why would Nicodemus preach thus? Because Nicodemus and those who followed him wanted to believe that their lives were really in their own hands, to do with as they pleased. And that made perfect sense, because it fit all the facts of the world as they knew it, and for that matter, as we do.

Of course, that's only if you are looking left. If you look right, Abraham was not a hero because of any innate specialness of his own. He was not particularly brave or noble or visionary. He had one thing that made him righteous in God's eyes, that made him worthy to be the father of Israel. And that was his faith in God's promises.

And at this juncture we need to remind ourselves that God called Abraham as the start of a project to save the world. He wasn't calling Abraham just to bless Abraham. He was calling Abraham to be the father of a people who would be God's instruments in saving a violent and bloody world. This is what Abraham believed in. This is what Abraham became passionate about. This is what we see if we look at Abraham from the perspective of the realm of God. Not a righteous man whom God was obligated to bless. But a blessed man whose faith earned him righteousness. This is what he looks like when we look right.

Abraham, as Paul says this morning, became the father of Israel because he believed God's promise, and decidedly not because he did anything. Whatever he did, he did through this remarkable power that comes through believing God's promises. Abraham didn't leave everything and go to this strange land because he was going to get a pot of gold, or even because he was going to get a son. He was going because he believed the vision of the great nation, the nation he would die without seeing himself, the nation that would redeem the world.

The faith that Jesus taught, the faith that Paul preached, was not something new. God's Spirit, God's wisdom and power, comes to those who believe in God's promises and enter into covenant relationship with God. All the blessing and protection and empowerment is not given in exchange for some goodness of ours. It is given to those who commit themselves to God's purposes with a passionate devotion.

But this is only if you look right.

The rest of the world looks left. And they see a God they can obligate to bless them with what they want. If I have this thing called faith, then God will protect me. And the faith I have is that God will. It's simple, obvious, straightforward. Anyone can understand it. Just like looking left.

The realm of the world is where we all live, and it has all kinds of rules, all kinds of basic principles, and for many people, religion is finding a way to conform to all these rules and principles, to accept reality on reality's terms, to live the way everyone else lives. To be respected in the community, to be healthy and prosperous, is the chief aim of religion. The values taught in the pulpit are of no use if they do not aid us to be happy and well.

We all want to believe we live in a just and moral world. And if we look to the left we do. But not if we look right. If we look right we see a depraved and dying world, cut off from God. But we also see Christ, and we see salvation from the realm of God.

Faith in God does not and cannot lead us to conforming to the world. To believe God's promise, to believe that God will inhabit us if we surrender ourselves to him, to believe that even as we emerge as children of the light we will be opposed and hated and persecuted, but that we will nevertheless participate in the realm of God, made real in the world, to trust in that promise, to rejoice in embracing it, well that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's, well, looking right, when everyone knows you have to look left.

Jesus, who lived out his ministry firmly on the basis of his trust in God's promises, will not end up looking good to his neighbors. He will end up looking like the worst kind of criminal, the most bankrupt kind of failure. But that's only if you keep looking left.

If you look right, he looks like a king.


*I'm grateful to Lucy Lind Hogan, a professor at Wesley Seminary, who came up with this "look right" analogy in an essay on Paul's letter to the Romans.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

One Man's Obedience (sermon for the first Sunday in Lent)

What could be wrong with eating good food and becoming wise? What could be the problem with becoming more like God?

Our church's pulpits are full of people who promote the benefits to us of a relationship with God. How we can know what God knows, wield God's power, live forever, get rich, get healed. If we are good people who live responsible lives we get rewarded with well-being and prosperity. If we are lazy, irresponsible or immoral people, we get punished with poverty and illness. God is in his heaven, and this is how God operates.

Why wouldn't God want us to be prosperous and healthy? We say God loves us. That's what love is, isn't it? Wanting us to have what we want, to be what we want to be? When we go to war, wouldn't a loving God be on the side of the people who are moral and just and not on the side of people who are really hardly even people? Why wouldn't God back the right?

Eve doesn't take the fruit because she is lascivious or sociopathic or perverse or depraved. She takes the fruit because she's smart. She knows a good thing when she sees it. God must be mistaken, she thinks. The fruit is good to eat, it will make one wise, and it will bring one closer to God. How could it cause death?

No one likes to be fooled. And it would be easy to blame the serpent. But despite all the traditional interpretations, I have to say there is no evidence anywhere in the scriptures that the serpent is the devil. The serpent was in fact regarded as a wise animal in the ancient world, sort of how we think of an owl. Imagine if it was a wise old owl that said, "You won't die. It will make you wise; it will make you like God. Not to mention, one a day will keep the doctor away." The owl, or the serpent, is simply an symbol of the sharp thinking of the human creature.

