Sunday, September 25, 2011

Imago Christi

Philippians 2: 1-13

Humility. What is it? Is it the ability to self-deprecate, which means to downplay your own achievements, as if they do not mean much? Is humility a low opinion of yourself, in relation to others?

It seems to me that there are two poles of humility. The first pole is that there are some people in the world who think that they are the best at everything they do, and while they may sometimes indeed be very good at something, they don’t always have such a realistic view of themselves.

The other pole is the complete self-negation of someone who thinks they are worthless. They’ve always been told that they are worthless, and now it has seeped into their mind, into their heart, into even their bones.

True humility, I think is the ability to be realistic about one’s talents, gifts, and graces, to be able to accept correction from others. To have pride in yourself is ok, because pride, in moderation, rather than swell someone’s head, can also drive you to be excellent.

True humility, also, is the ability to place one’s gifts and talents into the service of others, and not to always have it be used only for gain and fame and fortune.

But humility is a slippery slope. St. Benedict, in teaching monks to be better Christians fifteen hundred years ago, used the image of a ladder, by which you can only climb to heaven by seeking to minimize yourself in the eyes of God. By looking to God more, and to ourselves less, we become more like the image of Christ. It is easy, when doing this, to think that you are worthless, and that is the quickest way to heaven, but it’s not true. If you think that there is nothing that you can give to the world, nothing to offer, then you are withholding what you can offer, and that is a sin. There is no quicker or slower way to heaven, anyway-there is only your path through life and your daily relationship with God.

Benedict’s key is that humility is the ability to look to God in thanks for our gifts, and to learn how to look to God for leadership in how to use those gifts. The more we are able to consciously serve God, the more we imitate Christ in our lives, the more we approach true humility.

Let me say again-humility is not thinking of oneself as worthless-humility is not accepting the judgment of those who are mean and evil and call us useless, worthless, and trash. We all have something to offer this world, God has placed within us some gifts and talents with which we can provide grace to this world. All of us. Acknowledging what we are good at is the first step, ironically, toward humility. Placing it in God’s service are the rest of the steps toward imitating Christ.

This idea of placing gifts in the service of God comes directly from verses 5 to 11 in today’s scripture. Jesus is our model. Paul writes that Jesus was in the form of God, and equal to God. Yet, in service to God, he emptied himself, he gave away everything that made him supernatural, and submitted to the chains of a mortal life. Freely. Not because he thought he was worthless, but instead, he was the one of most worth, the only one for the job. Once here, with a stomach that growled when he was hungry, a body that needed sleep, that felt cold, that needed washing periodically, that could suffer pain and ultimately, death, but with the knowledge that he was here serving God, he submitted himself further, even to accepting death, even a death that was the most humiliating type that the Roman Empire could muster. Not because he felt worthless, but indeed because he knew that his death would demonstrate in the purest way the love of God. It was the whole reason for coming, the whole point of the exercise.

Why? Because he loved us. Because God loved us, and our ancestors had forgotten. And God knew that every generation would forget. So the story carries forward everywhere, that God loved us so much that he gave us Jesus, and when they killed him, as every generation most likely would have, God did not retaliate in anger, but responded in love, while still showing God’s ultimate power, in resurrecting him.

I am struck by the lyrics to the hymn “Trust and Obey”, specifically verses three and four, as they are in the United Methodist Hymnal:

But we never can prove the delights of his love, until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at his feet, or we’ll walk by his side on the way;
What he says we will do, where he sends we will go; never fear, only trust and obey.

True humility isn’t minimizing one’s own spirit in fear of being thought haughty or bold by our family and friends, our husbands and wives or parents. True humility is being realistic about our gifts and graces, given to us by God, and choosing to put them into the service of God. When we do this, we imitate Christ, which, after all, is the point of living Christian life.

May we all imitate Christ this week, and the rest of our lives. Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Olly Olly Oxen Free

Matthew 20: 1-16

Often, when we hear the parables of Jesus, we want to make a straight and strict similarity, one to one, between what he says and our lives. When we hear the story of the prodigal son, we want the father to be God, and we either cast ourselves as the younger wayward brother or the resentful, dutiful older brother.

