Thursday, December 11, 2014

Angels of Advent--I stand in the presence of God

Zechariah we can understand.
Zechariah was human.
And Zechariah had his doubts.
He doubted that he would ever be a father.
He doubted whether he was worthy to be a father.
In that time, in that culture,
Children were a blessing upon the righteous.
Children were a sign of God's favor.
So for a priest to be childless,
For his wife to be barren,
Meant that they were cursed.
One or the other must have sinned.
It was a great disgrace in that culture, especially for a priest.
They were good people, "righteous," Luke says.
But as year after year went by without a baby,
Fewer and fewer people would have even mentioned the possibility.
In time no one would have spoken of their shameful sterility at all.
But as Zechariah stood among the priests, he must have wondered—what did they think of him?
Did they talk behind his back of God's curse?
Year after year—as he came and went, taking his turn in the Temple,
Whenever the division of Abijah was on duty,
When he walked into the Temple,
Zechariah must have felt the barrenness upon him like a stain on his robes.
What had they done?
They followed all the law of Moses.
They prayed.
But in his heart Zechariah both envied the faith he saw in others, even his own wife, and, in a tiny corner of his soul, he despised them for it.
How could this be God's will?
Where was God?
They had done everything right.
If God were there, why wasn't he listening?
Zechariah went through the motions.
He prayed with his wife. Or his mouth did.
But Zechariah had his doubts.
That day, when he came to the Temple, I am sure he had his doubts.
On this day, one priest would enter the Holy of Holies,
To offer incense before the Lord.
They drew lots for this great honor,
The way priests had for years, for centuries.
If Zechariah were to be chosen,
He would go into the Holy of Holies, to offer their prayer in that most sacred place,
And perhaps then, finally, their appeals for a child would be heard.
Elizabeth surely hoped it would be so.
But Zechariah had his doubts.
When the ummin and thumin were thrown,
And the lot fell to him, Zechariah's heart must have sunk.
He would not have wanted to stand before God.
For in his heart he feared God,
Who had cursed him,
Who had abandoned him,
Never showing his face, never hearing his cry.
Zechariah we can surely understand.
Zechariah was human, as we are.
Zechariah had his doubts, as we do.
But can we imagine ourselves instead in the place of Gabriel?
Gabriel, an angel, the messenger of God?
Gabriel, a being without human needs, a supernatural creature,
Who had been there before the earth began,
Who had spoken to the prophets of old,
Who had watched kings rise and fall,
Who stood in the presence of God Most High,
And gazed upon the face of the Divine?
Can we imagine ourselves in the place of Gabriel,
Sent to deliver a message to this doubting soul?
For one who stands daily in the presence of God,
What would it be like to arrive in the human-built Temple,
The brass of furnishings a bit tarnished,
The candles dripping wax on the floor,
The scent of the incense tinged with the scents of human and animal stink,
The carpets worn, the colors faded?
What would it be like
For one who stands daily in the presence of God
To stand before a doubting priest
Whose very faith hangs on such a very small thing
As the inability of the body?
the weakness of the flesh?
For you or for me, it would conjure contempt.
Frustration, disgust to be among all this mortal weakness.
But for an archangel,
For someone who stood daily in the presence of Godliness,
For someone who daily gazed upon the face of infinite Love, it instead called forth compassion.
Gazing upon this shivering mortal, in his doubts, in his shame,
Gabriel spoke with compassion: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard."
For one who stands in the presence of God,
Compassion is more than a frame of mind.
Compassion is simply existence.
That this flawed man's half-hearted, questioning prayer has been answered,
That his doubting, obligatory faith has been counted as genuine,
That God's grace has reached to this disbelieving soul was to Gabriel both good and right,
Such grace, such love, was indeed the truth that Gabriel was sent to proclaim.
And so Zechariah received the good news, not only that he would have a son,
But Zechariah, doubting Zechariah,
Was the first of the New Testament period to hear and know that a new age was coming,
That this child who was coming into their lives would prepare the way of the Lord.
But even then,
Even listening to an angel,
Zechariah had his doubts.
Gabriel could hear them.
Gabriel could see beyond Zechariah's question into his heart.
Zechariah asked an innocent question, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."
Gabriel could see past the question to the doubt, could see not just doubt, but disbelief, like a dark shadow over Zechariah's soul.
Because for one who stands in the presence of God,
The human heart is like an open book.
Gabriel could see Zechariah's heart.
And so Gabriel gave Zechariah a gift.
The gift was silence.
Because silence allows us to stand in the presence of God.
Gabriel proclaimed, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring to you good news."
"But now, because you did not believe my words, which will still be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."
The gift was silence.
When our minds are full of thoughts,
Our lips burst forth with opinions,
Our ears ring with noises,
When the rush of traffic
And the buzz of advertisements
And the clutter of things fill our days,
We have no space, we have no time, we have no openness
To hear the message of God,
To soak up His presence,
To absorb His compassion,
To witness His truth.
This was Gabriel's gift to Zechariah.
Silence to wait.
Silence to reflect.
