Sunday, January 27, 2008

Turning Around

Matthew 4: 12-23

There’s a chunk of road in southern Wyoming (not the township but the state) that you can get to by turning right near Hazleton. That’s when you intersect with Interstate 80, the one of the two or three great east-west roads of the nation. Turn left, New York in two hours. Turn right, San Francisco, after about 3 days. After about two days, you come to this intersection. It’s another interstate, I-25. Turn left, and it is about 4 hours to Denver, and then all the way down to El Paso and Mexico. Turn right, you go up to Billings, Montana.

The thing is, for this being such a great road, and for this such a major intersection, there’s not much to it. It’s near Cheyenne, but not in it. It may have changed since the last time I drove through there, because cities do expand, but other than the appropriate signage and barely the minimum lighting, there was no gas station, there was no hotel, there was no fast food, there wasn’t even a Stuckey’s! There was just this turnoff in the middle of the high plains, and a sign pointing to Denver.

This is the way, sometimes, we find our way in the Christian life. Great and important direction changes, with just enough signage to know what it is, but no hullabaloo.

Jesus said, follow me, and Andrew and Peter went. No three day retreat, no twelve year process of ordination, no visit to the family law firm to re-divide the family fishing business, no trip to the store for a whole new wardrobe and to the spa for a makeover. No anguish over self identity. Jesus doesn’t stand on a rock and say in his best preacher voice: “PETER, ANDREW, JAMES, JOHN: YOU SHALL NOW BECOME MY FIRST DISCIPLES!” In Matthew, he simply said “follow me”, they said “OK”.

I don’t think I could do that. I think I would need the rock and the voice and the pointing finger. But then again, I wasn’t standing there that day when Jesus came up to those guys. I didn’t look him in the eye. I didn’t shake his hand.

When you read the commentaries, there’s some discussion about whether James and Peter, Andrew and John might have known Jesus before hand. In Luke, Jesus has been preaching for a little bit before he calls disciples. In John, John the Baptist names Jesus as the lamb of God, and the guys follow.

The times were rather chaotic, lots of preachers running around, something did seem to be happening because of all the religious ferment. But none of that is mentioned here. Here, Matthew gives us nothing. And the discussion in the commentaries is about what makes someone leave everything and go with someone. It’s hard to believe that these guys would just up and leave. But Matthew seems pretty clear; That’s what they did. The context seems irrelevant. Matthew is simply saying; Jesus spoke, and the new kingdom was created.

Maybe it was simply Jesus’ charisma. That power that some people have to convince others of things just by believing it themselves. Maybe it was the handshake, the quiet confidence that Jesus must have instilled in them. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit moving yet again before the official coming out party at Pentecost. But whatever it was, the story we receive is a lot like that road—a simple greeting, and invitation, and their direction is forever changed. Spend all that time on the road to San Francisco, and just like that, they are on their way to Denver, instead.

Follow me, he said, and I will make you fish for people. From just before, he began to preach “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Let’s think about what he didn’t say; “follow me, and I will make you richer than if you were a fisherman, filling your quotas for Rome day after day after day, in all weathers, until you are bent over and worn out”. Nope, he said “I will make you fish for people”.

It’s simply a guy, standing somewhere and pointing to what is true, without drama. ”There it is”, he seems to say. Just a few signs in the road, just enough lighting to avoid accidents, and your direction is completely changed.

He does it again with repentance. “Repent”, he preaches, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Not “repent, so that you won’t go to hell”. No drama. No visions of California gold miners in tent meetings whooping and hollering, running forward to dump out their whiskey and pledge their lives to right livin’.

Just a statement saying “intersection approaching”. Repent means to change direction. That’s all.

In the end, the life of choosing Christ is the life of repenting daily. Small ones, such as choosing not to yell at your kid when they’ve made you angry. Large ones, such as simply putting down the cigarettes. Medium ones, such as choosing to pass by the drive-thru when dinner is an hour away. Small choices, made within our heads and our hearts, no one really noticing. Simple course corrections, a degree at a time, that change the trajectories of great ships in the ocean. Simple choices of love, of patience, of grace, of gentleness.

This is how we’re called. No drama. If you were to stand at that intersection on the high plains of southern Wyoming, the lights of Cheyenne in the distance, and watch the cars as they come to this momentous decision, you’ll hardly ever see someone stop and think about it. There’s no rest stop of choice on this road. No three acres of blacktop, no Iron Skillet restaurant, with counselors at the ready 24 hours a day to help with the decision about whether to end up in San Francisco or Denver. Whether to become a Broncos fan or a 49ers fan. They’ll either twitch the wheel a little bit to the left, to the right, or not, and their direction for all time is changed.

