Sunday, March 04, 2007

Waiting in Darkness

The Second Sunday in Lent
Psalm 27
Genesis 15:1-17
Luke 13:31-35

We are no strangers to waiting, you and I. Our very existence consists of waiting for incalculable events to happen; some mundane, some extraordinarily significant. We wait, sometimes patiently, when the stakes aren’t too high, sometimes pacing the floor, wringing our hands when it is a matter of life and death. We wait, for the weather to change, or for the doctor’s reports to come back. We wait for 5:00 to roll around so that we can get on with our lives in the ways that we want, or we wait to have enough vacation time and money saved up so that we can just get away, or we wait to have enough years in so that we can retire. We wait for our children to sleep through the night, to graduate from diapers, to get out of school, and then we wait for them to come home again. We wait for morning to come during the long nights following the loss of a loved one. We wait for the pain to stop, or the healing to begin or the medication to take effect, or the numbness of our souls to be taken away. In school we wait for teachers to stop teaching, and in church we wait for preachers to stop preaching. (You’re doing it right now.) We are experts in waiting, you and I.
Not that we’re all that good at it. We complain about it to anyone who will listen. We huff and puff when we see a line at the DMV. We complain to the managers when our food takes too long to find its way to our tables. We tap our watches when the preacher has belabored the point. We are experts at waiting, you and I, reluctant experts.
In other words, we take after old Father Abraham. Abraham was a reluctant expert in waiting. It seems that he spent most of his life waiting for one thing or another. What’s worse, most of his waiting was God-initiated. Throughout the ides of the book of Genesis, we get a story of God promising Abraham one thing or another, Abraham doing his part, and then God, seemingly toying with Abraham, making him wait for the promise to come to fruition. The first picture we get of Abraham is him leaving his country and kin to go to a land that God will show him, for God is going to make Abraham “the father of many nations.” So Abraham does. And he waits. And he waits. And he waits. Finally, he stumbles on some land, his nephew, Lot, takes the better portion, and Abraham is left tending his flock and his wife on a barren patch of desert. So there, he waits. For years, eons, Abraham waits for God to follow through, to finish the promise. There, on a dusty patch of desert with no children, Abraham refuses to budge. Perhaps faithfully, piously at first. But by the time we get to the 15th chapter of Genesis, Abraham is belligerently waiting, almost daring God not to follow through.
God does shows up again, “some time later,” as the story goes. God almost seems flippant, “Don’t be afraid, Abram, I’m gong to give you a great reward.” Abraham, sitting in the middle of a barren promise tells God how it is. “What good is a reward from you? You still have not given me a child like you said you would. So any reward that I get will die with me, and you’ve made me wait so long that my death is not far off. No more deals,” says Abraham.
And then the strangest thing happens. God leads Abraham outside, into the dark, and tells him to look up at the stars, to remember the promise, the promise that God will be Abraham’s God, and Abraham will be God’s special one, chosen to father many nations. God reminds Abraham that he is invited to partake in the divine life. And then, almost as quickly as God came, God leaves. God leaves Abraham in the dark, waiting all over again. “A deep and terrifying darkness” comes over Abraham, we are told, as he sits in the dark and contemplates his future. I’m sure that it was dark, and I’m sure that it was terrifying, but I’m willing to bet that the darkest, most terrifying realization that father Abraham came to that long dark night of the soul was this: An invitation to the Divine life is an invitation to wait.
Which is tough for us. As I said, we’re not that good at this waiting thing. We want everything now, quick, easy. Maybe that’s why the fastest growing expression of the faith today is the one that promises that life with God is having everything now…wealth, health, happiness. There is a trend in American religion today that seeks to join us to a god who wants to offer us everything our hearts desire in exchange for faith. Just believe, and you’ll get all you want...”Your best life now!” I understand why that’s so appealing. I’m just not sure that such a faith ushers us into a life with the God of Abraham.
The God of Abraham is a waiting God: “Patient, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”. Our Gospel reading this morning tells us as much. Jesus, looking over the city of Jerusalem and contemplating the hellacious death that he is about to undergo laments, like a mother lamenting the loss of her child. “How I have longed to gather you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks,” says Jesus. How long have I waited for you to turn to me, to stop your violent, self-centered ways and live the life that I created you for, says God. How long have I waited for you, longed for you, yearned for you to turn your hearts to me and live!
Waiting, Jesus says, is something God has done much longer than we have. God has been waiting on us to be the people we were created to be since the beginning of time. Waiting for Adam and Eve to be faithful. Waiting on Israel to listen to the prophets, turn from their ways and love God as much as God loves them. Waiting on the people to listen to John the Baptist’s message. Waiting on the disciples to follow Christ. Waiting on the Gentiles to listen to Paul. Waiting for the Church to be a peaceful alternative to the violence of the world. Waiting on you and me to live into our baptismal vows. Before you and I were waiting for God, God was waiting for us. It seems that God is a waiting God. And if we are to join into the Divine life, the life of God, we are to join a life of waiting.
So we sit, with Father Abraham, and we wait: especially during the season of Lent. We sit in the dusty, barren world and we wait for God to come through. In this broken mess that we have created, in this world torn apart by wars that we claim are inevitable, by racism that we say is natural, by economic injustice that we say is fair, we sit during Lent and we dare God to fulfill God’s promises to us. We dare to sit in the dark, scary existence of this mortal life and wait. We wait for God to come through with this business of resurrection, of healing, of a New Heaven and a New Earth. We sit and we wait, allowing our empty stomachs and heavy eyes to be embodied prayers, daring God to come and fill us with the deep yearning of our spirits, to offer us the rest that we have been promised. We sit and we wait in this dark and scary place. Though the buzzards of fear and doubt and disbelief swoop upon us preying on our exposed and vulnerable faith, we dare to wait.
And as we do, our eyes adjust to the darkness. As we walk farther and deeper along this 40 day long road of wait, the pupils of our faith grow until they, straining to capture the least glint of light, begin to make out the shape of the One standing, hanging there in the dark of Good Friday. There, in the middle of hell on earth, the embodied culmination of the darkest corners of our own souls, fears and doubts, we begin to see that even there, God is. We travel this ever darkening Lenten path, waiting on God to deliver us from our misery, only to stumble our way to the foot of the dark, bloody cross and realize that God is there, muttering from the midst of our pain, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Place Where God Lives

