Hebrews 11:19-25/A Communal Hermenuetic Monday, Nov 19 2012 

From coffee cups and t-shirts to magnets and bumper stickers, the quote that has arisen from the sayings of a conglomeration of persons (Mark Twain, Satchel Paige, Glenda Jackson, Alfred D. Souza, and William Purkey)  that is meant to inspire in a plethora of ways states: “Dance like no one is watching, love like you have never been hurt, sing like there is nobody listening, work like you don’t need the money, live like it is heaven on earth.”  And it is inspiring.  There is a poetic tension here that evokes emotion and reflection that draws a person in to the point of engaging commitment.  To read this quote and allow it the status of a benchmark makes a person reflect on their own life and wonder what those people are doing right and what they might be doing wrong.

It is very seductive in a way (this quote) to the point of being dangerous.  As we inhabit one of the most individualistic cultures that history has ever known, we most likely do not realize that inspiration such as this causes us to look inward even more than we already do.  Dance like no one is watching leads you to dance solo and step on all sorts of feet.  Sing like no one is listening allows you to sing really loud without a clue to the amount of noise you are making.  Live like it is heaven on earth makes you forget that so many places on this earth are in fact far from heaven; they are hell in session.  Our contextual reality of  “it’s all about me” hijacks perhaps the intentions of the authors of the quotation because it really does become all about me.  The sad lyrics of Neal Peart begin to ring true: “Live for yourself; there’s no one else more worth living for.  Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.”  How much further from the gospel message of faith, hope, and love within the framework of community could we possibly get?

Perhaps, in the most apropos of timing, this is why we engage the letter to the Hebrews this morn through our Lectionary reading.  This entire epistle is a teaching sermon deemed in need of hearing to a church that needs to listen.  There is the core message of Christ’s reality of the cross that paves the way for the world to be ambushed by salvation.  This is coupled with the author’s reminder “that we live in that liminal time between Christ’s provisional victory over the powers of sin and death and the final victory when ‘his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’” (Jane Fahey)  And where we intersect the cadence of this assurance of Jesus’ accomplishment of a permanent pardon for sin is the climactic answer to the question that forms is pondered in response to Christ.  How shall we then live?  An outline for holy living is received; descriptions of the sanctified life begin to take form not only the Hebrew church but for  us as well.

Sisters and brothers, if you happen to pay attention to the words that I have the privilege of speaking in the form of benediction, you might have noticed that I always remind us all to “hold fast” specifically to that which is true.  In the same manner, our writer has provided “a series of admonitions and encouragements delineating what it means to ‘hold fast’”. (D. Stephen Long)  Because of who Christ is and what Christ has done, “we are admonished to hold fast to the theological virtues that he makes possible – faith, hope, love.” (Long)  Theology and ethics have once again been connected or as our own Book of Order puts it, “We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.  Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover the truth or to embrace it.”  As a pastor once stated to a Bible Study that I attended, “We are saved to do good things.”

There is one drawback though – a “fly in the ointment” (This idiomatic actually comes from the KJV/Ecclesiastes 10:1 states, “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour.”).  Remember when I stated that we inhabit one of the most individualistic cultures that history has ever known?  Because of this (in the same cultural posture as the coffee cup, t-shirt, bumper sticker, magnet quote), we tend to look inward.  What exactly does this text from Hebrews say to ME?  This is not exactly an option though (at least not according to the author of the text).  Within the shortness of our lectionary, the three admonitions that are given start the same way: “Let us…”.  There is an assumed communal hermeneutic at work.  There is an anticipated interpretation (the meaning of the word “hermeneutic”) that we are all in this together.  There is no room for individualism.  There is no place for dancing alone.  There is no possibility of living and singing and working and loving in isolation.  The communal hermeneutic demands that all of is have our theology and ethics, our faith and practice engaged in a unified interpretation.

It is then and only then that we can approach the directives given by the writer of Hebrews: “Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith…let us hold fast to the confession of our hope…and let us consider how to provoke one another in love…”  Do you happen to notice the “three legged stool” of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth?  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)  It really is a posture of confidence and hope that can only be accomplished in the boundaries of an “us”.

I realize that I am perhaps only skimming the surface of what could be exposited within the framework of this text.  So many directions and yet so little time.  It seems to me though that the foundation of this is built upon one simple reality.  In the words of the character of the imagination of the great writer Alexander Dumas, “All for one and one for all.”  We are either all in this together or we are not in it.  The Triune God (a community within itself never in isolation) has not only provided for us the way and the truth and the life in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, but beyond that, the faith and the hope and the love that let’s us piece together our faith and practice; our truth and duty.  We simply must remember.  The directives all start our the same way: “Let us…”.

Back in 2000, there was a film that emerged entitled The Replacements.  It boiled down the the National Football League players going on strike and the show going on through less than stellar players.  There is a poignant scene though where Coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) approaches player Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) and states: “I look at you and I see two men: the man you are and the man you ought to be.  Someday those two will meet.”  And though he is talking to the individual, I am going to co-op it for out intents and purposes and state that the same reality applies to the bride of Christ…the communion of saints…the priesthood of all believers…the kirk…the church…us.  There is the church that we are and there is the church that we are called to be – a church of one foundation with Jesus Christ her Lord that is a new creation based on faith, hope, and love.  One day those two will meet.  Could it be today?

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

 

 

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17/A Faithful Presence Monday, Nov 12 2012 

The one thing that I have realized as this round of elections came to a close is that a hurricane is blind to all political opinions; in fact it is not discriminatory against anything.  It devastates everything, takes no prisoners, and leaves only destruction, pain, and brokenness.  Sandy did not care about your ethnicity, your morality, your voting record, your socio-economic status, your sexuality, you gender, your theology, or your age.  She did what the indifference of nature leads her to do when low pressure areas form over warm ocean waters in the summer and early fall.  Wind begins to spiral and when it eventually slams up against life as we know it, the results are an operation of annihilation.

And why it takes such things as a hurricane for this to happen I will never understand but, people actually wake up the next day as people.  They do not awaken as labels but instead as persons who hold the common themes of loss and grief forced upon them by the hands of an outside agent.  Irony begins to set in and what tends to emerge (the phoenix from the flame) is the common vision of mutual survival where people release their assumptions of one another that typically divide them.  For the briefest of moments, they treat each other as co-conspirators against a common enemy.  This is what made the interchange between President Obama and Governor Christie so palpable.  Call me naive, but I really do believe that these were not moments of political motivation but instead a common sorrow as these men toured the tragedy of their sisters and brothers of the human race.

I mention all of this to you because whether we realize it or not, this is exactly what we are doing as we intersect the Lectionary text this morn from the Old Testament book of Ruth.  We are touring the tragedy of sisters of the human race.  This is a moment of the common sorrow of Ruth and Naomi who, in any other situation, should be enemies as Moab was often a national enemy of Israel.  Instead, we have a narrative that started out great as the transient life of migrants soon turned to high hopes as big dreams began to pave a new way of life.  “A family settles, passes through strangeness, and begins to make its way.  The young children grow up and marry their local sweethearts.  Then tragedy strikes and death claims the men of the family, young and old.  Great and caring thought lies behind that even voice which then releases the two young widows to find strength in their native culture.  Deep loyalty appears, and the bond of love, which holds across all differences, shines through.” (G. Malcolm Sinclair)  Ruth and Naomi, having lost everything, return to their starting place where everything has changed.  With countless adjustments ahead of them, they move together searching for that common vision of mutual survival sharing the common themes of loss and grief forced upon them by the outside agent of death.

