Sunday, June 29, 2014

"From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" (Matthew 10:40-42)

One of the problems we face when we grow older is how we begin to understand that some of the problems we see have deeper roots and causes, and that taking care of the problem in front of us doesn't take care of the bigger problem.

It means we might find ourselves paralyzed by the big task, or discouraged enough that we turn away even from helping out on the smaller level. As just one person, or one group of people, or one church, what can we do to solve a problem that may have been dogging our society or culture for years? We see a man sleeping under a bridge and we want to help him, but if we give him money and he really does spend it on food, how have we addressed the real problem for him? Would more money do it? Maybe, unless he has mental health issues that keep him from holding a regular job or dealing with the matters of everyday life in a good way. What do we do then?

The first church I worked at was during my internship. They are a good church, although they did think differently than a lot of people around them do -- including me, as it happens. That made things interesting.

Anyway, shortly before I finished my internship some members decided they wanted to add to their ministry and work in the town. The pastor told me that our job at the meeting would be to help them keep their sights low, rather than get tangled up in big-picture issues that would loom so large people might get too discouraged to do anything. A woman at the meeting suggested we do something to help some emancipated teens who lived in town. Although they weren't yet 18, they had been emancipated from their parents because of unhealthy home lives. The kids had jobs as well as going to school, and this woman worked with a group that helped them get around, learn how to budget their finances, live on their own and so forth. She noted that some of the girls had been asked to their prom, but on minimum wage salaries there was no way they could afford prom dresses. Maybe we could collect used prom dresses or have a fund-raiser to help them pay for the dress.

The pastor had been exactly right about what would happen at the meeting. We digressed onto issues of poverty, income inequality, where the minimum wage should be, the sexism that made girls buy dresses while guys could just rent tuxedos, and several others that I can't remember. But he was able to help them stay focused on the needs of the kids in their own community, and they wound up having a fund-raiser to help buy the dresses.

That was all we did, and that was OK. In this discussion with his listeners, Jesus authorizes us to do small things. We can't ignore the big things, but we may have to take other steps to address them, perhaps through the ballot box or expressions of opinion in a public forum. In the meantime, it's OK to do small things like offer a cup of cold water to someone.

In fact, if you listen to Mother Teresa, it's more than OK. It's how we sort of "clump together" to change the world. "We can do no great things, only small things with great love," she is supposed to have said once. And the love is the multiplier, if you like, that makes the small things great. Any person of any religion -- or of none -- who does something for someone else out of love multiples the impact of what they have done. Not only is there help, there is caring and compassion. And anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of a good deed done from duty knows how much less it is than one done from care and compassion.

So, Christian, where are you and I in this matter? Think about our multiplier! We do things not only with our own great love, but with the love of God as well! The very love that brought his Son to the world, the very love of that Son that offered himself for us -- that's the love that multiplies what we can do for others.

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul reminds the younger man not to continue doing his good deeds quietly, because they won't stay hidden. Their impact on those helped will be obvious, but the impact on us? On us as we spend our days looking for the ways we can do even the small things for others? You don't have to do that for very long to see a different kind of person in the mirror than used to be there. And there you have not just one life changed, the life of the one you helped, but two -- yours also. As well as a start on changing the world beyond you.

Big things indeed!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mezuzot: Doorposts (Matthew 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

On first glace, a commandment that seems to be an instruction on how to decorate your own home would make you wonder. "Really, Lord? Got all the big stuff taken care of, I guess." But when we look at the foundation of the custom of the mezuzot, we can see something bigger at work.

The scripture scrolls placed over the doorposts in Jewish homes aren't chosen at random. The verses from Deuteronomy represent the most basic understanding of the Hebrew people in their covenant with the Lord: That the Lord is their God, and no other, and that the Lord is the only God who is real. Every time they enter or leave a dwelling or even a bedroom within a dwelling, they can see that container and remind themselves of this basic belief. A mezuzot is the first thing they see when they enter a home and the last thing they see when they look back at the door after they leave. Ideally, a person will remember God's covenant and Lordship coming and going.

In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner points out that a mezuzot might be different for different people. Children might have scroll boxes with cartoon themes, for example, and a box might represent a person's specific style. When people see the box they chose, they remember God's covenant was with the people as a whole and with each individual person.

We might do ourselves some good to include a mezuzot now and again in our homes too, I suppose, as a reminder that we may be the stewards of a particular place, but the place as well as everything in it actually belong to God. I know I could use that reminder quite often. Of course, we can't put scripture-boxes everywhere we are -- unless we own our own businesses, our workplaces have different people as their stewards in this point of view, and we're not entitled to impose our beliefs on someone else.

But remember what God said to the people through Jeremiah, about the coming day in which God will write his teaching upon the hearts of the people and not rely on inscriptions on stone or other materials. We can carry the theme of the mezuzot with us wherever we might go. That might be harder, though, because we have no physical reminder like a scripture-box to jog our memories. On the other hand, if we developed the habit we could find ourselves reminded of God's love and covenant with us all the time.

