Thursday, September 24, 2009

Things Not Seen -- Yet (Hebrews 11:1-3)

A sermon I delivered to the OU Wesley Foundation Vespers service this week.

A lot of things change in college, and people who try to live out their faith on campus face some challenges they may not have faced before. Among them is the idea that it’s OK if they want to have their religion and beliefs and whatnot, but they need to keep it to themselves.

Because most people are trying to deal with the real world, you see, and if some people want to pretend there’s a God and believe people walked on water and rose from the dead and were healed and such that’s OK, but they need to keep it from getting in the way of the people who want to deal with the world the way it is. This ol’ world’s got some real issues and it needs real solutions, not fairy tales.

Passages like this would seem to support that. Faith is a conviction of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen. Not of things that are visible or measurable in this world. But let’s reflect some.

Now I’m a person who believes everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe about God, up to and including believing there’s no God at all. God gave them that right and no person or group of people has the authority to take it away.

But I will disagree with the idea that my faith doesn’t deal with the world the way it is. In fact, my faith claims that Christ is God’s way of dealing with this world so intimately that he actually becomes part of it. In Christ, we say God entered the world as a part of the world, a human being known by his contemporaries as Yeshua bar Yusuf, ha-Natzaret, or Jesus son of Joseph, of Nazareth.

Jesus grew in his mother’s womb. He was born, he was a baby and a boy and a young man and an adult. He got hungry and thirsty and hot and cold and tired and judging by what we read of the disciples, he probably got irritated now and again. The story of driving the moneychangers from the temple shows he could get angry. He became fully human – my faith holds up a salvation figure that needed to be potty trained when he was a toddler and I’m pretty sure most parents would tell you it don’t get much more real world than that.

What’s so different about us then, if both my faith and the folks who disagree with it deal with the real world?

Well, like people of most faiths or beliefs, we suggest that the world may be what it is, but it’s not what it should be. Whatever the way things are these days, they’re not really supposed to be like this. Our vision of the world tells us that God made it – we may differ as to how he went about it, but we believe God was involved in the creation of our universe, and he called the universe he created good. When he made human beings – again, we differ on the method but we agree on the maker – he called us not just good, but very good.

And obviously this world as it exists may have good and great things in it, and it features a large number of wonderful people whose love of their fellow human beings and compassionate lifestyle leads us to call them “good.” But the world features a number of things and a number of people that are in no way good.

It has people who say God’s killing American soldiers because America hasn’t been mean enough to Neil Patrick Harris. It has others who say they’re justified in beating a woman half to death because when her left pinky toe accidentally slipped out of the yards of cloth they demanded cover her, it inflamed their lustful thoughts. It has people who buy and sell other people, and nations that count on tourism drawn to the presence of large numbers of women and children trafficked for sexual slavery. It’s a world where film of an actual execution can get you banned from the internet but where film of a pretend execution, given a name like Saw, Hostel or Halloween, will get you rich, provide for lots of sequels and make you bunches of fans.

Pick your own injustice if you don’t like these, but it’s not hard to see that the world is not what it should be by most measures.

As Christians, we may have a lot of variations about some aspects of what we believe the world should be, but we’re told pretty clearly what ought to be at the center: Loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Yeah, dangerous vision. Better keep that to yourself – it’d be awful if people started loving each other like Jesus did.

But why bother speaking out about this stuff? After all, these problems all make up the world the way it is, and even though we’ve missed the mark a lot of times, we Christians have been trying to talk about that for two thousand years without a lot of results in terms of changing the way things are.

Heck, Good Friday even proves that Jesus himself fell victim to the world the way it really is instead of the way it should be. He was an innocent man executed on false charges.

Why? Well, that’s when I bend all of this difference between the world the way it is and the world the way it should be back in towards myself. When I begin to understand that I too was created in the image of God and there is a “me” I should have been but have failed to be because of my own mistakes and my own sin. I’m a part of this fallen world and no less fallen than the rest of it.

And then I hear the gospel message. Yes, God says, I know what you should have been, and I know what you really are. Now let me tell you something else. I also know what you could be. I see that image of me still inside you. Maybe it’s been marred and disfigured by your sin, but it is still there and I am the great Healer and Restorer who can bring that image out even more clearly than it might have been to start with. Allow me to work within you and I will show you what you could be.

Ukrainian Kseniya Simonova recently won her country’s nationwide show Ukraine’s Got Talent. She paints and draws with sand – I see the stuff I pour out of my shoes when I get home from the beach and she sees fantastic and moving images of her nation’s history in WWII. Sculptors see what could be inside a block of stone, painters see what could be on a blank canvas and God sees what could be inside this sinner.

How then could I be silent? Penn Jillette, the vocal half of the magician duo Penn and Teller, posted a video diary after talking with a Christian man after one of their shows. He was impressed with the man’s sincerity and compassion, but not convinced to change his mind. That’s not what stuck out for me, though. It was what Jillette said about people who share their faith – he expects them to do that.

“How much would you have to hate someone to believe eternal life is possible and then not tell them about it?” he asked. He’d probably hate having his words used in a sermon like this, but I doubt he’ll ever know about it. That statement reminds me that if I’ve been told by God what I could be if I open to his love and grace, I might be inclined to spread that word around.

So, keep my faith to myself? Sorry, friend, no can do.

I just don’t hate you that much.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meditate on It (Psalm 1)

Sometimes these hymns to “the Law” sound strange to us.

The main way many Christians encounter the law is through the way some of the Pharisees misuse it. Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the legalists gripe. Jesus’ disciples gather food on the Sabbath, the legalists gripe, and so on. So what kind of meditation would be done on something like this anyway.

