Saturday, November 28, 2015

Everyone Is Welcome Here

I dream of one day pastoring a church that will hang these words in their vestibule:

Everyone is welcome here
Cause that's how Jesus wants it.


Nothing, 
not your race
Or your gender
Not your politics, left or right
Not your ability or disability
Your sins, past or present.

Nothing

Will keep you from this Table.
The only thing that will block you
would be your own refusal to come.

And if
at some point
you decide 
to go down into the waters of Baptism
We will not ask you about
your politics or your gender,
about how you sing and pray,
or where your theology lies; 
Only
"Do you love Jesus and desire to follow Him?"
"Do you claim Him as your Lord and Savior?"


We figure you and Jesus can work out the rest,
Seeing how He's the one who invited you here in the first place.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Reflection

Today is Thanksgiving.  My children and step-children have all  checked in.  We will be with them during various times through out the holidays that stretch from now til Christmas.  They are scattered all over.

Soon we will leave to join the friends who have invited us to be part of their family gathering.  We are blessed with great friends.  Many other friends have checked in today as well.  So when I say that I am thankful for these friends, I really mean it.  I consider myself blessed beyond belief.

But I would like to share some of the thoughts swirling through my head today.  I'd like to do it without hanging crepe over the doorway of anyone's day.  My belief is not that we need to give up celebrating and cover ourselves with grief and guilt.  Too often Christianity has asked us to be drawn to this useless grief "like a weasel sucks eggs" (that's a Fred Craddock quote, and I just love it).

I am aware, however, that while I celebrate, one in five children in this country are food insecure.  I know there are people who cannot afford medications they need to stay alive or medical procedures that might prolong their lives.  That the language of hatred and racial division is fanning the flames of violence that bursts out in the middle of political rallies and guns down people of color in the streets.  I know that there are service personnel in dangerous places in the world who will not sit down with family today.  I know that there are, all over the world, people working for peace and to stem the tide of hunger and disease.  I am aware that even as refugees flee for their lives from war torn homelands, there are those who would bar them entry into this country.  Apparently, the lady who lifts her lamp beside the golden door only does so for those who look like them, think like them, and share their religious beliefs.  These are the realities.

I will celebrate.  I will enjoy.  But I will also remember.  I will remember when it comes time to give what funds I have available to help others.  I will remember when I volunteer my time in efforts to fix this broken world and nation.  I will remember when I climb into the pulpit.  And I will remember when I vote.

Blessings are not a zero sum game.  There is food and space enough to go around.  Peace is possible.  Curing disease is possible.  I believe that one day Jesus will bring the Kingdom and heaven and earth will be one.  BUT I also believe that when I pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," that I am committing myself to a task in the here and now.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.  Enjoy....and work for the Kingdom.  They're not mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hope And Something Out Of Nothing

This Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent.  We, along with many Christians around the world will light the Hope candle as the first of the Advent candles.

It would be easy at this time to join the words of the carol I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day:

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.

From the hate mongering demagoguery of of certain politicians; to the violence of the radical groups who pervert the religion of Islam; to those who would ignore the needs of refugees while claiming that their faith is Christian....hate is strong, as is fear, and they make a mockery of the promises that we say we lay claim to during this season.

It would be easy to pass off the promises as so many empty tales.  The lies we've been told in the past weigh heavy on us as we wait in the darkness.  Why should we believe these promises.

The scripture for this week is from Luke 2:5-20.  It's the story of Jesus' uncle who was a priest named Zechariah.  Apparently there were a lot of priests in Israel.  They rotated through the Temple once a year fro about a week.  They drew lots for who would go into the Holy of Holies and burn incense.  It might happen only once in his life that he'd 'draw the short straw.'

We're told that Zechariah and Elizabeth are "righteous before the Lord" and that they're both part of the priestly class descended from Aaron. None of this has done them much good though because they have no children.  Elizabeth is barren.  In this culture, in those days, when having children was a sign of God's favor, this was a disgrace.

So old Zechariah plods into the Holy of Holies to light the incense.  Maybe he's excited.  Maybe not.  On his way in he can see the Roman soldiers looking down into the Temple courtyard from the wall of the stockade that Pilate maintained next door.  A childless old man in an occupied land going in to burn incense to a God who had left the Temple and not returned since the time of Ezekiel.  Hopeful this is not. 

