Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Scratching the surface of the relationship into which He calls us . . .

     We are to that day in the church year when every single assistant priest, and probably a fair number of lay preachers, are given the pulpit.  Yes, it is Trinity Sunday.  It is that day in the church year when clergy are tasked with the responsibility of explaining the mystery of the Trinity.  It is a challenging task, to be sure.  I’m not quite sure why we try and explain the Trinity when nearly all who come to church after Pentecost are of the sort not to take an “Episcopal vacation.”  By and large, those who attend this day, particularly as it falls on a three day weekend, are likely to be willing to live into the mystery, the inexplainable.  But I guess we feel it is time to show you that we paid attention in seminary or that we figured out a great way to say that which really cannot be said entirely.  That’s why we end up with sermons about apples or Flatland or even writhing masses of mating eel fish on the moonlit sandy banks of Lake Michigan.  To be fair, that last one was not given on Trinity Sunday, but it was a sermon that attempted to explain the Trinity in strange modern terms.

     I won’t try and bore you with another huge sermon analogy.  You now you are fathers, sons, and brothers or mothers, daughters and sisters and yet one. I learned by accident some nine years ago that most of you could care less about another description of the Trinity.  It’s not that people do not care to understand theology or how God relates to Himself in the Three Persons in One Substance that we proclaim is revealed by God.  If we are here on Trinity Sunday, or any other Sunday for that matter, what we want desperately to understand is how God applies to or informs our lives.  Trinity Sunday is no different.  All those baptized here accept the revelation that God is our heavenly Father, the Incarnate Son, and the Holy Spirit.  But how does acceptance of that mystery inform your life?  That is the question for today.

     Fortunately, to answer that question, our lectionary editors chose well today.  Although the Gospel lesson for this day is short, there is much to mine in its four verses.    The first important impact on our life is Jesus’ promise of the Paraclete.  Paraclete is an interesting word.  It is interesting for what it signifies and interesting for the hope it promises.  If you are of a sort to study your Bible when you are at home during the week, I encourage you to look up the last few chapters of John’s Gospel.  John introduces this term, Paraclete, as a way to describe the third person of the Blessed Trinity.  What is a paraclete?  If you are reading your Bibles at home, you will come across a number of translations for the word.  The fact is, it is challenging to render into English.  Literally, it means “to call beside” or “to call alongside.”  Some will render it counselor, others as advocate, still others as helper.  Those are good terms, at least the first two.

     Part of what informs how we interpret the word, of course, must come from John’s effort.  John, as most of you know, was writing to a people who struggled daily with the ever-present reality of seeming defeat.  Many disciples had expected Jesus to return rather quickly.  Certainly few expected to suffer persecution on the scale they were experiencing.  John faced the faithful pastor’s task of reminding his people that God had, indeed, conquered on the Cross and Easter Sunday, despite the fact that the world testified against the truth that John proclaimed.  So much of his writing embraces the idea of ambassador and envoy and courtroom.  Remember, the last lines of this Gospel, “these are written that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  John shares the stories so that those whom he pastors will believe that Jesus was the One sent by the Father, that the Paraclete was the One sent by the Father to glorify the Son, that John was one sent by the Son and empowered by the Spirit, and all of that for the purpose of reminding the faithful of the hope to which they were called.

     Some commentators compare John’s effort to a courtroom, and rightfully so.  The world says this.  The Lord says this.  Whom do you believe?  And it is light of that setting that we probably understand why the word paraclete causes so much difficulty.  As I mentioned earlier, the Greek word literally means called alongside or called beside.  In a courtroom setting, who does that?  That’s right, an advocate or . . . a lawyer.  Now you see the difficulty posed to translators.  The word and the setting dictates a lawyer, but we all know that lawyers are the furthest people from holy, right?  We can’t possibly think in those terms, can we?  Or maybe, just maybe, we should be further amazed.  God can redeem even lawyers?  Who knew?

     Before I go further, those of you who are new should know my dad is a lawyer.  I have heard, and probably told, all those lawyer jokes you are laughing at now in your heads.  But on a serious note, think of what John is testifying.  He is telling his audience and you and me that in our courtroom setting, our lawyer, our advocate, our representative will be none other than Himself!  Think of the implication for just a second.  Whenever you are in the courtroom settings of your life, God Himself is with you!  That why our Lord tells us not to fear.  He is always with us.  We don’t have to worry about what we are to say or do.  The Paraclete will empower us always to glorify the Son.

     Of course, that leaves us with at least a couple questions.  How can I know whether I am glorifying the Son in my words or actions?  The Paraclete does not speak on His own.  The Paraclete will speak whatever He hears and declare it to us!  What is He hearing?  The very voice of God.  The Paraclete participates in that eternal Three in One relationship that we celebrate this day.  The Paraclete hears the voice of the Father and the intercessions of the Son.  And then the Paraclete acts and empowers to bring about the will of God in the life of the believer.

     Why could the disciples not bear to hear this now?  Again, the story reminds us of the mindset of the disciples.  This is Jesus’ farewell speech to His disciples.  He is warning them of His suffering and death in the passages around this.  He also knows that the Cross and Resurrection will be the transforming event in their lives.  The disciples are soon to walk a dark path with their Lord.  He will be betrayed by one of their own.  He will be tortured by those who should have known Him best.  He will be put to death by the Romans, even though He claims to be the King of Kings.  Peter will deny Him three times.  One of them will run away naked.  None of them will fight for this man whom they believe to be the messiah.  Some of them, mostly women, will watch His agonizing death.  Think of what they are to experience!  And yet, Jesus knows that His death is not the end.  And once HIs disciples learn that for themselves, once they experience Him risen from the dead, then they will be able to understand better all that He has to say to them.  John can minister to those who are being chewed up by the world because he knows, because he has seen with his own eyes these stories about which he writes.  If God can redeem Jesus’ shameful death on a cross, He can redeem whatever they face now.

     But I’m never in court, so when will I ever need the Paraclete?  Ah, but we are always in a courtroom of sorts.  Every day of our lives you and I are testifying to our belief.  And this leads me to the second important part of John’s teaching about Jesus.  John often uses words like witnessing and testifying in his Gospel to teach us of our purpose.  And this is where the theology of the Trinity “hits the road,” as they they say.  When we are baptized or confirmed, among other things we take on the role of a witness.  Our baptismal liturgy reminds us of this truth.  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  Our answer at every question is I will, with God’s help.  When we are baptized or confirmed, we expect to be helped by God to accomplish His will for us.

