Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Alabama Tornadoes and Dry Bones

When I stare at this morning's pictures from places such as Tuscaloosa or Pleasant Grove, Alabama, today's Ezekiel reading on the dry bones seems entirely appropriate.  Ezekiel's vision is meant to describe total devastation.  An army has been slaughtered on the battlefield and their bodies simply left to decompose.  There was death, destruction, and the final indignity of no proper burial.

Some of the scenes in Alabama and other parts of the Southeast seem every bit as terrible.  In places, nearly everything is gone, replaced by piles of rubble with a few skeletons of trees, their limbs and barks ripped away, poking up here and there.  The prophet Ezekiel could just as easily have been set down in a scene such as this and then asked, "Mortal, can these bones live?"

Gazing on such scenes, amidst unanswerable question of "How?" and "Why?" the immediate and pressing need is practical, hands-on help: rescue workers, places to stay, supplies, money, volunteers.  And as Christians, we are most surely called to help provide this.  But the need for hope is there, too, and that need will quickly grow.

During Lent our congregation has done a study using the book What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian: A Guide to What Matters Most.  The author, Martin Thielen, has provided an online study guide for such use, as well as a guide for an accompanying sermon series.  The final session for the seven week study - which our congregation will actually do this Sunday - is entitled, "Jesus' Resurrection: Is There Hope?"  And in the sermon helps is the story of tornadoes that struck Piedmont, AL in March of 1994.  A twister struck the Goshen Methodist Church as they celebrated Palm Sunday.  Nineteen people died, including the pastor's four year old daughter.  The pastor and 86 others were injured.  Pastor Clem performed 19 funerals that week, including her own daughter's.  And as the week went on, she began to get calls asking, "Reverend Clem, are we having Easter this year?"

Pastor Kelly Clem recognized that what people were really saying was, "Reverend Clem, we desperately need Easter."  And she realized that she desperately needed it, too.  And so she and members planned an Easter sunrise service.  And to a reporter's question about the disaster shattering her faith, she said that faith was what was holding her together, that all the people were holding on to each other and to the hope of rebuilding.  And she added, "Easter is coming."

On Easter morning, 200 people gathered in the yard of the destroyed church.  Pastor Clem, head bandaged and her shoulder in a brace, stood at a makeshift pulpit, opened a Bible, and read from Romans 8: "Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Why?  Why did the horrific events of last night happen?  I do not know.  I cannot answer such questions.  But I can answer Ezekiel's question.  Yes, these bones can live.  Nothing is beyond God's power to redeem and make new.  Nothing is beyond the hope of resurrection.  Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Thanks be to God!

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Bearing Fruit

One of the hallmarks of Protestantism is the idea of Scripture topping all other sources of information about God, salvation, true human life, etc.  Back during the Reformation, the Latin motto Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone, said that the Bible contained all that was needed for faith, life, etc. and that Church traditions needed to be measured and critiqued by Scripture.  (The motto never meant that no other sources of information were good or true or to be considered.) 

Therefore we Protestants like to think of ourselves as biblically shaped and formed.  We think of our faith and beliefs as embodying what it says in the Bible.  Unfortunately, we do not always confer with the Bible on these assumptions.  We simply assume that the beliefs we cobbled together from what we heard at church and what we picked up here and there are, in fact, solid biblical faith.

Yet the Protestant focus on "justification by grace through faith" - a very biblical idea - has often so overshadowed other parts of Scripture so that our presumed biblical faith gets reduced to, "Believe in Jesus and go to heaven."  The notion that God lovingly embraces us without regard to any merit of our own (grace) is a solidly biblical concept.  But the idea that God wants nothing from us other than to believe in or accept our "salvation" through grace requires ignoring large parts of the very Bible we claim as the source of our faith.

Today's gospel is simply one of many such texts.  Over and over in today's reading, Jesus calls his followers to "bear fruit."  He says to "abide in" him, which happens when we keep his commandments.  Now I don't suppose anyone is likely to keep Jesus' commandments without believing in Jesus, but clearly believing in Jesus and obeying his commandments are not the same thing.

I wonder if we Christians don't tend to get off track when we worry too much about "salvation," understood as getting into heaven rather than being left out.  What if we were simply left the "in or out?" question to the gracious love of God, and we focused on being disciples, on following Jesus, on bearing much fruit, on letting him show us the shape of human life as it is meant to be lived?  If the Church turned out people who lived in ways conspicuously different from the world, bearing much fruit and demonstrating the shape of God's coming Kingdom, I wonder if people wouldn't beat a path to our door to find out what we knew that they didn't?

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - If You Love Me...

If you love me...  That's a loaded phrase if ever there was one.  It can be used to coerce and manipulate.  But that is so only because we all know that love means something, that loving something or someone makes demands of us.  Saying "I love you" is a huge step in a relationship because it carries with it expectations of commitment and changed behavior patterns that fit with that love.

