Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - The Word for Franchisees

Over the years I have come to realize that Christians approach the Bible from a number of different vantage points.  This cause lots of issues and problems, especially for Protestant Christians, with our greater emphasis on the witness of Scripture.  And today's reading may be one small case in point.

When Jesus tells "The Parable of the Wicked Tenants," how are we to appropriate his words?  For some the Bible is primarily a history, and so this is simply an account of Jesus condemning the Jewish authorities, a passage that provides "proof" that the new covenant through Jesus supersedes the old covenant with Israel.

Others, myself included, see the Bible writers as less concerned with history and more concerned with guiding Christians in their lives of faith.  Luke's gospel makes clear that the author expects his readers already to know the story of Jesus.  He wants to help them understand its significance for their lives.  And if Luke is not trying to relate "what happened," what does he expect his readers to garner from these verses?

Gentile Christians might have heard these verses very differently than you or I do.  At a time when most Christians understood themselves to be Jewish, the parable speaks good news to Gentile outsiders regarding their inclusion into the covenant. 

But what of us today?  If anything, modern Christians' attitudes are quite the opposite of those first Gentile Christians.  We aren't the latecomers to the party who others regard with suspicion.  We've been running the show for centuries.  Rare is the Christian nowadays who thinks of herself as a Jew.  We have taken our place as the tenants.  We've taken over the franchise.  And so, does the parable speak a different word to us as tenants, as franchisees? 

One of the fundamental claims of Christianity is that God's Word became flesh in the Incarnation.  Such a claim has interesting implications.  The Incarnation speaks of a Word that is not some static truth, but that is engaged with us, that seeks to meet us and to somehow change us in the encounter.  But reducing the Bible to facts with one simple meaning seems to deny God this freedom to move dynamically in our lives, to speak to us what is important for us to hear now, to say things quite different from what needed to be spoken to First Century, Gentile Christians in the Mediterranean world.

When we go to the Bible, what do we hope to find there?  Are we looking for "proofs," or are we hoping to encounter the Living God who seeks to transform us into something new? 

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

Until I became a pastor, I don't think I ever realized that the scripture readings for the first Sunday in Advent were always about "days to come," about the return of Jesus.  The first Sunday in the waiting and preparing of Advent is about waiting and preparing for the Kingdom.

Growing up I always thought that Advent was about getting ready to celebrate Christmas.  It was simply a way of building excitement prior to the big day, the church's equivalent of the shopping season.  But I have come to realize that Advent calls for a much more profound sort of waiting and preparing.

As much as I enjoy celebrating Christmas, the trouble with an Advent that anticipates nothing more than another Christmas is that it anticipates nothing new.  It anticipates a celebration, but one that only remembers.  It doesn't look forward to much.  When we've finished Advent and Christmas is done, nothing will have changed.  We will put away the decorations and go back to life as usual.

But the promise of Christmas is that God has acted and will act in history.  The coming of Jesus is about a decisive break in human history that heralds a new day, one that the church is called to proclaim, enact, and embody until it arrives.  But we appear to have forgotten this.  We do not seem to think God will do anything on the earthly stage.  We've deferred all that until "after death."  When it comes to human history, many Christians imagine a remarkably impotent God.

But Advent calls us to look at the darkness of the world, the pain and injustice, the suffering and war, and to know that the coming of Christ is but the first act of a two act play.  Advent invites us to remember that God notices the world's pain and darkness, that God does act within human history, and that God will finally bend history to God's hopes and dreams.

In the uncertainty of our age, I think we would all do well to enter into Advent rather than a Christmas prelude.  We would do well to recall that the darkness of human history is the arena where Jesus appears, that the darkness of human history is what God will transform.  For when we can truly do that, we may be able to hope and live for something much more than yet another Christmas.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Quenching Our Thirst

I haven't made it out shopping yet.  Nothing against shopping.  I'm sure I'll enjoy doing a bit before we get too close to Christmas.  But I'll never be one of the those folks I saw on the news Thursday night; in line, dressed in pajamas, standing in the rain at the local outlet mall, waiting for the official midnight start of Black Friday. (The pajamas made people eligible for some sort of special prizes.)

One of the people interviewed on the news spoke of "living for" such moments.  I don't want to over-read what may be nothing more than hyperbole, but that remark made me wonder about what it is we "live for."  What is it that is truly meaningful, truly sustaining, truly feeds us at the deepest level. Such questions revived when I read from today's psalm.
   O God, you are my God, I seek you,
         my soul thirsts for you;
   my flesh faints for you,
         as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

I saw a Christmas themed Lexus commercial this morning where the narrator said something about how, if we're honest, we must admit we've never hoped for a smaller present.  Meanwhile a Lexus is packaged and wrapped in the driveway.  Again this is probably hyperbole.  Many people are happy with small presents.  But the commercial assumes we will get it, that we will nod our heads in agreement that bigger is better, that more will satisfy us better than less.

What would truly quench the thirst in many of our souls?  What would truly feed the hunger we have that we don't know how to satisfy?  Our culture says the answer is, "More, bigger."  But we never seem to be satisfied.  And our thirst never seems quenched.  Perhaps the culture is wrong.  But it seems so much more sensible than that silliness Jesus is selling.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Thanksgiving and Loss

We'll be gathering at the home of friends soon for Thanksgiving with all the fixings.  With several families bringing food, there will be no way to sample everything.  I'm sure there will be at least five or six choices for dessert alone.  Living a long way from my family back in the Carolinas, I truly appreciate being able to join with good friends on this day. 

But at the same time, I've been thinking a lot lately about Thanksgiving in the midst of loss.  That first Thanksgiving was born out of terrible loss.  Huge numbers of the Pilgrims had died, and the original Thanksgiving celebrated the fact that some of them were still alive and had food for the coming winter.  Not really about abundance and cornucopias.

In this morning's Columbus newspaper is a Thanksgiving story about a family whose toddler is alive because of an organ transplant, which of course was possible because of another family's terrible loss.  Then the pre-game show for the NFL game featured a reunion of those whose lives were changed by transplants from a football player whose mother made the choice to donate his organs after he was killed in a terrible accident.  And as a pastor I have regularly observed how people preparing for funerals often discover that this is the first time they have paused long enough to really remember and recall a loved one.  The thanks and gratitude of such moments is often poignant, and sometimes tinged with regret.