     How do you know whom to serve?  He places them on your heart.  How do you know how best to serve them?  Again, He places it on your heart.  How do we know that He wants everyone to come to that saving embrace on the cross?  Because He reminds us of our need for His grace and gives us His heart during this transformational process.

     Do we always “get it” right?  Of course not.  Our hearts are still fleshy, our necks are still stiff, we see only dimly the glories to which He calls us.  But is the relationship of the Trinity which reminds us Whom we serve.  You see, God does not leave us in these stiff-necked fragile bodies.  In the end, as we looked during Easter, He calls us home and raises us in re-created bodies to worship Him in a re-created earth and re-created heaven.  No doubt you have your favorite “heaven” story, the image which sings to you of the glory and majesty of God that you expect to experience when you are finally called home.  I am here today to remind you, brothers and sisters, that whatever you envision heaven to be, however good you think it will be, you have not even begun to scratch at the surface of the life to come!

     Those of us who ponder the Holy Mystery of the Trinity often focus on the relationship between and among The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, there is enough there to ponder for a long time.  But where we often err is that we forget that we are intended to be included in that wonderful, mysterious relationship.  I have preached in years past on John Damascus’ “Holy Dance,” the perichoresis, so those of you here for years will not be too surprised or shocked.  We do well to study and consider the Trinity, but we might do ourselves better were we to remind ourselves from time to time that all of this was for the purpose of drawing us into that intimate relationship we call the Trinity.  You and I are not meant to be observers only; we are called to be participants.  You and I are called into that intimate, personal relationship with God.  Like Adam and Eve before the Fall, you and I will one day be able to see God with our own eyes face to face.  We will be able to hear His voice without fear and trembling but with the joy of love and adoration.  We won’t have to have some idiot in a collar try and explain the inexplainable.  We will know it, all of it.  As the author of our Gospel hymn put it this morning, our hearts will be tuned to sing, not just speak, His grace.  What He wants us to know, we will know.  What He wants us to do, we will want to do.  We will know the delight He has for each one of us.  We will be participants in that relationship that we can only barely grasp and must accept on faith because it is the instruction of our Lord and the Paraclete whom He promised.  Our hearts, our minds, everything about us will be remade so that we are unable to fail Him.  And the Trinity not only makes this all possible but desires it for everyone.  The Father wants this for us.  The Son has opened the path for that kind of restoration in us.  And the Paraclete reminds us how we are called to witness His saving grace to those in our lives.

     So often, brothers and sisters, when we explain the Trinity, we focus on the Three Persons in One Unity as we try our best to apprehend.  Like so many of His promises, though, we miss out on so much of the hope, of the glory, and of the joy.  You and I, brothers and sisters, are called into that kind of intimate relationship not just with Jesus, but with the Paraclete and with the Father.  And it is a relationship that He desires, not because He has to, but because He loves each one of us.  As our writer of Proverbs put it this morning, He delights in us, every single one of us who will come to Him through faith in His Son. It is a joyful relationship like we have never known.  It is a purposeful relationship like we have never known.  It is, quite simply, the relationship that He has desired for each one of us since He formed us in the womb.

     But, brothers and sisters, it is a relationship that He desires for everyone one of those whom we meet.  Each one of us, by virtue of our adoption into that relationship which we now see and feel only dimly, no matter how well we perceive it, is now an emissary of God, to use the language of John.  You and I are now a sent people, and empowered people, a people trusted with sharing the Good News of God in Christ, and participating in His efforts to draw all to Himself in love.  Everyone we meet, whether we acknowledge it or not, judges Him by how we act, how we speak, how we serve, and how we love.  And in that sense, you and I are always in a courtroom setting.  Whether we are at work, in our homes, around our grills, at a sporting event, experiencing life’s joys, or suffering life’s sufferings, you and I are always witnessing His grace in our lives.  Maybe now you better understand why we need that holy lawyer John calls the Paraclete; maybe now, the Trinity is not just something up there to be studied, but something to which you are drawn and called to share with those in your life whom you profess to know or love.  Perhaps, if I have done a fair job, you understand a bit better, even if still incredibly dimly, the power, the love, and the purity to which He has called each of us.  Perhaps, if this makes sense in our eyes of faith, we will all be able to raise our voices, this day and always, in hymns of praise from land and sea.


Monday, May 20, 2013

His calls on us vs. our attempts to call on Him . . .

