Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Joseph" - December 24, 2013

For the past several years, I have written a poem instead of a sermon for Christmas Eve, picturing what might have been the meditation of various characters or even inanimate objects associated with Jesus’ birth.  In past years that has meant the Star of Bethlehem, a sheep, an angel, a shepherd, the streets of Bethlehem, and so forth.  This year the speaker is Joseph.

There’s no expression for the guilt I felt
at having brought her to this crowded town
without a plan.
What kind of man
could let things reach the point at which I knelt

beside a feeding trough and bedded down
a newborn?  Sure, I used what was on hand,
but straw can scratch
and he could catch
who-knows-what from the animals around,

that still press in whatever way they can –
as if he were their own.  I’d made one rash
decision, then
made one again –
so much unlike me – since this all began.

I felt I’d wrecked us all.  I boldly dashed
over a cliff and took them with me when
(based on a dream!
no more, it seems)
I said I’d marry her and, unabashed

about the pregnancy, offered to lend
propriety to what I’d deemed
a shameful mess –
no more, no less.
And now?  I couldn’t give a thing to them.

I couldn’t shelter them.  I was ashamed.
She was exhausted, and I watched her rest
her tired form
to keep her warm
against a donkey’s flank.  You know I blamed

myself for having thought through nothing, just
assuming angels (angels!) would all swarm
down from the sky
and they’d provide
the roof, the warmth, the food.  How had I thrust

my common sense away?  The child was born,
my wife was sleeping on the ground, and I
could only stare,
too much aware
of what we lacked.  My heart was bruised and torn.

I will admit that I began to cry
(but quietly – I wouldn’t let her share
my worry, not
when she’d just got
through childbirth).  Then, from the straw, an eye

peered out beneath a wrinkled lid, and there
and then I knew – I don’t know what –
a kind of peace
that hasn’t ceased,
and now, my friend, goes with me everywhere.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

“The Magnificat” - December 15, 2013

Luke 1:46-55

Thomas Tallis, Palestrina, Michael Praetorius, Monteverdi, Buxtehude, Henry Purcell, Johann Sebastian Bach, Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Mozart, Antonio Salieri, Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Gounod, Tschaikowsky, Vaughan Williams, Vincent Persichetti, and John Rutter: these are only a few of the composers who have set Mary’s words of praise to music.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
            for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” 

Much powerful music has accompanied those words.  Luke ascribes this high poetry to Mary in a speech traditionally called “The Magnificat”, from its first word in its Latin form: “Magnificat!”  It’s related to the word “magnificent”.  It is Mary’s exclamation of wonder at God’s magnificence.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

The story of the Magnificat doesn’t begin with wonder, though.  It begins with fear.  It started with the appearance of a messenger from God, who appeared to a teenage girl living in Nazareth, a small village with the sort of reputation that would lead the future disciple Nathanael to remark, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46].

“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’” [Luke 1:30-33]

“Do not be afraid?”  Are you kidding?  An angel appears to you and you aren’t supposed to be afraid?  And then he tells you (and remember you’re a young woman in the Middle East) that you are about to become pregnant outside of your marriage, and you aren’t supposed to be afraid?  You are going to be responsible for a child who will “be called Son of the Most High” and you aren’t supposed to be afraid?  How could you help it? 

As proof, the angel tells you that a relative of yours who is well past childbearing years is now six months pregnant.  There’s your chance.  Go see her.  Go see Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah.  If you really are pregnant, too, the trip will get you out of Nazareth before you start showing and before anybody realizes what is going on.  If you are imagining the whole thing or if you’re going crazy and hallucinating, then seeing what’s going on with Elizabeth, that she is not expecting a baby, will be a reality check.  So, Luke says,

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.” [Luke 1:39-41]

Well, that settled it.  That was where she would perk up as the fear changed over into wonder and awe.  The angel had said “nothing will be impossible with God” [Luke 1:37] and the next thing you know, Mary has gone from “the lowliness of [a] servant” [Luke 1:48] to someone whom “all generations” [Luke 1:50] will bless.  She has suddenly seen that God is God of the humble and the hurting, not like the earthly kings who roll over anyone in their way.

