Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Five at the "Perfect Church"

I haven't done a Friday Five in a while. The prompt(s) come from here and this Friday's is:

Please pardon me for talking about church in the summer when many of you may be on vacation. However, the church we are talking about today is the one you dream of. I've been thinking about this because I miss pastoring and preaching, because I am sending in resumes, and because...well...jut because. So have some fun with this. Tell us five things that the perfect church would have, be, do...whatever.

We can dream, right?

So, my initial reaction is that there is no such thing as the perfect church on this side of Christ's return. As we strive for wholeness in and as the Body of Christ, we also struggle with the realities of our humanness, the fallen world and the forces that oppose God and God's kingdom (see Satan).

However, I am also in a transitional call and my congregation could and should ask me what I would like to see in a church, so having given this some thought and prayer- here goes:

A congregation working toward wholeness in Christ and acknowledging the on-going work of sanctification by the Spirit would:

1) Have more than one kind of service on a semi-regular basis. I don't like segregation of services or music. I think as a congregation we are called to embrace similar visions and understandings of Christ and of the people's work in liturgy. That being said, most people are spiritually fed by different things. Some people like world praise music, some people never want to hear a drum or see a dancer, some people want to feel free to lift their hands, other people would prefer not have clapping. We can't always accommodate everyone, but an occasional service outside of the "regular" worship could open the doors to people within and without the congregation who seek a different kind of spiritual nourishment now and then.

2) Embraces and encourages children to participate and be seen in church life- from worship to Sunday School to church projects. Jesus said, "Let the children come to me." I love to see churches where all children are encouraged to do all kinds of things. Too young to offer the cup- carry a pick up tray. A child who can't be seen over the podium or pulpit, but who speaks and reads well can still lead the Psalm with a hand-held microphone. The more involved children are at a young age, the more likely they will be to be involved after confirmation (which is NOT the end of church). I know kids are very busy these days, but we either say to them that they are important and church participation is too (by creating opportunities for them in the church)... or we keep lamenting the absence of young people in our congregations.

3) Does not think the pastor does everything. Said church also doesn't let the pastor do everything. The Spirit longs and strives to use everyone. In the perfecting church, there is shared empowerment, encouragement and mutual support for ministry.

4) Has at least two regular adult education offerings, one of which might be taught by the Pastor. I LOVE to teach about the Bible, but the pastor's Bible class doesn't have to be the only educational option. And I'm not the only one who has Biblical insights. And there are well-written books, discipleship studies, hands-on group lessons and all kinds of other things that incorporate Biblical messages and can and should be explored for the growth and life of the church. A perfecting church also exhibits excitement about the Bible, Biblical teaching and discussion! :)

5) Exhibits forgiveness. Church people can really hurt one another, intentionally and unintentionally. A church that is growing can only begin to experience fullness by letting go of the binding pain of the past. I realize it doesn't mean that people forget what happened, but grudge holding doesn't move anyone forward.

Again, I would say that there is no perfect church on this side of the resurrection, but we are called to acknowledge and believe in the eternal and constant work of Christ in and through us- bringing His perfection into fruition through the Church on earth.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shame, shame

Genesis 3:8-10

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
10 So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

Yesterday I was listening to commentary about this article in the New York Times. The author was being interviewed about how to talk to patients about weight issues when it is clear that she struggles with this issue herself. She mentioned that it isn't simply an issue of people feeling shame about being overweight. She said, "If shame would work, we would be the thinnest nation on earth."

I think about shame a lot. Another pastor I know frequently talks about the loss of shame in our culture as a value and as a shaper of behavior. In recent decades, we have come to view shame as negative, something that doesn't contribute to our well-being and should be shed and pushed aside.

Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another

Guilt: the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law; culpability

I think we have moved to embrace guilt because it can more easily be dismissed. If you are (eventually) able to reason that your offense was not real or not as great as you imagined- then you can move forward.

Shame is a different feeling. To admit to being ashamed of one's self is to acknowledge one's guilt and the understanding of transgression. Shame is to acknowledge not just the presence of sin in one's life, but the truth and the reality that one can, does and will sin. When we talk about sin as a separation from God and that we are all guilty of it, we can have some distance from the painful chasm that is created by this separation.