For the ancient Hebrews, though, “the Law” was more than a list of rules. The Hebrew word translated law is torah, and can also mean teaching or guidance. The Torah was the word used to cover the first five books of our Bibles, and as we know that includes the stories of the people of Israel up until they reach the promised land – far more than just a list of rules.

And we’ve not been super-careful in how we understand the relationship between the people and God and the Law, either. Because of the way the legalists used it, we’ve got the idea in our heads that folks believed that if they obeyed the Law, then God would like them. Obedience of the Law led to salvation, but as Christians we understand that our own righteousness is never enough to save ourselves.

God, however, made his covenant with the people of Israel hundreds of years before he gave them the Law at Mt. Sinai. He made it with them before they were even a people, telling Abraham that his descendants would be God’s people and a great people indeed. God also made his covenant unilaterally, pledging to be Israel’s God without any preconditions on what Israel had to do to earn his favor. The quid pro quo we read into the relationship is exactly that: read into the relationship. It’s not actually there.

This psalm may not help us understand that at first. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish, we read. But that sounds just like God’s playing favorites again, liking the people who follow the law but not liking the people who don’t follow it.

Unless you flip it on its head a little. God gave the Israelites the Law not so they could be righteous enough for him to choose them, but so they could demonstrate to other people what kind of a God he was by showing how his people would act. Other nations might have temple prostitutes and practice human sacrifice, but not God’s people. Other nations might have rich folks who preyed on the poor, or throw foreigners out on their ears, but not God’s people.

In other words, the “way” in this psalm was righteous long before the people chose it, and they chose it because it was the righteous way. They don’t see God blessing them because they picked a certain way to live. They’ve picked a certain way to live because God blessed it.

That way roots in much deeper things than shallow trivia of whatever happens to seem good right now, like a tree beside a river grows better than one in a dry place. Immediate gain and here-and-now benefits might seem all right to some people, but those who have decided to follow God’s way have chosen a longer-term view.

Focus only on the here and now, and what do you have left when the here and now becomes the over there and back then?

As Christians, we say that we too have joined our viewpoint to God’s more long-term view of things, even if we can’t see all of it right now. What seems like sacrifice now may prove to be beneficial later on, and a situation that seems like a total loss may become the occasion for walking more closely with God than ever before.

The Law was, for the ancient Hebrews, a constant reminder that God had chosen to be in a relationship with them, despite their unworthiness and often demonstrated lack of ability to stay on task.

For Christians, we find that reminder in Christ. The Holy Spirit works within us and shows us that while we were yet sinners, to use Paul’s words, Christ offered everything to make sure our relationship with him could be all it was meant to be. To be rooted in that, as the ancient Israelite might be rooted in the law, is surely to find ourselves constantly nourished and able to grow and bear fruit.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Law, the Rock and the Redeemer (Psalm 19)

A lot of times we can miss possible meanings in scripture because we don’t live when and where its writers did. Psalm 19 is an example.

We begin with the psalmist saying that people can just look at the world around them and see evidence of God. Creation itself implies its creator, and everything about the world testifies to the reality of God. Even the sun itself is under God’s direction; the very sky it moves through was created by God to house its journey. And when the sun moves across the sky, nothing is hidden from its heat.

Where we live, we might connect the sun’s heat with the warmth that invigorates us and eases the morning chill. Sure, sometimes it’s very hot, but much of the time we welcome the sun’s heat.

But we didn’t write the psalm – people who lived in a desert did. People who were the descendants of generations of wilderness nomads. The heat of the sun had an entirely different significance for them. It wasn’t something that warmed the day, it was an enemy that you dealt with carefully or it could kill you.

Our psalmist seems to be saying that while we can have knowledge of God from the creation God made, that knowledge is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, knowing about the creator only reminds us how we don’t offer that creator the proper thanks, respect and gratitude. Heck, not only do we fail at it, we don’t even really know how we could succeed. Because everything we see reminds us of the creator, everything we see reminds us how far short we fall! What a yucky revelation.

But the law of the Lord, on the other hand, is sweet and refreshing. Now that’s a little weird, we think, partly because our understanding of “the law” has been colored by what had happened to it in Jesus’ time. All of the additional regulations and definitions meant it could be a real burden.

In its original form, though, it was the sign of God’s relationship with Israel. God chose them as his people, and then he gave them the law as a way to live that out and as a symbol that they were in fact his people. God paid attention to them; they mattered to him. They mattered enough that he showed them how they should respond to him.

Instead of wandering around the wilderness in the blazing sun, they were refreshed and nourished. Instead of ignorance of how to properly respond to the Creator, they had the guidance of the Creator’s teaching and evidence of his relationship with them.

And look at the confidence it inspires in the psalmist – by verse 12 he feels as though he can even trust God to cleanse him of the faults he has that he doesn’t even know about! No longer does he worry about an inadequate response to his Creator, or that he will have some imperfection that will expose him to the Creator’s wrath. Now he freely admits he’s so messed up that he doesn’t even know how messed up he is, and he invites God to explore him and work on that stuff as well.

I think we can imagine just what kind of trust level we might have in someone if we ask them for help in fixing not only the faults we know we have, but also whatever else they might find while they happen to be there. It’d have to be immense, wouldn’t it?

We Christians may not see the Law in the same light, because it’s a special signal of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. But of course we do see Christ work in a similar role in mediating between us and God, offering us proof that God not only made us but also loves us. We can and should be in awe of his great power and show proper respect. But we can also trust in his love.

The God of this psalm is our God, our rock and our redeemer.