Calling All Prophets

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Have you ever been a part of something that didn’t exactly go according to plan?

Unless you live under a rock, chances are you have. Sometimes it’s fun, like when you come home from work on your birthday and all your friends jump out and say, “Surprise!” Sometimes it’s scary, like when you get that phone call with someone saying, “There’s been an accident.” Sometimes it’s a mixture of both exciting and scary, like when your wife says, “Honey, I know we weren’t planning on this for another year, but I just took a test and it says I’m pregnant.”

No matter what the circumstances are, whether it’s good or bad, no matter how well we’ve planned it out, it seems like life is always find a way to hit us with something unexpected. In fact, that’s the number one piece of advice I have for couples preparing for their wedding day: “The secret to the perfect wedding day is imperfection. Expect the unexpected. Something, somewhere will not go according to plan, so make up your mind now to just accept it when it happens.” As they said in Britain during World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.”

In theological circles, we like to quote an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans.”

God seems to have a flair for the unexpected. Take, for example, our reading this morning from the Torah, the book of Numbers: It begins with Moses doing a very Presbyterian thing: electing and ordaining elders to help govern God’s people. And in good Presbyterian form, everything was being done “decently and in order.” The elders were called, chosen, and set apart for the work of ministry. These elders became mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. Just like Moses, they proclaimed God’s word to the people. Just then, as this solemn ordination service was still going on, someone comes running up to the tent where they were meeting.

It was a teenager from the camp, a member of the next generation of Israelites. The biblical text doesn’t say much about who this teenager was, but I like to imagine him as a kind of punk: maybe the elders gave him the stink-eye because his robes were too short and his hair was too long. Maybe some of them had caught him smoking behind the camel-pen or writing graffiti that said “MOSES SUCKETH!” on the side of people’s tents. And all of a sudden, here he was: barging in to interrupt a solemn ordination service! My guess is that the elders were not amused…

But this wasn’t just any other punk kid, he was the voice of the next generation of Israelites. And he came with an announcement: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

According to the story, there were two guys who were supposed to be there at the ordination, but weren’t. Eldad and Medad had stayed behind in the camp. The Bible doesn’t say why (maybe, like so many of our elders, they had already been recruited to organize the post-ordination church supper). For whatever reason, Eldad and Medad weren’t at the ceremony with Moses and the others, but that didn’t stop God from making things happen in their lives.

I find that very interesting: God’s will for Eldad and Medad did not depend on them being in the right place at the right time. The Holy Spirit was able to work in them and through them, no matter where they were. God loves working outside the box.

And how did God let Moses and the elders know that this extraordinary activity was going on in the camp? By sending one of the youth: the voice of the next generation. This young person’s job was to point the finger back at what God was doing in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We know from the text that some of the elders were struggling with what they heard. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, had a particularly hard time with it. He said, “Moses, stop this! We’ve got to shut this new thing down before it undermines our God-given authority!” We can’t really blame Joshua for what he was trying to do. He was trying to protect what had been entrusted to him by God. He was being smart.

But Moses, on the other hand, was more wise than smart. He was listening with the ears of his heart and heard something that Joshua didn’t. He said to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the spirit on them!” He recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the camp, even though it didn’t conform to his own expectations. Moses realized that God’s ultimate goal was to empower all people to be mouthpieces for the Divine, not just one or a few special chosen heroes: “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the Spirit on them!”

Generations later, another prophet named Joel would echo this same hunch in his writing: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

The fulfillment of this prophecy, the coming-true of this dream, is what we celebrate today on the Feast of Pentecost: the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh and all people became prophets – young and old, men and women, great and small. On this day, we are reminded that our God and the God of our ancestors has always been comfortable with thinking outside the box and coloring outside the lines.

On this day, we are also celebrating the anniversary of a time when another youth (four of them, actually) left the comfort of the camp and challenged the elders and leaders of the church with the news that God was at work in some unexpected ways.

In 1864, Eliza Valentine, with her friends Bertha Hilbert, Ada Haley, and Helen Reid (all of them 14 year-old girls) swiped some songbooks from the Sunday School room of First Presbyterian Church and, without telling their parents or their pastor, went and started a Sunday School class for kids living in what was then the woods north of downtown Kalamazoo.

This little adventure continued unnoticed for some time until the Superintendent of the Sunday School noticed that his songbooks kept going missing every Sunday afternoon and returning by evening. When he followed the girls to find out what was going on, he was shocked to discover an active Sunday School class of 30 kids being conducted outside in the woods, with planks placed over logs and stumps for seating. Now, the Superintendent could have done like Joshua and had the whole unauthorized project shut down on the spot, but he didn’t. Instead, he and the pastor, with the elders of the church, took the wiser path like Moses. They recognized the movement of the Holy Spirit and decided to support it.

Funds came in from the grown-ups of the church to support the newly dubbed ‘Mission Woods Sunday School’. They were soon able to procure a building and move their work indoors when the weather got cold. In time, the adults of the church started helping out and the parents of the neighborhood kids started coming as well. Pretty soon, a full-fledged congregation was in the works and by 1878 they were ready to call their first pastor. North Presbyterian Church was born! These girls, like that youth in the book of Numbers, pointed their elders to the truth that God was at work in some very unusual-but-exciting ways. The elders and pastor, like Moses, recognized it as the work of the Holy Spirit, blessed it, and supported it. Once again, the prophecy came true that God likes to color outside the lines, that the Holy Spirit speaks through all God’s people, and that even our young sons and daughters can be prophets.

This is no less true in our day than it was in 1864 or in the time of Moses. The same Holy Spirit that lived and moved in them is now living and moving in us. We are the prophets. Many of you here today have spent much of your lives in institutions like hospitals or group homes. Due to a diagnosis of mental illness, you’ve had to sacrifice your autonomy and sometimes even your dignity. You’ve probably been told, and maybe even started to believe, that you’re a charity case and therefore your voice doesn’t count. It might even feel easier sometimes to quiet down and just go along with whatever program your doctor or caseworker is prescribing, even if you have questions about it or different ideas about what might be right for you. You might even forget that God gave you a voice, but the Good News for you today is that you do have one. God has put the Holy Spirit on you and called you to be a prophet.

In the same way, it would also be easy for us to fall into that same trap as a parish. We’re small in number, many of our members are on a fixed income, therefore we don’t have a lot of money. Our operating budget depends on financial support from other churches in our presbytery. It would be easy for us to see ourselves as a charity case, but we’re not. We are prophets. And I believe that God has called us to prophesy to the other churches in the Body of Christ.

And here’s how:

It’s no secret that mainline Protestant churches in America have been declining in number, money, and influence for the past 50 years. Gone are the days of packed parking lots and overflowing Sunday School rooms. We no longer live in a society where we can assume that our neighbors go to church. This reality makes a lot of people nervous. They say that the church is dying, that God has abandoned our church, or that our church has abandoned God. Some say that Christianity’s day has come and gone, and that our religion will now fade into the shadows of history and mythology. But I don’t think any of those things are true.

Yes, it’s true that the church is shrinking, but I don’t think we’re dying at all. Jesus himself said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

I believe God is pruning us, as the Church, so that we might be more spiritually fruitful in generations to come. The Church of the next generation will not be an institution will massive buildings and budgets. The Christianity of the future will no longer be the civil religion of the American empire. We will no longer be beholden to the golden calves of money and power. We will be a community of prophets: committed believers who stand in solidarity with the “least of these” – the poor and oppressed peoples of the earth, the marginalized, the outcast, the scapegoats, the persecuted, and the forgotten. The Church of the future will once again follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who walks the streets of this world, where hurting hearts cry out for healing and hungry souls cry out for bread. Christ is present there, and it is there that the Church will find him again.

Just like he said to us in his first sermon at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If that’s what the Holy Spirit did when she came upon Jesus, then we can expect the same thing to happen when she lands on his Church today. I look forward to that.

Here at North Church, I believe that we have a head start in that process. Ever since the days of Eliza Valentine, we have known what it means to have faith in the power of Almighty God over the power of the almighty dollar. We are already a community of people out on the edge, where those who have no place else to go can find a welcome, a home, and a sanctuary.

