Sunday, July 27, 2014

Invasive Maneuvers!

Invasive Maneuvers! from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

44"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So will it be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." 52And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

God intervenes.

I was meeting with the chaplain at the hospital near where Leah and I live. One of the first people I met at Shelby Presbyterian Church had gotten the impression that I wanted to be a chaplain and so set up a meeting for me with the the head of the pastoral/spiritual care unit at Cleveland hospital. It was a good meeting, we shared lunch. Towards the end of the conversation, the chaplain asked me what single phrase I would choose to describe the good news God has given me to tell through my ministry.

There's a lot of good news to tell! So much that it took four gospels to describe just some of the aspects of who this Jesus character is! No one person could carry the whole of the good news through their ministry, except of course Jesus. Spoiler alert: I'm not Jesus. So Chaplain Len Byers question has stuck with me as a way of focusing myself, not trying vainly to give the whole truth, which is so much bigger than me, but just pointing to the piece of it I have been given to tell.

God intervenes in this world.

Jesus taught in parables, we've all grown up hearing them, and the last three weeks worth of gospel readings were from the same chapter, and all of them are parables. "[These parables] are not simple illustrations but...enigmatic utterances teasing the mind into reflection and response." They're a window that allows us to see how God is at work, but only dimly, because they can only describe what the kingdom of heaven is like, they can't paint an unambiguous portrait that encompasses the whole of God's kingdom.

But these parables invite us to be curious about how God is at work in the world. They provide narratives into which we can insert ourselves, but it's not always clear what God the Son is telling us about God the Father through these stories. When Jesus asks the disciples, at the end of our reading this morning, "Have you understood all this?" I picture them awkwardly shuffling their feet in the sand before giving their teacher the answer they think he wants. We can imagine them wondering, maybe it'll make more sense once I hear the next thing. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't get it. Maybe he'll be disappointed in me if I say no. So they say "Yes?"

But I don't believe them. I'm highly suspicious of anyone who claims that they totally understand everything Jesus said. The truth is not dependent on our understanding or knowledge, we're just people after all. But when knowledge fails, we still have faith, which guides us forward in spite of our limited understanding.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand.

In fact, we often understand very little of the world around us. One of the oldest questions that religions all over the world have had to address is "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

One of the solutions to this issue is to write off this world as inherently sinful, and that those of us who are saved will ascend to heaven where there will be no more suffering. I'm sure we've all heard celebrations of "When I get to heaven, something will no longer be a problem." There's even a taste of it in our scripture passage, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So will it be at the end of the age..." I think that kind of theology can be a great comfort to people at certain points in our lives, but when we get stuck in that mindset, it can train us to only look to the future for God's activity. One day God will do this... as though God is distant, or sleeping, and not active in the world all around us.

This mindset may be especially appealing in our success, when we can tell ourselves that our victories are out of our own ability and goodness, rather than free gifts from the God of all creation.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future.

I've always pictured the parable that begins our passage this morning through the classic Sunday School image of a tiny seed that grows over time into a mighty tree. Whenever someone brought up the image of a mighty tree, I always pictured the 200 year old oak that sits on the front lawn at my home church in Morganton, so big that it takes several people holding hands to wrap their arms around it, with long branches and broad leaves. We've got one beside our church. Isn't it amazing that such a small seed can grow into such a mighty tree!

But that image doesn't take into account what a mustard plant actually is. "Jesus probably has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image, drawn from the Old Testament, that a mighty Political Kingdom is like a great and strong tree." Growing up in temperate climates and deciduous forests, our image of a great tree brings oaks and hardwoods to mind, those are noble trees. But a mustard plant is a fast-growing weed, sure its seeds can be used to make spices, but in the arid ground of first century Palestine, growing plants for flavor was a waste of garden space. Imagine Jesus standing in the shade beneath a mighty tree, perhaps one of the cedars mentioned so often in the Old Testament in connection with Israel's monarchy, and describing the greatness of the kingdom of heaven as being like... kudzu.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers.

Jesus is a master of reversing our expectations. We expect a mighty tree, he gives us an invasive weed. We expect inspiring speeches, he gives us veiled stories. "He put before them another parable." We expect a conquering king driving the occupying Romans out of the Holy Land, he gives us a poor traveling rabbi. We expect a great and strong tree, he gives us a mustard plant,"it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." It's a wild and invasive plant, it's tiny seeds would get mixed in with the seeds a farmer would plant in his or her field, and the farmer would never know something different was coming until the fast-growing mustard would appear in the midst of his carefully cultivated crops.

So too the kingdom of God tends to mess with our carefully cultivated ideas. I think sometimes God likes to remind us exactly who is in charge around here. In the words of one writer, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." We try to put up barriers to God so that we can maintain the illusion of control over our world instead of relying on the faith of one who finds a "treasure hidden in a field... then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."

These parables give a picture of the abundance and invasiveness of God's kingdom, not as a far-off future, some utopia for which Christians can hope. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God is at hand, not on the way. The kingdom of heaven is breaking into the world and we get to watch as it happens. As followers of Jesus Christ, we even get to participate, as God works through us in the world, showing that God does not always wait for an invitation, but seeks out those who are in need. So too the church seeks ways to gratefully live in faith.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. 

Someone told me recently about a preacher who confessed that many of his prayers were variations on "God, I have a problem, and here's how I need you to fix it..."

But we don't get to choose the solutions. Sometimes we get the ones we pray for, the one's that we think fit our plan the best. Other times we get a mustard plant in the middle of our wheat field. It's never what we would have chosen in our own narrow view of our needs, but that's how the kingdom of heaven works. It pops up where we do not expect, and will take over our carefully cultivated plans in a hurry.

We can try and hold on to our own interpretation, and it is faithful to try and discern whether God is invading or if something else is trying to pull us off course, but it's important to remember what God has already done in our lives, to be reminded of who it is we serve, and to help us discover what God is doing in our midst. It will be surprising and sometimes frightening, because it's out of our hands. But we're in God's hands, and though it's not our control, it's even more comforting.

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. We don't control the way God moves in the world.

So we're not in control, but we do have faith in the Almighty God, whose kingdom is already present among us, breaking into our daily routines that surprise us, and comfort us at the same time. Perhaps, when we learn to watch for God's activity among us, we can put aside some of our fears and trust God to carry us not just at the end of the age, but right now. Our hope is in the future God has promised us. Our comfort is in the mighty works God has done in the past, recorded in scripture and remembered in the stories we tell from our own lives.

