Monday, December 12, 2011

Choose Joy! 3rd Sunday of Advent

Scripture Reading
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

As I read this passage I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be a person in exile, still grieving the loss of my home and everything dear to me, knowing that my ancestors were among the leaders, the wealthiest, the 1% if you will and that therefore their actions or lack thereof were at least partly responsible for Israel ending up in this situation. I am convinced that if I had the chance they had I surely wouldn’t make the same mistakes. I feel forsaken by my God. Is God not paying attention to our pain, our suffering, our fears? Then I imagine that I have heard Isaiah, who was truly the voice crying out in the wilderness of exile and pain, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s Favor. I heard him calling upon me to be joyous, to exult in my God, for I am of Israel. I am of a people whom the Lord has blessed.

Frankly, if I am one of the exiles in Babylon, I don’t feel all that blessed. Mostly I feel tired of waiting for God to swoop in and rescue us. I mean, can’t he hear our cries? Can’t he see the suffering of his people? Always before God has sent someone to lead Israel out of whatever mess she’d gotten herself into, but it’s been a long long time in exile. There’s no indication of a leader rising from among the people. Yet here is the prophet saying “Rejoice! You are going to bring healing to your land and your people. God has promised this and it is going to happen – soon!” I want to believe him. I surely hope he’s right. It’s just that it has been a long time so I’m really not sure what there is to rejoice about.

And yet, it happened just as Isaiah said it would. Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon, sent the exiles home and even helped rebuild the cities and the temple. From that time forward Cyrus was celebrated by Israel as a messiah, anointed of the Lord.

Six hundred or so years later the heavy foot of Rome is upon the land and has been for quite some time. Jesus has come and gone. He preached and died and was resurrected and arose into heaven, promising to return to us. The apostles told everyone that he was coming back, that he was coming into his kingdom, and that it would happen soon! Within the lifetimes of those who knew him. In the city of Thessalonica the people aren’t feeling very joyful. They’re tired of waiting. It’s been 20 years, half a lifetime since he ascended into heaven and he isn’t back yet. I imagine what it must have been like to be in that congregation, to be in the early church anywhere, wondering when Jesus will come, when the old ways will disappear and God’s kingdom will be established upon the earth.

Oh right. I really don’t have to imagine what that feels like, do I? Nearly 2,000 years have passed now. And still we wait. Each year we celebrate Advent – we wait. We tell ourselves he is coming! Emmanuel will come. The Messiah will come. It has been promised to us and we believe it is true. And yet we wonder, as did the church in Thessalonica, when is he coming? Can’t he hear the suffering? Can’t he see the pain of his people? When is he going to swoop in and save all of us?

Paul knew what the people were feeling. He felt it himself! He’d been so sure – they were all so sure that they would see Jesus return, coming down from the sky the very same way he left. But it’s been way longer than they expected. Paul starts to wonder if maybe they were mistaken in the way they interpreted Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he knows his savior lives. He is confident that the kingdom of God will become a reality on the earth.

And so he tells the people, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Rejoice always! Not the easiest thing to do when life is not going well. The words of Psalm 137 keep coming back to me. How do we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? How do we rejoice when we can see so much pain and suffering in the world; in Kenya and California, in Darfur and Detroit, in Bosnia and Boston.

Give thanks in all circumstances! Really, Paul? I mean, I can see giving thanks for the things I have that are good. I have a job. I can pay my bills. I have a home to live in. There is food on my table. I’m pretty healthy right now and I have health insurance. I have a loving husband. I have friends I care about and who care about me. I am part of a caring, giving, doing community here at Delhaven Christian Church. I can give thanks for these and many other blessings. But giving thanks in all circumstances? How would that work, exactly?

Let’s see. I had that inflamed joint and it hurt a lot! But it forced me to allow others to help me. OK, I can give thanks for the injury. Our church secretary bought a home in Santa Cruz and is moving there next weekend. This is wonderful and I am really happy for her, but it leaves the church without a secretary and we lack the funds to hire another. Looking for something to be thankful for . . . ah yes, at least one person has volunteered to spend time in the church office every week so there will be someone here to give food to the hungry. Volunteering gives people an opportunity to serve the way Jesus directed us to serve, so I am thankful for that. Clearly, in many cases there is something for which I can be thankful.

Sometimes, however, there are circumstances that don’t seem to have a positive side. I thought of so many examples of terrible things that exist in our world, but I don’t have to list them for you. You know what the world is like today. The exiles in Babylon asked Isaiah and the Christians in Thessalonica asked Paul and we also ask: How do we rejoice in suffering? How do we give thanks in the face of tragedy? In light of all the terrible things that are going on in our lives and in our world how do we continue to wait for the coming of the Lord?

and both of them answered saying, Rejoice! Give thanks! For the Lord is faithful.

That’s it. It’s not things for which we are to be thankful. We aren’t being asked to rejoice over the bad things in our lives or even in spite of them. We are being reminded to rejoice in the Lord! We are being directed to give thanks to God for the love, compassion and forgiveness he showers upon us even, especially when we have done absolutely nothing to deserve it. We are being told, again, that our focus is always to be on God first and foremost, before any other consideration.

Paul said to rejoice always, give thanks for everything, pray unceasingly for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you... . hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

It is not that we are to rejoice and be thankful about the circumstances we find ourselves in, but that we are to rejoice and be thankful for God in us. In every circumstance, in every event of our lives, no matter where we find ourselves or how we feel about what’s happening in our lives and in our world, rejoice in the Lord! Every moment of every day, remember that we serve a living savior who is with us every moment of every day, who we can rely on to help us hold on when we feel ourselves slipping, and be thankful.

I got to this point in my writing and all I could think of were the words to hymns.
Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of Love.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!

Paul said, do not quench the Spirit.
Do not allow the world to drag your heart down into despair and sin. Rejoice!
Rejoice, for ours is the God of love and light.
Rejoice, for God in Christ is always with us.
Rejoice, for God’s kingdom is coming.
We don’t know when.
We don’t know how.
But we do know that we can loudly proclaim,
Christians All Your Lord is Coming

Monday, December 05, 2011

Is this the way it's supposed to be?


Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

In Bible Study this week we read chapters 22-24 in Exodus. Among many other things God told the people of Israel these things, which are re-stated over and over again throughout the Old Testament: 21Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22Don't treat any widow orphan badly. 23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.
25If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don't be a creditor and charge them interest. 26If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I'll listen, because I'm compassionate.

In those same passages it becomes clear that individuals can only prosper as long as the community is stable and working in balance. The laws allow for restitution, not retribution. There was no such thing as a giant lawsuit – the value of any item, injury or damage was known in advance.

In Exodus 22, in the middle of this list of laws and punishments God promises the people of Israel what sounds like the ultimate peace of heart. “25If you worship the LORD your God, the LORD will bless your bread and your water. I'll take sickness away from you, 26and no woman will miscarry or be infertile in your land. I'll let you live a full, long life.“ If you worship me, if you obey me, this is the peace of heart that will come again upon the people of Israel. Long healthy lives. Healthy babies and many of them. No enemies to worry about.