Transfiguration Sunday
Last Sunday of Epiphany
Methodist Home for Children Sunday
Luke 9:28-36
Genesis 1:1-5

If you have ever overbooked yourself, spread yourself too thin, tried to be in more than one place at once, then you can sympathize with the church this Sunday. If you have ever looked at your calendar only to have your stomach sink as you realize that you are going to have to disappoint someone with whom you have made plans, tell someone that you simply can’t make it, scramble to re-shift your plans, then you know the predicament in which the church finds itself today. The church, this Sunday, has done just that. If you look at the church calendar today, there are three major appointments that we have made. It seems that we have overbooked ourselves.
To start, today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. This day, we are to take our final glimpse of the surprising God who shows up in the most unexpected places, like in a manger, surrounded by an unwed teenage mother, donkeys and Gentile wise men. Secondly, today is also Transfiguration Sunday, the day that we are supposed to read about Jesus going up top of the mountain with his three favorite disciples. You know the story, while on the mountain, Jesus’ face is suddenly changed to glowing, and there with him are Elijah and Moses, and a voice from the clouds saying, “This is my son, the chosen one, listen to him.” Finally, on our calendar we see that within the life of our conference, it is Methodist Home for Children Sunday. Today, we are supposed to focus on the work of God in that place, with those children and those families. It seems that we have overbooked ourselves.
Ultimately, the last appointment on our calendar today is what brings me into your midst today. I am here on behalf of Methodist Home for Children. But I’m not ready to throw aside our former appointments just yet.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the story of the Transfiguration. We, along with churches around the world are listening to this story today. This odd story of Jesus trekking up the side of a mountain to pray with his closest friends. Suddenly, while on the mountainside, he changed. There’s really no other way to explain it. He just changed. Luke says that suddenly, his face changed, and his clothes, too. They were white, dazzling, brilliant. Then, out of nowhere, Elijah and Moses are standing there, chatting with Jesus about what is about to happen to him. Moses and Elijah, the writer of the Law and the chief prophet, dead for generations are standing there conversing with Jesus. Finally, just when the story seems to have reached its apex in mystery, a voice from the clouds…God’s voice from the clouds, booms forth, “This is my son, listen to him.”
With all of this wonder and splendor, with the gathering of Jesus and Elijah and Moses, with Jesus aglow with light, it is easy to be temporarily blinded by the majesty of it all and forget to ask the question that this story begs. What in the world is God doing showing up there?! On a mountain…and not in the temple? With Jesus, a renegade rabbi, instead of with the trained religious leaders? With fishermen, and not religious people? What kind of a God hangs out in barren mountains with poor fishermen and a wanna-be teacher?
Apparently, the God of Jesus Christ. The most telling aspect of the story of the transfiguration is the location and the company therein. The God revealed in Jesus Christ lives in barren places, and with broken people. The God of the Transfiguration shines forth when hurting, and pain and hopelessness are most prevalent. As Jesus stands atop that barren hill and contemplates his hellacious death, God shows up. Or maybe God doesn’t so much show up as Jesus and the Disciples enter the place where God lives. As the rag-tag group of fishermen stood on the barren hill, bracing themselves for suffering unimaginable, suddenly they were standing in the very presence of God. As they followed Christ up the desolate mountainside of despair, they followed Christ into the place where God lives. God lives in places such as this.
We first catch a glimpse of this God making his home in the midst of despair in the opening verses of Genesis. In the beginning, God looked down on the world and saw that there was nothing…a giant void…poverty personified. Our Bibles read that there was “an empty, formless, dark void.” The Hebrew is “tohu-wa-bohu. You don’t have to know Hebrew to know that it is bad. God, standing far off, looking down on the empty, impoverished world, decides to make a home there. God meets the poverty of nothing by creating the most wonderful things…trees, aardvarks and pterodactyls. God keeps creating, meeting the poverty God sees. Soon, God sees that there is a poverty of relationship, so God creates humans to love God and one another and makes a home for Godself there, among the humans. God seems infatuated with burrowing down and making a home for Godself wherever there is poverty.
The rest of the Bible, we see God running around meeting poverty. Poverty of covenant by creating Israel, poverty of hope by raising up the prophets, poverty of our mortality by creating the Incarnation and the resurrection. Throughout scripture, we find out time and time again that when you stumble across poverty of any sort, you are knocking on the door of where God lives.
And it’s always in the most unexpected places, like in a dusty stable, or a desolate mountaintop, or in the Millennium Hotel in Durham. On Saturday, December 10th, my wife and I were driving around, running our usual Saturday morning errands and minding our own business. The radio was scanning along when suddenly it stopped on Sunny 93.9. The DJ said that they were broadcasting live from the Millennium with Methodist Home for Children who were there wrapping presents for kids in our area, and that anyone listening should swing by. Molly, my wife, quickly turned the car into the nearest store parking lot, ran inside bought a toy or two and carted us over to the hotel. I complained the whole way. “Honey, this is my only day off. Can’t you just let me have one day?” She, always the wise one, didn’t listen. We pulled into the hotel, Molly had a package in one hand and me by the other and we climbed the stairs to the third floor ball room. When we got up there…well…chaos is all I can say we saw. Hundreds of people were there, thousands of presents and wrapping paper and bows were everywhere you looked. Elvis was singing on stage and throwing teddy bears out to the crowd to be wrapped and given to a child in need. The only order we saw were kids in red t-shirts. They were everywhere, directing the chaos, helping people wrap gifts, and then stacking the gifts in the corner. I finally saw Bruce Stanley, a friend of mine and the CEO of Methodist Home for Children, and he explained to me that the kids in the red shirts were all residents of Methodist Home for Children. They were there to help the day go off without a hitch. Not so much so that they could have presents, but because they wanted other kids who wouldn’t get anything to have something to open for Christmas.
And there, high atop the Milleneum Hotel, amid the chaos and bustle of people and presents, suddenly everything was changed. Those children with red shirts glowed, bright white. Even their clothes seemed dazzling. There, as we stood with people in poverty, and sought to help meet the poverty of others, we were standing in the place where God lives. And as we stood there, suddenly, the poverty within my own soul was met too. Suddenly, I was transfigured.
That is what this day is about. That is why this day is on our calendar alongside Transfiguration and the Last Sunday of Epiphany. Because they are all in the same place. The Mount of Transfiguration, the last Sunday of Epiphany, Methodist Home for Children…they are all in the same place. They are all where God lives. God lives in those places in our world where hurting and poverty are most prevalent. God lives in those places within our own hearts and souls where we are most broken, most hurting, most impoverished. Like on a barren mountaintop with a renegade rabbi, a vacuous formless void screaming for life, with the children who are cast aside by our society, thrown to the curb because they are too much trouble, they came at the wrong time, they can’t seem to get it together. Wherever those children are, God is.
Today, we are invited into the place where God lives. We are invited to join in that Godly work of meeting the poverty that we see and helping the least and the last of our world. We are invited to give to Methodist Home for Children, for they are in that holy space of poverty, that holy place where God lives among the children with no family, no home. We are invited to join in climbing that mountain of despair and sit alongside those children by giving to the work of that place.
As we do, we like Jesus before us, will shine.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mainstream Prophets