     Happy birthday to us, the Church!  No doubt many of you who have friends that attend other churches will hear that some sang “Happy birthday” today and that others shared cake to commemorate the birth of the Church.  Pentecost does mark the day on which the promised Holy Spirit was sent to empower His people.  So, it is really the day that commemorates the birth of the Church.  It is important to note, and not just a fine distinction, however, that the focus of this day ought not be the birth of the Church.  Our focus should be on the fact that our Lord had a plan of salvation, and, in His wonderful mysterious purposes, He chose to call a Bride to be His representative, His ambassador, on earth!  Said a different way, we should be celebrating the fact that God chose, for reasons known only to His inscrutable reasons, to use men and women and children like you and me to share His love with the world.  He chose to use those whom He had redeemed to be the bearers of the Good News and midwives of the new creation which He has begun to birth.  That is what we should be celebrating, not the creation of the Church for its own purposes.  Nowhere is the significance of that distinction more evident than in our Genesis and Acts readings this morning.
     Our reading from Genesis this morning focuses on the Tower of Babel.  Everyone learns this story early in Sunday School.  The people of the earth are building a big tower, one that will reach to the heavens.  And God comes down and scatters them, giving them different languages in the process.  Unfortunately, that is probably all the attention that we give to the Tower of Babel.  As with all other stories in the Bible, though, there is a lot of meaning or meanings contained therein.
     Part of that to which we need to pay attention is its place in the narrative of God’s people.  God has preserved the family of Noah during the Great Flood.  All of these people in the story of the tower, we are told in chapter 10, are the descendants of those who survived with Noah.  They are growing in number to the point that, by verse 4 of our reading today, they fear they will be spread over the face of the whole earth.  They do not wish to be spread out too far.  And so they determine to build a tower.  Those of us who have travelled to Chicago or another major city understand the appeal of the city skyline in the distance.  Suburbanites often consider themselves citizens of those cities with skylines for as long as they can see the towers.  How far across in diameter is Chicagoland?  Metropolitan NYC?  DFW Metroplex?  Atlanta?  Even if one lives in cities an hour out, they often consider themselves part of the skyline.  That was the sense of belonging that Noah’s descendants were trying to create.  Maybe. . . . 
     You see, there is also meaning in words.  The name of the tower is Babel.  You probably think of that name in English terms.  Their languages were confused so that they could no longer speak to one another and be understood.  The noises would have sounded like Babel.  But Babel is really the conflation of two different words.  On the Babylonian side is babilu, meaning “gate of God.”  On the Hebrew side of its etymology would be the word balal, meaning “to confuse.”  Why the name choice?  Babylon, of course, will gain notoriety for its impressive ziggurats.  True, ziggurats are not shaped like towers, but they were meant to provide access to the heavens.  Each proper ziggurat was meant to have seven levels, each representing one of the planetary gods, who served as intermediaries in their cosmology, between the heavens and earth.  If one wished to approach the heavens, one needed to pass through each of the levels of of the ziggurat, presumably making the appropriate offerings and prayers.  If the purpose of the ziggurats applies to the tower, the tower literally was thought of as a gateway to the gods.  Hence, part of the name.  
     Of course, the Hebrew people would have had a much different understanding of how to reach God.  undoubtedly, they understood that such effort is the way human beings struggle to approach God.  We strive and strain and create our own obstacles.  When left to our own devices, we human beings confuse ourselves as to how best to approach the throne of God.  And though the Hebrews will know better, they, too, will fail to keep Him and His instruction at the forefront of their lives and worship.  The priests, Pharisees, and other Temple elites eventually will create a system of worship that earns the criticism of Jesus for burdening and confusing the people.  Thankfully, as the story from Acts reminds us, His ways are not our ways!
     No doubt some of us listening to the readings today might be tempted to think of Pentecost as the anti-Babel.  In some ways, it is.  The Gospel, the message of salvation, is what underlies the speech of those disciples speaking in our lesson today.  But notice the hearers are not given ears to hear in the blessed language of Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic.  The disciples, instead, are given tongues by the working of the Holy Spirit to proclaim in all the languages represented the Gospel of Christ.  Each disciple has a story to tell, and the Holy Spirit empowers each to tell that story in a way that can be heard by various listeners.
     Sitting here 2000 years later, you might be tempted to scorn those who heard the speech and the rushing wind and, yet, did not turn to the Gospel.  Despite the fact that a large number of those speaking in these various languages were fisherman from the Sea of Galilee region, a region not known for being a place of excellent education or Rosetta Stone-like language programs at this time in history, a number of people scoff at the obvious miracle.  These fishermen are drunk!  Peter, we are told, full of the Spirit stands and proclaims that those present are witnesses to the fulfillment of the prophesy spoken by Joel.  Reminding his audience that it is far too early for them to be drunk, Peter points out that the event they are experiencing, Pentecost, has been foretold by God.  As with so many of His miracles, God speaks, and then He acts.  By the very occurrence of this miracle, the sons and daughters of Judea, gathered from all parts of the empire, know that they are in “the last days” of Joel.  The Spirit of God has been poured out on all flesh, and all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved!  Yet, how often do we preach by example and word and experience the same scorn?  How often do we find our invitations rebuffed?
     There is in the Church a tendency to focus on the experience of Pentecost as the event which empowers both the Church and its collective members to accomplish the ministry God has given His people to do.  There is nothing wrong with that understanding, except that it falls short of the true purpose and power with which we have been blessed by virtue of our adoption into His family through the blood and body of Christ, our Lord.  Yes, Pentecost marks for us a fulfillment of the promise that He will send the Advocate and give us incredible gifts of power, but it also gives us our purpose.  The gifts of power that we have been given, whether they are healing ministries, ministries of encouragement, ministries of intercession, provision ministries, gifts of tongues--and this list goes on and on--, is for the express building up of His kingdom.  Just as the Church is not birthed for its own sake and purpose, neither are we gifted with power and authority for our own sake or for our own self-defined purpose.  You and I are called and equipped for His purposes, for the building up of His kingdom and the proclamation of His Gospel.  Exclamation point.
     Far too often, we forget the who we are and what we are called to do.  Like those people in Genesis, we may be swayed by the construction of a bigger edifice.  We may come to believe that a particular sacrifice or series of sacrifices on our part will lead us to God.  We may even come to believe that we were worthy of God’s grace with respect to those around us.  Pentecost reminds us that we have been given a mission.  You and I are empowered to go forth into the world proclaiming the saving works of God.  We are called to go forth into the world preaching by word and example of His grace.  And, we are very much like our brothers and sisters who experienced this miracle described in Acts today.
     How so?  Each one of us here gathered has a unique testimony.  We may think all our stories are the same, but each of us here has been on a different journey with God.  As a result, even though we all speak English, we all have different languages.  Looking around this morning, I could go from face to face pointing out your gifts, your story, your language.  Each of you and me are uniquely equipped to teach people about the love of God expressed through the work and person of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.  I was raised in West Virginia, I studied classics, I worked in the financial industries for fourteen years.  My background is crazy different from yours!  I should probably be working among hillbilly bankers to be most effective for God’s glory!  Don’t laugh, they need to hear the Gospel, too.  Both of them.  Just as do the people in your life whom God has given you the task of sharing His grace.  Whether you are a factory line worker, a native Iowan, a child of a farmer, a widow or widower, suffering from mental illness or addiction, retired, healthy or suffering disease, a cancer survivor or a cancer sufferer--and this list could truly go on and on--, you have a language all your own; and there are people in your life who speak that language far better than they do what we call English!
     The miracle of Pentecost of which we read about today is about the gift of tongues.  All that God has done has been for the purpose of providing testimony of His saving love to a world that, like the scoffers in our story today, the world simply cannot accept.  The purpose of Pentecost, however, is the reminder that all our gifts are from Him and for His inscrutable purposes.  We do not determine our purpose.  We work for His.  And because He has reached into each one of our lives, no matter where we were, we each have been empowered to speak uniquely of His saving grace and power.  To those not yet a member of the Church, we may sound drunk or stupid.  But to those who are seeking to be found, to know that they are loved, by God, ours is the sound of angelic choirs and incredible hope.  If God can take miserable sinners like me and like you, and by His empower grace and Spirit transform us into heralds of His Gospel, what can He not do in the lives of those around us?  That, brothers and sisters, is our hope.  That, brothers and sisters, is our purpose.  We leave this sanctuary, this place of worship and thanksgiving, and we head out into the world serving, teaching, and loving others into the kingdom.  From time to time we might reach across backgrounds, the Spirit can certainly accomplish that.  But, for the most part, you and I are called to speak our own language, our own understanding of His love for us, and His love for others, into their lives.  The best way we can do that, of course, is to share how we have been redeemed, how we have been transformed.  It is in that sense that we have experienced the anti-Babel.
     Such a call, brothers and sisters, is not easy.  Many of those of whom we read about this morning were called to lay down their lives for the Lord in the building up of the Church, and so the ministry given to them by our Lord closely mirrored Christ’s.  But what those in the early Church learned and you and I have to remind ourselves is that this magnificent plan of salvation belongs to the Lord.  He is its architect.  He is its offering.  He is its hope.  You and I are but heralds, ambassadors, representatives of the One who saves.  We do well this Feast of Pentecost to remember that He has called us to His mission.  What unites us is not a culture, not a language, not a heritage, and certainly not a building.  Indeed, these aspects of our lives can be very different.  What unites us, though, is our experience of His offering love from the hard wood of the cross,  of the joy of His empty tomb, and of that gift of purpose and hope with which the Holy Spirit anoints us!  Seeing His redemptive purposes at work in our own lives uniquely equips us to speak to those redemptive purposes in the lives of those around us.  That is the significance of this day and the significance of all our calls!


