Sunday, October 31, 2010

Inquiring Minds

Deuteronomy 6:1-6
Mark 12:28-30

In the novel The Help Mrs. Hilly Holbrook is the president of the Junior League in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. 1963 - - the year Medger Evers, the civil rights activist, was shot in the back and killed in Jackson, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his speech about his great dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But Miss Hilly, as all the maids must call her, isn’t too concerned with all these things. In fact, she’s working on a movement of her own in Jackson. As president of the Junior League she is trying to make sure that all respectable white folk with black hired help build a new bathroom in their garage or outdoor shed for their help to use exclusively. It’s for their own health, she insists.

Miss Skeeter, a lifelong friend of Miss Hilly’s, isn’t quite so sure about this movement, though. Fondly remembering the African American woman, Constantine, who raised her, Skeeter doesn’t understand why the women who care for the whites’ children and cook their food, among other things, should have to use the bathroom away from the rest of the house. It just doesn’t make sense to her. Skeeter begins to get to know “the help” on the sly. She secretly researches the Jim Crow laws she has always known exist, but has never learned much about. She begins to think for herself instead of just accepting what has always been a part of her experience and worldview.

When Hilly starts to discover the kinds of thoughts her dear friend is thinking she questions accusingly, “Who does she think she is? Does she really think she is smarter than the government?!?”

I have to admit I was sort of a little proud about the cover Skeeter uses when lying to her mother about her coming and going as she develops relationships with some of the African American maids. I’m proud that this brave and inquisitive woman is portrayed as a Presbyterian. Now I doubt that this was done intentionally. Our denomination, like all other Protestant denominations other than the Episcopalians split over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, and we remained divided into northern and southern churches until the 1980s. While there were civil rights activists in some southern churches in the 1950s and 60s, we Presbyterians weren’t known anymore than other for our support of the movement.

I don’t think the author Kathryn Stockett really meant to lift up the Presbyterian church, but it made me kind of proud that heroine used Presbyterian church meetings as her excuse when she was going out under the dark cover of night to expand her mind, broaden her experience, and learn more about the lives of the African American women she knew so little about. Skeeter was no longer comfortable just swallowing what was passed down to her uncritically. She realized a time had come when she needed to think through these things for herself and draw her own conclusions. She had been blessed with a mind to think, and it was definitely time to use it.

Jesus lifts up this particular blessing when he challenged by a scribe to choose one commandment over all the others that could be declared the greatest. The scribe like so many others was trying to trip Jesus up more than he was seeking his wise opinion. Other religious and political leaders were there, too, shooting questions at him like darts. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” “Who will a man be married to in heaven if he had multiple consecutive marriages while alive on earth?” And now a question about the greatest commandment from a scribe, a man who had spent countless hours copying the hundreds of laws in Scripture, writing decisions and commentary for the priests and religious leaders based on these laws. He was trying to catch Jesus in an obvious mistake, so I know he MUST have heard Jesus’ small, but significant change of Scripture.

“Hear O Israel,’ Jesus began to quote. “The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” One thing is different in Jesus’ quote from the original in Deuteronomy. And it’s not that he would have messed this one up by accident. It is and was one of the best known passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is one that many faithful Jews recite to themselves daily as part of their prayers. Known as the “Shemah,” which means “Hear” as the community is commanded to do in the opening lines, this passage is too important and too familiar for Jesus to just have gotten wrong. Therefore, his addition must have been purposeful, and it must have been important.

In counting the ways in which God’s people are called to love God, Jesus adds in loving God with all our mind. Heart, soul, strength—these are all a direct quote from Deuteronomy, but mind is something different, something that didn’t appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. And for that reason, since Jesus bothered to add it to a crucial text for the people of his faith, it is something to which we should pay attention.

Our minds are a gift from God. Our minds are a huge part of what makes us uniquely human and they are definitely what makes us individuals different from one another. Our minds, like every other part of our bodies, have been given to us in order that we will use them to bless and honor and worship God. We do this by using them. That sounds a little strange, sure, but it isn’t. In too many situations, in too many churches, the expectation is that we will check our minds at the door.

In the marketplace, sellers pray that we won’t think to hard about the products that we buy, that we will trust their words in advertising and buy what they are selling, hook, line, and sinker. In some church traditions it is the same, but hopefully without the malice. Believers are called to do just that “believe,” but belief doesn’t involve critical thinking. Leaders at the top hand down doctrine and opinions on issues, and members are expected to accept them or at least keep their disagreements silent.

