Saturday, January 30, 2016

“Love” - January 31, 2016

I Corinthians 13

            I knew a group of organists who got together one time and drew up a list of music that they would not play at any of their friends’ weddings.  They had heard them all too often and could play them in their sleep.  (I’m not totally sure, but I think in one case I actually saw that happen.)  I won’t tell you what the pieces are, because you probably love them.  I know that I was not entirely amused at one or two of them, which I honestly enjoy, but that they had played and played and played until the music was just notes.

           I Corinthians 13 is a passage that makes me feel a little bit that way.  Before you think I’m talking down scripture, hear me out.  When I ask a couple before their wedding what passage or passages they would like read, this is the one.  Certainly it has good advice for holding a marriage together.  The problem is that it was not written about romantic love at all, and in the context of the whole letter, Paul doesn’t speak too highly of marriage at all.  In chapter 7 he says, basically, "A single person who doesn't have to worry about a family has more time for God. If you're married, stay married; and if you just cannot help it, go ahead and marry, but don't expect me to applaud." That's not someone who's writing poetry to plaster onto a "unity candle".

           “The love chapter”, as it is known, is actually directed not at people who are in love already, like a bride and groom, but at a bunch of church leaders who have been trying to outdo one another as far as whose spiritual gifts place them closer to God.
  Where the love comes in is when Paul writes to them (again, I'm paraphrasing), "I don't care what your talent is. Unless you do what you do out of love, neither people nor God will be impressed." Of course, he put it far better:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” [I Corinthians 13:1-3]

What would it be like if the leaders of Christianity in our own day took that idea seriously?  What if committee meetings were not about convincing people that your own ideas are the best, or the idea that you came across on the internet last week?  What if programming was more about content than about having a slick presentation?  What if powerpoint were left at the office?  What if we considered the fumbling words of a teenager who’s asked to pray to be as pleasing to us as they are to God?  The Christian Church is a community of redeemed sinners, not a contest. 

Of course, we should always give our best for the Lord, but I assure you that he already loves us, and we don’t need to prove anything to him.  Just love him back and the details will fall into place.  There will always be disagreements and differences, but they won’t always need to escalate into win/lose situations.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  [I Corinthians 13:4-7]

Like I said, this is good advice for marriage, too, even if that isn’t its focus.  It’s good for any kind of human relationship.

            It’s especially important for the Church, because it’s God’s love that we have seen and known in Jesus that brings us together.  One of the signs of a church being a church, not a social club, is that there are a lot of different people in it.  Sometimes you can tell the differences right away.  Age is one.  How people are dressed is another.  Maybe you can hear more than one language being spoken.  Look at the cars in the parking lot and see how many are new and how many are held together with bungee cords; check out the politics indicated by bumper stickers; consider if they’ve allowed proper parking for cars with handicapped plates.  If there is a whole lot of diversity, then chances are that what holds these people together is something more than sociability.  It takes love to stay together when so many other considerations push them apart.

            All those other considerations are going to go away eventually, anyhow.  Politics ebb and flow, and what is liberal one year is conservative the next, and vice-versa.  Praise music that was cutting-edge ten years ago is mainstream now and will be old hat ten years from now.  It is no longer an issue if a woman does not wear a hat and gloves to worship and I know men who don’t even wear a tie to work but whose middle-school-age sons insist on wearing them to church.  We go back and forth on the value of sending short-term missionaries into the field.  Youth groups grow and shrink with the birth rate.  One year we support the Souper Bowl of Caring and the next year the need has moved over to providing heating assistance.  Each season of discipleship calls for a different gift to become prominent.

            The only one that never goes away?

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  [I Corinthians 13:8-13]

Thursday, January 21, 2016

“The Weaker Are Indispensable” - January 24, 2016

I Corinthians 12:12-31a

            Thirty years ago this week, on an unusually cold day for Florida, the family of a woman named Christa McAuliffe were gathered at Cape Kennedy, excited that she had been chosen to become the first teacher to go into space as an astronaut.  The cold didn’t matter to them, anyway, since they were from New Hampshire.  They watched her board the space shuttle Challenger with six others and the countdown started.  Cameras followed their faces as the rocket launched.  Cameras were still watching their faces when the smiles turned to shock seventy-three seconds later, as they watched flames shoot from the booster rockets and ignite the external fuel tank, so that the Challenger exploded, killing all on board.