We live in a culture of accumulation and consumerism, and we often connect Thanksgiving with abundance.  But I do not think abundance produces the deepest thanks, something the writer of Psalm 116 seem acutely aware of.  I hope that is something I can keep in mind as I enjoy my Thanksgiving meal this evening.

This Thanksgiving, I pray that you have the time to pause, take stock, and give thanks for those deepest blessings of life.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Dinner at Your Place

I suppose it is a coincidence that on the eve of Thanksgiving the gospel reading is about Jesus having dinner at Zacchaeus' house.  Perhaps you remember Zacchaeus from the children's song; "... a wee little man was he."  Short Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see the Jesus parade passing through Jericho.  Jerusalem and the cross loom large for Jesus at this point, with Jericho the last stop before entering Jerusalem.  But Jesus brings the parade to a halt, looks up into the tree at Zacchaeus, and says, "I'm having dinner and spending the night at your place."

No one is much pleased about this, other than Zacchaeus.  Old Zack is a tax collector, which in the Roman world was basically a sanctioned criminal.  Jews like Zacchaeus had paid the Romans for their positions.  They had a set amount to collect, and anything they managed beyond that was theirs.  With Roman might at their disposal, they shook down their fellow Jews, growing wealthy as they robbed their neighbors and supported an occupying empire.  Of all the people for Jesus to pick.

On this day when lots of people are headed to Grandma's house, we hear Jesus invite himself to Zacchaeus' house.  No Norman Rockwell painting here.  Zacchaeus friends are likely as unsavory as he is, and the house is the product of ill gotten gain.  But there is Jesus at the table.  The occasion overwhelms Zacchaeus, who vows to turn over a new leaf.  And Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham."  In other words, the last person anyone would invite for Thanksgiving is restored to the community, is a beloved member of the family.

Thanksgiving and the upcoming Christmas season usually prompt an outpouring of help for the less fortunate, often in the form of food and dinners.  Our congregation does this as well, and many of the recipients are thrilled to receive what we bring.  But in my experience, the divide of "us" and "them" often remains.  So how do we become community?  How do we become family?

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Kingdom Priorities

As a pastor, I find that it is easy for me to get preoccupied with the tasks of professional ministry, so preoccupied that I can miss opportunities for showing Christ to others.  One of the big items in my work is Sunday worship.  It is important work, but I wonder what Jesus would think about the way I and many attending worship might respond to someone in need.  I can get so focused on the upcoming service that I become oblivious to much of what is going on around me.  And I mentioned in this blog before a time when the ushers at our church escorted a man seeking assistance out of the building, telling him to come back later, at a better time.

I wonder if I and those ushers and lots of other folks wouldn't have chimed in with the crowd in today's gospel who "sternly ordered" a blind beggar to be quiet when he cried out for Jesus' help.  Surely Jesus had more important things to do.  He has just told his disciples that he is headed to Jerusalem where he will be mocked, flogged, and killed.  He is on his way to his moment with destiny.  Surely he hasn't time for one so unimportant as this blind beggar.

Luke's gospel tells us repeatedly that Jesus brings a new day where the poor and unimportant are lifted up while the rich and powerful are pulled down.  God's kingdom is full of reversals, and Jesus enacts one as he heals this blind beggar, who then joins Jesus on the way.

In our current economic climate, lots of congregations and charities are hurting for money.  Many churches are struggling to balance budgets, pondering where to make cuts.  Mission dollars are often a tempting target because they represent the largest share of "discretionary" spending.  And a $5000 cut in mission giving is surely preferable to a $5000 cut in my salary. 

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - The Days Are Surely Coming

Spiritual Hiccups - Gratitude and Anxiety

Giving thanks is a fundamental act of faith.  The Psalms are filled with calls the give thanks and offer thanksgiving.  "O Give thanks to the LORD..."  In my own Calvinist tradition, gratitude is understood as the prime motivator of a Christian life.  And so this week when most all Americans celebrate Thanksgiving would seem to be a moment when an entire nation could engage in a shared religious experience without worrying too much about particular theological doctrines or differences.  So it would seem, except that we have a hard time squeezing much thanks or gratitude into what we call Thanksgiving. 

Most of us know some version of that first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims.  But aside from the fact of a meal, I'm not sure it has much in common with our celebration.  Theirs was centered around joy that they had survived, that God had provided (with the assistance of Native Americans being a significant part of that providence).  In the midst of suffering and death, of the very real threat that none of them would make it, God had seen them through.

But our version of Thanksgiving has become a celebration of abundance and excess.  We stuff ourselves, catch a parade, watch some football, and get ready to shop.  Some of us may offer thanks for all this abundance, but of course it is an abundance produced by our hard work and by American ingenuity.  It is not about God providing our daily bread.  It is all about having more.

Despite Jesus' repeated warnings on the subject, despite the Bible's repeated warnings, we have become a nation obsessed with consumption and accumulation.  The gospel that spews non-stop from our televisions and other media is that happiness is about having more.  And so we simply cannot reconcile our culture's gospel with what Jesus says in today's gospel reading from Luke.  "There is still one thing  lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor,  and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me... How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Our need to accumulate is rooted in our survival instinct, a drive to store up enough food to get through the winter and so on.  But of course our accumulating has nothing to do with survival.  Instead it comes from our anxiety, our worry that others may get more than us, our worry that there isn't enough to go around.  At a fundamental level, our need to accumulate is rooted in a fear that if we don't grab our share, we will be left out.  We simply do not trust that God's providence will be sufficient to give us all that we need.

I am suspicious that true gratitude becomes more and more difficult the more we have.  Wealth often breeds a sense of entitlement.  And somewhat surprisingly, wealth often diminishes generosity.  People of limited means are often much more generous with what little they have than those who are wealthy.  Having more, it seems, often leads to more anxieties and worries about holding on to it.  Perhaps this is why Jesus says wealth and the Kingdom of God are so incompatible. 

On Thursday, my family will join with a few others to celebrate.  We will enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie and good wine and many other delicious dishes.  I will have a grand time and wouldn't miss it for the world, nor would I begrudge anyone else such enjoyment.  But I do find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with just what it is that motivates me.  To what degree is my life an act of gratitude and thanksgiving?  And to what degree is it an attempt to accumulate things, status, reputation, respect, etc?  To what degree is my life a joyful response to God's gifts?  And to what degree is it an attempt to assuage my own anxieties?

