Trad/ission (sermon 8/30/15)

tevye tradition

Watch video of this sermon here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP1fFNdqdE4

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”   – Mark 7:1-23

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We’re probably all familiar with the story of “Fiddler on the Roof” – where Tevye, the Jewish milkman in a little Russian village at the beginning of the twentieth century, sings praises to tradition – the social glue, the thing that gave order and meaning to life in the family and the village. But Tevye is living in a time of great social upheaval that’s challenging a lot of those traditions, and he’s struggling to keep up. One of his daughters wants to break tradition and receive his permission and blessing to marry the man she wants, instead of the old man picked for her by the traditional matchmaker. Another daughter doesn’t just want to choose her own husband without the matchmaker, she tells him they aren’t even asking for his permission, just his blessing. And as hard as it is for him, Tevye finds ways to navigate and accept these changes to the traditions that had given order to his own life. He finds a new balance, a new normal. But when a third daughter wants to marry outside the faith, that’s a bridge too far. Tevye disowns her and treats her as dead. In their final meeting, all he can mutter is “God go with you,” and he won’t even say that to her face; he won’t even look at her. In this gut-wrenching scene, he can’t let go of his beloved tradition even when it keeps him from having a relationship with his child.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus faces challenge from the religious leadership – basically, the first-century equivalent of all us official, ordained leaders in the church – because he and his disciples weren’t following some of the long-standing traditions of the faith – in particular, they weren’t observing the ritual hand washing, which was more than just washing for cleanliness. But Jesus called them hypocrites, valuing human tradition valuing form and appearance, over actual substance. As Jesus looked around him, he saw disciples who had given up home, family, career, some even social status, in order to follow him; and here they were now, being shunned just for not washing their hands in a certain way.

In all honesty, the religious leaders were just trying to do what they thought was right in God’s eyes. Observing those traditions were what identified them as a distinct people, the people from all the cultures and religions that surrounded them. The Church has a similar concern – we’re called to be an intentional community of faith, distinct in some ways from the culture around us. A lot of our traditions arose out of that same goal. I suppose you could say that the religious leaders who were challenging Jesus just wanted to make sure things were being done “decently and in order.”

In his criticism of them, Jesus wasn’t saying there was anything inherently wrong with human tradition, rules, or rituals. But there’s a problem when adhering to the tradition becomes more important than the underlying issue of God’s will, and God’s mission.

In the church, we’re living in a time of upheaval that’s just as unsettling as the times that Tevye was going through. Just as his traditions helped him in many ways, our traditions can give us a sense of identity and community and comfort. And that’s all very important, and very good – unless we end up making the same mistake that Tevye did, and we allow our grip on tradition to keep us from being in loving relationship with other children of God. Because what does it say if we – you, me, all of us – think it’s more important to hold onto our traditions as they are, rather than adjusting them in order to be more welcoming to others? What does it say if we won’t welcome others into the fold just because they want to wash their hands in a different way?

There were two small, struggling downtown congregations in a city. Covenant Church was a beautiful old building with a rich history. But the surrounding neighborhood had changed, racially, socially, economically. The remaining handful of members, all well past retirement, had moved miles away into the suburbs decades ago and only came into this part of the city on Sunday mornings. They had talked about ways they could change to reach out to the very different people in the neighborhood around the church, but ultimately they decided it would be too much work for them, and that in any case it would be too much of a culture shock for them. It would have meant changing their familiar patterns of worship and church life too much. Oh, the doors would always be open for any of the neighbors to come in, but there was really only so much they could change in order to be appealing to those people. Really, in the end, Covenant will always be Covenant.

Except that now it isn’t. Membership continued to decline in accordance with the immutable truth of actuarial tables. Finally, the congregation folded and the building was sold. Now, the city’s Arts Council owns it, and they host organ recitals and other concerts there, which is nice – but it’s a failure in terms of advancing God’s mission of outreach and serving and loving the people who live in the shadow of the bell tower.

Less than half a mile away sits Old Trinity Church. Another beautiful, even if badly run down, building with a storied past. They faced the same challenges as Covenant, but they realized the reality of the situation they were in, and they decided to rethink their traditions and ways of being the church. It was hard, but they decided to change their worship to be more appealing to their African-American and Latino neighbors. They set up community gardening plots on their vacant lot, for struggling families to grow some of their own food. They started a neighborhood food pantry, and they supplemented the usual staples with surplus fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden plots.

