Monday, June 29, 2015

June 28 Sermon: Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Luke 1: 31-32, 34-35, 37
31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”
I don’t really care to do sermon series very often. I really prefer the lectionary, the weekly series of readings appointed for the church, as it gives me a little more freedom to respond to the events of the week. I know many folks like sermon series for the sustained focus it gives us for several weeks, and I will admit to enjoying having the opportunity to dive deeper into topics, particularly this summer as we engage the Apostle’s Creed and talk, piece by piece, about what it is we believe.
But with all that has gone on in the world the last few weeks, I am starting to think that the universe does not like sermon series either. Here I have been trying to stick to the Apostle’ Creed and life keeps getting in the way. Last week we came together after the massacre in Charleston to heal a little bit, to pray, to affirm, together, that we wouldn’t let this moment pass by without finding new ways to live out God’s call to forgiveness, to justice. And this week, there are two places on my mind, one being the nearly empty lot down the street where the historic Scott Boulevard Baptist Church has, over the course of the last few days, been reduced to rubble by a bulldozer, to be replaced by some seven hundred apartments and mixed retail. And the second place, of course, is the Supreme Court of the United States, which on Friday ruled that there is a federal, constitutional right to marriage, for straight and gay people alike.
I have wondered why the universe doesn’t like sermon series, and yet as I have prayed about this sermon, as I have thought through all of it, recognizing that this is all dicey stuff, I have come to the realization that these events, in many ways, fit right into what we are talking about this week, the two phrases we’re focusing on, that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. After all, if Jesus Christ was conceived the Holy Spirit, that means that Jesus is part of God’s ongoing work in the world, which means that the work of God didn’t stop nearly 2,000 years ago but continues, even now. And if Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that means Jesus was born into history as part of history, not to stand above us and wave from on high, but to be a part of our lives, of our history, of our progress, and so we ought to pay attention as people of God to that which is happening now, to the history being made now, for in it, we may well find Christ.
And so I want to talk this morning about how these two pieces of the Apostle’s Creed relate to what I suspect has been one of the most remarkable two-week periods in the history of our Republic.
Of course, it is all enough to make your head spin: the changes, the events we’ve all lived through over the past couple of weeks. If you had told me a year ago that we would be living in a world where gay people could get married and where the confederate flag was being removed from southern statehouses across the country, I would have said you were crazy. It’s the kind of speed of change that makes you want to hold on, white-knuckled, to anything, to absolutely anything that will keep you grounded, and it helps me understand just why it was that years ago, when this sanctuary was built, somebody thought to fasten the pews you are sitting on to the ground. I am starting to think we should have installed seatbelts, too! With this kind of change, whether you find it appealing change or not, we’re all liable to get so dizzy we fall over, unless we can find something to hold onto.
And so thank God for the church, the body of Jesus Christ, the one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Thank God we can hold onto Christ when things change, that even when the world is changing, Christ remains. I need that. Do you need that? Of course you do. We all do.
But this isn’t to say that the point of holding on to Christ is to shut out the world. There is a temptation among Christians, when the world changes, to retreat, to hold on to one another for strength, and it’s a natural thing, for we even see in nature that when there is a loss, a death, a change, that members of a species will flock back toward one another, huddle up, and lick their wounds.
There’s nothing wrong with supporting one another. In fact, that is what God expects of us. But when we turn inward rather than outward, we aren’t being faithful to the God who was conceived by the same Spirit that still propels us now, nor are we being faithful to the One who was born into history, who so loved us that standing above us wasn’t enough. He had to be born, as a baby, in a stable of all places, among animals, among the particularly potent smells of life that one finds in a stable. This is the God we worship. Not a God who protects us from the world. A God who is best found within it.
And, likewise, we worship a God who calls us to engage the world, to take seriously what happens outside the doors of the church, even though it would be easier to spend every Sunday saying, Oh, just pray. Just pray and everything will be fine. Or the pastor could spend twenty or thirty minutes every Sunday speaking on some finer point of higher-order theology, as if you could understand you way to salvation, as if God said in scripture that if you will think about me a lot, you’ll get into Heaven. No, that’s not how it works. We are called to engage, to do as the theologian Karl Barth said of preachers, to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