God told me this was bad for me, but I know better. This isn't adultery, this is love. This isn't murder, this is peace-making. This isn't idolatry, this is self-esteem. This isn't gossip, it's a concerned discussion. This isn't stealing, it's a shrewd sales tactic. This isn't covetousness, it's the American dream.

Are we therefore to cultivate dull ignorance and stupidity to be right with God? Hardly. Jesus teaches us to be wise as serpents. We are not to make ignorance a virtue. Our intelligence is God's gift and like all gifts from God it is meant to be cultivated. But in the same breath, Jesus says we should be innocent as doves. Our intelligence must be put into the service of God.

Take Jesus for an example.

"Still wet from his baptism," as Fred Craddock puts it, Jesus is immediately led into the wilderness, not by the devil, but by the Spirit of God, and for the express purpose of being tested. The main message that came to Jesus when he was baptized is in fact the main message that should come to everyone who is baptized in his name.

God had said, "You are my Son, with whom I am well-pleased."

When Jesus meets the devil, he is not meeting a leather-faced, pointy-eared demon with a spiked tail. He is meeting a creature that God made expressly for the purpose of testing people. No temptation comes out and says, "I'm a temptation, boogah boogah!" No. Something beautiful and good presents itself. Something, yes, made by God.

"Well," the devil says, "God has said you are his Son. What do you think of that?"

While we're asking, what do we think of God calling us his sons and daughters? Do we believe it? Do we believe that God is inviting us to be divinely born? To be more than merely human? And if we believe that, what does it mean?

The devil asks us, "Doesn't that mean you should have whatever you want, whenever you want it?"

What do you think? Wouldn't that make sense? God has made you his children. What parent wouldn't give his children what they wanted?

The devil asks us, "Doesn't this mean that you will be protected from every danger, healed of every illness?" It makes sense, doesn't it?

The devil is quoting Psalm 91, one of the most popular psalms of the health-and-wealth gospel. The devil is suggesting we name it and claim it, and he's showing us scripture to back up his suggestion.

We're all tempted by various vices. We all think resisting those vices has to do with willpower, personal strength. We thrash ourselves when we can't resist. And our struggles with our vices tell us some important things about the nature of real temptation. We don't reach for the dessert when we are already overweight or diabetic because we are moved to do bad things. This isn't a slice of sickness and death, we tell ourselves, it's a slice of relief. How can something that works so well at relieving our inner pain be evil?

This is more than rationalization. It is a denial of truth. It's a denial that we are in pain, for one thing. It's a denial that there is something somewhere in our lives we have not dealt with honestly. The person who quits smoking with hardly a thought is a person who didn't need to smoke in the first place. The person who puffs away while lugging around an oxygen tank is someone who is denying a deeper issue, some inward suffering that the nicotine eases.

The temptation to use scripture to obligate God is not a question of wanting to do something bad. It is an expression of a denial born of inward fear. People in our pampered culture are terrified of poverty and death, so much so they want to deny its very existence. To such people, the appeal of a God who is obligated by God's word to keep one wealthy and healthy is irresistible. I'm not making an idol of God, I'm getting relief for my terror.

The devil asks us, "Doesn't being God's child mean you should be in charge of the world?" It's logical, isn't it? How are people going to obey God unless they are forced to? If we are the children of God, shouldn't we have our candidates in office and our judges on the Supreme Court? Shouldn't we be the people who tell the armies where to fight? Shouldn't it be our fingers on the big red button?

In the gospel of John, Pilate will ask Jesus if Jesus considers himself a king, and Jesus will tell him that he does. But he will add that the kingdom over which he rules in not the kind that will come and take Pilate's palace by storm in order to free its king. It's a different kind of power.

Our sin has two sides: on the one, it is a denial of our brokenness. On the other, it is a denial of our holiness. When confronted with our inward sickness, we deny it. We challenged to be holy, we claim imperfection.

Discipleship begins with honest self-assessment. It begins with admitting that inside, we are incomplete, we are diseased, we are not right.

But it also begins with simultaneously recognizing that you are called by God to be a child of the light, that God has offered you God's own power and wisdom.

These two truths must live in our hearts and minds all the time as God's people. Denying either renders us at best impotent to carry out God's will. At worst, such denial will lead us into the outer darkness.

But this obedience, this one man's obedience, the clear-eyed understanding of these two truths, opens for us the way of salvation and eternal life. For the end of our labor, the point of our struggle, is not to glorify ourselves, or even to save ourselves. It is not to impress people with what kind souls we are.

It is to become, truly and honestly, the vessels of God's presence in our world.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

I Have Set My King on Zion (sermon for Transfiguration 2011)

In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages people to go the extra mile, and most of us probably think he meant giving things the old college try, being persistent, and all that.

