Sunday, January 24, 2010

Serving in Unity

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

The church in Corinth was undergoing some fairly significant dissension. Because we don’t have any of the letters and reports that Paul received we don’t know exactly what was going on there, but from the responses in Paul’s letter to them we can see that some of the folks were lording it over the others. Perhaps those who had a bit more money were expecting different treatment than their poor brothers and sisters. Or perhaps folks who could speak in tongues thought they were more spiritually blessed than those who taught scripture to the newest converts. Whatever the argument was about Paul used the church as body metaphor to help them understand that each of them was important. That, in fact, the church couldn’t survive without all of them.
Paul isn’t the first person in the ancient world to use the body as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of a society. He is, however, the first to speak of the weaker and less respectable as being most important. Writers before him had used the image of the community as the body to keep the weaker and less respectable in their places, telling them the head was clearly the most important and the rest existed to serve the head - the nobility and priests and military. People like the peasants of Galilee, carpenters and farmer workers and fishermen, existed solely to support those who were above them in social ranking. Even today we still tend to think of society and communities that way – the obvious leaders are more important so they get more perks, more recognition, the best chair, the highest salaries.

There’s a story told in some leadership training sessions. It seems some junior executives in a large corporation were busy giving the janitor a hard time. He had inconvenienced them somehow and they were making it very clear just how far they outranked him and how much trouble he was in for annoying them. The CEO was passing by about that time, leaned in the door and said “I’ll take care of this.” He took the janitor out of the room, told him to take 2 weeks paid vacation beginning immediately, and assured him the juniors would never disrespect him again. Within a couple of days the juniors were frantic – their trash cans were overflowing, the bathrooms were dirty, the employee lounge was filled with garbage. The place was a real mess. When they started to complain the CEO pointed out that the company could function very well without them, and it could even function just fine for a while without him. But without a janitor the whole place fell apart in just a few days.

22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
We are accustomed to hearing this upside-down picture of the world. It is the basis for most of what Jesus taught. The last shall be first. If you would lead you must be servant to all. We’re used to hearing these very counter cultural statements. But for the folks in Corinth, the idea that the homeless guy sitting by the door was as important as the rich guy in the front row, or that the person visiting for the first time was at least as valuable to their congregation as the deacon presiding at the table, or that the church elder was in no way superior to the lady who helped hand out food to the hungry – this was radical.
Equality was a new idea for people of the time. Their culture was very rigidly hierarchical. The king or emperor was at the top and slaves were at the bottom. Everyone had a particular place in society from the moment that was theirs from the moment they were brought into the world. There were some exceptions but people rarely moved from one class to another. This passage, of course, goes a bit beyond equality. Paul says the least respectable member of the body is the most honored, the weaker is the most indispensable. We cover the less honorable parts with clothing – not out of shame but to give those parts greater honor. The people of Corinth never heard anything like this before. And we, although hearing it regularly, tend to forget it.
It’s hard to really wrap one’s mind around Paul’s metaphor. The least honorable member of the body receives the greatest honor. The weakest is indispensable. Bigger is not necessarily better.
People ask me all the time “how big is your church?” I tell them what our average Sunday attendance is and I watch their facial expression say “oh, a little church. A dying church.” And then I tell them about what all goes on here during any given week. I talk about our food ministry and the Treasure Box and two preschools and all the Girl Scouts and 12 Step groups and 3 other churches and the groups of developmentally challenged folks who get training here. I tell them about Fiesta Educativa and other support groups having meetings and parties here and being a polling place and providing health screening. I tell them that many of these things bring little or no money into the church, but are ways in which we serve our community. And I watch that facial expression change. “Wow. You do a lot.” Yes. Yes we do.
I know, and you know, that we cannot survive financially as a congregation if we get much smaller. Or if our expenses get much higher. And I know, as you should, that if Delhaven disappears this community will lose much more than we will. We can find another church. But where will the neighborhood find those other things we provide?
I know, as you do, that the primary purpose of Church is to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Not just by preaching the words in the Bible, but by living the Word. By reaching out to care for the people around us the way the folks in the early churches did. The primary purpose of Christianity is to change the world, to bring justice to every corner, to every person. It is to change the mindset of a society. No more “he is more important because he is wealthy” rather “she is more important because she is sick and hungry.” Our primary purpose is to teach by example that there is a different way than the way of the world, a better way.
When I tell people about the vandalism we suffered here, many of them respond immediately with questions about whether the vandal was caught and punished. I try to explain that Christians are expected to do things a little differently. Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are supposed to take the place of accusation and punishment. It is what we expect in our relationship with God. It is how we are expected to treat our neighbors. If someone hurts us we are called upon to forgive and become reconciled with that person, just as God forgives us. We are supposed to live differently, in a way that is not the same as the society around us. It’s funny, most of the people who asked about punishment are Christian. It simply hadn’t occurred to them that Christians are supposed to treat people differently.
Yet everything that Jesus taught us and these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth remind us that God’s way is not our way. And we’re expected to learn to do things God’s way. The weakest is the most indispensable. The least honored are to be seated at the head of the table. The leader must be servant to all. Forgive as you are forgiven. Love one another.
These are not suggestions. These are guidelines, even rules, by which we are expected to live. They are the opposite of what the world teaches us. When we talk about gaining a new life in Christ we’re not talking about where we will spend eternity. We’re talking about living differently here and now. When in baptism we say that we repent our sins, it doesn’t mean we have suddenly become perfect. It means that from that day forward we will diligently seek to root out our defects and replace them with love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness. We will seek forgiveness for hurting another and grant forgiveness to those who hurt us. It means being different than we were before.
Just as we are made new in Christ, so too is the church. As Disciples we identify ourselves as a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. Let us go from this place keeping in mind that Christ calls upon us to change ourselves and the world, so that God may truly reign on earth as in heaven. Let us go from this place today ready to renew our lives. Ready to renew our church.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Light of Joy