And speaking of the newspaper: let me just lay my cards right on the altar. I am not threatened by the Supreme Court ruling on Friday. In fact, I am encouraged by it. For one thing, it does not change much of what I do professionally, at least to the extent of who I am--who I am not--authorized to marry. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says that I am credentialed to do weddings only for heterosexual couples. I happen to disagree with that limitation, and I continue to work and pray for the day that all people may be married in God’s church, just as all people are God’s children, all people are welcome to join the church, and be baptized, and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Whether you agree with me or not, you should know that your pastor supports full equality for people who are gay and lesbian inside as well as outside the church, but, for now, the provision keeping me from performing same-sex weddings remains, and I have promised in my ordination vows to uphold the Discipline of the church. So it’s not like I’m going to be making a lot of cash on the side running a gay wedding racket.
But while I acknowledge we’re not all in the same place on this one—and I will speak to why I think this is ok—I am not threatened by the ruling because I see it in the context of the Apostle’s Creed, as part of God’s ongoing work in the world through Jesus Christ, our savior who two thousand years ago inserted himself into our history in order to redeem it. In other words, sometimes, the Holy Spirit can even work through the Supreme Court.
And yet, I will acknowledge that it would be much easier for me not to talk about all of this, not to mention the Supreme Court decision. The only other time in my two years here that I have mentioned my own beliefs about homosexuality from the pulpit, in a sermon in which I dedicated all of four sentences to the matter, I got comments for weeks, mostly supportive, but not entirely, for we have a wide spectrum, a wide swath of beliefs present here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. I want to affirm that. I do not share my own thoughts on this matter to suggest that if you disagree with me you should leave. Please don’t! Quite the contrary. I think the church is at its best, at its most faithful when we can disagree! It is, as the apostle Paul so eloquently states in First Corinthians 12,
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
The church is strongest when it is a diverse body in every respect, including theologically diverse, but that does not make it easy to speak of these things. There are those who think the pastor ought not weigh in on these controversial matters at all—maybe you are one of those people. I want you to know that I respect that. But I cannot escape the fact that we worship a God who was born into history. God did not simply decree these things from on high. God became flesh, as the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary and said, “You will bear a son and he will be called Immanuel, which means God is with us.”
We do not worship a God who stands above us. We worship a God firmly planted here, who is with us, whose very being was conceived by the same Holy Spirit that fills this room and propels us forward. For everything else, the birth of Christ is not something to be pulled out at Christmas, dusted off and set on the shelf as a reminder of the sweetness of it all. The conception of Jesus and his birth through Mary, the mother of God, is a powerful act, grounded in history, so that when we are talking about the God who loves us so much he became one of us, it isn’t just a sweet thought. It isn’t just a nice thing to say. It is Truth.
And because Christ was born into history, because Christ became human, we cannot pretend that simply spending our time on Sunday mornings addressing purely spiritual matters, particularly noncontroversial ones, that that sort of heady stuff does justice to the Gospel! It does not! To honor the savior who was born into the world, this world, who entered our history in order to redeem it, we must not pretend that the events of the world should be left alone, not addressed from the pulpit or engaged with scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. God calls us to more! We may be sitting in a sanctuary, but it is not a sanctuary from reality.
This is the way that the Holy Spirit works: not to protect you from the world, but to pick you up out of your pew and throw you straight into the world! And this is how Jesus Christ works, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary into a world that desperately needs his love and care.
This is why we speak of these things in church, because Christ was born into history in order to redeem it. It is why I try, when I have occasion to preach, to faithfully bring scripture to life in ways that do not rewrite the Bible, for it needs no help from me, but in ways that open it to the present age, that say, this book still matters, because God still matters. This is why we listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit and do our best to follow.
I am going to sit down in just a minute, but it is not lost on me that the church down the way, or, should I say, the remainders of what was once the building of the church down the way, experienced the genesis of its demise during a similarly tumultuous time in which the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing. When desegregation was as common a buzzword as “marriage equality” is now, the church struggled, as all churches did, with how to faithfully respond to a new cultural norm that many people argued was not of God. A the time, they thought they were making a decision not to change, and yet the Holy Spirit blows where it will. Now it is going to be a Best Buy or whatever.
This is not to say that one ought to pattern one’s theology after that which is fashionable. We do not discern God’s truth because of the latest fad. But it is to say that we should resist getting too comfortable in our pews, in our faith, for just when we think God is through revealing God’s own self to us, we come across scripture like that which was read in your hearing this morning, that nothing is impossible with God. And if we are faithful to this teaching, perhaps even the church, that ancient body, that maddeningly institutional body, perhaps even the church will be made new, for just as Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, so, too, is the church conceived and born.