But he was actually referring to a Roman law requiring any subject of the Roman Empire to carry a Roman soldier's pack for one mile whenever asked. This was one of the many ways Romans exploited those over whom they ruled. It was profoundly inconvenient, not to mention humiliating, particularly if you were a conquered people and you were thereby made into a collaborator with the occupying forces.

So Jesus proposes this absurd idea. He suggests not only that we agree to carry the pack, but that we carry the pack an extra mile. What he is proposing is an exceedingly clever form of disobedience, a profoundly loving way of saying, "I am free."

He was proposing covert action.

I have to say I wonder about how much covert activity is going on around the world, encouraging these societies to rise up against despots and dictators. I'm sure some of you are wondering about that too. Is it the CIA, or some coalition of covert organizations, that has gotten all this going?

Or could it be that the covert activity is God's?

The church on earth, the whole church, is probably the healthiest its been in centuries. Worldwide, it is growing, though not in our back yard. The terrible corruption it suffered from about 1,000 AD into the 17th Century seems to have been largely cleared up. And of course, that corruption was really mainly in the Western Church. The Eastern Orthodox don't have such a nasty history.

Currently, the Pentecostal movement (you can't call it a denomination) is exploding in South America, Asia and Africa. The church that speaks Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and strange African tribal dialects is robust and vital. Did you know that many world-wide Pentecostals see the Cane Ridge Revival, which we Disciples claim as our founding moment, to also be their movement's birthplace?

I'm learning too that these congregations that are growing like wildfire all over the world, no matter what denomination may have founded them, are all pretty much cut from the same cloth doctrinally. If you were to hear their preaching you would think you were at a hard-core conservative Baptist revival, but if you looked at their social justice work you would think you were dealing with pacifist socialists. They are anti-war and they are anti-right, and at the same time they are preaching an old-fashioned hellfire and brimstone gospel.

I've heard from Lyle Predmore that he's baptizing a number of people in Bali today. He's written to me that these folks are so passionate about their faith, one is changing her name to Tabitha, after the little girl in Acts that Peter raised from the dead. Of course, in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, Christianity may be technically legal, but evangelism isn't.

I observed in our newsletter this month how the church actually seems to be at its best when its being persecuted. No, that kind of church doesn't have much money, no, it isn't comfortable and encouraging, no it isn't socially advantageous, and no, it usually doesn't have pretty little buildings in the main part of town, but strangely enough, when the church is taking a stand with the weak and the poor, that's when people find it moving. That's when people find it compelling. That's when people start thinking God has something to do with it.

The great power of the church is the practice of witness, or in Greek martyria, which is transliterated martyrdom. Martyrdom is not the sick, masochistic behavior that the word has come to represent. Martyria, or witness, is about risking real danger and loss for the sake of telling the truth, whether it be about God's desire to restore the world to paradise, or whether it is about the human systems of domination and exploitation that are determined to keep that from happening, that indeed make the world a living hell for most of the living things that dwell in it, so that they can make a heaven for a privileged few.

Whenever someone says something true that is nevertheless dangerous to say, they are witnessing. Whenever anyone refuses to stop announcing God's word in the face of mainstream persecution, they are witnessing. Whenever anyone tells the story, as missionary Jon Barnes put it to me recently, "from below," that is, from the perspective of people on whose backs the rest of world rests, they are witnessing.

Moses witnessed in the face of Pharaoh on behalf of the slaves upon which Pharaoh had built his power. Elijah witnessed in the face of Ahab and Jezebel on behalf of the Israelites they were robbing and enslaving.

So when Jesus is revealed as standing with Elijah and Moses, he is being revealed as standing firmly in the Jewish tradition of going counter to the cultural norms of his day. Israel, God's people, God's nation, is supposed to stand against all the others, to go against the stream, to stand out as profoundly different.

But it failed its mission for a lot of its history. And Jesus therefore had to witness not only in the face of Caesar, but also in the faces of his fellow Jews, Herod and the high priests, on behalf not only of downtrodden Jews, but other peoples Caesar was treading on.

It seems to me that what some churches have done is to chop the biblical message down into a harmless, private, individualist message about self-actualization, when it is actually a grand message about a king who has come to transform the world, to defeat great and powerful despots, to set societies free. We are not a social service agency comprised of like-minded volunteers. We are covert operatives for the realm of God.

God says "I have set my king on Zion," and God says to that king: "You are my son."

I believe that Jesus is the king that God has set on Zion. I believe that Jesus is the one God called God's son. This Jesus is a superior force, the captain of the winning team, the holder of the iron rod that shatters the enemy like a piece of pottery into a thousand shards. Harsh images, true. But we're not talking about a general with billions of dollars worth of military hardware and hundreds of thousands of trained warriors. We're talking about the guy that general nailed to a cross. The rod of iron is an alloy of peace, grace, forgiveness and self-giving love. It is the power that shatters evil like a pot into a thousand meaningless shards. It's covert power that beats all overt power.