John 2:1-11 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

I’ve never really understood this particular miracle. Oh, I get the mechanics of it ok. And I get that Jesus was, or at least seemed, a bit miffed that his mother wanted him to show his power before he was ready. And I get that it wasn’t a public miracle, but a fairly private one – only his mother and selected followers were aware of it.

There is plenty of speculation in print about why Jesus was behaving like a responsible person at this wedding. Maybe it was the wedding of a younger sister and as oldest son he was the head of household. Maybe it was his wedding – although no one really seems to believe that one. At any rate, there must have been some reason why Mary thought he needed to resolve the whole “ran out of wine” situation. But – why? Not why was Jesus responsible, but why even do it? Why change water into wine? Why not just send a kid to the wine vender to buy more? And even if you are going to change it, why change it into the best vintage? Since the guests have already had plenty to drink, why not just provide box wine? The traditional theological answer is that this miracle is intended to show the extravagant love God has for us.

It’s a little hard to see extravagant love right now. Five days ago an earthquake struck Haiti, the poorest nation in our half of the world, located only a short boat ride from our shores. The news has been filled with images of tragedy and images of Americans leaping forward to help in any way we can. Once again we see our impulse towards love is moving us, individually and as a nation, to reach out even from our own places of financial difficulty to help those who have nothing. Someone on one of the news programs said that giving for this tragedy may even exceed that which followed Katrina and the tsunami. And we’re in the middle of a recession. I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a Christian thing, but it is what we do time after time. No matter how bad things might be for us, when we hear of a tragedy striking our first impulse is to say “How can I help?”

Most of us respond that way. I’m sure you have all heard that the Reverend Pat Robertson claims the Haitians brought this on themselves by entering into a pact with the devil back in the 1700s. And that Rush Limbaugh claims that this situation is tailor made for President Obama to regain credibility with the light and dark skinned blacks in this country. Some people will believe what they say. Some people will give in to prejudice and hatred instead of answering the impulse toward love that God has given each of us.

Maria Cuca Perez, who was here just a few weeks ago, shared her thoughts on love in an email shortly after the news of the quake. “I used to say that God protected me from this and that. But, when events like this earthquake happen, I wonder where was God's protection for so many unfortunate people in Haiti and all over the world. I have learned that we have to be God's hands, to protect and to assist those less fortunate. When you pray for the people of a disaster, do not look to God for answers, God already gave them to you. We already have the tools to God's will, be generous and give your time, donations, money and most of all your love. Peace.”

Many of us are hoping that justice will come to Haiti out of this incredible devastation. One of the first agencies to come forward with funds for emergency aid was the World Bank. Sadly, this was less altruism than protecting their investment. Like too many other small, poverty stricken nations, Haiti owes the World Bank a lot of money, much more than they could ever hope to repay. And this is the way it has always been for Haiti. Ever since the 1700s when the slaves of Haiti gained their freedom from France and from the plantation owners, Haiti has struggled to support herself. France blockaded her waters until Haiti agreed to pay damages for the plantation owners’ property loss – including the lives of the slaves who freed themselves - in an amount far exceeding their gross national product. The devil they made a deal with was France. And ever since then, European and American banks have continued to loan her huge sums for building projects that are unreasonable for a country at such a low level of development. It is a way of keeping whole nations enslaved without breaking the anti-slavery laws. I pray that the World Bank and other financial institutions will forgive at least the interest on all those loans – that they will proclaim Jubilee for Haiti.

