Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sermons I Hate to Preach

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 5:1-16 and Matthew 21:33-46.

I hate preaching sermons which come out of what I call "judgement passages." These are the ones in which the prophets (such as Isaiah) or Jesus are holding up the ways in which God's people (meaning you and I) have failed to live up to what we have been called to be.

The reason I hate preaching about them is simple. Like David in the Psalms, "my sin is ever before me." I know enough about my own sins and shortcomings to know that these passages all too often speak directly to my own frailty and sin. There is no way.....EVER....for me to stand before a congregation and scold them for their shortcomings. Any time I preach about God's word judging us, the emphasis is on the "US" and I stand beneath that judgement with you. And, frankly, that's not a very comfortable place to be.

But there is good news. The good news is that God never speaks to us in judgement without the opportunity for repentence...a word which means to turn, to change, to move in a different direction.

As a wayfor to begin this examination of God's word of judgement to us, I would offer the words of G.K. Chesterton's hymn which we will be using Sunday. Think about it with me as we move through the week in prayer. The words ring as true today ans they did when he wrote it in 1906:

O God of earth and altar
bow down and hear our cry.
Our earthly rulers falter
our people drift and die.
The walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide.
Take not our thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men;
from sale and profination
of honor and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation
deliver us good Lord

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall.
Bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all.
In ire and exaltation,
aflame with faith and free;
lift up a living nation
a single sword to Thee.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Who's Invited to the Feast of the Kingdom

This week's scriptures are Luke 14:7-14 and Luke 14:15-24.

In response to last week's blog, Kara wrote:

I think the next question is - are we 'letting them come' by way of acceptance or forgiveness?

Conditions are accepted. Sins are forgiven. And there still a lot of debate in the church about which is which. If I were a homosexual, or an addict, or a single-mother or a victim, or a person with a disability - I wouldn't take much comfort in a welcome that was based on forgiveness; I'd want acceptance.

The fact that many churches are divided on what's a condition and what's a sin leads to the question so many are asking: does letting them come, also mean letting them lead?

I think it should, but until we can distinguish between sins and conditions some people will keep fighting it and others will keep feeling unwelcome.

This week's scriptures offer a partial response to her questions....and I'd like to enlarge on it a bit with an answer of my own.

Jesus, in this Lukan passage and in others, refers to the Kingdom of God (which we as Church are called to imitate and try to bring in) as a banquet....a feast of celebration. We're told to deal with the fact that we've been invited with humility. Verses 8-11 are, in part, about coming into the feast with what folks in 12 Step programs refer to as and "attitude of gratitude."

This is important because our attitude about why we're at the feast will affect the way we respond to who else is there. Am I here because I'm 'good' and 'deserve' to be here? Am I here because the host 'owes me something'? Or am I here because I know the ways in which I am also like "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" that Jesus tells the host in verse 13 to invite.

And, when, in verses 15-24 Jesus goes on to expound on the Feast of the Kingdom, he points out that many folks miss their need and don't come to the banquet. Then we're told that the servants were instructed to go out into 'streets and alleys, highways and hedges' to bring people in.

[As an aside....I wonder if our "church growth" and "evangelism" isn't too often aimed at the 'worried well'...at those who figure that they're just fine and can take the community of faith or leave it. What does this passage say to us about who we need to be reaching out to?]

But back to issues that Kara raised. Many people with "conditions"-things in their lives over which they have little or no control-feel the church viewing their 'condition' as "sin." They feel judged on the basis of their sexuality, their victimization, their disability. We are commanded by Jesus to accept all persons. As someone said to Jesus "only God can forgive sins." Jesus' answer was to not argue with him, but to go right on forgiving sins....a bold statement about who Jesus saw himself to be.

We are called to offer forgiveness to those who have harmed us (Jesus' teaching about forgiving 70 times 7). But we are also commanded not to judge others.

