Monday, July 16, 2018

Saints and Prophets Are Not Always Loved

Saints and Prophets Are Not Always Loved 
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Mark 6:14-29  

Sex and violence; we cannot get away from it even in the scriptures. We have already noted that David’s love for Jonathan made his relationship with King Saul an ongoing battle. In an effort to distract David, and keep a close eye on him, Saul arranged to have David marry his daughter Michal. 
Michal admired David, and initially found him very attractive. This episode, where David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, marks a turn in their relationship. Most of the biblical scholars I have read claim that David was wearing a minimal loincloth while dancing mightily, bringing the Ark to Jerusalem. 
If we are able to name and reconcile David’s bi-sexuality, it is easy to understand Michal being disgusted by him prancing around, gathering the attention of the women and the men. Why can’t he just sit on a throne like a King and let the people do this task under his watchful eye? Why must he put on such an exhibition? It appears that her father’s anger and disgust with David has passed across the generation to her. It happens you know. 
So David brings the Ark, the visible representation of the presence of the almighty God to his capital city. It is an achievement marked without incident. David is generous to the people, as the presence of God ought to cause all of us to be generous. I will not be dancing near naked before the altar of God today, dancing is not one of the gifts God gave me. I believe Michal’s response is an indication that even when we are giving our all in a faithful way, there are always a certain number of detractors. People see things from their own point of view. 
The story of John the Baptist meeting a violent end is also wrapped around another story of dancing and sensuality. Herod, the son of Herod the Great, is ruling the portion of the land with the illustrious capital city of Jerusalem. Herod the ‘not so great’ has been lampooned in public by the preacher and prophet John the Baptist. Finally tired of his attacks, Herod has him arrested. Herod is fascinated by the eccentric prophet, and has engaged in thoughtful conversations with him. 
At a party, Herodius, his daughter-in-law by marriage, entertains the crowd with her dancing. Herod is aroused by the dance. He swears boldly to present her with a lavish gift. I have always imagined that this scene is fueled by alcohol and sexuality. The scripture does not explicitly say that, perhaps it is more reflective of my own limited experience. 
The young girl consults with her mother. Curiously, mother and daughter share the same name. Speaking her mother’s wishes, the dancing queen asks for the head of the prophet John the Baptizer. This appears to pain Herod the ‘not so great’ but he does not want to disappoint the women in his life. The prophet is beheaded. 
Before we go any farther let me interject a specific comment here. John the Baptist is not being penalized by God for his sins. John is not suffering for the sins of his father. John is not suffering in order to ‘learn a lesson.’ 
The popular notion that, ‘everything happens for a reason and is ordained by God,’ is not true and not useful. Bad stuff happens because people choose to be hurtful. Bad things happen because of chance. Bad things happen because human systems are manipulated to serve the rich and powerful, without regard for the suffering of the poor and powerless. 
So let this be a part of today’s lesson. Do not wallow in guilt because of some circumstance beyond your control. You may or may not find a lesson to be learned. You may or may not use the experience to appreciate the presence of God in your life. God does not choose to teach John the Baptist a lesson by having him beheaded, or teach you a lesson by suffering from disease, or being in an accident. God will not abandon you in your troubles, but God does not cause troubles in order to be praised by ‘fixing’ the problem he caused. 
The other thing we should add here, is that John has been very faithful. He has preached the message he was give to preach. He has prepared the way for the arrival of Jesus. He has spoken the truth to power. You can be perfectly faithful to God’s calling and not be appreciated by the powers of this world. In John’s case, his gifts were even appreciated by Herod, and even that did not protect him. 
So today we get a glimpse of the complexity of life, and challenge of being faithful in the world. The world does not always recognize the perspective of being true to God. People have people sized priorities. Alcohol and sexual stimulation can cause people to make inappropriate choices, even if they have been touched by the hand of God. 
Herod ‘the not so great’ was learning and listening to the man of God. He had found the message intriguing. His brain and his heart were stimulated; but not enough to hold the line against alcohol and sensuality. In the final analysis, Herod was ‘not so great.’ 
Do not be persuaded that if you are faithful to God that you will win the day and bask in the glory of the world. The world does not often choose good theology. The popular media is not given to the renderings of the contemplative mind. Sure, we enjoy the one-liners from the Dali Lama, but seldom do we wrestle ourselves for hours with the philosophical and theological challenges that arrived at the door of truth. 
During our Lenten study, Phillip Gulley’s book “If the Church Were Christian” invited us to think about the choices we would make as a faith community if we chose to follow Jesus rather than settle for “belief” in Jesus. We discovered in those conversations, that we have the authority to ask questions of our faith, and question the practices of our faith. This enhances our ability to live more purposefully and more genuinely. 

It can also put us in a precarious position from time to time. Being faithful to God is not sufficient protection from the corrupt powers of the world. But that is ok. We have the presence of God in our lives, strengthened by our place in the faith community. God’s love and grace will never abandon us. And should the axe of those who do evil bring about our sudden departure, then we will know the presence of God in unspeakable glory. On that day, I may dance before the altar. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Faithfulness in Unexpected Places

Faithfulness in Unexpected Events  

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Mark 5:21-43 

David survives the battle where both Saul and his son Jonathan are slain. This makes David, the apparent King of the land. He could selfishly celebrate his newly acclaimed leadership. Instead, David as the leader, calls for the community to mourn for the losses sustained in the war. Victory for David is not achieved without costs. 

