Saturday, March 25, 2006

March 26 sermon. Light and the Darkness and the Dusk

Sermon Texts:
Ephesians 2: 1-10
John 3: 14-21

You’ve heard stories from people for whom the experience of salvation was so impacting that it turned their life around completely. It is usually the case that they sink to a certain depth and then ask God for redirection, and they mark that experience as the distant reminder of what they had been and now are. It is like they are one of those wind up toys which hits the wall, spins around and zooms off in the opposite direction. The wheels don’t turn, they just stay on course.
Tom Long, professor at Emory, wrote in a recent issue of Christian Century about the conversion stories that Chrisitians often tell. He described a musician who was on Larry King talking about his faith who from an early age was blessed with a vibrant faith and a musical gift. Eventually, shaking the dust off his little town, he took his faith and his keyboard and headed toward the bright lights of Nashville. He found some success, but he also found drugs—lots of them. A life once young and hopeful soon spiraled out of control: a faith once alive soured into despair. One desperate night, he came apart emotionally and found himself lying face down on the linoleum floor of his kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God for salvation. He told Larry King “I woke up the next day,and I haven’t been the same since. That was 28 years ago. I give credit to the Lord.” Reflecting on three decades of sobriety and productivity, he said “I think God just rescued me.”
I have to agree with Tom Long when he admits that he doesn’t have much patience for hearing pastors give this kind of testimony about themselves in the pulpit. Seems simplistic and naïve. It somehow turns the faith walk into a long jump. Growing up in a Baptist town without a story of redemption like this musician’s was trying at times. My mother and father gently suggested that perhaps salvation isn’t an event, but that perhaps it began when I was born into a community of faith and baptized among them as an infant. They would tell me that salvation is a continuing process. Perhaps it is a lifelong experience instead of a moment of clarity.
Tom Long suggests that frankly though, the real reason why such stories of sin and salvation cause us discomfort may well be that they bring us too close to the molten core of the Christian faith. We prefer to leave the control rods in the reactor, but as much as we might like to domesticate the gospel, to make the faith about spiritual enlightenment or ethical ideals or the broad love of God that inspires tolerance, the fact of the matter is that the gospel is at root a rescue story. Even Jesus’ name, as theologian William Placher reminds us, means “the Lord Saves.”
I feel somewhat convicted. The majority of what I have said to you from this pulpit is about spiritual enlightenment and ethical ideals and the broad love of God which inspires tolerance. Perhaps part of the problem is that I don’t usually see myself as ever having been “bogged down in the depths of sin.” God hasn’t helped me kick any habits. I haven’t had any radical changes of heart. Christ hasn’t miraculously caused me to love some group of people I once hated, because I’ve never really hated a particular group of people. The point of me saying all this is not for you to admire how great an example I am, it is to ask the question, perhaps for more than just myself, what do you do when your religion is about rescue, but you don’t really feel adrift at sea. Is it akin to throwing a life preserver to someone who already sits in the lifeboat? “Oh, thanks—I appreciate that. Hope I don’t need to use it!?”
John uses drastic dualisms to communicate to us the mystery and the power of salvation. Specifically, a favorite motif of John’s is the Light and the Dark. Well, if I just take John’s imagery to heart I might assume that there is a reason I don’t feel in need of rescue—there at the end of today’s passage, it says very clearly, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” I knew I was on the right track—it feels good to be in the light. Sorry to all of you who “hate the light” and would rather creep around with your addictions and your predjudices and your shame. Come on into the light, the water’s fine!
There is a beautiful short story by Ernest Hemingway called “A clean, well lighted place.” The anecdote revolves around the difference between a clean, bright cafe and a dark, not-so-clean, bar as a place for lonely men to spend the long, sleepless nights. Two waiters discuss a lingering patron in a cafe who overstays his welcome as the night wears on. The old man gets quietly drunk each night; just last week he tried to kill himself, but was rescued.
Tonight he tries to pass the night in a clean, well-lighted place. The young waiter, impatient, to get home to his wife, does not comprehend the importance of this place to this old man's survival. The older waiter, who does understand, walks into the night himself, unable to find his own clean, well-lighted place in which to pass a lonely and sleepless night.
