Thursday, September 25, 2014

O The Places You Will Go! (Matthew 4:12-35)

“Follow me!”

Jesus says a few more words to these fishermen but that first part needs some mulling over. The response to “Follow me!” is not a long conversation between Jesus and the fishers. Indeed, they drop everything: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him”. Why would they do this? What is the power of Jesus’ words “Follow me”?

Well, first a little Grammar 101. Back in elementary school, we learned the basics of grammar, including how to diagram a sentence by nearly contorting your body as you worked out a sentence on the chalkboard with all the little parts of dissecting a long sentence. One fellow was working hard, and then told the teacher: “Mrs. Bennett, I ran out of chalkboard!”

During Grammar 101, we learned about imperative sentences. If you speak in the imperative, you do not make an offer. You give a command. “Pass the salt” drops the “you”, but it means you do it. I recollect the teacher saying, “Remember (ironically she uses an imperative sentence to communicate the lesson!) imperatives are like “emperors”, who give orders.”

In giving imperatives (“Repent!” and “Follow me!”), Jesus presumes authority. The gospels situate Jesus just prior to calling disciples in the midst of divine affirmation (the baptism with its celebration and spectacle) and then in the midst of great temptation (the wilderness with its fierce loneliness and austere denial). He emerges from these intense moments clearly ready to begin his ministry, and he moves with divine authority, the highest power known.

Then, Matthew records: “Now when Jesus heard John the Baptist had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” You might think at first that Jesus is on the run, but really, he is going to where he believes the message can take root. The “powers that be” of Jerusalem and Herod’s court take away John the Baptist and silence the prophetic voice. The voice of Jesus, the Christ, is heard not by the elite, but the disregarded few working on the margins. These plain folks hear what Jesus means in saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” and “Follow me!”

Even before we are told that these fishermen become part of the core group of Jesus’ followers, even before we learn that their discipleship is sometimes shaped more trial and error at best, and at worst, doubt, denial, and betrayal, we learn that these fisher men accept the challenge without question. They hear a command that they are willing to take. They accept the call—even to the point of leaving everything to do so. If we read this story with due respect and sobriety, you ought to tremble! Those who read this text and taken it with the same spirit as those in the story have been known to change in a manner that the other New Testament writers might call “dying to self!”

Clarence Jordan writes, “They translate that [in most modern English translations] ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ But in the Greek it is much deeper than that. Much more vital than that. Change your whole way of thinking, for you are now confronted with the new order of God’s Spirit. A whole new way of thinking is upon you. Change your old ideas, and get in with this new movement that is coming upon you.”

Jordan translates it, “Change your whole way of thinking, for the new order of God’s Spirit is confronting you”. (Dallas Lee, editor, The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Path Sermons by Clarence Jordan, pp. 59-60)

I think it is a tough sell, all that imperative talk of “follow me!” Stand in the crossroads of life and just listen and look all around you. The world is full of competitors for your time, attention, and oh yes, money. I remember standing in New York City’s Times Square. It was the middle of the night, and yet it seemed like daytime with all of the lights, all of the noise, all of the vendors and stores. You had your choice of musicals and plays. You could buy a hotdog for a $1.50 or a $150 dinner for two, and it was 11 PM at night.

The world seemed shoved somehow into that tiny little square, literally and figuratively alike. The people trudged through the crowded streets (and sometimes even off the sidewalks and into the midst of street traffic), and the night muted by the intense glow of “Drink Coca-Cola” or “Watch ABC’s new show on Tuesday nights!” on the high-def screens towering above. Literally, that is Times Square on an average night. Figuratively, that is the world that Jesus stands in the midst of, saying, “Change your whole way of thinking. Follow me!”

It astonishes me further while reading Matthew that these disciples kept following. Family ties, livelihoods, and worldviews all got turned upside down. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The call to follow is a tough one to accept, for we know in this world, with its competing attempts to claim our life—as customers, citizens, supporters, voters, donors, adherents—as theirs to claim, not everything offering or commanding you to follow is healthy, let alone worthwhile to follow.