But we have the opportunity to sing praises to the God who is doing marvelous things. So our response is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, because he's not content to let us alone, but claims dominion over all creation, from the earth, all stars, and planets rushing through space to the daughters and sons at prayer here in this small-to-medium sized church in a little town called Lowell. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

I wonder how God has intervened in our lives?

I wonder how we can watch for the kingdom of heaven present among us right now?

God intervenes in this world. We may not always see it or understand. It's tempting to try and hide from God by pushing him into the far-off future. But the kingdom of God breaks through our barriers, surprising us with the invasive providence of a loving God. We don't control the way God moves in the world, but we are rescued and reformed by God's invasive maneuvers.

I wonder what God's invasive maneuvers will be in the life of this group of people?

Let's find out.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Taking on Heirs

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went awy. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' 28He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29But he replied, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together intol the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"...

36Then he left the crows and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of he field." 37He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 28the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up wit fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Romans 8:12-25

12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh - 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!" 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Leah and I have been married for a little over three years now, but have been a serious part of each others lives for almost nine. We met one another's parents pretty early on, but the question of fitting with one another's extended family took a while longer to get settled.

There's always some trepidation involved with meeting new family, especially family you're trying to impress so that they'll say good things about you to your future father-and-mother-in-law. So several years ago, when Leah took me to meet her family that still lives in Alabama, I was more than a little anxious. Alongside the hugs, the greetings, the welcome homes, there was also the furtive discussions of "that boy." Wouldn't you know it, every one of those discussions involved pointing fingers, stealing glances, and meaningful nods in my direction. I was "That Boy" to her family.

But as the weekend went on, I had a chance to gather around a table and graze on h'ors d'oeuvres with some of Leah's older cousins, while their children played in the back yard. Eventually, Leah's cousins broke off leaving only their spouses and me and half-eaten bowls of vegetable dip at the table. Then the conversation turned.

Each of the folks around the table introduced themselves to me again, and started sharing stories of how they used to be "that boy" or "that girl." They remembered their awkwardness aloud, and got to know me in a way that was more full of camaraderie than expectation. Each of them remembered their family inspection, and as a group they adopted me into the "that boy" club. We former outsiders made our own in-group out of the shared experience of trying to live up to the person who introduced us to the family.

That memory is perhaps the highlight of my Alabama trip.

Just so, Paul's theology of adoption is one of the highlights of his letter to the Romans. It's an image for the way God claims us and defines our identity.

The Christian Church in Rome was founded by someone other than Paul, and as such his letter to them does not address a specific issue in the life of the church, as many of the other letters of Paul do, but rather it introduces the Apostle, and gives us a summary of his theology as a whole.

But there was an issue that was eating up the Christian church in Rome. There was division between the Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul is speaking to a church that had divided itself along racial lines. The Jewish Christians on the one hand, the Gentile Christians on the other. The Jewish Christians were very proud of their heritage, of their connection with the ancestors whose stories and struggles are told in the Old Testament. They had been a part of God's covenant people already when they heard the good news of Christ.

When a social group gets put under pressure, there's a natural human tendency to try and hunker down into a defensible position, and to identify who is and is not part of our little tribe. When we feel threatened, we start dividing ourselves into smaller groups, to pull inward because it feels safer. We revert into an almost primal state of making sure our group, and only our group, will have access to the limited resources around us.

But the gospel challenges us to reach out to those around us, rather than to reach into ourselves. Because we have been adopted as fellow heirs with Christ, and whatever may be threatening us is "not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us."

Paul is a Jewish Christian, and was trained as a Pharisee before he converted to Christianity, so he has the same connection that they do. But he was sent as an Apostle to the Gentiles, to spread the good news beyond his own people. He does not discount the importance of the covenant with Israel, but he describes the relationship that we have with God in a deeper, more powerful way: Where there had once been a law, an instruction, a covenant, now there was adoption. God  claims us and defines our identity. Unlike a law we could break, "redemption is the powerful act of a loving God... and part of that love is not to allow us to botch it up." Redemption means adoption into God's household.

We are members of God's household, not as servants, but as fellow heirs with Christ. We are not hired into the household, we are adopted into the family.

My family line is very important to me, I keep wondering how much it would cost to get an artist's rendering of my family tree, depicting both the people and all the complicated relationships therein. I am, after all, Joseph William Taber IV: son of a minister, grandson of a neurologist, great-grandson of a construction worker who was also a poet. That's just one line, the Joseph William Tabers. There's also the Potters, the Barnettes, the Shrewsburys, the Boshells, the Barnards, and many dozens more than I could hope to count. Each family has stories to celebrate, triumphs and struggles, and more than a little baggage that their members carry with them.

But even though my family heritage has shaped my identity, it's not the founding principle of who I am. I am a child of God, adopted into God's household, and a fellow heir with Christ. There's not anything I've done to apply for it, I don't have some special genetic link, I certainly don't deserve such an honor, but that's the Christian claim: We are adopted by our heavenly Father. "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we are somehow holier than those who do not go to church every Sunday. I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we are always going to be happy or successful in this life. I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we have access to some magical ability that is otherwise inaccessible.

The Christian claim is that God claims us and defines our identity.

My father-in-law tells a story of when he was young. It was the time in our cultural history when it was fashionable to leave home and go "find yourself." He packed his bags, and got ready to go, and announced to his dad that he was headed out to go "find himself." His Dad replied, "You don't need to go find yourself, I'll tell you exactly where you are. You're Don Boshell and you're standing on my front porch in Townley Alabama." Don was apparently satisfied by that, because he went back into the house and unpacked.

God claims us and defines our identity. But part of our task as the church is to remind one another of that adoption, because we will forget from time to time. Paul, in Romans, was writing to a church that was struggling with its own identity, with what it meant to be united in Christ, rather than divided by family and ethnic ties. The early church faced persecution, and Paul's assurance is that there is hope that outweighs the present suffering. Verses 18 and 19, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God."

God claims us and defines our identity.

It is tempting to set aside who we are and whose we are when things get difficult. It is tempting to trust in our own ability, because we can see the work of our own hands, but trusting the hope we have in God takes faith that may look like a luxury when we are suffering. Paul is pushing us towards acting in faith, knowing that part of the life of a Christian is suffering, but the claim God places on us through adoption defines us more than suffering ever could.

God claims us and defines our identity.

