Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Borning

Sermon preached Christmas Day

One image we see around Christmas time is of a person opening a book to share a story. Often the storyteller is in a rocking chair and there is a warm fire in a fire place. No fireplace this morning, but I am going to take the unusual step of reading you a story.
“Christmas Baptism” from The Good News From North Haven Michael Lindvall. The story is fiction, set in the fictional town of North Haven, Minnesota – near Mankato. The author knows something of which he speaks. Michael Lindvall grew up in small towns in Minnesota and the UP, and he is a Presbyterian pastor.

The Story (if you want to read the story, put "Michael Lindvall Christmas Baptism" into your search engine, you will find a number of places where it is printed - here is one:

Christians trust and believe that in Jesus, the light of God’s love entered the world in a uniquely powerful way. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” We believe that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” We celebrate that at Christmas.
We also trust that this is not simply a past event. In a meditation on Christmas, the fourteenth century German Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote this: Saint Augustine says that his birth is always happening. But if it does not happen in me, what does it profit me? What matters is that it shall happen in me. (Watch For the Light, December 1).
Light and life came into the world in Jesus. God still wants to bring that light and life to birth in the world through you and me, maybe in ways as quiet as standing for a child at baptism. Amen.

Ready or Not

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve

Are you ready? Are all your cards mailed? Are all the light bulbs working on the tree or on your house? Do you still have gifts to wrap or stockings to fill? Are all your groceries purchased? Ready or not, Christmas is here.
“Ready or not.” This is not just a phrase for a children’s game – “ready or not, here I come.” Life often presents itself as “ready or not.” A few years ago, our daughter Sarah, now 20, and I were talking. She asked me what was so great about growing up. I thought for a bit. Driving – but then there is insurance and the possibilities of fender benders. Voting – important but sometimes a challenge and it requires some time and attention if you want to be an informed voter. New responsibilities come with adulthood, some not necessarily easy or enjoyable. I think I finally settled on the accumulation of experiences and the ability to remember past joys as you also experience new ones, that’s part of the joy of becoming an adult. Yet, however we think about becoming adult, ready or not it will come.
With adulthood can come marriage and perhaps children – and children arrive ready or not. I think about my own family. Our son David was born while I was still in seminary, after Julie and I were married a mere eleven months. Julie was working only part-time. And when David came no one was quite yet ready because he was six weeks premature. There we were, parents in our early twenties, just getting by economically, with a premature baby – ready or not. Beth was born in Roseau, arriving smack dab in the middle of a church service. She came, ready or not, and I unexpectedly missed church that day. Sarah was born in Dallas, after I had returned to school. Again, we were not at our economic best, living in a two-bedroom apartment with two children already. But Sarah was born, ready or not. [I guess you might say that Julie and I flunked family planning…. But that might be a TMI moment]
Now today/tonight Julie and I are waiting for the birth of our first grandchild. She will be born to a woman our son dated for awhile, but they are not currently a couple. The circumstances are not ideal, but ready or not, she will arrive.
Life arrives, ready or not for what it may bring our way. I work with a number of couples as they prepare to get married. In fact, I use a pre-marriage inventory with them called “PREPARE.” We do some work together to help strengthen their relationship heading into marriage, and discuss ways to build on those strengths during their marriage. Yet by the end of the wedding service, when I announce that the couple is now married, ready or not, they are married.
Life arrives, ready or not for what it may bring our way. Sometimes what comes to us and at us is difficult. There are times in life when we will be hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and sometimes taken aback. Ready or not, life arrives. Sometimes what comes to us brings serendipitous joy. Last Sunday I preached a sermon which focused on the idea of courage, utilizing the frequently heard biblical phrase, “do not be afraid.” We had a guest youth choir with us and their final song was entitled “Healing Rain” – with a chorus that says, “healing rain is falling down, healing rain is falling down; I’m not afraid; I’m not afraid.” This was not planned. It was not ready-made, but the moment arrived and I was filled with gratitude for its serendipity. Perhaps we should always come to worship ready in some way for serendipitous grace and joy.
Life arrives, ready or not for what it may bring our way. Sometimes it brings joy, sometimes pain. Sometimes we are more ready than others, but ready or not, life happens.
Maybe it is a good thing, then, that the God we know in Jesus arrives into our lives and into the world, ready or not. Actually, there is no maybe about it. That God arrives, ready or not, is good news. It is good news of great joy for all the people.
Here is the good news. God doesn’t wait until the world is just right to arrive into it. God comes into the world again and again even in unlikely times. The people of Jesus, the Jews, were living under Roman occupation in Palestine. When a decree went out from the Emperor, everyone followed because of the power of Rome. Roman citizens were privileged in this society in which many found themselves poor and just getting by. Rome accomplished a great deal, but justice was what the Emperor decided it was, and again more justice was possible for citizens. Perhaps this seems an inopportune time for some new arrival of God, but ready or not, God comes.
Here is the good news. God doesn’t wait until we have it all together in our lives to arrive. God comes to us again and again. There is a question that I get asked from time to time, yet it never ceases to amaze me. “Do you have a dress code at your church?” Somehow the church, many churches, have given the impression that God will touch your life only after you have gotten it together enough to show up in church properly attired. When you manage to be good enough, then God will come into your life. I understand how such a message has been sent by churches, but the heart of Christian faith, and the heart of the Christmas story is that God comes into our lives, ready or not. We don’t have to be “ready” for God to touch us and teach us, love us and lift us, to inspire and enfold us. Remember the story. Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was born, at least according to Luke. Jesus arrived, ready or not. The shepherds were minding their own business that night, tending to the task at hand. Jesus arrived, ready or not. Angels announced the birth to the shepherds, catching them completely off guard. In the arrival of Jesus, we trust that God arrived into our world in a new way.
So God arrives into our lives and into our world, ready or not. And there is more to the good news. God is not arriving into our unmade lives and unkempt world just to catch us doing wrong, messing up, so we can then be taken to the proverbial wood shed. God arrives into the world longing for peace and good will, working toward peace and good will. God arrives in small quiet ways. God arrives in mangers and at the margins, rather than in palaces and places of prominence.
Reflecting on Christian faith, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote: The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent and uncertain… But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The Mother, the Child, the bare manger. The lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. (The Adventure of Ideas, 167; quoted in Jackson, A Theology For Ministry, 104)
While God’s arrival indeed can shake us up and can turn the world upside down – who would remember that Pilate was Rome’s man in Palestine were it not for the story of Jesus, and while God’s Spirit will point to those places in our lives that are less than loving, God’s intent is always peace and goodwill. God arrives in our lives, ready or not, to accompany us, to walk with us, to love us and lift us, to heal us and free us, to inspire and enfold us, to bring us joy.
A woman tells the story of her daughter Jessica. Jessica’s early life involved moving a lot as her parents had careers in government service. She and her brother were very glad when her parents decided to settle in a community in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. Jessica’s parents found a Catholic church they felt at home in.
One of the traditions in this church was an annual Christmas pageant with angels, shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, Mary and Joseph, and often a real live baby for Jesus. The program was presented by the sixth graders. The parish education director, Sister Margie, felt that one day, when she was in sixth grade, Jessica would make a fine Mary. She encouraged Jessica along the way, and Jessica had her heart set on doing this when she was old enough.
In October of Jessica’s sixth grade year, as the school was beginning preparations for that year’s pageant, Sister Margie asked Jessica’s mother if she might have a word with her. There was a note of concern, even panic in Sister Margie’s voice. Speaking in almost a whisper, in order to avoid any controversy, Sister Margie told Jessica’s mother what a lovely, tall, young woman Jessica had become – with an emphasis on tall. Jessica now towered about six inches over the boy who had his heart set on playing Joseph in the pageant. Margie: Mary must carry the baby Jesus on one arm and take Joseph’s elbow for support as they walk the length of the aisle and make their entrance accompanied by the choir of angels. I just don’t know how that will look with her being so much taller than he.
Jessica’s mother was worried. She understood Sister Margie’s concern. She also knew how much her daughter had been anticipating this pageant and her role as Mary. Jessica approached her mother and Sister Margie. Try as they might to keep the conversation quiet, Jessica had heard every word. She swallowed hard, spoke sweetly yet firmly. Excuse me, Sister. If it didn’t make any difference to Joseph if Mary was pregnant when he married her – do you think it mattered to him if she was taller than him? The pageant went off without a hitch. (from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Magic, 67-68)
We spend a lot of time in our lives trying to make them just right so that God might care and arrive in our lives in a special way, we try to be perfectly ready so God might approve of us – our Sunday best, Mary just a little shorter than Joseph, work and play well with others. Nothing wrong with wanting to be a little better, but know this; hear this good news today/tonight - - - God arrives ready or not. We need the love, courage and peace of God, not after we are “ready” – whatever that might mean, but to help us live our lives right now, even if they are a little unkempt and out of order. We need to the love, courage and peace of God to help us move the world along a little bit – toward freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world. Now is the time in our lives when we need the love of God “a love that embraces the dark night and the joyful dawn” (Bruce Epperly). Now is the time when we need God to touch us and teach us, love us and lift us, to inspire and enfold us, to heal us and free us.. Now is the time, ready or not.
Christmas time is here, ready or not. God continues to be born, ready or not. Good news. Great joy. Glory to God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Midnight Clear as Mud

