Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alive from the Center

Isaiah 51:1-6
Matthew 16:13-20

There is a quote from the introduction of Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, on the cover of your bulletin:
What we all want is pretty simple, really.  We want to be alive.  To feel alive.  Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free.  We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid. . .more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful.  We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like well-being, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full, and aliveness.  
I’m not sure that I agree completely with McLaren’s assessment of what we all want.  I know some people who want safety, predictability, order, and some sense of control.  How we understand Jesus—who we think he is or say he is—depends a lot on what we want.
I grew up in a church that taught its children a catechism, a series of questions and answers that were designed to teach the Christian faith to the uninitiated.  It was a catechism for those who like order and safety.
Question:  Who is God?  
Answer:  The creator of the universe.  
Question:  Who is Jesus?  
Answer: The only son of God.
Question:  Why were human beings made?
Answer:  For the pleasure and glory of God.
Even as a child, I was dissatisfied with the simplicity of the answers.  The answers to big questions seemed to fit into very small boxes.  And for some people that works.  Not for me.  Many years later, the first question on my ordination exam was “What is your understanding of God?”  I thought, “How many pages do I have?”  Whole books have been written!  If you can answer that question in a paragraph, your god is too small!
When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, the most creative response came from Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  The term “Messiah” was one of those words that held a multitude of meanings in Jesus’ day.  And to say the Jesus was the Son of the living God made room for God’s continuing interaction in the affairs of human beings.  This was not the static construct that we have made it, but an imaginative dynamic whelmed with possibility.  The disciples had experienced firsthand Jesus’ trust in God’s goodness and compassion—in action.  They had tasted life in the Kingdom of God.  They felt the electricity and energy that attracted crowds who listened in wonder to stories of a new way of living; about a God whose love reached every hopeless corner.  When they heard Jesus talk about abundant life and eternal life, they knew he was talking about now, right now.
If you are one of the people that McLaren is talking about who really wants to feel alive, not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, and breathe free, then this sermon series is for you.  Along the way we will have to lay to rest some of the misperceptions, misinterpretations, and mistranslations we have accepted over time.  I want to read a footnote from the introduction to We Make the Road by Walking about aliveness:
Zoein aionian, a Greek term in the New Testament, is often translated to English as “eternal life.” Sadly, that translation suggests “life after death” to most people and is equated with going to heaven rather than hell.  The term means, literally, “life of the ages” (zoe—as in zoology; aionian—of the aeons).  It should be understood in contrast to “life in this present age,” which could in turn be rendered “life in this economy” or “life in contemporary culture” or “life under the current regime.”  My suspicion is that “true aliveness” is a good contemporary translation of the term.  Luke (18:18-24) uses zoein aionian as a synonym for kingdom of God, and in the Gospel of John, kingdom of God seems to be rendered as life, eternal life, and life to the full.  In Paul’s writings, terms like fullness, freedom, new life, life in the Spirit, and life in Christ seem closely related if not synonymous.  All point to an excelling quality, intensity, expansiveness, meaningfulness, fruitfulness, and depth of life.

So we are going to undertake a new catechesis together.  We are going to learn the faith together systematically and in a richer, deeper, more expansive way than I learned in Sunday school.  We are going to use the best research available with McLaren as our inquisitive guide.  I’ll be honest.  The questions and answers I learned as a child did not change my life, but allowed me to live comfortably within the status quo of my culture.  Learning to read the gospels without the interpretation of the dominant culture (as it has been for centuries) has changed everything for me.  I’m excited to share this journey with you.  Your stories are alive with the powerful presence of God—some so powerful and incredible that we hesitate to share them.  We’re going to share our stories this year and learn the wonder of the living God.  And we’re going to look for deeper meaning.
As human beings we are always seeking meaning—for the events in our lives and for our big questions.  Humanity’s big questions have led those who have come before us to tell stories in an attempt to answer those questions.  The stories we encounter in scripture are our faith ancestors’ responses to questions such as:
Why are we here?
What’s wrong with the world?
What’s our role, our task, our purpose?
What is a good life?
Is there meaning and hope?
What dangers should we guard against?
What treasures should we seek?
How will we answer those questions in our time?  What have the events in our lives, our stories, taught us about the living God?  What give us life?  What makes us alive at the center of our being?  Less lonely?  More courageous?  What gives us hope and purpose?  What enables each of us to have a life that is mindful, overbrimming, full of well-being, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, and aliveness?  
We’re going to begin our faith journey, our catechesis of wonder, with being alive in the story of creation.  Hands in the good earth; feet on a gently rolling deck; wind in your face; sun on your back; eyes to the stars—what does it mean to be alive in creation?   Who is this creating God?  And what does it mean to be fully human, alive at the center?  Cindy Haverkamp is going to start us off next Sunday and Bob Ellis will follow on September 7.  I’ll pick up the third week when Steve and I return from vacation.  Steve and I are going to spend the first week of our vacation exploring the created world with our two year old grandson—seeing fresh through his delighted eyes.  I hope you will find a fresh lens to see the world over the next few months.

