Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Chirp of the Alarm

Isaiah 55: 1-3

It was about 3 in the morning. I don’t know what it is about that time of night, but that’s the hour of wakefulness for me most of the time. I was probably sleeping lightly, and it was the only sound in the quiet. A single chirp. Not from outside, not from a bird. The fire/carbon monoxide alarm. It woke me right up, and I lay there listening for another one, listening for the alarm to fully engage, and sniffed for smoke.

None of it happened, nothing smelled weird, and with electric heat, we don’t have to worry too much about carbon monoxide. But it didn’t chirp again, so it wasn’t the battery. I don’t know now whether I imagined it. But I did start to imagine, as I lay there in bed, what the plan was to get Mom and Joe out of the house. Mom’s dog Lily would stay with her anywhere, so I didn’t need to transport her. Rocket the cat would just have to find his way out, because in a situation like that, who knows where he’d go.

I began to think about what I should grab on my way out. I remember a former preacher telling us that he’d grab his Bible and his wedding ring. Would I grab any of my Bibles? No, they’re all replaceable-God’s word is as eternal as the next purchase at Amazon. Maybe the plaster casts we made of Donna and Joe’s hands? Probably. The pictures of her we made for the memorial services? Perhaps, but all three were also available in various forms of electronic media.

In my fevered 3 AM thinking, where all perspective is lost, distortions become reality, and all the little things that worry us become as large as last week’s moon, I began to worry about all of the things I’d have to replace in a house fire. Of course, all of the humans and the other living things in my household would be out, but after that, it would be a significant loss. It’s easy enough to read in Matthew that “we should not store up for ourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (and where hard drives break down and destroy precious photos and music files, we could add today), but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Theoretically, we understand that. But house fires do have a way of affecting our spirits, nonetheless.

Possessions are important. Cars are tools, musical instruments feed our souls, a thirty year old jacket still helps us remember who we were and are. Photographs are the last link to loved ones who have died. I get Jesus’ point, that true permanence is to be found in God’s promises and glory, that there will come a time when we will not worry about anything, and we will be focused only on, surrounded only by love. And I’ll say amen to that. But he’s right-Where my treasure is, there my heart will be, also. And sorry, I confess that my heart is in the memories that some material possessions represent. My heart is not in material wealth; my heart is in memory. And these things are rather harder to replace than a car or a guitar, or a television-those other things can be replaced by money from insurance policies. However, I would miss the art that Josiah has created and that we framed and hung on the wall. I would miss those hand casts that we made. Unfortunately, these things can’t be protected or replaced. You can’t build bigger barns and moats around mementoes. You could put them all in safe deposit boxes, fireproof bags, and such, but then they’d be locked away, and not with you, and what’s the point of that?

The book of Isaiah was probably written, scholars tell us, in two or three parts, over the course of 50-70 years. So it is probably true that there were at least two different authors. The first part was written as the Israelites were being taken away in what we refer to as the Babylonian Captivity; Babylon forcibly relocated the cream of the Israelite society back to their capital. The second part was written as they were allowed to return home by the conqueror of the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great of Persia. By the 55th chapter of the book of Isaiah, the audience had become the people returning to the land of Israel, the sons and daughters of the people taken away. They are now returning to a land that has been changed, and for some, those changes ruined the great golden Israel of their parents and grandparents. The land in the stories they’d been told for their whole lives was now shown to be lost forever.

But they have a chance to make a new Israel, to not follow in the mistakes of their parents, and to follow God in a way that their ancestors had lost sight of. “incline your ear, and come to me”, God says in Isaiah’s voice; “listen, so that you may live. . .”

Sometimes it takes something as drastic as an invasion, or a house fire, or the death of a loved one to refocus out hearts and minds on what is important.

Mementoes remind us of love, of joy, of pleasure. The emotions that they draw from us are reflections of the love, the joy, the pleasure we will feel at the moment we can take a drink of that milk, that wine we can buy without price; the moment we feel true satisfaction in the labor we have performed. There are moments on earth we can feel these things, and they are but glimpses of the way heaven is going to work.

Living in God, it seems, is an exercise in delayed gratification. It is a hundred percent certain that, by living in God, loving as God loves, living with the integrity and truthfulness of Jesus, that the fleeting moments of satisfaction of a job well done, or the flashes of feeling in romantic love, or the temporary contentment of a warm blanket or a song that just pierces your heart will be our permanent state.

We are invited into an abundant life. We just have our own definition of abundant; one that is rich in love, value, and spiritual satisfaction. It is an abundance that makes material possessions, even ones of singular sentimental value, irrelevant.