There's another side to understanding the custom of the mezuzot, and that's remembering that this is something Jesus knew as a regular part of his life. When he was a boy growing up, he would have seen the mezuzot on the front door of his house and Joseph and Mary would have explained it to him -- even though his divine nature would have known all about it, his human nature learned like any other human being learned.

When he stayed with his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany, he would have entered the house by walking underneath the mezuzot. When he stayed with Peter, there would be a mezuzot. When he ate dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, there would have been a mezuzot -- heck, even Zaccheus the tax collector probably had a mezuzot over his front door.

Why is that important? Well, a couple of reasons occur to me as I think about it. They may be right or off-base, but they interest me when I want to think about God. Remember that the mezuzot is a scroll of scripture that recites the Israelite's dedication to his or her God and reminds the reader of God's covenant with and love for the people. And remember too that Jesus said he was "the way, the truth and the life," pointing out more than once that he was the way to God, so to speak. He was the sign that the covenant God began by making with the Hebrew people was expanded to include allpeople. He had become a new doorway to God, if you like.

And on him were inscribed the signs of God's love for all people, the wounds of the nails and the spear. I don't believe that Jesus somehow had to keep the scars of those wounds when he was raised. If after his resurrection he could be unrecognizable to Mary Magdalene until he spoke her name, he could certainly have been raised without any marks at all. But he did keep them -- why? To remember what he had done and why? I'd say yes, except I don't know how he could forget even if he weren't fully divine.

Are they the mezuzim that remind us of God's love when we look at the new doorway to the Kingdom? Did he keep them for us, so that we could remember his great love for us and be shown yet another sign of that love? Well, I don't know if that's the reason he kept them, but it's certainly one effect of keeping them, isn't it?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Tefillah: Prayer (Romans 8:26-29)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

In many ways, our prayer lives and habits parallel our overall growth in thinking and understanding. As children, our prayers are almost completely petitionary and mostly one-sided. We memorize prayers that we say every night before we go to bed or that we say before meals. Most of the time we don't understand their content very well, but we learn that it's important to say "Thank you" to God and to remember we are blessed in many ways we might otherwise overlook.

When we get older and our communication and relationships take on new dimensions, we certainly hope our prayer does as well, although sometimes it doesn't. Rather than just asking God for things or calling out in time of need, we begin to realize that prayer is also about listening to God. As much as we may fascinate ourselves, God wants to play a part in the conversation as well.

At the same time our awareness of how we pray grows, though, so do some of our questions about it. If we pray for someone's healing and it happens, we rejoice. But if it doesn't, what does that say about prayer and about God? Or if the person we pray for recovers, but another person prayed for doesn't, what can we say to the people who prayed for that person?

And what can we pray for in situations we don't understand? Does anyone really know, for example, what needs to happen in the Middle East so that people there can have a chance to live like they want to without a dictator or some crazy rebel leader dropping bombs on them or shooting at them as they go about their business? We obviously pray for the people suffering in the fighting and oppressed by dictators, but what do we want to happen for them? How do we want their problems solved?

Pick just about any problem in the so-called "adult arena" that needs solving and you will have a hard time finding the solution. And so we may throw up our hands and say, "Lord, help 'em!" Although those are words, they're not very specific and you can see how they might be like what Paul says about prayer in Romans.

If we focus on prayer results rather than on prayer itself, we will confuse the pretty much everyone before very long. And we'll probably confuse ourselves as well. Lauren Winner suggests in her chapter on prayer that when we pray, we get to join in a conversation or a communion that's already going on among the three person of the Holy Trinity. Although it's not a perfect model, I think we can use it to help shape our prayer life.

For one, not every conversation has results. We Methodists, veterans of a hundred committee meetings or more, know this to be so. But even pleasant conversations aren't conducted with an eye towards their results. They happen because the people involved want to speak with each other. If they're related to each other by friendship or family ties or similar interests, they may be enjoying each other's company. Married people will probably tell you that asking each other how the day went is less about finding out how the day went than about talking with their spouses. A mom who's been by herself with a toddler all day long probably doesn't much care about the new staplers in her husband's office, but she does care about being able to talk in real grown-up words and share with her partner (we should stipulate, of course, that significant parts of the office day may not be very grown-up, despite the words used to describe it). The relationship matters far more than the content.

When we pray, the relationship we are building with God matters more than the content. When we give thanks for our blessings in a day, we're not really trying to itemize every good thing that happened to us so we offer the proper thank-yous for them all, the way we had to make sure a thank-you note accompanied every birthday gift, even the necktie from the strange cousin who thought it was a good gift for an eight-year-old boy. We are indeed thanking God, but we're also trying to build belief and acceptance that all we have comes from God, and that we owe thanks to God for it.

When we ask for God's presence or intervention in a crisis, whether it's geopolitical or personal or medical or whatever, we are in fact seeking that presence or protection for those we pray for. Otherwise we would just be making noise. But again, we're also building our faith, helping strengthen our belief that whatever good things may come in those situations come from God. For the praying Christian, healing at the hands of the skilled surgeon is no less a miracle than one unexplainable by science. Who gave the surgeon her skill? Who created the dedication to her work that kept her through med school and residency and through all the patients that didn't make it? We may or may not know who she credits, but we will credit God.