Sermon preached December 18, 2011

Texts: Luke 1:26-38
Biblical interpretation is fascinating. Years ago, when my journey of faith included tuning in to radio evangelists, I recall a story Pat Robertson related about the use of the Bible. Someone had shared with him that they were looking for a new car and decided to open their Bible at random to see if there was any guidance for their decision. The text was open to a page where they found the word “ford” and considered this divine, Biblical guidance for their car buying decision. The word “ford” is found in Genesis 32:22 where it refers to a river crossing and not an automobile, unless Jacob was the original Henry Ford. Yet Pat Robertson celebrated the guidance of the Spirit in that way of using the Bible. The Bible obviously offers clear, unambiguous answers to all of life’s questions.
I don’t happen to care for that method of using the Bible or that way of understanding it, and in all honesty that story was part of my road to questioning some of my understandings of the Christian faith at that time. I mean what chance would Chevy or Buick or Toyota or Honda have?
But perhaps I have been too hasty. Last Sunday during confirmation, Moses was the focus of our discussion. As a pure aside, I mentioned that the first two books of the Bible were really quite interesting, filled with captivating stories. I mentioned that when you got to the third book, Leviticus, that was a different story. Don’t tackle Leviticus early on in your Bible reading. Just to make the point I opened my Bible to Leviticus and read a bit. It opened to chapter 13. “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’.” Not exactly the most inspirational passage from Scripture you could find. But then this random opening became revelatory as my eyes wandered up the page. Could the Spirit be at work in this way? Just a few verses earlier were words that applied directly to me. Leviticus 13:40: If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean. Wow – words for my life. I was inspired and even wondered if we might change some of our web site. (show slide)
For some it seems, Christian faith and life, following God through following Jesus, is always clear. There are no gray areas, little in life that is shadowed in mist and mystery. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said to his friend and fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell, “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather and noon-day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first awakes from a deep sleep” (Paul Kuntz, “Whitehead and Russell” Process Studies, 1988. Also Jerome Kagan, An Argument for Mind, 247-248). For some Christians, the life of faith provides fine weather and noon day light for their lives.
My experience as a person of faith is much more like early morning when one first wakes from a deep sleep. I see the world as wonderfully, mysteriously, sometimes bafflingly complex. The world is sometimes as foggy as the view from my office was so often this week. While my faith helps me navigate life in this world, and sometimes simplifies, it often does just the opposite. Looking at the world with the eyes of faith helps me see more deeply the wonder, beauty, mystery, bafflement of the world. God often speaks not through a megaphone, loud and clear. God’s voice is most often a whispered word. As I shared last Sunday, I think God’s direction might often entail a range of options, not just a single choice, and that our relationship with God is like the back and forth, give and take of a dance. Perhaps that makes my Christian understanding of life midnight clear as mud.
The world is complex, and our faith helps us see more deeply into that complexity, sometimes offering the clear light of the noon day, but often deepening the mists and mysteries. If this is so, the perhaps in a complex world, even we people of faith can be perplexed. To affirm that God is up to something, as we do during Advent, and to affirm that God is still up to something as we have been exploring this Advent, does not mean we will not sometimes be perplexed in our life and journey of faith.
If we, even as people of faith sometimes feel perplexed in a complex world, we are not alone. An angel appears to Mary. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” You would think angels would bring a lot of light and clarity. So what is Mary’s response? “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel continues on, announcing that she is going to conceive and bear a son, whom she should name Jesus. And her response? “How can this be?” Perplexity.
Reading this story again I am reminded of a short poem about Mary.
Nazareth Rosario Castellanos

Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

Being perplexed sometimes in a complex world is a reasonable response, even for people of faith. Sometimes we are simply unsure of God’s whispered word. The Bible isn’t really meant to be a sanctified Ouiju board. It stories are rich and complex and the lessons sometimes shrouded in the mystery and complexity of the human story. God is up to something in our lives, our church, our world. We know something of the general direction. When God is up to something, it is good news – freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world. Yet in any moment we may be perplexed by uncertainty. Mary sure seems to be, at least for a time. What kind of greeting is she receiving? How can it be that she should conceive a child? We do well as people of faith to keep near the center of our faith the virtue of humility, that sense that sometimes we may miss the whispered word of God in a complex world filled with numerous voices and noises. The heart of our faith is certainty about God’s love for the world and for us, God’s grace toward the world and toward us, but that leaves a lot of room for mists and mysteries and perplexity. The heart of religion is not certainty, but openness to the mystery of God whose nature is creative-responsive love.
Yet there may also be times when our perplexity is not lack of clarity, but lack of a sense that we have what we need to truly follow God’s direction. Knowing the right thing and doing the right thing are not the same. We may know pretty well where God wants us to go, and not really want to go there. “Freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world” can sound nice, but the road is not always an easy one. Mary felt this kind of perplexity, too, at least for a while. How can this be?
So if our faith does not necessarily make everything clear and easy in a complex world, if being a person of faith can also mean being perplexed, what good is faith? In a word – courage. “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. Mary may be perplexed, but in the end she is courageous. Assured of God’s presence she responds in her perplexity “Let it be with me according to your word.” Courage.
Courage does not mean never being perplexed. Courage does not mean never feeling fear. I am particularly fond of Parker Palmer’s understanding of the biblical phrase, “do not be afraid.” As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection. “Do not be afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear…. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have…. We have place of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94). We have fear, we do not have to be fear. We experience fear inside, but as people of faith we also know trust and hope. And when we live from places of faith and trust and hope, we live with courage. Theologian Paul Tillich says that “faith is the experience of this power” called courage (The Courage To Be, 172).
Perplexed but courageous, the way of following Jesus, the way of Christian faith. Midnight clear as mud.
Sometimes that may entail extraordinary courage. I think of people of faith like Bishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have told their stories before. I think of another German pastor whose story of courage is perhaps less well-known. Martin Niemoller was born in Germany in 1892. Born a pastor’s son, Niemoller was a proud German, a decorated World War I veteran. Like many Protestant pastors in Germany following World War I, Niemoller was a national conservative, and he welcomed Hitler’s initial political success, believing it would lead to a revival of the German state and people. But Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies eventually turned Niemoller against the regime. He was imprisoned in concentration camps from 1938-1945. A post-war visit to one of the camps where he was imprisoned, Dachau, inspired Niemoller to pen his most famous lines. First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. Niemoller’s words can be found in the United States Holocaust Museum. Extraordinary courage. God is with us. Do not be afraid.
But just as important, maybe even more important, is the ordinary courage needed every day. It takes courage to get up some mornings when life is particularly perplexing or distressing. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to live each day when the world is sometimes midnight clear as mud. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage care for those near to us who suffer. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to parent. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to speak truth lovingly. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to try and be the church today, when we could simply do something different or when the name of Jesus is used to promote exclusion. God is with us. Do not be afraid. Following God’s direction of freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world takes courage, especially when the way forward may be perplexing. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to hold within the fragility of our lives the very light and love of God, to nurture it, to give birth to Jesus in our own lives, like Mary. But it is what God is up to in us, too. God is with us. Do not be afraid. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Do You Wanna Dance?