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-32

“She just used to be so normal”. One of my parishioners wept as she sat in my office and told me about her daughter’s recent change of character. “We did the best we could to raise her right, we took her to church, she did well in school, she was well liked by all of her friends…you know, she was just a normal girl.” I sat there, passing this sobbing mother Kleenex and bracing myself for the worst. “We paid for her to go to college, and then law school, she was doing so well. And then, in law school she got involved with the immigration issue. We thought, this is great! She is going to put her degree to good use and help keep our country safe. But she didn’t. She started helping these illegal immigrants get healthcare and find ways to get jobs and greencards. Now we just don’t know what to do with her. Instead of having a respectable law practice, she is spending all of her time running around speaking on behalf of these people she doesn’t know and advocating for these people who will never be able to pay her for her work. I mean, I could understand if a foreigner wanted to do that kind of work, you know, for their own people, but not our daughter. She’s never been a radical. She’s unassuming and quiet and usually just blends in. She’s just so normal!”
I sat there thinking, "well, what did you expect?! You took her church." You take a normal kid to church, and somebody along the way is going to read them the story of Jeremiah. If Jeremiah’s story has anything to teach us it is that God has this knack of making prophets out of seemingly normal people. God seems to delight in catching everyone offguard by taking mainstream people who would otherwise blend in, not rock the boat, and making prophets out of them, people who by their very presence re-shape the world around them. People who look for all the world like they should just help perpetuate the culture, who’s normalcy is almost staggering, God takes them and makes world changers out of them.
Like Jeremiah. He was from a normal family of good heritage. His parents had raised him well in the traditions of their faith. He had priestly lineage, priestly training and was well equipped to fit right into the culture. You know, he was just normal. And then, out of nowhere, the word of the Lord comes to him. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you: I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah tries to reject it, say that he’s too normal to do such work. “But I’m just a boy. I’m a dime a dozen. No one is going to listen to me, I’m too normal.” “Exactly,” says God. “You are going to sneak into the world and no one will even notice you are there at first because you look so normal. But I will be with you. And you and I are going to turn the world upside down. See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build up and to plant.”
The rest of Jeremiah’s life is anything but normal. He goes around telling kings and rulers that God is against them and that they are about to be overthrown because they have made for themselves kingdoms of wealth at the expense of others. He tells priests and religious leaders that their ceremonies and prayers are useless in the sight of God and that as long as the oppressed are ignored and the outsider is rejected. Jeremiah, this used-to-be normal kid, looks the community of faith in the eye and says that as long as they remain inwardly focused, as long as they are more concerned with themselves than they are their neighbor, the widow, the hungry, their religiosity is of no account and God is not with them. With his words, he was tearing down the world in which they lived and building a new reality. This boy was destroying oppression and rebuilding peace. Can you believe Jeremiah?! He used to be so normal!
Jesus’ normality threw the people in our Gospel reading today off, too. Luke tells us as much. It was just another normal Sabbath. The community was gathered together like they always were. Jesus was standing in the synagogue, and reading from the prophet Isaiah, nothing abnormal so far. And then, all of a sudden, Jesus starts talking about the prophet’s words coming to fruition in him. Everyone looks around at each other and are amazed. After all, this is just Mary and Joseph’s boy, they say. We know him, he’s one of us. As they sit there, trying to figure out what Jesus was talking about, God begins to re-shape their world. God had invaded their normality in the seemingly normal looking person of Jesus and now was seeking to tear down their comfortable normality and build up a new reality in their midst. Jesus begins lambasting that group of people for their lack of faith. He calls them to account for mis-reading scripture, for making God their servant instead of the other way around. I’m sure that they would have happily kept Jesus out of the synagogue if they had known what he was about to do in their midst. But how could you tell? He seemed so normal! So harmless. So innocuous. So mainstream.
