Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lent 5 sermon, "How Beautiful are the Feet"

John 12: 1-8

300 denaraii worth of perfume! That was an average person’s whole year’s salary. In John Wesley’s notes on this passage, he concludes that Lazarus and his sisters must have been of high economic standing. He remarks, “It seems Martha was a person of some figure, from the great respect which was paid to her and her sister, in visits and condolences on Lazarus's death, as well as from the costly ointment mentioned in the next verse. And probably it was at their house our Lord and his disciples lodged, when he returned from Jerusalem to Bethany, every evening of the last week of his life, upon which he was now entered."
We hear the familiar account this morning, and if you’re like me you think, “Oh, that was Mary, Martha’s sister? I didn’t know it was her who anointed the Lord’s feet and then wiped them with her hair!” John is the only gospel writer to make this connection, the story told in the other gospels simply describe “a woman,” and over the years the tradition arose that the other Gospel writers describe an instance of Mary Magdalene performing the same act.
But John places it here, in the last week of Jesus’ life, and we hear a lot of parenthetical narration in the text as well. John also singles out Judas as the critic of this act of devotion, whereas Matthew points to the disciples in general and Mark and Luke point to the Pharisees. Why Mary? Why Judas? Why now?
In John’s narrative, we see the devotion of Mary mimicked later in the week as Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and commands them to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” In John’s narrative, this takes place on the night he is captured in the garden of Gethsemene. John’s account places what we call the “Last Supper” earlier in the career of Jesus, and gives the only account of the foot-washing. John perhaps places this story here in his telling of the Gospel to foreshadow the act of servanthood that Jesus illustrates by getting on his knees and washing his disciple’s feet.
You see, this is where it becomes difficult to get an idea of the time frame because we are reading this story piecemeal. This week we hear the story of the Saturday before the Holy week of Jesus’ passion. In the scriptures, Palm Sunday is tomorrow—it is the day following this anointing at Mary and Martha’s in Bethany. And it is only days before the events of Maundy Thursday. Maunday, by the way, comes from the Latin “mandatum,” which means mandate, and is a reference to Jesus’ new commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Easter may still seem like a long way away, but in the narrative we are hearing, it is only a week away. I hope this puts this story in perspective. It also might explain why Jesus is seemingly flippant about Judas’s protestations that this expensive perfume could have been sold and benefit the poor. Mary’s gesture of devotion is not just the recounting of an event, John placing the story here in the story has symbolic effect. It is a literary device to prepare us for the last moment of tenderness and intimacy that Jesus will be able to share with his disciples and friends. It is preparing us for what John considers is Jesus’ most important teaching of all.
And so, let us hear the recounting of this story in the light of the foot-washing. We are going to be celebrating the Passover Seder as Jesus and his disciples would have on Maundy Thursday, so we won’t have an opportunity to hear this story too, from John 13:
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table,a took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In our scripture lesson, Mary has illustrated perfect discipleship. She is one of Jesus’ disciples, and here has the opportunity to wash her Lord’s feet: An act of servanthood and devotion that Jesus later verbally commands his disciples to show for one another. This issues a challenge to our typical mindset that when we hear the word “disciple,” we think of 12 middle aged men. No—as we see again and again in John, and repeatedly during holy week, the women disciples are often the ones who intuitively embody Jesus’ teachings. Women are the first preachers, the first to bring news of the Gospel after they discover an empty tomb, and here, in this story, it is again a woman disciple who carries out the new commandment before it has been given, and the reward for her faith is that she is the one who gets to wash the master’s feet.
In the foot washing, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them, as a way of drawing them into his life with God (13:8). He will also ask them to repeat this act of service for one another (13:14-15). What Jesus will do for his disciples and will ask them to do for one another, Mary has already done for him in 12:3. In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life.
In our Ephesians text, we heard about the “eyes of our heart being enlightened,” being able to perceive the “hope and riches of our inheritance.” Mary is a model disciple because she never hesitated to focus on Jesus with the eyes of her heart. What seemed lavish to the others was in her mind a small expression of devotion and glorification.
She spares no expense in her devotion to her Lord because she is filled with the hope of eternal riches that are her inheritance. These riches aren’t substantial wealth, but the joy and love of Christ ever present in a living fellowship. She uses up the burial ointment because of her faith that death cannot contain this man’s life.