Conversations have pauses, of course. But the relationships that fuel them don't. It's the relationship that prompts the desire to resume the conversation if the people involved have been apart.

Our prayers may pause when we say "Amen." But our relationship with God does not, and so we find ourselves following every "Amen" with an "Again!" as we are called and drawn to return to our prayer with Him.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hachnassat Orchim (Hospitality): Hebrews 13:2

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

Although our churches talk about hospitality and modern Christians often make sincere efforts to practice it, our vision of that idea is different from the vision that Biblical writers most likely would have had.

When we talk about offering hospitality to folks, we usually focus on people who've come through our doors. We want to make sure they can find what they need and that they're greeted when they walk in. We want to be able to direct them to the coffee pot if it's been a chilly morning, make sure it's easy to find the nursery if they've got younguns -- and make sure they know where the bathrooms are, younguns or no -- and so on. But that's a focus on guests we already have. The culture of the ancient Near East looked at hospitality a little differently, and many places in that region still carry some of those hospitality traditions today.

The Hebrews passage refers to a time when Abraham saw three strangers passing by his tent and invited them in for a meal and to stay the night. The strangers were a manifestation of God -- or maybe messengers from God -- and they gave Abraham (then Abram) and his wife Sarai a prediction that they would have a son, even though they were very old. When they entertained the three travelers, they turned out to be entertaining angels, or maybe even God. Today, we look at this passage and maybe take from it that we should be kind and welcoming to the visitors in our midst. That's in no way a bad thing.

But it overlooks a difference between our culture and the culture that shaped Abram and the writer of Hebrews. We might think that Abram was pretty nice to offer a meal and a place to stay to people he just happened to see wander by. In his culture, though, someone who didn't offer at least that much to a passing stranger would have been thought of as strictly no-class, the kind of person decent people didn't associate with. If Abram had let the travelers go on by and someone would have heard about it, people would have avoided his company and some might even have refused to do business with him, neither buying anything he might want to sell or selling him anything he might want to buy. Decent people wouldn't even think such a thing!

Some of that may stem from the realities of life as tribal wanderers in a desert or near-desert region. If you were camped out for a longer stay at an oasis, you were at one of the few places where there was water. Individuals or small groups that couldn't carry as much water with them might have been counting on watering up at the oasis where you were and if you turned them away, they might not even make it to the next water source. If you were camped out for the night between water sources and you turned someone away, they might be set on by bandits or wild animals. Either way, you would be responsible for harm they suffered, all because you turned them away from your doorstep. Actually, your tentflap, but you get the idea. Thus, hospitality became not just an issue of good hosting, but of morality -- morally good people didn't turn strangers away.

My Old Testament professor talked about being invited to a house once when he was a student on an archaeological dig in Israel. One of the young boys who hung around the dig, running errands every now and again for the strange Americans who dug holes very very slowly, decided to invite my professor back to his family's home for dinner.

Now, you might imagine the average mom and dad being a little flustered to learn that Junior has invited some stranger back to the house to eat. And you might figure that, were you the person invited, you would have no problem telling mom and dad, "Look, it's no problem if you weren't expecting guests; I'll just be on my way." Not in the Middle East. Mt professor said he was invited in, given the best seat at the table, and told if he liked he could spend the night there and the mom would pack him a lunch the next day. In fact, if he liked he could stay with the family during his whole time on the dig.

When he returned to that village just about 20 years later, he made a point of stopping by the family's house -- not because he was looking for a meal or just wanted to say hi or see if they were still there. But because if he had not, it would have been rude. In fact, if the family learned he had been nearby but had not stopped to see them, so they could invite him to stay for a meal and again, to stay with them as long as he wanted, they would have been insulted, no less than if a family member had done so.

All because their small son had once invited an odd Canadian grad student home for dinner.

That's the kind of thinking behind the hospitality that Jesus offers you and me. We might figure that, since hospitality to a stranger places such immense obligations on the host that hosts would be very very careful about who they invited in. And yet we find that the high cost of hospitality doesn't ease the obligation to welcome the stranger at all! The host can't fall back on, "Well, he looked a little seedy, so I let him keep walking." We don't have to think too hard to see ourselves as wanderers in a deadly land, offered a place to stay and food to eat by Christ as our host. Especially when we realize that Christ doesn't pay any more attention to our "guestworthiness" than a host would have to a stranger's guestworthiness.

We live in a different culture and we probably can't fully adopt the ancient view of hospitality. But we probably could make ours more robust. Saying "Hello" to a visitors and learning their names is good. Saying, "Got someone to sit with during service" is better. Saying, "We're going out for lunch after church. Do you have plans? Our treat!" is even better.

Of course we should be properly careful; this is something only groups or families should do and not solo folks, for example. But I know many if not most of us might balk at doing something like this, although when I run down my list of reasons I'm none too proud of them. The new people might be boring or weird and make lunch awkward? Yeah, that's a reason I want to stand up to defend at the last judgement.