He seemed almost Methodist! There is no more normal, harmless group of people than us Methodists. If you don’t believe me, go to Annual Conference one year. You enter that room and look around and say, “these people wouldn’t hurt a fly and couldn’t turn a piece of paper upside down.” We Methodists are perhaps the most innocuous group of people ever compiled. We look like the normal population. We think like most people. We live in normal neighborhoods, drive normal cars. We work in normal jobs and live normal lives. We Methodists personify the word “mainstream.”
Which makes us just the sort of people that God delights in using to turn the world upside down. Think about it. Nobody expects the Methodists! We are the last group of people to rock the boat, to challenge the norm, to go against the stream. So, in God’s divine irony, we are in the perfect position to be mainstream prophets. And you know, it happens all the time. If you stay at Annual Conference long enough, you hear the most amazing stories of the world being turned upside down by a bunch of normal Methodists. Stories of thousands of orphans being fed in Zimbawe, while the rest of the world just watches, as though abject poverty is just normal. Stories of racial reconciliation happening in downtown Durham, while the rest of the community is calling for more division, because that, after all, is the norm. Stories of people working for peace and justice, and refusing to accept the war and oppression that we are surrounded by. God taking us normal Methodists and injecting us into the world to change what the world thinks is normal. Mainstream prophets.
I understand that you here at St. Mark’s are discerning where God would have you go and who God would have you be as a church. In other words, you are listening for a word from the Lord. Just, as you go through that process, be warned. You are joining the ranks of some people who had their normality turned on its ear when God’s word came to them. People like Jeremiah, St. Luke, Mother Teresa, that poor lawyer who’s practice was turned upside down. As you wait for a word from the Lord, know that God delights in taking normal, ordinary people just like you and using you to “overturn nations and kingdoms, to destroy normality and build up the Kindom of God.” God just loves reshaping the world with normal folks like you.
Here you are, perched in just a normal church building along Six Forks Road. Singing your normal hymns, going about your normal lives. Watch out. God is sending his word into this place and is determined to make prophets, world changers, out of you. I can almost hear people talking now…”What happened to St. Mark’s? They used to be so normal!”

Friday, November 03, 2006

How Does that Song Go, Again?

All Saints' Sunday
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:16
Mark 12:28-34

We could hear her voice floating all the way down the Sunday School wing of the church.

§“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.”§

It was the first day of Sunday School, “Promotion Sunday” as we called it, and I was there early, as my father had somehow been roped into being the Sunday School Superintendent. §Yes, Jesus loves me.§ I stood there, trying to figure out where it coming from. §Yes, Jesus loves me.§ I had the sinking feeling that it was coming from my new classroom. §Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.”§ I followed the voice down the hall until there was no doubt who the mystical singer was: Ms. Ginger, my new teacher. “Oh no,” I thought, “I’m being stuck with a singing teacher! This is going to be a long year!”

My father, who was walking by about this time and saw me standing at the doorway trying to figure out a way to escape before I was seen, dutifully shoved me into the classroom. I stood there, §Yes, Jesus loves me.§ We made eye contact. §Yes, Jesus loves me.§ I looked for an escape route. She just smiled, and kept singing. §Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.§ She wouldn’t stop singing, she just kept setting up the chairs, and putting out the Bibles. She sang and set up, smiled and gestured for me to help out. I looked around to make sure that no one would see me hanging out with this sort of person, and begrudgingly began to start helping. She kept singing, §Yes, Jesus loves me.§ , or huming §hmmmmmm§. This went on for about ten minutes until, well, all I can say is that it infected me. I found myself humming along with her.

