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.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Maintenance of Divine Worship

We have in our home a grandfather clock, actually given to us by my grandfather.
It's a lovely clock, but like all grandfather clocks, it needs maintenance.
Through the week, gravity, weather, and the forces of nature all play upon the clock,
And so it needs adjustment.
Once a week, Dan and Diana adjust the clock and make sure it is still running so that it is set to the proper time.
If they were to fail in doing this, you might not see big problems right away.
But after a few weeks, perhaps the clock might be running a minute or two slow.
Enough to be noticeable when the Westminster chimes rang at 6:02 instead of on the hour.
And after a couple of years, the clock would seem to sing out at fairly random times of the day.
What good is a clock that is not set to the proper time?
A compass that doesn't point due North?
A piano with all its keys out of tune?
A person not oriented towards God?
It strikes me that we are all of us a little like that clock.
Just as gravity, moisture, weather, or maybe even little critters seep in and get the clock off its time,
So the cares and concerns of the world,
The desires of our flesh for more, bigger, better,
The messages of advertisements telling us what we want and need,
The weakness of our bodies,
Even our boredom,
These all distract us from serving God.
We forget the point of life.
Instead, we get fixated on a thing, a person, an event,
We get fixated on our own desires and our personal idols,
We turn away from God—just a little bit—and turn towards ourselves.
That's why, like the clock, we need adjustment.
Worship is our weekly attitude adjustment.
We are re-oriented towards God.
We don't go for fun. We go because we need it to run right. Every week, or more often than that.
In Hebrew, the word for righteousness, tsedek, is a word of orientation,
Of direction, of positioning.
That connotation carries into the translation righteousness,
A word of direction and position.
To do right is to be oriented towards God.
The purpose of worship, therefore, is not entertainment.
Worship is not meant to always be fun.
Do you think it is fun for the clock to get adjusted?
Not necessarily.
Being adjusted and re-oriented towards God in worship is, likewise, not always easy.
So many Christians today desire a worship service with perfect music,
Nothing off-key, all notes perfectly struck,
And preaching that is, of course, biblical—
But nothing too political, or disturbing.
And so many Christians shop for a worship service that suits their personal musical tastes,
Falling often into that dichotomy: traditional vs. contemporary.
The so-called "worship wars," the question of how worship best glorifies God, is not a new question.
Look at the Corinthians, fighting over the issue of spontaneity and spiritual gifts versus orderly worship.
Or even further back, the struggles over whether people should build a temple or just keep using the old tabernacle,
Whether they should worship in Jerusalem or Samaria.
Worship is very personal to people and so decisions related to worship take on enormous emotional import.
Whether you have communion in your pew or walk up to the front is an issue that has caused people to switch churches.
So, what does God have to say on the matter?
This week we consider the third Great End of the Church:  The maintenance of divine worship.
The church is called to maintain worship.
To keep it up. To keep us running correctly.
To re-orient us to God.
To give the people an attitude adjustment.
In Scripture, God gives us direction as to how we should be maintained, re-oriented, re-centered on His glory.
One of these I believe is Isaiah 6.
Isaiah 6 is the story of the call of Isaiah, who preached in the years before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom.
Isaiah was called to redirect the people's attention to Yahweh, the one true God, and to leave idol worship.
In the moment of his calling, Isaiah experiences the overwhelming glory of God.
He sees the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, wearing a robe with a train so long it filled the temple.
And around the Lord are angels; each has six wings; with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Even the angels must veil themselves from the shining glory of God.
As the angels sing Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty,
Smoke fills the room and the temples begin to shake.
Basically like your standard Presbyterian worship service.
In our decent and orderly worship service, do we forget that when we worship, we are called into the overwhelming presence of God?
Do we forget that we are in the presence of one so holy that we are called to cover our faces like the singing seraphs?
Do we say the call to worship dutifully, in soft and somewhat bored voices,
Forgetting that the call to worship is the liturgical moment when we, like the angels, cry out,
Holy, holy, holy!
It's called the Call to Worship because God is calling us to worship!
This liturgical moment is essential, whether it is done through a liturgy, through music, or in another way,
We need to be forcibly yanked out of what is going on in our own world, from the Lions game, from the grocery shopping,
Just as Isaiah was yanked from his world, in the year King Uzziah died, and called to re-focus his attention on the glory of God.
Clocks being pushed and yanked into the right time.
And when you recognize that God, the Almighty, Creator, Lord of the Universe, is in the room,
When you really feel that presence and power,
You cannot help but cry out "woe to me! I am a man of unclean lips."
For that reason, immediately following the call to worship and the singing of God's praise, we confess our sin.
Many pastors eliminate the confession of sin, because it's a downer.
I believe it is one of the most important parts of the worship service.
We’re getting our clocks cleaned, so to speak.
We have to wipe away the gunk, we have to be cleaned in order to be adjusted and maintained.
The confession of sin hurts, and at the same time, for me at least, it is freeing to recognize my faults and get them off my chest.
One week, perhaps in Lent, I have always wanted to have a worship service where we each turn to our neighbor and personally confess something that we have done, or left undone,
Because I think it would be that much more powerful to really share with others,
And then, for each of us to personally declare to each other,
"In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. God loves you anyway. God forgives you. You are free."