The rest of the church supports our ministry, not because we’re a bunch of charity cases, but because they recognize the work of the Spirit among us in this way. They realize that this ministry is too important to let die. They know that they will soon need in their churches what we have already discovered here. They need us, just as much as we need them. As it says in our New Testament reading, there are many gifts, but only one Spirit. I believe our gift, as North Church, is the gift of prophecy. We are speaking forth the Word of God and showing the rest of the Church what the future will be. Let us speak gently, boldly, and with all the faith, hope, and love that the Spirit of Christ inspires in our hearts.

Let us prophesy and tell the world the truth that has brought us together again and again, Sunday after Sunday for the last 150 years, and brings us together again this morning:

That I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

Come to the Table: The Body of Christ

ImageAnd Then it Hit Me…

If someone was to walk up right now and randomly punch me in the arm, the first question I would think to ask is, “Ow! Why did you just hit me?”

Me. “Why did you hit me?”

Notice that I didn’t ask, “Why did you hit my arm?” That wouldn’t even occur to me. If that person was to say, “I didn’t hit you, I just hit your arm,” I would think that person was crazy. My arm is a part of me. When someone hurts a part of my body, they are hurting me. I know that instinctually. I could never think of it in any other way.

My arms and my legs form part of the same body. It’s the same with you and me. We are parts of the same body as well: the Body of Christ. Whatever affects one of us, affects all of us. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt. This is the truth we’re telling today.

Series Recap

Today marks the fourth in our five-week Lenten series on the sacrament of the Eucharist. On the first week, we talked about what it means when we say that the Eucharist is a “symbol.” On the second week, we reflected on the Eucharist as a remembrance of past events. Last week and this week, we’re talking about the Eucharist as a present reality. Next week, we’ll wrap it up by talking about the Eucharist as an anticipation of the future.

For now, we’re talking about the Eucharist as a present reality. Last week, we looked at the vertical aspect of that reality: the Eucharist as spiritual nourishment. Today, we’re looking at the horizontal aspect of that reality: the Eucharist as Communion. As we partake of the one bread and the one cup, we are being reminded that we are members of one body: the Body of Christ.

A Church in Crisis

I’d like to tell you the story of a church I heard about a while back. This church was located in a large, wealthy, cosmopolitan city. They were a pretty successful church, by most accounts. They were young, having been planted in the last generation or so, but had been around long enough that their founding pastor had moved on and they had recently called a new pastor. This new pastor was also young, charismatic, and highly skilled at his job. He was known far and wide as an excellent preacher and folks just loved to listen to his sermons. The church had experienced a period of intense growth, numerically speaking. They now had some prominent, wealthy givers in the congregation. Spiritually speaking, this church was a place where many people had experienced the power of God touching their lives in a deep, personal, and meaningful way.

Sounds pretty good, right? But all was not well.

This church had everything going for it, but it was extremely dysfunctional beneath the surface. Internally, they were all split up into factions over silly stuff. For example, some folks liked the new pastor, some liked the old one better, and others were getting all excited about this other pastor they had heard about from friends out-of-town. There were differences in theology and worship-styles that were tearing the church apart. In order to appease the wealthy new members, they intentionally started holding services at a time when they knew it would be more difficult for some of the poorer church members to get off work. When they did manage to get there, the church was arranged so that the wealthiest members had a special VIP section where they were allowed to sit and worship, while the lower-income members who were coming straight from work had to sit in the back and only got to eat leftovers from the church’s potluck supper. To make matters worse, there was a family in the church that was caught up in a pretty serious crisis, but the pastor and the elders were so caught up in dealing with the quarreling factions that this family’s problems were being ignored and they weren’t getting the kind of pastoral care they needed. That’s pretty messed up, right?

Things got so bad at this church that they had to call in an outside consultant to help them fix these problems. As it turns out, that consultant turned out to be none other than their former pastor, the one who first started this congregation and knew them all very well. Given the deep trust and relationship that they already had with him, this pastor decided not to mince words and cut straight to the heart of the matter: he showed them that their problem was not with their location, their demographic, their pastor, or the depth of their spiritual experience. No, their problem was in the way they treated each other. No matter how many other signs of success they might possess, a church just isn’t church unless its members love each other as if they were parts of the same body. That’s what a Christian church is: the Body of Christ. Any congregation that doesn’t live that truth as its raison d’etre is not really a church in the eyes of God. Those are some harsh words, eh?

Corinthian Communion

Well, it’s time for me to pull back the curtain and reveal this church’s name. It’s not a congregation from our area, our denomination, or even our era of history (although it could easily be all three). The church I’ve been describing is the church in Corinth that St. Paul wrote to in the middle of the first century CE. Paul was that founding pastor who was called in to help fix this mess the Corinthian Christians had got themselves into.

In today’s New Testament reading, we get a snippet of Pastor Paul’s first round of advice to the Corinthians. He’s offering them some constructive criticism about the way they celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist.

His words are harsh: he tells them that their Communion services do more harm than good. In fact, it doesn’t even really count as the Lord’s Supper because they are eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in an “unworthy manner”.

What does that mean? It’s not a problem with the ritual they use, nor is Paul upset over their theological interpretation of what is happening to the bread and wine in said ritual. No, Paul’s problem has to do with the way they treat each other as they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. In other words, their dysfunctional relationships are what render the sacrament invalid, not their rituals or their theology.

As I mentioned above, the Corinthian Christians were doing church in a way that made it difficult for the poorer members of the community to participate in worship. Their celebration of the Eucharist took place as part of a full meal where people were divided according to social class and status. The wealthy members would eat together in one room and get the choicest food, while the poorest Christians would get whatever was left over. Their feast was reinforcing the kind of social barriers that Christ had worked so hard to break down. In Paul’s eyes, this exclusive practice was a slap in the face to the gospel itself. Any Communion service celebrated in such a way could never be a true sharing in the Body and the Blood of Christ.

Discerning the Body

Pastor Paul’s advice to this wayward congregation is simple: “Discern the body.” For him, that does not mean “look within yourself” to decide whether or not you are morally worthy of receiving the sacrament. Likewise, “discerning the body” does not mean looking at the elements of bread and wine, as if something magical were about to happen to them. For Paul, “discerning the body” means looking around, at the other faces in the room, the people coming to Communion with you. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are members of one body: the Body of Christ. Our sharing of the one bread and the one cup reflects that reality. Likewise, our celebration of this unifying sacrament should change the way we relate to one another, outside church as well as inside. The Eucharist bestows upon us a serious commitment and responsibility: each of us is our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. This sacrament should remind us that we are all vitally connected to one another and are therefore responsible for each other’s well-being. When we realize this truth and embody it in our lives, we begin to look like the kind of church that Paul (and Jesus) had in mind.

Forgetting What Matters

I saw a headline in the news this week that reminded me of this truth. A certain faith-based international relief organization called World Vision made a change in its hiring policy that made many of its donors uncomfortable. They announced that, for the purposes of hiring and bestowing spousal benefits upon employees, World Vision would recognize legal marriages between two people of the same gender.

There was a fierce and sudden outcry among several prominent conservative Christian leaders in this country. Many of World Vision’s donors immediately pulled their financial support from the organization. These donors, of course, have a right to not support a charitable organization whose practices do not line up with their conscience and personal beliefs.

However, there is another element to this story. World Vision’s primary support is built on a sponsorship model, meaning that individual donors make a commitment to sponsor a particular child in a third world country for about $40 a month. Their money goes to feed, clothe, educate, and give health care to that child. Over time, a relationship develops between these kids and theirs sponsors as letters are written back and forth. A deep sense of spiritual connection is nurtured across the barriers of culture, distance, and poverty. This is the kind of Communion that Paul was hoping to see in the Corinthian church.

But last week at World Vision, when these outraged Christians raised a voice of protest against a policy change they disagreed with, they didn’t write letters or try to negotiate with the board of directors. Instead, they went straight for the jugular by cancelling their sponsorship of particular children. They cut off the support that makes the difference between life and death for some of these children. According to World Vision’s director, the number of canceled sponsorships was “less than 5,000” (but I presume that to mean it was more than 4,000).