Silence to prepare.
It is to silence you and I are called in Advent.
As Gabriel rebuked Zechariah, you and I sometimes need a rebuke,
For failing to hear,
For failing to believe,
For simply ignoring the angels that sing to us,
Call to us,
Whose wings are brushing against our shoulders in this holy season.
But in this rebuke is also a gift.
The gift is silence.
The gift is an opportunity, in this season,
To stand in the presence of God, as the angels do.
Here is the question—
Who will we try to emulate this Advent, Zechariah, or Gabriel?
Must we live like Zechariah,
So bound by our mortality,
So absorbed by the failings of the flesh,
So discouraged by the weaknesses of the body
That we do not believe the angels when they speak to us?
This passage presents the question—
Can we instead imagine ourselves in the place of Gabriel?
Because the word angel simply means messenger.
Can we become, like Gabriel, messengers of good news?
Can we, like Gabriel, absorb the presence of God so much that, when we encounter the weakness of others, we respond, not with loathing or frustration, but, automatically, with compassion?
Can we, like Gabriel, demonstrate the tough love of God,
Gently helping others to leave their old, weary ways of anxiety and anger and begin a new way of living, a new way of thinking?
Can we, like Gabriel, bring good news to others this Advent?
Only if we, like Gabriel, stand in the presence of God.
Only if we embrace the gift of silence.
Only if we turn to God's word, turn to God's presence,
Only if we take the time to listen for angels.
Brothers and sisters, will you do this with me?
Will you take time this week?
This month?
Amidst the rush of the season, will you take time to stand in the presence of God?
Because if we do, we will not only hear angels,
You and I will become angels for those in need of good news.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Angels of Advent: If Samuel L. Jackson Were an Angel

The scene: the bus stop.
The date: 1968.
The faceoff: Jimmy, elementary school bully, and my mom, Susie Glaspie, in eyeglasses, pigtails, and her plaid school jumper.
All of nine years old, approximately seventy pounds of fight.
You see Jimmy had been picking on her little brother Tom.
And Susie Glaspie was a Big Sister.
There was only one round. It was a knockout.
Jimmy's mom called my grandma to complain.
"Your little girl beat up my son!"
Grandma's response? "Sounds like she had good reason."
My grandma, mother of three, volunteer librarian, one hundred five pounds of fight.
Jimmy went on to play football at Michigan State.
My mom went on to give birth to four children.
She's never shown violent tendencies since.
But if Jimmy ran into her again I'd bet he'd be on his guard.
My mom, Big Sister, nine year old Bodyguard.
Michael is the biblical bodyguard of God's people.
He shows up when God is in need of muscle.
He kicked Satan out of heaven.
Before creation, Lucifer was one of God's most beautiful angels.
Isaiah 14 and Luke 10 describe how Lucifer, the Day-Star, wanted to be like God.
He and his followers rebelled against God and a war in heaven resulted.
Revelations 12 describes a battle between the good angels and the evil angels,
Describing the battle before the earth began, and also the battle that is to come.
In either case, Michael leads God's army.
He shows up to battle with Satan over the body of Moses,
And to fight the forces of Persia and Greece, saving God's people.
Tradition places Michael holding a flaming sword, kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden,
Smiting Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea,
Knocking over the walls of Jericho,
Annhilating the armies of Sennacharib,
Guarding Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednago in the fiery furnace,
And guarding the soul of every Christian from the enemy at the moment of death.
He is depicted as short, stocky, fierce, and frowning,
Armor-clad and always wielding a sword.
Michael is God's sidekick, God's muscle, God's enforcer, God's Darth Maul.
In short, don't mess with Michael.
If I were a casting director for the Battle of Armaggedon,
I would put Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Michael.
Don't mess with Samuel L. Jackson.
That guy is so tough he makes you kind of afraid not to bank with Capital One.
But I'm thinking particularly of a scene in the film Pulp Fiction—
Not a movie I would recommend for its Christian content—
But Jackson's character Jules Winnfield spends a lot of time philosophizing about where he, a mobster's gun-toting henchman, might fit into God's plan.
He describes his 9-millimeter as the shepherd protecting his righteous a** in the valley of darkness.
And in one memorable scene, he busts out a quote from Ezekiel:
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children.
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."
And that's about where the shooting starts.
We may ask—why does God need a Jules Winnfield?
A Samuel L. Jackson?
An enforcer?
A Michael?
Why does God need angels?
Can't God do his own dirty work?
The Bible has a lot to say about angels.
Angels are referenced over three hundred times in Scripture.
Scripture calls them by many names.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, they are known as malakim or "messengers," cherubim, seraphim, Bene Elohim or the Sons of God, among many other titles and descriptions.
In the Greek Scriptures, they are angelos, messengers from God.
Angels are not bound by human weaknesses;
Jesus tells us in Luke 22 that they do not marry, that is, they are without sexual desires,
Thus we can guess they are not bound by other bodily constraints, the need to eat or to sleep, the way we are.
Angels can appear in many different forms, from wheels of fire to creatures with six wings—neither of which you will probably see on a Christmas card this year.