You never would have guessed that her husband had just left her, or that her son had run away from home. I didn’t know that until much later. The rest of the students came in, Ms. Ginger kept singing and smiling and gesturing until everyone had arrived and we were all singing or humming along, §Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.§

That year, Courtney’s father died, Marshall’s parents divorced and my best friend moved away. That year, Ms. Ginger, our in-house saint, sang to us God’s love song through it all.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day that we turn our ear to the lives of the Saints’ and allow God’s love song to infect us. As far as I can tell, that’s what a Saint is. A Saint is not someone who is perfect, or sinless, someone who shows us how bad we are by virtue of how good they are. We’ve got no use for a Saint like that. Saints are those people who through their brokenness allow God’s love song to reverberate through them. In the midst of their sinfulness, in the face of the world’s pain, a Saint is someone who has gotten God’s love song caught in their head and can’t get it out. They just sing it everywhere they go, until all the world is singing along.

Like Saint Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson this morning. Isaiah is singing God’s love song to Israel even in the face of hell on earth. They are in exile, slaves in someone else’s kingdom, and God’s promises to them at this point seem like useless religious jargon. The promised land is a distant memory and the Messiah is nowhere to be found. All seems lost.
Then, against the constant discord of hopelessness that has been droning on in the background of Israel’s life for so long now, Isaiah begins humming a new song.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. 8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”

It seems as though God has put a love song to Israel on Isaiah’s heart, stuck the melody of hope and love within Isaiah’s head, and he can’t help but sing it. God’s love song rings so beautifully, so mellifluously, that is reaches into the darkest times of pain and shatters the discord of hopelessness.

§Yes, Jesus loves me.§

Saint John’s Revelation is set to the same tune. Saint John is in exile, Christians are being persecuted for following Christ, the leaders of the church are being martyred and the faith seems all but doomed. Then, from a jail cell on a desert Island, God sings to the church again through Saint John.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more”

These words of hope and comfort sung by Saint John to the familiar beat of God’s love song to the world overcome the cacophony of hopelessness and allows those around to dance anew.

§Yes, Jesus loves me.§

Listening to our Gospel lesson this morning we hear the familiar beat continue. The scribe comes up to Jesus, questions what is the most important commandment? Jesus replies with an ancient love song called the Shema. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” The Scribe listens to God Incarnate sing this familiar ditty, until the scribe, himself, begins to hum along. “you are right, loving God and the world are the most important” says the scribe. “Now you’re catching on.” Sings Jesus.

§Yes, Jesus loves me.§

Listen to the song of the Saints. Their very lives sing God’s love song to the world. Like Saint John Wesley, who against the backdrop of a stagnant Anglican church sang of a God that refused to leave us in brokenness, but who loved us into perfection. Now there are 12 million Methodists singing along. Or Saint Martin Luther King, Jr., who sang of God’s dream to the world for equality until segregation was brought down and we began our long uphill trek to peace, now there are 300 million Americans who live in a different world. Listen to the song of Saint Greg Jenkes, who is leading us as a conference in singing a song of life to the Orphans in Zimbabwe, who’s only song this far have been set to the tune of people’s dying breath due to AIDS, children’s cries for parent’s lost and the constant clatter of gunfire. Greg started three years ago singing a new song in that land, and now there are 10,000 orphans being fed, 2,000 children being offered medical care, and 1,500 more who are in school, all singing a new song of hope and love.

Listen to the song of the Saints, for they are singing a song of life that is able to bring hope to the hopeless, life to the dying, and love to the unloveable. Listen to the song of the Saints, for through them, God is singing a love song to the world that is so beautiful, that upon hearing it the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead dance. Listen to the song of the saints, until you find yourself walking along with them, humming that tune that the world is dying to hear,

