Saturday, January 28, 2017

“The World Turned Upside-Down” - January 29, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

            Jesus stood the world upside down.  He presented us with a picture of what it would look like if we saw things, not from our perspective – from the bottom looking up all the time, like someone who has fallen into a well or a mineshaft who stares up at the sky hoping somebody will hear them shouting for help – but from the perspective of God, the helper, seeing things from above and eager to rescue and save. 

            From our perspective, we get a view of life that goes something like this:

“Sorry about the down-and-out.  They’re kind of stuck.
It’s too bad for those who are grieving.  That’s life.
It’s a shame about the mousey-types.  They never get their due.
You have to feel for the folks who always think they get a raw deal.  When will they learn?
Forgive, maybe.  Once.  But don’t forget.
Ignorance is bliss, but it’s still ignorance.
Don’t make enemies, but when you do, remember who they are.
Whatever you do, don’t make waves.
If you can’t be good, be careful.”

            From Jesus’ persepective the view is totally different.  No wonder Matthew describes him as delivering his message from a mountain.  What Jesus proclaims is the broad message, the long view.  What he teaches is that the love of God overcomes despair and always will.  There is no such thing as a hopeless situation.  God is always there to turn things around in surprising ways.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in the kingdom of heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [Matthew 5:1-12]

The troubles themselves are not good news.  It’s not good news that someone who has been looking for work for too long gives up and decides he is clearly not worth anything to anyone.  It’s not good news that a kindly parent or grandparent is taken advantage of.  It’s not good news that somebody trying to settle bad blood between their siblings may be rejected by both sides.  It’s not good news that a teenager who just tries to do what is right may feel caricatured by classmates as snooty or stuck-up.  All of those things happen.  We all know it.

            The good news is something that comes from having a view that is wider than the moment, the view that Jesus shares with us of what goes on in God’s mind, and what God’s plans for people are, troubles or not.  It’s to turn the world’s way upside down. 

            I have a stereotyped image in my head of rural New Englanders as stiff, reserved, unsmiling people.  Even their humor is dry. 

“Excuse me, sir!  Can I take this road to Bangor?”
“Reckon you could, but don’t they have enough there already?”

Frederick Buechner, who lived in Vermont himself, preached a sermon on the 200th anniversary of a church in Rupert, Vermont in which he said this:

“In the year 1831, it seems, this church was repaired and several new additions were made.  One of them was a new steeple with a bell in it, and once it was set in place and painted, apparently, an extraordinary event took place.  ‘When the steeple was added,’ Howard Mudgett writes in his history, ‘one agile Lyman Woodard stood on his head in the belfry with his feet toward heaven.’

That’s the one and only thing I’ve been able to find out about Lyman Woodard, whoever he was, but it is enough.”[1]

Part of me wants to give a back-story, making this man into the standard, sour character, someone who declared at the previous year’s town meeting, “We no more need a steeple than I need to stand on my head in it.”  Buechner points to the act as a crazy-wonderful expression of faith.

            In a world of troubles, he reminds us,

“We must help bear each other’s burdens.  We must pray for each other.  We must nourish each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other.  Sometimes we must just learn to let each other alone.  In short we must love each other.  We must never forget that.  But let us never forget Lyman Woodard either silhouetted there against the blue Rupert sky.  Let us join him in the belfry with our feet toward Heaven like his because Heaven is where we’re heading.”[2]

            In fact, when we discover the unexpected, upside-down ways of heaven touching earth, as they do when those who mourn are comforted, or when those who hunger and thirst for righteousness do get a taste of it, or when a little bit of mercy finds its way into the world, then we may realize that heaven is a whole lot closer than we usually realize and we may not have all that far to go.

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The Clown in the Belfry” in The Clown in the Belfry (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 115-116.
[2] Ibid., 116-117.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

“The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near” - January 22, 2017

Matthew 4:12-23

            There’s a pretty well-known cartoon that was in The New Yorker a few years ago.  It had a man leaning down and staring his cat right in the eye and saying, “Never, ever, ever think outside the box.”

            Cats aside, thinking outside the box is something that we generally applaud and admire – when it works.  When it doesn’t work, it’s just craziness or stupidity.  When something is obvious, you just go with it.

            The ancestor of the tuba was an instrument designed specifically for church back in the day when Gregorian chant was the major type of singing in worship.  The bass line in that kind of singing is sometimes called a “drone”, and for good reason.  There are times when a bass feels like he’s singing a dial tone moved down two octaves.  Basses need instrumental support because you can only go so long singing one, very low note before your voice starts to give out.  To get the really low notes, though, you need a very long tube (in Latin that’s tuba) and you end up with one of those horns that you see in pictures of the Austrian Alps, where it takes one person to blow the horn while someone else stabilizes it.  If you want to play more than one or two notes, though, you need a third person covering the holes.  It just isn’t practical.  Then around 1590 a Frenchman named Edme Guillaume came up with the idea of twisting the tube around like a snake so that one person could handle it.  He called the instrument a “serpent”.  Later developments came along, like valves and keys, and twisting it differently to go around someone in a marching band, but it was that one big leap that made it possible, a leap that now seems obvious.