And the exact point where we cross paths with these two women is where redemption is starting to be found in their very broken world.  In their situation of suffering and dislocation, two events are lifted up for our intents and purposes (Naomi’s plan for securing a future for Ruth and Boaz taking Ruth as a wife providing for Naomi a next of kin) to act as a lens to see that it is possible to navigate these settings in faith in order to lay hold of redemption in an imperfect world.  These two passages frame the revelation that a future is secured and a child is born despite the realities of economic desolation of these women as they had little or no means of financial support amidst the backdrop of a patriarchal world where they must “make a way out of no way in a male dominated society.” (Frank Yamada)

Allow me to pause here and say that it would be all too easy to preach a plethora of apropos sermons on the role of women, faith in hard times, and the legacy of the next generation.  What often goes unnoticed though is that throughout the entire book of Ruth, God is hardly mentioned and when God is discussed, it is only in passing.  God is not the “extraneous royal being before whom all ordinary conversation stops.” (Sinclair)  Instead, God is rather the glue in life that is holding things together no matter how ravaged life may seem.  The narrative of loss and redemptions presents to us “a recipe of ingredients by which the Holy One continues a faithful presence.” (Sinclair)

Sisters and brothers, too often than not, when extreme tragedy strikes, the question that we immediately ask is, “Where was God?”  A loved one dies.  A job is lost.  A house burns down.  A friend betrays.  A hurricane hits.  Again, where was God?  To be honest, what we discover is that the possibility of questions that arise are endless.  “Where is God in times of upheaval?  What is sacred in tragedy and reversal of fortune?  How does the Deity speak through unshakable loyalties, gut feelings, and canny decisions?  How does the Mighty One stand in the streets or in the courts to press for what is right?  Where is the holy in the happy endings our in the rich human tapestry that displays our best visions?  How is God unseen but never absent?  In what ways is God full of surprises down the road, the keeper of ultimate promises?” (Sinclair)  Whether we realize it or not, what is at the heart of our question is not just why do bad things happen to good people, but even more so, what are we to make of the sovereign nature of the God that we claim to worship.

What we are questioning is the fact that we assume that God is all powerful and in charge of this side show known as history.  If God knows everything and is in charge of everything, then why does _____________?  Fill in the blank.  And as hard as it may be to even contemplate, what must be lifted up within our own Reformed Theology when referencing the meaning of the sovereignty of God, at root, is that all human beings, at every moment of our lives, are in relationship to the living God.  This is a doctrine of comforting confidence versus dictatorial determinism that allows us to have strength that the Holy One is at work in the simplest, the earthiest, and the most authentic experiences of humanity.  In the words of the preacher and theologian G. Malcolm Sinclair, “It calls us to remember that God works everyday.  God labors on the ground, in the heart, among the folk, and through life circumstances.  God weaves simple gestures, feelings, decisions, and actions in ways that bring good things.  All this arises despite loss and trouble, opposition and tyranny, displacement and pain.”  God is a constant and faithful presence that can shake the foundations of the powerful, short-circuit the plans of a few, and even elevate the downtrodden lives of the many.  We find out that God really is in the ordinary and unlikely places.

No matter the ups and downs, the ins an outs, the surprises of both pain and joy, we can hold onto the fact that in a way we are “children of destiny”.  Even when it seems that we are drowning in a sea of trouble, we can sing the great hymn, “God is Working His Purpose Out” remembering that even though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us for you rod and staff comfort us.  We remember the narrative of Ruth and Naomi.  We remember the pictures of our leaders from both sides of the aisle standing together for a bigger cause.  We remember that God is always a faithful presence.

This reality is the fertilizer formulated to allow us to thrive in the harshest of soil.  It is the paint stripper that peals away the questions and gets us back to the “natural grains of human lives in a mixed and mundane world.  This old tale is cleansing cream, rubbed in after a long, grimy day at the wars.  It goes deep, loosens stubborn grit, and works as we pause disarm and rest.” (Sinclair)  Note the last passage alone.  “A son had been born…they named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.”  The legacy and the story continue because of that faithful presence.

Let me leave you with one last thought.  In the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia, entitled The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis writes this in the last paragraph of the last page.  “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth had read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

Mark 10:46-52/Let Me See Again Sunday, Oct 28 2012 

In the 1999 film entitled At First Sight, Val Kilmer plays Virgil Adamson, a blind man since the age of three who has an operation to regain his sight.  As he is learning to reorient his life through the processing of new images, his way of seeing the world begins to conflict with others around him.  This is captured so appropriately when Adamson sees graffiti for the first time on a wall and gasps at what he considers within that moment at a beautiful piece of art.  His girlfriend, Amy Benic, turns to him surprised and exclaims, “What are you talking about?  It graffiti!”  Thus, this is the issue that we all seem to face at one time or another when others cannot seem to see the world as we see it and visa versa.

From the current political climate of a battleground state like Ohio to Monday morning quarterback conversations to relationships at work, at home, and even in the church, a common consensus amongst parties does not always work out to be “happily ever after”.  A colleague of mine who pastors a small Presbyterian congregation in west Texas observed, “I am daily struck with the awful ways in which people treat one another…I have watched the church tear itself apart over the issue of sex for the better part of thirty years.  If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then what do we expect of the rest of the world?”  As sad as it is, even the church herself often does not see “eye to eye” (from the color of the carpet to theological doctrine) and it often dictates how we react to one another.

“It is a beautiful piece of art!”

“What are you talking about?  It’s graffiti!”

I would tend to agree with Mohandas Ghandi who stated, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Perhaps we are not so different after all from the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar sitting on the roadside shouting to the Christ.

Can you feel the cadence of what is in development within this text?  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

“You need to quiet down blind man.”

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stops because he hears the cries of the painful context of the human heart.  He senses the desperation of a broken man.  He feels the echo from the valley of the shadows that begs for mercy.  “What do you want me to do?”  And the son of Timaeus, out of shear desolation, begs to Jesus, “Let me see again.”

Bartimaeus, at its core, is asking to glimpse at a miracle.  “Miracles are those events that bring people from darkness to light.  Miracles turn our attention to what really matters in life and in death.  Miracles claim no power, but reveal a Power who will to be known.  Miracles point beyond the one who is before us to the one who made us for love’s sake.  ‘Miracles as such,’ wrote Rudolf Bultmann, ‘mean the activity of God.’”

And the activity of God within this text is on the move as the son of Timaeus comes to a place of healing which is not to be mistaken as a simple curing.  In medical anthropology, there is a definite difference between the two.  Curing deals solely with the physical.  Healing is when a person become whole despite what happens to them physically.  Bartimaeus is healed.  “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Bartimaeus not only regains his vision but is made whole.  “Having been granted sight, Bartimaeus can do nothing but follow the Messiah who has brought the good news of God’s kingdom to bear in such a tangible way.” (Victor McCracken)

“Let me see again.”  What a powerful request that can only really come from one who not only knows that they are blind but is willing to admit to it in order that the grace of God in Jesus Christ would bring them healing.  Sisters and brothers, having been here four years now as your pastor, one of my conclusions in concern for this particular time within our history is that this is the very plea that we need to be making to Christ.  Let us see again.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are at a major crossroad.  This crossroad is a tipping point of no return and not just a simple choice of going this way or that way knowing that we eventually arrive at the same destination.  Between some of the generative discussions at the last few Session meetings, to hearing about the gatherings of the Presbyterian Women at their series of Cafe’ Conversations, to the many private conversations that I have with you the congregation, there is an anxiety in the air on one hand and the energy of hope and transformation in the other.  The spectrum of responses varies from the need to march straight back into the nostalgia of the 1960’s to risking it all (this building, our endowment, etc.) in order to let nothing stand in the way of transformation.  One Session member even commented to me about the struggle of ideas that we find ourselves within.  Their point was that there seems to be an appetite for talking about what we want to be but we have a much better sense of who we were that who we are and who we are called to be.  Because of this reality, not only does the ability to see “eye to eye” deteriorate quickly, but even more so, the capacity to have a common vision.  Remembering that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, I wonder at what point do we simply lift up the plea of Bartimaeus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!  Let me see again!”

We are like Bartimaeus and just like Bartimaeus, we can ask to get a glimpse at a miracle…the very activity of God.  And what I have come to realize in my tenure in ministry is that we begin to realize the activity of God is all around us with we have the chance to really listen to someone’s personal narrative and for a moment, we become a group of people that are bathed in history and showered by story.  This is the precise reason that I have asked Elder Ken McWhorter to come and share a part of his personal story…a glimpse at a miracle…the very activity of God…

(KEN MCWHORTER COMES AND SPEAKS AT LECTERN)

These are the words of faith that continue to make us well and restore our sight.  These are the activities of God that bring us healing and not simply curing.  These are the types of stories that allow us to have the creation of an identity within the family of faith who know where they have come from and where they are going because they join in the tunes and the melodies that play the music of the holy.  We move from private exercises to public proclamations to a shared vision that energizes, excites, clarifies, and invites others in.  We not only regain our vision but more importantly, we are made whole.  We are free to see and to see together the awesome and breath taking sites that God has in store for us.  The blind beggar is no more and all that is left are the sons of daughters of God following Jesus along the way.

