Friday, May 24, 2019

“Handling Handoffs” - May 26, 2019

John 14:15-29

            One of the preachers whose sermons I enjoy reading is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was in his prime about a hundred years ago.  He was the founding pastor of Riverside Church, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia.  That was where John Rockefeller went to church every Sunday.  For the building’s dedication, he wrote the hymn we’re going to sing at the end of the service today: “God of Grace and God of Glory”.  Toward the end of his life, when he wrote his memoirs, he said that one of the things that bothered him most about having had a long and fruitful ministry was that nobody called him “Harry” anymore.  It was always “Dr. Fosdick”.

            That’s why it especially jumped out at me when I was listening to a podcast not long ago that another great preacher, Will Willimon, a now-retired United Methodist bishop, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, Professor of the Practice of Ministry at the Duke University Divinity School, author of I don’t know how many books, said the same thing.  The interviewer was in his early 30’s and kept vacillating between “Bishop” and “Dr. Willimon”, even when he said, “Just call me Will.  It saves syllables.”

            Don’t get me wrong.  Respect is a good thing.  We could probably, as a society, do with a bit more of it.  However, there is a point where Christian leaders worthy of respect have to recognize that sometimes they have to step back a bit and let other people exercise their own gifts for ministry in order for the faith to flourish.  Ironically, that was the point that Will was trying to make throughout the podcast I was listening to.  At one point he said this (and remember he is speaking to somebody thirty years his junior):

“The kingdom of God is not limited to one generation, particularly the older generation.  And so I think y’all are going to have to do more stepping up to say, ‘Okay, we’ve done it your way.  Thank you, everybody over fifty, but now we’re going to have to ask, “How is God reaching a new generation, and how can we hitch onto that?”’”[1]

I have to say, as someone whose age is halfway between Will’s and his interviewer’s, both groups are having a hard time. It’s like watching a parent teaching a teenager to drive.  It has to happen, they both want it to happen, but one is scared of taking over the wheel and of the oncoming traffic while the other is trying to be encouraging but cannot avoid the occasional obvious intake of breath and the use of the phantom brake.

            It would be good for us to go back to how Jesus handled things when he was preparing the disciples for a time when they would not be able to turn to him anytime they ran into a difficulty and expect him to fix it.  That did happen at times, after all. 

Mark tells us of a time when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed of what sounds like epilepsy who said,  

“‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’” [Mark 9:17-19]

Jesus healed him, of course, but I hear a certain degree of frustration with the disciples.  I also hear a little bit of embarrassment on their part in what followed:

“When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’” [Mark 9:28-29]

In any form of ministry, any form of service, there has to be both willingness to pass on and to take up responsibility for the work of the kingdom.

            And, yes, it can be especially difficult for those who have seen others do it well before them.  They only see results, not the process, which can be messy and confusing, and sometimes full of guesswork. I have no idea what went on with Fosdick on a daily basis.  He does talk, in his autobiography, about having had a nervous breakdown at one point early on.  As for Will, I was there in a staff meeting as a student intern when he kept jumping up and down to answer calls and find information that he couldn’t call to mind, to the point where the secretaries went to the closet while he was out of the room and got out a short length of rope that they threw around him when he sat down, and tied him into the chair.  When we turn to someone and say, “We need you to organize an online outreach,” and they think, “I don’t know where to begin,” it doesn’t occur to them that nobody else knows, either, but they stand a better chance of making a good guess.  Do you think I understand Instagram?  I seem to have an account, but I’m unclear how that happened.  I don’t know how to log on, and, frankly, don’t really see the point.  But I don’t do that stuff – none of us does – for ourselves.

            Nor do any of us do ministry on our own.  Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs.  He didn’t send anybody out as a lone ranger.  And those pairs came back and reported to the whole group.  They shared their successes and they talked about their failures.  They had both.  Later on, Paul traveled around with assistants like Luke and Silas, though he had a falling out with Barnabbas at one point and they had to split up.  He also took Timothy along with him, who was a generation younger than him, and accepted help from a runaway slave named Onesimus who was probably about Timothy’s age, too.

