Monday, October 27, 2008

Faithfulness and Butter

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

In the Little House books, I remember their being a weekly schedule that Laura’s Ma would follow. I don’t remember the exact schedule, but it more or less sounded like Monday, laundry; Tuesday, baking; Wednesday, smoking meat; Thursday, making butter; and Friday, baths. This is back when there were no laundry washing machines and dryers, and stuff was washed by hand and hung out to dry. If it rained that day, I would guess that the laundry would be hung in the house.

In the midst of that schedule, I wonder if Laura’s ma ever thought about whether there would be a time when that schedule would be different?

I got to visit a couple this week who still live on their farm. They used to have cows, and the milking barn is still behind the house. They don’t run cows anymore, but they used to have a number of them, and they moved on to their property in 1939. I wonder if they thought, back in 1939, that they would someday be in their house, on their farm, and not have cows?

Sometimes, we make choices that have unintended consequences. Did you know that Oct. 31 is something else besides Halloween? Friday, known to little ghouls, witches and Power Rangers far and wide, is also the day that, in 1519, a monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic church to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Nailing a list of grievances to a church door was the accepted practice, at the time, of starting a debate. And boy did he start one. In the end, wars were fought, people died, whole nations were involved, and a new set of churches was founded and now exist alongside the Roman Catholic church. When he took hammer and nail in hand in Wittenberg, he was intending to reform the church that he was raised in, served as a monk and priest, and loved very much. I don’t think that Luther intended to start a whole new type of Christianity.

John Wesley, the founder of our denomination, was an Anglican priest, who graduated from college in the 1720’s and was ordained at the same time. (When I say Anglican here, I mean that he was a priest in the Church of England.) He was the son of an Anglican priest, and his brother was also an Anglican priest. John saw that the church was very lukewarm, that there were a lot of lax practices in the church. He wanted to reform the church so that it would reflect the fire of the Holy Spirit, and he tried to do so by going out to talk to the people in the pews (or really, the people who weren’t in the pews.) He did not want to start a new church. The reform and expression of faith he started in England soon came over to the American Colonies, and when they formed their own country in the 1780’s, only then did he reluctantly give permission for the American Methodists to form their own church. The British Methodists only formed a separate denomination in England after Wesley died, and when the laws regarding religious practice changed.

Moses reluctantly took on the job of being God’s man among the Israelite slaves in Egypt. Under Moses’ leadership, the Israelites had gone from being slaves to a hardened, tough, and unified nomadic people, and the next step was now at hand. Moses was told that he would not be going into the promised land, and now, with that move at hand, Moses dies, though his eyes are undimmed and his vigor unabated. A new leader, Joshua, is raised up, one of the same generation as the Israelites who were born during the 40 years of life in the desert, one who has no memory of slavery in Egypt. So you think that Moses, when he saw that burning bush on the mountain, could have ever imagined his people becoming free and starting their own nation?

My point in all of this is to say that we do not have fortune telling skills. We are not seers, and prophecy, as we have come to understand it, is not telling the future, but rather, it is speaking toward the sins of the people and describing the consequences if we do not repent. We do the best we can we make the best choices possible with the information at the time, with all the integrity, intelligence and courage that God has given us, but we don’t really see where those choices can really lead us. We don’t know. But we do know that in each of those decisions, God is with us, and though we may be led to surprising places, that doesn’t change. God is always, and has always been with us. Even though we don’t churn butter anymore, God is as much with us as God was with the Ingalls family.

Even though that farmer no longer runs dairy cows, God is still with him. Think of all the changes those who were born in the 20’s and earlier have seen—they’ve gone from telegrams and letters, to telephone lines, to sometimes now people not even having land lines and using only mobile phones. They’ve gone from gaslight, coal, and fireplaces to rural electrification, automatically fed pellet stoves and computerized house thermostats with 24 hour timers. They’ve gone from supporting missionaries in Africa and Asia, to those areas now sending missionaries here to save the lost. In all of those changes, unforeseen and unimaginable, God has never left his people.

Truly, we can expect that, as long as we remain faithful, God has promised not to leave us. God did not leave Luther, even as he realized the depth of what he had started. God did not leave Wesley, even when he found out that his reform movement was not welcome in many parts of the country. In fact, we have seen that even when we are not faithful, God still does not leave.

