Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Interposition of the Almighty Hand

Deuteronomy 8: 2-18

Thanksgiving Eve 2008

Abraham Lincoln was a Biblical scholar in a way we have not seen presidents be since, well, him. Hey may not have been the most faithful church-goer, but he was, in a way that cannot be denied, strongly influenced by the Bible.

We don’t have enough time for me to go through everything that Lincoln wrote that was influenced by or recalls incidents from, the Bible. But this evening’s passage from Deuteronomy sounds an awful lot like the first paragraphs of Lincoln’s Proclamation, the document that we take as the beginning of the modern understanding of Thanksgiving in America.

Moses, in this, his last speech to the Israelites before he dies, spends much time reminding the Israelites of all that they have passed through, from slavery in Egypt until that moment. The Hebrew Bible does this rehashing of the origins of the nation a lot—you’d think the Israelites would have paid more attention for all the speeches Moses and later Joshua made, and all the times they read it in the Torah. Our passage says it again here—remember when you didn’t even know what manna was, or even how to cook it? God provided. Remember how you walked for 40 years, and your feet didn’t fall off? That was God, too. So keep that in mind now that you are about to come into the Promised Land, with its sweet water and fertile fields. Don’t forget him as you build your fancy houses amid profit from copper mines and multiplying livestock. Don’t fool yourself----you didn’t do this—God did.”

Lincoln’s Proclamation does the same thing, sort of—“Yes, this civil war is a terrible thing, and we would do well to have avoided it, but in the midst of this great national trial, look at the fact that no one has taken advantage of the situation and invaded us, we are still producing stuff to build and trade with, and the population increases, despite the loses of war.” This is his next line, word for word;
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
Lincoln believed, I have seen it written more than once, that the civil war was not itself the commission of a sin, but God’s punishment for America’s sin. And I do not think that anyone reasonable will think that it is a stretch to believe that the primary sin in Lincoln’s mind was slavery.
The proclamation, which was issued Oct. 3 1863, was a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that freed the slaves in all the states that were currently in rebellion. If it wasn’t part of Lincoln’s thinking when he assumed office, it certainly was by the end of 1862, and by this time in 1863, men throughout the north were singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they fought, meaning every single word. Lincoln could very well have seen the country as another Nineveh, and not having heeded the identification of their sin, were now plunged into the punishment.
So it is very interesting that, as a President, he is as open as he is about the failures of the nation as he proclaims a day of thanksgiving. But buried within the last paragraph of the proclamation of thanksgiving is a very interesting line; see if you can pick it out.
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

While in the midst of giving God the glory for what hasn’t happened to us, remember that we have committed grave sins, and we should also be penitent. Penitent for “national perverseness and disobedience”.

Moses writes of not crediting the gifts and providence of God to ourselves, but giving credit where it is due. Lincoln writes of the nation being in the mess it is in because of it’s failure to listen to God, and that we should all pray together on the fourth Thursday of November for God to return us to “to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union”.

Would that we would pray tomorrow, as we gather around our tables, for “The Interposition of the Almighty Hand.” Would that we would acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God, and be thankful for it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jesus is Coming, Look Busy

1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11

When I was in seminary, there was occasional need for a little blowing off of steam. One night a few friends and I went to hear a local comedian, someone who was well known and loved in Dallas, but that I hadn’t heard of. It was a small show, I think only about 20 people were there. Afterwards, we walked around the section of Dallas called Deep Ellum, which for years had been the African American center of town. The building of the highway straight through the center of that neighborhood, as well as desegregation and economic changes had pretty much killed Deep Ellum’s original energy, but it had come back through its growth as a neighborhood of music, nightclub, and boutique shops.

In one of those shops, we found a t-shirt which, to our minds, was the most amusing thing of the night. I’m sure that the original designer of the shirt had secular, antagonistic reasons to write what they did. They probably had meant to be sarcastic or somehow judgmental when they wrote on the shirt—“Jesus is coming! Look busy!”

