Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Sign Unto You (Isaiah 7:6-10)

For many of the people I meet, one of the most common words associated with Christmas and the holiday season is "stress." Which is weird, because as I recall my Christmas carols, the word "stress" is not in them. Jesus is not the Prince of Stress and neither the angels nor Linus say, "And on earth, stress and good will to all."

Now, I understand that the whims of the modern travel industry can induce stress. Being required to hang out with family members may bring a special kind of stress all its own -- or more seriously, the absence of a family member can make the holiday a melancholy or even unpleasant one. But a bunch of the stress I hear talked about doesn't seem to center on those things as much as it does the busy-ness of preparing for Christmas.

And if I'm being honest, when I see an absence of peace during the celebration of Jesus' birth I have to wonder how much of the burden for that falls on me as a Christian person. The world's version of this celebration may center on stress and acquisition and materialism and spending, but our version is supposed to center on God's decision to enter the world as a child and bring about the redemption of all humanity. It's hard to blame the world for getting it wrong if we haven't done everything we could to show them what's right. Have they seen the real Christmas from us -- either in December or at other times of the year? Have we shown it to them? Maybe we have, and if so their choice of stress and materialism is on their own heads, but maybe we haven't. They may not even know how to have a holiday season without those things because they just haven't seen one be demonstrated.

Here, Ahaz the king of Judah has been confronted by the prophet Isaiah. Ahaz faces a dilemma. Two neighbor kings want him to join them in an attack on the mighty Assyrian empire, reasoning that together they can defeat the Assyrians. Ahaz doesn't think so, and in order to force him into their alliance, the other kings have been harassing his villages and towns. Just before this, Isaiah has told Ahaz that the other kings will not succeed and he shouldn't give in to them. Perhaps suspecting Ahaz's skepticism, God tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz to ask for any sign he wants, but Ahaz says no, he won't test the Lord. Now that sounds fine on the face, but it provokes God into saying something like "You wear me out! I'll give you a sign anyway!"

Why is God so disgusted with Ahaz? Well, it could be that the other things we read about Ahaz make it pretty clear that, even if he's sincere, this response is one of the few times he's paid attention to God. He reinstated the cult of the Canaanite Ba'als and not only revived the worship of Moloch but apparently even sacrificed his own first-born son to that idol's fiery furnace. It's pretty rich that such a man would now piously claim he won't test God. Now, while Ahaz is certainly to blame for his own choice to stray from worship of God and following the Law, there's also the reality that he hasn't really ever seen that modeled. His grandfather Uzziah started well, following a wise and godly counselor, but became consumed with pride at his successes and tried to take the role of priest as well as king. His father Jotham backed off of that sin but never effectively dealt with the corruption within the government and the oppression of the poor by Judah's elites. Hosea and Micah were two prophets who spoke out against the conditions during Jotham's reign.

The upshot is that Ahaz has never seen a Judean leader desire to fully follow God, so he doesn't know that God doesn't set traps with his words. God doesn't say, "Ask me for a sign" so he can then laugh at the foolish mortals and say, "I told you never to ask for a sign! Plague of boils and frogs all around!" God wants to show Ahaz he means what he says, about the enemy kings as well as other things. But Ahaz doesn't believe him.

Modern-day example: A friend of mine works at a special school for teen parents, with a day-care center on its campus. The students get their regular education as well as classes on how to be parents, while their own children are taken care of. She was talking about a conversation with another teacher, who had a class of some of the pre-schooler children. One day, they put shaving cream out for each child to play with, teaching them about textures and things while they played.

Now, of course the little kids smeared the stuff all over, like everyone expected them too. But the teacher said one thing they didn't do is something I bet we've all seen little kids do with shaving cream: Lather up their faces like dad does in the morning. Not even the kids living with both parents who saw their dads all the time. Why? Pretty simple. When dad's not old enough to shave, the kids never see him with shaving cream on his face and they never learn how to play that way.

As I said, once Ahaz became a king, he had the choice to follow God or not. He chose "not," and that's on him, but the burden is also shared by those who never showed him what a godly king looked like. Likewise, the world knows something about Christ, even if it's only that his name is a part of this holiday. For most people, the choice to center this holiday on material things is one that's on them. They could, if they wanted, learn something about why this day of Dec. 25 is special and they choose not to, so if that focus brings them stress instead of peace they have mostly themselves to thank.

But how about us, Christians? Have we offered that alternative view? Have we focused on our King and his arrival, and the message that he brings? Have we cared more about a plastic baby Jesus in a city park than about the crucified and risen Lord in the hearts of the people? Have we hammered saying "Merry Christmas" more than we have worked to make a Merry Christmas, even for those who want to say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings?"

God offered Ahaz a sign. Today, let us be the sign to which the world can look and see the true meaning of the birth of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us. If they can't see that meaning, let it not be because we people of God failed to show it to them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

One Kingdom, Hold the Conflict (Isaiah 35:10)

Isaiah the prophet gets a workout for Christmas. We lean heavily on his oracles about the coming Messiah and the Day of the Lord that his presence would bring into existence when we read Scripture during Advent. They tend to mesh nicely with the season of preparation for the birth of the King.

Some of those oracles describe the kind of world this new King would bring about. The general heading for these images is "the peaceable kingdom," as Isaiah describes at some length how even natural enemies such as predators and prey would live together in harmony. No longer would lions say, "I love oxen! They taste like chicken!" but instead both would graze together. For that matter, so would the chicken.

In this particular passage, Isaiah speaks of the physical and spiritual restoration of the people and of their homeland of Israel. Remember he kind of straddles the fall of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon, so some of his words came to people who had been uprooted from their ancestral homeland. They mourned now, lost without their land and their connection to God, but Isaiah predicts a time when both shall be restored. Verses 5 and 6, with images that Charles Wesley would adopt for his "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," may be some of the most familiar to us, speaking of blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped and the formerly lame leaping like deer with joy. But we also read of fountains gushing forth in the arid wilderness, streams in the desert and burning sands turned into pools.

Some of these visions can present problems for Christians. We say that one of the messages Jesus proclaimed was that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It was actually his earliest message, echoing the one John the Baptist preached. We understand that to mean that, in the very person of Christ, the Kingdom of God was no longer separated from our world, but had begun breaking into it. The only problem is that this presence of the kingdom seems to bring about none of the changes that Isaiah and others say accompany it.

How can this Kingdom be "at hand" when almost everything we see and hear suggests that if it is, it's pretty well hidden? In order to believe that, I think we have to remember again that Isaiah wrote to an exiled people whose homes had been destroyed and whose lands were laid waste. So he framed the idea of the Messiah's life-changing impact in terms of a restored land. We also remember that this was a time when people didn't understand blindness, deafness and physical disabilities like we do, and might even view them as signs of God's disfavor or punishment. At the very least, these conditions limited people's lives much more than they do today -- no laws guaranteeing access, no support system to make sure they were taken care of, no Braille alphabet or cochlear implants or wheelchairs. So he frames the Messiah's new world as one in which these things no longer diminished people's lives as they did around him.

If we were Isaiah, inspired by God today to bring a message of the incredible change brought about by the presence of God's Messiah, how would we describe those changes? What images would come to our minds, specific to our world? I suspect they would be similar to some of Isaiah's images, but our culture would have its impact on them and some of them would be different. We might speak of a world in which people's freedom isn't limited by the bad luck to be born with some tinpot thug as a national leader. Or where people determine each other's value not by skin color or age or gender or income, but by the worth inherent in them as children of God.

But those are all big-picture things, changes that may have to come about slowly if at all, and some of which might really require divine intervention to be made real. If we look for them as evidence that the Kingdom is at hand, we are almost certainly going to be disappointed. As Christians, we also say that living life God's way brings about changes in on a much smaller scale as well, the scale of our own lives, decisions, thoughts and words.

The Kingdom of God may be made manifest in a world free of hate and racism, for example, but it's also made manifest in a people who continue to show God's love in what they say and do to each other and to the people they meet. Maybe we don't see a world free of hate, but if the world looks at us, can they see people who are free of hate, or at least making an effort to be? Do we demonstrate love to our enemies, or do we seek vengeance on people who done us wrong?

I'll freely confess to Christianity's detractors that our proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand could use some more evidence when you look at it on the macro, big-picture troubles-of-the-world scale. But on the scale of the individual believer, the Christian who proclaims Christ has changed his or her heart and who says God has made a new creation in the place of the the Kingdom at hand there?

You tell me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

All Things! New! (Isaiah 65:17-25)

If you're God, you get to call do-overs and mean it.

Isaiah's prophecy foretells a re-created universe in which the wrongs and failings of this existence are no more. In Revelation, John's vision of a new heaven and a new earth will draw on the language Isaiah uses here, and Christianity's view of what's sometimes called the "Peaceable Kingdom" that Jesus will inaugurate with his Second Coming also relies on these images.

Much of the passage is taken up with descriptions of life in this new existence. An exiled people would have been encouraged by the idea that they would build and live in their own homes rather than a foreign land. Folks who were too often prey to disease and death at young ages, and who watched a significant number of children die before they were five, would probably rejoice at the idea of long and healthy lives.