Perhaps the duality that Jesus uses for Nicodemus and that Hemingway uses in his own story is more an illustration of an experience of salvation rather than a sustained mode of being though. I don’t feel like I live in the gleaming light of righteousness, even though I don’t have any rescue stories. Perhaps the reality is that we live in the dusk. There is always the looming darkness, there is always a long shadow. If we are sustained in the bright noonday light, we may not be able to see our shadows lurking directly underneath us. As the day moves on, we become more aware of our shadows, the darkness that each and every one of us projects onto the world around us. Paul tells the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We may dwell in the light as church-going, open hearted, people trying to do well, but the fact is that we all cast a shadow, and the closer we get to the darkness, the more apparent that shadow becomes.
Paul tells the Ephesians, “You were dead through trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, but now by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing.” Prof. Long continues, “To see this statement as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit a cluster of truths about ourselves we would rather not face—that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and that we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue. IN short, we need saving. We can accommodate this perhaps, in a 12 step program, but to encounter it as a description of our true and basic selves sends us scrambling for safer ground.
This is why our spiritual father, John Wesley, prayed fervently for conviction. He could buy the idea that the world needed a savior, but wasn’t convinced that Christ saved him. It isn’t about being egotistical or humble. I don’t think it is egotistical to be honest about our perception that we stand in the light of God, we may very well have had experiences of sanctification in which we did feel bathed in God’s magnificent light. It is more about attention—some of you may be at a point of noonday light right now in your lives, some of you may be helpless in the darkness—most of us I would venture to say are living in between, in the early morning fog, waiting for the sun’s rays to burn away our confusion and doubt—hoping it is right around the corner. Some of us are probably in the waning hours of the afternoon, the late day light giving us the ability to see our long shadows stretching across our world and determined to do something to “turn back the clock” to those brighter hours when that shadow wasn’t there.
Jesus is clear to Nicodemus about one thing—the light isn’t in the world to judge it—the light falls out into the open, it illuminates everything, it is available to all who step out of the shadows. It doesn’t condemn what it reveals, it saves what it warms. In bringing to light our mistakes and transgressions, we can see them ourselves—and through this recognition, we can let go of them, we can drop them on the ground and stretch our hands and face toward the light. The judgment is that we love the darkness more than the light—we don’t want to see, we don’t want the world to see our mistakes—we want to pretend like they aren’t there.
Perhaps my own mistake about believing I don’t have any need for “rescue” is the idea that some “thing that I do” would keep me from salvation in the first place. Perhaps orienting myself in the light just because I haven’t had some crisis or secret shame that I have to relinquish IS the reason I need saving. Such works righteousness is a clear problem of the Pharisees like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus in the darkness, seeking enlightenment.
Instead of righteousness, the light that falls all over the ground is grace—you all know people who live in the midst of that grace, soaking it up, squeezing it out into the shadows where people live in fear and shame. That is what it is to live in the light, not some degree of “morality.”
Light-lovers soak up God’s grace through every pore of their being. They have sometimes come out of the darkness of despair and trespasses, and they have sometimes come out of the dusk of self-evaluation and confession.
The promise of God is that the Grace of Light is ever-present—it is always daytime without a cloud in the sky—we may be fearful about leaving behind our comfortable darkness, our false sense of security that gives us a sense of belonging or power. We step out naked into the light—the promise of God is that we are accepted by God just like a mother accepts and nurtures and loves the child that comes out of the darkness of the womb and into the light of the world. We should have no fear, because in the light we see our true purpose and our true nature—we are children of God and we are Kingdom builders! Amen