What would you do if you were to witness something like this? You may say to yourself that since it was Jesus, you would probably join right in with Mary on her knees in your worship of our Lord. But how many of us have joined Judas there on the sideline and made a snide comment when we have witnessed someone lost in the worship of our Living God? How many of us have been critical of another person’s form of worship because it doesn’t look or sound like our own?
Perhaps those are the moments when we need to hear the commandment of our Lord again—“as I have done, do ye likewise.” Love one another as I have loved you! Jesus, knowing he wouldn’t always be here in his physical form, gave his disciples a way to mirror Mary’s devotion to him after he was gone—wash one another’s feet. Be devoted to one another, that’s how people will know you’re my disciple.
How will our neighbors know we are Christians? How do we express our love for one another? Perhaps you have been scared during this sermon that I was going to suggest that we have a foot washing? I had actually planned on adapting that custom to a hand washing, but since I’m sick I decided that wouldn’t be prudent, no not at this juncture. Instead, I want you to focus the eyes of your hearts on interactions you have had with others in which you have come away knowing that the other person was a disciple of Christ? Are you able to think about similar circumstances when people would be able to intuit that you were a disciple?
Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2007

March 18 Sermon: Arriving Where We Started

Sermon Texts:
2 Cor. 5: 16-21
Luke 15:11-32

The story we just heard is Christianity in a nutshell. It is what Charles Dickens called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” There is more ink spilled on this parable of Jesus’ than any of the others. It captures our imagination. We can place ourselves in the story. We no doubt see ourselves at moments as the prodigal son, other moments as the son who stayed on the farm, and at other moments as the father.
The story is so powerful because it is a story of the most important idea in our faith tradition. It is the story of Grace. And the beautiful thing about this story’s communication of Grace is that the grace that is shown and expressed in this story is not just the grace that we see with the Father running out into the road to welcome home his son. It is also the story of grace shown to the other son who we are left with there outside the party. The father not only wants to share forgiveness with his wayward son, but he wants to share the joy of forgiving with his loyal son.
This story illustrates for us perfectly the Wesleyan idea of three-fold Grace, which is a distinctive idea in our faith tradition. You see—our heritage is that we don’t merely celebrate the grace of justification. We worship a God who is bubbling over with Grace. As soon as we are bowled over by this amazing act of forgiveness narrated by Jesus as a father running out into a road to welcome us home, we also can see that this is only one element of the story. There is more grace in this story than that one beautiful image!
John Wesley was interested in loosening the idea of grace from a single experience of justification or salvation, to instead be conceptualized as a stream of experience, a whole lifetime of salvation. A path of human and divine relationship that led toward humans realizing and manifesting the image of God—what Wesley called utter sanctification, or perfection.
Our scriptures today illustrate three very important aspects of Grace. We believe that humans have fallen into a state of Sin. But we are never so far from God that he can’t reach us. This is prevenient Grace. We believe that this God grabs hold of us, either in a dramatic change of life, or in a gradual process. This is justifying grace
We believe that God molds us after the moment of justification. This is sanctifying Grace.
In our story, Jesus tells of a son who misunderstands what his father has to offer. He thinks of his father merely as the source of his inheritance and he doesn’t want to wait for the old man to die to get what’s coming to him. So, as we heard, his father split the inheritance between the two sons, and the younger son takes off.
Andrew Marr, a Benedictine monk who wrote on this parable, clued me into the fact that “The Greek phrase that in English is translated as: the younger son "squandered his property" is actually much stronger and richer in the original. Literally, the phrase means: he "scattered his substance." That is, the younger son completely lost himself in his dissolute living.”
Yes, in an effort to do things “his way” and “be out on his own,” the younger son instead “scatters his substance.” He forgets his identity to the extent that when he is in the pig pen and he envisions going back to his father, he sees himself signing on as one of his father’s slaves.
He only sees this potential because he is still motivated by his own needs and wants. What compels him to go back to his father is his own hunger when he looks at the pig slop. He still sees “with a human point of view” as Paul puts it in our first reading. But even though his longing for home is tainted with self preservation, we would proclaim that it still contains God’s grace.