            So I want to talk about repentance.  Repentance and tubas kind of go together in my head.  When I hear tuba music I often feel like I’ve mde a mistake.  It’s not what you think, either.  It has nothing to do with how much really bad music there is out there that relies on an oompah beat.

            When I was in about seventh grade, I played violin in the school orchestra.  We had a lot of violinists – some of them very good.  There was a shortage of tuba players, though.  The orchestra director, who was more than a little bit of a tyrant and who really had no business teaching kids, decided for me and a couple of other string players that we were going to switch instruments.  Now picture someone about 4’6” trying to carry a tuba on a school bus, then getting it home and trying to prop it up on a chair to climb inside the thing to practice.  If you want to know what repentance is, one version of it is the feeling you get when you find yourself tipping over sideways while trying to find C# and grabbing at the music stand at the same time.

            You know that feeling.  You know that how-did-I-get-myself-into-this-and-how-do-I-get-out feeling.  You know that sinking sensation that tells you it might be worse than you thought, and it’s your own fault for going along with some hare-brained scheme just because you were in a position where you knew it was not a good idea to say, “No.”

            That’s not really repentance.  That’s remorse.

            Repentance is what Edme Guillaume did when he rethought the way things were done and invented the prototype of this thing that would one day threaten to engulf many, many middle schoolers.  Remorse is feeling bad about something.  Repentance is thinking about how to do things a whole new way.

            Jesus didn’t come to make us feel remorse.  That was already going on.  People have consciences and have known from the beginning that when you’ve made a mess of things, there will be trouble.  Adam ate the apple and then heard God calling his name and decided he needed to go and hide.  That was remorse.  Moses killed an Egyptian soldier in a fit of righteous rage, but then realized what he had done, hurriedly buried the body in a shallow grave, and ran for the desert where he could hide from the consequences.  That was remorse.  David fell for the beautiful wife of one of his generals, got her pregnant while her husband was away at the front, and realized that his sin would soon go public.  That was remorse, and more followed when his horrible efforts to cover things up went wrong and resulted in the general’s death.  There was no need for God to send his Son to make anyone sense their guilt.

            Jesus came for something else.  Matthew says, as do the other gospels, that his message began with the news that God was doing something new and that we can, too.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” [Matthew 4:17]

Rethink things.  Rethink the things that lead you to feel remorse.  Rethink your assumptions.  Think outside the box.  God was already doing that, reaching out beyond the usual suspects to the people who were on the edge of things.  Jesus would start his preaching ministry telling the people who were farthest away from Jerusalem and the center of religious life that if they felt too far away from God, God would come to them.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
            on the road by the sea,
            across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles –
The people who sat in darkness
            have seen a great light,
            and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
                        light has dawned.” [Matthew 4:15-16]

We don’t have to find the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus brings it to us. 

            Rethink how you understand God.  Is God way out there or way up there?  Or is God right here?  Is God always upset and angry because of our sins (which are real and a real problem), or is God more hurt at our rejection?  Does God want to reject his people in return, or does he want to restore humankind to a right relationship with himself and with one another?  Repent.  Rethink.  Reimagine.  Recalibrate.  Readjust.  Re-whatever it takes.  Re-new.  Maybe sometimes re-know.

“The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

            You can see how things begin when Jesus calls the first disciples.  Business as usual is left behind. 

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”  [Matthew 4:18-23]
These are people to whom the kingdom of heaven very suddenly and unexpectedly became a present reality.  A switch was flipped on.  The people who walked in darkness saw a great light.

            In the dark, you walk carefully and only walk paths you know well.  Even then, you stub your toe from time to time.  In the light, you can move in all kinds of ways, and move with confidence.  You see the obstacles and can go around them.  You aren’t as limited or as tentative.  You could even, if you are so inclined, run or jump or dance or spin around.

            Frederick Buechner wrote,

“The Kingdom of God is so close we can almost reach out our hands and touch it.  It is so close that sometimes it almost reaches out and takes us by the hand.  The Kingdom of God, that is.  Not man’s kingdom.  Not Saddam Hussein’s kingdom, not Bush’s kingdom, not Gorbachev’s kingdom.”
Interesting, isn’t it, how these people are all out of the picture, but Jesus isn’t?  Let me continue, though.