What they didn’t know, of course, is that they had illustrated perfectly the proper mindset for Christians.

You see, one of our most central beliefs as Christians is that Jesus is going to come back. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, it is right there; “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”. (and by the way, since you all are not dead, then you all are quick.)

What he will do when he comes back is the source of much dissention within the church over the course of church history. The earliest letters we have from Paul speak of a belief in the imminent return of Jesus. He even advocates that people should avoid getting married, because Jesus is coming soon. By the time of Romans, one of his last letters, he has backed off of his expectation that Jesus is returning immediately. In the years leading up to the year 1000, many people believed that Jesus’ return was nigh, that a thousand years was a nice tidy number. But Jesus didn’t come. So maybe it was 1033, which would have been a thousand years after Jesus’ death. But Jesus didn’t come. You may remember the frenzy over the calendar flipping over from 1999 to 2000, and how the computer calendars wouldn’t be able to cope and the world would shut down. Some folks took that annoying inconvenience and built it into the mechanism by which Jesus was coming back. But Jesus didn’t come, and we’re still here (and so are our computers).

There have been many calculations about the return of Jesus. Much ink has been spilled printing both predictions and imagining what it will be like—the Left Behind series of novels are merely the latest, albeit most commercially successful, versions of that.

Predicting the signs of Jesus’ coming has always been problematic. From Paul himself, all the way down to Hal Lindsey in the 70’s and since, no one has gotten it right.

Prophecy isn’t seeing into the future, it isn’t using a crystal ball, or reading tea leaves. Prophecy, in the Biblical understanding, is stating the effect that will occur if the people of God persist in their cause. It is simply a Cause and Effect relationship. If you tip a pitcher of water over, then you will spill the water. If you persist in worshipping foreign gods, you will fall to the enemy before you. There’s nothing spooky about it, according to Scripture.

It can be stated that there are signs and portents that point to the return of Jesus. This bear means this, this eagle means that, this dragon means those people who are not us. Revelation and Daniel and Matthew 24 can be made to work just like a horoscope, to mean anything you want it to mean.

I do not dispute Jesus and Paul when they claim Jesus’ return. I believe that he will, as well. But Jesus and Paul are both clear here—you CAN”T predict when it is that Jesus will come again. Paul says it in this section of his letter to Thessalonica, which says Jesus will come like a thief in the night. Jesus says it in Matthew 24, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. He says “therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. In the parable that immediately follows that section of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of a faithful and an unfaithful slave. No one knows when the master of these slaves will return from wherever they went, but the one that is found to be working, feeding the other slaves, and generally doing what they were supposed to will be blessed, and will “even be put in charge of all the masters’ possessions.” He even says “for as the lightning comes from the east and flashed as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man.” In other words, don’t worry, you’ll know. It will be impossible to miss. The next parable, the beginning of Chapter 25, is the parable of the ten bridesmaids that we read just last week. Remember how it ends—“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

All three of the rest of the Gospels have similar sections. It can all be boiled down to this statement: Jesus is coming, but we don’t know when.

The signs and portents, for those who insist in them, point to Jesus’ imminent return. But so they have for two thousand years. Various supposed anti-Christs have come and gone. The people who expect Jesus to return again are not wrong. It is not a matter of getting the signs and portents right. It is a matter of reading Jesus’ own words and realizing that predictions are not the most fruitful discipleship. The things that matter to Jesus are clearly stated for us in Scripture. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger. Visit the sick. Other things are perhaps not stated as clearly, but would seem to be just as obviously fruitful; bring the children up to understand Jesus and his teachings. Take care of each other. Take care of what God has given you to care for.