Wesley said that prevenient, or preventing grace is responsible for “all the drawings of the Father, the desires after God, which if we yield to them, increase more and more.” And one of the subtle shifts in the story illuminates exactly how this prevenient grace leads to a deeper understanding of the “new creation” that we become when we return the Father’s arms!
If we look closely at the text, just look at it there with me. You see what the son has told himself he is going to say when he gets home. You see what is missing when he actually gets there? His father is overwhelmed with compassion for his son and runs out into the road to meet him when he is still half a mile away, and throws his arms around him. The son stammers out part of his pre-rehearsed speech, but leaves off the part about being hired on as one of the servants. You see, in his father’s arms, he reclaims his identity as a son.
That the part of grace that we call “justification.” It means accepting the forgiveness of a father longing to give it. In our relationships, we have probably had a positive experience of admitting our guilt. It is a positive experience when we come to terms with our own recklessness with someone’s love and then, because they love us, they forgive us. It is a freeing experience. Admitting means “letting in.” When we admit our sin. When we “let it in” and accept that it is our condition, we also admit God’s grace that had equalized this sin. It is being embraced by the arms of a tearful, happy father.
Admitting that sin does not earn us the forgiveness. Notice what happens first: the father runs out and embraces the son, then the son confesses. Confession is not a motivation for God’s forgiveness, it is a response to it. This time, the son’s speech is not just inspired by his own needs, it’s not just another plan as to how he can once again manipulate his father. This time, the son’s confession is a response to his father’s love.
This is why in our tradition, we mark each individual uncovering of justifying grace by responding with a “profession of faith.” Those of us who are full members of this church are called “professing members,” and that profession of faith is that no amount of working on Dad’s farm with the servants can earn us what God gives us freely as a gift!
Our profession of faith does not earn the justification we receive. Grace, like God, is three in one. Grace is lavish. It is like a father killing the fatted calf and putting his ring on his sons finger and giving him the best robe. Grace is too magnificent and overwhelming to simply have one connotation. There’s not three different kinds of grace, there is one Grace that is understood by us in three different ways.
T. S. Eliot put it like this: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." The prodigal son, who had been out in the far country “scattering his substance” is now in his father’s arms re-substantiated. Upon arriving at that same farm where he had shook the dust off his feet and abandoned his family, he comes there again and feels the unyielding love of his father, and he sees home again for the first time.
And then, the controversial party….If we take a look at Jesus’ parables, we might begin to notice that every time he talks about the Kingdom of God, he usually describes it as a party—it is a feast with an open invitation. At the end of our parable today, we see the same thing—a party. And then we see one of our characters, who is actually the main character considering who Jesus is speaking to when he tells this story, we see him sulking outside the party, whining that his father has been unfair.
We see him distancing himself from his brother, “this son of yours,” he says. "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." This doesn’t just apply to the prodigal son, it applies to the older son as well. The older brother is faced with a decision. He chose not to go exploring. He chose not to have parties with his share of the inheritance. Instead he chose to silently stay and fester. How he came to utilize his father’s inheritance evidently came to weigh him down with the burden of resentment.
For all those years, he directed his resentment toward his long lost brother—that selfish, head in the clouds, squanderer. But when the boy returns home and he refuses to go in and join the party, the resentment boils over onto his father as well, doesn’t it! “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
So, the older brother too finds himself in a new/old environment. He is home where he has always been, but now his father has cracked the door open a little bit so he can see his old relationships in a new light. He can view his brother not from a “human point of view” as Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians, but instead as a “new creation!” The power and glory of grace is that if he looks at his brother in the light of his father’s love and acceptance, he will see his father’s abiding love for himself too! He will arrive at the place he started and know it again for the first time.
But then again, our older brother may withdraw from his father and run off into the dark night, listening to the faint echoes of the party from his own private hiding place, sinking deeper and deeper into the hell of resentment.
Jesus, master storyteller, leaves us hanging. He doesn’t give us an ending because the story itself is a call to action. He doesn’t just tie up the story in a pretty little bow and say, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Jesus was telling the story to the Pharisees. He probably intended for them to see themselves as the older brother, and he was giving them a choice: stay out here and sulk and turn you nose up at the people I am embracing, or come on in and enjoy the party!
