Monday, October 29, 2007

When God Crops Up

Luke 18: 9-14

Do you think that being Christian is a better way of living life? Do you think that there are people who choose, for some insane reason, not to become a Christian? Why do you think that is? Isn’t living a Christian life the preferred way?

Well, I think so, but I have friends in my life who are not Christian. Some may be of another faith, and are perfectly happy in it, and find it deeply meaningful. They may even wonder why I don’t choose to become like them!

Some may be of no faith at all. Those friends may be of no faith because they were once, they came as the tax collector did, humble and repentant, and somehow ran across someone like the Pharisee, someone in authority who did something hurtful, said something stupid, or otherwise represented Christ differently than what they had read in the Bible or remember being told. Somehow, God wasn’t love, but was instead judgment, or willful ignorance, or fear. And they wonder how I can maintain my membership, never mind my vocation, in an institution that hurts so many people, causes so much pain.

They have chosen to reject the church, and for them, it may have been the right decision.

There are things we want from a life led in the Christian way. Stability. Somewhere that we know will support us and love us, even when we make mistakes. Somewhere that we know will give us the strength to overcome our own failures. Somewhere that will give us the companionship and help to live our lives well. And of course, we want to know, that when we die, we will be going to heaven.

But as we start to adapt to the new way of life, and we begin to have some success, we develop a paradox; we forget that there are people out there who live lives that move along perfectly well without God or the church. And the pride and love that we feel for the people who are with us in God can sometimes turn to judgment against the people who aren’t.

Unconsciously, we can sometimes give off the feeling that those who don’t choose our way are somehow stupid! Sometimes we can get uncomfortable around people who haven’t made the same choices we have. We want to avoid situations that will make us feel less than others, judged by others, or tempt us to behave in ways that aren’t right for us. We find that we have learned how to live life a certain way, and now we get tense around people who stand just a little too close, laugh just a little too loud.

So then, we read in today’s Luke passage that Jesus is warning us against becoming the person who feels superior because they do everything right. It’s not that being right makes you wrong somehow—the sin is not in proper religious observance or being a follower of Christ. Rather, it is in the feeling superior to others who live differently than us. In our pleasure at having success in living a certain way, we spill over into feeling superior.

Arrogance is the sin Jesus is trying to highlight in this parable.

It is very easy to become arrogant when you are a Christian. It’s a twofer; it is one of those great sins that in every case impedes our progress as faithful followers of Christ AND also blocks anyone else from being interested in it for the right reasons.

Do you know what some people see us doing on Sunday mornings? They see us as people who hop out of a perfectly warm bed, put a tie or pantyhose on when they aren’t even going to work, and go sing songs that no one ever listens to, listen to some person stand in a funny robe and talk about a piece of a book that can be as old as 5000 years, and then go home and start their day for real.

How can that possibly be attractive? What is the point of that?
It’s the same way some of us see people who go to bars all the time, drink, smoke, visit with friends, and go home drunk, smelly, and overtired. How can that possibly be attractive? What is the point of that?

We know we do this because we find meaning in it. The words have been around for as long as 5000 years because they have meant something to generations of people, and we find that it means something to us. The songs mean something to us, too. The robes have significance beyond the fashion statement. But all of it pales beside the real reason for gathering. All of those things, plus stuff like the architecture of the church, the windows, the smell in the air, the pads, the seats, are things that hopefully trigger the true reason why we live our lives as Christians.

This is that true reason, I think; there was a time when we realized that we couldn’t do this life alone, that we needed help to live it. And that the best bet we could find was God. Now, we may have doubts now about how the church gets us there. We may find that old hymns leave us cold. We may find that we don’t ever want to sing a new song, because we’ve got what works already. We may find that a preacher’s personality is too cold, or too rambunctious for our taste. A church may be a member of a denomination that makes choices we consider wrong, or misguided. But we’re still here. Why?

Under it all, there is God. God crops up in the kindness of people around us when we are in pain. God crops up in a feeling of peace when we pray. God crops up in the peace of a loved one who is dying. God crops up in the beauty of a hillside blazing with red and yellow trees against a brilliant blue sky. God crops up in the smile, the smell of a baby. God crops up in the unexpected forgiveness when we’ve been idiots. God crops us in a million different ways, and we respond in joy, in awe, in shame, and in seeking forgiveness. We respond in an awareness of our true place. We respond in awe, and humility.