The future of our country is uncertain. But it has always been. The future of the world is uncertain and troubling. But so it has always been. But it has also always been true that God is always with us. God is always seeking to guide his people to the correct path, no matter who is president of this or any other country, no matter what technology surrounds us, no matter what choices we make as a people. No matter what nation we live in, whether it is America, England, Japan, or Nigeria.

What differs is whether we listen to that leading.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Good, Acceptable, and Perfect

Matthew 22: 15-22

It’s a very sticky thing that the Pharisees have asked Jesus in this passage—very cleverly worded, so as to suss out Jesus’ true motives. If it was a normal person, they probably would have fallen into the trap.

The trap was set up like this. They invite people who support the Herod family, some of whom may have even believed that a member of the Herod family may himself be the messiah, to go with them to this opportunity to question. That way, whatever answer this Galilean preacher gives will get back to the family. They come upon the question of asking about taxes. They know that the Jews resent paying the tax; not because they don’t want to pay taxes, but because the coin that is required is a coin with a human head, and the letters on the coin claim divinity for the person whose head it is, that of Tiberius, Caesar, Roman Emperor.

As one commentator says, “coins (of the time) were handheld billboards of imperial propaganda with busts of imperial figures and inscriptions.” No one had checks back then, there was no electronic transfer of funds, so one had to pay using the coin of the realm. No exchanges like they had at the temple, to transfer the offending idolatrous money to safer, Jewish Temple coin. One had to handle the unclean money.

So, the question is “is it lawful to pay takes to the Roman Emperor or not?” If Jesus answers yes, then he can be seen as less than serious to the Jewish hopes for the messiah. He can be dismissed, because he is not truly willing to lead the people. He will be no danger, because Zealots and more passionate Pharisees will see him as not real. If he says no, it is not lawful, there are the Herodians who can report back to their boss that there is a new leader among the Jews who is now preaching sedition and treason, and he can be taken out by force. Either way, the Pharisees seem to have finally gotten Jesus to a decisive declaration that they can use against him.

Except he answers the question differently than yes or no.

The way he answers is very wise. Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, give to God what is due God. Caesar made the coin, Caesar distributed the coin, Caesar uses the coin to build roads, to pay soldiers, Caesar uses the coin to feed the people. Caesar, being the civil authority, needs to use coin in order to do his job. The coin, distasteful as it is to the people in appearance, help them live more peaceful lives. It keeps chaos away from their world. As onerous as it is to have an army occupying their land and profiting from their labor, the trade routes through the area stay open, keeping body and soul together.

But he keeps the primary focus of the Jews where it is supposed to be. Give to God what is due God. Jews of the time believe that all of the world is God’s. Christians, as spiritual, and in some cases literal descendants of Jews, believe similarly. Paul, raised as a Pharisee and still influenced by his education, says it this way in the 13th chapter of Romans; Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist incur judgment.

Note, by the way, that it doesn’t say that all government is to be obeyed. It says that there is no authority except from God. A chapter earlier, Paul writes that Christians (his exclusive audience) should not confirm to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (their) minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.

So, Jesus answers the question with more than just the words. Yes, we should pay the tax, no matter what the government requires that the tax be paid with. If they want coffee, give it to them in coffee. If they want it in chickens, give it to them in chickens. If they want it in coins of semi-precious metal, using words an symbols that are important to them, then fine, give it to them that way. It keeps the peace, and keeps the men with the swords out of your house. But remember that they govern by the will of God, and even a government as large and mighty as the Roman Empire governs at the disposal of God.

This is an amazing answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians, because they don’t really know what to do with it. Remember, they were asking with devious intent. They really didn’t want to know the answer, but they did want to trap him. It was an early version of what we have heard a lot about, lately; gotcha journalism! And Jesus avoids being “got.”

In fact, Jesus reverses the gotcha. Remember that these are the parables that Jesus is teaching his last week of life, while he is in Jerusalem. As he teaches them, he is actually in the temple. Do you remember that Jesus asks them to show him the coin used for the tax, and they do? Well, the guy who had the coin was actually defiling the temple, because that very coin should not have been within the walls of God’s Holy temple. It’s the whole reason for having moneychangers outside, it’s the whole premise of the question. And an authority has the coin inside the temple. It’s like taking whiskey to an AA meeting—a definite no-no.
So, all this being interesting and educational and all, what’s the point? What can we leave this room with this morning and take into our lives so that we can more closely resemble Christ?

It means that as Christians, we have discernment to do. The governments that we live under are all the subject of the will of God. To the degree that they resemble God’s wisdom, grace, will and love is the degree that they are Godly.

