Sunday, July 16, 2017

Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017

            Let anyone with ears listen!
            I took the Seed Savers Exchange for granted when we lived in Iowa. Seed Savers is the largest seed saving exchange in the country, and probably one of the largest in the world. Their Heritage Farm is on the same road as the elementary school Phoebe and Zach attended. We would drive past it every day going to and from school nine months out of the year.
            But I never thought much about it or about what they did until one or two summers before we moved down here, and my sister had an old college friend visiting her. The friend came to Decorah specifically because she wanted to visit Seed Savers. Seeing Jill, who was spending the summer in Decorah was a happy coincidence. Jill and I went with her friend to Seed Savers, and it was the first time I had the chance to wander around both the farm and the large exchange and store.
            Seed Savers Exchange is what its name suggests. It is a place where heritage seeds are saved and exchanged, and the farm is a living, dynamic example of biodiversity; a diversity that is being threatened if not completely lost with the engineering of seeds for vegetables and flowers. An heirloom tomato is not just a name for a variety of tomato plant. The seeds that created that tomato have been passed down from generation to generation. Diane Ott Whealy, the woman who, with her former husband, started Seed Savers back in the 1970’s was given seeds by her father for the purple morning glories that bloomed every summer on her parent’s front porch. Those seeds, he told her, were brought by her great-grandfather from Bavaria when her family first immigrated to this country. Those seeds were as much an heirloom of her family as any antique piece of furniture. Immigrants would bring seeds with them when they journeyed here. So part of the mission of Seed Savers is not only to preserve and conserve the vast variety of seeds while we still have them, it is also to link seeds to our history. As the informational video on the Seed Savers website states, every seed tells a story.
            Let anyone with ears listen!
            Seeds, the sower and soil are at the heart of our story from Matthew’s gospel. Not only do we have the parable of the sower and the seeds that Jesus shared, we have his explanation about it as well. Biblical scholars speculate that Jesus’ explanation of his parable was actually added later by the gospel writer. In the verses that are skipped, the disciples asked Jesus about why he taught in parables in the first place. We may take Jesus’ use of parables for granted – Jesus told stories to make a point – but it would seem that even the disciples’ wondered why their Rabbi used this particular form of teaching so often. Let’s remember what parables were and for the purpose they were used.
            Parables were not just a story for the story’s sake. Jesus was not trying to offer the crowds a diversion by telling them this parable. Parables were stories that packed a punch. Jesus told them to make a point. That point would have definitely been surprising, and in the case of so many of Jesus’ parables, it would have been shocking as well. His plot twists and unexpected meanings would have offended some who listened to him; while others would have been comforted by them. But regardless of the emotions they brought to the surface of the hearers, Jesus’ parables also made people think. I suspect the people in the crowds gathered around Jesus thought about his parables for a long time – after they had gone home, gone back to their work, or while they were lying in bed at night. The parables Jesus told were not merely for entertainment purposes. They packed a punch.
            So what would have been the shocker in this story? As I was studying this passage, I read a commentary where the author used the illustration of a farmer going out to plant crops. The farmer climbs onto whatever farm implement it is that is used for this purpose, (after all those years in Iowa, I should remember this piece of machinery) but he immediately starts spilling seeds out at the front door of his house. The farmer keeps throwing seeds out without regard for where they are landing his entire trek to the actual fields. Some of the seeds land on the gravel driveway. Some of them land by the side of the road. Some of them actually fall in the field where they are supposed to be, but there is no deliberate planting. The seeds are just tossed out willy nilly.
            You do not have to be a farmer to think that this sounds odd at best. Why would any farmer waste his or her seeds like that? That’s not planting a field, that’s just random seed sending. What would the people in the crowds around Jesus have thought about this sower? Essentially the sower Jesus told about did the same thing. He went out with his seeds, no plan, no crops to plant, and just started throwing those seeds everywhere and anywhere.
            I suspect that those folks listening to Jesus would have thought that this was reckless, wasteful behavior. Seeds were precious. Land for planting was limited. You don’t just recklessly throw your seeds wherever you feel like it. But that’s exactly what this sower did. He sowed his seeds on the path where he walked. He sowed his seeds on rocky ground, where there should not have been the slightest chance of the seed taking root. The sower threw seeds amidst thorns; surely knowing that any plant that grew there would be at risk of being choked by those same thorns. Even the seeds that fell on good soil varied in actual grain production: a hundred, sixty, thirty.
            The sower was a profligate with his seeds. He was wasteful, reckless, careless, extravagant. The sower was not cautious or careful. He just sowed seeds everywhere and anywhere. The shocked and appalled crowds must have wondered what point Jesus was trying to make.
In the explanation Jesus gave to the disciples, he focused on the seeds. The seed is the Word of God, the Word of the kingdom. Someone who hears the Word but does not understand it, well that person is represented by the path. The rocky ground is the person who hears the Word, receives it joyfully, happily, but it does not take root in that person. When trouble comes, the Word is forgotten and the person “falls away.” The thorns are the person who hears the Word, but is too caught up in the cares and woes of the world to fully let it settle in his or her heart. But that good soil? That good soil is the person who hears the Word, understands the Word, believes the Word, and lives the Word.
            Whether or not Jesus offered this explanation at the time, or Matthew added it in later as a help to the congregation who listened to him, what we learn is that the soil is us. There’s nothing wrong with that. Growing up, I was encouraged to be that good soil. But I realize that while there is good soil in me, there are also rocky spots and thorns. The path is never far away. The seeds of the Word are sown in me, and sometimes they take root, but often they are choked out by thorns or rocks or birds snatch them up. I have to persist at being good soil. I have to work at it. It does not just happen. It takes cultivation and ongoing tending on my part.
            This is the explanation Jesus gave to the disciples, but it was not an explanation given to the crowds. The people who listened to Jesus did not hear about the seeds representing the Word of God or the soil as an illustration for their hearts. They heard about a sower, a reckless, extravagant sower who sowed seeds carelessly and heedlessly.
            It seems to me that if the seeds are the Word, and the different soils are us and our hearts, then the sower is God. What does this parable say about God? Even more, what does it say about God and God’s grace? God sows seeds of love and grace and mercy extravagantly, recklessly, flinging them everywhere and anywhere. There is no plan, no map for planting. The seeds are just sown. As far as I can tell, there is no indication that this happens only once but again and again and again.
            God sows the seeds of love, grace, mercy, justice, righteousness, peace over and over, flinging them extravagantly into the world, into us, without caution or consideration. They are sown for any and all. No matter how the thorns or rocks try to choke out God’s Word of love and peace, no matter how my heart is divided between good soil and rocky ground, God sows with reckless abandon. Again and again and again. Thanks be to God!
            Let anyone with ears listen!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Yokes and Burdens