That’s why this parable holds up the tax collector as the proper model. He knows God exists, that’s why he’s in the temple. He knows he’s not perfect, that’s why he’s standing so far away and beating himself up. He believes that God will forgive him, has in the past, so that’s why he’s there again, asking one more time. When Jesus says that the tax collector is the one who goes home justified, rather than the other, what he doesn’t say is that the tax collector probably doesn’t even know it.

None of us are perfect. All of us commit sins. And while it is true that we can sometimes stop habits that are bad for us, other sins do take their place. Smoking or drinking can be replaced with the zealotry of the recovering addict, insisting that everyone is addicted and must get better.

People who mock or heap contempt on the church can become people who mock or heap contempt on those who choose to stay home. There is a certain strong tendency among us all to consider some sort of “other” as fools, as willing disobeyers. Have you ever heard the terms “white trash”, “rednecks”, “longhairs”, “crackers”? We call people of other nations cowards or freeloaders. We call people of other faiths infidels or unbelievers. We call people of other opinions heretics, idiots or fools. We always find ways to call people who are different animals or somehow subhuman. We find ways to consider different as less. And that makes us exactly like the Pharisee.

And that is sin. And our awareness of it and struggle to repent of it is what justifies us, according to this passage. Not our success.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Theological Generosity

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18: 1-8

“be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

It seems like I have been reading it forever, but I haven’t yet finished the book Christianity for the Rest of Us, by Diana Butler Bass. It’s a fine book about how churches that don’t follow current popular models of church growth or organization are nonetheless thriving. What a lot of these churches have in common is that they are focused not only on growth, but also on the care of souls who are already evangelized. These are places where people who are already Christian, or familiar with the basics of Christianity but have concerns or doubts about how it is currently practiced in American culture can come and express their doubts, and serve the God they know to be true.

She did a survey of a number of churches, nationally, across many different denominations but all Protestant, and all in what is now called the “mainline” traditions, to differentiate them from “evangelical” churches. Many of the people who are in the pews of these churches are people who were perhaps raised in traditions that were once a lot more rigid, expected a lot more often that its members would toe the line. She found that these churches all had some things in common. Many of them were praying churches with different groups that met all week long, in different styles. Some held regular healing services, their worship services grew naturally out of the interested congregants’ interests and talents (none had the cookie cutter praise band, for instance, but instead consisted of the people and the instruments of the people willing to be there).

They were churches that really seemed to be homes for people to explore their faith, in whatever ways that they felt drawn to, rather than show up to church and be spoon-fed their faith.

Bass used a phrase that jumped out at me: theological generosity. These churches had, in a way distinctive to each church, developed ways to be generous to each other and to the strangers whom would be invited or would just walk in cold into their midst. Now, don’t get me wrong—they are orthodox churches. None of them were spiritual Exploration Societies, they are all still churches that in some way identify themselves in Christian ways. It just seemed like, as Bass described them, they seemed to have taken Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” rather seriously.

It’s as if they trusted God and Jesus to be able to withstand whatever study that was applied to them, and that their call to serve Christ also included giving room to people who thought differently. God is at the center, but not everyone needs to use the same map to get there. It is this theological generosity that makes them thrive, according to Bass.

In other words, they could say that they proclaimed their message persistently. They practiced and developed their style of being church in times favorable and unfavorable. Paul’s urging to Timothy to be persistent in proclaiming the message in times favorable and unfavorable is very much the same idea. They developed a practice of prayer, of being together as a church, of worship, that differed in some ways from how many churches spent the 90’s trying to evangelize.

Many books about how to do church out there say that if you want to grow as a church, more authority has to be given to the Bible, and to the pastor. The Bible needed to be interpreted as simply as possible, and where that didn’t make sense, that meant that the reader either didn’t have enough faith, or that God had not made clear what He intended you to know. What they didn’t talk about in those books was that there are many people out there who believe that the Bible is important, but it is also more complex than that, and that part of our journey to grow in Christ includes the study of the parts of the Bible we don’t understand. And as more and more churches went to a simpler understanding of the Bible, to a more authority driven way of being a minister, it became harder and harder for some people to practice their faith. Their community got smaller and smaller, and disappeared in some areas.