You read Matthew’s gospel, and you see these four fishermen keep cropping up in the narrative. Called “disciples”, they follow a teacher and the teacher’s ways and instruction. An odd assortment of folks from various walks of life, some accustomed to an honest day’s work and others who are quite simply dishonest. A tax collector named Matthew, versed in the usual graft and greed, sits in his fine clothes alongside Simon Peter, the threadbare fisherman who worked from dawn to dusk if it was a good day and made very little take home pay at that. It still astonishes, they heard “Follow me” and did so.

We might look at the fishermen’s leave taking as just “walking off the job”. There is something deeper at work here. These fishermen are stepping out of the world that they know, taking leave of the myths that have driven them so hard. These fishermen are closer to the migrant workers, persons who are taken advantage of by the system. These fishermen are expendable parts of the system, and yet here are “the little guys” being subversive. They are on the lower rungs, not even blue collar workers, but they follow Jesus, whose teachings point to a world where Caesar, Herod, and “the way it is to be” are taken leave. These fishermen learn a different script that describes a world shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the Cross.

Pondering how discipleship comes about, the “answer” to the question of “why would a person do this?” is quite simply “obedience”. At the same time, I am quite aware that this understanding can be bent around or malformed in the hands of the overzealous or those too rigid or dogmatic for their own good. Obedience can become myopic, uncritical, or off-track. I think that contemporary North American theologian Douglas John Hall offers a helpful word: “Obedience, far from being a blind adherence to prescribed commandments, entails imagination, ingenuity, and involvement”. (Confessing the Faith, 433)

Jesus called to these fishermen not to be “super apostles”. (Church tradition has sometimes taken the early disciples, especially the Twelve, and done just!) Rather, he calls them to follow using the skills they have: I will make you fishers of people. The life they have led still counts. There is no “one size fits all” type of disciple. Folks with rough edges are welcome! As Hall claims, following Christ is an opportunity for “imagination, ingenuity, and involvement”. In obedience, the disciple follows. In obedience, the disciple brings one’s life, skills, and story to the mix and enriches the journey through their own individuality and abilities. Simon Peter and the other fishermen sit alongside the other odd characters who are called Jesus’ disciples.

Even you can be in the midst of these disciples, you who hear Christ’s call to follow. Wherever you are in life, Christ invites you to follow him on a journey. In obedience, you bring yourself, because that is who Jesus called: you, the unique person who is still the same mixture of greatness and failing alike as any other who walks this earth. Whether you fish, sell, file, bake, dance, build, counsel, till, wait upon, tailor, instruct, parent, any of those things and more, you are called to follow and share that faith as obedient followers of Jesus. Will you hear Christ’s call and follow?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The End of Things (Reflections on Ecclesiastes and Luke 12:13-21)

A sermon from awhile back that I thought I'd share when the Lectionary had a great parable and a powerful reading from the Wisdom Literature:

In my first congregation, a group of senior citizens gathered each Wednesday night for bible study. We selected the entire book of Ecclesiastes to work our way through. You might find it a bit morose, this book of Ecclesiastes. The narrator, called “the Preacher” or “Teacher”, wanders through the world, decrying that all is vanity. No matter the achievements, no matter the fortunes, no matter the fame, all things are found lacking. The narrator says, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”  (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…the narrator of Ecclesiastes must be fun at parties!)

Reading Ecclesiastes with the senior citizen group, however, was a deep experience. Together with a group of folks who have lived long years and seen much along the way, I discovered Ecclesiastes as that sort of deep wisdom that only becomes clear after you have lived a bit. Life can seem a series of disasters tinged with occasional success, or closed doors suddenly open, then shut, and then open again, and Ecclesiastes moves in the midst of such realization about life. There is nothing new, no use trying to be more than human. You will fail; you will triumph. Do not get failure or success confused with divine favor or disproval. Life will be life.