To return in brevity to the movie that I started this sermon with, what a powerful scene it was when Virgil Adamson stated, “I saw that horizon.  It’s out there.  And though I may not be able to touch it, it’s worth reaching for.”  Let us see again.  It really is worth reaching for…

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41/Why Ask Why? Sunday, Oct 21 2012 

It has been said that what separates us from all of the other creatures that where fashioned by the imagination of God within the world as we know it is the ability for us to look in and around and ask not just any question but to ask specifically: “Why?”.  It is a question that is so different from any other.  It is asking so much more that “What?”, or “How?”, and even “Huh?”  It seeks to know not just the “who” that is behind the curtain of the wizard, but more so, the very reason that there is even anyone behind the curtain to begin with.  It is the question asked by every child in the world that is always followed up with another equally appropriate question: “Why?”.  It is the question that lies behind every scientific discovery, every mystery solved, and so many other authentications, identifications, revelations, verifications, determinations, certifications, calculations and explorations.  It is even the question that comes to us from the cross of the Christ as he was moments from breathing his last asked the eternal unanswered question: “Eli Eli lema sabachthani?”  My God, My God, why?

And what is not quickly realized in concern for the reality of our Lectionary text for this day is that it has been the question of Job.  Job has spent much of the thirty seven previous chapters asking why in one form or another.  “Job has poured his heart out, shaking his fist toward heaven, defending his integrity, challenging the pious orthodoxy espoused by his comforters, all the while making his case for the world according to Job.” (J. S. Randolph Harrison)  All the assumptions that one might begin to have about the all loving God of the universe is being put to the test because of the incredible suffering of the innocent.  Job is challenging the very justice of God and awaiting an answer to the challenge of his question.  The divine encounter does eventually come and when it does it is not the “still small voice” that came to Elijah.  It is the whirlwind that does not bring answers.  It only brings questions that “thunder across the earth, intimidating, unanswerable, leaving room for nothing but abashed silence.” (Thomas Edward Frank)

“Who is this darkening counsel with words lacking knowledge?  Prepare yourself like a man; I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me.”  And what an interrogation it is!  Eleven questions of exponential proportion are fired off in the text that we read today alone.  This does even begin to account for the other 59 rhetorical questions that “cascade out protagonist, rendering him all but speechless.” (Mark Throntveit)  Who are you?  Where were you?  What do you know?  What are you capable of?  Job is asking for answers.  All that he gets is more questions.  It is as if God is “strikingly unconcerned with the tedious discussion of retributive justice that has exercised Job and his challengers so vigorously throughout the long central section of this book.” (Throntveit)

And that is the problem.  It never seems to go away that there is no sufficient answer to God’s reasoning for challenging Job in this manner.  Centuries of reflection upon this cryptic response has failed to produce a satisfactory solution that most theologians can agree upon.  Was God avoiding Job’s questions and this was God’s way of saying, “You are on a need to know basis.”?  Was God’s response evidence that no matter what, God is still there for us?  Was God attempting to reorient Job to have a larger awareness of God’s good creation beyond his own suffering?  I really do not know as all of these seem unsatisfactory reasons.  Perhaps this is the folly of thinking we can attempt to know the “inscrutable ways of God, especially in the extraordinary complex situation of human suffering.” (Throntveit)

The only thing that I really know through all of this is that upon much reflection, I realized that I do not know of many pastors who have not wanted to, at some point in time, respond similarly within their ministry.  There are those moments where the questions begin to become the nails against the chalkboard.  “Why did you change our liturgy?  Why don’t we have more kids in Sunday School?  How can you justify a raise for the staff when our unemployment rate is on the rise?  When are you going to take stand on same-sex marriage?”  By chapter 38 of the congregational questions, the pastor has had enough.  The storm of exasperation wins out as questions come out in reply.  “Did you give up eleven years of your life in educational training in preparation to lead worship in a church?  Have you volunteered to be on the Strategic Planning Committee who wants to bring in new members?  Are you here Monday through Friday seeing how hard the church staff is working over and above their job descriptions?  Are you sure that your theological views are even the same as mine?”  Questions, questions, and more questions.  The inherent difference though between the questions of Job to God versus the some of the ones a pastor gets is that the questions of Job have great legitimacy and in all fairness, deserve an answer…not a question.

How many of us know that feeling all too well?  Though congregation members ask those questions from time to time that do get on the nerves of their pastors, they are the same women and men that ask other questions too.  “Why am I so sick?  Why did my child have to die before me?  Why can’t I find a job?  Why isn’t daddy coming home?”  No pastor can answer those questions and I pray that no pastor would ever attempt to.  In fact, what we find is that “the question is much more important than the answer.  The question is a cry of pain, a slash of paint across a blank canvas that offers no discernable image of what is going on here.” (Frank)  At a recent event here in Cincinnati, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, speaking of his experience in the death camp Auschwitz, stated: “And so of course I don’t understand.  W cannot understand Auschwitz.  Either with God or without God….So don’t be upset if I will listen to the questions and tell you that I do not know the answer.  Most of the questions, the important ones, the essential ones, maybe are supposed to remain unanswered.  But then the question itself is an answer.”

Over the past week, I have had the family and occupational hazards of preaching at two funeral services.  One was for my uncle last weekend in Lenoir, North Carolina and the other was this past Friday within this very room for Marty Miles.  And no matter who they are, these occasions do not get any easier.  One of the biggest reasons is for the mere reality that you have a grieving community all asking the same question.  Why?  I did mention at the funeral for Marty that it has been stated in philosophy that there are four questions worth asking in life:

-The question of origin: How did I get here?

-The question of morality: How do I know what is right or wrong?

-The question of meaning: What is the purpose of my life?

-The question of destiny: What happens to me when I die?

I would personally add a fifth to that.  It is that question with no answer.  The question of loss and pain that always seems to remain in the recesses of our memories.  It is the question of the individual and the communal that is forever a wrestling match.  Again, it is the question of Christ from the cross: “My God, my God, why?”

Sisters and brothers, I have no answers for you today.  I have no way to bring reconciliation that would offer peace in concern for this text.  In fact, there is really only one point that I can leave you with that perhaps will reframe how we look at the question that has no answer and this is grounded in the simple reality that our questions are asked in temporal time.  Way too often, when we look at birth and death, the very parenthesis of our lives, we are only looking at it as time meaning one moment that leads to the next like dominos knocking and toppling each other in their concert of movement. (Look at a tombstone!)  In one sense, just as the Ecclesiastes recognizes, this is true.  Time is nothing more than a calibration we use to measure change.  It is an evolution of sorts.

What we need to be reminded of is that the Ecclesiastes also states that God has made everything beautiful in its time and set eternity in our hearts.  The very hammer of time has been placed against the anvil of eternity where the hammers wear out and the anvil still lingers.  We start to realize that in actuality, we do not really know the beginning from the end because the calibration is not in fact that mechanical changing from one moment to the next.  It is instead the unchanging nature of God in Jesus Christ who is the eternal and unfathomable I Am.  Our very lives are no longer in the temporal but instead in the awe inspiring vision of the ultimate reality of the eternal which begins to reframe the question.  Why?  I have no idea.  It could be that the questions of eternity is simply: “Why as why?”

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen

John 21:1-19/From Feasting to Feeding Sunday, Oct 7 2012 

I have never met a pastor who did not have a plethora of stories to tell.  It is a rarity though that I meet a pastor to whom many stories are told about.  To clarify, I am not referring to the scandals that arise from time to time in the ministry of a person and the life if a church.  Nor am I applying this to the pastor personalities of epic proportion that are mythology on one hand and idolatry on the other.  What I am in fact appertaining to are those particular persons within ordained ministry that by virtue of their wit and wisdom, their private practice and their public proclamation, their seeking of justice, their love of kindness, and their walk of humility, we cannot but share their narrative while giving thanks to God for the blessings that have been poured out on us.  My uncle (my mother’s sister’s husband), The Reverend Dr. Dewey (Butch) Bowen who passed away this past week, was such a person.