Some Christians seem to reduce the faith to a set of beliefs.  Believe in Jesus and you get a reward.  But Jesus himself doesn't speak this way.  Jesus asks people to follow him, to emulate the sort of life he lives.  And in today's reading, he predicates doing as he has taught on loving him.  "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

Now and then I have counseled married couples who are struggling.  Often both work very hard at the marriage and are more than willing to change their behaviors for the sake of the other.  But sometimes one or both seem unable to do so.  They are happy when "love" makes them feel good or meets their needs, but they seem incapable of doing something purely for the sake of the other, especially if that involves setting aside their own wants.  In my experience, such people are emotionally quite immature, and it can be very difficult for them to save their marriages unless they can do some significant "growing up."

Sometimes I think that traditional American churches have been very good at bringing people to immature faith.  Such faith is happy with the personal benefits of faith, but it never learns to go much deeper, to develop a loving, spiritual relationship with God that is happy to change behaviors for the sake of that relationship.

But in my own faith, and in the life of many congregations, I see hopeful signs.  And here I think the popular interest in spirituality has been a real blessing to us.  Despite how misguided some pop spirituality helps are, the spiritual hunger behind this has revealed the need for deeper faith relationships, a genuine need that the Church's traditional focus on doctrine and right beliefs has done too little to encourage and nurture.

If you love me... 

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sermon video - Christian Identity: I Hope

Better quality sermon videos can be found on YouTube.

Easter Sermon audio - Christian Identity: I Hope

Easter Sermon text - Christian Identity: I Hope

Matthew 28:1-10
Christian Identity: I Hope
James Sledge             Resurrection of the Lord            April 24, 2011

After many years of marriage, Joanne lost her husband following a long illness.  She took his death very hard.  They had a special bond, and she had been extremely dedicated to him.  She did not know who she was on her own, and she struggled to make peace with her loss, to regain any sense of normalcy in her life.
Joanne was also a faithful church person who wanted to help others.  And so after many, many months, she told her pastor that she would like to talk with those who had lost their spouse, to help them through what she knew was a very difficult time.  Her pastor thought that a wonderful idea and encouraged her to connect with a couple of members who had recently been widowed.
Sometime later the pastor received a call from one of those widows.  “How are you doing?” the pastor asked her.  She said that it was hard, but she was doing pretty well.  There were good days and bad, but the good seemed more frequent.  “I’m glad to hear that,” said the pastor.  “How can I be of help?”
“Would you please ask Joanne to quit calling?” she replied.  “I know she’s only trying to help, but she keeps talking about how it doesn’t get any better, how she misses her husband just as much today as the day he died, how the emptiness never goes away.  To be honest, I always feel a lot worse after I talk with her.”

  When we are going through a time of loss or tragedy, someone who’s been through it before can be a God send.  My mother used to volunteer for an organization called CanCare.  They connect peopled just diagnosed with cancer with someone who has gone through cancer treatment in the past. 
The idea is to provide a friend who has already been down this road to walk with the person.  But even more, it is to offer hope.  A CanCare volunteer can say, from real experience, “You can handle this.  You can do it.  Cancer doesn’t have to take over your life.  There is hope.”  That is why Mary’s help was so unappreciated.  It was totally without hope.
Most all of us go through times in our lives when we are lost or hurting or broken, and cannot see a way out.  And while it may be comforting to spend time with someone who understands how we feel, what we most need is hope.   We need hope that we won’t always feel this way, that it will get better, that we will find some meaning and purpose for our life, that we will find a job, that our children will be okay, that a broken relationship can be reconciled, that there is new life after a failed relationship.  We need hope that there is a way from where we are to some place better.
Hope was gone for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they set out to the tomb early on a Sunday morning.  They had invested all their hope in Jesus, and now he was dead.  They had followed him from Galilee, had used their savings to support him and his disciples.  But Jesus had been arrested, and his disciples had deserted him.  In Matthew’s gospel, no disciples are there when Jesus is crucified.  But these women are.  Perhaps they are close enough to hear Jesus when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  If so, it must have seemed that even Jesus had lost all hope.
I do not think these women hoped for anything as they went to the tomb, but their love for Jesus would not let them stay away.  Even without hope, they dutifully went to the grave.
But in an instant, everything changed!  An earthquake, a divine messenger, and those words, “He is not here; for he has been raised.”
In our society, Christmas draws a lot of people to Church.  That’s hardly surprising given the emphasis our culture puts on Christmas.  There’s joy and nostalgia and cute story about a little baby.  Even people with no real interest in Christian faith come on Christmas Eve to bask in the warmth of old traditions, the nostalgic glow, and the good cheer of the moment.
Easter, by contrast, receives nowhere near the cultural attention.  No radio stations have been playing non-stop Easter music in the weeks leading up to today.  Our culture’s celebration of Easter pales next to Christmas.  And yet the Churches swell on Easter morn. 
The reason is simple.  We need Easter a lot more than we need Christmas.  We desperately need to hear that the greatest moment of hopelessness the world has ever seen was swallowed up in God’s love.  “He is not here; for he has been raised.”  The very real power of pain and brokenness and loss and evil that all of us encounter, even the power of death itself, is no match for the power of God’s hope, the love of God that is stronger than anything in all creation aligned against hope and life and good.
Along with the author of the book we’ve studied during Lent, one of my all-time, favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption.  If you’ve never watched it, you really should.  Tim Robbins plays Andy, a bank executive falsely convicted of murder and serving two life sentences in a brutal penitentiary.   There he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a long-timer named Red, played by Morgan Freeman.  And despite his false imprisonment, Andy never gives up hope of someday being free, of one day opening a hotel and operating a fishing boat in a little Mexican town on the Pacific Ocean.  He even asks Red to be his assistant.  But Red warns Andy to let go of his hope.  “Hope is a dangerous thing,” he says.  “Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.”  But Andy will not let go of hope.  He even shares hope with others, building a prison library and helping inmates get their high school diplomas.
Finally, after nearly twenty years in prison, Andy pulls of a remarkable escape.  A full scale search ensues, but they never find him.  Not long afterwards, Red is finally paroled, but after a lifetime in prison, he simply cannot adjust to life on the outside.  He is all ready to commit some petty crime so he will go back to prison, but one thing stops him, a promise he made to Andy. 
And so he journeys to a field, finds his way to a particular tree, and the rock wall below it.  And there, buried at the base of the wall is a box containing money and a letter from Andy.  It invites him to come to Mexico, to help Andy get his venture off the ground.  The letter concludes, “Remember, Red.  Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.  I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.  Your friend, Andy.”
The very last words we hear in the movie are Red’s thoughts as he rides a Trailways bus to Fort Hancock, Texas.  “I hope I can make it across the border.  I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope.”