The bottom line with hospitality for me, as a Christian, is that it's a response to Jesus's hospitality to me. When I think of it that way, I can be inspired to make my hospitality try to measure up to his -- of course it never could and never will, but the trying itself can make for growth.

And if that's so, then those I welcomed have indeed become angels to me, ministering to my spirit and heart to stir me to be more like Christ. Which as I understand it is one of those things we Christians are supposed to shoot for.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Avelut: Mourning (John 11:1-45)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

 During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

There's a question prompted by this story that I'm prone to forget to ask.

Why did Jesus weep?

We know why we would weep if Lazarus had been our friend. We would mourn the loss of our friend and show our sadness, much like Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha, as well as the other mourners present at the grave. We would feel that loss and realize that we would now continue life without our friend, and that too might make us feel sad even though we would know in our minds that Lazarus was now with the Lord.

But although he was fully human, Jesus was also fully divine and he knew in ways we don't just how wonderful it was to be in God's very presence the way Lazarus now was. He would also know in ways we don't that he would be reunited with Lazarus in God's presence, which would make their joy that much greater.

Jesus weeps in verse 35. Before this, our Bibles describe Jesus as "deeply moved" and "troubled." Those words kind of miss the mark a little bit -- the original Greek in John can mean those things, but it also has a flavor of irritation or even anger. The root word of the word translated as "disturbed" actually means "to snort in anger."

What would make Jesus angry in this situation? Is it the lack of faith the mourners demonstrate when they question why he took so long to arrive, as though he has the power to heal but no more? Is it that he knows he will be taking Lazarus away from God's presence to return him to this world? Is it that he had hoped to use this sign to show something to his own people, and the presence of outsiders will make that more difficult?

Well, we don't really know, although if I was going to lay down bets I would say it was a combination of all of the above, as well as a little frustration that the people seemed so focused on this earthly side of things and they don't show any appreciation that there is more to this matter than just the loss. When Jesus asks Martha if she believes in the resurrection of life, she gives an answer that Lazarus himself probably believed -- that all would be resurrected on the last day.

But she and the others are focused on how Jesus' late arrival meant Lazarus' death. "If you had been here, he would not have died." That's not entirely accurate. The full truth is that if Jesus had healed Lazarus, he would not have died then. He still would have died someday, though. And even though Jesus raised him, he would die again. For whatever reason, the mourners couldn't put Lazarus' death into the context of a belief that God had the ultimate control over all things, including death. Though their sadness was real, so too should have been their understanding of God's ultimate power.

Many of the Jewish mourning practices Lauren Winner describes in Mudhouse Sabbath do have that dual character. A lot of them relate activity following a death to life in the religious community of the synagogue. The people who attended the funeral come to sit shiva with the bereaved. The thirty-day period after shiva is marked off by different behavior during the next four Sabbaths, as the mourners gradually rejoin the religious community.

But even then, the mourning isn't done, as most of us who've lost someone know. According to the ritual, the loss of family members, especially parents, is marked by the twice-daily saying of the kaddish prayer for a year. And kaddish can't be said just by yourself; you have to say it with at least 10 other adults present -- which much of the time means paying a visit to the synagogue.

Even more interesting is that kaddish doesn't have any reference to mourning or any place to insert the name of the dead person and doesn't ever mention death! It's a prayer of praise to God, as if the mourner is to remember not only the sadness of their loss but also the greatness of God. Even though they probably don't feel like praising God, they do so twice a day. Winner says that any and all other responses to God are tolerated -- laments, raging, questioning -- but the prayer of praise is the only obligation that the mourner has in the eleven months leading up to the anniversary of the death. Kaddish is then said on the anniversary of the death.

Our language sometimes reflects the same kind of one-sidedness that we see in the mourners outside Lazarus' grave. We say someone "lost their battle" with cancer or some other disease or condition if they die from it, implying that in order to win the battle, they would have needed to recover. In reality, even if we win this battle, we will eventually lose one of them. Life is a fatal condition for us all; every last one of us will eventually pass away from something even if it's just good old age.

But we as Christian people hold similar ideas to our Jewish friends -- there will come a resurrection in which all life is restored and celebrated in God's presence. What we see as lost battles or endings will prove to be, at most, a pause in life as we move into a life we proclaim even if we can't fully imagine it. The language of lost battles and endings is not for us as we describe death.

Of course the bereaved have a hard time seeing this because the wound is still very fresh. But as the pain lessens, do we come to see this is the view we Christians say represents reality? Would we find ourselves comforted by understanding that death may be an end but is not the end? Many are, if not right away. Would that process be helped by praising God twice a day whether we felt like it or not? For many, it is.

We're in Lent now, closing in on a time of year that many Christians seem to overlook -- Good Friday. We leap from the entry of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter and we may not spend much time thinking about what happened to Jesus in between. And truthfully, Easter is the centerpiece of our faith -- the centerpiece of human existence, according to the gospel message. But the reality of Good Friday in the world sometimes escapes us, and we might forget that there are people all around us who live in that time of mourning or of loss.