Sermon preached December 11, 2011

Texts: John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4

From there to here, from here to there – I like to take different routes if I can. For the seven years we lived in Dallas, Texas, and travelled to Minnesota at least twice a year, we found some different routes. The most direct route from Duluth to Dallas is I-35 – goes right there and interesting enough for interstate. But maybe you want to take US 75 north to Tulsa, go through Joplin and then into Kansas City. Or you could stay on US 71 south out of Joplin and into northwest Arkansas – very pretty. We may have even taken US 75 south through parts of Kansas. Most of the time these other ways had their new discoveries. I have some vague shadowy memories of a few quaint small towns that we would not have seen had we always traveled the interstate. And even if you are on the interstate, you get to choose between the by-pass and taking it right through the city. In other places we lived, I liked to try some new ways to get from there to here, and here to there.
Sometimes this has not served me well. Ignoring the bypass isn’t always a good idea. I also remember one time when we lived in Roseau and we were traveling to Duluth across MN 11 towards International Falls and I thought taking Highway 65 south might be kind of interesting. I think part of it became dirt road on the Nett Lake Reservation, and Julie was not real happy with this new way of going.
Maybe the tried and true ways serve a person well, but we have to admit that there is more than one way to get from there to here and from here to there. Hold that thought in the back of your mind for just a bit.
We are now into the third week of Advent, that four-week period before Christmas. One way to think about the season of Advent is to think about it as a season in which we say, “God is up to something.” God is up to something, so we best pay attention. God is up to something, so we should stay awake. God is up to something, so we should so we should be alert. In Advent we affirm that God was up to something in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
This Advent we are thinking together about what it might mean to affirm that God is up to something now. To ask about the meaning of “God is up to something” is to move into a discussion of “the will of God.” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “the will of God” it feels like it should be capitalized, pronounced in a lower octave – THE WILL OF GOD. There seems to be an emphasis on the – implying singularity. The will of God is one thing and one thing only.
Such resonances are reinforced by certain Biblical passages. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” The will of God – the narrow gate traveled by few and hard to find – kind of like Minnesota 65 north of Togo. Interestingly, in the parallel passage in Luke, the verse is much shorter, and is paired with a very different verse (Luke 13:24, 29): “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” But then just a bit later, Jesus says, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” You need a bigger door for that, a broad gate, a wide highway.
And here we get back to Advent. Many Advent texts refer to a wide highway. Isaiah 40:3-5: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Sounds like quite a highway project, doesn’t it? And when we hear these words from Isaiah, we think of one figure who makes a regular Advent appearance – John the Baptist.
So maybe in Advent, this season when we affirm that God is up to something, something we associate with the “will of God” – maybe Advent with its images of wide highways and flocks of people from north, south, east, west, and all nations – maybe Advent is suggesting to us that what God is up to is taking us in a certain direction, and if direction is a good way to talk about what God is up to, let’s remember that there is often more than one way to get from there to here and from here to there. You can bring that thought back now. God is up to something, and what God is up to is to move us, our church, our world in a certain direction.
If what God is up to is a certain direction, then following God through following Jesus may be something like a dance. That is just the image Marjorie Suchocki uses in a book some of us read last spring, In God’s Presence. Imagine with me the dynamics of relationship between God and the world. Think of it as a dance, whereby in every moment of existence God touches the world with guidance toward its communal good in that time and place and that just as the world receives energy from God it also returns its own energy to God. God gives to the world and receives from the world; the world receives from God and gives to God (24).
So we dance with God. God offers guidance, a whispered word, moment to moment in our lives. And maybe the guidance is sometimes a range of options. Maybe sometimes the will of God feels like God leaving us with options. Another theologian Paul Tillich suggests this. The Lord from whom you derive a word wants you to decide for yourselves. He does not offer you a safe way. (The New Being, 119) This can be misunderstood, but there is wisdom here. God takes a step, we respond to God’s movement, and maybe there is range of positive responses, though some may be better than others. Sometimes the range may be very narrow, and sometimes we ignore God’s whispered word all together. We act, then God moves again, even if we have moved awkwardly, God adjusts – still trying to teach us to move with the unforced rhythms of grace. Sometimes we have to call God’s response forgiveness when we have stepped badly.
God is up to something – a direction, and the image of a dancing God is helpful. But we know something more. We can say something more about this direction. We know where this dance is headed. God dances in the direction of light, good news, healing the broken hearted, freedom, comforting those who mourn, repair. When God’s Spirit is dancing, when God is up to something, it is good news – freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world. All day long God is working for good in the world.
God is up to something in each of our lives. When we open ourselves more fully to dancing with God there is healing, there is comfort, there is courage, there is care. When we open ourselves more fully to dancing with God we join in God’s work to bring hope, healing, comfort, justice, freedom and repair to others and to the world.
When you think about your life and God being up to something, don’t get weighed down by a notion of the will of God for your life as some one thing that you just have to discover or be lost. God’s will for your life is a direction – freedom, comfort, healing, helping God repair the world. There are all kinds of ways you can do that. Part of joining what God is up to is finding where your gifts and skills and passions are and using them well. God’s whispered word is often heard in the deep places inside us.
God is up to something in our church community. Sara Miles, who many of us have read this fall, shares some insights offered by the pastor for care at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Being in the presence of someone’s suffering for which you can do nothing provokes an almost universal reaction: the desire to run away as fast as possible. It is frightening to be with someone who is suffering and to feel helpless in the face of anguish and uncertainty. Being part of a pastoral care community means learning to be with those who are suffering even when you feel helpless. I believe we are not helpless. We can be beacons of hope and light for one another, holding the faith that God is at work even when we can’t see how. Just knowing you are not alone makes all the difference in the world. (Jesus Freak, 80-81)
I think God is up to quite a bit in our church community, but those words describe for me one thing God is up to here, one direction God’s dance is taking – deepening our sense of being a caring community together. We can be beacons of hope and light for one another. Not long ago I had someone in my office sharing some anxiety and fear about life, and one of my replies to this person was “You are not alone. God is here. We are here with you. We are here for you.” And we are. Dancing with God we are continuing to find ways to care with and about each other.
God is up to something in moving us to engage in God’s work in the world – the work of justice and healing and repair. We are doing that work with Ruby’s Pantry. We are doing that work as we mentor. We will be doing that work as we engage in the Imagine No Malaria campaign. We are doing that work as we offer the hospitality of our building to others. In recent days we offered the Hmong community a gathering place for the celebration of their new year. We provided space for the Kiwanis to share breakfast with Santa. We were the site of a record-breaking drive for Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. Where might God be calling us next? There is not an easy answer to that. We will need to ask about our gifts and skills and energy and talents and see what opportunities may present themselves. We know the direction that dancing with God will take us, but there may be a variety of good next steps.
So let me end this morning by playing a part of a seasonal song.
The Beach Boys, “Do You Wanna Dance?”
At Advent we say that God is still up to something – a dance, a dance toward light, good news, healing the broken hearted, freedom, justice, comforting those who mourn, repairing the world. So maybe a good Advent question is “Do you wanna dance?”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