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
July 9, 2017

            There is dominant theme in the pictures of me as a little girl. In many of them, I am sleeping. You would think that this was because I slept a lot, so therefore my parents were forced to get pictures of me sleeping; after all it was all I ever did. Actually, the opposite is true. I did not sleep. There are pictures of me sleeping just to prove that I did it once in a while. I had colic when I was born, so for my first three months sleep – for my parents and for me – was a luxury. But even after that, I just didn’t sleep as much as other children did. In truth, I did what I still do today. I go and go until I drop. So there is a picture of me at the dinner table with a full plate of food in front of me, and my head is back against the chair and I am out. There is a picture of me sitting on the floor playing with toys, and I’m asleep. I’m not lying down next to the toys. I’m still sitting up. My elbows are resting on my knees and my hands are folded under my head and I am out. I would just go until I dropped.
            As I child I think I did this because I was afraid of missing something. As an adult, I know that I am not. Sleep is precious to me these days, and I don’t do well when I don’t have it. I understand more and more what it means to be weary of body. As I get older, I understand more about what it means to be weary of soul as well. But on Friday night I heard from people who gave new meaning to that soul weariness.
            I’ve just returned from our denomination’s Big Tent Conference in St. Louis. Big Tent is a conference where our different mission and policy agencies come together, and we talk and learn about the challenges facing our churches and God’s world. The theme of this year’s conference was “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.” We had profound worship and were taken to CHURCH with the opening sermon by our stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson! The Bible study was thought-provoking and challenging and was led by an OBU graduate, Eric Barreto – who is a Baptist pastor and scholar but didn’t hold our Presbyterianism against us. And on Friday night there was an optional time for engagement with local churches. This was something you signed up to do when you registered. One of the churches hosting folks was First Presbyterian in Ferguson. That’s where I went. My longtime best friend, Ellen, signed up to go there as well. We loaded onto school busses and drove to the church. The church members fed us a great meal, then we went into the sanctuary for a time of questions and discussion. We closed with worship and communion.
            I’m not sure what I expected to see when we pulled into Ferguson. Perhaps a broken down community, perhaps there would still be remnants from the protests that happened in 2014. Instead it was a quiet community. The houses were modest but well-tended. Lawns were mowed. Stores were open. The church building itself wasn’t super impressive on the outside, but someone had done a lot of work on the flowers. It could have been Shawnee. It could have been a neighborhood in Oklahoma City or Nashville or Minneapolis. First Pres Ferguson is a predominantly white congregation. The pastor is white. He had invited another pastor and community leader, an African American woman, to be there as well. Because of the protests, the two had become friends. One of the things that he told us was that when the protests were happening, he was overwhelmed. She echoed him on this statement. She said that even those who shared her skin color, who knew that something like what was happening was a real and present possibility in Ferguson, she was also overwhelmed. They were both weary of body and soul. Weary that an 18-year-old young man was killed by a 26-year-old young man. They were weary with the heartache of that, on both sides, on all sides.
            The pastor asked us what we expected to see when we drove into Ferguson. The church was located right in the middle of the two main streets where the protests were happening. What did we expect to see? He told us some of the history of Ferguson. People in Ferguson believed that a lot of work had been done to bridge the racial divide. There were folks who believed that Ferguson didn’t have racial problems, not ones that would cause real trouble anyway. The pastor told us never to take for granted that what happened in Ferguson couldn’t happen where we live. Ferguson, he said, was a mirror of the American soul.  
            What did you expect to see when you came to Ferguson?
            “What then did you go out to see?”
            The last quote was Jesus. And I’m actually quoting from verses that come before our selected verses today; but when it comes to understanding – the Bible, life or both – context counts.
            At the beginning of this chapter, we read that Jesus concluded his instructions to the disciples. Then he continued on with his ministry to the people, teaching and proclaiming the good news to the cities. John was in prison. Whatever assurance John felt about Jesus before, it would seem his assurance had been replaced with doubts and questions. He sent messengers to Jesus, who asked him,
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus was not offended by this question, but sent them back to John saying,
            “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
            Jesus was not upset by John’s question. In fact he went on to praise John. He wanted to know what people thought they were getting with John.
            “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
            Did you go out to see someone who looks nice and gentle in soft robes? Did you go out to see a prophet? You got a prophet and you got even more than that.
            Then we come to where our passage begins. Jesus compares the people of this generation, perhaps not so much the crowds but the religious authorities, the folks in the know, in the in-crowd, to children wailing and whining.
            They didn’t like John. John was an ascetic. He was too austere. He dressed strangely and ate strange things. He was too severe. He needed to live a little more, lighten up. He was so strange and so strict, surely he had a demon.
            But they didn’t like Jesus either. Jesus was too much the other way. He was not severe. He was not austere. He was about abundance, but it was with all the wrong people! He ate with drunkards and gluttons. He ate and drank! He shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. One commentator wrote that it was like a theological Goldilocks. John was too hard. Jesus was too soft. But if John pointed to the One who was to come in the name of God, and Jesus was the Incarnation of God, revealing God’s presence, proclaiming God’s kingdom, then what does that say about the people? Who did they want God to be? Why could they not recognize God when God was right there in their midst?
            In the verses that the lectionary skips, Jesus made “Woe to you,” statements. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Jesus pronounced woe on cities where his deeds of power had been done, but still they did not recognize him for who he was. Still they did not recognize God in their midst. You would think from Jesus proclaiming these statements of woe, that these cities must have been horrible and of ill-repute. But according to biblical scholars, these were not cities that were huge and wicked. They were just regular places filled with regular people trying to get on with their lives. Yet Jesus pronounced woe on them because they could not recognize God in their midst. They could not or they would not.
            Getting back to where our verses start again, Jesus gave thanks that God revealed God’s wisdom not to the folks who were supposedly wise and intelligent, but to the infants. I imagine that Jesus included literal children in this, but I also think that he was referring to the ones he spoke of in the Sermon the Mount: the meek, the poor, the mournful. The infants were also the ones he would speak about in Matthew 25, the least of these.
            And then, after all of this, after his frustration with the people for not recognizing God in their midst, for criticizing John for one thing and complaining about him for another; after his pronouncements of woe to the cities where his works of power had been done; after all of this, we come to some of the most beautiful, the most gracious words in Matthew’s gospel, perhaps in all of scripture.
            “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
            Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.
            In a world that persisted in not recognizing God in their midst, Jesus said,
“Come to me.”
            In a world that persists in not recognizing God in our midst, Jesus says,
“Come to me.”
What would it mean to give our burdens to Jesus? To take his kind, unchafing yoke upon us? What would it mean to actually recognize what it is that burdens us? Is it my worries about finances or housework that burdens me God, or is it my pride? Do I carry a hatred or a prejudice inside me that I need to lay down? Do I contribute and silently endorse systems of oppression that I don’t want to believe or acknowledge? Is that a burden I don’t even know I carry?
            In a world that persists in not recognizing God in our midst, Jesus says,
“Come to me.”
How are we weary? What burdens do we carry? What assumptions, like the people of Ferguson, Missouri, do we take for granted? What is wearying our souls? Not just my soul and your soul and your soul, but the soul of communities, our country? Now more than ever, Jesus needs us to proclaim the message of good news, of grace, of our God who says,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
            Come to me.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Cold Water