When we honestly admit that our sin, our things done and left undone, have moved us from where God desires us to be and from where we are fully able to understand and grow in relationship with God and with one another. Feeling ashamed of our sin can move us forward into the real confession of bearing our souls (to the One who already knows them) and of embracing the cleansing and creating of a new heart.

Is there a way we can re-incorporate shame in a healthy way into our Christian understanding? It would involve a celebration of knowing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and, simultaneously, knowing that we take advantage of that fact daily, to our detriment.

I don't want to endorse a Puritanical notion of shame and constant mea culpa, but I do think there is a place for shame in our lives and in our spiritual self-understanding and practice.

Monday, July 6, 2009

God's Recreation

Yesterday, we enjoyed a little hymn sing at church. For many of the hymns I was listening to how many people were singing and enjoying themselves through praising God. We had the church doors open and it was a fantastic service.

Afterwards, someone asked me about the spelling of "recreation"- as in playtime. I spelled it and then noted it was the same as re-creation. That's when the person pointed out that we sang about God's "recreation" (playtime) at the end of "Morning Has Broken".

The last verse of the hymn is:

Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God's recreation of the new day.

Now, in my hymnal, re-cre-a-tion is drawn out just like that for singing ease. However, I suppose it could be sung either way. God is re-creating us and the new day, every day and we celebrate that each morning.

On the other hand, I do like the idea of the morning as God's playtime- the time when there is freshness, opportunity and grace abounding as God walks through the garden.

This is a beautiful arrangement of the song with pictures of lovely animals. They sing "re-creation".

Sufficient (5 July)

EZEKIEL 2:1-5; PSALM 123; 2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10; MARK 6:1-13

When I was 11 or 12, I thought 16 was a magical age. I dreamed that when I turned 16, I would wake up and have beautiful hair that bounced around my shoulder. I assumed I would have stopped biting my fingernails and they would be long and gorgeous. I thought I would be taller, trimmer and tanner. When that didn’t happen on my 16th birthday, I figured it would on my 18th. 21st? 30th?

Learning to accept how he looks is hardly the thorn in the flesh that Paul describes in today’s reading. We know from his other letters that he wasn’t a terribly good-looking guy and by the time he is sending this letter to the Corinthians- he has been beaten several times and bears the scars of those bruises. In addition to his struggles in mission work, he has been afflicted with some kind of chronic ailment that makes his life a bit difficult.

Lots of hot air and ink have been used to speculate what that ailment might have been. However, Paul reveals that he has prayed several times to be relieved from the pain and since it has not happened, he interprets God’s answer to be “no”. Just as God said no to Moses about entering the Promised Land, to David about healing the first child born to him through Bathesheba and to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes God does say “no”.

Paul interprets God’s no to mean that God wants him to continue in this situation. Whatever the thorn in his flesh is, Paul comes to see it as God’s way of tempering him and keeping Paul focused on God’s words and God’s mission. As Paul writes and dictates his letters, we see his love and frustration pour out for the congregations he loves, but he has to be held back- so that his zeal does not overwhelm the message that he has been sent to carry. This thorn gives him pause and makes him remember that he is not the one with the power. God is shaping the Corinthians, the Roman church, the Philippians. God’s own grace should be and is sufficient for Paul, for each of these churches and for us. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.

What does it mean to be weak? Or, even, what does it mean to boast in weakness? Does it mean that we should brag to one another about our physical or emotional struggles? Or about our hardships? See how the Lord has blessed me with this hardship. Oh, how fortunate for you that God has seen fit to bless you with financial struggle. While we are called and we must remember that God causes all things to work for good for those who love him, we don’t necessarily have to embrace a thorn in our side as a desirable part of life. Inevitable, perhaps. Mysterious, certainly. Desirable, never.

Consider the people of Nazareth in the gospel story. They are blinded by the Jesus they believe they know. Didn’t he make our table? Didn’t he work on your house? Are his brothers miracle workers? Is his mother so special? The shelf he made for me broke after three months of use. They are unable to approach him with faith and, for the most part, he is unable to reveal the glory of God to them.

I do always find that line interesting within the gospel, “And he [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” So somewhere in the town, there were people who had heard and believed in who Jesus was and the power of God within him.

