Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Faith: A Matter of Awe

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016, Pentecost 14C
Hebrews 12:18-29

Faith: A Matter of Awe

There are moments in scripture that are so beautiful we can never forget them. Psalm 23 retains popularity across generations at least in part because its poetry and imagery are so utterly beautiful, and many of the psalms are of similar poetic beauty. The first verses of John 14 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” are similarly poetic and memorable. You probably can recall examples that stand out to you.
And then there are passages that are … less poetic, less beautiful, generally less appealing. Between the books of Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles, there are enough bloody and horrifying battles to keep Hollywood working overtime for years. The crucifixion accounts in the gospels are, aside from the theological significance of the event and the resurrection that follows, gruesome to read. And I’m just going to let you go look up Psalm 137:8-9 for yourselves.
Today’s reading from Hebrews sits in an uneasy place between those two extremes. From a scene of terror and fear, the preacher pivots to one of great hope and beauty, and the result can be a bit of whiplash for the reader or hearer. Part of the challenge is that the Hebrews preacher is trying to draw a contrast in order to make his (or her?) point, and we may need to drop back and do a little bit of context to understand what is going on here.
Our Hebrews preacher paints a picture of two mountains, one of which is Sinai, the mountain up which Moses ascended to commune with God and receive the Law back in Exodus. In this case the preacher is choosing to remind those hearing or reading of the particular terror of the scene, though not by name, in the opening verses of today’s reading. Blazing fire, tempest, darkness, gloom, and the thunderings of the voice of God so terrible that the Hebrew people begged in great fear not to have to hear it again, and which even Moses found terrifying. By contrast, the preacher paints a portrait of Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, “the city of the living God” with a lot less terrifying scene than the one painted above – angels in “festal gathering,” the “assembly of the firstborn” – those claimed in redemption by Christ – the spirits of the righteous and none other than Jesus. The image is beautiful, inviting, welcoming – anything but the terrifying scene painted at Sinai.
Now as a pastor in the United States of the 21st century, there is no good reason for me to try to promote the Christian faith, to advocate on behalf of Christian scripture, to support the Christian church by denigrating or running down any other religion. Christianity has had close to two thousand years to establish itself just fine, and it remains as much an “establishment” religion in the United States as ever, despite what certain unscrupulous politicians or preachers might tell you. If the only way I can speak for the Christian faith is by slandering or denigrating another religion, I’m in the wrong business and should probably go back to teaching music history.
The situation was quite different, however, at the end of the first century, the time at which this epistle-cum-sermon was written. Some years after the death of the apostle Paul, the fledgling movement of “followers of The Way,” as they were sometimes called, was facing difficulties both within the Roman Empire and within the Jewish synagogues of which many Christian communities were still a part. While Christians were not yet facing the worst persecution the Romans could offer, they were facing greater ostracism and criticism than in the past, due to their unwillingness to go along with the civic rituals of emperor-adoration expected of residents of the empire.
In the meantime, while in some parts of the empire the Christ-followers were organizing themselves into separate communities and churches, this wasn’t the case everywhere. And in those cases where Christians remained in the synagogue, the conflict between those who claimed Jesus as Messiah and those who did not was by now becoming intolerable and irreparable.
In that situation, a word of encouragement to the fledgling group of Christ-followers just starting to face real difficulty was needed, and if it took the form of a contrast between their old world and their new, the Hebrews preacher decided, so be it.
Even so, though, even in the midst of a word of encouragement, this preacher can’t resist a word (or two) of warning.
What does it mean, though, to “refuse the one who is speaking”? And what’s this about things shaking?
Note how verse 25 continues after that initial statement. The Hebrew people back in Exodus eventually rebelled against God and the leadership of Moses, thereby “rejecting” or refusing “the one who warned them on earth” – that is, from Mount Sinai. For that rejection, that generation of the Hebrew people were condemned to wander in the wilderness for those forty years. If that was the fate of those Hebrew people, what then the fate if this latter group of Christ-followers should refuse the God who “warns from heaven.”  To refuse the grace of God extended from Zion, the “city of the living God,” the Christ-followers would place themselves in a far more precarious position.
But still, what would it be to “refuse grace”? We might find some help in Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22. The meat of the story is familiar; the invited guests do not come, so the king charges his servants to go out and bring in everybody from the streets, and the banquet was full. But towards the end of the story, the king comes upon a guest with no wedding robe, and when the man refuses to answer, he is thrown “into the outer darkness” bringing the parable to a strange close.
Sounds harsh, admittedly. But it helps to understand one thing about wedding customs of Jesus’s time. For those who were invited to the wedding, the host of the wedding was obligated to provide a special robe to wear for the event. So there was no reason for the man to have no wedding robe, other than refusing the gift given by the wedding host.
For us, “refusing grace” might be something like, for example, deciding you don’t really have any sins that need forgiving. Deciding that the grace of Christian community, like the church, is not something you really need. Those kinds of direct refusal of the gifts of grace given by God through Christ are what the Hebrews preacher warns against.
Finally, in wrapping up this thought, the Hebrews preacher provides counsel on how to respond to God, the one who gives those graces, who welcomes us to the heavenly Jerusalem, who shakes away the impermanent so that only the unshakeable remains. As we learn what it means to receive that unshakeable kingdom, the preacher reminds us, we return our gratitude by “an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” Here it’s useful to be reminded of the difference between fear and awe. Fear, as this passage associates with the rather terrifying scene on Sinai, is not how we are meant to approach God in Christ, really. But laying aside fear does not equal rash “buddying up” to God, it doesn’t mean Jesus is your boyfriend, and it doesn’t mean slacking off in the living out of our lives in Christ’s church in God’s world. God is still God, and we still aren’t, and we’d do well to remember that.
God is still, after all, a “consuming fire,” as the preacher lastly reminds us. Think of the “refiner’s fire” from the Old Testament, as set by Handel in the oratorio Messiah. Even as we are redeemed by God in Christ, we “aren’t there yet”; there is still sanctification to be accomplished, “being made holy” to be done in our lives. None of us who is even paying a little bit of attention in faith thinks we have got it down pat, do we? We are not perfected, and we know that. That work is ongoing in us, the burning away of those elements that drag us down into sin. And that is work that is only accomplished by the direct encounter with the refining, purifying, consuming fire that is God, a God worthy of awe.
The Hebrews preacher is packing a lot into this sermon climax, and it can be difficult to untangle. But our place is not to live in fear and terror of God. Instead, we come before God in a worship that offers praise, responds to God’s word, and does not forget that God is majestic and powerful and worthy of our reverence, as well as our trust and our obedience.
For a God worthy of reverence and awe, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#35            Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty
#813            God, My Help and Hiding Place
#405            Praise God for This Holy Ground
#442            Just As I Am, Without One Plea

