Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Retreat Woes

So, here is my dilemma. I would like to take about four days and spend them in intensive spiritual attention. I've already aranged for the preacher to substitute for me, and the fam has made other plans because I would be away.

I was originally going to go to Minnesota to attend a meeting of the Northumbria Community, as they try to figure out how to live alone together in the US (they are English in origin and Celtic in philosophy), but the costs were too high.

So, with admittedly late notice, I wrote to Weston Priory in Vermont, where I went last year.
I just heard today that they do not have space.

So, I am at a loss to try to do something that is spiritually centered and moderately cheap. Ideally, it would be great to be in a place or a space where there is already a group of people focused on prayer and meditation and study.

I'd prefer not to be on solitary retreat.

Any suggestions?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shrewd with the True Riches

Luke 16: 1-13

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, Sept. 23, 2007.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could open up the Bible and stick in the stuff that we feel should be there? If we were to “open the canon” as the scholars call it, and edit the Bible to include the things that our world recognizes, and take out the stuff we no longer understand?

Think about the Ten Commandments: what if we could add a few: one of those laws would be something along the lines of “Thou Shalt not pay more than three dollars for a cup of coffee.” “Thou Shalt use thy turn signal.” “Thou shalt wash their hands after using the bathroom.”

Other folks would be surprised to hear that there are certain phrases that aren’t in the Bible, especially in the book of Proverbs. Lots of them came from Benjamin Franklin, like: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, meaning that it’s better to count on what you have, than to count on what you expect. “A Stitch in Time saves Nine”, meaning that preventative care often saves money over needing to make major repairs. Some come from Thomas Edison, like “Success is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration”, meaning that even the best ideas take work to be successful.

One that I’ve heard people say should be in the Bible is: “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s one of my favorites, and I think that if we were to sum up todays’ Gospel reading, it would be that phrase.

When you really think about this story, what is basically happening is that a man, about to be fired for “squandering his employers’ property” (which could mean anything, none of it good), runs around and reduces the debt of all of the people who owe his employer money. As I heard a comedian say once, “That’s not right!”

But then we get to verse 8, where it says that the master commended the manager “because he had acted shrewdly.” This is that twist that Jesus throws out so often in his parables.

At least for us. This is one of those places where we are reminded of the fact that we don’t always read the Bible with the same eyes as the author and audience did. Remember, Jesus’ audience remembers the stories of tricksters like Jacob. To men and women who can pull off getting one over on someone, great honor was given and they were thought to be wise. We, on the other hand, are inheritors of the Protestant work Ethic, brought to us by the Puritans. We find that when someone doesn’t act the way we expect in a transaction, or behaves the way we want them to as employees, they aren’t wise, they are crooks, or disrespectful, or something else.

So this manager, called to account for his dealings on behalf of the owner, sees the sudden need to be in peoples’ good graces. To get there, he reduces the potential income of the owner. Not his actual income, but his potential. We assume that based on those reductions, the owner is then paid.

The second half of verse eight is also odd—“the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light”.

Huh? What? What are we being told here? It’s a parable, so there are multiple ways of interpreting it, of course. Here’s what I think. The line says “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” tells us that in our modern American Christian culture, we Christians are perhaps too trusting of people with whom we deal. We seem to want to believe in the best of people, and sometimes, we are disappointed.

If they are Christian, too, we tend to want to trust them blindly. Why is it that we think that people who call themselves Christian are somehow going to be better than the people who aren’t? How is it that we are somehow not allowed to be good negotiators, careful legal readers, and wary consumers? Conversely, if someone isn’t a Christian, they are somehow less worthy of to doing business with. These just don’t seem like shrewd actions.

This passage, from the very mouth of Christ, teaches us otherwise. The lesson here is that we are responsible for a lot, being persons of the Way. If you can’t manage a little bit of what you are given in terms of your gifts and graces well, how are you going to do with the whole kingdom?

God helps those who help themselves, it seems. We have been entrusted with a lot, being given salvation in Christ Jesus. No small gift, there. What are we called to do with this gift? How can we be shrewd with this gift?