No Man Upstairs

Sermon preached November 27, 2011

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

Tuesday evening Glen Avon Presbyterian Church, Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. It was our choir’s turn to sing – and people kept coming and coming up. A pastor colleague of mine whispered, “How do you get so many people to come out for this?” I just smiled with a deep sense of gratitude. The choir sang beautifully. I was busting my buttons and had not yet had one bite of turkey. Something seems to be happening here at First UMC.
Twice in recent weeks people have commented on worship, on the energy, on the attendance. Something good is happening here. To a few people I have been saying, “God is up to something here.”
You need to know I use that phrase cautiously, carefully and with a great deal of humility. I do that because a great deal of “God is up to something” talk is puzzling.
When our son David was born, he was six weeks premature and he spent the first three weeks of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit in St. Paul. I was a seminary student and Julie was working part-time. It was a scary, uncertain time for us. A year or so later, when things were better for us and I was in my first pastorate, a woman we knew came to tell us about her sister who had just had a baby and while there was some concern because the baby came early “God had answered her prayers and everything was just fine.” We were happy for this family, but couldn’t help wonder what had happened to us and our son a year or so earlier. Where was God then?
Then there are the parking spaces stories – you may have heard them. A person wants a parking spot in a busy mall near the door, offers a prayer to God and lo and behold a parking spot opens up. God is up to something, including finding convenient parking spaces if only you ask and believe.
I want to say this clearly. I believe God has something to do with human healing. I believe that God cares about every aspect of our lives. It was Jesus who said of God, “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Matthew 10:30). I consider it one of my tasks in life to help make God’s job easier. I believe that God cares about every aspect of our lives, yet to claim too much about healing leaves others puzzled and confused, and why would my parking needs supersede the parking needs of others. I usually like to park a ways a way because I can use the walking.
We have a bit of a quandary. Some “God is up to something” talk creates problems, issues. One solution to this dilemma is to make God “the big guy in the sky,” “the man upstairs.” God is, in this view, mostly uninvolved in our lives, except for the occasional tearing open of the heavens in some miraculous way. The man upstairs God is a God who wound the clock of the universe and then pretty much leaves it alone, leaves us alone with some general directions for being nice. The man upstairs God got the ball rolling and now watches from afar with varying degrees of interest. We hear God talked about like this, don’t we?
But the man upstairs God, this is not the God of the Bible. When you read the Bible, God is active. One need not understand every biblical story literally as God acting in this way or that. Yet there seems something critically important in understanding God as an active and involved God, not the clockmaker God. Mark 13 presupposes a God who acts as it advises us to learn the lesson of the fig tree and keep alert and awake. Isaiah 64, read when we lighted the first Advent candle, speaks of God’s awesome deeds and hopes that God will “tear open the heavens.”
We believe in a God who cares and who acts, not in some semi-absent “man upstairs.” When I say that I think God is up to something here in our life together, I really believe that God is up to something in our life together here. Asking what it means to affirm that God is up to something is going to be our Advent focus, with two more sermons exploring different aspects of what it means to say that God is up to something.
After affirming that God acts in our lives and in our world, the question for me becomes, “how.” How does God act? If I believe God acts in the world, but am skeptical that one important activity of God in the world is finding me parking spaces, then how does God act?
Some attribute to God only the obviously miraculous or the utterly stupendous. There are some great production values in Mark 13 and Isaiah 64 – a darkened sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, the heavens shaken, the heavens torn open, quaking mountains. Insurers label things like hurricanes, tornados and other storms – acts of God. With our understandings of climate and weather, we know what causes stars to shoot across the sky or tornados to form or hurricanes to strengthen or the earth to quake. We don’t need God to explain how these happen, though when is still a bit of a mystery.
But Isaiah 64 has this other image in it of the God who acts. “As when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.” I don’t know about you, but I have tried to light enough fires from kindling in my life to know that it is often a pretty slow and quiet process. If you have ever tried to heat one of those big kettles of water in our kitchen, you know that it is slow going. I believe these are better images for God’s action in our lives and the world – quiet, persistent, steady. I appreciate the words of Patrick Henry in his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, too quickly, to the grace of God…. I trust God’s grace but hesitate to identify it in particular cases. It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face. When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward (2).
God acts – but in the quiet manner of water boiling, in the manner of the gentle breeze creating small ripples in the pond, in the manner of the still, small voice. Yet such activity has a profound impact on our lives, if we let it. We do things like pray for healing because it can make a difference. God is not the only factor influencing health, but God is a factor. The analysis offered by Marjorie Suchocki, in her book on prayer that some of us read last spring is helpful. Suchocki begins by acknowledging that all prayers for healing occur in the context of human life, which will end. We cannot change that fact. She goes on to write: God wills the well-being of this world, even in the midst of its fragility and mortality, and not every illness is terminal. Prayers for healing make a difference in what kinds of resources God can use as God faithfully touches us with impulses toward our good, given our condition (In God's Presence, 59). We should rejoice in every healing, in the normal course of healing in our lives and in those times when the healing seems remarkable – both are miraculous in that God is always sending impulses toward our good into the world. God creatively uses the resources of love we offer to increase the good that can be done in the world.
In another one of her books, Suchocki offers this image of God’s action in our lives. God’s creative word… is felt within the depths of the self… [it]comes to us as a whisper, it is not loud, like a clanging cymbal, nor is it boisterous, calling attention to itself and insisting on its own program. To the contrary, it is a quiet word, a suggestive word, , an inviting word, not always easily noticed. How awesome that the word of the living God should come to us quietly, like a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 4) Our God is an awesome God not because God’s activity is loud, raucous, overwhelming, stormy, but because God’s activity is quiet, creative, inviting, persistent. God’s grace is God’s persistent presence in our lives – a presence of creative-responsive love.
We people of God who follow Jesus don’t believe in a “man upstairs” God – a God who mostly leaves us alone but on occasion rips open the heavens to do incredible things – like finding us parking spaces close to the mall entrance. We believe in a God who cares about every aspect of our lives and is always active – the whispered voice of creative love. We believe in a God who comes into our lives again and again and again. That’s what Advent is all about, remembering this God who comes into our lives always, remembering that grace is God’s persistent presence.
God never leaves us alone. God is always up to something in our lives, yet we can affirm that there are special times and unique moments in our journey with God. For First United Methodist Church, we may be in the midst of such a special time. God is always up to something in our lives and in our life together as a church, yet there is a sense in which this may be a special time for us. But if it is a special time it is not God’s doing all alone. This is a special time for us because together we are opening ourselves to God in some deep and profound ways. We may be listening more intently to that whispered word of God. We may be offering God more of our prayer resources which is using in God’s creative love. We are connecting with each other in new ways. God is always up to something, and God seems up to something special here and now and we seem to be working with God’s creativity.
God is up to something in our church, and God is also always up to something in our lives. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to listen more carefully – keep awake. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to trust more profoundly – God is always working for our well-being. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to know deep in our hearts and souls that we are not alone. There is One with us to share our joys, to weep our tears, to calm our fears. Thanks be to God – not a man upstairs but a companion on the journey. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Here Comes the Judge

Sermon preached November 20, 2011

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Play part of Shorty Long: Here Comes the Judge

Here comes the judge. Can we speak helpfully about God as judge, about Jesus as judge. The language is there in our Christian tradition. The Apostles’ Creed has the statement about Jesus that he “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Seems pretty inclusive.
The language is there, but is it meaningful? Is it helpful? Often I think not. Here is a portion of an e-mail I received on November 12: I just saw your church listed as a GAY friendly church on To accept sexual deviancy as normal is a sin. You put your soul in danger of eternal damnation for welcoming unrepentant homosexuals into God’s house. You blaspheme the Name of God. Homosexuality should be criminalized. Homosexuals commit crimes against God, against nature, and the Holy Bible and against the human race. This was followed by a couple of Scripture quotations and a prayer to be prayed. The sender’s e-mail address was When I read something like that, with judgment dripping from it, I am not sure that we can speak of this concept very helpfully at all. Even less extreme statements of faith make claims that leave us feeling uneasy about the concept of judgment – like the statement of faith of the national Vineyard Church which affirms “the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.” Eternal conscious punishment – how wicked does one have to be for that to be a justifiable judgment?
Over time the church has perhaps lost credibility in speaking about judgment. The kinds of wickedness that the church has held up as leading toward eternal conscious punishment are things like dancing, watching movies, having a glass of wine. When we hear language about eternal damnation, eternal conscious punishment, judgment, well, we may cringe. I think that is why we avoid the topic. We hear “judgment” in a church and we think about judgment as passing judgment, as criticism, as censure. We think of people being “judgmental.” The word “judgment” in a religious context evokes images of an angry God ready to pounce on our least mistake – a “gotcha God,” and when you are “got” the consequences are dire – eternal conscious punishment.
For those of us who don’t think this is the God of Jesus Christ we just avoid the concept of judgment. If we can’t speak helpfully, better not to use the concept at all.
But what if there is something here that we would do best not to lose? What if the concept of judgment might be helpful to us in our lives as people of God who follow Jesus? There is a text from Paul’s letter to Roman Christians that may help us. “So then each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12). What is remarkable is that this paragraph begins with cautionary words about “judgment”: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister” (v. 10). Maybe that is the beginning of redeeming the concept of judgment – get away from constantly worrying about others, constantly judging others. Maybe that really does not bring glory to Jesus.
What if we begin with a sense that in our lives we are accountable to God? Could we then translate the idea of judgment into ideas like thoughtfulness, self-reflection, listening for the still, small voice of God within? When you consult a dictionary about “judgment” you don’t simply get ideas such as criticism, or censure, or passing judgment on others, you also find ideas like “think,” or “form an idea.” Maybe this is more the essence of judgment for Christian faith – thoughtfulness, self-reflection, listening for the still small voice of God within. And if this is a more helpful way to think about judgment in the Christian faith, it also changes the time frame for thinking about judgment. Now is the time for us to think about faith, ponder our lives.
So how might we think about our lives now? Matthew 25 is meant to help us out. Jesus tells a story about a future judgment – tells a story, a story following a story about ten bridesmaids, a story following a story about three servants and their money management. Jesus tells a story about accountability. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Does he tell this story to evoke fear? I don’t think so, just as fear was not the point of the last story he told about the guy who buried his single talent. Jesus tells this story to invite, even provoke self-reflection, thoughtfulness – to invite judgment in the now of our lives.
As people of God who follow Jesus, how might we know we are on the right track? As people of God who follow Jesus, what direction should we be going in our journey of faith? I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
For five plus years, I have been convening an “interfaith book group” sponsored by the Oreck-Alpern Interfaith Forum at the College of St. Scholastica. The group reads fiction with religious and/or cultural themes from diverse perspectives. The book we are now reading is called Breakfast With Buddha. It is the story of a man from the East Coast whose roots are in North Dakota. His parents die and he has to return to the Dakotas to care for their estate. The man, Otto, has a sister whose life is very different from his. She has been a seeker, perhaps a bit on the fringes. She does Tarot and palm readings. Anyway, she is supposed to travel with Otto to North Dakota, but instead sends with her brother a monk, tricks him into it really. The book is their travel story from the East Coast to North Dakota. The story is funny, tender, and even a little enlightening.
At one point in the journey Otto has been flipping through radio channels and he listens to Christian talk radio for awhile. But when I listen a bit longer to the so-called Christians, it sounds to me as if their cure for what ails us is more and stricter rules, more narrow-mindedness, more hatred, more sectioning off of the society, and it has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness (153).
Just a novel, just a story, but like Jesus’ story the bottom line seems to have something to do with kindness. Or if you like your theological reflection more, well, theological, here are some words from theologian Robert Neville. In his book Symbols of Jesus he writes these words: Christianity is first and foremost about being kind. (xviii) Neville admits that what constitutes kindness can be open to debate. Yet he writes that we know something about the nature of kindness – being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent…. To be kind is also to be courteous. (xviii).
As Christians, we want to be able to give an account of our lives in terms of kindness. There is, I think, a place for judgment in our lives as people of God who follow Jesus, as we translate judgment into attention, self-reflection, and discernment.
Judgment is about seeing the world with new eyes. We look for kindness, and celebrate where it is found. We consider the meanness in the world, and ask how we might do better. Unfortunately, there is a lot of meanness in the world. I think our economy has become meaner. I helped officiate at a funeral a while back for a person who had been a mining executive in Chisholm. One story I heard about him was that there was an employee whose son really wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately, the only way this young man could go to college was if he had a job. My friend, the mining executive said, “I will find him something.” He did – found him a custodial job, and if the young man’s school schedule made getting to work difficult on occasion, my friend the executive, would begin to do some of the young man’s work. I don’t think there is enough of that kind of kindness in our current economy where the bottom line is calculated so carefully that there are no jobs to be found for someone.
Even so, whatever the meanness in the world, we look for and celebrate acts of kindness and beauty, affirming that the Spirit of God might be at work, even when those being kind don’t think in those terms. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. I think of all the acts of kindness, large and small, engaged in by members of this congregation – volunteering at food shelves and care facilities and hospitals, bringing animals to first grade class rooms, Ruby’s Pantry, mentoring. We have two people in our congregation who have been leading groups at CHUM for ten plus years. See. Celebrate.
Judgment is new eyes. Judgment is self-reflection. How are we doing as a church? How am I doing as a person? Where can I grow in kindness? What disciplines will help me in my life be kinder, gentler – disciplines of prayer, meditation, study, action? How can a cultivate a heart of kindness?
And in our deep self-reflection we discover another voice that speaks to us, the voice of God heard in the voice of Jesus encouraging our kindness – judgment as discernment. God’s voice of judgment is not a “gotcha” voice, but the voice of kindness itself. At times the voice will identify places where we need to grow in kindness. At times the voice will rejoice in kindness in our lives. If we listen carefully, we may even hear the smile of God in our lives enjoying our kindness, and when we hear that we will want to hear it again.
So there is this guy named Otto, entrapped by his sister into driving across the country with a guru, a monk – Volya Rinpoche. And along the way he thinks about Jesus. It has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness. I think he is on to something, something Jesus, too, told a story about once upon a time.
Judging by that standard, there is beauty to celebrate. Judging by that standard, there is room to grow. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Whadya Got