Matthew 10:40-42
July 2, 2017

            Usually the word “cacophony” is reserved for sounds, something audible. Its definition is “a harsh, discordant mix of sounds.” But if I could borrow the word cacophony to describe a place, I would use it to describe Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Wall Drug is this rambling, meandering souvenir filled, tourist crowded behemoth of a place. The summer we visited, I saw every kind of person. It was later in July so there were bikers headed to the big Harley motorcycle rally in Sturgis. There were retirees taking a break from seeing the country in their RV’s. There were young families on their summer vacations. There were tourists from other countries, who I suspect – and I fear – believed that this was a good representation of American life. Many of the people who were there had come to Wall Drug specifically to see Wall Drug. Others were there as a side trip either on their way to or from Badlands National Park.
            As I understand it that is how Wall Drug became what it is today. Wall is a first stop outside of the Badlands. The Badlands are beautiful and wild and desolate and magnificent. In the summer, those beautiful, wild, desolate and magnificent Badlands can also get hot and dusty. When visitors were first making treks out to see the Badlands, the folks who started Wall Drug would greet them on their return with cold cups of water. This attracted people to the store itself, and over the years it grew into the cacophony it is today. You can buy a million and one things at Wall Drug, most you probably don’t need, but even now the one thing you can get free at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota is a cold cup of water.
            I realize that Jesus was not telling the disciples about cold water as a way to attract others. This was not an evangelism scheme. This was not a lesson in church building or attracting young families to the pews. Jesus was talking to the disciples about hospitality, about welcome.
            Our passage today comes at the end of instructions to the disciples. Jesus has told the disciples about what they will face when they go out amongst the people. He has warned them and encouraged them. He has given them some insight as to what it means to be a disciple – the good and the bad. Jesus has instructed them about why he has come. He has made it clear the life of a disciple will not be easy, it will require sacrifice and hardship and separation from loved ones.
            But then we come to these last verses in chapter ten. The heading in my Bible is “Rewards.”
            “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
            It would seem that the reward the disciples were promised was the reward of eternal life in heaven. It was the reward of the righteous. I don’t have a problem with this reward. But I’m struggling. I’m not struggling with the idea of my reward being life eternal or life in the kingdom, but is that the only reason why we do what we do? Do we welcome others so we secure our reward sometime later on?
            Let’s come back to that question. Another story I read once was about a church that started a cold water ministry. Not us, although I consider it serendipitous that we have started that kind of ministry in the last weeks just as this passage appeared in the lectionary. No, this was a church in Atlanta. They were a small, struggling church, and they happened to be on a main route where parades happened. A Gay Pride parade was scheduled and it was going to go right past the church. The folks in this church were as divided on this issue as any other. But they knew it was going to be a hot day, and whether or not they supported the reason for the parade, they wanted to offer some relief from the heat. So they set up a table and they offered the marchers cups of cold water. That’s all they did. The marchers appreciated it. They felt welcomed. Some of them felt so welcomed that they decided to visit that church. The church members continued to make them feel welcome, and because of this cold water ministry, the church grew.
            Did this church offer cold water because of a potential reward or did they do it because they knew people would be thirsty? Did they do it because they wanted to evangelize or because they just felt like Jesus would have offered a cup of cold water?
            Why do we do what we do? Is it for a reward or is just because? When I first started working on this sermon I thought that I was going to talk about the reality that all of us are sent. And we are. We are all sent out there, into God’s world. Some of us may be sent to do big things, big ministries, big missions. But some of us are sent to do small things. Maybe to us they seem insignificant. It’s just a cup of cold water. But if you’ve ever been thirsty, I mean really, really thirsty, you know that a cup of cold water can make all the difference.
            But I think we have to remember that our reason for doing what we do – big or small – is not necessarily for our reward. Yes, rewards are wonderful. If what I do furthers the kingdom for all of us, then what a wonderful reward that will be. But Jesus sent the disciples out, not for what it would bring them in the long run, but for what it would do for God’s children right then.
            Perhaps I am heretical for saying this, and if I am so be it, but it seems to me that compassion now is equally important as salvation later. Giving a thirsty person a cup of cold water is compassion now. It is a small thing to be sure, but it is a ministry nonetheless. It is offering someone welcome. It is showing another child of God hospitality. Isn’t that what we are sent to do? Out there? Jesus sent the disciples out to do great things: to heal the sick, the exorcise demons, to raise the dead, to reveal God’s love and to further God’s kingdom. Jesus sent the disciples out to do all this in his name. Jesus sent the disciples out to make others welcome and to be welcomed, to help and to be helped. Jesus sends us out to do the same. Giving even a small cup of cold water can be a large gesture of welcome to someone. Giving even a small cup of cold water can reveal the presence of Christ in our midst. Giving even a small cup of cold water can widen God’s kingdom. Isn’t that our greatest reward?