The angel said, “ He is not here; for he has been raised.”  And so I hope.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Loyalties

I've long been fascinated by the Gospel of John.  When I had to take Greek as a seminary student, John's gospel was the one New Testament book that I could sit down and read using my rudimentary language skills.  Yet despite being written with a grammar school vocabulary, the artistry of this gospel is nothing short of amazing.  John's use of irony (the real kind, not the way the word is most often used today) requires readers to stay on their toes lest they miss an important point.

Never is this more the case than in the events of the Passion.  As Jesus' trial before Pilate unfolds, the Roman governor speaks the truth about Jesus, calling him king, while the chief priests speak the Roman party line, warning Pilate not to be an enemy to the emperor.  At the height of this, when the priests cry, "Crucify him!" Pilate asks, "Shall I crucify your king?"  The priests respond, "We have no king but the emperor," and it is hard to miss that they have just pledged their allegiance to Caesar as king rather than God.

Of course they are not alone.  Jesus' disciples have mostly chosen self preservation over any loyalty to him.  Peter, who had insisted that he would lay down his life for Jesus, has denied even knowing Jesus in order to save his own skin.

A lot of us Christians like to imagine that we would never have joined in the calls to crucify Jesus.  Maybe we would have fled like the disciples, but nothing worse than that.  And that naturally raises the question of where our loyalty to Jesus lies along the continuum of all our other loyalties. 

Most of us have quite a few loyalties: our family, our school, our town or community, our church congregation, our country, our way of life, and the list goes on and on.  Much of the time we think of this as no problem at all.  We presume that loyalty to Jesus goes well with loyalty to family or nation.  Yet Christians with different values and politics (and loyalties?) often find it necessary to envision very different Jesuses to keep this lovely harmony of loyalties in place.

The fact is that Jesus says more than a few things that I prefer to ignore.  I'm not real big on crosses, even the metaphorical kind.  I tend to look out for number one a great deal of the time.  Never mind what Jesus says about giving myself away for the sake of the gospel.  Truth is, at times my loyalty to Jesus is rather conditional.  It depends a lot on how things are going for me at that moment.

And so I suppose it a very good thing that Jesus' loyalty, that God's love for humanity, is a little more absolute.  So says the cross.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Discerning the Body

When I was in high school, I briefly dated a girl who attended a much more evangelical sort of church than I was used to.  They didn't speak in tongues, but they did lay on hands to heal people and expected you to feel the Spirit when you were there.  On one occasion I was there when the Lord's Supper was served, and it was not the sedate sit in your pew and have the bread and little cups passed to you affair that I knew.  You had to get up and come to the table where you were served which was novel to me at that time.  But that was not the part that really stood out.  We were instructed not to come to the table until we could feel Christ's presence, until we felt the Spirit drawing us to the table.

Well I tried.  I bowed my head, focused, and concentrated.  I waited and hoped for something to happen.  I really wanted it to happen.  But after long moments of nothing, I became more and more aware of the movement around me as others went forward.  Eventually I looked up to see that most everyone had already gone to the table.  I was 17 and not real keen on being the one lonely person still in my seat, and so I got up and received communion, feeling just a little guilty.