On weeks when it seems like the world is spinning so quickly as to come apart at the seams, I am comforted by this notion, that nothing is impossible with God. For it means, of course that, eventually, eventually, love wins. Love will always win. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 22, 2015

June 21 Sermon: And in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, our Lord

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

For more resources about the massacre in Charleston, SC, check out these links:
Our bishop, Bishop Michael Watson, spoke very movingly on this subject during Annual Conference last week. You can find his  comments here.
My colleague Olu Brown, pastor of Imapact Church, also spoke during annual conference. His words are here.
Finally, here is a post from my blog entitled "Five Things I Will Not Do Because of the Massacre at Emanuel AME."

Five Things I Will Not Do Because of the Massacre at Emanuel AME

Try as I may, I cannot come up with much to say, or to do, in response to the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina at "Mother" Emanuel AME. Last Sunday, I ditched my usual way of preaching and spoke entirely from my heart--I simply could not get to a place where I could put things down on paper. So I am not yet sure what I will do in response to such a callous act of racist violence. But I do know what I will not do.

1. I will not be quiet.

My friend Stephen posted a quote on Facebook from the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer with which I deeply resonate: "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." I have heard of churches that did not mention Charleston in worship on Sunday, except perhaps to note how sad it is that people kill other people. There is more to be said: much more. I will not let my own desire to make the people around me happy keep me from speaking up for my neighbors. If it is the case that when we do not help our sisters and brothers in Christ, we do not do it to God, then it is the case that our neglect actively hurts God.

2. I will not talk more than I listen.

I am a white guy: always have been. I don't know what it is like to be scared to go out in certain public situations, nor the experience of being discriminated against because of the color of my skin. "Reverse discrimination," set up against the backdrop of history, is one of the most ridiculous ideas I've ever heard. I have no idea what it is like to live a life in which people are skeptical of me simply because of how I look or who my parents are. While I will speak my piece and advocate as well as I know how, I will not speak more than I listen. My sisters and brothers are speaking out, often at great cost. I owe it to them to listen, and then to speak

3. I will not play it safe.

My biggest temptation in ministry is to speak a bit on controversial matters, get patted on the back, and go on. This response is insufficient. I will not play it safe. Too much is at stake. People are being killed. This is not some sort of meaningless exercise. This is real life. Speaking of which . . .

4. I will not simply play church.

So much of what we do as part of the Church is designed to make us happy or to uphold traditions, regardless of their present worth. Church is not what happens when we sit in pews and say certain words and then dismiss in time to make it to lunch before the congregation down the street. Church is what happens when those who desire an authentic life, lived in community and under the direction of Jesus Christ, gather to praise God and worship in spirit and truth. The events of last Wednesday are a reminder of the deadly seriousness of the task we are about, and if you are tempted to think that this is all folly, I'd encourage you to listen to the family members of the slain forgive the killer. As my colleague Angelo has said, America didn't make those people. The church made those people.

5. I will not forget.

It is easy to be outraged and then to move on. I will be honest: something has broken in me this week. I am sad in a way I haven't felt before. And I know that God is calling me--God is calling all of us--to take this opportunity to do something about violence, particularly violence by white people against black people. This is 2015, not 1940. We must do better. God is relying on us. And, God willing and with God's help, we can do better. But it won't happen without our willing participation in the reign of God. Let us offer our willingness as a sacrifice.