An angel kisses Isaiah's lips with fire,
Touching a coal to his mouth to symbolize that his guilt is taken away.
And then, only then, does he hear the voice of the Lord.
The sermon is short and sweet for Isaiah:
"Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?"
It's a good Baptist sermon, isn't it?
It's an altar call!
Who here is gonna do the work?
And Isaiah responds, "Here I am! Send me."
That right there is the entire rest of the worship service.
The reading, the preaching, the songs, Holy Communion, and the offering, definitely the offering,
They are a question and an answer.
"Whom shall I send?"
"Here I am! Send me!"
When you think about it that way, the convenient modern custom of setting out a basket in the back of the church--
It's a missed opportunity for us to worship, to say, by placing our sacrifice, in the plate,
Here I am! Send me!
This what worship is meant to do: call us up; clean us up; send us out.
Get the clock working on time.
When we think about it that way, the worship wars make even less sense.
What's important isn't the music we hear.
It's not about whether we worship in a place more like a cathedral or a football stadium.
It's not even about whether we wear jeans or a three piece suit.
It's about whether worship is re-orienting us to God;
Calling us to worship,
Causing us to fall to our knees in awe,
Leading us to confess,
Telling us, "your guilt is taken away,"
Enlisting us to serve God.
You can do that to a simple praise song or to a complex Bach postlude.
CS Lewis said "there are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that
a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fire than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief)
that he can thus bring them to God."
He's saying that when a musically trained person sings a song they find repulsive, because you know it helps someone else to experience God,
That is really worship.
Lewis goes on: The second situation when you are really worshiping is "where the stupid and
unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God."
But, Lewis says, when the musician, while playing his impressive postlude, is filled with his own pride of skill, and after finishing, looks out with contempt on the unappreciative congregation,
Or, when the unmusical man listens to the organ postlude, bored, filled with a hostility that comes from his own sense of inferiority,
That's in no way an offering to God and the spirit that fills them cannot be the Holy Ghost.
Do you see that it's not the song we sing but the way we sing it that matters?
Do you see that worship happens, not so much when we sing a song and think, "I like that song,"
But when we feel our thoughts drifting away during the hymn we don't really like but we choose instead to stop thinking about the Lions game and instead actually try to praise the Lord?
John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, gave beautiful rules for singing which I had printed in your bulletin:
Sing all; sing lustily; sing modestly; sing in time; and above all, sing spiritually.
You could apply these to every part of the worship service:
Pray all; pray lustily; pray modestly; pray together; and pray spiritually.
Give all; give lustily; give modestly; give together; and give spiritually.
Our worship will never be perfect.
That's not the point.
The point is when we leave, we have our heads on straight again.
Maybe this is not a popular message I'm preaching today—
That worship is not meant to be always entertaining, or fun, or comfortable.
But it's a true message.
When we say that we are called, as a church, to the maintenance of divine worship,
We are saying that we are called to the business, frankly, of attitude adjustment.
Because the Lions game, the grocery shopping, the problems at work, the pain in your left knee—
All of the preoccupations, distractions--these things are not the point.
The point is the Almighty, All-Merciful, Everlasting, Righteous, Holy God.
Point your life towards the point of life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God

My daughter Diana Mae likes to play a game called Baby Bird.
It's a game she invented. She tells me what to do.
After her bath but before she goes to sleep, I have to pick her up and carry her to her bed,
And wrap her up in the middle of the bed like a little egg.
Then I have to hold her for a moment, all wrapped up, and say,
"Little egg, you're safe and warm, here in the nest. I'm going to go and get some worms for you so they will be here when you're ready to hatch."
Then I fly away, and she will call, from inside her blanket egg, "Remember to flap your wings!"
And so I obediently flap, feeling a bit silly, as I collect worms from the hallway.
And then I return, and wait for my little egg to hatch.
She peeks her head out from the cloth, and then she emerges into my arms, and I say, "Oh, baby bird, I'm so glad you're here!"
And then we go to search for worms together.
It's not really a game at all actually; it's more of a liturgy,
A ritual she created to celebrate our relationship as mother and child.
Human beings have, as long as recorded history exists, identified with our feathered friends.
Each of us could probably name an enthusiastic bird watcher we know, yet I've never heard of "reptile watchers" or "crustacean enthusiasts."
For some reason, we see the life of a bird as metaphorical of human life.
After you hatch, you're a little duckling, growing and learning until you spread your wings and fly the coop.
Then you spend a few years living as a crazy night owl, just free as a bird, on a wild goose chase seeking a mate for life or just cute chicks.
You know about the birds and the bees, but one day you just get goose bumps, because you've found the person with whom you'll build your little nest, and you're just as happy as a lark.
You know that the early bird catches the worm.
You're not going to chicken out with this one.
And so you preen your feathers and do your little mating dance, and when she responds you feel like the goose that laid the golden egg.
You don't want to count your chickens before they're hatched, but hey, you've got your ducks in a row;
You're moving up the pecking order at work, got a couple of little nestlings on the way    .
But then one day, your chickens come home to roost, and trouble comes your way.
No worries. You're not one to affect a fowl mood.