“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. [Luke 1:51-54]

It’s like the song, possibly the very earliest preserved in the Bible, that was sung by the Hebrew slaves who had just escaped Egypt and received freedom.  Exodus [15:20-21] says that

“the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam [whose name would be shared by the Messiah’s mother] sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’”

The truth of that was Mary’s sudden insight, the heartbeat giving life to her sudden song.  It isn’t just that God can work miracles.  That goes without saying.  It was that it wouldn’t be an isolated incident here or there, but a regular happening, and it would turn the world upside-down and inside-out.  No wonder she burst out in poetry.

What drew that Magnificat from her soul was exactly the awareness that when God is in the picture (which is always, only we don’t always realize or admit it), the folks who think they are in charge really aren’t in charge and the ones who think they aren’t really are.  It’s like a Christmas pageant.  We adults like to think we can script and guide it, but finally it’s the shepherd who shows up holding a stuffed tiger instead of a sheep or the wise man who arrives early or the angel who forgets her lines that makes the play.

Will Willimon observes,

“I venture that Mary did not look much like the queen of heaven that night in Bethlehem.  I venture, with Luther, that she looked more like a rather confused, bewildered teen-ager from your church youth group who was about to giggle in her nervousness and had not the slightest notion of what to do with a baby or even what her next line was supposed to be. …And we, whether we really like it or not, or have experience or ability or understanding, get pushed onto the stage of history to act our parts, with stage fright, filling roles that are too big for us, wondering what the next line will be, doing our best to do what he wants us to do even when we are not sure why he wants us to play the part.”[1]

[1] William Willimon, “The First Christmas Pageant” in On a Wild and Windy Mountain (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 39-40.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"The Peaceable Kingdom" - December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10

            According to the book of Genesis, one of the terrible consequences of the very first human sin was that it knocked all of nature so totally off-balance that it has never been right.  The story of Adam and Eve has God informing everyone involve how they have brought disaster on themselves.
“The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’
And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” [Genesis 3:14-19]

            There exists a kind of mutual antagonism not only between humanity and nature but also within the natural world when it should really be in harmony.  Hear the vision of Isaiah about what it would mean for nature to be at peace with itself.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.” [Isaiah 11:6-9]

It was the belief of Isaiah that the coming of a true and faithful king (of which there had been very few in his time or before) would lead to the beginning of God’s own rule in the world, a rule that would be greater than any human being’s and therefore would ultimately go so far that the whole world, in all aspects, would be set right.  Cornelius Plantinga describes the biblical, Hebrew word for this, shalom, as

“a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.  Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”[1]

            I have some bad news and I have some good news about that.  The bad news you already know.  In the words of Woody Allen, “The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”  The good news is that Isaiah was probably not as literal-minded as Woody Allen thinks he was.

            Nature, at least as we know it, is going to include some rough edges.  Nevertheless we can see a day when, out of respect for its Creator, the creation itself is no longer seen as a place of exploitation for its own sake.  We cannot take responsibility for the actions of the animals but we can at least recognize that human beings are capable of showing respect for nature in a way that, yes, we all too often fail to do, but that Jesus demonstrated for us.

            He pointed out that nature isn’t just out there on its own.  The universe is not a machine – although I would point out that even machines need a constant input of energy and periodic maintenance.  The universe exists through the constant protection and care of its Maker. 

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” [Matthew 6:26]

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” [Matthew 6:28-29]

A basic truth is that if God is caring for nature, when we do our part we are doing the work of God.  Nature and humanity may not always be total harmony, and it isn’t realistic to think that we all either should or could go out and live in the woods without disturbing the ecosystem.  But we can at least recognize that we ourselves are part of creation alongside the natural world.  If there’s a single sermon-word for this week it would be “harmony”.  That’s when we sing different notes, but they blend together and even somehow make a better sound.  We could all probably do a better job at that.