So you can't really blame Zechariah if he has some questions.  In fact, when the angel says, "your prayers have been answered," you couldn't blame him if he said, "you're a little late aren't you?"
And he would be correct....except....it's not Zechariah's story.  And it's not mine either.  I forget that a lot.
It's God's story, the story of God setting the world to rights.  The story of God rescuing us from ourselves.  We're invited to join that story.  But it will be done on God's time, not ours.
That means that we're in for quite a ride.  We need to give up our need to be in control (which for those of you who know me is not something I'm really good at).  God will allow us to be coworkers, but not to be in charge.

That's the bad news....sorta.

The good news....totally.....is that we worship the God who brings something out of nothing.  Who reaches into the void and the chaos and created...our world...and us.  Who makes barren couples fruitful. Who makes a way where there is no way; and who reaches into the darkness of lives that we've turned into nothing with our sins and our failures and uses them to bring about the Kingdom.

We need that God now.  We wait in aching longing for that God.  We cry out for that God.  Advent calls us to be still.  To listen in the silence.  Advent speaks to us like the angel Gabriel did to Zechariah and strikes us mute so that we mich actually be able to hear the Good News:  God is here.  God is on the move.  In ways that we will miss if we're not careful, the very things we're reaching out for are here.  Listen......

That straining on tiptoe to see through the darkness, to hear above the clamor of hate speech and advertisements for things we don't need.  That thing that has us waiting in anticipation of we don't know what, but we know it is what we've been waiting for all our lives.....

It has a name.  It is called Hope.


A Christmas Conversation

Do you hear what I hear?

You'll have to speak up, the hate speech is really loud in here.

A child, a child shivers in the cold

What are you? Another of those bleeding hearts that wants to open our borders to raping terrorist criminals

Let us bring him silver and gold

Right. You socialist types are all alike. We need to be spending our money to build the economy here at home, not wasting it on these anchor babies

He will bring us goodness and light

Sure he will. He'll probably grow up to be one of those rabble rousing liberals who thinks that these folks at the back of the line should go first.  Who knows, they might even have to execute his sorry ass.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Stewardship Sermons on Christ the King Sunday

I got to spend an evening and a day this week listening to N.T. Wright at the St. Mary's Ecumenical Institute.  You can find out more about them here http://www.stmarys.edu/ecumenical-institute/  and if you live anywhere near Baltimore, MD you really should take a look at the work they're doing.  But I'm not writing about them this evening.

Nor am I writing about N.T. Wright, though the conference was wonderful and it was great to have my friend Maren respond to a Facebook post with "thou shalt not covet thy friends conference." 

I'm writing about Stewardship.  Huh?

Bear with me.  It's going to take me a second to get there, but I think it's worth it.  So I'm sitting in this wonderful conference in which Wright is lining out a lot of his thought that is going into his next book (which thrills me no end), and during I break I think to myself, "it's Christ the King Sunday and I'm preaching about Stewardship....doesn't that just tear it" (or words to that effect, if you know me you'll fill them in).  "Here is this day in which we celebrate the Kingship of Christ, the overcoming of Sin and Death, I'm listening to one of the worlds greatest New Testament theologians talking about, among other things, Christian vocation, and I've got to preach about Stewardship."  I wallow a bit in my own juices, whining to myself about how the local institutional church (as well as the larger institutional church) has traded its tasks to be the Body of Christ in the dark places of life to worry about leaky roofs and copy machines.  And I ask myself, "how can you even think about preaching about Stewardship on Christ the King Sunday?"

And the answer is YOU CAN'T.....Unless.....unless you can connect said stewardship to the larger task and vocation of the Church (church with the big "C", Body of Christ Church).  Unless we can be clear that what we're doing is supporting and sustaining the work of the risen King, every stewardship sermon becomes the religious version of the kid going door to door saying, "would you like to buy some chocolate bars so our school band can march in Macy's parade this year?"  And while I think band trips are great, for the church to sink that low is beyond crummy...it's a sin....literally to fall short of the mark of who we are called to be.  And the sad thing is that so many of us do it year after year after year just about this time as we're sending out pledge cards and fighting over whether we have a reasonable budget.

But what if we started our conversations from a slightly different place:  The church exists to stand between the world and the darkness, to offer another story about how life is meant to be, and can be, instead of the one the world tells about money, sex, and power.  To tell the story that Jesus' life portrayed and that His death and resurrection prove is the REAL story of what life is about. Buildings exist as places to live out and tell this story, programs must express it, and ministers much teach and enable it.  And if any part of the budget cannot justify itself within that framework, we will trim the budget accordingly.  What if every part of a church budget was held up to that as the standard for its continued existence?  It might not change where money was spent, but I believe it would certainly change how we approached that spending.

