Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Enter the Opportunists

It has been a long week in Lafayette.  Last Thursday, the city that was selected in 2014 as the happiest city in America was shaken and laid bare for the world to see.  John Russell Howser, a man with a deeply grieved soul, shot and killed 33-year-old entrepreneur, Jillian Johnson, and Mayci Breaux, a 21 year old woman beginning to make her way in the world.  Nine others were injured before he took his own life.  Our police, our medical system, even our local news stations acted professionally, compassionately, and faithfully. 

As with other similar incidents in our nation, this has sparked conversation, arguments, and accusations between friends and enemies over gun control, mental illness, and the presence of evil in our midst.  I’ve heard it said that the shooter’s name should not be spoken, but instead let us only honor Jillian and Mayci.  There is some wisdom in that, but there is also wisdom in finding out what we can – if it will prevent another tragedy.  We need to know where we went wrong.  Perhaps there are enough guns out there that he would have found a way no matter what, but we do have laws and systems that are supposed to help prevent these types of things.  We need to know where we went wrong.

Of course, the national news and social media pounced on the event like buzzards.  Sadly, I must admit that I was one of them.  After making a comment about opportunists I was called to account by one of our elders with the realization that one of my comments had more to do with my own opinion rather than the facts of the event.  Sorting out what you feel and believe in community can be a slippery slope sometimes.  And although we can sometimes delete a comment on the internet, we cannot take back words we’ve given away.

And so this week, as I have been wrestling with the scriptures and the week’s events, I believe that God wants us to consider the reality of evil and the opportunity of faith.  We sometimes talk about sin and evil as ideas or things that bad people do.  Sure, we confess our sin, and we acknowledge the part we play in the sins of the world as members of the human race.  But let’s face it folks, most of us do not normally think of sin and evil as something that we do – at least not intentionally – but rather something that we endure (or maybe just watch on the news networks).  We think of sin and evil as the result of the actions of those with no common sense, or maybe just the result of senseless acts.  Yet sin and evil have nothing to do with a rational process.  They are the result of self-centeredness, like a broken compass that points to wherever it wants.

This week has certainly been about senseless violence.  This week has been about endurance.  Thousands of lives have been made to endure the repercussions of one man who acted as though he had power and authority over life itself.  I think it is somewhat providential that today we have a story of King David doing the same thing.  David was supposed to be a man after God’s own heart.  Saul was the bad king that God warned about – the one who would take your women, send your men into battle, and use your land as his own. 

As unsettling as it is, in this passage David breaks at least 4 commandments – directly or indirectly – to satisfy his own needs without concern for anyone else.  It all begins with David sending out Joab in a time “when Kings go out to battle” so that he can lie on his couch and survey his domain.  By contrast it is Bathsheba and Uriah, foreigners who are outside of the covenant, who follow the rules of purification and self sacrifice that God demands of God’s people.  Uriah clearly cannot be bought off or persuaded.  Even though all we hear from Bathsheba is her admission, “I am pregnant,” we are definitely dealing with an imbalance of power.  When the king says jump, you say, “How high?” or else you may not get to jump again. 

While there is so much more to this passage, essentially we have a parable to remind us that everyone is corruptible, and that the result of selfishness is pain and suffering for others – pain and suffering that we must also bear.  And so we must ask ourselves, “Where does my selfishness become a burden to others?”  And we must ask ourselves, “What are the opportunities to deny myself that will benefit others?”  And we must ask ourselves, “Where do I see faithfulness happening in those that I do not think of as faithful?”

As if it were an answer to these questions and to the sin of David, we have received John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand.  John tells the story a little differently than the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  In John’s gospel the story is set as a prelude to the Passover, and over the next few weeks we’ll be talking about Jesus as the bread of life.  Today, Jesus is concerned with feeding people.  He’s concerned with the way we see scarcity when there is actually a great deal of abundance. 