Monday, June 15, 2015

June 14 Sermon: Maker of Heaven and Earth

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Genesis 1

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. 
It has been a really great week here at North Decatur United Methodist Church as we have celebrated Vacation Bible School through our theme of Camp Discovery. And I think it is fortuitous that we are talking about God as creator after a week in which we’ve celebrated the great outdoors, at least to the extent that an in-town church can do that in an area where the streetlights are so bright as to make it difficult to even locate Polaris, the North Star. Maybe the funniest thing I saw all week was Josh Brownlee, who has been a trooper as he helped lead this week, march the kids around the sanctuary on what he described, quite liberally, I’d argue, as a “hike in the woods.” Some of our kids are so used to city living that when they got back around to the front of the sanctuary I am pretty sure they thought they’d actually been camping.
Well, we are in our second week of our summer-long worship series titled “Constructing Our Faith,” in which we’re going through the Apostle’s Creed, block by block, as we discuss and meditate upon this historic affirmation of faith. Last week, we started at the beginning, I believe in God, the Father Almighty, which one would think would be self-explanatory, and yet the pastor somehow was able to wax poetic for twenty-two minutes. And so this Sunday we’re on to the second part, the idea that God is maker, is creator of Heaven and earth.
And for our scripture lesson this morning, I have chosen the Genesis 1 text, the very first chapter in the Bible, so familiar that you’ve probably heard it before, and yet, because it is so familiar, we often rush through it. I suspect this is actually the most-read passage in the Bible, because it is at the beginning, and so every January 1, for those who have made a New Year’s Resolution to read the Bible all the way through in a year, this passage is read by what seems like half the church, and this goes well until you reach Genesis 5 and it’s a genealogy that is so long as to make you go cross-eyed, and so most people give it up until next year.
It’s a shame, through, because the creation story in Genesis 1 isn’t a stand-alone thing. It is connected to all of scripture, connected to all of life, as it is a story that tells us a number of things about who God is, and, for that matter, who we are. But the saddest thing to me isn’t that people don’t always pay attention to this story. The saddest thing to me is that they sometimes pay it the wrong kind of attention, turning it into something that it is not, a science textbook, or a history book, and that’s not it at all.  It’s poetry. It’s story. It’s truth bigger than the words used to tell it.
The thing is, when we try to turn the creation story into something that it is not, we miss the truth that is in it, and it’s truth beyond just trying to figure out what happened to the dinosaurs and whether Adam had a belly button and how it was that when Adam and Eve’s oldest son Cain got banished, he ended up finding a wife somewhere. Considering that the story says that his own parents were the first people and that everyone else came from them, I’d advise you not to think too hard about where Cain’s wife came from. These are silly questions, because the story of creation isn’t science. It’s a story of goodness, for it is the case that God created the Heavens and the earth, and God pronounced them . . . good.
So it is important to note, I think, that when we say that we believe in God, the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, we are not saying that we believe in something that is incompatible with evolution. Plenty of people believe in that God is creator and also believe in evolution. I hope this is not shocking to you and your faith, because your pastor is one of those people! God can create however God wants to create, and the best evidence we have says that evolution was that process.
You see, when we, together, profess that God created the heavens and the earth, we aren’t professing that we believe in some certain way that that happened. We aren’t talking about God’s creative methods. We are talking about the result of that creation, that in the beginning, when the earth was a formless void, God created all that we see, the earth, and all that lies beyond our line of sight, beyond our comprehension, the heavens, all the planets, even Pluto, and the important thing isn’t how it happened. The important things are that God did it and that when it was done, God said: this is good. It is of God, and it is good.
So without getting too deep in the weeds of science, because that is not my training, let me say this: when we recite the creed, we are calling to mind God’s goodness, God’s creation, not some literalist interpretation of Genesis. This is important, because what we say we believe matters!
It’s not that when we say the Apostle’s Creed, we’re saying that we believe that God is maker of Heaven and earth merely as an intellectual exercise. That’s not what it means to believe. Believing is not merely about deciding something is true and then moving on to the next thing. To believe is to model your life after something, to take this thing that we hold dear and figure out what it means for our individual lives, for our life together. And so there are profound implications for believing that God created, that our good God created a world that is . . . good.
For one thing, that’s a controversial statement these days, that the world is good. I don’t know what a handbasket has to do with it, but you’ve heard more than once just where it is that people say we’re going. Particularly in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before, you hear so much these days about the problems in the world, about corruption, about sin. And sin is real—obviously things aren’t always great, and sin is the thing that keeps us from being in right relationship with one another, and with God. But just because we have sin—just because we aren’t always living into God’s plan, which is that all people have enough, all people prosper, all people know of God’s grace, just because sin is real doesn’t mean that the world isn’t good.
And when we take seriously the idea that the world is good, when we consider the implications of that remarkable statement, well, it stings a little. It tweaks me a little. It makes me think twice about some of the things I do, about the fossil fuels I put in my vehicle, about the trees I watch being cut down for some convenient new development, about the things I throw away, about the people I do not see as fellow children of God.
It’s challenging, that kind of goodness, because if I am not careful, I am usually liable to think of myself as good, my own stuff as good, and everything else as good-ish, maybe, but certainly not created with the same level of goodness with which I was created. And what that does is that it cheapens God’s creation, cheapens God’s goodness, the goodness with which God creates, and because it is the case that the things that God does reflect God’s own nature, when I cheapen God’s goodness it is the case that I am in essence cheapening God.
If it really is true that God is the maker of heaven and earth, the source of all things, and that God created and called it good, then I need to get my act together. I have a role to play in this. This isn’t just something we say every Sunday as part of the apostle’s creed, but rather, it becomes an actual sacred responsibility to care for the whole created order, to be stewards of the earth. When I do my part to honor God’s creation, I am honoring God the Creator. I am worshiping! I am giving honor and glory to God! When I take seriously my call to be a steward of the earth, when I do my part to live simply so that others can simply live, when I drive less and walk more and reuse rather than throwing away and pick up rather than passing by, I am worshipping God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
And yet it is important to remember that stewardship of creation, worshiping God is not equivalent to that public service announcement from 1970 where Iron Eyes Cody is riding a canoe through trash-infested water and then stands, overlooking the parkway, as somebody throws a full bag of McDonalds that lands at his feet. There’s more to it than that. Caring for creation is important, but we can’t conflate the message of scripture with simply reducing, reusing and recycling! For one thing, Iron Eyes Cody was actually the stage name of Espera Oscar de Corti, who was an actor who was actually 0% American Indian and 100% Italian! This isn’t to say you ought not do those things—reduce, reuse, recycle and all the rest—but it is to say that they are not enough! When we reduce the Gospel to reducing the things we use, we aren’t doing justice to what it means that God is creator because you can’t recycle your way into Heaven!
It is important, but it is not all that is important, because I cannot tell you how many times I have seem someone take time to make sure they put their plastic cup in the proper recycling container and then turn around and step over a person who is homeless, or ignore the plight of the persecuted, or think that there’s no reason to be in church because they’ve already done their good deed for the day. Or, let me say it this way. It is important to care for the earth by not using disposable things, but it is not disposable paper plates that are our biggest problem as a society. It is disposable people. Disposable people.
So I guess one of the questions I am left with as I consider all of this is just how is it that we can be ok with understanding the great outdoors as God’s creation and caring for it but we have trouble seeing our neighbor as God’s creation, too? If it is true, as we often say around here, that all people are children of God, that all people are made in God’s image, that the image of God is imprinted upon each human heart, then we’ve got some repenting to do as it relates to the way we treat those who we see as beneath our station, the way we understand people, all people all across the world, the way we treat . . .  one another.
Maybe this is all obvious to you and I am whipping a horse that’s been dead for some time, but it is a message desperately needed in these days of rancor and division: that it is God who created, all things, including you and me, and that that creation is good.
It is a revolutionary message, for it runs contrary to the way the world seems to work these days. I mean, if God is maker of heaven and earth who am I to decide that part of God’s creation isn’t good enough, that because somebody was born one way or in one country or to a family that looks different than mine then they must not be of God, they must not be good? You see the challenge.
I will end with this. If God is maker of Heaven and earth, and we believe that God is, and if we believe that God is with us, intimately involved in our lives, which we do, then it is not the case that we believe that God set things in motion millions of years ago and then went to lunch. We say that God is the maker of Heaven and earth: not was, but is, is still making heaven and earth, and so if we are called to care not only for that which has been created, we must seek to care for that which God is still creating, for creation did not stop when God did or didn’t give Adam a belly button.
Scripture says it this way: Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