These angry Christians decided that keeping married gay and lesbian people out of their “personal bubble” was more important than the lives of these particular children, with whom they had a relationship and to whom they had made a personal commitment. They used the lives of these children as leverage for their personal agenda.

I believe Pastor Paul would have some choice words for the Christians who did this: “They have failed to discern the Body of Christ.” They have forgotten what is most important, what Communion is all about, and what it means to be the Body of Christ. Just as Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, he would say again: “Being a Christian is not about having an airtight theology, a superior spiritual experience, or ensuring that one’s faction emerges victorious in whatever conflict happens to be engulfing the church at the moment. The mark of an authentic Christian faith is in the way we care for one another. Do we treat each other like members of one body? Do we love one another as Christ loves us?” In their opposition to marriage between people of the same gender, these angry Christians (the ones who pulled their sponsorship of World Vision kids) have lost touch with the deeper Communion that connects us to one another and makes us morally responsible for one another as members of the Body of Christ. And it is children who are now paying the price for that forgetting with their lives.

Restoring Communion

The Eucharist reminds us of this forgotten truth. When our own personal agendas and prejudices threaten to divide us into tribes of culture warriors in the perennial battle of Us vs. Them, the Eucharist has the power (if we let it) to bring us back into Communion with one another, where our eyes, minds, and hearts can be re-opened to the truth that binds us together at the deepest level: we are members of one body—the Body of Christ.

When we realize that truth and embrace it with our whole being, then we the Church will truly begin to act like the Body of Christ on earth and we will more faithfully fulfill our Christian calling.

St. Teresa of Avila (14th Century Mystic)

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Come to the Table: Bread of Life

ImageMaslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Do you have a favorite food?  What makes it your favorite?  When you choose it over other foods, are you simply satisfying your body’s need for nourishment, or are you feeding something else inside you?  Any edible substance can keep us from starving to death, but our favorite foods also feed our needs for comfort, for variety, and for pleasure.

We humans have all kinds of needs (hungers) and just as many different ways of meeting those needs (feeding those hungers).  There was a 20th century psychologist named Abraham Maslow who specialized in studying human needs.  He developed a very famous, pyramid-shaped chart called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  On this chart, Maslow outlined the different kinds of needs that people have to get met in order to be healthy human beings.

On the first, lowest level, are our Physiological needs.  These are our basic needs for things like food, water, air, and sleep.  Without these things, we physically die, so it’s easy to see how they are genuine needs.

The same is true for the next level, which has to do with our need for Safety.  Without shelter from the elements, protection from threats, and reliable access to resources, our physical well-being will likewise be threatened, just as much as if we were deprived of water or air.

After that, we start to get into a little more abstract territory because the next three levels have to do with our emotional needs.  Our biological existence is not likely to be threatened if we don’t get these needs met, but they are still needs.  And it’s fair to say that something inside of us suffers and dies when these emotional needs aren’t met.

The first of these emotional needs is our need for Belonging.  Human beings need love, intimacy, friendship, and family.  We are social creatures who have evolved to be connected to one another.  We meet this need most often through group-identification: membership in a family, church, club, or movement.  When this need goes unmet, loneliness begins to set in.  We begin to feel unloved and unlovable.  Over time, a person’s social skills begin to break down (or never develop): their ability to relate to others becomes diminished.  This is the saddest part of all because this is where the disease of loneliness becomes a vicious cycle: loneliness impairs one’s ability to relate to others, which causes more loneliness, etc.  What is needed at this point is for some person(s) to reach out and break the cycle of loneliness, but they have to be willing to work with those whose social skills are impaired.  It takes no less than an act of grace.

North Church’s primary outreach ministry, the Togetherness Group, was designed specifically around this need for Belonging.  There are plenty of places in Kalamazoo where people with mental illness can go to obtain food, shelter, or medicine, but so very few places like the Togetherness Group, where we can come to just be together and have fun.

Our next emotional need on Maslow’s list is the need for Esteem.  People need to feel valuable, that they’re good at something.  We need to have respect in the eyes of others.  Nobody likes to feel like a charity case; everyone has a gift to give.

Finally is our need for Self-Actualization.  As the old Army commercial says, we need to “be all that we can be.”  Humans need to feel like they are fulfilling their potential in some way: as an athlete, inventor, parent, etc.  We need to accomplish something significant in some way.

So, that’s the Hierarchy of Needs, as Maslow first wrote about it.  It seems comprehensive enough.  It accurately describes the various kinds of needs (hungers) that human beings try to meet (feed) in various ways.  It’s been a trusted guide for therapists and social workers for decades.

Tiger Woods

But if Maslow was right, and this guide is comprehensive of human need, then how do we explain the kind of major public meltdowns that so many accomplished celebrities seem to go through?  I’m thinking particularly of Tiger Woods, although I’m not trying to pick on him.  Tiger is one of the most accomplished golfers in the history of the sport.  He achieved unprecedented levels of success very early in his career. 

It’s easy to see where Tiger falls in Maslow’s hierarchy: he obviously lacked for nothing Physiologically.  He could buy whatever necessities or luxuries his heart desired.  As for Safety, his “shelter from the elements” cost $39 million and was located on an exclusive, upscale island in Florida. I have little doubt that his body guards did their duty in protecting him from other dangers.

What about his emotional needs?  When it comes to Belonging, Tiger was married to a supermodel and they had a family together.  As for Esteem, he was known and admired all over the world.  And for Self-Actualization, he had achieved greatness as a record-breaking golfer.  By Maslow’s standards, Tiger Woods had it made.

But then, in 2009, it all seemed to come crashing down for him overnight.  Rumors broke about extramarital affairs.  That same week, Tiger left his house at 2:30 in the morning and tried (unsuccessfully) to drive down his street, crashing his SUV into a fire hydrant, a tree, and multiple hedgerows before he gave up and his wife helped him out of the car.  A short time later, Tiger admitted to the infidelity, went on an indefinite hiatus from professional golf, and was soon divorced from his wife.  Sports companies pulled their sponsorships and stopped asking for his endorsement.  It took years for his career to recover.

What happened?  This is what Tiger himself had to say: “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to… I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.” 

It seems that Maslow must have overlooked something.  In spite of all his needs being met, there was still something missing in Tiger, some inner hunger that wasn’t being fed by anything on Maslow’s chart.

Self-Transcendence

Well, before we leave Maslow, I want to give him credit for one last thing: At the end of his career, he realized that something was missing.  He tried to add it to his famous chart, but the old one was already too well-established and in-use by psychologists.  That unaccounted-for need, according to Maslow, is the need for Self-Transcendence: the need to be part of something larger than oneself, something meaningful, something that gives life itself a purpose.  That’s what Tiger was lacking. 

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal called it “the God-shaped hole” inside every human being.  It is the deep hunger we carry within us.  Nothing we own or accomplish for ourselves can ever fill it.  Our consumerist culture doesn’t know what to do with that.  It’s got products or programs to fill every other need we can imagine.  Whatever you need… “There’s an app for that!”  But for this “God-shaped hole”, there is no product you can buy, no program you can get with, no club you can join, and no diploma you can earn.

Jesus

This need for Self-Transcendence, this God-shaped hole, this deep hunger for that which gives life ultimate meaning is the hunger Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel reading when he speaks of himself as “the bread of life.”  For almost two thousand years and counting, Christians have found in this person Jesus the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of my life?”  The answer we find is: “To follow this person and do as he does: to love the world, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to set the captive free, to forgive the sinner, to welcome the outcast, and to give one’s life for the sake of the world.” 

We discover the meaning of life and satisfy our need for Self-Transcendence when we discover that life is no longer just about us and our needs.  And Jesus shows us the way.

Eucharist

In the Eucharist, this truth is brought home to us in the most direct and visceral way.  It is a ritual meal where our most basic hunger for physical sustenance is fed by bread and wine.  But Jesus invites us to look past the surface and see with the eyes of our hearts that this is the “true food” that satisfies our deepest hunger with the eternal, loving life-energy of Christ’s own self. 