I thought of that experience reading Paul's words about eating and drinking the Lord's Supper "without discerning the body."  Many people, myself included at one time, hear these words a lot like I heard the pastor's instructions about not coming to the table until I felt Jesus' presence.  But I'm now pretty sure that's not what Paul was talking about.

Paul certainly claimed to have had much more vivid spiritual experiences than I ever have.  But I don't think he talking about anything happening to the bread and wine.  I don't think he talking about how Christ is or isn't present in the Supper.  He's talking about a different body of Christ, the Church.

Paul is addressing a Corinthian church that is experiencing conflict and division, and he is calling them to be one in Christ.  He will develop the image of Church as the body of Christ in great detail a few verses on, but he has already said it here.  "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body."  Paul is calling the Corinthians, who are eating all the bread and drinking all the wine before the poorer members arrive, to wait for them and share with them.  For if they eat without discerning the body, the gathered body of Christ...

Presbyterians don't do private communion.  We can't serve communion only to the bride and groom at a wedding.  We have to serve the entire congregation.  And when we take communion to people in nursing homes, pastors are required to take an officer of the church with them, to in some small way to bring the congregation to the person. 

I once heard a story about a pastor and elder taking communion to an elderly lady who had been very active in her congregation, but who could no longer attend.  They read some scripture, prayed with the woman, and then the pastor began the familiar "words of institution" which come from this letter of Paul to the Corinthian church.  "The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread..."  As they served this woman, she closed her eyes and said, "I can see Mabel and Sue sitting in the choir, and I can see the Andersons where they always sit."  And for a moment, she was back in the sanctuary, joined to those people with whom she had worshiped and learned and served for all those years.

Now that's discerning the body!

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Judged by the Cross

I have to admit that for much of my life I struggled to makes sense of Jesus' crucifixion.  The typical, formulaic notion of Jesus dying in my (and everyone else's) place always seemed to describe a God who was bound by such formulas.  God couldn't simply forgive but was required to exact punishment.  Required by whom?

I was also bothered by what seemed to me a remarkable inconsistency on many Christians' part.  On the one hand we said that Jesus' death was a great and wonderful thing that broke sin and death's power over us, restoring us to relationship with God.  But yet people "blamed" the Jews for Jesus' death.  If the cross was somehow necessary for our sakes, then isn't God the one who actually required it?

And so as I became more serious about my faith, I was relieved to discover that the Bible talks in a number of different ways about the meaning of Jesus' death.  Even the Church, which usually likes to settle such matters definitively, never agreed on a single theology of Atonement, on how Jesus' death changed things.

I suppose I should have realized this much earlier than I did.  The mere fact that providence has bequeathed us four different gospels, each with a slightly different take on Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection, says that a simple formula won't work.  And then the letters of Paul and other letters and writings in the New Testament further wrestle with the meaning of the cross.

All these thoughts came bubbling up when I read John's account of Jesus praying shortly before his arrest.  Unlike in the other gospels, Jesus does not ask that he be spared from the cross, instead rejecting such a prayer saying, "No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."  And Jesus says his cross judges the world, and "the ruler of this world will be driven out."  He adds that when he is "lifted up," he "will draw all people to (myself)." 

In John, "the world" is not so much the earth and its inhabitants as it is a way of life that is contrary to God's will.  And here Jesus says that his death judges this way of living, reveals it for what it truly is, robbing it of its power to shape human behavior.  Hence Jesus "will draw all people" to himself.

I saw an intriguing quote the other day in the emailed devotionals I receive each day from Father Richard Rohr.  "The primary story line of history has been one of 'redemptive violence;' the killing of others would supposedly save and protect us. Jesus introduced and lived a new story line of 'redemptive suffering;' our suffering for others and for the world makes a difference in the greater scheme."  And when I read it, it struck me that we and our world are still very much caught up in the story line of "redemptive violence."  This way of the world is judged and condemned by Jesus' death, and yet we hold to this failed strategy, while rejecting the way of Jesus.  We seem remarkably resistant to Jesus drawing us to him and his way.  Perhaps this is why Jesus says so often that we must "Take up the cross and follow." 

But despite our resistance, despite our stubborn allegiance to the ways of this world, Jesus embraces the way of redemptive suffering for our sakes, not as a formula, but as the deepest embodiment of God's allegiance to us and our welfare.  Thanks be to God!

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Self Loathing

As the hour of his death draws near, Jesus says that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die if it is to bear fruit.  And then he says, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also."  

You know, there are some words of Jesus I sometimes wish had not made it into the Bible.  Here Jesus calls for hating our lives, and in a different passage, he says we must hate parents and family.  So much for family values.