Angels are supernatural.
Angels are a little freaky.
Protestants don't tend to talk about angels very much.
Perhaps it's because angels aren't something to be intellectually understood,
Angels are so supernatural that we can only receive them by faith.
In our Bible study about angels, people described angels in their own lives during times of emotional intensity.
Guiding spirits, sometimes coming in the form of loved ones who have died,
One person related a story: when a car was stranded by the side of the road, two men showed up out of nowhere, then mysteriously disappeared.
Two themes emerged: Angels are comfort, and angels are protection.
What we will see is that in Scripture, Gabriel is the comfort, and Michael is the protection.
Angels show up a lot in Advent—
Appearing to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, singing to ordinary shepherds.
This time, the ancient period of preparation for Christmas
The time during which we in the church prepare our hearts for Christ's coming,
This is a time when we see angels,
When we hear their songs,
When we brush against their wings.
It's a time when heaven is very literally coming to meet Earth,
When God is about to be born in human form,
And angels walk among us.
So, why all the angels?
Scripture is silent about God's reasons,
But perhaps it is because the presence of God is so overwhelming that we need angels to bridge the gap between His holiness and our humanness.
Theologian Karl Barth put it this way:
"Without the angels God would not be revealed and perceptible.
Without them He would be utterly confused with some earthly circumstance,
Be it a sublime idea or a golden calf."
Barth went on to say, "we must not forget that when we rely on God we rely on them."
And so, "to deny the angels is to deny God Himself."
Perhaps God's awesome presence is so much for us that we needed angels as intermediaries between the human and the divine.
Perhaps God created angels because we needed them.
Perhaps God created Michael because there are times when we need Samuel L. Jackson.
The forces of injustice, tyranny, oppression, and evil are strong.
We cannot take on the devil alone.
Whether you believe that the devil and demons exist or not,
The forces of evil are too much for human beings to tackle without God's intervention.
I believe that the hopes of this world cannot be pinned on governments.
We cannot overturn evil with human effort alone.
We do not fight only the social evils of terrorism, racism, poverty, and injustice,
The evil that keeps children in poverty
And Christians in chains,
Our fight is against something more than this.
We fight against the impulse that makes children lie
And husbands cheat on wives,
The voice that tells you you're worthless
And the snake inside that keeps calling you to the bottle, or the needle, or the gun.
We fight against illness and death, against the power of the storm, against the gaping void of darkness that seeks to put out all light.
This is a battle we cannot win on our own.
We need God to turn this world around.
We need Samuel L. Jackson in angel form.
We need Michael to fight beside us.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent.
Advent in Christian tradition is the four weeks before Christmas.
Advent is just a Latin word that means "coming,"
And during Advent we prepare for the coming of Christ;
This does not just mean preparing for Christmas.
During Advent we prepare for Christ to come again,
For that day when the light will dispel the powers of darkness finally and forever.
During Advent, we prepare for that great day when God sets the world right,
When the forces of evil and darkness, the forces of terror and war,
All powers that defy God's righteousness and love are deposed.
People can't do that.
Governments can't do that.
Only the light of Christ can overthrow that deep, deep darkness.
On this first Sunday in Advent, we place our hope in Christ.
We place our trust, not in the armies of this world,
But in God's angel armies,
In the angels that fly over our shoulders,
Led by Michael, wielding the flaming sword of God's justice.
We hope.
Despite the darkness,
Despite the armies of evil that stand before us, we dare to hope
How can we hope?
We hope because we know we're not alone.
We hope because you and I have seen there are angels on our shoulders.
Despite their oft-seeming weakness,
Despite all the forces that have sought to destroy them,
The people of God have prevailed, over, and over, and over.
Pharaoh and his chariots should have been able to put down a few Hebrew slaves.
Goliath should have ripped off David's head.
Nebuchadnezzar should have succeeded in reducing Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego to little piles of ash.
The Romans, the most powerful empire in history, should have been able to put a stop to a tiny band of Christ-followers worshiping underground.
Hitler and the Nazis had the means and the power to exterminate the Jews.
The Klan and the hoses should have been able put down King and his unarmed marchers.
Jesus should have been one more nameless Jew on a cross.
And Jimmy should have been able to kick little Susie Glaspie's butt.
But there are angels on our shoulders.
An invisible sword flashes through the air.
Michael and his armies are assembled and ready to fight.
And the day will come when the trumpet will sound,
The battle will be won,
The powers of hell will be overthrown,
And on that day, God's voice will once more be heard upon the earth:
"And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
And you will know I am the Lord."
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Writing this sermon, this song ran over and over through my mind:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

I've read Matthew 5 about a thousand times, and this week, for the very first time, I wondered: what the heck is a bushel, anyway?
After all, if I'm supposed to not "hide it under a bushel," I had better learn what a bushel is so I can be on the lookout and try my best to avoid one.
Not being a farmer, I had to look it up: a bushel is a unit of dry measure of about eight gallons.
The Greek "modion" used here is also a unit of measure, equivalent to about two gallons.