But it's easy to forget that truth when things are going well for us. In times of trial, we fall back on our faith for comfort, crying out "Abba, Father." But when things are going well, it's easy to forget what it means to be God's children. The church's job is to remind us of what it means to be a fellow heir with Christ. "If they are God's children, they are to think of themselves as in the same family as Christ, set to inherit all that Christ inherits. What Christ receives at his death is both suffering and glory"

God claims us and defines our identity. We are not who we are because we are successful, neither do we find ourselves in our suffering. We find ourselves when we orient our lives toward our relationship with God. The church is a community who have come together to remind one another of who we are and by whom we are adopted.

This church family has adopted me, and some of y'all are fiercely protective of me, others have expressed, and shown, a willingness to help me in any way possible. The reception we had to welcome me and Leah a couple of weeks ago was a big event in a long line of confirmations that this congregation and I are called to walk together into the next chapter of our ministry.

We know that new life in Christ is emerging into the world through the cross and the empty tomb, but it is a difficult transition. Paul is dealing with the suffering that still exists in a redeemed world, and uses the beautiful metaphor of childbirth to explain the connection between suffering and hope. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."

We are not satisfied with the state of the world right now, because we have seen a piece of the what redemption looks like, the first fruit of the Spirit. So we work to show the world the hope we have in Christ, and to proclaim the kingdom of God in our midst. When the rest of the world turns inward in the face of tension, dividing into opposing camps, the church is called to go out, and proclaim the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Perhaps that's the next chapter in our ministry, to be the strange folk who run to help, knowing that even when we stumble or end up going the wrong way, we are still adopted by God, and there's nothing we can do to lose that claim.

God claims us and defines our identity.

Because we have received a Spirit of adoption, and our church is stepping into the breach to share the hope we have for each other and for the world. We also know that we are not our own. We belong to God, as fellow heirs with Christ, who will not let us go. We will not always get it right, in fact we humans have an almost majestic capacity to botch things up. But we at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell have been called to be together so that we can share in both the suffering and the hope as "we groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." While we wait for that adoption, that new life, we know who it is that claims us and defines our identity. We know that it is God who redeems us. Therefore, let us orient our lives toward relationship with God, and to live out our adoption into Christ's love.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Understanding Mystery

Understanding Mystery from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 55:10-13

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there until they have watered the earth,
Making it bring forth and sprout,
Giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11So shall my word be that goes from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty
But it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
And succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
And all the trees of field will clap their hands.
13Instead of the thorn shall come the cypress;
Instead of the briar shall come the myrtle;
And it shall be to the LORD a memorial,
For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the crowds stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

My Dad spent many of his days off working in our yard, doing landscaping to make it feel more like home to him. I think he also did it so that he could spend a day working and see the results at the end of the day. Seeing the results of work in a church is a rare gift for a minister. Whenever I could, I helped him in the yard.

The soil in Burke County, where I grew up, is mostly red clay. When it's wet it turns into the heaviest mud you've ever seen and when it dries back out it turns into brick. Not a lot of good soil for planting and growing.

So Dad would order truckloads of topsoil and build up raised beds around our yard, breaking up the uniformity of the grade and adding some texture to our yard. We planted mostly flowers and shrubs. We went to the local hardware store and carefully select which little plastic tray had the best looking plants, then individually popping them out and placing them in a carefully measured hole in the high-quality topsoil we had purchased for the raised bed. We'd diligently mold the soil around the roots, top it off with a little mulch, and repeat the process until the project was complete. Then we'd carefully water the whole bed so that our little shrubs could properly thrive.

At the end of the day we'd sit on the porch with a glass of cool water or iced tea and survey the work we had done, enjoying how pretty and inviting the flowerbed already looked. Some days, instead of a raised flower bed, we'd work with potted plants to spruce up the porch or the driveway, transplanting plants into larger pots as needed, carefully cultivating our time and money to bring about the best possible result.

While I'm sure that God the son would be pleased to see a father and son team working side-by-side, Jesus tells a parable of a different style of planting. Rather than transplanting from pots and trays to a carefully prepared bed, he begins with, "A sower went out to sow."

The New Testament is full of parables, stories that are layered with meaning. They're kind of like an Advanced Placement version of discipleship. We've been unpacking them for hundreds of years, and they still have something to teach us. Jesus spins tales that invite curiosity and encourage us to explore what God is saying to us with each revisit to the story.

The parable of the sower is probably familiar to each of us. A farmer goes out to plant his crop, and he tosses out his seed, and it lands on several different kinds of ground, and each type results in a different kind of growth. Some dies before it can sprout, others sprout quickly and then wither, but some lands on good ground and provides a huge return on the farmer's investment.

Our human understanding would then suggest that we find more good soil, and only plant there, saving the seeds for the ground that will yield the most produce. We could carefully cultivate a garden with what God is doing, and find ways to maximize the gospel in that way, sort of a theological "best practice," as though the purpose of the church were efficiency, rather than faithfulness.

But the problem with that plan of action is that we only have a partial understanding of what's going on. God is often active in ways which we cannot see in this lifetime. Sometimes, we have to understand God's mystery through faith, rather than rthrough our own insight.

And that means spreading the word abundantly. We do not know which patches of soil God has elected as good, so the word must by spread with hope for all.

The farmer in our parable this morning is not setting up a greenhouse full of potted plants. His livelyhood is wholly in God's hands, and he is tossing out his seeds with reckless abandon, nowing that God's hgood harvest is assured, but not knowing where the best yield will come up.

So he casts his seed about, into the weeds, onto the road, in the shallow soil, and in the good soil.

There's no indication that he's aiming for any one particular place. He's just tossing out some seed, trusting God to produce whatever yield God chooses. Whether that be a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. The usual yield for a field of planting was three or four time as much return as one had invested. But the sower in Jesus's parable throws out the seed anyway, not in carefully prepared potted plants, but recklessly thrown wherever the seed might land.

The sower and cultivation of seeds is probably an image that came readily to mind in the farming culture of first century Palestine. But in 21st century America, most of us don't plant in the same way. We carefully set the boundaries of our gardens and raised flower beds, we choose the best bag of grass seed for the shaded parts of our yard and another kind altogether for the parts of the yard that get full sun. With very few exceptions, we're not relying on our yardwork to pay our bills for the year.

So what does it look like for us, if the recklessly faithful sower is not an image with which we can easily connect? If Jesus were shedding light on God's mysteries among us today, what image would he use to reveal this truth to us? An investment banker choosing stocks at random? A tech company developing whatever computer programs crossed their desk on a particular day?

I don't know how Jesus would tell it now, but I've seen some seeds planted this week at Workcamp.

By the end of the day Tuesday, I started to hear construction sounds around the neighborhoods as I drove to the houses where my crews were working. I assumed they were my crew, hard at work, and got ready to congratulate them for staying on task. When I arrived at the house, however, the crew was taking a break, sharing a devotional together, but the construction sounds continued.