But when I was reading it the other day, something caught my eye that actually wasn't there. My tendency has always been to see the re-creation of the universe has happening the same way the original creation happened: From nothing, and more or less in a blink of an eye at a word from God. That's the way God made the universe in Genesis. The words that describe things before God began to work talk about chaos and nothingness, and from them God brought order and life.

God may do the very same thing when he re-creates the heavens and the earth -- make a brand-new cosmos from chaos and nothingness. But nothing about what God says here through Isaiah says that he will, which means that he might re-create it a different way also. When I started thinking about different ways to make a new heavens and a new earth, I wondered when God might start that re-creation process. And it hit me that he might already have.

We say creation "fell" when the first man and the first woman sinned in the garden. Sin and death entered the world, and became a part of it where they had not been before. What if God's plan of re-creation began even then? Remember God told them that from their seed would come redemption, and that one of their descendants would "bruise the head" of the serpent that had tempted and deceived them.

And then remember the strand of history that follows. Starting with Abraham, God chose a people with whom he would be in covenant. That people grew through Abraham's descendants, until by the time of Jacob they numbered twelve full tribes. Those tribes escaped a famine by living in Egypt, and then their descendants escaped slavery in Egypt and reclaimed their land, led by God working through Moses and Joshua.

When the people clamored for a king, God gave them one, and eventually David became a king through whom God made another covenant, proclaiming that one of his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever. Through exile and return, the culture of the Hebrews was shaped in a particular way, and that was the culture into which Christ was born, the culture which shaped him and the church he created.

It seems possible to me that, no matter what God does on that final day of judgment in making a new cosmos, that part of his recreation is tied up in the redemption of the cosmos that already exists. The final transformation is something that probably on God can conceive of or enact, but in the meantime he has been transforming this world that is, especially the hearts and minds of the people that live in it.

You and I are a part of God's creation -- when God redeems us and when God's grace heals our broken relationship with him, we are re-created and made new. Not all at once -- based on my own experience, anyway -- but what our sin made impossible our redemption makes reality. Our redemption makes a little piece of the heavens and the earth new.

The final act of re-creation is God's. Isaiah describes the wolf and the lamb eating together. Only God is going to make that happen; no matter how much we try to tame a wolf, if it's hungry and there happens to be a lamb nearby, only one of those two is going to eat. In the meantime we are enlisted to help it move forward. Our own re-creation happens not simply for our sakes, but so that we can spread it around. We have known the love and redemption of God, and now we share that with those around us.

We have been made new, and now God calls us to be a part of making other things new as well.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Believing is Seeing (Hebrews 11:1-3)

The idea of faith costs Christianity a lot of potential followers. Lots of people like what Jesus says about how to help the poor, love our enemies and treat each other with respect and dignity. But when it comes down to a decision to accept as real things that can't be proven as real, well, they part company.

Some Christians hold that following Jesus doesn't have to have this idea of faith in it. We can do just fine without supernatural concepts and ideas, or holding something true that can't be proved true. I respect those folks for sticking with their principles, but I believe we can't reduce Christianity to what we can perceive with our senses and prove with our reason. There's something more to it.

Which leaves me to wrestle with this idea of faith being the "conviction of things not seen," or "evidence of things not seen," as you may have heard it if you grew up with the King James version. What makes a life of faith different than a life without faith? What are these unseen things that faith prompts us to accept when we have no real-world evidence for doing so?

First, it seems like there are two main reasons we don't see things. One is that we can't. Too small, too dark, too bright, too far away, etc., are the kinds of things that prevent us from physically seeing something, and there might be some connections there, but I want to focus on the other reason this time. Lots of times, we don't see things because we overlook them -- we don't pay attention.

There's a well-known perception test video in which people are asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed back and forth among a group of people. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of  the game, stops, beats his or her chest, and walks on across to the other side. The people who developed the test say that almost half of the people who watch the video don't see the gorilla until they are asked about it and shown the scene again. They overlooked it because they were looking to see how many times the basketball was passed.

Physically, of course, they saw the gorilla-suited person just like they saw the people and the basketball. Light reflected from the image in the visible spectrum; that light reached the rod and cone cells of their retinas and sent chemical and electrical signals along their optic nerves to their brains and their brains processed the images. But they didn't perceive the person in the gorilla suit. The simple change from paying attention to the basketball to paying attention to the whole scene almost acted like an entirely new sense, adding a layer to the viewers' perceptions that hadn't been there before.

I believe that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers in the same way that paying attention worked in the eyes of the test audience. The Spirit adds another layer of perception to our senses that enables us to "see" things, so to speak, that our everyday senses don't pick up.

For example, if you come to a busy intersection in a city, there may be people standing there holding signs about needing some kind of help. You might notice them and not pay any attention to them at all. Or you might pay attention and see them as humans being in need of help -- chances are the help that will do them the most good isn't the help their signs ask for, but truly seeing them involves recognizing that they are in fact people in need. Many people do this, and many people, believers and otherwise, try to help those folks.

But a Christian sees more than just a piece of the scenery and sees even more than a person needing help. A Christian sees a child of God. A Christian sees someone whose birth brought God joy and whose spirit Christ thought worth his death on the cross to save. And if you don't think it takes the eyes of faith to see a glorious child of God in some of the burnouts who stand at off-ramp corners, you haven't met many of them.

The eyes of faith see bread and juice (or wine) as bread and juice, and as symbols given to us by a risen King, not a memorialized lost leader. For some traditions, the elements of communion are actually the body and blood of Christ, even though they may still look like the earthly elements they appear to be. Either way, we Christians perceive something in those symbols that people who look at them without faith do not see. Doesn't make us any better, smarter or more perceptive, but it does mean we perceive them differently.

So why have these eyes of faith? Why trouble ourselves about perceiving the world differently than other people might? Why create the headache of having to defend something to someone who doesn't even accept our premise to start with and rejects the idea that there's anything beyond what we can sense or prove? The folks who cruise past the guy at the off-ramp intersection like he's not even there probably sleep easier at night than the ones who wonder if that guy even has a place of his own to sleep.

Well, for one I need the eyes of faith to look in the mirror and see a redeemed child of God instead of a hopeless sinner. I run out of evidence that I'm a follower of God long before I run out of things in my life that need to be brought in line with God. Only the testimony of God's Holy Spirit that Jesus really did live, die and rise again in order to set my relationship with God right is gonna sway me in the face of all the physical evidence to the contrary.

For another, the eyes of faith can show us a hint or a glimpse of the world the way God intends for it to be, just as they may show us a glimpse of us the way God intends us to be. Perceiving the world in the way the Holy Spirit reveals it to us offers us a context for life unavailable without it.

It also opens up the true wonder of the world around us. Reflected light, atmospheric conditions, rods and cone cells and optic nerves and whatnot can describe for me the exact process by which I see a sunset, but none of those things can help me know why I might look at one and go, "Wow." Life without faith is walking. Walking will get you where you need to go, and good, beneficial lives can be led by people without faith,.

But life with faith is dancing. And the two are not the same.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Zacchaeus, Come on Down! (Luke 19:1-10)

People liked tax collectors back then just about as much as they do now. Which is not much.

In fact, it was even worse if you think about it. Most of the time we dislike the Internal Revenue Service because they take our money. That's generally enough for most people. But Zacchaeus is going to be even more disliked than the modern IRS agent. For one, he represents the Romans, who are collecting the taxes. Most Judeans hated the Romans, who had walked in, made themselves comfortable and started helping themselves to the pantry without even wiping their feet first. The tax collectors took their money under the threat of Roman force, so their presence was an unhappy reminder to the Judeans that they were a conquered people.

For another, as we will later learn, Zacchaeus adds to his unpopularity by taking not simply what he's supposed to take to make his payments to the Romans, but he cheats people too and takes far more than people owe. The Romans didn't particularly care about this as long as the taxes got paid and people didn't riot or anything. As long as Zacchaeus made his payments, he could be shaking everyone down for every last red cent they had and the only thing the governor might do is shrug or "suggest" he should get cut in on the action.

So when the word gets around that Jesus, the well-known traveling teacher, healer and worker of miracles, will be coming through town, people line up to see him. Zacchaeus is as curious as the next fellow and wants to see him as well, but he's too short to see over the people lining the road. Now, most of us have watched parades or other public events that people line up to see. When people bring their children, who as a rule are short and can't see and prone to gripe about it, most folks will stand aside a little to let the children be in front. Since we can see over them, it's no skin off our nose, although we might need to be ready to grab them from harm's way when those crazed clowns start driving their little cars all over the place.

No one does this for Zacchaeus, though, do they? I suspect many stayed right where they were and may have even shifted position slightly in order to keep blocking his vision. Maybe someone even said, "Why don't you stand on your money?" or asked him why his friends the Romans didn't help him see Jesus. We don't know that for certain, but I don't know how many people, when faced with the chance to get a little of their own back from a disliked individual, pass it up. So Zacchaeus just climbs a sycamore tree to see the hubbub as it happens.

And Jesus notices him there and says, "Zacchaeus, come on down! You're the next contestant on 'Get Your Life Right!'" OK, not exactly. But what he does do is invite himself to dinner at Zacchaeus's house. I imagine not many people did that -- either invite themselves to his house or even show up there of their own free will, since Zacchaeus was a hated tax collector. And sure enough, people grumble about Jesus's choice to do so. Zacchaeus is a sinner, after all, and here is a teacher of the Law, one who knows that Law as well as the Prophets and all the scriptures, and he's ready to be the guest of someone who cheats the innocent and basically steals from people using Roman force.