Remembering one of those stories in particular about my uncle speaking out at a Presbytery Meeting in South Carolina, I stood in similar fashion at our last local Presbytery Meeting to speak in concern for certain churches that have made the decision to leave our denomination over reasons of theology and have requested that we release them to other Reformed bodies (other denominations) with the property that they utilize.  The legal issue that is involved here is that the property is technically held in trust not by the local congregation but by the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the use and benefit of the PCUSA.  And where this has lead us as a denomination is to the civil courtroom spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting over property.  Quoting my Uncle Butch, whose statement was the tipping point for a group of people to move on to more important business rather than squabble over the sale price of a piece of church property, I stated, “The last time I checked, we were called to the ministry of tending to congregations and feeding the world…not to the business of real-estate.”  Thank you Uncle Butch…

Perhaps he was remembering that account in the gospel narrative of John where the resurrected Christ is walking along the Sea of Tiberius, the very sea that he once walked along and called the first disciples saying, “Come, follow me and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  This time though, those same disciples have returned to their trades of making money instead of tending to congregations and feeding the world.  And as Jesus sees them trying to be masters of their own universe in order to bring in fish for their own feasting, Jesus standing on the shore gives them the simple suggestion of casting their lines in the other direction.  “Cast your nets on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

We know how it unfolds from there.  Jesus is recognized.  Peter jumps into the water to swim to shore much like Forrest Gump does when, on his shrimp boat, he finds out mama is sick and he must return to Greenbow, Alabama as soon as possible.  A fire is built and the first thing Jesus says to the group as they are all finally ashore is, “Come and have breakfast.”  Another invitation is offered as it had been done so many times before.  “Everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters.”  “Come all you who are weary and I will give you rest.”  “Let the children come unto me.”  “Come and let us reason together.”  My friends, come and feast once again.  “Come and have breakfast.”

So, as they are eating (“Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them.  He did the same with the fish.”), what I begin to wonder is if any of the disciples that morning on the shoreline of that sea were transported within their own memories to that night in the upper room where they were gathered to celebrate the Passover.  It was during that evening that they were gathered to remember the primal narrative of ancient Israel; the very story that brought them into existence in the first place through their Exodus moving them from bondage to liberation…from exile to homecoming.  It was in the midst of this remembrance that Christ took bread and broke it and lifted up the simple cup of a carpenter filled with wine and stated, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Again, did they remember that night in the upper room that morning as they ate breakfast on the beach?  We might never know the answer to that this side of eternity.  If in fact they did though, another question that arises in the face of them having gone back to fishing for profit versus fishing for people (“The last time I checked, we were called to the ministry of tending to congregations and feeding the world…not to the business of real-estate.”) can only come from the very one that prepared their breakfast in the first place.  Do you love me?

What a crippling question.  It is the question that cuts right to the chase, takes no prisoners, does not allow you to hide, makes you stare at anything except the face of the person that asked it, and leaves your mouth as parched as a desert as your clamor for anything that might just change the subject.  And what makes the question so crippling is not the question itself but instead, the one who asks it.  We only have to look as far as Peter to empathize with this reality.  Just as he had denied Christ three times in the very hours that followed that Passover celebration in the upper room, Christ turns the tables by asking him three times that crippling question.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?  Simon, son of John, do you love me?  Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  The scriptures actually describe Simon Peter as grieving.  It was the early church father, St. Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, that commented that Peter feared that Christ saw within his heart that which he did not see himself which might lead to another fall and that Christ was about to tell him of it, as he had predicted his denial.  What we find instead though is  Christ giving four simple directives: “Feed my lambs.”  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”  And finally: “Follow me.”

Sisters and brothers, it really is a fascinating exchange of rhetoric between Christ and Peter.  To dive into the original languages here change the meaning of the narrative that our limited English will never begin to capture.  I am going to have to ask you to trust me on that one as we do not have the time this morning to actually get into that exchange.  What we must not miss though, specifically this World Communion Sunday, is the movement that happens within this text that is so formative for out intents and purposes.  We are moved:

-From real-estate to tending congregations and feeding the world

-From fishing for fish to fishing for people

-From loving Christ to feeding and tending sheep and lambs

-From feasting to feeding

We are also moved to prepare to soon literally come to table.  We will soon gather at the very piece of furniture where we are charged with: “Do this in remembrance of me.”  We will eat and drink at the holy reality where eternity has broken into time in a unique, unrepeatable way and our memorial feast of bread and wine join us with the living Christ, who is forever.  That is the invitation that is given for us to feast.  Christ simply states, “Come and have breakfast.”  There is a question that is looming though.  It is in our midst.  It is always in our midst when we dare to approach the table of the Lord.  Do you love me?

This World Communion Sunday we come to feast.  Breakfast is served.  That is always a given.  Questions are in the air though.  Are we here because of our real-estate and we think that this table actually belongs to us?  Are we here to simply eat and run?  Are we here to remember that night in the upper room?  Are we here to feast at the table of our Lord in order that we can go into the world to tend and feed?

It was once stated that the greatest act of discipleship is when one beggar shows another beggar where to get something to eat.  It is the reality of moving from feasting to feeding.

The question is simple: “Do you love me?”   The directives that follow are equally as uncomplicated:  “Feed my lambs.”  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”  And finally: “Follow me.”  So…are we ready to move from real-estate to tending congregations and feeding the world?

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

Mark 9:38-50/The Salt of Inclusion Sunday, Sep 30 2012 

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once asked a question that I am sure than many of us have pondered.  “What should young people do with their lives today?”  Get an education…get a job…be responsible…don’t grow up too fast…  Vonnegut’s conclusion was this.  “Many things obviously.  But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we all desire to be apart of a community.  Because of the fact that we are born into families, we grow up learning to cultivate friendships, we inherently know that a strong community enhances the lives of its members and gives an identity where people have a sense of belonging because they are known and recognized.  There is even the presence of tribal protection and support that shapes our values and mold our cultural context and traditions.  This is not without great risk though.  The theologian Howard Thurman recognized this when he stated, “Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers.”  The great risk is that a community can become so focused on itself that it loses the capacity to relate to those outside.

And if we ever needed a control group to observe, we do not have to go any further than the disciples who continue their marathon of making one mistake after another.  In their encounter with an exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus that they have never seen before, there is an immediate attempt to stop him.  What is interesting though is that they are not putting the halts on progress because they see this as an unusual practice (as we might today…I was once asked to an exorcism on a residence because the family cat of  19 years had passed away all of a sudden…it was unusual to say the least!).  Instead, there is concern for whom this exorcist is a follower of.  To look even a bit closer, what we notice is that “they do not say the person was not following Jesus but rather ‘he was not following us.’” (William Placher)  “They are, as it turns out, not making a new mistake but the same prideful, competitive one.  If someone is not part of their group, their gang, their tribe, then how dare he claim to do anything in the name of Jesus.” (Placher)

But, as Jesus points out, recognizing the allies to your community has nothing to do with who is a card carrying credentialed member of your secret society.  In fact, “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”  And if you are still having trouble understanding what I am trying to say, allow me to paint it in a language that you will never forget, and even more, you will realize just how serious I am to your practice of hospitality and inclusivity.  It would be better to have a huge stone wrapped around your neck and to be thrown into a lake, to have your hand chopped off, to enter into life crippled, to have your foot chopped off, and your eye torn out than to cause “these little ones who believe in me to fall.”  To the point of even invoking the reality of hell (Gehenna: a garbage heap outside of Jerusalem where persons would sacrifice their children to the god Moloch by fire) “where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out”, Jesus is trying to motivate his audience to pay attention to others and not to impede their path.  Jesus is summing up the whole trajectory of his teachings within this passage and warning the disciples against the obstruction of barriers to anyone who would be willing to follow along the way.  These are vivid words addressed directly to those considered to be the insiders about those on the outside and they (if you could not tell) were to be taken with the utmost seriousness!  Be inclusive of the outsider or there will be hell to pay!

Now that I hopefully have you attention.  It seems that any mention of hell usually does that to a room full of Presbyterians.  We are so quick to either hold our breath and take cover or enter into theological debates about predestination and beyond.  It is like the Presbyterian who looked at the baptist as they fiercely argued about predestination and stated, “I would rather be Presbyterian and know that I am going to hell than to be a Baptist and not know where the hell I was going!”  In all seriousness, what we must remember in concern for our Lectionary text for today is that Jesus is not calling out hell to seal anyone’s eternal destiny.  He is lifting up what a colleague and friend of mine recently published in an open letter to leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The Reverend Theresa Cho wrote, “Hospitality is less about who we are welcoming and more about examining what barriers we create that are unwelcoming.”  As instructed to the disciples (and to us for that matter), get the hell out of the way!