Monday, March 20, 2006

A word about this week's sermon

In this sermon, I refer to the "news" that Lara and Wesley and I are going to be moving to Tulsa this summer. I am tremendously thankful for the friendships and growth that the Waldron UMC has given me and my family. It was difficult to make the decision to request a move to the Oklahoma conference, but after much prayer and tears, Lara and I decided that this was the best opportunity for both of us to utilize our gifts and talents.

We have both always approached our professions as "callings," and Lara's calling is fairly specific--she specializes in evaluations for autism and learning disorders. She was recruited to the staff of Tulsa Developmental Pediatrics by her mentor from graduate school, and she will be replacing her position within the practice. This is an ideal professional arrangement for Lara, as she will be working part time and will still have plenty of time to be at home with Wesley G. I will be seeking an appointment in the Tulsa district, and will let you know what comes of that as soon as I hear.

Our prayers are focused on the continued strength of Waldron UMC. We know that this might be a tough transition for a church that has had 3 pastors in as many years. For this reason, our decision to move to Tulsa was not an easy one, but it is indeed where we feel God calling us.
Signs of hope and strength for the church in Waldron are evident--this week, on the same day we announced our coming departure, we also welcomed into membership Paige Bethel, who comes to us from Goddard UMC in Ft. Smith. She has found the community of faith at Waldron UMC to be welcoming and affirming of her discipleship. She has already volunteered to be part of our Relay for Life fundraising team, so we are truly blessed to have her as part of our family of faith. God's Spirit moves even in the difficult and painful moments of our shared walk of faith. I am confident that the next appointed pastor will build on the strengths of the church and continue to open new doors of possibilities for discipleship.

Sermon for Lent 3

Sermon Text
John 2: 13-22
1 Cor 1: 18-25

Upending the tables
Our text today is challenging. It doesn’t feature the comfy, “favorite uncle” type of Jesus that we are used to, but instead it tells of a wild man with a whip and fire in his eyes. This Jesus comes barging into a group of people trying to make a living and runs them out, scattering their livestock and throwing their money on the ground. In the process, Jesus “turns the tables” on a system of worship that had lost its sacredness.
I imagine the news today makes you feel like you have had the tables turned on you. This coming summer, you will have the fourth pastor in as many years.
I don’t want to encourage you to feel this way, but I want you to know that if you feel abandoned, let down by the system, or like the wind has been taken out of your sails, I can understand. Instead of “dropping out” and seeing attendance dwindle, I hope this church family continues to strengthen its mission, as it has been doing. I hope that this church continues to broadcast its purpose and message in the community, as it has been.
We welcome a new member of this congregation today—it is especially hopeful to recognize that the church continues in its mission to welcome people into our family of worship regardless of who stands in this pulpit on Sundays. The reason is that our real leader is among us even when we are but two or three in number. Christ, our cornerstone—is our captain and our pathway. Even though the story may seem like foolishness—Christ crucified is our hope and our redemption.
Today our scripture texts further the difficulty of following Christ. Our first scripture of Lent showed us Jesus going out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by Satan. Our reading last week told us that Christ knew that he must be rejected and killed to fulfill his mission. We should be ready and willing to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow. Some of you may have heard that the body of Tom Fox was found in Iraq—Fox was a peace activist who went to Iraq ready to die as a result of the witness of the King of Peace.
I read something in an introduction to Job that we used last Sunday in our bible study. Eugene Peterson wrote, “More often than not, people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more! When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.
Christ comforts us in our weakness. Our savior not only comforts the afflicted, he afflicts the comfortable. He turns over the tables of a place of worship and instills a new hope—one harder to grasp than the blood of animal sacrifice. Jesus knows he will put an end to the age of appeasing God with a sacrifice of “things.” He ushers in an age of appeasing God only with a sacrificed heart. “Tear down this temple, and in three days I will build a new temple,” he says…and he does!
In Christ’s temple—which is our very body and life—Christ cleans and purifies as well. We ask God for the privilege and challenge of being a living sanctuary, and we do this because Christ did first. When the temple authorities ask for an explanation and Jesus refers to his forthcoming resurrection, he is prophecying about God’s Spirit becoming unleashed on the world, not bound by the brick and mortar of a physical temple. Jesus cleanses the temple of our hearts of corruption just like he drives the corrupt system out of the Temple—he replaces the corruption with Hope.
St. Augustine of Hippo said, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."
Here is another lesson to be learned from this reading: the need for righteous anger in the face of injustice, extortion, and especially, the exploitation of vulnerable people.
We have to do some historical digging to see what stirred up Jesus’ wrath so much about this particular circumstance. The whole system of commerce in the Temple was well established, and indeed, quite a racket for the temple authorities. Historians tell us that once a year, Jewish males had to pay a temple tax, and that tax could be paid only in temple coin, not with Roman or Greek coins. Hence the moneychangers. But the moneychangers charged a huge fee for the exchange; often up to half the amount being changed went into their pockets, out of which the temple took its substantial cut.
Additionally any sacrifice offered at Passover had to be that of an animal without blemish. The temple authorities offered perfect animals for sale. Anyone bringing his own animal had to have it inspected by the priests. Not surprisingly, the animal was nearly always rejected, and the person had to buy another from the priests. Scholars tell us that a bird bought outside the Temple cost about 15 of our cents, but one from inside the Temple could cost many times as much.
So it was not simply the presence of the moneychangers and the animals offered for sale that so angered Jesus -- after all, they were services meant for the convenience of people who had to travel long distances to get to Jerusalem. No, it was the misuse of authority in the blatant and gross overcharging of even the poorest people that set him off.