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Shame, slavers, and redemption . . .

     The culture of shame and the issue of human trafficking are not to be conflated.  With the rescue of three ladies in Cleveland, who were taken as girls, there has been a societal struggle to explain how what happened could happen, particularly in the land of the free.  Admittedly, there is an effort in the secular press to disassociate itself from the teachings of Scripture, and so the root cause of such stories in its narrative cannot be “evil” or “sin.”  If everybody is basically good, all society must do is figure out where “the system” failed and proffer ideas to improve its function.  In the midst of the unveiling of the stories of the Cleveland survivors, many in the press have glommed onto the words of Elizabeth Smart delivered at a human trafficking awareness event at Johns Hopkins.  Worse, some in the press and blogosphere have attempted to blame slavery on abstinence training in schools and churches and homes.  How and why could this happen?  And what is really going on and needs to be addressed, both by society and the Church?

     In her interview and speech at Johns Hopkins, Elizabeth Smart, a survivor of kidnapping and enslavement, was asked about the psychology of the three survivors in Cleveland.  How can this happen?  Why wouldn’t they try and escape?  What goes through one’s mind when one is enslaved?  Miss Smart explained part of the reason why she stayed when she gained some freedom from her captives was based on her upbringing.  Miss Smart related that as a child, she had been taught in church and in her home that her virginity was like a piece of chewing gum.  Apparently, some in her church and her parents thought the metaphor was a great way to discourage girls from promiscuous behavior.  “Once the piece of gum has been chewed,” went the teaching, “no one else is ever going to want to chew it.”  I suppose the idea was to keep the “piece of gum” wrapped and in its container until a husband appeared to “open the package.”

     Miss Smart related that during her captivity and rape, it dawned on her that she was that piece of chewed chewing gum.  It had been so ingrained into her that Miss Smart could never imagine any boy would ever want her.  Boys would look at her as damaged goods and, therefore, never think about marrying her.  Her parents would be disappointed in her.  She knew that those in her church would be saddened at what she had allowed to happen to her.  Simply put, Miss Smart was lamenting to the press that part of the reason she stayed even after she had the opportunity escape her captors was her perception of how people would react to what had happened to her.  It is, sadly, “blame the victim” in full bloom.

     Naturally, some in the press and society have chosen to try and argue that abstinence teaching leads to the possible enslavement of of our girls.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I have no interest in comparing the various abstinence programs out there, nor do I have any desire to wade into the “should we teach abstinence in school?” debate other than tangentially.  Ideally, abstinence training should simply inform boys and girls the place and value of sexual relations and, again from my perspective as a priest in Christ Church, the consequences of becoming sexually active outside marriage.  I am not naive enough to believe that this is how abstinence is taught in most places nor that boys/young men and girls / young ladies will automatically cease to be sexually active as teens because of the emotional and physical scarring that can occur. Neither do I accept the claim that all teenagers have to have sex because of biology or peer pressure or whatever excuse is given.  Nor, however, do I believe it is the responsibility of the schools to teach our youth about sex.  Unfortunately, too many parents have abrogated that responsibility, and the schools find themselves in the position of having to figure out how and what to teach those whom they are given to educate.

     What needs to be remembered is that the slavers are experts in manipulation and psychological warfare.  As has been reported in the press, the alleged slaver in Cleveland excelled in breaking down the girls he kidnapped.  He would pretend to leave, only to hide quietly waiting to see which girl tried to escape.  If a girl tried to escape, he beat her viciously.  The end result over time, was that the girls never truly believed they were alone or that escape was possible.  Another example of his psychological warfare he seems to have adopted was a modified “bottom bitch.”  On the streets, slavers will normally name a girl a bottom bitch, the head girl.  It is the job of the bottom to make sure that the other girls are working and making their quotas.  The bottoms collect the monies for the slaver, decide who gets what food, and generally rule in the slaver’s name.  The alleged slaver adapted this practice in Cleveland.  Whichever girl convinced him she loved him the most got the food, got to sleep in the bed with him, and was not beaten or otherwise tortured.  Given those two possible outcomes, it is no wonder that the survivors tried to outdo one another convincing the slaver of their love for him.  As news comes out, I have no doubt that eventually we will learn that, at some point during their enslavement, the will of the girls to escape was broken and they did whatever was required to survive.