You're in fine feather whatever comes your way, and trouble is like water off a duck's back.
But before you know it, you've got an empty nest,
You turn around and you're no spring chicken anymore.
And so you start to think about your life and what it means,
You look to the heavens and your spirit soars; you sing your swan song and you fly away.
Why do we think of ourselves in avian terms?
Heaven knows, but we are like birds, unique in our capacity to communicate through sound.
Birdsong has been shown to have nouns and verbs just like human speech.
And birds seem, like us, to have some kind of preference for sounds that are musical;
In Why Birds Sing, David Rothernberg claims that birds vocalize traditional scales used in human music, such as the pentatonic scale and diatonic scale.
Birdsong has inspired the music of our greatest composers, including Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Wagner.
But there's even more to it than that;
Like birds, we are able to soar above other animals; they literally so, we through our intellectual capacity to soar to new heights.
We have been captivated by the ability to fly which they physically have and we do not, and so thrilling was the moment in our human history when we were finally able to join them in the skies.
We humans are crazy as loons about birds.
Bird references are frequent in Scripture,
Including Psalm 84 which we read today;
"Even the sparrow finds a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
   my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
   ever singing your praise."
When I read the words, "the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God," I thought of this image,
Of the sparrow finding its shelter, being nurtured and cared for in its nest,
The warm shelter of the house of God.
Psalm 84 is a song of pilgrimage.
We know that the People of God would sing this and other songs as they approached Jerusalem, preparing to enter the Temple for Passover, the feast of weeks, and the feast of booths, required journeys under the Law of Moses.
These journeys, the psalms themselves tell us, could be physically taxing and dangerous,
With snakes, hot sun, and highway robbers to worry about.
Without radio to listen to in the car, pilgrims would sing these psalms to encourage one another.
As they neared the Temple, singing these songs, their excitement increased,
Beholding the awe and wonder of the city and its shining Temple.
And so the psalm exalts, "A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere,"
The people sang, "it would be better to be a humble doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than a guest in the tents of the wicked."
Do we feel this way today?
Do our souls long for the courts of the Lord?
Although church is not always a place of perfect shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship,
I do love the church, and I believe you do as well.
People might think we are strange because we would rather be doorkeepers in the house of the Lord than guests in tents of wickedness,
Because we would rather hold open doors for folks at church, than, say, spend the morning at Greektown Casino,
Speaking for myself anyway, I'd rather do work for free in the church than spend money on something like that.
For church people, the church is our home, and its nurture and care is vital to our very existence.
We need church.
There's a saying that you can't be a Christian on your own.
Although so many people try, we need church to guide us, to nurture us along the way,
And more than that, we need church because the church needs us.
The church is Christ's body here on Earth, and if someone is missing, well, Christ could be missing his ears, his eyes, his hands, his feet.
You might not be getting anything out of worship on a particular Sunday,
But the person next to you needed you to be there.
And another day, you will find yourself in need of her prayers and support.
I know we have all felt this.
As a teenager in Grosse Pointe, I never really felt like I fit in in my high school.
Adolescence is difficult, and I had moved into a pretty tight-knit community where people could be sometimes unwelcoming of newcomers.
The church became a refuge for me.
I found shelter and nurture under its wings.
I found opportunities to serve others through mission trips to Israel and downtown Detroit.
And more than that, people saw me.
When Rev. Nancy Mikoski mentioned to me that I should apply to be a church intern as a summer job,
I was so honored that she should see something in me like that.
During those important formative years, I was cared for like a vulnerable baby bird,
The church fed me and raised me and helped me find wings to fly.
And no matter where I go, when I am in church, I know I am among people who love me, because they love God.
In the black church, there's a saying, "It's great to be in the house of the Lord."
I've heard it often, but it's especially important if a guest is visiting from another church.
The guest will say, "It's great to be in the house of the Lord," and the church will shout "Amen!"
The visitor is saying, you are the house of the Lord.
You are church. God is here. This is home.
And the church is saying, yes, thank you for seeing that we are church,
God is here, welcome, you are home.
Here is the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
This is the second great end of the church.
I like that we place it second. Our first calling is to proclaim the Good News.
We can never let caring for ourselves replace that.
And often, I think that churches today do spend too much time and money on ourselves and not enough time and money reaching out.
Yet the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God is essential.
You can't be a Christian on your own because you need shelter.
You need a safe place.
Each of us, like my little girl, need to know that there is a safe nest for us to fly home to, with someone waiting to care for us.
Or it may be that someone needs you to create a safe place for him.
I believe Starr Church is literally doing this by providing a shelter for people in need,
A safe place for them to go, through the Welcome Inn mission and through our warming shelter in the coldest months.
You also need nurture.
The baby bird needs to be fed.
And we need to be fed on the Word of God.
Bible studies and small groups in the church are so necessary,
So that we can really learn, ask questions, and dig deeper into what God has to say to us.
It is my belief that everyone in the church should belong to some kind of group or partnership like this that helps him grow spiritually, because like the little bird, we are called to grow up, growing more and more into the image of Christ.
And third you need spiritual fellowship.
Is there any stronger image of family togetherness than mama bird and daddy bird, feeding hungry mouths in the well-kept nest?
