Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Huey Lewis and the Nones

"Jacob's Ladder," from the album Fore! (1896)

I met a fan dancer down in southside Birmingham
She was running from a fat man selling salvation in his hand
Now he's trying to save me when I'm doing all right
The best that I can

Just another fallen angel trying to get through the night

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob's ladder

Coming over the airwaves the man says I'm overdue
Sing along, send some money, join the chosen few, hey
Mister, I'm not in a hurry, and I don't want to be like you

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob's ladder

All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today

Step by step, rung by rung (higher and higher)
Step by step, rung by rung (climbing and climbing)
Step by step, one by one
Step by step, rung by rung
Step by step and step by step
Step by step

OK, so I'm out of seminary, searching for a call, aging (I'm less than half a hear from the next round number birthday) and perhaps getting a bit angsty about it.  One of the things I have been doing, when the mood strikes me to do so, is using iTunes to collect some of the albums or individual songs that were popular or significant for me at some point in my younger days (mid-twenties or younger, we'll say).  Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Billy Joel's The Stranger (which got a little action on this blog at the time),  and Don Henley's The End of the Innocence would be among the albums so gathered.

The most recent such acquisition was the album Fore! released by Huey Lewis and the News in 1986.  Their previous album Sports had been one of my earlier pickups, and Fore! had the added benefit of having the single "Hip To Be Square," which played a major role in my college experience (you'll just have to wonder).  But when I started up the set I was reminded of the first track, a minor radio release called "Jacob's Ladder" (you can see the lyrics above, and see a video here.)

Not quite on the level of Sports, but a good album nonetheless.

Let us not ascribe undue profundity to Huey Lewis (as Bret Easton Ellis apparently did).  For one thing, I'm pretty sure Lewis himself would reject it.  While there is the occasional song with some lyrical heft to it in the catalog ("Walking On a Thin Line," from Sports, comes to mind with its PTSD-suffering persona), most of the band's songs are designed simply for having a good time playing/listening to vaguely old-fashioned rock and roll.  This, despite the stupidity of some critics, is a good thing.

"Jacob's Ladder" didn't make a whole lot of impression on me back then, when my highest ambition was to be a minister of music in some Baptist church somewhere.  Hearing it again for the first time in ages, now seeking a call as a Presbyterian pastor in an age where the church is in a panic over its advancing numerical decline, the song found a nerve that it never did before.

Despite my clickbait title, this is not the Anthem of the Nones or any kind of spiritual-but-not-religious motto.  The characters are thoroughly cliche (a fan dancer? really?), the type easily skewered by anyone with half a brain (the female counterpart to the TV preacher in the second stanza was the type that the late Jan Hooks recreated so wonderfully, no doubt with the benefit of experience growing up in Georgia and Florida), the reaction sentiment so easy as to be cheap.

And yet...and yet and yet and yet.

If Mr. Lewis and his cohort has reminded us of anything, it is that the condition in which we find ourselves is not a new thing.

No, Huey Lewis is not champion of the Nones, and I have no idea if he is spiritual or not or religious or not.  What he does do, though, is remind us of (1) the way the church got to be so easily dismissed by the nones or SBNRs, and (2) that this process has been underway for quite a while.  Remember that Fore! came out in 1986; that's twenty-eight years ago.  And before that you could see things like the Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah, or the movie Elmer Gantry, or any number of reminders of the corruption that too easily and too often is foisted upon the world by the church in the name of Jeeeeezus.

The miracle is that there aren't more nones or SBNRs.  The church has been doing its damnedest to run them off for decades if not centuries.

At the same type it is a cheap stereotype as well.  Even as the fat men sold salvation in their hands and the TV hucksters huckstered (if that's a word), as the church sold indulgences and ran inquisitions and defended slavery and did all manner of evil, the church was also doing good.  That doesn't get attention, of course.  But the church, even as it has never been as good as it claimed to be, has also never been as bad as others portray it to be.

But I digress.  The indifference to the church that fosters none-ness and SBNR proliferation well predates "Jacob's Ladder," and it isn't going to be solved in twenty-eight years either.  For the church to undo the damage it has done to its own reputation is going to be a long haul, longer even than my own ministerial career (if that ever happens).  And we can't have screwups like the Mark Driscoll fiasco or the Hillsong abuse case continuing to spring up in the church's more fame-oriented precincts either.  I'm not advocating that we go all willy-nilly on throwing doctrine and instruction to the wind, but we are not going to fix our reputation with orthodoxy.