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon audio - The Days Are Surely Coming

Text of Sunday Sermon - The Days Are Surely Coming

Jeremiah 23:1-6
The Days Are Surely Coming
James Sledge                                          November 21, 2010 – Christ the King

The other day I was flipping through the hymnal looking at the hymns listed as being for today, Christ the King.  Some of them are pretty well known: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!”  “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “Rejoice, the Lord is King,” to name a few.  Here is the first verse of another one.  “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now; a royal diadem adorns the mighty victor’s brow.”
When Jesus began his ministry he said, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  And now, on the last day of the Christian year, we celebrate that despite the powers-that-be trying to stop Jesus, despite their killing Jesus, he sits upon the throne of God’s kingdom, and the day is coming when everyone on earth will see his reign.
Christ is King!  All hail, King Jesus!  In a lot of people’s minds, the Jesus who died on the cross has now morphed into a king of power and might.  Some Christian writers go so far as to say that “the lamb becomes a lion.”  The Jesus who willingly suffered has been transformed into a warrior who will return to earth to set things right, by force if necessary.
Some of those hymns seem to hint at this.  Yes, Jesus suffered once, but now he is clothed in glory.  The crown of thorns has been replaced by a real crown.  The lamb that was slain is now “the mighty victor.”  That sounds a bit more like my image of a king, of God’s messiah.
We Americans don’t have that much direct experience with kings and royalty.  But I think most of us still have a pretty good image of them.  We’ve seen enough movies, read enough stories, and seen royals from other countries.  Think about the images that come to mind when you hear the word king.  Think about the things you associate with kings. 
There’s a king in the Bible who fits my stereotype of a king to a “t.”  It’s Solomon, who built the great Temple in Jerusalem, who was known for his wisdom.  Listen to this description of how Solomon lived.  Solomon's provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal  ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl…  (Solomon) also made a great ivory throne, and overlaid it with the finest gold… Nothing like it was ever made in any kingdom.  All King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the House of the Forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver--it was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon…  Solomon gathered together chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem… Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue. (1 Kings 4:22ff)  And I suppose I should mention that Solomon also had 700 wives, including a daughter of Pharaoh, and 300 concubines.  Now that’s a King!
So on Christ the King Sunday, perhaps we should picture Jesus like Solomon, only grander.  Except I’m not sure the description of Solomon is all that complimentary.  In the book of Deuteronomy, just before the Israelites cross the Jordan River to enter the Land of Promise, Moses recites God’s law.  The law on kings says, He must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, "You must never return that way again."  And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.  When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.  It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment. (Deut. 17:16-20)
I wonder if the prophet Jeremiah has these verses from Deuteronomy in mind when he condemns the kings and priests and leaders of his day.  Jeremiah says that the terrible events in Jerusalem, the coming destruction of the city and the exile of the people to Babylon, are because of bad shepherds, shepherds who didn’t care tenderly for the flock, but who enriched themselves and enjoyed the good life. 
And Jeremiah promises that God will not sit idly by forever.  Those shepherds who have not attended to the flock will themselves be attended to by God.  And God will raise up a good shepherd who will search for and find all the lost sheep, none shall be missing.
If Jeremiah was around today, I think he would find quite a few folks who fit, more or less into the bad shepherd role.  As our nation and the world struggle to come out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, CEOs of corporations that have laid off thousands of workers are being paid hundreds of millions of dollars.  And when these CEOs are let go, they receive severance packages and retirements that often exceed what the rest of us will make in a lifetime.
And if you can’t become a CEO, make it big in politics.  If you do, you will never want for money again.  I saw a report the other day on how, during the worst economy in my lifetime, the average wealth of those in Congress jumped 16% between 2008 and 2009, from $785,000 to $911,000.  Almost half in Congress are now millionaires.  And all US presidents, regardless of party, walk away from the White House rich, whether or not they were rich when they were first elected.  They almost can’t help it, with appointments to boards, invitations to speak, and book deals.
I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but I imagine that biblical prophets, who tended to speak large and use hyperbole, would have struggled to name the good shepherds of our day, the leaders who worry more about the sheep than themselves, who do not acquire great quantities for themselves, who do not exalt themselves over the other members of the community, who meditate day and night on doing what is right.  But curiously, when the prophets see their world falling apart because of bad shepherds, they do not hope for a return to the good ole days, but instead for a new thing that God will do.
I recently attended a retreat where the featured speaker was Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. He argued that one of the crucial tasks for the church in our time is to help our society move through a drama of loss and renewal.  And he says this can only happen when we look around us, speak the truth about our situation, lament the loss all around, and from there, begin to envision and hope for the new thing God is doing.
Facing loss, we often prefer denial.  We want things to get back to how they were.  We long for good ole days.  We speak of how we need to restore traditional values.  We fondly remember when there were 40 youth in the confirmation class. But the problem with all kinds of denial and nostalgia is they presume that some moment in the past is as good as it gets.  But as soon as we elevate any good ole day to such a pinnacle, we essentially deny the faith of prophets, the faith of Jesus.  We say that when it comes to our daily lives, to life here on earth, to history, God doesn’t have much to do with what happens.  God doesn’t matter.
And so in our day false prophets of nostalgia like Glenn Beck arise and insist that Jesus and the Bible don’t say anything about social justice, about a coming day when the poor are lifted up and the hungry fed, about a new day when the shepherds’ concern is only for the flock, not for themselves.
But prophets like Jeremiah stare into a time of defeat and exile, look at the ruins of a shattered Jerusalem, see the suffering of the poor and those caught up in the economic tragedy of that day and insist, “The days are surely coming…”  Jesus looks to the agony of the cross and insists that it will be a great victory for God’s kingdom that is drawing near.
And we, as we proclaim Christ our King, and as we offer our pledges to God, must decide what we will long for and hope for and work for.  As we see the world around us changing, as things we have counted on and enjoyed and grown comfortable with pass away, as we strain to see a future that is not at all clear, will we, like the Israelites who had escaped Egypt, look back in longing for the old, the familiar?  (Facing the uncertainty of the Wilderness, the Israelites begged Moses to take them back to the security of slavery in Egypt.)  Or will we trust that the future belongs to God?  Will we move toward something we can see only by faith, boldly proclaiming, “The days are surely coming…”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Not Sure I Believe That

When you read the Bible, do you occasionally find yourself saying, "I'm not sure I believe that?"  I know that I've upset people at times when I preached from today's gospel reading and highlighted the idea of God favoring criminals who feel bad about what they've done over good, diligent, religious people.  And even Jesus' statement, "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" can be problematic.  Do I really think being humble is a good strategy?  Do you?  I don't know.  I'm not sure I believe that.