Today, Old Trinity is still small. It’s still struggling. But it’s still there – and it’s growing, because it was willing to adjust its traditions to meet the new realities of the community that God placed them in.

When we think about tradition in the church and how it should work, I think we need to always keep in mind that God is found precisely at the place where church tradition, and church mission, intersect, and where both are mutually advanced. God blesses traditions that create spiritual nurture, a sense of community, and emotional comfort, while not obstructing the mission of reaching out and welcoming others into the church, into the Kingdom of God.

We understand this idea of adjusting traditions in order to advance the overall mission in our own lives, don’t we? Remember being just married, or just beginning a serious relationship, and your spouse or significant other makes you a nice home-cooked meal of your favorite comfort food – meat loaf and mashed potatoes. And as you look at the plate, you think:

“Mmm, meat loaf and mashed potatoes… but what’s this? This meat loaf was made in a round casserole dish; my mother always made ours in a loaf pan. Who ever heard of a round meat loaf? It’s ridiculous!

…On the other hand… it wasn’t made with oatmeal filler, like my mother’s always was. I never liked that; I always hated finding oatmeal hiding in my meat loaf. This has bread filler, it’s smoother; I like that much better.

…On the other hand, why does it have this brown gravy on top? Everyone knows a good meat loaf has to have a ketchup glaze! And God, if I have to endure gravy on top of my meat loaf, would it be too much to ask for at least a little bit of ketchup on the side?!! (sigh…)

…On the other hand… these mashed potatoes – I’m sorry, Mother, forgive me, but your mashed potatoes were always lumpy and stiff and were as bland as wallpaper paste. But these – these are light and smooth and fluffy, and I think they have some sour cream whipped into them; they’re delicious! All in all, this is really not bad…”

You think about all these things, and you realize that your real mission in this relationship is to start a new life together, living and loving and supporting one another, caring for one another, and even forming new traditions together. So you take another bite, and you say,

You know, I think this is the best meat loaf I’ve ever had in my life! It’s just the way I like it!”

And you mean it, not just because it’s good, but because you love the other person. Loving and working together, you’ve established a new baseline. A new normal. A new “TRA – DITIONNNNN!”

Thanks be to God.

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Dress for Success (sermon 8/23/15)

armor

Watch video of this sermon here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z945oepYkys

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.   – Ephesians 6:10-20

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Evil is real. Evil is real, and not just real but personified, in spiritual beings like the devil and demons, and these evil beings, these powers of darkness, are engaged in an ongoing, eternal battle with God and the angels. This was the view of many people in the ancient world of the first century, including those touched by the Greco-Roman understanding of the cosmos. That included many of the Gentile Christians too, and it certainly included the Christians that the Letter to the Ephesians was written to. What we heard this morning was the conclusion of the letter, filled with last-minute words of encouragement to a group of people who needed it. These were Christians trying to live out their faith in a time and place where it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus. They were being persecuted – really persecuted, , in a way that makes some modern-day American Christians’ claims of being persecuted downright laughable. These were people who were punished severely by the Roman army for claiming a loyalty to Christ over the Roman Emperor. And these words were meant to show solidarity with them and to offer them hope and advice regarding how to respond to that persecution.

It’s unfortunate that in the centuries that followed, after Christianity became not just legal but the official religion of the Empire, a lot of people in the church read these words and understood them in a completely different way. Now, they were being read as a justification for Christians to switch from being the oppressed to becoming the oppressor. Now, with the increased status and wealth of the church, and with the self-interests of church and state becoming completely intertwined, it became easy for these words about “rulers and authorities” and “this present darkness” to shift from being about the cosmic, spiritual forces that they originally referred to, to earthly powers and situations. And it became easy to turn this passage about soldiers’ armor into a justification for spreading the faith – or at least, the church – by way of physical force and violence. Anyone who saw the world differently was now seen as part of that “present darkness” that needed to be wiped out, supposedly in the name of God.

Of course, that mindset didn’t die out after the Crusades or the Middle Ages. You don’t have to look very far to find Christians who hold this view even today. If you’ve ever heard of Christians being called “Triumphalists” or “Dominionists,” those are two modern-day variations of this way of reading this passage.