The unbelief of Nazareth and their rejection of Jesus, however, is the fire stoker that the disciples need. They have struggled with believing who Jesus is and understanding the power source of his abilities. However, when they see his inability to work with the people who have no faith- they are suddenly more clued in and, thus, are able to go out teaching and healing.

They are sent out with very little, but armed with the good news of Jesus Christ, God with us and the whole world. The thorn in their flesh may be their initial uncertainty in what to say, worry about acceptance, ability to heal or cast out demons or any other variety of concerns. Yet God goes out with them and people are healed, fed and the Word is preached.

There are many things that can stop each of us from going out and sharing the gospel. The thorn in our flesh may be that we are not as able to leave the house as we once were, that we are afraid to speak of what we believe, that we worry about what people may think about what we have to say or about us when we say it.

We have an idea of someone to call or to visit or to whom we could send a card, but we worry and then a week or two passes and we try to forget. But the Spirit doesn’t let us. That memory of what we need to do becomes a thorn in our side. And even as we wrestle with God to say we don’t think we can, God says to us as to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Each of us has been shaped by God-given special and specific gifts. As we age or encounter new difficulties, what God asks of us, specifically, may well change. However, God is still always seeking a relationship with us and a response from us. We look to the cross, where Christ’s own broken body did the reconciling work so that our relationship with God would be healed.

We must carry that knowledge in our hearts, believing that God’s grace is greater than our mistakes and that the Holy Spirit works with us and through us so that we can do the work God desires from us. Jesus is still sending us out, giving us power and preparing people, somewhere, to hear God’s good news. We are called to be like Paul, to persist beyond the thorn in our flesh, and to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs and for the needs of the whole world- this day and forever. Amen.

Disregard the Message (Sermon 28 June)

LAMENTATIONS 3:22-33; PSALM 30; 2 CORINTHIANS 8:7-15; MARK 5:21-43

There are two very interesting lines in today’s gospel text. The first come from the disciples when they say to Jesus, “You can see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” The second comes when Mark is describing Jesus’ reaction to the news that Jairus’ daughter is dead. A better translation than what we have for this verse is “Ignoring what they said (or disregarding the message), Jesus says to Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Let’s think about the settings of those two lines for a minute. Jesus has come back to the land of the Jews after being with non-Jews. There are crowds that are waiting for him. Most likely, there are people who have camped on the lakeshore, awaiting his return. As soon as he gets out of the boat, there are people around him- full of requests, desires and hopes for what he can do for them. The crowd parts a little to allow a leader of the synagogue to come through. They would have recognized the quality of his clothing and his official status. Jairus cares enough that he doesn’t send a messenger for Jesus- he comes himself to ask for aid for his daughter.

In the same crowd is a woman who is elbowing her way through the people- one crowded layer at a time, probably with her face covered so no one will recognize her,. She doesn’t want people to see her and know who she is because, according to Jewish law, she is unclean and anyone who touches her is as well. She sees Jesus as her last hope and she is determined to get to him and just to touch him.

Both Jairus and the woman are commended for their faith and urged to hold onto it. They have claimed their gift from the Spirit, this gift of faith, and the Spirit is using it within them. It would have been easier for Jairus to stay with his daughter and send someone else. It would have been easier for this woman to decide her life was over and would never improve. However, from within them, their faith cried out, moved their feet and pushed them through the people to Jesus’ side.

Then we find the disciples, who can’t believe Jesus would know that someone had touched him and want to know who that is. Let’s keep in mind that by this stage in Mark, which is only chapter 5, the disciples have seen Jesus cast out demons, heal Peter’s mother-in-law, heal a paralytic, heal a leper, calm the storm on the seas and respond to the pleas of Gentiles, non-Jewish people. That’s just the stories for which we have details. I would say it’s safe to assume there was much, much more.

Nevertheless, when Jesus lifts a hand to silence the crowd and ask who touched him, the disciples deride him. “Lord, people are constantly touching you. Why bother asking?” However, Jesus knows who has approached him with faith. Jesus knows that someone has come to him, not with the desire for magic, but with the desire for genuine healing that only he can offer. He has felt that healing leave his body and he seeks a relationship with the recipient.