We can be shrewd with it by finding ways to give it away. Shrewdly. That doesn’t mean sneakily, that means appropriate and effective to each situation and relationship.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Once, I saw a preacher standing by the side of the road at a busy highway intersection, preaching. On the surface, this was a great idea, because he was theoretically in contact with a lot of people every time the light turned red. There were two problems, though. One was that it was a hot day, and almost everyone had their windows up. You couldn’t hear the man. The second was that he was sending a 9-year-old boy out to distribute religious literature under windshield wipers during the red lights. This was not shrewd. He was standing in a hot Texas summer sun without a hat, preaching to a bunch of closed windows and humming air conditioners. And he was endangering the health and welfare of a child. Now, some folks would say, “He was preaching the Word, his witness was his presence, and the child would be taken care of.” Well, as to the first, perhaps, but I don’t think so; it didn’t impress me. Second, what witness is it to have a child help you in that way?

What generally ended up happening is that we, as the children of light, ended up looking less than wise, and in fact ended up rather foolish. Now, we can not always avoid looking foolish, for we are imperfect creatures. But we can sure lessen the times when we do look that way. Sometimes it is a witness to seem foolish. But being shrewd is knowing when it is valuable, and when it is just silly.

The manager of the parable was wise, because he was “falling forward”; he was going to lose his job, so he was trying very hard to make sure that he fell into a way to be sheltered, fed and clothed. Can we be that wise, falling forward with the gift we have been given? How can we shrewdly further the great commission?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Nothing Changes

1 Timothy 1: 12-17

Preached on Sept. 16, 2007 at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's.

I do a lot of reading. I have two stacks of books on my bedside table. One is a stack of two or three books that are theological, church, God, Jesus or Bible oriented. The other stack is what I call brain candy.

Many of the books that I have been reading lately out of the first stack have as a common theme the sentiment “what are we to do with the times that are ours?” We live in interesting times. The church that we have inherited is not the church that was successful in the 50’s and 60’s. The old labels of liberal and conservative seem to fit badly, if at all, when applied to modern theological thinking. We have evolved beyond the old labels, and it makes for some anxiety among members as well as clergy. We no longer recognize the land we live in, and we feel lost, sometimes.

This sentiment of “being lost in the wilderness” seems to hit clergy pretty hard. My Lectionary study group has an age range of some 40 years, and this feeling lost is prevalent often. We spend a fair amount of time talking about the challenges of the church as it moves into a new world. This seems to be a world that is much more distrustful of institutions, quick to identify and discredit figures of authority, where the lines between countries, churches, political parties, even the roles of men and women are constantly changing. Sometimes it seems as if the only talent necessary anymore is the talent of flexibility, the ability to be able to recognize and adjust, to adapt to each new situation. Adaptability is certainly a hallmark of some of the younger generations that come to worship God in our churches.

The question we almost always ask is: How then can we be faithful? What is God calling us to do in this uncharted situation? How can we live in a foreign land?

The old rules no longer seem to apply. The old lines that separate us, that help us understand the world, are being broken up, fading, collapsing under their own weight, becoming irrelevant.

But you know, this is not the first time this has happened. Our Bibles tell us of lots of these kinds of stories, where the world seems to end, everything that was true is now false. Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire, and a nation ceases to exist. The Israelites walk out of slavery, and rather than have the world they know in Egypt, they are no longer slaves, but have to become survivalists in the desert. Jesus is raised from the dead, and Roman soldiers are convinced of his divinity before some Jews.

Paul persecutes these heretic people of the way, and becomes one of these heretics himself. And not just a follower either, but a leader.

That’s what’s being written here in our passage from Timothy today. When it says “even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” the author is talking about Paul’s previous career, a career that included holding folks’ coats as they stoned the deacon Stephen to death for preaching the word about Christ.

The world changes all the time. The Roman Empire dies amid wars with Romanized pagan tribes. The United States fights two wars against Great Britain, and they are now our strongest friend. The Red Sox win the World Series.

What is constant? What is the thing that never changes, that never disappears, that is always with us, even in uncharted waters?