Sermon preached November 13, 2011

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

Did you know that we are in the process of producing a guide for small groups in the church. We want to encourage our groups, and encourage people to consider forming new groups and thought it might help to have a resource for getting a group started and keeping it going. The guide is in its final editing stages.
Among the suggestions in the guide for group building are some questions that you might use to get to know one another better. One suggested question is, “what did you first want to be when you grew up?” Try that question some time.
The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a policeman. And I remember my Cub Scout den mother telling me that you had to be a certain height to be a policeman. I still recall the puzzlement and disappointment I felt when she told me that. I remembered her words again when a couple of years ago a story hit the news – research indicates that taller people make more money. These reports, issued in 2009, stated that taller people are presumed to be more intelligent and more powerful. One estimate was that persons earned $789 per inch per year more, though I could not find the baseline height. A few years ago when I was a candidate for bishop in The United Methodist Church, one of the voting delegates to Jurisdictional Conference asked a colleague of mine if I suffered from short-man syndrome – compensating for a lack of height by seeking power. I wonder if some of the taller candidates had that asked about them?
Being vertically challenged could provide me another opportunity to ask “if… only” questions. If only I were taller, how might my life be different? We are good at if… only questions and musings. Sometimes we can laugh about them.
Did any of you see the AT & T commercial where the husband goes and tells his wife he has signed the family up for unlimited mobile to mobile minutes. Her reaction is not pleasant. “Where’s that money coming from, Steve. Don’t you think you should have consulted your wife before spending that kind of money. Mother was right, I should have married John Clark.” If only… Turns out the service did not cost Steve anything – except now an awkward moment with his wife. If only she had been a little less impulsive.
I think we are often very good at the “if… only” stuff. We are good at looking at what we don’t have, at what we lack. Parts of our culture bombard us regularly with messages about what we lack, about what life could be like if only…
In thinking about the church, we are not immune to looking at what is lacking, at wondering “if only.” If only we had more money. If only we had more members. If only our building had a view – what were they thinking anyway? If only our building was a little smaller. If only there were less competition for Sunday morning time. Think what we could do then!
Into our “if only” thinking comes this story Jesus tells. Like last week, it is a story with some problems. The ending saying of Jesus does not fit some of the most important parts of the story. In the end, someone gets left out again, and this time treated even more harshly than bridesmaids not allowed to attend a wedding as in last week’s story. Yet like last week’s story, this one can teach us if we wrestle with it.
As I was doing just that, I could not help but think that this story would need to be re-told today. If I was the third guy, the guy who buried the money, all I would have to do would be to say – "have you seen the market lately, do you know how pitiful the interests rates are, you should thank me that I buried this money and remembered where I buried it." The investment environment in Jesus’ time must have been less volatile.
So three servants, three “slaves” are given money to manage while the master is away – a lot of money actually. A talent was the equivalent of fifteen years of wages for a day laborer. They are given differing amounts, depending on the evaluation of the master as to their ability to manage the money well – one person receives ten talents, another five, and the third, one. The five and ten guys make money, the third buries his, afraid to risk losing any portion of it. His choice is derided in the story. The master reacts badly, gives the one talent slave the boot.
So the moral of the story is be afraid, be very, very afraid. You don’t want the master coming back to find you buried your talent, do you? Be afraid. And what if this master is just like God – be very, very afraid.
Except, I think the story is trying to say just the opposite. Jesus is telling a story, but because it is in the Bible we kind of assume that God must be the master. I don’t think Jesus thought of God as a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed. The important contrast in the story is not between reward and punishment, it is between adventure and fear, between using what you’ve got well, or living in constant fear that you will lose. The irony is that in the end, fear loses out.
If only thinking is often anxious and fearful thinking. Look at what we lack, and because we lack, we really can’t do much. Some other time, maybe, when we have what we need, when we are more together in our life, in our church. Someday maybe, watch out, but not so much now. If only we had the ten talents or the five talents, we might be willing to risk a little, to strike out more in the adventure of following Jesus, but with one talent, well, we better be very careful.
Jesus is suggesting in his story that this kind of thinking, this perspective that begins with if only, with lack, with fear, is not the way of God. The way of God is a way of adventure. The way of God begins with asking, whadya got, and being amazed that a single talent is a lot. The way of God begins with looking at strengths and assets and trusting that God wants to use who we are right now to do some amazing things in our lives, our community and our world. Look first at strengths, assets, not at what is missing, what is lacking. Ask “what now?”, “what next?”, rather than bemoan with “if only.”
There is a place for if only thinking, for realistic assessments of weaknesses and threats (SWOT analysis), but if we don’t begin from what we’ve got, we are likely to be more anxious and fearful than adventuresome. We begin by trusting that we have what we need in our lives to do what God would have us do, to be who God would have us be. New opportunities will arise, change will come and be required, but we best begin with a deep conviction that God is with us that where we are is a good beginning.
I think this is true for our individual lives. Meaningful change begins with a sense that with God and with the other people in our lives, we have what we need to begin the change process. It is true in our financial giving to the church. No gift is ever insignificant. Don’t ever think, if only I could give more it would make a difference. Every gift makes a difference, and you have something to give. More importantly, you have yourself to give to the ministry of this church.
And I think this perspective is important for our church. God invites us to be about God’s work in the world as we are, from where we are. We have what we need to do what God is calling us to do as First United Methodist Church. Is there room for aspiration – yes. Do we desire to grow and change – yes. Yet we begin with being our best now. We use who we are and who and what we have to do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. God is calling us to be the best we can be right now, and we have what we need to answer that call. As we do that, new people will want to be a part of this. New challenges and opportunities will arise, but we will approach them trusting in the God who is leading us on this adventure.
A couple of years ago, a man named Dan Dick, who does a lot of thinking and writing about the church noted how good we are at discouraging ourselves with statistics in The United Methodist Church – we are growing older, aging, declining. If only things were as they once were for the mainline church, say in 1956. Then I can say "if only I was born earlier!" Dick points out however, that in 1956, with the US population at about 170 million there were approximately 170,000-220,000 churches/communities of faith. In 2009, with a population at about 308 million, there were 1.1 million churches/communities of faith – double the population, five times the number of faith communities. Dan Dick ended his reflection with these words: Until we do a better job with people who already like us, we won’t do very well with those who don’t yet know us. It’s up to us. Continue to wallow in our anxiety, fear, and frustration or work with God to build something beautiful?
The question isn’t whether we have ten talents, five talents, or one talent. The question isn’t even whether we once had ten talents but now only have five. The question is whether we want to wallow in anxiety, fear and frustration, making "if only statements," or if we want to work with God to build something beautiful, beginning from who we are right now. Whadya got? A good thing going with God. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Sermon preached November 6, 2011
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