Our church, too, is a family, and we need spiritual fellowship.
Not just coffee, cookies, and potlucks,
But fellowship that is rooted in our relationship with God.
When we fellowship in the church, we are called to go beyond small talk,
To remind one another through our words and actions to trust God, to follow God's direction, to pray, to remember that God loves us.
When we are doing church right, our conversation is Spirit-filled, and our actions even more so,
So that when members and visitors come here they experience the presence of God.
And we are all in need of that presence.
Our hearts long for the courts of the Lord.
Because God is here.
We are, all of us, weak and vulnerable as baby birds.
Even though we like to pretend we have it all figured out, this Great End of the Church reminds us—we are, at heart, children. Children of God.
Who is the church's mama bird?
Certainly not me.
The Word of God says in Psalm 91, "he will shelter you under his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge."
And Jesus laments over the city, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how have I longed to gather you, as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings."
The Lord is the mother bird, who gathers us in, shelters us, feeds us, nurtures us.
We long for the church because God is waiting for us there,
Ready to welcome us, to keep us safe and warm.
And God is here;
God is in the hymns, the words, the caring faces, the warm hugs,
The Holy Spirit is among us.
And so when we come here we know we will never be turned away.
When we come here we know are safe in the nest..
Like a mother bird, the Lord opens his wings, and wraps us up, whispering, "Oh my child, I'm so glad you're here."
And we are home.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
"Under the Shadow of His Wings," by Gladiola Sotomayor. Available at

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind

Why are we here?
What's the point of church?
Is it entertainment on Sunday morning?
Is it a social club where we can spend time with like-minded individuals?
Is it a business meant to profit ministers?
In 1910 the United Presbyterian Church of North America, one of the predecessor denominations to the Presbyterian Church (USA), asked themselves—what are we doing here?
No record of their conversation remains.
All we have is their answer, which has been so powerful to Presbyterians that it has been recreated, nearly word for word, in the first chapter of the Presbyterian Book of Order ever since:
It's printed in your bulletin, so why don't we read it together?
The great ends of the church are:
•    The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
•    The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
•    The maintenance of divine worship
•    The preservation of the truth
•    The promotion of social righteousness
•    The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
As you and I begin a pastoral relationship here at Starr, I thought we should think about our mission—why are we here? 
What are we as a church meant to do?
What are we already doing pretty well, and what could we be doing better?
How can we be church?
Ever since I first read the Great Ends of the Church, I have seen great truth in them.
Since few Presbyterians could even name one of these bullet points in our church's mission statement, it would do us good to learn about them as a way to consider our own church's mission and purpose.
So beginning at the beginning:
The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
Way to put first things first!
It's a bold statement: we are meant to proclaim the Gospel and save the world.
Doesn't it sound a bit arrogant to our twentifirst century ears?
How can we claim that we know about salvation and others don't?
Aren't Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist truths,
Aren't new age truths, or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as valid as the truth of Christ?
Isn't everyone already on the path to salvation?
The Presbyterian Church's mission statement seems to say no.
Romans 10 would agree.
Romans is the fullest explanation of Paul's thought.
At this point in Romans, Paul has laid out his message: what's our problem? Answer: we are sinners incapable of saving ourselves. What's the solution? Accepting the grace that comes from Jesus Christ. And now Paul turns to a new question:  Well, what about those who haven't accepted the grace of Jesus Christ?
Most important to Paul is the Jewish community from which Paul, and most Christians, come.
And in Romans 10, Paul's answer is that to be saved, we need to accept Christ into our hearts and confess him with our lips.
Paul says that "being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, they seek to establish their own."
Could this not be said of a lot of people today?
Without knowing Christ, we seek to be righteous on our own.
And, in my opinion, that path can lead us farther and farther away from God's goodness.
You may have read a news story this week that Pope Francis declared that he believes that atheists can go to heaven, that if they keep doing good works they can come into a relationship with Christ.
Like a lot of Christians, I'm a fan of Francis, and I think he can do great things for Christianity and the Catholic Church.
But I wonder, without a relationship with God, will it be easy for someone to be led astray?
Is trying to do something good enough without a relationship with God to direct you?
I've been watching the show Breaking Bad on AMC with my husband,
If you haven't heard of it, this is the story of Walter White,
Who is a chemistry teacher at a local high school.
Walt is diagnosed with terminal cancer,
And in frustration and disappointment with life, he decides that he's going to do something with his last remaining days.
He's going to leave his family a legacy.
And he's going to do it by starting up a meth lab.
With his chemistry expertise, Walt can cook up extraordinarily pure form of the drug methamphetamine
Yet at each step of the way, Walt makes more and more moral compromises.
The genius of the show is, Walt is not the exalted anti-hero in so much entertainment today,
The guy who makes some moral compromises but is still ultimately a good person.
Rather, each compromise Walt makes takes him further and further into the heart of darkness.
Lying to his wife undercuts their marriage.
Business success requires sacrifices.
Sacrifices become blood sacrifices.