We have no idea what they talked about during dinner. Maybe Zacchaeus and Matthew swapped tax collector stories. Maybe Jesus or another disciple talked about some of the things that had happened during their travels. But at some point, Zacchaeus felt the need to change who he was. So he made a bold declaration: "I will give half of everything I have to the poor and I will pay back four times the amount I defrauded from everyone I overcharged."

Jesus is pleased. "Today salvation has come to this house!" he said. Jesus knows human nature. He knows how easy it would be for Zacchaeus, surrounded by the well-known teacher and his followers, to say things like, "Well, I'll be a changed man from now on, yessirree!" Or, "You've certainly given me a lot to think about, Rabbi." Or maybe even, "I'm going to see what I can do with my influence with the governor to see about the Romans having a more just tax policy."

Nothing like that. Just a very specific set of actions, a detailed outline of what will be a radically changed life. And Jesus knows that such a change comes when a life disconnected from God becomes a life connected to God, so he notes that with his comment. It's kind of an odd way for Jesus to phrase things. After all, he's salvation, isn't he? In one sense, salvation came to Zacchaeus's house when Jesus showed up. But Jesus doesn't proclaim that salvation as the reality of Zacchaeus's life until after Zacchaeus commits to changing his life.

Jesus shows up in our lives on a regular basis, and we don't much more say in how that happens than Zacchaeus did. So salvation has come to us all. But we have to decide, also as Zacchaeus did, whether or not salvation comes to us for real or just has a cup of coffee and is on its way. I don't know if people treated Zacchaeus differently or not after he changed like this. I'd like to think so, but we all know folks who don't allow for the possibility that people can change or who like their grudges more than they like people straightening out their lives. But I do know that anybody who knew him before Jesus met him had to be able to see the difference, now that "salvation had come" to his house.

Can those who know us see a difference? Do we look different from our "pre-salvation" selves, or at least different from the world around us? The answer will speak more than any sermon ever could about the power, love and grace of Christ.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Planning Ahead (Jeremiah 32:1-3; 6-15)

It's not until we take a close look at Jeremiah's situation and the situation of the city he lived in that we see just how wild an act God calls him to do here.

On the face of it, we have Jeremiah being told to buy a piece of property, record the deed and make sure it's filed correctly. Just imagine someone who's always said Christianity was just boring would think when he read this passage. "I'm supposed to get excited and connect with the divine because of real estate?"

But there are a couple of little caveats about this piece of land, which Jeremiah buys because he is the closest surviving kinsman to the original owner. He has the right of first refusal on it by law. The first caveat is that this land is very likely occupied by a whole lot of Babylonian soldiers and has been for some time. They will have trampled it, pitched tents on it and otherwise treated it like an army treats the land on which it sits. The second is that the soldiers are on the land because Jerusalem is under siege, and when the city falls there is a good chance that an old man like Jeremiah won't survive it, nor will the halls where records like property deeds are kept. If he does, he's one of the religious leaders of the city and Babylonians tended to cart people like that off so they didn't help organize a resistance when the soldiers finally left.

Now, if he survives and if he stays, he's still left with a beat-up piece of property that he may not be able to work, given his age, and that he may not even be able to prove he owns if all the records are destroyed. But Jeremiah goes through all the formalities and proper procedures for transferring the title of the land as though things were as they'd always been. To borrow a cliché, this seems like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But God directs him to do it, so we need to puzzle out what's going on if we can. One possibility is that God wants Jeremiah to offer a message of hope to a discouraged people, so they don't totally collapse. Jeremiah has been a prophet of disaster for many years now -- we even call a long speech that harps on everything that's wrong a jeremiad. If people see him acting like things are not completely hopeless, considering all of the doom he's talked about. then they may take heart in the face of their impending defeat. Winston Churchill's speeches often had this kind of effect on the people of England during the darkest days of World War II.

That could very well be part of the reason God calls Jeremiah to this act, but I think there's more to it. Judah, the last remnant of the nation of Israel that had been ruled by David and Solomon, has been attacked by the Babylonians for several reasons. One of the major ones is that Babylon is tired of this tiny country using its position in between Egypt, Babylon and Assyria to keep playing one off the other and have their own way. The Assyrians already knocked off the northern kingdom of Israel a couple of hundred years earlier, and the Egyptians plundered Jerusalem not too many years before this. Now Babylon has decided to put an end to the foolishness and just take the place over.

The rulers of Judah played these empires against each other because they thought it was the only way their nation could survive. And they believed they'd get away with it because they were God's chosen people who had God's promise that they would always endure. Never mind that, according to Jeremiah and nearly every other prophet who we can read they hadn't acted like God's people for the past couple of centuries. Never mind that God's promise was to a people, not a nation-state, and that they were clearly not depending on God when they tried playing the political game even though they were not in the same class as the heavyweights like Assyria and Babylon. The prophets said, "Doing this bring us disaster," and they were right.

Well, now that disaster was sitting in the living room with its feet on the table, God wanted to remind the people that he had indeed promised they would always be his people, even if they didn't understand what he meant by that. So Jeremiah gets his call to buy the property. That's crazy, people might say. You're acting like someone's going to be around to make good on this deed and all of these transactions, like Abraham's descendants will be around here to observe this law and follow it.

That's exactly how I'm acting, Jeremiah might say. Because that's what God has promised, and I can either believe it or not. I choose to believe it, and if I'm going to believe it with my words, I'm going to believe it with my acts as well. I may not see how it will happen, and I may not see when it will happen, and I might be like you and think it's crazy to figure it ever will happen. But if I'm going to follow the God who says it will happen, then I'm going to act like it will happen.

I can look in the mirror and see evidence of someone who has heard God's promise that he has all things in his hands but who doesn't always act it, of someone who claims to follow and tries to follow Christ but who way too often follows himself and where he wants to go. But the wonderful thing about the promise of God is that it's a promise of redemption, not just for all of the failures I've had up to the time I committed myself to following him, but for all of the ones I've made since.

That sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Pottery (Jeremiah 18:1-11)

Jeremiah gets told to go to the potter's house to hear a word from God. Considering that one of the other things God told him to do to was to walk around with a yoke on his neck and that God once told Isaiah to walk around naked for three years, Jeremiah is probably quite relieved at this simple instruction.

While there, he watches the potter work at his wheel. His project is somehow spoiled, so the potter re-shapes it into something else. After Jeremiah sees this, God asks him, am I not to Israel as this potter is to his clay? Can't I reshape the people I called into something else if I want to? Warn the people that I will reshape them just as this potter reshaped what he was making.

Likening God's creative work to the potter at the wheel has a long history -- when God makes the first man from the dust of the ground in Genesis, the Hebrew verb used there also gets used to talk about the work of a potter. It can explain a lot of things as we consider how God works in our world today. We sometimes get caught up in the idea that when someone does good, God does good things to him and when he does bad, God does bad things to him. Boiled down: He had it coming.

While that may work in Chicago, the playground and a court of law, it's not how Christianity says God operates. We say God deals with humanity by grace, not retribution.

But if God shapes us as the potter shapes the pot, isn't God responsible for what kind of shape we have? The potter's hands smooth the clay, build it up, hollow it out, bend it in here and out there. The clay by itself is a lump that does nothing until the potter begins to work on it. If God is the potter and we are the clay, then surely we can say that God is at hand in whatever happens to us, good or bad. And since God is just, he wouldn't do something bad to us unless we'd done something bad to earn it, right?

Maybe. But look again at the potter at work. The potter's hands shape the clay, but when the clay is on the wheel, those hands are not the only force at work on it. There is the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel. There is the dryness or moisture of the clay. There is the composition of the clay itself -- some clay is dense while some is lighter weight. Some holds more air and some is smoother. And some combines different properties in the same lump.

Changes in any one of those factors can affect the clay as it turns on the potter's wheel. Maybe the wheel wobbles unexpectedly. On an old-fashioned human-powered wheel, that might happen if the potter gets a leg cramp or hiccups or sneezes. Maybe as the potter applies hands to the clay, the pressure needed to shape dense clay is too much for a patch of lighter clay and pushes the vessel off-center or otherwise upsets it. Many other things could happen. The point is that the potter's hands are not the only force at work on the clay, and sometimes the potter has to respond to what those other forces do to the clay.

God's hands weren't the only forces at work on the kingdom of Judah. Though they were God's chosen people, they themselves had chosen to rely on worshiping additional God's other than the Lord. They'd decided to rely on playing the games that nations played, allying with one great empire and then the other to play both ends against the middle and maintain some kind of sovereignty of their own. God's people had decided they could be whatever kind of people they wanted to be and still be God's people, regardless of what kind of people God said his people should be.

And so God would have to reshape the vessel that he had intended them to be, in order for them to still be useful to his purpose. Remember, as Jeremiah watched the potter, the vessel he was making didn't shape right and he had to reshape it into something else. He didn't change the shape arbitrarily. He had to re-shape based on what had happened to his clay. Over the course of time, the people God called to himself and led out of Egypt had become spoiled just as the original pot was spoiled. But God still wanted a people through which he could work in the world, just as the potter still wanted a vessel to contain some kind of liquid. So just as the potter reworked his pot, God would now rework his people. The potter didn't wreck the pot and God didn't wreck the kingdom of Judah. But both creators remade their creations in light of what they had to work with.