In hopes for the shock and awe to wear off just a bit, I can only say thank be to God for what happens next.  Even amongst the harsh words that fall from the lips of Christ, there seems to be an underlying assumption that even though the disciples have once again missed the mark, grace abounds in their evolution of discipleship.  The text may have us feeling the incandescence of Gehenna, but it quickly transition to the fires of sanctification.  As the Proverbs recognizes, “As iron sharpens iron, so friends sharpen each other.” (Proverbs 27:17)  Heat and pressure from a fire are key factors for a blacksmith to work with iron.  “The blacksmith has to first heat the iron in a fire until it is hot.  When it is so hot that it has a yellowish-orange hue, the metal is now malleable. The blacksmith has a short time-frame to work (shape) the red-hot metal.  She can then use her iron hammer to beat the metal on an iron anvil to modify its shape.” (Ron Goin)  So it is with humanity who will all be salted with the fire of sanctification…one friend sharpening another.  It might be a wounding yes, but there begins to grow a community of prophets and professional lovers distinguished from the ways of the world.  “It is through this ‘salting with fire’ that the community will be shaped into God’s provocative, peaceful witness to the world.” (Noelle Damico)

Sisters and brothers, remember, salt is a a good thing (just watch it in concern for your diet…).  This was a precious commodity in the ancient world used to flavor and preserve food, for medicinal purposes, and even as salary (Roman soldiers were paid in salt rations).  In the same manner, the salt of humanity is our qualities that would preserve and enhance our community by reaching out, reaching across, reaching over, reaching under, and reaching beyond  in order for all to be included in the community of Christ.  And even if there is the risk of losing saltiness, God salts with the sanctifying fires of grace in order to modify our shapes because it is only those fires that can bring restoration.

To return to the thoughts of Kurt Vonnegut, it should not just be the young people but all people that would do that most daring thing by creating “stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”  All of us, as Christ has commanded, should be spreading the salt of inclusion by removing all of the barriers that stand in the way of hospitality to any and all.    Christ is pretty serious about this.  Should we not be as well?

I recently came across the picture of a sign that hangs outside of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona Beach, Florida.  In my opinion, this should be made into a poster and hung in every church around the world…

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles.  We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.  We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket.  You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail.  We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.  We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.  We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters.  We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.  We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.  If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here.  We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.  We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both.  We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.  We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts…and you!

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

Mark 9:30-37/The Great Reversal Sunday, Sep 23 2012 

In my observations of when Jesus just happens to make the news, it is usually on one of three occasions.  Christmas, Easter, and when something bizarre is in the air.  And if you have kept up with what is transpiring locally, nationally, and abroad, you might have noticed that Jesus has made the news once again.  This time though, it is about his marriage versus his Christmas birth and the resurrection of a statue versus his Easter rising from the dead.  Every major news source has reported that on Tuesday in Rome Italy, Harvard professor Karen King revealed the translation of  a piece of ancient papyrus written in the Egyptian Coptic that included the words, “Jesus said to them…my wife…”  A day later, local news fixated on the new 51 foot, 32000 pound statue of Jesus (made with more fire resistant material and an installed lightening rod) at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio replacing the previous one that burned down last year after being struck by lightening.  And as much as I find the statue of Jesus even more bizarre that the possibility of Jesus being married, I know that both are causes for a firestorm of debate on such issues as the chastity of Jesus and the proper stewardship of the resources that churches are entrusted with.  The irony for our intents and purposes though is that if you take both of these pieces of news together in comparison with our Lectionary text for today, what you end up realizing is that the text is far more strange and contentious.

If we actually take the time to get over our domestication of Jesus and burrow down into the context of the passage, we soon realize that this is far from just another argument of the disciples coupled with a “cute” story about Jesus and little children.  From the very first moment that they were passing through Galilee, Jesus goes straight to the reality of the scandal of the cross and his anointing to suffering at the hands of the powers of the world; both of which the disciples fail to understand (for the second time as he foretells of his death and resurrection).  Perhaps John Calvin was right in his suggestion that the disciples are incapable of comprehending such a clear announcement from their rabbi because their very assumptions darkened their minds even in the clearest of light.  Perhaps their foolishness “darkens their vision so that they are unable to see the truth of the one who stands before them.” (Moore-Keish)  Perhaps it is their double-mindedness in their desire for success and positions of authority to be a guarantee.  Perhaps it is their simple failure to understand the fate that awaits the Christ.  Whatever it is, the reality of the situation is that Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, is “utterly other than what they had come to suspect.” (Martha Moore-Keish)

The bizarre and the debatable, the strange and the contentious – it is all coming into fruition as Jesus is pointing to the reality of the great reversal that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  This is the pronouncement of a totally different verdict that was expected because what is obviously revealed is that the disciples shared the same values as the cultures of their days in the Roman Empire.  There was the competition for prestige, wealth, and power in which they were intoxicated enough by to deliberate amongst themselves who in fact was the greatest.

Are we really that much different?  I know I am not.  Just this past week, as an article that I wrote for Ecclesio.com (an online publication for pastors, scholars, and theologians) went to “print”, I continued to check the website to see if it received any circulation through other social media outlets (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  I had 58 “shares” (which was good) but two other authors had 90 and 93 “shares”.  Was their articles better than mine?  Was their circle of social media influence bigger?  What was I doing wrong?  This internal (and silly) conversation that I was having with myself would fall to sheer silence though if Jesus had asked me that question he asked the disciples.  “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Jesus somehow knows though…what we are talking about (“as if it is difficult for us to come to awareness that are loves are open before God” – Harry Adams).  As we (just as the disciples) spend too much time worrying about status, trying to attain levels of prestige, and invent new ways to receive acclaim, Jesus is setting before us a way of life that continuously contradicts us in a way that we not only experience being alive but what we even mean by life.  Again, this is the great reversal.   “He encounters us the way he encountered the disciples on Easter Sunday.  They were the ones marked out for death.  Those who had survived him were really the dead.  He, the dead one, was really the living.” (Ravi Zacharias)  Have you ever wondered why all the Pascals, the Augustines, the Edwards, all the great thinkers, theologians, scholars, mystics, and servants (Luther, Calvin, Catharine of Sienna, Zwingli, Polycarp, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius, Origin, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa) all bend their knee to him?   He reverses all of our values, our visions, our missions, our goals, our thoughts, our wants, our feelings, our desires, and even our needs.  It is the greatest reversal that the world will ever come to know and it is bizarre and debatable, strange and contentious.

If if could only stop there though (especially in the reality of the disciples).  Christ has to always take it one step further, pushing that envelope, expanding that horizon, and sailing further from the shores of comfort.  Jesus had to go and invoke the example of a child saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  And what is immediately apparent, at least to the disciples is, in the words of L. William Countryman, “Jesus’ welcoming of the children takes them from the bottom of the family hierarchy and makes them persons in their own right.”

Sisters and brothers, Christ is not telling the disciples here to become like children.  He has already offended them by telling them to do that which is in reality to give up the little social status that they have.  Christ is telling them to welcome the very ones that were regarded as “non persons”, the very possessions of specifically the fathers of the household.  “A father could put a newborn outside to starve to death if he had wanted a boy and got a girl or if the baby seemed weak or handicapped.” (William Placher)  Again, children existed not for their own benefit.  And as much as this is such a foreign concept to us in this place and at this time (at least it should be), what Jesus was doing was a serious challenge to the social norm of his day.

Just this past week, for those of you who do not know, one of the graves on our cemetery was dug up once again to put the cremation remains of babies in Cincinnati who have died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).  Their Service of Committal bulletin reads on the front: “In memory of the little ones who rest in the palm of God’s hand and for those that love them.”  In light of this reality alone, not to mention how we love and cherish each child of this congregation through baptismal promises and beyond, the context in which Christ is welcoming this child is unfathomable.  This is the reality of the disciples though and the message for them to help the most vulnerable by taking care of those that are at the very bottom is loud and clear.  In fact, those that welcome such a child, welcome Jesus himself.  “Those who minister to such a child – those who pursue justice for its own sake without mixed motives – find that they are serving not only Jesus but also the God who sent him.” (Justo and Catharine Gonzalez)

If you came this morning expecting saccarine and sentimentality, you have obviously come to the wrong place.  There is no Jesus cuddling the sweet children as seen in pictures on the walls of our Sunday School classrooms.  There is no room for powers and principalities to struggle with who might be the greatest.   Instead, it is the great reversal.  “Instead, it is a power and even shocking depiction of the paradoxical values of God’s will and reign, which confront the dominant values of human societies and assign worth and importance to every person.” (Sharon Ringe)  Instead, it is a liberating word and an onerous demand.  Instead, it is a radical messianic teaching that starts at the cross and end with the resurrection that overturns every social hierarchy in order that the lowly would be welcomed into God’s embrace.  Instead, it is the Christ that asks us that haunting question that so often brings shear silence: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Let me end with what could be considered a case study.  It was a few days ago that I finished reading a book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  It is a riveting book about how racism is still very alive today even after the such things as the Civil Rights Movement and the election of the first African-American President.  In one of the last parts of the book, Alexander states something that was disturbing but true.  As we live in a country where more African-Americans are under correctional control (prison, jail, probation, and parole) today than were enslaved in 1850, not only losing rights but remaining disenfranchised for a lifetime, someone is going to have to come forward to not only fight for them, but even more, welcome them back into society.  It is bizarre and debatable, strange and contentious.  And yet, in light of the reality of today’s text, the finger is pointing directly at people like you and me.  So…in light of the resurrection, what should we be doing about it?