I don't know if it was because of texts such as these, or if it was because of my own Presbyterian/Reformed tradition's focus on human sinfulness, or if it was simply my own tendencies, but I grew up with a fair amount of existential guilt.  I've always been keenly aware of my many failings, to the point of sometimes being my own worst enemy.  And yet the people drawn to Jesus seem not to act this way.  The followers gathered around Jesus often fail spectacularly.  They frequently are confused and befuddled by Jesus, unable to comprehend what he asks of them.  Yet they almost never seem to be beaten down or depressed.  If anything, the atmosphere around Jesus is most often one of joy, and when he speaks of the future, he talks of parties and banquets.

When I was in seminary, I learned that hyperbole was common in Middle Eastern, Semitic speech, and emphatic statements about hating your own life or your family didn't mean quite what they seem to in English.  They have nothing to do with self loathing, but rather are about what one loves most.  "Hate" means "to love less," and so they are about what animates and motivates.  Jesus is calling me to find my deepest meaning and purpose in life from outside my own small concerns, to discover a much deeper and more meaningful life in a life lived for and toward God and others.

Many years ago I was hiking in a National Park when I passed someone who asked me where I was headed.  When I explained to him the sights and views I was hoping to see, he told me that the trail I was on was quite arduous but there wasn't a lot to see unless I had time to follow it for a couple of days.  I said that I was thinking more in terms of hours, and he pointed me to another trail that yielded spectacular vistas.  My encounter with this helpful stranger led to a wonderful day, and I can't say that it produced any feelings of guilt of self loathing over my initial poor choice of trails.  

And Jesus says, "Follow me.  No, not that way, this one that I am showing you."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Not a Factual Statement

If you are a fan of Stephen Colbert, you likely know all about the fun he has had of late with a statement made by Arizona Senator Jon Pyl.  During the recent debate over the budget that nearly resulted in a government shut-down, funding to Planned Parenthood had become a big sticking point, and Pyl insisted that funding should be cut because abortion was "well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does."  The actual figure turned out to be somewhere around 3%.

When reporters sought some sort of clarification from Pyl's office, they released a statement saying, "His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions."  Colbert had a field day, rattling off all sorts of outlandish statements and remarks followed by, "That was not intended to be a factual statement."  And his Twitter site ran a constant stream of "facts" such as "In 2009, Jon Kyl lost $380,000 wagering on dwarf tossing," followed by the hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement. 

Now I know next to nothing about Jon Pyl, but I feel safe in assuming that he knew his non-factual statement about Planned Parenthood was non-factual when he said it.  It is hard for me to imagine that he put together a Senate floor speech on Planned Parenthood's use of funding for abortions with no idea as to what the numbers were.  And so I'm left to conclude that he knew full well that his "well over 90%" was what most people would call a lie.

And that brings me to the question of why he did it.  Again I don't know, but I feel fairly safe in assuming that he thought his cause important enough that it justified lying.  And on this count he stands in good company with politicians on both sides of the aisle.

I found myself thinking about such things after reading this morning's gospel passage.  John tells us that the chief priests had hatched a plan to kill Lazarus because when Jesus raised him from death it had caused lots of Jews to go over to Jesus.  Lazarus was a problematic and inconvenient "fact,"and so they would simply get rid of that fact.

Presumably these priests were, in part, motivated by deeply-held, religious convictions.  And because Jesus was a threat to these and their religious enterprise, that justified covering up the truth, in this case by eliminating it.  Not so different from the practice of using whatever "facts" are required to make sure things come out in the way I'm convinced that they should.

In John's gospel Jesus talks a lot about "truth."  He says that "the truth will make you free," and that he "came into the world to testify to the truth."  He even says that he is "the truth."  And so I can't help but think that whenever we believe that our cause or ideology justifies massaging and spinning the truth, justifies telling lies and then saying they were "not intended be a factual statement," we have gotten pretty far afield of the life our faith calls us to live. 

It seems ridiculously simple, but perhaps it still needs saying.  Any sort of faith or spirituality connected to Jesus, "the way, and the truth, and the life," surely requires a deep, abiding commitment to being truthful.  And that is meant to be a factual statement.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

For the last decade or so I've used something called The Lectionary Bible.  It is a spiral bound collection of the lectionary readings for each Sunday.  Having it allows me simply to turn the page and see the Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday.  Normally all these readings take up two pages or less, but when you flip to the readings for today, there are more than six.  The readings alone would take longer than my normal sermon.

These readings have  two distinct sections.  There is the "Liturgy of the Palms" which has eleven verses from Matthew describing Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, along with a portion of Psalm 118.  But then comes the "Liturgy of the Passion," and along with a reading from Isaiah, Psalm 31, and a bit from Philippians, it includes the Matthew's entire Passion story.  From Judas agreeing to betray Jesus, to the Last Supper, to the arrest in the garden, the trial, the cross, and finally Jesus' burial, it's all there.