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harassed and Helpless

Matthew 9:35-10:23
June 18, 2017

            Harassed and helpless.
Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
The villages and the cities were filled with all of these. People pushed and pulled by life and circumstance. People sick and getting sicker. People surviving but only just. People loving their children and children loving their parents. People working hard, trying to care for their families. People trying to make it, just make it, without harming others and without bringing harm on themselves.
Keeping their heads down.
Hands to the plows.
Noses to the grindstones.
But still the world or life or existence plays by its own rules. People get sick and sicker. People are pushed and pulled. Hard work doesn’t always take care of a family. Love is not always returned.
People are harassed and helpless. Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried. Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
Jesus saw this. He saw this in every village and in every city that he visited. He saw the people, harassed and helpless, and he had compassion for them. They were like sheep without a shepherd.
How many of you are feeling harassed and helpless today? How many of you are here just trying to hang on from whatever storms are buffeting you beyond these doors? I feel that way. I feel harassed and helpless. From the valleys of daily living, from personal circumstances, but even more by the circumstances of our world.
Two mass shootings this week, and I’m sure there were more that I have not seen reported. A terrible, horrific fire in London; a city which has already endured a terrorist attack along with the terrorist attack in Manchester a few weeks ago. The anguish so many are feeling over the acquittal in the Philando Castile case in St. Paul. So many people hurting. So many people angry. So many people sick and getting sicker. I cannot seem to shake this feeling of being harassed and helpless, hapless and hopeless. From city crowds to small towns, it seems as though we are sheep without a shepherd. My heart cries out, “We could use some compassion, Jesus. We could use a shepherd.”
But Jesus did not only feel compassion for the people, so harassed and helpless, so hapless and hopeless, harried and hurried. He acted on his compassion. He was God’s hands and heart and arms and feet and mouth and mind. But even the Good Shepherd could not shepherd so many. He told the disciples,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The disciples were his laborers. Although this took place before the Great Commission that we read last week, this is all part and parcel of what the disciples were called to do at this moment and in the future. Later on in this passage, the disciples were given specific directions to:
“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’”
There is much more to this passage than I am focusing on, more that should be contemplated. But for this morning, I have narrowed it to these beginning verses. Jesus called the disciples to labor, but the labor did not end with them. Each generation has called new laborers. We are descendents of those disciples, and we are inheritors of the call. I cannot claim that I have ever managed to do anything that Jesus commanded, other than proclaim the good news about the kingdom coming near. I’m not sure I’ve even done that all that well. I certainly have not cured the sick, raised the dead, cleansed the lepers or cast out demons.
Have you?
But that does not mean that we are not still called to labor, to go into that plentiful harvest. We are called as the disciples were called to shepherd the harassed and the helpless, even as we are also harassed and helpless.
Here is the funny thing about following Jesus’ call to be a laborer, to shepherd the lost sheep. When we reach out with compassion, even as we need compassion, miracles do happen. You can be dead in spirit and dead in your soul and yet your body lives on. But someone showing compassion, someone reaching out to you – another harassed and helpless person offering a hand – might give you new hope and new purpose. Isn’t that raising someone from the dead?
Every week, every day we pray for people who are sick. Sometimes they become well. Sometimes they don’t. But compassion can change a heart. It can open up the way to reconciliation. It can heal old hurts and provide a balm to wounds that run deep, or soften invisible scars.
What about those lepers? Lepers were not only diseased. They were outcast. They were segregated and separated from the community. Who are the lepers who need to be cleansed? Who are the unclean in our midst? Are they the mentally ill, the homeless, the out of work and out of luck? Are they the ones ignored by society? Is a leper the least of these that Jesus spoke of, the ones who are oppressed or forgotten? How can our compassion cleanse them? How can our compassion bring them back into community, into relationship? How can our compassion bring them home?
            And what do we do with this talk of demons? Does Jesus call us to perform exorcisms or is it more about giving people space to and permission to acknowledge and confront the demons that possess them? What possesses you? Is it anger? Envy? Fear? I may not believe in demons in the way they were believed in Jesus’ context. But I know this, depression is a demon. Anxiety is a demon. They are cruel demons that can cripple. But showing compassion, offering compassion, being compassionate can help to drive those demons out.
            At one time or another, all of us feel:
            Harassed and helpless.
            Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
We are like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus looked at those people and he had compassion for them. He looks at us and has compassion for us. He acted on his compassion. He called the disciples to do the same.
So we are also called: to be his discples, to be his laborers, to go into a plentiful harvest, with compassion and with love.

Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Honest Failure

            I recently watched a TED talk given by one of my heroes, Anne Lamott. She made a statement, and I paraphrase, “Think about how crappy you’ll feel if you don’t write what tugs at your heart.”

            I don’t want to feel crappy, not about that anyway. So here is one of the many things that has been tugging at my heart. When it comes to ministry, I am a failure. No, I am not stating that to gain your sympathy or empathy or make you argue with me. I am not looking for feedback or pushback. This is not a self-deprecating, feeling sorry for myself kind of piece. Yes, I am discouraged. I am frustrated. I am tired and worn-out and weary and exhausted with the effort of trying everyday. I’m just exhausted at trying not to be a failure, when I know full well that I am.

            I’m serving on a search committee at the Synod level, and our task is to call a new executive to lead the Synod. For those of you unversed in Presbyterianism, the Synod is a mid-council. It is one of the governing bodies between a congregation and the General Assembly. Because I am on this committee, I have been reading PIFs from potential candidates. PIF’s are Professional/Pastoral Information Forms, i.e. resumes for ministry folks. The first question in the narrative section of the PIF asks the candidate to describe a time when they have felt successful or a sense of fulfillment.

            Let me tell you, these candidates seem to have no problem describing their successes. Their accomplishments and achievements are many and wonderful. Non-profits have been built. Faltering organizations have been restructured. Struggling churches have been turned around and brought back from the brink. Budgets have changed colors from red to black. Loving, well-organized teams have been created out of disparate individuals. And it would seem that the kingdom has been furthered through every action taken, every decision made.

            I’m not mocking these candidates. Their achievements are real. But when I think about how I would answer this question, I cannot come up with those same kinds of answers. In fact, I wish that there were a question that asked about our failures. I think a question like that might allow a candidate to be more honest. At least it would allow me to be more honest. When it comes to my belief that I am a failure in ministry, I am not writing this on an impulse. I have been struggling with this for a long, long time.

            To say that I am a failure in ministry does not mean that I don’t have strengths. I do. I know them. I am a good preacher. I have my down days and my off days, absolutely. Not every sermon I have ever preached has been golden, but when I am good, I am very, very good. My sermons challenge, and they make you think. Sometimes they make you feel warm and fuzzy; yet other times they might make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat. I’m okay with that. The gospel makes you squirm. It makes me squirm too.

            I am good at sitting with people who are dying. I am good with children. I am good at teaching. I am good at listening. If you are wrestling with your faith, with doubt; if you feel lost and alone in a wilderness, then talk to me, because I have felt the same way. I am good at irreverence. I am good at holding your hand and not saying anything, just being there.

            But I am not good at “growing a church.” I am not good at evangelism. I am not good at drawing in new members. I am not good at starting new programs and seeing them take off. I am not good at filling the seats at worship. I am not good at contemporary worship. I am not good at making people feel self-satisfied and content with where they are in their faith. I am not good at making faith easy. It isn’t easy. At least it isn’t easy for me. I wish it were.

I see others whose faith seems to hinge on Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about being “born again.” They seem to just know exactly what God wants of them. I realize that is in part because of their more literal reading and interpretation of scripture. I don’t interpret scripture literally. But the difference goes deeper than that. My faith does not rest on being born again. My faith turns on Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” What you do to the least of these, you do to me. How do I care for the least of these? How have I missed opportunities to care? How have I failed them? When have I remained silent in the face of injustice when it comes to the least of these instead of speaking truth to power? Faith is not easy when you take seriously Jesus’ words about the least of these.

            I am not good at proclaiming salvation, because to me faith is more about compassion now than salvation later. I am not good at preaching the hell I learned about as a kid, because I think we create our own hell on earth. I am not good at blaming God for the evils and ills we see all around us. I do not believe God allows evil to happen, we do. I am not good at telling people what they want to hear. I am not good at that. I know that not all successful pastors with large and growing churches just say what people want. It is beyond unfair of me to make that generalization. But they seem to know something I don’t. They seem to have some ability or knowledge or skill set that I lack.