We have to do right, and get it right.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Help (not pity, or encouragement, or comfort) wanted

I'm not doing well at being "present" lately.

I'd say it's a symptom of my situation.  A large part of my attention is naturally on the ongoing search for a sustained call of some sort.  The problem is, I'm letting that ongoing process consume all of me at times.

Aside from a few days of vacation last week (nice, but maybe a little over-busy or over-scheduled?) I tend to get a lot of my attention sucked up by that search.  With a slice of attention left for sermon-writing and other current requirements, and a small bit for following the Kansas City Royals' improbable postseason run, there goes my life.

To put it bluntly, there's only so much I can do.  I can keep my pastor information form (famously called the "PIF" in Presby circles) up to date, I can have it sent to churches with a vacancy I might fit into or pastors who can forward it around, and I can do some research or reference-checking on the churches that have indicated an interest in following up with me.  With occasional exceptions, that's about it.  An actual scheduled interview warrants more time, obviously, but there is not a lot else I can do as far as the search process itself.

I could do other things, like write potential articles or studies or reviews for publication, or write hymns or responses or benedictions or prayers or all manner of other liturgical things.  I could even blog on occasion.  I could go have lunch with people.  I could write letters (!!! -- o.k., maybe emails) to people I don't get to see in person that often.  I could read that growing stack of books on my nightstand.

But I don't do any of those things, because even when there isn't necessarily any specific constructive thing I can do search-wise, my mind is all sucked into worrying about it.  And I don't do those things that could be beneficial to my future or at least to my current state of mind.  And I get cranky, because I'm not being productive or creative or at least self-nurturing, and because I don't get any closer to a call by having all my attention sucked up by worry.

You tell 'em, kid.

I get distracted at work or when writing sermons, so I feel less successful or productive even in the work I have to do right now.  And I get cranky again.

Because so much of my intellectual and emotional energy is thus derailed, there's not much room for creativity.  This blog has mostly turned into a sermon-posting place.  It's not bad for this, but that is not all it is meant to be.

Devotional or meditational life is obviously not helped by any of this.  It might escape me (when I have plenty of time to do it, bluntly put) or be flat and lifeless and pointless when I do get to do it.  That doesn't help.

This will be a short entry (frankly, the point was to get a blog post done, period, even if I only typed in dictionary entries), but I will flat-out say there are things I don't want to see in response to this (normally I'm begging for comments, but this time I'm nearly forbidding them).

If you are one of my recent classmates who is already in a call, you don't get to say anything.  Period.  I am not even remotely joking.

If you attempt to "comfort" or "encourage" me, I promise you I will absolutely cut you completely out of whatever social-media life you accessed this article from.  Unfollow you on Twitter, unfriend you on Facebook, whatever.  I am not despairing of a call.  There are enough balls in the air, to use a juggling analogy, to keep me from that.  I know what I'm good at doing, and don't need to be told that.

If you even think of quoting lyrics from this to me you are dead to me.

What I'd be happy to receive; some strategies for dealing with the ennui or energy-suck of the waiting process.  Do I just need to make like the professor I used to be and assign myself a blog entry or hymn text a week or something?  What is a good plan of attack for getting myself off that mental block?

If you're also in this spot, feel free to commiserate.

What I do not want is to let myself be defined by the current state of the search.  I need to be a creative, spiritually growing, contributing person, not a sack of worry.  That's bad for me, bad for my wife, bad for everybody.  So help me get off the pity train and get to being something other than that. (Private messages are fine for that.)  Assign me something to write or do, if you have an idea.

I need something, some thing (or things) to bring me back into focus.  That's what I'm in search of, nothing else, really.

Sermon: Always In Need Of Reforming

First attempt at a Reformation Sunday sermon.  

Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014, Reformation Sunday
Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28

Always In Need Of Reforming

This is, according to the calendars of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other demoninations in the Reformed tradition, Reformation Sunday.  Reformation Day itself, October 31, marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg, an event historically regarded as the initiation of the process that eventually came to be known as the Reformation, or at least the Lutheran Reformation.  Typically, most churches will observe that occasion on the Sunday before October 31, which is of course today.
As we are highly aware, Lutheranism is not the only tradition to find its roots in that century of protest and reconsideration; the work of John Calvin gave rise to a distinct and different tradition, one in which we as Presbyterians find our roots, albeit filtered through the work of another man, the Scottish reformer and firebrand John Knox.
Knox is a rather shadowy figure, at least in his early years.  We don’t even know his birth date or place for certain, although a decent amount of evidence suggests he was born five hundred years ago, and it was certainly somewhere in Scotland.  Knox had already embraced the principles of the Reformation before fleeing from England to Geneva in 1553, when the Catholic Queen Mary ascended to the English throne.  Knox studied and worked with Calvin for about six years there before returning at last to Scotland, where he became the principal figure of the Reform-oriented party in the Scottish kirk. 
Knox would be the principal author of three notable documents that played a major role in the shaping and growth of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition.  One of these is the Scots Confession, which remains in the modern Book of Confessions of the PC(USA).  Another was the Book of Common Order dating from between 1556 and 1564 (commonly known as “John Knox’s Liturgy”, an adaptation of Genevan prayer forms and texts for use in Scottish worship.  You might note that today’s Prayer of Confession is drawn from that liturgy.  Knox also wrote a history of the Reformation as it transpired in Scotland, though that was suppressed for many years and did not appear in a complete version until 1644, well after Knox’s death.

It's possible Knox didn't have a very healthy attitude about women, in power or otherwise.

It is good and right to take note of the events of the sixteenth century that set in motion our Protestant tradition.  Our faith and doctrine continues to be permeated and influenced by such figures as Luther, Calvin, or Knox in ways we may not even realize.  Luther’s fervent embrace of the scriptural teaching of salvation as a work of grace, outside of humanity’s efforts, remains a core principle of most Protestant traditions.  Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s fallenness and inability to save itself drives a reformed understanding of the need for God’s grace as well.
This understanding is incredibly important in Paul’s letter to the Romans, pervading the apostle’s writing throughout the epistle.  Our reading today from the third chapter of the book makes the case about as straightforwardly as possible, as Paul notes that the power of sin over us is so pronounced and so strong that no amount of works can save us.  Adherence to the law, as understood in the Jewish context Paul addresses in this passage, won’t do it.  We are not, and will never be, self-savers. 
I was not raised a Presbyterian.  My formative years – actually, all of my years through my mid-twenties – were spent in another denomination.  In that particular tradition a great deal of emphasis was placed on learning scripture, up to and including by memory.  As a result, I have a number of free-floating Bible verses in my head, and one of them sits at the heart of this Romans passage.  I can still produce verse 23 almost without thinking, as if by reflex – “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” – even though it’s still in the King James Version in my mental memory banks. 

Yep, this was me.  Second place in the state of Georgia in 1980, by one stinkin' point.

This was not necessarily a great thing.  This verse is actually an example of fairly inefficient verse division.  To read that verse as a stand-alone sentence – or, as in my case, to have it floating about my brain as a stand-alone sentence – is to fail to grasp its meaning, which is thoroughly embedded in the material surrounding it.  The full sentence, beginning in verse 22 and continuing verse 25, is this:

For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

This is a whole different kettle of fish, all of a sudden.  First we have to go back and look at previous passages to see just what Paul is talking about when he says “there is no distinction”; it turns out to mean that both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. Paul’s audience for this letter) come equally under condemnation.  Then, the old memorized part turns out to connect to the “no distinction” part as a description of why there is no distinction.  The real kicker is to find the next clause – “they are now justified by his grace as a gift…” following as the logical conclusion of that statement.  From there the sentence unfolds Paul’s understanding of atonement as enacted by God through Jesus, drawing on a fascinating image from Hebrew Scripture as described by scholar Frank Matera in which Jesus, on the cross, becomes no less than the “mercy seat” of God’s redemption of all of us.
My na├»ve youthful understanding of the verse was not necessarily incorrect.  As a factual theological statement, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” holds up well enough.  It is, however, woefully incomplete to the point of being misleading.  Paul isn’t handing us a club with which to beat up on ourselves and others as hopeless sinners; he’s pointing to the very reason we have hope at all, and ruling out that hope being found in our own doing.  As I became an adult and a more thorough reader of scripture, my understanding of this verse (and many, many others in the Bible) had to be reformed – not just modified or tweaked, but broken down and re-shaped, re-built, re-formed from the very base of the scripture – the whole scripture. 
I hope this offers some tiny illustration of the potential destabilizing power of speaking the church with the aphorism Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda – “the church reformed and always reforming.”  We as a church, even at our most well-intentioned, fall into bad patterns of behavior.  We close off.  We become more concerned with preserving ourselves as an institution than with living as the body of Christ.  We grow more obsessed with preserving our presumed influence in the world at the cost of being authentic witnesses to the world.  We hold on to what we should give away. 
The author Phyllis Tickle writes that the Christian church has faced, every five hundred years or so, some form of great upheaval producing profound and tumultuous change in the church.  If one takes the first century as the birth of the church, then the sixth century saw dramatic change forced upon the church by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; the eleventh century (or thereabouts) the Great Schism in which Eastern and Western churches were separated; and the sixteenth century the Reformations resulting in the numerous Protestant traditions.  And of course, we are several years now into the twenty-first century, about time for another upheaval according to that theory.  More of that change that nobody is particularly thrilled about.  Just wonderful.
What we as a church – even those eagerly prophesying upheaval and reformation and emergence and other such buzzwords – what we need to remember is that so long as we presume ourselves to be the author and agent of change, we are destined to fail. 
The various Reformations of the sixteenth century proceeded more or less from the same premise; that the (Catholic) Church that held sway in the West had become impossibly corrupt in a way that could no longer be tolerated.  Though Luther may have advanced many theological arguments, his most vitriolic attacks were directed in most cases against the selling of indulgences, a practice widely perceived as buying one’s way out of one’s sins and into a guarantee of heaven.  Luther found it impossible to square that practice with what he read in Romans – salvation as a gift of grace to all, because all have sinned – and finally could no longer remain silent. 
What are the challenges or corruptions in which the church might be complicit today?  Where is the church when it comes to speaking against the injustices of poverty, or racism, or sexism, or labor exploitation today?  Are we there, refusing to be silent?  Or are we too comfortable flexing our muscles on behalf of the rich and powerful?
Are we proclaiming good news?  Are we preaching an authentic gospel that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable?  Or have we become purveyors of a fake gospel that proclaims good news for me, but not for thee?
Where are the fault lines that keep us from a genuine, even troubling obedience to the witness of Jesus Christ?  What is the Holy Spirit saying to us in this time?  Where does scripture challenge us in our comfort and ease as a western Christian? 
To be sure, the purveyors of modern reformations often have an agenda to peddle.  That doesn’t mean, though, that the warning isn’t appropriate.  To hear the world tell it, our witness isn’t making much of an impression.  Between scandal-indulgent mega-preachers and somnolent churches indistinguishable from a particular political party, a great deal of the world around us has responded to the church with apathy.  Such designations as “nones” or “spiritual but not religious,” however nonsensical they may sound to our ears, don’t happen because of some super-secret spiritual warfare that only the elites know about, the kind that get made into thriller moves.  If anything, they happen because we’ve quit the battle for justice and retreated into our mighty fortresses of security and stability. 
Security is not our calling.  Stability is not our message.  Our message is the love of God, love that refuses to remain confined within the boundaries we draw for it.  Our message is the grace of God, grace that is applied to all, not restricted to any “chosen people” however that may be defined.  Our message is the justice of God, justice that stands on behalf of the very people our world deems least valuable and most exploitable.  And if the world seeks to squelch that, if the world tells us to be quiet and quit disturbing the peace – to go along and get along – then a little upheaval is long overdue. 
We do not know what the church will see happen in this century or any other.  We know that some individual churches probably won’t survive, some will thrive that don’t necessarily deserve to do so, and others will end up surviving, perhaps in a form it may not expect.  But what we do know is that the church’s call doesn’t really change as much as people might claim.  Love and serve the Lord; care for those in need; worship in spirit and truth; seek the word of God in the words of scripture; welcome the stranger; love one another; seek the Spirit.
To seek the Spirit, to be ready for whatever wind of change may blow through these walls, whatever reformation may erupt in our midst, is perhaps the most unnerving way for the church to live in uncertain times.  And yet that is our calling, nothing less than to be the body of Christ in a broken and fearful world, whatever upheavals may come.
For reformations past and future, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: (numbers from The Hymnbook – the infamous “red book”) Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (31), A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (91), Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me (271)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon: Glory and Uncertainty