David and Saul struggled personally and professionally. Saul did his level best to hem David in, as part of his entourage, as a son-in-law, but still David maintained an independent public personna. The story of David and Jonathan closes in David’s final public declaration of love. As Jonathan fought to the death, in an attempt to preserve his relationship with his father; Saul, meets his own death, conflicted and wounded in body and soul.  

In Mark’s gospel story, Jesus is being pulled in multiple ways all at once. He sets off to do one thing, and is pressed on to do another. No sooner does he redirect his attention, when someone is straining to use his power for their own needs or healing. 

Jesus returns from the events of the storm and in the Golan Heights on the east side of the Galilean Sea, only to be begged by the leader of the synagogue. There is no subtlety intended here. Jesus has been rejected by multiple levels of the “establishment,” and still, when confronted by personal pain, they look for Jesus. More than simply look for Jesus, here the synagogue leader fell at his feet. 

Humility before the power of God is a consistent theme in this portion of Mark’s gospel. In troubled times, when we presume we know too much, or expect head of the line privileges, we should be reminded that the God we know through Jesus, gives priority to those in pain. This theme is also apparent in the Old Testament, though the passages from the Old Testament that speak to protecting the stranger and the alien and the poor, are in disfavor in the culture today.    

Richard Rohr writes, “Jesus critiques and reorders the values of his culture from the bottom up. He ‘betrays’ the prevailing institutions of family, religion, power, and economy (i.e., controlling resources) by his loyalty to another world vision which he calls the Reign of God. Such loyalty cost him popularity, the support of the authorities, immense inner agony, and finally his own life. By putting the picture into the largest possible frame, Jesus called into question all smaller frames and forced a radical transformation of consciousness upon his hearers. Most seemed unready for this paradigm shift, including his inner circle.”

Our times are awkward. Voices on the far right seemingly exalt in attacking the poor and community resources for the poor. Nearly 41 million people in the US population now live below the poverty line. One in five children do not get enough to eat. While the US Ambassador to the UN cries foul at the suggestion that studies need to address the reality of poverty in America, attacks against programs that protect the poor, and health insurance for the poor, and even simple feeding programs, are targeted. 

Distractingly, the voices on the far left resort to name calling and demonizing. In a day and an age when facts are more readily available than at any time in human history, the daily noise appears to be devoted to characterizations and personal attacks.  

I try to be aware of the issues talked about at the extremes, and then try to seek the facts. It takes some genuine effort at times. But we know, relationships are like that. We have to do our best to listen, and be prepared to enter the give and take of negotiations in order to preserve a relationship with respect for the other. 

Jesus could easily brush off Jairus. We have read how the authorities are already looking to bring Jesus to defeat. The entire plot line of Mark’s telling of the Jesus story is driven by the determination to destroy Jesus based beginning with the first verses of Chapter 3. Still, Jesus is moved to compassion for the pain of the man who seeks his help for his sick daughter. So while it is pretty common to speak of the “preference for the poor,” we might acknowledge the theme is to recognize Jesus’ compassion for those who suffer. At the Offertory I will sing you, “One Great Day” a meditation on those who live with chronic pain, and those who love them. 

As Jesus agrees to go to the leader’s daughter, they push through the crowd. The picture here is of a mural displayed in a chapel of the women’s center being constructed at the ancient site of the town of Magdala. Mary Magdalene is from the town of Magdala on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. All we see is the hand of the woman, reaching out just to touch the hem of the robe of Jesus in the midst of a crowd. To be on the ground within a crowd, is a very vulnerable position. It is a very graphic depiction of a woman in need of mercy. It is the same posture as the synagogue leader, and the demoniac in the previous encounter in the gospel, only this woman is not given an audience and is in danger of being crushed by the crowd. 

The woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe as he pushes through the crowd, is a case study in humility and need. There is no apparent attempt to get attention. There is no posturing. She is sick. She has spent all the money she can in order to seek healing at the hands of ancient physicians, who are unable to relieve her suffering. 

As she reaches out to touch “the hem of his garment” Jesus is aware of power passing from him to her. No one has seen her. No one knows what has happened. Still Jesus interrupts his march to the house of the leader to speak with this woman. 

She comes to him, likely in fear of being berated, perhaps this holy man will chastise her for taking without permission, or payment. Instead, Jesus commends her faith and sends her on her way. 

Now word comes that during the delay, the daughter has died. Jesus tells the leader, “Do not fear, only believe.” 

That is so hard to do. It is so hard to stare frantically at the spread sheet and believe that a community of faith can continue, while the financial news is distressing. 

It is so hard to trust that the power of God includes restoring life, where liveliness seems to have been spent. “Do not fear, only believe.” 

So we believe that it makes a difference that we care. We believe it makes a difference to greet the visitors and talk with them in Fellowship Hall after the worship service. We anticipate the arrival of the new pastor. We believe that God has plans for this congregation. 

We will take communion together this morning. We will be aware of the presence of Christ within and among us. We will allow the sights and scenes of worship to supersede cold objective reasoning, if only for awhile. We will rest our hearts on the promises of a good and generous God, and try again, to be good and generous for another week, another month, another year. And in the model of the Christ, we will look for God first, where there is pain, Amen.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Get In the Boat!

