Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Public Servants

As some of you know, I had the unique experience of offering the opening prayer for the Stump Speech event at the Horse Farm yesterday.  I have done several of these types of public prayers over the last couple of years, and I must confess that it is always odd to me.  It’s odd because of the way in which our society has changed – such that the voice of the church has become one that blesses more than challenges. 

These invitations to pray at public events – that clearly have nothing to do with the church – are odd to me, because I am clearly a minority voice in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic culture.  The experience of public prayer is odd to me, because I keep calling for God to help us become more just to the poor, more able to confess sin for allowing conditions that contribute to poverty and suffering, and more willing to do something about it.  I keep expecting to have offended someone, and yet they keep asking me back.

It may be that I’m the only sucker willing to do it.  It may be that I wear a collar and my prayers are short.  Either way, I like to do it if I am available.  When else do I get to invite a group of 50-100 people to church all at the same time?  I do think it is important that the church offers a prophetic witness in public conversations, and I do think that we have a unique theological perspective that needs to be shared.  While I can certainly attempt to speak in that way, my voice is nothing compared to what we can say and do together.
For example, while I may have given a theological kick-off, there were at least three different emcees throughout the day, and most of the crowd did not arrive until after the second one took the stage.  Where was the prophetic voice? 

Several candidates did speak about their faith as a credential.  Some used their families in the same way.  All of them spoke about their hopes and expectations.  A few acknowledged the challenges we face as a growing community.  Fewer still acknowledged that there is suffering in our midst, even in the happiest town in the U.S. 

Several of these candidates talked about being accessible and working with local business and community leaders to find creative solutions to the issues we face.  And as much as I hate to admit it, listening to these candidates was both inspiring and confronting.  They, in some way, became as a prophetic voice to me.  It was inspiring to see people who were truly passionate about creating a community that people want to live in.  It was confronting, because it made me ask myself what kind of community member I have been called to be. 

I have to confess, the idea of community forums and governments is not exciting.  Don’t we elect other people because we don’t want to have to deal with these issues?  I guess that may be true in some ways, but when I lay that argument against scripture it doesn’t seem to hold up too well – particularly the passages we’ve received today.  These passages seem to form a chorus that remind us that faith may be personal, but it is never private.  For we are called to be a people of God, not just a collection of constituents of an elected official.

Our Psalm is, of course, about the history of salvation that had been experienced by the ancient followers of Yahweh God.  Their story is very clearly about God’s action to them as a people.  The pilgrims that would have sung this while ascending to the temple weren’t just saying, “Wow.  Good choice.  Without God that could’ve been so much worse.”  They were saying, “Without God, we would not be.”  God is not their God because they chose God.  God is their God because God chose them. 

Something that is just as important, though, is to recognize that God is not absent in suffering.  In fact, God is more real to them because they have suffered and have survived as a people.  In the book of James we find an even more intimate experience of God in community.  Now, obviously this was written before the discovery of antibiotics.  But there is still much to gain by thinking of the connection between sin and sickness.

I do not mean to suggest that illness can be prayed away, but I will say that prayer can make the difference between recovery and loss.  Prayer can help us understand the difference between brokenness and wholeness – between what is permanent and what is fleeting.  There are certainly those who have experienced God’s miraculous touch, and we should never presume to limit God’s hand.  God will do what God will do, and our prayers of joy and longing that are shared in community will move us into a deeper understanding of who we are, who God is, and how we might experience God together.

I say this because I believe it, and because you have shown it to me – here in this place!  Yet we also carry around with us the human tendency to go it alone, to neglect the needs of those in our care, and to become isolated by thinking that it’s easier to do it ourselves.  Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't, calls this bad habit “working in silos.”  We all do it.  I do it.

I realized how terrible I am about it a little over a week ago when I went to see Maisie out at Maison de Lafayette.  In her joy at seeing me I realized my own in seeing her.  In her confession of feeling isolated I realized my own isolation.  And as we shared a Coke I listened to her tell me how much she misses coming to church, she said, “My church is who I am.”

Even as I read the words of Jesus I realize that the same words are true for each of us – our church is who we are as a people of faith.  These words affect us such that sometimes we do not even realize that there are others following Jesus.  We feel competitive and anxious over our turf and our efforts, when the proof is in the casting out of demons.  Jesus turns the tables on us again and again to ask us where we see the demons of poverty, oppression, religious extremism, and indifference being cast out.