God's work with us has many of the same characteristics. Although we try, we know that sometimes there are other forces than God's hands at work in shaping our lives. We can't control some of them. People do things that affect us. Physical things such as the weather or disaster happen. But we do affect others. We try to shape our own lives according to what we think is good, sometimes paying little attention to the kind of shaping God wants to do. And so God will change what kind of shaping he does with us.

That change might be unpleasant. Unlike the clay in the potter's hands, we have our own feelings and perceptions, and the kind of drastic change that may come to us might overwhelm us. We might see it the way the people of Judah saw it -- as "evil" being done to us. Even if we don't have that strong of a view, we still might not like it. I know I haven't always liked it when it's happened to me. I like it less when I realize how often these changes occur because of some choice or another I made.

But with the healing power of time and distance from the shaping, I've usually found myself able to concentrate on something that helped me. The change that happened came from God's hands. God is still shaping me to be a vessel for his purpose. Which means I still have a purpose, and God neglects neither that purpose nor me. Whether I'm one kind of vessel or another, shaped by God this way or that way, I am still being made by God. And that, as I understand it, means I am not junk, even if I'm going to wind up being a different kind of not-junk than I thought I might have been otherwise.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Timing and Troubling (Luke 13:10-17)

I'm a believer in planning and organizing. Of course, like a lot of things I believe in, I do better expressing my belief than I do living it out, but I do believe in them.

Sometimes, though, planning and organizing and system creating give us situations that may actually prevent us from doing what we were planning to do. This healing by Jesus offers an example. The prohibition against work on the Sabbath was longstanding in Jewish law, dating to the time of Moses and Mt. Sinai. God told the people to rest one day instead of working all seven, so that they could spend time giving thanks to God and reflecting on how he was their ultimate provider. Good idea, good plan, good system.

But over the next thousand or so years, the system was refined so much that the people who followed it most strictly actually wound up using it against the purpose God had in mind for it. Restrictions on work meant restrictions on healing, which meant that this woman would not spend the Sabbath reflecting on what God provided for her, if they had their way. She would spend it as crippled as she had been for the last 18 years. Their system fit together so seamlessly and perfectly that it had no place for anyone else to grab hold and get inside.

Jesus rejected that idea, pointing out that even those who questioned him would untie their animals on the Sabbath and allow them to drink. They knew that the rule against work was not designed to make it impossible to help those in need, but they were willing to make it harder for Jesus just so their system remained in place.

Again, I like peaceful, orderly things. I like things that work smoothly and I suspect most of us do. I prefer things to be at rest than all stirred up unnecessarily. And Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the one who told his disciples that he left them his peace. But remember, that peace is not always the peace of this world. His peace focuses on our connection to God, that we may be at rest knowing God loves us. When it comes to the world around us, though, that's a different matter.

I think a true follower of God cannot be at peace with this world the way it is, any more than Jesus could be at peace with the idea of letting that woman suffer for one more day just so some legalists could keep things in their proper categories. If we have eyes and ears, we can see that there are things wrong in this world -- God may have made it and called it good, but we human beings have made choices in how we treat the world, each other and ourselves that have brought anything but good into it. Though our lives may be in good shape, and our situations alright, we know of too many others whose lives and circumstances are not.

Any peace that comes from ignoring those people and their problems is not the peace of Christ. Any peace that comes from caring about something else -- a cause, a rule, a system, a plan, whatever -- more than about God's children is not the peace of Christ. Jesus came into this world to disrupt that kind of peace, to trouble it, to help people who wanted to follow God know that one important way they would do so was to care about people they usually may not have cared about. He knew that they might not enjoy that kind of troubling, but without it, they might miss their chances to be true followers of God obeying God's call.

Tom Jones sings a song called "Did Trouble Me" on his album Praise and Blame.  A woman named Susan Werner wrote it, talking about all of the ways and times in which God troubled her spirit when her complacency might have led her to ignore things that she should have paid attention to. But, she acknowledges, that same troubling not only helped those in need but also herself.* God's troubling also had the purpose, she said, "for to keep me human and to keep me whole."

When God asks us to extend ourselves outside our own peaceful lives, he asks us to do nothing other than what he did. Remember, God is without sin and is perfect in holiness. Our free choices to sin against him and against his children are our problem, not his. He isn't required to do anything about it. But because of his love for us, he troubled himself, coming in the form of Christ, so that we could be made whole again.

Troubling news? In a way, certainly, but good news all the same.

*Ms. Werner is very up front about her agnosticism, so to be fair to her, she would be more likely to say, "God, if there is one, troubled her spirit."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hey! I'm Right HERE! (Jeremiah 23:23-29)

This week's sermon uses the same scripture as one from a few years ago, so the manuscript is the same. Enjoy the rerun!)

On the TV show “Friends,” there’s a scene where Chandler, Monica and Phoebe are talking in the coffee shop, the place where these friends always seem to hang out. Phoebe, the ditz, has just come in and starts a conversation with Monica, who is married to Chandler, about how she met a man who is Monica’s soul mate. She’s a chef, he cooks, etc., etc.

Chandler is pretty much flabbergasted that a conversation about his wife’s soul mate doesn’t include him and is going on right in front of him. “Hey,” he says. “I’m right here.”

That scene comes to my mind when I read this passage from Jeremiah. “Aren’t I right here?” God essentially asks. “Don’t I hear what these other prophets are saying and see what the people are doing?” Of course, the answer is that God is indeed a God nearby. The Judeans cause the problems by acting like he’s a God far off.

They haven’t neglected doing their worship and sacrifices by the book. They haven’t even neglected the use of prophets to supposedly guide them in following God. But they’ve added worship of just about every other god in the region to their religion, and they have prophets who only tell them what they want to hear. And they’ve done all these things even though the very presence of the Lord dwells in the Holy of Holies in the very center of the temple in their own capital city.

We could say Jeremiah tells us we need to watch what we do because God always watches what we do. Unlike parents, who are sometimes elsewhere and thus completely unable to sense our mischief, God always sees us and knows what we’re doing. We have to behave all the time, as we would if our parents were there all the time. Christians might modify it slightly, but we have the same idea: Jesus is coming. Look busy.

But I think God’s complaint, voiced through Jeremiah, goes much deeper and requires a deeper response.

We remember God didn’t make a covenant with the Israelites after he gave them the Law through Moses. God didn’t tell them he would be their God if they obeyed his rules. He made the covenant with Abraham, long before Moses was born. He promised to be their God, and said they were his people.

He gave them the Law so they could act differently than people around them. In short, God’s chosen people ought to act like it. They shouldn’t act like everyone else does. That’s why the Law contains so many provisions about helping people in need, forgiveness of debts and other cautions against injustice. The Law helped God’s people stand out from the crowd.

If they didn’t follow the Law – and the prophets always pointed out that failure – then they offered no evidence they were anything different than all the people around them. And they offered no evidence their God was any different than any other gods people might choose to worship.

Paul later suggests Christians should follow part of this idea, and be in the world while not being of the world. Christians of all people should understand that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world and we should live our lives accordingly.
Jesus tells us if we live that way, we may find ourselves set against our family and our friends who don’t.

Our lifestyles will conflict, because we believe we live in a world being saturated by Christ and by the Holy Spirit, and they believe something different. We may “look out for number one,” just as they do, but we don’t refer to ourselves when we say it. We’ve made God number one, and we order our lives to him.

If I live as though the Kingdom of God is a present reality – and believe me, way too often I don’t – I understand that what I do depends on that, rather than on whatever happens to guide the world around me. I will help other people, I will work to spread the gospel, and I will do many other things as Jesus taught, and I will do them because I believe the Kingdom he proclaimed and embodied is coming and is in some ways already a part of the world I live in today.

Sometimes people who don’t believe in God suggest there’s no evidence to support what they call “the God hypothesis.” Now, part of that’s on them, a failure to open themselves to what they can know about God by looking at the world.

But some of it’s on us – making us aware we need to realize our role in providing that evidence that God is indeed at work in our world, and that the kingdom is at hand.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Who Watches? (Luke 12:32-40)

Martin Luther is supposed to have said something like, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree," or, when told that the world would end tomorrow, "I would plant a tree today." I've sometimes heard the same story attributed to St. Francis.

The quote is supposed to show a caring and concern for God's world by doing something to make it better up until the very last moment before Christ's return. It's also used to indicate a sense of readiness for that return. A follow-up explanation is sometimes added that makes that clear, something like "I'm always ready for the Lord to return and I was going to plant a tree tomorrow anyway."

That second thought underlies the caution and guidance that Jesus gives his listeners in this passage. The alert slaves welcome their master when he returns, rather than make him wait while they wake up and stumble to the door or greet him in the morning. The alert homeowner makes his house safe before thieves try to break in. In both cases, Jesus suggests that choosing to be ready for something to happen is a better way to work than to react when it happens. That makes sense, of course. All of the business books and success DVDs and whatnot say so, and there's no way that Jesus and The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People could both be wrong about it.