That’s all we’re really being asked. Choose me. Choose life. Choose the kingdom. And we make that choice fresh daily.

That’s all Jesus asks. Hey, follow me. Repent over this way, because the kingdom is near. I’ll make you fishers of people. If you are an accountant, then he’ll make you number the stars in the sky. If you are a plow driver, he’ll make you clear the way for his people.

Turn around, is all he’s saying. Follow me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Wee Bit of Confession

I have some confessions to make. I while ago, I said that I would read The Golden Compass and its two sequels, which make up a trilogy called His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. I said in a previous blog that I was going to read them, and see the movie, because there were a number of my parishioners who had received rather alarmist e-mails about the content--in short, that the point of the books is an anti-religion diatribe, and that God is killed in the end.

That was right about mid-December, when the movie was released. My confession is that I have run aground halfway through the second book, and still haven't seen the movie. I lost energy in the project, and my attention was grabbed by other things, like about 4 other books, a personal effort to deepen my discipline of prayer, and beginning to learn how to pick my mandolin with proper technique. I guess I am not much the movie reviewer, and even less the great white knight of religious investigation and reason!

But here's the thing. The stuff I have read around the trilogy and the movies have confirmed many of my suppositions. I supposed that Pullman could not have been purely atheist in the sense that he was actively, malevolently and diabolically working to destroy the believers of God and ultimately God Godself. If he really was, good luck with that. And sure enough, he's not. Hanna Rosin, in the December 2007 Atlantic, writes: When pressed, Pullman grants that he’s not really trying to kill God, but rather the outdated idea of God as an old guy with a beard in the sky. I supposed that whatever is destroyed in the end was perhaps not God, but a demi-God type character that would be similar to a Gnostic emanation, and at least in that same article here, that seems to be true.

The original motivation for doing this little project was my instinctive reaction to the phenomena of e-mails from dubious sources dictating how Christians should react to popular culture. They all seem to have the same meta-message--bad, stay away, REAL Christians should run away, be very afraid. And I'm sorry, but that isn't helpful at all. It makes me nuts when someone says oh, this movie is evil, it is about doing _______________________(put conspiratorial opposition to ________________ here).

God is stronger than that, and so should our faith be.

Folks, this is is the United States of America. Our mass culture is shot through with religion, or the things which evoke religious imagery. We've not changed much since DeToqueville passed through in the early 1800's. We're a religious people, even those who aren't necessarily members of religions. Our mass market entertainment isn't going to mess with that. What may get a little tender and prickly is when our suppositions and assumptions, the things we use as connective tissue to make our faith work, get stiff and hard. It's exactly like tendons and sinews--they get hard, it's hard to move, and they really hurt when they are asked to exercise.

In San Francisco and Japan, buildings are built on flexible, moveable foundations in order to withstand earthquakes better. They've learned that there is greater strength in flexibility than immobility. Faith is meant to be strong, but strength isn't in a rock hard foundation. It's in it's flexibility. Stuff like His Dark Materials, or many other things in music, movies, books and the like, shouldn't shake our faith, but should be seen as opportunities to strengthen and stretch it. After all, if it is good for the body, if sudoku is good for the mind, why shouldn't we expect exercise to be good for faith, too?

I'll probably pick the books back up at some point, and it may be that I'll finally see the movie when it becomes a pay-per-view on DirecTV. And when the next alarmist e-mail comes across my computer screen, I'll check it out and pay some attention. But I don't think I will promise to do again what it was I said I would do around The Golden Compass. I don't want to fail to follow through again.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Disappearing Forest

Isaiah 32: 14-20

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, Human Relations Sunday

Back during Advent, the Sundays before Christmas, I spent a good bit of time talking about the peaceable Kingdom, the high mountain where God will sit and judge the world with justice and equity. To build such a world, where the “forests” are not dangerous, is Isaiah’s image in today’s passage.

But what I didn’t spend a lot of talking about is that such a building is hard work. It can be dangerous work. To be called by God to build his Kingdom, to bring it one step closer to being tangible, can be a scary thing, a dangerous thing. People have died trying to help it into being. It is so different a place, the Kingdom to come, that those who have advantages or prestige in this present world, or are just frightened of the unknown that will be so different, can sometimes work against those who seek for the world to be better.