Note: this was one of those weeks in which the course of the sermon changed dramatically a little after midweek.  I'm not entirely sure the whole sermon caught up with the course correction.  But, as they say, it is what it is.  These things happen sometimes.

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
October 19, 2014, Ordinary 29A
Exodus 33:12-23; I Corinthians 13:9-12

Glory and Uncertainty

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, there are over the course of the film a number of scenes, separate from the plot, in which couples, mostly couples who have apparently been married for some time, tell the stories of how they came together and fell in love.  One of the stories stands out from the others because this couple, unlike the others, was brought together in an arranged marriage. 
In telling their story, he (she never spoke) described how he had never seen his future bride at the time their marriage was arranged.  He did not complain about a marriage being forced upon him (it was part of his culture), but he was distressed at not knowing what his bride looked like.  Finally he describes how he snuck out one evening and made his way to her village to see her; once he had, he was very happy to go through the wedding.  But his earnest insistence – “I had to know;” “I had to see her” – stood out among those happy couples.
Silly as it might seem, that movie clip is a pretty good summation of how we human beings react in the face of uncertainty, the stressful and unpleasant business of not knowing.  It’s the unknowability and unpredictability that gives a sporting event its particular tension; can my team score one more run, sink one more basket?  In other situations it’s not such a benefit to our enjoyment of life.
It’s one thing in a movie.  In real life, I have to admit I’d have been pretty stressed if I had never met my wife before our wedding day.  There are situations, though, in which our human urgency to know, to be sure, leads us astray.  We feel compelled – we feel entitled, even – to know exactly how things are, what they mean, or what comes next.
In today’s lesson from Exodus we see one example of how that urge for certainty works, and sometimes causes us humans to ask things of God that simply are not ours to have.  The story at this point follows one of the lowest points of the whole Exodus narrative: when Moses took longer than expected to come down from the mountain, the people prevailed upon Aaron to gather up all the gold from among the Israelites and fashion a golden calf, a tangible image to stand in for the God who always remained just out of sight.  You might remember that one of those commandments God had given to Moses forbade exactly that kind of thing – no graven images, remember? 
The fearfulness of the people – their uncertainty in the absence of Moses and the unknowability of God – led them to demand an image they could see and touch.  No longer able or willing to maintain faith in God, they resort to the kind of idols and statues they had no doubt seen many times back in Egypt. 
Fear.  Fear is a powerful force against faith.  In fact, fear and faith, some say, don’t really coexist well together; the former tends to drive out the latter when it is not addressed.  In the case of the Israelites it certainly seems to have overcome their trust in God and Moses.
Given the horrific sin of the golden calf, God (who does this kind of thing in Exodus) is ready to be done with the Israelites once and for all, to wipe them away and start over, making a new nation from Moses as God had done with Abraham many generations before.  It is left to Moses to intercede for the Israelites, and he does so forcefully.  First he demands to know that God will go with the Israelites, not only not wiping them out but continuing to be with them directly as God has done so far.  Moses and God engage in some hair-splitting as to whether it is sufficient for God to be with Moses, or if God must be with all the Israelites.  Even when God seems to acquiesce in Moses’s demands, Moses keeps pressing for more, and God keeps consenting more. 
To be fair, Moses is in a difficult position.  He can no longer trust the people.  Not only have they committed the grave sin of the golden calf, they have shown themselves to be profoundly unreliable and willing to turn against Moses at the drop of a hat.  However, he also knows that if God disposes of the Israelites, or if God abandons them on their journey, they don’t stand a chance.  Moses pleads with God, not just for his own sake, but also for the sake of the people.  But again, there is fear involved.  Moses fears for the people, but Moses also fears for himself and even for God. 
And again, fear provokes Moses to go too far.
