Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We are what we wear . . .

“We are what we wear.” It sounds like it should have been a clothing add from the 80’s or early 90’s, but it is also a truth that the world recognizes. I was reminded of that fact watching a movie I had yet to see. The movie was Hancock. In it, Will Smith plays a drunken, misunderstood, selfish superhero. Hannah fell asleep, so I did not get to finish it yet, but there was a wonderful teaching in it. The “image consultant” who takes on the cause of Hancock shows the hero the new uniform. Hancock, predictably, is not about to wear the uniform. And the consultant reminds Hancock of the film footage and of the fact that a uniform denotes purpose. We know what firemen and police officers are doing because of what they wear. We can identify doctors, accountants, librarians, construction workers, and countless others by how they dress. Their uniforms give away their jobs. Their uniforms, in a way, give away their identity.

Paul, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, reminds us of this truth this weekend. We are what we wear. And Paul reminds us what we should be wearing and why we should be wearing it. You and I and all Christians, writes Paul, are engaged in a battle against powers and authorities unseen. Our real enemies are then enemies of God who seek to lead humanity from the mercy and love of the cross and the glorious promise of salvation. Some may be seen, but others exist in the spiritual realm, wrecking havoc as they struggle against the Gospel of Christ. You and I and all Christians, therefore, need to dress accordingly. We know we are in a battle, and we had better be prepared. So what do we wear?

Paul reminds us that we wear the armor of God. First, we are given a belt of truth. When we read that, we should hear the world and Caesar’s question “What is truth?” In a pluralistic age which denies any group’s claim to know Truth, we should not be surprised that Paul reminds us that we have been given the Truth. The truth has been revealed to us. We know that God exists, we know that He loves each one of us, through the work and person of Christ Jesus. Better still, we know that Jesus is who He says He is, the messiah, by the fact that God vindicated Him on that Easter morning and raised Him from the dead. This, the world, is not all that there is. There is a Creator, a loving God, who stretched out His hand to save humanity, a humanity which so often determines to save itself and yet fails repeatedly.

Next, Paul reminds us that we wear a breastplate of righteousness. Given that Paul was a lawyer, we probably should not be too surprised that he uses a term like righteousness. For Paul, the term means simply that we are made right before God. Our debts to Him have been paid; our sins against Him have been atoned—through the sacrifice of Christ. As a result, you and I are made sons and daughters of the living God. We are adopted into His family and restored to relationship with Him. And it is fitting that we should carry such good news close to our hearts. When the world tries to remind us that we are not special, that we are not significant, our breastplate reminds us that the Creator of the universe thought me worth the cost of the cross and that you and I are dear to Him, indeed.

Our helmet, according to Paul, is a helmet of salvation. We are reminded of the glory which we are promised by God. Yes, bad things may happen in the world. We may suffer from diseases, famine, the sins of others, or even the forces of nature. We may, in fact, suffer to the point of death. Yet each of us has been promised through Christ an eternal salvation. Whatever we suffer for His glory will be redeemed. God will vindicate all His adopted children just as He did His begotten child. We may die for a time, but we will live forever in the presence of our God, our Savior, our Creator. That is His promise to all who believe in Him.

Add to all this the shield of faith. In our daily life and work we will be assaulted by these forces and their puppets who rebel against God. Diseases may well afflict us; aches and pains will no doubt assault us; coworkers may use us as rungs on a ladder, companies may dismiss us as heartless institutions are wont to do, we may lack for many wants, we may be persecuted as Paul was during the composition of this letter, at times we may feel like we are in a long tunnel with no light in sight (or worried that the light is a locomotive heading our way), but we can trust that God will vindicate us. Whatever is meant for evil by others in our life, He will conquer for us. We may not know how, we may not see how such redemption is possible at times, but our shield of faith allows us to withstand the arrows and trust Him to act when necessary.

I intentionally left off the sword and the footwear. At a later date, I want to take up specifically the sword He gives us to bear and how we wield it so wrongly so often. The footwear I save for last because it reminds us of our need to be comfortable and well supported as we labor for Him. Speak to any veteran about their supplies and their attire, and you will quickly learn that the shoes are very important. A soldier is near worthless if he or she is suffering from blisters on their feet, if their toes are frostbitten, or if the sweat has led to fungi or other problems. The footwear, though seemingly insignificant, is amazingly important. You and I are told to get comfortable in our labors for His Gospel. None of us are given the same gifts and talents, yet we are all called to go forth into battle in His name. While it is true that God may use you in ways that you would not choose (Paul is in chains for no criminal reason), often He sends us into those places where we are most familiar to testify to His saving grace. Your work or school environment, your family, your social club, your former partiers—all these and countless other places may be the very place He has sent you as His ambassador and asked you to labor faithfully.

