Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Religious Question in a Secular Place

Matthew 16:13-20, Lectionary 21 A, Aug. 24, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

The movie Godspell from the 1970s begins with John the Baptist calling the disciples. These future disciples are in New York trying to make a living and dealing with all of the stresses of big city living.

The movie begins with a traffic jam. Many of the drivers are yelling at a future disciple standing in the road. They are shouting things like, “Back it out of there! Come on, back it out!” while another says, “Don’t you see that I have the right of way?” and another, “I haven’t got all day! I have places to go!” These drivers are certain that this disciple is the cause of the traffic jam. Then the disciple steps on the edge of a small wooden sign so that it stands upright. This sign reads, “Exit.” Half of the cars are heading in the wrong direction! No matter how angry these people may be, the disciple is not the cause of the traffic jam!

Another future disciple is at the library. She is at the public copy machine with one of her library books. She feeds a coin into the machine and then makes a copy. After a few more coins and a few more copies, there is a line forming behind her. Clearly the next woman in line is getting impatient. In a brazen act, this future disciple feeds one last coin into the machine and then puts her face on the copier’s glass.

A third future disciple is working as a waitress in a diner. She gives a customer his change and then opens her book. During her break, she is reading Ulysses by James Joyce. She is deeply concentrating on this book. Then she leaves it open on the counter as she pours a cup of coffee. As she is bringing it to her customer, a waiter rushes behind her, bumping her and spilling the coffee - right on her book on the counter.

These three are regular people trying to make it in New York in the 70s. They are trying to mind their own business when someone disturbs their day. Even though a wrong has been done to them, they do not lash out with anger or malice. Instead, they turn the other cheek and try to move on with their day. Of course, that is when John the Baptist starts to sing, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”

The Text
In some ways, these scenes in New York remind me of our Gospel lesson that happens in Caesarea Philippi. These future disciples are living in a secular culture when they are called to lives of ministry. So also, this happens when Jesus asks his disciples an important question in Caesarea Philippi. This place north of Galilee was filled with shrines to pagan deities. Pan was worshipped there at the grotto, and Herod the Great built a temple there dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Surrounded by these pagan and nationalistic locations, Jesus poses a serious question.

“What is the word on the street?" He asks, "What do you hear others talking about the Son of Man?” This is such a vague, impersonal question. The disciples have taken time to talk to the people they encounter. They respond that the crowds aren’t quite sure what to think of Jesus. They know that he is important, comparable to great Jewish prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. But how Jesus fits into the larger picture of God’s divine plan, who could know?

Now, it gets personal. “How about you?” Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a loaded question with severe consequences. Who is bold enough to respond truthfully? Peter, of course. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This is quite a loaded response. 

Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the true king over all Israel. Thus, Peter is denying that Caesar is the true king. Then, Peter says that Jesus is the son of the living God, implying that Pan is dead and worthless. This Jesus is the real deal. Jesus isn’t just a prophet working for God - he is God. 

Jesus is proud of his disciple. Peter was bold to confess the truth, given the will and knowledge to do so by none other than God the Father. Jesus rewards him not with a prize or trophy but with great responsibility. The church will be built with Peter leading the way. Jesus is giving Peter the authority of heaven, the right to teach the church what God’s law permits and forbids. These laws have already been established by God; Peter is simply sharing them.

This is a powerful scene during an important point in Jesus’ ministry. As he is slowly approaching the cross, he asks his disciples to confess his true identity. He also establishes that the disciples will continue his work after his time on earth is over. They cannot yet shout to the heavens that Jesus is the Messiah because Jesus’ time to die has not yet come. Yet, when it is time, they will be ready.

Our Part
Now that Jesus has died and been raised to new life, are we ready to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah? We are living in our own version of Caesarea Philippi, not unlike the scenes from Godspell in New York. Our shrines to pagan idols look different these days. Instead of grottos and temples, shrines today often look like shopping malls and restaurants. 

Consider 53rd Avenue in Davenport. There are clothing stores like Old Navy that are shrines to envy. There are restaurants like Granite City that inspire gluttony. So many of the stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond are shrines to greed. There is a movie theatre that inspires lust. Even driving down 53rd sometimes invokes wrath. Each establishment tempts us to spend what we don't have and to do what we shouldn't.

When we are in this space of worship, it is easy to confess the Apostles’ Creed and proclaim that Jesus is God. But if you are out shopping and someone asks you who Jesus is, how would you respond? Do your words spoken show that Jesus is Lord?

What about your actions? If you have a Jesus fish bumper sticker on your car, those behind you know that you are a Christian. Does your driving show God’s love to your neighbor? If you are wearing a cross around your neck or on your shirt, those in the check out line with you know that you are a Christian. Are you patient and gracious? Even if you don’t have any outward signs of your Christianity, do your actions proclaim your love for God?