            Above all, all of us have always had and will always have recourse to a Helper who knows not only what has worked best in the past to convey the love of God in Christ to a world that needs it desperately, but what is going to work when the way we’ve always done it (or the way we think we’ve always done it) needs to be re-examined.  Before Jesus left the upper room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Romans would arrest him, he gave his disciples a whole lot of last-minute instructions.  He also told them where to turn if they had questions or qualms.  He said,

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:25-26]

See, for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusted them.  Even though he knew they would fail him that night and the next day, he trusted them for the long run.  He trusted them with the news that the kingdom of God had come near.  And for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusts us – all of us – with that same message, too. 

So pass it along in your own way.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

“Love? Really?” - May 19, 2019

John 13:31-35

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35]
            That verse is so simple, and such a minefield!

            Just start with the word “everyone”.  There’s no doubt that the world judges Christianity as a whole, and within that specific denominations or local churches or individuals, on the basis of how closely we do or do not live up to the ideals of Jesus.  There’s no doubt that we judge each other by that same standard.  We may even apply it to ourselves.  And we inevitably fail.

            I hate that, especially when it’s used as a pretext for criticism from people who at the same time claim not to care about faith at all.  It begins, often, with someone whose behavior or worldview is called into question by Jesus’ words or by the ideals that the Church espouses becoming defensive, and going on the offense in response.  “Who are you to criticize me?  Look at how you people live!”  Then follows a laundry list of sins and failures and reminders about famous Christians who have done some terrible things.

            I get that.  I really do.  Only a fool would try to excuse all that has happened in the past two thousand years.  If it’s any consolation, I would just point out that we’ve never claimed to get everything right and, at our best, we have had the grace (by which I mean the help of God) to listen to critics both inside and outside of the faith community and to say, “Thank you.  We need your input to stay honest.”  I would point out that the Bible itself talks about the temptations that come when we are anything less than genuine about our witness.  The book of Acts tells how the earliest Christian community included a couple named Ananias and Sapphira who wanted everyone to think that they were the most selfless and sacrificial of givers, whole-hearted supporters of the work of the Kingdom.  When Peter saw through them, he declared,

“You did not lie to us but to God!” [Acts 5:4]

Ananias was suddenly struck down dead and then about three hours later so was Sapphira.  You would think we’d get the message about trying to make ourselves look good by means of religion, but it still goes on, though without the sudden divine punishment.  The only way you can exonerate the Church from sin is by ignoring the Bible and history and probably the witness of your own eyes and ears.

            Any attempt to put the Church up on a pedestal is a form of idolatry.  Of course, when the Church’s critics do exactly that, they are setting up an idol of their own, but doing it so that they have an idol to knock down rather than one to worship.  Whatever the purpose, though, it involves making a false claim that replaces God in someone’s heart or mind.

            So I would say that one of the best things we can do in answer to our critics is to pay attention to them when they have a point, and otherwise to ignore them.  Otherwise we get drawn into a game that we have neither the expertise nor the time nor the energy to play when we have more important and better matters in front of us.  Specifically, there is this whole business of loving one another.

            So let’s be clear about a few points.

            There’s a difference between liking each other and loving one another.  Liking often has to do with the sense of having something in common.  We find that we are “alike”.  We find the same things sad or funny.  We enjoy similar activities or have similar interests.  Our cultural backgrounds are similar.  We share the same references.  I can ask, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?” and you know to respond, “African or European?”  If you don’t get that, all I have to do is say, “It’s a joke from Monty Python,” and you know to roll your eyes.

            Loving has to do with appreciating another person for being different.  For the most part, men and women fall romantically for someone who works on a vastly different emotional system, influenced by hormonal differences that they learn to manage within their relationships but managing is probably the best they will ever be able to do.  You know that a man is truly in love with a woman when he lets her choose the movie on date night.  You know that a woman is truly in love when she does not suggest that a man use his GPS.  These are stereotypes and generalizations, I know.  Everyone has their own examples, though.