But . . .the leaders of Israel ignored those laws and because they did, because greed and the lust for power replaced the kind of balanced community the laws provided for, the entire nation was lost. They didn’t simply suffer military defeat as they had every other time they’d “done what was evil in the sight of God.” This time their temple was destroyed, the crops were burned in the fields, all the wealth of the nation was taken away and the leadership – the nobles and priests – were taken away into captivity. Their children are taken away and raised as Babylonians. Those who were left behind had to scratch out a living as best they could, for the bulk of their wealth – their crops, their herds, the very fish from the waters of Israel – went to support their overlords. All went to Babylon.

Israel has been punished for their pride and their disobedience. They have lost far more than just their wealth and power, status and prestige. They have lost their homeland and their children. They fear the loss of their language, their culture, their very identity as a people. They had lost hope. Psalm 137 makes their feelings very clear,

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked us for mirth,
saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

There was no peace in their hearts.

And now God says to Isaiah, “Comfort my people. Tell them the time of their imprisonment is over. Tell them to have peace in their hearts. Tell them they need have no more worries or concerns.” They will be returned to their home. They will liberated, even as they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. They will be returned to the land promised to their ancestors.

In a recent Christian Century magazine, Bill Goettler, assistant dean of ministerial studies at Yale Divinity School and co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church of New Haven told a story about a homeless man he has known for a couple of years. Danny slept in the doorway of a local business, careful to leave before anyone arrived for work in the morning so he didn’t frighten them. He could be seen around town selling newspapers, washing windows and collecting things to recycle. He worked hard to get the few dollars he needed for food. Sometimes he’d come around to the church asking for a bus pass or a few dollars or some food. And whenever he saw Goettler, he’d say “Reverend, Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”

The short answer is NO! It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s only this way when the leaders forget in whose name they are leading, who put them in positions of power and trust. It’s only this way when society becomes unbalanced. When it becomes clear to everyone that “winning” is more important than fairness or compassion or mercy or what’s good for the community. When a candidate for president claims that people who are poor and jobless have only themselves to blame. When the most popular TV shows feature groups of people placed in a difficult environment and, rather than being told to create the best community they can, are encouraged to manipulate each other, to lie, cheat and steal in order to win a large sum of money.

There is no peace when people have no place to sleep, no job or hope of one, no way to support themselves or their families. There is no peace when the wealthy have the power of life and death over the poor.

When Israel behaved this way God paid attention. God promised Israel more than just peace of heart if they worshipped their Lord. God promised destruction if they oppressed the powerless among them. “23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.”

I think God means it. And I think God’s promise to bring destruction upon those who oppress the powerless is beginning to come true here. Maybe destruction won’t come at the point of a sword but when I look at the news I am beginning to see an upswelling of rebellion against that lack of compassion and mercy that is a plague upon our nation. There’s the non-violent Occupy movement, of course, but there are other examples of civil disobedience that are as wonderful as they are unexpected.

In Atlanta this week, Chase Bank foreclosed upon a home and deputies were sent with a moving van and a writ of eviction. This is never an easy job for the police When they arrived and saw the homeowners they called their supervisor and said, “We’re not going to do this.” They could not in good conscience remove 103 year old Vida Lee Hall and her 83 year old daughter from the house they had called home for over 50 years. Their call was passed all the way up the chain of command to Sheriff Jackson, who backed them up in their refusal to obey the writ of eviction and called them back to their station. I first saw this story Wednesday on MSNBC, where Laurence O’Donnell said “Laws alone cannot make a Just society Laws must be tempered with mercy. We have a more just society because Sheriff Jackson of Atlanta followed his conscience instead of the law.” I think it is only right that Sheriff Jackson and his deputies chose to protect the powerless instead of serving the wealthy. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that those deputies went home that night with peace in their hearts.

Marine Corps Lance Corporal Scott Olson, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, appeared on the Rachel Maddow show on Thursday. You may know that he is the man who suffered a serious head injury at Occupy Oakland when the police were trying to move the protestors from their location. His story became the motivating force that reinvigorated the movement around the country and inspired even more people to actively participate. During that interview he said, “I want more than anything to see more people get involved. You can't effect change sitting at home. The occupy movement is about coming together and learning each others stories and creating community.”

And did you know that the Occupy movement is changing focus? As more cities are moving the Occupiers out of parks and other pubic spaces, people are now occupying properties where, for example, a single mother and her children are about to be evicted because, as in so many other cases, the bank wouldn’t negotiate her mortgage payments. Instead of occupying public property for all the 99%, they are occupying private property to help individual members of the community. This isn’t new. Communities did the same thing during the Great Depression, standing with their neighbors against the bankers.

When the people of Israel behaved as community, when they obeyed the laws that were intended to keep their society in balance, when they cared for the powerless among them with mercy and compassion, they had peace. Not just political and military peace, but peace that comes from within. When the people of Israel had this peace of heart, the kind of peace that is one of the blessings showered upon them by God, then they were free.

A friend of mine recently shared this quote from the Dalai Lama: “The basic foundation of humanity is compassion and love. This is why, if even a few individuals simply try to create mental peace and happiness within themselves and act responsibly and kind-heartedly towards others, they will have a positive influence in their community.”

Author and Holocaust Survivor Eli Wiesel said, “Peace is our gift to each other.”

The deputies in Georgia gave peace when they chose compassion over blind obedience to the law. The Occupiers seek peace by bringing international attention to the plight of the powerless, calling for the kind of economic justice that is rooted in compassion and mercy. As Christians we are required to love our neighbor, to bring that peace that surpasses all understanding into the lives we touch as we go about our daily business. This love, this peace-giving, is the form of worship that the prophet Micah declared God most desires of us, more than thousands of rams or rivers of oil or clouds of incense, but rather to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Blessed be the God of Israel!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gratitude Month

It's November. In November people's thoughts tend to turn toward gratitude. We are, after all, about to indulge in America's annual Thanksgiving feast. This year I think I will do something really different. I will try to just enjoy the holiday instead of feeling compelled to explain about the genocidal nature of the first such officially declared thanksgiving feast and all the other Grinch-ish info that people don't really want to hear. I suspect that my friends and parishioners will be grateful. They probably feel they have heard it enough over the 20+ years of my marriage to a Navajo. :-)

One of my Facebook friends is asking all her friends to post something on her page that they are grateful for every single day. That's pretty cool. Many 12 Step meetings this month will focus on gratitude as the discussion topic.

I'm going to use Thanksgiving Sunday as opportunity to prepare a stewardship sermon while everyone's focus is on gratitude. I know. Pastors generally hate to preach on stewardship. Since I am not a volunteer pastor, it feels a bit self-serving to ask people for generous contributions to my salary. I know there's all that other stuff, the stuff that makes it possible for our church to serve the community. But still, it always does feel just a bit selfish, but ...