            I’m not about to lay a guilt trip on everyone, especially when I drive as much as I do and use up as much petroleum, and produce as much carbon dioxide as I do.  When I think about how much paper I toss away every week, I’m not about to make you feel bad about yourself, just to point out that when you’re done with your worship bulletin, if you aren’t taking it home to refer to later in the week, we have a recycling box in the bell tower.  When I enjoy a thick slab of beef (with horseradish, of course), I’m not about to lay into anyone else about land taken up by cattle production or the conditions produced by factory-farming of poultry.  All I want to do is to remind you and myself that being at peace with the world means being, so far as is possible, at peace with all aspects of God’s creation, and mindful that humanity’s place within it is given to us only by God, and only as a reflection of God’s glory.

“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!” [Psalm 8]

            Yes, nature includes coyotes and tapeworms and viruses and tornadoes.  Yes, we have added to that and produced strip mines and acid rain and global warming and toxic waste dumps and huge floating islands of trash out in the middle of the oceans.  Even so, as Plantinga also wrote, a real part of our human experience is

“on some May mornings, a sense of life’s sweetness and of God’s goodness so sharp that we want to cry out from the sheer promise of it. …Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still.  Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers.”[2]

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) 10.
[2] Ibid., 198-199.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Swords into Plowshares" - December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5

                What I'm holding is not exactly a sword beaten into a plowshare, but it sort of follows those lines.  It’s a bell, a little jingle bell made of brass.  It used to be tied with a red and green string.  Very festive!  Once upon a time, however, it was something else.  Metal, after all, is a great thing.  It can be recycled over and over, sometimes for centuries.  The silver in a filling in your tooth may once have been part of a coin – a Roman denarius or a Dutch ducatoon.  This brass was part of a shell casing that was fired in Cambodia during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge.  Now it’s a bell.

            There are a couple of ways of looking at that.  On the one hand, it might seem a little creepy.  Here is something that, if it did not harm someone, was manufactured so that it could have done that.  Maybe it did.  I don’t know.  On the other hand, here it is, and it isn’t hurting anyone anymore; it couldn’t, in this form.  In fact, if you just saw it somewhere used as a decoration, it might catch your eye in a pleasant way.  A baby might get a big smile from playing with it, or it might be a good addition to a cat’s collar. 

Is it good or is it bad?  That all depends upon how it is used.  Human abilities and human technology of all sorts can be turned to good or turned to evil ends.  The same skill that makes a sword can make a plow.  The same long pole can be fitted with a spear point or a pruning hook.  Back in March the people of Boston learned, as we all did, that something as innocent as a pressure cooker could be turned into a bomb.  On a larger scale, uranium can be put into reactors or missiles. 

It’s the human heart that guides the mind that guides the hand where the difference begins.  It is in the human heart where God acts and where we respond that the ways even of nations are determined.

It’s an old-fashioned way of thinking, according to historians, to put a heavy emphasis on the private decisions of individuals, but there’s no doubt in my mind that part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world from its slavery to what Paul called “the law of sin and of death” [Romans 8:2] was that the minds of world leaders, no less than others’, would be transformed and turned away from quick resort to force.  The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” [Isaiah 2:3-5]
And it does make a difference whether certain people are reluctant or eager to seek peace.  Michael Dobbs, who has written extensively on the history of the Cold War, says that during the Cuban Missile Crisis

“The uniformed military, including Taylor and Gen. Curtis LeMay, the legendary Air Force chief, were unanimously in favor of air strikes followed up by an invasion.  What they did not know at the time was that the Soviet forces on Cuba were equipped with 98 tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to wipe out an American invading force or the United States naval base at Guantánamo.  The use of these weapons on Cuba could quickly have escalated to an all-out nuclear war.”[1]
It was a hard call at the time, but when he chose blockade over invasion, he probably preserved civilization as we know it.

            We, as God’s people, as followers of the one we call the Prince of Peace, can and should hold in constant prayer the people who have the capacity, by their decisions, to decide between swords and plowshares.  In a democracy, when we choose our leaders, the people whom we entrust with powers of life and death, one of the questions that we should consider is whether they are people who at least hold a peaceful world as an ideal. 