Earlier in Exodus Moses is described as speaking to God face-to-face, but this seems not to line up properly with how other parts of the book describe their encounters.  In most cases, such as in the delivery of the Ten Commandments, God is described as speaking to Moses directly, but not visibly—God is usually obscured in clouds or otherwise concealed from Moses.   For Moses to ask God directly to “show me your glory” as in verse 18 is to ask for the clouds and obscuring to be wiped away, and to see God in a literal face-to-face way.
God’s response to Moses is instructive, in a way that Christians of all times have tended to forget or ignore. 
Think for a moment of how one sees God portrayed in, say, paintings or movies.  Dazzling, even blinding light; all in white, of course, perhaps with a halo or aura of some sort.  And in a movie, God is given a deep, commanding voice, like Morgan Freeman’s for example.
Now think of visual portrayals of Jesus.  Even paintings of Jesus’s earthly time tend to want to “glorify” him in some way.  A halo again, possibly, or impossibly white robes despite being out on a dusty Judean highway.  The oh-so-perfect face, dazzling hair, the bluest possible eyes (despite the fact that for a citizen of that region of the Mediterranean is pretty severely unlikely to have blue eyes!).  The image is “glorified.”
Despite it being a basic tenet of our theology, we aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a human Jesus, doing human things.  It’s as if we have this subconscious notion that a human Jesus is not a holy Jesus.  A Jesus who eats or spits or scratches his head or any number of other peculiar human things somehow seems irreconcilable with the Son of God.  We tend to want to keep Jesus obviously holy, even distantly holy, in our visualizations.
Moses is pushing for something similar here, in a way.  By asking to see God’s glory (the word for “glory” is excruciatingly similar to the word for “face” in Hebrew, by the way), Moses is asking for the privilege of seeing God in the most God-like way possible.  Dazzling, glorious, unmistakably God. 
And God says no.
God will not show Moses glory; God will only show Moses goodness. 
God will show goodness.  God will show Moses that God is the Lord.  God will show Moses what it is to show mercy and to be gracious.  But God will not show Moses that face, that elusive glory.
You would think we would have gotten the message somewhere along the way.  What God wants us to see, what God wants to know of God, is goodness, mercy, grace.  These are the things God wanted Moses to see.  Those are the traits Jesus showed in his ministry on earth.  Goodness, mercy, grace.
And yet we keep asking for glory.
How best to put this?  It is not our calling to bask in the glory of God, direct or reflected or any other way.  Our calling is to live out God’s goodness towards one another and to God’s good world.  Our calling is to extend God’s mercy to those who – like us – fall short, who keep ending up in sin no matter how much we claim God’s redemption.  Our calling is to abide in God’s grace, and to extend that grace to the people and the world around us. 
And yet we keep asking for glory.
While putting up roadblocks to God’s grace, and being as unmerciful as we can to those we disdain or disagree with, while living as far away from God’s goodness as we can, we dare to presume upon God’s glory. 
At least the Israelites had the decency to be afraid after they built their golden calf.  We prop up all manner of images and idols for our adoration and don’t even bat an eye about it.  I don’t need to run through the list, do I?  Wealth, fame, power, youth – that just scratches the surface of the ways we practice forms of idolatry in routine, everyday ways.  And even in the midst of our adoration of these graven images, we dare to presume upon God’s glory. 
What God wants from God’s people, primarily, has been framed many different ways.  “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God,” says the prophet Micah.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus in the gospels.  “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” says Paul, “so that you may know the will of God.” 
This is what God wants fearful, angry Moses to see.  This is what God wants the mistrustful, weak Israelites to see.  This is what God wants us to see: what it looks like to live in God, what it is to live in the way that God calls us to live.  While we keep demanding glorious dazzling light and constant stroking of our fearful egos, God wants us out there living grace and mercy to one another and to the world. 
For a God who shows us goodness when we ask for glory, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: To God Be the Glory (363), He Hideth My Soul (120), The Solid Rock (92 -- numbers from Hymns For the Family of God) 

Just go ahead and chomp.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon: A Table With Enough For Everyone

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
October 12, 2014, Ordinary 28A
Ruth 1:22-2:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-22