Well, I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of you for me to say that I don’t think this passage means what they think it means. I’m certainly not the first person to point out that all of this “armor” that’s supposed to protect these Christians is *defensive* in nature, to protect against an aggressor. And according to the passage, what are these pieces of armor? Truth. Righteousness. Peace – peace, of all things! Faith. Salvation. All of these defenses are attitudes and relationships – with God, with one another, and in this passage, especially with those who would oppress us. “Oh, but wait,” someone might say, “there’s a sword in there, too; what about that?” yes, there’s a sword. But what is it? The only supposedly offensive weapon identified is not a physical weapon at all, but rather, the Spirit, the word of God. In other words, our only offensive weapon is to speak the truth – God’s truth – to power. Not to take up arms against it, not to resort to violence against it, not to try to wipe out that power and put our own power in its place. Our most powerful weapon, according to this passage, is to speak God’s truth, and the most effective way to do that is to *live* it – to model Christ in this world, for all to see and hear. That’s our sword.

And we need to keep using that particular kind of “sword,” because whether we believe evil is personified in the form of a being like the devil or not, we can surely all say that evil is real, and we’ve all seen it. We’ve seen it in cultural systems and institutions that dehumanize and perpetuate racism and other forms of social injustice. And we’ve seen it at least momentarily personified, not in spiritual beings but in beings who are all too human, in places like Wounded Knee, and Auschwitz, and Deir Yassin, and Selma, and Oklahoma City, and Sandy Hook, and Charleston, and who knows where next week.

Evil is real. Good is often under attack. But we have to be very careful in how we respond to that evil – first, because it’s all too easy for us to see something, or someone, as evil, when in fact, they’re just different. Second, when we respond to evil by means of physical force and violence, we just end up becoming evil ourselves, perpetrating the same exact kinds of evil acts in return, in retaliation, and often perpetrating them in even greater measure because we have to escalate, up the ante, in order to defeat whoever we’re retaliating against.

No, this passage is clearly no justification for trying to spread the faith through the threat or reality of physical force, as it’s been used in the past. And it doesn’t offer any cover for responding to our enemies with violence. It doesn’t add any qualifiers or conditions to Jesus’ command that we love one another, even our enemies. The Kingdom of God is a game, if you will, that can only be won through “defense-as-offense.” This past week was the 50th anniversary of a major speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Montreat Conference Center in the wake of the Watts Riots. As we all know, most of Dr. King’s successes were accomplished through the philosophy – the theology, actually – of non-violence, peaceful resistance, and defense-as-offense. This method, and this message, was relevant to the Ephesians of the first century, and it was relevant during the civil rights struggle of the ‘60s, and it’s no less relevant as a model for God’s people today. Because today, we continue to fight evil and forces of darkness. Some of these battles are new, and others are frustratingly familiar. But however these battles manifest themselves, this passage from Ephesians still teaches us how to “dress for success:” Having faith, and trusting in God. Working for peace in all things, and in all ways. And using our one and only offensive weapon, speaking God’s truth to unjust power.

I know, It can be so tempting to want to respond in kind when we’re attacked or persecuted. It’s perfectly logical, by all human standards. But it isn’t logical by God’s standards, and it isn’t the way God calls us to respond. It can feel like the right thing, the justifiable thing, the only reasonable thing. It can feel like the right outfit, the right armor, that God would want us to put on, the right way to dress for success when we’re attacked . But in God’s eyes, when we put on that different kind of armor in order to supposedly follow God’s will, it really becomes comes nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes.

Thanks be to God.

Go There

go there

The First Baptist Church in Greenville SC has adopted a non-discrimination policy which will accept LGBTQ Christians into full membership of the church, and permits performing same-sex marriages upon request. That’s big news, because this particular congregation played a major role in the origins of the notoriously anti-gay Southern Baptist Convention, and was itself a member of that organization until 1999, when it realigned its affiliation to be part of the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s a lot of really good stuff that the pastor, Jim Dant, says in the article, which you can read here, and also here. I empathize with his trying to find a path of unity in any church matter where people are of different beliefs, regardless of the specifics of the disagreement. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to seek a similar path of unity even after we’ve amended our constitution to allow ordination of LGBTQ church leaders like myself, and allowing same-sex marriage. In this case, it’s especially hard to find that unity when the church has held anti-LGBTQ doctrines for centuries. But a comment in one of the articles caught my attention: Speaking about Dant, the reporter writes, “He told Greenville Online a crucial step of the process was assuring church members no one would tell them their personal convictions were wrong.”