In our tradition that’s not the expectation. In fact, it is the opposite. Believers not only have the right we have the responsibility to think through matters of faith with our own minds and hearts. We have official doctrine, but in it are ten different documents written in the last 1800 years, and occasionally they disagree. Each one of us is called to put our minds to good use to think and pray and discern our beliefs and actions within the guidance and framework of these beliefs that have been lifted up over the generations.

We say in our tradition that God alone is Lord of conscience, and therefore each one of us has the responsibility to pray and study and discern our beliefs with the support of the Word and Spirit of God which we find in our life as a community. None of us are islands working out our faith in solitude, but each of us is called to explore our faith and beliefs for ourselves. There is not one among us who is not equipped to do this because God has given us each minds and has blessed each one of them for service in God’s name.

At same there is not one among us whose mind is perfect and full of all knowledge of God. Our growth in Christ is never complete; it is never whole and finished. This is why we are persistent in our offering and invitation to further engage our minds through education and small group ministries. This is why we don’t just offer Sunday School for children and nothing for our adults. There is not one among us who is done learning and growing and stretching our minds with the knowledge and love of God. Each and everyone one of us is called to continually love and worship God with our minds as we engage them in matters of faith, questioning, wondering, and growing in our understanding of the way of Jesus.

A few years ago the editors of storytelling SMITH magazine called for submissions from readers for project they called six word memoirs. The challenge to authors known and unknown was to sum up their lives in just six words – no more, no less. Some examples:

“Nobody cared. Then they did. Why?”
One from a 9 year old girl “Cursed with cancer. Blessed by friends.”
A couple of confessions:
“I still make coffee for two.”
“Most successful accomplishments based on spite.”

In an exercise of engaging our minds we’re going to try a twist on this theme. In each worship announcement bulletin and then coming through the aisles from the ushers are some pieces of blank paper or index cards. We are going to take time this morning to love the Lord our God with our minds by writing not six word memoirs, but six word theologies. Using no more than six, and no less write down what you believe. You may craft it yourself in a Trinitarian form as so many of the traditional statements of faith do. You may write a phrase or two that get to the core of what you understand about God. You may quote a portion of a favorite song or hymn that expresses your deepest faith. It does not matter from where it comes; it is your theology, your worship with your mind.

Those who are willing will have a chance to share after a few minutes, and all that are turned in in the offering plate later in worship will be posted to a bulletin board for others to read. Including your name is, of course, optional.
So now, let us enter a special time of prayer and worship, loving God with our minds.

In a way, Jesus blessed the very ones who are testing him. He blessed the Pharisees and Sadducees and the scribes who were trying to catch him and find something in what he said that they could hold against him. He blessed them by lifting up the importance of loving God with our minds. He blessed them by making their questions OK, their exercises of the mind an expectation of faith.

Jesus did here exactly what he does in just about every other situation. He blesses the ones we would least expect. He blesses his challengers, his enemies, those who seek to judge him and condemn him for the words that he says and the life that he lives. He blesses them by lifting up the kind of work they do with their minds, and he calls us to engage in that kind of work and worship ourselves, to love God by exercising the minds we have been graciously given. May God bless the minds we have and the faith we discover with them.

Friday Five: Comfort Media

The Friday Five at RevGals was a quick easy one. It asked for our "comfort media," those songs, movies, TV shows, whatever that we go to when we need it. I sort of interpretted it as those favorites that we will never skip buy when flipping through the channels or stations if we are so blessed to stumble upon them. My list came pretty quickly.

1. A Few Good Men
2. Hope Floats
3. The Indigo Girls on the radio (because they are played so rarely)
4. Shakespeare in Love
5. Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow - Picture (I just love it and LOVE belting it out.)

No doubt in my mind, my world will stop for any of these.

Here's my bonus, the Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow song. I don't know what it is about this one, but I just love it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ten on Tuesday

This is me copying my blogging friends - - the friends whose blogs I'd rather read than write on my own. I have this problem where I think that every blog post needs to be an essay or something. I mean, I don't think that about other people's blogs. In fact, I tend not to read the ones that are long. It's just it always feels like my own needs to be deep and meaningful and profound. So when I can't come up with anything profound, I write nothing. When I write nothing, I have a really boring blog. When I have a really boring blog, no one reads and comments. When no one reads and comments, I wonder if anyone cares. You can see where this is going. So anyway, here are my 10.

1. Pearl's been sleeping a lot better lately. I mean just the last few nights, but I hope that it's the beginning of a good thing.

2. Her wake-up last night (not including the one when she was awakened by BOTH older siblings crying when they BOTH had accidents at midnight) was at 4:40 a.m. By the time she was fed and back in bed it seemed hardly worth it to get myself back in bed. Instead I spent AN HOUR knitting. GLORIOUS!