I can hardly wait to share this journey with you!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Seeing with the Heart

Isaiah 56:6-7
Psalm 67
Matthew 15:21-28

     My guess is that there are a number of people here this morning that are experiencing a bit of whiplash because you have never heard the story I just read from Matthew’s gospel.  That’s because the church is not very comfortable with the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman, so we often choose to skip this story.  I’m not very comfortable with the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman.  The church I grew up in, and the Bible studies I attended tried to spin this story.  I heard that Jesus was testing the disciples to see how they would react, essentially using the words they would have used.  Once I heard that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith.  Several times I heard that Jesus used a word that really means “little dogs,” or “puppies”—like that was somehow not so offensive.  When I hear that many different defenses, I recognize spin—the art of telling you that you didn’t hear what you’re sure you just heard, or that it didn’t mean what you know it meant.  I’m not interested in spin.  I’m interested in knowing Jesus—knowing the real Jesus, or as much as we can know about him—because I want to follow him.
     So I’m going to start with the beginning of the reading that the church has chosen to attach to this awkward story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  The reading should be longer, but it’s so long that it doesn’t fit nicely into a Sunday service.  That’s one of our problems reading the Bible.  When I got to seminary, I was very confident that I was a good Bible scholar because I had spent so many years in Bible study and taught Sunday school for over 30 years.  But I learned that is it important to understand how a particular passage fits in with what has come before and how it changes the direction of what comes after.  We Protestants have a long history of studying snippets of scripture.  We study stories and parables as if they stand alone and ignore the narrative trajectory of the gospel writers.  For several centuries we lost the literary devices the gospel writers used to direct their readers to the good news, instead reading the scriptures as if they were the daily news.  We have pushed, shoved, pulled, and twisted distinctive books to create a single straightforward narrative.
     So let’s see where Matthew is going.  After Jesus fed the five thousand men and uncounted women and children, and after he walked on water and saved the impulsive Peter from drowning, and after he had healed an untold number of people as his reputation spread throughout the region, the Pharisees and the scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked him, point blank, why his disciples broke the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before they ate.  Even today not washing your hands before you eat is a health code violation, as we can read in every restaurant rest room.  Yes, it was about health, but more, it was about purity, the idea that one could only come into God’s presence, whether in prayer or in the temple, after one had thoroughly washed and was ritually clean.  Every time Jesus touched a sick person, or they touched him, he became unclean and had to purify himself before worshiping or even praying.  The disciples had been observed praying a blessing for food without first washing their hands.  Jesus takes on the Pharisees and scribes by criticizing the way they neglect the care of their elderly parents by giving their support to the temple, honoring the tradition instead of the word of God.  He quoted Isaiah, saying,
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
     Jesus turned to the crowd and addressed the issue of ritual purity and hand washing.  He said that it is not what goes into the mouth (food touched by hands that have not been washed) that defiles a person.  It may make them sick, but it does not make them unclean, and therefore unable to approach God.  It is what comes out of the mouth that can make a person unclean if it comes from evil intentions.  The heart is the source of the evil in the world and all the things that make a person unclean.  
     And in a moment, Jesus was going to trip on his own words.  A woman from a culture that was unclean because it was not Jewish was going to ask Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus had been arguing persuasively for Kingdom values within his own temple culture.  It was the only culture that he knew.  He was a part of the people who understood themselves to be God’s chosen.  He was a part of the people who lived under the Law (with a capital L); who wrestled with the correct interpretation of the Law.  The Canaanite woman was unclean by virtue of her birth into a people who did not live under the Law; who Israel did not consider to be the chosen people of God.  She was unclean; she was the other; she was a foreigner.  In the world that Jesus inhabited, she was not only unimportant, she was invisible.  
There is something very enticing about thinking of yourself and your people as chosen or especially blessed by God.  It is one thing to believe that you are a child of Abraham, therefore a child of God, and to believe that you are loved.  The dark side of that belief is to understand other tribes, races, or nations to be unclean or defiled or less than human.  We may feel loved and have trouble sharing that love with others, but to believe that we are chosen above others breeds arrogance, a sense of entitlement, and even contempt.  A poster hangs in our conference office that addresses cultural arrogance.  It reads "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit."  The world that forms us establishes our sense of reality.  We are each a product of our culture and we learn our culture’s assumptions, fears, and prejudices along with its blessings.  Jesus was a product of his culture.  