The thing is, I learned a long time ago that Gratitude is a verb - an action word. If I am grateful for the blessings in my life then I need to say Thank You in a concrete manner. Simply saying, "I'm thankful for rainbows" is not a true expression of gratitude. Showing my gratitude by sharing the beauty of a rainbow with someone else, on the other hand, shows my gratitude because that action brings joy into their day. It's not enough to say "I'm grateful we live in a beautiful world." A true act of gratitude for the beauty of the earth could take the form of recycling or saving water or planting a tree or whatever your choice might be.

Therefore, if I am grateful for the blessings I have received because of the things I have learned as a Christian then it is incumbent upon me to return those blessings in a tangible manner. If the church gave me safe shelter from a harsh world, even in the mere fact of welcoming me into the arms of the congregation on Sunday morning then I am going to want to express my gratitude by making sure the church is there to help someone else.

Likewise, if the lessons I have taken from the readings and messages and hymns have had a positive influence on my life; if I have learned how to be a better person by trying to live according to the example set for me by Jesus and all the saints of the church who have come before, then it is important that I share that Good News so that others can enjoy the same kind of blessings that I have received.

So this Sunday I will expand on Paul's expression of thanks to the church in Ephesus by preaching on faithful stewardship and generous giving as an inevitable expression of true gratitude for the blessings we daily receive. And my post today on my friend's Facebook page will be, "I am grateful that it is my job to teach others how to live in active gratitude for all the blessings we receive."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Communication Epiphany

On this day after all hype over changes to Facebook I just want to share a recent insight, even an Aha Moment, about the way we communicate. First, a bit of background.

My congregation has produced a newsletter for the last 29 years or so. Every month upcoming events, prayer requests, church board minutes and a column written by the pastor would be carefully compiled, formatted, printed and mailed by the church secretary. During a secretary-free period a couple of years ago I took on the task and even after we found a new secretary I kept on gathering and formatting all the information for both the mail version and the newly developed website version. It was one of those "it's just easier to do it myself" situations.

Last summer I went on sabbatical. The board moderator took over my admin duties, one of which was producing the newsletter. Well, that just didn't happen. For three months no newsletter was printed or put on the website. When I returned it really surprised me to realize that no one seemed to miss it at all! We decided to just let it go.

For the past year we've been letting people know what's going on through announcements at the end of worship, email blasts, notices on the website, Facebook and even text messages. Phone calls were added to the mix when the news was really time sensitive.

At some point I began to notice that I missed seeing some folks at events that they had always attended in the past. I couldn't imagine what would keep them away. I began to realize that the missing folks were people who don't use the internet. I realized that not everyone is on Facebook or Google+ or Twitter. And just to be really clear, most of these folks are NOT elderly retired people who just never learned to use the internet, although there are a few of those. Some are people who have made a choice not to spend any portion of their home life attached to the machine. Some only use the internet for work. Some just simply cannot afford it.

That's when the epiphany came. I realized that just because it is new and up to date and the best/most efficient method of doing whatever doesn't mean it's the only way we should do that thing. There is/should be a place in between not changing because "That's the way we've always done it" and throwing out "the way we've always done it" just because it IS the old way. I had to realize that new isn't necessarily better and doesn't have to completely replace the old.

Certainly I'm not the first person to realize this. When the conversion of Gentiles began and circumcision was no longer required for baptism and membership in this new cult of Christianity Paul continued to remind the members of the new churches that the foundation of our faith is firmly rooted in the Abrahamic tradition. Just because the dietary restrictions weren't required of the new folks didn't mean that people who were accustomed to keeping the Law needed to give it up. He mentioned repeatedly that the old ways could and should exist alongside the new and directed both Jewish Christians and Greek Christians to accept the ways of the other even if they didn't follow those ways themselves. Christians today acknowledge that the Greek Testament builds upon the Hebrew and is equally important to informing our knowledge of God.

Our first newsletter in over a year will be going out this week. We'll keep doing all the very coolest and most up to date electronic and digital communication but we'll also make paper copies available to the folks who live alongside those of us obsessed with all things digital.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back to School Sunday

Wisdom 6:12 – 19 (Common English Bible)
Wisdom is bright and unfading. She readily appears to those who love her. She’s found by those who keep seeking after her. She makes herself known even in advance to those who desire her with all their hearts. Someone who wakens before dawn to look for her will find her already sitting at the door. Taking wisdom to heart is the way to bring your thinking to maturity. The one who can’t sleep at night because he’s consumed with thinking about her will soon be free from worry.

She herself goes about looking for those who are worthy of her. She graciously makes herself known to them as they travel. She comes to them in each of the ideas that they think. The real beginning of wisdom is to desire instruction with all your heart. Love for instruction expresses itself in careful reflection. If you love Wisdom, you will keep her laws. If you are attentive to her laws, you can be assured that you will live forever. If you live forever, you will be near to God.

The reading I used today comes from the Wisdom of Solomon, which is not found in many of the bibles we have at home. It is one of those books only found in study bibles (and Catholic and Orthodox bibles) in that section between the Old and New Testaments known as the apocrypha or deuterocanonical books. The bishops who decided which books should go into the Bible decided that these should available to students of the Bible because we can learn from them but that we shouldn’t consider them to be authoritative.

The Wisdom of Solomon is sort of a continuation of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. A large part of it is narrated by a person known as Wisdom and contains sayings about how to live with joy and obedience to God. We first meet Wisdom in Proverbs where she describe herself in this way:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past.
I was formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
when there were no springs with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I was brought forth;
before God made the earth and the fields or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he secured the fountains of the deep,
when he set a limit for the sea, so the water couldn't go beyond his command,
when he marked out the earth's foundations.

Common English Bible (2011-06-15). CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 28122-28143).

Just FYI, Wisdom is always referred to as a woman because the word meaning wisdom is feminine in Hebrew and Greek. English words, of course, don’t have gender.

This concludes the educational portion of the message.

I say that sort of tongue in cheek because as we all know education and wisdom are not the same thing. Today we celebrate the beginning of the school year, the beginning of a new season of education. The children will learn a lot this year. They’ll learn new things about words and numbers and science and maybe history and languages . . . and I don’t know what all. Their teachers will do their very best to teach them the things they need to know, the things the government and the school system say the children need to learn in order to pass the required tests.

I know that most teachers would much rather teach them how to think, how to reason their way through situations, how to think critically about problems and issues. Most teachers are be thrilled if in addition to teaching their students how to pass tests they also manage teach them to be moral and ethical and wise.

The real beginning of wisdom is to desire instruction with all your heart. Love for instruction expresses itself in careful reflection. . If you love Wisdom, you will keep her laws. If you are attentive to her laws, you can be assured that you will live forever. If you live forever, you will be near to God.

If you love wisdom you will keep her laws, you will live forever, you will be near to God. This sounds familiar. This is kingdom of heaven language. The one who loves Wisdom loves God, because Wisdom is of God. The one who loves Wisdom and therefore God, will do justice and love kindness, will show mercy and compassion, will care for the widow and orphan and everyone who has no one to protect them from the oppressor.