If you are feeling stuck, know that God makes a way. If you are feeling discriminated against for who you are, know that God is the God of new things, and that God is with you, for when we say together the Apostle’s Creed, we profess belief in a God who is constantly creating, constantly making all things new, and the promise of that creation is that just when it seems like the end is coming, there’s more there, more roads to walk, more rivers to paddle, more life to lead. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Monday, June 8, 2015

June 7 Sermon: I Believe in God, the Father Almighty

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Matthew 6: 9 - 13
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Well, as I have said, we’re starting our summer series, Constructing our Faith, and we’re going to be looking at the Apostle’s Creed, block by block, exploring what it means as we look at our faith from ground up. And I should begin by acknowledging that I am the typical sort of person of my age and station who doesn’t like to be told what to think or believeso I have always struggled with the idea of the Apostle’s Creed, and creeds in general to be honest. It all feels too much like a test, like a trick, like something doesn’t so much welcome people in as much as it keeps people out when they have trouble believing every. Single. Word. that’s in the creed.
But that’s not what it is, and one reason I want to spend the next three months going through all of this is that I want to talk about what belief is, what it means to believe at all, because it’s not about agreeing something is true as much as it is holding dear something that is truth. It’s not about judging yourself against every letter of the Creed as much as it is living into a statement of belief the church has been reciting for centuries. That’s not to say that just because it’s old it’s true; that’s certainly not the case. p it’s to say that after two thousand years, the Apostle’s Creed s smooth, well-worn from the many hands that have held it, this profound story of faith.
And that’s what it is: a story. The Apostle’s Creed that we’ll be saying each Sunday this summer, isn’t a litmus test. The writer Nicholas Lash says that when we say “I believe,” it “does not express an opinion, however well founded or firmly held, concerning God’s existence. It promises that life and love, mind, heart, and all my actions, are set henceforward steadfastly on God, and God alone.” In some ways, that’s even harder than a litmus test, though it is also the case that it is much more meaningful.
A story. It’s a story. It is the story of God, all of the Holy Scriptures distilled down to their very essence. James Howell says that the Creed is not a list of facts so much as it is an act of worship an act of prayer. I would say it this way: I am something of a cook, and once or twice a year, I like to make my own vanilla extract. I’ll take a jar, and cut
open some vanilla beans and put them in there with some alcohol to leech out the flavor to make vanilla extract. It concentrates the flavors so that the essence of the vanilla comes through everything with which it comes into contact.
And this is like the Apostle’s Creed. It is Faith extract, and, we hope, that the essence of that faith comes through everything with which it comes into contact, comes through in the way we do our worship and live our lives and go out into the world.
Now, I have shared this story before, but I once heard a minister tell the story of a prominent family in his church. When this new minister came along, the church was resistant to him, as tends to happen with new ministers.  But this family embraced him, trusting that God would use him in a way that would please God and help the church grow.  These were good people, loved by everyone in the church.
And on Saturday evening, as the minister worked on the final bits of his sermon for the next morning, he received a phone call from a church member.  There had been a tragedy.  The family’s private plane had crashed, and there were no survivors.  The husband and two young children were dead.
The minister struggled with what to say about the tragedy.  He stammered through his sermon the next morning, unsure about how to go on in the face of such an awful experience.  And he spent hours in front of his Bible and computer as he tried to write the funeral sermon.  He would speak of the man’s business accomplishments, of course, and of the delightful sounds made by the children as they ran through the hallways of the church.  He knew of the goodness of this family, and so he had much to say about them.  What he struggled with was explaining the goodness of God in the face of this tragedy.  He knew what to say, of course; he had spoken in many a funeral service.  But in this service, in a tragedy that struck him in the center of his heart, he had trouble believing.
The funeral sermon came together just in time; the sermon has a way of coming together.  And the surviving family, sitting on the front row, was as heartbroken as you might expect; I heard someone one once say that the only proper response to the death of a child is to roll over and play dead, and that’s what they looked like they wanted to do.
And yet it wasn’t the sermon, beautifully crafted though it was, that served as the greatest comfort to the family. As the minister counseled the family in the days and weeks after that service, he learned that it was actually the Apostle’s Creed that proved most helpful to them, as those gathered for the funeral filled the pews and stood in the aisles, and at the appointed time, spoke the same historic words we will speak later this morning,  “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried.”
And though the family, in the wake of such profound grief, could not have been expected to believe in God on that day, the entire group gathered surrounded them with this historic affirmation of faith.  It was, the minister said later, “as if the congregation, knowing of the doubts carried by the family on that day, believed for them until they could believe again.”