“This is my body,” Christ says, “Eat your fill and never be hungry again.”

“This is my blood,” Christ says, “Drink deeply and never be thirsty again.”

When we say “Yes” to the invitation to participate in this meal and come to the table of Christ, we are saying:

“Yes, Jesus.  I am hungry.  I am starving with a hunger that this world’s products and programs cannot satisfy.  Help me satisfy my deepest need by realizing that life is not about getting my needs met.  Feed me with your Bread of Life.   Fill me.  Let my body be your body.  Let your blood flow in my veins.  Make me like you and send me back out to feed a hungry world in your name.  Amen.”

Come to the Table: In Remembrance of Me (or ‘The Eucharist for Time Travellers’)

Image
By John Snyder (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of a rather unconventional saint named Gloria. She was a rough-around-the-edges kind of grandma who exuded a kind of exuberant joy to those who loved her. Her home was an oasis for weary travelers who knew they could stop by any time and find food on the stove and drinks in the fridge. My favorite part of the funeral was when her grandson, Donald, got up and said as much about her. He spoke affectionately and off-the-cuff. It meant a great deal to everyone who came. Honestly, I think Donald’s brief remembrances of his grandmother did more to comfort bereaved family members than anything I said or did in the service.

What is it about the act of remembering that people tend to find so valuable? Obviously, the good feelings we get from fond memories help to offset the pain of loss, but I suspect there is actually much more to it than that.

When we remember something or someone, we saying that we want that thing or person to remain a part of us in some significant way.

For example, Donald sharing memories of his grandma’s hospitality and humor on behalf of his family was a way of saying that they want those same qualities of love and laughter to live on in them. We do this with negative things too, like the Holocaust. The great, resounding refrain that we hear again and again from the lips of Holocaust historians is: “Never again.” When we remember the Holocaust, we are not celebrating its existence, but stating out loud that we want the pain of twelve million lost lives to remain with us, so that future generations of human beings will never know the horror of genocide. This too, is a powerful kind of remembrance.

We’re talking about remembrance today. This is the second in a five-week series on the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of the church. Remembrance is the part of this sacrament that we Protestants are most familiar with. We eat bread and drink wine in accordance with Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

This sacrament is obviously a great memorial to Jesus’ love and sacrifice. When we celebrate it, we are saying that we want those same values of Christ-like love and sacrifice to live on in us. But there’s even more to it than that: when we remember Jesus in the sacrament, we are saying that Christ himself lives in us. As we eat the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ; as we drink from the cup, his blood flows in our veins. To put it simply: you are what you eat.

This truth becomes especially pertinent when we consider how ancient humans thought about time.  We modern folks have been trained to think of time as a straight line, moving in one direction, from the past to the future.  Two fixed points in time can never get closer to one another.  Once an event has taken place, we can only get farther and farther away from it.  Memory fades and sooner or later, everyone is forgotten while the universe goes on.  That’s the modern, linear view of time.

But our ancestors in the ancient world didn’t see time that way.  They saw the world operating in cycles: every day, the sun would rise and set; every month, the moon would go through its phases; every year, the four seasons would come around again.  Time, for them, was a great big circle.  Every time a certain moment in a particular cycle came round again, they thought they were repeating that moment.  This is the cyclical view of time.

This way of looking at time is important for us linear, modern folks to understand because it helps us make sense of why certain holidays were so important to ancient people.  When our Jewish ancestors would celebrate the Passover, they really believed, on some level, that they were taking part in the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  By taking part in the ceremonial meal, they thought they were joining their ancestors on that journey.  (For all you science fiction fans: it’s kind of like time travel.)

This is how Jesus and his disciples would have thought about the Passover meal they were sharing on the night before he died.  So, when Jesus starts adding elements to the story, saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood” over the ceremonial bread and wine, it was a big deal.  It meant that what was happening through Jesus was as important to history as the Exodus from Egypt.

Later on, as Jesus’ earliest followers started celebrating this remembrance on a weekly basis, they brought with them that cyclical view of time.  The truly believed they were joining Jesus and the apostles around the table at the Last Supper.  (Again: time travel!)

For them, the Last Supper was not a single event, fading slowly into the distant past, but a recurring one in which Christ is perpetually present.  According to the linear view of time, we can only ever get further and further away from Jesus, who lived on earth approximately two thousand years ago.  But according to the cyclical view of time, he is ever present: we meet him again and again as we gather around this table in this act of remembrance.

Why is this important?  I think it matters today more than ever.  You and I live in the age of the Information Superhighway.  Infinite bits of data whiz by our heads at all hours of the day or night: news headlines, sports scores, stock prices, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  Our culture launches ahead with each new discovery, each new technological innovation.  We’re obsessed with “bigger, better, faster, more!”  We call it progress.  But is it really?  But have these fancy, hi-tech toys really done much to improve who we are as human beings?  We’ve landed robots on Mars, but have we yet touched down on the surface of our own souls?  I’m not so sure.

We have a wealth of information at hand to keep us abreast of what’s happening in the world, but very little wisdom to tell us what it all means.  Without that kind of deep guidance, I fear that our rocket ship toward progress might actually leave us falling head first into meaninglessness.

Our ancient ancestors may not have had the kind of scientific knowledge that we moderns do, but they knew about wisdom.  I am continually amazed when I read the great spiritual classics like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing and I find their messages just as relevant today as they were when they were first written, hundreds of years ago.

At no time is this truer for me than when I sit down at the table next to Jesus.  I hear his words, eat his bread, and drink his wine.  And suddenly, I find myself time travelling: looping around to connect again with the One who gives life meaning.  Jesus Christ is not a distant memory, fading slowly into the past; he is alive and present with us in his body and blood.

Taking time each week to remember this truth gives us the perspective we need to see the world aright.  In the act of sacramental remembrance, we step outside the constant stream of information and feed back repeatedly into this moment around the table with Jesus.  We remember once again what Jesus showed and taught us.  We remember what life is all about and then step back out into that data stream again, but maybe this time we’ll have the wisdom to see, not just what is happening in the world, but what it all means.

The answer we come up with, as people of faith, to that question of meaning will be fundamentally different from the answer handed to us by (so-called) modern civilization.  The challenge Jesus leaves us with is to remember in our souls and bodies where we truly come from, where we are going, and where our allegiance lies.

It’s a difficult challenge, one that we’re sure to fail at in the long term, which is why it’s so important for us to keep coming back regularly and participating as often as possible in this act of remembrance.  May this bread and this wine, the body and blood of Christ, nourish you with all the strength you need to make it through this week faithfully… and I’ll see you again next Sunday.

Redefining Success

Image
Károly Ferenczy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

What would you say are the marks of a successful church?

Here are some of my ideas for North Church:

  • We’re going to court some billionaire investors. Not donors, but investors. We want to incentivize their giving by promising a lucrative return. Once we have their money, we’re going to make use of it.

  • First of all, because we need to keep them happy (so they’ll keep sending us money), we’re going to turn our upstairs balcony into a skybox where our wealthiest members can observe the service in comfort, with leather recliners and a full wait staff serving champagne and caviar.

  • For our music ministry, we’re going to hire a full-time, paid, professionally trained choir (we already have the best organist in Michigan, so we won’t need a new one of those). Our contemporary worship team will get brand new, state-of-the-art AV equipment.

  • We’re going to get TV cameras so our service can be broadcast live via satellite around the world.

  • We’ll get paid endorsements from celebrities like Derek Jeter (add Christina Hendricks and George Clooney for sex appeal), who will tell everybody how great North Church is.

  • And finally, we’ll need to protect all this new stuff, so we’ll need to get a security force to guard the church. And I’m not thinking just some smiling, helpful rentacops either… I’m talking about SWAT team gear with assault rifles: I want such an overwhelming display of power that nobody will even THINK about messing with our church.

If we had all of those things (i.e. money, fame, and power), we would be a successful church, right? Wrong.

