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.