As the neighborhood saw one house being repaired, they were inspired to do a little work in their own yards. They didn't have our funding, or our team of handymen guiding them, or our staff delivering supplies, but they got out their tools and tore down the old shed before it collapsed. They went ahead and added a railing to their back steps. They went ahead and pulled the nails out of the pile of scrapwood to make their yard safer.

When you scatter seed with abundance, you never know where you may find fertile soil. Perhaps in the hard ground of inner-city Petersburg a few seeds may sprout, not just in the houses where we work, but also in the neighborhoods that surround those houses. If we can take just a half a step in a week, that's worth celebrating.

Workcampers are are known in the city of Petersburg, where we have worked for twenty-six years. This year our home base, where we ate together, prayed together, played together, and collapsed from exhaustion at the end of each 16 hour day together,  posted bulletin boards covered in newspaper articles about us from the past 26 years of camp.

Two of my crews were on some of the roughest streets in the city. We sent teenagers into the area of the city where EMTs have standing orders not to enter until the Police have cleared the area. Driving up to one of these crews, I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of drug sales and I know I saw more than one handgun. We asked the police to increase their patrols in that area for the week we were there, but when our decorated vehicles and matching T-shirts rolled in, most of that activity moves away and leaves us alone. We may not have fixed their house, but we've done work on their grandfather's house, or their aunt's yard, or their sister's windows.

So by Thursday morning, all of the unsavory influences had moved away. That in itself is amazing, but what astonished me this year was when a couple of nine or ten year old boys approach one of my crews and asked if they could help paint the exterior of the house! Through their work, those two boys connected with our resident's son, a 22-year-old named Thaddeus.

Workcamp shows up for two weeks a year, we do some home repair, show the residents we love them, and maybe crime goes down or moves a short distance away for those weeks, but we're just passing through. Those 9-10 year olds found a male role model in their neighborhood who is going to be there for their day to day lives, and maybe show them a different possibility of what it means to be a man than they would have seen from the front porches in that end of town.

And if we had sought out the carefully cultivated raised beds, where we would have predicted that our seeds would grow, we never would have gone into those areas at all. It would have been easy to write them off as a lost cause, and moved on to areas that don't require as much bravery, as much faith, to enter.

"A sower went out to sow," and he tossed the seed all around, knowing that some of it would fail, just as the paint we put on the walls will eventually chip away, just as the gutters we repaired or installed will eventually leak, just as the handrails we built will eventually sag. "The work of the kingdom, like the work of the [sower], will take its share of blows, will have a series of overwhelming setbacks, but the abundant harvest is sure."

We will often not understand, in this fear-filled world, how God's abundant harvest will come, but God's will is not bound to human understanding. So the sower tosses his seeds around abundantly, know that God will provide from a place he may not have expected. The growth that comes from those who hear and understand the Word is worth the efforts that fail. God is able to pull up growth in places we did not expect, but we only get to see that happen if we throw the seeds out trusting that God will put them where they need to be.

Our scripture verse contains both a parable and an interpretation, which is pretty unusual. Jesus is content to just let most of his parables float out there without giving us much more insight. But understanding, in this parable, is highly valued. It's not enough to just hear the word. One has to be changed by the way God is working in the world, and in our lives. For Matthew, understanding is not just an intellectual exercise, it's is a commitment of being, rather than just grabbing new information.  "Such an understanding is so far beyond intellectual competence that it is regarded as God's gift." There's no way we can get to that level of understanding on our own, no stack of commentaries can change our lives, only God can bridge the gap to transform us.

God's will, however, is not bound to human understanding. God is always working in ways we cannot grasp. We are limited, God is not. So God is able to take scattered seeds and call them up out of the ground into a harvest beyond measure.

There's a lot in this world for us to fear. There are a lot of unknowns in each of our lives. But we know that our God reigns, and we know that God intervenes in the world. We also know that God's will is going to be done whether we understand it or not, and that God is working to the good of all creation.

So like the Workcampers who go to the dangerous neighborhoods to do their work, like the sower who spreads seed recklessly across all kinds of ground, "the church is called to 'waste itself,' to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God." We know that, even if we don't understand, our future is sure, so there's no need to try and maximize things on our end by investing only in potted plants. When we have the faith to live abundantly, to share love recklessly, we know that we are finally understanding mystery.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Festal Shout

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite
1I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever;
With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
3You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
4'I will establish your descendants forever,
And build your throne for all generations.''" Selah
15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
Who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;
16They exult in your name all day long,
And extol your righteousness.
17For you are the glory of their strength;
By your favor our horn is exalted.
18For our shield belongs to the LORD,
Our king to the Holy One of Israel.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

It's been a long week at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell. Last Sunday, volunteers waited for a throng of children to come join us for the Workshop of Wonders Bible School, we threw open our doors at five ready to begin the events that had been in motion for weeks and months before, as we prepared a place for the children who will lead worship for us during the offertory later today.

The parents and grandparents dropped their kids off with us, trusting us to provide a safe environment to entertain their children, and perhaps teach them something important about life in the process. Vacation Bible School isn't just children's ministry, it's also ministry to the adults who care for them. Some of the parents took the opportunity to go out on a date together, tending to their relationships while we tended to their children. Others had a quiet night at home, enjoying the opportunity to be still, an opportunity that young children make rare. I'm sure a few also had details, either at work or at home, that they had shelved in order to spend time with their families, and were able to take them back up knowing that we were taking up their children.

But the volunteers who worked at our Vacation Bible School weren't just free childcare, giving the adults the chance to do grown-up work in the grown-up world. We learned from those children, from their wonder at the amazing Bible stories, and the way they got into the narrative the youth enacted before them. We learned from their excitement as the science experiments showed the wonders of God's created order. We learned from their laughter and playfulness at the recreation station, showcasing the joy that is a sacred part of childhood. We learned from their creativity as they made crafts together, artistically expressing their thoughts and emotions, both simple and profound. We learned from their silliness and rapt attention at the opening and closing assemblies each evening, as they joined with James and Rivet, Marie and Mimi, in exploring the themes of the night through skits and music.

Even as our Volunteers sought to share God with the children, so too the children shared God with us, each generation proclaiming God's love to every other.

"I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever. With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations."

The church is one of the few places in our culture where we can interact with people across generations. That's a huge strength. It gives us the perspective to see beyond the anxieties of our own lives. We can look with a child's wonder and discern with an elder's wisdom on the same action.