Again, these words were written well before the scientific era, but they remind us that the proof of faith is in the pudding.  Sometimes we adopt the words of our leaders that say, “Those who aren’t with us are against us!”  Yet Jesus clearly says, “If they are not against us, then they are for us,” and then he goes on to confront the disciples with their own behavior.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”  This was obviously not taken literally by the disciples.  There are no records of communities that practiced self-mutilation as a spiritual discipline.  While we can take comfort in that, let’s not lose the impact that Jesus is making here.  What we do and say in community has eternal consequences.  And those consequences – for good or for ill – begin in our relationships here and now. 

In a commentary called Feasting on the Word, Daniel Migliore describes the consequences Jesus warns us about.  He writes, “Hell is simply wanting to be oneself apart from God's grace and in isolation from others….  Hell is self-destructive resistance to the eternal love of God.”

And so we who are the church must become a community of grace for one another again and again and again.  James tells us that we have to be willing to confront one another about it.  We must be willing to have difficult conversations that lead to salvation.  And he tosses out a carrot, telling us that if we do lead someone back into the covenant of grace our own sins are covered.  I don’t think that means that we can do what we want and God will sort it out as long as we end up doing what God wants.  That may be what happens, but that doesn’t really sound like a way to live as a people that demonstrate grace and mercy and forgiveness and kindness.

Our motivation for moving with one another toward salvation must always be one of love.  And love encourages confession.  And confession results in sacrifice.  But the good news is that there is grace in letting go.  There is freedom in sacrifice, and there is hope in love. 
I don’t know what the future holds for us as a people of God.  I do believe that we are at a turning point in our ministry.  I believe that new things will be required of each of us as the Kingdom of God unfolds before us.  It’s a little scary to think of things this way, but I tell you this.  You have my vote.  More importantly, you have God’s.  As a people elected for service in the Kingdom of God, there are no limits to our ability to demonstrate grace and mercy and forgiveness.

For we have been called to have salt within us.  If we begin to think of ourselves as the salt, we can become corrosive – or we can simply lose our flavor!  But if we have salt within us – that is the love of God in our hearts – then the salt becomes a preservative, and we become a people defined by the resolution of our conflicts.  Or, perhaps more importantly, we become a people who demonstrate, in the words of Dr. King., “the presence of justice.” 

That’s what happens when we have salt in us – the salt of suffering and loss that makes God’s presence undeniable – we become a people who cast out demons of indifference and oppression. When our personal faith transforms our public lives we find salvation together, and we realize that we truly are a people of God.  So, let us not stumble or cause one another to fall. And when we do, let’s be willing to talk to one another about it.  Let us be about the business of being God’s people here in this place.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Words Matter

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about the importance of actions, and we need to hold that in mind as part of the argument of the scriptures today. When I say argument I don’t mean that the readings are in conflict with one another. I mean that they have a point to prove, a proclamation to offer, and the intent of winning over our lives through their conviction.

We have small arguments like these all the time. I say small because – while scripture is concerned with our individual experiences – scripture is ultimately concerned with a greater reality than our personal preferences. One such small argument that happened in our house last week was over mayonnaise. 

Yes, I was shocked to find that my daughter – in a blind taste test – had the audacity to prefer a different mayonnaise than the one that I have raised her on. To her credit, I later found that her preferred brand is produced in Louisiana, whereas my beloved mayonnaise is from South Carolina. I later condescended to my own blind taste test, and was comforted that – while both are tasty – my preference remains loyal.

While this is a silly argument, it is packed with words that matter – words like “prefer” and “loyal.” Unspoken realities are also being expressed, like the connection between experience and location and heritage that help us interpret our world in order to make sense of it. Ultimately, that’s what words do for us and why they are so important. They help us to make sense of the world we experience. Words help us construct our realities and invite one another to be a part of the world we live in together even though we interpret it differently.

Interpreting our environment and making decisions that are not simply reactive but actually constructive are some of the characteristics that – according to anthropologists – define what it means to be human. Well, that and hand tools… and language acquisition… those are on the list of what sets us apart. Of course, some will argue that there are complex societies, languages, and problem solving characteristics in everything from insects to Banyan trees, and that our most unique trait is that we work together to intentionally destroy ourselves. 

And that’s why words are so important, and not just any words – but words that reveal the truth. Words that are used in the right way can put a person on the moon. Words used in the wrong way can send us into the depths of despair. 