I understand the desire for unity that gave birth to this idea, but is it really appropriate to remove from the table any possibility for Pastor Dant to preach an inclusive gospel to members of his congregation? Is it appropriate to agree to not talk about the terrible harm that traditional church doctrines have caused to literally millions of people? Imagine a segregated southern church in the 1960s agreeing to allow blacks as members and leaders, as long as those in the pews holding harmful racist and bigoted views could never be told their beliefs were wrong.

I’m truly pulling for Pastor Dant and his congregation; they’ve made a positive step forward. But it’s an incomplete and transitional step at best, and at worst, it’s one that permits outdated and dangerous biblical interpretations and bigotry to remain unchallenged. Pastor Dant is quoted as saying that when the discussions began last fall, “what I heard was, ‘We need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us.’” That’s an excellent and Christlike attitude. But the approach of not being able to call parishioners’ anti-gay stances wrong is a Faustian bargain that runs contrary to this ideal – and frankly, it won’t result in the hoped-for unity that spawned it; if anything it will only make the divisions worse by pushing it under the surface.

I know that people can typically only stretch themselves so far before they need some mental downtime, in order to prepare them to push and stretch themselves even further. But there are some issues that really can’t be made in half-steps, and I believe that full equality of LGBTQ people in both church and society is one of them – a person can be neither almost pregnant, nor partially equal. In adopting a policy of acceptance and inclusion within the church, it’s necessary that we call out people’s continuing to hold outdated understandings of LGBTQ issues in the church as harmful, and yes, wrong. It needs to be said with genuine love and compassion, but it still needs to be said.

Sometimes, the Church has to suck it up and speak a potentially unpopular message – even if it means some people will become upset, or even leave the congregation. Trying to decide when it’s best to do that, and when it’s best to be comforting, postponing the unsettling message for another day, is one of the most difficult parts of a pastor’s calling. I’ve been there myself, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d never shied away from what I believed needed to be said, opting instead for a message that I knew would be safer for me. I admit my own imperfect record in this matter, so I won’t come down too hard or self-righteously on Pastor Dant. But I firmly believe that this is one of those critical times in the history of the Church when it must be that upsetting, unsettling prophetic voice – leading people into right paths even when they hadn’t really asked, and don’t even want, to go there. Pastor Dant, as a pastoral colleague who’s your friend and not your enemy, I’d ask you to seriously and prayerfully consider going there.

Pool Party

come on in

In countless news stories, we’re seeing that Evangelical Christians are slowly but increasingly accepting inclusive theology with regard to LGBTQ issues in the church and society. This is obviously a good thing, but as it’s been happening, I’ve noticed something troubling. Many of these conservative Evangelicals who are now calling for greater acceptance of LGBTQ people, and even allowing gay ordained leaders like myself, have been berating us progressive Christians for years – claiming that we don’t really value the Christian scriptures, and that we’ve simply thrown the Bible out in rush to conform to social whims. They’ve accused us of seeing the Bible as just a quaint storybook that holds little relevance to people today. This charge is nonsense, of course, but it still continues to be made. But now, ironically enough, we’re seeing more and more Evangelicals turning to and adopting the exact same rigorous, scholarly arguments supporting inclusive theology that were first made by those supposedly misguided, faux-Christian progressives.

Don’t misunderstand me – I’m glad that my fellow Christians are coming to accept an inclusive gospel But I have to admit that every time I see a story about yet another big-name Evangelical leader having this supposed epiphany, I have a slight sense of how a Native American must feel when hearing stories about Columbus “discovering” America. After dealing with years of Evangelical attacks on my progressive, inclusive theology, I grow weary now whenever I see yet another book, podcast, or DVD boxed-set Bible study for sale, presenting those exact same arguments – but which are now apparently more acceptable, and marketable, because they’ve been wrapped in an Evangelical dust jacket.

I want my Evangelical brothers and sisters to accept an inclusive theology. But after they do, you know what I want to hear from them? Just this:

“LGBTQ folks, you were right. We were wrong. We’re sorry for all the damage our erroneous beliefs have caused, and we want to work now to put an end to the harm. We love you and accept you, just as you are – no ‘love the sinner, hate the sin;” because there’s no sin here to hate. We apologize. We repent. And we ask your forgiveness.”

That’s what I want to hear.

And then I want them to sit down, be quiet, and humbly get on with the work of reconciliation, keeping the focus more on those who have been hurt, and less on the self-serving prime time interviews and book deals.

My Evangelical brothers and sisters, I’m glad you’re gradually showing up at the party of inclusive Christianity. I might wonder what took you so long to get here, but ultimately, we’re all on our own personal journey and timeline. So I sincerely welcome you with love and open arms, and say “Come on in, the water’s fine!” Just don’t act like you built the pool.