Many times in our world, people who do not believe look at those of us who do try to live lives of faith with similar derision to the disciples. To these people, our prayers, our expectations and our seeking of answers makes no sense. Clearly, if God wanted people to believe, God would make them. They would say, “People are constantly asking God for things and telling him about the world’s situation. Why would God listen to you?”

However, we see in this story, and throughout the Bible, that God is pursuing us with goodness and mercy, that God is fighting for us, that God is sheltering us, and that God desires a relationship with us. God as the Trinity is constantly initiating and re-initiating relationship with us, so that we are constantly presented with chances to respond, to strengthen our faith, to participate in the coming of the kingdom.

Jesus felt that kind of response in the woman, who risked everything, one more time, to reach out and touch him. God in Christ felt the presence of that faith and responded so that the relationship could be deepened. The disciples are still unable to see that and, often, the world is watching us to see if we will give up or if we will push through, again, to ask for the impossible and to believe we can receive it.

Which bring us to the second line, “Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”” Servants have come to report that the leader’s daughter is dead. There is nothing more that Jesus can do. There is a fear in Jairus’ eyes that this message is true. There is nothing more that Jesus can do. However, we are never called to decide when Jesus’ abilities have run out, when he can’t help any more.

His constant breaking of barriers, touching unclean people, offering new interpretations of scripture, welcoming outcasts and disrupting the comfortable, reveals to us that we are not the determiners of when and how God will work. Jesus shows us that these things do not, cannot and will not affect our relationship with God.

In the face of cancer, disability, war, poverty, exclusion, hopelessness, and so many other factors that are present in this world, we are called, like Jesus, to disregard the message that has been reported. The message that God is dead. That God does not care. That there is nothing that can be done. That no further healing is possible. That the end is near.

Disregard the message that has been reported. We don’t believe in a magic God whose healing is a presto-chango elixir. We believe in a healing God, whose mercy and grace are restorative, who delivers in ways we do not expect. We have come to know this does not always mean we get what we want or even what we think we need, but we do receive what God knows we need in a measure that we can handle.

We are called, through our faith, into that relationship with God, wherein we can say, “This is not what I wanted. Where are you? Help me to see you. Forgive me. Please be with this person. Give us your promised peace.” And we can ask for these things with the same level of expectation that caused Jairus to leave his daughter’s side and the woman to leave her home and try one more time for healing.

When people ask how we manage in difficulty, we can respond with faith, “I know who has touched me.” Through faith, we are able to disregard the message that life ends at death, that there are no more miracles, that physical well-being is the only desirable outcome and that God is not active in the world.

Many people who do not believe want faith to prove something. They want to have God’s presence proven to them. God’s action obviously revealed to them. However, faith is that hope in things unseen. Who touched me? She is only sleeping. This mustard seed can grow to a great plant. God’s gift of faith to us doesn’t prove anything. But it does everything.

Father's Day Sermon (21 June)

JOB 38:1-11; PSALM 107:1-4, 12-15; 2 CORINTHIANS 6:1-13; MARK 4:35-41

There’s been a lot of fighting in the news this week from here in Anchorage to the streets of Iran- people have been arguing about rights and routines. Some of this fighting has been physically violent and some of the fighting has been through strong words and emotional struggle. With this fighting in the back of our minds, we look at some of the texts for this week and think about how and why God fights and what that means for us in our life of faith.

In the text from Job, God tells Job to get ready for a fight. That’s what it means to “gird up your loins”. Job, like other men of his time, would have worn a long loose robe. To prepare for battle or for a physical altercation, they would pull up the back of the robe and tuck it in their belt. Thus they would be ready for the fight. After thirty-some chapters of listening to Job’s friends explain how he must be less righteous than he thinks and listening to Job lament the state of his existence, the Lord has had enough.

So He tells Job, “You want the truth. Get ready for it because it will knock you over. Come on out and let’s talk about what you have to say. You have questions; well, boy, do I have answers.” The answers Job got may not have answered the questions he thought he was asking, but they shed light on a different kind of truth- the truth by which he had lived and, more importantly, the truth by which God abides.