Jesus gives a unit of measure instead of saying "basket" or "bowl" because that was the common way of referring to a basket of that size, as in "grab the not the peck…yep that one."
Some translations simplify and say don't hide your light under a bowl,
But that translation doesn't really make sense because a bowl would just put the light out.
And that's not what Jesus says,
It's not that put the light out—we can't even do that—this is the light of Christ, after all.
But we Christians sometimes cover it up, overshadow it, we obscure it,
So the light can't do its job.
Are we hiding our light under a bushel?
Jesus says, "You are the light of the world…No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house."
Commentator Amy Oden asks, "what are the bushels that cover your congregation's light?"
What's covering up our light?
Well, we're literally living in darkness right now.
This "fall" I think we all feel a little busheled.
Two degrees wind chill in mid November?  Really?
Where is the light? Where is the sun?
It's hard to stay positive—it's hard to even stay awake—when it's dark from 5pm to 8am.
Are you, like me, counting down until December 21, when the days start to get longer again?
Living in shadow, if we aren't careful, makes us all get a little whiny.
We complain about the weather, our finances, our health, our families, our church,
My Braxton Hicks contractions and the fact that even my maternity clothes don't fit anymore,
And we just pull more bushels down over our light.
Having been to many church meetings in many different churches,
I see that churches have covered themselves with a lot of different bushels.
There's the bushel of nostalgia.
"Remember when the church had so many children and young people…and all the Sunday School rooms were full? It's such a shame now…"
There's the bushel of church conflict.
"Well Marianne and her crew, she likes to do things her own way…she doesn't understand that the women's association has been doing this for fifty years…she thinks she can just waltz right in and make the coffee whatever way she sees fit."
There's the bushel of church fantasy.
"If we only had a thousand young members like that megachurch down the street we could do something about poverty/homelessness/evangelism/changing the light bulbs in fellowship hall.  But we don't so there's nothing we can do."
There's the bushel of Phariseeism.
"We can't really do anything until we sort out this gay marriage/abortion/evolution/Virgin Birth question and we know everyone in the church is a good Bible believing Christian—like me."
There's the bushel of martyrdom.
"Well I have to go get cookies again for church. It's such a pain. It's such a shame nobody else ever does anything at all."
Hide it under a bushel? Yes, we sure do.
When you and I talk to the unchurched about what is going on in our churches, what percentage of what we say is positive and what is negative?
And if what we say about our church is that:
•    Our church is work
•    Our church is full of old people (as though seniors have nothing to give and nothing helpful to teach the rest of us)
•    Church is an obligation
•    Church is unimportant
Should we really be surprised when people don't have an interest in coming to church?
Oden notes, "Jesus gives the central insight that lights don’t magically end up underneath bushels."
The only way to cover up the light is if we, the church, stick a bushel over our heads,
When the world desperately needs us to shine a light.
The sixth and final great end of the church is nothing less than "the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world."
It's both a call in itself and a summary of the first five:
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by proclaiming the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by sheltering and nurturing the children of God.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by divine worship.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by declaring the truth.
We exhibit the kingdom to the world by speaking and shouting for social righteousness.
We exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world by letting our light shine.
Because we are the light of the world.
Do we forget that this is what we are?
Jesus doesn't say "I am the light of the world" like we might expect him to.
He says "you are the light of the world."
He said it to that perpetually confused, possibly illiterate, doubting, mixed-up lot of fishermen, political rebels, tax collectors, and sinners known as the disciples.
These guys are the light of the world?
Not the priests.
Not the educated people.
Not the rich and powerful.
These misfits are supposed to illuminate the world.
But scholar Eugene Boring writes, "being light is not an option."
It's not "try to be light" that Jesus says.
Or "if you study the Bible a lot and give all your money away you might be light someday, if you're lucky."
Jesus says to these disciples—who don't even know about the resurrection yet, who don't know what grace means—you are the light of the world.
And he says it to us too.
Whether or not we cover it up, we're light.
The Spirit is in our midst.
We—us!—we are the body of Christ in this world.
God's light shines through us and God Himself has promised that he is here, right now.
All we have to do is be who we are, lift the bushels that cover us and obscure us and keep us from being our real selves, and shine.
And people will come to us, because people desperately need this light.
We live in a world where people do terrible things to one another and creation.
A dog-eat-dog world, and there's corruption, competition, and cruelty,
We live with much darkness and few places of warmth, light, or new life.
Who or what is king in this world?
Maybe it's the almighty dollar.
Maybe it's the self.
Maybe it's Satan.
But the ruler of this world certainly is not Christ.
Not in a way we can see.
This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent.
And on this day we consider—what does Christ's kingdom look like?
One answer the Bible gives is that the kingdom of Christ is like a stump.
Isaiah 11 talks about a dead stump—
That's all that is left of the once-mighty Throne of David.
After the Assyrians get done with Israel, and the Babylonians take care of Judah, and the Persians and Greeks chop down whatever's left,
No one can even figure out who's supposed to be the rightful King of Israel.