In the 2005 film Little Miss Sunshine, the story of a deeply dysfunctional family unfolds as they undertake a road trip across the country. The young daughter has an opportunity to achieve something: participating in a pageant for little girls. The family struggles to get there, as much with the van (that they wind up having to push to start up each time the engine is turned off) as they do with dealing with being in close quarters with one another. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the film’s title with its characters cannot be more apt, reinforced by one of the opening shots: a close-up of the character portrayed by comedian Steve Carrell, a man who is quite miserable, suicidal, and feels as if life has lost its meaning, staring into the nothingness in the midst of a mental ward. As he stares, the title appears: Little Miss Sunshine. The man is a leading literary scholar, yet his career, love life, and will to live have been eclipsed by a run of misfortune and his own increasing gloom and bitterness.

The narrator of Ecclesiastes seems to join in: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” If you read Ecclesiastes 2, you encounter the long experiment with excess that the narrator of Ecclesiastes tries out: power, wealth, possessions. All of these things are in his grasp, yet he feels like he is empty. “All is vanity and chasing after the wind.”
At the same time, in all of its wanderings through the gloom of life, the writer of Ecclesiastes points toward something greater than this unending folly of human life. For every reference to the futility of human life, there is an affirmation of life with God. The folly is seen as seductive, and the wise path is found for those who eschew the excessiveness.

The 1999 Oscar winner for Best Picture is the film American Beauty, the story of a suburban family that is deeply dysfunctional. While having the perks of life (the picket fence, SUV-driving ideal life of white, middle-class America), the family lives out Thoreau’s observation that most of us “live lives of quiet desperation”. The family finds little consolation in all of their stuff, indeed, not even in their relationships with one another. The storylines of each family member takes him or her on a journey seeking something more fulfilling, but instead, they find themselves even further away from happiness. Thoreau notes, “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

In the midst of this abysmal story comes a beautiful yet near elusive moment of grace. A neighbor boy takes the young daughter to see his collection of home videos, including this seemingly inane footage of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. While caught up in selling and abusing drugs, the neighbor boy finds something stirring and different in the experience of filming life with his video camera. This plastic bag floating down an alley makes him see something through his camera lens. He explains as he filmed this scene,

This bag was just...dancing with a kid begging me to play with it…That’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid ever…. Video is a poor excuse..but it helps me remember. I need to remember…Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it…and my heart, she’s going to cave in.” (Excerpt from script, quoted from Robert K. Johnston, Useless Beauty, p. 62-63).

This is where the parable from Luke also joins in. Jesus tells a story that I imagine will never lose its relevance. It is not a criticism of wealth. Rather, it is a criticism of the rich who are not content to be the “haves”, rather, they seek to be the “have more” type. The farmer is not content with good crops and barns to store them. Instead, he launches into building bigger barns and storing away even more. To Jesus’ audience, living in first century Palestine, where nearly everyone did not own property, any story about a wealthy landowner presumed that those who were got this way by being exploitative. Like the Grinch from Dr. Seuss, this man’s heart has grown several sizes too small.

The parable resounds in the full-length feature The Simpsons Movie.  In this storyline, the entire town is experiencing a devastating power loss. As the townspeople go to Mr. Burns, the owner of the town’s nuclear power plant, for help, you cannot help but notice the irony. As most of Springfield flickers in and out of power, high up on the hill above, the Burns mansion is lit brightly, with huge neon signs blazing “Happy Holidays from Monty Burns”.

The townspeople ask Mr. Burns for help, and he shows them two buttons on his desk. One button will give the town below all the power it needs. The other button, if pushed, will release the guard dogs to chase the townsmen away if he is unconvinced by their requests for help. Mr. Burns can provide for others, yet as the scene cuts away from the pleas of the townspeople, Burns is heard telling the men which way to run out of the mansion as the dogs start baying.

The parable mirrors Ecclesiasates and the more dodgy side of human nature as the story involves the farmer-turned-hoarder being told that his life was to end that very night. The beauty of life is not found in possessions or any other insular hedonisms of your choosing. As Thoreau writes, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Or as Jesus warns, do not store up for yourself and be not rich toward God.