Get In the Boat! 
1 Samuel 17:57-18:5; Mark 4:35-41 

Last Sunday, while we celebrated VBS Sunday, and did a good job of it I hasten to add, it was also Father’s Day. Today we mark a less recognized celebration, Open and Affirming Sunday, as Gay Pride Parades dot the countryside. There are also other marches, protesting the increased violence against families at the US southern border. 
It is a difficult thing to talk about the power of love, even in the church. It is a complicated thing to talk about sexuality, especially if you do not stay within the carefully constructed male or female duality. We know that love transcends boundaries, but some of our social constructs are precious to us. We become afraid that if there is a change in the definition of terms, our whole world may fall apart. Fear causes us to react in extremes. 
The text from 1 Samuel is one that gives comfort and support to the gay men in the Bible reading community, and to all of us who have compassion for them in their love/hate relationship with the culture. I believe it helps us to be aware that there is support for love without boundaries within the text. 
Jonathan meets David for the first time, and there is an instantaneous “love at first sight” event. Jonathan is a prince, the son of the King. His sword and armor are instantly recognized by the fighting forces, and the wider community. They are symbols of his privilege and authority in the community. In this alternate telling of the “discovery” of David by Saul and his court; Abner, the leader of the Army, introduces the victorious David. He is honored by the King. Jonathan, the son of the King, is thunderstruck. 
On occasions when this text has been mentioned in the past, it is usually highlighted as a special ‘brotherly’ bond between the two. But consider for a moment the implications if Jonathan were meeting a woman for the first time. And upon that first greeting he makes gifts to her of his cloak, and armor, and symbols of his royal family; then we would characterize this as a great romantic meeting of two souls. The scene would be described as carrying clearly sexual overtones.  
There are sexual references abounding within the description of the relationship between David and Jonathan. There is evidence that this relationship is so distasteful to Saul, that he makes continuous attempts to break them apart. He forces David into marriage with one of his daughters. He thunders at Jonathan that his behavior is a disgrace to the family honor. If you read the story, even allowing the possibility that this was a romantic pairing, you will see I am speaking the truth. 
The Tuesday morning Bible Study is currently looking at First Samuel. We already know that the characters in these chapters are three dimensional. They are not reduced to shallow constructs, moved around within a morality play, where the “moral of the story” is so overt that the characters seem docile. 
Instead we have actors involved in scenes of high drama. There is danger lurking around every corner. One moment David is being honored, the next moment his life is being threatened and he is chased around the countryside. All of these too-real moments are presented within the context of the relationship between Israel and their God. 
God, who was reluctant to allow the people to have a King, remains faithful, while the King becomes increasingly distracted by the demands of public life and vanity. In a world where daily headlines are focused on the rich and powerful, their personal exploits, and the intrigues of war and rumors of war, the voice of God is difficult to hear and trust. After all, God does not seem to set boundaries on the madness of the King, or the humanity of the king’s family. The King’s family might be easier to manage, if the kids are simply greedy or self-indulgent, and not presenting a different way of seeing the world. 
In the gospel message, the disciples are in a boat trying to cross the lake we call the Sea of Galilee. This body of water sits about 30 miles from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, a body of water that is more than 100 times the size of Galilean lake. Storms can race from the Mediterranean and across the Sea of Galilea very suddenly. A small boat in a big storm is a dangerous place to be. 
We live our lives in the same kind of world that the Bible describes. Natural events and storms can change our routines in an instant. Plans made weeks in advance, can be set aside indefinitely when the tornado rearranges the neighborhood. We can become so focused on the big events of nature, or governments breaking established taboos and alliances while trifling with the attention of despots and dictators; the reality of our own relationship with the God of creation seems to lose its place in the context. 
The boat is swamping, and Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat. We ought to at least wake him up so he can help us. He helps everybody else. Come on Jesus, don’t you see, we need you? 
Jesus looks at us in disbelief. “Really, do you not know how much I love you? Do you not trust that I will be with you through any storm?” It is very hard to keep our mind on Jesus, when the social structures that we have put together over decades are being pulled apart by rich and seemingly indifferent bureaucrats. Our entire comprehension of justice is undermined when children are imprisoned and held as ransom for a despicable border wall.  
Saul is driven to madness, at least in part by his fear and disgust at the relationship between Jonathan and David, and through it all David is blessed. The story is not about David and Jonathan. The story is not really about David and Saul. The story is about Israel and God. And yet, David and Jonathan and Saul are all a part of that story. The relationship between David and Jonathan survives the push and pull of the father-son relationship of Saul and Jonathan. The relationship between them, does not distract God. Love is just love. 
The story of Jesus and the disciples on a boat in the storm, is not about storms. Or maybe it is. Maybe, it is about storms because we all are vulnerable to attacks by forces that are seemingly beyond our control. We are vulnerable to events, both natural and human-made; events that arise when it is not convenient for us. Our email ‘in box’ fills up, on the weekend of the family funeral, when our eyes are so full of tears that the words on the screen seem to drip down the page without meaning. 
The assaults on our sense of loyalty and partnership are so breath taking that we are disgusted; and the disgust is magnified by our seeming inability to reduce the madness by doing any one thing that has the chance to turn the tide. The country that we love has taken to parading around the stage of the world, dressed as a villain, and devoted to cruel acts - against poor humans, to massage the egos of the self-important. 
And Jesus appears to be asleep in the stern of the boat! Can’t he see where this is headed? Why won’t God answer our prayers? It feels like the ship may sink. 
Ships do sink you know. Entire nations lose their sense of purpose and direction. The fascination with the rich and famous can suddenly change the entire discourse for decades to come. The madness of the insatiable greed for wealth, inevitably races towards economic depression. I have read about 1929. The system crashes when the rich deplete the fat of the land, and the integrity and ingenuity of the working class has been reduced to a memory. The gap between the rich and the poor becomes so wide that those who used to live contentedly in the middle, are plunged to the bottom. Their own modest holdings swallowed whole by insatiable egomaniacs. 