The connection between this kind of readiness and readiness for the Lord's return gets a little loose, though. For one, the slaves may not have known whether the master would come home at dawn or at mid-day, but they had a window of 24 or maybe a little more hours that they could prepare for. No less an authority than Jesus himself, though, says that no human being knows the day or the hour of his return. Something that people might remember before they write their books outlining how Pope Benedict's German heritage means he's descended from the last nation that was a part of the Holy Roman Empire and is thus the perfect candidate for the Anti-Christ and that means Jesus will return Tuesday. And please know I made all that up.

Anyway, we really don't know when Christ will return, unlike the slaves who had a specific window of time. Another difference is that the master had returned before, so the slaves had a frame of reference when they prepared themselves. They knew what it would be like, and we have no idea what the return of the Lord will be like. Even if every description of it people have ever gleaned from the Bible is exactly accurate in every detail we don't have any frame of reference for it. When's the last time you saw a new heaven and a new earth being created while the old ones were passing away?

How, then, do we prepare for the Lord's return? How do we make ourselves watchful and alert for his coming if we don't know that we'll ever live to see it and if we have no idea what it will be like?

There are a lot of answers, but one that helps me goes something like this: I make myself ready for the Lord's return by following him. Think about it. Jesus ascended to the Father, "going" to a place or a state of being that is in complete communion with God. We may know few details of the life to come, but we know we will be in God's direct presence in a way we are not able to be now. Jesus "went there" first, if you like. He's also asked us to follow him -- most of the time that refers to obeying his commands and living as he taught us, but if I think of the word "follow" in its spatial sense then I get an image that I move along a path Jesus moved along before me. When he returns along that path, he will meet me coming to him.

Of course, that's all metaphor, and to make things more concrete maybe we should set those aside and look at it this way. Sometimes we say that we get ready for something, which means that we've made plans or prepared for it, and now all we do is wait for the something to happen. Jesus seems to suggest that readiness for his return is not so static. Rather than get ready, we are to be ready.

When I worked for the newspaper, I could be a reporter only if I reported on things and wrote about them. It was ongoing and just earning my journalism degree wasn't enough. I can be a Christian only if I continue to seek after God and allow him to shape me every day instead of relying on a onetime experience of conversion to cover for the rest of my life.

I pray that we can all be ready for the Lord's return. Not because he'll tell us we're out of luck and we have to catch the next Second Coming or that our applications will be processed in the order they were received and so we will need to wait our turn or anything. Not because the Kingdom of Heaven has festival seating and the people who aren't ready when the gates open are stuck behind a post.

But because I can imagine no better life than one lived in readiness for God to be present. Now or forever.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fools and their Money (Luke 12:13-21)

The old saying is that a fool and his money are soon parted, meaning that people who make foolish decisions about most things will also make foolish decisions about money. I always wonder about that saying, since it seems like someone who would make such foolish decisions wouldn't have any money to start with. Also, it seems like plenty of rich people do dumb things but are still rich.

Either way, the interesting thing about that old saying when we compare it to this story is that the man in it actually makes kind of a smart decision about his wealth. He makes plans to store his abundance of crops, rather than blow all of it on the first-century Judean equivalent of a Corvette, hair plugs and 25-year-old trophy wife. We call this kind of thing "savings," and it's generally recommended in the case of rainy days. Or very hot ones, so we can pay our electric bill.

But when God speaks to him, we learn he hasn't been wise at all! He's just as much a fool as the fellow down the road anticipating the invention of automobiles and plastic surgery! How can this be? Does God really mean to tell us that saving is not as smart a thing to do as spending? Does Jesus want his listeners to believe that they should drift along with whatever happens instead of planning for the future and whatever problems it might bring?

Well no, I don't think so. When we examine the story and compare it to the conversation Jesus has just before he tells it, we can see another kind of decision operating here that doesn't have as much to do with saving vs. spending as it does with a special kind of investing.

The rich man was wise to store up his excess. But he was foolish to think that his wealth was what really mattered. What did he say after he decided to make his new storage spaces? "Hey, you've got all you need! Take it easy! Life is good!" He invested the meaning of his life in his possessions. Because he had much, he was in good shape and had a good life.

God's message to him reminds him that the things of this life don't give life meaning. Because whether it happens tonight, tomorrow or twenty years from now, this life will end. If we have dedicated it to amassing, storing up and enjoying the things that are in it, then we will have gained nothing, and neither will the world we leave.

There have been countless rich people in the world since money was invented, but the ones we remember are the ones who did something with that wealth for the world around them. Maybe they did it because their wealth comes from the old "ill-gotten gains" and this is the way they ease their consciences. Maybe they did it because they selfishly wanted their names remembered after they were gone and having that name chiseled in stone on a building meant that someone, somewhere, would always know it. Or maybe they did it because they saw their resources as gifts from God which could be used to help make things better for others. Either way, they realized that their wealth -- and the world that contained it -- was not the only thing that mattered in life.

The rich fool didn't understand that. He invested in himself and so when he was gone, all that investment lost its meaning. Jesus said that people who follow him should invest themselves in something larger than their own desires and their own benefit. They should invest themselves in God and try to mold themselves to God's work in the world, or "be rich towards God," as he phrases it.

John Wesley told his followers they should work hard and gain all they could through their work. They should also save all they could. But they should do it in order to increase their ability to offer up the resources God's work in this world needs. So win the lottery. Be the beneficiary of that rich uncle. Work the overtime. Play the market, or whatever it is that you do in order to increase the resources you have here in this life, as long as you do it honestly.

Just don't make the mistake of thinking that it'll matter when you have to leave, and don't make the mistake of ignoring the one relationship that can make everything matter, both now and in the life to come -- the relationship between you and God, made possible through the work of Jesus Christ. Don't allow your life to be like the rich man in the story, to become one that people will remember for just a little while, and then mostly for its meaninglessness, saying after you're gone, "I pity the fool."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Focus (Amos 8:1-12)

We've no idea if the prophet Amos ever delivered the materials in his book at the same time, like a sermon. But if he had, it would have been interesting to watch the people listening to him.

He begins with oracles that proclaim God's judgment on the nations around his own. Then he moves in to Judea, the other kingdom formed when the original kingdom of Israel divided under Solomon's son Rehoboam. Up until this point, our listeners might have been cheering him on. You said it, buddy! Give it to those pagans! Sock it to those wannabes down in Judea! But some of them might have worried, because with each different oracle against a nation, Amos moves in closer and closer to his own nation of Israel. His focus becomes clearer each time, and then whammo! He zeros in on his own land and his own people, and lets them have it for their sins as well.

And you might call the root of their sins a lack of proper focus. As anyone who wears glasses or has used a camera knows, focus measures the clarity of the image we see. Sharply-defined images where we can identify the details are said to be in focus. Fuzzy images where it's hard to tell just what we're looking at are out of focus. Amos lets the people of Israel know their image of themselves as God's people is out of focus and they can't see the details they need to see.

What they do see are their regular observance of religious festivals and ceremonies. Even though they don't have the Temple of Solomon -- it's in Jerusalem, which is in Judea -- they still make sure they fast at the right times, offer the right kinds of sacrifices and hold all the proper religious feasts. But they don't pay any attention to the other parts of the law that talk about how to treat each other. God's people were given the law so they could act like God's people, and that meant practicing just treatment of all people, regardless of their power or economic status, as well as praying and sacrificing at the right times.

And they weren't doing that at all. Even during their religious observances they were thinking about getting back to the business of commerce, buying and selling the same items they were supposed to be thanking God for providing. They were planning how to cut corners and cheat their customers, especially those who already had almost nothing and could least afford to be cheated.

Amos warns them that such practices aren't part of God's people and if they can't see that, they're headed down a road of destruction. They might claim that they're still God's people living up to what God has asked of them because they've got all their religious observances down pat, but Amos tells them they do not see their situation clearly. Their focus is too fuzzy and they don't identify the problems that need fixing.

We Christians may not have as many observances and feasts and festivals as the ancient Israelites, but we can be just as unfocused as they were. It's not hard to find a church that boasts of its facilities but restricts them to members only, or that dumps dollars into its building while dribbling dimes to missions. It's not hard to find a church that proclaims this or that social or political cause on its website but has no plan or time for prayer in its life together.

And it's not hard to find Christians whose attention wanders during their own times of Sunday worship to the things of their weekly lives. I'm lazy, but fortunately I rarely have to look farther than my own mirror. Or to find people who choose their church based on what it can do for them instead of seeking God's direction on whether or not that church is the place where they can best serve him.

In the lens of the cameras we used to use at the newspaper, there was a circle in the center of the viewfinder. It was divided in half, and the way to be sure the image was properly focused was to line the image in the top part up with the image at the bottom. When these central images aligned, then the image was in focus. The key was to make sure that you'd gotten what you wanted to take a picture of at the center of the viewfinder, rather than off to one side.

Following God requires something similar. If we put God off to the side of our worldview we will not be properly focused. Maybe we hold some cause or ideal as more central to our church lives than we do our worship of God. Maybe we look for what God can give us in our relationship with him than what we owe him. Maybe we're even flat-out mean and nasty jerks like the people Amos accuses of stealing and cheating the poor. Whatever it is, we miss our mark even if we're in church every Sunday and singing every song and closing our eyes in every prayer and always having a check (not too big, though) for the offering. Those mean nothing in a life unfocused on God.