3. I'm completely bummed that our CE Committee does NOT want a children's Christmas program. We have overworked and overcommitted parents; I get that. They are all already involved in just about every facet of the Christian Education program. I get that. They just don't want to be committed to one more thing. Two years ago we all agreed that we wouldn't do a full "pagaent" every year, but only every other year. This was supposed to be a year. My kids are old enough finally and ready to do it. They WANT to do it, and I want to see them do it. And really, let's get honest, Pearl would be the cutest darn baby Jesus ever. Bah humbug!

4. LadyPrincess is walking home from school right now in 30 mph winds, rain, and 40 degree temperatures. I feel bad for her, but apparently not bad enough to go pick her up and drive her home.

5. I know I mentioned it yesterday, but I am energized by the stride I have been hitting. I am really proud about the improvements I have made in making pastoral visits and accomplishing things by phone. I hope that I am on my way to helping to lead the session more spiritually.

6. I still wish I could find the courage and confidence in my call in the way I direct the staff - - OK the one person on staff who needs some direction.

7. Godzilla cracks me up. I love that little guy. I tell him that he gives the best hugs in the whole house because he does. I hope that's not breaking some kind of parenting rule.

8. My husband baked me bread and a cherry pie yesterday. I guess I shouldn't whine quite so much that he won't scrub a toilet.

9. I can't wait to go to LadyPrincess' class tomorrow to teach another art class.

10. However, I am not thrilled that I forgot I need to still buy some materials for that. Remember that icky weather from #4? That's right now. It already broke one of my umbrellas today. Now I need to go out in it again. Blech.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Finding My Groove

I was going to steal even more from the title How Stella Got Her Groove Back for the title of this post, but then I realized it didn't really fit. I haven't gotten my groove BACK; I'm just finally finding it. I feel like I'm hitting my stride in ministry. I don't mean just getting back into it since returning from maternity leave, or even the groove of this new(ish) call. I mean, I am finally getting into the groove of the whole gig.

I've been at this almost 8 1/2 years. You'd think I would have the hang of it by now. Or at least I would think that. You're probably smarter than me. I thought it would be old hat by now, but really I feel like I'm just now finally getting it. I'm just now finally finding that balance between empowering people and just doing it for them. I'm just now finally realizing that an in-home visit is 700% worth it. Making the phone call sucks (for me), but the visit is invaluable. I'm just now finally realizing that just because I wouldn't ever want one doesn't mean other people don't want them. I'm figuring out that while e-mail and social media are AWESOME for a LOT of things, much of the time a phone call is still better.

I think I can say with confidence and belief - - I am a good leader. That's a funny one because growing up the teachers always said the smart kids were the leaders. I fit that bill, but it always seemed weird because while the teachers said we were leaders none of our peers treated us that way. We had no leadership capital with them AT. ALL. The class presidents and student council kids weren't the super-smart ones; they were the popular kids. Our teachers and administrators were telling us we were the leaders, but those guys were the ones who got to try it out. I haven't had my shot at it until my career got started. Boy have I been thrust into it now!

Here's my groove that I've found.
1. Make phone calls first thing Monday morning. Make phone calls PARTICULARLY to set up visits for the week. Once they're all set I actually enjoying visiting; I just can't stand making the calls and put them off and then the visits don't happen either.
2. Work from home Wednesdays. The initial intent was to write sermons or at least get a decent start on it, but sometimes other things need to be done. Last week I worked on a review that was too confidential to work on even at the church. My built in day at home let me get it done without interruption or risk of others reading it.
3. Make phone calls whenever possible. E-mail seems faster, but really it isn't always. It's just easier to pick up the phone, get the answer, check any nuance, and move on.

I still need to work on my staff relationships. It is so hard in this size of church and staff to keep things professional and not buddy-buddy. So hard. That makes it hard for me to offer meaningful and honest critiques of those who work under me. This will soon be coming back to bite me in the butt. Soon and very soon.

OK, so nothing earth shattering, but even in the midst of some CRAP drama at church the last few weeks I have been feeling pretty darn confident about my call to ministry and my effectiveness at it. Love it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Useful Word

Psalm 119:97-105
2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5

The teacher didn’t know how much time he had left. He remembered how zealous he was at trying to stop the spread of the Christian message, so he had no idea how long he would have now that he was spreading that same message himself. At least he was no longer working among the Gentiles on his own. Men that he had trained, men that had been taught at his very side were THANKFULLY out pounding the pavement, taking the gospel into new places without his physical companionship. They were capable, he was certain, most of the time. He couldn’t be with his prize pupil all the time, so he was sure to send him a letter of encouragement.

One letter can go a long way, can’t it? What was the most important letter you ever received? Or on the other hand, the more important letter that you sent?
Was it a college acceptance letter? A love letter? A break-up letter? Notification of debt finally repaid?