            Non-romantic love works the same way in that it appreciates and honors those who are not in the same column as we are, sometimes in very important ways.  That is where Jesus really puts it on his disciples when he said,

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  [John 13:34]
When he assembled his inner circle of disciples he consciously included people who were very unlike one another.  Simon the Zealot was from a group dedicated to wiping out people like Matthew the tax collector.  John had tremendous faith, and Thomas needed to see things with his own eyes.  They had support from women like Mary and Martha, two sisters who got on each other’s nerves because Martha was a workaholic and considered her sister lazy.

            Once the Holy Spirit got the Church going, the original disciples, who at least all shared a religious and cultural background as Jews, found themselves trying to figure out what to do when Gentiles wanted to join in.  These were people who did not speak their language or have any idea what they were talking about when they referred to people from the scriptures, and who didn’t much care about what happened in Jerusalem.

            We still deal with that kind of challenge.  How do you – how do we – incorporate into our life people who don’t go all gooey when they hear “Just As I Am” or know why we have all kinds of committees or wonder what the connection is between green-bean casseroles and the kingdom of God?  (And, yes, there is a connection, which is a whole different sermon.)  How do people who come down on different sides of political or social issues – MAGA people and Bernie Bros – find themselves required by Jesus himself to love one another?

            Again, we’re supposed to love one another as Jesus loved us.  His love was a costly love.  It wasn’t about what he got out of it, but what he put in, and that was his entire self and his entire life, and ultimately it meant going all the way to a cross.  When we have that kind of love, the trivial stuff drops away.

            Let me read you part of someone’s commentary on that kind of love, a commentary that’s often mistakenly applied to romance. 

“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]

When that kind of love is there, people see beyond the immediate and obvious faults and flaws that we have.  They know that we are limited, and if we are wise we also admit that.  Instead, they see a deeper and fuller reality that outlasts the rest.  They see a whole that is greater than its parts.  They see a Savior who is bigger than the institutions built by his followers. 

“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]

Saturday, May 11, 2019

“I Know Them” - May 12, 2019

John 10:22-30

            There are some aspects of the Bible that I confess I have trouble connecting with, and one of those is the whole business of God as a shepherd.  I am not running down the beauty and comfort of the Twenty-Third Psalm.  It’s one that I say when I really need to lean on the Lord.  I can certainly appreciate the parable of the shepherd who had one hundred sheep and, when he lost one of them, left the ninety-nine where they were to go and find the stray.  I get all of that.  I can extrapolate, too, from the way my dogs act.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:27]
That’s not so different from what I find with the chihuahuas.  On Monday, I had a real problem with the oldest one.  He wouldn’t leave me alone.  Every time I opened my office door, he tried to slip out behind me, and he succeeded about four or five times.  It’s not that I don’t want him around, but when the Montessori students see him, they stop doing whatever it is that they are doing on the hallway floor – counting paper clips or fussing with their shoes or whatever – and all start going, “Oh!  Look!  So cute!” and he gets scared.

            I kind of wish I could be that kind of disciple, who wants to follow Jesus that closely.  I confess that I tend more to be the hound-dog type who looks up and says, “Oh, here he is again.  I wonder what he’s up to this time.  Where did I leave that biscuit?  Who keeps moving the sunny spot?” and falls asleep again.

            So how does Jesus deal with someone like me?

            This verse actually has two parts.  If I look at just the part that says, “they follow me”, I miss out on the reason why.  I miss out on the part that says, “I know them.”  What is it like to be known so well by somebody that they don’t even bother with the truly unimportant stuff?  Maybe I should ask, “Who in your life really knows how to speak your language and to cut through everything else enough to really get through to you?”

            Happy Mothers’ Day!  Here are the words to a song by Garrison Keillor that I’m not going to try to sing, but I think we’ll all get it.