Anger at such things is not a bad thing. It is a good, cleansing thing. Such anger is not the opposite of love. Anger at injustice is an appropriate expression of love -- it is a cry for righteousness.
Righteous anger is not a loss of control. Jesus is not out of control in this reading -- he's very clear about the targets of his wrath. Righteous anger is a taking of control, a move out of passive acceptance and toward change.
How have we turned the Sacred into a marketplace? There is a good bit of wisdom in a movie that some of you I’m sure would not find very tasteful—it’s called Dogma, and is a comedy about faith. In the movie, the church decides to exchange the crucifix image because it is too sullen and depressing. To replace the crucifix, the church unveils “The Buddy Jesus,” a cartoonish savior with a toothy grin, a wink, and a “thumbs up” gesture, saying “it’s all you, man.”
The message Kevin Smith, the filmmaker, is trying to make is that we American Christians tend to market Jesus, who is our Temple—whom we go to to encounter God. We market Jesus when we glamorize Jesus into the one who gives us a wink and a nod, giving us nothing but acceptance without placing on us any demands for repentance. This Jesus strokes our egos, gives us license to denigrate others who don’t see the world the way we do, and requires nothing from us but belief. When we sell this Jesus to the community, we mis-represent a Christ who may make life more difficult rather than easier. Lent is a time when we re-focus our lenses on the crucifix and begin to see the truth and beauty of what the world may know as foolishness.
This cross is good news because it saves us from the illusion that we should be happy go lucky in a world that is so painful and difficult for the majority of God’s creation. Buddy Jesus tells us it’s okay and we should turn a blind eye to the corrupt systems of destruction and idolatry. Perhaps we should pity those who suffer. The crucified Christ, the fool, tells us we should join the sufferers, we should enter the suffering and through it be changed, we should take up our cross and follow.
Easy answers and quick fixes are the merchant’s tables of our day, and the Jesus we encounter in this passage sends the coins flying.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Text: Job 42: 1-6

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.