Blessedness

Jesus’ definition of the word success is different from the one accepted by the rest of the world. The world has a very self-centered definition of success, but Jesus presents us with a God-centered definition of success. The word he uses is blessed, which can also mean successful or lucky when you take away the spiritual side of it. That word blessed, by the way, comes from the Latin beatus and is where we get get the word Beatitude from. Blessedness, from the God-centered perspective of Jesus, is quite different from the world’s self-centered idea of success.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The world sees wealth as a sign of success: the Armani tux, the Vera Wang dress, the Italian sports car, the yacht, and the mansion. The world looks at people who have those things and calls them successful/lucky.But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world (governments, corporations, institutions) cater to the desires of the haves, but the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ vision of an ideal society) will serve the needs of the have-nots. On the day when God’s dream for this world comes true, no more will Senators and CEOs vote to give themselves raises and go on vacation while the people whose jobs they cut sleep in shelters and line up outside soup kitchens. That’s not going to happen anymore.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The world looks at people who seem to be happy and calls them “successful.” Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the one day a year when people watch TV just as much for the commercials as they watch it for the program. How many people plugging products in those commercials will be average-looking folks, looking bored, and saying, “Meh, I guess this product is okay…”? Not very many, I think. TV commercials are full of beautiful, smiling people who are excited to tell you all about how a particular cleaning solution changed their lives forever. They want us to believe that we’ll be as beautiful and happy as they are if only we buy what they’re selling. The world says that happy people are successful people, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus invites us to not buy into that “cult of happiness.” Jesus doesn’t want us to turn away from the pain of this world, he wants us to look at it and do something about it. That’s what compassion is: Showing up with food or clothes, visiting the shelter, the drop-in, the hospital bed, the courtroom, and the prison cell. That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us and it’s the kind of love he wants us to show others. Wherever there’s pain, there’s Jesus, so that’s where we should be too.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The world says that successful people are tough-minded alpha-dogs who stand their ground and don’t compromise. Those are the big-shots who end up in running the show. The world puts them in charge of things. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (i.e. gentle, flexible), for they will inherit the earth.” I like this one because I read a book by a couple of biologists last year that talks about how competition is not the only driving force behind evolution. They make the case that cooperation plays just as big a role in the ongoing development of life. When God’s dream for this world comes true, the ones in charge will be the ones who know how to work well with others and value relationships more than ideologies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

The world believes that truly successful people lack for nothing. They have everything they could ever want. They benefit from the way things are. Insulated by wealth and power, they don’t sense the urgency of the situation or feel the need to challenge the system. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (i.e. justice, fairness), for they will be filled.” That last part is especially ominous because history has shown, time and again, that poor people will not stay quiet and submissive forever. If the leaders will not change the system, the people will change the leaders. Jesus has been proven right more than once: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The world says that successful people know how to give as good as they get. If you hit them, they hit you back. They make an example of you so that others know not to mess with them. That’s the politics of power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Real power, according to Jesus, comes from knowing that you could rip your enemies to shreds but choosing not to. What’s more is that mercy is contagious: it comes back to you. It stops the cycle of violence from going around and around and escalating until the situation is out of control. The United States and the Soviet Union spend the latter half of the twentieth century with nuclear missiles pointed at each other in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But then the Cold War ended, not with a mushroom cloud, but with a party: people singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall came down. The doctrine of MAD-ness did neither side any good in the end.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

The world says that successful people are savvy: they know how to read between the lines and close the deal. They’re street-smart; they have guile. Successful people know how the game is played and stay two steps ahead of the competition. These savvy, successful people are sure to see great big dividends on their investments. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Savvy, street-smart people see the world for what they can get out of it, but they’re missing a whole other dimension of reality. Those who see the world like Jesus does get to see the hand of God at work in creation. These blessed folks know that they’re not alone and that life has meaning. I like to compare this one to the scene in Star Wars when Han Solo is laughing at Luke Skywalker as he trains to be a Jedi Knight. Luke says, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Han is savvy but Luke is pure in heart. Luke is learning how to see the world through a different set of eyes and so, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said about him, he’s taking his “first steps into a larger world.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The world defines success by winning. Whether it’s trophies on the shelf or notches on the bedpost, the world wants to know about your conquests. This was especially true in ancient Rome, where the empire was built on the doctrine of Pax Romana: world peace through global conquest. They believed that Roman order would prevail over the barbarians of the world by the mighty hand of Caesar. And Caesar himself was worshiped and given a very special title: “The Son of God,” Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun.” But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers (not the conquerors), for they will be called children (lit. ‘sons’) of God.”

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Finally, the world says that respect is a measure of success. They say a good name is as good as gold. If people listen to what you say, you’re successful. If you get invited to the White House to advise the President on a matter, you’re successful. The world says it’s good to be admired and respected. Those who possess the kingdoms of this world are accorded respect, whether they deserve it or not. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the parallel with the first beatitude. God’s ideal world belongs to the have-nots, the disrespected, the ones without a voice, and those who suffer and die for standing up and speaking out for what’s right. When God’s dream for this world comes true, these are the people we’ll be listening to, not the flattering bootlickers who only tell powerful leaders what they want to hear. We need people of conscience who will “speak the truth in love” to the powerful ones in charge. That’s what prophets do, but they’re almost never listened to or given the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, Jesus calls them “blessed” and commands us to keep doing it.

Conclusion

Jesus redefines success. He takes the world’s self-centered idea of success and replaces it with his own God-centered idea of blessedness. In the mind of Christ, success is not a blessing and blessing does not look like success. God’s blessing is upon the poor and oppressed peoples of this world, the ones without a voice, the ones who weep in the night, and the ones who are literally starving for change. God’s blessing is upon the gentle, the compassionate, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.God’s blessing is upon those who face the pain of this world and do what they can to make a difference. God’s blessing is upon those who are a blessing. And so it is that I say to you:

May God bless you and make you a blessing, this day and every day. AMEN.

Too Small A Thing

We’re having our Annual Congregational Meeting today at North Church, so I don’t have a sermon to share.  But my wife, Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee, is preaching at First Presbyterian Church in Decatur, MI.  Here is her sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7.

In 1954 a 25 year old pastor, fresh from seminary, started serving his first congregation in Montgomery, AL. It would have been so easy for the church to eat up all his time. To teach him everything he didn’t learn in seminary. To rely on him to keep their doors open and their bills paid. But they knew that focusing on what was going on inside that church building was too small a thing for their pastor. They supported him as he took leadership in community organizations, and within his first year as their pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and at 27 he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This young pastor had such a tremendous influence beyond the scope of his own congregation that we honor him with a national holiday tomorrow. It was too small a thing for that church to demand their pastor’s energy be focused solely on them and their needs. They knew they were called, and he was called to something bigger—to be a part of God’s work of changing the world.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

When I was in college, I had the privilege of meeting a homeless man named Bill Smith. In the course of volunteer work I did, I heard stories from Bill about how frustrated he was by churches in the area around Charlotte, NC. Many of them would send vans downtown to the rescue mission each Sunday to pick people up and bring them to church, which seems like a really great ministry. The problem was that once they got to the church building, these homeless men and women were usually ushered into the back pew, where no one would see them, and they were treated like an evangelism project. The church members seemed intent on sharing Jesus with them, despite the fact that most of them were Christians, already. As Bill put it, “Most of them would not have survived this long if it weren’t for their deep faith in Jesus. Those churches should stand those men and women up front to tell their stories, not stick them in the back and treat them like outsiders.”

One day, during my junior year of college, an excited Bill Smith shared with me how one congregation in town had partnered with the rescue mission to give Bill a part time job counseling other homeless men and speaking as an advocate for the homeless in area churches. That congregation recognized they had an opportunity to experience God in new ways, through new eyes, and sticking those homeless brothers and sisters in the back pew and treating them as outsiders to convert—it was too small a thing. They needed to hear the stories and learn about God from people who were struggling in different ways than they were.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

A few years ago a congregation in Tulsa, OK took a big risk, and decided to give all of their undesignated plate offerings away to other organizations. Disaster response, relief work, humanitarian projects overseas—there were a number of groups they already gave to, and they would add more. They are a large congregation, and in 2003, those undesignated offerings amounted to about $20,000 that many church leaders worried they couldn’t spare. But they took the risk in faith, and in 2004, the congregation gave away $150,000 in plate offerings.