            We are also here to hold them, as far as we are able, accountable for the decisions that they make, and to remind them that there are real, live people who experience the consequences of their policies.  Later in the service we’re going to sing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, which is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I say, “based on” because some of his original poem, called “Christmas Bells” is left out when it is sung.  In 1861, Longfellow’s wife had died of burns sustained when her dress caught fire and then, two years later his son enlisted in the Army without his father’s permission and was sent off to the front lines of the Civil War, where he was wounded on a battlefield in Virginia.  We sing,

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
            And wild and sweet
            The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

We don’t sing the most agonized stanzas:

“Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
            And with the sound
            The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
            And made forlorn
            The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Even the most justifiable of wars, the fight to end slavery, or a later war to end the genocidal tyranny that gripped Europe and Asia, takes its toll on those who fight and those who are left behind.  People who deal with large questions sometimes (not always, but sometimes) forget that.  Maybe part of our calling is to remind them.

            Isaiah’s great vision of how the nations will one day follow the paths of peace concludes with a word, not to the great empires of the day nor even to the king of Israel (who, incidentally, seems to have been Isaiah’s cousin, so he could easily have addressed him directly).  No, he speaks to the people as a whole.

“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  [Isaiah 2:5]
If we do not ourselves live as people of peace, if we ourselves don’t choose the plow over the sword, we have no right to fault others for doing what we do.  That’s why the church looks at questions like whether any funds that we hold end up invested in arms manufacturers, and why we get behind campaigns to ask parents not to buy children war toys for Christmas.  (Picture, if you will, a G.I. Joe holding a rocket launcher in the manger of a nativity scene.  If there’s a discrepancy, that says something right there.)  It’s why we take seriously the deep, spiritual wounds that warfare inflicts even on those who come through combat physically unscathed, who sometimes have to hear a message from the bell towers, over and over:

“Then rang the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
            The wrong shall fail,
            The right prevail
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And so,
“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  [Isaiah 2:5]

[1] In the New York Times “Times Topics” (Cuban Missile Crisis)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Rejoice in the Lord" - November 24, 2013

Philippians 4:4-9

            I had prepared a sermon for this morning on the text “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say, ‘Rejoice.’  Be anxious for nothing, but in prayer with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God, and the peace that passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  It’s a good sermon, not a great one, and entirely appropriate for the week of Thanksgiving.  There are copies of it on the church web site, and if you want to read it, that would be where to find it.  I need to elaborate on it, though.

            My problem is that this past week I, and many in the United Methodist Church, were challenged to live by that scripture.  (That’s the pesky thing about the Bible – it’s easy to read when you’re sitting there at the breakfast table or before you go to bed or on your coffee break.  Then something happens and you hear it saying, “Do you get it?  This is what I’m talking about!”)

            The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a member of this conference, was put on trial for going against the letter of the Discipline, our book of organization and procedure, when he presided at the same-sex marriage of one of his sons five years ago in Massachusetts.  For the record, he broke no civil law, but church law clearly forbade him from doing what he did.

            The trial took place against the backdrop of current debates in the wider society about the rights of sexual minorities, about what marriage is or should be, and about how to allow for dissent on religious grounds without permitting inequality before the law. 

It took place amidst arguments within the church about biblical interpretation and how far our basic outlooks have diverged from one another’s – have they stretched so far that they are about to break?  The Methodists split over slavery in 1844, only reuniting in 1936, and there are rumblings of that again because a lot of these differences are expressed along geographical lines, this time complicated by the fact that since then we have become a global denomination and there are a whole lot of United Methodists in Africa and Asia who approach things very differently from those of us in North America and Europe.

And Paul says to rejoice?  Really?

            Bishop Johnson has asked that a letter about these events be read across the conference this morning, and I want to do that.  I’ll only skip some sections where she thanks those who assisted, as deeply torn as most of them were in doing so.