When I was growing up today was just Palm Sunday; no Passion included.  I suppose that somewhere along the way it was decided that jumping from one celebration to another, from "Hosanna" to "He is risen!" left out too much.  It was as though we could get from joy to joy without all that messiness of the betrayal, denial, and the cross.  And so Passion was added to Palms.  I think that's probably a good idea, but I'm still not sure what to do with it all.  The only time (very early in my career as a pastor) that I tried reading nearly all the lectionary texts, it was not well received by my congregation.  So how do we combine Palms and Passion?

In preparing for a class the other day, it dawned on me that I had never actually seen a crucifix when I was growing up.  I had virtually no exposure to Roman Catholicism as a child and youth.  I was Presbyterian through and through, and our cross was empty.  Jesus had died once for all, and then he was raised.  No crucifixes for us. 

And yet Paul proclaims "Christ crucified."  Here God's power and wisdom is most fully seen, says Paul.  Here God is most clearly seen by us, a God who enters into human brokenness and pain and suffering.  We encounter God most fully in this Crucified One.  But how, if we do not linger for a moment at the cross, at the Passion?

I have no plans to suggest any crucifixes for the sanctuary or chapel.  Christ is risen!  And every Sunday is Easter!  But I wonder about getting one for my office, a small reminder that God is often most powerfully present in the midst of pain and suffering, that the cross wasn't a speed bump on the way to Easter, but it is the shape of God's love for the world.  It is the clearest picture I have of God, and perhaps the ultimate depiction of what it means to be created in God's image.

Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord as he journeys on his way to the cross.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups: The Days Are Surely Coming

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD."  Those words accompany the prophet Jeremiah's promise of a new covenant, but the notion that God will renew, that a day will come when God sets things right, is common in Scripture.  And the first followers of the risen Jesus were certain that his resurrection meant that those promises of a new day were beginning to unfold.  God's dream, God's new dominion, what Jesus called the "Kingdom of God" had begun to arrive.

The early Church lived in great anticipation of this Kingdom's full flowering.  The Apostle Paul clearly expected Jesus to return during the lifetime of those to whom he wrote.  Nearly 2000 years later, it's rather obvious that Paul was wrong.  The fact that God's timing isn't what people expected doesn't really alter any basic Christian beliefs, but the long delay (from a human point of view) has let to a loss of expectation and anticipation.  And in the absence of this anticipation, those "days are surely coming" promises have tended to get transferred from God's coming Kingdom to the promise of heaven when we die. 

As comforting as this hope of heaven has been for many Christians, it has often caused us to forget that the Bible speaks of a new, redeemed earth.  And it has led to many confusing heaven for the Kingdom.  And for some Christians, the relocation of the Kingdom from earth to heaven has led them to conclude that the faithful needn't be concerned about the environment, social justice, climate change, and so on. 

The notion that God doesn't care about God's own creation, the creation that God called "very good," seems a quite strange one to me.  And I see Emergent Christianity's refocusing on the the Kingdom, God's Dream, as a wonderfully reinvigorating move for the faith.  A shift that focuses less on believing the right things so you get into heaven, and focuses more on living now by the ways of God's coming Kingdom (a shift that helps reveal this coming Kingdom to the world), strikes me as a more faithful response to Jesus' call to follow him.  And it recovers a central tenet of our faith, the hope and promise that "The days are surely coming."

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Moral Documents

Today's lectionary readings don't really speak to this, but for some reason I could not stop thinking about budgets and deficits as a read them.  One of the psalms does ask to be taught God's ways, and when the prophets spoke against the rulers and powerful of Jerusalem, their neglect of the poor and of justice was often at the fore.  Still, it would seem a stretch to write a devotion or sermon from any of today's passages that addressed budgets and deficits.  And yet those topics pull at me.

One of the real oddities of American civil religion is a strange combination of saying we are "a Christian nation" while at the same time saying religion is a private thing that should stay out of politics.  But politics is very often about moral issues.  Under what circumstances, if any, should a country go to war?  For those who follow a Savior who spoke of turning the other cheek and praying for enemies, how can this be a question devoid of religious implications?  This week marks the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter to open the Civil War.  Some of my fellow Southerners like to pretend it isn't the case, but this war was rooted in the moral/religious issue of slavery.  And of course a great many laws are are on the books to maintain a certain notion of morality. 

In the last few days the quote "Budgets are moral documents" has popped up with some regularity.  I do not know who said it originally, but it is certainly true.  My personal budget, my city and state's budget, and my country's budget all make statements about what we value most, about what sort of values we will insist on and require the general population to fund.  At one time in history, education was something available only to people with means, but at some point the moral judgment was made that all children need access to education, and means of taxation were devised to pay for it.  It did not matter that you agreed or disagreed with this moral judgment.  You were required to help pay for it. 

Our nation has entered a time when difficult choices will have to be made if we are to begin reducing the national deficit.  And who bears the brunt of those choices will be a moral judgment.  Those we elect will make decisions about who will be the winners and losers, and those decisions will be moral judgments.  Which is the greater moral imperative, for people who make millions to keep every possible cent of it, or for people who have almost nothing to have adequate health care?  What things should a moral and just society insure that everyone has access to, and how should they pay for it?  These are moral questions, and for people who embrace the way of Christ, they are questions that demand faithful and prayerful discernment.