But the biggest surprise? Not only did the weekly offering increase dramatically, the money given specifically to the budget increased by 10%, too. The leaders of this church recognized that meeting their own institutional needs was too small a thing—they needed to give generously to the world. And when they took a leap of faith, they discovered that their whole congregation understood this, too. Funding their own programs was too small a thing. When they saw the opportunity to give toward a bigger purpose in the world, the congregation rose to the occasion and was more excited about supporting the institutional needs, too. They could see that the institution was serving a higher purpose.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In our gospel text for this morning, we see John the Baptist after he has baptized Jesus, and what is he doing? He is redirecting his own disciples to Jesus. Here is a man with a meaningful ministry, drawing people from far off cities into retreats where they confess sin and get baptized in the Jordan as a sign of cleansing and a fresh start. But when John encounters Jesus and sees what he has to offer, he realizes that his own ministry is too small. He cannot offer what these followers really need. Jesus is the one who can really give them new life.

In traditional paintings of John the Baptist, he is always pointing his finger away from himself. It’s as if he is always in that posture of redirection—I am not the Christ. I am not the one you need. Look to Jesus. Follow him. That’s the way.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This passage from Isaiah was written during a time when a large proportion of Israel was in exile in Babylon, and the nation was in ruins. The prophet spoke of a servant of God who would lead the nation back to Jerusalem and back to prosperity and health. But here, in these words of God spoken to the servant, we hear the heart of God. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.”

God’s dream for Israel was bigger than rebuilding the temple, or returning to Jerusalem from exile. God’s dream for Israel was that it might shine out as a beacon so that the whole world would see God’s love and justice and recognize that the God of Israel was on their side, too.

Some people describe the current situation of the Mainline Protestant church in North America as a kind of season of exile. Generations ago, the Protestant church stood at the center of American culture. Attending church, or at least sending your children to Sunday School, was practically a civic duty. Nearly everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer, and Amazing Grace, and Psalm 23.

That is no longer the case, is it? Sending kids to sports programs is a much higher parental duty in today’s culture than making sure they get to Sunday School. And most Americans have far more commercial jingles than hymns memorized. Church is not anyone’s default setting, anymore.

And we feel it, don’t we? We see Sunday School classes getting smaller and smaller, and budgets getting tighter and church staff growing fewer, with fewer hours to work with. Most churches I’ve encountered spend a lot of time worrying about these changes, which are for the most part completely out of our control. We cannot change the tide of our culture any more than those Israelites who were carried off to Babylon could wish themselves back to Jerusalem. We can grieve the losses. We can remember who we have always known God to be. And we can learn to look for God in our new situation.

But it is too small a thing to focus on our own survival. As numbers shrink and budgets tighten, it is so tempting to focus our energy on keeping what we still have. Keeping the building in repair. Keeping all the same staff, but cutting their hours and benefits. Keeping all the Sunday School classes, even though we only have one or two kids in each age group. Keeping the Presbyterian Women’s program on a weekday morning even though all the younger women in the church are at work, then.

It is too small a thing to try to preserve the church, or restore it to its former glory. We need to discover the new possibilities God has in store for us. It is too small a thing to worry about our programs and budgets, when there is a whole world out there, and God is in it!

So, how are you pointing away from yourself, and toward Christ? How is your congregation and its money serving a higher purpose in the world? How are you seizing the opportunity to discover God in new places and in new people? How are you supporting your pastor and your members to be agents of change in the world?

If these questions are intimidating, or challenging, or frightening, that’s okay. You don’t need the answers today. You need only a desire to listen again to the heart of God—the God who called you to this community in the first place and marked you as a beloved child. Because God has a dream for you and for this church, and it is not a small dream. It is a big dream.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The Journey of Transformation

Image
Nicolas Poussin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I think it’s a funny coincidence that this Sunday is the week when we remember the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan because I got to have a very “baptismal” moment earlier this week when I showed up to work on Thursday and discovered “rivers of living water” coming out of a broken pipe in the kitchen downstairs.  I’m thankful to report that the repair crew told me it looks like I found the problem and acted on it quickly enough that the damage isn’t too bad, but the whole affair made me want to throw my hands up in the air and cry out, in the words of our Jewish ancestors: “Oy vey!”

Speaking of Judaism…

One of my favorite things about Matthew’s gospel is the way that it is so rooted in Jewish tradition.  The author, who was probably a Jewish Christian living in the first century, wants to demonstrate to the readers that Christianity stands in continuity with traditional Judaism.  Matthew goes to great lengths to identify the story of Jesus with the story of Israel and he does it in two ways:

First, by quoting liberally from the Hebrew Bible (Christians sometimes refer to it as the ‘Old Testament’).  In fact, that happens in today’s reading: When Jesus is baptized and is coming up out of the water, the text says the heavens were opened to [Jesus] and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is actually a quote from two different verses in the Hebrew Bible.  When the author does this, it’s kind of like someone singing one line from an old, familiar song (e.g. “Here she comes, just a-walkin down the street, singin…”).  The familiarity immediately triggers memory and makes the audience perk up and go, “Oh yeah, I know that one!”

The other way that the author connects the story of Jesus with the story if Israel is by dropping lots of little hints in the text that remind the audience of famous stories from Israel’s history.  For example: At the beginning of the book of Exodus, there is an evil king (Pharaoh) killing baby boys.  In Matthew’s gospel, another evil king (Herod) is doing exactly the same thing.  Later in Exodus, Moses brings God’s message (the Ten Commandments) to the people of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai.  And what’s the name of Jesus’ most famous message in Matthew?  The Sermon on the Mount.  In Exodus, before the people of Israel can enter the Promised Land, they must wander in the wilderness for forty years.  As Jesus begins his ministry, he fasts and prays in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  This is not just a series of coincidences.  They are intentional.  Once again: the author of Matthew’s gospel is trying to identify the story of Jesus with the Israel.

Just one more example, and it’s the one I really want to talk about today:

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is baptized by John in the Jordan River.  This is another one of Matthew’s hints.  As Jesus begins his ministry, he passes through the waters.  In the same way, the people of Israel “passed through the waters” on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  Again, this is no coincidence.  Matthew is setting Jesus up as a kind of “New Moses” who leads God’s people from slavery to freedom.  The Christian journey of salvation, according to Matthew, is one where those who follow Jesus through the waters of baptism are liberated from slavery to sin and set free to live the life of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Speaking in terms of (some of) the Ten Commandments, the Christian journey of salvation is one that takes us from violence to peace, from lust to love, from lies to truth, from greed to giving, and from envy to gratitude.  It’s a journey of personal transformation and baptism is the symbol of our agreement to take that journey with Jesus.  In the sacrament of baptism, we make a promise to ourselves, to each other, and to God that we will follow Jesus into a new way of living, just like the people of Israel followed Moses out of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, and (eventually) to the Promised Land.  And it’s not a journey that we take on our own.  We travel by Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.

Here’s what I mean by that:

First of all, this journey of transformation is initiated by Christ.  Christians see Jesus, not just as an historical figure who taught some important ideas 2,000 years ago, but as a living presence who is involved in our lives today.  We believe that the person of Christ is the revelation of the heart of God to humanity, which is to say that, in Christ, God reaches out to us, meets us, and gets the divine hands dirty with the blood, sweat, and tears of this world.  When we are lost, Christ finds us and brings us home; when we are blind, Christ opens our eyes; when we are ignorant, Christ teaches us; when we are sick or wounded, Christ heals us; when we are dead inside, Christ brings us back to life again.  In the midst of the brokenness of this life and the selfishness of our hearts, while we are still hostages in Egypt, Christ shows up, liberates us from the slaveries of the past, and enables us to make a new beginning.  The journey of transformation is initiated by Christ.