            I am good at a lot of things. But the things a church needs to be successful today, the qualities in a pastor that attract others, I don’t seem to have those. I am not looking for pity or reassurance. I just needed to say it. I needed to say that when it comes to successful ministry, I have failed. I fail. Yet like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up the hill, I’ll keep trying. Maybe tomorrow or next week or in 2019 I’ll finally feel like I have ministry all figured out. I’ll be successful, and I won’t be a failure anymore. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Always -- Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20
June 11, 2017

            When I was in seminary, I was studying with some friends for a quiz on the gospels for our Bible survey class. We were reading through these last verses in Matthew’s gospel, because it was a sure bet that the Great Commission was going to be a question on the quiz. A fellow student said that whenever she read these last words of Jesus to the disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” she just wanted to throw up her arms and cry, “Yay!!!!”
            I understand how she felt because I feel the same. Honestly, if it weren’t for those last words, I think I would dread reading the Great Commission much more than I already do. Yes, you heard me correctly. Dread.
            I guess I could try to explain that by reviewing hundreds of years of church history and examining how this passage has been used to justify colonialism, forced conversions, making them, the other, into our image. I could pounce on Jesus’ use of the word “authority,” and talk about our misuse of authoritarianism and the damage that it has done to so many people in so many places; and the damage that it still does.
            But while I think honest discussions about these topics are vital and important, that’s not where my sense of dread comes from with this passage – at least not at this moment. So often this passage has been interpreted as Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and do what is known in the sales world as “cold call.” I am the worst sales person ever when it comes to making a cold call. This is my technique.
“You wouldn’t want to buy whatever the product is that I’m selling, would you? No? I didn’t think so. Thank you and have a nice day.”
As a new pastor, I served briefly on the nominations committee for the presbytery. I was a disaster, because I felt the same dread asking people I didn’t know to serve on a committee I wasn’t sure about as I did trying to sell strangers a product.
“You wouldn’t be interested in serving on COM would you? No? Okay. Thanks.”
Cold calling for whatever purpose and in whatever circumstance is not my gift, my strength, or my forte. If the Great Commission is a call to hand out tracts door-to-door, that’s fine, but y’all go on ahead. I have to go the bathroom and I’ll catch up with you in a little while. (Psst. I won’t catch up with you. Ever.)
I realize that I am setting myself up for a very tense session meeting after worship, so let me offer another interpretation of these last verses in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told his remaining followers to go and make more disciples in all the nations of the world. Make them through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey the commandments that he taught. And Jesus told them, before you become too overwhelmed or too daunted by this task, know this, you are not doing this alone.
“I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Some may hear this and interpret it as going door-to-door with tracts, and that is fine. That is their calling. But it seems to me that while Jesus was very specific about the necessity to make disciples, to make them in every nation and to do so through baptism and teaching, the means was not necessarily spelled out. If we want to understand how to make disciples, perhaps we need to look at how Jesus made disciples.
Yes, much to my introverted soul’s horror, he called strangers. He walked up to fishermen and said,
“Follow me.”
But he also talked to people. He healed them. He sat at table with them. He ate with outcasts and outsiders. He listened to them. He touched the untouchables and he broke the barriers between who was welcome and who was not. He even let children come to him and blessed them – something that other rabbis may not have had time for. Jesus loved people. Jesus created relationships with people. He made God’s love real and visible and tangible to the most broken and hurting. He invited any and all to sit at table with him, and he embodied the truth that love is not a limited, finite resource. The more love is given the more love grows.
Jesus was God’s living, breathing, walking, talking embodiment of love in the world.
Jesus, God’s love in the world, sent the disciples, that ragged, motley crew, out … out into the world to love others, to welcome others, to invite others to the table, to call all of God’s broken and beautiful people to hear the Good News of the gospel, to teach them, to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Bailee. This is the beginning, the first step of her journey of discipleship. When I met with her parents this week, we talked about what it means to baptize babies, and I said that one of the main reasons we do this as Presbyterians is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we realize it or not. This is true for us as babies, children, and as adults. God’s grace works in our lives whether we know it or not.
While I may not always recognize God’s grace in the moment, what I do know is that the times I have experienced God’s grace, God’s love, God’s care most profoundly is through other people. When I have felt the healing hands of Christ, it has been through the hand of someone else holding mine. When I have experienced the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit, it has been through the witness of someone else encouraging me, pushing me, and challenging me.
When we make our promises to Bailee and her parents to love and encourage them with our prayers and witness, we are also promising to try and be expressions of God’s love for Bailee in this world. We are promising to help her grow in faith, courage, hope, and love. These are no small promises. They are not lightly made. We make these promises to this beautiful and uniquely wonderful child of God so that she will grow in her own relationship with God, and also that one day she will heed these words in Matthew’s gospel to go out, to welcome others to the table, to make disciples of all nations.
But perhaps most importantly today, what we give to Bailee is the good news that we also remember and joyfully claim for ourselves; no matter what, no matter where we are called, no matter where we are sent, no matter how narrow the way or how rocky the path, Jesus the Christ is with us always to the end of the age. Jesus the Christ is with Bailee and with us always. Always. Always. Yay!