We can't forget that, because if we do we're too likely to forget them. And if we forget those who mourn, who will tell them of the Good News -- that the Comforter has come, and the Redeemer lives, and the Savior reigns?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tzum: Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

To us, this probably seems like an odd instruction for Jesus to give. We're not used to people highlighting their fasting times the way the ancient Jews and others might have done, by putting ashes on our faces or tearing our clothes. While those were appropriate things to do during mourning times, Jesus says his people should not do so every time they fast. In fact, most of the times it seems like they should act like nothing's different.

In fact, they should try to keep their fasting a secret! If it's possible, no one should know about it. I'm sure Jesus would not have meant that they should lie if someone asked them, but anything short of that would seem to be in order so they could hide the fact that they're fasting. And that seems a little weird to us, I imagine.

Now, if the teaching was to avoid bragging about fasting, we could see the sense in that, couldn't we? "Hey, everyone! I'm fasting, and I'm doing it because I'm so much holier than you are. In fact, my fasting is making me even more holy, so I'm going to stay away from you as you go on about your sinful and much less holier than me day. Jesus loves you!" Bragging about fasting and the holiness it's supposed to represent would be an awful way to talk about it. If Jesus says that, we would agree right away that we shouldn't do it. Good teaching, Jesus! Thanks!

But he says, nope, don't even talk about it or give any indication you're fasting. Go on about your business in as ordinary way as you can. When we think about it, though, we might be able to help someone who's fasting if they let us know that's what they're doing. We would know not to invite them out for lunch, or to serve snacks if they came to visit. We might know that they have a real craving for a Snickers at 2:15 in the afternoon so we would call them at 2:14, talk about something irrelevant and entirely un-food-related until about 2:30 or so, and help them get past the craving time. Jesus' words, though, seem to block that idea. Why?

In the book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner recounts a discussion with her rabbi after she had broken a fast she was supposed to be observing. Surely, she said, it was not that big a deal? God being God, surely He was not affected by the fact that a flawed human being goofed and ate a corned beef sandwich? Part of his response to her was that she was supposed to be learning that what she was really hungry for was God. Her physical hunger was a tool to remind her of this.

I think one of the reasons Jesus told his followers to hide their fasting was to keep its focus on this lesson of complete dependence on God. If our friends and our community help us get through our fast, our focus may fade away from God a little and be drawn to them. We need to remember we depend on others, but we need even more to remember that we depend on God. Jesus' own words -- quoting Deuteronomy -- when tempted by Satan to miraculously provide himself bread  are "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

Food is one of the most basic needs we have as living creatures. We can't live without it, and there's no substitute for it. A thick hide and warm fur may do for animals that don't have shelter, but nothing can take the place of food for the body. Doing without food by choice is against our natures, but it reminds us we as living creatures depend on God even more deeply than our bodies depend on food. Without food, we die. Without God, it doesn't matter if we live.

In a way, a fast is like taking the Sabbath and drilling down even deeper at a message it teaches. Remember that one of the points of resting on the Sabbath for the ancient Israelites was to underscore their reliance on God for all they had when they wandered in the wilderness. Their lives did not depend only on their own work and efforts, but even more so on the work and the grace of God. The fast sharpens this message to its most elemental point: We rely on God not just the way we rely on our work or our energy, but even more, we need God the way we need food.

Because it's easy for us to overlook or forget that too easily, we should fast so we can remember. Maybe a complete fast for a period of time, or maybe a long-term fast from one particular item. But whichever it is, we will need it to draw us away from ourselves and our needs as simply living creatures, and draw us towards a loving God and our needs as God's creatures. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly Holy (Exodus 20:8)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

A good number of people today can remember when businesses didn't open on Sunday, and even more might remember when youth sports leagues and other organizations didn't schedule games on Sundays or at least not on Sunday mornings. Even though fewer and fewer people actually attended church or confessed their Christian faith to someone other than a telephone opinion surveyor, the cultural idea of a "day off" lingered for quite some time.

Today, we will recognize what the ancient Hebrews called Shabbat or the Sabbath in some ways, but not in many others. A lot of us will go to church. A lot of us will have time off from work. But few of us will rest in any meaningful way -- we'll use this time to get things done we couldn't do during the week. Or we'll be busier than we ever could at work in order to prepare for having fun of some kind.

It's a little ironic when we consider that the practice of the Sabbath began in a culture where a day off work might mean a day off eating as well. Nomads like the ancient Hebrews often lived pretty close to the edge compared to us. Observing the Sabbath may have been harder on them, but it seems to be harder for us.

Of course, the resurrection of Christ puts a slightly different spin on things for those of us who follow him. For one, we've moved the day from the last day of the week to the first. And for another, our Lord pointed out that the Sabbath and its observance was something made for us, rather than us being made to fit into some involved list of rules. But when we read some of the stories Lauren Winner includes in her chapter on the Sabbath, we can see that making an effort to observe a real Sabbath can provide a lot of food for reflection, as well as the time to do it in.