We Protestants, with our focus on the Bible, don't like to admit to doubting it, but think of all the passages that trouble us, that we either ignore or use elaborate interpretations to make them say something other than what they actually say.  How many of us believe that wealth is one of the single biggest obstacles to following Jesus?  How many of us believe in turning the other cheek?  Much has been said about how few Christians regularly read the Bible, and I wonder if this isn't a strategy for avoiding those "I'm not sure I believe that" moments. 

I've said this before, but I increasingly feel that the end of Christendom, our culture's unwillingness to continue propping up the Church, is a huge gift.  When Christianity became wedded to the state, it had to become compatible with the state.  It had to tone down those teachings of Jesus that made people in power uncomfortable.  It had to ignore those teachings that undermined the national, military, colonial, economic, or other ambitions of the state.  And while Christian faith often mitigated some of the state's worst tendencies, very often the state did more transforming of Christianity that the other way round. And the Church compromised on modeling the ways of the Kingdom to the world.

But the culture has realized that it no longer needs the blessings of the Church.  It no longer is willing to send us members, shut down activity on Sunday morning, or augment Christian Education in the schools.  And so we are free.  Our contract with the state has been broken.  We no longer need sell our souls for the culture's promise of preferential treatment.  We can be the outposts of the Kingdom Jesus calls us to be. 

And that brings me back to those "I'm not sure I believe that" moments.  What if our discomfort with many  biblical teachings is rooted in that deal Christianity made with culture all those centuries ago?  And if so, don't we need to reexamine our discomfort to see if it's nothing but old cultural residue that seeks to distort the faith for the culture's benefit?

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - A Troubled Marriage

Today's reading from Malachi is probably not the best example, but it is one among many where God's relationship with Israel is described in terms of marriage.  And looking at a number of such readings, what strikes me is how God goes through the whole gamut of emotions we might expect of someone who loves a spouse dearly but discovers that the spouse is unfaithful.

Faced with Israel's repeated unfaithfulness, God's anger can boil up and issue in promises to destroy.  But then God can plead with Israel to come back, can speak of wooing Israel once again.  God's relationship with Israel is depicted as the source of endless emotional turmoil for Yahweh.  The decision to enter a covenant with them has complicated God's life in countless ways.

Christians - at least Western ones - often seem troubled by such a view of God.  Our understandings of divinity are much more influenced by Greek, philosophical thinking.  Parts of the New Testament itself have a bit more Greek, Western influence.  But of course all of that comes after Jesus, who is quite at home in the world of the Old Testament prophets, the very folks who spoke of God's inner turmoil.

And besides, what is Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane if not a manifestation of inner turmoil, a poignant picture of how complicated God's life is because of us.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Presumptuous Faith

If you've ever raised children, or if you've ever been a child (hopefully that covers everyone), you likely realize that young children do not often appreciate the care and nurture they receive from parents.  Providing food, shelter, clothing, and a variety and activities and entertainment is simply what parents are supposed to do, so overt displays of gratitude are rare.  Adult relationships can fall into the same sort of pattern, taking partners or spouses for granted.  But I think this is the norm with children.  Parents are doing their job when they provide for their children.

A similar dynamic can occur in the life of faith.  People of faith can easily perceive God in a manner similar to the way small children see their parents.  It is God's job to care for and provide for them.  After all, they are members of the faith family.  God is Father, and that's what fathers do.

That seems to be what is going on in today's verses from Luke.  The story is a bit sparse on details, but Jesus encounters 10 lepers who ask for healing.  Jesus sends them to the priests, a command that assumes a healing.  (The priests had to certify as clean those whose illnesses previously made them unclean.  Then they could reenter community life.)  When all 10 are healed along the way, one comes back to give thanks and praise, while the others precede on to the priest, and presumably back to their everyday lives.

As I said, the story is short on details, but it seems to imply that the other 9 are Jews while the one who returned is a Samaritan, a groups generally despised by the Jews.  For some reason, only this outsider, "this foreigner," as Jesus calls him, is moved to come back.  And this prompts Jesus to say to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

At least that's what my Bible translation says.  But all 10 were made well.  Surely Jesus means something more.  And in fact, the word Jesus uses literally means "saved."  And I am convinced that Jesus is saying that this outsider, this one who apparently is surprised enough by his healing that he must come back, has experienced something more profound than a healing.

In this story, the outsider seems to have the advantage, because the outsider doesn't presume as much.  This outsider doesn't presume a special relationship with God by virtue of his religion.  And so this outsider sees his healing as a wonderful gift.

Jesus speaks often of sinners and tax collectors going into the Kingdom ahead of the good, religious folk.  And perhaps this is one reason why.  Like children from nice homes who their care for granted, religious people are more prone to take God's love for granted, and so displays of gratitude are rare.

Often times when children grow up, they look back with regret on how little they appreciated their parents.  But I'm not sure that happens nearly so often in the lives of people of faith.  And I'm not really sure why.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Incendiary Words and Christian Nations

In our world of screaming television pundits, I sometimes wonder if any of them have read the words from today's passage in James.  "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire... For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

In an internet world, I suppose we should include the computer keyboard in James' diatribe.  The blogosphere is replete with wild statements picked up by others and passed on as fact.  A great fire indeed.

This may seem a strange segue, but I have come more and more to believe that the label "Christian nation" produces much more mischief than it does good.   The problem with such a moniker is that if this is a Christian nation, then what goes on in the nation must be, by definition, Christian behavior.  And while there are undisputedly many ways in which Christianity has influenced this country for the better, there is a great deal of our culture that is not and never has been Christian.

Take political discourse.  We all know how angry and shrill this has become of late, but in truth, yelling and screaming has been a part of our political process from the beginning.  200 years ago, politicians sometimes fought duels.  But Jesus says, "If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."  Apparently we decided not to go with Jesus on this one.

