Monday, August 27, 2007

Rebel with a Gospel

Luke 13: 10-17

Preached August 26, 2007 at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist churches.

Jesus is a rebel. Today’s Gospel passage is merely one example of this, there are many others. He’s a rebel, but he’s a rebel with a cause, to borrow the phrase.

It’s a funny idea, to think of Jesus with the leather jacket, slicked back hair, comb sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans. But those are the clothes of one of the most familiar forms of rebellion available to us as Americans, thanks to Happy Days and James Dean.

Americans have had many images of rebellion, from white-wigged Colonials to women carrying hatchets into bars, from confederate flags to Black Power fists in the air. American History could be studied as a string of rebellions, one after the other, beginning with the Pilgrims and ending with any number of modern struggles for civil rights.

But some of these rebellions have been for the purpose of making people’s lives better, they’ve had the welfare of whole classes of people in mind. Others have just been exercises of ego, teenage knee jerk reactions to the world around them.

Jesus’ rebellion against the powers of his world would of course be one of the former. We know the story of his turning over the tables in the temple. What we have been taught was that it was because they were selling stuff inside the temple walls. What I’ve learned in my travels, though, is that they needed to do that in that place. Outside of the temple, the coin of the realm was Roman, and because Roman coins had pictures of the Emperor on them, and he claimed to be God, they were considered unholy within the walls of the temple. The people who came to sacrifice came from miles and miles away, and carrying the animal they would sacrifice was quite a hardship. It was more than a matter of convenience to be able to buy the animal for sacrifice once you got there, but you needed to buy the animal with shekels, not Roman coins. That’s why the tables were there. Jesus wasn’t rebelling against the sale of sacrificial animals, he was rebelling against the “moneychangers”; the people who were switching Roman coin into shekels. They were taking advantage of the people, and making a fortune in unfair profit off of the ritual requirement of sacrifice in the temple. Jesus is rebelling against the system that allowed this unfair profit. He wasn’t ritually dangerous to the powers of the Temple, he was economically dangerous.

So, too, here, in our story, he is dangerous. The synagogue leader, when he objects to the woman being healed on the Sabbath right in the middle of the synagogue, objects on the grounds of the ritual being broken. “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days be cured, and not on the Sabbath day”, he says. If we were to read this at face value, it would indeed be a defense of the ritual over and against the needs of a person.

For us Protestant Christians, synagogues can be strange places. I went to the Czech republic once on a choir tour in college. And we were able to visit the “Old New Synagogue” there, during Sabbath services. (It’s called the Old New Synagogue because when it was built, in the 13th century, it was the newer of two.) It was an Orthodox synagogue, and so the women of the choir had to go into another room, which looked into the main room where the Torah was through slats in a stone wall that was probably a foot thick.

The service was very informal, in many ways. During part of the service, which was all in either Hebrew or Czech, there was a constant low rumble of side conversations. A young man leaned over to me and started talking to me in English about what I’d seen, where I was from, all that usual tourist stuff. In the middle of a question, he stops, says very casually, “excuse me”, and then goes up to read Torah! Well, my experience with pews, preachers, quiet in church, all the stuff we were raised with certainly made me ill-prepared for this style of worship.

I don’t know about worship practice in Jesus’ time, but let’s say that the men and the women were separated, then, too. Our story says that he “called her over”, which means to me that they were in some common area. And he heals her. She didn’t ask, he just did it, almost like he was trying to make a point.. Her response is to praise God in the synagogue. Yes, she has been healed, which is enough in itself. But she has also been given a larger measure of dignity and self-hood than she’s probably even had before, and right in the center of the religious life of her community.

Other preachers have probably told you that women had a lower status in Jesus world than men, much more separated from each other than we have today. This was common in most societies 2000 years ago, not just Jesus’ society. But when we read Luke, we notice that time and again, stories of women are told almost always next to the story of a man. Because we live in a world that has seen the struggle for women’s rights, because we have all seen women preachers, we’ve seen women Bishops, because we have seen women in leadership roles in government, society and the military, Luke’s juxtaposition is dulled for us. We don’t get it with quite the starkness that Luke’s original audience would have. Jesus, in Luke’s telling, is doing nothing less than elevating women to equal status with men in the eyes of God and the Kingdom, to contrast with the world. To say it another way—part of how the world falls short from the Kingdom of God is how it treats women.