I love this version because it is the one with the boy who shares his lunch.  I’ve heard it said that the miracle may not have been some mystical metaphysical trick as much as it was the breaking of hearts that encouraged them all to share.  While I think there is something to that, I don’t have a need to de-mystify or rationalize the miracle.  Certainly we can be called to greater equality and sharing of resources by this passage, but I think there is something more to it than that.

That something more is that it is the presence of sin and evil that makes us believe that we never have enough, that we ourselves are not enough, and even that God is not enough to answer the place of need we find ourselves in.  And yet Jesus told this crowd of five thousand to sit down, for there was much grass.  And Jesus confronted his disciples with the need around them.  Then Jesus honored and blessed and distributed generosity – the smallest kindness he could find. 

And because their needs were met, the people wanted to make him king. They wanted him to keep meeting their needs.  And Jesus stepped away.  Then we have this weird telling of Jesus walking on the water and the boat arriving on the shore.  John’s gospel tacks this story onto the end as if to say that making Jesus king is missing the point.

It’s not enough to say, “OK, Jesus, you’re in charge now.”  The opportunity of faith does not begin and end with realizing that there is a God and it is not me.  The opportunity of faith is with us throughout, and it moves us to the shore when we recognize that Jesus is so much more than “in charge.”  Jesus reveals to us the height and depth and breadth of God’s love so that we become aware of the part we play.

I don’t think that we become any less opportunistic.  I think we just become more aware of the opportunities that reflect the heart of God.  And the heart of God is broken when we are broken.  The heart of God limits the powers of those that claim to have authority over life.  The heart of God inspires us to feed, love, and share well beyond our means – to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” 

Sometimes we accomplish these things together.  Like when the shots rang out in the Grand Theater, and on the other side of town the Lafayette High Band closed their practice session by singing the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

Sometimes we have work to do on our own, but I believe that everything we do impacts others and echoes in eternity.  One such echo was posted by John Petersen as he reflected on the loss of his friend, Jillian this week. 

John wrote, “Do good work.  I remember reading those words in Jillian’s ‘Be You’ feature in 2012 and thinking about how well they embodied her, both personally and professionally.  I saw her as a sort of den mother to the growing community of young entrepreneurs and creative professionals in Lafayette over recent years.

I never told her I viewed her that way, but I wish I had; and I’m sure many others admired and respected her similarly.  She had a self-assuredness, wisdom, and clarity of thought that are rare—and it was clear within minutes of meeting her.

She was an inspiration for how to live well—how to create, and explore, and build something meaningful—to do good work, and do it joyfully.

I’m heartbroken.

I’m also determined to see Jillian’s legacy live on; that we continue to become the community she envisioned and helped to pioneer; that we all live the values she should still be here to demonstrate through her amazing example:

Be nice.  Do good work.  Try hard.  Listen.  Love.

If there is a solution for ending senseless acts like this one, those values are a good starting point for reaching it.”

Be nice.  Do good work.  Try hard.  Listen.  Love.  That sounds like the type of opportunistic behavior that Jesus demonstrated for his disciples.  Let us resolve to seek opportunities to demonstrate God’s love in all that we do.  Let us resolve to challenge systems of power that limit and destroy life!  Let us resolve to answer the questions of sin and evil with the expectation of God’s abundant love that is so big that even the scraps can fill you up!

In all that we do, let us continue to look for ways to move from selfishness to service and from an expectation of scarcity to an experience of abundance.  And to God be the glory, now and always.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Christmas in July – The Struggle Is Real

Have you ever wished that there was a way to keep the Christmas Spirit all year long? I don’t mean all of the rushing around, eating too much, and feeling like something is missing. That stuff you can keep. I mean the sense of wonder, the hope that we truly can be at peace, and the moments of stillness when there is no time left to do the things that have been left undone. 

Oh how I wish we could bottle up the way people treat each other with just a little more love and charity during the weeks that lead to the celebration of the birth of Jesus! What would it smell like – fresh baked cookies, pine trees, or maybe just cinnamon? What would it sound like – favorite carols, Handle’s Messiah, or maybe just the story of the nativity of Jesus?