And this is simply one example among many.  The drive to acquire and accumulate wealth goes against many of Jesus' teachings.  The treatment of Native Americans and African slaves goes against Jesus' teachings.  Regarding any other person as a "them" rather than a neighbor goes against Jesus' teaching.

I presume that claiming the mantle of Christian nation is done with the best of intents.  But if Christians want to follow Jesus and be the light to the world he calls us to be, then we must be willing to be different from the world, including our own country, wherever it is at odds with the ways of God.

I cannot imagine any other country in the world where I would rather live.  But if someone who knew nothing about Jesus observed American culture carefully, do you think that the Great Commission, where Jesus calls us to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything he has commanded, would be enacted in their life.  If not, then we're not a Christian nation.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - It Leads to Something

Spiritual Hiccups - Dead Faith

I grew up in the Presbyterian tradition, which means I am a child of the Protestant Reformation.  For me this meant unquestioned assumptions about faith/belief as the foundation of any relationship with God, and about the Bible as the single authority for this faith.  These two are linchpins of Protestantism: justification by grace through faith and Sola scriptura (Latin for Scripture alone).

And so it is not all that startling to hear that Martin Luther supposedly wanted to exclude the book of James from the Bible.  After all, it said, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone," and Luther was the one who started the focus on grace and faith as the key. 

Personally, I'm glad Luther failed in his quest.  While I do hold to the the notion of right relationship with God being a gift, I regularly see the perversion James abhors at work among people of faith.  And so we need James to remind us that faith that bears no fruit is indeed dead.

Today's readings from Habakkuk, James, and Luke all point to a God who is extremely interested in the shape of society.  It is impossible to read such passages and conclude that religion is somehow unconcerned with politics.  God cares deeply about the plight of the poor, the sick, the homeless, the oppressed.  Biblically speaking, a private morality that does not share such concerns is not morality at all.  A faith that does not seek to redress systems that favor the rich over the poor is dead.

Looking at the Bible as a whole, there seem to be two big issues when it comes to humanity's relationship with God.  One is concerned with purity and God's holiness.  The other is concerned with a just society that cares for the most vulnerable.  In the Old Testament, larges sections of the law deal with each.  Purity laws address right worship, avoiding idolatry, sexual mores, and so on, while other laws require landowners to leave some of the harvest for the poor, mandate care for widows and orphans (the most vulnerable of the ancient world), and call for the regular cancellation of debts and return of land to original owners (the Jubilee year).  Some of the prophets worry more about the people's failure to maintain purity while others condemn the failure to maintain a just, compassionate society.

Among modern religious folks, there is a tendency for us to focus on one or the other of these.  Some see religion as primarily a matter of purity while others see it primarily about social justice.  And I wonder if this doesn't sometimes mirror the faith vs. works divide. 

I think we are always better off when we integrate both of these biblical concerns rather than choose one over the other.  Although it is worth noting that when Jesus finds himself in a situation where purity seems to conflict with social concern, he routinely ignores the purity rules.  He heals on the Sabbath, touches those who are unclean, or eats with sinners, never mind what the rules say.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Sermon audio - It Leads to Something

Text of Sunday Sermon - It Leads to Something

Luke 21:5-19
It Leads to Something
James Sledge                                                  November 14, 2010

On a fairly regular basis I hear people comment on the beauty of our sanctuary.  They may be first time worshipers or someone who has business at the church during the week or someone looking for a place to hold a wedding, but routinely people remark to me about how impressed they are with its Gothic style architecture.  And occasionally, members of box-style mega-churches want to know if they can have their wedding here in a “real sanctuary.”
The first time I saw the church property some ten years ago, the sanctuary grabbed me, both the inside and outside of the building.  But I suspect that our sanctuary would have looked quite unimpressive alongside the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple in today’s gospel replaced King Solomon’s which was destroyed by the Babylonians some 600 years before the time of Jesus.  It was a huge, grand structure described as one of the wonders of the ancient world and was constructed by Herod the Great about 20 years before Jesus’ birth.
This marvelous piece of architecture is known today only by ancient descriptions of it.  It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the only thing left a part of the retaining wall around the raised area on which the Temple itself stood.  We know this as “the Wailing Wall.”
Even this Wailing Wall is impressive.  So I can only imagine what it must to have been like for a Jew from the distant countryside, who had never been to Jerusalem, to visit for the first time during some festival and see that huge, towering Temple.  No doubt it left many awed in the same way some feel awed when they visit St. Peter’s in Rome.
And so it is hardly surprising that those with Jesus couldn’t help oohing and ahhing about how wonderful it was, about what an incredible religious experience it was.  Which must have made what Jesus said all the more stunning.  “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  
Imagine how people today would react if some sort of horrific event completely destroyed St. Peter’s.  Or on a secular level, imagine that something destroyed the White House, the Capital, the Washington Monument and just about everything else on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  What would people think?  What would they say?
Certainly some folks would be talking about the end times.  And that is precisely what comes to mind for those disciples who hear Jesus say the Temple will be torn down.  And so they want to know when this is going to happen.  “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
But Jesus does not answer their question.  In fact Jesus always tries to deflect his followers from worrying about end times.  He assures them that when it happens no one will be able to miss it.  But in the meantime, his followers are not to waste time speculating on when that day will be. 
How we act, how we live is not supposed to be influenced by whether or not we think the end is near.  Our lives are supposed to show the world the hope of God’s coming kingdom.  And Jesus tells his followers that when they face troubles, persecutions, and even death, these are not signs of the End, but opportunities. “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
Actually, that’s not exactly what Jesus says.  Bible translators like to clean up idiomatic phrases from the Greek or Hebrew, and I suppose that’s what they did here.  But what Jesus actually says about all this trouble is, “It will lead you into testimony.”  I kind of like the sound of that.  Their suffering is not just something to be endured.  It leads to something.
Our nation and many of its churches are going through some tough times of late.  The bad economy has left many without jobs, and it has left many churches, not to mention many organizations that try to do good in the world, hurting for money.  In the midst of all this, there is a temptation to view our troubles as ultimate troubles.  Still, I’m amazed at the number of Christians who think that the global economic crisis is a sign of the end times.  Christians, of all people, should know better. 
We should also remember what Jesus said about Christians facing great difficulties. “They are opportunities; they lead to something.”  At least they do for those who are willing to let the Spirit guide them.
When things are going badly, when money is short, when it’s hard to find much to be excited and hopeful about, the natural tendency is to hunker down, to hold on until things get better.  But I wonder if that doesn’t miss the sort of opportunity Jesus mentions.  Hunkering down probably doesn’t lead to much of anything.
But seeing hard times as an opportunity could lead to something.  For individuals struggling to get by with less money, it could lead to a reassessing of what is important, of what really matters.  It could lead to lives that are not so driven by success and things. 
And something similar could happen in many congregations.  Budget shortfalls could be an opportunity.  They could lead to a new clarity about who we are and what God is calling us to do.  They could lead to a new identity that better showed Christ to the world.  They could, if we are willing to let the Spirit guide us.
For this congregation, today is the day when we ordain and install new elders and deacons to lead us in our worship and ministry in the world.  As they take office they will make promises to God and to us that they will follow Jesus as they lead us.  I made exactly the same promises when I became pastor.  I was very serious about those promises and I suspect that they will be today as well.  But just as Jesus warns his followers that they must rely on the wisdom that he will give them, so we also must rely on the Spirit, on the wisdom that comes to us. 
But I know from experience, from watching elders and deacons at work, and from my own work, that we will be tempted to rely on our own wisdom.  God does give us gifts and talents, and we are to use them.  But if we do not rely on the wisdom Jesus sends us, we may well figure out creative ways to hang on and even to be “successful” but without the Spirit guiding us, it won’t lead to much.  But when we allow God to work through us, Jesus insists it will lead us to the new life God desires for us.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - God's Complicated Life