And we watch as he justifies further and further depravity with his own twisted moral logic,
Repeating, "I'm doing this for my family, I'm doing this for my family,"
I'm reminded of what CS Lewis said: that evil is most tempting when it takes the guise of something good, like family, or politics, or health,
The most powerful idols are the ones that remind us of God, and so have the power to lead us astray.
"I'm doing this for my family."
With the idol of family before him, Walter White becomes more of a monster than a man.
As Paul says, "being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, they seek to establish their own."
People follow many different paths, establishing their own righteousness,
But the witness of Scripture is that true righteousness is found only in the grace of Jesus Christ.
And that's the good news.
What I love about Christianity, distinct from all other religions,
Is that salvation doesn't depend on my actions but on God's love.
It's not about me finding the right path; it's about me having a relationship with Christ.
Paul says, "there is righteousness for everyone who believes."
According to Romans, "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
That's it. Confess it with your lips; believe it in your heart.
You can mess up and do wrong. God knows you will mess up and do wrong.
If you sincerely believe, God will help you follow Christ more and more.
We don't have to understand deep theology: Paul says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down)
If we think we have a complete understanding of the things of God,
that would be bringing Christ down.
We don't have to bring the Messiah to earth either: Paul says, don't ask, “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
It's not our job to resurrect Christ. It's not our job to be perfect or to save the world.
That's God's job.
Our job, our calling, is to receive Christ into our hearts.
And in our doing so we are compelled to share Christ with others.
To share Christ with others is not arrogance.
It's the humility to say, I am a sinner; I don't have all the answers; I realize I need a Savior; I depend on God to get through the day; and I'm telling you about it hoping He might help you.
We share the good news without shame and we share the good news without judgment.
Listen to the exact wording of this, the first great end of the church:
The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We proclaim the Gospel "for" the salvation of "humankind."
This is how Presbyterians are different from other traditions that speak more frequently about saving souls.
There are two differences of emphasis:
One, the salvation of humankind is not the same as personal salvation.
The salvation of humankind is the physical, economic, social, emotional, personal, communal, and spiritual salvation of all people.
It goes beyond a one time experience of one person accepting Christ.
Second, we preach the Gospel for the salvation of humankind, but we don't preach the Gospel so that we can save humankind.
Saving humankind is God's job.
We are only His instruments.
Any preacher knows that when you preach, it's not your words that reach people.
It's God's Word.
I have had many people come up to me and say, "It was amazing what you said, when you spoke about thus and so, it was like you were speaking right to me."
But I never spoke about thus and so. People have told me I said things I never said.
And I don't know a preacher this has not happened to.
God wanted that person to hear something, and between my mouth and his ears he heard it.
When we set out to proclaim the Gospel, God uses us beyond our own capability.
We are God's instruments, but we never know what music God is making through us.
We can't determine how God will save humankind.
It would be arrogant to say that a person is unsaved because she is Jewish or he is a New Ager.
We don't know how others might accept Christ in ways we can't see.
As Paul says in Corinthians, "It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall."
What we know, what we are called to do, is to be good instruments.
To share the Gospel.
As Romans recalls the words of the prophet Joel,
"For How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?
And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?
And how shall they hear without a preacher?"
We are all called to be preachers, to share the Gospel with everyone we meet,
To share it one by one and by the thousands,
To share with passion and to share with compassion,
To share the great Story and to share our own stories,
To share, and then to be ready to listen to how God is moving in our world.
And God is moving.
This is World Communion Sunday.
Growing up I used to think about people in far-off lands who had never heard of Christ,
And I would feel sad and anxious thinking of them not knowing Jesus.
"How shall they hear without a preacher?"
But today, Christ has been proclaimed to nearly every nation and tongue,
And where he has been proclaimed, millions, billions have accepted him as Lord and Savior.
We celebrate today because people are communing with Christ in Africa, and the Middle East, in Asia, in South America, and all over the world.
We celebrate a great gathering of believers whom we may never meet, but who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And let me tell you from my mission experiences and my relationships with Christians from around the world, particularly Christians I have known from Africa and Central America:
They are not afraid to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We could use some of that global evangelical zeal here, where so many have fallen away.
Where so many have sought to be righteous on our own,
And found themselves breaking away from God's goodness,
Have found themselves breaking on a bad path.
We are called to lead them back.
We are called to show them the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We are called to tell them His name. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

We Are Groot

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  John 20

Has church ever made you depressed?
Have you ever prepared for a meeting, or a Bible study,
Ordered materials, organized your notes, made lunch for a whole group,
Promoted it in the bulletin and told all your friends,
Then sat and waited only…
To have no one show up?
Has that ever happened to you?
Have you ever sung a hymn with the congregation and been saddened by how quiet God's praise sounded?
Have you ever looked through the church directory and gotten depressed about how many people have, well, joined the heavenly choir?
I have.
Even in the medium-sized and big churches, it's hard sometimes,
Because you might have a lot of folks on the rolls, but that doesn't mean there are a lot of folks in the pews.
Church is just plain becoming less popular.
About one in five Americans attends a religious service on a weekly basis.
Among millennials, that is, teens and twentysomethings,
The number is more like one in ten.
I'm not really convinced that even the megachurches are growing at the rates they once were.
It's not just a Presbyterian problem, it's a church problem, a church illness.