Crossing generations gives us the vision to reach beyond our own experience and testify to how God has acted throughout our history and into our future. We can say together that Our God is the one who works wonders. We can tell the stories of faith together, reading from a script passed down to us through the generations, yet bringing our own interpretation as we enact the stories for one another, telling and retelling the same ancient truths in new ways. God's truths are eternal, and we share them through our stories about God's steadfast love. This shifting world cannot move us out of the reach of God's loving kindness.

"I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens."

Our Psalm reading this morning comes from a specific context, and is littered with references to the world in which its writer lived. It emerged as a response to crisis within the people of God, when they were losing sight of who they were and whose they were.

Ethan the Ezrahite, to whom this Psalm is attributed, had probably seen the Babylonian exile, when the Jewish people who had been deported after Babylon conquered Judah were finally able to come home again. It gave the people a chance to rebuild their lives and their culture, which had been utterly shattered when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies. We simply don't have an analogue for what that would be like in our own history. The heartbreak in the stories written during that time is simply inaccessible to most of us. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote this psalm as the people were finally allowed to return home.

This Psalm also references the line of King David. Just about everyone with any contact with Judeo-Christian culture recognizes that reference. He's the one who killed Goliath,  became king after Saul, and had the affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

This Psalm, by invoking that dynastic imagery, by remembering God's covenant with king David, is reestablishing the commitment to living by God's promise. The promise is not a political reality, but a liturgical, visionary, ideological hope which continued to shape the life and imagination of Israel.

God promised David that his kingdom would not end. That's part of what made the babylonian captivity so difficult for those who endured it. It wasn't just a national tragedy, it was a religious one as well. David's dynasty had failed, and with it God's promise seemed to evaporate. Without the promise of God, nothing about the Israelite national identity made sense anymore.

"You said, 'I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:'"

And yet in spite of the missing king from David's line, the tone of this psalm is still joyful. Perhaps the vanity of a powerful empire is lost, but our ability to praise our God is not. Because we live in a quickly changing world and there's certainly a lot for us to fear. But we have the truth of the gospel to support us, and the testimony of innumerable generation of our spiritual ancestors to hold us up.

The truth is that God is active in the world, God intervenes in our lives, even when we cannot see it. Sometimes we will see God's action only in hindsight, when we reflect on our lives and look for God's hands amid our history. Other times we will never know what it is God has done for us, because how can we know everything. Our lives are full of overlooked blessings and turns that could have gone wrong, we could not possibly keep track of all of them. But the covenant, though it may change forms as it did for the Israelites and God's covenant with David, is still strong. When God made a promise the people of God knew that they could count on God to keep it, even if they didn't understand how it would take place. God is faithful even when we don't see it. God's people are ensured a future even while exiled in Babylon.

"'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.' Selah"

As American Christians, we've got plenty of reasons to worry about the future. American culture has shifted away from the church, and we can no longer enjoy the privilege of social dominance like we once did. As a result, membership is declining across our denomination, youth are aging out of the programs we designed for them and they aren't coming back the way their parents did. People generally don't take the time to memorize scripture or the catechism anymore. Religiously affiliated schools and charities are shifting their identity to one that is more easily marketable so that they can continue the work that is important to them. Our confidence in the economy has been shaken and still has not recovered. Many of our political leaders seem more interested in gathering their own power than serving the people. One can understand how the American Church might be having a bit of an identity crisis as we try to grab any program or idea that we can rely on.

Israel, likewise, was having an identity crisis. The threefold destruction of their monarchy, their temple, and their city left a nationwide case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in its wake. They had to learn how to function when their homes had been destroyed with no chance to rebuild, much less the decline of their holy city. They had to learn how to be a people of God when temple worship was no longer even possible, much less the center of their culture. They had to learn how to affirm that God was their sovereign when their ruler was an occupying foreign power, much less of the house and lineage of David. Their whole identity as a covenant people was at stake, and the people of Judah were struggling to hold on to who they were and whose they were.

But none of those problems were enough to stifle Ethan the Ezrahite's Festal Shout. This long psalm walks through much of the pain of the Babylonian Exile in its later verses, giving language to the experience of an Israel that still didn't understand what God was doing in the world. But it begins with a celebrate of God's greatness, reminding them and us of what God had promised, and that those promises were trustworthy, even if we couldn't understand how they could possibly still be true. Those who read this Psalm have seen God's face in the promises he made to their ancestors. God's promises brought a little light to the darkness of their exile.

"Happy are the people who know the festal shout. Who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance."

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, plenty of reasons to be proud of our church family. We just finished a successful week of Bible school. Our average weekly worship attendance is up. We are struggling through complex issues together instead of cutting one another off when we disagree. Our choir is faithful, talented, and hard-working, so is our staff. Our church feeds the hungry through our Chicken Pot Pie sales, and we provide funds so that others outside our community can be fed by participating in and financially supporting the mission work of the Presbytery.

Even though we have much to celebrate here at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, even though we have reasons to be pleased with ourselves, none of those are why we show up for worship each week. None of those raise a Festal Shout. All the little markers of our growth and health bring on a grateful smile, but songs of praise are more deeply rooted.

For shout's of praise, we have God's promises, just as Ethan the Ezrahite and the Judeans returning from exile had. Those promises are real even when we cannot see them. We join the people who sing to God from a ruined temple in a city with half-built walls. We praise God with the Israelites who remember being forced from the homes and resettling in a foreign land. They can praise God because they know that God is active, and that God's promises are sure. So even while we struggle, we are filled with the richness of God's grace.

"They exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness."

Israel's monarchy had been crushed by the Babylonian empire, yet they still hoped for a king like David, who would restore Israel to its former glory. But God, in my experience, is not as concerned with the preservation of national interests. God is interested in creating relationships out of steadfast love and faithfulness with God's people. So the king who is a descendant of David is not a political leader who re-establishes the monarchy. He's the son of a carpenter who restores all of humanity to its former relationship with God. Because our exile was not at the hands of a conquering nation, it's of our own making as we bear the consequences of our limited humanity.

But even in our brokenness, we know the Festal Shout, Jesus is Lord. We know that God is our protector, and even though that does not guarantee wealth or power, or the other ways we measure success in this world, we know that we are cared for. God is faithful even when we don't see it. Our testimony is not based on our own abilities or talents, our talents and abilities testify to the strength of our God.

"For you are the glory of their strength; By your favor our horn is exalted."