     The same is likely true of Miss Smart in her experience.  Her slavers had total control over her.  They controlled where she slept; when she had to wake up (sleep deprivation is an effective form of torture); what, if anything, she ate; whether she bathed; whether she was groomed (brushed hair/teeth); and the kinds of sex she we forced to perform. Very quickly they would have learned her attitudes about everything.  They would withhold those things she valued mostly or punished using those things she most feared to elicit the responsive behavior they desired.  If she would have ever let slip the “chewed gum” analogy of her upbringing, we can be sure they would have reminded her that she was “chewed gum” every day of her life from that point forward.  The purpose of which would have been to take away her will to escape.

     Does abstinence teaching create boys and girls who are more easily enslaved?  Absolutely not.  Slavery knows no racial, socio-economic, educational, or even physical bounds.  Children of means and children of poverty; individuals from privilege and individuals from working class; those that are educated and those lack formal education; individuals from all races; individuals of all body types--all have been discovered to have survived slavery.  All slavers care about is the exploitation of others for their own gain.  If they or their customers have a particular appetite, they will do whatever they can to meet that demand or appetite.  Period.  It is true, however, that slavers can use the shame felt by those whom they have victimized to dehumanize victim’s even in the victim’s own eyes.  And it is only at this point that the two issue cross.

     The Church needs to be clear that we are not in the business of shame.  Our Lord Christ came not to condemn nor to shame but to redeem.  Redeem.  Examples like that used in Miss Smart’s youth are, I believe, misguided and open to all kinds of abuse, and not just abuse at the hands of slavers.  Our youth make tons of mistakes and sin often against God; just as do the adults in their lives.  Miss Smart’s words and experience should cause us to think about how we should teach abstinence.  We do not ever want our daughters in the Church thinking that they are pieces of chewed gum; nor do we ever want our sons to see or think of daughters as anyone other than beloved of redeemed by our Lord Christ (and, let’s be honest, the Church needs to teach boys to value their own sexual purity as much as it does girls, but that is a sermon for another day).  The more time we spend preaching and teaching and living in light of His redemptive efforts, the more honor and glory and, probably, more disciples, we will bring to Him.

     The story of redemption also is important to those who have survived enslavement, and so the Church needs to be focused better on it, if it is to help society confront this evil.  I intentionally try to use the word survivor rather than victim because I want men and women and boys and girls to know that they have accomplished something to be admired.  In the face of unspeakable horrors, or in the face of a total lack of freedom, they found a way to persevere and to survive.  Most likely, as in the case of Miss Smart or the girls in Cleveland, they eventually found the strength to reach out to the world around them, knowing the dangers that their respective slavers posed.  That is a courage to be admired.  It is a courage that was exhibited in the face of potential death.  The professionals in the world around us will teach coping skills, and rightfully so, in light of what survivors have experienced.  But the Church has better message!  The Church serves a Lord who offers healing!

     So much of our Gospel narrative centers around the idea of enslavement to sin, and rightfully so.  And, over and over, God has used the story of physical enslavement and His actions to free His people to teach us how He freed us from the most insidious bondage.  We need to recapture that understanding of ourselves.  We need to re-understand the freedom which He proclaimed and His willingness to redeem all who would come to Him.  Shaming us was not a part of His work.  In fact, He condescended to bear our shame and our guilt that we might be truly freed!  We need to become that place of healing, that place of radical grace, so that the Miss Smart’s of the world and the Cleveland girls of the world think of God as the Healer and of us as His hospital.  We need to be so engaged in proclaiming that redemptive Gospel so that survivors turn without a second thought to the Church and to the Lord, seeking healing and grace.

     Sadly, too many survivors tell us that they felt no one cared, that they were not missed, and that they were not loved or missed.  The idea that someone cared for them, the idea that someone died for them, the idea that someone could love them was unfathomable.  Shaming has because such a part of society and the Church that we do not even notice its presence any more.  And our acceptance of its presence has tattered Her wedding dress and muted Her message.  In some respects, our attitudes toward shame have caused us to mirror what survivors feel inside.  I often wonder how the woman caught in adultery would fare in the Church today.  To be sure, there are pockets where she would be told to repent, that her sins are forgiven, and to go and sin no more.  But how many Church’s would offer survivors and their families anything but shame?  How many members would remember that they, too, like those survivors of human trafficking, were once themselves enslaved to sin until they met the Lord Christ?  Until we become more aware of the freedom and redemption He has worked in our own lives, we will be only a tattered reflection of the people He has called us to be for His name’s sake.  Perhaps, perhaps in light of Miss Smart’s testimony, some in the Church will begin to reflect upon their message.  Maybe, just maybe, some in the Church will begin to proclaim the redemption He offers and nail the shame with Him on the cross.


Power and prayer . . . discerning God's will . . .

This week presented a number of seemingly disparate themes in the life of the parish, and so a sermon was a bit more of a challenge than most weeks.  On the sad front, we learned of the death of both Don Quinn and Mary Lea Lindsey.  Although Don never really considered himself formally a member of this congregation, at least while I was here, he certainly had a long and deep connection thanks to Barb, who preceded him in death.  And Mary Lea probably taught Bible Study classes when God was studying the Scriptures!  Her ties here are like that of a tap root.  And while we may already have mourned her leaving Iowa, we probably all find ourself praying especially for her beloved husband, Bob, thankful that his rehab went well enough that they could spend these last few days of her life on this earth together.  On the good front, many of us will be speaking or visiting with mothers today; and if you happen to be a mother, you will likely see or hear from your children.  Maybe they will treat you rather than asking for food or laundry or some other plea that often follows the words "Mom. . . "  On the better front, we have formally relaunched a feeding ministry.  Michelle Diericks and I have been privileged to hear from some old friends of this parish, and Robin has already had occasion to feed a single mom and her children.  On the liturgical front, we are celebrating healing Sunday.  The readings, in particular Acts and the passage from John’s Gospel, are about increasing the size of the Church, and yet we have committed ourselves to a period of discipleship or more inward focus.  And given all that, who has the time to preach the irony of the Revelations selection and omissions today?