A grave illness, so to speak.
Churches are closing.
Churches are dying.
This is something I've seen and you've seen,
Among family members whom we love and friends who we love
Who don't understand why we keep coming to church.
Who would never themselves show up, Sunday after Sunday.
The people who might come to help out at the soup kitchen but would never show up in worship.
There are fewer and fewer of us doing the work of keeping the church alive.
So, why do we show up?
Why do we plan the Bible study?
Why do we sing the lackluster-sounding hymn?
Why do we bake cookies for twenty and have two show up?
Why do we give so much of our time and money and energy to something that can be so depressing?
Well, why did Mary show up?
What was the point of going to the tomb?
She knows what she's going to find there.
And it won't be pretty.
It won't smell pretty.
That's why she has to bring some spices.
She's going to anoint Jesus's body,
But it's something of a fool's errand, because there is a hugs stone in front of Jesus's tomb,
Between her and Jesus.
Why did she think she could still get to Jesus?
She couldn't have thought the guards would let her in,
Would roll the stone away,
It weighed about two thousand pounds.
Not something an armed Roman guard was likely to do for an ordinary Jewish woman.
So why is this woman here?
Why is she clinging to a dead hope?
In the Gospel of John, she shows up alone,
In the other gospels, there are a couple of women with her,
But not more than a handful
Not enough to hold a worship service
A couple of women, clinging to a dead Savior.
Mary, and maybe a couple of her friends.
That's who showed up for the Resurrection.
When she saw the stone rolled away,
She didn't believe it then.
She assumed as any sensible, rational person would,
That someone had taken Jesus's body away.
So she ran to tell the disciples of this terrible tragedy.
There had been twelve of them,
Seventy at one point,
But who came to the empty tomb?
Peter and John.
They looked in the tomb and saw that the body was gone,
The linens laid aside in an odd way,
But still they didn't get it.
Some people interpret verse 8 as belief in the resurrection.
Verse 8 says, "the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, went in, and he saw and believed."
Some interpreters think that what the other disciple, who is John himself being humble,
Believed was the resurrection.
But the rest of the sentence is "for they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead."
If they didn't understand it, they wouldn't have believed it.
So I think what he believed, what all of them believed, was that the body had been stolen,
Likely by the Romans and collaborators among the Jewish elites who had Jesus executed in the first place.
What seals it for me is that they don't seem to tell anybody about it.
Now that would have been pretty strange.
To have your religious leader die a terrible public death, realize he had come back to life, and tell no one.
If you lost your keys and thought they were gone for three days and then you found them unexpectedly in a kitchen cabinet of all places, would you tell anybody about it?
If one of your azaleas looked totally brown and dead in the spring and you thought you would have to replace it, but then it unexpectedly perked up and went into full bloom, would you tell people about it?
If you swatted a really annoying mosquito and saw it all dead and yucky and then it came back to life, would you tell anybody about it?
So if your rabbi, your teacher, your pastor, your friend, your Messiah had died and you believed he had come back to life, would you tell anybody about it?
Well, have you told anybody about it lately?
Peter didn't.  John didn't.  If they believed, they must not have believed much.
Not enough to share the news.
Not enough to change their lives.
Not enough to stay and see what happened next.
But Mary did.
Mary in her sadness clung to her king.
Mary clung to the little she had left of her Savior.
Mary, depressed, weeping, held on to all she had of Jesus, even if it was only his dead body.
Mary, the last believer.
And as she stood there, weeping, a man came up to her.
She assumed he was a caretaker, a cemetery gardener.
But then he said, "Mary."  And she knew.
She believed.
She believed so much she told everyone she knew.
And that's why we're sitting here today.
Because of an ordinary woman, probably not a prostitute, but likely something of a misfit
Because of a ragtag little group of weirdoes called disciples
Because we believe their story
We believe something happened in that tomb
We believe the stone was rolled away
We believe love is stronger than death
We believe this life, this planet, this universe, this church never had to exist
It's here because there is a God whose love beats through this universe like a heartbeat
Called it into life and calls it into resurrection.
And that's why we show up on a Sunday morning.
All it takes is for one person to believe.
All it takes is for one person to cling to hope, to love, to life.
I was reminded of that recently.
If you haven't seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy I recommend it.
For the music alone, but also for the message.
You see, there's this little ragtag group of outlaws, misfits, weirdoes generally
Who meet up in prison and figure out that they're in charge of saving the world.
Or worlds, in this case.
And among them is a talking raccoon named Rocket, who travels with this creature that's described as his sidekick, muscle, and walking houseplant.
The creature is known as Groot.
We know because this thing, who is, in essence, a walking tree, says only three words:  I. Am. Groot.
We think of Groot as Rocket's sidekick, but things may actually be the other way around,
Because…major spoiler alert….
When the spaceship is crashing to the ground,
Groot grows all around it, strengthening it, saving it, at the cost of his own life.
And as he dies, he explains why:
His last words:  We are Groot.
It's difficult for someone who goes to seminary not to watch this and think of another strange wanderer,
Who said "I Am" a whole heck of a lot and who may not have been made of wood, but he was a carpenter,
And who gave his life for the community, so that we could become a part of his life.