It’s a hard thing. Sometimes, it may not necessarily be worth it, at such cost to one’s friendships, to one’s family relationships. But when you’re called, you’re called.

Today is Human Relations day, the day that the church sets next to the observance of Martin Luther King Day. The Wyoming Conference has made a short tradition of reading aloud the letter that this servant of God, Martin Luther King, wrote in Birmingham in 1963, to respond to some moderate leaders of the struggle to desegregate Birmingham Ala. He wrote it while in jail for parading without a permit, a charge at that was widely known then and is certainly acknowledged now to have been a trumped up charge in order to get him off the street and perhaps out of the cities’ hair.

He literally is writing it while he’s in jail. The letter was started in the margins of the newspaper that King read of the more moderate religious leaders criticisms, and then graduated to napkins, and finally to pads of paper. In it, we can read what King was thinking about the movement, his doubts about how the Kingdom should be helped, and His belief that in the end, there is now way that one who is called can sit on that call. When you are called to help bring the peaceable kingdom into existence, you must go.

There’s an urgency to his letter, but it is quiet. He knows that he is not talking to his enemies—He isn’t writing to the Birmingham Police chief, Bull Conner, the one who had set attack dogs and fire hoses on protestors. No, he’s talking to fellow believers in the cause, but ones who are uncomfortable with the movements’ urgent insistence in change NOW! Birmingham was already a tinderbox and a dangerous place, by that point. White supremacists had already blown up the church where most of the protestor’s meetings and worship services were conducted, and that bomb had killed 4 young girls. The local leaders wanted a lower temperature, a more gradual movement toward justice and desegregation.

In his letter, King is respectful of his colleagues, but is insistent that there can be no waiting. The heart of the letter is this statement:

We have waited .for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored";. . . (when) your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

This impatience he describes is the impatience that people called of God feel in needing to build the Peaceable Kingdom. It is that dwelling place on top of that mountain that people like this want to see built so badly—a place where humanity realizes that even the idea of race is wrong; that race is an artificial construct made by people who wanted to somehow say that they were different than those around them, and that those differences had greater value. In every way that matters, there are no true differences between us; being made in the image of God isn’t a matter of skin color, or any of the other differences that biology has given us, but rather in the love we show to those around us.

In the version of the Bible I read to you, Isaiah’s statement is that the forest will disappear completely. There is some disagreement among Bible versions about this passage, what it means and how it fits into the greater structure of the chapter, but my brain latched onto the image of the forest being laid low as a good thing. To my 21st century ears, where deforestation is a sin, this was a remarkable passage. But then I remember that in medieval times, the forests were actually dangerous places, where lurked wild animals, thieves and robbers, and other dangers. Russian monks who couldn’t find deserts to live in would go into the woods instead, the most remote and dangerous places they could find in order to be closer to God. I think that this is true for Isaiah, too. The forest represents wilderness, and wilderness is scary.

Isaiah’s prophecy is that when the kingdom comes, those dangerous places will be eliminated, and the people shall live in peace. “The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever”, it says.

Many of us live quiet lives, but we do not live in peace. Monks killed by their government may not happen here, but they do happen somewhere. Governments invade countries that have resources, so as to have access to those resources. Even today, even among us, people avoid towns and cities because of the various versions of “them” that are out there, when there is no basis in truth.

We live unrighteous lives, and righteousness does bring peace. We do not have that peace.

There are many things on this planet that call for our attention as children of God, as people made in the image of God. The forest has not yet been laid low. But when people like Martin Luther King hear the call of God, the forest does disappear just a little. May we all be called to help those forests of fear and ignorance disappear completely.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Of Raptors and Crash Helmets

Matthew 2: 13-17
Acts 10: 34-43

Baptism of the Lord, Year A, Jan. 13.

I’m a margin scribbler. I fully expect that when I have retired, my primary Bible will look a lot like my friend Chuck’s, who is retired now. You can’t hardly see what the text is for the notes he has scribbled in the margins for a good part of his ministry.

In reading the texts that are assigned to this week of the calendar, I saw in the margin a note next to the bit about a dove descending from heaven—“BBT more like a hawk, with talons”.

I think that BBT means baptism. But the hawk bit definitely refers to the dove descending, and it brings to mind a quote from one of today’s most famous preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor. She says somewhere that if we were truly serious about being church, we would issue helmets in church and the pews would have seatbelts.