The great thing about focusing our lives on God, the way Amos called the Israelites to do, is that those failures, as well as all the others, can be removed from the picture. A failure to focus on God leads to sin, But a focus on God, with God at the center of our lives, brings grace, and grace transforms the imperfections and the blurs into a clear and bright picture of what life and we were always meant to be in God's sight.

Grace, after all, makes beauty out of ugly things.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Whose Neighbor Am I? (Luke 10:25-37)

Sometimes the title gives it all away. With this one, for example, you might think that I'm going to suggest that the point of Jesus' story we call the Good Samaritan was not to answer the question asked him by the teacher of the law, but to get the teacher thinking about how he had things backwards. And you'd be right!

But Luke already gives it away -- first he says the teacher asks his question to test Jesus. I take that to mean that the teacher already knows what he thinks is the answer to his question and wants to see how well this Galilean rabbi knows his law. And then the Galilean rabbi serves up a beauty, by asking the teacher what he knows so the teacher can show off his knowledge! As far as we know, ancient Judean society did not have the concept of the straight man, or the member of a comedy team whose job it was to say things so the funny one could say something funny. But this teacher would have understood it on the spot if he'd ever heard of it.

That's right, Jesus says, when the teacher is done showing how much he's memorized. Do these things and you will live. And here's where the teacher goofs. If he'd just left it at letting Jesus help him show how smart he was, he would have been OK, but now he wants Jesus to help him show everyone how righteous he is, too. Luke says he wants to justify himself, so he asks, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus, although not in so many words, says, "OK, playtime is over and I'm going to take you to school."

He tells the story of a man who tried to walk to Jericho but never made it because he was robbed and beaten. First a priest sees him, crosses over to the other side of the road and walks past. Then a Levite does the same thing. Finally, a Samaritan finds the man, dresses his wounds and takes him someplace where he will be taken care of until he recovers and even pays for his lodging while he recuperates.

We've come to associate the word "Samaritan" with someone who does good. Billy Graham's son Franklin named his helping organization "Samaritan's Purse." Comic book writer Kurt Busiek made the central hero of his Astro City series the Samaritan.

But the Judeans of Jesus' day would not have heard that name that way. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 670 BC, they ran off all the well-to-do and educated folk of the kingdom, and brought in a bunch of folks from everywhere else they'd conquered. Those people had intermarried with the riff-raff left behind and made a group of folks that the Judeans didn't like to start with and liked even less when they came back from Babylon -- the place they'd been run off to -- about 450 BC. You know how, in our day, about the only group it's still OK to insult in public are poor rural folks? If that situation had existed in ancient Judea, they would have said "Samaritan" the way some people today say "trailer trash."

So Jesus told a story about how two respectable fellows, no doubt well thought of in their own communities, had the chance to help a man beaten half to death and they wouldn't even stop to pray for the guy, let alone actually take care of him. Then this Samaritan, a person Judean listeners wouldn't have believed capable of walking without his knuckles dragging the ground, comes by and does exactly the right thing, the thing that the two righteous guys should have done without a lost second!

And it's here that Jesus' answer spins the law teacher's question around. The teacher had asked who his neighbor was. He wanted to know who he was to love in order to obey the commandment. Who was he obligated to? Was it is his family? His literal neighbors, as in the people who lived near him? His community? Other people of his faith? Who, rabbi, do I have to love in order to fulfill the commandment?

But Jesus' story says that's the wrong question. We shouldn't ask who our neighbors are. We should be asking whose neighbor we are. The Samaritan had things the robbery victim didn't, like money to pay for an inn and supplies to treat his wounds and all of the blood he was supposed to have. The robbery victim needed the things the Samaritan had, and their encounter made the neighbor question clear for those who understood what God called them to do.

People who want to follow God should be asking themselves who they can neighbor, instead of trying to figure out who their neighbors are. They should ask, "Who can I help?" instead of "Who do I have to help?"

And that doesn't just refer to material needs. Christians, we say we have been given the grace of God. By that grace our relationship with God is made what it was always supposed to be and we were saved from our sin. Everyone's been given that grace, but we for some reason have the knowledge of how much we needed it. Will we be neighbors to those who don't have that knowledge? Will we show the love of God, available for all, to everyone who needs it (Hint: That means everyone period)? Will the grace of God flow through us or will it get choked off because we're busy seeing if someone meets neighbor criteria?

I've quoted atheist magician Penn Jillette before, who says he understands why Christians want to share the gospel even if he doesn't in the least bit agree with them. In fact, he says he can't really understand those who won't share -- politely, respectfully, appropriately and lovingly, of course -- when they get the chance. "How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?" he asks. I'd tweak it just a bit in light of our story and ask myself this:

How much would I have to hate my neighbor to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? And a follow-up, if I may. Have I been a neighbor to the people I've met? Or just another passer-by?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Allegiance (Galatians 6:7-16)

Did you know that two of the most often-repeated passages in both public and religious life have something in common? We say them both wrong.

The "Pledge of Allegiance" doesn't have a comma between "one nation" and "under God," even though we almost always pause there when we say it. And the Lord's Prayer doesn't have a a comma between "be done" and "on earth" where we find it in Matthew 6:10, even though we almost always pause there when we say that, too. Just some trivia for you.

"Allegiance" is a concept Paul comes at in different ways throughout his letters. Here, he declares his devotion to the cross of Christ. He'll boast of nothing else, no qualifications of his own, no successes he's achieved. He will boast of, rely on and depend solely upon the cross rather than any earthly signs or symbols. His allegiance will be to the cross and the Savior it represents.

On a national holiday celebrating our nation's beginnings, it's worth a moment to examine the idea of allegiance because we focus on it a lot as we remember our country's heritage and history. Its roots lie with the same words that give us "ally" or "allied." We know that an ally is someone who's on our side, and we may remember probably the best-known use of the word described the nations that fought against Germany and Japan in World War II. England, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were the main partners in the Allied Forces.

On a personal level, we usually say "friends" instead of "allies," but some of the concept is the same. Our friends are on our side, or we may say they have our backs if we are dealing with difficulties.

We can be allied with more than one person at a time, even if those people aren't allies with each other. We all have friends who might not get along with other friends we have, and we know our nation counts among our allies nations that aren't allies of each other. Sometimes this can cause disagreements. Perhaps our two friends who don't like each other have an argument. They may ask us to choose sides, which we will probably avoid doing if we can, because we are smart and we choose not to be triangled into their dysfunction.

But if we must, we find ourselves choosing one allegiance over the other, for whatever reasons seem good to us. If we choose our allegiance because we know one friend is right and the other wrong, we do so not because we like one friend more than the other, but because we believe we owe still a third allegiance: To truth itself. We might call that a higher allegiance than the other two.

As Christian citizens of the United States, we owe allegiance to our God as well as to our country. Jesus describes this when he tells his questioners that they should offer Caesar the devotion which is due him and God the devotion which is due him. When those allegiances don't conflict, then we have no problems. But sometimes they do. And then we have to decide which allegiance we will follow, and that will depend on whether or not we understand what allegiance to God truly means.

When we ally with someone, we don't pretend they're perfect. The leaders of the free nations knew Josef Stalin's Russia was not a good place, but they allied with him in order to defeat the Nazis, who were an even worse evil at the time. We have to understand who someone really is in order to be a real ally, though, or else we might call on them for something they can't or won't do.

What Paul is telling us here is that if we understand who God really is, we will declare our first and highest allegiance is to him. Nothing can or will take precedence over him; in any case where there's a conflict between what God calls us to do and what someone else calls us to do, we will take God's side. No friend, family member or country can take God's place if we are declaring true allegiance to and reliance on the cross and the Savior it represents.

In our nation's history, we have seen that show up time and time again. Christian people declared that allegiance to God mandated opposing slavery, even though the laws of our nation permitted it. They declared that allegiance to God mandated equal treatment under the law no matter what the color of a person's skin, even though the laws of some parts of our nation prohibited equal treatment. They opposed those laws and in some cases paid the price with insults, harassment, fines, jail terms and even physical assault and death.

The laws of our nation permit capital punishment, but I believe my allegiance to God doesn't allow me to support that (Has to do with how I treat "the least of these," following Matthew 25 -- topic for another sermon). If I ever serve on a jury in a murder case I'll never vote to impose that punishment even though I could legally do so. Which means I'll be off that kind of a jury pretty quickly, of course.

I would live no other place in this world and would have no other country than this one as my home. But if God's plan of salvation for the world called for this nation to pass from the earth I would call for that too. If I'm going to declare real allegiance to God I can't do anything else.

Today, and hopefully every day, I'm proud of my American heritage and of my nation, and I celebrate both. But today, and hopefully every day, I remember my heritage as a sinner saved by grace, represented in the cross of Christ, and lift that banner higher than any other as I offer thanks for it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Where Is the Lord, the God of Elijah? (2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14)

Ah, the handoff. In my denomination, it happens pretty often, as pastors may move every few years and have the job of preparing the way for their successors.