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

All Together -- Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

            “Hola.” “Mi casa es su casa.” “Mi perro es un dupa.” “Uno, dos, tres, quarto, cinco, seys.” “Cinco de Mayo.” “Corona, por favor,” “Gracias.” 
            These words and phrases are about the extent of my knowledge of Spanish. I took French in eighth grade and college. I took German in high school. I took Hebrew and Greek in seminary, but I never took Spanish. I was told that Spanish was easier to learn than other languages, but I was also told that to speak Spanish you had to be able to roll your “r’s.” I can’t do that. But thanks to Sesame Street and other friends, I can now say a few words and a couple of relatively useless phrases.
            Sadly a few words and phrases don’t help me much when I meet people whose first language is Spanish. I learned this quite vividly when we were living in New York. Our church was asked to host some Christian visitors from Costa Rica who were traveling in the United States for church related reasons. We were assured that they all spoke excellent English, so finding host families who spoke Spanish would not be necessary.
            One of the host families invited church folks over for a potluck in honor of our Costa Rican guests. We were all excited to meet them, and learn more about them and Costa Rica. Just one problem; they did not actually speak English. A few of them spoke about as many words in English as I speak in Spanish. But a woman who attended the local Methodist church was a native Spanish speaker, and she was happy to come to the potluck to help with translation.   
            That was helpful in general terms, but it didn’t make individual conversations any easier. That’s what happens at potlucks and events like it; you sit and get to know each other in smaller groups. At first it seemed that it was going to become a segregated party – English speakers with English speakers and Spanish speaker with Spanish speakers. But many of us were trying. I sat next to a young couple. The wife and I did a lot of smiling at each other. We would take a bite of food, mime yummy, appreciative gestures, and then smile some more. She knew a few words in English, and you’ve heard my Spanish. At first I didn’t think there was any chance that we’d be able to communicate. 
            It’s funny, though. The more comfortable we became with each other, the more we started to understand each other. We used some words, but we also spoke in gestures and pantomime. Eventually we were having a conversation about trying to keep up with our houses and working. We were laughing, and it became as comfortable and as familiar a conversation as any I’ve had with my oldest and dearest friends. We found that we had a common language that went beyond words. Our ability to understand one another’s language may have been limited, but we understood each other in a deeper way, in a truly human way. We were together in that moment in a way I could never have expected. It was a profound experience.
            But even this incredibly powerful moment in my life cannot compare with the moment we hear about in this most famous passage from Acts, chapter 2.The people gathered in that place hear the good news in their own languages. They hear the good news being spoken to them, translated for them, by the disciples, men they knew to be Galileans who should not have been able to speak the native tongues of Parthians and Medes and Elamites. What happened when they were there, all together, should have been impossible, yet it happened.
            What I love about this passage from Acts is that the Spirit enters that place with a bang. That is a profound understatement. The Spirit swooshes down upon them like a violent wind. That sound, that wind, filled the entire house where the disciples were staying. The sound of a violent wind has taken on a new meaning since I moved to Oklahoma, and my first response would have been to seek shelter, to hide from what was coming. If the disciples thought something like that we don’t know; before they even had time to register this awful, wonderful sound of wind and spirit filling their home, filling them, they were descended upon, literally, by tongues of fire. Those tongues of flame, forgive the pun, lit them up. Not only were they able to speak new languages, they were transformed, completely and utterly.   
            This wild happening drew the crowds gathered in Jerusalem to them. Jews from every part of the Diaspora were there, and hearing their own languages confused and puzzled them.  Along with their confusion, there were skeptics in the crowd. While some immediately believed that something wonderful and incredible and completely unexpected was happening, others dismissed the whole thing as being a drunken coincidence. The disciples weren’t filled with anything but new wine.
            Peter began his great sermon by dismissing this notion. This isn’t a drunken hoopla. This is the outpouring of the Spirit. What is happening is a fulfilling of the prophet Joel. The Spirit has been poured out on them. They are all together, and they are now able to speak in new languages and do new things. And this has all occurred because of Jesus the Christ. This has all happened because of the good news he brought, the good news he lived.
            I know that I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating. Author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “That if you believe the Bible, than there is no better proof that Jesus was who he said he was than the before and after pictures of the disciples. Before Pentecost, they were dense, tired bumblers who fled at the least sign of trouble. Afterwards they were fearless leaders. They healed the sick and cast our demons. They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until the walls fell down. How did this transformation occur? You can read all about it in the book of Acts.”
            Jesus promised the disciples the coming of the Spirit. The last thing he told them before he ascended into heaven was to go back to Jerusalem and wait there for God’s promise to come true. They would be baptized by the Holy Spirit there, he told them. They did as they were told.  They went back to Jerusalem.  They prayed and they did not have to wait long for an answer.  On the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival of weeks or the harvest which is set 50 days after Passover, they were all together in one place when they got a crash course in power. 
            That’s really what happened, isn’t it? They got a crash course in power. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, it came in with wind and flames and power. One commentator wrote that we should consider the noise it must have made. Think about the sounds and the sights that the disciples experienced. The coming of the Spirit on that day of Pentecost was like a special effects show. But this was a display that even Industrial Light and Sound, the company that has done special effects work for everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, could not have conceived. 
            More importantly than what this immense descending of power sounded like and looked like, is what it did. As Ms. Taylor wrote, the disciples went from being scared, anxious, unsure, and insecure men, constantly misunderstanding the good news that Jesus shared with them to men who were transformed. They preached with authority and taught with passion and expertise.  The disciples stood before huge, often hostile crowds and preached the gospel. They spoke in whatever language was necessary for them to be heard and understood. They baptized without hesitation. Evangelism flowed from them like water. They suffered whatever persecution and backlash came their way. When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed. 
            When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed.
            It seems that I pray all the time for transformation, for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to gift us with whatever is necessary so that we can make a difference, so that we can spread the good news as individuals and as the church. But as I read this familiar passage this week, I was feeling discouraged and frustrated. Sure the Holy Spirit made a huge scene some two thousand years ago, but where is it now? I could do with hearing the sound of rushing wind that filled the disciples’ room? I could stand to see tongues of flame resting on us today? Why can’t miraculous, unbelievable things happen through us, just like it did for the disciples when they were able to speak in different languages? As much as I pray for the Holy Spirit, I’m just not always sure that the Spirit is there, that it’s moving, that it’s breathing new life into our midst. 
            But I read something in my studies that helped me reconsider the power of the Holy Spirit. Someone wrote that power can be understood in two ways. Sometimes power can be so intense that it erupts on you all at once. Think about the explosion that would happen if a match were lit to even ten gallons of gasoline. But then think about those same ten gallons of gasoline being channeled through the slow burn of a car engine. I can drive for a couple of hundred miles on those ten gallons. Power can explode among us. Or it can be channeled through us, all together.
            On that Pentecost day, the power of the Holy Spirit exploded on the disciples. It exploded in a way that brought new life, to the people who felt its power and to the church created in its wake. Today, we may not always experience that same explosive energy. But the power of the Spirit is alive and well right here, right now. It is being continually channeled through us, whether we recognize it or not. It still moves among us. It is breathing new life in our midst. We cannot control its power. The Spirit blows where it will. But I know, with renewed faith I know, that it is right here, where we are gathered all together. So come Spirit, come. Give us new life, new hope, and send us out, empowered, enlivened and enthusiastic to do God’s work in the world. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why Are You Looking Up? -- Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:1-14
May 28, 2017