I don’t really like the gospel reading for today. Can you say that in church? I guess I just did. The story has a sad ending that does not seem justified by what precedes it. Five bridesmaids, foolish though they are, are refused entry into the wedding party. It seems an overreaction to their foolishness. And the “we’ve got ours” attitude of the wise is troubling too.
I am not alone, though, in my feelings about this story. None of the other gospel writers in choosing which of Jesus’ stories to include in their gospels included this particular story. Only Matthew uses it. Some scholars argue that its details mirror wedding customs of Jesus’ time, but there is debate about that. Even so, that does not help me much. I still feel sorry for the five bridesmaids left standing holding their now oil-filled lamps.
Just because I don’t like the story does not mean it is not worth grappling with. In fact, just for that reason, I need to struggle with the text. Maybe there is something in here that I just don’t want to hear, but need to.
So what’s the story trying to tell us? Basically, the story is about continuing to grow in faith. Wisdom is continued growth in faith, hope, and love and the good works that flow from them. All the bridesmaids sleep, the keep awake ending of the story does not fit the story very well. What distinguishes the wise from the foolish is that the wise had a sufficient store of what they needed when the time was right. The foolish simply slept. And even more pointedly, the story wants to say that if we don’t have the resources we need when the crucial time comes, we risk missing out. Missed opportunities cannot always be recovered. Timing matters.
That is something we don’t always want to hear, but need to hear. We continue to grow in God’s Spirit, we continue to grow in faith, hope and love so that when occasions arise that call for loving response, we have what we need to respond. And sometimes if we don’t respond, it can be too late. You procrastinate buying your concert tickets until they are sold out then your friends tell you it was one of the best concerts they ever heard. The opportunity was missed. As a relationship deteriorates, you refuse to ask for help, or ask for forgiveness, and there comes a point of no return, a point where the relationship will never be what it might have been – too many harsh words, too many moments of neglect. You can’t buy enough of the oil of kindness to light the way forward. You meant to send that letter, make that call to a friend who is sick, and then they die before you get it done. In many contexts of our lives, opportunities missed cannot be recovered. The good news of the gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is that God continues to make new ways for forgiveness and restoration in our relationship with God, but that does not change the fact that in life, there are points of no return, that there are missed opportunities and we want to continue to develop the inner resources and wisdom to make the most of life.
So there is an important message in this story, even if there is a tragic dimension to it. But the story does not convey the whole truth of Christian life. My main problem with it is that in the story the wise do what they need to do, but are no help to the foolish. That part of the story has wisdom, but not all the wisdom there is. Yes, there are things in our lives we have to do for ourselves. No one can develop our hearts, our souls for us. Yet the Christian life is not intended to be solitary. In another reading from the New Testament suggested for today, from I Thessalonians 4, we read – “encourage one another” (4:18). In the next chapter of that same letter we read – “encourage one another and build up each other” (5:11). I don’t see a lot of encouraging in this story from Matthew. The truth of the Matthew story is important, but partial, and that is particularly evident on an “All Saints Sunday.”
Saints are those people we think of as wise, to some degree. They are wise in that they have continued to grow in their faith, their hope, their love, continued to grow in God’s Spirit. But there is another quality to saints as well. Saints are not just those who are wise enough to plan for themselves, saints are those who often wonder if others have enough, wonder how others are doing in their journey of faith, in their growth in grace. Saints shine brightly and always seem to have light to share.
If saints are those who shine brightly to help light our way, who ask if we have enough oil to shine, who are your saints? Who are those people who have helped you on your journey of faith. I am going to give us two minutes to remember them, and give thanks for them.
Christian faith is personal and individual, and there are some things no one else can do for us. But Christian faith is not solitary. How are you opening yourself to God’s grace and working on your own faith so that you can be a saint for others, so you can shine to light the way for others?
And to take a lesson from the parable, NOW is always the time to grow, NOW is always the time to shine, NOW is always the time to be there for others. Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Love and Bread

Sermon preached October 30, 2011

Text: Matthew 22:34-40

Sara Miles was born in 1952. Sometime next year she will turn 60. I have no idea how she might feel about that, but we do know something about Sara. At age 46 she came into Christian faith and the church. She has written about this in two books – Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. A number of us are reading Take This Bread and I used some themes from that book last week in my sermon. I will do that again this week, but let me begin with a few words from Miles’ Jesus Freak book.
I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread…. Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. (xi)
The story of this conversion is the story Miles tells in Take This Bread. We can learn from her story. She teaches us things about the journey of faith, about our lives with God and Jesus. Last week I said that she teaches us three important things about our faith: that Christian faith is a power that transforms our lives, that conversion is an on-going process – or the journey of faith is a journey, and that following Jesus may take us into uncomfortable places. I believe Sara Miles also has something to teach us about love, and that matters.
Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, encouraged by a larger group of Pharisees, Jesus is asked by a Pharisee, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” According to Matthew, the questioner did not really want to know the answer, but asked only to put Jesus to the test. Jesus takes the question at face value and offers and answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Torah in the Hebrew Scriptures have been codified into 613 Mitzvoth or commandments. While the number is not uncontroversial, you get the picture that there are a lot of commandments. So the Jews of Jesus time were curious about what was most important. There is a Jewish story from the time of Jesus that a Gentile asked two of the most famous rabbis of the first century, Shammai and Hillel, to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai refused, saying that the Torah could not be summarized in such a simple way. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 70) To a similar question Jesus responds that love is most important – love God with your whole being, love others as you love yourself.
But what does that mean? What does that look like? The word “love” gets bandied about in so many contexts. We love chocolate, and we love our spouses, and we think there is probably a difference in those kinds of love. What does love mean? What might it mean to love? The Bible itself encourages us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (I John 3:18). In other words, “Let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love” (I John 3:18, The Message). Reading Sara Miles helps me grab hold of what it means to practice real love. She recalls the words of Paul, that what matters is “faith working through love” (161)
In an interview at the back of her book, Miles is asked what she recommends for Christians who want a faith that is something other than the narrow, judgmental Christianity that is often portrayed in the media. First, do something. Feed, heal, help…. Second, pray for your enemies. Don’t pray that they become different, or start doing what you want them to do. Just pray for them. (289) Love in action – feed, heal, help, pray.
In Christian faith, to love is to pray. Miles shares some powerful stories about love as prayer. For fifteen minutes, I’d try to actually listen to another person, letting myself be whatever was needed: the bowl of soup, the forgiving mother, the magic minister, a warm body…. I’d sit down next to people and let them talk or cry; I’d listen and put my hands on them; at some point, I’d pray aloud; without really knowing where the words were coming from. (132) Love as prayer includes love for self, and prayers for one’s own life. During a particularly difficult time in her life, Miles would pray: God… Thank you for healing. For new life, after all. And thank you especially for the dark years. Thank you for everything that works in the dark. (133) While for Miles praying at her food pantry made some uncomfortable, others who had been burned by religion found her prayers the only ones they could receive. (133)
Prayer is love in action – love for God and love for others. When we pray we offer our whole lives to God – heart, soul and mind. We offer the lives of others into God’s love. Prayer opens new avenues for love.
While prayer is one lesson we learn from Sara Miles about love in action, about faith working through love, a focal point for Miles faith and life is her work at a food pantry she establishes at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. Early on she asks, “now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?” (97) Soon enough a “vision” comes to her: It was communion… but with free groceries instead of bread and wine. With the “everyone” of “Jesus invites everyone to his table” extended so that more sinners and outcasts could share the feast. With the literal bread of life served from the same table as the bread of heaven. This is it, I thought, what I’m supposed to do: feed my sheep. (104)
That food pantry, with it struggles and successes, with the cast of characters Miles encounters, is the centerpiece of the story in Take This Bread. Miles comes to Christian faith through taking bread and as she comes to understand a faith that is supposed to work through love, she discovers her work of love in feeding others. She has come to know something of God’s love and this is her way of loving God and loving others, loving God through loving others. But faith working through love: That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer. Whatever else, I could at least keep working in the pantry, feeding as many people as I could. (162)
Jesus tells us that what matters most is love – love God, love others as you love yourself. The writer of I John reminds us to love not just in speech, but in truth and action, to practice real love. Sara Miles helps us get even more concrete – pray, feed, heal, help – that’s what love can mean. Her book helps me think about faith working through love. To love God is to pay attention and that is prayer. We seek to love others as God loves them, reaching out even to those we may find difficult or challenging. We seek to love ourselves as God loves us.
When asked in the interview in the back of her book what Miles hopes people will take from it she replies: I hope that readers, whether or not they’re religious, will be able to take away Jesus’ message: Don’t be afraid. That they’ll find ways to act; to feed others, to accept being fed by others; that they’ll be willing to open up to people very different from themselves. (290) To love God is to pay attention, to love others as God loves, and to trust that when we open ourselves to others we will be loved and fed.
I am glad to be reading Miles’ book after we have been engaged in our own food distribution ministry, Ruby’s Pantry. It has helped me understand more deeply how it is truly faith working through love. Miles book has helped me reflect on some of the on-going conversion experiences involved in this work. It has helped me give thanks for the ways I have been fed by this ministry. Love and bread.
But we miss something of the power of Sara Miles story if we think that we have to imitate her in expressing love through bread. What matters is love – of God and others. What matters is faith working through love. What matters is a love that goes beyond words to actions. But the actions will vary. You may not have had the opportunity to work with Ruby’s Pantry. I hope you will give it a try sometime. But if you can’t you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and give up. Find another way to let faith work through love. Tuesday night you are invited to go to St. Scholastic and hear Shane Claiborne. Shane has worked with Mother Teresa. He established the Simple Way, a small monastic community in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. He is going to talk about how his faith works through love in action. But we are not all called to be Shane Claiborne, just as we are not called to be Sara Miles.
Each of us needs to find ways to love – love God and others, to let our faith work through love, to love in action. Prayer is a part of that for everyone, but we can pray differently. Action is not optional, but faith working through love takes many forms. Find some: Love and bread as we seek to feed others literally; love and listening as we give the best gift we can to others – the gift of our time and attention; love and tears as we cry with someone; love and hands – hands that hold or arms that hug; love and smiles; love and hammers – repairing a roof or building a house or digging a garden; love and song – joining together with others to sing of our faith and sing our way into deeper faith. There are all kinds of “love ands…”. Sara Miles reminds us that we need to find our “and.”
Where does Christian faith begin and end: love God, love as God loves, let yourself be loved, find your love and… Amen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Before and After and After