And the successors have the job of learning the new path they're following. They chart some of it with their own dreams and vision and some of it by looking at what path has been followed before their arrival. And of course, they depend on God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The handoff between Elijah and Elisha is less formalized. Elisha has been Elijah's apprentice and student for awhile now, and the older prophet knows the time is coming for his work to be finished. At first he tries to make his leaving a solitary affair, directing Elisha to remain behind while he travels to whatever place the Lord has decided to lift him up from. But Elisha will have none of that and proclaims his loyalty and devotion to his mentor by saying he will not leave Elijah while either the Lord or Elisha himself are still living. That's an elaborate way of saying "Never," if you're curious.

What, then, would you have me leave you, Elijah asks. A double portion of your spirit, Elisha answers. Elijah warns his student that he's asked a hard thing. In fact, Elijah says, such a gift is not actually his to give, but God's. If Elisha can see Elijah taken up into the heavens, then he will know God has granted his request.

At the river, Elijah strikes the water with his mantle and it parts on either side, a sign of his status as a true prophet of God. God used Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea for the Hebrews to cross safely and later the waters of the river Jordan parted to let the Israelites cross into the promised land under Joshua. The miracle lets everyone know that the one working it does the work of God, listening to him as did Moses and Joshua.

Those men had been spiritual and political leaders of Israel, but since the time of Samuel the roles had separated. The kings were the political rulers and prophets tried to lead spiritually, even though the people tended to drift away from pure devotion to God. It was easy to tell who the king was, but it wasn't always easy to tell who the true prophets were. Anyone could say they were speaking for God like Moses had or like Joshua had, but how were the people to know? Elijah's dry-footed crossing of the Jordan was one proof that he was the real deal.

And then Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind, which seems to Elisha to be like fiery chariots and horses in the sky. The very mantle that struck the Jordan river falls to the ground at Elisha's feet where he stands. He has torn his clothes in the ancient symbol of grief at losing the mentor and teacher he loves. He picks up the mantle and starts his journey back. He saw a great vision, yes, but was it what Elijah had meant? Would he receive the spirit of a prophet, to speak God's word and do God's work in Israel? God was with Elijah, but would God be with Elisha in the same way? There are the fifty from the company of the prophets, watching and waiting. Two men crossed the Jordan, but only one returns. What happened to the other? This man wears the mantle, but is he a real prophet or just dressed up like one? And he comes to the river.

Recently at a local pastor's school I helped evaluate and respond to several people who were training for their local pastor's licenses. Among them was a woman who had been married to a preacher in our denomination. About a year or so ago, he came inside their house and said a wasp had stung him while he was mowing the lawn, and a few minutes later he collapsed, dead. She has had to raise their special needs son by herself as well as deal with the grief of losing her husband. At some point along the way, she decided she too was called to the ministry and is now training to serve churches herself. In her sermon, she said how she understood God was never far away from her and how moving on on in life after her husband's death and even hearing and answering a call to ministry would have been impossible without God's presence.

I knew her husband, and he never would have called himself Elijah in a million years. But this woman's awareness of and faith in the presence of God is the same faith upon which Elisha called when he approached the river. Aloud, he asked the question that he knew the fifty would ask, the question that everyone who saw or heard him would ask, the question that he probably had to admit to himself that even he would ask if he were one of them.

"Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?"

He answered his own question, though not with words but with action. With his mantle rolled up and striking the water, dividing it to one side and to the other, he proclaimed to all who could see and understand:

"Right here!"

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgiven (Luke 7:36 - 8:3)

I love the TV show Firefly -- I say "love" in the present tense because even though the network it was on couldn't keep one neuron firing long enough to let it stay on the air, I own the DVDs and I can watch it whenever I want.

There's a scene in the pilot episode in which a preacher -- called a "shepherd" in this show's world -- wonders whether he should stay on the spaceship he's boarded. The captain and crew don't like him, he failed to protect someone he wanted to safeguard, and it seems like there's no place for him here. He makes this confession to a woman called a "companion," which is a very high-priced and selective call girl. She embraces him -- chastely! -- and says something like, "Maybe that means you're needed here most."

In a discussion group about the show, I read a number of opinions from Christians who were offended by the scene. A preacher or holy man taking advice and compassion from a woman like that? Receive a gesture of grace from a whore? What kind of religious leader would accept that kind of welcome such from such a sinner?

Allow me to introduce you to Jesus of Nazareth, who may be doing exactly that right here in the gospel.

Jesus dines at the house of Simon the Pharisee, which is interesting already because we're conditioned to think of the Pharisees as the guys who are always out to get Jesus and who lay many heavy legalistic burdens on the people. But they began as people who thought that if you were going to call yourself a follower of God, then you ought to live a life that showed it. For them, that meant following the Law of Moses, and if some of them got a little enthusiastic in expounding on that law, apparently not all of them did. Jesus intrigued those Pharisees, because his message about repenting because the kingdom was at hand wasn't far off of theirs.

But while he's there, this woman -- a sinner, Luke tells us, for reasons we'll catch up with in a minute -- comes to Jesus, weeping so much she actually bathes his feet, dries them with her hair and then anoints them with ointment she's carrying that's probably perfumed. Simon is scandalized -- if Jesus was as good a teacher as some claimed him to be, he'd know she was a sinner and he'd know what people would start to think when they saw him accept such an intimate act from her.

'Cause, as Luke goes out of his way to remind us, she's a sinner. Of course, so was everyone else at that table except Jesus, but she's singled out. Why? No certain reason, but I think he was trying to politely hint that she was, maybe, a professional sinner. As in the world's oldest profession? As in, well, I don't want the children to hear, a sinner, and I don't mean she didn't buy her food at the kosher deli?

Jesus obviously knows what Simon is thinking. So he says, "Simon, got a story for you." Simon says, "Let's hear it."

"Two guys owe this fellow some money. One owes him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. He forgives both debts. Which one will be more grateful?"

"The one who owed him the most," Simon says. "Bingo!" Jesus says (I'm paraphrasing).

"Now, you invited me to dine with you but you didn't set out anything for me to wash with or freshen up or give me a kiss of greeting. This woman, though, hasn't stopped washing my feet or kissing me in greeting since I showed up. She's being forgiven a lot, so she is showing a lot of gratitude. People who aren't forgiven as much don't show as much." Then he makes it explicit, telling the woman her sins are forgiven and she can go in peace.

Our issue is that for most of us, we aren't as aware as we should be that we are just as much in need of grace as the worst sinner we could imagine. Sin isn't adding up a bunch of evil; it's separation from God. Give me the choice of which sinner to live next door to and I'll take the arrogant self-righteous jerk over the thief every time, but that doesn't mean that either of them is any more or less separated from God. One debtor may have owed more money than the other one in Jesus's story, but both were debtors. One sinner may have piled up more wrong deeds than another, but both are separated from God.

Well, both used to be separated from God, that is. In Christ, we're offered a reunion with God. We're offered a restoration of the relationship we were born to have but lost as we tried to set ourselves up as the gods of our own lives.

And at the last, it isn't that Sinner A is forgiven a whole lot and Sinner B is forgiven just a little. If we are really going to accept the gospel message and live it out, then we have to understand that the key is that Sinner A and Sinner B, as well as Sinners C through Z and way more than we have letters for, are all forgiven exactly the same amount: Everything.

That sounds like good news to me.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Boasting! (Romans 5:1-5)

One of my dad's favorite baseball players, Dizzy Dean, was not known for his humility regarding his talent. He usually responded to comments about this with something like "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." That  concept of aggressive, if not extreme, self-promotion is what usually comes to mind when we think of "boasting."

So Paul's words to the Romans call up all kinds of interesting ideas. "We boast in our sufferings," he says. Kind of like that person who, no matter how badly things are going for you, is always generous enough to let you know they are in much worse shape. Or that. no matter what kind of obstacles you encountered in doing something, they were able to accomplish their task with even more problems than you had. I am pretty sure we all know that kind of person, and I'm almost as sure we've all been that kind of person sometimes. I keep working on not doing that, but I have a ways to go yet.

Surely Paul doesn't mean that we brag about how bad we've got it compared to the rest of the world, does he? That would seem...weird, at the very least. I can definitely understand how suffering, great or small, can produce character. And if we endure our suffering believing that we are following the true God, we might find our hope in him strengthened along with that very suffering itself. But even though I get that, I really stumble with this concept of boasting here.

And I'm not the only one. "Boast," of course, is an English translation of the original Greek word Paul used, which was kauchaomai. The version I use a lot, the New Revised Standard, translates that word as "boast." But the original Revised Standard Version used "rejoice," as does the New International Version. Good ol' King James's crew translated kauchaomai "glory in," making verse 3 run like this: "And not only so, we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience..."

In other words, a variety of biblical scholars over the past six hundred years or so have had a hard time nailing down just what Paul meant to say he was doing here. Was he simply rejoicing in the sufferings that came to him because he followed Christ, and the sufferings offered proof to him he really was denying himself and taking up the cross as Jesus had directed? Or did he rejoice that he could share in even this small way some of what Jesus had done as he had suffered? People have rejoiced for those reasons in many situations.

Was he rejoicing because he knew this suffering would build his faith as he describes? Kind of how high school football coaches have been known to say things like "Pain is weakness leaving the body!" to those who might think it actually was a good reason to quit playing football.