Credit: Awe, yes, but not fear.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Faith: A Matter of Action

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 14, 2016, Pentecost 13C
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Faith: A Matter of Action

Something major happened in the world of Major League Baseball last week. Ichiro Suzuki, now playing for the Miami Marlins, got his 3000th major-league hit last week by stinging a triple into the right-field gap against the Colorado Rockies, becoming only the 30th player to achieve that milestone in the 140-year history of the sport.
Ichiro’s case (and yes, he’s called by his first name) is a bit different than most, though. Until age 27, he played in the professional leagues in his native Japan, achieving well over a thousand hits and renown as one Japan’s best players. He was also a certifiable celebrity in his baseball-mad native country. By most definitions, he had everything an athlete could need. But instead of continuing to play in Japan and enjoying his fame and success, he maneuvered his Japanese team into posting him as available to sign with teams in Major League Baseball, where he finally signed with the Seattle Mariners. While a number of pitchers had come to the US and had success, no position player (Ichiro is an outfielder) had ever done so. Suffice to say that Ichiro broke that trend.
But why?
To say the least, Ichiro had faith in his baseball abilities. He had faith (or, in deference to last week’s sermon, he trusted) that he had the talent and intelligence to succeed in Major League Baseball whether any other Japanese hitter had or not. But he didn’t just have that faith or trust, or even belief in himself if you want to call it that; he was willing to back up that faith or trust or belief with action, putting himself on the line to prove he was as good as he believed he was. This wasn’t what most observers expected; many in MLB believed he might do o.k., but certainly most weren’t expecting him to be the major star that he has become.
Ichiro’s confidence in his abilities and willingness to back it up with action isn’t exactly like the members of the “roll call” of the “heroes of faith” we resume in Hebrews today, but it’s not a bad metaphor. Unlike Ichiro, these biblical examples of trust did not merely have to trust in their own abilities; instead, their trust was in God alone, a far more secure locus of our trust than anything we ourselves can accomplish.
The roll call resumes in today’s reading after a little more elaboration about Abraham, including that horrible moment when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s seeming command. It’s hard to know exactly what Abraham was about in this case; was he trusting that God would indeed pull back from his command to sacrifice his son, his one heir through whom God’s promise of a great nation of descendents was to be fulfilled? Was he trusting that God would find another way to fulfill that promise, and willingly giving up his seemingly innocent son? It’s a hard story, a kind of “text of terror” that, if we’re reading scripture with any integrity at all, should make us stop short and frankly be offended by it.
Continuing, the roll call comes to Moses and his leadership of the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where we pick up a bit in the middle of the sequence. To begin anything with “By faith the (Hebrew) people … “ is actually a bit ironic, since back in chapter three of this very same sermon those same people are reprimanded for their lack of faith for their rebelliousness in the wilderness, an event that happened after the crossing of the Red Sea that is referenced in today’s reading.
There’s a warning for us here. This faith, this trust to which Hebrews encourages us isn’t a one-time thing. Since we’re in the midst of the Olympics right now I’ll borrow a track-and-field metaphor; a hurdler doesn’t get to pull up and celebrate after successfully surmounting the first hurdle. There are more hurdles on the track, and the race isn’t over until the hurdler successfully jumps all of them and crosses the finish line. Similarly, one act of trust isn’t the end of our journey of faith; the journey continues, and we have to follow it to its end, trusting God all the way and acting on that trust as God calls us forward.  
This warning is countered by the good news inherent in the inclusion in this roll call of Rahab. Do you remember Rahab, from Joshua 2? When Joshua sent spies to scope out the city of Jericho and its defenses, it was Rahab who sheltered those spies in her home and hid them from the king of Jericho’s officers. After sending them on a wild goose chase, Rahab sends the spies on with a rather remarkable confession of Jericho’s fear before the Israelites and swears the spies to safeguard her and her family (which they do in chapter 6). It’s a pretty remarkable sub-story within the greater story, and her trust in this God she would hardly have had reason to know, and her action upon it, is apparently enough to win her a place in this roll call of honor.
Still, though, you can imagine some reader sidling up to the author of this Hebrews sermon and saying, “But Rahab was … you know … she was a … a … a prostitute.” And our nervous nelly would not be wrong; Rahab was indeed a prostitute in Jericho. From this take with you this good news; as long as you still walk on this earth, it is not too late to trust in God – to place your faith in God – and to act upon that trust. And we “good Christian folk” had better realize that trust will not always be confined to our ranks. We are in no position to judge the trust of another, or to place restrictions on where that trust will show itself.
The good news in turn is followed by another word of warning. Our preacher starts to wind up the roll call by adding several more names without elaboration of their deeds, trusting the readers to recall them. Some of the names are familiar to us, or at least can be found in the Old Testament if you want to go looking, but some of what our preacher describes isn’t that familiar. Beginning at about the midpoint of verse 35, the fates of these heroes of faith take a rather darker turn, don’t they? Up to then it’s all winning wars and conquering and shutting the mouths of lions (sounds like Daniel there), but all of a sudden these fates turn a lot darker. Mocking, flogging, chains, prison; stoning, being sawn in two (!!!), being killed by sword; living in destitution, persecution, homelessness; again these are the “heroes of faith” we’re talking about here!
Real faith – genuine unalloyed trust in God and the willingness to act on it regardless of care or consequence – does not always win us any popularity medals. Anyone who tries to tell you that a life of faith is a “get out of trouble free” card is not speaking truth to you, and if that’s what you’re looking for this isn’t the place to find it. Nor does a life lived in trust in God seek to avoid them, but to endure them, to surmount them like our hurdler from earlier, and to continue to run the race. Again with the athletic metaphor! But now that metaphor is about to break down.
We are about a week into the Olympics now, and several “heroes” of the competition  have emerged. There’s the amazing gymnast Simone Biles, flying in ways humans shouldn’t be able to do. Or the swimmer Katie Ledecky, winning races by margins that television cameras can’t measure – they can either show her, or the swimmers behind her, but not both. Or the men’s swimmer Michael Phelps, who by winning his thirteenth individual gold medal across multiple years of Olympic competitions broke a record that has stood since literally before the birth of Christ. There have been amazing and unbelievable individual performances and team performances all over Rio de Janeiro.
Our Hebrews preacher, in 12:1, invites us to imagine a scene not unlike one you might see in Rio. A “great cloud of witnesses” in the culture of the time might have been a reference to the crowds gathered to watch one of the athletic spectacles of the time, whether those ancient Olympics in Athens or other competitions in other major cities of the Roman Empire. In this case, that “great cloud of witnesses” is gathered to watch … us. We are running “with perseverance the race that is set before us,” in the presence of those saints who have already run the race set before them.
But here’s where our Olympic images break down. We don’t compete with each other. We run together, so to speak, and I don’t “lose” and you don’t “lose” and if there are any medals they’re all the same color. We run, only fixing our eyes on  the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” Jesus Christ. The only glory we run for is the glory of Christ, the one whose run was one with its own humiliations, dying a death of crucifixion that was about as opposite to the glory of the stadium as it is possible to be.
All those saints who have come before us, Enoch and Abraham and Moses and Rahab and all of them, ran their race. Some of them didn’t even get to see the prize in their lifetimes. Yet as our Hebrews preacher said in last week’s reading, they saw the promises and greeted them from afar, looking forward to a “better country, a heavenly one,” a “heavenly city” God has prepared for them, prepared for us. They ran, we run, others will run the race after us. We each have our own race set before us, but we run together, all towards the same pioneer of our faith.
Let us run with perseverance. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#385            All People That on Earth Do Dwell
#438            Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me
#730            I Sing a Song of the Saints of God
#543            God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me