I know, I say these things all the time yet I don’t always say what loving the widow and the orphan and all the other powerless people really entails.

For the last two years we have been offering a program called the Treasure Box. A Treasure Box contains about 25 pounds of good quality frozen food at a very reasonable cost. It is supposed to feed a family of 4 for one week and an elderly person for an entire month. Unfortunately, Treasure Box has been losing so much money that they can’t continue to offer this service. The very last Treasure Boxes will be distributed in September. Most of our people were very upset to hear this – they simply don’t know what they’re going to do. Some have been sent to us by social workers or the school system. Many are retired or on disability. One has 6 foster kids and 3 of his own to feed. We feel terrible and we feel responsible to find a way to help these people. We’re going to see if we can get involved with a similar program between now and October so we can keep serving our neighbors.

One of the people who gets a Treasure Box every month is Garth, a very nice elderly man who has the kind of physical difficulties that make me think maybe he’s had a stroke. He was relieved to hear that we’re going to try to continue helping him. He’s terrified that the government is going to take away his Social Security and Medicare. He’s angry that the government doesn’t seem to care about people like him.

The Hebrew prophets told the government of their own times that if they didn’t care for the poor and powerless they would fall – and they did. Dr. Jeremiah Wright said the same thing to the U.S. government in his infamous “God damns America” sermon. He wasn’t alone in this kind of thinking. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to preach a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell” the Sunday after his assassination. According to Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University in a recent NY Times article titled “Dr King Weeps From His Grave,” Dr. King said that his “dream of a more democratic America had become “a nightmare” owing to the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism.” Dr. King called America a “sick society.”’

Forty plus years later America is still sick and suffering from the causes of Dr. King’s nightmares.
Racism: It isn’t dead, it’s just changed the way it works. Schools are more segregated today than they were in 1970. Racially based hate crimes are on the increase. The prison population is disproportionately comprised of young men of color.
Poverty: The gap between the rich and poor is greater than it has ever been. Thanks to the greed of banks and multinational corporations more families – 2 parents plus children – are homeless now than at any time since the Great Depression and it doesn’t look like those numbers are going to decrease any time soon.
Militarism: We are engaged in two wars, and have been at war for nearly ten years. You have all seen the news stories about the dire straits way too many military families are in while the military industrial complex reports record profit.
Materialism: Corporations are people now – at least they are according to the Supreme Court and some candidates for the presidency. We are a nation living on plastic, bombarded with the temptation to buy online, on TV, on the phone and on impulse. A frighteningly large percentage of us are one pink slip or bad diagnosis away from financial disaster. I won’t even mention that lately some Americans have losing rights at a scary pace – union members and poor women and –

Do I need to point out that the people who suffer most as a result of racism and materialism and militarism and poverty are the widows and the orphans and the otherwise powerless?
The very same people who have been denied justice from forever –
the same ones that God specifically and repeatedly told the leaders to treat with justice and mercy and compassion or bad things would happen.

Yesterday Garth said he is afraid that if the government keeps taking away from the poor that people will take up arms, that there will be a violent uprising, a revolution. I believe a revolution is exactly what we need. According to Cornel West we need to make “a revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.”

There have been surveys lately that indicate the “religious right” believes church should have a larger role in politics. Well, I’m not part of the religious right, but I believe that too.
I believe that the Church needs to stand up for the justice that is denied the poor, the widows, the orphans, the bullied and the powerless.
I believe that we must sign petitions, march, register to vote and tell everyone around us to register to vote, write blogs and letters to the editor and letters to our elected officials.
I believe we must stand with the Hebrew prophets and with Dr. King, and tell our government to love Wisdom and to love her laws, to love justice.
I believe we need to remind them what happened to Israel and to Judah when the prophets were ignored –

and just to be clear, the prophets were not fussing over how to properly keep all the laws in Torah. They weren’t worried about written down rules and how to interpret them. They weren’t lawyers. Some of them weren’t very well educated. But they were lovers of Wisdom. They were prophets. Their job was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. They were concerned for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless. They preached that everybody, but especially the leaders of the nation, need to act with justice and mercy and compassion and love to all persons, but especially to the oppressed.

We need to do that.
We need to do that because if we do not stand with the least of our brothers and sisters, we are not Christian.
We need to do that because if we do not love even the most unlovable,
we are not Christian.
I don’t know what we would be, but we would not be Christian.
We would most certainly not be lovers of Wisdom and of her laws.

Wisdom is bright and unfading. She readily appears to those who love her. She’s found by those who keep seeking after her. . . If you love Wisdom, you will keep her laws. If you are attentive to her laws, you can be assured that you will live forever. If you live forever, you will be near to God.

Let’s live forever.
Let’s be near to God.
Let’s seek Holy Wisdom.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Response to "Easter Shouldn't be a Big Deal"

I read a blog the other day that said we shouldn't make a big deal about Easter. When I read the first line or so I was very disturbed because if not for Easter what would be the point? We wouldn't have a resurrection to build our faith around. We would have lots of excellent teachings to live by but . . .

Then I read the rest of the blog. And I got the point. The blogger was talking about the whole visitor thing. It seems that some churches get a whole bunch of Christmas and Easter visitors.

Some of those visitors don't know what to expect in church and get lost during the program, which is apparently funny to some. It further seems that members and even (gasp) preachers at those churches can be somewhat unfriendly about the whole Christmas and Easter thing. They say things like "Nice to see you here for a change,' which is not a comment geared to bring the visitor back next Sunday or even next Easter.

In some congregations the service is totally unlike what a visitor is likely to find if they come on any other Sunday during the year. There are processions and plays and full orchestras. The folks who normally show up in jeans are in dresses and suits. The clergy are wearing their best vestments. Visitors may get lost in the shuffle or embarrassed by being made to stand up and introduce themselves.

And some congregations have LOTS of opportunities to attend services on Easter. They have a special sunrise service and their regular morning service or two and maybe a special afternoon or evening service. I know this because the religious page in our local newspaper expands from 1 page to 3!

We don't get a lot of visitors at Easter. We might have a few, but usually what we experience is that everyone who ever shows up during the year is pretty sure to show up on Easter. Some of our folks are once a month church folks and some are once every couple of months church folks. But on Easter everybody is here. We don't have any extra Easter Sunday services, just have our regular 10:30 a.m. service. Some years we have our choir concert on Palm Sunday and some years we have it on Easter. The same people who are always in the choir are in the choir. We always have an egg hunt after church and the kids find all the eggs so quickly that I have yet to watch the hunt happening.

But I have to confess that when visitors come we do make them sign our visitor book and then stand up or at least sit and wave at the congregation when they are introduced. We warn them that this is going to happen, and I always make sure to invite them publicly for our after worship fellowship time. But then, we do that every Sunday to whatever visitors show up. It's not to embarrass them, it's to make them feel welcome. It's to help the rest of the folks remember they are visitors so they can help if the new folks seem to be lost at any point during the service.

I especially love the Lord's Supper when we have visitors. Because when we have visitors I get to explain again why Disciples share this meal every Sunday and that everyone is welcome to partake. I get to give directions on how we do communion here so that no one has to feel left out.