Second, the journey of transformation is sustained with Christ.  We do not travel alone.  Christ guides us through the Word of God in Scripture and feeds us in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  The Spirit of Christ empowers our spirits and gives us strength to keep walking the path.  The love of Christ fills our hearts and picks us up when we stumble and fall on the road.  Christ walks beside us and promised never to leave us alone until the journey is through.

Finally, the journey of transformation is completed in Christ when we begin to love like Jesus loves.  That’s ultimately where all this is going; that’s the main principle underlying each of the Ten Commandments: Love.  Jesus said as much when he said that you could sum up all the commandments of the Bible with, “Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s all about love.  St. Irenaeus, one of the early fathers of the church, famously said that, in the incarnation of Christ, “God became what we are so that we might become what God is.”  And what exactly is God?  According to 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Love is who God is, therefore love is who we are.  Love is where we’re going in the end, therefore love is all that matters.  Love is the heartbeat of the cosmos and the foundational law of the universe, which is where we find the strength to say to one another, Sunday after Sunday:

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

Gravity

We had to cancel Sunday service at North Church this past Sunday, so I’m posting this sermon from Rev. Tamara Lebak of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK.

‘Gravity’ was already my favorite new movie of the year and Rev. Tamara’s sermon exponentially deepens my appreciation of its artistry and meaning. This sermon will appeal to lovers of science, spirit, and art, no matter what their ‘theological orientation’ may be.

I’ve said before on multiple occasions that Rev. Tamara and her colleague at All Souls, Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, are (to put it bluntly) the finest preachers I have ever heard. This message is worth every minute of your time that it takes. So pour another cup of whatever makes you feel spiritual and sit back for “one hell of a ride,” as they say in the film…

Being Right Isn’t Enough

By Fczarnowski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Fczarnowski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you like to be right?  Of course you do.  Who doesn’t?  I don’t think there’s a person on this planet who, at least once in a while, doesn’t like to be the one with the right answer to a question or the solution to a problem.  It makes us feel important.  It makes us feel useful.  It makes us feel like our lives have a purpose, like maybe we can make a positive difference in this world.  It’s a good feeling.

But have you ever noticed that there are times when being right can go oh-so-wrong?  Being right might feel good but, like anything that causes good feelings, it can also be addictive.  Have you ever met someone who is chronically addicted to being right?  Have you ever been in an argument with someone who was right, who had a valid argument, but you didn’t want to concede the point because he or she was just being so mean about the whole thing?  I won’t ask for names, although I’m sure we all could list at least a few.  And if we’re really, really honest, I think we can all admit that there have been times (moments, in the very least) when each and every one of us has “chased that feeling” of being right a little too hard and run the risk of sacrificing something or someone that, in the long run, is far, far more important than our need to look good and be right.

Now, I should mention here that there are indeed times in life when conscience calls upon us to make certain sacrifices for the sake of what’s right in the face of great injustice.  Where would we be without those men and women who pledged “[their] lives, [their] fortunes, and [their] sacred honor” to the causes of justice and the common good?  It’s important to acknowledge that call.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about that unhealthy, selfish, and compulsive need to be right (or at least appear to be right) at all times that only serves the cause of one’s own ego.  This is what I’m talking about.  This is the kind of addiction, like any addiction, that can cost people jobs, relationships, family, trust, goodwill, and (perhaps most ironic of all) credibility.

It may require a great deal of self-awareness to be able to do this, but I think we need to ask ourselves in those moments of heated debate, “Am I standing up for what’s right or for my need to be right?”  We need to ask ourselves this question because there is so much more to winning an argument than just being rightHow we argue and why we’re doing it is just as important as what we’re arguing about.

I’d like to turn your attention toward our Epistle lesson this morning, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  Paul was writing to these Roman Christians to give them some pastoral advice about an issue that was very near and dear to his heart.  There was a conflict going on in that church and one party in that conflict was clearly in the right, as far as Paul was concerned.  The issue at hand was the inclusion of Gentiles (i.e. non-Jewish people) in the life and ministry of the Christian church.

This issue was the single greatest hot-button issue for first century Christians, just as the abolition of slavery, racial integration, the ordination of women, and marriage equality would also become hot-button issues for future generations.  There were those in the church who argued, citing the Bible and theological tradition as precedent, that Christianity itself was Jewish and therefore church membership should be limited to Jews alone.  “Jesus was Jewish,” they said, “all of his apostles were Jewish, therefore anyone seeking to follow Jesus should also agree to follow the commandments of the Jewish Torah (e.g. be circumcised, follow certain dietary restrictions, and celebrate certain rituals and holidays).”

Paul, on the other hand, was of a different opinion.  He believed that the Christian church was meant to be an international, multi-cultural community made up of people from “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”  He believed that the whole human race was meant to live as one family where the walls of division, distinction, and discrimination would be torn down and there would be “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”

This was Paul’s opinion and, as history would have it, he was right.  Most scholars agree that it was this cosmopolitan character of the early church that allowed it to survive, spread so far and wide in the Roman Empire, and ultimately become one of the most important religious movements in the history of the human race.  So yes, Paul was right and he argued for his position in churches across southern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.  Most of the time, he had to speak up for the full-inclusion of Gentiles, disparaging any notion of second-class citizenship for non-Jews in the church, but not in Rome.  In Rome, he had the opposite problem.

You see, the Roman church agreed with Paul.  They took his multi-cultural message of inclusion to heart.  Jews and Gentiles worshiped together in the Roman church until the year 49 CE, when the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome.  When they were allowed to return five years later, the Jewish Christians discovered that certain prejudicial, anti-Semitic attitudes had begun to spring up among their Gentile brothers and sisters.

In those years of Jewish absence, the Gentile Roman Christians got to thinking that maybe this was a sign that the Jews had been rejected as the chosen people, only to be replaced by Gentiles.  “After all,” they thought, “It was the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem that conspired to have Jesus the Messiah wrongly executed; it was Jewish synagogues that instigated so much rivalry, tension, and conflict in those cities where synagogues and churches co-existed; and it was Jewish Christians who were opposing Paul’s teaching and trying to force their culture on Gentile Christians.”  Maybe their number was up and their day was done?  Who needs those weird old traditions and stories anyway?  The Romans no doubt saw themselves as very enlightened and progressive for taking this stance.

This is where Paul comes in.  He wasn’t used to dealing with this kind of problem.  It was usually the Jewish people who were excluding the non-Jewish people, but in this case it was the other way around.  These Roman Christians were basically right in their theology; they agreed with Paul, but they took it too far by excluding their Jewish brothers and sisters instead.  Paul’s dream was for a church where everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, would be welcome as part of the family.  This kind of reverse-discrimination simply wouldn’t do.

So Paul tries to put the brakes on the situation.  He reminds the Romans that it’s not their place to judge others, just as Jewish Christians had no right to force their culture on Gentiles.  Moreover, Paul contended that the conflict between Jews and Christians was not a sign that Jews had been rejected as chosen people.  Paul highlighted the debt that Christianity owed to Judaism for its very existence.  He urged the Romans not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, especially when it came to the Jewish scriptures.  “Whatever was written in former days,” he said, “was written for our instruction.”  In other words, he’s saying that the writings of the Torah aren’t just a bunch of kooky old superstitions that don’t apply to people today.  Those writings are a chronicle of Israel’s ongoing spiritual development and the Christian church, according to Paul, stands in continuity with that movement.  In fact, Paul goes on to quote a verse of the Torah for them from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with God’s people.”  Paul is saying that there is place for them in this tradition and there is a place for this tradition in them.  He’s not backpedaling on his stance of inclusion, but he’s sticking to his conviction that the church should be “a house of prayer for all nations,” Jews as well as Gentiles.

Paul goes on to tell them, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  And again, in this gloriously climactic verse that sums up his whole argument so beautifully, he says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I love how, in those two verses, Paul connects the bridging of gap between Jews and Gentiles with the life and ministry of Jesus.  By crossing the divide between you, Paul says, you are living in a way that is consistent with what we believe about Jesus.