What was it like when you opened that letter? Did you know immediately of its news? Had you already figured it out? Were you anticipating what you read before you even went to the mailbox?

How about a letter like this one? Have you ever received a letter from a beloved teacher or mentor? Did you keep it? Do you maybe still have it? I received a letter of sorts from my 3rd grade teacher, but when I was in the 6th grade. I had been helping in Mrs. Smith’s class that year whenever I had finished up my own work in my classes. Mrs. Smith had been a favorite teacher when I was in her room, so when she tapped me to help out with her students, when she called on me to tutor , I jumped in without questioning and loved every minute of it.

When the year was over and it was time for me to move on to junior high, out of the elementary school I had known for the last 5 years, I was elated to receive from Mrs. Smith a book. I still have that book; it is in our kids’ bookshelves, inscribed with an important note from my important teacher. It was the last chance she figured she had to impart wisdom, share her experience, and send me off with words to live by in the next stage of my life and calling. I think Timothy’s teacher did the exact same thing.

In his letter Timothy is reminded of the one thing that helps him know the most important truth, the one thing that carries the most important message for his life and for others, the one thing that promises him that in Christ and through Christ is hope, and forgiveness, and new life. In his letter Timothy is reminded of the scriptures he has known since childhood, the scriptures he heard spoken before he could read them himself. The scriptures he saw preciously rolled and unrolled on scrolls in the synagogue. His attention is drawn to the scriptures he studied as he grew in age and wisdom, hearing in them the stories of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and promise for redemption.

Of course the scriptures Timothy studied were not exactly the same as the scriptures we study today. They did yet contain the gospels about Jesus or letters to and from people following the way of Christ. In fact, the letter Timothy received would someday end up in our Christian collection of scriptures. But scriptures he had spoke just as importantly to the faith of Jesus and God’s works of salvation across time.

They contained the witness of stories told around campfires and homefires throughout the generations, scrolls read and heard in the temple and later the synagogues. Timothy’s scriptures were full of the Psalmists songs – sung both in greatest joy and praise and also in deepest pain and questions. They held the wisdom of proverbs, the sharp critique of prophets, the beauty of poetry and speaks to the heart what the mind can’t understand. In a variety of ways, with a diversity of approaches the scriptures Timothy knew and were commended to him all pointed to the faithfulness of God to God’s struggling people. They are a family album of experiences and stories of the ancestors in faith that witness and testify to the loving God.

It’s a unique book for a people of faith, really, if you think about it. We don’t claim that our collection of writings comes from a single person or a single revelation. We don’t claim that it was dictated to one man by the voice of God or recited by another and copied down word for word. We live with and wrestle with the reality that our scriptures are a collection of distinct books and poems and prophecies, written across a wide span of time, by a diversity of authors, for countless contexts and situations.

We accept that the words we lift up as holy and set apart for a particular purpose, the purpose of guiding and comforting, informing and transforming the lives of the faithful, are at sometimes clear and other times confusing, sometimes united in their message and other times seemingly contradictory, sometimes detailed and maybe even a little boring and other times dramatic, humorous, or heartbreaking. These scriptures are unique for a people of faith, but ultimately they are our scriptures, the place where God reveals to us in no clearer words, God’s love for creation and redemption for it in Jesus the Christ. They are the single greatest testimony to God’s desire to work with us, not against us, to remain engaged in relationship, not give up on us, to pull us out of the pits we dig for ourselves, not leave us helpless in them, and nowhere is this more clear in the person and work of Jesus our Christ, the Word of God.

The Bible stands in a pretty important place in our Protestant and Reformed branches of faith. The Bible, not the authority of the church or our individual experience, is our authority on Christ’s call. The Bible is the place to which we turn to help us discern God’s will and our next faithful steps. As we discussed in Adult Education a few weeks ago, we don’t believe IN the Bible; we believe in God which the words of the Bible reveal to us. The Bible alone is a collection of words on a page. It is stories and poems all collected and bound together in one volume. However, we trust that God has breathed the Spirit of Life all over these pages, and when we invite that Spirit to inspire our reading we can, through these words hear the Word of God.

And what can happen when we hear that Word? What happens to you when you read Scripture and are touched by it? What effect does it have in your life? This one’s not rhetorical; I’m looking for real answers. What do you look for when you decide to read Scripture?

We may be comforted or challenged, inspired or reassured, guided or slowed down, but SOMETHING should always happen when we read Scripture with the Spirit. SOMETHING. These words that have been passed to us lovingly from one generation to the next, these words that have been carefully protected and cherished, these words over which unfortunately much blood has been shed, should do SOMETHING to us when we engage them together or alone.