So when that synagogue leader objects to the woman being healed in the middle of the synagogue, he’s not just objecting to the breaking of Sabbath. He’s objecting to the whole way the world works being turned over.
This is true Gospel rebellion. This is the rebellion we are called to in the name of Christ. We are called to challenge the status quo in ways that mirror the Kingdom of God. I’m not talking about rebelling against school uniforms or fighting for the rights of skateboarders. I mean that we must rebel against those who are truly being oppressed. In America there are still race issues. There are still gender equality issues. There are many issues to address, even here in America, one of the most equal societies on earth. But we also live in a world where there are issues larger than just one nation. How does the European and American world treat all of those countries that are below the equator? How is access to water handled?

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom where all are equal. Heaven, I believe, is that place where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, their gender, or any other of those false divisions that we, like the synagogue leader, make.

This is the rebellion that Jesus fought. The creation of the Beloved Community, in God’s name, is what we are driving toward. Because we are Christian, we follow the Rebel in the Gospels. Because we are Christian, we follow the Rebel with the good news. It’s too bad there aren’t leather jackets hanging in the back for us to wear as we leave!

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Ball Glove Kind of Faith

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC’s, August 19, 2007.

Who are your heroes?

On my MySpace page, there is an area where they ask you to name some heroes. I have listed some well known names, like Martin Luther King, Bono (the lead singer for the band U2 and an extremely effective activist against hunger and AIDS in Africa), and Bishop Desmond Tutu (the former Anglican Archbishop of South Africa who worked so hard to end Apartheid). They are on most lists.

But then there are heroes of mine that you probably don’t know.
John Thornburg (who was my mentor in seminary), Bill McElvaney (another wise old preacher from my seminary days), Billy Crockett, (An unorthodox Christian musician), and Bishop Susan Murch Morrison (our former Bishop here and the Bishop down in the Peninsula Delaware Conference when I began my journey to ordination) finish off that particular list.

If I had the time, I would be able to tell you the story of each person, and why they are on my list of heroes. If I were to think some more, I could think of others who led lives that were exemplary, committed acts of bravery and revolution, or merely impress me for their physical accomplishments.

With or without steroids, for instance, Barry Bonds’ lifetime home run record is impressive. His personality is irrelevant. Cal Ripken’s iron man record of consecutive games played is even more impressive, and his being a good guy is icing on the cake. I am a native of Northern California and a Niners fan, so Joe Montana is a hero. I look at someone like Jackie Robinson, and he is a hero as much because of his courage and character as it is about his playing ability.

If I were to write a list of people who were exemplary faith models from Christian history, the list would include names like St. Patrick, St. Theresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Mother Theresa, and of course John Wesley. We could talk about less well known names like Jan Huss, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Billy Sunday.

If we made a modern list, we could consume much coffee as we sat around a table and argued over names like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, John Stott, Martin Marty or Rick Warren.
The list that the author of Hebrews writes in our passage today is a list that would be similar to our Luther/Calvin/Wesley list—a list that his readers would be instantly familiar with, a list of names where the stories are well known. What the author has been doing since way back in the beginning of chapter eleven is naming examples of people from what we Christians know as the Old Testament (the author and his readers would have just known it as “The Bible”) who are to be remembered because they knew that God was building up to something. They were willing to do their part, even though they knew they probably wouldn’t get to see the finished product.

Before our passage, he spends a lot of time on Noah and others from Genesis, a long bit about Abraham and Moses, and then, in our passage, the laundry list of heroes from Judges and the prophets, and finally down to the people who are living at the same time as the readers and the author.

Hebrews’ author’s point is this: The story is not yet done, the work is not yet finished, and more people are going to be hurt and maybe even die for what is coming, maybe even some of them. They may not get to see what is coming, and none of us really know what that is.

Even if you haven’t seen the new Harry Potter movie, you may know the line from the advertisement—“every single great wizard started out as nothing more than what we are right now.”

Every single saint of the faith started out as nothing more than the kind of people we are right now. Every single saint knew as much about what is coming as we do now.

We don’t wear togas, but really we are no different than the ones who were fed to the lions. Some of our generation, our time, will live lives of quiet and solid faith that historians will not record. We will pass on the faith to a new generation without note. Some of us, on the other hand, will commit great acts of faith, known by many.

Ultimately, we will add our spirits to that great cloud of witnesses for those who come after us. And we will all persevere in our race, knowing that it was in the name of Jesus that we ran it, that we made the choices we did.

Bishop Tutu, who in faith was willing in Christ’s name to fight injustice and suffer at the hands of the Racist Apartheid government of South Africa;

John Wesley, who in faith believed that Christ was more energetic and cared more for all people than the church he served was acknowledging at the time;

Mother Theresa, who in faith worked in Christ’s name with and for the poor of Calcutta, when she was not her self Indian and was just as susceptible to disease as those she cared for;

The list can go on and on.