The issues involved in the budget of our country are complex.  Corporate tax rates do impact companies' ability to expand and hire workers.  But of course so do those same companies' decisions to pay CEOs hundreds of millions of dollars.  Yet another moral judgment.  But despite all this complexity, Christians still follow a Lord who stood firmly in Israel's prophetic tradition, a tradition that over and over condemned the powers that be for helping the rich and ignoring the poor.  We follow a Lord who spent much of his time with the poor and the outcast of his day, who found most of his opponents among the powerful and well off.  And he spoke about our relationship to money and possessions much more frequently that he did about the personal morality issues we religious folks often tend to emphasize. 

Over the next months and years, difficult questions and debates will be engaged.  Decisions will be made and budgets will be crafted.  And they will be moral documents that define what we value most, that state where our deepest loyalties lie.  And I wonder what the judgments of psalmists, prophets, and Jesus will be on those moral documents.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - "Come On, Let's Go"

Jesus jumbles his metaphors in today's gospel.  He's the shepherd.  Then he's the gate.  Then he's the good shepherd.  And when Jesus says, "I am the..." he uses a grammatical structure that can't be reproduced in English, one that echoes the "I AM" God speaks to Moses at the burning bush. 

But there is a gentleness to Jesus' good shepherd metaphor that I think is easy to miss.  When I think of a shepherd and a herd of sheep, I envision large group of animals that need to be driven from place to place.  Perhaps a sheepdog is employed to keep them in line, to march them from place to place.  But that is not the image Jesus evokes.

In seminary I had the chance to visit the Middle East, and once while riding on a bus in the countryside not far from Bethlehem, I looked out the window to see a young, Palestinian boy, perhaps 10 or 12, walking down a path without about a dozen sheep following along behind him in a single file line.  I can only assume that this procession began when the boy called to the sheep, "Come on, let's go."  Maybe he whistled or made some sounds like I might make to call the dog.  And they moved toward him, following him as he turned and walked.  They knew him.  They trusted him, and they went when he called.

Jesus speaks of the sheep following him because "they know his voice."  Jesus pictures faith a bit like that scene I saw from a tour bus window.  But I have been told that sheep are not the brightest creatures.  It's not hard to imagine one getting distracted by something along the way and wandering off, or thinking the grass is just fine where they are and munching happily as the herd walks away.  Surely for dumb sheep, it would be easy to ignore the shepherd. 

Jesus calls to us, "Come on, let's go."  The good shepherd knows the way.  But I can be pretty stubborn and pretty stupid sometimes.  Fortunately we learn in a different gospel that this shepherd comes back to find the stubborn, foolish, and disobedient sheep.  Thanks be to God!

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Who Do You Think You Are?

The gospel reading today continues the story of Jesus' healing of a man born blind.  The religious authorities are trying to figure our just what has happened.  More to the point, they are trying to prove that nothing happened.  I can't be too hard on them, though.  If I heard that a preacher had just miraculously healed a blind person, I would assume that someone was pulling a fast one.  It was a trick.  The person was probably never blind to begin with.  It was all an act, something Earnest Angley would do.

The religious authorities think the same.  They find the man's parents, hoping they will say the man is not really their son, but to no avail.  Frustrated, they bring the blind man back before them.  Surely there is some explanation for this without it being that Jesus wields divine power.

But the formerly blind man won't cooperate with them.  He not only won't change his story, but he points out the obvious problem with their logic.  How can they insist that Jesus is a sinner when God clearly has granted him the power to heal the blind?  But authorities rarely take well to having their errors pointed out to them, especially be those of lesser stature than themselves.  And in a huff, they throw out the ex-blind man.

When you've worked hard at being good at your religion; when you've studied and gone to school so that you get a good grasp of your faith's teachings and doctrines, it is easy to dismiss the thoughts of those who don't take the faith as seriously as you do.  And if they are so bold as to try to correct you, your insulted ego may not want to take that sitting down.

I've said before, and I'll say it again, I don't for a moment want to get rid of or even to belittle theology and doctrine.  I do not think it possible to be a follower of Jesus without some particular way of following Jesus.  And theology and doctrine have the distinct advantage of having been debated and discussed for many centuries, of being the product of a religious community's best, faithful attempts to define what it means to live a life in Christ.  Nevertheless, we do not worship a doctrine or theology, nor do we serve them.  They are helpful only insomuch as they assist us in faithfully living together as disciples.

So how do I know where my theology -- whether it is finely crafted Church doctrine honed over the centuries or a personal understanding of God that I just happen to have -- helps me live faithfully, and where it gets in the way?  I don't have an easy answer, but I have realized over the years that whenever my ego gets involved, and especially if my ego starts to take offense, I had best be on my guard.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

John Rutter's Requiem - Pt. 1

During worship on April 10, 2011, the Chancel Choir at Boulevard Presbyterian presented Rutter's Requiem under the direction of Jeremy Roberts, accompanied by Mary Ann Stephens and instrumentalists from the OSU School of Music.