It is that we are sinners, and we are forgiven. Timothy, as he received this letter, lived in a community that was searching, asking questions and trying things, seeking God. It was not orderly, it was not always pretty, it was indeed messy. Sound like any congregation you know? It sounds like EVERY congregation I’ve ever known.

Every congregation has good points about it. But every congregation falls short. Congregations, in that sense, are no different than the people who come to them. We are all combinations of saint and sinner, answered call and stubborn resistance. But this passage from Timothy, which sounds like a congregational prayer or affirmation of faith, reassures us that, no matter how much of a sinner we are, God still loves us, God still accepts that there is part of him in us, we are still created in his image. Yes, we are still sinners, but it is in our sinning, the author is saying, that God is displayed at his most loving, his most forgiving.

So, while each congregation has its own character, its own flaws, it is in those flaws that we remember God’s love for us. It is how each congregation responds to that love that gives it its character.

How do we respond? There are many ways. Diana Butler Bass, a religion scholar, has recently written a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us, about churches that survive without becoming conservative, evangelical mega-churches. (She’s clear in saying that there is nothing wrong with being a church like that, or going to one, but she is equally clear in saying that that is just one way to be faithful, and other congregations are called to be faithful in other, equally valid, but quieter, ways.) And the churches she studied were faithful to God’s call by being in mission, in prayer, by having deep and meaningful worship that is true to each congregation’s character and personality. They stay alive and sometimes even grow not because of their nifty evangelism and slick advertising, but rather the neighborhood notices that something true and authentic is happening.

They are churches who have remembered that the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Or, as Eugene Peterson writes it in his Bible paraphrase The Message,

Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.

You and I are that proof. Yes, we fall short. Yes, we are not always good examples of what Christians should be like. When we congregate, our failures are magnified, which makes our congregations seem very different from the ideal that we profess. So it was then, in Timothy’s time, so it is now in our own churches, and so it shall always be, until the Kingdom comes. Nothing changes. We always fall short, we are always poor witnesses, we always keep trying, and God’s grace and love are shown in his always forgiving us.

Forever and ever, Amen.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Unfinished Clay

Luke 14: 25-33
Jeremiah 14: 1-11

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, Sept. 9, 2007.

Many of us can remember when we first heard that the World Trade Center in New York had been struck. I was driving Josiah from home to his pre-school in Commerce when the radio started talking about an accident in New York. After I dropped him off, I went to the directors’ office to see more about what was going on, and it had become clear in those minutes that it was no accident, and the director was in tears. We prayed together with a few of the staff members (this is Texas, after all) and then I went over to the campus ministry, turned on the TV, and left the front door open all day.

I remember driving by the one high-rise dorm the university had, thinking that that could possibly be a target. Then I remembered where I was, a land grant college in rural east Texas, and realized that that was probably silly.

It became clear to many in the student body that day that America was on the brink of being created into something new. We don’t know yet, six years later, what that new creation is, but in those days, the students of the university gave voice in the university commons as to what they wanted to be.

They didn’t want to be attacked.
They felt the pain of the families of those who had died.
They honored the bravery of the firefighters and police who died when the buildings collapsed.
They didn’t want to be hated for their nationality.
They were sure that the Muslims in their midst shouldn’t be singled out for abuse, ridicule and suspicion.

And these were conservative East Texas rural white kids, urban black kids, and some East Indians and Bangladeshi. They were southern Baptist, non-denominational evangelical, Methodist, Catholic, Hindu and Muslim. They knew what was best about America, and they instinctively rushed to defend that ideal against the prejudice and “profiling” that they knew would follow.

Like I said, we still don’t know what we are becoming, but it does seem as if we are slowly recovering our balance, even six years later, and the balance is returning to something along the lines of what makes us the best of who we are. The excesses are slowly being pruned away. We are assuming a different shape, as a country, however. We are differently shaped than when we were in WWII, than when we were in the height of the Cold War, than when we were fighting amongst ourselves in the Civil War. Each of those events, and many others, are evidence that we are constantly being shaped, formed, destroyed and recreated by the events that happen to us. America is called “the never-ending experiment” for just that reason.