Isaiah, looking out over this future, is in a dark place thinking about the stump,
All that's left of the once-strong, thriving tree of God's people.
As we look out at the dead, bare trees of this sub-arctic tundra we live in,
As we look out over a church with more seats empty than filled,
We might feel like we're looking at a chopped-off stump.
But if that's all we see, we're missing the most important part.
Because God's light is shining on that stump.
God's life is growing in that stump.
And somewhere, deep inside, a seed has taken root.
Isaiah threw off the bushel and he saw that a King was coming.
A King greater than David had ever been,
A King who would shine so brightly,
That His light would dispel the darkness of sin and the shadows of death itself.
He saw a tiny shoot rise out of that stump and grow stronger than the first tree had ever been.
And he saw something more.
He saw a city on a hill,
A holy mountain,
Where this dog-eat-dog,
Bloodstained, gunshot, trampled-down world
With its system of survival of the cruelest is transformed
Into a place where children play with snakes
And the wolf lies down with the lamb.
Where there is no more crying, or pain, or destruction
Because the former things have all been wiped away.
He saw that a child is coming to lead us there.
A child is coming to help us see
That God's kingdom is on its way,
And God's light is already here.
As we walk into this season of Advent,
We have an opportunity to throw off the bushels that cover us up
And let this light shine into the world.
This Thanksgiving week, many of us will be meeting with our family and friends.
We will have an opportunity to let God's light shine.
What if, during this season that is often so busy and so stressful,
We decided intentionally to throw off our bushels
And let God's light shine through us?
What if we were to respond prophetically and surprisingly by sharing with others the good news of Jesus Christ?
We all like to buy gifts for our families for Christmas.
But what if we were to promote social righteousness by refocusing our energy this season on God rather than the Happy Holidays machine?
What if we were to promote social righteousness by refraining from shopping on Thanksgiving Day when, in my personal opinion, the working class, who rarely get a holiday, have now been forced to work instead of enjoying a day to rest and be thankful?
What if we were to maintain divine worship by taking a moment Thanksgiving week, as a family or a workplace or a group of friends, to reflect on all the blessings we've received?
What if we took a half hour or an hour to kneel down and say to God, oh by the way, I know I've been complaining about the cold and my aches and pains and the difficulties of living my life,
But thank you for giving me food on my table, a place to sleep, and another year to be alive!
What if we were to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of humankind by asking our unchurched family and friends, without judgment or expectation, could you think about coming with me to worship on Christmas Eve?
What if we were to shelter the children of God by giving gifts to those who really need them?
What if this year, we gave to God's children, to the poor, to the needy, as much as we give to our own families?
What would that look like?
It would look like a light on a lampstand.
It would look like a city on a hill.
It would look like the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Promotion of Social Righteousness

Many people do not realize that Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf.
Indeed, at six months old she was able to say "Howdy" and when still a baby, she said the word "tea" quite clearly.
It was after a fever at nineteen months of age that she was left without hearing or sight, and at that point began to forget all the words she had learned.
Only one word remained: Helen writes, "It was the word Water, and I continued to make the sound for that word after all other speech was lost."
After losing her sight and hearing, the toddler Helen became very frustrated.
But what was most frustrating to her was not so much the loss of the senses themselves, but the loss of the ability to communicate her thoughts and desires.
She wrote in her autobiography, "I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result…
I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself."
"Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog,
when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in,
and the great ship, tense and anxious,
groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line,
and you waited with beating heart for something to happen?
I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was.
'Light! give me light!' was the wordless cry of my soul."
One of the most difficult of human conditions is to be voiceless.
In my observation, even the loss of mobility is less frustrating,
less crushing to the human spirit than losing the power to communicate.
I think of a woman with brain cancer I knew.
She had been a high school chemistry teacher and was a very intelligent and well-read person.
What was most frustrating to her in her final months of earthly life was that the cancer had attacked the part of her brain that controlled speech.
In some ways, I think this was worse for her than even the knowledge she was going to die.
Why? Because when you cannot communicate with another, it is as though you are alone.
No one knows what is happening to you, what you feel, how you hurt,
And it is easy to believe that no one cares.
Why do babies cry? Why do dogs bark? Why do children shout so much?
Because no one understands them.
Because they are voiceless.
The promotion of social righteousness, the fourth great end of the church,
Might at first blush seem to be a call for the church to be politically active.
And that's exactly what it is.
But not in the way you might think.
Our call is not to take the side of Republican or Democrat.
I wish the church would remember this.
Studies show that 2014 in the United States is the most politically divided age in our nation's history.
Worse than the Civil War.
Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, no longer seem to even speak the same language.
We certainly don't watch the same news channels, and we don't go to the same churches.
In progressive churches like our Presbyterian Church USA, you'll hear a lot about social justice and economic inequality;
And then in conservative churches you'll hear about abortion and gay marriage.
In many communities, there are two pastors' associations; one for the liberals and one for the conservatives.
I don't think this is what "the promotion of social righteousness" means.
Our call is not to take sides in the hot button issues of the day—though at times that is called for—it's not why we are here.