But before that, there is so much to do. So much death and destruction. And so much to wrap our minds around. We have seen photos and videos, but let me read you something I received from a clergywoman I know online. It is from her mother who is in Leogane (pronounced LAY oh Gone) not Port-au-Prince, actually closer to the epicenter and as of yesterday no aid has arrived in their town.
I’m Using someone’s computer without using a bright screen, so I cannot tell about my mistakes. I will send one msg to all, so some information will not mean anything to you.
Hopital Ste. Croix is standing. John and I are fine. The administration collapsed under the guesthouse, and our apartment collapsed under the story above. We have nothing we brought with us to Haiti, but since we have done a lot of cleaning in the guesthouse and hospital, we can find what we really need. Someone who was here gave me some shoes, and I found another pair or reading glasses that will work, so I have what I need. John was caught under the wreckage for about 4 hours, the roof above was supported by the lintel of the sliding glass door, which held up the second floor, so he was uninjured except for a small cut on the top of his head.
At night we sleep in the yard behind the hospital where the bandstand was. It has fallen, as has the Episcopal school. There are 2-300 people who sleep in that field at night. Thy singh ymns until almost midnight, and we wake up to a church service, with hymns, a
morning prayer, and the apostle’s creed. The evening sky is glorious. In the field there is a real sense of community.
Of course, we are the only blancs there. A group from FondWa arrived in Leogane today and will sleep there tonight. Janine the head cook brought John and me spaghetti from her home in Darbonne 8 miles away. We shared with the group from FondWa. They have some money so they went out and bought rice, etc, and we will eat tonight.
People have shared with us and we are getting a chance to feel how the Haitians really live.
The injuries we have seen at the hospital are enormous, skulls exposed, one woman died in the yard. Another women’s leg was cut vertically to the bone, with muscles showing. Doctors worked and saw over 300 people with cuts, fractures, etc. Today they are not, but worked hard every day since the quake. (with no gloves, anesthesia, antibiotics – all supplies were either destroyed or used up quickly)
I have never understood joy in the midst of suffering, but now I do. The caring I have seen, the help we have received from the Haitians, the evening songs and prayers. Are wonderful.
The people will survive, though many will die. Please pray for us. And pray that we and the hospital can be of help to the people here. Suzi

I was pretty amazed on the first night that Katie Couric was there reporting on the devastation, because you could hear in the background children singing songs of praise to God. But did you hear what Suzi said in this letter? 200-300 people singing hymns every night, singing praise, lifting up to God the joy of just being alive. Holding worship service every morning as soon as they wake up. The Light of Joy – Joy in the midst of suffering.

In a world where there is NO clean water – let alone wine – we wonder, where is the extravagance of God? In a world where desperate parents must say to their children ‘There is no food” why has the hour of justice and redemption not yet come? We want to tug at Jesus’ sleeve and say “They have no wine!”

And yet in Haiti, where there isn’t even water, they are singing hymns of praise to God. Because they are alive, because they have hope for tomorrow, because they have the Christ.

Mary said – they have no wine.
Jesus said “ and that’s my problem why?”
Mary said to the servants “do what he tells you to do”
Jesus said “fill the jars with water”

Mary said “Do what he tells you.”

He took the water in the jugs and he turned that water into wine. He took what we need to sustain life and turned it into that which makes life a celebration.
We are the water.
Christ is the wine.
Christ is the extravagant love that God has for us, for all God’s children.
When he was asked for wine, he gave the best.
When we do what he tells us we are the best, we have the power to change lives, to heal the world, to provide wine where there is no water.
Do what he tells you.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

What Child is This?

Sirach 24:1-24:34

24Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
2In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
3‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
4I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
5Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
6Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
7Among all these I sought a resting-place;
in whose territory should I abide?

8‘Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.”
9Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
10In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
11Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting-place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
12I took root in an honored people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.

Every year, in the week or two between Christmas and Epiphany, we concentrate on the humanity of Jesus. The baby, helpless in his mother’s arms, brought into the world in blood and pain just like all other babies. The young boy who asked the teachers in the Temple such amazing questions that they marveled at his understanding. Gospel stories tantalize us with stories that compare Jesus to Moses - the slaughter of all the babies in Bethlehem so much like the slaughter of all baby boys in Egypt, the family’s running to Egypt away from an angry king so much like Moses’ running away from Egypt’s angry king. All too soon – next week – it will be time to leave his childhood behind and celebrate his baptism, the beginning of his ministry.