Credit: But we are surrounded by that cloud of witnesses...

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon: Faith: A Matter of Trust

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 7, 2016, Pentecost 12C
Faith: A Matter of Trust

What is faith?
That might seem a strange question to ask in this case, since in the very first verse of today’s reading from Hebrews we get what has become one of the more familiar verses of scripture as a seeming definition of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” or “substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen” if all your memorized scripture is still in the King James Version. (I hate to break it to you, but  "assurance" and “conviction” is actually a better word to correspond to the Greek here.)
It’s a beautiful verse, true. Maybe too beautiful. We hear it and get lost in the mellifluous poetry of it all and maybe we don’t always bore down into it to understand just what’s really going on.
Fortunately, the author of Hebrews (which really is in effect a sermon rather than a letter) doesn’t stop with the lovely poetry, but pushes forward to flesh out the picture of faith with a couple of further elaborations and then a whole bunch of examples.
This isn’t a bad thing, and maybe at this point it’s a particularly beneficial thing for us modern Christians, who have a habit of using the word “faith” in some strange ways.
If you go to and look up the word “faith” you get seven different definitions, some of which are clearly not quite what our preacher is talking about here and some of which might just be part of the story. The sixth and seventh definitions have to do with “the obligaion of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.” and “the observance of this obligation,” which do sound a bit like the Hebrews preacher in some parts of this chapter. The fifth definition, “a system of religious belief,” is acceptable I suppose, but we have better words for that – “theology” or “doctrine” or even “religion” itself seem closer to the mark there. And the second definition, “belief that is not based on proof,” sounds very much like our preacher here in verses 1-3.
But the sticking point comes in comparing the third and first definitions. The third definition, “belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion,” seems to be the definition we are most likely to use these days. We speak of “faith” rather often in reference to a mere assertion of belief in God. “I have faith” ends up meaning little more than “I believe in God,” or “I believe x about God.” We assert a particular set of propositions or statements about God and call that faith.
At the risk of offending, if our Hebrews preacher were to hear us use the word “faith” today, he (or she) might be tempted to borrow a line from the character Inigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride: “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What our preacher is telling us in this passage, what our preacher wants us to see in the examples of Abel and his faithful sacrifice; Enoch who “walked with God” and was taken up by God without suffering death; Noah who built an ark well before any rain fell; and yes, Abraham who set out from the only home he knew and followed God to a strange new land; what Hebrews wants us to see in all of these examples (and more to come later in the chapter) has basically nothing to do with fealty to a set of doctrines or teachings. That’s not the faith that moved these ancient ancestors.
The synonym for “faith” that Hebrews wants us to hear is not “belief”; the synonym Hebrews wants us to hear is “trust.”