Back to the image of that older brother standing outside the party, scowling and resenting—has to do with why we are going to respond to the sharing of the word this morning by saying the traditional Apostles creed, with footnote and all! You see, if you turn to page 881 and look through the creed, you come to the line where it says, “was crucified dead and buried” * and that asterisk points you down to the bottom of the page where it says “Traditional use of this creed includes these words: “He descended into hell.”
Resentment can poison a heart. It colors one’s whole perspective, and turns a celebration into reason for jealousy. But Grace pursues us, even into the depths of hell, trying to get us to turn around and peek through that cracked door. Part of our most central creed had the notion of Grace pursuing even those in Hell. And because the parable ends with the Father out there on the porch, we are led to the conclusion that God’s grace chases us wherever we go—endlessly hopeful in our persuasion.
And this is a key to sanctifying grace. It offers us the framework of saying that Grace is journey. It is a process. It is not a ring put on our finger, it is not something to possess or earn. It is a dynamic, evolving relationship between us and our Heavenly Father.
Grace, even sanctifying grace, isn’t compulsive. God will run out and welcome us as we return home, but notice you don’t see the Father down there in the far country, grabbing Prodigal Son by the ear and fetching him back home. He will come out in the courtyard and cajole and plead with us to come on in to the party, but there must be some element of response. This is why Wesley hated the idea of predestination. Predestination said that God’s grace and salvation was forced into the lives of some and not even offered to others. There was no dynamic relationship to respond to—Grace under predestination was a commodity: you either had it or you didn’t.
But though Grace isn’t forced upon us, it is never withdrawn from us. God cajoles and pleads with us to walk in the Light, but we are stubborn. We are “stiff-necked” people, to use an Old Testament description, who are too resentful to have fellowship with our brother.
Sanctification is a reconciling grace. It is “striving toward perfection,” as Wesley said. This striving toward perfection is what Paul called being “ambassadors for Christ.” And that perfection isn’t some kind of Yoda-esqe wisdom or some kind of Super-man invincibility, it is the perfection of Love. It is growing into the inheritance of a Father’s heart which would propel us down a road to welcome someone who has done us wrong or miss the party because we are pleading with the world to reconcile. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” In other words, come on in and enjoy the party!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Softball season!


Oil up those gloves! Softball season is coming our way. We have been invited to field a team with First UMC Okmulgee--so let's see who's interested in playing. They plan on beginning practice the first week of April. In the past, they have practiced on Wednesday nights at 6pm. The season begins the last week of April, so let's get ready. The league will have a meeting on March 26, so let's try and get an idea of how many of us are excited about playing. If there are enough, perhaps we can field our own team.
Send the church an email, or simply comment on this post to get the ball rolling.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Lent 3 Sermon: Light, Darkness, and Dusk

Scriptures:
Ephesians 2: 1-10
John 3: 14-21

You’ve heard stories from people for whom the experience of salvation was so impacting that it turned their life around completely. It is usually the case that they sink to a certain depth and then ask God for redirection, and they mark that experience as the distant reminder of what they had been and now are. It is like they are one of those wind up toys which hits the wall, spins around and zooms off in the opposite direction. The wheels don’t turn, they just stay on course.
Tom Long, professor at Emory, wrote in a recent issue of Christian Century about the conversion stories that Chrisitians often tell. He described a musician who was on Larry King talking about his faith who from an early age was blessed with a vibrant faith and a musical gift. Eventually, shaking the dust off his little town, he took his faith and his keyboard and headed toward the bright lights of Nashville. He found some success, but he also found drugs—lots of them. A life once young and hopeful soon spiraled out of control: a faith once alive soured into despair. One desperate night, he came apart emotionally and found himself lying face down on the linoleum floor of his kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God for salvation. He told Larry King “I woke up the next day,and I haven’t been the same since. That was 28 years ago. I give credit to the Lord.” Reflecting on three decades of sobriety and productivity, he said “I think God just rescued me.”
I have to agree with Tom Long when he admits that he doesn’t have much patience for hearing pastors give this kind of testimony about themselves in the pulpit. Seems simplistic and na├»ve. It somehow turns the faith walk into a long jump. Growing up in a Baptist town without a story of redemption like this musician’s was trying at times. My mother and father gently suggested that perhaps salvation isn’t an event, but that perhaps it began when I was born into a community of faith and baptized among them as an infant. They would tell me that salvation is a continuing process. Perhaps it is a lifelong experience instead of a moment of clarity.