            I checked the records and I haven’t used a Harry Potter illustration in quite some time, which means that I am about to use one now. One of my favorite moments from the third book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is when Harry and Hermione use her time turner – a device that lets you move through time. They used the time turner in order to rectify and right certain events that had taken place in one day and to save Sirius Black, the prisoner of Azkaban and Harry’s godfather.
            The climax of their time travel is watching a scene earlier in the evening when Harry, Hermione and Sirius were surrounded by dementors. I’ve loved both the books and the movies, but in the movie telling of this it is just Harry and Sirius surrounded the dementors. In the book, Hermione is also with them. I’m working from the book version. In the original moment, they are surrounded by the dementors – these evil, horrific guards of the wizard prison Azkaban, who don’t use capital punishment as the ultimate sentence, instead they suck out your soul. They are pretty awful. And they have surrounded the three. Harry tries desperately to conjure up the one thing that dispels them – a patronus. But this is advanced magic, and he does not yet have the power to create a patronus strong enough yet. Or so he thinks.
            Just as they are about to be completely overwhelmed by the dementors, something large and silver comes galloping at them across the lake. It charges at the dementors and casts them away. Harry and Hermione both pass out and are taken to the hospital wing; Sirius is taken to the tower to await a second and final meeting with the dementors.
            So, now we come back to the future Harry and Hermione watching this happen to the past Harry and Hermione. Harry realizes that it was a full-blown patronus who dispelled the dementors. And just before he passed out, he got a glimpse of the wizard who came to their rescue. But when he tells Hermione who he things he saw, she thinks he must be delusional. You see the person Harry saw send the patronus was his dad. Only Harry’s dad, James, was dead; long dead. So who was this wizard? From whom had this powerful patronus come? Harry and Hermione watch the scene at the lake unfold, and although Harry knows he must not be seen, he has to see the wizard who saved them. He rushes down to the edge of the lake looking for his dad. But as the dementors prepare to deliver their deadly kiss, he realizes who the wizard actually was … is, pulls out his wand, and cries out,
“Expecto Patronum!”
And this amazing, splendid, powerful stag springs forth from his wand, gallops across the lake and charges the dementors, scattering them in every direction away from Sirius, away from Hermione, away from Harry. A stag was the animal Harry’s father became to help his friend, Sirius. A stag, the symbol of his father, came to help Harry when he needed it the most, but it was Harry who made it happen. It was Harry who realized what he had to do, and did it.
What does any of have this have to do with Jesus ascending into the heavens? What does any of this have to do with the apostles continuing to look up, even after Jesus had disappeared into the clouds?
Just as two men in dazzling clothes appeared to the women at the empty tomb in Luke’s gospel, two men in white robes appear to the apostles in this first chapter of Acts. The two men at the tomb asked the women,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
These two men asked the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
As I have always understood it, the ascension of Jesus as it is written in Acts clearly points to the second coming of Jesus. The second coming is a big deal to a lot of people and a lot of churches today. It certainly looms large in our particular theology. The second coming was a big deal in the church of my childhood. The second coming was a big deal to my grandfather and to so many members of my extended family. It still is. My father told me that every New Year’s Eve, his father would gather them all together and they would pray that in this New Year, the Lord Jesus would come. But I’ve wondered for a long time now if this isn’t missing the point. I wonder if we haven’t gotten way too caught up in looking up when instead we should be looking out.
I had never really considered the reason why Jesus did not ascend immediately into heaven after his resurrection. Why does it take 40 days before he ascends? Like the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, the number 40 signifies a time of preparation. Jesus’ earthly ministry might have been over with his crucifixion and resurrection, but his preparation of the apostles was not. There was still 40 days of preparation to be done. Now, at the end of those 40 days, Jesus ascended. He had done all that he could on this earth to prepare his followers for their work, their ministry. He could ascend because the time of preparation was completed. If the apostles fully understood that though, it’s hard to know. I wonder if that’s why the men in white robes or the angels show up in this scene just as they did at the empty tomb. They had to prod the witnesses on to the next step. The women had to be prodded into the realization that Jesus was not among the dead, but among the living. The apostles had to be prodded into the recognition that their work was not focused on looking up, waiting for Jesus’ return, but on looking out. Their ministry was to go out, to reach out, to set out, move out … into the world, into the midst of the brokenness and the hurting and the chaos. Their ministry, their call was to bring the good news of the gospel to the world, to be Christ’s body, hands, feet, mouth, mind and heart in the world.
The men in white robes appear at that moment, when the apostles are staring up at the heavens – as one commentator put it mesmerized or paralyzed we aren’t sure – to move the apostles into action, to prod them into their calling.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”  
Why are you looking up? I struggle with looking up. It’s not that I don’t believe that we should turn to God in all things. I do. It’s not that I don’t believe we should trust in God’s presence or moving in our lives and in God’s world. I do. It’s that I think our looking up has become symbolic of what I see as a privatized faith. It is about my personal relationship with Jesus. It is about my belief in God. It is about my salvation. It is about the relationship between God and me. It is an individualized, privatized faith. I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I know that when he comes in again in glory that I will be okay, so I am going to spend my time looking up.
I am not trying to make other expressions of our faith into a caricature or stereotype. But I feel strongly that our tendency to individualize our faith – not personalize, individualize – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it makes us forget that Jesus came not just to save individuals but to usher in the kingdom. That kingdom was community. Jesus modeled what it means to truly be human, and time and time again he modeled that humanity in community. He was not human in isolation, just him and God. He was human in relationship, in community with others. And they were not the others in the “in crowd.” They were the others on the outside, the “least of these.” He came in the most vulnerable of ways to be with the most vulnerable of people.
Jesus spent his earthly ministry and 40 days after his resurrection preparing the apostles for what it would mean to carry on without him. He taught them and demonstrated what it meant to do God’s work, to be in God’s kingdom, and to live God’s love. So when he ascended, in some ways, he gave the reins to them. I know that the men in white robes did not ask the apostles the question, “Why aren’t you looking out?” But to me it is implied.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”
The reason I used this illustration from Harry Potter is because Harry kept waiting for his dad to show up. Harry was so sure it was his dad who had sent the patronus that he almost missed the moment to act for himself. I realize that this is an imperfect illustration. To try and make this an analogy of God and us would stretch it to the breaking point. It could become a slippery slope of saying, “Hey God, I got this. I don’t need you to save me. I can do it myself.”
The biggest mistakes I have ever made in my life have been when I have told God,
“Don’t worry God. I’ve got this.”
We need God. We need to know that God is calling us, not the other way around. One of the things that we talked about in last week’s session meeting, and we will continue to talk about – in those meetings and with all of you – is that this is God’s church, and we are invited to follow God on God’s mission in the world. We need God. It isn’t that we shouldn’t look up. It isn’t that we shouldn’t put all that we are and all that we have in God’s gracious and merciful hands. It’s that we cannot look up to the exclusion of looking out. It seems to me that God requires both.
Look up, look to me, trust me, believe in me. 
Look out. Look out, look at my children made in my image, how are you caring for them? Look at the world I have made. How are you caring for it? Look up to me, but also look out to them.
Why are you looking up without also looking out? God requires both. We cannot look up without also having an outward vision. We cannot look out without also knowing that our strength and our power come from God, from looking up.
In Latin the words, Expecto Patronum, means “I await a guardian.” When Jesus ascended into heaven after 40 days of preparation, he did not leave the disciples completely alone. A Guardian, an Advocate would come to them. So as we observe the ascension, as we look up, know that we too have the power of our Guardian, our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to look up to God, to trust in God, and to look out into the world and do the work of love we are commanded to do.
Look up and look out and do the work of the Lord. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Our Known God -- Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:16-34
May 21, 2017