Our call is to be the voice of the voiceless,
As Proverbs 31:8 calls us, "speak out on behalf of the voiceless and for the rights of all who are vulnerable."
Our call is to point out the things nobody sees and ask the questions nobody asks.
Our call is to talk about the one in ten families that experiences domestic violence after the Twitter feeds of America have moved on from scapegoating Ray Rice.
Our call is to point out the blind spots of both parties and of our society as a whole.
Our call is to make liberals recognize that moral values are actually critical to a society, that marriage matters, and that a 40% out of wedlock birthrate is bad for children and adults alike. I'm not passing judgment on people whose relationships didn't pan out; I'm saying that as a whole, as a culture, we've got a problem.
Our call is to make conservatives confess that capitalism is not, actually, biblical, and God spends a lot of time in His Word bashing the rich and upholding the poor—way more than God talks about infanticide or sexual immorality.
Our call is to talk about modern day slavery in America and tomato pickers and homelessness and the fact that sweatshops still make your clothes.
Our call is to be a voice for the voiceless.
Because when we speak for the voiceless, we speak for God.
God's people in Isaiah 58 don't understand why they don't sense God's presence.
Biblical commentator Amy Oden says, they're genuinely confused.
Why isn't God sticking up for them?
They're doing all the right things. They're worshiping. They're praying. They're fasting at the right times. They're following all the rules.
Most scholars think Isaiah 58 was written in the time of the Babylonian exile, when the nation of Israel was taken from the Holy Land and held captive by the powerful nation of Babylon.
God's people cried out to the Lord, asked their God to hear them and remember His promises.
To give them justice.
And so they fasted and prayed.
And what does God do?
God snorts out a laugh and says, "This is great. -You want me to help you out with your oppression? OK. How about you stop oppressing others?"
One of my favorite preachers, Scott Hoezee, explains, the Israelites prayed for justice, to get out from under the thumb of Babylon, and then they went and beat the snot out of their own employees.
The Israelites fasted before the Lord, and then the minute the fast ended they made a "mad dash to the all you can eat buffet and got in fist fights as they scrambled for the last egg roll."
You see, the Israelites cared plenty about justice when it came to their own cause, but they didn't give a hoot about justice for others—
The poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, the disabled—
The invisible people of society. The voiceless.
I think God was not only talking about the poor among the Jews, but about the Babylonians, the non-believers in their midst.
God was saying, see these people? The people no one sees?
The voices no one hears?
Yeah. That's who I care about.
Theirs are the words I want you to speak.
Not just to speak, to shout.
It's not just about being religious.
It's not just about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
It's not just about waving your diamond-studded hand in the air as you shout for Jesus.
It's about shouting for the little boy who was killed because of that diamond.
It's about being a voice for the voiceless.
It's about causing trouble.
It's about making noise.
It's about the promotion of social righteousness.
And as Christians, we don't just believe in doing good because of an abstract concept,
Because it's the "right thing."
No atheist has ever successfully convinced me that the concept of "goodness" outside of the reality of God is anything more than semantics.
In my opinion, without God, "good" is just a word.
We believe in Goodness because the source of all life is a Good God who plants in our hearts the idea of what Goodness is.
We believe each and every person is important to God because God made them in His image.
We believe all creatures on this earth and the land itself is important to God and that God entrusted us with taking care of creation.
These aren't just good causes to us; these are articles of our faith.
When the church has been faithful, we've also been noisy.
We've been a voice for the voiceless.
It's the church that cried out against slavery.
Abolitionist preachers. Quakers. Christians.
It's the black church that mobilized the people for civil rights.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out first and foremost because of his faith.
It's the church that stands at the front lines against addiction.
The Salvation Army is still one of the best drug treatment programs out there.
And Alcoholics Anonymous still meets in churches, because its roots are in Christianity.
And it's the church that spoke up against the Holocaust.
People like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoller who protested Naziism because it was, at its heart, idolatry of the German nation over Christ.
Christians who, many of them, went to concentration camps and even died because they would not keep silent.
When we have been faithful, really faithful, we've promoted social righteousness.
And God makes it perfectly clear; promoting social righteousness is an if-then proposition.
If you feed the hungry, if you clothe the naked, if you let the homeless poor into your house,
If you loose the bonds of injustice,
and let the oppressed go free,
If you start giving a hoot about these people that nobody cares about, then and only then I'll show that I give a hoot about you.
God says,
"Then you light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."
When we start caring about the things God cares about, a funny thing happens;
You see,
When we allow God to speak through us,
We'll experience God's presence with us,
And we all need that.
All of us have experienced injustice, oppression, suffering, pain.
I don't care if you are a rich white heterosexual able-bodied good-lookin' male,
You know what it is to feel as though no one is on your side,
You know what it is to suffer.
We all need to know that God is with us when we hurt.
And so when we cry out for others, we proclaim the truth that we are not alone.
God, too, knows what it is to experience injustice, persecution, oppression, homelessness, poverty, and loneliness.
God chose in the person of Jesus to experience the very worst of what it is to be human.