Jeremiah’s imagery of the potter and the clay are meant as a very clear metaphor of Israel’s relationship with YHWH in the imminent invasion and destruction of their country. He even explains it himself. It’s a symbol of Hope. He’s saying, “yes, you will be destroyed for a time, but you will be re-made”. Through it all, God is saying that his promise of relationship to this people is not broken. The promise to Abraham is not forgotten, even through a cataclysm.

Perhaps the mind at this point goes to thoughts of America being the chosen country of God. Perhaps that is true, but I am also aware of how Paul refers to this concept in Romans (9:20-24):

But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; 23and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

There are times in which we are the chosen nation of God, for God’s purposes. There are other times in which we are punished like Israel and other nations are used for this purpose. And there are times in which events happen that do not concern us, and we are put on a shelf because we are not necessary. A proper sense of humility as a nation would lead us to this conclusion. And we do not know which is which. But what is true is that we rarely act as a nation with the humility of God that we read about in last weeks’ scriptures.
If we are punished as a nation, I am pretty sure that it isn’t for the reasons we so often hear in media sound bites from TV preachers. God never “turns his back on us”, just like God doesn’t turn God’s back on the other nations of the world. But we are crushed, re-molded and re-shaped, just like the clay on the potter’s wheel.

As individuals, this is true as well. We get sick. We are unemployed. Loved ones die. Things happen to us that we didn’t expect, stuff that we couldn’t have imagined when we thought of the future as high school grads. We are mashed down, reshaped, mashed down again, and another try is made. What we are thinking we start off as, as Christians, is rarely when we end up being. Along the way, we lose contact with friends, our convictions change, we disagree or offend some of the people we loved—in a sense, if we truly commit to being shaped by the Cosmic potter, we do end up “hating” our roots, the places we come from, who we were.

We needed to be “there” so that we could get “here”, however, wherever “here” is. Very little about me reflects my time growing up in California, but there are bits that god has saved for God’s purposes. The same is true of everyone here and their life experiences.

And we also need to remember that, because we are unfinished clay, “here” is not the end of the work. We don’t know where we are going. The potters’ wheel hasn’t yet stopped spinning.

If we keep to our best selves, however—and pledge allegiance to Christ and love the world, inside and outside these church walls, the final product will come quicker. Cataclysms will happen in our lives. It is appropriate to search for cosmic answers, about why and what for, but it is not too wise to rush to a conclusion. The truth, which is clear to God, may not become clear to us for years and years. Staying with God, letting ourselves be flexible and pliable in the face of change, not forgetting the central bits of our faith, rather than being wishy-washy, is actually the way to become closer to what God wants. Good clay resists manipulation just enough to stay put where it was left.

The wheel never stops turning. The clay is always unfinished. Our lives in Christ are never complete, but we do expect to become “perfect in love” in this life, and as a nation.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Frustrating Limitations of the Human Body

OK, so here it is September, and last winter and spring was one big ball of pain, humility, pride reduction and whatever. Left foot, left ankle, left leg, right knee. I wasn't as healthy as I wanted to be. Then I move to a new place, am the pastor of two new wonderful churches who I am really growing to love, and here I am, getting my foot x-rayed yesterday and getting a prescription for VICODIN (!!!!!!!) today. Don't know what I did, but it was to the one appendage on my legs that hadn't yet been traumatized this year.

This bites. I hate coedine. My right foot doesn't care, it's going to get relief soon. It's all swelled up like a kielbasa. It's ALMOST enough to swear you off kielbasa, but not quite. Soon it isn't going to care whether it's swelled up or not, but I am not going to be able to keep a disciplined train of thought. Yeah, great place for a resident theologian and shepherd to have his brain.

Hopefully I'll find out what the X rays will say tomorrow. They were taken yesterday. How long does it bloody take?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Topping the Toppers

Preached Sepember 2, 2007 at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist Churches

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

I was once a campus minister, and part of being in campus ministry is that there were two conferences I went to most summers. One was the National Campus Ministry Association Conference, which was ecumenical, with most of the protestant mainline denominations represented. The other was the United Methodist Campus Ministry meeting. It was a fine summer when both were scheduled.