            In the movie, “Elf,” Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, is working in the toy department of Gimbel’s Department Store in New York City. The announcement is made over the loudspeaker that Santa has arrived to greet the children and Buddy loses it.
            “Santa! Santa! I know him! I know him!’
            That’s how I felt when I first read this passage from Acts and saw two names: Epicureans and Stoics.
            “Epicureans and Stoics!” “I know them!” “I taught them!” “I taught them!”
            In case you were wondering, I taught a brief overview of Epicureans and Stoics when I was teaching Ethics. While what I learned from teaching intersects with my ministry in a myriad of ways, it doesn’t always happen this overtly. So, yes, I was excited to see Epicureans and Stoics mentioned in the scripture passage I was preaching.
            Epicureans were hedonists. But not in the way we tend to understand hedonists. They were not the drunken, toga wearing gluttons ala Animal House. Epicureans believed that the only thing that was intrinsically good was pleasure. That which increased pleasure was good, that which decreased it was bad. Pleasure and pain came in both mental and physical form, and to Epicureans there were two types of acute mental pain: fear of the gods and fear of death. The Epicureans believed in the existence of the gods, but they did not believe that they intervened in human life. The gods were set apart from humans on a completely different realm, indifferent to humanity and all of its ills. The Epicureans were materialists; they believed that everything down to the smallest atom, including humans, was made up of matter. Matter does not have an eternal soul. So when we die, we are dead. The Epicureans point was why fear gods who were indifferent to humans, and why fear death when it was a complete end? There would be no punishment in some life after this one. Live for today and live in simple moderation and tranquility.
            The Stoics valued reason. They believed that the universe was based on reason and rationality. The Stoics, like the Epicureans, believed that tranquility and peace of mind were the foundation of happiness. That tranquility and peace of mind came from reason governing our desires, self-control. The universe was based on Divine Law. That Divine Law was based on reason and rationality. Therefore, there was no point in getting bent out of shape over anything because everything was happening as it should. The example that I learned to illustrate the Stoics was a dog being tied behind a moving cart. The universe is the moving cart and humanity is the dog. If we fight against the rope tying us to the cart; if we chew and pull and resist, then we are going to be miserable. We are going to be unhappy and in pain, always hurting ourselves. But if we resign ourselves to follow along behind the cart, trusting that the cart is moving according to reason then we won’t be in pain. We will not expend our precious energy on useless resistance and struggle. The cart is reasonable and rational, and we just need to accept that it is going where it should.
            Then along came Paul. Remember last week, in the story of Stephen’s stoning, we get our first glimpse of then Saul. The people doing the stoning laid their cloaks before Saul’s feet. While we have skipped over the story of Saul’s conversion, and his transformation from Saul to Paul, we now meet him full on as Paul. Knowing what we know of Paul; knowing what we know of his zeal for the gospel, perhaps it is easy to understand why some in the crowd called him “this babbler.” Paul was preaching the good news of Jesus – God born into human flesh, crucified on the cross, resurrected into new life – pretty much the opposite of everything the Epicureans held dear. Paul preached the good news of Jesus – God willingly becoming vulnerable by being born into human flesh, taking on its frailties and weaknesses; not just dying as a human but being brutally executed as a human, then not staying dead! This upside down gospel also seemed to be the exact opposite of the reasonable universe the Stoics valued so highly.
            One of Paul’s best traits is his mastery of rhetoric. The man knew how to use language – in his writing, in his speaking. He knew how to turn a phrase, and articulate ideas that still have scholars and commentators and preachers like me trying to fully grasp his thought process. This sermon is no different. Our passage starts off with Paul wandering through Athens distressed by the vast number of idols found in the city. But when he is invited to the Aeropagus to speak, he does not chide or chastise the Athenians for being pagans or heathens, etc. Instead, he uses that to draw them in.
            “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
            That’s a way to win friends and influence people. He goes on to say that he found a particular object that intrigued him.
            “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
            My first thought when I read this was that the Athenians were covering all their bases. They did not just believe in their own gods, they believed that there might be other gods out there. And if there were, they wanted to make sure they recognized that god as well. It seems to me that Paul was telling them that they were on target when they recognized this other god. But what the Athenians think of as an unknown god is actually the God. This god is the God, the creator of the universe, the One from whom they are all offspring. This is the God, the One who made them, not the other way around. They did not make God. This God, the God, is not enshrined in objects. God does not live in anything made by human hands – even the most beautiful of things made by human hands. This God is the God, and this God is not unknown but known. This God, the God, is not far way on some other plane, in some other realm, but right here; close by, at hand, in their midst and up close.
            This God, the God, is a known God, known through Jesus his Son. This God, the God, is the God they have been groping for, searching for, looking for, hoping for, even if they did not recognize that God was the object and the subject of their search.
            This God, the God, is the known God, and God is known because Jesus, God’s Son, was resurrected from the dead.
            As so often happened (and happens), the resurrection was the wall that some people ran headlong into. Remember, in that crowd were Stoics and Epicureans, people who believed that dead was dead, and the universe was a rational cart leading us along on a reason-lined trajectory. Resurrection was too much, too irrational, too unreasonable, too upside down, too illogical, too much for some to take. So at those words, some scoffed. But not everyone; some wanted to talk with Paul again, and some believed and joined him.
            It seems to me that this is the eternal struggle of our faith. To really tell the gospel, to really preach the good news, we have to share a story that sounds … just weird. God becomes flesh and dwells among us. God lives. God is executed. God rises again. At some point, reason and logic only go so far. Don’t get me wrong, part of what I love about being Presbyterian is being allowed, encouraged even, to think critically about faith. It isn’t that other denominations don’t do this, but I have not always been given permission to do so in other denominations. I love that I feel free to ask questions, to argue, to wrestle with angels. My arguing and questioning – with professors, with others, with God – has not diminished my faith, it has deepened it. But I also know that at some point, faith is an experience. I can tell you about my experience of the Holy Spirit. I can tell you about the moments when I felt as though God was pushing me or pulling me to see or feel or think in a new way. I can tell you about the times when it seemed as though God was right next to me, holding me hand, telling me it was going to be okay. I can tell you, but I cannot make you feel it. You have to feel that, you have to experience that for yourself. I cannot make you understand why our upside down, illogical faith makes complete and utter sense to both my head and my heart. You have to experience it for yourself. Paul told the Athenians that the unknown god they paid tribute to was the God he knew, the God of Jesus, the God of resurrection, the God of all Life and Love and Grace. Paul’s God was the God they were groping for, but they did not know it. But they could not know it, they could not know God the way he knew God until they experienced God for themselves. You have to know God in your heart and in your hands and in your feet and in your mind. Our God is a known God – here in our hearts and here in our minds. Our God is a known God, a lived God, an experienced God. And once you know it, you know it.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.