But what, then, about "conditions" that lead to sins? What about, for example, the victim of child sexual abuse who now, as an adult, cannot commit to a trusting monogamous relationship, and engages in compulsive one night stands? What should our response be to them?

Perhaps we need to remember that the wounds ("conditions") in our lives, when left unhealed, can often lead us places where we harm both others and ourselves. Maybe this is why so often Jesus' healings also included the statement "your sins are forgiven."

There is a story that a sign above the entrance to the Green Beret training grounds with their motto which says "Kill them all...let God sort them out." I'm going to maintain that what you and I are called to is just the opposite. Our commandment is to LOVE THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT THEM OUT. Whatever judging needs to be done, God will do. And God's judgement will be merciful. Because God knows the "conditions" that no one else sees. God knows the loneliness of childhood and how it made us fearful. God knows the anxiety that makes us afraid to leave the house. God knows the pain of life trying to live like a 'straight' and knowing that you're not....and all the place that this can take you....places that fill you with shame and self loathing. God knows the poverty of your youth that makes you fearful and greedy now. God's mercy seeks to help you, and all of us, heal. God wants us to heal so that we can be what we were created to be: companions for God and for one another.

Which brings us full circle to the issue of humility that started our blog. When I am humble about my own "conditions" and my own "sins"....my own needs for both healing and forgiveness; I am more compassionate about those same needs in those around me. I walk tenderly and carefully around their wounds; and I pray for them and offer my support as they struggle with what it means to accept God's forgiveness for their sins. I remember that I'm one of those invited to the feast from the 'highways and the hedges' the 'streets and the alleys.' I remember my own blindness and all the things I bumped into...bruising myself and others.

When I live like this, I am able to do what Jesus asks and throw open the door to the Feast of the Kingdom as it takes place in the here and now. Maybe this needs to be the Church's motto:


Hope to see you Sunday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Does He Know?...And Does That Stop Me?

This week's scriptures are Luke 7:36-50 and Acts 8:26-39.

Both of these stories are about people who would,under their cultural context, be cut off from worship and relationship with God. One is a woman with a shady reputation; the other is a eunuch.

In the story from Luke, the Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dinner sees this woman crying over Jesus feet and drying them with her hair as says to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner." He uses this incident to judge not only the woman, but Jesus as well.

The Ethiopian Eunuch is on his way back from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. Think about it....here is a man who is a convert to the Jewish faith, who has come to Jerusalem to worship KNOWING that because of his physical condition (having been castrated) that there are limits to where he will be allowed to worship. There are places in the temple where he cannot go. Yet he still comes to Jerusalem.

Both of these people come to faith with questions about whether they will still be outcasts. Can you hear the trembling question in the eunuch's voice when he says to Philip, ":look there is water! Is there anything that will prevent me from being baptized?" A paraphrase of that question might be, "Does Jesus hold my condition against me too?"

I think many of us still ask that question. In the deep part of our hearts we want to know if the things we know about ourselves, the secrets that we clutch so tightly will keep us from Jesus love.

And there are those outside the church who look at us and ask the same questions. This is AIDS Awareness Week. On Thursday I'll be at the AIDS Awareness Luncheon with Joann and others who are deeply committed to this issue. We need to ask ourselves, "What do persons with HIV/AIDS hear from us about their welcome into the fellowship of those who seek to follow Jesus?" We can ask the same question in regard to those with mental illnesses, addictions, questionable sexual behaviors, and disabilities. What is our answer when they look at us and say, "Does Jesus hold my condition against me?" "Is there anything that will prevent me from being baptized (welcomed completely into the fellowship)?"

While 'litmus tests' may be okay for political parties; they are off limits when it comes to who we welcome into the Body of Christ. Jesus said, "Who so ever will...let them come." That's pretty clear. He didn't say, "Let them come after they clean up their act, after they've been in recovery for a year or two, after they're on their medication" no, He said, "Let them come."