Tom Long suggests that frankly though, the real reason why such stories of sin and salvation cause us discomfort may well be that they bring us too close to the molten core of the Christian faith. We prefer to leave the control rods in the reactor, but as much as we might like to domesticate the gospel, to make the faith about spiritual enlightenment or ethical ideals or the broad love of God that inspires tolerance, the fact of the matter is that the gospel is at root a rescue story. Even Jesus’ name, as theologian William Placher reminds us, means “the Lord Saves.”
I feel somewhat convicted. The majority of what I have said to you from this pulpit is about spiritual enlightenment and ethical ideals and the broad love of God which inspires tolerance. Perhaps part of the problem is that I don’t usually see myself as ever having been “bogged down in the depths of sin.” God hasn’t helped me kick any habits. I haven’t had any radical changes of heart. Christ hasn’t miraculously caused me to love some group of people I once hated, because I’ve never really hated a particular group of people. The point of me saying all this is not for you to admire how great an example I am, it is to ask the question, perhaps for more than just myself, what do you do when your religion is about rescue, but you don’t really feel adrift at sea. Is it akin to throwing a life preserver to someone who already sits in the lifeboat? “Oh, thanks—I appreciate that. Hope I don’t need to use it!?”
John uses drastic dualisms to communicate to us the mystery and the power of salvation. Specifically, a favorite motif of John’s is the Light and the Dark. Well, if I just take John’s imagery to heart I might assume that there is a reason I don’t feel in need of rescue—there at the end of today’s passage, it says very clearly, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” I knew I was on the right track—it feels good to be in the light. Sorry to all of you who “hate the light” and would rather creep around with your addictions and your predjudices and your shame. Come on into the light, the water’s fine!
There is a beautiful short story by Ernest Hemingway called “A clean, well lighted place.” The anecdote revolves around the difference between a clean, bright cafe and a dark, not-so-clean, bar as a place for lonely men to spend the long, sleepless nights. Two waiters discuss a lingering patron in a cafe who overstays his welcome as the night wears on. The old man gets quietly drunk each night; just last week he tried to kill himself, but was rescued.
Tonight he tries to pass the night in a clean, well-lighted place. The young waiter, impatient, to get home to his wife, does not comprehend the importance of this place to this old man's survival. The older waiter, who does understand, walks into the night himself, unable to find his own clean, well-lighted place in which to pass a lonely and sleepless night.
Perhaps the duality that Jesus uses for Nicodemus and that Hemingway uses in his own story is more an illustration of an experience of salvation rather than a sustained mode of being though. I don’t feel like I live in the gleaming light of righteousness, even though I don’t have any rescue stories. Perhaps the reality is that we live in the dusk. There is always the looming darkness, there is always a long shadow. If we are sustained in the bright noonday light, we may not be able to see our shadows lurking directly underneath us. As the day moves on, we become more aware of our shadows, the darkness that each and every one of us projects onto the world around us. Paul tells the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We may dwell in the light as church-going, open hearted, people trying to do well, but the fact is that we all cast a shadow, and the closer we get to the darkness, the more apparent that shadow becomes.
Paul tells the Ephesians, “You were dead through trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, but now by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing.” Prof. Long continues, “To see this statement as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit a cluster of truths about ourselves we would rather not face—that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and that we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue. IN short, we need saving. We can accommodate this perhaps, in a 12 step program, but to encounter it as a description of our true and basic selves sends us scrambling for safer ground.
This is why our spiritual father, John Wesley, prayed fervently for conviction. He could buy the idea that the world needed a savior, but wasn’t convinced that Christ saved him. It isn’t about being egotistical or humble. I don’t think it is egotistical to be honest about our perception that we stand in the light of God, we may very well have had experiences of sanctification in which we did feel bathed in God’s magnificent light. It is more about attention—some of you may be at a point of noonday light right now in your lives, some of you may be helpless in the darkness—most of us I would venture to say are living in between, in the early morning fog, waiting for the sun’s rays to burn away our confusion and doubt—hoping it is right around the corner. Some of us are probably in the waning hours of the afternoon, the late day light giving us the ability to see our long shadows stretching across our world and determined to do something to “turn back the clock” to those brighter hours when that shadow wasn’t there.