Even though the Caananite woman cried out for mercy, even though she called Jesus “Lord,” even though she added the messianic title “Son of David,” her intrusion was unwelcome.  She was unwelcome.  And Jesus dismissed her out of his understanding of his call to the house of Israel.  But she persisted because her daughter was so ill.  And Jesus said what I think he really believed, that his time and energy and prayer belonged to the house of Israel.  And he said it in the cultural words of his time, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  We’d say it a different way,  using any of the racial epithets of the last two centuries—they all sting and diminish a person’s humanity, the image of God in which they are created.  The Canaanite woman, a remarkable debater because she was a desperate mother with a very sick daughter, accepted the slur, but refused to be turned away from the table of God’s blessing.  She knew that crumbs are still bread and she reminded Jesus that God feeds all of God’s creatures.  I believe that in that moment of looking into the human eyes of this creative woman, Jesus saw for the first time, the image of God in a person outside his culture.  He saw the woman with the eyes of his heart.  In that moment, the Kingdom of God became greater than the Kingdom of Israel.  The Kingdom of God took precedence over the culture in which it had grown.  Jesus acknowledged and praised her faith and granted her plea for healing.  
     You know why I think that this is an accurate reading of this story?  Because in the next three verses, even greater crowds came to be healed and they didn’t praise God, as we would normally read, they praised “the God of Israel,” indicating they were praising a God that was not their culture’s god.
     This awkward story tells us two important things.  The first is an example of what the church affirms, but that we have a hard time believing (or choose not to believe)—that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  He grew as we grow and he learned as we learn, through trial and error and through his experience.  In spite of knowing the Law and knowing and loving God with his whole being, God could, and did, surprise him.  Jesus remained open to the voice and movement of God.  In spite of the Psalm that we heard this morning and the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus was caught unprepared when God lived up to God’s own prophecy, “Behold, I do a new thing.”  I’m not sure that means that God actually does something new for God, but that what God is doing is new for us; that we see the great love of God in a new way.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, we should also be prepared to be surprised by God.
    The second thing this awkward story tells us is that the Kingdom of God critiques every culture.  Culture is a human construct.  The Kingdom of God critiques every culture, not only the temple culture of Israel, but also our own.  Like Jesus, our first allegiance must be to the Kingdom of God no matter how entrenched we are in our culture, how much sense it makes to us, how “right” we believe it to be.  The Kingdom of God calls us to a higher authority and a greater love for all of humanity—for all those created in the image of God.  Living in the Kingdom of God demands that we see beyond what our culture has taught us; to see with the eyes of our hearts; to see as God sees; to love as God loves.  May we also be agents of healing in the name of Jesus.

Let us pray.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When High Hopes Get All Wet

Jonah 2:1-9
Psalm 29
Matthew 14:22-33

Between Pentecost and the season of Advent, we find ourselves in ordinary time, not ordinary as in plain, old ordinary; but ordinary, from the word “ordinal,” meaning “numbered.”  The lectionary readings between Advent and Pentecost are based on the life of Jesus and the Sundays are often named after the major events in his life.  The readings during the other half of the year, after Pentecost and before the next Advent, speak to the Church about its life and they are numbered—like the hairs on your head are numbered, each important, but part of a whole.  The liturgical color is green symbolizing the Vine and branches, the Tree of Life, the Church—Christ alive in the world.  The gospel stories that we read are not so much about Jesus, as they are about us and how we live out our faith.