Being Christian isn’t meant to be comfortable. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove isn’t meant to be entirely comforting. If we’re about God’s word and leading, it leaves us in all kinds of places we never thought we would end up in, all kinds of situations that we would not have chosen for ourselves.

Peter, in the Acts passage for today, certainly feels the same way. What has just happened, before our text, is that Peter has had his great vision while standing on top of the house. The sheet has come down from heaven, and on the sheet are various foods that Peter and his culture consider unclean—un-kosher foods like pork, lobster, shellfish, etc., and a voice from heaven has told his that what God has created, he shall no longer consider unclean. He receives this vision three times, and then the sheet is raised back into heaven, just as there is a knock at the door. They are men from a Roman soldier, the instrument and symbol of Israel’s occupation, who have been looking for him to take him to their master. Their master is a “god fearer”, and he is to go to them to bring the Gospel of Christ.

To a gentile, and an enemy. Peter has to get used to the idea hat this new message of salvation to all in the name of Christ really does mean all.
Our message is to all people, even the ones who make us uncomfortable, who make us angry, the ones who normally we would wonder why God spent energy creating.
And actually acting on this belief takes courage, and that’s why we need crash helmets. Not literally because churches are dangerous places, but figuratively, because taking the gospel seriously means that you will get knocked about at times. Being a disciple does leave a mark.

Obedience to God’s will also takes you to interesting places. Matthew tells us about the story of Jesus and John the Baptist, when Jesus came to be baptized. Baptism, for Jews, at that time, was similar to a ritual bath, or a mikveh. The priests would take a ritual bath before serving in the temple, and before high holy days. Women would need to take a ritual bath once a month. John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins—not for all time, it was entirely possible that people might have come more than once.

When John, who knows who Jesus is, says that Jesus needs to be baptizing him, Jesus’ reply is that this is how it needs to be, for now. The assumption is that Jesus does not need to be ritually cleansed, since he is already God in some sense. But he does accept baptism anyway. There are some reasons for this—if he is to be among the people of Israel, they are going to want to have certain things set up as appropriate. A ritual bath is one of them for a man who seeks to be a religious figure. But deeper than that, Jesus showing up to be baptized is in a very real sense necessary, because it means that he has accepted the mission given him. This is what he means by “fulfilling all righteousness”. You have to go through the motions, participate in the rituals, and accept the symbols for your work to be accepted as real.

For our culture, there are similar rituals. For instance, to run for president in America, as we are now seeing, there is a long series of poses one must assume; you have to go to places like Iowa and New Hampshire, and be seen and photographed in school gyms, diners and the like, talking to people. That is how you fulfill all righteousness with regard to American Presidential campaigns. For Jesus to be a religious leader in that time and place, a ritual cleansing must take place. Let it be so for now, he says to John; the proprieties must be observed.

The Christian church has considered this moment the public declaration of Jesus work on earth; he knew who he was before this, but here is the moment he begins to be what he has meant to be. The dove descending from heaven, God’s voice speaking to John and those others standing by the river God’s “laying on of hands”, ordaining Jesus, in a sense, and Jesus had to show up for this to happen. The voice that speaks from heaven, in Matthew’s version, speaks in the words of the Scripture that they all would know in that scene; so much of Matthew harkens back to what we call the Old Testament. The voice of God combines to scriptures, Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. Psalm 2 is what’s called a coronation psalm, one that would have been sung at the beginning of a King’s reign. Its voice is full of warning, both to the new King and to those who are around—a righteous King of Israel is an instrument of God. Isaiah 42 begins the portion of Isaiah that scholars now call the suffering servant passages, where it speaks of not bruising a reed, not quenching candles, and bringing forth justice.

That sort of justice brought peacefully and with grace is very hard to do, but it is God’s way. We are not bullies, we are not looking for conquest. There is no winning or losing. There is just courage, and a willingness to follow God to whatever place we’re led, and being faithful in the journey and in the arrival.

Jesus knows about following God’s will, and it leaving a mark. Jesus calls us into service that isn’t entirely comfortable, into a service that sometimes requires safety gear. The Holy Spirit might indeed have looked like a dove that day as Jesus rose from the Jordan river, but that dove had talons like a hawk. Gentle they may be, but talons they are. It’s those talons that get in, under our skin, and bring us forth in God’s name.