Abraham didn’t set out from Ur and journey into that strange land because he had memorized the Apostles’ Creed or the “Roman Road” to salvation. Abraham made that journey, followed after God with his wife and his household and his complete lack of children, because somehow in that moment of call, somehow in that moment of being called out by God to take on this strange and terrible journey, Abraham trusted God. Noah certainly didn’t build an ark in the midst of a dry season in a dry land because somebody handed him a gospel tract and told him to believe it. Noah, crazily and unbelievably, trusted God.
And this might be why the Hebrews preacher might go all Inigo Montoya on us and question how we use the word. We’re very good at asserting beliefs, we moderns, and very good at beating up on those who don’t assert the same beliefs that we do and even declaring them to be “outside the faith.” I have no doubt you can find that kind of “faith” at dozens of churches in this town. But the kind of faith that shows real trust in God? The kind of faith that steps out with zero visual evidence ready to follow the crazy and unexpected path that God sets before us? Yeah, not so much.
But that’s the faith that Hebrews urges upon us. Faith that trusts God, convicted of things not seen, not worrying about what’s behind us but set on what God points to ahead of us, faith that actually dares to encounter God instead of merely talking about God? That’s the faith of Hebrews 11. Trust is not the end point of that faith (that’s next week’s sermon), but it is its start. And that’s the faith that will matter in a faithless world.
For trust in God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#838   Standing on the Promises
#817   We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight
#538   Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises

#321   The Church’s One Foundation

Credit: It's not a contest...

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithless?

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2016, Pentecost 11C
Luke 12:13-21

Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithless?

I am curious to know: how many of you remember Robin Leach?
If you don’t remember his name, maybe you remember the name of the show he hosted for many years on television:
(with accent) THIS is…Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!
It was a show back in the 80s and 90s devoted to … well, it’s hard to make it any clearer than the title itself. Insanely opulent mansions, ridiculous limousines and luxury cars, and yachts the size of Navy ships – but far more luxurious than any military vessel ever, populated by Hollywood stars, Saudi Arabian princes, minor European royalty, the occasional athlete, and even a casino and hotel developer who, coincidentally, is seeking a new job this year. You may have heard of him.
Anyway, the show itself (to its credit, I suppose) didn’t really pretend to be about anything other than ogling all the stuff. I never could decide if the makers of the show really wanted their audiences to feel sick and depressed about their own mundane lives, or if social consequences of any sort were even contemplated in any way. It was just out there, relentlessly displaying luxury after luxury for the … entertainment (I guess?) of its viewing audience. If your brain didn’t shut down due to the sheer sensory overload, you might have found yourself wondering … why do these people have this stuff? What’s the point? Outside of the occasional “I saw it and I just had to have it” (which of course is not really an answer), that question seems never to have been asked or answered, at least not on the occasions I saw the show (which were admittedly blessedly few).
Maybe the lead character of the parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke isn’t quite on the level of a featured rich person on that show, but he is rich, and we are told this by Jesus before we even know that he got such a super-abundant harvest. And in Luke, to be honest, “rich” isn’t always a good thing.
For example: even at the very beginning of this gospel, in the Song of Mary upon her meeting with Elizabeth, we hear that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). In chapter 6, Jesus proclaims a “woe” on the rich, “for they have received their consolation” (6:24).
The hits don’t stop coming with this reference in chapter 12. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in chapter 16, is particularly harsh. In that story, the rich man ends up in the torments of Hades, while Lazarus, the poor beggar who lay at his gate daily, was in eternal rest in Abraham’s bosom. It doesn’t go well for the rich man when he (still not getting his situation) asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dab some cold water on his tongue, because hey, it’s really hot down here. The denouement of that parable is perhaps the coldest cut of all, when Abraham declares that such persons would not be convinced of the errors of their ways “even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31).
And then there’s the rich young ruler of chapter 18 who, when challenged by Jesus to give it all away and follow, “became sad, for he was very rich” (18:23), an event that prompts Jesus to exclaim “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24), comparing the feat to getting a camel through the eye of a needle, but finally offering the hope that “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (18:27). Frankly the only rich person that really comes off well in this gospel is Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who pledges to give away for the poor and pay back any who have been defrauded.
So it’s not a surprise that this rich man here in Luke 12 is not going to turn out to be a good guy, but he does seem particularly tone-deaf, with his resolve to tear down perfectly good barns and build bigger and better, showier barns. Seriously, simply adding another barn would be a lot easier and quicker, and that’s before the moral calculus about a person’s responsibility with wealth.
Note that Jesus tells this parable in response to a man from the crowd calling out to Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. After an initial “who do you think I am?” rebuff, Jesus turns quickly to warning the crowd against greed, saying “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). Immediately after the parable Jesus launches into teaching that is very specific in its extension of this warning, inviting his hearers and us to look at the ravens who don’t plant or harvest, the lilies that “neither toil nor spin” (12:27) and yet are more glorious than Solomon at his most glorious. Finally Jesus gets to the point: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34).
Now by this point, you may have already begun to draw a conclusion about where this sermon is going to end up. Ugh, another sermon bashing rich people. And there is definitely a moral peril expressed in this parable. The more wealth and possessions one has, it seems, the greater the danger of becoming attached to that wealth and those possessions in a way that clouds one’s spiritual judgment. It may be a cliché to say that “money can’t buy happiness,” but clichés often become clichés because they are true enough to get repeated over and over again, which seems the case here.
Perhaps more significant than simply the insufficiency of money to procure happiness is the utter inadequacy of money as a substitute for a relationship with God, which seems to be where the man who decides to build bigger barns goes off the rails. As Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper puts it, “The parable of the rich fool … illustrates simply and memorably the futility of choices made in isolation from the love of God and neighbor.” Stamper continues to describe what is a central theme, not just in this parable but in the whole gospel of Luke: “the problem of wealth in the context of the holy kingdom where closeness to God is life and attachment to things reflects soul-stifling anxiety and fear.”*
The particularly damning part of the choice the “barn man” makes in this parable is that only one person seems to factor into it: himself. There’s no notion that he even has a clue there might be others in his town in need. There isn’t even the notion that his workers (which he would have had to have if the harvest was that plentiful) might benefit from some portion of that harvest. He sure looks like a man who never learned the basic lesson we tend to expect our kids to learn by kindergarten: the lesson of how to share. To modify a quote that has become a popular social media meme recently, it never occurs to this man that, having more than he needs, he might choose to build a longer table instead of bigger barns.
But of course, this being a parable of Jesus, the simple answer is not quite the whole answer. The dirty little secret about us modern folk, even us modern Christians, is that we don’t have to be “rich” by the standards of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or other such popular measures to become attached to our stuff in a way that hinders closeness to God. Heck, you can even be homeless and be powerfully attached to your stuff. If we look deeply enough, we can all find some element of that unhealthy attachment in ourselves.
For myself, it would probably be books or music. For you it might be some other possession – not necessarily a pricey thing, but some thing or things to which the attachment might be so strong that it has the power to cloud one’s spiritual discernment. Whatever might be the case, attachment to the things of the earth is a moral peril to the degree that it precludes or hinders attachment to the things of God, to the “treasures in heaven” we are encouraged to store up, to the neighbors around us whom God calls us to serve.
You see in your bulletins today a survey from the Finance and Stewardship Committee, one that begins the process of discerning how we will steward our resources for the forthcoming year. The word “stewardship” tends to feel loaded and burdensome to us in such a context, but at its most basic it speaks to this question of how we participate in the kingdom of God, as a church and as individuals, and how we make use of the resources we have been given – the harvest we have gathered, so to speak – to participate in that kingdom and its work. In that process the challenge before us, this year and every year, is to do so without becoming attached to those possessions or resources themselves, but to see them as gifts from God to be given in service to God and neighbor, something that “barn man” never seems to have grasped.
We don’t need to have crazy luxury around us, or Robin Leach ogling our stuff on behalf of millions of TV viewers, to fall into the trap of attachment to things that cannot give life. None of us are beyond that trap. Only when we see what we have through the eyes of the kingdom, fully recognizing God and neighbor in our decision-making, do we begin to get free of that trap. Only then do we see that building bigger barns is not the answer.
Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#307            God of Grace and God of Glory
#417            Lord Jesus, Think on Me
#822            When We Are Living
#716            God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending

Credit: Enough is never enough...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: What to Pray, or How to Pray?

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2016, Pentecost 10C
Luke 11:1-13

 What to Pray, or How to Pray?

It is one of the most familiar things we do in the church. Whether as the body gathered in worship or each of as individuals in our own quiet time, Christians pray.
It is also, quite possibly, one of the most – if not the most – misused and abused practices of the Christian faith. It can be used before a Friday night football game as a kind of sanctified middle finger at anybody in the crowd who does not claim Christianity. It can be appropriated by political parties as a insinuation that God endorses our candidate and hates the other one (I promise I wrote that line before the RNC last week). It can be used, as Jesus shows in a parable about a Pharisee in Luke 18, as a means of proclaiming one’s righteousness to the derision of other, presumably less righteous folk around the one praying. Prayer can be abused quite prolifically, and it sometimes seems the more public the prayer, the more abuse of prayer is involved.
That is a danger, but there are others. Maybe for the church itself the danger is something different; the danger is, perhaps, that we pray without remembering how, or why.
It’s possible something like that was in play as the disciples approached Jesus in today’s account from the gospel of Luke, in which they ask Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples” (v. 1). Now we can’t be exactly sure of what this means, whether there was a manner or a style or even a fixed text that John’s disciples had inherited from the one called “the Baptizer.” Whatever it was, Jesus’s disciples wanted Jesus to give them that same thing, but it’s not necessarily a given that what they asked for was what they got.
You’ll no doubt have noticed that the text recorded by Luke is not quite the same as the version we’ll be saying later in the service as we typically do, when the pastor doesn’t forget. Luke’s version doesn’t include a few of the familiar phrases that are in that popular version, which is patterned after the text recorded in Matthew 6. Luke records the address of the prayer as simply “Father,” instead of “Our Father in heaven” as in Matthew; “your kingdom come” is not followed in Luke with “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”; and the end doesn’t include the plea about not leading us into temptation. But perhaps the most jolting difference is in what happens when, after we have prayed for our daily bread, we turn to the petition for forgiveness.
We say, “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Other denominations borrow from different text translations and say “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” – that seems particularly popular among Methodists. This of course leads to some amusing situations when “debts” and “trespasses” groups are together in the same service, and the running seminary-type joke about Presbyterians being obsessed with money while Methodists are fixated on property.
The really interesting part, though, is in the little words. Matthew records Jesus telling the disciples to say “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Luke’s version is a bit different; “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Whoa. The prayer Jesus gives the disciples assumes that we are forgiving those who do us wrong. We state this, if we pray the prayer this way. I don’t know about you, but thinking about the prayer this way would give me pause before launching into the prayer. Umm…am I really living up to that?
Even with all this just within the model prayer that Jesus gives, Luke records more, and we miss out on what Jesus wants his disciples to understand about prayer if our reading ends before we get to this part. It’s possible, though, that across the centuries our minds haven’t always been attuned to this instruction very well for one important reason; what Jesus has to say here is not about us, we who (with the disciples) are seeking some kind of nailed-down instructions for getting exactly what we want when we pray. Jesus isn’t giving us a formula for Praying the Perfect Prayer; Jesus wants us to understand the God to whom we pray, the God Jesus calls “Father”.
Jesus gives us this instruction in a mini-parable and a handful of seemingly silly hypothetical examples. The mini-parable is one that has confused readers more than once. A man unexpectedly receives a guest at midnight (remember, we’re in an age before 24-hour quickie-marts or Wal-Marts), and goes to his neighbor to plead for bread. The neighbor is already tucked into bed, the house all locked up (in a modern retelling we’d say the alarm system was already set), and it would frankly be a big hassle to get up and fish out a loaf of bread. However, the petitioner is persistent, and Jesus notes that even if the neighbor’s friendship or “neighborship” isn’t enough to get the man out bed, he’ll eventually get up and give him bread just to get him to go away.
When readers stop here we get a strange picture of God, as some cranky old sleepyhead who has to be pestered into answering our prayers. Needless to say that’s not Luke’s point, which we understand when we finish the whole teaching episode. So, let’s finish the teaching episode.
We get one of Jesus’s more eloquent sayings in Luke’s gospel; “Ask … search (or “seek” if your memorized scripture mental file is all in the King James Version) … knock” is one of those eloquent passages that stays with us pretty effectively. But again, we can get crosswise if we stop here.
Verses 11 and 12 can be a little troubling for us. In the age in which we live, it is sadly easy to imagine parents who would give their children a snake when they ask for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. We know that fathers (or mothers) aren’t always kind or giving to their children. We know too well that fathers (or mothers) can be abusive, destructive, or even deadly to their children. We really need to listen to the cries of those for whom the word “Father” does not bring forth an image of a loving and caring parent, but instead summons nightmares and trauma. We do not need to be so attached to our particular words and phrases that we cannot hear the pain of those for whom the words are not words of comfort and reassurance.
But finally, we get to the key point that Jesus is trying to get us to hear. It’s worth hearing again:
If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