Get in the boat with Jesus. Turn your attention to the will of God. Speak up for justice and mercy. Do not let the chaos of the storm permit you to think that God is any less than God. Do not let the fear of money silence your conviction to speak out against cruelty. Do not let the crude machinations of a world - that manipulates “the law” to protect privilege,  justify your own silence. Pray to God, and live with integrity, Amen. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Never Call the Good Bad

Never Call the Good Bad 
Psalm 130; Mark 3:20-35 

The sermon this morning takes us to edge of theological considerations that seem acceptable for a Sunday morning sermon. In the past this congregation has appreciated the fact that we do at times talk about the hard news in the world, and the hard news in the scripture. So, even though I have some misgivings, I am going forward with this “hard teaching” from the gospel. 
The gospel of Mark does not usually spend very many words on any specific event. We have often noted that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the man of action. He does or says something, and then immediately, he begins something new. 
The portion of Chapter 3 we have this morning is uncharacteristically full of theology, disputed teachings, and outright controversy. When I was checking my favorite commentaries for help on this passage, the usually reserved and middle of the road “The Interpreter’s Bible” from the mid-1950’s, characterized the passage in verse 29 with this assertion;  “With all reverence, a list of ‘sayings of Jesus’ could be assembled under the startling heading, “Things I wish Jesus had never said.” 
Most of the things that would be included in this list are passages that are taken out of context to support cruelty instead of compassion. “The poor will always be with you, “ has been misappropriated to deny compassion for the poor. Today we consider the “Unforgivable Sin.” 
Here is the setting. Jesus went to a remote place for prayer and instruction with his closest disciples. The twelve apostles are named, and given authority to preach and command evil spirits. When they return, there is a crush of people, demanding attention for their illnesses. The press of the crowds is so intense, Jesus and the disciples cannot even find time to eat. His family and friends tried to drag Jesus to safety from the crowd. 
There are scribes from Jerusalem among the throng, checking out the holy man, seeking violations of the Law and the spirit of the Law. The scribes say, he is possessed by Beelzebub, gets his authority to cast out demons from the chief of demons. 
So first let us grab a hold of the name “Beelzebub” or “Beelzebul.” The ancient Aramaic word “Ba-al” means god. The Philistines honored a “god of the flies,” that ‘sounds like’ Beelzebub. There was also a Beelzebul, Lord of the Mansion. The history of English translations seems to alternate between which title is printed. The Greek text appears like Beelzebul to me. 
In Christian usage, Beelzebub is appropriated as symbolic of Satan, posing as the ultimate leader of the forces of evil. The personification of Satan as purely evil instead of the tempter, is a transformation that took place in the culture between the time of the Old Testament and the New Testament. These images from the culture are used in the New Testament without challenge, even though Old Testament texts never make this association. 
Jesus does not quibble with the learned men of the Temple, about the obvious conflict between making associations that are not justified by the Law of Moses. Mark quotes Jesus as shifting the language to ‘Satan.’ He accepts their challenge, and defeats it with simple logic, “Why on earth would a bad spirit defeat his own forces?” 
The commentaries then attribute the intense circumstances as building up the intensity of the Christ. Jesus calls out those who would blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, in order to flatter themselves. And for embellishment, says that those who call good evil, commit a sin that is eternal, or cannot be forgiven. 
Jesus is a good guy. Jesus has great compassion for the poor and those in distress. Jesus goes to great lengths to relieve people of their suffering, without demanding a profession of faith or evidence of their conversion. The passage today says that there are limits to the ‘niceness’ of Jesus. There is a line in the sand that you shall not cross. 
This is surprisingly hard for the theologian in me. I believe that God loves all of creation, and invites all of humanity into a relationship with the good and generous God, that ought to result in good and generous humans. I do not believe that each human needs to accept Jesus of Nazareth in order to be filled with God’s grace. I do believe that humans are capable of filling their conscious lives with selfish and aggressive behaviors that can keep God’s grace at arms length. 
Living without grace in one’s life, makes all of life a struggle, and often results in a particular kind of isolation. Men of evil intentions are drawn to the orbits of other evil men out of a desire for a mutual admiration society. Still, it is a lonely and unsatisfying existence. 
Living outside of God’s grace is a shame, and a sin, a measure of separation from God. It is a sin that is challenged by the intrusion of grace every day, and subject to prompt reconciliation. Think of the penitent thief on the cross with Jesus. The compassion of God, so clearly expressed by Jesus is very real and very pervasive. 
What Jesus calls an eternal sin, is more than ignoring God’s grace. What Jesus confronts here is denying the reality of God’s grace, to the extent that we glorify evil. When we glorify evil, we are walking a thin line, as reported in a few select New Testament texts, including this one. 
The thought that a person could knowingly be so committed to evil that they would deny all that is good, is hard for me to accept. My personal range of experiences includes people making bad choices. I am learning about systemic injustice and how it is a convenient way for otherwise good people to be “tricked” into continuing violent systems. 
I have at different times been willing to accept blanket condemnation of “evil monsters” who commit atrocities. But I realize that I do not know these historical figures personally. I have no idea what went through their minds. I cannot imagine the chain of events that began as blaming the Jews of Europe as the source of social upheavals, and resulted in millions of people arrested, confined and slaughtered. Can that all get rightly attributed to one man? Can a system become so committed to evil that otherwise good people are “tricked” into accepting such extraordinary violence as “good?” 
So what does Jesus and the evangelist Mark want us to learn today? My commentary suggested that there is such a thing as an “Unforgivable Sin,” but it rarely occurs. The commentary suggests it is important for you and I to know that even “nice” Jesus will only cover sin up to a limit. It is possible to really and truly get on God’s bad side. 
This is a sobering thought. The practical theologian in me suggests we think of it like this. Because there is an ultimate boundary where love and forgiveness cannot reach, we are required to take responsibility to nurture our relationship with God. 
Because God works in the world through our lives, it becomes more important than ever, that our lives express God’s love and available forgiveness in a public way. We avoid the temptation to threaten people with damnation, that is not Christlike. We recognize the nature of God’s love is invitation. So we continue to develop our ability to invite, and develop more and better ways to promote inclusion. 
The challenge is more real today than ever before. After years of counting on the Supreme Court to set boundaries to prevent the infringement on the freedoms of each citizen, set against the waves of cruelty that can pass through the populace like a flu virus, we are forced by the court of today to make our welcome and determined sense of inclusion more visible. The culture is in a cycle that accepts violence against those we might see as “others” - justified. We counter that best by standing up for what we believe. 
This is how we change the world for good. We teach and preach the true compassionate community, and trust that the antidote to rejection of God and all goodness will emerge in the subtext. Just because it is rare, does not make the ultimate sin - the rejection of goodness inherent in God’s creation, any less of a threat. Just as our active, and productive mortal lives are short, compels us to do what we can, whenever we can, with all of the gifts we have been given, to defeat evil with compassion and forgiveness. 