§"Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Saints have told me so."§

Saturday, October 07, 2006

On Cultivating An Immature Faith

Mark 10:13-16
Isaiah 11: 1-9

Are there any artists here today? How about musicians? Any athletes, maybe some really fast runners? You should see the response when I ask my mother’s first graders those questions. There is nothing that a first grader cannot do. My mother is a first grade teacher, and so I have spent most of my life watching group after group pass through her tutelage, each class as full of unabashedly self-named talent as the previous. Don’t get me wrong, it was not that each student could actually do everything well, it was just that nobody had told them that yet. When it came time for art, each student was an artist. If you asked one of them if she could draw, she would undoubtedly reply, “Sure I can draw. Wanna see?” And sure enough, she would sit down and start drawing as if she were the next Picasso. When it came time for music, each child was a classically trained singer; or so you would think if you asked them. If you heard them sing, well, it was a different story. The group would waddle down the hall to the music room and Miss. Blanton, the music teacher, would hold their attention for about 30 seconds, while she tried to get them to sing something together. Each child would sing in his or her own way, some loud, some softly, some just swaying to the music, all out of tune. But if you asked them if they could sing, they would each reply, “Of course I can sing. Wanna hear?” It’s the same with running, each child the next Marion Jones. “I can run real fast. Wanna see?” There is nothing that a first grader cannot do.
Of course, we know better. We have cultivated fine taste in art, we know a Rembrandt when we see it, and we know that we are no Rembrandt. And we have the NC Symphony to tune our ear to fine music; and we know that we are not symphony quality musicians. No need to mention the running, I suppose. It’s cute that kids think that they can do everything, but we know better. And someday, they will too. Someday, someone, somewhere will hold their work up and say, “you know, you really aren’t that good at this.”
That day, according to Jesus, our children will grow up a little bit, and they will grow a little further away from the Kingdom of God. In our Gospel lesson this morning, children are doing what they do best: breaking all the rules. By the time we get to the 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus is a celebrity. Crowds have been pushing on him for quite some time now, and he cannot go anywhere without being recognized. The disciples, seeing Jesus’ rise to fame and finding themselves often lost in the overwhelming crowds, have taken it upon themselves to protect Jesus from all of the people continuously trying to push in on him. Here, in the 10th chapter of Mark, they find themselves in the thick of it again. The crowds have gathered, people are pushing in just to be touched by Jesus, and, well, frankly, it’s a little overwhelming. What makes it worse is all these kids running around. Don’t these kids know that Jesus is important?! He does not have time to waste on children. Besides, where are their parents? Shouldn’t they be keeping their kids at bay, teaching them how to act when someone really important comes around? So the disciples, knowing that they are very important, and that Jesus is even more important, rebuke the kids and their parents, putting everyone in their proper place.
But it’s too late. The kids have already made their way to Jesus. Or did Jesus make his way to them? Jesus, looking down at the children says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Which, you know, really makes sense. The kingdom of God is so foolish, that only a child would think that it is possible. I mean, have you ever really tried to love your enemies? Everybody knows that we really can’t do that, what with national security and all that. Or have you ever sold your possessions and given them away to the poor? I mean, come on, St. Francis we are not! Do we have anyone here that thinks that their work can help God save the world? Of course, we know better than that. But I wonder what would happen if we asked some first graders. According to Jesus, the kingdom of God is only available to those who, like a child, actually think that they can do the absurd.
Which, I think, reveals as much about who God is as it does about us. We sort of have this image of God as a great grandfatherly figure with a great white beard and a Charlton Heston voice. This God, the grandfather-god, sits on a throne somewhere and makes sure that everyone obeys the rules…“no running in the house…no fibbing…play nice with one another”, we hear him say. But what if a better picture of God is a child. Lord Chesterton said, "I think that God is the only child left in the universe and all the rest of us have grown old and cynical because of sin.”
The first glimpse we get of God in scripture is one of God playfully creating, almost like a child sitting down with a ball of clay with no inhibitions, ready to make the first thing that comes to mind. Anything is possible. God shows up, and out of nowhere starts dreaming up the most absurd things like sky, sea, snails and aardvarks. With childlike creativity and imagination, God playfully makes all of creation, and it’s good: very good, if God does say so Godself. The creation thing goes awry, but God doesn’t give up. Apparently, nobody has told God that God’s not too good at this creation business. God starts again, creating Israel, then the law, then the prophets, continually creating, tinkering with this experiment. Eventually, God decides to go all the way. And in a dusty stable in the middle of nowhere, the God-child is born and creation is made new all over again. For the rest of his life, this God-child goes around trying to find playmates, people who will join him in this creative work. People who will dream with him about the most amazing things, like the hungry being fed, the enemy being loved, peace on earth. Sure, all these things are absurd. So absurd that only a child could possibly believe they are attainable. Such, says Jesus, is the kingdom of God.
Like Aubyn Burnside from Hickory, North Carolina. When she was 11 years old, she saw a foster child carrying his stuff in a trashbag to his new home. She said that it broke her heart, “He must have felt like garbage, himself.” So, she made posters and put them up around her community, and then make speeches trying to raise interest. She got no interest, so she took her own savings, $15.00, to the salvation army and bought 31 suitcases. She gave them away, the local news caught wind of it, and her charity caught on. Now she has given away over 25,000 suitcases to foster children, has chapters set up in every state and in 10 countries.
Or Brandon Keefe, a 3rd grader who overheard his parents talking in a meeting about how difficult it was to get books for a new library going into a children’s home. He went home, collected all of his old books, called his friends and had them do the same, telling each one of them to call someone and tell them to bring books for this new library. In his words, "Everybody had books on their shelves that they'd outgrown, why not give the ones we've already read to kids who need them?" This effort grew and grew until he founded “BookEnds” which has given away 76,000 books to children in need, has completed 23 libraries and has 19 other libraries in development. This will result in books and improved literacy opportunities for more than 33,000 underprivileged kids and their families.
Crazy kids. Don’t they know they can’t do that?!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Family Recipes