The rules about not doing work mean we minimize our impact on God's creation -- as the Lord rested from creating on the Sabbath day we too will rest from creating or altering creation, as much as we can. By doing that, we're reminded that we have been charged with stewardship of God's creation. Nobody gave us the deed to the place; just the keys, and we're expected to keep things up in case the owner drops by. And we're reminded that we bear the image of God. We too can create, in a way no other living creature can. A spider spins a web not for beauty's sake or to contemplate its lines and connections, but to live in and snare flies. We, on the other hand, can use sound and sight and touch and taste to do more than fuel our bodies and shelter our heads. We're pale imitators of our Lord, to be sure, but we create in his image.

And when we rest and stop giving thought to everything we think we have to do in order to live our lives, we can also be reminded we do nothing except what God has given us the gifts to do. At its root, my life depends not on my own efforts but on God's gracious decision to give it to me. To be a Christian means saying you can go back as far as you like, back to the moment of creation itself, whether you believe it happened six thousand years ago with a single sentence or seventeen billion years ago from the cosmic singularity, and you will not find one tick of the clock from that day to this that does not rest in the hands of the Creator.

Taking the time to focus on realities like these and to reflect on them is as valuable for Christians as for Jews. We claim salvation through Christ, and if we spend time increasing our awareness of our utter dependence on God we are either awakened to or reminded that this very salvation is as wholly apart from us as was creation itself. We did and do absolutely nothing to bring it about and can only acknowledge it or refuse it.

And then we realize, that just as we echo God with our own small powers of creation, we can echo the gospel message of salvation by proclaiming it. We save no one, not even ourselves, but we can state to the world that salvation is reality and damnation the illusion cast by the enemy and our own shadowed senses. We are not the Light, but we can, with God's grace, be light that shows the path to it.

When we keep a Sabbath -- a strict Shabbat or our own more relaxed understanding -- we say something to the world beyond, "Take a load off." We remind the world that the day set apart to God is not just separated from the rest of the days but in fact represents a day and a life that is closer to the reality of God than whatever might go on the other six. Just as we pray that the gospel message spreads throughout the world so that all may see and know that the Lord is God, we can pray that our Sabbaths, whenever and however we take them, spread through our whole week and we wind up with not just one day dedicated to the Lord, but seven.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-19)

At first glance, the Transfiguration of the Lord, in which Peter, James and John get a sort of "preview" of the glorified form of Jesus, is a pretty...different event. But if you think that, let me give you another idea that might make it seem even more different. A pastor friend of mine asked a question about this on his Facebook feed and it make me start to think as well.

Consider eternity. We tend to think of eternity as time that goes on and on and on without end. Other than the fact that it doesn't ever stop, we usually look at "eternity" in a way that's not really different from the way things are now. But while that may be right, there's another way to understand eternity that's probably closer to the truth. Eternity is an absence of time. In eternity, there is no time.

See how weird an idea that is? We know what time is -- time is what keeps everything from happening at once. Our brains and minds have lived in time all our lives, which means it's just about impossible for us to think about what existence would be like without time at all. But C. S. Lewis, among others, points out that there's no need for time in eternity and it may not exist. So from our point of view, in eternity, everything really does happen at once!

What does that have to do with the Transfiguration? Well, Moses and Elijah are figures from Israel's history that would have been very old even for the disciples. Moses lived perhaps 1,500 years earlier and Elijah some 700 after that. But what they share is that no one saw their deaths. Moses died after leaving the Israelites at the Jordan River, and Deuteronomy 34 tells us that the Lord was actually the one who buried him. Elijah the prophet was caught up to heaven in a fiery chariot and, as far as scripture tells us, never died.

We're accustomed to thinking that both men had been in heaven or in the life to come since their passing and returned to speak with Jesus at the time of the Transfiguration. But what if they hadn't? What if both events really occurred in eternity, outside of time, and what the disciples saw was the first steps both Moses and Elijah took into eternity in Jesus' presence? After all, Paul tells us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, so both men would be with Jesus as soon as they left this world if that's right.

In our world, those events happened 700 years apart and they happened hundreds of years before the Transfiguration. But if there is no time in eternity, then there is nothing to separate them, either from each other or from the night the disciples witness them.

Now, on one hand it really makes little difference just exactly which mind-bending reality is represented by the Transfiguration -- heavenly residents visiting the physical world or eternity impinging on our world of time. Explain either one to the disciples and the only difference between the "Huh?" they said before you started and the one afterwards is that they only thought they were confused when you started.

But on the other hand this new idea for which I thank my friend -- or blame him, depending on how much my head hurts -- can tell us a couple of things we might not have thought of otherwise.

One of them is the incredible "otherness" of God and what God does. Reminders of that prompt us to also remember that our labels, words, expressions and descriptions of what God does have their limits, and we hit those limits well before we come anywhere close to complete understanding or complete description. We can't control what God does and we surely can't control God. I need to be reminded of that more often than I like, but fortunately those reminders come fast and frequently.

