Monday, August 24, 2009

If necessary, use words

In the morning worship today I preached a sermon titled "Far be it from me" from Joshua 24:14-18. It's the passage in which Joshua said "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Not, we'll believe in the Lord or we'll worship the Lord or we'll serve the church, but we will serve the Lord. And I talked about how serving the Lord meant serving the least of our brothers and sisters, helping those who are unable to help themselves for whatever reason. I was very happy that my friend Eva G had come to visit our church and was going to stay for the second service.

Normally I preach pretty much the same thing at both services. I may adjust the sermon for the particular congregation attending the afternoon service, mostly folks who for one reason or another felt rejected by Church at some point in their lives. Today I was fairly confident that the sermon could stand as it was and I was all ready to start the afternoon service when Something Happened.

A couple came to the door looking for help - food or bus fare or anything we could do for them. This happens pretty often in our neighborhood, so I invited them to come sit in the air conditioning and rest. I told them to help themselves to the goodies that one of our members had brought in for the Fellowship Hour between the two services. And I asked where they were coming from or going to. The young man said "I just want to find someplace for her to rest. She's pregnant and she needs to rest." So I got out my trusty iPhone and texted all the people who sometimes show up for the afternoon worship service. "Do we know anyone who can help a homeless pregnant woman? Even just for 1 night?"

Within a minute at most I had received 2 phone calls and 3 text messages. I called the numbers these folks recommended and answered several more phone calls and text messages. Within an hour we had found shelter for the young woman and her fiance for the next several days.

I never did preach that sermon in the afternoon service. In fact, we didn't do most of the things we normally do in worship. We did sing a little, and we prayed together. But mostly we served God's children to the best of our ability. We fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless. Instead of hearing a sermon we lived one, following the instructions Francis of Assisi is supposed to have given other monks. "Preach always. If necessary, use words."

(The sermon "Far be it from me" is posted on this blog)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Far Be It From Me

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’
Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’

(For those reading this sermon. Today’s anthem is “Wade in the Water,” The ending is God’s gonna trouble the water)

God’s gonna trouble the water . . . .

It seems to me that God has troubled the waters here lately. It seems to me that God’s been troubling the waters of complacency, the waters of apathy, the waters of fear, the waters of hatred, the waters of justice, the waters of compassion – all the waters are troubled and moving in response to the Spirit. People are coming out of the woodwork to stand up for what they believe. And whether or not we agree with what other people believe, the fact that more and more people are becoming involved in the conversation is a good thing.

Look at what’s been happening just this week.

On Wednesday afternoon I was part of a conference call that included the White House Director of Public Affairs, Melody Barnes, Disciples General Minister and President Sharon Watkins, about 15 other faith leaders, President Barack Obama, and a lot of other persons of faith. On the day of the call they expected about 10,000 to be listening in. By the time the call was over they said there were perhaps as many as 30,000. By the next day they had determined that some 140,000 persons of faith were listening to each other and to the President on the issue of health care reform. There were testimonies, prayers and statements by clergy and lay people, by Jews, Christians, and Moslems. There were questions by sincerely concerned people who were worried that their beliefs on abortion and end of life issues would be trampled on by changes in our health care system. Some of us spent the entire conversation sending out tweets (like very short emails) so that others could sort of keep up with what was going on in the conversation. And the conversation continued on the internet for hours after the call ended. I would say that everyone was happy about how the call went, but we all know that wouldn’t be true. I believe, however, that most were happy that the call happened – that the lines of communication are open in a very real and productive way. This is good.

On Friday this week the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted on some very controversial resolutions during their Assembly. The first was to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize same-gender unions. The vote was 619-402. The second was to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships, by a vote of 559 to 451. People all around the country, perhaps all around the world, sat watching and listening as the debates and speeches continued. And I would say that everyone celebrated, but we all know that wouldn’t be true. I did notice, however, that even those who voted in opposition seem mostly to still be willing to talk, to keep the conversation going, and to accept the decision made by the majority of those voting. This is good.

It had seemed for a while as if some folks thought that the minute our nation had a change in administration that everything would change instantly. That foreclosures would end and unemployment would go down and the economy would be healed and everyone would be equal in all ways in the eyes of the law. As if the President was Moses and only had to extend his staff across the Nile to deliver us safely to the other side without any real effort on our parts. People have begun to realize that we can’t just sit back and expect to be led into the promised land of justice and compassion for all persons without any effort on our parts. You’ll remember that Israel wandered the desert for forty years until Moses and all those he’d led out of Egypt had died, because of their disobedience. It took Joshua’s leadership and commitment on the part of the Israelites to finally cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

These Israelites, the children and grandchildren of the ones who had left Egypt with Moses, had learned something from the mistakes of their parents. They knew what God was capable of doing. They’d heard the stories of the plagues and crossing the Nile. They’d experienced the column of smoke and fire guiding their way and daily manna for food. And because they knew what God had done for them, they were quite willing to be obedient. In fact, the whole book of Joshua is filled with stories of obedience. God tells Joshua what to do, he tells Israel and they are successful in everything they attempt. Well, except for one instance when they lost a battle because one man had kept some loot instead of destroying it. So he and his entire family were put to death to atone for the disobedience, and everything went perfectly well after that.