If we seek to do all of these things, and to keep body and soul together as long as we can, that’s a full enough life. Think of it this way. If Jesus is coming, what do you want to be seen busy doing? When Jesus comes, what do you want to be caught doing?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dance Wit’ What Brung Ya

Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25: 1-13

When you go to Yosemite National Park, there are lots of trails. Some of them are easy, taking you up to the point of falls, or to easy scenic overlooks, where you barely need to get out of the car. There are the easy ways that wind around the mountain, easy grades that are paved and so gentle even scooter chairs can be used for those who aren’t able to walk. There are some harder ones, that wind through boulder fields and forests, for the more fit day hiker. The extreme “trails” are the ones that climb the mountains them selves, even one trail (if it can be called that) that is the marked part of the sheer vertical side of Half Dome, a granite face that was half sheared off by the last glacier.

Most or all of these trails, easy or hard, have as their goal some high place. While it isn’t always the top of something, it is usually high enough to be able to see something. There are many paths, suited for lots of people.

What is almost certainly true, and the park service would endorse this for their own reasons, is that to get to those rare high views, you have to stay on the path.
There are choices to be made periodically. If you turn to the left, you will go to the waterfall. If you go to the right, you will go through the woods and come to a rock outcrop. You have to choose. You have to decide what way you will go, and the payoff is what’s at the end. Rarely do you take a walk for it’s own sake in Yosemite. What you find at the end will make your journey to Yosemite individually special. You will have seen the park in a way that no one else has, and no one else ever will. The sun will hit those rocks in just that way only once. That chipmunk will cross your path just once at that time, in that way.

Choose this day what you will see, is almost what’s said.

Joshua has laid this out for the Israelites. In Chapter 24, the last chapter of the book of Joshua, Jericho has been fought, the land has been conquered for God’s people, and the land has been allocated to the tribes. This last chapter is now Joshua gathering the tribes back together, and saying that they must now make a choice. They have walked a path that has gotten them this far- a path led by pillars of fire and clouds. A path led by God, and a series of wars that through God’s leadership, have given them their promised land. Now, with the mission finished, it is time to make a new choice, and the people must choose. There are many ways to go—they have available to them the Gods they left behind in Egypt, they have the Gods of the people they have just conquered and now live among, or they can dance with what brung them, The God of their fathers and mothers. Joshua is clear as to his choice: As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Hikers never get where they want to go by hesitating at the trailhead. But it is very true that when you make a choice about which trail to walk, you loose the chance to experience other trails. By choosing the waterfall, you loose the chance to see the rock outcrop. But if you hesitate at the trailhead, you gain neither.

Choosing a life of Christian faith means that you lose out on another faith. Choosing a life of Methodist practice and doctrine means that you lose out on growing as a Presbyterian, or a Baptist, or a Catholic. It’s still God at the end, but the path of the mountain is different for each one. The way on each path may be hard, or blessedly easy. What is definitely true, however, is that if you do not choose a path and start walking, you will never get to the end, you will never get to the summit. The bridesmaids are wise or foolish according to how they committed to the wait, and those that didn’t bring adequate oil for an uncertain wait lost out on the party.

Methodists are Christians. It is one path up the mountain, the top of which is full communion with God. It is a lot harder to climb up the mountain if you are trying to straddle two paths, or if you keep climbing across the side of the mountain, breaking through the forests where there are no paths, or across rock faces that have no handholds. Sure, you can get there, but why make it so difficult? Why must we insist on making our own way when there are wise people who have gone before that have experienced the same thing? We have times of dryness, so did they. We have times of trial, times when we have made mistakes, so did they. We are no less human than John Wesley, or Benedict of Nursia, or Julian of Norwich. They were no more human than we are. The reason why they are remembered is because of their wisdom, or insight, or spiritual maturity. But underlying all of that is the plain fact of their commitment. They committed to a path, and walked it to it’s conclusion. That is their model for us; that is what we can learn from them. Even though they lived in different times, with different worldly threats, different technology, different cultures, what their humanity and our humanity have in common is that they committed in the same way we can. And that is what God looks for—commitment.