In Godspell, ordinary people were faced with everyday situations. Traffic jams, impatient people, and spilled coffee are some of those common agitators. Yet these disciples did not return anger with anger. They showed God's love to their neighbor, even if they did it in a snarky way.

Peter is the rock on which our church is built, yet we all have a part in maintaining and growing this church. This is a heavy responsibility that Jesus gave to Peter and has been handed down to us. How are you doing your part?

We cannot keep this church going on our own. Left to our own devices, the Christian church would be in shambles. Only by the grace of God can we do this. Jesus Christ has freed us from our sins so that we might be able to be ministers in all that we say and do. On the road, waiting in line, or otherwise in public, do the strangers that you meet whisper to themselves, “I think I just saw Christ”? I hope so. Amen.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson Needs to be Heard

Genesis 45:1-28, Lectionary 20 A, Aug. 17, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Ferguson, Missouri
Shots fired. A man killed. Protests raging. Police defending. Justice demanded. 

This week, a lot has happened in Ferguson, Missouri. A teenage boy is dead, shot by a police officer. The entire town is full of protestors demanding answers. Yet even now many of their questions are not clearly answered. The protestors know that some injustice has happened. As they asked for the name of the police officer, what they wanted was reconciliation.

They wanted someone to admit that an injustice happened. They wanted someone to admit that racism is still a prevalent issue in their town. They wanted someone to grieve for this lost soul. The situation happening in Ferguson, MO is still unfolding as we speak. The media can only share a very small portion of the story of how Michael Brown died and how the community is reacting. 

Just as the media deceives us as we search for the true story of what happened in Ferguson, the lectionary can be deceiving as well. We might think that our first lesson is a simple story of forgiveness and reconciliation, the exact story that we want to hear after such an uncomfortable week in the news. 

Joseph in Egypt
Last week, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. This week, Joseph is reunited in Egypt with his brothers. They all weep with wonder that they might be one happy family again. The treacherous act that the brothers committed so many years ago seems to be swept under the rug. Joseph proudly proclaims that all of this is part of God’s plan.

We want this story to be so simply gratifying; we want this story to have a happy ending. The news can be so depressing, so we turn to the Bible so that God might uplift our spirit. But this lesson from the 45th chapter is not the first time that the brothers go to Egypt. In fact, it is the second trip to Egypt and the third time that the brothers come before Joseph. Each time, the brothers travel to Egypt to buy some grain. All they want is a simple, honest transaction. Yet, each time, Joseph manipulates them.

The first time, he threw them in jail for three days. Then he keeps Simeon in prison until they return with Benjamin. He gives them grain and puts their money in their sacs. Now they fear not only for Simeon’s life but also that they might be considered thieves. 

Then, after they eat all that grain, they must return to Egypt. Jacob sends his sons, including Benjamin, with enough money to pay for what they have eaten and for a new batch of grain. When they came before Joseph, they feared that they would be forced into slavery. Instead, Joseph fed them a grand feast.

Once again, Joseph sends his brothers away with grain and their money. In Benjamin’s sac he he hid a silver cup. Then, on their way home, the brothers were overtaken by Egyptians and forced back on account of their apparent theft. 

Once more, all of the brothers are standing before Joseph. Then Judah gives a grand speech about how their father Jacob would be a wreck and die if they came home without Benjamin.

That is when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. He waited until after the brothers traveled long distances, stressed over their apparent theft, and worried for their father’s wellbeing. Joseph does not resolve the conflict until he has made his brothers suffer too.

Even after Jacob is reunited with his favorite son, the story does not end happily ever after. For the rest of their lives, the brothers lived in fear of Joseph. They knew that Joseph had great power as the Pharaoh’s first officer and as their father’s favorite. After Jacob died and was buried, the brothers approached Joseph once more. This time, they fell on their knees begging forgiveness for their sinful action what seemed like a lifetime ago. One last time, Joseph claimed that all of this was part of God’s doing.

Reconciliation Needed
This may not be the story that we want to hear this week, yet it is an honest one. Joseph is understandably upset with his brothers. They let their petty sibling rivalry get them so upset that they sent their brother away. Now, Joseph is, in some small way, making them pay for what they have done. Joseph still loves his brothers, yet he has anger and outrage mixed in with that love.

In Joseph’s case, reconciliation was slowly given. He believed that God had a hand in what injustices he experienced, yet he still wanted to hold his brothers accountable for their actions. Then, after Judah’s speech, Joseph can’t control his emotions anymore. He may still feel anger for his brothers, yet his love conquers all.