The God I came to know growing up was constructed from two primary sources.  There was Jesus, although he always seemed to me distinct from God in some way.  And then there was a very Western, philosophical, conceptual notion of divinity.  It was taught the Bible in church and probably knew it better than many people do today.  But somehow God always seemed more idea, more concept than some One.  And in my admittedly hazy recollection of worship as a child, the typical sermon was a reflection on some Pauline letter, a philosophical, theological treatise with an illustration or two.

I learned many Old Testament stories growing up, but for some reasons the God the Hebrews knew didn't impact my picture of God very much.  The Hebrews had a complicated relationship with a complicated God.  And I sometimes wonder if Christians' tendency to avoid the Old Testament is because we prefer to avoid these complications.

Israel understood that they had been "chosen" by God, but also that they have a covenant relationship with God that was contingent on their keeping their covenant obligations.  But they also spoke of a God who commitment to Israel caused God all sorts of trouble.  At times God seems to vacillate between punishing Israel for her covenant failures and continuing to be faithful to Israel despite her unfaithfulness.  God can come across as a spouse in a bad marriage who can't decide whether to get a divorce or reconcile.

A small glimpse of this complicated relationship is in one of today's psalms.  
   You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.
      Are they not in your record?  
   Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call.
      This I know, that God is for me.

To say that God is moved by Israel's sufferings is remarkable when you think about it.  God's emotional life is somehow invested in Israel, whose tears are collected and tossings are remembered.  This is no conceptual divinity.  This is a God who has for some reason chosen to have the divine life complicated by these human creatures, creatures who often turn out to make terrible covenant partners.

Some Christians consider these Hebrew images of God as primitive and not binding on them.  The problem with such a view is that Jesus is the example par excellence of God's complicated life.  God's commitment to Israel, and to humanity in general, draws God directly into the complexities and dysfunctions of human life.  In Jesus, basic Western concepts of God-as-perfection are violated.  God suffers.  God dies.

When I think about it, my image of my parents as a small child had some similarities with my picture of God.  It was a flat, uncomplicated picture.  Parents were undisputed rulers of their small universe.  There was nothing complicated about them.  Of course such views gave way to more mature notions of parents as complicated individuals whose commitment to their children complicated their lives in countless ways.

Perhaps Israel's messy, complicated picture of God is not the primitive one, but the more mature view.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Wrestling with Scripture

I've been blogging my thoughts and musings on the Daily Lectionary texts for some time now, and it has become an integral part of my day.  Often it is a rewarding process for me as I struggle with the Scripture's claim on my life.  But when I am looking at the various readings for a particular day, I often find myself saying "Nope, not that one."  Sometimes a text is too complicated to handle in a few paragraphs, but sometimes it says something I just don't won't to address or that I simply don't like.

Today's reading from Joel speaks of God paying back Tyre and Sidon and Philistia because they have hurt Judah.  Many passages in the Bible speak of God punishing, of God judging, and some of these passages present a picture of God that sounds almost petulant.

I think that most of us want a nice, clear, coherent picture of God, so most of us selectively read the Bible, finding those texts that fit the picture we have settled on.  And considering the high levels of biblical illiteracy among Christians, many people's picture of God is cobbled together from a tiny number of texts and from popular notions of what God or Jesus is like.

Earlier this week I heard Walter Brueggemann speak of how rabbis treat the Hebrew Scriptures as something "thick, layered, and conflicted."  Such a notion necessarily means that Scripture doesn't always have a clear, obvious meaning, that its meaning emerges as one wrestles with the layers and conflicts within it.

It strikes me that many of us try to project a picture of ourselves that is clear and coherent is the same way we do with God.  We like to keep hidden certain facets of our selves.  Most of us have a fair amount of messiness sloshing around inside of us.  But we often admit it to no one, sometimes not even ourselves.  Of course others sometimes know a person who is quite different from the image we have of ourselves.

I'm not saying that God necessarily has the same sort of internal messiness that we do, but I wonder if our aversion to such things doesn't make it difficult for us to wrestle with the messy picture of God that the Bible presents.  Conversely, how much richer might our faith become if we would actually wrestle with the thick, layered, conflicted picture that the Bible gives us, and see what blessings might emerge.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Spoiled Younger Siblings

I was the oldest of four children.  We came in pairs.  My brother and I were a year apart, and then after a several year gap, came another brother and sister, also a year apart.  From my perspective as the oldest, I was absolutely convinced that those younger than me got off easy.  To my mind this imbalance also grew worse as you moved down the line. 