It's been a long history for the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, for we have inherited the stories of the Israelites and Judeans. We have just finished a week of Bible School, where we shared the stories of our faith with one another, that our God is the one who works wonders. We know that God is faithful, even when we don't see it.  For we know the Festal Shout that Jesus Christ is the King of Heaven. We know that in life and in death we belong to God. Even when we think we are losing ourselves, God is still our defender and the one whom we serve.

"For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Non-Violent Swords

Non-Violent Swords from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Romans 6:1-11
1What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 10:24-39
24"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the  teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

26"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs on your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

34"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

There are passages in scripture that hold great meaning for me. Some of them happened to intersect with my life at particularly poignant moments, and shaped how I think about God, and about God's people. Some of them emerged out of intense study as I wrestled with what they might mean in a world that is so far removed from the culture and time in which it was written.

Other passages make me profoundly uncomfortable because they push against the views I hold as central to my understanding of God.

Matthew is my favorite gospel, and the excerpt from his narrative which we read today makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

I'd much rather talk about Christ's ability to bring people together, seen in the feeding of the five thousand. I'd much rather talk about how Christ calls us to turn the other cheek, seen in the sermon on the mount. I'd much rather talk about the Christ who is Lord of all creation, seen in the calming of the storm, saying "Peace, be still."

But this passage says "Do not think that I have come to bring peace; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household."

Oh it would be so much more comfortable, in this anxious and divided world, to turn back to Matthew's fifth chapter and remind ourselves of the beatitudes, "Blessed be the Peacemakers..."

Oh it would be so much easier, in this violent and reactive time, to look to Matthew's twenty-sixth chapter and remind ourselves of Jesus's arrest and betrayal, "Then Jesus said to [Peter], 'Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...'"

But studying scripture is not always easy, and discipleship does not always make us comfortable.

Even though this passage makes me profoundly uncomfortable, it's still a part of our shared story. It's scripture, a gift from the Holy Spirit to be cherished, and by which we are to be instructed. We are disciples, each of us, and are not above our teacher, Jesus Christ, the master whom we serve. This passage has something to teach us, even if it's difficult to harmonize with the other stories depicting Christ as a peacemaker.

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household"

The community to whom Matthew was writing was being persecuted by their families and neighbors as Christianity was just being born. We may not be suffering the same kind of persecution, but our community is also hurting. Our family feels divided.

There are folks in our church who celebrate the actions that our General Assembly took this week. Others are deeply offended and feel abandoned by the denomination they have loved for so long. One group finally feels accepted in their own homes, that justice and grace have been extended to them at last. Another wonders if they can still call this church home, when they struggle to reconcile their understanding of scripture, of sin, and of repentance with the stand our church has taken.

Our family feels divided, and many of us are ready to draw our swords, and to answer our hurt with cut-off. There is as strong temptation to wield this text to end our relationships with those with whom we disagree, assuming that because we understand God differently, we cannot be a church together.

I don't think that temptation is exclusive to either perspective. I've heard many times around this debate "if they're not willing to move, let them leave, who needs them." I've also heard "If the church makes this move, they have left God, and I will no longer associate with them." Both reactions will use this scripture to justify their cut off. "After all, Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword."

But we read more than just that line this morning. There is more to this passage than the opportunity to gloat over "winning" or snarl over "losing." Perhaps our foes are members of our own households, as verse 36 states, but we must remember whose household this is.

We are disciples and servants, our master and teacher is Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth. "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the  teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!"

Our congregation, our presbytery, our denomination, our family feels divided, and many of us are ready to draw our swords to defend "us" from "them." But their foes are members of their own household, we remain members of Christ's household even while we are fighting with one another. This is not a matter of "us" vs "them." This is a family fight, and it's "us" vs "us." We can cross theological swords over this issue and still remain a family. We are members of Christ's household, united, as our Romans passage reminds us, in baptism.

Christian discipleship does not stand still, in my experience. There are always new ministry opportunities before us, and new sins of which we can repent. Each particular person brings their individual perspective to the ways that God is working in the world, and how the church should respond. Those different perspectives can make for strong disagreement within the body of Christ, but they can also show us new ways that the Holy Spirit is at work, and we may recognize Christ in a fellow believe.

My first Sunday here, I talked about how God has a word to say to me through the people in this congregation. I firmly believe that to be true, and so I am listening for what God is teaching me here. That's part of my discipleship. I believe it is essential for us to remain connected, especially when we disagree. I am not always right, and I struggle with some parts of the Bible, and someone with a different perspective can teach me a way that God is moving in the world that I would not have considered otherwise. I hope that this congregation, my church family, can remember that we are reconciled by Christ, and that is more powerful than anything that may try to divide us.

We may think ourselves enemies, but we must remain connected to our LORD and to the other members of our household. While we were yet sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us, and we have been baptized into that death as well. That's what Christian Love is like, and it is by no means easy.

In fact, Christian love can make us profoundly uncomfortable. But it's who we are, or at least who we strive to be.

I think we avoid talking about difficult issues, and cut off is an avoidance, because we are worried about being impolite by disagreeing openly. So we end up covering up our wounds, which lets them fester and grow deeper. "Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness."

Just before this congregation voted to extend a call to me, Leah and I went up to Table Rock State Park in the mountains of South Carolina. We went to celebrate our three year anniversary and to take intentional time together before starting my ministry, which we knew would affect our ability to spend time together.

While we were there, we hiked up the mountain. It was Leah's idea, our hikes usually are her idea, so she was in front, and I followed behind. At the top of the mountain, we crossed paths with another couple, and the guy was a pretty typical obnoxious college student who was trying to prove how cool he was. He made a comment about how annoying it was that the women were leading the hikes, and invited me to agree with him.

It was an opportunity to share how much I love my wife, to brag about how avid a hiker she is, and that I don't need to prove myself by being better than her, I could just enjoy being with her. I could have started a relationship with this guy that encouraged him to expand his worldview that maybe it was ok that the person who was more familiar with the trail go first.

Instead I gave him a response that I thought would make him go away. I dismissed him with a nice comment, instead of engaging him with a loving one. After hiking three miles, I didn't have the energy to have the disagreement and discussion with him. I wish I had, because he was a child of God who didn't deserve to be ignored by me.

It's not enough to just be nice to one another, to keep the peace because we're afraid of conflict. We are commanded to love one another, and sometimes that means conflict as we work out what it means to be disciples, in a changing world.

Lots of folks see eternal life as the goal of Christianity. This passage points to taking up our cross as the goal. If I'm a really nice person, I'll get to hang out with the other nice folks in a sort-of heavenly country club and play golf with Moses on the weekends.