Jesus is clear to Nicodemus about one thing—the light isn’t in the world to judge it—the light falls out into the open, it illuminates everything, it is available to all who step out of the shadows. It doesn’t condemn what it reveals, it saves what it warms. In bringing to light our mistakes and transgressions, we can see them ourselves—and through this recognition, we can let go of them, we can drop them on the ground and stretch our hands and face toward the light. The judgment is that we love the darkness more than the light—we don’t want to see, we don’t want the world to see our mistakes—we want to pretend like they aren’t there.
Perhaps my own mistake about believing I don’t have any need for “rescue” is the idea that some “thing that I do” would keep me from salvation in the first place. Perhaps orienting myself in the light just because I haven’t had some crisis or secret shame that I have to relinquish IS the reason I need saving. Such works righteousness is a clear problem of the Pharisees like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus in the darkness, seeking enlightenment.
Instead of righteousness, the light that falls all over the ground is grace—you all know people who live in the midst of that grace, soaking it up, squeezing it out into the shadows where people live in fear and shame. That is what it is to live in the light, not some degree of “morality.”
Light-lovers soak up God’s grace through every pore of their being. They have sometimes come out of the darkness of despair and trespasses, and they have sometimes come out of the dusk of self-evaluation and confession.
The promise of God is that the Grace of Light is ever-present—it is always daytime without a cloud in the sky—we may be fearful about leaving behind our comfortable darkness, our false sense of security that gives us a sense of belonging or power. We step out naked into the light—the promise of God is that we are accepted by God just like a mother accepts and nurtures and loves the child that comes out of the darkness of the womb and into the light of the world. We should have no fear, because in the light we see our true purpose and our true nature—we are children of God and we are Kingdom builders! Amen

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Giving up "choice" for Lent

Here's an article about Lent I found interesting.

GEN-X RISING: Giving up our right to choose for Lent Andrew C. Thompson, Mar 5, 2007
Andrew C. Thompson By Andrew C. Thompson Special Contributor (From UMC portal) Andrew is a friend of mine from college and a member of the Arkansas conference.


The pastor's voice was gentle but determined: "I am asking the church to fast every Friday during Lent. I want you to spend the noon hour in prayer and to give the money you would have spent on lunch to the poor." "Wow," I thought as I sat in the pew on the Sunday before Lent. "She's not giving me an option. She's telling me what to do." In our tradition, it was not always rare for pastors to tell their congregations what they should do for the good of their souls. In fact, it was expected. But, oh, how times have changed. Nowadays, it is seen as presumptuous for a pastor to actually tell his people how they should go about living holy lives. Living in a world that relentlessly sends us the message that we deserve to get what we want, we tend to balk at anything resembling a command. That's the case even in the church, where the whole idea is that we are coming as sinners who stand in need of serious help. And that presents a real dilemma for pastors, who are charged to preach a gospel that is foreign to notions of selfish individualism and self-oriented pride. Unfortunately for the people called Methodists, our willingness to buy into the rabid individualism of American culture has contributed to the decline of our church life. Instead of coming together in an attitude of self-sacrifice and self-giving, we tend to gather as individuals who never get past thinking of our individual "needs." When some prophet in the church actually has the audacity to speak an honest word from God, we become indignant. Then there's Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a time of sacrificial preparation for Easter. We give up things we enjoy to remind us of Christ's sacrifice for us. Or we take on a spiritual discipline to draw us closer to God. But the creativity of our sin knows no bounds. We are so geared to think about ourselves that our "sacrifice" often becomes something we've been wanting to do for ourselves anyway: "I need to lose weight, so I'll give up chocolate for Lent!" Or if we want to take on a new discipline, we sample from what we find interesting on the buffet of Christian practices: "I want to be more spiritual, so I'll commit to reading the Bible three times a week!" Ironically, that's not really sacrifice. It is just a creative form of self-indulgence. We may not admit that we're doing it for ourselves. But if we look candidly at our motivations, we'll see a whole lot more "us" than "Jesus." Choosing our own spiritual practices -- whether giving up a vice or taking on a virtue -- plays into our worst tendencies. We inevitably choose in a way that reinforces our already egocentric desires. That's not an exaggeration. It's just the reality of sin. So it was particularly odd to find myself on the receiving end of a pastoral instruction on that Sunday before Lent. My pastor didn't ask us to choose something to give up for Lent. She didn't encourage us to think about what spiritual discipline we might try out for the next 40 days. And so, to her credit, she didn't play into the most subtle tendencies of our pride. She just told us what to do. As our shepherd (because that's what "pastor" means, after all), she told the sheep in the room what was good for them. And she expects us to do as we're told. That's refreshing. And it's gutsy, too. Just imagine a person going to her pastor or trusted friend and saying, "I want to be a disciple of Jesus, but I don't know how to make the right choices on my own. Will you tell me what to do to live a life of personal piety and social holiness?" Think how strange that appears for our typical Christian practice. How out of step it seems with our culture of individual choice. Now imagine that such an attitude might be exactly what we need to become true disciples.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lent 2 Sermon: "the Devil Made Me Do It"

Hebrews 13: 1-3
Luke 4: 1-13

I stared down at the black marks on the pavement left there by the worn black tires of busses that every day rounded this culd-e-sack before lining up in front of the doors of Happy Hollow Elementary. A long string of 5th grade boys had their toes on the edge of a spray painted line in the cracked asphalt on this balmy early March morning.
It was try-out day for the inter-school track meet, and I was determined. I wasn’t determined to win—I didn’t have the illusion that I was a great runner. In fact, I had been told year after year by this after that PE teacher that I “didn’t run right.” Instead of the graceful movement of tucking your leg under your body as you pushed it forward to take the next step in a running motion, I tended to flail my legs out as I’d churn across the pavement.
No, I wasn’t determined to win the race, I was simply determined not to lose. There were at least 10 or 15 boys lined up on that spray-painted line, so I should at least be able to beat one of them. The PE teacher standing at the line bent over with the silver whistle pinched between her lips as if Arnold Swartzenegger himself couldn’t pull it out of her mouth, and then let out a sudden and short trill.
Off we went, and I saw the majority of the pack lurch out in front of my vision. Every muscle in my body was tense, I was willing my scrawny body to somehow channel the soul of a Cheetah, and then I noticed I wasn’t alone! Right beside me, in a dead heat for last place, was Clint.
If it weren’t for Clint, this would just be one more race in my life that I would lose and then forget as my self-perception began to be bolstered and defined by other things than “running funny” or being a “class clown” or “nerd” or “gay.” (I suppose some of my classmates thought that I was gay because I wore glasses and tie-died shirts—that perhaps made a little more sense to a fifth grader). But, because Clint was there beside me, this would become a race that I would never forget. I wouldn’t lose this race, but I would lose it in a way that I had never lost before.
Those legs flailing out that I had worked on and practiced to correct would this day come in quite handy. It would just look like, or so I imagined, that because of my funny style of running, Clint had just run into my leg flailing. I continued running on after I felt Clint’s shoe hit my leg and then get tied up. I heard him hit the ground, but I didn’t turn around until I had crossed the finish line, second to last!
My forth grade teacher, Mrs. Guinn, came running over to me. I remember the feeling of her fingernails in my cheeks as she squeezed my face to look up at her. “What on earth did you do that for!” she said, voice quivering with disgust and rage. I suppose it didn’t look like one of my legs had just flailed out after all, I suppose it looked like I just blatantly tripped him.
I looked back at Clint, crying and rolling around on the pavement clutching his forearm, the PE teacher huddled over him. I looked around the pavement. All was still and quiet. There were no basketballs bouncing, no sounds of feet or laughter from the Big Toy. Everyone was staring at me, Second to Last place.
I didn’t know what to say. “The Devil made me do it,” I shrugged. Mrs. Guinn swallowed, perhaps not knowing what to say to this response. By the way that she had treated me in the fourth grade, I now think that she had probably believed me, being that I was the closest thing she had in her mind to Satan’s little Demon.
She pulled me by my ear into the school office, and plopped me down on an orange plastic chair right by the hallway. I remember wanting to move, because as the kids all filed in after recess was over, I was right there on display. I remember the judgment and puzzlement in their eyes as they passed.