What will members of our churches say about you after you have gone? What will you have ultimately done in Christ’s name? Will you have been good stewards of the faith passed to you by your parents, your Sunday school teachers, your church? Will you have taken the faith of Christ to new areas, to new cultures? Will you have taken it with you to all parts of your life, even into the doubting and scoffing world?

Will you work it, use it, get it dirty, beaten up, torn up, rained on, and ultimately lived in and reliable, like an old ball glove? Or will you keep it safe, locked away and pristine, like a chair that is beautiful and antique, but you can’t sit on it?

Heroes of the faith, the ones that really matter, did the former. They are the ones named in Hebrews. They are the ones we all know by name, now.

Which will you be?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Explanation and Vacation!

Two weeks ago, I did not preach from a manuscript. Both churches had had very eventful and hard weeks, and I preached more extemporaneously. The downside of no manuscript is that there is no sermon to post for Sunday July 29.

Also, I will be going away for a week beginning on Sunday, Aug. 12. There will be no sermon posted for that week either.

I will be in the pulpit again on Aug. 19, so expect a new sermon around Aug. 20.

Lucky Folk

Luke 12: 13-21
Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, August 5, 2007

I listen to many types of music. You scan through my presets in my car radio, you look through our music library, you see anything from classical to Christian to rap to country to rock. We like what we like, and genres don’t always seem to matter. I’ve even taken to hitting the scan button on the car radio rather than the presets, lately!

When I read the Gospel passage for this week, It was a passage about greed and what God giving us being sufficient. When I drive around, I think about what I am going to preach on, and one of the songs I heard this week was Montgomery Gentry’s “Lucky Man”. Remember it?

But I know I'm a lucky man
God's given me a pretty fair hand
Got a house and a piece of land
A few dollars in a coffee can
My old truck's still running good
My ticker's ticking like they say it should
I got supper in the oven, a good woman's loving
And one more day to be my little kid's dad
Lord, knows I'm a lucky man

Most music, I know, is about what we don’t have. In a way, this one is too, but it is more about what it is we do have, and that it is good enough for a good life. It defines what a good life, in a way, is and it isn’t defined by possessions. He has his health, he has a house, he has love and family, and he has food and transportation. This is what he reminds himself of, in the song, when he has "days where (he) hates (his) job / This little town and the whole world too Days when (our) favorite teams lose, I have moments when I curse the rain / Then complain when the sun's too hot.

When the young man asks Jesus to arbitrate in a dispute between he and his brother about an inheritance, his response isn’t to arbitrate, it is to tell the angry man (and we know the voice is a man, because most of the time, women didn’t inherit anything) the parable of the greedy farmer. The lesson is at verse 20, and here it is in the Message: Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it? That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self, and not with God.

Filling our barns with self and not with God is a tough thing to fight, isn’t it? I look at my car, 13 years old, with the panel that controls the seat height and all that is cracked off, and just kind of lays on the floor. Sometimes I have to bang the dash to get the radio volume to work. The mileage is pretty low, and I can’t get any more than about 5 people into it. The A/C overheats the engine when it’s hot and humid and I am driving in town or with a full load.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a car that gets 30 MPG, seats 7, has a CD player, instant air conditioner, GPS, and a moonroof? Wouldn’t it be great to have a tractor that burns fuel slowly, pulls anything like it’s nothing, and has a CD player, instant air conditioner, GPS, and a moonroof? Wouldn’t it be great to have a garden that is beautifully laid out, is weed and deer-proof, and you were able to use every single bit of what came from it?

This isn’t one of those sermons where I stand up here and say “be happy with what you have, because other have less”. No, it’s more along the lines of “be happy with what you have, because what you have shouldn’t be the source of your happiness”. Does my car get me around? Yes. Does that tractor mow and disc and plow well enough? Yes? Does that garden supply you with fresh, healthy food, with enough to share? Yes? Well, then we’re all lucky folk, aren’t we? To go outside Country music, Sheryl Crow says it this way: It's not having what you want, it’s wanting what you've got. We’ve all got a lot, and more than we need. No one here is a Trump or a Hilton. We can’t buy everything that we desire, sometimes we have to wait to payday to buy a pizza! But we have everything we need, truly need. We’ve got people who will walk with us through tough times. We’ve got folks who will work to make stuff so to help someone else’s needs. We’ve got folks who know our faults, have seen us be idiots and stubborn fools, and love us anyway. This is the stuff we can’t save up in barns, no barn we could build is big enough for the riches we have. This is what makes us rich. We don’t need barns to store it up in, we need to find ways to spread it out.