Why? To be a voice for the voiceless.
To show once and for all that Someone cares.
Someone cared about Helen Keller.
Someone wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. 
Helen wrote,
"THE most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me…It was the third of March, 1887.
I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother.
Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me,
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered.
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.
As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.
I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers.
Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.
I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul."
Brothers and sisters, our calling is nothing less than to awaken the soul of the world.
Our calling is to show the forgotten, the invisible, the silenced—you are not alone.
Our calling is to give a voice to the voiceless.
Because if we don't do it, who will?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Preservation of the Truth

One of the side effects of allowing my daughter to watch Nick Jr. is that we all constantly hear about what she saw in a "connercional" as she calls it.
Going to CVS or Kroger with her, you can hear all about the various amazing features of the products on the shelves.
For the baby, she is already trying to sell me on Huggies because of their patented Leak Lock Protection system, which she has explained to me in detail.
I predict that a high percentage of her Christmas list will be stuff "As Seen on TV."
Such as the Teddy Tank, a product you can own for just 19.99 plus shipping and handling.
The Teddy Tank, if you haven't seen it, is a stuffed animal—
And there are 14 different choices, from "silly penguin" to "magical unicorn"—
And the stuffed animal actually contains in its belly a fish tank.
I was sitting next to Diana reading while she was watching this, her mouth falling open and her eyes as big as saucers, and she proclaimed, "I want a Teddy Tank!"
According to a statement from Telebrands, the company that manufactures Teddy Tank,
This product really is safe—for a small Betta fish.
They're those fish you see in the store that barely move anywhere?
Yet, in the connercional, it's not a Betta but a goldfish in the bear's belly.
There is actually a petition you can sign at to ban the sale of the Teddy Tank because it's actually a deadly environment for a fish.
As I watched this connercional and watched my daughter jump on the sofa, vaguely contemplating telling her to stop, I estimated that any fish carried inside a stuffed animal by a four year old would have a life expectancy of about five minutes.
So I asked Diana, "Why do you want a Teddy Tank?"
She replied exasperated, like, silly Mommy, it's obvious, "So I can take my goldfish to bed."
On a certain level, I have to admire the genius marketing here.
What child does not want to sleep snuggling with her goldfish?
It's as basic a desire as the urge to slap a saddle on the dog and ride it around like a horse.
And yet, I am obligated to explain to my child that the connercional, which does show children snuggling in bed with their Teddy Tanks, is somewhat misleading.
It's amazing to watch a child absorb the fact that something TV says could be untrue.
And yet, how many of us as adults believe what we see on TV?
Do you spend more time watching television than, say, reading the Bible?
I know I probably do.
So it's not so far-fetched to think that I've absorbed the false truths of advertising.
We live in a society where people are afraid to talk about religion,
Afraid to make any claims to truth with a capital T,
And yet we are bombarded each day by messages that subtly proclaim a set of untruths:
That money and things will fulfill you, and that you can find the love you seek as long as you can pay for it.
We are all of us a little like children who want a Teddy Tank; we are dreaming of someone or something to hold that will fill that need for love and acceptance that's inside us,
And we sometimes think that we can buy something that will fill that hole.
And so we absorb and believe the lies of advertising until we are certain we cannot be happy until we have more.
When the reality is, studies demonstrate that if you are above a certain threshold, if you have a roof over your head and food on your table, the more money you have the less happy you are.
Possession as an end in itself is a lie that we've been sold, over and over, and yet it's so pervasive,
That even in preaching, having more materially, having your "best life now," the prosperity gospel that God wants you to be wealthy, and as long as you're faithful, you will be,
That's a message that fills churches.
Unfortunately, it's a big fat lie.
I'm sure it strikes people as harsh for me to label advertising and televangelist messages as lies.
In our postmodern context, people believe that it's up to each person to decide on his own truth.
What makes sense to you is your own personal truth, and it's socially unacceptable to talk about truth with a capital T.
This fourth Great End of the Church, "The preservation of the truth," was written in 1910, when truth with a capital T was more widely agreed upon than today.
Most people believed in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection and his claim to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Most people believed going to church was an important part of living a good and righteous life, not to mention one of the Ten Commandments.
Even the language of the Declaration of Independence declared the existence of universal truth, of Truth with a capital T:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."
Can you imagine a politician today so boldly declaring the existence of a truth with a capital T springing from the existence and benevolence of a creator with a capital C?
The founders of our nation and the writers of the Great Ends of the Church may have had other beliefs with which we disagree; many whites at that time believed in the inferiority of people of color; many people held women to be less capable and intelligent than men.
But today, it's almost as though there are no truths we can proclaim anymore.
Our society, like Pilate, asks, "What is truth, anyway?"
Even in the churches—theologian Joseph Small reports of a national Christian conference where, when the Apostles' Creed was read, people were invited to stand up or sit down depending upon whether they believed in any particular item.
I am skeptical of a future in which all truth is negotiable.
I am skeptical because I think it allows truth to be bought by the highest bidder,
Or decided at the end of a gunpoint.