While we might not be keen on being called “evil,” hear what Jesus is saying: we (Jesus’s listeners) know what it means to give our children good things. We know how to do the right thing for our children. If you have ever been a parent, you probably learned along the way that being a good parent is quite a different thing than giving your children everything they ask for. I’m just gonna guess that you never gave your six-year-old a chain saw as a toy. I am sure she was a clever child, but probably she’s not quite ready for that kind of thing at this point, and (I’m just guessing) you knew that. We give our children what they need, not necessarily what they want.
If we have enough basic sense and enough basic goodness to do this (or most of us, anyway) for our children, how much more will God do likewise? How much more will God give us what we need when we ask? God knows us well enough not to drop ten million dollars in our laps just because we ask. God knows us well enough to know what kind of jerk we’d become if we suddenly had that dropped in our laps – possibly much more destructive than the six-year-old with a chainsaw. 
I am pretty sure that the Rolling Stones were not seeking to express a theology of prayer in their song, but it’s actually not a bad summation; “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find … you get what you need.
This is a hard truth. We don’t always get what we want when we pray. If we always got what we want, Lynette Ramer would be here with us this morning if she weren’t off on vacation, instead of at her home under hospice care. But if we continue to pray for Lynette, we just might find that she gets the peace and the rest she needs.
We don’t always get what we want when we pray. We pray for peace, not just in Baton Rouge or Orlando or Nice, but also in Munich or Baghdad or Kabul, and yet the assaults and the attacks and violence keep happening. But if we continue to pray for peace, we just might find that we become the bringers and makers of the peace that we need.
How much more will God give us the Holy Spirit when we ask?
How to pray: we give God the glory, we ask for what we need, we forgive, we pray persistently, we trust God to give us what we need – we trust God to give us the Holy Spirit. Maybe that’s not as easy to memorize, but maybe that is what we need to hear.
For a lesson on how to pray, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#728            Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door
#465            What a Friend We Have in Jesus
#464            Our Father, Which Art in Heaven
#39              Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Credit: Of course, in our church we say "debts"... ;-) 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon: One Thing

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2016, Pentecost 9C
Luke 10:38-42