“Not any of the kingdoms that still have nuclear missiles aimed at each other’s heads, that worry like us about counting calories while hundreds of thousands starve to death.  But God’s Kingdom.  Jesus says it is the Kingdom of God that is at hand.  If anybody else said it, we would hoot him off the stage.  But it is Jesus who says it.  Even people who don’t believe in him can’t quite hoot him off the stage.  Even people who have long since written him off can’t help listening to him.
…the Kingdom of God is the time, or a time beyond time, when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world but God in his mercy who will be in charge of the world.  It’s the time above all else for wild rejoicing – like getting out of jail, like being cured of cancer, like finally, at long last, coming home.  And it is at hand, Jesus says.”[1]
Yes.  He does.  Because it is.

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The Kingdom of God” in The Clown in the Belfry (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 164-165.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

“Come and See” - January 15, 2017

John 1:29-42

            At the end of the luncheon following Dorothy Hopp’s funeral, somebody came over and told me that her father had built the altar.  That, in and of itself, was interesting but she went on to mention that he worked with Wharton Esherick and had executed his designs to build a lot of the furniture and some of the actual fabric of the Wharton Esherick House.

            “The Who House?  What are you talking about?”

            Wharton Esherick was a sort of combination wood sculptor and architect who lived and worked in Paoli around the middle of the twentieth century.  (He died in 1970.)  He made furniture that is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  His masterpiece, though, was his house and studio, exactly 4.3 miles from here, just up the hill a little bit from the octagonal schoolhouse. 

Let me tell you.  It’s one of the oddest places.  The front is like a short tower or the bottom of a silo, covered with stucco.  When the stucco was first put on, though, they mixed pigments into it so that there are big splotches of color, almost like a tie-dyed house.  The rooms are laid out so that there are no right angles or square corners, which meant building furniture to suit the place, and the woodwork that called for is incredible.

            Telling you is good, but it might be better if I show you some of it.  Here are a few pictures.

            Pretty nifty, huh?  There’s a lot more, though, that I cannot convey this way. Three dimensions are better than two, and when you get a chance you might want to visit.  (You have to make reservations and the place is closed in January and February, though.)  When you are actually there, you can see details that don’t fit into a picture and get a feel for the way the building sits on the hill and where the sunlight comes into the windows. 

            The same dynamic is true of Jesus.

            It was one thing for John the Baptist’s followers to hear him tell about his own experience.

“‘This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”’” [John 1:30-33]

It was a good thing for John to tell about that, and for them to hear it, but it was better when he was able one day to point them to Jesus and say,

“‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” [John 1:36]

Best of all, however, was when they went directly to Jesus and even before they caught up with him, found him asking what they were looking for and then inviting them to come along with him.  Before the day was over, they were going and getting their friends and saying what Jesus had said to them,

“Come and see.”  [John 1:39]

            That’s how it goes to this day.  I can repeat the stories of Jesus, and you can read them for yourself in the gospels.  That’s good. 

“I love to tell the story of unseen things above:
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”

It’s even better when you begin asking yourself, “What are these stories about?  What’s all this Lamb of God business?  If sin is real and serious, how could it ever be forgiven or overlooked?”  At that point, anyone who has been there can and should show you what the love of God in Jesus can really do to renew a human being and remake a person from the inside out. 
            The time comes, however, when there’s an opportunity to see for yourself, To have a serious talk with Jesus and hear him speak directly to your heart with that kind of welcome, that “Come and see” that is still part of his message for the world, for each and every one of us, and then the invitation that goes with it: “Follow me!”

Saturday, January 7, 2017

“Doing Good and Healing” - January 8, 2017

Acts 10:34-43

            There was a Roman officer named Cornelius who was what first-century Palestinian Jews called a “God-fearer”.  That is, he was someone who was not Jewish, and not about to convert, but who recognized the truth that there is one God and saw in the moral precepts of the scriptures a way of life that is worth living.  In modern terms, Cornelius was (and I really dislike this phrase, but I will use it anyway) “spiritual but not religious”.

            Peter, on the other hand, was religious in the traditional sense, which (I hasten to add) includes being "spiritual".  Peter had been praying and had a strange vision of all sorts of non-kosher animals and heard a voice saying,

“Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” [Acts 10:13] 

That understandably disturbed him and he questioned what was going on.  "Religion" (which is a disciplined form of spirituality) teaches not to trust every stray thought that goes through your head, and puts people into a community that can help them discern what is real and what is imaginary.  He returned to prayer, and heard the same voice a second time, saying,

                        "What God has made clean you must not call profane.” [Acts 10:15] 

That was weird, but a little easier to handle, and it came to make sense when messengers suddenly appeared outside, saying,

“Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” [Acts 10:22]

So, what does a traditionally religious person say to the “spiritual but not religious” type?

            That’s a situation that I (and probably you) face with some regularity.  A widely-publicized report pointed out three years ago:

“Religiously unaffiliated people have been growing as a share of all Americans for some time. Pew Research Center’s massive 2014 Religious Landscape Study makes clear just how quickly this is happening, and also shows that the trend is occurring within a variety of demographic groups – across genders, generations and racial and ethnic groups, to name a few.