I found myself, however, settling quickly on a teaching about our individual prayer lives.  I hope it was because prayer figures prominently in the Acts passage and because Jesus spends time today praying for His disciples, not just the disciples present with Him, but even for you and for me.  It may seem a simply subject to some around here, but I wonder whether it is as simple as we think.  Oh, to be sure, praying itself is quite easy.  We can do it on our knees, in the car going to work, at home, in the shower, silently or aloud, singing or speaking, in desperation or in a well discerned mind, the list of acceptable prayers goes on and on.  God is not as big on the formulae for praying as He is on the heart of the one praying and the focus of the prayer.  And it is on these last bits that our prayer lives get difficult.

A simple question one must answer, particularly if one claims the lordship of Christ Jesus in his or her life is the existence of a prayer life.  Put simply, do you have a prayer life?  Are you spending time each day committed to speaking with God?  I suspect that for many of us here gathered, there is a bit of desire to squirm now.   Why?  We know we should be in prayer.  We know He will give us whatever we asks which is in accord with His will.  We know that He taught us that we would even do greater things than the Son if we go to the Father in prayer.  So why don’t we have stronger prayer lives?

I suspect that it is the discernment side of things which give us pause.  Maybe there are too many things affecting peoples’ lives and we somehow think that God can only address one or two.  Do I pray for healing?  for deliverance?  for purpose?  for provision?  for emotional problems?  for loneliness?  Maybe we use the excuse “I just don’t know what I should pray for, so I am going to avoid the whole idea of praying altogether.”  Maybe it seems that God is not listening.  We ask and ask and ask, and He seems never to hear us, so we figure praying is a waste of our time.  Maybe, just maybe, we are afraid of the responsibility.  What if He hears me?  What if He does what I ask?

Whatever our excuse, it is clear that God wants us to be speaking and listening to Him.  I should probably have that reversed, especially on Mother’s Day.  How many of us ever heard the old maxim “You have two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak” from our mothers?  And there’s the rub.  How do we learn what it is we should be praying for in our lives and in the lives of those around us?  Jesus, of course, gives us great insight in the Gospel lesson today.  You and I, as disciples of Jesus, are somehow, mysteriously, being grafted into that relationship which exists between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Our recent readings have pointed to that time in the future when our hearts will be truly circumcised, when our minds will be united with God’s, when our wills will be utterly His.  We will not have to have shadowy moments like this because He will be our teacher, He will be dwelling with us.  I have even preached previously about the idea of the Holy Dance or Holy Waltz of John Damascus.  Most of you who have spoken with me over the years understand the end to which we are pointed.  Yet we forget far too often that we are inheritors and given glimpses of that future day even in days like today.  The key is figuring out how God wants to be glorified in any given situation.  And to do that, to do that consistently, we must spend some time in prayer listening and discerning what God wills in any particular situation.

And lest you think I am preach at you, I am part of the audience for this sermon as well.  Raise your hands if you have ever heard me gripe about provision.  Raise your hands if you have ever heard me offer suggestions to God as to how He might better handle situations.  We are all in this predicament of prayer together!  In a few moments, many of you will come forward seeking healing.  My job is to figure out how you and your life can best glorify Christ and the Father and then pray for the Holy Spirit to act.  Sometimes we get it right.  I have witnessed miraculous healings in my time among you.  Sometimes, I have gotten it wrong but still gotten it right.  I have prayed for what I thought God wanted in your life only to see Him move in another area with power!  Far too often, I get it flat out wrong.  Maybe I pray for your back and He wants me praying that you have strength and patience to bear a cross.  Maybe I pray for a relationship and He wants me praying for provision.  I have seen His response enough to know that when we pray for that which glorifies Him in accord with His will, God acts and acts with power and compassion.  Why?  Because He wants the world to know He loves them just as much as He loves us.  He wants the world to come to know Him, and He has chosen you and me to be those ambassadors by which He becomes known.  What better way to make oneself known that by an amazing act of power in response to our prayer!

For an example of what I am speaking about this morning, look at Paul and Silas.  The men find themselves in Philippi of Macedonia, and they witness a slave who is performing fortune-telling.  Notice they ignore her work and her owners profit for some time.  Every day she followed them prophesied that he and Silas were “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaims to the way of salvation.”  Were Paul and Silas content to “live and let live?”  Were they convinced they lacked power?  For whatever reason, we are told they became annoyed after many days.  Paul, in annoyance, simply prayed the spirit out of the slave girl.  Incredibly, it came out.  Notice, too, that no one wonders why the spirit left her.  Paul and Silas know why, the slave girl’s owners know why, and apparently the people who watched the exchange knew why.  Do you think that Paul and Silas were praying “Lord, make the demon come out so we can be arrested?”

But look what happens.  They are arrested.  The magistrates convict them.  They are stripped of their clothes and flogged with rods.  Then they are imprisoned.  You and I cannot relate to this from Paul’s perspective.  Paul is a Roman citizen.  Unlike America where most of those whom we encounter are citizens of this country, few in the Roman Empire were truly citizens.  American Express had a saying a few years ago: “membership has its privileges.”  Rome had that figured out a couple thousand years ago.  By law, Paul was subject only to Caesar and his courts.  We speak sometimes of the idea of us binding ourselves to God but how He, in accepting us, binds Himself, His honor, to us.  When we sin, we dishonor God.  But when we do what He commands, we glorify Him.  Similarly, though, because of our relationship with Him as Lord and disciple, when someone dishonors us, they dishonor Him.  That’s part of why He claims vengeance in the end, but that is another sermon.  Suffice it to say that Paul should have been subject only to judgment by Caesar and his court.  Few were granted power to judge Roman citizens.  Yet these magistrates do just exactly that!  Now place yourself in Paul’s sandals.  For what would you be praying?  How mad would you be at your treatment, especially given the privileges and rights owed you under the law?

We are not told what Paul and Silas pray.  We know from Paul’s other writings that he always prayed that God would be glorified in his life and in his sufferings.  Paul desperately wanted the world to come to a knowledge and love of God through Christ, so we can well imagine his prayers in that cell.  And as they are praying and singing and worshipping God, what happens?  The earth shakes and the cell doors are opened!  Talk about deliverance!  Escape is at hand, right!

