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?