It is a comfort that I find is worth having at three in the morning, when the fire alarm chirps. Yes, in a house fire, the hand casts would be destroyed. But there will come a time, I believe, when the spirit of the hands that made those casts will again hold my hands, and every love that I have ever loved will one day surround me.

This is the promise of Isaiah, this is the promise of heaven; this is the promise of life in God.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bicycle Tires in the Dirt

John 3: 1-17

Back toward the end of January, I preached a sermon that described a portion of what we understand salvation to be in the Wesleyan tradition, a portion of the doctrine called “Arminianism”, which is a central doctrine of United Methodist belief.

I said then that “it is wholly by God’s pleasure that he leads us both to act and to think," and further,

This would seem to be fine and clear for those that have found Christ and have been led to a decision for faith in Christ. But Wesley is clear in this additional point-God works his will in us long before we have even figured out who God is, and he is pulling us slowly towards Godself, the way that even a slow moving river can push a canoe.

Some would call the moment of decision that we declare our faith in Christ as the moment of our salvation. Wesley, and the doctrine of our practice, however, allows for there to be either one large dramatic decision, like Paul getting knocked off his horse and being rebuked by Jesus himself, or room for many small decisions, like a child attending summer camp and Sunday school, and being taught all along the way.”

These statements are my best understanding of how we are to think of being “saved”, in Wesleyan thought. In other words, that Ten dollar word from before, “Arminianism”, is our theological “special sauce”, our “eleven herbs and spices”, our “secret recipe”.

So then we come to today’s scripture, the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus in the night. This scripture is very important for how Christians talk about this concept of being saved, because it carries within it the phrase “born from above” in verses 3 and 7. The footnote in the NRSV says you can alternatively think of “from above” as “anew”; “you must be born anew”. In the King James Version, and in the NIV, this word translated as “again;” as in “You must be born again.”

Now, I am no Greek scholar-I was such a young Christian when I entered seminary that instead of taking the Greek and the Hebrew classes, I took the extra classes in Bible in English, because there were still stories I hadn’t heard yet. That being said, I do know that the Greek word for whet we are talking about here, in verses three and seven, is “anothen”, you must be born “anothen”, and the most common translation of this word is “from above, and NOT “again”.

You might think that this is perhaps unnecessary quibbling, that it’s an “how many angels dance on the head of a pin” question, but I will claim that there is an important distinction. Nicodemus hears “again” when Jesus says “anothen”, and this is the basis of his question How can one be born a second time when you’re old? Can you really re-enter the womb?”

No. Of course not. And Jesus takes off on a pretty detailed explanation. It matters to Jesus that Nicodemus gets it right, so we probably should, too.

In our modern culture, we think we understand the phrase “born again” as the one think most needed for a relationship with Christ, and that we are “saved” when we are born again.

As if it is a one time thing.

A relationship with God is a lifetime thing, and just as in a marriage, where there are times of distance and times of connection, and when looked at over time, the relationship swings together and apart like the paths of two bicycles on a dirt road.

I spoke before of there being a connection to God from the first breath we take to the last; God is a part of our lives, shaping us, guiding us, before we even know God exists. The place that God is guiding us is toward God.

Being born “anothen”, I would suggest, is that moment when we realize what is happening, and we accept it. And in some lives, where the two bicycles have spread themselves out very far, coming back together again, and the comfort given from not being lost anymore, can happen several times. Some lives just take wide and varying tracks.

The implication of being born “again,” especially the way that we get it from popular Christian culture, is that it happens only once, and that when we were once “out”, we are now “in”. But I would suggest to the children of God that they, we, have never been “out”, and that the feeling of “in” is only the realization of God’s presence all along.

Wesley calls these moments of realization “regeneration.” We see all around us today the first bulbs of spring pushing out their shoots-some yards are already seeing them push up, and the daffodils we have seen this week are grown from bulbs that regenerate ever year. These bulbs need a certain set of conditions to begin to push up shoots-a certain amount of warm weather, a certain amount of moisture, and something that we really don’t know about, something that it knows but we don’t. maybe it’s grace!

Regeneration is not a one time thing. For some of us, it is cyclical; for some of us, it is erratic; for some of us, it is different every time. Some are large and dramatic moments in our lives, some are small and barely noticeable. As we know, and have been recently reminded about the science of earthquakes, some can be huge and dramatic and devastating, and some you only know happened because the pen jumped on the paper-you didn’t feel it. Growing in faith is a lot like that; some people experience devastating and dramatic shifts, and some people grow in faith through many, many small moments.

I would suggest to you today that when we are born “anothen”, born from above, it isn’t something coming to us we did not have before. It is something that has been with us all along. And for some of us, that realization will happen a couple times in our lives.