All of these, I suppose, are possible. But in other places that word kauchaomai gets used, it usually means "boast," so we're kind of stuck with trying to resolve how we boast in hope and also in suffering. Maybe if we looked at some of those other places we read it we might get an idea. Aha! And so we do.

Before this, whenever Paul has told the Romans about boasting, it hasn't been a good thing. Religious snobs boasted about God accepting them because they were so special. People suggested they had done so many good things that God had to take them in because of it, and they said that's exactly why God blessed Abraham and so it was why God should bless them too. In essence, these kind of people boast about who they are or what they've done.

But, Paul says, those who follow God should know that neither the privilege of birth or a mountain of good deeds can make God love them any more than he already does. God's love is unconditional, which means it can't be bought with a special status or a spiffy resume. It can't be bought at all, in fact. God loves us for no other reason than that we showed up. And that's a good thing, because I don't know about you, but I've given God plenty of reasons not to love me in my life. So I can't help but feel relieved that God's love doesn't depend on things that I do or don't do.

Yes, I also know that there are things God asks of me and that following him pleases him more than not following him does, and I want to follow him because of that. He won't love me any more if I succeed or any less if I fail, though. So when it comes to me and what I can do and what those things mean in terms of my relationship with God, I'm left with nothing to brag about.

I am, though, left with what God can do. Boast in my sufferings and limitations? Sure! Some might say I'm some kind of loser for believing in this religious mumbo-jumbo, but look at what amazing things God can do with such limited tools at his disposal! God wanted his message of love to go throughout the world but he chose people to convey it. You know, messed-up, selfish, childish, irritable and what-have-you people. People who get it wrong and lots of times forget what God may have really wanted to say and don't exactly do so great at making sure their own message stays behind the scenes.

And God's message got through anyway, and it still does. Maybe God's waiting around for what he thinks will be the right time to toot his own horn, but in the meantime? When I consider an achievement like the gospel, managing to make it into the world through as flawed a medium as, well, me? That's a God worth bragging about.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Repost: You Lookin' at Me? (Acts 1:1-11)

Thanks to the cyclical nature of the lectionary, we have again reached a passage which I have preached on before. This week's sermon is similar to one from May 2007, and so that manuscript is reposted here. The link to the scripture passage above is here.

Probably one of the questions that has dogged the church since - well, since the passage we read here, I imagine – is why Jesus ascended. Why did he return to be with God after the Resurrection, instead of staying with us and continuing to teach?

After all, Luke says, Jesus gave his apostles “many convincing proofs” he was alive, not as a ghost, but as a human being. Why not remain and offer the rest of the world those same kind of convincing proofs? Why not demonstrate how God had proved the truth of his words with this resurrection?

The crowds that had heard him teach and watched him heal had been huge – but imagine what they would be like now. The multitudes that hailed him as the Son of David when he entered Jerusalem would be small in comparison, and this time, they wouldn’t turn on him five days later.

Everyone who heard the gospel message about the coming Kingdom of God could have living proof right in front of them. Either Jesus would set himself up at the Temple (no need for whips to drive out the moneychangers this time – they’d bail on sight), or he might simply appear to whomever accepted the message, as proof they chose wisely. It all would have been so much easier, so why leave at all?

The church has done God’s work, but people have done things in Jesus’ name that probably wouldn’t have been approved if he’d been managing things in person. Could there have been any division within the body of Christ if Christ himself had been present to arbitrate the disputes? Sure, the disciples bickered about which one of them was the greatest, but that was pre-Resurrection. We’d have the resurrected Christ, and everyone would know which one was the greatest of all.

Jesus himself tells us why he ascended, and the way the disciples act here demonstrates why his reason’s a good one.

Many times during his ministry, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, and often he describes how it will work among us after he has gone. Luke shows us the Spirit’s hand at work in what happens before Jesus is born as well as what happens during his earthly ministry. People see, do and say things because they are “moved by the Spirit” or “led by the Spirit.”

Obviously, my idea about how things would be if Jesus didn’t ascend is speculation. We don’t really know what that life would be like. But we do know that Jesus suggests the Holy Spirit will not fully work within people when Jesus is actually present. It comes on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus leaves.

Is there a turf war? God draws some kind of line down the center of the human heart so Jesus and the Spirit don’t get in each other’s way? Well, that doesn’t make much sense if we really believe that God is a Trinity, one God in three persons. We claim it’s a perfect union, not subject to disagreement.

When I look at the stories of God dealing with people, it seems God limits himself not because he has to, but because people need him to. Moses can only see his reflected glory. He stoops down low to see the “mighty tower” that the people at Babel have made. He limits his direct presence to one inner room of the Temple. He comes as a human baby.

And it’s all because we’re limited.

We need to grow, but we’re limited in how fast we can do that. When we’re kids, we want to be grown up right now, to have the privileges we see in adulthood. But unless we take the whole long weary slog up that hill, we’ll never really understand how responsibilities accompany those privileges, or learn how to handle them.

If Jesus was always present, the way he was present to the disciples following his resurrection, then could they have grown? How about if all we ever needed to do to prove his message was real was say, “Well, buy a plane ticket to Jerusalem and meet him if you don’t believe me. Or better yet, I’ll give him a call and he’ll be right over.” Would we ever grow?

Maybe some of us would, but I don’t know about the majority, to be honest with you. I don’t know if I would.

I expect I’d be quite a bit like those disciples, staring into the sky after he’d passed beyond the clouds, still looking up until someone spoke up. Jesus told them what would happen: How they’d receive the Spirit, and how they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But they’re standing on a hill looking at clouds.

The Spirit comes to help us slog our way up the hill of our spiritual journey, growing in faith so that we can do more than just stand around and stare at where Jesus has been. We too can take our part in this work, and share with people the same good news we have received.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Repost: Now That Was a Sabbath (John 5:1-9)

(The scripture for today's sermon may be found here. This is the same scripture from this week a couple of years ago, so this is more or less the same sermon).

Nothing could be simpler, we often say, than when the Bible says something plainly and it’s right there in front of us in black and white. Or red and white, perhaps, depending on how some Bibles indicate the words Jesus said.

Like right here at the end of this passage, where John says, “Now, that day was a Sabbath.” This sentence is plain and straightforward, intended to tell us when Jesus healed this man and why it was going to be a problem for the legalists who opposed him. That’s what the Greek means and it just couldn’t be simpler.

Now read it out loud – as we know, once we say words out loud we can emphasize different words and give a simple sentence many meanings. This is the way I happened to see it when I began studying it: “Now that day was a Sabbath.” All of a sudden John’s plain ol’ declarative sentence about when becomes something more. Read that way, this sentence compares this Sabbath to others, and this one comes out looking better.

I don’t know that John meant for me to compare Sabbaths against one another, but now that my brain is working that way I’ll do so, even if it’s only to see what happens.

I do know that my usual way of reading a story where Jesus heals on the Sabbath is to see him as breaking the Sabbath rules. He does so for very good reasons, but most of the time I’ve still seen it as transgressing all of the laws and such the Sabbath has accumulated.

What if we don’t see Jesus as breaking the law, though? What if we see this story in light of his declaration in Matthew that he has come to fulfill the law? What he does on this Sabbath isn’t breaking the law, then. It’s fulfilling the law of the Sabbath. Somehow, what Jesus does here makes this more of a Sabbath than any of the laws anyone could ever dream up might do.

In order to see how that might be, let’s dig into the history of the Sabbath in the lives of the Jewish people. The first Sabbath is the seventh day of creation, when God stops working and contemplates what he has made.

Sabbath observance is a part of the ten commandments given at Mt. Sinai. “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy,” meaning keep that day set apart from other days. Later on in Exodus, that’s spelled out a little more. The people are to do no work, and neither are their servants and slaves. Heck, in Exodus 20:10, even the animals are given the day off.

Remember, this command comes to a culture that doesn’t have a 5-day work week. There is no “weekend.” Work, because much of the time it meant survival, went on all seven days. We work to get money -- the tool we need to buy food and shelter and clothing. They worked to get the food and shelter and clothing.

And nobody would know this better than nomadic wanderers like the Hebrews were when the law came to them. To skip an entire day of work was not normal and for people like them, could become a real problem.

On that day, the people were directed to reflect on God – on what God had done for them, on what God had made, on what God had given them, on how God cared for them. It was to be a Sabbath to the Lord. On that day, people were to set down the many tasks and labors they had in order to focus on God. They did this to show how they understood the reality behind the reality of everyday living. For them, God was in fact the source of their life and even more necessary than food and shelter and clothing.

The Sabbath was a break from all of that. It was a release, which is one reason why God’s command specifically gave servants the day off, too. And it was a sign of faith that one day would come the ultimate release from all of the day-to-day drudgery, at the hand of God.

This guy stuck on his mat knew what he had to do to survive – beg. He knew what he had to do to get healed – get to the water first after it had been stirred. He had been doing those things every day for thirty-eight years. When Jesus told him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk,” he released the man from that endless cycle of labor. Sure, Monday he’d probably have to go get a job, but this was his first day of true rest in nearly four decades. So yeah. That was a Sabbath.

For you and me? Our Sabbaths may come on Sunday, or they may come some other time. We can sort of schedule them, but they come any time we step back from the busy-ness of what we have to do every day and remind ourselves that our true reality isn’t grounded in these things, but in God. Because that is a Sabbath, and that is the good news.