So - is Easter a big deal at our church? Absolutely! Even though we do things pretty much the same way at Easter as every other week, there's a good theological reason for that. You see, once upon a time somebody told me that we celebrate Easter EVERY Sunday and so every Sunday is a big deal.

Happy Easter y'all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palms or Passion?

Matthew 21:1-11
1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately. " 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

There has been a big battle among preachers this week over whether we should focus on Palm Sunday or treat this Sunday as Palm/Passion Sunday. In seminary I was taught that we really should do Palm and Passion together because many of our churches won’t have Good Friday services. And that means that for many we will go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter without ever having Jesus suffer on the cross. I was taught “Without the crucifixion there can be no resurrection.” Those were the same arguments I saw on line for doing the whole Passion today. While those in opposition spoke of rushing the season and living in the grief of Holy Saturday all this last week instead of letting the events progress as they actually did. Sort of like putting the Christmas decorations out before the kids had gotten home from Trick or Treating.

Every year since I came to Delhaven we have celebrated Palm/Passion Sunday. Some years we have had our choir concert on Palm Sunday, so the music took us through the entire week including Easter celebrations. Some years I have preached and have taken us through the entire week up to Easter, forcing us all to struggle through the week with the image of Jesus, bloodied and broken, laying on the slab of rock inside Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. One year I even did a dramatic presentation as one of the women who followed Jesus.

My decision – and I like to bring you all along with me on these theological and liturgical decisions – is to do Palm Sunday this year. We’re going to be together on Thursday evening for supper and a Maundy Thursday service that Kate will be leading. And we will be praying all day, from noon to midnight, on Good Friday. Even though we may not all be in the same room at the same time during these events, we will be observing Holy Week in our homes and hearts, in our prayers and actions. This year for Palm Sunday we will stay in the day, lauding Jesus the rabbi from Nazareth as king, the way the crowd at the gate of Jerusalem did. We will take this opportunity to sing alleluias during Lent and forget for just a brief moment all the troubles that surround us. We will look to our king and believe that everything will be great almost immediately! – just as the crowd at the gate of Jerusalem did.

Me, I LOVE palm Sunday. It’s all about hope for the future, maybe even more so than Christmas. Welcoming the king of kings into my life, my heart, my soul. Celebrating that he is entering the city. Like the crowd, having no idea what is going to come later in the week but after a lifetime of suffering and waiting – wow! Here he is! The last will be first and the humble will be made great.

I was reading Ann Lamott’s “Plan B” this week and she says she just can’t deal with Good Friday. She is a resurrection kind of person. Well, me too. I think we have enough of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in our lives. We have enough pain and crucifixion and grieving and suffering and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Palm Sunday helps us get ready for the resurrection in a way that no other celebration can do – Palm Sunday leads us in that direction, even though the crowd didn’t quite have the right idea of how Jesus was to be King.

In ancient times, the prosperity of the land was believed to be tied directly to the king. A good king, a righteous king, a king who loved his land and his people and cared first about their wellbeing, would rule a land that prospered. For example, the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Joseph was a good king because his people were well cared for despite the fact that there was a famine. He listened to Joseph’s interpretation of a prophetic dream. He prepared for the famine and made sure his people were fed throughout that long seven years. King Jehoaichin of Judah, on the other hand, was not a righteous king. He cared only for his own power, he disregarded the plight of the poor and ignored the prophets. The Babylonians carried him away along with the nobility and priests and all the wealth of the land. Now, we know that he wasn’t the first unrighteous king in the land. He was the last in a line of bad kings, kings who cared only for their own comfort and power, and who didn’t listen to the prophets who kept trying to bring them back to the ways of their God. In fact, from the time of Solomon onward, the Bible only tells us about one king who was righteous, who had the Temple re-dedicated, re-instituted the celebration of Passover and had the Law of Moses read aloud from the steps of the Temple. In his time things were looking up a bit. Alas, his descendents returned to the ways that displeased their God and so, eventually, they were overcome by might of Babylon. From that time until the time of Jesus there hadn’t been any really Good kings. In fact, the kings they had ruling them were mostly puppets of some empire or other. The people of the land were looking for a messiah, a king who would return them to the glory days of David and Solomon, when their nation had wealth and power and the respect of their neighbors, when all the poor and widows and orphans were cared for, when judges spoke with righteousness and didn’t always make decisions in favor of the most powerful. This is the king they welcomed into Jerusalem that day. This is the Messiah they proclaimed, laying their cloaks and palms in the street in front of him.

Frankly, we sometimes have trouble understanding Jesus as King. Oh, we speak of him as Lord. We give him king-like titles. We sort of shake our heads at the poor, ignorant folks of his time who couldn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said his kingdom is not of this world. And we are quite sure that he is the King of Heaven. King of the Afterlife. But that’s not quite it either. He is the king who leads us into a world that is radically different from the world he, and we, inherited. He is the king who models how we, his people, are to live, just as any good king does. He is the king who could have described himself with these words from Isaiah 50:

4 The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

What kind of king brags of having the tongue of a teacher? The kind who wants to lead his people into a new way of living. The kind who says to them, the way of the world is not the way of God. Let me show you how to live in God’s kingdom. The kind who says, it’s going to be hard, and there will be sacrifices made. But don’t worry, I’m going to show you how to live through even the worst of times. I’m going to show you how to love even the worst of people.

As I get to this point I realize how very difficult it is to celebrate Palm Sunday without the Passion. Because you see, we know what comes next. We know that the adoring crowds will melt away, that even his followers will run and hide when he is taken from their midst.

But we also know how he faced his trial. We know that when one of his followers pulled out a sword, Jesus made him put it away. We know that Jesus even healed the man he injured, a man who came to arrest him. We know that he spoke not a word in threat or anger even when he knew he was being wrongfully accused and tried in an illegal court. We know he gave his back to those who struck him and blamed no one for what he was enduring.

We know . . . he was human. Which means that anything he could do, we can do. I know that when stuff happens, when tragedy comes into our lives, when oppression is looming large and we are called upon to be like Jesus, our first reaction might be “Well, yeah. But I am not Jesus. I can’t do what he did.” And maybe that’s true. But we can model ourselves after what he did, because he is our king, now and forever. He lived to teach us how to live, he died showing us how to face even the worst oppression and adversity, standing proudly for what we believe is right. Confronting evil with good, confronting violence with peace. As with anything else worthwhile that we learn how to do, living this way takes practice and dedication. It is difficult, but it is doable.

Jesus is our king. He is not the Once and Future King. He is not a king who lived a long time ago and will come back someday to be king again. He is the King of the world. He is our king, day in and day out, in good times and evil. He is the king who came to teach us how to live in love and justice, to bring us close to God, to set us free from the tyranny of anger and oppression, to shower us with God’s grace. Let us celebrate our King, waving our palms like the crowd at the gates of Jerusalem, singing Hosanna and crying out Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the God of Israel!