It’s kind of hard, these couple of weeks after Christmas, to focus on big questions. We spend the four weeks of Advent preparing for the birth and for the return of the Christ. Meanwhile, outside of the church doors, we are preparing for the biggest holiday season of the year. Schools are closed, stores are open crazy hours, traffic is light on the freeways and insane around the malls. We spend all our energy getting to Christmas and once it’s over, well, it’s over. We are physically and emotionally worn out and thinking very hard about anything is more than we want to deal with right now.

But this is precisely when we look at one of the hardest of all questions. Who was the child of Bethlehem and why should we care?

The reading we heard this morning came from the Book of Sirach. I’m not entirely sure why it appeared in one of my Lectionary Commentaries for this week. It’s not part of the canonical Bible. Many of you won’t even be able to find it in your Bibles unless you have a study Bible or a Catholic Bible. It’s part of what is called the Apocrypha, or the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. These are books of scripture that inform our beliefs and traditions but that weren’t considered quite as important as some other books when the Bible was put together back around the year 400. This particular book is one of my favorites to read. It is a wisdom book, like proverbs. And if you have been in the hospital, you may have heard me read the bit from Sirach that deals with why you should do what the doctor says.

This particular reading talks about Wisdom – how Wisdom has been in the world since the beginning. How Wisdom came forth from God’s mouth to cover the earth, present from the beginning and part of God and creation. And how God gave the people of Jacob to Wisdom to live with and be part of.

If we look at this passage next to John 1 we see amazing similarities.

John 1:1-5, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Aside from the difference in pronoun, the Word and Wisdom are described in exactly the same way – together with God, part of God, and necessary to creation.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.

And Wisdom was given to live in the tents of Jacob – the same people to whom Jesus, the Word, was sent. Wisdom came to the people of Israel through Moses and the law, and also through Jesus, the Word made flesh.

But unlike Moses and the law, Jesus was sent to all people. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”

Here is what I believe about that light and the coming of the Christ into the world. Over and over again God told his people how to live. The law of Moses was filled with instructions on how to care for the poor and the helpless. Even with how to redistribute possessions in Jubilee years so that everyone could start off on equal footing again. Over and over Israel would forget, so judges and prophets were sent to remind Israel that God’s desire is for all people to take care of each other, to love each other the way God loves us. To be merciful and compassionate. To turn their backs on those oh so tempting false gods of greed and lust for power. And Israel forgot again.

So a child was born, and that child grew in stature and wisdom, like all the prophets and judges before him. And into that child God poured Wisdom, the Word. For the first time, the Word that was present at the beginning became flesh and did not just speak to the people, but lived what God had trying to get through to us all along. That child grew into a man who would stand between the adulteress and her accusers and remind the accusers to be compassionate toward other sinners. A man who sat down to eat with the very dregs of society. A man who did not consider himself better than anyone else but reached out his hands in love to everyone equally. A man who even forgave the people who put him to death, and asked God to do the same.

This man, the child of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh, came for the salvation of the world. We all know that. But we may not all mean the same thing when we say “salvation.” For some that means “if I believe in Jesus the way the church tells me I’m supposed to believe then I will go to heaven after I die.”

I’ve heard this a lot lately. As you know, I’ve been in Texas for my brother’s funeral. And I heard way too many people say things like “he’s so much better off than we are right now.” Or “now his real life can begin, his life with Christ.”

I don’t believe either of those things. Yes, I take comfort in knowing that my brother is no longer suffering the way he was. I believe that he is with God and that I will be reunited with him some day. I believe that his work here is done and now he gets to rest. But I don’t believe that real life begins at death any more than I believe my work will begin when I retire. I believe that our real life is here and now and that what God wants us to do is leave the world a better place because we were in it. I believe God wants us to remember that we are all created equally, all loved equally, all valued equally, and that we’re supposed to treat each other equally. I believe that Christ, the Word made flesh, came to save the world from itself – to heal us of our sinful ways and to teach us how to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. I believe that if we allow Jesus to touch our hearts, if we take his example seriously and don’t let statements like “well, he was perfect. We’re can’t be expected to be like him” keep us from doing our best, then we can change the world.

We’re not going to do things perfectly. But that just means we still have a lot to learn, as the boy in the Temple we heard about last week was still learning. Like him, we are children. But we can grow, as Kate reminded us. As Jesus grew, in knowledge and understanding.

I believe we make a mistake when we pack away the nativity scenes – when we put the Baby Jesus in a box for the rest of the year. I believe we need to remember that Wisdom, the Word made flesh, our Lord and Savior, was not always an adult. I believe we need to remember that he began his life as a child, helpless and weak, so that we will know that we too, can grow into adulthood in God’s sight. I believe we need to come back from time to time during the year, and ask again “What Child is This.”