And so I can commiserate with the elder brother in Jesus' parable.  He had worked hard all those years, always being "the good son."  But now his spoiled, rotten, no-good brother had returned home after becoming destitute, and Dad rolled out the red carpet.

Often when people hear the "Parable of the Prodigal Son," they focus on the love of the Father who welcomes home this undeserving son who has realized the error of his ways.  But I find myself drawn to the very poignant end of the parable.  It concludes without resolution, the elder son standing outside the celebration as his father pleads with him.  Did the elder acquiesce and go in?  Did he storm off?  Jesus doesn't say. 

I grew up in a nice middle class home where I really never wanted for much.  I may have thought I had to do more work around the house than some friends (and some younger siblings), but my life was pretty good.  I played sports, had a horse, was taught to water ski by my father, fished in a local pond, took my turn hand-cranking the ice cream churn on birthdays, and so on.  Still, it seemed to me that my younger siblings had it better and got off lighter.  I worked harder and got less for my efforts.  It wasn't fair.

"That's not fair," is a favorite lament of little children, which almost always arises from feeling they've been shortchanged in some way.  We humans seem acutely sensitive to others getting more or getting the same with less effort.  And I wonder if this doesn't grow out of a view of the world and life that is profoundly different from God's.  We operate out of the view that there isn't enough to go around.  And if that is true, then we need to be careful about getting our share. 

But if that view is entirely false, if God is a God of abundance, then such worries are foolish, like toddlers squabbling over who has the bigger piece of cake when both have been told they can have seconds, and even thirds.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - A Dynamic God

I grew up with a very static picture of God.  By static I mean things such as unchanging, immutable, immovable, and so on.  And while there is some warrant for this picture in the Bible, it comes mostly from Western, philosophical notions of God as the embodiment of perfection.  And perfection, by its very nature, cannot change.  To change, to become different, would be a move away from perfection.

Interestingly, the ancient Hebrews did not view God this way at all.  In the Hebrew Bible, God is incredibly dynamic, even emotional.  God gets angry, God is pleased, God makes plans, God changes plans, God brings punishment, and God relents from punishing.  In some places God is even said to "repent" of plans to punish.

In today's reading from Joel, the prophet calls the people to change their ways, to come before God with weeping and mourning and fasting.  "Who knows whether (God) will not turn and relent?" 

In the gospel reading, Jesus tells his parable of the lost sheep in response to questions about his hanging out with sinners, ending with this.  "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."  Perhaps it is not obvious, but if God experiences joy, then it seems that God can become happier than God was, which presumably means God can become unhappy.  And all of this describes a dynamic rather than static God, a God whose relationship with creation and humanity costs God something, cost God what scholar Walter Brueggeman calls "a disturbed interior life."

I wonder if this isn't a much more helpful way to speak of the cross.  Rather than some sort of sacrifice that God had to offer in order to placate Godself (When I say it that way I like the idea even less.), the cross is the embodiment of God disturbed interior life, the tremendous cost God endures in extending grace to us. 

When we think of "costly grace" rather than "cheap grace," we are usually talking about our accepting God's favor without it requiring anything of us in return, without it changing us.  But it seems that grace costs God quite a bit as well.

Letting go of a static picture of God challenges my Western notions of God as the very embodiment of the concept of perfection.  But not only does a dynamic God appear to be a lot more biblical, the hope of a relationship with a dynamic God seems a lot more plausible.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Letting Go

When we hear about Jesus calling his first disciples, we are told, "Immediately they left their nets and followed him... Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him."  And in today's gospel, Jesus turns to the crowds and says, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life  itself, cannot be my disciple."  Then after a couple of illustrations about calculating the cost of something before undertaking it he adds, "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up  all your possessions."

Following Jesus means letting go of other things.  It means turning loose of what had been the best hope for security, for protection, for belonging.  In the hyperbolic style of  Middle Eastern speech, Jesus' instruction to "hate" actually mean to "love less."  Still, there is a shift of loyalty, which requires old loyalties to recede.

I was at my local presbytery's "Church Professionals' Retreat" for the last couple of days.  It featured Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann talking about how renewal comes out of loss, but how it requires grieving and lamentation for God's new possibility to become visible.

I wonder if Jesus isn't speaking in a similar way here.  He is not saying that families and possessions are inherently bad things.  But just as a successful marriage requires "hating" (in the sense of loving less) parents and siblings and shifting one's primary love to a spouse, the new life that comes from Jesus requires a similar shift. 

For some people, the leaving home that comes with marriage and adulthood provokes a profound sense of loss.  But if a marriage is to thrive, somehow goodbyes must be said, old ways must be abandoned.  There is loss that must be experienced in order to move to something new.

If someone "hates" (loves less) spouse rather than mother or father, the marriage is on shaky ground.  So, says Jesus, trusting money or possessions to provide us security, happiness, fulfillment, or meaning makes it nearly impossible to discover our true humanity, our true selves in life as Jesus' family, as God's children.

Our culture works very hard to sell us the lie that we can have it all, and that chasing after it all is what we should do.  But Jesus insists that abundant life, true humanity, salvation, is about letting go of some things so that our lives can move toward their truest destiny. 

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Seeing What We're Missing

Sunday Sermon audio - Seeing What We're Missing

Text of Sunday Sermon - Seeing What We're Missing

Luke 20:27-38
Seeing What We’re Missing
James Sledge                                                            November 7, 2010