Today’s story has to do with stormy times in our journey, when it looks like the forces that are around us will swamp us and we’ll die.  In all reality, this is one of those times for the Church with a capital C.  Church attendance has plummeted in every denomination.  Every year struggling churches make the sad and painful decision to close.  I don’t remember the last Annual Conference when we didn’t pray over at least one church that was no longer viable.  At our last Council on Ministries meeting I listened to the lament around the table that this church is different than it used to be.  The list of what we don’t do any more, camping trips, youth group, etc. was long.  The hopes of starting a new youth program was raised.  We have some money from the Carr bequest—maybe we could hire someone. . . . Several times over the past couple of years, we’ve had a family visit for a number of weeks.  We stepped up our ministry to meet their needs, spending money on our nursery, providing a child care provider, only to have the family find a church with more children or a different worship style—or both.  Sometimes I feel like Peter climbing out of the boat, full of confidence, only to get doused.  So I tell you what, I need to hear this story.  I think, as a church, we need to hear this story, and maybe there’s something in your life that resonates with Peter’s experience.

What is most striking is the recognition that this extraordinary request has no validity apart from the command of Jesus.  Peter does not so much ask for supernatural powers as he asks to recognize that whatever Jesus commands, Jesus makes possible. The commands of Jesus, taken seriously, create miracles; they open an incredible reservoir of divine resources. Apart from such commands, not much unusual is going to happen.  There’s a huge difference between saying “I wish we had” or “we ought to do” than hearing a command:  “You give them something to eat,” “Feed my sheep,” “Love one another.”  There’s a difference between the pastor or the nominating committee calling to ask you to serve on a board and hearing Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me.”  When we hear Jesus speak directly to us with a clear directive—and we act—miracles happen.  
    Second, when the command is spoken, Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic analysis of Peter’s response is worth pondering.  
Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord.  If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith . . . . The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.

Bonhoeffer goes on to draw the theological paradox that emerges from this scene: only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes. “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”  Had Peter remained in the boat and not taken the first step, his faith would have been worthless.

Third, it is possible to step out of the boat on faith, and then to notice the storm under your feet; to begin to sink in the turbulent waves.  That’s how I’ve felt when we have prepared a beautiful nursery and hired wonderful Maya, only to see the nursery go unused; to see so many children here at Vacation Bible School year after year and know that in spite of all of our efforts, they will not become a part of our church.  It is so easy to get discouraged—to feel all wet.  When have you stepped out of the boat and found yourself sinking?  When have your highest hopes gotten all wet?  

The alternative is to stay in the boat like the other disciples.  Apparently Jesus was going to reach the boat and the disciples would have been safe, arriving on shore in the morning.  That’s the part of the story no one writes about.  What if Peter hadn’t stepped out of the boat, trying to do what Jesus was doing that was really pretty miraculous.  A lot of our churches have done just that—stayed in the boat, afraid of the storm, hoping Jesus would find them step.  Or we can ask Jesus to command us to step out on the water, and onto a sea in the middle of a storm, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and the command.

We don’t need to be afraid of not being successful.  Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, said about his failure to invent the light bulb, “We have only found 586 ways that won't work and won't have to be tried again.  Soon, we will find one that does.”  He later claimed, “If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

I am encouraged by the part of the story where Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter’s hand and pulls him up and into the boat saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Well I’ll tell you why we doubt!  We see the waves and feel the power of the storm instead of keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and feeling the power of his command.

What is God calling this church to be and do right now?  A few weeks ago I asked how you thought God was calling us to be in ministry, or where your passion for ministry is.  Your overwhelming responses were to seniors and to children.  But nothing will happen until God speaks a command into our hearts and we make a ministry our own by our obedience to that command.  We cannot hire it out.  It is ours to do, or it will fail.

So I ask you to pray about these questions:
  • What happens when we become afraid of the storms around us?
  • Where is our hope?  
  • Do we believe that Jesus makes possible what he has commanded?
Let us be obedient and may our obedience lead us to ever greater faith!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Miracle of Sharing

Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25
Matthew 14:13-21

     The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle story of Jesus told in all four gospels.  In Matthew’s telling, Jesus has been followed everywhere by large crowds.  Jesus wanted some time alone with his disciples, so he took his disciples to a deserted place by boat.  By the time they got to shore, a crowd was already waiting for him, and instead of the rest and quiet time he was looking for, he began to cure the sick.  As evening fell, the crowd was still there and Jesus was still working.  The disciples were hungry so they went to Jesus to ask him to let the crowd go so that they could go to the surrounding villages and find something to eat.  But Jesus shocked them by saying, “They don’t need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”  In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples had already figured out how much food they had among themselves—five loaves and two fish.  Jesus asked them to give him their loaves and fish.  He ordered the crowd to sit on the grass, and in front of the crowd, he blessed and broke the bread into pieces and gave it to his disciples, who gave it to the people.  And the gospel says, “All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
     An amazing story.  Let me tell you two modern miracle stories.  Both are true.  The first story is set in El Paso, Texas and across its border with Mexico, in the slums of Juarez.  A postal worker in El Paso was part of a small group in his church.  As an outreach ministry, his group decided to take a meal across the border to the people who lived in the slums of Juarez.  Each member of the group brought nourishing food—there were sandwiches and fruit and someone brought a large ham.  They packed the food in the back of a pick up truck and crossed the border.  They headed for the garbage dump.  That’s where the poorest of the poor scrounge for scraps of food and cast away items that might be sold.  They passed shacks made of plywood and cardboard boxes.  When they arrived at the dump they opened the back of the truck and set up their small feast.  A few young scavengers came up to the truck and received a meal.  Then a few more.  And then the mounds of garbage came alive.  For hours streams of people came to the little truck looking for food.  Eventually the sandwiches ran out, but the ham never did.  The postal worker watched in amazement as the food supply lasted much longer than it possibly could have.  He had no explanation other than he had witnessed a miracle.  When the last person had eaten, there was still ham left.  
     The members of that small group were so moved by the miracle that they had been part of that they began to make plans to meet other needs they had observed while serving the poorest of the poor.  They arranged for a doctor in their church to go with them to the dump to set up a mini clinic out of the back of the pick up.  Within a few short years, they had managed to set up a permanent clinic housed in a small building near the dump that served the poor of Juarez.  The postal worker?  He quit his job to help build and manage the clinic.  Who in that small group would have believed where God would take them when they decided to feed the hungry?
     The other story took place on a train in England during World War II.  A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers.  His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by.  Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the other passengers.  He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved.  An hour passed and then another.  Finally, his stomach rumbling, he decided that he had no choice.  He needed to eat, and so did the others sharing his compartment.  He reached in his coat pocket and took out the handkerchief.  He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched in silence.  Then he said a brief blessing and gave each passenger a part of his sandwich.  Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food that they had brought—and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything.  The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting.  Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.  This teenager grew to be theologian William Barclay who wondered if on that hillside in Galilee, one boy sharing his lunch caused everyone else to share until all were satisfied.
     So, Preacher, you might ask, which miracle was it on the hillside of Galilee:  was it God expanding barley loaves and a couple of fish to feed five thousand, or people opening their bags and sharing what they had with them?  And my answer would be an awed yes!  Both!  I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  I think God uses God’s abundance both ways.  We don’t often see food that doesn’t diminish until all are fed, but we have faithful witnesses that that happens.  More often, I think God counts on us to begin the sharing.  A number of years ago at the Summer Institute for Liturgy and Worship, the final brunch was a catered event.  All the ingredients for shrimp salad were arranged on long tables and we helped ourselves.  150 people ate and threw away what was left on their plates, but there was still so much left on the tables.  I was on the board of the Summer Institute, and another board member and I gathered lettuce, cheese, mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes, bread, butter, salad dressing, and shrimp and loaded them precariously into my car.  We missed closing worship so that we could deliver a sumptuous salad that could easily have fed fifty more to the First Avenue Service Center.  Folks came out of the alley at the center to help us unload, thanking us for remembering them.  While most of the Institute participants were singing and praying, the Institute was also feeding the poorest of the poor.  
    God cares about the whole of our being—body, spirit, mind, soul.  And there is enough—more than enough for each person on the face of the earth to live abundantly.  How can we begin the miracle of feeding multitudes?  It begins with compassion and concern for the real needs of people and sharing what little we think we may have.  God multiplies whatever we bring, whether it’s faith, love, money, talent, or food.  God will make it more than enough.  We so often look with fear at what we have left and try to preserve it as long as we can—that’s scarcity thinking.  God can’t multiply our resources until we let go of them and offer them to God.  We serve the God of abundance.  So we need to develop abundance thinking.

    God’s Grace abounds—it is abundant, more than enough.  It cannot be depleted or diminished.  How will you allow God to multiply your resources today?