"A pastoral letter to the people of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference

My brothers and sisters,

            I bid you grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. It has been a difficult week for our conference as many gathered at Camp Innabah for the church trial of the Reverend Frank Schaefer.  A trial is a somber event in the life of our church, and one that we approached with prayer and sadness.
            I want to share my thanks to all of those who worked to make the process go smoothly, from the camp staff to those who served as chaplains, bailiff, TIP staff, greeters, and many people in our churches who were praying for this process and all involved.  Our goal was that the trial could take place in an environment that was gracious, hospitable, and respectful.  This was possible only because of the dedicated and caring efforts of staff and volunteers.
            The issues involved are difficult for people of faith and conscience.  The trial court’s task was not an easy one, and we trust that they listened intently to the evidence that was presented and considered it carefully in order to make the best judgment they could.  I want to express my appreciation for their time and their service, as well as to Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn, Jr. (retired) who presided over the trial in a dignified, compassionate and fair-minded manner. …
            After finding Rev. Schaefer had violated Paragraph 2702.1 of the 2012 Book of Discipline, the trial court voted to suspend him from all ministerial duties for 30 days.  During the 30 days, Rev. Schaefer is to discern whether he can uphold the Church’s Book of Discipline in its entirety.  If he cannot, he must withdraw from ministerial office at the end of the 30 days at a meeting of the Board of Ordained Ministry. 
            This is an issue that causes pain for many in our church and we hold all those affected in our prayers.  We know that United Methodists have diverse opinions on this issue and our hope is that pray and work together toward unity, greater understanding, and healing.  Settling our theological differences through church trials is simply not an effective form of problem solving.  It is expensive, grueling and it leaves numerous painful scars behind. The hard work of relationship-building and holy conferencing needs to replace a win-lose court setting.
            I ask that you hold Rev. Schaefer and his family in prayer at this time.  Rev. Schaefer has a heart for Christ and for the church and this is a most difficult place to be.  He has taken a difficult stand and during this period of discernment our prayers and support are very important.
            I ask that you follow the Book of Discipline where it says: “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.  We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.  We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (Paragraph 161.F) 
            Let us also follow words of Paul who advises us: “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15).
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson"

                Let’s get back to the text for this morning:

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say, ‘Rejoice.’  Be anxious for nothing, but in prayer with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God, and the peace that passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, there were a lot of things going on in his life and theirs that made it look like the whole project of being a church, a community of faith, was doomed.  For one thing, he was writing from prison [1:7].  For another, although he had been glad to hear from the church in Philippi, which he had helped to found, and glad to receive a gift from them to help provide for his needs [4:10], sending it had led the messenger to contract some kind of illness that almost killed him.  Then, when he reached Paul in jail, he told him about some messy internal politics among the Philippians where there were two women whose inability to get along with each other [4:2], was endangering the whole church and it weighed on him especially because he respected them both.

            Yet Paul doesn’t spill any ink complaining.  In fact, in a letter that is only four chapters long, relatively short for Paul, he uses the word “rejoice” nine times. When he thinks about his imprisonment, he sees that it gave him a chance to bring the gospel to the Imperial Guard [1:12-13] and he says,

What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” [1:18]

When he thinks of the trouble that he’s been through, he looks at the good that it has brought to the Philippians and the way that they stand out in the world like stars in the night sky [2:14], and that leads him to say,

“But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.” [2:17-18]

Over and over again, he urges others to do the same.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” [4:4]

Therein lies the key to his persistence.  It isn’t rejoicing for troubles, or even rejoicing amidst troubles.  It’s rejoicing “in the Lord”, who has overcome troubles.  It’s thankfulness for the profound work of Christ, who has redeemed the world, and us, from all that would separate us from God’s love.  That’s how he could write to them at a time when he wasn’t sure whether he would be executed or released, saying,
“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. [1:20-24]

As it turned out, he never made it back to them.  Just writing to them, though, brought him some comfort, and what he wrote was,

“Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.” [3:1]

Are you spotting a theme here, yet?

            I am dreading further trials and the news coverage that is always so black-and-white that it misses the deeper debates and the agony that is real within many lives.  But if I cannot rejoice about any of it, I can and must rejoice “in the Lord”.  The greater our human brokenness, the more clear it is that only a gracious God would bother with us, no matter who we are.  The greater our fragility, the clearer it is that it is not we who hold things together, but the Holy Spirit that makes us one, not just in some voluntary organization, but in Christ.

            In that there is peace and, yes, it passes understanding.  But it is real.  We are going to get through this, and when we do, there will be something else that will threaten our unity in Christ.  It will not succeed, either.  The gospel isn’t about how we get things right.  It’s about how wrong we get things, but that we are still loved by God, and loved infinitely, and if you have to have proof of it, then let me tell you about a man who was dying on a cross who looked at his tormentors and said, “Father, forgive them.”