Jesus, after he was revealed as the glorious son of God, became again just himself, Jesus alone. And he walked down that mountain that day and across the plains to Jerusalem, where he climbed another mount called Golgotha. As he died on the cross, no one there could see that light any more. No one there knew who he really was.

Could it be that we are to be like him? Could it be that we are all secretly children of light, burning with the glorious power of the Spirit that the world can't see?

Could it be that we are the secret agents of the realm of God?


Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Weaned Child (sermon for the ninth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Edna Shackleford, one of our oldest members, has reached that blessed stage in life when she vividly remembers details from her earliest childhood, even as more recent memory comes a little harder. She was telling me yesterday that she now knows, from her adult perspective, how little her family actually had when she was a small child. And yet she marvels at how well-off she felt, how abundant everything seemed to her then. She said she felt like royalty, always having more than she needed.

And while Edna certainly felt spoiled, just overwhelmed with the abundance in her life, she remembers at the same time that her parents were very strict, and how unquestioningly she obeyed them. Even though they never denied her any material thing she could have imagined wanting or needing, she could not have imagined ever defying them.

Though my history was very different than Edna's, I can identify with her memories. For what seemed like a lot of my early childhood, my mother worked all day and went to school at night, so I really rarely saw her. She couldn't afford a babysitter, so she taught me to be a latch-key kid. She'd give me detailed instructions, made me memorize the telephone numbers of the places she had to be all day, taught me how to cook TV dinners for myself, and gave me my list of chores to do.

At no time did I ever wonder if I would have enough to eat or a place to live or clothes to wear. I had absolutely no concerns about that. Of course, I saw things on TV and in the store that I wanted that Mom denied me, and I carried on about those things, but of course I can't remember any of them now. I knew on some level they weren't real needs, that Mom, after all, was right about them.

My point is that I never, ever worried about my safety or my health or basic well-being. I knew Mom would take care of me. It wasn't even a question.

At the same time, however, when she gave me my chore list, it never occurred to me that I might have simply said "No," or even that she had no way of knowing whether I'd done them or I hadn't. I didn't like doing most of them. I often felt that they were beyond my capability. I often muttered and sputtered the whole time I was doing them. But I did them, and I did them without question.

The short psalm we have this morning is thought by many to be the one psalm in the Old Testament that was likely written by a woman, and a mother at that. The mother sees that the kind of trust and willing obedience her weaned child has for her is an excellent metaphor for a right relationship with God. She would like to be to God as her child is to her.

The scriptures often compare the creation to a household, with God imagined as the householder. Within the household, humankind is pictured as having the role of steward. God is the source of all that we have and enjoy. We are meant to care for it and nurture it and leave it better than we found it. The problem of sin is rooted precisely in our suspicion that God the householder is not fair and will not distribute the resources to all of us equally. The problem of sin is the problem of fearing that there will not be enough.

But the truth is that God provides enough for everyone, without any of us lifting a finger. If we convince ourselves there isn't enough, we will forget God and in panic go grabbing for everything we can get. In so doing, we take over work that is properly God's, we lift our eyes higher than we should, we concern ourselves with things that we don't understand.

And indeed, this is precisely how we fulfill our own prophecy; in grabbing more than our share, we ensure that there is not enough for everyone. This is an unsustainable path and it will eventually lead to disaster. Indeed, it already has, again and again and again. God's judgment is naturally woven into our choices. If we choose to trust God and share willingly, things work out well. If we choose to be afraid and grab and hoard and fight, things devolve into chaos.

The problem then that is presented to all of us who seek to serve the living God is, how do we behave in a world that is always more or less insane, a world that nevertheless believes its insanity is perfectly sane? How do we live in a world of people who really are living in a near panic all the time? How do we stay faithful in a world full of people battling constantly for more than their share?

Jesus deepens the image of the divine household by characterizing God as the parent and God's people as God's children. We are not poorly-paid servants burdened by our stern boss with an unpleasant job; we are loving and devoted children, blessed with abundance, who want more than anything else in the world to please their loving parent.

Jesus says, "today has troubles enough of its own." Jesus is not teaching us to be worry-free. He himself will worry pretty deeply about his mission to die on the cross. He will worry pretty deeply about the well-being of his disciples. He's will be sorely troubled about their unity and their faithfulness. He's not teaching us to stop worrying. He's teaching us to stop worrying about God's job and start worrying about ours.

Seeking the realm of God, working for reconciliation between God and people and between people and people, working to end violence and to care for those who are being deprived by the greedy, ministering to the sick and the imprisoned and the outcast, oh, yes, today has troubles enough of it's own.