It turned out that Clint had a hairline fracture in his arm. I had a compound fracture in my heart—I wasn’t quite sure why I had done what I had very intentionally done. Clint never forgave me for tripping him. I moved away from Fayetteville, but ran into him before my senior year at Boy’s state. I was standing in line waiting for lunch when I felt someone staring at me. I turned around and knew it was him, he was glaring at me. I said, “Clint, right. I’m Nathan Mattox. Do you remember/” “Yes,” he interrupted. I don’t remember the conversation after that, I’m sure that I told him that I had thought about that a lot since then, but you probably get the sense that we didn’t become fast friends there at boy’s state.
Temptation is, by nature, seductive. We are seldom tempted by “bad” things, but – as Jesus’ temptations reveal – “good” things that stand in the way of realizing our true vocation. In that race, I wasn’t tempted to trip Clint, I had been tempted to not lose the race. When you heard the story and the things that went into that moment for me, I’m sure you can identify with the complexity of temptation.
When Jesus is shown the kingdoms of the world and was offered them, the price to pay was to bow down and worship the Imposter. Not losing the race was my “kingdoms of the world,” and the repulsive price I paid was sticking my foot out to trip another boy.
Evil makes it easy on us you see. Sticking with God, for some reason, is more difficult. We probably find it hard to picture Jesus bowing down and worshipping the Devil—but we no doubt find it pretty easy to picture him ruling over the Kingdoms of the Earth! We may find it difficult to imagine ourselves behaving in certain ways, but often times in our pursuit of some goal or desire, we act in unusual ways to get there.
This is why we see Jesus being tempted by some seemingly harmless things on his sojourn in the wilderness. The text tells us that Jesus has completed his 40 day fast and is famished. The Greek is not just “hungry,” it is “famished” or “ravenous.” Certainly a state of mind when we would all perfectly understand if Jesus were to zap a rock or two and turn them into bread. Why not? The fast is complete, right?
And the ability to have power over nations? Imagine all the good that could have come from that! Jesus displacing the cruel dictators, ensuring that the hungry were fed, the oppressed lifted up, the slaves freed. Imagine how life would be different right now!
And jumping off of the temple and letting the angels catch him—that would have accomplished two things—first, the Temple authorities would have witnessed and probably had the proof they needed to get in line behind the Messiah, and secondly Jesus would have been assured in the confidence that God was always right there, ready to save him. After all, the Devil himself knows its right there in Psalm 91, “9Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
10no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
11For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
There is nothing inherently wrong with security, power, and comfort, except when we put our trust in these things, when we make them our ultimate goal, they tend to alienate us from others and from God’s vision for our lives. Jesus, we are shown here, struggled with what he felt called to do and what he saw the scriptures saying about God’s protection.
Jesus, no doubt, desired the security of knowing that that promise would be kept. Our own quest for security in this country has compelled us to distrust anyone who doesn’t look, worship, eat, or pray like we do. Security has become an obsession, and it has distracted us from our heritage and faith that walls should be torn down, not erected.
Power infects us personally and collectively. It is no doubt preferable to have power rather than being powerless, but we know in our hearts and souls that power must be handled with care. It must be shared as quickly as it is received. If power is not used to clothe the naked and feed the starving and build up the weak and free the oppressed, then it is usually dangerous to the soul of the one who possesses it.
And lastly, if we make comfort our ultimate goal, we tend to insulate ourselves from the world and from God’s call on our lives. The picture in my mind is me laying on our nice bed with God standing at the foot trying to wake me up, but I’m content enough to put my head between the pillows and muffle his voice. Being comfortable is good, no doubt, but it can also be a trap.
Indeed, facing temptation can strengthen our spiritual lives if we, following the example of Jesus, place our temptations prayerfully before God. I chose the first scripture passage from today because I thought it was a funny parallel to the story I had to tell, but I also knew it would help us put our goals in perspective. The author of Hebrews speaks of running the race and keeping our eyes on “Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The miraculous thing about Jesus is that he is standing there at the finish line, waiting to welcome us to the throne of God, the Kingdom of God, but he is also setting the pace for us, he’s also leading us along the path. We hear about what he endured on that race in Luke’s witness today and in Paul’s witness today. But what we are assured of is that Christ is the goal and Christ is a running partner. We may be second to last or we may be second to first, but we know that Christ is in first place, and that he shares his victory with all of us!