I love the old Hymn, "Love Lifted Me." I especially love the bass line in the chorus where the response to "love lifted me" is "even me." And the final line, "when nothing else could help....love lifted me." When nothing else could help, when nothing at all could save me from my shame and my alienation and my fear of rejection.....Love lifted me.

The doors are always open into the Kingdom....God's arms are always reaching out. Thanks be to God.

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hospitality as Noticing

This week's scriptures are Luke 13:10-17 and Luke 14:1-6.

There are a lot of things that can be said about the story found in Luke 13:10-17; and we're going to talk about some of them on Sunday. But I'd like, for just a moment to focus on one thing in particular...that is that Jesus noticed this woman.

Unlike many of the people whom Jesus healed, she didn't come to him asking for healing. She wasn't part of throng that cried out to him or gathered when he was surrounded by the sick and the lame. She was at church...she was worshipping in the synagogue...bent and in pain....and Jesus noticed her.

Probably everyone in the synagogue knew this woman. They passed her on the street, at the well, in the market. They had come-perhaps-to be so accustomed to her bent shape that they took for granted that this was how she was. Even those women who had grown up with her as children, who remembered her as a playmate, had shifted out of their awareness their memory of her as someone whose back was once straight and strong. She was just the bend woman of the village....until Jesus noticed.

He could have done nothing. He could have gone and finished his teaching message and gone about his regular pattern when he was in the synagogue and it wouldn't have been in any way remarkable. But Jesus noticed and out of that noticing, he acted to free this woman from her pain.

It makes me wonder if hospitality doesn't begin with our eyes. With what we notice. Does 'making a place' for people begin with noticing that they need a place?

Does it begin with paying attention to the people we pass each day who are 'bent' in some ways by how the years have affected them. Does having the 'eyes of Jesus' mean looking at our world in a way that notices what needs to change, who needs help, rather than sliding by thinking like the song from the musical "that's the way it goes; everybody knows. That's the way it's always been and how it's gotta be."

"Noticing." It is such a small thing. But it's interesting that Jesus follows up this incident...perhaps immediately...by talking about small things. Listen to verses 18-21

And he said therefore, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard sed that someone took and swed in the garden: it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches." And again, he said, "To what shaould I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

A small thing, noticing, may be the very thing that opens the door of God's hospitality....the hospitality that Jesus called The Kingdom of God.

See you Sunday.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hospitality and Justice

This week's scriptures are Deuteronomy 24:10-22 and James 2: 1-13.

We're spending a few weeks talking about various aspects of hospitality as a Christian discipline or practice. This week's scriptures are about hospitality as an element of justice for the powerless (in Deuteronomy it is the alien and the poor, in James the focus is on the poor).

The Deuteronomy passage is very blunt. It speaks to the impact of behavior on people's ability to eat and to stay warm. Verses 19-22 in particular talk about not taking everything that you can from your field or vineyard or olive trees....about leaving something for the poor, the widow, the alien to gather so that they can survive.

And the reasoning behind this is striking: "Keep in mind that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to do this." (vs.22) The people of Israel are commanded to look after those who are different, who are poverty stricken, who are voiceless because they were once slaves who were voiceless and poor. The call to a hospitality is rooted in what God had done for them when they were among the aliens.

It is this 'Hospitality as Justice' that can help rescue our idea of hospitality from being a 'softy and fuzzy' kind of niceness. True hospitality is gentle...but it is also strong. It understands the need of the stranger because it has experienced being the stranger.

God's hospitality, Jesus' hospitality will open us up to involvement in issues of justice and care in ways we cannot even imagine. One way to begin letting it do this is to take either one of these scriptures and ask ourselves as we look at Deuteronomy, "what is our time's equivilent of 'holding back the wages of a man who is poor' or 'returning his cloak to him at sunset'?" What ways do we face the issue of the kind of impartiality that James talks about in that passage?

We'll be having a pancake brunch and Bible study on Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Jeremy has kindly offered to help me flip pancakes. And we'll be looking at this theme of hospitality more closely. I hope you can join us; and I hope to see you on Sunday.