A Table With Enough For Everyone

A few weeks ago, after my last visit to this congregation, my wife and I made a stop at a small stand selling fruits and vegetables, a few miles north of here on Highway 360.  We came away with several apples, mostly eaten by my wife; some peaches, several of which ended up in a peach crisp for dessert; and a goodly sized tomato that found its way into two very tasty BLT sandwiches that week.  Oh, and a jar of honey.
Living in an area where such goods can be found almost by accident, it’s easy to get spoiled.  Even in Richmond proper, the number of farmer’s markets dotted around the metro area over the course of a week can be challenging to keep up with. 
Those farmer’s markets, though, don’t cover the whole city.  Additionally, the large supermarket chains that so carefully preserve their dominance of the market in a city like Richmond are absent from many of those same neighborhoods.  If you happen to live in such a neighborhood, it can be profoundly challenging to find quality food for one’s family, especially if one relies on the circuitous bus routes of the city’s transit system for one’s primary transportation. 
So it is that, in close proximity to one another, one can find neighborhoods that qualify as “food deserts” – reflecting the lack of options for finding good, healthy food nearby – and neighborhoods with a glut of healthy and accessible food options.  Because one must not interfere with market forces, or because poverty is near inescapable once one is caught in it, no matter how hard one works, these inequalities of access persist over time, and indeed even grow more pronounced as well as persistent.
This phenomenon is only one of many that illustrates the complicated and difficult role that food plays in the modern, technologically advanced world.  In an age in which farms are capable of producing truly unbelievable amounts of food, the number of people across the world, and across this country, who go without food at some point in their daily lives continues to grow.  The food scarcity noted above is hardly restricted to Richmond, nor even to cities as large as Richmond – as this church evidently recognizes, based on the fact of the collected food I see when I come to preach.
Today marks the beginning of the Food Week of Action, sponsored by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, an agency of PC(USA) under the supervision of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  The Presbyterian Hunger Program, or PHP, works to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes, responding with compassion and justice to poor and hungry people in local communities in the United States and internationally.  It is supported by the One Great Hour of Sharing offering and by regular gifts to the Hunger Fund to support ministries of direct food relief, development assistance, public policy advocacy, education, and lifestyle integrity. The PHP seeks to fulfill its mission through strategic grantmaking, print and web educational and worship materials, partnership collaborations, and participatory programs that allow us to recognize and love especially the most vulnerable of our neighbors next door and across the planet. 
I suspect most Christians don’t need to be told that we are to care for and help provide for those who do not have enough to eat.  I wonder, though, how many would be surprised to realize just how much our scriptures have to say about food and how God’s children are meant to share it.  The scriptures read today only scratch the surface of the Bible’s content on the subject of food, stories that stretch from the many beautiful fruits of the Garden of Eden to the twelve kinds of fruits on the Tree of Life in the last chapter of Revelation.  On many occasions the gospels speak of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the sharing of meals, whether within the four thousand or five thousand fed from a few loaves to the turning of water into wine, to bread and wine broken and poured at one last meal with his disciples.
What we do have in these two stories, though, does illustrate two extremes in which the people of God have existed in terms of providing for one another.  In one story we see those with plenty taking care that those without do not remain without, while in the other no such care is evident.
Perhaps the book of Ruth is not wildly familiar to many people, or even many longtime Christians.  Today’s scripture picks up with Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth returning to the city of Bethlehem.  Naomi and her husband had left Bethlehem years before to escape a famine, taking up residence in the region called Moab.  Their two sons had married local women there, Orpah and Ruth.  First Naomi’s husband died, and about ten years later the two sons died as well, leaving Naomi with her two Moabite daughters-in-law.  Having heard that the famine had passed in Bethlehem, she resolved to return.  Orpah was persuaded to remain in her home country and return to her family, but Ruth would not be dissuaded from following Naomi to Bethlehem.