Blessed Be the God of Israel 135

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Seeing Clearly

Ephesians 5:8-14
8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

By this time of year many of the folks in the northern hemisphere are feeling as if winter will never end. It’s grey and gloomy outside and it seems as if spring will never arrive. Likewise by this time in Lent when so many of us are engaged in soul searching and self examination we may be feeling a little low and wondering why Easter is taking so long to arrive. So as I pondered the various passages offered by the lectionary for this fourth Sunday in Lent I was struck by the imagery of light and dark in this passage in Ephesians. “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light.”

Darkness. The Dark Side. We all know Dark is used as a metaphor for all the less desirable character traits, things like hatred, anger, greed and violence. We use it to describe fictional villains and real ones; black hatted cowboys, vampires, Darth Vader and Charles Manson. Dark is cold. It is the home of spooky shadows, mold, evil plots, secrets and conspiracies. Many children are afraid of the dark and even though we tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of, most of us are quick to turn on a light when we enter a room. We don’t like the dark very much.

And then there is Light. Light is more than simply the opposite of the Dark. Light is everything that is warm and good and pure. When light shines the dark is chased away, evil is defeated. Vampires are destroyed, lies are exposed, ugliness is seen for what it truly is, children are comforted. Light is Luke Skywalker and Saint George the Dragon Slayer and Roy Rogers and Mother Theresa. Light is truth and justice and love, all the good things, all the blessings of life. We love the light.

People who live in the light see the world differently. It’s way beyond glass half empty or half full. It’s looking for the good in situations, not the potential for trouble. It’s trusting. It’s deciding the world is a good place and behaving as if you believe that to be true. People who live in the light are willing to shine their light into the darkness, to stand up against evil and speak out for the right. People who live in the light live in God’s kingdom.

Paul say to the church in Ephesus, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” We may not always be able to do that well, but we can usually figure out what is not pleasing to God.

You all know that I watch the news a lot. I watch for a couple of hours in the morning and then for another hour or two after dinner. When I can stay awake long enough I end the day checking out what the Comedy Channel does with whatever the rest of the media is reporting on. And yet somehow I entirely missed that Terry Jones, pastor of a small congregation in Florida, presided over a group of some 30 people who burned a copy of the Qur’an two weeks ago. You might remember that the last time Pastor Jones was in the news was just before September 11th, when he was threatening to burn a whole stack of Qur’ans. The president condemned this recent action and many Christian and interfaith groups in the US spoke out publicly against it.

I’m quite sure that treating any other person or group of people with complete disrespect and hate-filled speech is not pleasing to the Lord. Jesus said “Love your neighbor” not “mistreat your neighbor”. Even if you are sufficiently ill-informed as to believe that all of Islam is the enemy – which it isn’t - Jesus also said “love your enemy.”

I suppose I can be excused for not noticing the Qur’an burning at first. It didn’t get a lot of press in the US, what with the political budget stuff here and the earthquake and tsunami and nuclear plant problems in Japan and anti-government demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East and a new war starting and all. We’ve had some really busy news cycles and I guess the media thought that since only 30 folks showed up and there were no demonstrators present maybe it could just sort of slide under the radar. Unfortunately, the rest of the world was paying attention. Particularly the parts of the world where they believe that America as a nation is anti-Islam. People in those parts of the world held demonstrations to let us know they were displeased. Things turned ugly in Afghanistan. Seven people were killed at a United Nations office building. According to the Associated press: several hundred demonstrators were peacefully protesting the purported [Qur’an] burning when the gathering suddenly turned violent. This violence in response to a hateful act is also not pleasing to the Lord.

I was blessed to meet Noor-Malika Chisti, a Vice President of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of World Religions and a member of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations at the Interfaith Peace March in Pomona last September. On Saturday Noor-Malika had this to say in response to that violence: The Prophet Mohammad, peace upon him, gave us the example of how to respond to ignorant and hateful language: show them something better. The killings of United Nations workers in Afghanistan by those who were protesting the burning of the Qur’an by Terry Jones is NOT what was modeled for us, nor taught to us in the Qur'an.

According to Dr. Margaret Aymer of Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Paul is urging the church in Ephesus “to set boundaries and ethics for life together as a community of faith, boundaries that call community members to pursue goodness, justice (or righteousness) and truth. Part of that pursuit includes not only following truth, but truth-telling: exposing that which is false or secretive to community discernment.” (Dr. Margaret Aymer Commentary on 2nd Reading,

Silence in the face of evil is not pleasing to the Lord. Allowing any kind of darkness, any kind of hatred, any kind of evil to exist without speaking and acting against it is not pleasing to the Lord. In fact, when we stand silently by, when we say nothing in the face of evil, we ourselves are engaging in evil. We ourselves are living in the dark instead of living in the light. It is not enough to turn our back on the evil doer. It is necessary that we speak out against their actions. Especially when that evil doer is one of our own community – one of the body of Christ. Now we can say “Well, that guy who burned the Qur’an and that guy who shows up with his “God hates Fags” signs at military funerals, they’re not really Christian. If they were really Christian they’d act differently. They would get the whole concept of loving your neighbor.” But I say that if we simply turn our back, if we simply pretend that they are not one of us, if we don’t speak the truth in opposition to their behaviors we are allowing everyone else to believe we feel the same way they do.

However, if we are to be children of the light, the one thing we cannot do is to treat them hatefully, the way they treat others. Even the harbingers of hate must be treated with love. They are also children of God, our neighbors, whom we are commanded to love and to forgive. We can speak about how Christ calls us to act without speaking evil about others. We can pray for God to open their hearts, we can condemn their acts, but somehow we must love the persons. That would be living in the light – and that would be very hard.

Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia is moving from darkness to light. In 2005 their youth director was fired after being found guilty of sexually abusing a young girl in the church. Other girls came forward but the congregation didn’t want to know. They sort of blamed the victims and wanted to just let the whole thing go away quietly. So it festered quietly. In 2008 a new associate pastor was called who realized that light had to be shed on this evil in order for the church to heal. The church formed an abuse outreach ministry, the young women are receiving help and last year were finally able to tell their stories to the congregation. Last week Pastor Peter James stood before the congregation and preached the story of “the darkness that had been eating away at the church for nearly six years,” publicly apologizing to the young women sitting together in the back row of the church. Associate Pastor Jordan-Haas said “We really seek to change, institutionally and relationally, and that comes at a cost. There is still something hopeful here, and that brings me great relief. It is good when we bring darkness into the light.” (Josh White, “Vienna Presbyterian Church seeks forgiveness and redemption in wake of abuse scandal” The Washington Post April 2 )

It is good when we bring darkness into the light.

