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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Our Whole Lives

Sermon preached October 9, 2011

Text: Philippians 4:1-9

Play The Hold Steady, “Our Whole Lives” for two minutes or so. Our Whole Lives

Do you enjoy discovering new music? I do. But don’t you hate it when someone foists their favorite music on you? Thanks for your patience.
This is an interesting song. The singer is attending mass on a Saturday night, but will then be attending a party. The chorus goes: Were good guys but we can’t be good every night. Were good guys but we can’t be good our whole lives. Somehow the singer wants to reconcile having a good time with also going to heaven on the day he dies.
It is sad to me that in the popular imagination we have put a wall up between having a good time and being a good person. We have made being a Christian a matter of doing just enough of the right things and then living the rest of our lives. A sort of shallow goodness has often become confused with Christian faith.
That’s not the vision I see for the Christian life in the New Testament. As people of God who follow Jesus we understand that to follow Jesus is to open our whole lives to God’s Spirit. We trust that as we do that we will know rich, full, joyous, abundant life. We know that opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit allows us to appreciate life’s good gifts even more – gifts even of music and dancing. As Christians seeking to have the whole of our lives shaped by God in Jesus, we may turn away from some people’s ideas of a good time, but some people’s ideas of a good time can turn out pretty bad, too.
One place in the New Testament I get this idea of Christian faith as about our whole lives is Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul is wrapping up his letter in the verses we read today. He is encouraging these people of God who follow Jesus Christ to stand firm in the way, to stay on track. And what does that involve – our whole lives – our voices, our hearts, our minds, our actions.
Our voices. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. In everything by prayer. Let your gentleness be known to all. There is this wonderful line in the movie The King’s Speech where the king and his speech therapist are getting into a bit of a row, and the king finally shouts, “because I have a voice.” That was just the point the therapist was pushing. You have a voice. We do a lot with our voices. This afternoon some of you will be using your voices to give Leslie Frazer coaching advice – even though he cannot hear you as you talk to your television set. With our voice we cheer. With our voices we share something of who we are. What we do with our voices matters. As God’s people who follow Jesus there are some better uses for our voices than others.
Rejoice. We speak words of praise, sing songs of praise not because God needs these from us, though I believe God takes delight in our rejoicing. We rejoice because we recognize the goodness of life, even in it difficult moments. We rejoice because we know the goodness of God which comes to us again and again, even when we feel that perhaps we don’t deserve it. God’s love is not a matter of deserving. We rejoice and are grateful for the good gifts of life, and our gratitude helps us enjoy those good gifts even more.
Pray. Not all prayer needs to be vocal. Silent prayer is powerful and important. Yet sometimes if we are to share the depth of our joy or sorrow with God, only our voice will do. Shouts of joy, cries of anguish are both prayers that God hears, and wants to hear.
Gentle words. Words of encouragement. I am deeply impressed by the fragility of spoken words. They are momentary. They are but breath. Yet for their fragility they are extraordinarily powerful. Hurtful words sting deeply. One of the helpful lies we learn growing up is that “sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt me.” I understand where it comes from, but it is not very true. Words can wound. Word can also heal and build. This past Wednesday there was a workshop on stewardship here at our church. Among those attending we a number of people from one of the churches in the district where I had been the superintendent. I knew a few of those people and as one of the people I knew introduced me to another person from that church, he complimented me on my work as superintendent, and told the other person what a good preacher I was. It felt great. We let our gentleness be known in encouraging and healing words.
Our whole lives includes our hearts. I am not using heart here literally, though a beating heart is an important part of our lives. I am using heart metaphorically, that capacity for feeling, sensing, intuiting the world. It is not opposed to thinking, and works well with thinking, but it is distinct from thinking. The psychologist Carl Jung once wrote this: What the heart hears are the great things that span our whole lives, the experiences which we do nothing to arrange but which we ourselves suffer (Gail Godwin, Heart). Our heart is our capacity to bring all our life together into a whole in ways that feel right. Our hearts, when they are functioning well, help us be open to the whole of our lives. Some of the wisest words I have ever read about the heart are these by Elizabeth Lesser: Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a