When I around 13, my brother came home with the comedy album, “George Carlin: Class Clown.”  This album contained the famous routine, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and so we had to be a bit careful about letting our parents overhear it.  But it also had a number of routines focusing on Carlin’s upbringing as an Irish Catholic.
Like many rebellious youth, Carlin had found the absurdities of religion, well, absurd, and he and his friends probably made life miserable for the nuns and priests who ran their parochial school. On the album he describes how they would try to trip up the priests by asking questions such as, “If God is all powerful can God make a rock so big God can’t pick it up?’ 
Or they would take a simple, straightforward rule, and then surround it with fantastic circumstances to confuse things.  As an example Carlin explains that Catholics were required to receive communion at least once between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost.  Not doing your “Easter duty” was a mortal sin.  And so the question for the priest goes, “Father, suppose that you didn’t make your Easter duty, and it’s Pentecost Sunday, the last day.  And you’re on a ship at sea, and the chaplain goes into a coma.  But you wanted to receive.  And then it’s Monday, too late.  But then you cross the International Date Line.”
I thought of Carlin when I read the trick question that the Sadducees pose to Jesus.  Just like Carlin, they take a simple, straightforward requirement of the law, and then place it into a set of bizarre circumstances.  The law in question is something called levirate marriage.  This law required the brother of a man who died without heirs to take his widow as a wife.  The purpose of this law was primarily to give that dead brother offspring so that his line would continue on.  But it also meant that these widows, who were extremely vulnerable in ancient times, would not simply be left to fend for themselves.
Now admittedly, levirate marriage is an odd concept to us, and so this whole discussion can be a bit hard for us to follow.  But just as people in that day had different understandings of marriage, of men and women, they also had different understandings of resurrection.
Luke points out that the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, but neither they nor Jesus understood resurrection to be about going to heaven when you die.  The Sadducees were what you might call fundamentalist traditionalists.  They said that if you couldn’t find it in the Law, in the five books of Moses, it just wasn’t so.  They tried to maintain beliefs that were the norm in Judaism back in King David’s time, one of those being that the only way you lived on after death was by having progeny, offspring who carried on your line.
But later Judaism drew on the prophets to envision a day when God did something wonderful and new, when a new age dawned.  When this new day came, when God created a new heaven and a new earth, there would no longer be the sound of weeping or the cry of distress.  And along with this hope grew a parallel hope that when God’s new day came, there would be a resurrection of the dead, and all the righteous dead would participate in the wonder of God’s new kingdom.  The Sadducees rejected these later “innovations,” but the rest of Judaism had embraced this idea of resurrection, this idea of resurrection as an event in history.  And this is what’s being discussed when the Sadducees try to trick Jesus.  On that day, when all the dead are raised, “whose wife will the woman be?”
But Jesus rejects their question outright.  All the layers of circumstance, the seven different husbands, don’t matter because resurrection is not at all what they imagine.  On that day, says Jesus, old categories won’t matter because nothing will be the same.  In that age they shall be “like angels,” which really tells us next to nothing.  Most of our images of angels are not found in the Bible.  And so we are left with Jesus saying that in the age to come, those who are raised will be nothing like they are now, but not really telling us exactly what that means.
Now since Sadducees don’t expect a resurrection to begin with, they presumably borrow a picture of resurrection from popular notions of that day, popular notions that Jesus dismisses out of hand.  And that makes me wonder.  Are our notions of resurrection and the age to come drawn from the good news Jesus proclaims, or are they popular notions that Jesus would dismiss?
Think about popular understandings of resurrection, about life after death and heaven.  Think about your own.  There are many possibilities.  There’s the ever popular getting your wings at the pearly gates and becoming an angel image.  There are various images of heavenly, pastoral bliss.  There is the gazing down on loved ones below image.  There are images of a vague spiritual well-being or bliss.  You perhaps have others.  Interestingly, none of these are in the Bible.  When the Bible speaks of resurrection or of the age to come, it resorts to simile and metaphor, to the wolf living with the lamb, to swords beaten into plowshares, to something so new and so wonderful that it cannot be accurately described.
I’m not trying to shatter any dreams here.  Rather, I’m wondering if we haven’t sold resurrection woefully short.  I’m wondering if Jesus’ vision of a new day, of God’s kingdom, of the age to come, boggles our minds so that we settle for something we have an easier time processing, things pretty much as they are now, but simply relocated to a better locale, to the nicer neighborhood of heaven.
I recently had a conversation with someone of deep faith, discussing how we seem to have replaced Jesus’ good news of the Kingdom with good news of going to heaven.  This person acknowledged my point, but went on to say that he did not see how even God could straighten out this world.  Yes, he said, the Bible does speak of a new heaven and new earth, of a New Jerusalem here on earth, of a redeemed creation.  But just look at the world.  It’s as messed up now as in Jesus’ day. So perhaps heaven is the best we can hope for.
Perhaps it is, that is unless we can see something that lets us hope for more.  And that is precisely what the prophets and Jesus do.  They see something other people cannot.  It’s in our reading from Haggai this morning.  Haggai says, “Look at the ruins of Jerusalem.  Aren’t they a dump?  But take courage for I see God at work!” 
You know, prophets are really strange dudes.  I know lots of people think that what makes a prophet a prophet is telling the future, but biblical prophets aren’t really about predicting the future.  Rather they glimpse a reality that other people aren’t able to see. 
When you think about it, Jesus is a pretty strange fellow, too.  And he sees things other people don’t, which is perhaps why Luke’s gospel calls him a prophet.  Jesus keeps saying, “Look, the kingdom of God has come near.”  And when they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, his followers see it, too.  And they form a strange new community, the likes of which the world had never seen.  And Jesus invites us to join them, to see as they see. 
Lord, send your Spirit.  Let us see what we’re missing.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Look at Me, Look at Me!

I've got the television on as I type, watching a college football game.  College rules don't allow the same sort of end zone celebrations seen in the NFL, but the players still strike poses, flex their muscles, and pat themselves on the chest.  Some of it is genuine celebration, but mostly it's a "grown up" version of "Look at me, look at me!"

Our culture is filled with variations of this.  People who quietly do their jobs without getting much notice rarely advance to the top of their company.  You have to call attention to yourself.  In my denomination, when pastors are looking for a new position, it works much like a secular job search.  We have to sell ourselves, trumpeting our strengths and minimizing our weaknesses so that a search committee will "Look at me!"

It's behavior that comes naturally to many, very similar to behavior in other animals.  Just watch a nature program that shows males posing and strutting as they seek to attract a mate.

So what do we do with Jesus' words in today's gospel?  "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Our culture doesn't value humility, probably because our culture is all about striving to make it, to get ahead.  At its very core, it is a culture of anxiety.  In our anxiety, we are perpetually worried about whether or not we've been noticed, about whether or not we're getting the credit we deserve.

Wouldn't it be nice to live life without worrying, without anxiety?  Wouldn't it me nice if we could simply focus on doing what God calls us to do, trusting that what we need would come to us?  That is, after all, what Jesus tells us when he says in another place in Luke, "Instead, strive for (God's) kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well."

We believe in Jesus, and we want to follow him.  But we sure have a hard time trusting him, don't we.

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