As we pass through this time of widespread anxiety, we live with visible hope and faith in our good and generous God. May God bless us in our earnest desire to live with love, and honor the simple glory of a relationship with God, Amen. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Laws Are Meant to Keep Our Focus

Laws Are Meant to Keep Our Focus 
2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6 

Human laws are understood to apply equally to people in the population. Human justice in the United States, theoretically, sees everyone as equal. When we detail the extent to which racial prejudice is documented in the application of our laws, we know that we have a long way to go to achieve equality. 

It becomes more of an issue, when the system of making laws is highjacked to give and preserve an advantage for those who have power and privilege. It happens. We know it happens. The situation we face in our “free” society is that the advantage is tipped towards money, and preserved by lies, fear mongering, and harsh voting restrictions. Power is preserving an advantageous position under the guise of law and order. 

These cultural issues are not new. They did not get invented today. And the love of law and order as a front, is time honored way of masking the preservation of the status quo. The laws of God are not immune. 

It is easy to be outraged every day at the variety of ways we manipulate ‘law and order’ to limit the freedom and free expression of people of color. The rich, white owners of the NFL making rules about how the mostly black players must “respect” the national anthem comes to mind. We are even more cruel if the people of color are also poor, and also have no or limited legal status as a citizen. We do not accept that undocumented immigrants have even human rights. 

Jesus of Nazareth, was an itinerant preacher. He did not have credentials from the Temple school in Jerusalem. While he was from the house of David, it would be hard to make a clear case that he had the correct genealogy to be a priest from the house of Levi. There are rules you know. 

The Herodians were folks who believed that the political arrangement between the family of Herod and the Roman occupying forces, provided the best means available for life in the land of Israel. Taxes were collected by Herod, and paid off the Romans, and maintained a sense of order in the economy for Herod and the Israeli people. And the priests in the Temple got their cut, too. 

The Pharisees were far less political. They were a religious people, deeply devoted to the law of Moses. They took great pride in being able to list and follow, hundreds if not thousands of the little rules, particularly in Leviticus. They were the forerunners of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews of our day. They have prayer outfits that carry the symbols associated with the priority each sect gives to the law. They can only be moved to political action, by demonstrating a threat to respect for the Law of Moses. 

In the gospel of Mark, the Herodians quickly assessed Jesus as a threat. There were a continuing string of would be Messiahs in the land, trying to raise a rag-tag army to confront the Romans and the forces of Herod who had sold out the people. The Herodians were vigilant in detecting threats, and heading them off before the Romans got tired of the elaborate balancing act that preserved their positions. 

In today’s story, the compassionate Jesus defends his disciples while they conveniently broke one of the 10 commandments. Can you believe it? A preacher condoned these would be disciples of a so-called holy man, when they overtly broke the commandment about the Sabbath. 