We are what we wear – I mentioned earlier that Hancock drove this home for me late last week. While I have not yet seen the entirety of the movie, I have seen enough to guess. I will be sorely disappointed if Hancock’s image is not restored. But we are all confronted with that same question each and every day as we head off to work, or school, or play. What will I wear today? Will we wear the same old same old, or will we put on the armor of God and go forth into the battles He has called us? Will we garb ourselves in drab clothing and testify that the world is right, we are not special? Or will we put on His righteousness, His truth, His promise of salvation and go forth as ambassadors of the One who redeems all and has acted to redeem us, living testimonies to His saving grace in the world?


Monday, August 24, 2009

What if there had been silence to your question?

Yes, I knew I was taking a big chance encouraging parishioners to talk about how God had been active in their lives over the past week. Yes, I knew that some did not like the idea of sharing with others His sovereign hand at work in their lives. Yes, I knew that some did not want people to think them strange or weird or different for thinking that God had acted. But, we are Christians called together in worship. We are called together to remind one another that God is at work every bit as He was in the days of David & Solomon or any other time in history. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that His work is personal, that it affects people we know and love, that He has shown his power the power of His works, not only in the cross and resurrection, but in our lives! And those sharings, particularly in dark times, can remind other Christians of His promises. The treasures of our faith are not meant to be hidden. They are meant to be shared with others for His glory!

Had I had a lot more time, I might have better developed the idea where that sharing came from. Consider Jesus’ words that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Clearly, the word abide is very important to John, as is eating and drinking. John will pick up that abiding and its implication later in his Gospel (14:17, 15:4-7, 15:10, 17:21) and also in the letters. But here, in this little passage, John has a very specific message to us. As Adolph Schlatter summed up John, “What we have to do with his [Jesus’] flesh and blood is not chew and swallow, but that we recognize in his crucified body and poured out blood the ground of our life, that we hang our faith and hope on that body and blood and draw from there our thinking and our willing” (Das Evangelium nach Johannes, Erläuterungen 3:116) pg 95.

Put another way, all our hopes, all our futures, all our lives depend utterly and totally on Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection. As people who eat His flesh and drink His blood, we recognize that we cannot save ourselves. However, God chose to redeem us rather than condemn us. And so He came down from heaven, died for us, and promised us eternal life and abiding presence with Him if we accept His offer. Our recognition of this kind of love, this kind of mercy, is liberating! Rather than feeling trapped by our failures, our insignificance, our impotence, and other shortcomings, we are called to remember that God loved us enough to save us. For some reason, the Creator of the universe loves each of us and acted to save us by dying for us! Talk about changing our perception of our own self-worth.

Better still, God reminds us that we are His ambassadors, His children by adoption, His heirs. And we are sent forth into the world to remind the world of His love and His mercy. What better way to do that than by sharing our stories with one another! Our collective stories remind us that we have worth before His eyes, that He deemed us worth saving, and that He is keeping His promises! When we see Him at work in our own lives, how much more excited an ambassador are we for Him? How much more do we begin to understand that He is abiding in us as we abide in Him? And so, we give thanks for His work on our behalf, and we encourage others to remember His inestimable love of them and that He wants that relationship with them! So, please, go ahead and share. How has God been at work in your life recently?


Monday, August 17, 2009

Images and Questions

This past Thursday, those at the Bible Study remarked how they had never considered some of our topics before, and a few people asked Sunday if I would share a few of the metaphors, themes, images, and teachings that we considered. So here goes:

2 Samuel

The Civil War (18:6-8) – this was a battle a bit bigger than our own Antietam, yet only a few sentences are devoted to it. Why?

Absalom riding a mule (18:9) – Preferred mount of kings and princes in much of Samuel and Kings. As Absalom loses his mount, he loses his kingdom.

Absalom hanging (18:9) – He has rebelled against God’s anointed. Who can support him? To whom can he look for help? Does this look forward to Judas?

How did he get stuck? (18:9) – Josephus (a Jewish Historian) attributed it to his head full of hair (14:26). If that is true, pride has certainly led to a tragic demise.

David’s mourning (18:33) -- Nathan’s words have to ring in David’s ears. Though God has taken away his guilt, David must realize that his “taking” rather than “serving” has led to this terrible moment.