The thing about parables is that making strict equivalences is a mistake. Some similarities between some of the characters and our own lives are to be expected, but the stories of Jesus are not journalism, just like the rest of the Bible is rarely factual reportage of historical facts.

The point of a parable is to tell a story where the point of the story is something about God. A characteristic about God that Jesus wanted to highlight.

When we read this parable this morning, I wanted to make a straight equivalence-the people who haven’t gone and helped flood victims yet are just as eligible for the love of God as the ones who were filling sandbags a week ago Thursday. But that was the wrong way to go.

One of you said to me last week when I was asking for names of volunteers, “I don’t know what I‘ll be able to do, but I‘ll put my name down anyway”, knowing that they couldn’t do paneling stripping, or sludge shoveling, or other suchlike work. But sure enough, the first need I heard about was the sorting and folding of clothes at one of the drop-off points, and that person, who thought she wouldn’t be able to do anything, was the first one called to help.

We all have work, and we all have responsibilities. We are not always able to respond to emergencies the way that we want to. We’d love to help, but we’re not always ready to. I called around for a team to go help someone else later in the week last week, and many of you understandably could not go help because of previous plans, working, etc., and it feels bad, knowing you’d put your name on a list to help, and then not being able to follow through when the call comes. I know.

This parable is a comfort to those of us in that predicament, because it’s point is that the time we arrive, the time we’re called isn’t important. God’s grace, god’s equal wage, is available to us all.

The last church I served in Texas was in a little town called Commerce, where I was a campus minister for the local university. There was a spot in the town where day laborers, mostly Central Americans, would gather to be hired, and where employers would know to go to find them. It was probably illegal to hire them, some of them were probably undocumented workers, but it is a time honored and practical system that seemed to work pretty much the same way in Jesus’ time.

So a guy would come by, and he would talk to a few of them men there, if he knew Spanish. If he didn’t, he would just hold up his hand, and however many fingers he held up, that was how many workers he’d need. They’d climb up into the back of the pickup, and off they’d go. I don’t remember seeing any negotiation about wages, I don’t know how they agreed on the pay for the day. Maybe the workers got whatever they could. But off they went.

So, imagine if a guy came up in his pickup truck and needed workers in his cotton patch. He goes at daybreak, he goes at nine AM, noon, three, and five, and they all work until dark, getting his cotton in. It’s understandable for all the workers to think that the early ones would get paid the most, and the 5:00 ones the least. But the owner of the cotton field pays the five-o’clockers the living wage that was customarily paid to the guys who’d been bent over in the hot sun for 14 hours. It’s perfectly understandable that the early guys would start to think they’d hit the mother lode, right? But then they get the same wage as the late guys.

In the world run by humans, you’d understandably be ticked, right?

Well, that’s where the parable bit comes in. Jesus is not making a point about living wages, or the unfairness of migrant work, or the racism of taking advantage of undocumented workers to pay them less, or the need for a farm workers union.

Jesus’ point is this: God’s love and salvation is available to everyone, whether they were born into faith, came to it early middle or late. When I was a little kid, and it was time for all of us on the street to go into our houses and take our baths before bed, we’d end the game of Hide and Seek by yelling Olly Olly Oxen Free, and everyone who was still hidden could safely come out without getting tagged. God’s grace is like that, God’s love and grace is available to us all.

Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, and Episcopal priest and spiritual director, writes it this way in her commentary on this passage;
• God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.
• I and all others are made in the image of God.
• God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imagination.
• There is nothing I can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.

There is no room for grudges in this worldview. God does not harbor ill will, everyone is a child of God, and everyone is created in the image of God.

This is what this parable is about.
This is what Jesus is about.

This is what we should be about.

How we doing with sharing the unlimited love of God?

Anyone you’d rather not include in that love? Yeah, me too. But God’s living wage goes to all, whether we like it or not.

Olly, Olly Oxen Free.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Footprints in the Mud

Psalm 77

You know how they say that God laughs at the plans we make? I don’t think that is true, but since God is the supreme improviser, able to make good out of anything we throw at God, being able to sense the need for flexibility in our own lives is a gift of the Spirit.