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

Genesis 2:4b-9/In the Air Tonight Tuesday, Sep 11 2012 

The words are haunting really.  The British singer and songwriter Phil Collins was simply trying to capture the reality of a devastating breakup.  The result was a dark monologue with an unnamed person that would go onto become one of his best known works entitled “In The Air Tonight”.

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.

And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.

Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord…

And for me, every time that I would hear this song, I would be transported back in time to the gymnasium of the McEachern High School in my home town of Marietta, Georgia witnessing the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the best wrestlers in the state of Georgia who were preparing to meet on the center mat where some would emerge as the state champions.  As the accolades of these athletes were read over the loud speaker, smoke began to fill the arena and the murmur that was not only heard but felt just a decibel or two under the voice of the announcer was that dark monologue.

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.

And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.

Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord…

Years later, this song would go to take on an entirely new meaning as well as it was the last song that I remember hearing that Tuesday morning on the way home from the YMCA when the radio announcer said something to the effect of, “That is funny…we are getting reports in that an airplane just crashed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.”

We remember that day don’t we?  I bet you remember that day in very vivid detail…where you were…what you were wearing…what you were thinking…what time it was…
8:46 AM: Flight 11 crashes at roughly 466 mph in the north face of the North Tower of the WTC between floors 93 and 99
9:02 AM: Flight 175 crashes at roughly 590 mph in the south face of the South Tower of the WTC between floors 77 and 85
9:37 AM: Flight 77 crashes into the western side of the Pentagon
9:59 AM: The South Tower of the WTC begins to collapse
10:03 AM: Flight 93 crashes 80 miles south east of Pittsburgh, PA
10:28 AM: The North Tower of the WTC begins to collapse

The dark monologue continues:

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.

And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.

Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord…

Perhaps Dr. Michael Jenkins, the President of Louisville Seminary stated it best in his personal reflections  of this week and particularly this day.  Jenkins writes, “This week, we will remember an event that marked our nation’s life forever.  We will remember the injustice, the violence, the cruelty.  We will remember the deaths of persons who were simply going about their day at work, or were on their way to shop, or were traveling to visit friends and family.  We will remember the terror and hatred that lay across this day on the calendar like a deep shadow, a negation, like a bruise, a wound, like a smudge, an erasure.  Some of us will remember our anger.  Some of us will remember our prayers.  Some of us will remember our angry prayers.  But one thing more we must remember, and never forget: God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things.  God works even through that which God does not will.”  Sisters and brothers, that last sentence is worth repeating for I pray that for all of us here this day, we will always remember – especially this.  “God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things. God works even through that which God does not will.”

As I have reflected deep and wide upon how to approach the preaching of this specific contextual moment (a moment crying for the pastoral word of care in the midst of the pain and a moment calling for the prophetic word of creative hope in the midst of the chaos), I have been drawn to the reality of what Dr. Walter Wink (Professor Emeritus at the Auburn Theological Seminary) calls the “power of the air”.  What he is specifically referring to is that in the dimensions that we live, we are always being influenced in subtle and invisible ways; there is something always infiltrating and shaping the human spirit much like the very air that we breathe.  Wink specifically states: “The exousia  (power) of the air…is the spiritual matrix of living.  It is in short, what we mean today by such terms as ideologies, the Zeitgeist, customs, public opinion, peer pressure, institutional expectations, mob psychology, jingoistic patriotism, and negative vibes.  These constitute the ‘power of the air’, the invisible but palpable environment of opinions, beliefs, propaganda, convictions, prejudices, hatreds, racial and class biases, taboos, and loyalties that condition our perception of the world long before we reach the age of choice, often before we reach the age of speech.  It kills us precisely because we breathe it in before we even realize it is noxious.”  In other words…

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.

And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.

Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord…

And if you are still a bit on the fence of trying to figure out what I am trying to say, let me remind you of what is now starting to emerge in the news as studies are being released in concern for the quality of the air that was breathed those days and weeks after the collapse of the towers.  From NBC out of New York it is reported just days ago (6 September 2011): The dusty, toxic air that swirled around the smoldering World Trade Center site raised the risk of cancer for those exposed, a new study has found.  “This is the report we’ve been waiting for,” Kenny Specht said Thursday.  “This is what we were told didn’t exist.”  Specht was a firefighter on Sept. 11, and spent seven weeks looking for his fallen colleagues at ground zero.
Six years later, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  “I absolutely believe my thyroid cancer was caused by my time at the trade center,” he said.  Specht is not alone.  In a report released Thursday night by the FDNY and published in Lancet, the nearly 9,000 firefighters who were exposed to the trade center were 19 percent more likely to have cancer than firefighters who didn’t work down near the pile.

These men and women in uniform literally breathed in the “power of the air” that would forever change their lives; but they were not the only ones.  For the past decade we have been breathing in an out what the spiritual Henri Nouwen refers to as “the continuous state of emergency.”  We are a people, a culture, a world that is always on alert to the threat of terrorism.  We wonder how long two wars can be sustained in the Middle East (not to mention all the other turmoil going on…Egypt, Libya, etc.).  The relationships among the main powers of the world seem to be deteriorating.  The chances for a universal holocaust still loom with the buildup of nuclear arsenals in the wrong hands.   The religions of the world are busier protesting one another that being in dialogue.  And this does not even scratch the surface of all the other domestic problems that we face on a day to day basis.  We have entered the second millennium of the Christian era and our world has been “clouded by an all pervading fear, a growing sense of despair, and a paralysing awareness that indeed humanity has come to the verge of suicide.” (Nouwen)  “We no longer have to ask ourselves if we are approaching a state of emergency.  We are in the midst of it, right here and now, and we expect the future to mirror the past.” (Nouwen/Clowning in Rome)  This is the air that we breath.  

And yet, as much as we indeed have all of this entering into our being with every breath that we take, we must remember once again the words of Dr. Michael Jenkins: “God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things. God works even through that which God does not will.”  This is the very God who, as we read in our Old Testament text for today, formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.  Brothers and sisters, do you realize how utterly important that one little Biblical description is?  This human, created in paradise, created in the image of God (the imago dei), created from nothing, the very dust of the ground, breathed in air…the very breath of God…the very breath of life.  The air was not filled with the smell of melting frame bent steel; it was not infiltrated by the reality of violence and death; it was not overtaken by the dust and debris that would eventually lead to cancer; it was not chanting the prayers of anger and revenge; it was not overwhelmed with “the continuous state of emergency”.  The “power of the air” that this human breathed was nothing more and nothing less than the breath of God…the Spirit of God…the Ruach (Hebrew) of God…the Pnuema (Greek) of God.  The “power of the air” was filled with the “life that really is life” (as the Apostle Paul writes about to his protege Timothy – 1 Timothy 6:19).  The spiritual matrix of living for this human was nothing less than God seeing everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.  “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

And the creation irony in all of this, just in case you might be the slight bit interested, is that this account is so unique in comparison to other creation accounts from other religious writings.  In Genesis, God creates through the word; God speaks the world into being.  “However, such an understanding of creation represents a direct challenge to the violent myths of creation that shaped the cultural ethos in which Genesis was produced.  In the Babylonian creation myth, the Enumn Elish, for example, creation is an act of violence.  The god Marduk murderers and dismembers Tiamat, the mother of the gods, who represents chaos, and forms the world from her corpse.” (Dr. Charles Campbell/The Word before the Powers)  In other words, “order is established by means of disorder.” (Wink)  But when it comes to the Genesis narrative, God creates a good creation, breathing the breath of life into the air, not through violent means but instead through the spoken word.  “Neither evil nor violence is inherent in God or in creation…from the very beginning, the word of God is set over against violent domination.” (Campbell)