One day a child came home from football,
Where he had fumbled, was jeered and booed,
His mother saw that his heart was breaking,
And so she made him his favorite food.

She did not make a garden salad,
She made no rolls nor beans,
It was a sandwich, on toasted white bread,
Of peanut butter creamy style.

The years went by and he was a loser,
He led a useless and wretched life,
And yet she never criticized him,
She smiled as she got out the knife.

She did not make a garden salad,
She made no rolls nor beans,
It was a sandwich, on toasted white bread,
Of peanut butter creamy style.

Then he decided on the basis,
Of a book that he read one fall,
That his problems had resulted,
From excessive cholesterol.

He had some bowls of garden salad,
He ate those rolls and beans,
He gave up sandwiches on toasted white bread,
With peanut butter creamy style.

That night his dog died, he smashed his pick-up,
His sweetheart left him, he lost his hair,
His house caught fire, he went to prison,
His dear old mother came to him there.

She did not bring a garden salad,
She brought no rolls nor beans,
She brought a sandwich on toasted white bread,
Of peanut butter creamy style,

It was a sandwich on toasted white bread,
Of peanut butter creamy style.

            That, my friends, is why we pay attention to Mothers’ Day in church.  In fact, it was a holiday that began with us. 

           A Methodist woman from West Virginia named Anna Jarvis pushed for a serious recognition of the rough ministry called motherhood, and she succeeded.  At the end of her life, though, she became disenchanted with the way it became (and still is) commercialized.  At one point she wrote,

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”[1]

Anna Jarvis must have been a force of nature.  She moved to Philadelphia and before World War I she became the first female advertising editor at Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance, down on Market St. right where the El goes underground, and was a partner in her brother’s business, the Quaker City Cab Company.  She died in West Chester and is buried at West Laurel Hill in Bala Cynwyd.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the real point, which is that although not all mothers are saints (and some who are martyrs may be the least saintly of all), still, if you want to understand something about how the Lord both knows us and loves us, you don’t have to look very far.

Jesus spoke about himself as a shepherd protecting his sheep.  Listen to this passage, but instead of a shepherd speaking about sheep, hear it as a mother might speak if a child is put in jeopardy.
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” [John 10:28-30]

Don’t get into an argument at a PTA meeting with that parent.

            And also hear this: you are a child of God.  You are the one who is known and understood, loved and corrected, protected and challenged, guided and sent, taught and instructed, heard and hugged.  You know the voice that speaks to you.  You know whose it is.  And you know whose you are.

            So, you be nice to your sisters and brothers.  You watch your language.  Don’t you forget to share, to say “please” and “thank you” and to clean up after yourself. 

And call home.  Jesus wants to hear from you, too.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

“Alpha and Omega” - May 5, 2019

Revelation 1:8

            In Revelation 1:8, in one part of one of the string of visions that John describes,

 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

That is the source of the symbols in this front window, and that you will see all over Christian art and architecture, of the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet (hear the “alpha” in that word?), and of the Omega, the last letter (and it sounds like a long “O”, not a “Z”).  The expression comes around again in Revelation 21:6, where in another vision Jesus tells John,

“It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
In the very last chapter of the entire Bible, again we read:

“I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  [Revelation 22:13]
Those two letters are used to express the belief that God is the beginning of all and the end of all.

            Since we’re going down the rabbit hole of Greek language, though, the language of the New Testament, I should point out that when we say God is “the end of all”, the word the Bible uses doesn’t mean “the end” the way we mean it when it flashes up on the screen at “the end” of a movie: “The End”; throw your popcorn bucket away and go home.  The Greek word, “telos”, also means “purpose” or “goal”, as we might say, “To what end are you driving so fast?”  The universe starts because of God, not only because God is its Creator, but also because God is its purpose or reason for being.  God is its goal.

            Now, you can get really tangled up in this stuff.  I looked through a series of TED talks to see what is out there, and came across one called “Why does the universe exist?”[1]  The speaker’s name was Jim Holt and it had over 4 million views.  That says something right there about how compelling the question is.  What also tells me something is the way the talk opens.