larger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…. And the God of peace will be with you. As God’s people who follow Jesus we are invited to let our hearts be centered in and permeated by God’s peace. We are invited to let our hearts grow gentle – soft and expansive. We cultivate peace in an anxious world. Paul writes “do not worry about anything.” I wonder, “is he serious?” Look at the world around us. Think about some of the situations in your own family. Not worry?! Is that what the peace of God means, not worrying? If so, it seems a chimera, a pipe dream. I think instead that the peace that is to guard our hearts is full openness to the world, a realistic acknowledgement that things are sometimes difficult, that we worry sometimes, but that we don’t have to live with worry as our defining characteristic. Peace is not the absence of anxiety, it is finding a deeper center in the heart than our anxiousness.
Our whole lives include our minds. Thinking, thoughtfulness, have not always been seen as faith virtues, but I think they are just that. We want a thoughtful faith, and Paul encourages just such a faith. “Think about these things.” Paul is also aware that the mind, while a wonderful gift, can also stray off in all kinds of directions, and there are some things that are more worth thinking about than others. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Again, I don’t think Paul is being naïve here. He is not simply being a theological Bing Crosby – accentuate the positive. I think he understands that just as we have choices with our heart – whether or not to let ourselves be consumed by our anxiety or find a deeper peace, so we have choices with our minds. We don’t ignore the difficult, the ugly, the hurtful, the violent parts of our world. We know they are there. It is easy to get caught up in all that is wrong. But we miss too much if we stay there. God is at work in the world, and we see that work when we pay attention to the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the beautiful, the commendable, the excellent, the praiseworthy. The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch once wrote, “we are fed or damaged spiritually by what we attend to.” Paul knew that too, and encourages us to use our minds well and attend to the true, good and beautiful.
If we are to take into account the whole of our lives, we cannot ignore our actions. “Keep on doing the things…” Christian life has always been about our whole lives, inner and outer – a transformed heart, a thoughtful mind leading to appropriate actions - - - actions shaping heart and mind - - - all this being given voice in our words. We miss something of the wonder and beauty of our relationship to God if we ignore any part of the whole of our lives. Actions are a part of that – actions that are gentle, that can evoke praise, that tend toward justice and excellence.
As a parent, I hope Julie and I have taught our children well. As a parent, I hope I can learn from my children, too. Recently my children have been teaching me about actions appropriate to Christian faith. Our daughter Beth is back from Haiti and is now headed for Sweden as part of her medical education – Sweden, then India and Uganda. In Haiti, people who are going to have surgery that may require blood need to have family members or friends donate blood on their behalf before they can have the surgery. While in Haiti, there was a patient who needed surgery, who had been waiting some time for it, but had no one to donate blood for him. Our daughter, the chief surgeon and another person on their team went and donated blood so this man did not have to wait any longer.
Our daughter Sarah and her roommate at St. Kate’s competed in a contest this fall, a roommates contest. There were some feats of skill (golf ball stacking, etc.) and some questions about how well you knew your roommate. The grand prize was a Kindle reader. Well, Sarah and her roommate won. But Sarah already has a Nook reader, and knowing how much her brother enjoys reading too, and knowing that he is going through a tough time, she gave her newly won Kindle to him. Keep on doing these things.
Feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether in her spiritual memoir wrote, “To be more and more fully alive, aware and committed, this is surely the meaning of a journey in faith” (Disputed Questions, 13). Our spiritual journey as God’s people who follow Jesus is a journey toward being more and more fully alive, aware and committed. It is a journey that involves our whole lives – voice, heart, mind, action.
And if you think this is some standard for saints only, think again. Paul begins this chapter with an encouragement to two women, Euodia and Syntyche to come to some agreement. He encouraged the community to help them find it. It is to a community of people in some conflict, human as can be, that Paul writes his remaining words about life lived in the Spirit of Jesus – a life with voices that sing and pray and speak words of encouragement and gentleness, a life of the heart centered in peace, a life of the mind attending to the good, true and beautiful, a life lived in love.
As people of God who follow Jesus we know that this is about our whole lives. We’re good guys who strive to be good our whole lives. Amen.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Are You Saved?