This is the power of the Creed, and we might as well start at the beginning, with what is the most profound and probably controversial part of the Creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty. I don’t think it’s controversial because of the bit about God being Father; there are other places in scripture that talk about God as Mother, so that’s not too out of place. And I don’t think it is the almighty business, though it can be difficult to conceive of what that means. I think the controversial thing is simply that when we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, what we are essentially saying is this: I believe in God, and God is not me.
Now, maybe that sounds obvious. It does at least a little, I am sure, because nobody wants to admit that they think they’re God. That’s the height of hubris! You’d never . . . admit that, but everybody thinks it, at least a little bit. You may not literally think “I am God,” but you certainly have moments in your life when the idea that you are in charge start to creep in, moments in which your own well-being is the thing that matters most, moments when you feel like your own sense of safety and security is the whole ballgame, and everything that gets in the way of that is less important than that which benefits you!
This is what it means to think you are God. Not to stand on a pedestal in a toga and declare that everybody else is your subject, but to stand in your room, or to sit in a pew, and believe that your own way is best. And to say the Creed is to join with two thousand years of people who would argue with that assumption. It is not some regressive, non-thinking thing, but rather an act of radical obedience, a radical reminder from two thousand years of Creed-reciting Christians that your own way isn’t always the right way.
I haven’t yet met anybody immune from this struggle. We may struggle to varying degrees, but we do. And yet, this struggle isn’t even the hardest part of the creed! You know what I hear from people is the hardest part of the creed for them? It’s the first two words. I believe.
When we say what we believe in, it defines us, and I’ll speak for myself here, I don’t really like to be pidgeonholed. I like to define myself, thank you very much. And not only this, but when I declare belief in something, it means that there are whole lot of other things I don’t believe in, just like declaring that God is the Father almighty means that I am not God.
You know, maybe because I am a little younger, I don’t know, but I sometimes have occasion to counsel young people who just can’t figure out what to do with their lives. I have family members like this, who want to do eight thousand things with their lives and it can be crippling, being in that position, like you are carrying so many potential lives around that you can’t even move. The problem is that you really can only carry one life: your own. Your legs, your mind is not strong enough to carry more than one life for any length of time, and the issue that many young people run into when they try to choose a life, or at least, choose a direction for a life, is that they recognize that when they choose a life for themselves, all the rest of those potential lives die off. And it just seems inhumane, you know, to let go of all that possibility, and it can be hard to choose.
I resonate with this dilemma. When I decided to go to seminary, when I discerned God was calling me to do that, I struggled. I was a political science guy, so I was headed for law school, probably, or to work on campaigns, or to do something in media, but when I decided that seminary was right for me, that being a pastor was my life’s direction, it was hard to let go of everything else. And yet once I was able to do it, it was the most freeing thing, like though I had killed off the rest of the possibilities of what my life could have become, I was able to move with new freedom, and besides, even with the loss of what my life could have been, new possibilities emerged around every corner.
That is to say this: in choosing, I lost something. But what I gained was wholeness, peace, fulfillment, new possibility.
And so it is with belief. Yes, declaring that you are going to life your life in one way, to follow with the theologian Eugene Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction, that’s not easy, because it means you’re going to let a lot of other possibilities, a lot of other things you could believe in fall away. But once you recognize that to say “I believe,” to stand with everyone else, with their problems and confusion and frustrations and say, together, “I believe,” that’s not to say we’ve got it all figured out. It’s to say, I choose to live this particular way, to follow the way of this particular, peculiar God, the one who became flesh and lived among us, the one who watches out for us and, who, though God is almighty, finds the truest expression of God’s own being in love, of all things.
There are a lot of things I could say about this first phrase, I believe in God the Father almighty. We could talk about it for a year. You could spend your whole life figuring out what that means. But the good news is that you don’t have to figure it out. That kind of statement lives beyond logic, which is good, because it means you don’t have to be there 100% before you become part of God’s church.
You know, it used to be the case that people believed in God and then became part of a faith community, but it is the case now that many people belong before they fully know how to believe. They belong first, and then they believe. When you think about it, it makes sense, if the role of the church is to help you form your beliefs and uphold you as you do. But it is a challenge for the church, for it is a new dynamic. It means that we welcome people no matter where they are, however far they have to go, welcome them as they are with no preconditions and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work that the Holy Spirit does best.
Of course, as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism famously said, we’re all going on to perfection. You don’t have to be there before you come to church. In fact, unless you’re in church, you can’t, because church, being the body of Christ is part of the deal. This is not a new idea, really, the belonging before believing. It’s as old as Methodism itself, as old as the church itself.
Look, I don’t know how you’re doing today. I don’t know how you’d rate yourself if you were asked the question, on a scale of 1 to 100, how fully do you believe in God the father almighty? But that’s not a helpful question. That’s not what it means to speak the creed.