Certainly Job had been afflicted and seemingly without cause, but God said, “It is not that you haven’t been righteous or that you have been, but that I have a picture and a plan that is larger than you. Do you know all the ways of the world? Are you intimately acquainted with how the universe works? Do you have the kind of knowledge and love that can only come from being the creator of such works?”

Job’s personal agony brought out a fight in him that covered up the real matter. Because his friends and family offered suggestions for why such terrible things were happening to him, Job lost sight of what had given him stability before. What he thought had been solid faith shook a little when God turned out to act in unexpected ways.

However, unexpectedness is always God’s way, even though we, like Job, can forget that. Let’s think for a moment about the story of David and Goliath. That story is part of the semi-continuous lectionary this week. While we are not specifically hearing that reading, the whole Bible ties together and that story provides a good example of the fighting God. When we think of the story of David and Goliath, we often see it in our minds as the triumph of the underdog, a small shepherd, over the mighty, in this case- a Philistine giant.

Yet, that’s not actually the message of David and Goliath. Yes, David was a small shepherd whose abilities were doubted even by Saul, the Lord’s anointed. Yes, Goliath was a giant among men and a fierce warrior among warriors. However, the triumph over him didn’t come from David’s own determination. Listen to David’s words to Goliath before he winds up the slingshot, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

In a political fight against a seemingly overwhelming enemy, the gift of victory belongs to God for it is God who ultimately has the power. The triumph of David over Goliath points to the faith, that mustard seed to bush-and-tree-faith, that believes in the long-ranging strength of the hand and in the plan of the Lord. That faith calls us to lean not on our own understanding because our understanding can cause us to be Job’s friends, looking for unrighteousness where it might not be, or to be the army of Israel, doubting the power of God to demonstrate his strength against his foes.

Of course, the disciples, in their own understanding, had every reason to believe they might drown, every reason except for one. Didn’t Jesus just take them aside and explain the seeds of faith to them? In private, did he not reveal to them that God had planted these seeds within them? Had they not just learned about whom this Jesus the Christ was? And yet they immediately cling to the side of the boat and start yelling for Jesus to wake up and do something, lest they die, “Rabbi, do you not care that we are dying?” You’d think these fishermen had never been in a storm before.

Jesus stands and calms the waves. Well, that’s a little mild. In this passage, the words in Greek are the same fierce words Jesus uses when he casts out demons. “Be still” is no gentle calming, but an intense invective- one that can only come with authority, the authority that is within the Creator of the universe, whose power the universe recognizes and whose authority that creation obeys. “Be still!”

Jesus then speaks to the disciples, “Have you no faith?” What happened here? Haven’t we talked about what God has sown in you? And this is your response- cowering in fear and wringing helpless hands?

In the song “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is this line, “For God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit.” This means for those who believe, in the midst of struggles and our joys, God’s own self is fighting for us. When we are like Job and overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives, God’s Spirit battles on our behalf so that we will not feel hopeless. God engages us, as he does his servant Job, to bring our attention to the larger message of creation and the continued work of God’s hand in obvious and mysterious ways.

God’s Spirit shores us up, like David, so that we can face the insurmountable foe of the world and the forces that oppose God. Rather than let us be overcome by helplessness or fear of death, God fights to remind us that the cross is the most powerful weapon and we live in, with and through the power of the resurrection- the triumph over the grave, as well as all political and worldly powers.

And we are reminded in Jesus that God is the ruler of the universe. When we feel nearly swamped, we do not need to call for God to wake up and notice our peril, for God is awake and is right beside us in our travels and our travails.

Far too often, we believe that we fight alone and we become exhausted. Today’s texts point to a different reality and the real truth. Not only do we not fight alone- we are not leading the fight. We wrestle with fear, faithlessness and foes that are unimportant. God our Father is the fighter and He fights on behalf of the whole creation.

We are called to be supporters in that fight. We are called to use our gifts and our faith to point others to the true power and ruler of the world. Like Job, we are called to remember who made this world and loves it. Like David, we are called to stride out in faith and give the glory to God in all things. Like the disciples, we are called to open our eyes and to live by the words that Jesus has spoken. Consider God’s power and rejoice that the pressure of that power is not upon you, but rests solely with the one who made you. On this day and all days, we are called to celebrate and dedicate ourselves to God, our fighter and our Father.