“Why does the universe exist?” he asks, and the audience breaks out in laughter.  “Okay, okay,” he says, and he’s laughing, too.  “This is a cosmic mystery.  Be solemn.”
They laugh because they know – we all know – that we aren’t going to be able to find a satisfactory answer, not in the sense of anything that we can set out philosophically or scientifically.  He goes on to point out that the simple comeback, “There’s a universe because God created one,” isn’t really a complete answer because it just leads back to another question beyond that: “Where did this God come from?” or “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?”

            That is a good question.  Next?

            Our faith tells us that we are God’s creation.  We are also told that God is the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end.  Science can tell us that time itself had a beginning, and I don’t pretend to understand the physics of it.  I can follow an explanation as somebody walks me through it, but I cannot hold it in my head – and that’s alright with me. 

“Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” means that God was around before time existed, and so is sort of outside time, and thus is capable of seeing it all at once, along with all possible shapes it could take (not just what we know has happened or is happening).  Paul Tillich expresses that this way:

“Special moments of time are not separated from each other; presence is not swallowed by past and future; yet the eternal keeps the temporal within itself. …If we call God a living God, we affirm that he includes temporality and with this a relation to the modes of time.”[2]
When I ponder that kind of observation, or try to think about what really is meant when we refer to God as “eternal”, one of two things happens.  One: sometimes my mind’s eye begins to glaze over.  I lose track of whatever thought I had three seconds earlier.  Two (and this is how it should be): my sense of awe and wonder at God goes through the roof.

At the end of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, the narrator who is by that time an elderly monk, gives his own summary of what happens to him when he holds up his own existence against the backdrop of God and eternity.

“All I can do now is be silent. O quam salubre, quam iucundum et suave est sedere in solitudine et tacere et loqui cum Deo! [O how healthy and joyful and sweet it is to sit in solitude and be silent and speak with God!] Soon I shall be joined with my beginning, and I no longer believe that it is the God of glory of whom the abbots of my order spoke to me …  Gott ist ein lauter Nichts, ihn rührt kein Nun noch Hier. [God is a nothing, nothing is still stirring here.] … I shall soon enter this broad desert, perfectly level and boundless, where the truly pious heart succumbs in bliss. I shall sink into the divine shadow, in a dumb silence and an ineffable union, and in this sinking all equality and all inequality shall be lost, and in that abyss my spirit will lose itself, and will not know the equal or the unequal, or anything else: and all differences will be forgotten. I shall be in the simple foundation, in the silent desert where diversity is never seen, in the privacy where no one finds himself in his proper place. I shall fall into the silent and uninhabited divinity where there is no work and no image.”[3]
If you are the sort of person for whom thinking and praying sort of blur together, to consider God’s eternity is a good way to draw near to him.  Admittedly, not everyone fits that description, and that is alright.

            For people as a whole, whether that describes them or not, on a day-by-day basis, we do deal with questions of time and its limits more than we realize.  We experience the weight of the past when we have to deal with people’s baggage, or our own, from long ago.  We worry about the future because of all that could go wrong.  Both of those steal our confidence in the present and our enjoyment of the moments we pass through from one to the other.  For God to announce himself as the Eternal One is a blessing.

When life itself is consciously grounded in faith, and faith is consciously grounded in Jesus, God-with-us, though, God enfolds us in a kind of care that transcends everything.  That includes all aspects of life, even time.  I’ll close with words from Paul Tillich again, who seems to have given this a lot of thought.

“‘I am the beginning and the end.’  This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon.  Each of the modes of time has its particular mystery, each of them carries its particular anxiety.  Each of them drives us to an ultimate question.  There is one answer to these questions – the eternal.  There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time – the eternal: He Who was and is to come, the beginning and the end.  He gives us forgiveness for what has passed.  He gives us courage for what is to come.  He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.”[4]

[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 274.
[4] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 131-132.