Psalm 130

Who could stand? (2) – Rite 1 worshippers are reminded of this teaching every time they gather for the Eucharist: “. . . we beseech Thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses . . . ”

Watchmen for the morning (5) – those of us who have worked graveyard shifts understand this better than others, but have you ever noticed the darkness before the dawn? Now, imagine that your family, friends, and townfolk depend upon your vigilance for their safety. How much would you long for the sunrise?

Ephesians 4

We can be angry (26) – What is anger? The emotion is not the sin, it is what we do with it that is the sin. We are told not to dwell on it, however.

Thieves and Deadbeats (27) – Human nature has changed very little the last two millennia. Paul is reminding us of our obligation to work as we are able for the lifting up of the needy.

Be forgiving (32) – Is there a harder lesson?

John 6:41-51

Bread of life – If there is a harder lesson, this might be it. We should think of Moses feeding Israel with manna and Jesus feeding the 5000. But even those images fall short of His offer now. And none can come to Him unless drawn by the Father who sent Him. Even our faith is a gift of God?

As I said Sunday, there were a host of topics and questions raised by all our readings (this list is by no means exhaustive of the possible topics/questions), many of which did not address current pastoral needs, but which might well shed new light on events in our past or get us through some trials in the future. Better still, in trying to accommodate our desires for shorter worship times and sermons, many of the readings are lifted from other teachings with which they are intertwined. (for example, though we read Nathan’s “You are the man,” we skipped the mercy offered, “The Lord has put away your sin, you shall not die) Feel free to add your own questions or to join us on Thursdays as we explore our readings each week!



Monday, August 10, 2009

Repentance and forgiveness . . .

And now the great King David is caught. For the past couple months, we have been following the rise of King David, the king after God’s own heart. Just to remind you of the story, since many may have missed church over the last month with your own vacations, think what we have considered about David: (1) He was anointed king as a youth, while Saul was still king; (2) He waits patiently for God’s plan to be worked out; (3) No matter how many times Saul abuses David’s loyalty (tries to withhold his daughter from marriage to David despite his pledge; tries to kill David; is even envious of David’s victories in his and God’s honor; etc), David refuses to take matters into his own hands and to kill Saul; (4) When the foreign ambassador congratulates David on Saul’s death, David kills the ambassador in a rage because God’s anointed has been killed; (5) David accepts the crown cognizant that he is but a regent for the true king of Israel, Yahweh; (6) and last week, he saw a hottie bathing on the roof and decided to take advantage of his position; (7) David set about purposely to violate not one, not two, but three of the ten commandments (coveted Uriah’s wife, committed adultery, and ordered that Uriah be killed) in one fell swoop. After the long slow build-up and praise of David, he is brought tumbling back to earth. The king after God’s own heart seems to be more like Saul that God. What in the world is God trying to teach us this week about David and about ourselves? What is He trying to teach us about Him?

Though there are any number of lessons in our reading from 2 Samuel this weekend, an easy 3 point sermon presented itself. I say easy because it is obvious, not because the teaching is anything but hard for us to accept. I have shared with this congregation a few times that one of the least discussed subjects in many Episcopal/Anglican churches (at least according to Church Times and other esteemed publications) is the idea of judgment. Very seldom, indeed, are pastors ever willing to preach on the subject of judgment. What is interesting, of course, are some of the subjects that are even less popular subjects of sermons. One such subject is central not only to our reading this weekend, but to the books of Samuel. That subject is sin. I have been accused, at times, by other clergy, of having a “high doctrine of sin.” I suppose what is meant is that I believe it to be ever present in the human condition. I do not know that it is high or low. I think God teaches us that it is ever present in our lives. In fact, I think the Bible teaches us that sin is so prevalent in our lives that we are often blind to its presence. Now, some clergy who accuse me of this high doctrine of sin encourage me to spend my time on God’s mercy and God’s grace. Yet, they are the opposite sides of the same coin, as this passage teaches us. How can God’s mercy be present, if there is no sin? How can we see His grace at work in our lives if we cannot see ourselves misled by our own efforts?

David illustrates this perfectly. David has everything. He has power. He has wealth. He has a great place to live. He has wives and concubines. All his needs are met. And why not? He has faithfully followed God’s call on his life. Should he not be thus blessed? And then, while his men are off fighting for him, he is blinded by his own lust. He sees Bathsheba sunning herself. He conspires to sleep with her (apparently his numerous wives and concubines were simply not enough). Worse, when he impregnates her, David conspires to cover up his actions. Unfortunately for David (and Uriah!), David misjudges Uriah’s righteousness. Uriah refuses the comforts of home while his men and friends are still fighting for the king and for Yahweh. So, David has Uriah killed and marries Bathsheba. Seemingly, his problem is solved. Sure, some may figure out the dates don’t quite work out when Bathsheba finally delivers her son six or seven months after the marriage, but no doubt few will play close attention. Then, as now, the powerful can get away with a lot.