And Jesus will have pointed the way to us, through the Holy Spirit, and through the stories of Scripture. God did not send Jesus to the world, to us, to condemn us, to make us choose salvation or damnation, depending on only once chance to make one choice in a long life. Jesus was sent by God so that we might understand who God is, and what it means when we hear “God loves us.”

And being “saved” is just realizing that this is true.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Of Babies and Bathwater

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Psalm 51

Ash Wednesday, 2011
Preached at Center Moreland UMC for the Center Moreland Charge

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is the traditional Christian season of repentance and rededication. In this season, it is commonly expected that you will abstain from something in order to tip your balance of life, your attention, so as to re-focus on something else. By abstaining from a common item, food or something, each time you reach for it, you will be reminded that you are to be thinking about God, or your sins, or something edifying.

We late-coming Protestants may scoff at this traditional practice at this Christian season, or we may find ways to adjust it to our understanding, sometimes as a egotistical and hubristic way of doing it better than the traditions. I’m pretty sure, however, that if you are here tonight, you are not one of those scoffers.

There is value in questioning traditions, but sometimes, the answer to the value question is “well, it just works.” And after trying to re-invent the wheel, we Protestants come to the blinding and perhaps embarrassing epiphany that, indeed, there was some value in the tradition we were handed, that after centuries of practice, there is wisdom that has been distilled. So maybe our growing observance of Ash Wednesday, and maybe even Lent itself, is our way of going out into the yard and picking up the baby that we threw out with the bathwater.

So, “giving up something” for Lent does have some value, as long as what it is that you give up does point you into a better relationship with God. I have a hard time believing that giving up chocolate, as an example that I have commonly heard people choose to abstain from, is a spiritual task. It is perhaps a food that we eat too much of, and we wish to stop, but Lent, if I may humbly suggest, is not a time to start a new diet. Lent is not the time to begin to escape from your addictions.

I will readily accept, however, that chocolate, as a symbol of personal excess and indulgence, needs to be greatly reduced in some people’s lives, and Lent is the time when, with support of friends, family, and fellow followers of Christ, we can take on the task of examining our own personal commissions of the sins of, again as an example, gluttony and greed.

Tonight’s Psalm speaks of the preferences God has with regard to what it is that God wants from us. We hear it in other places, as well, about how God does not want our rituals, God does not want our burnt offerings. Instead, time and again, in the Scriptures, we hear that God wants us. Just us. Unwashed, imperfect, delusional, mistaken, hurting, frightened, arrogant, us. God wants us humble and open.
God wants us to come to him the way Jonah did after three days in the belly of the whale.




God wants us to come the way that Peter approached Jesus that morning on the beach as the disciples were eating the fish that Jesus had grilled;



Unsure of ourselves, but really honestly wanting to make amends.

The Psalm says: 17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Ash Wednesday is not for everyone. Lent is not for everyone. We’re Protestant enough to not expect everyone to toe this line, walk this path.

Lent is a non-scriptural, Church-derived practice, misused for abusive purposes by some over the ages, neglected by others through the centuries, and for some people, today, it is simply irrelevant.

Let me gently suggest that we have, tonight, a few of us, indeed gone out into the yard and picked up the baby. We see value in what lies before us, and we are choosing to present ourselves to be laid bare, in some way, by God.

Because that is how we grow. Just as Paul writes to the Corinthians that what we sow does not come to life unless it dies, and what we sow is just a seed and does not resemble the body of what will be, so too what we will grow into will very likely not resemble who we once were, and may not even resemble who we are now.
May you leave tonight with your Spirit under pressure, like popcorn heating up in the oil. May it crack somehow in these next 6 weeks, like a seed with a sprout. May your heart grow contrite, may your spirit be broken.

May you arrive at Easter morning with yourself as your sacrifice; white, shriveled, crawling up on the beach, and may the resurrection of Jesus join your brokenness back together into the body that God has chosen.

Because God will not despise a broken and contrite heart.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Find a Mountain to Climb

Matthew 17: 1-13


I’ve said before, and some of you may remember, that I have a certain sympathy, a certain affinity for Peter. He’s one of the major characters in the gospels, he’s present somewhere in almost every narrative, and, what makes him so sympathetic to us, ordinary human beings, is that he’s usually overreacting, failing, coming close but not quite to whatever Jesus means. And almost always his actions teach us hearers a lesson.

I’m sure you are familiar with the word epiphany, because you hear it here. In the church context, it means having a vision of the divine.