Better quality videos can be found on YouTube

John Rutter's Requiem - Pt. 2

During worship on April 10, 2011, the Chancel Choir at Boulevard Presbyterian presented Rutter's Requiem under the direction of Jeremy Roberts, accompanied by Mary Ann Stephens and instrumentalists from the OSU School of Music.

Better quality videos can be found on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Proper Credentials

How do you know when someone is "from God," that what she is doing represents or embodies God in some way?  What are the hallmarks one would expect to see, and what would reveal that the person is actually a fraud? 

Those questions arise when Jesus heals a man blind from birth.  Jesus complicates matters for himself by not simply healing the man.  He also "spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes," and he did all this on the Sabbath.  Now healing someone's blindness is a pretty impressive feat which leads some to conclude that God is clearly at work in Jesus.  And yet, Jesus works on the Sabbath, in violation of God's law, which leads others to conclude that Jesus cannot be from God.

It's pretty hard for most modern day folk to get worked up about whether or not making mud on the Sabbath disqualifies Jesus as a viable candidate for Messiah.  We decided centuries ago that Jesus' opponents misunderstood or misapplied the Law.  They ignored the clear evidence of God at work in Jesus because there seemed to some problem with his paperwork.

My denomination has been fighting over religious credentials for quite some time now.  I've been a Presbyterian pastor for just over 15 years now, and I have never known a time when we weren't debating, arguing, or fighting about whether or not we can ordain people who are in gay/lesbian relationships.  As with Jesus healing on the Sabbath, the issue is often framed in terms of what disqualifies someone from representing God.  Some Presbyterians see the biblical injunctions that speak against homosexual behaviors as clearly disqualifying those who don't abide be such injunctions (though it should be pointed out that such injunctions are scarcely detectible compared to biblical commands to keep the Sabbath).

I wonder how our denomination would react if some gay candidate for ordination starting healing people.  Would we still say that regardless of such miracles, violating God's standards clearly disqualified anyone from being ordained?  I realize that is a rather remarkable, and perhaps unlikely, scenario.  But what about simply seeing clear gifts of the Spirit that empowered someone to proclaim the gospel in ways that drew people to the faith and revitalized a dying congregation? 

How do we know when someone is or isn't from God?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Christian Identity: Serving Others

On a Sunday when the choir performed Rutter's Requiem during the 11:15 service, our early, informal service featured a more off-the-cuff sermon.  Based on the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet, it is a call to follow Jesus' example of finding deep spiritual meaning in being a servant to others.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - One Wish

Everyone knows what happens if you find a lamp that contains a genie.  You get three wishes.  And I suspect that lots of people have speculated about what they would ask for if they were given those three wishes.  But what if it were simply one wish?  That thought came to me as I read this morning from Psalm 27. 

  One thing I asked of the LORD,  
          that will I seek after:  
     to live in the house of the LORD  
          all the days of my life,  
     to behold the beauty of the LORD,  
          and to inquire in his temple.

One thing, a single thing.  Me, I have a laundry list of things for God.  When Jesus teaches his disciples to prayer, that prayer has a number of petitions: for God's kingdom to arrive on earth, daily bread, and forgiveness.  And so I don't suppose I am restricted to one request.  But if I were, what would it be?

In Jesus' own prayer life, he asks for a number of things himself, but in the end, I think that all of them fit within a single one, that God's will be done.  That prayer encompasses all his others.  I like to think that the same could be said of my prayers, but I know better.  I'm not always willing to trust myself so fully to God. I'd much rather bend God to my way of thinking.  I'd like to convince God to want what I want.

Some of the most difficult times in my faith life come when I think I have done what I should do, what God calls me to do, and things don't turn out the way I had envisioned.  I see the same thing happen in congregations.  They implement some new program or activity because they genuinely feel led to do so.  They, quite naturally, assume that their faithfulness will result in a growth, a more vital congregation, a more vigorous ministry to the community.  But that does not always happen.  Then what?

We live in a world that is success and outcome oriented, and certainly there are times when a lack of congregational vitality or individual achievement is because of our failures to do as we should do.  But faithfulness does not always lead to what our culture tells us is success, which may be why Paul says to us today that "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us."  Jesus faithfulness led to the cross, not a success by any earthly measure.

I have no plans to stop praying to God for particular things or outcomes.  My laundry list remains long and includes myself, my family, my congregation, the Church, the needy, the world, and so on.  But I am trying to discover how to be taught and shaped and even blessed by those frequent occasions when my prayers and my attempts at faithfulness do not lead where I had expected.  Who knows, I may learn far more about that "one thing" that I truly need, that is God's deepest desire for me, from "failures" and unexpected outcomes that I ever do when life goes as I want and expect.