Of course there is a reason that we only celebrate Christmas once a year. It is because we need the anticipation of Advent and the revelation of Christmas Eve to demonstrate what we believe. And we believe that the God of the universe chose to be revealed in a special way through the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph and the vulnerability of the Christ-child.  

And today, while we remember the sights and sounds of Christmas and the good feeling we get from joy filled celebration, we remember that God is still with us – even as the world still cries out for salvation. Today we are bold to celebrate Christmas in July as a part of our continued efforts to integrate our calling to express the love of God with our practices as a congregation. Our vision, our sense of identity as a congregation is that we are “A Place to Experience, Explore, and Express the Love of God.”

Some time back the Fellowship Committee realized that our monthly gatherings for lunch were a perfect place to celebrate the various mission projects and relationships we share in the community. So, we started calling those lunches our “Express Lunch” where we “express the love of God” through these projects and partnerships. 

Today we are highlighting our relationship with the C.U.P.S. Basket Ministry. For those who are not familiar with it, C.U.P.S. (Communities Uniting in Prayer and Service) was formed after the storms of 2005 to meet the needs of those displaced by the hurricanes. One of the ways that we have continued to support them is by offering space and materials for gift baskets at Christmas, Easter, and throughout the year. C.U.P.S. produces baskets for birthdays for children at risk and as gifts for teachers, families of inmates, our Meals on Wheels Clients, our LARC cleaning crew, and even a few nursing homes. Sue Turner and her crew of elves take new and gently used items and make them into expressions of care and love for those who often go unnoticed, and we’ll be helping her with some of the basic preparations after lunch today.

Perhaps the basket ministry is an obvious proclamation of the Gospel, but I think there is yet more the scriptures hold for us today. Acts of charity certainly are an expression of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, but we must be careful to remember that they are the end result of faith, and not the means. Besides, it is easy to do something good and feel justified. 

The harder road is to recognize our own need for charity and how it intersects with those we think of as needy. The harder road is to consider the way our faith offers reconciliation not only with God, but with each other. The harder road is to consider how oppression affects the powerful and the powerless alike, and how God has called for an end to it through Jesus Christ!

Oppression is a good place to start. I grew up believing that oppression was outlawed in America, and technically it is. Oppression can be defined as systematic, ongoing, cruel or unjust treatment or control. Oppression can be something overt and intentional like slavery – which is arguably worse today than any point in human history – or it can be insidious and idealistic like racism or classism or sexism. So, yes, oppression still happens, even in these United States.

In the time of Isaiah oppression was fairly straightforward. It came in the form of the invading Assyrians who overthrew Israel. Having a border nation with a shared heritage overthrown will get your attention. The people of Judah saw the light. When King Hezekiah came in, he cleaned up all the religious places and kicked out the foreign Gods. The people, for a time, were safe.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel certainly knew that Isaiah was writing about Hezekiah, but he also knew that the struggle against oppression was still real. That’s why he used the prophecy to refer to Jesus. And although many will debate the virgin birth and the idea that all kings claimed some kind of divinity, that’s not really the point of the author of Matthew’s Gospel. His point is not about mystical revelation. Matthew’s Gospel is about faithfulness to God. Matthew is concerned about faithfulness to the God who redeems, and he is concerned with the response of God’s people. And he is not shy about the fact that faith is something that is both practical and risky. In the story we shared today, Joseph has decided to divorce (dismiss) Mary quietly – even though they aren’t married yet. 

In those days the engagement was as binding as the wedding, even though they were not supposed to be together until after the wedding. Mary has been revealed to him as pregnant, and although the text says “by the Holy Spirit” all Joseph knows is that Mary had another dance partner. Joseph is described as righteous because he is willing to divorce her quietly. He could go to court and clear his name, sort of. He might get back the bride price if he paid one. But he is unwilling to take away her dignity just to save his own. It is a lose / lose situation for Joseph, but he is righteous because he knows that being right is not always the same thing as doing the right thing.