Sometimes we in the church forget that Christ died not only for us personally, but for us communally.
He wanted us to have new life as the body of Christ.
The church not a building, not an institution, not a club.
The church is Christ's body on earth.
We are part of him.  We are Groot.
After Groot dies, Rocket is destroyed.
He searches through the rubble of the spaceship and finds only a little twig.
And through the rest of the film, the strange, depressed raccoon carries this twig in a little pot.
I was wondering why he would do such a thing,
Why won't you give it up?
Why do you keep clinging to threads?  Grasping at straws?
Why won't you bury what is dead and move on?
Then, in the closing moments of the film, with Rocket still mourning, the twig wakes up.
And begins to dance.
To Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."
All it takes is one person to believe.
All it takes is one person to cling to hope, to love, to life.
We here,
We are the people who hold on to the little branch
We are the faithful remnant
We are the people who show up to an empty church
We are the people who show up to an empty tomb
We are the people who expect miracles.
Even when it's tough.
Last fall about this time, we started a little Bible study at Oakland University.
Other than the Roman Catholics, we were the only church sponsored group on campus.
Our meetings never had more than five or six kids.
Sometimes I wondered, why am I doing this?
Why am I baking cookies for twelve just in case extra people show up?
Why when we can't even rent space on campus are we going ahead and having a Bible study?
Why do I come here on a Friday and spend twenty minutes finding a place to park at Oakland just so I can hang out with two or three college kids?
When one of them ended up in the ICU and I was among that student's first phone calls, I knew why.
When one of them told me, before this year, "I didn't know what I was.  Now I can tell people I'm a Christian and a Presbyterian."  Then I knew why.
When I received a text message that read, "I want to be baptized,"
I knew why.
When we hold on to that little twig,
When we cling to our Savior,
When we keep looking for God despite all reason, despite all logic, despite all it costs,
God finds us.
Why am I preaching about Easter right now?  I'm aware it's September.
Well, because I know right now it's hard sometimes.
Right now you and I can get discouraged by church.  Even depressed.
But you see, we aren't in this on our own.
We're part of something bigger.
We've got muscle.  We've got a sidekick.  You've got a friend who would die for you and did.
Who is, in fact, one with you.
You are Groot.
We are Groot.
We are one with Christ.
We may look weak, but we are in truth united to a resurrection power.
Since we are Christ's body on earth,
Since we believe,
Since we cling to this truth like a little twig we won't give up on,
I believe we will see resurrection.
We will see miracles.
We will meet again the God of lost hopes, of second chances,
Of new life.
Our God is a strong God.
Our God is stronger
Stronger than all those stones,
Those two thousand pound stones,
Sitting on people's hearts, keeping them from Jesus
Our God who will roll those stones away
Our God is tougher than the stones
Our God is actually stronger than anything this world can dish out.
This we believe.
This is our message to the world.
He is risen indeed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God Will Provide

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

I can barely read that story out loud.
Genesis 22.
The terrible details.
The sharp knife,
The fire, blazing on its torch.
The wood.
All the steps detailed with maddening slowness.
Abraham rises early in the morning.
For how could he have slept?
He has two men to help him.
He saddles the donkey.
Making sure he has everything he needs.
The fire.  The wood.  The rope.  The knife.
They come to the mountain.
It stands tall, terrible before them,
Unmoving and impossible as God’s command.
And from here, Abraham and Isaac must go on alone.
He makes Isaac carry the wood.
Isaac turns to his father.
Did his voice shake?
Were his eyes filled with tears?
Did he know?
And his question that wrenches the heart, father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
The father answers, God will provide the lamb.
They reach the top of the mountain,
And Abraham took his son Isaac,
Bound him with rope to the rock,
Strapped him down and raised the knife over his baby boy.
Did he have to wrestle his child to the ground?
Was his son crying out in fear?
How can we read this?
How can we accept as Holy Scripture a text that I feel uncomfortable reading when children are in the sanctuary?
How can I talk about this moments before a baptism?
How can we just say, “The Word of the Lord,” to this?
Can you imagine your own child?
A child you love?
A child who has reached up to take your hand?
A child who has trustingly fallen asleep in your arms?
God says, Abraham, take your son, your only son, whom you love,
As though to torture this father.
Isaac is not just a child.
Isaac is the long-awaited promise of the future.
Isaac is the fulfillment of years of hope deferred.
Isaac is the hope of any couple who have experienced infertility:  a miracle baby.
Abraham and Sarah have gone through years of trying and failing,
Have withstood the well-meaning questions and the snide whispers,
Have withstood the continual bleeding out of lost hopes,
Have withstood the pain of watching as everyone around them celebrates what they will never share,   
And have been surprised by a miracle.
God has ordered Abraham to kill that miracle.
I wonder what would have happened if God had asked Sarah instead of Abraham.
How can we believe this of God?
Who are you, God of Genesis 22, and what have you done with the loving and gracious Father I believe in?
I was talking to a Jewish man who at the time only attends synagogue on the day of Atonement,
And he hates that annual duty because the reading is always the same:  the sacrifice of Isaac.
He cannot believe God would force people to have that kind of faith.
He cannot imagine doing such a thing to his own children.