Paul, of course, knows what happens if they flee.  If they escape, the warden will be held responsible.  He will be tortured and killed, most likely, for failure to execute his job properly.  So Paul keeps everyone together in the jail.  Think of how stupid this must seem.  They have prayed and worshipped God.  The doors have opened!  What other sign is needed?  Yet Paul knows the consequence.  The other prisoners listen to him because, well, it is clear that God listens to him.  Once the jailer happens onto the scene and sees the doors open, he knows his fate.  Immediately he draws his sword and prepares to kill himself.  But Paul stops him by telling them they are all present.  The jailer has lights brought, rushes in, and falls before Paul and Silas asking what he must do to be saved.  Paul and Silas answer simply “Believe on the Lord Jesus.”  We are told that Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to the jailer and to all who were in the house with him.  The household ministers to Paul and Silas, and then they are all baptized in the middle of the night!  Then all join in the feast rejoicing at the belief of the jailer.

It is a powerful account of a working of the Holy Spirit.  It is also a story which should cause us to realize the necessity of prayer to reshape us as disciples.  Place yourself in the story and see where your prayers and responses might have been different from Paul’s and Silas’.  There were lots of places for missteps.  Did God want His disciples freed?  Of course, but neither did He want the jailer to kill himself and the jailer’s family sold into slavery.  Was Paul right to feel indignation at his treatment at the hands of the magistrates in Philippi?  You bet!  But, then again, they served a Lord who, for a time, became lower than the angels and suffered the indignity of death on a cross to save His people.  So they knew that suffering could lead to God’s glory.  Could they have known they had power over the spirit of fore-telling?  Yes, they probably did.  Then why cast the spirit out and suffer what they did?  As the spirit itself testified, they were proclaimers of the way of salvation!  To do God’s will and ask for His intervention correctly, both Paul and Silas had to be very much in communication with God through prayer.  They had to understand, however imperfectly, His heart and His will in the matters which they faced.  Prayer and the study of Scripture, are the ways that we can begin to understand Him rightly.

So, once again I ask you, how is your prayer life?  Are you speaking with God on a daily basis?  Or are you running to Him only in emergencies?  Do you expect Him to act in what accord with His will?  Or are you buying into the secular world’s teaching that faith in Him is a system that is good for you if it works for you but not representative of reality?  Are you asking for eyes to see and ears to hear how your sufferings, be they financial, health, relationship, or whatever, can be used to glorify Him and draw others into your life into a right relationship with God?  Or are you simply asking Him to remove the suffering, unaware that your response to suffering and your faith in Him in your suffering may be the best sermon another ever hears?  Do you ever ask Him how you should pray for those in your life?  Or do you believe you know best and think He ought to conform His will to your own?

Admittedly, these are hard questions to face.  Then again, He always promised there would be crosses to be born.  In the days, weeks, and months ahead, ask yourself and ask God about your prayer life.  Is He happy with it?  Are you?  We do have some amazing intercessors among us, and they well may answer in the affirmative; but for many of us, the reflective and discerned answer will be no.  Most of us will recognize that we could be speaking and listening to Him better and that we could be correspondingly better representatives of His love and His healing power in the world around us.  The great news is that such intimate communion with God can begin at any time!  Perhaps you have claimed to follow Him for decades but never worked on your prayer life at all.  You can start today and have as big an impact through your prayers as even Paul and Silas, if you seek His will and ask Him to intercede so that He is glorified.  Perhaps this is all new to you.  Perhaps you have never considered that God wants to glorify Himself through your faithful testimony.  He does, and He will.

And a note of warning.  We are focusing a bit more internally as a parish for the time being.  As a parish we are concentrating a bit more on discipleship rather than service.  Separating the two is really impossible.  Faith without works is dead, but work without faith is meaningless.  We can serve and serve and serve, but if we have no account of the joy within us, no answer to the “why” question, we do no good.  In fact, we are cruel in the sense that we leave others wandering in the wilderness when we know the source of the living water.  But once an individual or a community begins to discern God’s will better through prayer, look what happens.  The purpose of us asking God to act is to teach the world who does not know Him about His loving purposes.  And, when the world sees those purposes, they are moved to join His people.  Time and time again, when He acts as the result of faithful prayers, the community of believers grows!  It happened in Philippi long ago.  We will read about it in Jerusalem next week on the day of Pentecost.  And if we practice faithfully in our age and location, it will happen here as well!  God is always about the increase of His kingdom, at least until His return.  Thankfully, mercifully, He has chosen you and me and all those who gather at this Table in time and space, to show His glory and His love to the world around us.  


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Peace He gives, not as the world gives . . .

     Last week we looked at Jesus’ description of love.  We contrasted it with what usually passes for love in the world at large.  Given our divorce rates, our unmarried rates, our general selfishness, it is no wonder that we hardly recognize that steadfast love with which our Lord holds us.  It is so unusual, so rare, that Jesus rightly instructs us that if we are able to love others as He loves us, the world around us will take notice.  If each of us is truly trying to love others into the kingdom, as is our responsibility as sons and daughters of the Lord, some in the world will want to share in that love, that inheritance.  We looked at last week how love is rightly demonstrated to the world, and I mentioned that the fruits of that love obedience would be made a bit more clear this week in John’s Gospel.  The result of our keeping His instruction, remember out of thankfulness rather than fear, is that He and the Father will come and make their home with us.  It is an amazing promise.  The Creator of heaven and earth will come and make His home with us!  Can you imagine what that would be like?  I know, I know, some of us need to clean our houses and do the laundry and run the dishwasher before we want that to happen!  But it is, nevertheless, an amazing thing to think of dwelling with God, of Him pitching His tent among us in our messes.  Yet that is precisely His offer.

     I wanted to look this week, however, at the result of that dwelling with us.  It would be fun to continue to look at the love described by Jesus, but the truth is Holy Week should still be fresh in our mind.  We have at the front of our minds that wonderful example of love, that ultimate laying down of a life to restore us into right relationship with God.  This week, I wanted to look at the primary fruit of living that life full of love and dwelling with the Father and the Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  I suppose, as with last week, I would ask each of us present to reflect on a definition.  How would you describe peace?  What is peace to you?  And, does your understanding of peace reflect what Jesus offers?  Challenging questions, to be sure.  They are particularly challenging if one feels harried and troubled and afraid all the time.  Yet, as His disciples, you and I are told by our Lord that we will experience peace.  Was He lying?  Or do we, perhaps, look for a peace that He does not offer and miss out on something He offers us all the time?