The Methodist form of Christian Practice is one among many. There are differences between us and Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Catholics. Each practice has it’s drawbacks, each has it’s strengths. Each is a special distinctive path up the mountain to God. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. I’m saying that you are here on this path, some at the trailhead. Why not take a few steps up the path? Why not use what’s here to help you grow in Christ?

Why not dance wit’ what brung ya?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

All Souls Day

Revelation 7: 9-17
1 John 3: 1-3

We’re about to name some names in worship. These names are the names of people who have died in the past year, whether they are church members or the loved ones of church members. I am sure there are others, and there are extra candles. Of course, we also remember those who died less recently than these, sometimes back thirty, forty, sixty years. It is only natural. The tradition of doing this at this time of the year is an old tradition. It even predates Christianity, predates Christ, and many of the traditions of Halloween, the jack o lanterns, the costumes, the images of horror and fright all are based in how we think about and handle death.

The main name for November 1st, and the Sunday closest to it, is All Saints Day. The term “saint” is a problematic one for Protestants. Saints are traditionally part of a Christian practice we do not share, and have at times been very prejudiced against. In our tradition, the only churches named after saints, for instance, are churches named after John, Paul, Mark, James and Matthew. Very rarely do you see a “St. George” or “St. Patrick” United Methodist Church.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers, that all people who follow Christ are charged to preach the gospel somehow. Sometimes that is carried forward to assume that everyone who dies in the Lord must be saints. That all who follow Jesus, when they die, somehow become saints. Others understand that the lives of saints are somehow made extraordinary by a lifetime of action, or by one action. Somehow, for some, Cassie Bernall, who is known only for one act, which was professing a belief in Jesus Christ just before she was killed in the Columbine Massacre, is of the same stature as Mother Theresa, who protected, fed, clothed and otherwise kept alive and gave dignity to thousands of Children in Kolkota, India.

It is perfectly honorable to name the names of those whom we love who have died. But it is also perfectly honorable to tell the stories of people who have had clear opportunity to witness to their faith, and did so. And rather than place arbitrary value on those stories, what is better, I think, is to know the stories, and to take strength from them when we feel weak, or weary, or uninspired. Though Mother Theresa did save thousands of lives, sometimes the story of Cassie Bernall is more relevant to a situation we find ourselves in. Sometimes people are named saints in the traditional understanding of saints because of holy lives lived, other times for significant singular acts in desperate times.
Each of the people we are about to name here could be saints. Some of us here know why that could be true, most of us don’t. But we name them anyway, on All Saints’ Day, because we loved them. Were they ever inspired by their faith to witness somehow? Did they ever let it be known that they were Christian? We don’t always know. WE name these names because we loved them, and think the best of them. We name these names of those close to us, not knowing sometimes if their stories ever included inspiring moments, or moments of clear witness. For some of these names, it is easy to identify moments where they did indeed exhibit their common priesthood. For others it is harder. But we have faith that, at some point while they were on earth, God used them somehow to show his love and grace and wisdom to us, or to someone. We may never know that story, but we have faith that it exists.

We have faith that, now that they are no longer with us, alive and breathing on earth, that they hunger no more, thirst no more, that the sun doesn’t strike them, nor any scorching heat; that the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” We pray for some that they are now where they always wanted to be, in the presence of God, praising him always, as they seemed to do so well here. We pray for others that they have realized what God actually is, and have found the comfort and ease in God that they couldn’t seem to find here on earth.

What we hope for them, and ultimately hope for ourselves, is that we experience the truth of knowing that we are God’s children now, and that what we will be will be revealed. We hope to indeed find out that when he does reveal himself to us, we will really be like him, as we believe—that the image of God that is within us is alive, and real, and the purest part of us. We praise God today for those who have gone before, because they now know the whole truth, that which we know only in part.

Are these people saints? It is not for us to decide. What IS for us is to honor them, and remember the best parts of them as those parts that reflected most clearly the image of God within them. For it is those parts that we have faith are now clothed in white robes, giving constant praise to the lamb around His throne.