The Heavenly Feast (sermon 8/16/15)

Jesus Bread of LifeWatch video of this sermon here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knMGrFMkr90&feature=youtu.be

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” – Proverbs 9:1-6

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[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  – John 6:51-58

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For a number of weeks now we’ve had Lectionary texts that dealt with bread and people being fed. We heard about the manna in the wilderness, and Jesus being the bread of life from heaven, and this week we get that taken to its logical conclusion in today’s gospel text that makes the connection to the Lord’s Supper – that unless a person eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks his blood, they have no eternal life in them.

It’s hard to imagine that the way people have interpreted this handful of words attributed to Jesus has caused more dissention, more division, more bitterness, hateful words, even violence within the church than any other subject, bar none – and considering many of the other disagreements in the church, that’s really saying something. What I’m talking about here is the different ways that different church traditions have understood what’s actually going on in Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.

Our Roman Catholic, and Orthodox, and Episcopalian brothers and sisters interpret these words very literally, and therefore, believe that in some mysterious way we can’t understand, the bread and wine change into the literal, physical flesh and blood of Jesus, even though they continue to look, and smell, and taste like bread and wine. On the other hand, our Lutheran brothers and sisters take these same words very literally, but they say that the bread and wine remain bread and wine – but at the same time, in some mysterious way Jesus’ literal, physical flesh and blood enter in the bread and wine, intermingling with it maybe at the molecular level. Still other Christians say that Communion is just a “memorial meal,” that we do to simply remember and pay respect to Jesus because he said to do it, but Jesus isn’t actually present in any special way in the Communion.

For our part, John Calvin wrote that the Lord’s Supper is certainly more than just a symbolic memorial meal. But he also said that it seems pretty obvious that when Jesus talked about people eating his flesh and blood, he was speaking metaphorically – that it seemed pretty obvious that when it came to the bread and wine, the thing was and remained what it appeared to be. According to Calvin, Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper in a special way, and through the sacrament we’re united with him and with all believers, but that our communion with Christ is on a strictly spiritual level. Calvin basically said that in the scriptures, God chose not to ever spell out in concrete detail what was going on in the sacrament – so apparently, God didn’t feel we needed to know or worry about it, so we shouldn’t waste time arguing over something we can never really know the right answer to.

Of course, it took the churches established by Calvin, I’d estimate, about five and a half minutes to do exactly what he said they shouldn’t do, arguing over minutiae of how the sacrament works and who was to be considered worthy to participate in it. We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a few weeks, on World Communion Sunday.

In the history of the entire Christian church, arguments over exactly what Jesus meant when he said these words we heard today have led to people be excommunicated, deemed heretics, and burnt at the stake. A series of European wars in the 1500s and 1600s were fought for reasons that certainly had multiple causes, but one large cause was religious difference between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, and largely focusing on this one particular piece of theology. It was crazy. It was insane. It was sinful.

And it’s still crazy, and in my opinion, sinful, when the same thing happens today. When different factions within the church would keep anyone professing faith in Jesus away from the Table, away from the sacrament, just because they understand the details of the sacrament differently. When one Christian tradition won’t allow members of another Christian tradition to participate in the sacrament. And it’s just as crazy, and sinful, when any group within the church would assume the power or authority to keep another professing Christian away from the Table, this sacrament, because of secondary things – whether they’re a member of the church or not, or how much money they’d given, or how often they attended, or how many times they’d been married, or what their sexual orientation is, or how they voted on abortion, or any other reason. Jesus didn’t say to come to this Table only if we knew we understood what was happening perfectly. He didn’t say to come to the Table only if we were all in agreement. And he didn’t give anyone the authority to keep another believer from participating. Jesus said to do this in remembrance of him, and he said it to each and every one of us, without need for filters or intermediaries. Anyone who can honestly profess “Jesus is Lord” – even if they have questions, or doubts, and honestly, even if we have different understandings of the definition of “Lord”, should be welcome to come to the Table and be part of this sacrament. I believe that if God has spoken in the heart of any person to the point that they want to participate in this sacrament, and they felt drawn to be united with the Spirit of Christ, then we don’t dare to set ourselves up as an obstacle to that happening.