            Forget rejoicing in us.

            Never, ever fail to rejoice in the Lord.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Turbulence" - November 17, 2013

Luke 21:5-19

            This is section 295 of the Pakistani Penal Code.[1]

“Whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
That doesn’t sound too unreasonable to me.  It strikes me as very similar to American laws forbidding what we call “hate crimes”.  Pakistan, however, has laws that privilege Islam over all other religions.  That results in sections 295-B and 295-C of that same Penal Code.

“Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.”
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Section 298 extends that protection of reputation to Mohammed’s family and then specifically condemns certain branches of Islam that it declares, basically, heretical.

            So if you are a Christian living in Pakistan, and someone asks you what you believe about Mohammed, what do you say?  Do you refer to him, as the law of the land does, as “the Holy Prophet” when you do not believe him to be a prophet at all?  Despite the official protection of one part of the law, if you express disbelief in what he claims was the revelation of God to him, does that not amount to calling him (at best) mistaken or (at worst) a deliberate liar?  And if you do that, are you not in violation of laws that carry the death penalty?

            There has been a spate of accusations in the past several years brought against Pakistani Christians (and Hindus, also) under these laws.  A lot of people, meaning Pakistani people – and Muslims of good conscience among them – have pointed out that the accusations have been known to arise from personal vendettas or in situations where the accuser (“Abracadabra!”) stood to benefit in some direct way from the conviction of the accused.  All the same, we have seen the bombing of churches and the murder of Christians by angry mobs under the guise of religious zeal, and it is incumbent on us to speak up about it, just as it is when a synagogue or a mosque is vandalized in our country.

            I say this because we sometimes forget that the Church is universal.  We are part of those people in Pakistan and they are part of us.  The words of the Bible may seem distant to us at times, but I wonder what the Christians of South Asia hear when these words fall on their ears:

“…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” [Luke 21:12-19]
            The heart of that is that turbulent times and the troubles that characterize them “give you an opportunity to testify.”  In good times and safe places, like ours, we can and do become complacent and far too often that means that we tend not to share our faith in any way.  When the hard times come, then, we only bemoan our problems and fail to see them as an opportunity.

            Our troubles do not compare to those of Christians who are denied employment for their faith or who see their homes destroyed or who cannot send their children to school.  We do, however, all face the common problems of human life that face everyone on earth.  We have times of illness.  We see the hopes and the work of decades come to nothing.  We watch families fall apart.  There are terrible accidents and natural disasters.  Hamlet spoke of

“the heartache and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to.”

When those come along, do we or do we not use them as an opportunity to testify to the faithfulness of Christ?  Do we or do we not both remember and declare,

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup runs over. …”?

I am not happy that the Church is troubled anywhere in the world, but I do praise God that in places where that happens, there are people who faithfully repeat those ancient words, and demonstrate them.

            Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who, early in his life, may have held and shared some anti-Jewish prejudice, but in the midst of Nazi-occupied Poland he hid two thousand Jews in the monastery where he was the superior.  In 1941, the Nazis arrested him and he ended up in Auschwitz.  While he was there, a man from his barracks went missing and the deputy camp commander picked ten men to be starved to death as an example to others.  One of the men chosen began to cry out, not for himself, but because of his family.  Kolbe, who did not even know him, volunteered to take his place.  During the three long weeks of torture ahead, he led the others in songs and prayer.  At the end of that time, starving and dehydrated, four men, including Kolbe, were still, although barely, alive.  They were then murdered by the injection of carbolic acid.[2]

            Not many, thankfully, face those circumstances.  Not many find their likeness, like Kolbe’s, carved onto the front of Westminster Abbey.  But how many people do bear witness at the end of their lives that they can face death calmly because they know where they are going?  How many accept the turbulence of life calmly, knowing that God will see then through?  How many sing, with full confidence,

“I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free;
For his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.”

Maybe, just maybe, there is someone here who, by doing that, will bear witness in just the way that Christians have done throughout the ages and, by God’s grace, will do until the end of time.  Whoever you are, thank God for you.