The call of the gospel is, for Presbyterians, an assurance that we have eternal life, and therefore are able to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. God keeps us, and not even those who would kill us can break that hold. So even when it makes us profoundly uncomfortable to disagree, God still keeps us and makes us one.

In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus is assuring the disciples of God's love and protection over them, telling them "Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows." We can also find unity in that assurance. We are of more value than many sparrows, and so are they, the ones with whom we disagree, the family members with whom we are fighting. God also values them, and it wouldn't hurt so much if we didn't still value them too. With Christ's assurance and God's guidance, we struggle through these issues together. But to quote our Moderator, Dr. Heath Rada, "let's disagree boldly, but never stop loving each other."

This congregation was formed a little over 67 years ago when the two Presbyterian Churches in town reunited after a family dispute, between two brothers as I've heard it, split the church. Our denomination was formed a little over 31 years ago when two churches reunited after over a century of division. We have seen divisions in our families mended with time, but more importantly with love for one another.

Our congregation has seen dysfunction and disunity, where people talk about one another rather than to one another. We know how much pain that can generate. It's much healthier to talk with one another about where we stand, even if it means we disagree with one another. "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known."

Our disagreements will only divide us if we let them, if we forget who it is that brings us together as one household. Because we don't gather in this place each week because we agree on what our General Assembly says. We gather in this place because "we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." The issues which divide us are significant, but our God is so much greater, and has redeemed us already.

This passage of scripture makes me profoundly uncomfortable, but it's the word of the Lord just as much as my favorite verses are. There are people in this world with whom I am uncomfortable, with whom I disagree fiercely, but they are God's children just as much as I am. The same God who did not give up on us when we were steeped in sin also calls us to love one another.

God keeps us together. Our church does not win or lose by the vote of the General Assembly. Our Victory is won though the hands of the High King of heaven. That victory is so much more than the hurt we feel in disagreement, and give us the faith to connect with one another, even though we may disagree on even important issues. We are united by our baptism into Christ's death. "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I grew up with a Preschool Music Teacher as a mother. Every time we got into the car it was an opportunity for her to do research with my brother and me as test subjects. We have heard more children's music tapes than you would believe even exist.

The song that has stayed with me most is Tom Chapin's "Great Big Words," which extols the virtues of excessively ponderous verbiage, or as the song's chorus puts it: Great big words, I like big words.

On a Sunday celebrating the trinity, one runs into a bunch of Great Big Words. I think this is largely because the trinity is one of descriptions of God that we can only understand by faith, because mortal minds can't wrap around the bigness of our God in three persons, who is still one God, and yet each person is also the full expression of God. Western Theologians have sought for generations to find an image that adequately portrays the Trinity, and nobody has succeeded. Every image either leans too far towards "God is one" or "God is three" So we professional theologians hide behind our big words so that we can look smart even while we admit that God is greater than our ability to describe God.

Today's sermon title is one of those big words: Perichoresis.

Having grown up singing songs about liking big words, and then majoring in English at Presbyterian College, I've become one of those people who talks about grammar and stuff for fun. So I'm going to take down the big-word mask and break it up so I can't hide behind it.

Perichoresis is the word you get when you mash "perimeter" and "choreography" together. One is the measurement around something, the other is dancing. Perichoresis, therefore, is dancing around together. We get it from the Eastern branches of the Christian Church, who use the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dancing together to grab hold of the mystery of the trinity.

The dancing trinity shows how closely and joyfully the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together, and that's the image I want us to hold in our Genesis passage. "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth, being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God sweeping over the water." Already the dance has begun, sweeping back and forth over the world before it even existed.

The word-lover in me is excitedly caught up in how artfully our Genesis passage is woven together. The shape of this creation story as first God builds and then fills creation, placing the capstone of God's blessing as God rests on the sabbath day. The way all the components relate with one another fills the Creator with joy. It doesn't just tell a story, story itself dances within the text, taking familiar steps each day: beginning each day with "God said..." and ending each one with "And there was evening, and there was morning..." The first three days God separates and creates space, light is separated from dark, the waters are separated by an expanse, and dry land is separated from water. Then in the next three days the sky is filled with greater and lesser lights, the sky and sea are filled with birds and fish, and the dry land is filled with all manner of animal life, including us!

Then on day seven, the dance moves we learned from days one through six are capped off with a blessing, with sabbath, with rest, "The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that he had done."

My Dad is a woodworker, always tinkering with some project or another in his shop. As soon as I was old enough to listen when I was told "Don't touch, you'll hurt yourself" he started inviting me to come help him on whatever project he was working on at the time. I might be reading or watching television and he would walk past and say "How about giving me a hand?" There was always an understanding that he would still love me if I said "No," but I usually jumped up from what I was doing anyway.

We would work for a while, sometimes until we were at a convenient stopping point, sometimes the stopping point came when Dad was frustrated and needed to walk away before he smashed the project into a thousand pieces.

Once we were done for the night, he'd pour himself a glass of wine and we'd sit out on the back porch, resting because our work for the day was done. We still work in the shop together when we visit one another. These days I'll have a glass as well, and that's the image I have of sabbath: a couple of people, lightly dusted with wood shavings, sitting with their feet up talking about the world after a long day of work.

Even holding up the images of Sabbath rest and the dancing trinity, this bible story is still very familiar. I've read this bible story more times than I can count, I've even preached on it before at an evening prayer service. Every time I read it through the words of Paul's letter to the church in Rome, "God speaks into being things which do not exist." God says "Lights!" and suddenly from everywhere and from nowhere, light floods the scene. But this time I noticed something different: "Let there be..."

In this passage, God's creative word is an invitation. "Let there be..." And at God's creative invitation, light, and an expanse, and dry land, and vegetation, and lights, and swarms of living creatures, and every kind of living creature, and people, all joyfully leap into existence.

In a world where folks very seriously and sternly debate precisely how the cosmos came into being, and the timetable in which it happened, the idea of joyfully answering God's invitation sweeps the perspective so far that we almost don't know it when we see it. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are having so much fun dancing together that God wants more dance partners! They say "Dance with me!" and light suddenly dances across the darkness, land dances between the waters, birds dance in the air, fish in the sea, animals dance on land and God sees that it is good!

Then God gets an idea: "And God said, 'Let us make [people] in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.' And God created a human in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

Just by being people we are answering God's invitation to dance alongside the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But because we are created in God's image, we are able to join participate in what God is doing in so many other ways, and we can celebrate each other the way the three persons of the Trinity joyfully dance around together!