Another is that in Jesus, eternity really does rub up against time. This can help us recall God has created us so that our actions have a dimension, if you like, that exists in eternity, and so do we. Even though time separates us from our ancestors in the faith, in eternity we are united as one body in Christ. Take communion, for example. Our churches may practice it weekly or monthly, or once a quarter or every time there's a fifth Sunday in a month. But if what we pray for and what Jesus told us about communion is true, it exists in eternity as well as in time, and we share at table with every Christian who ever lived or ever will live. We share at table with the disciples that night in the upper room.

We share with the Lord himself. And we will one day share with him in his presence just as Moses and Elijah did on the mountain.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Salty Language (Matthew 5:13-20)

Obviously Jesus did not consult with health experts before delivering his message about salt, or else he would have known it was bad for us.

Or perhaps, given that in his culture there was no way of preserving food via refrigeration, he would have deemed eating spoiled meat more of a health hazard than sodium and just gone ahead with his analogy. My money's on the latter.

But the truth is that our culture has a variety of different understandings of salt than did the ancient Near East. Everything from the way it's used to the way it looks to the way it was processed to be ready for use is very little like what it was in Jesus' day.

There were two main methods of getting salt -- one was from a mine, where rock salt was dug from the earth like anything else valuable and underground. The other was from the shores of the Dead Sea, a body of water so salty that people don't sink in it. As the tide ebbed and flowed, pools of water would be left behind that would evaporate. When they did, the minerals found in the Dead Sea water remained, and those mineral clumps could be carefully washed to leave behind only the desired salt. The second method was the one by which most poorer people obtained salt, since they could just pick up the mineral clumps themselves if they were on the shore or buy them from those who had. Salt from mines was purer and more expensive, and very often beyond the reach of most people.

The only problem with washing the Dead Sea mineral clumps to get salt was that if the washing used too much water, the clump would turn into a sludgy mess and it would be impossible to separate the salt from the other elements. The sludge was useless and thrown out, which us what Jesus refers to. Each clump was different and the job a hard one.

So when Jesus told his followers they were the salt of the earth, he communicated several important ideas that we might miss. For one, in order for them to be salt they would have been carefully refined and prepared for use, "washed" by God until all the unwanted minerals were gone what remained was only the valuable and useful salt.

Many of us might think of baptism when we talk about this, but we should also remember that our refinement and purification by God is a lifelong process. Baptism is a symbol of it, but it goes on over and over again. We should also remember that we, unlike the salt, can stop or stall the process. When we do, we may lose our saltiness and reduce our value in God's work in the world. A Christian who is no different from the people around her in any way loses her ability to create change. A church that makes itself like the world around it, whether for good or poor reasons, will likewise lose its ability to have an impact on that world.

Broadly speaking, our roles in the world are not significantly different from the roles salt played in food preparation in Jesus' day. Salt gave flavor to food, because it tasted different from the food itself. Salt was a preservative that could slow or even arrest the process of decay. Salt that could do neither of these things was of no value; Christians that cannot be different from the world around them or show a better way of living that both follows God more closely and evokes the fullest measure of human life are in the same boat.

Which leads us to the last and probably most important difference. Just as Jesus said, salt that has lost its saltiness is of no value. It is thrown away. And when we lose our saltiness, we too are of little or no use in God's plan for the world. But we are not thrown away.

Instead, because of God's love for us and Jesus giving himself on the cross, we may find ourselves "re-salted," a chance the flavorless salt never had. In fact, if our purpose is to be the "salt of the earth," then it is just as plain that one of Jesus' purposes was to salinate us when we go bland.

And that indeed sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Blessed (Matthew 5:1-12)

In this passage, called the Beatitudes from a Latin word for "blessed," we see Jesus offer a pretty counter-cultural set of assumptions for his day, and for ours as well, even if to a slightly milder degree.

The Beatitudes are a passage sometimes used to debunk the idea that the gospels are reliable witnesses to what Jesus said and did. Because they are also in Luke, only over there they are altered a little bit. Matthew says Jesus calls "the poor in spirit" blessed, while in Luke it's simply "Blessed are the poor." Matthew also adds "for righteousness" to the blessing for those who are hungry, while in Luke Jesus blesses those "who hunger now."

Ah, some people say. See, obviously these gospels aren't reliable, since they disagree about important things Jesus said! Or, some others will suggest that the church we have today has drifted far away from the solidarity with the poor Jesus commanded, since even as early as Matthew's gospel that connection was being thinned out.

But to be honest, even though both gospels are either supposed to be direct eyewitness accounts (Matthew) or taken from those kinds of accounts (Luke), none of them were written by someone who took notes of everything Jesus said and did at the time in order to record it like a modern biography. They are based on what those men remembered years later and so they could vary. There's another possibility, and it's one that made me think about Jesus' message some more, so I present it here. It may be true or it may not; there's no way in this life of proving it one way or another. With that, here goes.