In Presbyterian circles we love to quote a little Latin to ourselves, the source of which is a little murky, but the sentiment of which is important for our understanding of how God works with the Church. We’re sort of arrogant that way, quoting Latin to each other, but here it is anyway: Reformata semper reformanda. That part alone is often translated “Reformed and always reforming.” It is supposed to point to our faithfulness to continually seek the best way forward as a church, not holding on to the past just because it’s the past.

However, the common translation not only shortens the full sentiment, it offers what seems to be just a minor translation error, but is really quite crucial to our understanding. In full, the English translation of this anonymous point of our Reformed understanding is more correctly, “The Church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” It’s more than just a longer statement; it’s a more complete understanding of the nature of the church and the purpose and usefulness of Scripture.

First and foremost, it is not the church that changes itself. It is God that reforms the church. The church is not continually “reforming”; the church is “being reformed.” It’s subtle, but it is so VERY important. We are faithful not when we try this or that or any little thing in an attempt to follow God in the world. We are faithful not when we change just for the sake of changing or to follow the winds of the culture with no attention to God’s Spirit.

We are faithful when our changes are led by God. We are faithful when we discern together where God is taking us in the future, how God is calling us to change, when God is calling us to act on our inspiration. Being faithful to God means certain change in our life, our life together as a denomination and as a congregation, but also as disciples of Jesus. God is always calling and molding and pruning and perfecting us, so that we will grow in faith and be equipped for every good work. God has formed us and is reforming us for God’s work in the world.

Secondly, we are not without a guide or wisdom as we move forward reformed and always being reformed. We are not left to our own devices to determine whether the voice we hear calling to us is that of God in heaven or that of a deceiver in the world. The way in which God will lead us will always be in accordance with the Word of God – the little “w” words on the page in Scripture and the big “W” Word in Jesus Christ, to whom those Scriptures witness. The words of Scripture tell us how God operates – out of love and mercy and grace for the redemption of all of creation. The Word of God in Christ shows us what that looks like in human living.
Together the words on the page and the living Word exist not to be etched in stone as a beautiful memorial, not to be shouted back and forth in endless, hurtful arguments, not to be quoted out of context to try to prove one another wrong.

Together the words on the page and the living Word of God exist to transform our lives. They are useful words. They have purpose and action. They call forth change and obedience. They transform our lives and our life together.

They are words of conviction and confession - - “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” They are words of forgiveness and promise - - “For God so loved the world.” They are words of protection and provision - - “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” They are words of comfort and presence - -“I will be with you always even to the end of the age. They are words of commission and sending -- “God therefore and make disciples.”

They are words that call forth change in our lives, change in the way we interact with God, change in the way to see ourselves, change in the way we act as the Body of Christ in the world. It is no accident that in our Christian Education ministry we have decided to make this a Year with the Bible. More often than not our children’s and adult education opportunities will be focused on learning about Scripture. Our congregation has been and continues to be seeking the will of God for our future. We are looking for God’s next reforming call together. We are, like Timothy, making our way as disciples, trying to bring good news to the world in which we live.

It is Scripture that will both ground us and send us. It is Scripture that will tell us of God’s faithfulness in the past, God’s mission in the present, and God’s leading in the future. It is Scripture that will instruct us and prepare us, comfort us and guide us, correct us and refine us, lead us and transform us as we strive to be a part of God’s activity in the world.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Making it all worth it!

A mom came and found me in my office after worship. I don't ever really hide in here, but after worship the horrible cold/flu/something that I thought might be coming hit me like a Mac truck. I'm just lying here waiting for my kids to get out of Sunday School so we can go home.

Anyway, a mom came and found me after worship with the picture above. Coming to church with her family is an 8 year old child with no church background whatsoever and a pretty rough home life. She wrote these sentences during my sermon. I could quit ministry right now and feel like I made a difference.

In the Large and Small

Twenty-one years ago Robert Fulghum’s collection of essays, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, was published and pretty much immediately rose to the top of the national best-seller lists. It lived there at #1 for just about all of 1989 and much of 1990. The title essay spoke truth to so many of us, about how the simplest lessons we learn as children are really at the core of the lessons we need to master even as adults.

Well, our vacation this last week left me pondering a similar essay, “All I Really Need to Know about Human Nature I Learned By Watching 3 Year Olds.” We returned from our annual pilgrimage to the family farm late Friday night. It was a great week of tractor riding, combine driving, corn picking, and Bobcat cruising, with gorgeous weather and even better company. Both of the big kids spent hours at Dad or Grandpa’s sides bumping along the rows and taking breaks to eat dusty sandwiches in the shade. A wonderful fall vacation.

