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.