Perhaps Jesus said both of those versions of the Beatitudes, shaping his basic message for two different groups of people. Say Luke tells us about a time when Jesus spoke to a group of mostly poorer people (and Luke does suggest that the sermon containing the Beatitudes happened on a plain, while Matthew puts it on a mountain). Then his message of blessing to them was a welcome new idea. We may look down a little on poor people in our society, sometimes attributing more of their poverty to their own choices or laziness or whatever and overlooking situations that may cause it or make it worse. But we've got nothing on a culture that saw poverty as a punishment from God for wrongdoing.

Poor people, you see, must have sinned -- the same went for sick people, too -- and the proof that they had sinned was the poverty. This kind of circular logic falls apart when you look at it, but Jesus just went ahead and completely ignored it. The society said poverty was a sign of God's curse, but Jesus said that the poor were not cursed. In fact, they were blessed, and God cared just as much for them as for anyone! Hunger as well was no sign of God's curse. Those who were hungry were also blessed by God!

Now imagine with me a different group of people, most of whom were not so poor and who may even have been rich. Jesus speaks to them too. Would he tell them, "Blessed are the poor?" Of course he would teach them that God loves the poor just as much as the rich, and in fact expects the rich to use their wealth to help those in need. But the rich have a different need from the poor. They risk thinking too much of themselves because of their material blessings and believing that they have no need of God. So Jesus tells them, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" to remind them that they too need God's grace in their lives, just as surely as does the poor man down the road.

And he tells them, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," because he wants them to hunger and thirst for righteousness not only within their own lives but for those who are in need. Righteousness for them involves helping them meet the needs and perhaps even using the power wealth grants in order to protect them from those who would take advantage.

Whether or not Jesus said this similar message, slightly tailored to reach a different audience each time, we have such a two-pronged message for us today thanks to the different wordings of Matthew and Luke. We can be reminded that we need to remember those who are materially poor and regard them not as unfortunate victims or lazy bums, but as our brothers and sisters, equal to us in every way in the sight of God. And we can be reminded that our call as those with resources is to use those resources on behalf of those in need. Instead of getting just one side of the story, today when we study the Bible we can get it in full stereo, knowing and hearing the complete message from God to those who would follow him.

And that is certainly a blessing indeed.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Foolishness! (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

I'm not one of the people who lament the existence of denominations -- I think, since they give each of us the chance to gather in worship that's congruent with our beliefs, they are actually very good things. For example, I believe in and am part of a denomination that accepts the ordination of women. If there were only one church, and it didn't accept that idea, then I and others who believed like me would be required to worship in a way that violates our consciences. Just as someone who does not accept such ordinations would be if they had to worship in my church.

Now, sometimes people use these differences as the way to promote division and to try to elevate themselves above other groups of Christians. That's obviously wrong, and it's what Paul wants to nip in the bud when he writes to the Corinthians. They of course don't have full-fledged denominations, but they are dividing along the lines of who performed their baptism. The issue is not that they were baptized by different people. That's happened since the church began on Pentecost. The issue is that they want to make these differences ways of elevating themselves over their fellow Christians.

Which is why Paul asks, "Is Christ divided?" Did some people receive more of Christ than others? Does Jesus love some of his followers more than he loves others, and does he distinguish them based on who conducted their baptism? Of course not, and while they would never phrase it that way, the Corinthians' quarrels over this matter are saying exactly that.

It's an exercise in missing the point of being a Christian, I think. Paul notes that the Corinthians identify themselves with one minister or another, but the major identifying characteristic of a Christian should be...let me see...what's that old Sunday school answer? Jesus! Yes, that's right.

Our aim as Christians is to get to a place in life where we can't be described accurately by someone unless they refer to our faith in Christ. If I tell you about an Albanian woman named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu who, at the age 19 moved to another country to help the poorest of the poor, you might know who I'm talking about, but you might not. Her story is not complete unless I tell you that she did so first as Sister, then Mother Teresa, serving those poor as a part of her vow as a nun of the Roman Catholic church. We can't describe her unless we mention Christ and his influence on her life.

Paul suggests that the Corinthians, in wanting to be known as a part of Team Apollos or Team Cephas or Team Paul, head in exactly the opposite direction. They create their identity as Christians on top of some other name than Christ, and it seems like they do that because they want to build and maintain their own identity.

Now probably none of us are as far along on this path as we wish, but for Christians the central feature of our identity must be Christ. As we follow Christ we try to shed whatever other labels or names we've taken on so that we reflect Christ to the world. Our eventual goal is that people see less and less of us and more and more of him -- we must decrease and he must increase, to paraphrase John the Baptist.

Which is where, if you're curious, the foolishness of the message of the cross comes in. Our world around us tells us that in order to leave our mark and affect the world, we need to focus on our own identity and establishing it. We must tell the world, "Here I am!" But the message of the cross says that the only way we will ever find out who we really and truly are is to lose our identity and all of our distinguishing marks to take on the identity of Christ's followers.

And when he tells us this, Paul does no more than echo Jesus' own words: If we seek our own lives, we will lose them. But if we lose our lives for his sake, we will find them. It's certainly counter-intuitive. It's probably foolish.

But it's true.