In our prayer this morning we asked God to “Open our eyes to Christ’s living presence.”
Christ is present when members of a church choose to “act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large.” (Dr. Margaret Aymer Commentary on 2nd Reading,

Christ is present when we seek to shine the light of God into the darkness.
When Christ is present we can see clearly, we can stand and speak light into the dark.
Let us ask our Lord to open our eyes to Christ’s presence, that we may see.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Can This Be? John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This is Founders Day weekend. Friday and Saturday Chapman University hosted hundreds of Disciples and United Church of Christ folks and others who came to hear the words of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Disciples historian Newell Williams, the great preacher Alvin Jackson and the very popular writer of spirituality Anne Lamotte. We enjoyed so much music, from an hour long concert by the Chapman Choir to wonderful performances in worship by the a cappella group Sound Check to a solo performance on marimba by Chapman student Soyon Cheon to Paul Svenson and the PSWR Regional Celebration Band. We got to catch up with folks we don’t see very often, congratulate friends on recent accomplishments, mingle with students and faculty from our Disciples related university and meet the new Dean of the Chapel. We celebrated the fact that the United Church of Christ is now also in an official covenant relationship with Chapman. This year we celebrated the 150 year anniversary of Disciples educational heritage culminating in what we now know as Chapman University. We came together to do what Disciples do – to learn and to teach and to sing and to share the love of our Lord with one another at the Table.

I am a Disciple, a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I’m not a Disciple by virtue of having been brought up that way, like many of you, but because after having rejected church and the theology that I was taught in the church of my youth for 25 years I came to understand that I needed church. After 25 years of hating church and church people and reading the Bible in order to find ammunition to use against Christians, I discovered that I needed to become part of a community of people who believed in the god of love and compassion I had come to believe in. At the same time that I came to understand that, the pastor of a Disciples congregation came into my life. She prayed with me and comforted me and gave me assurance that I was welcome. She told me about the Disciples commitment to education, about the Disciples strong belief that each of us can and must read and study and come to understand scripture ourselves. I didn’t have to accept what the preacher said unquestioningly. I didn’t have to believe the Bible was handwritten by God. She told me that there is no creed I had to claim belief in before I could be accepted into a Disciples congregation. I didn’t have to believe exactly what everyone else here believed. She told me about Disciples congregations being congregational with no hierarchy to answer to, and weekly communion and believers baptism. She told me about the priesthood of all believers – that all Disciples are equally ministers of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that lay folks taught Bible studies and presided at the Table and took communion to shut-ins. I listened to all this and thought to myself, “Wow. Really? I can disagree with the preacher and the Bible study teacher? There’s no pope or cardinal or priest or nun to tell me what I have to think and believe? I like this place.” And so I started to show up. And the more I showed up the more I liked what I was learning. Before long I realized that God was speaking to me, that I was being called to the ministry. A year or so later I moved from South Florida to Southern California to attend Chapman University where I fell in love with learning. Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Chapman is that everything I know is subject to change. Sometimes I would hear something that flew in the face of everything I knew and believed, and I would say, “How can this be?”

That’s where Nicodemus found himself in that night. He was an educated man, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He knew Torah backwards and forwards, he knew his theology, he knew the history of his people, he knew the stormy story of their relationship with God. He knew as much about how the world works as anyone could at that time. He’d been hearing what Jesus preached and it was not what he was used to. Jesus was known for preaching the opposite of what popular wisdom claimed. And yet, what he was saying sounded true. He came to Jesus for clarification. We’re told he came at night and most interpret that to mean he was trying to hide his interest. I’m not quite convinced of that. It’s possible of course. Nicodemus was a prominent leader and a respected teacher. He may not have wanted his colleagues to know he was leaning toward what this man from Galilee was preaching. He may have come at night in order to keep from being seen. But night time was also the time when the crowds were gone. Fewer people were around Jesus at that time. He might more reasonably hope to get to talk to Jesus one on one at night.

So he asked his questions. “"How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

This is where we get the belief that only people who are baptized are going to go to heaven. “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” When we read scripture carefully, putting aside as much as possible everything we have been brought up to believe about what it says, we can come to realize, like Nicodemus did, that what Jesus is saying is not what we are used to hearing. We have to understand that our understanding of heaven is not the same thing as the kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was teaching about bringing God’s kingdom into existence on earth, so that the world would become a place where all persons are treated equally under the law, where folks with no one to look out for them would be cared for, where wars of conquest and oppression simply didn’t happen, where governments and the wealthy would care more about the people of the land than about their own power and comfort. It sounds like heaven, and it sounds a bit unrealistic. But it is what Jesus preached. “If you all will just do the things that God really directs you to do, if you will just love one another as much as you are loved. this is what the world will be like. If you do these things, if you follow the teachings I am giving you, you will bring about and live in the kingdom of God. But first you must repent of the way you are living, you must let the winds of change in and become a new person. In essence, you must be born again.” Baptism in Jesus’ time was not a symbol of membership in that exclusive club known as Christianity. There was no Christianity yet. Baptism was the act by which a person publicly demonstrated her willingness to give up her sins and character defects and her old way of living in order to embrace the Spirit of God and become a new person in God’s sight.

When people have come up to me, you know, those folks who show up at the front door and ask “Have you been born again?”, frankly, I’ve never quite known how to answer them. Did I suddenly one day have a conversion experience that somehow can distinguish my lifelong Christianity into a new and different life in Christ? No. Have I been re-baptized to start over again? No. I’ve been taught that isn’t necessary, that I only have to be baptized once even though that happened when I was a baby. But – am I different today in what I believe about God and Christ and Church and how to live? Yes. Radically different. It didn’t happen all at once. It is a product of being willing to hear new things I don’t like with an open mind. It is a product of continuing to read and study and talk about scripture and history and other people’s ideas about what it might mean. It comes from learning more about myself, what my strengths and weaknesses are and a willingness to make changes in myself in order to be able to help bring about that kingdom Jesus kept preaching. And to do that openly, as the penitents in Jesus’ day did when they went to the Jordan river to receive the waters of repentance. The more I study and learn, the more my faith, my understanding of God and Jesus and theology and liturgy and dogma and all those other things keeps changing. That’s the biggest reason why I can’t use the same sermons I used last time these lectionary selections came around. I might not necessarily still believe exactly the same way I did when I preached them before.

In one of his three lectures on Friday, Bishop John Shelby Spong suggested that instead of asking people to be born again that they might be as children, we should be calling them into maturity. I believe that is what we see Jesus doing here with Nicodemus. He said, “"Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “Grow up! Move past what you think you know and learn these new things that we are teaching.” While I was a student at Chapman I took a class on the Book of Revelation. On the first day of class then Dean of the Chapel Dr. Ron Farmer told us that both Martin Luther and John Calvin had wanted to leave this book out of the newly translated Bible. He began to discuss it as metaphor rather than as literal truth and one young man became very upset. He was expecting to be in a class where he would be taught about the absolute truth and accuracy of the prophecies it contained. He didn’t want to know about the history or the culture in which it was written. He didn’t want to know about the controversies that swirled around even including it in the first place or about other apocalyptic books that were left out of the Bible. He was unwilling to hear anything other than what he already believed, so he got up and walked out and never came back. It seems to me that young man made a choice that day to remain as a child in his understanding rather than taking the daring step of learning new things that might just help him grow in his faith.