Sisters and brothers, what begins to emerge from this theological and biblical framework in concern for the air that we breath is a big question for us as a congregation to struggle with…especially on a day like today (not only the tenth anniversary of 11 September 2001 but the official start of our Christian Education year).  To be frank, It is in the midst of a dark world that we are invited to live and breath and radiate hope and love and peace and faith and transformation.  The question: Is it possible?  “Can we become light, salt and leaven to our brothers and sisters in the human family?  Can we offer hope, courage and confidence to the people of this era?  Do we dare break through the paralyzing fear?  Will people be able to say of us, ‘See how they love each other, how they serve their neighbor, and how they pray to their Lord?’  Or do we have to confess at this juncture we just do not have the needed strength or the generosity?  How can we live in hope so as to give hope?  And how do we find true joy?” (Nouwen)

I realize that one asked question spawned into many to be considered.  I would like to bring this to close by challenging you to consider just one more.  What if?  This was a question that I posed to the church staff at our annual retreat some weeks ago…the dialogue was phenomenal.  So…what if?  Knowing that we inhabit a world that is breathing air filled with the stench of death and the “continuous state of emergency” and also knowing that we were created in the image of God to breath the breath of life and the goodness that accompanies such an identity and reality, when it comes to the “power of the air”…what if?  

What if we breathed hospitality versus hostility?
What if we breathed discernment versus ignorance?
What if we breathed healing versus harm?
What if we breathed contemplation versus disregard?
What if we breathed testimony versus repudiation?
What if we breathed diversity versus uniformity?
What if we breathed justice versus partiality?
What if we breathed worship versus disrespect?
What if we breathed reflection versus unimaginable?
What if we breathed beauty versus offensiveness?

(This list was derived from Diana Bulter-Bass/Christianity for the Rest of Us)

What if?

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.

And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.

Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord…

In the name of the Triune: Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

A New Set of Spectacles Sunday, Sep 9 2012 

Strasbourg has been described as the “ultimate European city” where France and Germany collide.   This should really come as no surprise though since the Rhine River is at the city’s edge acting as the only divider between these two countries.  If you go into the city center though, there is another collision that you might just recognize – the collision of theology.  In one moment, you might enter the sanctuary of St. Thomas where the Reformer Martin Bucer preached and then turn around to view the pulpit of John Calvin at the Church of St. Nicolas.  And while they had similar views of the Eucharist (departing from Luther and Zwingli), we cannot ignore the writings of Calvin that spoke of Bucer’s theological short comings.  Again, the collision of theology.  Perhaps the great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr was right after all about what he calls “the enduring problem”.  Niebuhr would write in his work Christ and Culture: “…more frequently the debate about Christ and culture is carried out amongst Christians and in the hidden depths of the individual conscience, not as a struggle and accommodation of belief with unbelief, but as the reconciliation of faith with faith.”

That reconciliation of faith with faith; that can be on interesting conversation.  It just so happens that I was walking the cobble stone streets of that “ultimate European city” talking to a self-described evangelical pastor from California named Larry around the issues of ordination that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has struggled with in years past.  Larry, finding out that I hold a much more inclusive ordination standard than he, asked me, “Is that Biblical?”  My response was, “Larry, I tend to ask, ‘Is it theological?’”  His response was simply: “You are from the Reformed tradition.  Then what about Sola Scriptura?”  He had to go and invoke that one didn’t he?

So, what about Sola Scriptura – that long held Reformed understanding (ascribed to Martin Luther specifically) that we live “by scripture alone”?  What about the doctrine that claims that the Bible contains all the knowledge that is necessary for holiness and salvation?  What about the fact that the opening statements of the Second Helvetic Confession state that, “We believe and confess that the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men.”?  What about the reality that John Calvin himself felt that the scriptures are actually “spectacles” to see the world with?  As theologian Garrett Green would observe about Calvin metaphor, “The scriptures are not something that we look at, but rather look through, lenses that refocus what we see into an intelligible pattern.”  Is not the logical conclusion of all of this that the Bible is self-authenticating, clear to the reader, its own interpreter (“scripture interprets scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of all the doctrines of Christianity?  I would have to say no.

As a person who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my personal context for ordination and beyond recognizes that responsibility and authority specifically within the bounds of ordered ministry are to be understood Christologically.  To look at the first five ordination questions is to recognize that there is a clear understanding of the hierarchy of authority that embody an understanding for the entire church.  And instead of starting with the scriptures, our launching point is instead Jesus Christ.  We are to live in obedience to Christ under the authority of scripture guided by the confessions governed by the church’s polity within a collegial ministry.  This order is faithful and explicit: Christ, scripture, confessions, polity, ministry.  This is not an ordering that is open for manipulation.

Because of this, we acknowledge the reality that the scriptures might just be that which we look through to “refocus what we see into an intelligible pattern”.  More importantly though, we recognize that Christ must be the “spectacles” which we look through to read and apply those texts.  Yes, Sola Scriptura is still alive and well in the “Reformed Project” (term used by Dr. Michael Jenkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary).  Let us never forget though that this was never intended to be applied in isolation as this is but one of a group of “solas” of the Reformers.  Solus Christus (through Christ alone) stands within the same company and according to my theological understanding of authority, must remain the prelude of this concert of movement in the reading and application of the Bible.

So…if Christ is to be the lenses (the “spectacles”) that we look through in order to read the Bible, what must be taken into consideration about Christ?  Realizing that this is a question that could easily produce a laundry list of theological opinions, allow me to simply lift up three thoughts built upon a certain foundation.  The foundation that I would offer my musings is actually something that a colleague of mine told me in a passing conversation.  The Reverend Chandler Stokes looked at me and stated one day over breakfast, “The Bible was neither intended to exclude nor wound anyone.”  (This is pretty self explanatory!)  The thoughts that I would build upon that are in concern for: the virtues of Christ, the community of Christ, and the Spirit of Christ.

THE VIRTUES OF CHRIST:

We can talk about many virtues that the incarnation into consideration at such a junction as this.  The virtue of hope, the virtue of freedom, the virtue of obedience, the virtue of humility, etc.  To return to the thoughts of H. Richard Niebuhr though, “There is no virtue save the love that is in Christ, inextricably combined with faith and hope.  From this all other excellence flows.”  Couple this with the theology of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13), if we do not read the scriptures and apply them looking through the lens of Christ’s love, then we are nothing more than we are “a clanging gong…a clashing cymbal…nothing…receiving no benefit whatsoever.”  To read and apply the scriptures through that particular prescription…well…from this all other excellence flows.

THE COMMUNITY OF CHRIST:

I was once running on the beach one evening when I passed by a couple walking in the surf.  For some odd reason, the male portion of the duo yelled at me, “One is a lonely number.”  I was tempted to yell something (anything) in return, but deep down inside, I could not disagree with him.  One is a lonely number.

The only portion of the creation narrative that seems to be amiss is the realization that humanity was never meant to be in isolation.  Thus we are born into families, we learn to cultivate friendships, and we live and move and have our being in community.  And when we gather in worship and in sacrament, we are the very bride of Christ, the kirk, the church.  Therefore, if we do not read the scriptures and apply them looking through the lens of Christ’s community, then we run the risk of the Bible becoming an idol to be worship in our individualistic arrogance instead of a testimony to a community that makes claim to a way of being in the world.  This becomes the pilgrimage that all of creation is invited to join in together.  Remember, one really is a lonely number.

THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST:

This is perhaps the easiest to write about but the hardest to live into.  This very tension is revealed as two realities can be excavated from the very scriptures that we read and apply.  Yes, it does say in 2 Timothy that all scripture is “God breathed” (the very language lifted up in the breath of life into humanity).  It also states in the Pentateuch that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)  These two tensions would naturally lead to the reality that the Bible does not in fact contain everything about God and yet there is something unique about what has been breathed within those sixty six books bound together by some leather fabric.  And to take the tension into consideration, what are we as a community, guided by the values of Christ, meant to conceive by all of this?

Maybe we need to simply hold onto the reality of Emmanuel (God with us) who our confessions claim was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit where the Word became flesh by the word and the will of God.  In the thoughts of the theologian Shirley Guthrie, this is not so much about the deity of Jesus but more about the humanity of God.  The conception by the power of the Spirit reveals to us the very humanness of the Creator of the universe becomes the launching point for that very Spirit of the holy.  With this reality, it is not so much about a community arguing over scripture and its application but instead living as the “koinonia” that is forever seeking its own sense of wholeness (salvation) that is only a gift of the Creator.  The Word becoming flesh in the midst of that “koinonia” by the word and the will and the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate spectacle that we look through in order to not only understand in new and fresh ways but bring to fruition and application that tension of “God breathed” and “the secrets of the Lord.”