Why is all this important? Am I just rambling on and on about some stupid, abstract point of theology that only church nerds care about? Well, if for no other reason It’s important because of this one thing. The Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist, whatever a person wants to call it, isn’t just a reenactment of Jesus’ meals with his disciples. It isn’t just a sign of the covenant between us and God that God initiated with us. And it isn’t even just a way that we renew our union with Christ, as important as that is. Beyond those things, this sacrament is also meant to be a reference to, and a reflection of a model, of what the kingdom of God is supposed to be like, what it’s supposed to be all about.

In our First reading this week, he heard about God – in this passage, called Wisdom – preparing this amazing, delicious, sumptuous feast, and inviting all of us to come participate in the feast. In fact, there are a number of places where the kingdom of God is compared to an incredible eternal banquet, that all peoples will be invited to and drawn to.

And that’s the key. When we observe the Lord’s Supper, it’s a celebration of thanks for the great, unmerited good – the grace – that God has poured out upon us. And part of that celebration calls for us to extend that same kind of grace, out to all those around us. Coming to this Table, partaking of this meal, is supposed to be a reflection of the fullness and wideness of God’s kingdom, which doesn’t wait until sometime in the future to begin, but has already begun in the here and now. We’re called to model this view of God’s kingdom – inviting, and welcoming, all to be a part of this kingdom, and not setting up any barriers to any person from hearing God’s good news for them, and welcoming them into this very communion with God and with one another. Regardless of all the other theological squabbles about the mechanics of it all, regardless of what else it might mean, this is what it means to have taken into yourself, to have consumed Jesus’ flesh and blood, to have truly internalized Jesus, to have eternal life within you.

So I guess today is another of those sermons I just leave you with a question to reflect on. As we think about ourselves – both collectively, as the church, and as we live out our lives of faith as individuals – are there things that we’re doing, unintentionally or otherwise, that serve to build a fence around the gospel, around the kingdom of God? Are there things that we’re doing that are pushing people away, that are off-putting to others? And if there are, how can we change them, in order to be more faithful to our call to be Christ-followers? Is there anything that we can be doing, individually or together, to allow more people to come to the Table, and be part of the Heavenly Feast that Christ has set the Table for?

Thanks be to God.

Where Is It? (sermon 8/9/15)

hearing

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. … He came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go…”   – 1 Kings 19:1-3a, 9-15a

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Today’s Old Testament text is a small part of a larger story that you need to know a little more about in order to be able to put into context, and hopefully understand a little better. This is a story of the prophet Elijah during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab had married Jezebel, who was the daughter of the King of Tyre, an adjacent kingdom to the north of ancient Israel, in part of what is modern-day Lebanon. This marriage undoubtedly helped Ahab with trade relations, political and military alliances, and so on. Jezebel worshipped Baal, the ancestral god of her people, and while Ahab kept focused primarily on the military, and statecraft, and the business of the kingdom, he let Jezebel handle the religious affairs of the household, and by extension, the countryside. Jezebel established temples to worship Baal, and supported hundreds of priests and prophets of her religion. And that’s when problems with Elijah, who had never been a big fan of Ahab anyway, came to a head.

There was a dispute over who would be the God that the people worshiped – Baal or YHWH. In order to decide the matter, Elijah proposed a competition, a showdown of sorts. The prophets of Baal would slaughter a bull and put it on an altar, and Elijah would do the same. Then, they’d each call on the name of their respective gods, and the one who actually sent fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be one to worship. The people all thought this sounded fair enough, so the competition was on.

The prophets of Baal – all 450 of them – went first, but despite praying and calling on Baal for pretty much an entire day, nothing happened. Now Elijah was a cheeky, sarcastic sort of prophet, and as the other prophets were praying and wailing to Baal, he started to taunt them – What’s wrong? Where is your God? Maybe he’s off praying somewhere and can’t hear you; maybe he fell asleep; maybe he took a long weekend to the beach.

Finally, it was Elijah’s turn, and he placed his sacrificed bull on the wood on the altar. And then, just for added theatrics – I told you he was a cheeky sort – he had them doused with gallons and gallons of water, twice even, until everything was completely saturated with water. And then, standing there in the mud from all of the water running off the pile, and water trickling between his toes, Elijah calls on the name of God to send fire, and BAM! Fire shoots down from heaven and the sacrifice bursts into flames. The people were all impressed, as I supposed they should have been, and they side with Elijah; and in the religious fervor of the moment, Elijah orders that they seize and kill all 450 of the prophets of Baal. Which brings us to where we pick up the story in today’s Lectionary text.