One Thing

Last week’s sermon was about doing. The Samaritan was, in the words of the lawyer interrogating Jesus, “The one who did mercy to” the man who had been assaulted by robbers. Being a neighbor was ultimately about who came to the aid of the one in need.
Today’s sermon is going to sound like a contradiction to last week’s. The one who is busy seems to be castigated and chastised for doing the work of serving, important and necessary work. What it does represent, instead, is a need for discernment, for each one of us.
This is a very familiar story, this one of Martha and Mary.  It’s too familiar.  The story is often told and preached with particular “tweaks” added and unexamined presumptions included without even thinking about it.  And, with its two female protagonists face-to-face with Jesus, it is a major, major trap for any preacher who falls into the mistake of “choosing sides” with either industrious Martha or contemplative Mary, or even of reducing the two characters to stereotypes of (female) Christian discipleship.  Given the (hopefully) evident fact that I am not female and the potential questions of gender roles and restrictions embedded like tripwires in this story, it’s too easy to get in trouble preaching this text.  Try to defend Martha, and you’re reinforcing old gender stereotypes about a woman’s place being in the kitchen – and only in the kitchen.  But, endorse Mary and her breaking out of that stereotype, and you’re still in trouble; now you’re endorsing the passive, submissive role of a woman sitting at the feet of a (male) authority figure.  Really, you can’t win.
Before negotiating this particular theological minefield, it is helpful to remind ourselves of where we are and how we got to this place.  The tenth chapter of Luke is part of this gospel’s travel narrative, the story of the teachings, confrontations, and other events that are recounted as part of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem.  The narrative actually is initiated towards the end of chapter nine, when the text notes that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.”[i] 
So far on the journey the primary events have included an unpleasant encounter with a Samaritan village, in which the disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in return for not receiving them (Jesus had to rebuke them for that); the “mission of the seventy,” part of the sermon two weeks ago,in which Jesus sends out pairs of disciples to preach, teach, and heal across the region, and from which those disciples return rejoicing that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us![ii]; and, finally, the story heard in last week’s sermon, in which a lawyer who challenges Jesus on the law ends up getting a lesson in being a neighbor. 
We do need to keep this background in mind, because it offers us the chance to break out of some of the assumptions and stereotypes that have clung to this story over the generations, and might allow us to hear in it a warning that is not at all gender-bound or stereotyped.
Jesus enters a village, where he is greeted by a woman named Martha who welcomes him into her home.  Catch that?  Her home.  Some scholars have suggested that Martha’s home might have been one of those visited by a pair as part of the mission of “the seventy.” At any rate, it is Martha’s home and her place to welcome Jesus. 
In the next verse sister Mary is introduced, sitting at Jesus’s feet as Jesus teaches.  Unlike the richly narrative account of the Good Samaritan incident, we get only bullet points here, and barely that – Jesus arrives; welcomed by Martha, etc.  Also, where’s Lazarus?  Don’t these two have a brother who dies and is raised by Christ?  In the Gospel of John, yes, but there is no mention of Lazarus here. 
Back to the bullet points; Mary sits at feet, Martha distracted by tasks.  Now here’s the most fertile place in the story for readers over the ages to start “filling in” unmentioned details.  Think about it:  in your own hearing and reading of this story, what “tasks” is Martha distracted with?  Be honest – you don’t learn when you cheat. 
How many of you were picturing Martha distracted with “kitchen” tasks – cooking, or otherwise preparing a meal?  Or perhaps “cleaning” tasks? 
Now would we have conjured such images if the folks welcoming Jesus were two brothers named Samuel and Simon?
Over the years many, many scholars, commentators, preachers and others have presumptively “filled in the blank” about Martha’s tasks with the stereotyped “women’s work” of their own ages, so you’re hardly alone – you’ve been well conditioned.  But here’s where a bit of sermon rule-breaking comes in, about quoting Greek in your sermon (we’re taught not to).  Where the NRSV and other translations use the word “tasks,” the Greek texts have a form of the word διακονια.  It might sound familiar, or perhaps sound like the English word “deacon,” which indeed is related to that Greek word. 
Now διακονια has a wide range of meanings, centered around the concept of serving.  The kind of kitchen tasks we were just considering can be included but are hardly exhaustive of the full definition.  In fact, as biblical scholar Warren Carter points out, the overwhelming majority of the times when this author uses the word, either in the Gospel of Luke or the book of Acts, these domestic tasks are not what the author has in mind; rather, the tasks are those of service as in a “church” or church-like body, tasks that might include caring for the needy, distributing gifts given for the poor, or possibly even including proclamation (that would be preaching).[iii]  
Hmm.  Thinking of Martha and Mary as house preachers certainly puts a different spin on this story, doesn’t it? At any rate I hope this allows us to lay aside questions about “women’s work” and get to the vital word of warning to any follower of Christ, of any gender, who hears this passage today. 
In the movie City Slickers, one of the title characters, played by Billy Crystal, comes under the scrutiny of Curly, a crusty but enigmatic cowboy played by Jack Palance.  Crystal’s character is one of a handful of urban folk who have signed up for an authentic old-fashioned cattle drive; these folks are to Curly a confused and messed-up lot.  They come out to do a cattle drive thinking it will suddenly straighten out their confused and messed-up lives, when in fact those same confused and messed-up lives will just be waiting for them when they return to New York.  Curly continues to suggest that folks don’t take time to know what’s important; too many things get in the way.  To Curly the secret of life is: “this,” as he holds up one finger.  “One thing.”  Crystal’s character asks what the “one thing” is, and Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.” We, however, know what the “one thing” is, or at least should know.
The virtue of Mary in today’s scripture lesson is that, in that moment, she chose “the better part,” or as the Greek texts would really translate, the “good part” or “good thing.”  That does not mean that such passive sitting is not always the right thing to do.  But in that moment, with Jesus in the house teaching, Mary figured out what the “better part,” the “good thing,” even the “one thing” was and fixed on it.  Martha, on the other hand, got distracted or disturbed by many things when the “one thing” was sitting in her living room. 
The tasks of ministry are needed, now more than ever.  But without the “one thing,” the teaching, the life, the very presence of Christ at the center of our doing and serving, the work too easily become distraction, disturbance, even uproar and damage to our faith.  And we can’t afford that. 
We live in a world where society is too willing, gleeful even, to enshrine injustice into law, to establish poverty as a necessary or inevitable condition for others to profit, and to tolerate a tidal wave of abuses against our fellow children of God. Even so, we can’t lose the One Thing.  We must take the time, as counterintuitive as it feels, to stop, sit at Jesus’s feet, and listen. 
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner (yes, him again) warns us of just what it really can mean, and what it really can take, to stop and sit at Jesus’s feet:
What deadens us most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought.  I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort … than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer.  If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.