The mission God has given us is the chore list for God's household, our living world, and it opens the way for humankind to persist in the living world for many generations to come. God is saving this crazy world, and using God's people to do it. In Christ he is saying, "Stop trying to do my job and start doing yours."

God works in and through the whole of the living creation, in and through every lily and every sparrow, sometimes bringing blessings and sometimes bringing judgment, sometimes pruning away at life and sometimes letting it grow wildly. This is a God like a perfect parent, who really does know what is best not just for us but for all of life, and really has a good idea about how we might stay here, not just us, but our children and our children's children.

Like the weaned child who carries out his household chores, trusting his parent to provide all that is needful, Jesus offered good for evil, love for hate, generosity for greed, trusting God would ultimately protect and vindicate him. And God did. Though they crucified and buried Jesus in a tomb, God raised him from the dead.

Jesus teaches us to become as he was and is, the weaned children of a divine parent, letting go of our mad anxiety-driven dash to get all we can grab, and embracing our simple household chores: reconciliation, humility and generosity.

And we will be all right.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Life in Your Ways (sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany)

Mom brought home a monkey.

Back in the early sixties, after she was divorced and had moved us in with her parents in Maryland, my mother got a job in veterinary clinic that doubled as a pet shop. Mom always had a soft spot for animals. Well, there was this wooly monkey named Gus who just wasn't attracting customers and the owners had pretty much decided to put it to sleep. Mom couldn't deal with that so she brought it home.

My grandmother Almedia was horrified. People in our little neighborhood didn't have monkeys for pets. They had dogs. They had cats. They might have a bird. But they didn't have monkeys. She pulled all the curtains and watched that monkey every minute.

The monkey was extremely well-behaved, one of the best types for pets, litter-trained and everything. But when it climbed up the picture window curtains and pulled them back with its little black hand and looked out into the neighborhood, that was the end of Gus. He had to go back.

It just wasn't normal.

After the terrible ordeal of World War II, most everyone just wanted to get back to normal. But this getting back to normal went to some real extremes. It became the byword of a whole generation. Leave It to Beaver is a great example of what the country wanted to be at that time. You just couldn't be odd. Having a monkey as a pet was odd. Odd was---well, bad.

This has led us to compare our time to the golden era of the late forties and early fifties. We remember, rather selectively I think, a time when everyone was polite, white, lived in the suburbs, drove a new car, had one income from dad, a stay-at-home mom, and two blonde kids whose biggest problem was whether or not to tell the truth about breaking the neighbor's window with a baseball. We told ourselves this was the way the world had always been, except for that--well you know--that war that killed millions of people.

Today, people are neither white nor polite, they don't have new cars, they have to have two incomes because many jobs can't support even one person, much less four, mom and dad aren't married, their kids are from multiple partners, and the problems their kids have include gun violence and drug dealers. What has happened? The world is going to hell in a hand basket!

And the churches are having the same kind of issue. After the effortless explosion of churches in the late forties and fifties as a part of the great national passion for normalcy. the decline of mainline denominations since the sixties seems like a terrible loss. Lots of people think Americans have always been in church. But this is not so. There have been many times in American history when hardly anybody was in church. We're still a pretty religious country comparatively speaking, but it's more accurate to say that we are simply returning to---well, normal.

A lot of us grew up with the idea that history was a progression of bad to good, a march into a bright future, but the reality is that, while times certainly change, the amounts of good and bad stuff going on really don't. They just move around. This is really what is normal. What's normal is that certain people get on top for a time and they see the world through rose-colored glasses while all the people on the lower rungs see it as a hard and difficult place. SSDD. Same stuff different day. All very normal.

Indeed, there have been some pretty significant studies of happiness and discontent over the last few decades and interestingly enough, as far as we can tell, no matter how far we advance technologically and no matter how much wealthier we become, we don't actually get a bit happier. Everyone's just about as happy as they ever were, and just about as unhappy. SNAFU, as the soldiers used to say. Situation normal, all messed up.

But... God is odd.

(I'm stealing a bit here. Some say Dorothy Parker, one of my favorite writers, penned the famous poem,

How odd of God
To choose the Jews

Though others attribute it to other poets...)

One of the preachers I've been reading this week said that when you're singing "Holy Holy Holy," you might just as well be singing is "Odd, Odd, Odd." Holy means utterly different, utterly separate, utterly unique, so "odd" kind of gets it.

God is odd. And if we substituted this word "odd" for the word "holy" we would have the command: "You shall be odd, as the LORD your God is odd."

God is odd like a family with a monkey in a neighborhood of dog-owners. God is odd like The Addams Family in a Leave It to Beaver neighborhood.

It's perfectly normal for the world to have a handful of haves and whole boatload of have-nots. But God's realm is about sharing God's gifts so that everyone has enough. God is odd.