So why is it, then, that Joshua made that speech about serving other Gods? Why did he have to make the point that he and his house would serve the Lord? Why did Israel have to respond “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord . .” Because Israel had a history of forgetting. From the time of Joseph to the time of Moses the Israelites living in Egypt had almost forgotten about their God. They had worshipped the gods of Egypt. Joshua knew that, left on their own, they were quite likely to wander off and worship the local gods. Each tribe would be living in a different part of the land, so they wouldn’t be all together anymore. There would be distractions and temptations. They’d make a small offering to the fertility god to assure a good harvest, just in case Yahweh wasn’t paying attention that day. Or they’d give in to their mother-in-law’s insistence that they show up at a new moon festival just to keep her quiet. They’d slowly start wondering if they really had to give their best 10% to the Levites. After all, they needed that money to build a bigger house, or expand their business. And why should they take of the aliens who wandered into their cities? They’d had to make their own way, hadn’t they? They’d forget about taking care of those who couldn’t care for themselves, who had no family, who were different in one or another. And they would become like everyone else.

Joshua was right to be concerned. After his death the book of Judges tells us that every forty years the new generation would forget. They’d follow the ways of the world around them and forget what God had done for them. They’d stop tithing and praying and making sacrifices. But most of all they would forget the Shema – they would forget to love their God with all their being, and they would forget to love their neighbor as themselves. They would forget about compassion and justice and mercy. They would forget to serve the Lord.

“Far be it from me to forget what God has done for me.” I hear that from people all the time. They’ll start showing up for church and wanting to study the Bible and be part of events and wanting to share their faith with everyone. And then, we don’t see them again. Sometimes it’s because life happened. They’re working more hours. They need to rest on Sunday. It’s the only day they have for family time. They’ll be back after football season. They forget, and it doesn’t even take forty years. Maybe because they aren’t given a chance to serve.

Here’s the thing. Joshua didn’t say “me and my house, we will believe in the Lord. Or worship the Lord. Or give thanks to the Lord.” He said, “ . . as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” And he didn’t say “as for me and my house we will serve the temple.” There was no temple yet. There was just God, and the way to serve God was to serve God’s people. Today there is a church and many believe that we serve God by serving the church. But even today the way to serve God is to serve God’s people. Church is where we come to worship and to study scripture. Church is a convenient place to organize ways to serve God’s people. But the one we serve is first and always God.

Just as the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua gained their Promised Land, so we must work together under the leadership of our Lord Jesus Christ to gain the kingdom promised by God. And just as Israel’s kingdom was here on earth, so is the one we strive for. To gain that kingdom we must trouble the waters in God’s service. We must stand up for what we believe to be right. When we speak out, individually and as church, promoting compassion, love, acceptance, and care for those who are outcaste for whatever reason, then we are doing right. When we serve in ways that ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters, then we are doing right. Then we are truly serving our Lord. Let us serve God, doing the work of reconciling the whole world to God, as partners in Christ’s service.

Called as Partners in Christ’s Service 453

Monday, August 17, 2009

Faith Questions

A week or so ago I posted a question on the clergy page of The Intersection. A woman had called me and wanted a book that would give her faith. My instinctive response is that faith is an inside job and no book would be adequate to "give" someone faith, but I asked my clergy colleagues for suggestions anyway.

Now you must realize that I didn't say any more than that. I didn't mention that the woman is an active member of a United Methodist Church who, for some unknown reason, likes to come to me for counseling. I'd helped her through rage and grief so naturally she turned to me in a crisis of faith.

What I found amazing was the large percentage of those responding who assumed this was an unchurched or non-Christian person seeking either a belief system or a reason to return to church. I got suggestions of books that taught about the Christian faith; what it means to be a Christian, what Christian beliefs are, and so on. I got only a few suggestions intended to help someone through a crisis of faith.

It turns out that the woman in question had "God's will and my will" questions, not really a faith issue at all. But a day or so later a woman came to me who has had a serious crisis of faith. She's lost in that dark place where you wonder if God 's really paying attention. She is in horrible pain and knows that God could fix it if she could just believe . . .

I've been there. I think maybe we've all been there. And yes, I have a book for her. But more importantly, I have arms to hold her, ears to hear her, hands wipe away her tears, and a lot of love to give until she can feel God's arms and ears and hands and love.