I heard a news report the other day about the politics between calling those fleeing Syria “refugees” verses “immigrants.” Then I saw a picture of an idilic city street that could have been in any civilized country, but it happened to be in Syria. Then I saw a picture of the same street, having been reduced to rubble and ash – all because of the words we use to speak about our relationship to the greater truth of God.

Of course, the atheist and the agnostic will say that all wars are fought because of religion. While there may be some truth in that, wars are not fought because of God. They are fought because of the words we use to talk about God and the actions that follow those words. Well, actually they are fought because of economic realities of inequality, but it’s just so convenient to say that they are about God.

And in the midst of our war torn world we wage private campaigns for peace, for the protection of those we love, or just for our personal freedom to be who we believe God created us to be. And in this holy space of longing we hear the words of the Psalmist reminding us that God’s laws are good for us. Particularly, this Psalm is referring to the ten commandments and the way they frame our relationship with God and with each other. 

And through the example of Jesus we can see that the law of God is not a barrier to God or a way to be good so much as it is a way to respond to the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. And in today’s passage, Jesus is throwing out the biggest “spoiler alert” that he can possibly offer to his disciples and to the crowds that are following him. Now, these crowds must be a mix of people at this point.

He’s gone further up into gentile territory. Caesarea Philipi was a Roman held area that was formerly a place of worship for the Greek God, Pan. There was a cave where they made sacrifices, and it had these huge sculptures on display. The Romans also placed statues of themselves, and Philip II printed his image on their coins right around the time that Jesus came through, but certainly by the time Mark’s gospel was written. Just as in Syrophoenecia, there are people who are coming because he is supposed to have power – power to heal and the power to command the elements and feed the masses. 

They have come because whether they are devout jews or God fearing people who want Roman oppression to end, they want to know if he is the one whom God – any God – has sent to save them. And Jesus begins, this time, with his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets!” they say. Then he says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter nails it, “You’re the Messiah of God!”

Then Jesus says, “Yes, but tell no one. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to suffer and die and rise again.” Peter can’t handle these words. This is definitely not his brand of mayonnaise. He pulls Jesus aside. “So, I get it that you’re a little worried about our trip to Jerusalem, but let’s not get too excited. It’ll be fine. Really…” And for that he becomes Satan. Wait, what?

J. R. Daniel Kirk, New Testament Professor at Fuller Seminary and host of Lectiocast, suggests that Peter, the disciple, pulled the Rabi Jesus aside to instruct him. That meant that he was no longer following Jesus but attempting to lead him – and to lead him astray. So, when Jesus said, “Get behind me.” He was telling Peter to literally move back into a position of a disciple. The idea of “Satan” at that time was a way to describe opposition to God. So, Peter was representing Satan because he was not behind Jesus with the other disciples.

It makes me wonder. How many of my prayers are essentially requests for God to act in a way that I want God to act? How often do we look at prayer as a tool to clue God into what we want or need instead of seeing prayer as a way to align ourselves with what God wants and needs. That’s essentially what Jesus told the crowd when he told them to pick up a cross and follow him.

For this crowd, you have to remember that the cross was an instrument of death. Some of them may have already seen a family member on a cross. More than that, it was Rome’s attempt to say that they controlled the Jewish people in life and in death. For it is written, “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.”

So, this story is a turning point in Mark’s gospel from a Messiah who demonstrates cosmic power over the elements to a Messiah who is willing to suffer in order to reveal the power of God. Jesus reveals a deeper understanding of what it means to challenge earthly powers and he invites us to do the same. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Apart from military service, or some extreme voluntary role like Doctors Without Borders, it’s impossible for us to understand the call to the cross in any way other than metaphorically. I doubt that God truly wants us all to become martyrs. At the same time, I believe God calls us to constantly let go of the things we hold sacred and dear so that we can see what is of God and what is not.

Sometimes that means letting go of physical things that clutter our lives. Sometimes it means letting go of a destructive habit or relationship. Sometimes it means letting go of a belief or an ideal. Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping your mouth shut, thinking before you post something on line, or doing some research before you forward that email.

Ultimately our words matter, and they should line up with our actions. I’m not in the habit of quoting politicians, but I really like the way New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said:

Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people;

before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children;

before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors.

In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.

Now, may it be that our words and deeds reveal a deeper understanding of truth. May it be that our words and deeds help us understand our relationship with all of God’s creation. May it be that our words and deeds demonstrate more and more access to the love of God in which we live, move, and have our being. And to God be the glory – now and always, amen.