It is as though to my friend God is a terrible and abusive parent.
And theologians have had the same reactions.
Rabbi David Blumenthal was once asked by a psychiatrist, “Are you trying to say that God is an Abuser?  If so, you should just come right out and say it.”
And so, Rabbi Blumenthal did.
Some people see in this text God as an abusive father.
Who hurts his own children, saying, it’s good for you.
Saying, you asked for it.
Is this the God we believe in?
A God who would ask this of a father?
What kind of faith does this God want us to have?
The kind of faith that would compel us to do something without any perceived moral good,
The kind of faith that would compel us to destroy someone young and defenseless,
The kind of faith that would compel us to do something almost physically impossible for a parent to do,
The kind of faith that would make me kill my daughter?
Is that what God wants?
A faith that would kill without reason because God ordered it?
Is Abraham’s faith the faith of Dan and Ron Lafferty, fundamentalist Mormons who in 1984 killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her infant daughter Erica?
Is the faith God wants the faith of Scott Roeder, pro-life activist who in 2009 shot and killed doctor George Tiller, while Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher in his church?
Does God want us to have the faith of Mohammed Atta, one of the September 2011 hijackers, who had in his checked luggage reassurances that he should feel complete tranquility, because the time between now and his marriage in heaven would be very short?
Mohammed had also reminded himself,   
With the twisted, high-mindedness of the deranged, keep your knife sharp.  You must not discomfort the animal during the slaughter.
Is this the kind of faith Abraham had?
Is this the kind of faith we are supposed to have?
That once God has given a directive it must be obeyed, no matter how much our moral compass, our hearts, our souls, find that directive reprehensible?
I do not believe it and I will not believe it.
I don’t like that this text is paired in the lectionary with Matthew 10, in which Jesus calls us to love God more than our children.
I do love God more than I love my child.
And that is why I would not kill my child or any child.
When my daughter was born, I had never known such a visceral love.
I began to have irrational fears of all the things that could happen to her.
I could leave her carseat behind my car, forget and run her over.
What if she rolled over in the night and was smothered in her bed?  Shouldn’t I watch her all night long?
I imagined my daughter’s death and I imagined how I would kill myself.
Because there seemed to me no other choice.
And when I heard myself have that thought, I prayed.
I prayed, God, do not let my daughter become an idol.
I prayed to love God more than I loved my daughter,
Knowing in that way I would be a better mother.
And in that moment my whole perspective changed.
And so, I am the mother whose daughter can be found climbing up a slide on the far end of the playground.
When she broke her foot last year, people asked if I was so scared.
And I did feel for her in her pain.
But I also thought it was just a little bit funny that she thought she would try to fly down the basement stairs.
I trust God with my child.
I love my daughter, but I love God more.
And that is why I would not kill my child or any child.
My faith in God is faith in Good.
I believe Good and God are the same thing.
My faith is not just that God is mighty but that God is good.
That he would not order me to do something that is wrong.
And so my reading of this text is different from many preachers and theologians and biblical scholars I have heard and read.
I believe Abraham’s faith was not an unquestioning obeisance of whatever command he believed he heard from on high.
I believe Abraham’s faith was such that he trusted that God would show mercy.
I believe that when Abraham said to his two assistants that he would come back down the mountain with Isaac he was not lying.  He believed that was what would happen.
And that when Abraham told Isaac God would provide the ram,
That is exactly and literally what he believed.
That Abraham held within him both the faith to take every step leading up to the altar,
And the faith that he would have a reprieve.
I believe this story is included in Scripture not to tell us to sacrifice to our children,
But the exact opposite: to teach God’s people not to kill children,
To not follow the popular religion of Molech at that time an in that area,
Which Scripture records had drawn away the Israelites from the worship of the one true God,
Or the many ancient religions that practiced child sacrifice.
In many places in Scripture God condemns child sacrifice, and God would not contradict God.
I believe God meant through this story to show us the cruelty of that sacrifice, and to point us to another way.
And I believe something else too.
I believe Isaac knew.
I do not believe Isaac fought.
I believe Isaac carried that wood up the hill knowing.
I believe Isaac laid himself upon the stone knowing, and accepting, and trusting.
And that as he felt the ropes cut into his arms,
As he saw the knife rise above him,
Isaac trusted in his (F)father.
I believe this because I am a Christian.
I believe this because I believe this story does not stand on its own.
Abraham finds a ram in the bushes, but in verse 8, Abraham does not say,
“God will provide a ram.”
He says,
“God himself will provide the lamb.”
This Hebrew word Seh is also the word used in Isaiah 53:7,
Which we read on Good Friday:
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”
I believe the lamb is Christ.
I believe this story points us to another son,
Who carried his tree up another hill,
Who let himself be bound,
Who gave himself as a sacrifice.
I believe this because the God I believe in is the God who will never let us be alone,
A God who chose himself to feel the fear of Isaac,
The heartbreak of Abraham,
To cry the scream of the lamb who is slain.
My God loves us with such a love that there is no place he will not go with you,
No pain he will not bear for you,
And no hilltop where he will let you suffer alone.
This is the God we worship, the God whose name is Goodness, whose way is mercy, whose power is called Love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.