Sermon preached October 2, 2011

Text: Matthew 21:33-46

Are you saved? How many of you have ever been asked that question? How many of you have ever been asked that question by someone you had never met before they asked the question.
I entered the question into an internet search engine – googled it – and found some interesting results including this story told by a retired Ohio University professor. The professor had two young men appear at his door and they began asking him some questions. Did he have a Bible in the house? He assured them he did and wanted to know if they were interested in Hebrew, Greek, German, French, or Spanish – or did they prefer an English translation? They followed up by saying they wanted to take a “religious census” – which turned out to be another way for them to ask the professor “are you saved?” They asked if the professor believed that the Bible is the Word of God? He told them he believed anything could be a symbol for God. They asked if he believed the Bible to be inerrant. “I admitted that I could not recall having found a misspelled word, or punctuation error, or an omitted line in any edition of the Bible…. That did not seem to be what my visitors had in mind.” They asked if he believed that the Bible is the infallible Word of God revealed for our salvation. I replied that before I could answer that question, I’d have to know whether they had in mind Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, or Bezae. I must say to their credit that they perceived dimly that I was referring to texts from which translations are made. But they felt I was evading their questions. The conversation deteriorated from that point on. (“Brother, Are You Saved” Troy Organ, The Christian Century October 15, 1975)
If we have ever had anyone come to our door or approach on the street and ask a question such as, “Are you saved?” we can appreciate the humor in this anecdote. We must admit that those who ask the question ask it very seriously and they believe the right or wrong answer has serious consequences. Most of the other web-sites that came up when I googled “Are you saved?” provided very different kinds of responses. There were a few tests, and most had to do with whether or not you believed a series of statements (Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Heaven and hell are literal and real. Jesus blood, not just his death, takes away sins.), or had certain kinds of experiences (Baptized, received the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues). If you believe the right things and have the right experiences you are right with God and will be given heaven as a reward in the afterlife. If you are not right with God, well…. And there is a clear demarcation between those who are saved and those who are not saved. You are either in or out.
The Pharisees in Jesus time knew they were saved. They knew all the things that needed to be done to be right with God, and they were doing them. They were the in group – in the know, in the right relationship with God.
Jesus tells this in group, the Pharisees and chief priests a little story, a kind of weird, scary story. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He made improvements on the land – built a fence, dug a wine press, built a watchtower. There is a clear echo here of a passage from Isaiah (Isaiah 5): My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. The Pharisees would have knows this passage, and they considered themselves to be those of God’s vineyard who yielded the right kind of fruit. Those outside were wild grapes.
But Jesus changes the story up. The landowner leases the vineyard to tenents, and when harvest comes he sends his slaves to collect the produce. Twice, slaves are sent and twice the tenants treat them miserably, even killing some. Jesus story is a bit gruesome. Finally he sends his son. Kind of a strange twist, but he expects that his son will be respected. He is not. Instead he is killed – the tenants thinking that they now will possess the vineyard for themselves. Those listening to Jesus story are outraged and think that the owner will wreck vengeance on the current tenants and give the land to others. Then Jesus springs a surprise. You who think you have it all right, you have missed it. You who want to define the religiously in and out so markedly don’t get it. So the kingdom of God will be alive in those who produce fruits of the kingdom (love, justice, righteousness, peace, reconciliation, gentleness, kindness – Isaiah 5, Galatians 5).
So those who clearly define the religiously in and out are the ones who don’t get it. Those who think that a right relationship with God is like a vineyard that one can possess, and they cling to it with a certain violent intensity, are the very ones who are stumbling in their journey of faith.
Isn’t it ironic, then, that some who follow Jesus – teller of riddles and stories – have often gotten to that same place as the Pharisees. Here is the Cotton Patch rendering of part of Matthew 21. The ministers and church people listened to his Comparisons, and were aware that they were aimed at them. Are you saved? Those who ask the question in that way often believe that the answer is a simple “yes” or “no” – and if you don’t know then surely you are not saved. And the demarcation between the saved and unsaved is clear and distinct. There is an in group and an out group.
This story complicates things. Jesus does not always keep it simple. The story seems to say that God’s grace, God’s intention for the world in love (the kingdom of God) is not about owning. God’s grace is not about in and out, not about you clearly have God’s grace or you clearly don’t. There is something in God that doesn’t love a wall. God’s grace, God’s kingdom is not about who is in and who is out, it is about growing and producing. It is about a journey. It is about where you are and who you are becoming.
A youth pastor was once discussing the baptism of Jesus with his youth group. He focused on the phrase in Mark’s gospel where it says that at the baptism of Jesus the heavens were “torn apart” (1:10). The youth group was not really getting into the Bible study. Sometimes that happens. The youth pastor sought to turn it up a notch. “This is amazing, truly! Look at this: Mark says that the heavens have been torn apart. Do you know what that means? That means that now we all have direct access to God. There’s nothing between us and God! Isn’t that wonderful?” Finally, a young man responded. “No, that’s not what it means.” While the youth pastor was glad for a response, he was puzzled by the challenge. “What do you mean? Do you have some insight into the Greek here?” “Torn apart. Yeah. It means that now God can get at us. It means that now no one is safe” (Anthony Robinson, Changing the Conversation, 64-65).
God’s grace is not something we possess, we own. God in grace keeps coming to us again and again and again – wave upon wave, like the landowner sending person upon person to his vineyard. Jesus’ story suggests that the question “Are you saved?” leading to a yes/no, in/out response is not the best question. Better to ask, where are you on the journey? What kind of fruit is your life producing? How are you experiencing this God who tears open the heavens to come to us again and again and again? These are the questions we should be asking, asking ourselves. We don’t need some stranger knocking on our door to ask. I appreciate the sincerity of those who want to know if I am saved. I worry about the consequences of a too simple understanding of that question though – yes/no in/out. Sometimes those who ask are quite smug in the certainty that they are among the saved.
On this World Communion Sunday, where we celebrate the wonderful variety in the church, it seems especially fitting that I share my favorite googled response to “Are you saved?” It was a brief video produced by the Orthodox Church. In the video, the person responds: I was saved – saved 2000 years ago by the gracious action of God in Jesus Christ; I am being saved daily; I will be saved in the end. We are saved in the sense that God is who God is, and the nature of God is love and grace – a love and grace that comes wave upon wave. No one is safe! We are loved by God simply because we are. We are being saved as we respond to this love of God in our lives and are changed by it – producing fruits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, righteousness. We are on a journey and the better question is not an in/out question but a where are you question. We finally trust that living our lives in relationship to God as we know God in Jesus Christ, God will care for us when this life ends. Amen.