     By way of explanation, I want us to reflect on the image from Revelation this morning.  We jump back a couple weeks for the first verse, and then we spring ahead.  John is shown the heavenly city coming down out of heaven and settling on the mountain.  And this city is unlike any city of its day.  John records that the city has no lights, not even the sun or moon; has no gates; has no temple, and has nothing unclean within it.  For this vision to occur, much will have had to change.  For example, the temple in Ezekiel 44 is closed off.  Notice the gates here are always open.  In a world without walls and stealth bombers, the imagery is lost on us.  But think of the importance of walls in the ANE.  Walls were often all that protected a city from being razed by any determined band of marauders.  Worse, at night, they were the only real protection.  Watchmen would walk the walls or keep assigned posts and peer into the dark looking for enemies.  Unfortunately, cities were easy to espy at night.  Ever been driving along the interstate at night and seen Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or Chicago off in the distance?  Now, imagine a world with far less light.  How much more do you think cities would stick out at night?  There is no temple.  The One worshiped in the temple at Jerusalem is present among the people.  His presence, according to John, drives away all darkness and all falsehood and all heresy.  There is no interpretation necessary.  His name is on the foreheads of the people.  The people think with the mind rightly ordered by God; they love those things that the Lord has instructed them to love; and they want those things which accord with His will.

     It is not just a blissful paradise.  I think sometimes we sell God short when we describe heaven as “church for all eternity” or as a restoration of the Garden of Eden.  Will there be worship in the recreated earth described by John?  Probably.  But it will be a worship of thanksgiving and joy.  There will be no boring sermons like you must endure week in and week out.  We will have been taught by the Lord.  And there will be no need for the Eucharist because the pledge will have been fulfilled.  We will be with the bridegroom and taking part in the great Wedding Feast.

     And pay attention to the difference between this cities and others described in Revelation.  There are no evildoers allowed.  None will enter who are not redeemed by God.  Can you imagine a city with no hucksters or charlatans?  A community of God’s people with no heresies?  Food will be provided.  Water will be given.  And even the leaves on the tree provide healing!  Talk about a difference between His city and the cities of the world whose leaves are poisonous (Rev. 18:23).  And His people will reign for forever!  Of course, even the idea of reigning is different from our current understanding and certainly the Roman understanding when this was recorded.  Rome claimed to be the eternal empire; it claimed to be the ruler of the world.  History teaches us those claims were false.  But even we are faced with a big question.  If we all reign, who or what will we reign over, particularly knowing God is present with us?

     Now, just to remind you, as John records this, his vision includes a victory over evil.  All of God’s people are called to the throne.  Actually, all the peoples of the world are called to judgment, and then His people are gathered before the opening of the seventh seal.  Nothing, no natural disaster, no disease, no human contrivance, no plot of Satan, not even death will keep His people from this amazing setting given to John.

     Does the passage sing to you?  Does it seem like a place for which you should long?  Does it, perhaps, remind you of the perspective with which you are called to see?  So often in life we get bogged down in our problems.  Make no mistake, Scripture never makes light of the so-called human condition.  Looking around this room, God sees His sons and daughters suffering with disease or other health issues, He sees people who are worried about job loss and provision, He sees people who have a hard time loving one another as He loved us and called us to love, He sees people who are struggling with transitions in life, He sees people who are approaching death (or are watching a loved one approach death) with worry and uncertainty.  Most importantly, though, He sees men and women who claim His only Son as Lord and are, by virtue of His grace, adopted into His holy family.  And being the heavenly Father, He hates to see us worry.  He hates to see us suffer.  He hates to see us fret.  He weeps with us.  He strokes our hair as we fret and worry.  But, best of all, He reminds us of His love for us and His power in an effort to remind us of the peace that He offers.

     It is true that His peace is not the peace of the world.  This is no hippy dippy “make love, not war” kind of offer.  This is a genuine shalom, a genuine understanding of one’s place in the world and salvation history.  Brothers and sisters, you and I face uncertainties and random events all the time.  For many of us, they can become crosses which help us testify to the saving grace of our Lord to those in our lives.  But behind all that uncertainty, behind all that certainty, God’s promises are established.  He has given us a bit of a peek ahead.  As with His disciples in John today, our Lord has spoken before it has occurred.  If you claim Christ as Lord in your life, you will see this vision realized.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, will thwart His recreation.  Not your misunderstanding, not your uncomfortableness with His grace, not your laziness, not your lack of provision, not your poor health, not even your death with prevent you from living in that holy city described in some detail by John.  He has already overcome both death and the world.  Neither might yet know it, but God has already won.  There is no suspense; there is only certainty.  The One who makes these promises always keeps His promises and is the only One with power to keep all that He promises.

     Brothers and sisters, the peace that our Lord offers is unlike anything in the world.  You and I might watch a suspenseful movie for the umpteenth time and feel no real suspense, or we might watch our favorite sports team’s last championship over and over again (Cubs fans obviously exempted since television, errr . . . papyrus and ink did not exist then!) basking in the certainty of their victory over every pitch, every shot, or every snap.  That peace is the barest shadow of the peace He offers you and me!  Brothers and sisters, we have literally read ahead.  We know how the story ends.  The other has shared with us the plot devices, the character development, the themes, and the ending.  Knowing the ending, brothers and sisters, knowing our destiny makes all the nonsense we face bearable.  We can face whatever the world throws at us because we know that it neither defines us nor ever separates us from the love of our Father in heaven.

     Nowhere in this passage, brothers and sisters, does He promise a lack of trials nor an end to those things which can chip away at our faith.  He does, however, promise us that He and the Father will dwell with us, and He promises that the Advocate will come as well, reminding us of all that He has said to us.  Each of us gathered here has problems.  I know that and so do you.  Each of us have problems given us by our own actions, by those who are in our lives, or just by random gift of the world around us.  But you and I have something greater than all those problems.  All of us baptized into His death and Resurrection have the promise and power of the living God, the promise that one day, we will see Him face to face, that one day, we will be entirely healed, and that one day, we will reign with Him forever.