            NASA suspended all flights for the next two years while the investigation went on.  In the end, it was determined that two rubber rings on the fuel tanks failed to seal properly because of the cold weather, leading to the disaster.  The tragedy was compounded because it was also determined that an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the design company, had warned that this could happen and the warnings had been ignored both by Morton Thiokol and by managers at NASA.

            There’s an old proverb that is found in many forms over the centuries.  Ben Franklin printed two versions of it.  The one that another philosopher, Tod Rundgren, repeated says,

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the message was lost,
For want of a message, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the war was lost,
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a nail.”

Surely, you’ve heard that before.

            What if we’re talking about people instead of things?

            The church that Paul founded in Corinth had a lot of people in it who had a lot of gifts.  They were very proud of that, and rightly so.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.” [I Corinthians 12:27-28]

I wouldn’t be surprised if some people in the church who did not have those particular gifts didn’t feel second-class, even if those who did have the gifts weren’t looking down on them.  As it was, these folks got to squabbling among themselves about which of those gifts or roles were the most important.  (That translated in effect into people saying, “I am more important than you are.”)  Paul wrote to remind the gifted ones that they, even taking all their gifts together, still did not make up the whole body.

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” [I Corinthians 12:29-30]

The answer, of course, is “no”.  There are a whole lot of people whose gifts are not as public and who may not even see them in themselves.  There are a whole lot of people whose service is not necessarily even visible, and yet it is every bit as real and as important. 

In fact, as things turn out, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable”.  [I Corinthians 12:22]  Don’t discount the importance of the O-rings on the space shuttle Church.  There is nobody who does not matter.

Imagine, if you will, a church without babies.  From one perspective, they don’t add anything to the Body.  They do not share the gospel on the street corners or with their friends.  What they do is make noise that distracts some people around them and maybe drowns out part of the sermon or the Bible readings.  They aren’t out there in the streets protesting against injustice or sending e-mails to their representatives about important issues.  What they are doing is wiggling around in protest of a wet diaper or poking at you to try to get your attention when you want to pray.  Babies don’t tithe.  They teethe.  And if you have really been wanting to get something done and you are a parent, forget about having enough energy or getting enough sleep to do much of anything at all for a couple of years.  A church without babies would be reverent, quiet, and focused.

But would you really want that?  Those helpless babies also bring with them a reminder that we are pledged to the future, to seeing the kingdom of God that is coming, to living for something beyond ourselves, and to looking for a time beyond our own.  That is indispensable.  Being disturbed by a little crying is a small price to pay for a gift like that.  Somebody once said,

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  [Matthew 19:14]

Now, who was that?  Oh, yeah.  Jesus.

            Or what about adults with mental disabilities?  Are they any less a part of the Church than the greatest theologian?  Ask a theologian.  Henri Nouwen was one of the most influential Christian writers and speakers of the late-twentieth century.  A Belgian priest, he came to the States and taught first at Notre Dame, then at Yale, then at Harvard.  That’s what he was doing when he unexpectedly accepted an invitation to leave academia and move to a community for physically and mentally challenged adults north of Toronto.  In a 1994 interview, he told why it mattered so much to his spiritual survival to do that.  He said,

 "If [the handicapped people] express love for you, then it comes from God. It's not because you accomplished anything. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I'm completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments."[1]

That kind of gift is one that only the weaker members can give, but it really is indispensable.

            So, this is how it is all supposed to work:

“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” [I Corinthians 12:18-26]

That isn’t how the world works, of course.  But we’re not talking about the world.  We’re talking about God.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

“Water Plus” - January 17, 2016

John 2:1-11

            Allow me to throw at you some facts about water gathered from a random web site.[1]

1.      Roughly 70% of an adult’s body is made up of water, which is down from the 80% or so when a baby is born.
2.      A healthy person can drink up to three gallons of water per day.
3.      Water dissolves more substances than any other liquid.
4.      Around 75% of the earth’s surface is covered by water.
5.      More fresh water is stored underground than on the surface of the earth.
6.      The earth’s total amount of water is about 326 million cubic miles, but only 0.03% of that is usable by humans.
7.      The U.S. uses about 346 billion gallons of fresh water every day.  The average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons daily.