Sermon preached October 23, 2011

Text: Genesis 32:13-31

"Before and After" Power Point.

Sara Miles was the granddaughter of ministers and missionaries, daughter of parents who wanted nothing to do with church. She had an active disinterest in religion. Like wearing ironed white shirts or rescuing waxed paper to wrap sandwiches, religion just seemed another thing that old people did (Take This Bread, 8). Then something happened. One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine….This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. (xi)
This fall some of us have been reading Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread. Some of us have been getting together to discuss it, and will be doing so again on November 6 at 9 am. The First and Ten men’s group is discussing the book tomorrow night, along with moving some pews in the balcony. We have more books, and would love to have you read along, discuss it, or even start your own discussion group.
A story like Sara Miles may seem far removed from our experience, especially if you grew up in the church. For many of us, we may not remember a time when we were not part of a church community. Our parents brought us for baptism as infants, then to Sunday School and confirmation. We may have been married in the church, brought our own children for baptism, said good-bye to parents and friends through the ministry of the church. All that is good.
Even if we have been in the church our whole lives, perhaps we have had Sara Miles’ moments, times when God or Jesus was tremendously real for us, times when our faith burned hot within, times when we were touched, moved, changed. Sara Miles has some things to teach us about such times, and about our faith which seems to invite such experiences. She also has to teach us about so many in our wider community who have never, perhaps, been a part of a church, whose only images of Christians are pastors burning Korans or saying ugly things about homosexuals.
Even if we have been in the church a long time, we may remember profound moments of personal transformation. Reading Sara Miles book, I thought of some in my life – eighth grade Sunday School, seminary, Dallas – being a youth pastor and working on my Ph.D., moments as a husband and father, crucial conversations I have had with people who willingly shared some of their own pains or struggles or joys, holding children in baptism, placing my hands on young people being confirmed, celebrating weddings, marking death – sometimes being present in the room with family when a loved one dies. There are moments in my life that have changed me, and continue to change me – moments where God’s love breaks in profoundly, where Jesus becomes a part of me like bread eaten at communion.
For Sara Miles, self-described blue-state, secular intellectual; lesbian; left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism, eating Jesus changed everything. Here’s what she found in Christianity: At the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us… not in the sappy, Jesus-and-cookies tone of mild-mannered liberal Christianity, or the blustering, blaming hellfire of the religious right (xv). She discovered a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions – eating, drinking, walking – and stayed with them, through fear, even past death. That love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others (93).
Christianity, Christian faith as a radically inclusive love, a love that continues to speak to our lives, a powerful love that transforms lives. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”… And there he blessed him…. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32) Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us.
We who have grown up in the church or spent much time with Christian faith are in danger of forgetting the power of our faith, the power of God’s love in Jesus. We have heard the stories so often, they have a harder time getting through. We become so used to the church as a good and safe place, we forget how powerful it is for many to find a good and safe place. Prayer can become all our talk, and we forget to let God respond. The life of faith is a journey, sometimes being cradled like a lamb in the loving arms of Jesus the good shepherd, but sometimes wrestling with God and being forever changed by that. It is both, and we need to remember both – a love that embraces and changes and challenges.
And this life of faith is a journey, not just a before and after – but a before and after and after and after. I like it when Sara Miles writes – “Then, as conversion continued…” (xiv). Conversion continues. God’s work in our lives is an on-going process of conversion – before and after and after and after. Sara Miles: Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt (97). I appreciate Sara Miles story for reminding us of this, for reaffirming this truth for us. Eating Jesus was only the beginning for Sara Miles, and we are going to explore even more about that next week as we think about her food ministry together. But eating Jesus was only a beginning for her. Saying “yes” to God is only the first step – whether that yes is accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or saying you will be loyal to the church and support if by your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, or pledging at baptism to help your child grow in God’s love, or even asking “could this church be a place for me?” There are lots of beginning points, and they are important. And they are beginnings. Conversion continues – sometimes with more dramatic moments, often quietly and gently and slowly.
From her first time eating Jesus, Sara Miles feels a call to feed others. As her food pantry continues to flourish – though there are problems along the way – other kinds of conversions happen for her. The atmosphere of St. Gregory’s drew people in: They came in looking for something to eat, but often, like the woman seeking peace, or like me, they wanted far more. I’d be lifting a box, in the noise and bustle, and someone would come up to me – a grieving mom, a lonely immigrant, a sick man, or any of the many varieties of crazy people who hovered around the pantry. “Will you pray for me?” they’d ask…. I felt awkward…. It was more than I had bargained for…. I took a deep breath and began praying with anyone who asked. I didn’t know then that I was also praying for my own conversion, to reach the next level of conversation with God (130-131). Praying for others, Sara Miles conversion process continues, and our journeys of faith continue, too It is always an appropriate question to ask in prayer, “Where next, God? Where next Jesus?”
Listening to Sara Miles’s story we are reminded that Christian faith is powerful, because God’s love is powerful, reminded that conversion is on-going a journey, and one other thing I want to mention this morning – know that when you seriously pray “Where next, God? Where next, Jesus?” there will be times the place you go is uncomfortable.
For Jacob, Peniel was a good place, a place of blessing. It was also a place where he wrestled with God and human beings (Genesis 32:28) and where he knew life as a bit out of joint. For Sara Miles, eating Jesus, becoming Christian, finding Christian community at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church was all “terribly inconvenient” (xii). She shares something she discovered along the way in an interview printed in the back of her book Take This Bread. You don’t get to practice Christianity by hanging out with people who are like you and believe what you believe. You have to rub up against strangers and people who frighten you and people you think are misguided, dangerous, or just plain wrong (289). These are the words of a person who knows that sometimes God’s Spirit leads us to uncomfortable places, that it is only in such places that our faith grows as it can, that we share the love of Jesus widely.
Sometimes we confront the uncomfortable and inconvenient close to home – even in our homes. I really appreciated Sara sharing in her book some of her struggle balancing family with her sense of ministry. These were the moments when I wished I had a different kind of Jesus, one who could reveal clear rules for how to be good, evaporate all conflicts with the wave of his holy hand. I wish I could say a prayer and make everything better. Instead I was stuck with myself and the people I loved: frustrating, disappointing, jealous, sorry, wounded (264). For Sara Miles, being a follower of Jesus thrust her into “the wildness of faith” (264), and sometimes our wild faith takes us to inconvenient and uncomfortable places.
Earlier this week at church council, we discussed a couple of hot button issues. It felt a bit uncomfortable at times, but I was delighted with how well we did. All this stuff about faith taking us to inconvenient and uncomfortable places was on my mind, and I reflected on that just a bit – a sermon sneak preview. I said, “There are days when I don’t want to be a pastor.” I think I raised everybody’s discomfort level a bit. Here is what I meant and mean by that. There are days when being a pastor is uncomfortable, when situations feel awkward and difficult – more often outside the church than inside the church. Being a pastor you are aware that in some ways you always represent the church and Christian faith. There’s some pressure with that. Tell someone you are a pastor on a plane and you typically get one of three responses: Here’s why I haven’t been in church for awhile, here’s how active I am in my church, or dead silence. As a pastor I get the guy at the wedding reception drinking whisky from a coffee cup hoping we can fellowship for awhile and discuss the end times. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if it were different. Yet this is where God has called me. This is where following Jesus brings me. I have learned and grown as a person of faith only because I followed this call of God in my life. It is not always easy or convenient. I know those struggles of balancing ministry with family and I know what it is like to disappoint family. Still, I want this wild faith for my life.
And those inconvenient places are there for you, too. It is not easy claiming Christian faith today in many ways. People may assume things about you that are not true – narrow, judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay. It is challenging to be part of a mainline church. We are kind of passé these days. Yet here we are, and we are here because God has brought us here to learn and grow and touch the world with God’s love.
Toward the end of her book Sara Miles writes, Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow (274). We are here because we have taken Jesus in, one way or another, and are on the before and after and after and after wild journey of faith. Or maybe you are here just because you want to know a bit more about what it means to be a Christian in this day and time. This journey with Jesus puts us in touch with the power of God’s love, a power that changes and transforms and makes new. This journey is on-going, with times of ease and times of deep wrestling with God and humans. The journey may take us into some uncomfortable places, but we know we don’t go alone, and often find that these inconvenient spots are places of blessing. We have swallowed Jesus and are living out this wild mystery. And we trust that this is the way of life. Amen.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Politics As Unusual