The vacation also allowed the kids to play with their only cousin on one side of the family, YankeeFan. YankeeFan and Godzilla are only about 2 months apart in age, and we had a blast watching those 3 year olds finally really interacting with one another. Or at least most of the time we did. In watching these two little guys, both in their interactions with each other, and as they responded to the adults in their lives, I noticed some things they do that taught me a lot about what grown-ups do, too.

For example, if a 3 year old is being beckoned by an adult, like with that curling finger, an international sign for “Get. Here. Now.” and he does not want to be here, he simply closes his eyes or turns his back, or for a more dramatic effect, does both. If he can’t see it, it must not exist, therefore, he doesn’t have to follow it.

Likewise, when a 3 year old is being called by an adult to come do something he does not want to do, say maybe get his hands washed after eating a particularly sloppy Sloppy Joe, he will simply stick his fingers in his ears to block out the sound waves carrying that message to his brain. If he can’t hear it, it must not exist, therefore, he doesn’t have to follow it. To a 3 year old, shutting down the paths of communication is the same as running outside the realm of her parents’ control.
It’s that whole idea that if I can’t see them, then certainly they can’t see me.

Another thing 3 year olds try to do is to hide from the adults who are called to care for them. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to do what it coming, like go to bed. Sometimes it’s because they have done something they should not have, like taken a jelly bean from Grandma’s jar without asking. Sometimes it’s just because they want to do something ALL. BY. MYSELF.

You see these 3 year olds, full of human nature, like to test out their independence. Three year olds, full of human nature, have a tendency, just like the rest of us, to want to push the limits of authority. We have a tendency to want to live our lives beyond the reach of those who are in authority over us - - even when it is a loving, caring, providing, nurturing, challenging, encouraging, forgiving, authority, even when it’s the authority of a parent, even when it’s the authority of God.

We human beings, for whatever reason, from the very beginning, have this curiosity and this independent streak that drives us to try to live outside the reach of even God. Intentionally or unintentionally, we do it all the time. We close our eyes to avoid seeing the way the systems that are in place to protect our good fortune are the same systems that keep others down. We choose not to follow when God beckons us to make a difference on behalf of the poor in our own community. We put our fingers in our ears so we can’t hear God’s preference for peace over war, love over fear and hatred, mercy over revenge. We ignore the wisdom of Scripture, of saints of the past, of friends and loved one who speak for God in our lives today.

We even try to just run from God. We try to hide out in our jobs, our hobbies, our destructive habits, trying to live our day to day lives on our own power, our own authority. We try to work out our rocky relationships, raise our children win battles over our neighbors, and find meaning in our day to day lives all outside of and beyond the realm of God our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. Like the Prodigal Son we believe we can make better choices with what we have been given when we are away from God than we can in the presence of our divine Parent.

Three year olds try to do it. Teenagers get pretty good at getting close to doing it. Adult attempt it and even applaud when they see it in others, admiring this characteristic they call self-sufficiency. Even the ancient kingdoms tried to live without God; they thought collectively, like us, that they could operate beyond the reach of God, saying “My way is hidden from the Lord.”

But the reality is that they couldn’t. We can’t. Like the psalmist in Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I feel from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in the realm of the dead, you are there.” No matter where we go, no matter how far we try to run, no matter how hard we work to ignore God’s leading and God’s authority in our lives, God is there. Who measured the waters in the hollow of a hand? Who enclosed the dust of the earth and measure the mountains on a kitchen scale?

God knows the ins and outs of every bit of creation, the physical land, the flowing water, the heavens stretched out above, and there is nowhere in this creation that we can step that is outside the realm of God’s love and God’s grace and God’s authority. If we put our fingers in our ears God can speak louder than they can block. If we close our eyes God can paint visions on the insides of our eyelids. If we run and hide in the best spot in the world, God will find us because God created that hiding spot and knows its very existence. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, and the Lord’s care is for the large and the small of it.

The same God who folded the mountains and filled the seas is the same God who was present in Jesus, the same God who walked into towns and synagogues claiming the Scriptures for himself, healing the sick in body and spirit, restoring them to wholeness. With the spirit of God working in him and through him, Jesus sought out those who either tried to live apart from God or who felt their conditions left them separated from the divine presence. His presence on earth demonstrated God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, God’s interest not over just the big picture of it all, but God’s interest in the very details of our lives. While God is so majestic that foundations of the earth were put into place by the divine hands and we look like grasshoppers to the divine eye, in Jesus we discover that God’s care is for even the very intimate, very personal circumstances of our lives. There is no place we can go, no worry we can hide, no step we can take that is outside the love and the care of our God.