I think that this is part of the kind of attitude that Jesus is talking about when he tells the story in Luke 14: 25-30.  This is a very down to earth story about a man building a tower in the middle of a field so that he can oversee his field and protect it from who, or whatever, might interfere with it.  Jesus says that if you don't plan and figure out whether you can really do what you say you want to do, you'll fail and be a laughingstock.  But he says it in the middle of a larger conversation about who is going to follow Him and what it's going to cost.  What do you want to do?  What will it cost you?  Will it hold up?

So, if we started with the description above of the general call of the church and the standard by which all of its life is measured, then asked "what do we feel called to do within that larger picture?" and "how might we best express that within the financial and personal (volunteer time, etc.) and personnel we have available?"  I have a sneaky suspicion that Stewardship Season might become a radically different experience.

We serve a risen Christ who has inaugurated His Kingdom here on earth.  It is here, and it is coming.  We, as church, are the advance guard, the here and now expression, of that Kingdom.  Like the westward pioneers who had to trim their belongs down to the essentials, often abandoning beloved objects along the way, we have a goal and a destination. 

This is a whole different kind of "Zero Based Budgeting."  One that links us back to our true calling and places our financial stewardship squarely in the middle of our vocation as the People of God, the Body of Christ, in a local time and place.  It might, or might not, call us to radical new behaviors.  It would certainly call us to radically new understandings.



Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Terrorism As The World's Cancer

Let us begin by agreeing that terrorism...any kind of terrorism.....is a cancer which endangers all of humankind.  The attacks last week in Beirut and Paris are expressions of that cancer.  Can we agree?

Now let's agree that all of those elevated screening procedures, etc. are the chemotherapy and radiation treatments called for to wipe out the cancer.  Are we tracking?

Now imagine that the patient is you...or me.....we've been diagnosed with, say, lung cancer.  We're doing the rotation of chemo, radiation, chemo, radiation.  One day our doctor walks in after a treatment and says, "Stephen (we'll pretend it's me), I think we've got you in remission.  But Stephen, you keep smoking!  I see the pack in your front pocket right now!  Are you out of your mind?!"  Now let's imagine for a minute that I reply, "Look doc, I appreciate all you've done.  And hey, like you said, remission, right?  So let's just mind your own business.  I need to smoke.  It calms me down. If the cancer comes back, we'll just up the chemo and the radiation...right?"

Terrorism is a cancer.  The increased security measures are like radiation and chemo.  But the western governments just keep right on smoking.  Third and fourth world debt could be forgiven, but it isn't.  We could stop propping up dictators, but we don't.  We could learn to live with and respect other, non-white, cultures and religions, but we don't.  The list goes on.

If our world is ever going to be safe.  If our children and grandchildren will ever live in a world not always looking over its shoulder for the next terrorist group or attack.  We need to stop engaging in the behaviors that nurture terrorism as sure as chain smoking nurtures the growth of cancer.  Sure there are people who chain smoke for years and don't get cancer.....but not many.  And we already know that our world isn't one of them.

Lest you accuse me of talking politics rather than religion (though the prophets and those of faith in scripture never made that decision), let me remind you that Jesus often warned his listeners about continuing to live lives oriented to the violent resistance to violence.

This is to say that one of our jobs as Christians is to help our world find a way to "quit smoking."  I will maintain that the teachings and example of Jesus are the way for us to do that.  Love of enemies.  Care for the poor and the vulnerable.  A personal relationship with God.  I could go on.

But our world keeps smoking....and depending on the chemo and the radiation.  Sooner or later the chemo will kill us.  The cure will be worse than the disease.  My prayer is that before that happens we will learn to listen to the One who came that we might "have life and have it in all its abundance."

Shalom

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Light

Last night there was horror and terror in Paris.

Yesterday, a close friend gave birth to their first child.  This morning I played on the floor with another friend's baby then helped my church host a regional AA gathering.  I can pretty much boil down my answer to Paris and Beirut to those moments.  I believe in the love that brings forth new life.  I believe in the possibility expressed in that new life.  And I believe that even when that possibility has been broken into tiny pieces by addiction or violence, illness or hatred, that recovery is possible.  I believe a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  I believe that diverse groups of people can come together, admit how broken they are, and begin to heal and be community for one another. And I believe our world can do this as well.