Well as you might expect, Elijah’s killing all of the prophets of Baal doesn’t sit very well with the Queen, , and she vows that if she ever gets her hands on Elijah, she’ll do to him what he’d done to the prophets of Baal. So Elijah flees for his life. Ultimately, he ends up in this cave on Mount Horeb, the same mountain where God spoke to Moses and handed down the Ten Commandments according to the book of Deuteronomy. There in the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah tells God how everyone has turned against him and away from God, and they’re all out to kill him, and that only he was left in all of Israel to stand up for God and defend God’s name – which seems a little odd, considering it was just a few verses earlier that there were apparently enough followers of God to seize and kill 450 prophets of Baal – but Elijah was on a roll at that point, and God seems to just let him go. And he undoubtedly reminds God of that event too, to show how devoted and faithful a servant he was.

After listening to Elijah’s answer, God seems to set up an object lesson for Elijah. God tells Elijah to go stand out on the mountain, because God was about to pass by. And then, there’s this tremendous show of force and power and fury – a mighty wind, and earthquake, a huge fire. It was a scene that made Elijah’s sacrifice showdown look tiny by comparison. But the story tells us that God wasn’t found in any of that. It was only after that show of force, that illustration that God was perfectly capable of taking care of himself against his enemies, without Elijah needing to supposedly defend the faith by killing a bunch of people and then playing the martyr card – it was only after that, when everything had died back down to absolute silence, that God offers Elijah a second chance to answer the question. So… What are you doing here, Elijah?

And in what seems to be a classic scriptural case of cluelessness, Elijah seems to miss the whole point of God’s demonstration and just offers God the exact same answer again. At that point, God tells him to just go, setting him off on his next adventure. At this point, you can almost hear God sigh. You can almost feel God’s shoulders droop. You can almost hear God say “Well… maybe we’ll work on this lesson with him another day.”

Even as great a servant of God as Elijah sometimes gets things wrong. Even Elijah can get wrapped up in delusions of grandeur, that he’s the sole defender of the faith, that he’s got to go to extreme, maybe even violent means, to save the faith and protect God’s name, all in the name of faithfully trying to hear the voice of God.

This story shows us that we don’t usually hear God’s voice in the big, mighty, loud things of the world. We don’t usually find it in the high drama or theatrics or sarcasm. Contrary to some televangelists, we don’t hear the voice or judgment of God in earthquakes or floods or hurricanes or mudslides. And we certainly don’t find it in acts of violence. Whether in Elijah’s time or our own, the voice of God is most present, most hearable, in the still, small moments. In the silence.

Where is it that you find the voice of God? Maybe in moments of silence, here, or in the chapel, or looking out at the lake at sunset. Maybe we hear God’s voice in a recurring dream that we can’t seem to shake, that comes to us over and over again in the middle of the night when the distractions of the day that tend to drown out the voice of God are largely set aside. Maybe we hear God’s voice through the surprisingly wise and observant words of a small child. Or maybe, as sometimes happens when we’re in times of real distress, we just hear the voice of God within us – not in actual words, but just resonating inside our very being, just as audible as my words are to you right now.

Where is it that you’ve heard God speaking in your life? Wherever it may have been, one good thing that we can get out of this Old Testament story is that if God’s asked something of us, and we didn’t quite get the point, or if we didn’t really come up with the answer God wanted us to, God will keep speaking to us. Just as was apparently the case with Elijah, God will keep loving us and working with us on getting the right answer, maybe on another day.

Thanks be to God.

What Is It? (sermon 8/2/15)

Manna Snow

What is it? Is it manna? Actually, I think it’s a light dusting of snow, but the idea is the important thing.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not…. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’  – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

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So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. – John 6:24-35

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Today’s gospel text picks up right where we left off last week – it’s right after the story of Jesus Feeding the Multitude. Here, Jesus and the disciples have gone back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds have followed him here, too, and are asking for a sign to prove that they should believe in him. I guess we can hope that this request was coming from some new people in the crowd, and not the same people who’d just seen the sign, the miracle of Jesus feeding all those people, because if it were coming from the same people, they must have been pretty stupid or had very short attention spans. And as they asked for a sign, they make reference to the Exodus story of God providing manna, bread from heaven, for the Israelites to eat as they wandered through the Wilderness. We heard that story here this morning, too, and even though it’s a little hard to follow after it gets translated into English, the Israelites called the bread “manna,” because that’s the Hebrew phrase for “What is it?”, and that’s exactly what they asked when they first saw it lying all over the ground.