The pragmatic critique of Ecclesiastes and the social criticism embedded within the world of Jesus’ parables resound in the midst of our own day. Whether we find ourselves sitting in a darkened movie theatre or lounging around the TV with the latest film from on screen, we find ourselves seeing a bit of our own story in popular culture. It causes us to weep, laugh, and even yearn from a place deep down inside ourselves.

And sacred text finds us as well, in wisdom sayings and parable form. The narrator of Ecclesiastes and the parable-spinner Christ beckon to us where we sit in the pews. We hear these words, and perhaps they wound or they liberate, who knows but yourself where these words count the most in your heart.
But, whether through film or scripture, we see yet again that there is a luminous grace that surrounds us, something that makes the heart feel close to bursting. The burdens of the day or along life’s long journey, the need for control fueled by our quiet desperation, it is unmasked as vanity upon vanity. And for those willing to look closely, even beyond themselves, there is wisdom that points to a life that is indeed good, and a faith that is far richer than any possession.

And the old gospel hymn comes to mind, “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of God’s glory and grace.”

Monday, September 8, 2014

Preaching after 9/11

          In the weeks after 9/11, I found myself wondering what should be said from the pulpit.  At the time, I was in seminary, so preaching was not a regular weekly habit.  Nonetheless, I had two Sundays in a row (rare then) when I was asked to speak at area churches in Kansas City.  They happened to be the two Sundays immediately after 9/11.
         Tensions and grief were high.  People were still trying to name what they felt, and we were all feeling especially vulnerable, wondering if additional attacks were on the verge.  What would Sunday morning be like as we gathered to pray and sing and listen to the Word?
         The Sunday just after 9/11 2001 was in a Christian Church/Disciples of Christ congregation I knew fairly well.  I had some rapport from previous times, so I knew it was a group quite okay with a preacher leading them in the balance between words and silence, two necessities when we needed to talk yet felt a bit numb at the same time. 
        The second Sunday, I was out in a rural church in Kansas.  I had some trepidation about going there, as I wondered what the mood would be.  After growing up in a similar community where "blunt talk" was a way of life, my gut feeling said, “Tread carefully!”
         I arrived early enough that an older adult education class was using the sanctuary for Sunday School, which preceded the worship hour.  The class had me sit in while they finished their session.  As you could imagine, the pre-planned scripture study was left to the side.  People were still talking out how they were dealing with the events of the past couple of weeks.
        One old farmer reached into his pocket and pulled out a newspaper clipping.  My gut went into a bit of knot, as my experience growing up in Kansas was generally of the old-timers usually bringing newspaper clippings into the coffee shop, the diner, the barber shop, or yes, even Sunday School classrooms, to air their thoughts (mostly grievances) about what they had read in the paper.  So, I did what I had learned to do:  I braced myself for what would likely be something blistering.
         The old timer read the news article he had found just that morning from the Kansas City Star, the “metro/big city paper” read in that part of Kansas.  The press release announced an interfaith prayer gathering to be led primarily by leading Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy of the area.  I watched the crowd for any reaction when the word “Muslim” was read.
         The old timer finished reading the article, put the clipping back in his pocket, and said, “I think we should all go.”
         There were some nods around the room and the gentle murmur of “Amen.”