One of my favorite parts of this story is that the commandment respecting the sabbath is in near total disregard today. We all talk about how busy we are. We all talk about being tired and run down. We almost never even consider that there is a commandment to take a day off. Go home. Sit down. Say a prayer. Pay attention to the family. Leave the TV alone. Listen to you own heartbeat. Take the kids, and walk around the block. I cannot tell you how often people have complained that church “ran late,” as if 60 minutes is an absolute maximum God is allowed. Sabbath is supposed to be a whole day! This is not a suggestion from Pastor Chuck, it is one of the 10 commandments. 

The disciples pulled the heads off of, maybe wheat, and were chewing on the grains. The Herodians said, “see how uncouth this rural, undisciplined group is!” And the Pharisees said, “Oh, now I see. They do not even follow the 10 commandments. You are right. This must be a religious front for a terrorist group. We will help you get rid of this Jesus.” 

So is Jesus wrong for healing the sick, and having a snack on the Sabbath? Jesus tries to help people see that the Sabbath was intended by God to keep the lines of communication between God and humanity open. It is like, “Call your mother on Sunday afternoon.” It is good for you. It is not about assessing a penalty. It is not a measure of justice. It is doing what feeds the relationship. The Law of God directs us towards love, and is not designed to judge - even ourselves - as unworthy.  

The commandments of God feel like a burden, heck it feels like a logic puzzle, in the hands of those who obsess over rules. When we become obsessed by rules and the right way to do things, it becomes a burden. We all have stories about the matriarch who obsessively controlled the family dinners, or the church kitchen. 
An important thing to understand is that the generation of today will gladly never return to church or the family dinner, if they encounter their generosity confronted by mini dictators. This generation will not play the game twice. We need to be constantly aware of ourselves, and what pressure we put on others to conform. Is it necessary? Is it healthy? Can we do it in a way that makes new people feel welcome and included? If the answer to any of those questions is ”NO,” then get over it. 
The answer of course, is to live with love. To live with love is to extend grace to yourself and to others. Your relationship with God makes you Good Enough. Sometimes, I am not logical. I do things the same way, because it makes me comfortable. Some habits are useful, because there are efficiencies built in to my routines. If I do it the same way, I will have what I need, and I will not forget something now, that I will need later. 
When I give myself grace, I am free to be myself, and I do not set such high expectations that I am frozen by the fear of failure. I do not try too hard, so I am free to express myself in relationship to you. I ask how you are, and listen for the heart of your answer. I encourage you to share your concerns, and trust you will hear my reply. 
Rules are not wrong. But the self-inflated righteous who thunder about, “These are Commandments, Not suggestions,” need to take a little time with Jesus. This is one of any number of stories. Know the commandments, but love the heart of what God is trying to say, and then live with love leading the way. The biggest reason for the laws and rules on the Bible, is to think about God, talk to God, build your relationship. 

God is the creator of the universe. God has a quality lifestyle that does not include agonizing over your every little infraction of every rule. Instead, God looks into the hearts of the human family, and shares love. Let the laws of God help you draw a straight line, a line straight to the heart of God, and follow that path. May God’s peace and love surprise you this day, and every day, Amen. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sent by God