We know that Nicodemus was changed by what he heard Jesus say. He stood up at Jesus’ trial in the Sanhedrin to protest what they were doing. He helped to prepare Jesus for the tomb after his crucifixion. He heard something new, questioned it, struggled with it, and eventually embraced it. He allowed the Spirit of God to change his heart and his mind. Let us commit to doing the same, to allowing the Spirit of God lead us in new directions even as Nicodemus and all the other disciples of Christ were led to new and greater understandings of what God desires of us. Let us move deeper into maturity in our faith. Let us turn to our Lord and say, “have thine own way, Lord.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Change is Good

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Can you imagine being on that mountaintop and seeing your teacher suddenly transfigured? “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And then to have two of the greatest leaders of your religion appear. “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Naturally, you would offer to get them whatever you could to make them comfortable. Um – hey, we can get you some tents so you can be sheltered from the night cold. And then you hear God’s voice – at least, you hear a voice speaking from behind a bright cloud. Who else could it be but God? Of course they were overcome by fear! It’s pretty easy to see that would be more than happy to comply when Jesus said “Don’t tell anyone.” They may not have even registered the “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” part until much later.

Transfigured and meeting with Moses and Elijah. Wow. Moses. Chosen by God to help the Hebrews escape from their slavery in Egypt. With God’s direction and help he performed wonders – his staff turned into a snake, the sea was parted, the rock split and produced sweet water. He returned the Hebrews to worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of worshipping idols and false gods. He brought them the Law and he led them back to the land God had promised to Abraham.

And Elijah. The last of the priests of Yahweh in a time of great persecution under King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel. Chosen by God to lead the Hebrews back to his worship. With God’s direction he performed wonders – lit the sacrificial fire when it was completely water soaked just by asking God to do so after the 400 priests of Baal had been unable to light their own. Brought the widow’s son back to life. Blessed her containers of flour and oil so they would never get empty. Was instrumental in the overthrow and death of the persecutors and the liberation of the people. Returned the Hebrews to the worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of their kings had turned away from God.

Moses and Elijah transformed the people of Israel. Both of these great leaders liberated their people from actual slavery and from the worship of false gods. Both brought their people back to the worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of following false gods. They were great prophets and miracle workers and Jesus is standing in their company. Wow. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for the disciples who were present that night. And I’m sure they talked about it among themselves, wondering just what this really meant. It surely made them more certain than ever that Jesus was the promised messiah. I wonder though, if they thought about what false gods Jesus might have been leading the people away from.

We know, but then, we have the advantage of nearly 2,000 of scholars and theologians figuring it out for us. When right adherence to the law became more important than the God who gave the law it became a false God. When perfect performance of ritual became more important than the God those rituals were designed to worship, the ritual became a false god. Jesus liberated the people from slavery to and worship of book and ritual, away from the false belief that they were the only ones God loved. Jesus was leading the people away from the false god of law and ritual and back to worship of the One God, Yahweh.

As many of you know I spent a lot of time with other clergy folks this week. Monday was my quarterly clergy renewal day at Disneyland with two other clergywomen. Wednesday I had lunch with Disciples clergy from Pomona, Hemet, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario. Both groups were talking about folks who think being Christian is just about showing up on Sunday morning. We know that this is the mindset that efforts like New Beginnings and New Church and all the very popular “missional church” programs are trying to eliminate. We complained about people who think they’re supposed to be entertained at worship which causes the folks planning and leading the service to hope that a little “edu-tainment” will be taking place. And we followed that conversation with a conversation about how to make Sunday worship more attractive, how to make Powerpoint presentations more interesting and how to dress up the outside of the building so more people will want to come inside. Does anyone else see the irony in the order of these topics?

It is good when worship can be uplifting and moving and emotionally satisfying. When we leave saying “I really felt spirit filled today.” As long as we understand that what lifts you up might not do anything for me or for the person in the next pew. And it’s important to understand that there is no special attraction to trying a different style of worship just because it works someplace else. Sometimes it feels like we worship the act of worship, the rituals and traditions and music, rather than worshipping God.

What we’re supposed to be doing here is not having a great emotionally uplifting experience, although that is always a plus. What is supposed to be happening here is 1) GOD is worshipped with all our devotion and 2) we are transformed. Not just made to feel good for the moment, but made to be different, to behave differently. To go out from this place as new people, each one of us priest and missionary to the world.

At this time of year in places like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro we have a really graphic example of what our transformation could look like. Right now it is Mardi Gras, it is time for Carnivale! Mardi Gras and Carnivale celebrations are time to engage in being self-indulgent. It is a time when to eat, drink and be merry is expected, even condoned by the church in those places. Floats and dancers with feathery, sparkly costumes fill the streets. There are feasts and parties. The bars are filled with local celebrants and tourists. But when the church bells toll midnight on Tuesday things change immediately! The beads and masks are put away – the streets are transformed from a place to party to a place of penance. At midnight the partiers leave and the penitents come out - in many cases they are the very same people. The dancers put away their costumes, the drinkers put away their glasses, and they parade the streets barefoot and praying. Some carry crosses. Some whip themselves until their backs and legs are bloody. Some simply walk and pray, asking God’s forgiveness for the sins they have committed throughout the past year. At dawn they will congregate at the churches, accepting their ashes. Committing themselves to atonement and change in year to come.

Lent is a time for soul searching and transformation. It is the time when candidates for baptism looked within themselves for character flaws, for sins they regularly committed without even realizing they were doing wrong.

And let us be clear about what baptism is about. It is not a miraculous bath that changes someone’s character. It is not that ritual without which one cannot get into heaven. It is an act of commitment on the part of the candidate to change, to follow Christ, to devote his life to being the person God created him to be.

Even if we personally were not baptized at Easter, Lent is still a time to revisit that time of preparation for our own baptism. It is a time to give up luxuries and add spiritual practices. It is a time to get to know the person we are and strive to become the person God wants us to be. It is a time to become new in Christ, even as we did at our baptisms. It is time to prepare ourselves again even as we did for our baptism, with soul searching and coming to understand just exactly what we are giving up to be Christian. Not just chocolate or fast food or Kindle books. But self-indulgence of all kinds, anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony. It is a time to ask God to help us replace those sins with virtues – replacing greed with generosity, gluttony with moderation, pride with humility, and so on.

Lent is a time to put aside a bit of time every day to spend in introspection, seeking those sins and character flaws and asking God to transform us, to replace them with something better, more Christlike. It is a time when we engage even more than usual in prayer and acts of giving. We may even find a new spiritual practice, some way to focus our minds and hearts on God and on our prayer life. For example, while on Sabbath Leave I discovered coloring books filled with mandalas similar to the one above titled Transfiguration. The act of coloring while focusing the meaning on the design brought calm and healing to my heart. Lent is a time to seek change, for change is good. As we each work to change ourselves, we also change the people we touch and the world around us, bringing them closer to God’s kingdom of love and justice.

God said, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased, listen to him!” So let us do what he says. Let us be changed by his words even as he is changed on this mountaintop. Let us ask him to transform us.