In other words, water is incredibly common, totally necessary, and (if we are talking about clean, drinkable water) more precious than we realize.  The people out west, where a years-long drought is dragging on despite this year’s El Nino effect, could tell us about that.

            Now let me change gears quickly.  Bear with me.

            Another fact of life in our time is that although biblical illiteracy is widespread (by which I mean that people are by and large unaware of what is in the Bible and while they want a copy of the book around, they don’t often open it) there are some parts of the Gospels that people tend to pick up as cultural references even if they don’t actually read them.  The Christmas story is a good example of that.  A person who never goes to church, even on Christmas, will still be able to give you details, like that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger and that the wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Another example of lingering awareness is that people who have never heard of “The Sermon on the Mount” or “The Feeding of the Five Thousand” will still be aware that Jesus changed water into wine.

            There is something hopeful in that, because that miracle embodies a promise and expresses an experience that God holds out to everyone.  It is a miracle where the commonplace is made into something special.  Something totally ordinary and unremarkable, when touched by Jesus’ power, is turned into a blessing.

            Imagine that you are part of the couple that has just gotten married in Cana of Galilee; you have invited all sorts of guests and they are having a good time, eating and drinking and singing and dancing and doing all the things that suit a wedding (which is a celebration of life), when the caterer comes up behind you and whispers that the wine has run out.  It’s like saying that there are 100 guests but only 80 plates or that somebody in the kitchen dropped the cake onto the floor.  Not only is it a problem for the guests who get left out, for you it is also a social embarrassment of the sort that people tend not to forget.  Twenty-five years later, at your silver anniversary, somebody is sure to remark, “Well, at least this time they counted better,” or, “They’ve finally learned to serve cupcakes.”  Ha, ha, ha.

            Jesus’ quiet intervention saved the day.  He didn’t do it by any particularly public display of his power.  In fact, he was reluctant at first even to get involved. 

“When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’  And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’”  [John 2:3-4]

But he did give in.  He told the waiters,

“‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it.”  [John 2:7-8]

The chief steward tasted it, and was pleasantly surprised.

“The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ [John 2:9-10]

Quietly, behind the scenes, Jesus had taken the ordinary and made it something extraordinary, and not in any halfway measure.  So he continues to do to this day.  So much that is good but ordinary, when placed in Jesus’ hands becomes ordinary but wonderful. 

For one thing, there is the water of baptism.  There is nothing unusual about the water in the font.  It’s just tap water.  (That’s a good thing, too.  One time somebody gave me a little bottle of water from the Jordan River that she had brought back from a trip to Israel and suggested that using it at her grandson’s baptism would add something special for her, if not for him.  That morning I opened the bottle and got the most awful smell of sulfur.  I felt badly about it, but I had to hand it to her before the service and ask if she still wanted it put onto the baby’s forehead.  Thank goodness she said, “Phew!  No way!”)  It’s better anyway to say that there is nothing magical about any water, but that what matters is that in the moment when we gather around water as God’s people, each of us claimed by the Holy Spirit as a child of God, that we recognize how God, through the water, extends and expresses that same welcome to that child.  I’m not being very original when I say that.  In the sixteenth century Martin Luther quoted what Augustine had said in the fifth century:

“When the Word of God is added to the element or natural substance, it becomes a sacrament, that is, a holy, divine thing and sign.”[2]

            Yet even when water is not used sacramentally, it can still express God’s love through God’s people.  The United Methodist Committee on Relief has a project that provides clean water for people in the Faisalabad District of Pakistan.  A man named Masih was one of the people whose household received a hand-pump that brings water to their house so that they don’t have to scrounge for it.

“‘Water is scarce in our area,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I even have to beg for a few liters, particularly in summer. It takes a lot of time. I am unable to manage the situation because I have to go early to work and come home late at night. If I spend my time searching for water, I miss my daily-wage work.’ …

‘I am so happy now, …I can work for more hours and pay my debts quickly. I am also relieved of my fears for my grown-up daughters, who sometimes had to go in the night to the tap to get water.’

The hand pump in Masih’s house has become a blessing for others in the neighborhood too. They can get water from it anytime. Masih welcomes everyone with a smile. …

‘I have been blessed by God. The well under my house has water that is sweet and drinkable. How could I keep this blessing from other people?’ he asked. ‘I know the pain of having no water. It is my duty to help others and reduce their sufferings.’”[3]

Again, something simple as water can be something as wonderful as life itself.