Sent by God 
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17 

Today is celebrated as Trinity Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. The mystery surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity is so resistant to modern thinking, that it deserves a chance for the faith communities and their resident theologian, to talk about - at least once a year. 
In fact, I have been setting up this day for a month. Last week, on Pentecost, we recognized the role and power of the Holy Spirit to propel the continual motion of the divine presence, powered by love and the desire for relationship. Have you heard? It is all about the relationship. 
On Mother’s Day, we turned our attention to the dynamic nature of love, and celebrated all of the ways we can nurture and support one another. We recognized the deep need for the personal act of forgiveness, with or without the antagonist’s repentance, to create the foundation for family and community, and also preserve our own spiritual health. We envisioned the person of God as the New Fire Triangle. Eliminate any part of God, and there is no God. 
Even on May 6, we commented on how the Holy Spirit is a palpable presence in the General Synod of the United Church of Christ. It is this spirit of the living God, that lifts the gathered community of church folks, and inspires them to new heights of care and compassion. Emboldened by the Spirit, the Synod invariably reviews resolutions with an intentional bias towards compassion and connection, in contrast with the apparent values of the culture. It is, all about the relationship. 
In Genesis it says that we are made in the image of God. I typically reduce that to having the capacity to love and be loved. I default to relationship on a routine basis. But on Trinity Sunday, what would it mean to be made in the image of the Triune God? It might mean that we are defined by the most prominent and significant relationships in our life, at any time in our life. 
I was once a child. My life was defined as a son, and a brother. We were active in the church, even attending the Catholic Grade School. In that time, I was an individual, a family member, and a part of the faith community. 
Today, I am a husband and father. And I serve this church as pastor and teacher. I see this role in Morton CUCC as a particular extension of my membership in the wider church. I have been a part of other churches before, and God willing, improved by what I have learned and shared here, I may touch more hearts down the road. 
Your own life has been marked by the roles you play. When the children are small, they require gobs and gobs of energy and attention. Depending on how your particular family is composed, and the way roles and duties are interpreted, there are untold numbers of possible ways to live that life. 
When our kids were small, Martha and I took turns serving on a church Board or committee. My work schedule was hectic and included tons and tons of overtime. So between us we would meet whatever commitments we made. If Martha promised to wash dishes and one of the kids was sick and had to have momma, Chuck washed church dishes. If Chuck promised to sing at a Funeral, Martha got a cold and sent Chuck. 
I am drifting from the point. We are always in multiple relationships. Who we are as a person, lives and grows within the shifting swirl of what we believe, and how those beliefs are expressed in what we say and do. We are influenced and grow within the context of relationships. We intentionally seek out a particular faith community because of the way the people and experiences of the church feed the kind of growth we want for ourselves and our families. 
The letter of Paul to the Romans contains a treasure chest of theological nuggets. The segment that we have pulled out for today leans heavily on the shorthand Paul uses to separate our most honorable intentions as “spiritual” and our more base desires as, “of the flesh.”
When the Tuesday morning Bible Study worked on several of Paul’s letters, we noted his frequent use of this analogy, and also the limitations it has. Today though, he makes it clear that we are in “the body of Christ” and that is clearly a good thing. We suffer with the Christ, so that we may rise again and share in Christ’s glory. 
If the suffering Christ is a full and active part of the divine Trinity, then as we are made in the image of God, our own suffering, and especially the suffering made for love, brings us ever closer to the heart of God. The things we do for love make us an insider, within the whirlwind that is the Trinity. This is where the life lived well becomes sanctified. Not only in beliefs, not only in words, but in the passion of living everyday. 
In the passage from Isaiah, the prophet has a vision. It is a life changing moment. The man is moved through a transformation, not dissimilar to the way the disciples were transformed on the first Pentecost; changed from frightened, timid souls to bold, public representatives of the living God. 
In the classic call story of the prophet and poet Isaiah, we hear the human register the inadequacy he feels, standing in the presence of the living God. He has a vision of God, seated on the throne, and he is immediately frightened and ashamed that he is not worthy to be in that place. 
Angels with coals from the heavenly altar purge the history of bad words from his lips. I admit, there are time when foul language escapes my lips, and wonder if an angel with hot tongs is lurking around the next corner. Only a God with a sense of humor can put words of divine love in a mouth like mine. 
Deep at the heart of today’s message is this miracle. God does not call the qualified. Instead, God qualifies those that are called. This does not stop at the pulpit. Each of us who have been called into the faith are charged with the responsibility to share that faith. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.” The direct message here is that we preach by word and by deed. A faith that is lived is compelling and stands the test of time. 
You and I have been selected, from among the many in the world, to represent God’s good love made clear in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Recognizing that God acts through the lives of the faithful, we accept that we are worthy of the task because of God’s grace working in and through us. 
Our life at work, and in the community needs to be a public expression of our faith in God and God’s good love. We cannot panic even when times get hard. We are called to see the culture and its false gods, and know that there is nothing the culture can do to eliminate or reduce the power of God’s love.  

It is our relationship with God that will endure, as long as love endures. It is the expectation of heaven, that you can and will be successful at sharing God’s good love at the level of your own capabilities. Both body and spirit belong to God. Both body and spirit are blessed and anointed for this task. In a breath taking and surprising way, we are sent into the world, from our spiritual home within the whirlwind of love and relationship we know as the Trinity. We have been blessed, to be a blessing, Amen. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Spirit World Is Where We Are