Sermon preached October 16, 2011

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

In 2001, Time magazine named Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas “America’s best theologian.” His memoir Hannah’s Child was named by Publishers Weekly one of the best religion books of 2010. I tell you this to put some context to what I am going to share next, because it is going to shock you. In a lecture written for youth, Hauerwas said the following:

How many of you worship in a church with an American flag?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1st as the “NewYear”?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
How many of you worship in a church that recognizes “Mother’s Day”?
I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

(Working With Words, 116)

There was an episode of the television program MASH in which Hawkeye Peirce was having wonderful dreams of his childhood in Maine, then the dreams would turn disturbing. Childhood friends would be injured terribly. The dreams disturb Hawkeye so he consults his friend and fellow physician Sidney Freedman, a psychiatrist. Sidney tells him that the dream is really peaceful, but in a war zone, reality is the nightmare and the reality is creeping into Hawkeye’s dreams.
The church in which I grew up had a large stained-glass window picture of Jesus holding sheep. It is a wonderful and gentle picture of Jesus, and often that’s the Jesus we want to hear about. Then reality breaks in, and here reality breaks in in the story about Jesus himself – a story fraught with politics.
Some Pharisees, who are none too fond of Jesus and his popularity as a religious teacher, along with some Herodians, want to trap Jesus. They pose a challenging question – “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This conversation takes place in Jerusalem, an important city in Roman occupied Palestine. It served as the capital for King Herod, the king Rome allowed to rule the Jewish people in Palestine, though under their authority and control. The Herodians are supporters of Herod and his rule. Many Pharisees questioned that rule, though here they make common cause with the Herodians to try and trap Jesus.
The Roman tax was levied annually on harvests and personal property, and was determined by registration in the census. Jewish authorities administered it. The tax put a heavy economic burden on the impoverished residents of first-century Palestine. The tax was not only economically burdensome, it also symbolized the occupation of the Jewish homeland by the Roman Empire. It was another reminder that the Jewish people were not free. (see Feasting on the Word; Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, 63)
The question to Jesus is masterful. Either response puts him in a precarious position. Support paying the tax and risk losing credibility among the common people who were following Jesus. Reject the tax as unlawful and risk being branded a seditious teacher by the Roman authorities. The question is masterful, but the response even more so. “Show me the coin used for the tax…. Whose head is this,, and whose title?” The coin had a picture of the emperor on it. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What makes this response particularly revealing is that there were two kinds of coins in first-century Palestine. Jewish currency contained no images of humans or animals. Images were considered religiously inappropriate. The other type of coin was the Roman coin which had the picture of Tiberius Caesar with an inscription proclaiming him as the divine son of god. So what kind of coin do Jesus’ questioners have – the Roman coin. Their possession of the coin makes it clear that they pay the tax, support the system in some way, and therefore their question to Jesus was anything but sincere. Their credibility takes another blow while Jesus’s reputation for wisdom is enhanced.
So what? This is all very fascinating stuff, but what difference does it make to us? Jesus is certainly not as provocative as Stanley Hauerwas – or is he? Hauerwas is trying to get us to think more deeply about the relationship between being a follower of Jesus and the culture in which we live. We tend to assume that we live in a culture that is rooted in and supports Christian faith. There are Christian roots to our culture, to be sure, but Hauerwas wants us to think more deeply about what that means for us today. It is what this story about Jesus does, too.
In his statement, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus is relativizing loyalty to Caesar. In a culture that was proclaiming loyalty to the emperor was loyalty to God, Jesus is encouraging a more thoughtful and critical response. Loyalty to the emperor is possible to a degree, but loyalty to God is the stronger claim on our lives. We should not take Jesus words to suggest a separation between two distinct realms of life either – church and world, each with its separate claims. Loyalty to God shapes our political loyalties, for in the end, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), which means our political life should be shaped by a sense of what God desires for the world God created. Arrangement of our social and political life needs to take into account God’s dream and desire for the world. Politics as unusual.
And what might God want from our social and political systems? What is God’s dream for the world? The Bible often uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” to get at this question. What are some of the important features of the Kingdom of God? You shall not render unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19). Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other (Psalm 85:10). God’s dream for the world is a society of love, mutual support and justice. It is a society in which the development of each person is enhanced by what she or he gives to and receives from every other person. It is a responsible community where justice is enjoyed by each person and peace characterizes relationships with God, self, others and nature. Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff calls this a vision of shalom and argues that it is “both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 72; other material taken from my unpublished doctoral dissertation, p. 357-358). This wonderfully large vision for human social life goes beyond politics, but it gives direction to politics. It lets us know, in the words of Jim Wallis, “God wants the common good” (God’s Politics, 32). Another way of saying this is that God desires social arrangements that work for all.
If we take that seriously in our day and time, we are struck by a sense that there is a great deal in our current social and political situation that is not measuring up. As different as they are, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement seem agreed that things are not working well for all. These two movements have very different analyses of the primary problems and dramatically different solutions, but they are an indicator that some things are not working. There are other indicators. 15% of our population now lives in poverty – some 46 million people (New York Review, October 27, 2011: p. 4). The Duluth NewsTribune reported this week that Duluth is the least-affordable rental market in the state with 56% of the renters here paying more that 30% of their household income on rent. The story reported that the median household income for renters in Duluth in 2010 was $19,230, 31% less than the median income for renters statewide.
Jesus words in our context do not provide a political platform or a set of policy recommendations. He instead offers a vision, a horizon, a direction. When some define politics as “who gets what, when” then this is politics as unusual. God desires the common good. Shalom is God’s cause in the world and our human calling. We Christians, we people of God who follow Jesus follow him into the world, a world that is complex, difficult and challenging. It is a world that is not where God would have it be and we need to be willing to ask tough questions, even of some of our cherished ideas.
This is tough stuff, but it is rooted in good news. The good news is this, we are God’s – loved by God, valued by God. God desires social arrangements that work for all because God values all. For many who are hurting in our current economic environment we know that the scars are not simply economic, but are etched into our souls. When we want to produce but cannot, we hurt. When we want to work hard and provide for our families, but are not able to, it pains us deeply. Know this, God’s love for you, God’s love for us, God’s valuation of us, is what defines who we are not economic and political systems that measure only productivity and material accumulation.
It is because all are loved by God that we seek systems and social arrangements that work better for all. In taking up this cause of God in the world, we seek to give God what is God’s. Amen.