So it was this week. I was all set to bring a word to you all about Paul’s graciousness in allowing Christians of different flavors to worship and think as they will, according to their own culture and understandings, out of Romans 14.

Then it wouldn’t stop raining. And then the waters began to rise. Then my thought about Sept. 11, 2001 became a little more focused, and I realized that something needed to be said, more than the pro-forma observance I had planned. I currently have a house full of M. Div Degrees, with my friend Alison staying with us, and her friends Elizabeth and Ray getting stopped here on their way to Owego. Elizabeth is due to be ordained in the Presbyterian church today, but with the flooding it will not be at her home church, it is now in Ithaca. I had planned on a wonderful round table discussion about how to acknowledge such a confluence of difficult moments, both current and in memory.

Then my stomach started hurting.

So, laying in bed, my stomach rumbly and sharp, thinking about my pain and the pain of all the people who had been flooded, an the remembered pain of that day ten years ago, I began to ask God what the answer was. I have many friends who were evacuated out of the Valley, as we all did. Tunkhannock, Meshoppen, Noxen and other areas along the river and the feeder creeks were also very hard hit, and the roads are in some case, still impassible. Andrew had to come home from Dickson City by way of Pittsburgh, it seemed.

What word is there to give to the people of God as we pass through these simultaneous misfortunes? What could I possibly say with the voice of the God of love?

The same things that have been said to the people of God in every time in place since they were written, three thousand years ago. The Psalms.

Specifically, Psalm 77. It has a word for us today. Yes, now is the time for us to gather our resources, of food and excess clothing and send them into the fray of recovery. Yes, now is the time to take up work gloves, hammers and bottles of bleach, and renew, fix, and wash the houses and property of our neighbors. Opportunity will be plentiful soon. But first we must think about how to cure ourselves of our own paralysis in the face of such large problems.

First we must place ourselves, dip ourselves, throw ourselves into the healing stream of memory, and remember that we’ve seen this before, we’ve dealt with this before, and God most certainly does know that we know how to do it!

The author of the psalm lays on his bed, also remembering the bad things, the times when it seemed God was far away. But then the author remembers that the times when that feeling was strong, it was always temporary. The author remembers those times when God did appear, and then wonders were worked, God’s power was shown, and the situation was put into its proper perspective, as well as our place in it.

And when the time came to be led by God, it was not God who led, but the people who could hear God the best, who led the way forward, who were God’s feet, hands, mind and heart. It was not God’s footprints in the floor of the Red sea, it was Moses and Aaron’s.

September 11 was ten years ago. It is fitting to be reminded of the events, but it is also fitting to be reminded of the mistakes we made, the prejudice against Arab-Americans that was not justified and caused even more pain where it was not needed, and perhaps most of us have realized that even the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. It is also good of us to remember the responsibility we now have to help Afghanistan toward a peaceful co-existence, cleaning up the mess we started there. And in God we can find our footsteps deep in the mud of a red sea of our own, bringing peace where we had brought war.

This has now been called the worst flood on record. The gauges that were broken by the waters hid that face from us for a while, but now we know. And what is the response of the people of God? What then will we do? How will we put our feet into the fresh mud of that river so recently receding, and have those footprints be God’s?

Opportunities will be offered over the next few weeks. For now, I ask that everyone go home today and go through their closets, and pull out all of the clothes that are in good repair, and that you don’t wear much. Business suits, women’s work suits, as well as the clothes your kids have outgrown. Wash them, and bring them down to the church this week, I’ll make sure that they get to the proper hands.

Also, I am sending around a list, and if you are willing to work on a cleaning crew, put your name, home phone number, and if you have one, an e-mail and a cell phone number, and also let me know if you text. Doesn’t matter when you are free, just if you are willing.

Let us put our feet in the mud of this receding river, and have those footprints, like Moses and Aaron in the Red Sea, have those footprints be those of God.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Armor of Light

Romans 13:8-14

It is good to be back with you this week, though it seems I missed a lot of excitement! A bit of irony to share with you-when I heard that the east coast had had an earthquake, I was visiting my friend Lisa, who lives in the “east Bay”, or the area across the bay from San Francisco. That area is crisscrossed with a large number of fault lines, and, thinking about earthquakes, is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. And I was standing right in the middle of it reading about the earthquake that evacuated the White House and the Capitol and put people in Wilkes Barre out in the street.