The Spirit World Is Where We Are
Romans 8:22-27;  Acts 2:1-21 

The first Pentecost was celebrated in “The Upper Room,” the same space that was the location of the Last Supper. Tourists are directed to a space on the hill named Zion, that is west of the Old City of Jerusalem. This “Upper Room” was a base of operations for the disciples who feared that the authorities, might want to wipe out the remnants of the band of followers of the rebel “Jesus of Nazareth.” 
While the scriptures clearly treat the Upper Room as a ‘safe house,’ where access is limited, it is right in a very busy part of town, surrounded by shops and an ancient synagogue celebrating King David, who made Jerusalem into a destination, when it was just a simple village. 
Jerusalem is making news again as a destination. This week the Trump Administration made news by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocating the Embassy from Tel Aviv. This is news because the Israelis occupy both East and West Jerusalem, as a spoils of the 1967 war, displacing the native Palestinians. The American compound sits on the 1948 partition of Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine. 
This is no small shift in American Policy and is regarded by the Palestinians as the end of hope that the USA would broker a peace initiative, that would provide relief for the harsh and dangerous conditions Israel has imposed on the natives. The fact that the Embassy was opened one day before the anniversary of the NAQBAH or The Great Sadness, commemorating the day hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into refugee status, as the United Nations, sacrificed their homes, businesses, and villages to the new State of Israel in 1948. Seventy years later, the disrespect is still being applied in layers. 
At the time of the party at the Consulate, the Israeli Army snipers were shooting protestors at the Gaza border. These protests are a tragic and ongoing attempt by the Palestinians to gain international recognition of their plight. 
I call the Palestinians natives, because Jews were virtually not existent at all in Palestine until after the First World War. Palestine was occupied by the Ottoman Empire or Turks, and they were aligned with the Germans as the “Central Powers.” Britain attacked and occupied Palestine as a staging post for the “Allies” to attack the Central Powers. 
In the aftermath of World War I, the British were called on by the League of Nations to administrate Palestine and the Trans-Jordan. The British were determined to establish a homeland for Jews in Palestine. While the text of the Balfour Agreement that invited European Jews to emigrate, and required protection of the native Palestinians, that protection never materialized. There was no small amount of distaste for the poor Arabs in favor of “civilized, European Jews.” There is a very thin veneer over the prevalent racism in the policies of the State of Israel. 
The alignment of nations that engaged in the Second World War could not have been imagined at the close of the “War to End All Wars.” World War II devastated the economy of Great Britain. They were desperate to relieve their budget of any activity for securing Palestine and other colonial outposts, and were relieved when the United Nations declared the State of Israel. 
The history of Western interference in the land, and history of stealing the real estate and sovereign claim of the natives, has empowered the State of Israel in recent years to be very bold in the destructive occupation of the Palestinian community and homeland. The move of the US Administration this week can be seen as another act of support for the Western colonization of the entire territory and de-humanization of the native population. 
So where is God in all of this? What is the will of God for Jerusalem? 
At the first Pentecost, God did not require all people to return to the Temple and accept the harsh administration of the occupying Roman forces and the collaborating clergy. In fact, the God of love used the visitors from essentially the entire known world, to speak words of love to them in words they understood. Pentecost can never be properly understood as a vote for regimentation and colonization. It clearly was not a vote for the designation of Jerusalem Real Estate as a necessity to faithfulness to God. 
In as clear of a demonstration as can be imagined, we see - or hear, the message of God’s love as available to all of the world - in their own languages. It is a language of a set of values that celebrates compassion, and ignores political authority and profit motives. 
The land of Israel is a study in being manipulated by political empires. Some of these empires have been better than others to the local people. By all measures, the Ottoman Empire, stabilized the culture and economy, and preserved thousands of the historical sights for the Christians, Jews and Muslims. The existence of the Old City and it historic walls is a direct testimony to the careful attention paid to the local history and heritage of the land and its people by the Turks. 
But this is not a morning set aside for political history. We noted earlier in the month, that God does not make promises to real estate. Real estate values are based on location, location, location. God makes promises to the hearts of the human family. Value then, is based on the location of God in our very hearts. 
The benefit of recognizing the characteristics of the Holy Spirit as an undeniable aspect of the living God, is to say that God is more like the wind of hope and inspiration than like a rock of stodgy certitude. The Temple Mount is a long recognized piece of valuable Real Estate, but it represents most clearly, hope for a peace that political operatives are barely able to even dream. 
We should be clear, the New Testament does not proclaim God is waiting for any human action to trigger the Second Coming of the Christ. God is never, ever waiting on us. Any claim that the Jews need to complete their genocide of the Palestinians  to bring out the Kingdom of God is a ridiculous claim, and insults the good and generous God of Creation.  
I know some folks who cling to the image of a God who never changes. On days like this I have to laugh. I love a God who is in constant motion. The Creator God, out of wild imagination and the deepest of love, spins off a Creation of maddening complexity and inter-relatedness. 
As an expression of caring, creation is offered a chance at eternal joy through the life and teaching of the Christ, the anointed one, full of compassion. The savior conjures up the Spirit, to dwell with the called, and inspire and fortify them. 
The Spirit, an unending hunger for creative imagination and hopefulness, floats and darts among the children of God, whispering words of love and encouragement. Touched by the hearts of humanity, the Spirit implores the Creator to reconnect, in new ways with the creation. 
Inspired to new levels of involvement and driven by love, the Creator spins new webs of creative connections. On these pathways the savior reaches out to touch and to hold another generation of souls born of nature. And the Spirit engages in ways that reflect the world as it is, and what the children of today can grasp. 
This God is no rock that never changes, but rather better represented by the insatiable current of the deep, the expectation of new life, carried by the very pollen in the air, as fresh as the Spring, and reliable as the decay in Autumn that enriches the soil for the seasons to come. God truly does not change, God remains in contact motion; never still, yet never frantic. Jesus of Nazareth was never the Messiah who desired to claim political and economic power. Jesus spoke with authority from the Kingdom of the Living God. The duh-ciples never understood what he was talking about throughout his lifetime. They kept expecting one day they would change his mind. To this day, those who lust after power and money, fail to understand the Christ, and all of God’s activities. 
Instead, the crucified and resurrected Jesus promised to send his Spirit, to rest on us, and invite us to consider counter-cultural values. When we are in the Spirit, we are drawn to one another, because of the love of God. Our relationships are not dependent on looking same, acting the same, believing the same, or even thinking the same. We share the image of our Creator, and are all encompassed by the love of God. 
As we talked about here last week, we are called to a ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not an easy sell, but it has more lasting value than Real Estate, because you know, you can’t take it with you. 
It has more lasting value than political alignments. We already noticed this morning that the Central Powers and Allied Powers in World War I were completely realigned by World War II. Some alliances have lasting power, but all human alliances are subject to being hastily discarded in moments of hubris and self-indulgence. 
Instead, we seek a spiritual awareness, that permits us to live as a rich human or a poor human, but still a faithful member of the Kingdom of God. We seek the power of the living God to speak the words of forgiveness and compassion, in places where profits and political advantage are the currency of the day. 
We turn then to God to pray for direction. But our prayers seem like weak extensions of our language, and our words are insufficient. And the lack of clarity in our words, betrays the confusion in our hearts. We cannot even imagine what it would take to achieve true peace. So our hope is in God. 

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”