The world is governed by an "only-the-strong-survive" ethos. This is perfectly normal. But the realm of God is governed by a "last-will-come-first" ethos. God is odd.

It is normal to love people who love you, and people you know. In the realm of God, people are to love people who hate them, and to see aliens as their neighbors. God is odd.

It is normal for nations to defend their interests with a form of mass murder called warfare. This is normal. But in God's odd realm, the command is "turn the other cheek." God is odd.

It is normal in business to take advantage of those who are in need for selfish gain. Perfectly appropriate, even moral. But not in God's realm. In God's realm, the point of business is the well-being of the whole social order, employer, employee and customer.

The people of God are called to be odd, as God is odd. So when the psalmist prays "give me life in your ways," he is asking to be made as odd as God.

When we let the monkey move into the house, when we embrace the oddness of God, we become odd ourselves. While the normalcy of our globe will take different shapes and forms depending on what nation happens to be on top, who happens to have all the marbles, and who is going to war with whom, God will always be odd, forever and ever, amen, and so will all those who seek life in God's ways.

You all know that I often criticize the health-and-wealth gospel that is so popular these days. The idea that the whole point of the gospel is my prosperity and well-being is so obviously wrong, so completely at odds with the scripture that it rather amazes me that so many intelligent and well-meaning people are buying into it. But it really shouldn't amaze me. It is such a worldly idea, so perfectly normal, really, the idea that my interests and God's interests are simply the same. That makes a lot more sense than God being odd. It seems genuinely wise and deep and profound. Whereas the idea that God is odd seems absurd and even foolish.

Nevertheless, God does promise a kind of prosperity and well-being to those who seek God's oddness. It's not the normal kind though, because nothing about God is normal. It's an odd kind of prosperity, an odd kind of health, the kind that hangs on a cross and suffers for others, the kind that lives forever. Odd, odd, odd.

If you went out of here and started telling your neighbors how you were going to love your enemies and help strangers you will never even meet they would probably nod and smile in that way people do toward people who are developmentally disabled. If you keep at it, they might actually get mad at you. If you really make a lot of noise about it, they might even find a way to tear you down, discredit you. And if you really wouldn't shut up, you might find yourself in real danger.

Whereas if you told them about how God was fighting on our side against the infidels and would give us the victory over our adversaries, and if you told them that you were going to help that old lady down the street that everyone loves, and if you proclaimed that everyone was on their own, to sink or swim, well, then they'd probably warm right up to you. You would be normal. Perfectly normal. They know wisdom when they hear it. Their mommas didn't raise no fools.

I'm grateful mine brought home a monkey.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Blameless (sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Isn't it wonderful that the news media is finally covering something that matters? Isn't it wonderful that we are watching a story that inspires and ennobles us rather than terrifying and enraging us? And it seems that all the sources are pointing out many of the same things. One of these is the encouraging presentation of millions of Arabs demonstrating peacefully and thereby bringing about a new regime. This is in stark contrast to the portrayal of Arabs as a murderous, violent lot that might best be wiped off the face of the earth.

But what strikes me most about this amazing story is the power of groups of people. Great power, glorious power, wonder-working power. And of course, horrifying power, destructive power, world-destroying power.

The power of groups is great, and it's more or less the power of their combined numbers. No tyranny can survive without the submission of a great number of people to that tyranny. No great evil can be done without the collusion of large numbers of people. And no great good can be accomplished, no matter how impressive the leaders, without followers in numbers.

In fact, historians in the last century or so have been moving away from looking at history as the story of great individuals and toward history being about groups of people, who together call forth and shape great individuals. I think about Jesus this way, and honestly, I think the collection of scriptures we use are a great example of exactly this process. Thousands of people made Jesus who he was, and millions of people make him who he is today. Jesus was called forth by a great mass of people over the course of many generations, and Jesus continues to be called forth by the millions who call on his name today. Jesus is not simply a person. Jesus the individual is in reality lost to history, but Jesus the movement, a movement he himself called the reign of God, can never die.

One of the great struggles I think we all have with the scriptures we have heard this morning is how impossibly demanding they are, and I think the key to understanding them is in this principle. In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a saying, "I get drunk, be we stay sober." Translating to the church, we might say, "I sin, but we are blameless."

Now there are two crucial levels I am talking about today. The first is that my salvation is dependent on my connection to a saved community. The second is that a community is saved or condemned not on the basis of what it does, but on what it wants.

The blamelessness, or sinlessness, or holiness of the church is not, thank God, dependent on my blamelessness or sinlessness or holiness. If it were it would be out of luck. Nor is my own blamelessness or holiness even dependent on me. As one of our elders asked yesterday, "What can one person do?" Really? Nothing.