Then Joseph takes righteousness a step further. An angel visits him in a dream and tells him that this child will be “Emmanuel, which means God with us.” And because of a dream – because of a belief in the active presence of God and his faith in the God who is remembered in song and ceremony for redeeming God’s people – Joseph makes the connection between righteousness and mercy, and he took Mary as his wife. And together they created a hospitable space in the world for the presence of God to enter in.

And isn’t that what we are called to do, even here, even now, even today? The struggle is still real. Opinions fly like sharpened knives over what it means to be courageous, over the free access to military grade weaponry, and over the reality of racial tension in our land. We segment ourselves off with other birds with similar feathers. We lob emails and articles and memes across the trenches of the internet, and we take positions of righteousness because we think we know what is best. And sometimes we do. But sometimes being right is not the same as doing the right thing. Sometimes we have to be willing to find the connection between righteousness and mercy in order to be faithful to the God who is in the business of redemption.

That’s why Paul told the church in Ephesus to remember how it used to be. He wanted them to remember how it used to be before they experienced God’s activity in their lives, before real faith began, before redemption made sense to them. For some of us that may be hard to understand. If you grew up in the church you may not have a moment when you did not know about God. But consider this, Paul said that redemption was both the Gentiles and the Jews.

All are in need of redemption, for in the same way that hanging out in a garage does not make you a mechanic, going to church does not make you a disciple of Jesus! But the church is still the place that God calls us to become. And the church does not become the church just because people who are nice to each other sing Christmas Carols. The church becomes the church when people who cannot even speak to each other for fear of losing status and resources and identity sit down to share a meal and find out that they are each beloved in the eyes of God.

In some small way, my hope is that the baskets we make this year will demonstrate the fact that we see people – people who normally go unnoticed – as God’s beloved. And yet I know that God is pushing us toward something more. For God has broken down the dividing wall between us and put hostility to death! I’m sure that those in the news media will disagree with that – given the inconvenience it would cause them – but I’ll stand by it.

I’ll stand by this text because I believe that God has put hostility to death in two ways. First, God has put hostility to death eternally. The end result of all things will be that God’s love consumes everything. All the hostility in the world is like a pebble in the ocean when compared to the love of God. And secondly, God has put hostility to death immediately between those who love God. God’s love is so enormous that hostility between those who love God lasts about as long as a candle under a glass. When we truly love God and express God’d love in our relationships, hostility simply dies. It has no fuel. It is snuffed out.

Then we become like building blocks – with Christ as the cornerstone – for a hospitable space in the world for the presence of God to enter in! That’s what Paul encouraged the Ephesians to become. And for a while they did, and they were safe. Historians believe they lasted for around 148 years

It does make me wonder – maybe safe is not the thing we want to be. Maybe we should be open to the struggles that are real and oppressive. Maybe we should be taking the risk of losing status and power in order to temper righteousness with mercy. Maybe we should be as worried about our own need for reconciliation with others as we are worried about our need for reconciliation with God.

Or maybe worried isn’t the right word. Maybe excited is a better word! After all, today we are celebrating Christmas, even in July, for we are a people of the story of redemption. And we have been redeemed so that we might become an example of the power of God’s amazing love. Somehow I see us as a part of that dome that snuffs out the fires of hostility and creates an open space for love to grow. Somehow I see us as the ones who bear that love into the world as our stories are woven with all who follow Jesus! Somehow, I still believe that God is active and present in all that we do and say.

So when you say, “Merry Christmas!” think of it as a shout for all oppression to cease. When you say, “Merry Christmas!” think of it as a call to righteousness that requires mercy. And When you say, “Merry Christmas!” remember that God is with you, molding and shaping us like clay in the potter’s hands into something ever more beautiful, ever more useful, and ever more faithful to God’s story of redemption – even here, even now. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!