This church is one body, but "none is the full image of God alone. Only in community of humankind is God reflected." We each are invited to dance alongside God, and none of us can see the full image of God in our own dance, no matter how sweet our dance moves may be.

Each summer for the last several years, I've been invited to serve on staff at Tri-Cities Workcamp, which is sort of a mix of church camp and mission trip. During the day, youth are sent out into inner-city Petersburg to do home repair in some of the most run-down neighborhoods in the city. After their daily work is done, we come together to share a meal and do an evening program. As the night draws to a close and we get ready to send the campers off to dessert and then to sleep, we invite a few folks to come forward and tell the whole camp where they saw God that day.

There's always a moment or two of silence, and then someone who has come to Workcamp for years will pop up, stride over to the stage and share their experience of God, and how they were able to participate in God's continuing acts of creation. Then another camper, perhaps a little younger, a little less sure of themselves, will take their place and share as well. And the kingdom of God gathered in that place will celebrate both of their stories, clapping and joyfully shouting even before they make it to the microphone because the invitation has been answered.

Workcamp is one of those communities where I have seen a slightly clearer image of God. This church is, and will be, another community where our congregation, and others around us, can see the image of God, sweeping over the waters, dancing through creation, joyfully doing the work God invites us to do!

But like all people, and all communities, we're broken. We're a little afraid of looking silly when no one else seems to be joining the dance. It's so much easier to stand at the edges and watch what God is doing than to answer the invitation ourselves. We don't even fully understand what God is doing. We only have access to a piece of the greatness of God, a small part of the dance that God has chosen to share with us. It's more comfortable to hide behind our big words, even if it means trading joyful faces for stern looks.

When we got so wrapped up that we could not recognize the image of God, God the Son, the Word spoken at creation, came to us to get us out on the floor! We know him as Jesus of Nazareth, God-with-us, the Word made flesh. Just as God created people in God's image so that we could share relationship with God, so we are created anew through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Jesus brings us back into communion with God. After the resurrection, Matthew's gospel tells us a story of a new invitation to participate in what God is doing in the world.

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, 'I've received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.'"

Still learning to dance, still learning to joyfully leap into the world where God is at work, some of the disciples doubted. They were so used to their brokenness they didn't know how to live in a world made new by the God who was dancing around it. Maybe they still saw themselves as broken, or couldn't accept that God loved them anyway. Maybe they didn't understand how God was still able to work after Jesus had been killed on a cross. Maybe they would rather hide behind big words than admit they didn't really know what was going on.

But even when we don't get it, even when we can't find the beat and our dance moves are terrible, God still extends the invitation, because it's not about who's the best dancer, it's about answering God's invitation to join in the work of the kingdom. It's about joyfully living as people created in the image of God. God's sovereignty is an invitation to communion with God. In a broken world that is still distorted by sin, "the good news is that life in God's well-ordered world can be joyous and grateful response."

So even though we know only in part, "We take a fragmentary community, fragmentary faith, a fragmentary understanding of the Trinitarian God, and we go into the world with everything Jesus has taught us." One day we will know fully, even as we are fully known.

God is dancing around the whole of creation, and is inviting us to dance alongside the Perichoresis. How will you answer God's invitation to join the work of the Kingdom of God?

Here's one suggestion from a guy named Jesus: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age."

Kind of makes you want to dance, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to talk to dying people - Rev. Dan McCurdy

My friend Rev. Dan McCurdy, a pastor in Wisconsin, posted this on a Facebook group of which we are both members. I think it's one of the most important things I've seen on the internet. It's reposted here with his permission. Often times, in my experience, clergy and chaplains are looked to for this kind of ministry so that family/friends don't have to. However we often have other responsibilities, one of which is to equip families/friends to deal with these kinds of life changes.

So many people, when confronted with a dying person, avoid them because "they don't know what to say."
This is largely a byproduct of feeling like you need to cheer the other person up, or "make them okay with it." Given how rarely we are OKAY with it (especially if we love the one who is dying) this is a tall order. Luckily, it's not ACTUALLY our job.
So here's how you talk to a dying person.
1. Show up. This is 90% of the battle. So long as you aren't especially, near intentionally horrible, the mere fact that you arrived will make your visit a highlight of their day. The Western fear of death means that many people wind up dying alone, avoided by those who care for them. So show up, and you're off to a good start/
2. Touch them. This goes under the sub-heading of showing up... in the end stages of death, as people become less and less aware of what is happening around them, physical contact makes your presence a little more real. Most of the time, what is killing the person isn't contagious through simple physical contact, so unless there are signs around warning you off, feel free to put a hand on their arm or shoulder. (Washing your hands before you walk into the room, of course.) A lot of dying people go days at a time without being touched in a friendly way. It helps them feel more human in a time where a lot of their humanity is being taken from them.
3. "How is Today?" At least once, by accident, you will give your dying friend or loved one the opportunity for the best joke dying has given them... "How are you?" "I'm dying. You?" After the fun of that, a better greeting is "How is Today?" Terminal diseases have good days and bad days. This is a way to find out how they are feeling on this specific day, and lets you know what is going on.
4. Don't be afraid to talk about yourself. A dying person often feels like the world around them is gone... people around them only talking about the disease, funeral arrangements, travel plans, etc. If they ask you questions about what you are up to, don't feel the need to turn the conversation back around onto them, saying; "Well, that's not important right now..." let them dictate what is important, If that includes asking if you've beaten your high score on Candy Crush Saga yet, answer them.
5. Watch for leading questions. If they ask you a question like; "What do YOU think happens when we die," give your answer with a nutshell, and then ask them what they think. These questions are often looking for an opportunity to explore some murky concepts. Tell the truth, and listen for the truth they tell when you return the question.
6. Let them steer the conversation. If the deep talk gets to deep, they'll yank the wheel and take it somewhere else entirely. Let them. In a world where more and more decisions are being taken from them, allow them to dictate this.
7. Do not compulsively fill every silence. If they go quiet, and you don't have anything to say, don't feel the need to babble for the sake of babbling. Silence can be golden.
8. When the time comes to leave, make definite plans to come back. Whenever possible, pick an exact date and time. "I'll see you around" is too nebulous and opens up a strong possibility of "Is this the last time I'll see you." It can ruin a happy day. So be definite. It doesn't assure anything, but it sure leaves the visit on a strong note.
And finally, remember that no matter how far gone they are, until the very end, unless they were clinically deaf before, assume that they can hear you. Talk TO them when you are in the room, instead of always talking over them. Tell them that you love them, that you'll miss them, anything you need to say.
And when the time comes, say goodbye.