The same, oddly enough, is true of condemnation. My condemnation, what is really wrong with me, is not really about me. It is about the we that works together against what is best for all of life on earth. What evil can one person really do? Certainly it seems that one might do a great deal of damage. But compared to the kinds of evil that really makes a difference to the whole world? Not much.

But the second important fact about both sin and holiness is that neither has as much to do with what we do together as it does with what we want together.

In other words, the world is saved or damned not by individuals, but by groups, and moreover, the world is saved or damned not by what these groups do, but by what they want.

Paul says today that the Corinthians cannot have advanced to spiritual maturity because they are too busy wrangling and arguing and being divisive. His point is that if they had advanced to spiritual maturity, they would be of the same mind, that is, the mind of Christ, which is one mind, at peace. They would want what God wants, and would therefore be working together so that God's will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. They claim to be struggling over issue of truth, but Paul sees in their actions the issue only of their desires. It's not what they are doing that's the problem. It's what they are wanting.

Paul loves the Corinthian church and believes in them, but he is making it clear that they are off the track, badly off the track. Faith is about wanting what God wants, and it's obvious from their actions that they are more concerned their preferences and opinions than they are with God's. Paul is making it clear that acting in concert has no meaning if the congregation is not also wanting in concert.

The congregation, the church, the people of God, are perfect to the extent that they are of one mind in Jesus Christ, however imperfect all the individuals may be. In this is my salvation.

The Old Testament, in a bit more subtle way admittedly, addresses the same issue in multitudinous ways. The kings of Israel, in a literary sense, represented the people of Israel, What made David a great king, and therefore made Israel a great nation, was not his brilliant military strategy or his good looks or his talent as a public speaker. What made him a great king was that he passionately wanted God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And his failure had nothing to do with being a lousy leader. It had to do with allowing his own wants to become more important to him than the will of God.

What we want must be in concert, but what we want must be what God wants. Our salvation depends on our unity not only with each other, but with God.

The salvation of the world is not in doing the right thing, it's in wanting the right thing. This is the true distinction between works and faith. To do something that outwardly looks righteous, but which is inwardly motivated by selfishness or greed or a desire to dominate or control, is to become simply a part of the great waste that is sin and death.

The Greek word translated "hell" Jesus uses in today's passage is actually Gehenna, which was not an otherworldly, cosmic place, but a huge, perpetually burning garbage dump everyone Jesus was talking to knew about. Jesus was using extremely vivid language to talk about just how crucial it is to the reign of God for God's people not merely to do what God wants, but to want what God wants. Jesus is saying that the group that does what God wants but that doesn't actually want what God wants is a tragic waste, best thrown into the burn pile.

When a group of people want to control and dominate another group of people, they hide their evil under what appear to be good intentions. "We enslave you in order to civilize you. We throw you in prison to rehabilitate you. We point weapons of mass destruction at you in the name of peace. We oppress one class so the other classes can have a better life. We murder one of you for the sake of the rest of you."

There are plenty of groups out there that I can become a part of that will help me seek my selfish desires, will reward my deceit and will honor my cowardice with violent protection. I can become a part of a "we" that dominates and controls and exploits and violates, and which hides it all behind noble words and claims to the moral high ground.

But there is also the church, and all other groups of people that band together around what is truly best for humankind, and all living things, in honesty and courage. The scriptures frequently speak of foreigners and other groups that manifest the desire of God just as faithfully or more so than do the people God called. There is a single good that we can all want; that's the heart of true monotheism, and not exclusivism. The Egyptian people are an example of this kind of unity with each other and with God, the kind of power that saves the world.

I am a sinner, full of selfishness and deceit and cowardice, but we are the sinless body of Christ. I am a mortal doomed to die and pass from history forever. But we are the eternally living body of Christ. I want what I want, we want what God wants. I am lost and condemned, we are found and redeemed. I fumble in the dark, but we walk in the light.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Light in the Darkness (sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he was taken from his home to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He asked one man there why he prayed and the man replied, "I pray to the God within me that I will be given the strength to ask God the right questions."

We are part of a denomination that celebrates questions. We approve of them, we encourage them, we hope that our members think for themselves. This is an approach to the mission of sharing the gospel in the world, our approach, and the hope that is in it is not that everyone will think differently, but that everyone will come to the obedience of faith through their own authentic journey.

But the story from the prison camp is instructive. There are questions and then there are questions. Some questions are really about avoiding full commitment. We know if we ask certain unanswerable questions, we then have an excuse for holding back. "I would give myself entirely to discipleship, except I haven't gotten answers to the important questions yet."

Other questions are motivated by a desire to move closer to God, to deepen one's commitment, to have a greater understanding and appreciation of God's person and will. These, as Wiesel's fellow prisoner might say, are the right questions.