Mark 9: 38-50

If you are from the south, food matters. I happen to be from Charleston, South Carolina, (the heart of the south, and possibly the entire universe, if you ask us Charlestonians) and, to put it mildly, we pride ourselves in our food and enjoy it as often as possible. We will use any excuse imaginable to get together and eat: weddings, funerals, church services, Mondays; really anything is a potential feast. As children being drug from one potluck to another, my friends and I quickly became connoisseurs in our own rights. We learned that if Mrs. Martha’s Sweet Potato soufflĂ© was out, we’d better get it quick before it was always gone. She always had this way of putting just the right amount of cinnamon, nutmeg and whatever else she put in there to make it perfect. Mr. Jones’ green bean casserole was always too runny. We tried to avoid that like the plague. But the line was always around Mr. Herb’s bar-b-q. He would predictably have two piles: “spicy” and “not-so-spicy” and each pile was devoured almost as soon as it was put out. To this day, Mr. Herb’s bar-b-q is a favorite in the low country. One bite of his bar-b-q, or one taste of his sauce, and there is no doubt where it came from. It has this unmistakable, distinct taste, and nobody knows what he puts in the sauce to make it so good. He guards his secret recipe like Fort Knox and won’t tell anyone what makes it so special. Unless, like me, you happen to be his son.
I’ll never forget the time that he finally pulled my brother and me aside, and in a quiet, calm tone, Dad told us the secret to his sauce. ¼ cup Molasses. ¼ cup Brown Sugar. ½ cup vinegar. And the most important ingredient…. and then he whispered it. There, in those close quarters, the family secret was handed down. (You didn’t think I was going to tell you, did you?)
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus has pulled the disciples aside to share the secret to a family recipe. They have been alone with him for a while now, getting to spend some rare, uninterrupted time with their master. They have watched him teach the crowds and heal the sick. They have seen him become a local legend, and have been swallowed up by the crowds that followed him. It has been a while since they were able to be alone with him. Finally, the crowds subside, and hustling stops, and in the 9th chapter of Mark, the disciples find themselves alone with Jesus in Galilee, the same place that he called many of them for the first time some three years earlier. There, in the same place that it all began, Jesus whispers to his family the secrets to the Kingdom of God.
“Do not hinder the little children. Do not seek to be first, but seek to be a servant to all. Do not keep others from doing good in my name. Do not place stumbling blocks in the ways of others. Be at peace with one another.” Almost like he is listing off items in a recipe, Jesus is passing down the ingredients that make up the kingdom of God. And then, finally, when he has listed all of the items that go into the feast of God, he lists that final, secret ingredient; that one item that gives God’s kingdom that distinctive taste, that recognizable goodness that is God’s signature. The disciples lean in, and Jesus whispers, “you”. “Have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.” You are the secret ingredient in the kingdom of God according to Jesus. Like salt added to a batch of cornbread, the kingdom of God just doesn’t taste right without you. The church, the people of God, those people who welcome children, who offer life to those in need, who meet at least once a week to praise God’s name, who above all seek to live in peace and love with one another, the Church, you, are the secret ingredient to the kingdom of God. Wherever the Church is doing these things, you will find that distinctive, life-giving taste of God’s goodness that is unmistakably the flavor of the Kingdom of God.
Like Greg Jenkes in Zimbabwe. Three years ago, Greg was serving a church in our conference when, in his words, “God began to give him a heart for the orphans in Africa.” The fact that there are 12 million orphans in Zimbabwe today left a bitter taste in God’s mouth, and so did the fact that most of those orphans would die of AIDS, or in a war as they were handed weapons and forced to fight in gorilla armies. God began to dream of a different taste in Zimbabwe, so he began making another meal for those people there. His special ingredient? Greg Jenkes and the North Carolina Annual Conference. Greg left the local church, became a missionary commissioned from our conference and began ZOE, Zimbabwe Orphan Endeavor. To this day, we as a conference are feeding 10,000 orphans, offering medical care to over 2,000 children, and helping school and clothe over 1,500 orphans. Our work there in that place has a distinct taste, a recognizable flavor known the world over. It tastes like life. It tastes like the kingdom of God.
Now I know that it is almost clichĂ© for a preacher to tell about a missionary to Africa, and that seems to have very little to do with us. But today is World Communion Sunday. Today, every Christian, of every denomination, in every nation is gathered around this feast of the Kingdom to be reminded of that distinctive taste of God’s handiwork. Today, in Zimbabwe, those orphans are gathered around a life giving meal with us to be let in on the family secret.
Today, all around the world, Jesus calls his entire family aside to the table to remind us of what our lives are to be, to whisper to us yet again the secret recipe of the Kingdom of God. Today, as the world continues to feast at the tables of violence and war, Jesus mixes into his meal peacemakers. As many around the world are forced to eat from trashcans and garbage heaps, Jesus adds relief workers and people who feed the hungry with a feast of love. As our world of affluence beckons us to come and eat once again at their empty tables of opulence, Jesus stirs in a helping of people called to be broken open, poured out for others. Here, at this feast, the whole church around the world gathers around this table with our Lord, the Author of Peace, as he whispers his secret recipe to us once more.
God is cooking up a feast for all the world to eat, a feast of peace and of love, and of hope. The world is starving for this food, this bread of life, that distinctive food that can only come from one place, from one person, the Lord, the giver of life. God is cooking up a feast for all the world to eat, and God’s secret ingredient? It’s you.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Keep The Feast

John 6: 48-58
(I preached this sermon on my last Sunday at the United Methodist Church that I have served over the past 6 years. It is a wonderful communion of saints and is a shining example of what can happen with Methodism goes right. It has been my honor and distinct privilege to serve them as their pastor.)