            Nor is it just water.  So much of what is around us, the Lord transforms into a vehicle for grace: a shared meal, a kind word, a corny joke, the song that you whistle without thinking, all the everyday bits of life.  If only we make it all available to him, he can and will do wonders.

[2] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, part IV: “Concerning Baptism”.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

“In Him We Have Redemption” - January 3, 2016

Ephesians 1:3-14

            If you go into any supermarket in New England, you will find a counter where you can hand over your empty bottles or soda cans and receive a nickel in return.  When you walk into the store, just look around for a sign that says, “Redemption Center”.

The cans don’t even have to be in good shape.  In fact, an old can that you found lying along the curb, where cars have parked and rainwater has run along the gutter, may even be more welcome than your Dr. Pepper can from yesterday because the other has been flattened out and pre-washed and is readier for recycling.  The Redemption Center will accept the old and crushed cans and send them on their way to renewal and a second (or maybe third or fourth) life.

That’s also what should happen here in this building and at this counter, but with human lives rather than seltzer bottles.  Jesus takes people who have been through the mill and sets them – sets us – on the track to something far, far better.  And just like bottle and can labels present an incentive for their redemption where they will say,

“ME, VT, CT, NH, MA,
HI, OR, IA – 5¢, MI – 10¢”,

Jesus also actively puts out a call for the toss-aways and the empties of the world.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  [Matthew 11:28-30]

Who, at some point in life, does not hear that offer and want to say, “Yes!  Yes, I could use a hand about now.  I could use a rest sometime, or at least a chance to breathe”?  This place, every place where Jesus’ people gather, should be one where that offer is made and that invitation issued.

            In fact, there are times when somebody who has been through the redemption station in a conspicuous way is just the person that God can make the best use of.  I read two stories last week that illustrate that.  Here’s the first:

An older lady pushed her grocery cart to her car and opened her purse for her keys.  They weren’t in the usual spot, so she began to rummage through everything, with no luck.  She finally looked into the car and saw the keys on the driver’s seat.  That was when it started to rain and she started to cry.  “Lord, help me!” she muttered.  Just then a man she had never seen walked over and asked what was wrong, and she explained. 

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “Just give me thirty seconds.”  He walked around to the other side of the car and did something to the passenger door and it popped open.  He reached in, then walked around and gave her the keys.

She gave the stranger a big hug and said, “God is good, and so are you!”

“No, I’m not,” he said.  “I did ten years in jail for grand theft auto.”

“God really is good!” the woman insisted.  “He heard my prayer and he sent me a professional.”

            Then here’s the second story, and I don’t even know the details.  It goes back a few years to a time when a woman I knew was struggling very, very hard to help one of her sons, who had a severe drinking problem.  He had alienated everyone in his family but her, and with her it was only the grace of God that had made her so stubborn that the more stupid things he did, the more determined she became to hold on.  She was in the church office one day and there in front of about six or seven people she just spilled her guts about what it was doing not only to her son but also to her.  That was when two of the people there, who had their own struggles, looked at each other and nodded.  One of them said, “Is he out in the car?” and the mother said he was.  “Go get him and meet us in the parlor.”  They went into the church parlor and when the mother and son came in, they sent her out and closed the doors and the rest of us sat there in the office for about an hour and a half.  At the end of that time, one of the two emerged from the room and got the mother and said, “Come with us.”  Through the window the rest of us saw the mother, the son, and the others get into a car and drive off.  Later that afternoon came a call saying that he was in rehab.  It was a long process that followed, but right there was where things turned around.  I have no idea what they did or said, but only those two could have done and said it, and it was because they understood two things: what the man was going through, and the help that Jesus had given them when they were there.

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” [Ephesians 1:7-8]

And the rest of us marveled at the riches of grace that allowed two people to do the work of Christ, not because they had led great lives, but because they allowed him to redeem the lives they had lived and to renew them so that others could also be renewed.  Jesus works with what we bring to him, and turns it into hope.

            On an album called (appropriately enough) Graceland, Paul Simon sang:

“A man walks down the street
He says, ‘Why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard…’”[1]

Nobody has to end up that way.  We all have a shot at redemption.

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” [Ephesians 1:11-12]

[1] Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al” from Graceland (1986).