Some people look at this story and say the point is to not be a complainer like the Israelites. That they weren’t justified and they were upsetting God with their whining. The message drawn out of this story is sometimes that when things aren’t going our way, we should just stop complaining; we should just be patient and trust God, and if we’re having problems, it must just be part of God’s grand plan. Frankly, this story has been abused in countless sermons that criticized people standing up and fighting against all sorts of injustice, inequity, and discrimination.

You certainly read in other parts of the Exodus story that the Israelites’ complaining angered God. But if you read this particular story carefully, you don’t see that response from God at all. The people’s complaint was apparently legitimate, and God heard their complaints and provided food for them. Excellent. That’s a much more hopeful message, and it should give us courage to speak out against problems like that, and that God will hear and honor our prayers.

But that leads us to another problem as bad as the first – the idea that because God loves us, God will always provide for our needs. Not for luxuries, of course, but at least all of the basics that we really need to get by. You hear that message in this Exodus story, and in countless other places in the Old and New Testaments, even in Jesus’ words – ask anything in my name, and I’ll do it for you.

And that’s a big problem, because we all know that this is just not true. According to the UN, more than 18,000 children starve to death in the world every single day. In that same single day, another 2,000 children under the age of five dies from plain old, run of the mill diarrhea, for want of a few pennies’ worth of over the counter medicine. Millions of people die each year for want of the basic essentials of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, or basic medical treatment. How are we supposed to square these realities with this idea that we should be assured that God will provide for us? Are we supposed to believe that maybe some people are important to God, while others aren’t?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a good answer to that question. I can’t square these two things. I don’t know why God seems to provide for some, in abundance, even excess, while seemingly ignoring the pain and suffering of others. And I wrestle with preaching, or offering pastoral counsel about the idea of God providing for us when it seems pretty clear that sometimes God doesn’t, at lest not in any meaningful, immediate way, often for the very basics of life, and I don’t know why.

But I do know this: even while it doesn’t seem like God provides for every need, God does provide for much need. All the time. All around us. And when God does provide, it often comes in a way that we don’t immediately recognize or expect. It comes in a way that initially makes us ask “What is it?” Maybe it comes in the form of a “yes” or “no” in our lives, when all conventional wisdom and our expectations were the opposite. Maybe it comes as some surprisingly wise or perceptive observation made by the person you’d least expect it from. Maybe it comes in the form of some new and different thing, or situation, that you’d never have asked for and frankly, wouldn’t have ever thought you’d want, but through it, you found some new strength, new direction, new hope, new opportunity, to be Christ to yourself and to the people around you. But at first, you ask, “What is it?”

In my own experience, I’ve come to see that God is providing so much for us all the time. It covers the ground around us. Through Christ, we have the ability to see it for what it is, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can discern what God’s intention are in providing these things to us.

I heard a story in a seminar yesterday about a little church congregation with declining numbers in a declining section of a city, that was struggling with understanding what they should be doing as a church, what their role was supposed to be in the kingdom of God. There was a park right across the street from the building, but it was run down and the playground equipment was all broken, so no children ever came to play there. The city just let the park go, saying they didn’t have the money to keep it up. The little church had some memorial funds that had been given for the use of children’s ministries, but it had been years since there had been even one child who attended the church. So they took it upon themselves to use those funds and their own volunteer labor to repair the city park and make it usable for the neighborhood children, and before you knew it, there were dozens of kids playing there at any point during the day. So then the little church thought it would be a good idea to throw monthly parties for the kids, and host a picnic for them, and the kids and their parents loved it. And then a few retired schoolteachers thought it would be a good idea to offer the kids after-school tutoring and help with their homework, and the kids loved it. And before long, some of those kids, and some of their parents, started coming in for worship, and when they did, they were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the family from day one. And then some other people came, too, because they’d heard about the amazing way this struggling little church had become truly missional, and the great good they were doing in the neighborhood.

Everything they needed to do it had already been given to them by God. It was right there, all of it, right there in front of them. They just needed to see it in a new light, to put the pieces together in a different way than they were accustomed to. They just allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts, and to see how they could use what God had provided them with.

So today, as we’re sitting here on the lawn, I ask you – what is it that God has provided us with, put right in front of us to use, for us and for others? What is it that God has provided us with as a congregation? And what is it that God has provided you with in your own life? What is it that God calling you, calling us, to do with what we’ve been provided? What is it?

Thanks be to God.