I should have known that Jesus would be causing trouble on our last Sunday together. I went to the lectionary this week hoping to find some nicely appointed verses, maybe Jesus telling us to do something noble with our lives, like go and make disciples… “and lo, I am with you always.” No such luck. I would have settled for Jesus telling us one of his softer stories, like the one about a father who waits for his wayward son to return to him, or the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the lost one… “such is the kingdom of God.” Not today. Instead of Jesus calling all people to him for our last Sunday together, we get Jesus being difficult to the point of running people off. That’s the thing about life with Jesus, you never know what you’re going to get.
Like the 6th chapter of John. Within this chapter alone, we find Jesus meeting people’s needs, by feeding the 5000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish (after which they want to make him King) and then practically in the next verse he says things like, “if you want to live, you have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Which, inevitably, and understandably, sends people scattering, scratching their heads and saying to themselves “maybe he isn’t the son of God, after all.” One moment he is there, feeding the people exactly what they want, the next he seems to be intentionally off-putting, difficult, cantankerous. One moment life with Jesus is wonderful and grace-filled, everything is just how we like it, there is no doubt that the kingdom of God is at hand, and the next it is all we can do to hang in there, muttering to ourselves, “well, maybe this isn’t it, after all.” That’s life with Jesus, you just never know what you’re going to get.

Which is partly what makes Jesus so frustratingly divine. Jesus seems to insist on continuing God’s longstanding tradition of keeping his followers on their feet. God has this way of never letting God’s people fully settle down or get fully comfortable. God seems to delight in keeping God’s people guessing. Throughout the Old Testament, we get a picture of a God who seems determined to make for himself almost a nomadic people; people who are comfortable moving, changing, following. Whether it is God telling Noah to build an Ark, calling Abram to leave his people and his land and go to a place where God will show him, or using Moses to call Israel out of Egypt and to wander in the desert for 40 years, God has a pattern of calling God’s people to leave everything behind, until all they have is God.
Which is really the point. The God of Israel refuses to be second in their lives to anything. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is a jealous God,” says the prophet Joshua. Through exile, or through famine, or perhaps worst of all, through a time of spiritual drought God keeps Israel moving, traveling, following. Just when they get comfortable and everything seems to be going the way they want it, everything changes and God is calling Israel to follow all over again.
You can’t really blame God. God knows that we people have a tendency to get comfortable. And when we get comfortable, we can’t help but build idols, shrines to familiarity. God has seen it a hundred times, in the Garden, in Egypt, even in the Temple itself, God watched Israel slip into comfortable living and start finding life in familiar surroundings rather than in their familiarity with God. God knows that we are apt to make the familiar our god rather than work to become familiar with God. The difference is subtle, but it’s a matter of life and death.
Like the difference between manna and living bread, Jesus says. The crowds were clamoring after him to give them more bread, to feed them another meal like the one they had the day before. “Give us some more of that familiar bread that sustained us yesterday,” they call to him. “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died.” he answered. That’s the problem with manna; it goes bad. Don’t get me wrong, manna is good for a time, but eventually, it just doesn’t sustain, it doesn’t last. Remember the story of the Israelites and the manna, they gathered it fresh every day, but what was left over quickly rotted, molded, became maggot infested. It is enticing, because it is predictable, stable, static. Manna is the same day in and day out, but it just doesn’t last.
“I am here to offer you living bread,” says Jesus. “This living bread, well, it’s me. It is my flesh, my blood.” It’s not really what the people wanted to hear. They wanted what they knew, what was familiar. They wanted more bread like they had had before. Christ, participating in the divine activity of refusing to be second to anything, even to his own works, offers them nothing but himself. The only thing that gives life, that is able to sustain and nourish, the only thing that is continually good, never old or moldy, never moth-ridden or maggot eaten, like all other bread can be, the only living bread is abiding with ever moving, life-giving Christ. All those other things that have fed you in the past, like a particular style of worship, or a particular Bible Study, or even a particular pastor, they are just manna; means of God providing for the day at hand. Living bread, however, is abiding with God, so intimately that he becomes for us our sustenance. So intimately that it is difficult to tell where God’s life stops and ours begins. Abiding with God so intimately that we are of one substance, essence with God, like the bread we eat, or the wine we drink. Life with Jesus Christ the living bread is anything but static, anything but predictable, anything but monotonous because Christ is continually calling us to leave all manna that we have fed on in the past behind and feast anew with him. That’s life with Jesus, you never can settle in for the same old familiar meal because Jesus is Living Bread. With Living Bread, you just never know what you’re going to get.
Of course, I don’t have to tell you people that. The life of this church has been anything but predictable. We have had many meals together, some joyous and wonderful, some we have had to choke down with tears. From the donation of the land, to the gifts that have been given to build the building and build the ministries, to the overwhelming growth, to all of the transitions of the last year and a half, nothing has been predictable.
Well, that’s not quite true. One thing has been constant, almost, even dare I say, predictable. No matter what we have been going through, no matter the season in which we have found ourselves gathered around the table, Christ the living bread has been present, feeing us with his very self in whatever way we needed. It hasn’t always been the same feast, but then again, Living Bread never is. Living Bread has this way of changing, moving, breathing so that it is able to meet us where we are. No manna, be that manna a certain style preference, or a certain building, or even a certain pastor, can do that. Chirst, the Living Bread is here at Christ Church, continually offering his very self so that we might have life. Christ the Living Bread is here, all who eat of his flesh and drink of his blood will have eternal life. Let us keep the feast.