Then, God’s prophet arrives on the scene. He tells David a story. And, rightfully, David is enraged. How dare the rich man take the poor man’s lamb. He deserves to die! And Nathan says to his king, “You are the man!” David was so focused on his wants, his desires, his perceived needs, that he forgot Whom he served. Rather than standing under God’s word, as he is called to do, David causes a horrible mess, and then makes it worse by sinning more to cover up his initial sin. And God’s prophet is there to remind him and us of this fact.

Far too often, we are like David. We forget that we are called to serve (or in extreme cases reject the notion that we are called to serve) God. We become so focused on our own perceived needs and wants that we become focused on their fulfillment. Like David, we will do almost anything to have those perceived needs fulfilled. Those needs or wants, rather than God, becomes our focus. Like David, we are blinded by the idols in our lives. We may think ours are different, easier to spot I mean, come on, adultery when you have multiple wives and concubines? Who would be that stupid today? And yet we look for solace, fulfillment, love in countless other places than He instructs us. We turn to alcohol, to money, to power, to prestige, to other human beings, to drugs, to any number of other idols to meet our own perceived needs. And, ultimately, each fails us. And, like David, we discover that we often make messes bigger by trying to “clean up after ourselves” in those instances when we realize that what we have done is wrong. I may have stabbed people in the back to get a job, but I’ll be a good boss once I am there. I may have been loathe to share my wealth with the needy, but if God will just give me a lottery ticket, I can help a lot of people. I may use other people for my own pleasure, but when I meet the right one . . . —on and on goes our justification of our actions. We forget that God has called. We forget that God has revealed what He expects of His adopted sons and daughters. We forget, far too often, the lesson from Psalm 51 this weekend, of our offenses, our wickedness, and our sins. We want to pretend desperately that sin is not present in our lives. But if we examine our lives as we are called so to do, we become like the psalmist. We begin to see ourselves with His eyes and realize our true need. What to do?

Unlike his predecessor, David reminds us of the only response we should have when confronted by God with our sins—we repent. Unlike Saul, who always offers an excuse for his sins, David responds to Nathan’s “You are the man!” with the simple “I have sinned against the Lord.” David, in a simple sentence (two words in Hebrew), demonstrates the proper response we should have to all our sins. We are called to turn from them and back to God. It is that simple. Though we will, lacking God’s grace in particular areas in our lives, continue to sin and sin and sin, our job is easy. We are called to recognize our sin and turn back to God. We recognize our sins through our study of Scripture and through our corporate worship. Sometimes, the number can seem overwhelming. And yet, all He requires of us is to turn away from the sin and back to Him.

Such repentance on our part leads to that one product of faith that the human condition, at least rightly understood, is so in need of—forgiveness. Though the gracious response of God is cut out by our lectionary editors (we will not read about Nathan’s reply to David’s confession next week), it is important for us, as heralds of His Gospel, to pronounce the ultimate fruit of the acknowledgement and repentance of our sins. Like David, we are forgiven if we truly repent. To accept God’s grace, we must first be made aware of our need. And our passage reminds us of the relation between repentance and forgiveness. Immediately after David’s confession, Nathan asserts that “The Lord has taken away your sin.” The rightful punishment which David himself has pronounced (“the man who did this deserves to die”), death, has been removed. The Lord has taken away David’s guilt.

As Christians who live on this side in history of God’s work in Christ, we see how all of David’s sins, and our own, have been dealt with by a just, righteous, and merciful God. Christ has died so that neither David nor us would have to die, at least eternally. The penalty for all our sins has been paid. We are no longer separated from Him by our actions, but drawn into a right relationship with Him through His efforts on our behalf! We are forgiven, if we repent and accept His offer of salvation! It is that easy.

What must we do to perform the works of God? Believe in the one whom He has sent. Brothers and sisters, as Christians, we are called to examine our lives against His instruction, against His plumb line. And where we fail, where we sin, we are called simply to repent. We are called to believe in the one whom He has sent. That is His plan of salvation for each one of us and each person that we meet. That—discerning our sins, repenting of them, and accepting His forgiveness, is His wonderful Gospel and our life’s calling!