When I was first assigned to the campus ministry, there was a Campus Ministry training event that was scheduled right before the NCMA event that I also attended. One of the workshop offerings was taking college students on mission trips. I had been on a couple mission trips of my own by then, and thought it would be interesting to learn how to motivate college students to move beyond their comfort levels and experience new cultures.

There were about 8 people in the room, sitting in a circle. And what I thought was going to be wiser heads helping me learn the tricks of motivation became a 2 hour topper marathon. Who had the toughest time on mission; one had their building materials stolen. Another had to stay in their hotel all week because of a constant rain that washed out the roads; another had to stay in their hotels all week because of a government coup, and soldiers from different factions were outside. Someone told their story of the girl who went missing only to be found two hours later, with some American college boys in bar down the road. Then there were the stories of government harassment and the bribes that had to be made, and another round of story topping began.

I didn’t learn a lot of practical material, but I did learn that campus ministers can be as competitive, as conscious of status as anyone else. They can compete for the best seats with the best of them.

Ever met someone who fancies themselves a music groups’ number one fan? Ever met someone who is very good at certain video games? They can be a wonderful help, introducing everyone to the new music, or helping everyone play the game. But sometimes they can also be unpleasant to be around, because they always seem to be bragging or referring back to their claim to uniqueness.

It’s one thing to sit around a campfire and tell the “fish that got away” stories; to be a hunter and talk about the 95 point buck you saw once; that’s an art form. It’s something else to tell your story in competition with someone else, in order to provide yourself with a little temporary pride. Those campus ministers did not help me out a bit, other than to learn that you need to take extra money when you go in mission to some countries, so that the bribes can be covered. They were trying to get to the best seat in the house, exactly what Jesus was warning against in this parable.

To be a follower of Christ is to be humble. Truly humble, not that false humility of the people who are fishing for compliments. Not the humility that makes us feel superior because we are obviously more humble than someone else, but the humility that leads us to serve other people, no matter how obnoxious they are. It’s the kind of humility that allows our talents, gifts and graces to be observed, rather than us telling folks about them.

Jesus knows that all that is good comes from God. Every A in school, from the ones achieved through application of God’s gifts, to the lucky ones, are gifts of God. Sometimes, so are the C’s!

The proper attitude we should project to the world is the love of God. That means love of everyone, and the willingness to believe that everyone has sacred worth.

It’s the love that we model in communion. When we gather for this meal, we are standing with the people around us, seeking grace and sustenance in Jesus. We are all equal in his eyes, no matter how much money we make, how old we are. We are hoping for another step closer to becoming Christlike, to showing the world the value of believing. We love God in the taking of this bread and this juice, and we show that we know that God loves us. When we take it, we are reminded of Jesus’ love for us. And our job after taking it is to take as much of that love as we can into our own world.

Now there are many ways to show that love. We can do so arrogantly, by saying “I am loved by God, and if you would only believe, you can be loved, too.” Or we can do so lovingly, by saying “This is something that I have found that has changed my world, completely re-oriented how I think, and I want to share it with you.” It can also be shared by others observing us. Of course, once we have identified ourselves as Christians, the non-religious, the anti-faith world will judge us, sometimes harshly, sometimes unfairly, but they will judge. That is also an opportunity to love—people being ugly or judgmental toward you is not permission to act like-wise.

Our not responding like with like is a demonstration of love that will at first look like insanity or aloofness, and that is OK. Remember that first impressions are never the proper ones. Understanding Christ and his sacrifice is not something you can grasp in your mind the way this mornings’ Sunday comics can be understood. It takes time, and part of our humility is accepting that we will never understand it all. NEVER. We start at the lowest seat at the table, and spiritual maturity in Christ is realizing that the lowest seat in the house is often the only seat to be in.

What is certainly true is that no matter where you sit, Jesus is in the seat next to you. That is honor enough. No topper in the world will be able to top that, and you are the stronger witness for God’s love for not having to brag about it!