To speak the creed is to join with all those who have come before: Joan of Arc, St. Francis of Assissi, your grandmother, perhaps, the first Disciples, of course, even God’s own self in the form of Jesus Christ. It is to align yourself with an awfully great clout of witnesses, such that when I say that I believe in God the Father almighty, those words don’t just come out of my mouth, but they seep out of my life, they flavor everything with which I come into contact, and thanks be to God for that. In the name of the Father Almighty, the gracious son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Monday, June 1, 2015

May 31 Sermon: In the Presence of God

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Isaiah 6:1-13
6In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
9And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.
If you have been here long enough to know much about me, you know that I am a bonafide Memphis boy and that I take my barbecue very seriously. My very first sermon in this place, almost right at two years ago, was the story of Jesus healing a man possessed by a demon by sending the demon into a herd of pigs which promptly ran off a cliff and died, and I titled the sermon, “A Waste of Perfectly Good Barbecue.”
And maybe it’s because summer grill season has begun or maybe because my blood type is barbecue sauce, but the thing I can’t get over in this morning’s scripture lesson is the idea of the prophet Isaiah declaring that he is a person of unclean lips, and an angel flying over to the altar, picking up tongs and grabbing a piece of glowing hot coal and rubbing it on the poor guy’s mouth! Never mind how absolutely painful that sounds; I was tempted to title this sermon, “A Waste of Perfectly Good Charcoal!”
You know, I wish I could say that this the weirdest story in the Bible, but that’s just not true. The Bible is full of weird stories, especially when we start talking about prophetic visions, which is what this is, and even though we’re talking about a floating throne, and God wearing a garment so big that the hem fills the whole temple, and a guy kissing charcoal, this isn’t even in the top ten weirdest stories in the Bible. Probably not even the top fifty.
And this presents a problem for me. I am a capital V, capital R, capital G, Very Reasonable Guy. I don’t mean to suggest I dismiss the supernatural power we read about in scripture. I just mean that when I am reading my Bible and I come across strange visions and angels and kissing hot coals and all the rest, my eyes sort of glaze over a little bit, I kind of start wanting to hurry to the next passage, you know, to try to find something where somebody gives me clear instruction on how to be a Christian instead of presenting me with some bizarre vision that sounds like it came from the mind of Terry Gilliam or Salvador Dali.
But for as much as I find this story strange, I should be honest and admit that there’s another reason I struggle with this stuff. It is that I am afraid of what it means. You know, when Jesus says, “Sell everything you own and give the money the poor,” I can say, oh, surely he isn’t talking about me; he’s talking to somebody whose things get in the way of his devotion, and it is easy to talk yourself out of it. Likewise when Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn,” I can say, “Isn’t that nice? They’ll get theirs, too.”
When I am presented with a prophetic vision, though, something that has a meaning deeper than the literal words used to tell the story, it is harder to hide, for when you do the difficult work of interpretation, of taking a complicated, strange story like the one we read this morning and trying to figure out what it really means, when you strip away the strange language and the like, you are left with pure, unadulterated Truth, and I am reminded that in the story of Adam and Eve, it was when they gained the knowledge of good and evil that they realized they were utterly naked in the presence of God.
This is what it means to be in God’s presence: when you get to the truth that lies underneath the words of these dreams and visions, it becomes impossible to hide.
And this is precisely the point. We may see dreams and visions in the Bible as unusual; we may speed up our reading to skip past them, but that is exactly the wrong reaction. In fact, when you come across something like this, you should actually slow down and let these stories simmer in your soul, for they are trying to tell you to focus, to pay attention, that what is contained here is so important that simple language will not do.
You may know that Stacey and Emmaline and I were in Colorado last week for vacation with family, thirteen of us in all piled into a house in Breckenridge, and on Tuesday we drove up plowed roads, halfway up the mountain, as the snow banks slowly melted and made a muddy mess of everything, and we got on thirteen horses and took the family horseback riding up the mountain, up a trail which is usually covered in snow but which, in late May, serves as a path for the wranglers to take freezing tourists on a particularly slow trail ride.
It is an unusual feeling, to ride in a place that is usually covered by several feet of snow, with chair lifts above your head paused for the summer, to look down and see ground that skiers never see. And while the path the horses walked on had been snow plowed, it was early enough in the mud season that most of the banks were still covered in snow, and it is beautiful, but it is also disorienting, that kind of snow. You are used to being able to follow visual clues on the ground, and then it’s all covered, and it throws you off.
And in the middle of the snow, some in places where it had already melted, as if it were just in the middle of nowhere, you’d see a trail marker. Go left for this trail. Go right for this one. If the snow weren’t there it wouldn’t make sense, but there it was.
Life is like this, of course. You go along and then all of a sudden the thing you thought you knew doesn’t hold true anymore, and it is disorienting. And when we come across strange bits in the Bible, they function like the ski markers did, reminding you to pay attention, to slow down, to process, to experience truth beyond words.