I am skeptical of a future in which all truth is negotiable because children will know the virtues of Huggies Leak-Lock better than the Ten Commandments.
I'm afraid for us because sometimes I think that future is already here.
While I certainly believe in free speech and freedom of religion,
I also believe it is our calling as God's people to know that there is such a thing as Truth,
To proclaim that Truth,
To protect that Truth,
And even to be willing to die for that truth.
In Syria and Iraq this very day Christians are being tortured until they will renounce the name of Jesus, and killed if they will not forsake him as Truth.
Many of us today who claim the title "Christian" would be tempted in such circumstances to renounce our Savior,
And indeed, Christians have done so; in the Apostles' Creed, when we say we believe in "the forgiveness of sins,"
Those words were added in the third century in response to the Donatist controversy.
There were all these Christians who renounced their faith in fear of Roman persecution, and afterward, the question was, should we allow them to take communion?
And the church decided that we believe in grace.
How could we not? It is one of our Truths with a capital T.
So, perhaps you are wondering, as I talk about truth with a capital T, is the new preacher a Bible thumper?
Is she of those who believes that we have to defend Truth by upholding creationism over evolution,
Or clobbering my gay brothers and sisters over the head with Romans 1,
Or requiring that women keep silent in church as 1 Corinthians stipulates?
If that last one didn't clue you in, the answer is no.
I believe that Scripture is truer than anything ever written.
The Bible is true because within its pages I come to know Jesus Christ.
And He is Truth.
Scripture is the Word of God because it helps us to know Christ.
That's its goal; the Bible is not a science textbook or a political treatise, though knowing the Truth of Christ will influence our thinking about science and politics.
In the Scripture we heard today, Pilate asks, "What is truth?"
Pilate and Jesus are meeting in a trial—the forum in their government as in ours where official opinion of truth is decided.
Pilate is in the position to determine Jesus's fate.
Pilate gets to decide what is true and what is not.
Why? Well, because he's the highest bidder. Because he's holding the sword.
And Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
There's a tendency to treat Pilate as kind of a victim of circumstance,
A lost soul who didn't really want to kill Jesus, but "the Jews" made him do it.
The Romans scholar Gail R. O'Day says we can't read the Gospel of John that way.
It doesn't make sense within the context of Pilate's conversation with the chief priests, or what we know about Pilate from other sources—which is that he hated Jews.
So O'Day puts the blame for Jesus's death the same place the Apostle's Creed does: Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, plain and simple—he's the badguy.
When Pilate asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" It's with a tone of mocking and disdain.
That question is the same in all four gospels, so it was very important to the early Christians.
Pilate is the representative of Caesar, the Roman king; anybody else gets whacked.
So the question is, does Jesus think he's a king?
Jesus answers with a question: "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you?"
Although Pilate is supposed to be the one in charge, Jesus, in his typical way, turns the tables.
Can't you picture the situation? Imagine if you were there, the stark contrast;
Pilate is in the seat of power, yet by his tone and actions he demonstrates the smallness of his character;
Jesus, who's in chains, who should be defeated and broken,
Instead speaks with the authority Pilate lacks,
Jesus demonstrates by the truth of his words, by his demeanor, by his very presence the power that Pilate does not have and never can.
Because power does not really come from material wealth or the use of force;
Real power comes from Truth.
Jesus and Pilate have two different definitions of king.
Jesus's kingdom is not of this world.
It's too big for that.
Jesus says, "If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over."
Jesus commands the room with his spiritual authority.
His words indict Pilate: your kingdom runs on violence.
Mine is founded on something more.
Pilate appears to miss all of that. His job is to try to get Jesus to admit he's been playing king so that the execution will give more of an appearance of justice.
So he repeats the question, "So, you're a king?"
And Jesus gives his answer, also repeated in all four gospels: "You say that I am."
When he said those words, "I. AM."
The room must have fallen totally silent.
Then, after a pause, Jesus says: "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
This is what it all comes down to; this is why Jesus came;
To put an end to the world's lies,
To repudiate for once and all its deceptions of money and power and what can bring us joy,
And to show us Truth with a capital T.
Pilate cannot understand this kind of Truth with a capital T.
His world is full of lower case truths, which are defined and decided by whoever has power.
Little t truth is sold to the highest bidder.
It's decided on the point of a sword.
Therefore, it's worth nothing at all.
And so Pilate mocks the very idea of truth.
"What is truth?" He asks, not even knowing he's got the question wrong.
It's not what, but Who.
Truth is not a king on a throne.
Truth is not the commander of armies.
Truth is a king on a cross.
Truth is Love that would die for us and did.
Truth is grace that we can never understand, only fall to our knees and accept.
That's Truth, and he is staring Pilate in the face.
And our job, our calling, is to know him,
To love him, to talk to him, to learn his Word better than the words of this world, and proclaim him and teach our children and our grandchildren about him.
Because without Truth with a capital T, what are we left with?
We're left with a cheap plastic fish bowl inside a polyester stuffed bear.
Without Truth, we have nothing at all.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.