In Joseph’s case, reconciliation looks like brothers crying on each other’s shoulders. It looks like a family reunited. It looks like God’s grace shared with siblings.

In Ferguson, Missouri’s case, reconciliation looks like a police force walking with protestors instead of blockading them (last Thursday). It looks like answers given. It looks like being heard.

Listen. Learn.
In everything that I have read this week, I have been hearing one message loud and clear: People need to have their stories heard. The people of Ferguson, Missouri need to tell our nation what injustice occurred. They want the nation to know that racism is real, that racism still is powerful. It may look very different than it did fifty years ago, yet it still can tear communities apart.

In all of the blogs that I have read about Robin William’s passing, the most poignant message that I have heard is that we need to hear stories from those who are depressed. We do not know what Robin Williams was thinking when he took his life. We don’t know what many depressed people are thinking when they consider self-harm. How can we know unless we sit beside them and listen. We can’t wait for them to come to us.

In the book Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, I am reading how he not only serves the poor, but he knows them. He does not just feed the homeless; he talks to them. Shane Claiborne has listened to their stories. He knows how the least among us are struggling.

There are people suffering all around us. There are those who have personal issues and those who suffer from systemic issues. We don’t often know the terrors that our neighbors face every day unless we ask. When we feed our neighbors, let us take the time to get to know them as well. Let us hear their stories. Let us find people who are not like us. Let us seek out those from different races, generations, and economic status. Let us walk with those who have a story to share. As we listen, we might just see God in the face of our neighbor. Amen.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Irresistible Revolution

My sermon last week, 8/10, was inspired by Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. When this book was published in 2006, I was in college. People that I didn’t get along with were reading the book, so I decided not to read it. Now I see that was complete foolishness. 

For a while now, I have been thinking that the charity work of the church is not enough. Jesus calls us to work for justice and social change. Even so, I have been afraid to take action because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Shane Claiborne in his book has shown me that, yes, people may not agree with such simply radical action. Yet, a few sour opinions should never be reason enough to refrain from striving for the least among us.

Claiborne writes powerfully about his conviction to take the Bible seriously. While in college in Philly, he spent time among the homeless there. He did this not as a service project but because he genuinely cared for them. Then he went to Calcutta and spent a few months serving the young, homeless, and sick with Mother Teresa. Then he discovered culture shock when he served an internship at Willow Creek, a large, affluent congregation in Chicagoland. 

While at Willow Creek, Claiborne did a brief survey of the congregation. Although 80% of the lay members knew that Jesus spent time with the poor, only 2% of them did so. He writes:
“I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” (p. 113)

After graduating from college, Claiborne began the Simple Way, a fellowship of people who live among the poor and serve them. They not only feed these people - they know them personally. By taking the time to truly love their neighbors, they can help them care for each other. Shane Claiborne, throughout his life, follows Jesus’ example by spending time among the rich and the poor. 

In his book, Claiborne shows me how complacent we Christians have become. We see tragedies happen all around us, but what do we do? Nothing. Even when we can make a great difference, we often just watch the opportunity pass by. Sure, we are good at charity. We feed the poor. Sometimes we clothe them too. We donate to Good Will. But with each of these activities, we separate ourselves from the poor. We help the poor to satiate our own guilt, not to fulfill their needs. Claiborne writes:
“Writing a check makes us feel good and can fool us into thinking that we have loved the poor. But seeing the squat houses and tent cities and hungry children will transform our lives. Then we will be stirred to imagine the economics of rebirth and to hunger for the end of poverty.” (p. 160)

Shane Claiborne is living his life as an “ordinary radical” because his faith is so deeply centered on Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and miracles. Using Jesus’ life as a guide, he cannot help but to care deeply for everyone he meets, whether rich or poor. Claiborne describes Jesus with these words:
“Jesus was not simply a missionary to the poor. He was poor - born a baby refugee from the badlands of Nazareth, wandered the world a homeless rabbi, died the rotten death of insurrectionists and bandits on the cross, executed by an oppressive empire, buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus was crucified not for helping poor people but for joining them.” (p. 144)

So let us all take Shane Claiborne as an example and consider how we too can become ordinary radicals.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wrestling for God's Blessing

Genesis 32:22-31, Lectionary 18 A, August 3, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wrestling today
A few years ago, after Christmas break, my seminary classmates and I were sitting around the lunch table sharing stories. We mentioned all of the family members we had seen, the fun presents we had received, and the adventures we had. We were having fun relaxing around our stories.

I mentioned that at a family party on my Dad’s side, one of my cousins was bragging about his son. He played a video of his son at a wrestling match. I said that my seven year old second cousin earned a medal “playing wrestling.”