The great promise of the gospel is really serenity. The word "happy" we have in our psalm today is not the best translation. The Hebrew word translated "happy" might better be translated "serene." The psalm is about deep contentedness, freedom from anxiety, impartial graciousness. It is about the gift of God's Spirit to those who walk in God's ways. Impartial versus partial, whole versus incomplete, loving and gracious and generous to all without exception. This is God's nature, and God shares God's nature with those who walk in God's ways.

Many loving and spiritual people have a problem with the kind of biblical language that condemns. We like to think that God doesn't condemn anyone. We perhaps are thinking of the kind of bigoted Christian who assigned all those good people of other religions to hellfire. The scriptures, to my way of thinking, don't condemn such people. Nor, in the end, do they authorize our condemnation of anyone. They certainly do not authorize violence against anyone, including those whom the bible might declare wicked.

Elie Wiesel's fellow prisoner could have asked "Why do the Nazis prosper? Why do they have the victory?" But the God within him, the Spirit of God, knew that this was not the right question. He might have asked "How do I achieve victory over this powerful enemy?" But the God within him knew that was also the wrong question. Or he might have asked "How will you destroy these evil people?" Again, wrong question.

Certainly the Nazis are a good example of the kind of religion the bible condemns. False religion and evil from a biblical point of view has nothing to do with authentic alternative religions that lead people to loving and ethical lives. The bible regards as false religion and evil those religious and philosophical principles that lead people to oppress other people, to mistreat the planet, to execute people or to go to war. Now I know the Old Testament speaks of war and violence, but in the end, in understanding both Old and New Testaments, the final practice of those who seek the one living and true God is the practice of peace.

So there are persons whom God condemns, sad to say. There are persons God has no use for, as upsetting as that may be. Certainly, God does not expect, nor does he plan, for everyone on earth to become Christian; God is delighted by those who receive God's Spirit in whatever way they find it. But God does condemn the violent, the oppressive, the powerful ones who put on a show of religion but who do not seek justice for the powerless and who are not generous as God is generous. I don't believe God has in mind eternal torment for anyone. I do believe however that many of these useless lives simply snuff out and disappear, while the lives of those who are filled with God's Spirit never truly leave the living world.

God offers us a set of practices, religious and ethical, that in the end are not rational, not even very sensible. But these practices lead us to an openness to God's Spirit, and it's God's Spirit that is the light in the spiritual darkness of the world. Without God's Spirit, the scriptures will not finally make any sense. With it, they glow with holy light.

The fullness of human life, the completeness, the wholeness, and therefore true serenity, lies in the indwelling of God's Spirit. Without it, we are never at peace. Without it, we are not much use to God. Our lives are simply brief flickers that make almost no difference. The missing line in today's psalm has to do with the onlooking wicked person, who sees the one illumined by God's Spirit, was omitted, probably because of how disturbing it is:

The wicked will see it and be grieved;
         He will gnash his teeth and melt away;
         The desire of the wicked shall perish.

The translation of the Hebrew in the psalm in line four should read more like "there is a light in the darkness for the upright." This is the light of God's Spirit, God's personality, God's perspective. God's nature, God's Spirit, is like water that quenches thirst forever, or food that feeds once and for all. It is like light in a great darkness, and it is like salt in tasteless or bad tasting food.

We sometimes have good reason to get lost in our anxiety or grief. Wiesel's anonymous fellow prisoner certainly had reason to be deeply afraid, didn't he? Of course, our reasons for giving into anger or fear are often much, much less than his.

Nevertheless, there are often times when something truly is being taken from us, or something we need is being kept from us. These are real situations, situations when we are being hurt in one way or another. At such times, we are in profound danger of slipping into the eternal and meaningless nothingness, the spiritual darkness that encompasses much of humanity.

But we have the assurance that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. Jesus invites us to accept a majestic and terribly demanding mantle, the mantle of the fullness of our humanity. We are to be a tiny and by most worldly measures an inconsequential light, a bit of crystalline spice, small things that are nevertheless remarkably powerful. And we are to have the courage of being whole despite the great darkness that demands that we cut off pieces of ourselves, that we live incomplete lives, blind, deaf, mute, lame. We are to be uncompromising in our obedience to God in the midst of a world that demands compromise. And we are to trust that the light cannot in the end be overcome, no matter what victories the darkness might seem to accomplish.

This is why Jesus teaches us not to hide God's light. He knows that the darkness will try to overcome it, and that we might in our fear therefore hide it away for safety. But we mustn't hide it. No matter how desperately the world wants to put it out, we mustn't hide it.

There's the story about the cave and the sun. The sun invited the cave to come up and see it's light, but the cave said, "All I see is darkness." But the sun invited the cave to come up again and finally the cave came up and saw the light of the sun. So then the cave said, "come down and see my darkness." But when the sun went down into the cave, the darkness was gone.