Our job as Christians is to discern what God requires of us. We are to always keep one eye towards the words of Christ, and compare the actions of government and authority against these. We are not called to separate the worlds of Caesar and God, but to compare the world of Caesar against the will of God as expressed by Jesus, and where the two do not match, to advocate for mercy, for peace, and for loving thy neighbor. Our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.

We are the face of God to the world. The governments of the world are in power by the will of God, and it is our duty to be their conscience. But we are to be transformed by the renewing our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God; what is good, and acceptable, and perfect. And expect goodness, acceptability, and perfection when it is not yet achieved.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dressing Right for the Party

Philippians 4: 1-9
Matthew 22: 1-14

“One is Only Poor only if they choose to be. . . “

I think I own probably 30 ties. I like a good tie, and I love clever, tasteful, understated ones. I think Phil’s wood tie is very clever, for instance!

Though I appreciate ties, I really only wear about 7 of the ones I own, and I wear them rarely, usually only the occasion of a funeral or wedding. I have a tie that has little champagne corks on it from when I used to be a tour guide at a champagne house. I have a tie from both of the universities I graduated from, I have a tie from the school Joe goes to and Donna works for. I wore one most days when I taught school last spring.

I have three or four sober, somber ties for most of the occasions that call for a tie in ministry, black, gray, one with a little bit of purple. I still have the tie I was married in. I have to say, though, that I am not a fan. I get very fussy about them, and after a while, I just want to take the thing off. I’m always afraid that I will get stuff on them, they are hard to control unless you have a little piece of jewelry that pokes holes in them, and no matter how loose the shirt’s collar is, they can sometimes feel tight, and that whole bit of making sure the end of the tie being below one’s belt, or the tip of the tie meeting the belt buckle, well, that’s just a level of engineering that is beyond me.

The thing is, they do look nice. When one is put together, the colors or the patterns are complementary, It’s a good look. My taste runs more toward the classic looks, understated and muted, New England Prep School styles. Preppy was huge when I was in high school.

It’s a war—clothes most definitely do not make the person- their value is not determined by their wrapping, but by golly, it is nice when people look nice. It’s almost a reverse psychology thing. Wearing a suit and a tie doesn’t call attention to yourself in a situation that calls for it-–it helps you blend in. If you went to a wedding in a college sweatshirt, jeans, and flip flops, people would notice. If you went to the beach in a suit with wingtip shoes, people will notice, too. There’s a way to dress that is appropriate to the situation.

We live in a time now where there is no clear dress code for church. I’ve been in churches where one of my predecessors preached in the boots and jeans he’d just been plowing in before church started. I’ve also been in churches where not too long before, women did wear white gloves, and the ushers wore tuxedos.

Jesus tells the story of the king who can’t get guests for the party until he invites everybody in the street, both good and bad. But then Jesus concludes the parable with the king kicking someone out of the wedding for not dressing right.

I think what Jesus is getting at here is how one’s soul is dressed. How does one dress properly for the occasion of the Kingdom coming? In this part of Matthew, he is still in the teaching mode he’s been in since he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt, and his teachings all through this part of Matthew have the Pharisees listening in to everything he says. And even though he speaks to disciples and others, he’s really speaking to them. And so there is this parable about a wedding banquet, with the impossible plot of a king that can’t get anyone to come to his banquet. Of course it isn’t about clothes. It is about how your soul is dressed before God. This is a parable, so of course we are not supposed to take this literally. No one gets to be booted out of church for dressing “wrong”. There is no wrong. There is clashing, there is badly fitting, there is a question of conventional taste, but there is no wrong.

We come to dress our spirits in the proper clothing of God—in the fashion that Paul describes for us. Rejoicing, gentleness, prayer, no worries, thanksgiving. Paul tells us that to be fashion forward in the kingdom, we are to keep our minds on those things that are honorable, true, pure, just, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. By keeping our mind on these things, by keeping our mind on God in these ways, we will clothe ourselves in the proper clothing for the kingdom.

We are called to live as if Jesus has already come to this world. Our choices, our opinions, our priorities should reflect the way we think the world will work when God’s love is the prevailing ethic of the world. So, to reflect that belief, we should be dressed for that party appropriately. We should be clothed in righteousness. Not self-righteousness, saying by how we act in the world that we are better than everyone else, but righteousness—humility, wisdom, courage, and grace. We should clothe ourselves in the actions of a people who believe that the Love of God is here, the grace of God is present for everyone. Let the clothes you wear reflect how you think the world works for those who live in the Beloved Community. The fashionistas of the kingdom don’t design clothes, they design ways to show the love of God to the world. They sew together ways for God’s grace to be shown in the world. They make wedding robes, and work so that no one will ever be kicked out of the banquet.