Now…with all that having been stated, my prayer is that this somehow makes sense…makes you think…makes you respond…but ultimately…gives you a little more permission to be free.  I am reminded of the quote from Red (Morgan Freeman) in the movie The Shawshank Redemption.  “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singin’ about…I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapping into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”  May you be free to look at the scriptures through a new set of glasses.  May you be free to soar higher and farther in the beauty of God beyond where you would dare to dream.  May you even for the briefest of moments, as you pour over you reading and applications of the scriptures feel free…

James 1:22-25/The Actions of Hearing Sunday, Sep 2 2012 

In a recent survey conducted by the BBC, a question was asked to the world.   “What is the largest problem that the global village currently faces?”  This is a question that the BBC has been asking for years and the answers have always been the same.  Poverty has always been number one followed up by environmental issues being number two.  For the first time though, poverty has lost its footing having fallen to number two pushing the environment to number three.  For the first time, the surveyed world felt that the number one issue that we face today as a global society is the prevalent problem of corruption.

Whether it is the latest news of a Ponzi scheme by the likes of Bernie Madoff, the scandals of Enron, the abuse and cover up of a university football program, another church leader who quickly falls from the pulpit because their private life and their public proclamation are so mismatched that it is too much for a congregation, moral degradation is alive and well.   Just this past week, a news article ran questioning the integrity of Vladimir Putin, the current President of Russia, for an overly lavish lifestyle costing billions of rubles at the expense of the taxpayers.  And as we enter another electoral season, let us all remember to pray in the midst of our politics because even the governments of this world are not immune to the persistent presence of corruption.  Even Carnegie Samuel Calian, the President Emeritus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary observed in his most recent book, “Ours is a world of eroding trust, with layers of suspicion and skepticism surfacing daily.  Is there anyone we can really trust anymore?  This situation is unfortunate, even tragic, but it is the story of our lives today; it could even be our apocalypse.”

So why is this?  Why does all of this happen?  Is it as simple as “the devil made me do it”?  Is it as complex as the journey inside the mind through the avenue of psychology?  Perhaps we need only to invoke the first point of Calvinism (actually this was developed by Dutch Calvinist at the Synod of Dort in 1618 who were out to reject the theology of the Arminians…modern day Methodist) which basically states that as a consequence of the fall of humanity into sin, each person is born into the world with a total inability enslaving them to the service of that sin (Augustine called it Original Sin).  In other words, the reality is that sin affects every part of a person (not to be equivocated that ever person is as evil as possible) and all of us have the reality and possibility of corruption wired into us.  Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps…  We could easily debate the question of “why” for an eternity and beyond.  It might just be though, for our intents and purposes, that instead of focusing on the “why” we need to divert our attention the the “what”.  The question then becomes: What are we willing to do about it?

We have to do something, do we not?  I recently heard a story of a man sitting next to a professor of an “Ivy League” school who commented that it was sad that many of the persons involved in the recent Wall Street greed, scandal, and corruption were graduates of these type of institutions.  The man leaned over to the professor and said, “Well, they are listening to what you have to say.  What do you need to do different?”  The professor’s  rebuttal was, “That is a conversation for another day.”  Actually, no it is not a conversation for another day; it is our conversation for this very day.  What are we going to do about it?  And as there are a plethora of possibilities, we really do not have to go any further than our Lectionary text for today that give us the opening statements of James, not only the biological brother of Jesus, but one who is self described as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Writing in his epistle to the twelve tribes of the Diaspora, James declares: “You must be doers of the word and not just hearers who mislead themselves.”

And though Martin Luther viewed this letter with great suspicion calling it “an epistle of straw” because of the emphasis on law and action (works righteousness), James is actually complimenting the theology of the Apostle Paul that states that we are made whole solely by the grace of God.  What James uniquely adds to the claims of Paul is the recognition that though God’s love is not conditional, the love of God has intrinsic conditions built into it if we are to find fulfillment.  There is a framework of God’s grace that has contingencies necessary if we are to fulfill the chief and highest end of humanity: to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  There are boundaries set up for our safety and our own good out of a creative design.  It is much like a boat that stays afloat on the water.  Before it will ever stay on the surface of the water, it must meet the preconditions of being able to stay afloat.  It must fit within the boundaries of a certain design (mass, water displacement, buoyancy, etc.) if it is to stay above the water’s surface.  Then and only then can it open its sails allowing the wind to carry it in the direction of a journey and beyond.  So it is with the love of God in Jesus Christ.

It is within this type of framework that James is directly addressing the deception of passive faith and the realities of the ethical implications of the Jewish law insisting that Israelites living outside of Jerusalem are not only hearers but they are to be doers.  They are not only to listen intently to the word, they are to persist in loving action.  It is not enough to merely hear the word which leaves a person in that deception of passivity.  It is the doing that brings the blessing because the doer can rejoice in knowing that their actions, born of the word, demonstrates saving faith.  In other words, as a person once stated at a Bible Study that I was attending, “You are saved to do good things!”  It was not enough to simply be at that Bible Study and hear from the word about God.  We are created to live within the framework of God’s unconditional love and go into the world to be doers according to that love.  Before the grace of God go I…but as I go, I go to act on behalf of that grace that comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

It has been said that there seems to be a bit of arrogance and judgement within the writings of James in concern for the persons that he is writing to.  I must admit that even I have sometimes, within my own journey in the scriptures, approached James from this precise angle.  Lately though, I have been more persuaded that James is in fact on his knees almost begging a community to practice, in all of their ebbs and flows, doing what they hear.  It is as if he can see a bigger vision of what the world might be; what the world was intended to be in the creative mind and heart of God.  It is as if he is pleading with the people to realize that if they would simply act upon what they hear in concern for God’s law of love, blessings will abound for all because of this doing.  And considering what the world surveys about what it considers to be its biggest problem today, perhaps James is still upon his knees praying these very thoughts to the church today.

Sisters and brothers, it is a daunting task to challenge the world.  I have often challenged people (including you) from the pulpit to imagine how differently the world would be if everyone who claimed to be a follower of Christ acted like one.  In the seven billion people in the world, almost one third of them claim just to be that.  The entire world would be turned on its head overnight.  Again, Carnegie Samuel Calian recognizes that, “To survive and prosper, our global society will demand that brave and committed individuals – as followers and as leaders – believe that their lives can make a difference in keeping humans human in this age of random killing and flickering opportunities.”  Why not start with those who follow Christ?

Today though, I am going to back off that challenge by an astronomical number.  I am going to start with us.  You need to know (in brevity) the actions of our very own Session at our last meeting.  To get straight to the point, one of our biggest struggles in the leadership of this congregation is that for a number of years, we have been functioning under the rubric of two simultaneous mission statements.  They are both solid in their own perspectives attempting to answer the how of us as a congregation, but a church can never move forward as a two headed being.  Beyond that, we have not functioned under the direction of am overarching vision for as long as many of our long time members can remember (trust me…I have asked!).  Taking all of this into consideration, a long and arduous process was entered including many conversations, generational gatherings, small and large interest groups, questions to the direct leadership and beyond.  All of this culminated through many drafts and reviews of a vision statements and this past Monday a vote was cast and approved by all.  The vision of the Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church is: Our Vision: A joyful church, guided by God, loving its neighbors.  This is not only our benchmark for comparison but it is the destination for our journey.

And to take a personal moment, I cannot express how proud I am of that simple gathering of words.  It may seem almost too simple, but it is far from that.  As I told the Session, now that we have voted in this, it becomes our job to lead the congregation into embodying this reality.  It is not enough to hear this vision – we must be doers of this vision.  If we do not, we are nothing more than that person who looks in a mirror one moment and does not recognize themselves in the next.  It has been said that mirrors do not lie.  Neither do the inactions of a group of people who cast a vision that goes unfulfilled.

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”  Sisters and brothers, considering the world that we live in and the problems that we face, something has got to be done.  What if we were to do something?  What if we were to start with ourselves?  What if  we were to be the doers of what we hear…the doers of our vision?  I have a feeling that not only this church would drastically transform but the world as we know it would as well…

In the name of the Triune.  Creator, Savior, Sustainer.  Amen.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.