Some people left. It is true, that some people leave churches not because they are angry about how money is used, not because of some black and white disagreement over some point of Bible, but instead because the practice of the faith isn’t complex for them. They know that there are areas of knowledge that aren’t known, and they are comfortable with that gray area existing—it is that challenge to know Christ in new, not easy ways that drives their faith. Some of the ones who were persistent found congregations of people, almost refuges or oases. Then they found these special, different kinds of churches that practiced theological generosity. They came and found that their questions, their doubts weren’t sins, but were just journeys that were in mid-path.

Jesus told a parable about needing to pray not lose heart. He spoke of an old woman who asked for justice again and again and again, being an absolute pest about it, until this disrespectful, egotistical judge finally gave her what she wanted because he didn’t want to hear her anymore. God is no unjust judge, so how much more will be given what we ask for if we are persistent with God? If we are persistent, and as Paul tells Timothy, if we proclaim the message in season and out, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, if we make ourselves to be pests, because God is a loving God, we will get what it is that we really want. It may not be what we ask for, but it will be what we want. William Barclay says it this way:
Often a (parent) has to refuse the request of a child, because (they) know that what the child asks would hurt rather than help. God is like that. We do not know what is to happen in the next hour, let alone the next week, or month, or year. Only God sees time whole, and, therefore, only God knows what is good for us in the long run. That is why Jesus said we must never be discouraged in prayer. . . . We will never grow weary in prayer and our faith will never falter if, after we have offered to God our prayers and requests, we add the perfect prayer, “Thy will be done.”
What is true now is that there are now churches who have grown strong and developed new ways of being church that are outside of the mega-church model. They are vital, they may even be growing. They may be messy at times, but they are faithful. But they have come through a time that has been unfavorable, and they have not lost heart.

Let us not lose heart either. There are things about our lives together, and your lives as a congregation before I joined you, that grew faithfully and makes us distinctive now. Remembering them, continuing to do them faithfully as we have done, being persistent in them, even as we seek God’s will and heart even more will be the proper response to God.

And as we do so, we should of course practice theological generosity with each other.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


My mothers' brother died today. He lived in Colorado for most of his life, and was an avid hunter, fisherman, and built blackpowder rifles. That is what he really did. He kept food on the table with work at computer firms and at UPS. He has one grown daughter, my cousin Kris, who lives in Michigan, and two grandkids.

He was a Vietnam Vet, and came back angry and distrustful of all government, but he seemed to hate the Republican party a little bit less than the Democrats. He also fought alcoholism. His was not the shiny happy life.

I wish I could have gotten to be in a better relationship with him, but he was so angry, and his politics were so different than mine, and he lived so far away. We both tried at various times. He once took me to a good wine shop in Denver at Thanksgiving, when I was in my winemaker phase, even though he was an alcoholic. I read Philip Caputo's Rumor of War to try to understand him a little bit. There was just very little in common to build upon.

I think his life could have been defined in terms of "before" and "after" Vietnam. A lot of the people he hung out with were people who were "safe;" people who had also been to Vietnam, other conservative libertarians. People who knew, who he didn't have to try to explain himself to, didn't have to feel judged by. Unfortunately, probably people like me.

He was an example of the people who come home from every war, damaged. They are the part of the cost of all wars. I am pretty sure that the people who get us into wars don't have people like my Uncle Tom around in their lives. They are not counted as cost, because they are still alive. But it is their choices that cause men like my uncle Tom to lose something in their lives, and live unneccesarily difficult lives after they return.

I've been thinking about some half-remembered poetry, and the name Wilfred Owen came out of the mist. So I Googled him, and it came up with the poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Here is the last portion. Though it is written in the context of Owen's experience of the First World War, the end is true of all wars.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

So long, uncle Tom.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Two week Sermon Hiatus

Just to let folks know, there will be no sermon posts on this site again until Oct. 21. Oct 7, the date I had originally scheduled to have my retreat, is covered by one of Center Moreland's layspeakers, and I didn't want to pull that out from under her. October 14 is Laity Sunday. I will probably attend worship both weekends, but I won't be preaching. There may be a blog post or two, though.