Why do I believe this?  Am I that naive?  I don't think so.  But if that belief is naive, I'll take naive any day over the crap spewing from the talking heads and the peddlers of hatred and isolation.

Why? Because I believe in the Light.  I believe that the Light shines on in the darkness; and that the darkness will never, Ever, EVER be able to overcome it.

I believe that the Light
shines on in the darkness.
I believe that the darkness
can never overcome it.
But I am neither
naive or blind;
agony, death and terror
are real.
In Paris and Beirut
as well as down the block.
and I
ache,
weep,
cringe in my own helplessness
against the deep darkness.
Even at my best
I am but a tiny
reflection
of a spark.
But my weakness does not negate the truth
the Truth that gives me Hope
to get out of bed
and let that tiny reflection shine.
The Light shines on in the darkness
and the darkness
cannot overcome it.


Shalom 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

From Slavery To Heirs Of The Glory Of God

Let's begin with a major truth: 

Like the pieces of stained glass in a window, or the individual pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, we are important individually to God. We are created in the Image of God.  One way to think about this is that it takes ALL of humankind throughout all of time to even BEGIN to express the glory of God.  God made it that way. Our lives are needed to reflect God's glory.  But Sin and Death (what Paul calls Powers and Principalities) entered the world and the Image that we bear is twisted, marred. [Please note that the Image cannot be destroyed].  Scripture and theologians thru the ages have often referred to this condition as being "lost."  The Good New is that when we are lost, God seeks us out in Christ. And St. Augustine reminds us that if we were the only one in all the world, God would have still sought us out to find us and bring us home.  God's love for humankind is not generalized, it is specific.  Over time, as we live in this new relationship, God untwists, repairs, reforms that Image like a blacksmith reheating warped iron to bring back the original shape .

The Apostle Paul uses a wide range of metaphors in an attempt to describe this indescribable gift.  One of them is that of slavery.  Now it may be important to remember that slavery in Paul's day was somewhat different than the slavery we think about in America in the early years of our country.  It was not an ethnic or racial thing. Anyone could become a slave. Lose a battle, go into deep debt. Slavery was everywhere. It was the grease on the rails of Empire. Paul points out that ALL are slaves to Sin and Death. Not just Jews, not just Gentiles. His rant in Romans 1 and 2 is, in part, his argument that none of us has a leg to stand on regarding righteousness. All are slaves to Sin and Death. In Romans 8:14-Paul uses an image from the culture of his to try to describe the journey we make.  He describes it as a journey from the role of slaves to that of heirs.

In Paul's day a slave could be freed.  This might not be as good as it sounds. A freed slave had nothing.  A slave was, at least guaranteed shelter and food to keep him/her productive. Sometimes a freed man/woman might be continue in the household of their previous master working as a craftsperson.  They might even be adopted into that household.  But a slave adopted into a household was rarely, if ever, an heir.  THAT would have been a huge deal.  Paul tells us that in Christ we are heirs to the glory of God.

The temptation is to stop here.  To focus on how God loves us (which God does), and in Christ, gave Himself for us (which He did).   BUT it is not just our picture, not just our story, that is being told. Step back from the work and you will see a huge sweeping portrait of love.

Now hang with me, cause this is where it gets really interesting. 

Paul says in verse 17 that we become, "fellow heirs with Christ provided we suffer with Him." {italics mine}  This "suffering with Him" is more that what many of us were taught in some churches growing up.  It isn't being laughed at cause we didn't "dance, smoke or chew." Suffering with Christ is to look at the world through Christ's eyes.  It is to live for the world's redemption, valuing the Image of God in each individual.  We become "laborers together with God" (1 Corinthians 3:9).  We take on the suffering of the world; looking at it through Christ's eyes, feeling it through Christ's heart as we work for the healing and redemption of the world. Our effort that "thy kingdom come and thy will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven," comes closer to reality is a part of our sharing in the suffering of Christ.

We are not just freed, not even just adopted, we are "heirs of the Glory of Christ." In our journey from slavery to concern only about self, to "suffering with Christ" on behalf of the world and sharing the Glory of God as the world is healed, we will find ourselves transformed. And, as Paul said, compared to this Glory, the "suffering of this present time" is not even worth comparing.