And that’s exactly the right way to deal with this morning’s scripture passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has a vision of God, high on a throne, so large that just the hem of God’s robe fills the whole temple. That’s your first trail marker that we’re talking about a vision, something metaphorical rather than literal, because, of course, if the hem filled the whole temple, the robe itself would cover the state of Georgia, certainly the country of Israel, and there wouldn’t be any room for the seraphs, the angels to fly around. But it’s a vision, remember, and it is talking about something so deep and meaningful that the words so bulge with meaning that they nearly shatter. And then, of course, there are the angels flittering all about, covering their face and their feet, as if to signal that they are carrying truth so blindingly truthful that to be in the presence of it without covering your eyes would knock you out cold.
They are singing, the angels, “Holy, holy, holy,” because one holy is not enough to describe Almighty God, “holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.”
It is in this context, in this room, that the prophet realizes that he is not worthy to be in the presence of God, that God is so holy, so completely good, so full of grace that nobody deserves to be there, and yet, even being unworthy, he has laid eyes upon God.
Now, let’s stop just for a minute, because this is significant. Sure, the angel stuff is weird, the hem of the robe is weird, but there’s remarkable grace in this moment, hope for you and me, because I don’t know about you, but I don’t belong in that room. I barely belong in this one. I don’t belong in the presence of God. Like Isaiah, I have unclean lips. I can’t even make it to church without exercising those unclean lips when I get cut off on North Decatur Road! I certainly do not have it all together.
And even with that acknowledgement, even acknowledging that he, like me, is not the greatest thing since sliced bread, even then the prophet Isaiah sees God. But the story does not end there. One of the six-winged angels takes a pair of tongs and flies over to the altar, where coals are waiting to receive a sacrifice, and the angel uses the tongs to pick up a burning coal, flies over to Isaiah, and touches it to his lips, and in what can only be another act of remarkable grace, it does not burn him . . . but cleanses him. Blots out his sin. Burns away everything that keeps him from God.
There is so much power in that kind of moment that it bleeds through the words. When you come across something like this, it’s not like you can just say, “oh, isn’t it wonderful that we’re forgiven.” It’s a forgiveness that is deeper than words, that is so significant as to totally defeat any attempt to describe it as it is, and I am keenly aware of the folly of trying to do this in a sermon. A painter can paint, and a composer can write music, but all a preacher has is words, and it’s not easy to talk about. I mean, how do you talk about something that is ineffable, something that is deeper than words?
And yet for as hard as it is to talk about, there is power in this moment, this burning away of everything that stands between us and God. It brings you right into the presence of capital-t Truth. You start to understand why the Bible uses these unusual visions to give gravity to the moment, because when you stand in the presence of truth, when you stand before God, you can’t just describe it. Regular descriptions just won’t do.
Now, listen: I’m not trying to be high-minded here. This idea that what we are about is deeper than words isn’t just something that comes from well-credentialed theologians. It is something that comes from God, from this very passage in Isaiah! It sounds even weirder to me than the bit about the charcoal, but the voice of God says this to the prophet Isaiah: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
That doesn’t sound like God to me. I understand God through the lens of Jesus Christ, who says that you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind. So the idea that people—and let’s be honest here, God is talking about us—the idea that we ought to be made dull, that our ears ought to be stopped and our eyes shut, that we ought to stop trying to comprehend with our minds, that just doesn’t jibe with me understanding of who God is.
… but, I guess, in some ways, it does make sense. As a capital VRG, Very Reasonable Guy, I want to fit God into my own logic system. I want to be able to say, this is who God is and who God isn’t, and everything that stands outside of this box I’ve created is not of God. And so maybe I could afford a little bit of mind-dulling: not that I should stop engaging God with my mind, but so that when my mind is dulled and my ears are stopped and my eyes are shut, the only thing left is my heart, my very essence, the holy seed, the image of God that is within me, so that the things that separate me, that distract me, are burned away and I find myself in the presence of God.
It is unusual, but it is the best language can do to describe the kind of grace we receive, as heirs of Christ, as children of the living God. It is a grace beyond description, the kind of grace that is expressed only in a gratitude so strong that it pulls the words out of your throat and leaves you in stunned silence.
And how long will that grace go with us? Why, God says, it will go with us “until cities lie waste without inhabitant, until all there is is houses without people, until the land is utterly desolate,” or in other words, that grace will go with us until the very end.
You start to understand, seeing that kind of grace, how the prophet Isaiah could so quickly go from someone so drowning in his own unworthiness that he can think of nothing to say in the presence of God beyond “woe is me! I am a person of unclean lips” to someone who is so moved he cannot wait to volunteer his services.

I mean, my God, he’s so moved by that grace, by that presence, that he does a complete 180. He goes from totally unworthy to sent out to do God’s work. And I wonder, what if we were willing, you and I? What if, rather than getting trapped in strange language and the unusual imagery, what if we were willing to dig and dig and mine the truth out of the stories of grace we find in scripture and in life!, what if we so desperately sought God until we could do nothing but sit in the presence of the truth of grace, unable to hide from it . . . and allow God to use us? Can you imagine the kinds of things we could do if we let God—if we let this God use us? Can you imagine what would happen if we were willing to give voice to that quiet pull of grace that draws us toward God, if we were willing to say, “Here I am, send me?”