Buying Land out from Under the Invaders’ Feet

Jeremiah 1-3a. 6-15

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymoind Hollow United Methodist Churches, Sept. 30, 2007

Did you feel as if your eyes would roll back into your head when you heard this scripture, this morning? Did you hear it as perhaps, a little overspecific? Yeah, me too, a little bit. But if you’ll remember what we’ve talked about when I have read Jeremiah here this far, you might realize that this is a little unusual.—a slightly different tone. We’ve had weeks and weeks of Jeremiah saying that the coming invasion from Babylon isn’t God’s fault, but that Judah has brought this on themselves.

Now the invasion is soon. The army has laid siege on Jerusalem, they are outside the walls. And this prophet, rather than running around, shouting “I Told You So!”, buys land, in the town of Anatoth, which is in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, near Jerusalem to the north. It’s a field. Nothing major, no improved real estate, no houses or hotels, just a field. But he is conducting a real estate transaction about a patch of land that might be visible from the walls. It’s a patch of land that may very well be under the invading army’s feet as he speaks.

It would be exactly the same as if a German Jew were to buy a house in downtown Berlin, mark it properly, document it with the proper witnesses, and then get on the train to Auchwitz.

Just doesn’t seem prudent, does it? Why then?

Hope. Jeremiah has been the bearer of bad news, reminding people that they have broken their covenant with God. And the resulting invasion is the effect to the cause of their disobedience. But he is a prophet of God, among the people of God, and it is also his job to say to them, when all feels lost, that this too shall pass, and that this land is still ours, and that we will once again be a part of this land.

We read exactly that in the next parts of the chapter. Jeremiah prays to God, and God replies to Jeremiah, explaining why he has “allowed” the Babylonian army to come. But then, God also says to Jeremiah in verse 42:
For thus says the Lord: Just as I have brought all this great disaster among the people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land. . .

Hope. Jeremiah buying land in the midst of an invasion is a signal that though this is current invasion is catastrophic, terrible, and changes irreparably the way Israel and Judah think of themselves, they will always be the children of God. Still. Everything will have changed, and yet nothing has.

When those of you who are parents think of certain ways your children have been disobedient, and you have been very angry, haven’t you also been somehow clear in stating that you still love your child, even as you punish them?

We, as the people of God, look for ways in which we can be reassured that God still loves us. Ways in which we are reassured that Jesus has saved us, still.

Communion is one of those. We come to the rail, in the midst of whatever is going on in our lives, some of us wondering if we will indeed be able to partake this time, or somehow a great hand will reach in the window saying “NO, not him!” And it never comes.

Or, at Dymond Hollow, today, we have another sign—we baptize a child today. That is another way in which we mark the future, we “buy land in the midst of the invasion”. The world is an inhospitable place for Christians, sometime. It’s actually an inhospitable place for everyone at times.

When we take communion, when we baptize, what we are saying to the world is “we are still here”. When we baptize, we are casting out children forward into that future. We do still believe that we are the children of God, and we expect there to be a time when God’s love will be the order of the day.

We expect that there will be a time when there will be no us and them, no Christians and non Christians, no church, but just people of God, and that will be everyone. We do expect there to be a time when wars cease. We do expect there to be a time when governments do not kill their own citizens for marching in the streets peacefully. We do expect there to be a time when marching in the streets isn’t necessary.

So, when we baptize, when we take communion, when we marry, when we have funerals, when we worship together, when we study the Bible, when we eat together, when we work at soup kitchens, we are expressing our belief in each other and in God’s love. We could meet together as a club and do most of these things. But we wouldn’t be marking our togetherness and expressing our common belief in Jesus Christ, and what he did for us.

When we do those things, especially communion and baptism, it’s as if we are weighing out the money, signing the deed, sealing it, getting witnesses, weighing the money on scales, and sealing the deed in a jar. And then keeping the jar safe. We are counting on the future being what we have been taught, what we have come to believe. We are buying the land out from under the feet of the soldiers besieging our city. This is God’s world, and just as Jeremiah believes it and acts upon it, never mind the current circumstances he’s living through, so too we believe it and act on it, no matter our circumstances. Communion and Baptism are our hope in our current circumstances, no matter what they are. They are our statement of belief that this is God’s world.