Armed with this knowledge, trusting in the constant presence and attention of God, our best response should not be to run away from God who seeks us, but to follow the lead of the woman healed by Jesus. Feeling his touch on her body, experiencing his presence in ALL of her life, she didn’t run to hide from his majesty and power, she didn’t close her eyes to his persisting presence. She responded immediately with joy and praise. She stood and worshiped God.

Ultimately that is what’s asked of each of us. We get caught up in a lot of shoulds and coulds in the life of faith, but ultimately all we are asked to do is worship God who surrounds us with love and mercy and forgiveness, who formed us and the dust of the earth we walk on, who provides for our needs, who heals us from all those things that keep us bent over, weighed down, burdened in this life. All God asks of us is that we worship the one who has this kind of love for us – worship God when the community is gathered, hearing Scriptures that teaches us, confessing sins that divide us, praying for healing to bless us, sharing concerns that plague us, celebrating joys that delight us, all so that we may delight in God who calls us together, giving praise and thanksgiving in all of it for God, who is above all and through all and in all.

We don’t gather here to fill up our spiritual tanks for another week on the road. And although it is a blessing when it happens, we aren’t called here just to fix our lives and spirits when we sense they are broken. We are called here, not to watch as others demonstrate faith and speak about its goodness in our presence. We are called here to work… together… all of us. We are called here to worship and give praise, to honor and celebrate, to recognize and show our delight in God from whom we can’t run, God whose care is for our whole lives. This is what we do when we gather to worship our sovereign God. Worship is NOT about us, our likes, our dislikes, our preferences, our tastes. Worship is about giving God, who is worthy of all praise, glory upon glory, praise upon praise. When we gather as a diverse community it is our responsibility and honor to make sure that all who are gathered can find avenues by which they can do just that with integrity and passion.

And just as God is attentive to our whole lives, we are also called to worship with our whole lives, even when we are away from this place. Worship isn’t the order we follow on Sunday morning or Wednesday night or any other time we gather as the people of God. Worship is what happens anytime and every time we please God by living wholly and completely as the children we have been called to be. Worship is when we tell God and show God our gratitude for the grace we have been given, not just with the words that come from our lips, but with the actions that come from our lives. Worship is when we praise God for an abundance of blessings by using those blessings for purposes God desires.

Living as the best parent or child we can be is worshiping God. Using the talents we have been given to their fullest is worshiping God. Enjoying the creation around us, caring for it with love and attention, working to heal it and protect as agents of Christ is worshiping God. Delighting in the care and company of others is worshiping God. Being attentive to the whispering of the Spirit in times of solitude and quiet is worshiping God.

Worship, for the people of God, is at the heart of what we do, both inside these walls and beyond them. Worship is our number one call in life. May all that we do and all that we say be our worship of God, our way of giving thanks for God’s sovereign grace and mercy.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Living Vision

Matthew 26:26-29
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Habakkuk opens with a complaint. If you are ever apologetic in your speech to God about the problems you face, the struggles you see in the world, let Habakkuk change your mind a little. “O LORD, how LONG shall I cry for help?” he begs. There’s no tip-toeing around how he feels about the state of the world. He cries out about the violence he sees. To him it seems that God is inactive, uncaring about the suffering of the world. Laws have become meaningless since their power to protect is weakened. Justice is non-existent since the righteous are hemmed in by the wicked. The world, in his eyes, is going to hell in a hand basket, and despite all the crying and all the begging he is doing before God nothing seems to be stopping it.

If the clues he has given us lead us to the correct conclusion, Habakkuk was a prophet in the decade just before the devastating Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and all of Judah. The kingdom that had been united under King David about 400 years before had later split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom, Israel, had been picked away at by Assyria the century before Habakkuk ministered, but the southern kingdom, Judah, was still relatively independent. It lay at the crossroads of the world’s powerful kingdoms of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia, its peace threatened as the bullies struggled to gain control of this prime piece of real estate.

Yet not only were they fought over, the people of Judah also fought among themselves. Outside influences corrupted their worship. Feelings of despair allowed them to drift away from God. Tempting alliances with larger, more powerful nations pulled them down paths of injustice toward the needy among them. The stresses on the nation turned neighbor against neighbor instead of drawing people together to find collective strength in their hardships. Everything seemed to be spiraling downward and further and further away from God and God’s vision for the world.

I remember in seminary a friend of mine was taking a class about preaching and youth. I don’t remember if she was assigned the book of Habakkuk or if she found it on her own, but I remember how she claimed that this historical context made this was one of the most relevant books of the Old Testament for our times and for our youth. That may be even more true now than it was 10 years ago.