Religious ‘nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were ‘nones.’ (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)”[1]

This group would include not only unaffiliated seeker-types like Cornelius, but those who are either indifferent or outright hostile toward religion.  In real-life terms that means your adult children who may go to church with you on Easter to humor you, the coach who thinks there is something wrong with parents who do not want soccer games scheduled for Sunday mornings, or the neighbor who wants to express condolences at a viewing but is nervous about attending your parent’s funeral.  The “nones” are the people who show up for a baptism and take pictures and think that what they’re witnessing is some kind of naming ceremony.  They are the ones who RSVP for a wedding but only attend the reception.

            They are also going to be the people who are most critical when a clergyperson is found to be misappropriating funds, or a Sunday School teacher is caught in an affair, or someone is turned away because of their ethnicity or social status or sexuality.  They are the ones who will hear only the loudest voices, the ones that catch the media’s attention.  They rarely hear about or see the daily, quiet service of people who do not waste time blowing their own horns.

            How do we, the Church, reach them?

            First, hear what Peter was told. 

“What God has made clean you must not call profane.” [Acts 10:15] 

Don’t write them off.  Human beings are all made in the image of God; God’s image, mind you – not yours or mine.  What we are called to do is to honor that which is good in them, not to impose our own vision.  For that matter, the criticisms that they offer may sometimes be a round-about recognition of our own highest ideals, a reminder of the sort that we often need.

            Then do not be afraid to speak of the good things that come to us through Jesus, because those are what the world in general needs, too, of

“how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed…” [Acts 10:38]

Those two things, especially – doing good and healing – those are aspects of Jesus’ ministry that no one will ever be able to deny, disrespect, or demean.  They are also aspects of his ministry that continue to guide those who live by his Spirit to this day.  Good works, as a form of proclamation, will never be enough.  Without them, though, you may never get a hearing.  With them, the Church earns the voice that God gives us to speak about the rest of Jesus’ life.   

            In an elementary, direct kind of example: there was an inner-city church that wanted to do some good for the neighborhood, both for the body and the soul, and decided that every Friday night they would hold a pizza dinner and a prayer meeting, but they went back and forth on whether it should be prayer and then pizza or pizza and then prayer.  If the prayer came first, they thought, then it might seem like people had to meet some requirement to get something to eat.  If it came afterward, then it was something that was, like the food, offered freely on behalf of those who really wanted to be there.  So “Pizza and Prayer” began, and continued for quite awhile.

            Doing good leads to healing.  By “healing” I believe we can include both the physical healing that Jesus did and the healing of the human heart that comes when the unloveable are loved and the enemy is forgiven.  It also includes the healing of the ways of the world that bring on so many troubles and hurts that we take for granted as “just the way it is”, but that truly could be prevented.

            Some people have a specific gift of healing.  There are doctors and nurses and pharmacists and researchers and all kinds of people who are part of the medical scene.  Their gifts are from God.  There is also the parent who has that amazing ability to kiss a scraped elbow and make it all well, and the neighbor whose chicken soup does what only chicken soup can.

            There are those who heal the broken soul by being the one person who stays around when everyone else has had enough of Old So-and-So.  That is not at all easy, and requires extra grace from God.  It means following closely the example of the one who heals all of our souls, and you know what happened to him to bring that about.  Bishop Reuben Job described this kind of healing when he wrote,

“The truth is that my gift of goodness may be rejected, ridiculed, and misused.  But my desire to do good is not limited by the thoughts or actions of others.  My desire to do good is in response to God’s invitation to follow Jesus, and it is in my control.  I can determine to extend hospitality and goodness to all I meet.  I can decide to do good to all, even those who disagree with me and turn against what I believe is right and good.  And the reward for my doing good is not cancelled or diminished by the response to my acts of goodness.  I will have the reward of knowing I did what was right and pleasing to God.  I will still be identified, known, and loved as a child of God.  What could be a greater reward than this?”[2]

            There are those who ask, “How do people come to be this way?  What is it that wounds them so deeply in the first place?”  Social workers, often lawyers (yes, I said, “lawyers”), journalists, artists, and many others are called to the kind of healing that Jesus did when he confronted the evils of public life.  He gave the poor and the powerless a place at the table, and he wasn’t afraid to speak up for them when they feared the rich and powerful.  He also showed respect to those who used their wealth and position responsibly and invited others to do the same.

            Can you imagine what the world could become if – no, make that “when” – the love of Jesus, doing good and healing, enters the life of those who are seeking God and even the life of those who don’t realize they should be seeking?  It would become no less than what it should be.  And where it would go from there?  That is up to God, but rest assured that it would be very, very good.

[1] Michael Lipka, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Religious ‘Nones’” (Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015).

[2] Reuben P. Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 40-41.