In response, one of my seminary classmates sat bolt upright. With a serious look on his face, he said, “You don’t ‘play’ wrestling; you wrestle. There is a big difference.” This distinction was clearly important to him. His son also was involved in wrestling. To his family, it was more than just a game. It was a way of life. 

For many, wrestling is an important sport. The matches certainly require physical skill and strategic ability. Those who wrestle need to have their minds and bodies working together to succeed. Wrestling may be more than just a game, yet it also is not a life or death situation. Certainly injuries do happen, yet they usually are not severe. 

Wrestling in the past
Jacob, from our first lesson, was not competing at a wrestling match. He did not have officials watching over him, ready to stop him if he or his opponent tried an illegal move. No, Jacob was settling down for the night when suddenly he was attacked. Jacob was not wrestling to win a game - he was wrestling to save his life. 

Let’s put this in context. Our last lesson left us in Haran. Jacob had married Leah and Rachel. Between Jacob’s two wives and their two maids, he had fathered eleven sons and at least one daughter. After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob was ready to take his family, his servants, and his livestock back to his homeland in Canaan.

Jacob’s father-in-law Laban was not so ready to let his children, grandchildren, and property leave. So, Jacob gathered up all that was his and snuck away in the middle of the night. Laban raced after them and harassed them. Then, after much discussion, Jacob and Laban agreed to never swindle the other again. They would go back to their respective homelands and never look back.

Then, when they were nearing Canaan, Esau went out to meet them. He brought 400 men with him. Seeing Esau far off in the distance, Jacob sent off some of his servants with hundreds of livestock as a peace gift. After his gift was sent but before he personally met up with Esau, our lesson begins.

Worried about what Esau might do, Jacob kept his family and his remaining livestock on the far side of the Jabbok River. He alone stayed on the nearside of the river. Then, after Jacob had settled down for the night, someone started to wrestle with him. He did not know who might be attacking him, yet he thought it might be the Lord. For twenty years earlier when he was running away from Esau, the Lord came to him in a vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven. 

Until daybreak, Jacob wrestled with this - man, angel, God - person. He did not let up until he was blessed. In the process, God changed his name to Israel, meaning “One who strives with God and humans.” Indeed, throughout his life, Jacob had metaphorically wrestled with God, his brother, his father, his father-in-law, and even his wives. 

We wrestle to change our names
Jacob’s original name essentially boils down to “cheat.” For the first forty or so years of his life, “Cheat” was a pretty good name for him. He essentially stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. He not only took one of Laban’s daughters but both of them. He manipulated the sheep and goats on Laban’s land so that he could profit more. Throughout Jacob’s life, he has relied on his quick wit and smooth talking to profit or get him out of tricky situations. And when that wouldn’t work, he ran away. 

But now Jacob is changing. Instead of talking his way out of this wrestling match, he fights directly and honestly. Instead of trying to swindle his brother one more time, he sends a peace offering - without strings attached. Jacob is leaving his trickster habits behind him. Now Jacob is an honest man. So, to mark this momentous occasion, God changes his name to Israel. 

If Jacob’s original name means “Cheat,” I wonder, what are our nicknames that we leave behind? For many of us, “Cheap” may be a better nickname. For others, “Cruel,” “Ignorant,” “Overbearing,” or “Worthless” may be in order. Whatever your identifying sin is, turn away from it. 

We also wrestle with God. We wonder how we can be the best Christians. We wonder how the world can be in such disorder, people killing each other left and right. We wonder if we are doing right by our families, if we are saving enough money, if we are making the right choices. We wonder where God is in our lives, but we must be careful! If we try too hard, God might just dislocate our hips during a wrestling match.

In the end, God has changed our names. God has helped us to leave our sins behind us so that we too might claim the name, “Israel.” For we too strive with God and with humans. Yet we also claim the name “Children of God,” for God baptizes us and marks us with the cross of Christ forever. We are also “Children of Christ,” fed and nourished by the body and blood of Christ. We too are “Children of the Holy Spirit,” sent out into the world so that we might share the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Jacob is a special man. He lived at the extremes - from a swindling jerk to a loving father. Our stories may not mirror Jacob directly, yet we do each have a bit of him inside us. We have committed many sins, some of which may have been advantageous at one time. Yet now we have set that aside and changed our ways. Our Lord has washed away our sinful nature, and in doing so we have claimed our place within Israel. We claim the name Israel because we too strive with God and with humans. 

No matter what has happened in the past, our God has blessed us. Our God has sent us on our way so that we can renew abandoned relationships, right our wrongs, and restart on a new path. We can only do this because God has made it so. Amen.