We really do have to stop and listen. Cut the chatter. Eliminate the noise. Stop and listen for the Word that gives meaning to our doing. Stop and hear the Word that is the motivation and source of strength for all of the tasks that await us as a church.  When we fail to do so, we get cut off from the One Thing that makes all the work and doing matter. 
On that day, that one time, Mary got it right, and as Jesus said, it wouldn’t be taken away from her.  Neither will it be taken from us to sit and listen at Jesus’s feet.  At least, not until it’s time to get back to work. 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal except as noted)
#309                                    Come, Great God of All the Ages
#450                                    Be Thou My Vision
#----                                    This One Thing Only, Loving God
#702                                    Christ Be Beside Me

1 Luke 9:51
2 Luke 10:17
3 Warren Carter, “Getting Martha Out Of the Kitchen,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996), 264-280.

Credit: It's a real clash, all right...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Meditation: High and Dangerous Waters

Another two-posted-sermon day. This was from Saturday, July 9, a meditation given at the closing worship service of a new-student program at my seminary alma mater. I was dumb enough to volunteer. Wasn't going to post, but decided, why not? But do remember the context.

Union Presbyterian Seminary
July 9, 2016, Communities of Learning Face-to-Face Worship
Genesis 7:11-12, 17-20; Psalm 69; Mark 1:4-12

High and Dangerous Waters

Have you ever been caught in an undertow? Out in the ocean, finding yourself suddenly a lot farther from the beach than you expected? I know some of you are beach people, so maybe you know what I'm talking about. An undertow or a rip current is a pretty frightening thing for an eight-year-old, which is how old I was when I had my first experience of one. Fortunately I was with an older sibling and a cousin who knew enough to paddle our little float sideways until we escaped the rip current and get back to dry land.
As much as water is a frequent metaphor in the church, I wonder if at times we lose some of the power of that metaphor in the way we use it. We’re all Psalm 23 and the Lord our shepherd leading us by the still waters. It’s a pretty image, one that has been reproduced in countless examples of artistic kitsch with Anglo Jesus cuddling an adorable baby lamb or something similar (paintings that will never get into the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). On the other hand, though, the psalmist who gave us the psalm we just sang looked at waters just a bit differently, in 69:1-2:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

That psalmist is hardly the only biblical writer who saw the waters as source of wildness and peril. The tale of Job features none other than God boasting of the untamed torrents of water, fathomless deeps, and the fantastic Leviathan that sported in the deeps beyond human comprehension. The story of Jonah also evokes the terrors of the sea, as Jonah is beset by storm, gulped up by a great fish, and finally spat up on the shore.
These are high and dangerous waters.
Perhaps the most dramatic such story of water and its terrors is the account of the great flood in Genesis. The outlines of the story itself I would imagine you know well enough; but let the description of the rising waters sink in. “The fountains of the great deep burst forth…the windows of the heavens were opened…” Waters so great and so deep that the mountains were covered – and not just covered, but overtopped and submerged. It is a terrifying picture. These are high and dangerous waters.
It’s not hard to imagine that later descendents of those Hebrew peoples had such stories in their heads as they made their way down to the Jordan to be baptized by this crazy wilderness preacher John, called the Baptizer. The Jordan was neither small nor still. Maybe it was just enough to convey the sense of danger that tradition had ascribed to waters in various ways in Hebrew scripture.
John himself was also a pretty good picture of wildness and danger. Mark, who is not normally given to great detail, slows down his account long enough to give us the “runway description” of John’s wardrobe and diet. Just imagine the fashion show: And the Baptizer is commanding the path down into the river today in an inverted camel-hair ensemble that just oozes unpredictability and danger, with a striking leather accessory around his waist…amazing how John keeps in fighting trim with his patented honey-and-locust diet… . In short, there’s no reason to think anybody saw this passage, this event, this baptism as normal or “safe” or “tame.” Even in the Jordan, these are high and dangerous waters.
Jesus is among these crowds, to be baptized by the eccentric wilderness prophet with the eccentric wardrobe and diet. At this point in Mark’s story, Jesus is just this guy, you know? Oh, except for Mark calling him “the Son of God” back in verse one of this chapter. He himself only shows up from Nazareth in verse 9, and like all of the other pilgrims to John’s baptism spot, he steps into the water and is baptized.
Then things get crazy, at least for Jesus. The heavens “torn apart” – don’t miss that! No mere “opening” or parting like those other wimpy gospels. “Torn apart”! The Spirit shrieking down like a dove, the voice from heaven … the waters of the Jordan turn out to be high and dangerous waters indeed. Oh, and then there’s a wilderness ahead, too.
Y’all are not doing a safe thing. You are starting an experience that, despite our best efforts to give you a sneak peek, will challenge you in ways you’ve can’t imagine. Your faith will be bounced around and challenged and bruised and even broken in some places. You will wonder what you are doing here, and why, why, why you put yourself through this. You will question your calling, your ability, and even your sanity.
And it won’t stop when you graduate and move into your vocation. You’ll be heading into a place where you won’t be able to leave town without wondering if the parishioner who has been battling cancer longer than you’ve even been in the church will succumb to it before you get home. You will go into a calling where you will see poverty you couldn’t imagine existing in the most impoverished places on the planet, and it will be in your own town. You may see literal high waters ravage your community, as one of my classmates has in West Virginia of late. You will see hatred and bigotry and cruelty to turn your stomach, and love and grace and mercy and joy beyond your imagination.
This font may not look like it, but it contains high and dangerous waters indeed. You have no idea where the currents will take you, what the skies will tear open and show you, what wilderness you’ll be driven into.
And Jesus calls you to dive in. 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)

#164                  Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways
#602                  Holy Lamb of God
#478                  Save Me, O God, I Sink In Floods
#482                  Baptized in Water