Dolly Parton has an old song called “Coat of Many Colors”, and the story goes like this; She grew up very poor in the mountains of Tennessee. When she was a child, her mother took a bunch of old rags and sewed them together to make a coat for her, because there was nothing else. But as she sewed, her mother told her the story of how much Jacob loved Joseph, so much that he gave him a coat that had as many colors in it as this coat the little girl was about to receive. And she was proud when she wore it to school, but other children saw it for what it was, the desperate attempt to give a poor child some warm clothing with what was available. But the song ends with the claim that because she had a coat that was sewn with love, she was as rich as anyone else.

The right clothes for the party of the Kingdom, the wedding banquet of God, are the ones that are made with love.

Monday, October 06, 2008

It’s True All Over

Psalm 19
(Exodus 20:1-20, John 1: 18)

Today is world Communion Sunday, which was started by the Presbyterians in the 1940’s. Most Christian traditions, Roman Catholic and American Evangelical churches excepted, have since joined in. The purpose of the observance is to highlight the commonality of belief in widely diverse practice. In other words, even though the way we worship is different, we’re really talking about the same God and the same Jesus.

But I got to thinking—what is it that we have in common with the other churches who observe this day? What can we say that Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Episcopalians can also say? For that matter, what can we say that Roman Catholics and American Evangelicals can say?

It’s not as easily said as you’d think. Of course, we claim that there is a God. But many religions outside of Christianity claim that; that isn’t a claim distinctive to Christians.

Then you begin to look at the basics of our belief, and it’s hard not to begin with the Ten Commandments. They are ethical, basic, and very much held in common by other Christians as bedrock. But if we are to think about what makes all Christianity distinctive from other religions, that won’t fly, because Jewish belief and practice also hold the Ten Commandments to be holy. They probably hold them to be holier than we do, in fact.

So whatever distinctiveness we exhibit has to be located in the Person and Work of Jesus. Is it enough to claim that Jesus existed? No, not really, because the Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, second only to the prophet Muhammad. They revere Jesus as a teacher and prophet.

No, we do not become distinctive until we speak of Jesus as the Son of God. To be able to say, with the Gospel of John, that he was with God, and he was God. That somehow, Jesus was more than just a man on earth with a great teaching for the world. John claims to us that Jesus, or the Word, was present at the creation of the universe, hovering over the waters as a mighty wind. As the Spirit. And that spirit came to earth in bodily form, as our Philippians passage last week said, emptying himself so as to take the form of a human being, and not just a human—but as an ordinary human. Not as a King, but as a member of a society that was occupied by a foreign power and did not hold citizenship in that oppressive society.
In short, it is the metaphysics of the matter that make it distinctive for us. It is the spooky bits, the unscientific bits. What makes us distinctive in the world of religions is the part that we can’t explain. You’ve got to admit, there is a sense that we could probably have come up with a more concrete bit of material with which to make our argument. This is what Paul means when he talks about the foolishness of the Gospel. He taught, he performed miracles, but we really don’t base our belief in his divinity on those. We can’t even necessarily claim that we are the only ones who have a founder who came to earth in order to guide people to the light—that’s what Buddha did, too.

No, for us, it is that belief in what Christians call the Trinity. That Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three experiences of one God, are indeed one person, present at the creation of the world, and yet involved in a very real way in the lives of ordinary, flesh and bone humans. One part submitted himself to a human death, and returned to life after a certain amount of time, like a starfish generates a new arm.

On world Communion Sunday, it is good to remember that what we believe about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is both what unites us across all denominations, traditions and locations around the world. Worship practices can change, and do. The way we do communion can be different. The way we baptize can be different. But that we hold Father Son and Holy Spirit to be God, three in one, not three Gods, and not one God with subordinate helpers, is what makes us unique.

So, as we take communion in a few minutes, I invite you to meditate, or pray, or think about the person who is the farthest from you in this world. Think of someone with darker skin, someone with different clothes, someone who speaks a different language. Think of someone who eats different food and does different work. And think about the fact that despite all of your differences, you and they hold in common the belief that the person we know as Jesus, who came to earth to show us God’s love and died demonstrating that love, was also with God, and in fact was God at the beginning of creation, and is with him now.