Peter has at least four I can think of, off the top of my head. There is the episode where he is walking on water, demonstrating his faith after he sees Jesus coming to him over the waves; there is his vision on the rooftop, where he is shown various kinds of foods, kosher and un-kosher, and told to kill and eat; there is his presence in the upper room when Jesus comes to them all, except Thomas, even though the door is locked; (well, let’s count that twice, because he’s also there when Jesus comes back just for Thomas), and there is today’s story.

Jesus invites Peter, James, and John up onto the mountain with him. The scriptures are pretty tight-lipped here, because it doesn’t say that there was any other reason for Jesus to have gone up there, other than to show Peter, James and John this event. Once they get there, Jesus is “transfigured”, or “transformed”.

He begins to glow with an inner light, and his clothes become dazzling white, instead of whatever earth-toned color his robes usually are. And then he is joined by Moses or Elijah.

Do you know how, when you are dreaming, people will appear and you know who they are, though you don’t know why? That must have been what it was like for Peter James and John, because Moses and Elijah had both lived thousands of years before them; it would be as if we were standing together, and suddenly here is Leif Ericson, the Viking explorer, and King Ethelred the Unready of England standing with us. Would you know who they are just by sight? I wouldn’t. Moses and Elijah are far more well-known to Peter, James and John, of course, at least their stories are, but their faces would not be any more familiar. It would be a little bit spooky, right?

So, there is Jesus, glowing like a lantern, in clothes whiter than any bleach could make them, standing with the two biggest Giants of their faith-the guy who will come before the Messiah, and the guy who is the founder of everything they know and believe about the world, about God, even bout food and marriage.

What would you do, when you realized what was going on?

Building some sort of shrine all of a sudden doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, does it? Peters’ no dummy, he realizes what is happening, and he wants to honor the situation, the event, the way we always want to honor these things. Jacob wrestles with the angel, he piles up a bunch of rocks and pours olive oil over them, marking the site of his epiphany. I’m not sure if anything happened in that rock grotto across from King’s College in Wilkes Barre, on whatever it is Pierce St. becomes when you cross the river, but that’s a pretty considerable shrine.

But God seems to intervene here, just as soon as Peter says that bit about building a three-boothed shrine. It gets very cloudy and foggy, but it’s that kind of fog that is shallow, and the sun is shining brightly above it-Josiah and I call it “fogshine”. That suddenly gets thick, and a voice announces to them that Jesus is his son, God loves him, and they should listen.

What was already an amazing, life altering event, worthy of a shrine, has now become terrifying, as God Goself has now spoken to them, and it doesn’t matter what tone God uses to speak-a commanding voice from nowhere, everywhere, from the fog, the mountain rocks, the ground, still commands attention like nothing else.

What can you do? You bow and hide your face. Filled with awe, indeed. I think I’d describe it, imagining what it would be like, as some combination of “This is amazing!” and “Make it stop!”

And here is what I think god means when he says: “Listen to him:” Jesus tells them “don’t tell anyone what has just happened until I am raised from the dead.”

So they don’t. And Peter has several more experiences with Jesus as a divine being, he’s already had one or two, which, at the end of his life, gives him the perspective no one else has, makes him into the Rock of the church Jesus expected him to be.

I want us to realize that in Peter’s story, ordinary people with faults and impulsive moments, people who make grave mistakes and regret them sharply, can still have a lifetime of rich experiences with God.

You may be sitting in that pew, listening to me, saying “I have never had anything like that.” You may be saying “I don’t want anything like that.” Well, perhaps. But’s it’s there for you, if you go and get it. Peter dropped his nets and followed Jesus, because Jesus was right in front of him. You might be called to such a ministry, or you might be called to stay right here, raise your children, play with your grandchildren, volunteer, eat, shop for food pay bills, sleep; live a life.

But, just as Jesus separated himself occasionally from his ministry in order to rest, recharge and pray, so can you. So should you. Kids go to camp, and almost always there is a time when they have experienced God-usually in an unstructured moment, but it happens. I’ve been on retreat, and if it has worked and the people OI am with mesh, it is indeed a mountaintop experience. You can’t stay there, we know, you have to come down the mountain sometime, your regular life awaits you down here, but those high moments of faith are available to you, and will strengthen you down here.

With the wisdom of his years, Peter, if he were to appear to us right now, would probably say to us that the life of faith is not constantly seeking life-changing experiences-it’s taking care to see God in everyday life, but make sure that we plant in our lives time away, to concentrate just on God. We travel away; go camping or to Disney to reconnect with our families; we go to the Poconos or to NYC to reconnect with our spouses-we go away to get closer.

It is no different with God. This Lent, I encourage you to find a way, make a plan, do something to be with God, alone, for a time. Peter went from mountain, to mountain.

What mountain will you climb to be with God this year? Use this Lent to make a plan.