They’re haunting words aren’t they? The words ring in our ears like funeral bells. Ashes to Ashes—I hear it and I taste the words. Ashes stick to your tongue, ashes cling to your clothes. When I preside at a funeral, I always feel a tremendous sense of humility when I turn toward the coffin before it is lowered into the ground, put my hand on it, and say, “We commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
I always think of the ashes that are the last part of a campfire. Faces are illuminated faintly by the slowly dying embers inside a haphazard bundle of logs. A night of stories, laughter, and fellowship naturally retires to a lulled hush as a campfire turns to ashes. Like campfires, our lives come to an end and we retire to ashes.
On this day we are called to remember that we are made from dust, and we will return to dust. Our life on this earth is finite—and as sure as our bodies, our societies, and even our sense of self arose from the primordial dust of time and space, all of it will return to this simple, yet inescapable origin. These words recall the creation story, in which God crafts our very existence from the dust and ash that is leftover from the tumultuous process of creating everything else. Many scientists posit a theory that the big bang will eventually collapse on itself in a dramatic reversal of infinite expansion. Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust. All will become nothing—and then what?

Though it may not be on the front of our minds, we will eventually die. Our bodies will decay or be burned, our mind and heart will cease being the place where our spirit resides, the memory of us will eventually fade among generations who had no immediate contact with our presence on this earth. Everything having to do with the vibrancy of my life will fade like that dimming campfire until there is nothing, not even a memory of me. Our tombstones will grow more and more worn, our names and lives will vanish with the winds of change.
Perhaps it’s just a folly of my youth, but I find it hard to imagine that there will come a time in the not so distant future when I will cease to exist, when my presence on this earth will not have amounted for anything. Perhaps I could tell myself that the world wouldn’t be the same without my presence having been in it, but how do I know that? One of my family Christmas traditions that makes my mom really happy is watching “It’s a wonderful life.” I’ve learned from repetitive viewing of George Bailey’s moral dilemma that I really do matter to the well being of the world, but there’s a more important source of my confidence that the world will be better off with me than without me even after I have died and been forgotten.
Though its “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” for me, I’ve given myself to something that lasts—God’s Vision! The mark you’ll receive on your forehead in a few minutes is a visible sign to ourselves and our community that we have made a decision about the placement of things in our lives. I see that mark on our forehead saying, “I commit myself to hoping for God’s Kingdom—and those efforts are going to make a lasting impression on the world.” Ash Wednesday is a gentle reminder that we are only temporary…..but God’s Vision is Eternal!
What is in God’s Vision? As Christians we believe it involves good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, liberty for those who are oppressed, voice for the voiceless, strength for the weak.
The symbolic role that John the Baptist saw Jesus fulfilling when Jesus came for baptism was to “Baptize with fire.” Christ brings a purifying fire to the world that we’ve constructed with our egos, with our ignorance, with our hatred, with our sin. We celebrate a God who raises a new and better vision of the world and of ourselves like a Phoenix from these very ashes. Though I may pass to dust before this Vision is realized, Christ calls us to Hope for “the day of God’s favor.”
We must not allow our own finality to cloud our vision of what God has in store for Creation. We are part of that story, and God needs us to help fulfill that vision. By participating in this ongoing creation, we turn dust into beauty—we turn ashes into a Kingdom! By recognizing our own finality, and in so doing giving up the idea that our own fulfillment should be the center of our attention, we have the opportunity to give ourselves fully to the task Christ has put before us—opening eyes to the Kingdom, the Vision of God.
The cross of ashes that you wear on your foreheads today is a testament to this Gospel. You might be stared at today by people who aren’t quite accustomed to this ritual, but when and if that happens I would encourage you to share the Good News that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Yes! The recognition that we are very temporary is Good News indeed! Why? Because when we recognize that we are temporary, we recognize that God’s Love is eternal. When the false idols of our very understanding of “Self” crumbles to the ground, we fall down on our knees in awe and wonder at the great “I AM.” When we contemplate our endpoint, we no doubt remember our starting point. At each end, we see a Loving creative God--The one who made us, who fashioned us lovingly with mud and dust and Breathed the Breath of Life into our nostrils. This Alpha is also the Omega—waiting to change us into new creations as our bodies wither and die, and the Breath that was breathed into us at birth is taken back into the One who Breathed.
This is our hope, this is our testimony. This is why we do funny things like wearing a cross of ashes on our foreheads. What is old has died, and in us—in new wineskins, new wine is poured. ThanksbetoGod!