         The lectionary cycle of scripture readings on the Sunday after 9/11/2001 just so happened to have the gospel’s parables of God looking for the lost.  That word “lost” had a misfortunate ring to it, given the continuing news stories of families trying to discover if a loved one survived.  Some clergy admitted shying away from the parables suggested for the day.  Others claimed there was a certain strength to be drawn from these particular parables, a word of hope that God is with us, even in times when we feel the most vulnerable or afraid.
        On the 10th anniversary (9/11/2011) which happened to be a Sunday that year, the lectionary suggested another parable (Matthew 18:21-35), one dealing with forgiveness with especial care given to forgive with full awareness of the transgressions and wrongs that occurred.  The unforgiving slave was given great mercy.  He chose not to do the same for another.  A story of sin and forgiveness and mercy and judgement had quite a resonance that day, though I wanted to tread carefully just like a decade prior.
        I do not presume to give a “one size fits all” sermon on how forgiveness should be worked out in relation to the great tragedy of 9/11.  Nonetheless, we should look carefully at theological reflection arising from other circumstances where Christians have been asked to place their faith’s teachings to the test when other great, unimaginable evil has been wrought.  Many Christians elsewhere in the world bear witness to an understanding that forgiveness is a difficult and sometimes slow, measured process.  I cite Desmond Tutu’s writings on leading the “Truth and Reconciliation Process” for a post-apartheid South Africa having to deal with apartheid’s many complexities.  Like Tutu, many works from the global Christian family testify that forgiveness is inescapably part of Christian reflection. Tutu warns that there is no future without forgiveness, and I ponder where we are at, even a decade plus later with resolving the questions raised by 9/11.
           I do see part of the pathway from that time to today has been made easier to travel thanks in part to the interfaith movement. Public opinion began to rage about the role of religion in the world. Many voices wondered if any religion should be deemed credible, let alone a radicalized fundamentalism observed by the hijackers or the type of fundamentalism being broadcast in the aftermath of 9/11 by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as they claimed the attacks came about due to America not following God.  As I said back then, I say now, “Jerry and Pat, if you believe that’s how God acts, it’s time to find a better theology.”)  I lament, and continue to lament, the “guilt by association” endured by American Muslims and other people in this country.  I note with hope that a decade onwards, American Baptists are one of many Christian groups endeavoring to foster friendly and respectful ties with Muslim groups.
        Such work is done with a spirit of humility, a desire not to alienate but to include, and raise up the common good together instead of grasp and struggle for control, the others underfoot.   We may not believe the same, but we hope for a common good within humanity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Worshipping Together

A common joke at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is to begin the first show back from a scheduled hiatus with the idea that it was so fortunate that the show chose to take some time off when it was otherwise quiet.  Then a video montage of the various world and national controversies and crises plays out.  The camera returns to Jon Stewart who looks chastened, and he admits that he was misinformed.

As I look back at the summer, it has been a time of unrest.  A lot of geo-political conflict, along with global health scares and pandemics, partisan gridlock in the usual places of high power, and any number of trivial conflicts stirred up by the "molehills into mountains" headlines created by 24 hour news cycles in search of ratings and attention.

In the midst of the fray and fracas, I note the gathering earlier this summer of Baptists from around the world that took place in Izmir, Turkey.  While some voiced concerns about such a gathering taking place, all accounts point toward a peaceable meeting as Baptists met up with their Turkish counterparts, who were supported and encouraged by the Baptist World Alliance choosing to come to a country where fewer Baptists or Christians in general are to be found.

The BWA General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Neville Callam, shares a helpful reflection on the reasons the Baptist World Alliance serves as a symbol of Christian Unity as well as among Baptists, a global faith body known to insiders and outsiders alike as a sometimes contentious bunch, especially in crowd settings. 

In his article, Callam celebrates how the BWA "cultivates selflessness" through its worship and the organization's value in honoring the multiple languages spoken among its attendees.  I encourage you to read his article via:

The 2014 Biennial of the American Baptist Churches of New York State endeavors to carry out some of this same sensitivity in its planning.  The worship services will feature hymns offered in English and Karen, just two of the languages common to American Baptists worshipping in upstate New York churches.  Music will be offered by African American and Chin church choirs, a contemporary worship band and along with the fine organ at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica.

As part of the Biennial planning committee, I know it's been a new level of effort and complexity for the committee members to navigate the need to synchronize hymns reflected in the two hymnals used at Tabernacle (one in English and one in Karen).  It's been a process of listening carefully to the various needs and sensitivities of our divergent cultures and languages.   Yet, as Neville Callum suggest, worship among many peoples, cultures and languages is a chance to "cultivate selflessness" in ensuring that we remember our greater cause is not our own culture or personal comfort.  It's about praising God in a variety of languages, different and diverse yet made One in Christ.