How long, O Lord, do we have to cry for help? How long do we have witness violence in our communities and around the world? How long do we have to watch young people kill themselves because they feel there is no other option, because they feel there is no way for them to live with their sexual orientation? How long do we have to watch the intolerance of some lead to the death of others?

Why do we have to see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Why do we have to wake up each morning to read in the newspaper or hear on TV how a person in power has broken our trust yet again? Why do selfish ambition and greed seem to be in front of us more than compassion? Why are spiritual leaders abusing power and hurting those to whom they are called to minister?

Why is destruction the only answer we have to disagreement? Why are factions within communities, countries, and churches at one another’s throats? Why aren’t we able to find a way forward together instead of constantly digging in our heels? Why are we so unwilling to build consensus or even compromise in the interest of finding a third way forward out of a deadlock of ideas?

How long, O Lord, will all of this go on before you come in and save us? It is an honest question, one that has great biblical precedence. We ask it in the admirable company of the prophets of Israel, the writers of psalms, and even Jesus who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can afford to ask these questions because God is big enough to handle our anger. God won’t toss us aside for asking these questions.

What we can’t afford to do, though, is cry out then walk away. We can’t start this dialogue with God, begging for God’s help, God’s vision, God’s obvious activity in the world, but walk away from the relationship in frustration and disgust. That’s the way of the wicked that threatens the righteous Habakkuk talks about.

Righteousness in the Hebrew Scriptures is not about a moral code of conduct or following and impersonal set of rules. It’s not about who is naughty and who is nice. Righteousness is found in those who understand that their relationship with God is one of total dependence. It is because they know they need the grace and guidance of God in their lives that they follow God’s laws. The laws don’t make them righteous, but because they are in right relationship with God, they follow God’s laws. Righteousness is not the opposite of sinful; it is the opposite of the despair that comes from life apart from God.

When we are in right relationship with God, we can hear God’s answer to Habakkuk’s cry. We can hear what God tells him when Habakkuk says he will wait for an answer; he will stay engaged in the relationship even when the world is crumbling around him. We can hear God’s promise, not that all the devastating things we experience will magically be lifted, but that in them, through them, God is with us. We can hear God’s promise that there will be a day, someday when God’s vision will be fulfilled.

The righteous live by faith, the bold belief that the story in which we find ourselves is not the real story. The REAL story is the one of God’s power over evil, God’s salvation from sin and oppression. Righteousness means trusting in this story, the one in which God is present and reaching out to us in love and compassion. Righteousness is life lived in relationship with God, the opposite of desolation and despair that without God is what fills our beings. Even with God we can mourn and experience pain in our hearts and our lives, but with God there is also a profound sense of grace, which fills us more and eases the sorrow - - bringing an even stronger sense of peace. Staying in relationship with God, even through the desperation that plagues us when it seems like the world is crumbling, means remembering that the end of this will come, and God’s vision will be fulfilled.

As their world is crumbling Jesus shares his vision with his disciples. Huddled in an upper room, avoiding the angry authorities, but knowing it won’t be long before they come for him, Jesus shares his vision with his closest followers as they celebrate the Feast of Passover. As he hands them the bread and pours for them the wine, he gives them a glimpse of the future he has planned. This meal they are sharing is just an appetizer for the banquet they will celebrate someday in heaven. The danger they are facing, the sorrow they will experience, the pain and terror that will invade their lives, the loneliness that will blanket them, will not be the final answer; it is not the REAL story.

The REAL story takes place around a table. It is the story we tell every time we gather at this table, especially when we do it on a day when we know people all over the world are gathering with us. The REAL story of God’s love is a story of grace and forgiveness, a story of abundant provision and beautiful diversity, a story of acceptance and inclusion. It’s a story where God invites us to stay in relationship, God even feeds us with the very bread of life and cup of salvation, when all we can do is cry out “How long?” And when we stay in that relationship, when we persist through the tempting detours of despair, when we trust that God’s vision is still coming, we discover the peace of living by faith.

The meal we share today, we share with the faithful all over the world and across the barriers of time. We are sitting with the disciples themselves who were hosted by Jesus. We are sitting with the men and women of churches in the centuries before us. We are sitting with the faithful across continents today, and those who will come after us tomorrow. We are sharing this bread and this cup just as Jesus promises us we will do when someday he hosts us again at his table. Even if it is for just these few minutes, we are living completely by faith, living as if nothing else is true, but the promise of God that when we eat this bread and drink this cup we are united with Christ and with one another, the promise that no matter how desperate life gets, we will someday feast together in peace and in glory.

At this table we live the vision Jesus has for the world, a world where emptiness is filled, death is answered with resurrection, and God’s merciful love is given to all.

(Pictures from gallery of altar photos on website of Yorktown UMC, White Plains, NY)