Monday, January 07, 2008

“It is Not Enough to Kneel and Pray”

Matthew 2: 1-23

Epiphany Sunday, Year A, Jan 6.

A quote came across my e-mail this week. From the Christian Science Monitor, an article about the terrible recent events in Kenya quoted a local priest who was trying to get his parishioners to resist tribal urges, and act for God. He said this in a rally in a park that was organized to protest the appearing election fraud that allowed the majority tribe to maintain its hold over the government. : "It is not enough to kneel and pray," he says. "We tell parishioners that whatever they do, they must do something that will affect peace somehow."

It might be difficult for us, here in this area of the world, to understand exactly what is going on. We have not had tribal warfare in this area of the country ever since the Revolution. Then, it was a mess, with whites fighting Native Americans, settlers from Connecticut fighting Pennamites (ones from Pennsylvania), and American colonists fighting the British. All at the same time. It’s been two hundred years since we’ve had trouble even remotely like what Kenya is suffering through. And were there ministers and priests saying to those settlers, as Sullivan began his march up the river to New York, cleansing ethnic Indians as he went, that "everything you do in these times must affect peace, somehow"? I don’t know; there probably were, since Quakers were so populous in Pennsylvania. They apparently had little effect, however.

Desperate times call for specific measures. Sometimes there is no sitting back and watching. God acts for the benefit of the world, and those who stand to lose materially in the kingdom to come react in self interested, evil ways. The ruling tribe in Kenya, when threatened, have acted much in the way that Herod did all those years ago. And the Christian response is to do more than kneel and pray.
It was magi from the east who came to Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. Their reasons were certainly news to the current king, Herod. He was not aware that he was to be replaced. He was not aware that there was any problem. He just knew that he was king, he was serving Rome well, he was getting rich, and though there were occasionally squabbles with the local Jewish population, it wasn’t anything that he and his soldiers couldn’t handle.

The magi probably didn’t know they were stepping into a political mistake. They were theoretical sorts, all full of knowledge about the skies and of prophecy, but not exactly your most astute political operators. It might not have occurred to them that coming to a king and saying "hey, we've come to honor your replacement!" might be a little problematic.

Of course, the one they are coming for was Jesus, the baby, just born. During Advent, we named him as being the son of an unwed mother, living in an occupied territory. But the magi showing up also reminds us that he is one searched for by the wise, wish as dead by kings, saved and protected by God, and led by prophecy. No ordinary disadvantaged child, this one!

The Magi look for the child, find him, honor him, give him their gifts, and then "warned in a dream", leave by another road. They don't show back up at the palace, and when Herod realizes this, his plan to kill the usurper to the throne goes by the wayside. Time to go to plan B. He kills every kid in the Bethlehem area who is two years old or less. Not just the male children, but all of them. And so it is done, but Jesus escapes through his father Joseph having a dream telling him to run to Egypt.

See, this is the way it is. Good is all over this world, and those who are threatened by it seek to destroy it. We are the people of God, and it is our responsibility, even in our sinfulness, to stand against those who would destroy others for their own gain. It is in His name that we must act to stop the massacres and oppressions of these days. There are people who stand against the powers of the world, and it is our call to stand with them, in the name of the baby who was threatened by a king, and in the names of all the children who died because they were from the wrong town and were the wrong age.

It was not God's will that those children die that day. It is not God's will that anyone dies violently. God acts for the good of the world, and evil responds in its own self interest. God knew what Herod was capable of, but Herod's order to kill the children was Herod all by himself. God chooses the poor over the rich. God chooses the oppressed over the privileged. The rich and the privileged respond out of their own self interest in evil ways.

It is our call to stand with the poor and the oppressed. We are the people of God, and it is our call to stand with those who are in harms' way. And the Kenyan pastor is right--it is not enough to kneel and pray. We must stand between power and its victims. Christians today stand between Jewish soldiers and Palestinians, wearing red baseball caps. Christians today stand between armies and the tribes of Darfur. Christians today stand between hunger and the people of Appalachia. Christians today stand between AIDS and the children of Africa. And American Christians stand between their own need to be powerful, to defend their lifestyles, and the incessant call from Christ to lay aside their privilege and serve the world in his name.

It is not enough to kneel and pray. Whatever we do must affect peace somehow. We must act, and as Christians, it must be in the name of the baby who was born, and in the names of the babies who were killed when evil lashed out in self interest.

Where do you stand?