With no husband to either woman, Naomi and Ruth were left to the mercies of their kin in the region around Bethlehem.  One kinsman to Naomi’s husband, Boaz, had large fields nearby.  Ruth proposed to go gleaning—gathering up the grain left over after Boaz’s workers had first gathered all the grain they could.  In this time such was a custom that allowed for those without food to get food.  Boaz, though, could have placed restrictions on Ruth, or even forbidden her to glean in the fields.  Instead, Boaz not only allows for her to continue gleaning, but instructs his workers to protect her as she works, provides a little extra barley for her, and allows her to eat with Boaz’s own workers. 
Of course, if you do remember the story, Ruth ends up marrying Boaz, with a little machination from Naomi, and ends up becoming the great-grandmother of King David.  Still, this segment of the story is instructive of how Israelite society was structured in such a way that those without were not left without.  Even a stranger like Ruth was not set aside because of her foreignness, but was able to provide for her mother-in-law.  To be sure, Israelite society didn’t always work this well, but the law given way back in Moses’s time had evolved and been interpreted so that the Israelites knew that part of their covenant with God was the instruction to take care of the poor among them, whether they be native or stranger. 
The world in which we live is dramatically different than the world of Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.  Still, I wonder if we can, from our own daily experience, bring to mind those who – like Ruth and Naomi – live in a situation, or a system, in which their ability to provide for themselves is compromised.  They are unable to work, perhaps, and have no family to provide for them.  Or maybe they do work, maybe more than one job, but still cannot make enough to avoid having to choose between feeding family and paying rent.  They are out there, whether in the big city or a rural county, and they are who God calls us not to overlook like the rest of society does. 
We in the church, though, are not always ready to follow here.  Too often, the voice of the church is more prone to condemn than to show compassion – telling that one already working two jobs to “get a job” or blaming him or her for not working hard enough.  The church too easily looks for excuses to judge rather than seeking to find ways to show God’s grace to the ones in need.  Israelites like Boaz, out of the pages of Hebrew Scripture, judge our modern coldness and failure to live up to the standards God has set for us.
The passage from 1 Corinthians is regrettably a bit more reflective of the ways we are not always so prone to fellowship around the table.  Were I to have continued from the end of that passage, you would recognize the words of verse 23 and beyond as the Words of Institution spoken as part of the liturgy around the Lord’s Supper.  Our passage today, though, requires a quick explanation of the context in which the early church observed that sacrament, still a new and evolving practice at the time.
In the earliest days of the church the re-enactment of the Last Supper Christ had with his disciples, with the breaking of bread and pouring of wine that have become the core of the modern Lord’s Supper, took place within the context of a full meal with all of the community gathered together.  Meal practices of the time, drawing upon Greek traditions and Roman adaptations of those traditions, involved a sequence of different courses to the meal. 
Adapting these Greco-Roman practices to the particular interest of the Christian church involved negotiating several problematic features of those Greco-Roman traditions; among them the preference of more “important” guests of the dinner to be seated in places of honor.  This is also the background to Jesus’s teaching in Luke 14, where he instructs his disciples not to seek out places of honor at the table.  This wasn’t really compatible with the teachings of Christ, obviously, but sometimes the church had trouble remembering this. 
Apparently the church at Corinth was such a church.  As Paul describes what he has been told about the goings-on there, some families or groups were arriving early and gobbling up all the food, while the more needy in the congregation were left with nothing to eat.  Furthermore, the excessive behavior led to incidents of drunkenness and ill behavior disruptive enough to be reported to Paul.
Food is, when you get right down to it, a particularly strong example of God’s providence.  It sustains us.  As an added bonus, it’s enjoyable.  And yet we are too easily led to abuse that good gift one way or another, whether in taking too much for ourselves, or hoarding the good and leaving only poor-quality food for the poor, or abusing the labor of those who do hard, back-breaking work to provide the food we eat; or some other way in which we make something painful and elusive out of God’s good gift. 
May it never be so with us.  Sharing a meal with our sisters and brothers in Christ is not only emulating the model offered so many times in scripture, but is also one of the greatest pleasures we can enjoy.  When we share God’s good gift with one another; when we give respect and honor to those who take upon themselves the work of planting, nurturing, harvesting what we eat; when we give thanks to God for that labor and care, and for what we eat itself; we are living, in a microcosmic way, the fellowship of Christ in the family of God. 
For the good gifts of God’s creation, Thanks be to God.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (PH 482)
When We Gather At the Table (tune: REGENT SQUARE)
All Things Bright and Beautiful (PH 267)