As you know, we are now in the season of Advent, when we prepare to celebrate what Christians have called the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.  What this means to Christians is that, in the birth of Jesus, a gulf was crossed, a gap was bridged between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity.  And if Christ has crossed so great a divide to be near us, then who are we to refuse to cross those comparatively little divides that run between us and our fellow human beings?  That’s why Paul tells the Romans, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

The Roman Christians were in the wrong, even though they were on the right side of the issue.  Christianity isn’t about being right, it’s about being in right relationship with God, with your neighbors, with yourself, and with the earth.  It’s those relationships that matter most.

So, in this coming Christmas season, I want to invite you to work on those relationships.  As you gather together with friends, neighbors, and family whose opinions about politics or religion might irk you for one reason or another; as you sit down to dinner next to someone with whom you have been feuding for years; as you listen to those political pundits and op-ed columnists who make you want to throw the newspaper in the trash or chuck your remote at the TV screen, remember that it’s not about being right; it’s about being in right relationship with one another.  That’s the only thing that really matters and it’s the only present that Jesus wants from us this Christmas.

The Cross Was His Throne

Image
By Mauricio García Vega (Mauricio García Vega) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“This is the King of the Jews.”

That’s what the sign at the top of the cross read.  The irony was not lost on those who saw it, nor was it lost to history.  Kings were usually crowned while sitting on thrones, not hanging from crosses.  But this Jesus was a different kind of king.  For him, the cross was his throne.

In the ancient world, it would have been unthinkable for a cross to serve as a throne.  Crucifixion represented everything that was the opposite of kingship.  Kings were blessed but crucified people were cursed.  Kings were honored but crucified people were ridiculed.  Kings were dressed in flowing robes but crucified people were stripped naked.  Kings were beautiful but crucifixion was ugly.  Yet, in spite of this, unbelievably, the cross was his throne.

Crucifixion was not just any old punishment.  A criminal was not crucified for stealing bread or cheating on his taxes.  No, crucifixion was a special punishment reserved for a special kind of criminal.  The criminals crucified with Jesus were what we would now call terrorists.  They were insurrectionists, religious fanatics bent on a violent agenda to overthrow the Roman government.  If one wants to get a clear picture of just how radical it was for Jesus to forgive the sins of the criminal next to him, one should imagine that criminal as Osama bin Laden, because that’s who he most closely resembled.  It was rare for crucified people to be buried in that time because most of them were simply left there to rot: their bones picked clean by birds and eventually scattered across the landscape.  Their families were so ashamed that most would never again so much as speak the name of their crucified loved one.  Most crucified people were utterly lost to history, but not King Jesus.  No, for him, the cross was his throne.

When we look back at Jesus’ life as it is presented to us in the New Testament, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that this King of kings would reign from a cross, rather than a throne.  After all, how did he come into the world?  Did he come riding a white horse with banners unfurled and a terrible swift sword at his side?  Did he appear at Caesar’s palace in Rome saying, “Hey Caesar, I just want to let you know that your days are numbered!”?  Was he born into a wealthy family at the center of the halls of power?  No, he was born in a manger, in a stable, outside an overbooked motel, in a teeny little one-horse town, in a forgotten corner, in a troublesome province, in a distant part of the Roman Empire.  His parents were working-class peasants.  Our Christmas pageants and Nativity scenes have made the story of Jesus’ birth into a sweet, warm fairy tale, but the reality would have been quite different.  He was born in a barn.  Have you ever smelled a barn where animals are kept?  It doesn’t smell very good.  His mother placed him in a manger.  A manger is a place where pig slop went.  It probably wasn’t very sanitary either.  In today’s terms, Jesus’ mother would have given birth in a dumpster behind a Motel 6.  And the shepherds who visited him?  They weren’t very pretty either.  Shepherding was not considered an honorable profession in those days.  They would have been treated with the same indifference and contempt that truckers, janitors, garbage men, and McDonald’s drive-thru workers receive today.  So you see, from the very beginning of Jesus’ life, we can pick up hints that he would not be a king like other kings, so that we wouldn’t be surprised to discover in the end that the cross was his throne.

As he set out into his life’s work, Jesus continued to defy expectations for a respectable monarch.  He held court with tax collectors and sinners.  His royal advisors were fishermen, his treasurer was a thief, and his attendants were prostitutes.  They probably couldn’t have a royal cupbearer because the wine would have run out before the cup ever got to the king.  And they almost certainly didn’t have a court jester because, let’s face it: they were all court jesters in some way.  Based on the company he kept, it’s no surprise that the cross was his throne.

The upstanding citizens of the moral majority and the religious right in his day had nothing good to say about Jesus.  They were the self-proclaimed protectors of traditional family values and Jesus was the biggest threat to their agenda.  He called himself a rabbi, but they knew that no real rabbi would build such a rag-tag, permissive, tolerant, and inclusive community.  Jesus questioned their established theological dogmas.  He reinterpreted the Bible in ways that made them uncomfortable.  He seemed to have little respect for their traditions, so they had little respect for him.  Based on his relationship with the religious leaders of his day, we can see why the cross was his throne.

Finally, we come to the end of his life, the moment his followers had been waiting for, when all that he had been building toward came to its fulfillment.  He rode triumphantly into town on a donkey’s back in a staged fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Zechariah.  He barged into the temple, flipping over tables, and sent the moneychangers packing.  He said he was about to clean up this town and make his Father’s house into a house of prayer for all nations once again.  His followers were understandably stoked at this new development.  They realized that this was the moment when the King of kings and Lord of lords, the long-awaited Messiah, would ascend his throne and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.  But what they didn’t realize is that the cross was his throne.

On the day of his crucifixion, his royal robes were stained with his own blood, his crown was made of thorns, and the cross was his throne.

Above his head hung that awful, ironic sign, “This is the king of the Jews.”  From the outside, the whole scene seems like a horrible, macabre parody of kingship.  But here’s the thing: he really was a king.  For Christians, he is the King of kings.  In spite of (or perhaps because of) his unconventional life and ignominious death, Jesus has gone on to touch and inspire more people than any other single person in history.  For those of us who are his followers, who pledge our allegiance to his kingdom of heaven on earth, Jesus is our paradigm: his life provides us with the lens through which we interpret our lives.  As we make our way out into the world, we go as Christ’s ambassadors.  The way in which we represent him to the world should be consistent with the way he himself walked through the world.  And remember: the cross was his throne.

The king who reigns from the cross is fundamentally different from the king who reigns from a throne.  The kings of this world, the powers that be, force their will on others through bullets, bombs, bucks, and ballots.  Let me show you what I mean: when you dive around town, do you try to keep pretty close to the speed limit?  Do you do it because you love America?  Probably not.  Most of us drive the speed limit because we don’t want to get a ticket.  That’s the power of fear.  Private companies get you to buy their products by appealing to your sense of greed, lust, or vanity.  They promise you a better, longer, happier life, but they don’t really care about you.  They just want your money and they will tell you anything you want to hear in order to get it.  That’s advertising.  That’s the power of manipulation.  But Jesus is different.  He doesn’t depend on the power of fear or manipulation as his weapons because the cross is his throne.

Jesus rules the world from within through the power of love.  Love is amazing.  People will do things for the sake of love that they could never be forced into by law or the barrel of a gun.  Love gets new parents out of bed in the middle of the night for 3am feedings.  Love leads partners and spouses to sacrifice time, money, and energy for the sake of the relationship.  Love led Rev. Frank Schafer, a Methodist minister, to put his ordination credentials on the line when he officiated at his son’s wedding to another man, a crime for which he was tried and convicted by the United Methodist Church, just this past week.  Love led Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for orphans.  Love led Rosa Parks to defy a racist law on a bus one evening in 1955.  Love led Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero to speak out against injustice at the cost of their own lives.  Love led King Jesus to the cross, and the cross was his throne.

The people all around Jesus at Calvary kept shouting, “Save yourself!  Save yourself!” but Jesus chose to save others instead.  Jesus could have ordered his followers to rise up and kill, but Jesus chose to die instead.  That’s the power of love.  It was love, not nails, that kept Jesus on the cross.  And that’s why the cross, which once signified shame and death, has become for us the symbol of faith, hope, and undying love.  From the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ reigns in our hearts by the power of love and so it is that the cross is his throne.