While I was visiting California, reconnecting with old friends and making a few new ones, I had the opportunity to attend church in two different UM churches. And I have been thinking a lot about the different ways church is done.

I don’t say this as a way of comparison, as if one is better and the other worse. Every community does it the best they can, I believe, and takes on the character of the environment they live in. One church’s prayer concerns were largely about world hunger, social justice, and peace, naming Somalia and Darfur specifically, and was enriched by a homeless man, one of many the congregation has relationship with, speaking in a language all his own in the midst of the sermon. The pastor acknowledged it, and the congregation accepted it as worship in the world. Another church had a large rainbow flag, signifying their support of people who are homosexual, hanging in their fellowship hall, but in every other way would have had much in common with what we do here.

All churches, and indeed all Christians, live in a weird space between the here and now, the “who” we are; and the who we’re supposed to be. Sometimes we succeed in being the face of Christ to someone. Sometimes, like the nuclear elements that are created in those 30 mile radius super-colliders, the existence of which only lasts milliseconds, we are fully able to reflect the spirit and the strength of God. Other times, we fall short of being fully human-we fall prey to petty jealousies, to nursing resentments and hurts, we unfairly judge people for their mistakes, we do not forgive, and do not acknowledge our own shortcomings.

We are given the gift of knowing the personality, humanity, the image we are trying to attain, that of Christ. Sometimes I think this is God’s greatest gift to us. In Christ, we have the goal set before us, and we spend a lifetime seeking to grow into a Christlike, fully human being. At least that’s what we should be doing.

Paul, writing to the Roman church, tells us in this passage, that if we are to project the face of Christ into the world around us, if we are to share the good news of God that is entrusted to us to share, the secret ingredient to it all is love. It is love that is at the root of the law. If you love your neighbor you will not murder them. If you love your neighbor, you will not commit adultery with their spouse; if you love, you will celebrate what they have, you will not be jealous of it, and crave it. Love, as Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.”

He writes that we are to “live honorably as in the day.” This implies that there is a way of life that we live apart from the day, or from the light. We sometimes live another way, as in the night. What is it that we do under cover of darkness, in secret, away from prying eyes, something we do not wish people to know? What attitudes, prejudices, and opinions do we not share because we know they are not part of the light of the love of God? Paul specifically goes to the examples of drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness (which I think we can safely define as sexual promiscuity and loss of self control), and I think these examples are obvious in that they are clearly separate from the image of Christ we are seeking to copy.

But then Paul jumps from that to specifically calling out “quarreling and jealousy”. This is entirely another kettle of fish, isn’t it? It’s one thing to judge those people who go to dance clubs and wear very little as they dance suggestively on the floor as not being Christian, however we may define it, and however little we know about them. It is something else to purse your lips at someone who has just bought a spiffy new car, or shake your head at some relative who is trying to change the patterns of their life, ones that they inherited from your common family system. It’s easy to be angry at or dismissive of the person who has different politics or business practices from you. But I think it very interesting that jealousy and quarreling, of which gossip and rush to judgment are usually a part, is judged to be equal in the eyes of the Apostle Paul to drunkenness and promiscuity.

Is it because they cause the same amount of damage to the body of Christ?

How then, as Christians, are we called to refrain from causing that damage? How are we supposed to live in the world?

Both kinds of sin here feel good. But both are empty pleasures. Loving is hard, and loving someone who we disagree with, or even don’t like very much, is even harder. It’s much easier to distance ourselves from them, and see them as somehow falling short. We may even use the language of the church to assist us in causing pain to them, in enabling us to separate ourselves from them. To stand with someone in love can sometimes give us wounds, too, when the community around that person is angry.

But this, nonetheless, is our call. To accept that homeless guy who interrupts our sermon. To love that person who loves to tear down people of authority. To loving address the shortcomings of the ones whom God has put in our path, while acknowledging our own.

This is to lay aside the works of darkness. This is to put on the armor of light.

This is to be the body of Christ.