Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Judgment Day

Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
October 15, 2017
First off, this is a pretty hilarious text to encounter for the first sermon following our elder son’s wedding. I do not recall any gnashing of teeth on the final Friday of September, and the only tears were those of joy. I reckon that’s how it goes when you’re just the father of the groom and not the king.
Probably all for the best. Being king sounds like a royal pain – especially when things are not going well, when the invited guests don’t come to your party, when those who do show up get things all wrong, when the whole show is just going to hell in a hand basket.
In such moments, this challenging parable from Matthew suggests, it certainly feels as if the judgment of God is upon the land.
Contemporary listeners can certainly be forgiven for looking around the state of the world and imaging that God’s judgment has been rendered and it is harsh. We all know that certain conservative televangelists regularly announce that the judgment of God is upon the land whenever a hurricane or other major disaster strikes. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’d bet that the California wildfires will be blamed on the GLBTQ-friendly culture of wine country. After all, the drought was blamed on abortion laws so it’s really just a matter of time.
I mean, Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Houston was blamed on that city’s election of a lesbian mayor, and Irma was blamed in some quarters on Miami’s “permissive culture.” I don’t know what the poor people of Puerto Rico did, but it probably has something to do with the gays.
Now we may chuckle at such ham-handed explanations of natural disasters, and we should be instantly and deeply suspicious when our God hates the same people we hate.
Ooops. I just flipped the pronoun script. “Our God …” Yeah, liberals can be just as guilty as conservatives when it comes to creating God in our own image. When God hates the same people you hate, you might just be creating God in your image and not the other way round.
That said – and that is important – I’m pretty much ready to join with those who say that the judgment of God is upon the land. If God is the God of life and of creation, then these climate-driven and profit-motivated disasters are surely part of God’s judgment. The size and strength of tropical storms, the depth and length of droughts – these are all perfectly in keeping with weather predictions of climate scientists. The profit-driven coastal developments, on the one hand, and flimsy shacks on the other – both in the eye of the storm – are also equally parts of predictions of economists describing late capitalism’s rising inequality.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that God is sitting on high with the puppet strings deciding which trailer park gets hit by a hurricane and which winery gets destroyed by a fire. I am, however, suggesting that what we have done to the climate and to the economy – and these are deeply intertwined concerns – what we have done is an affront to the God of beauty, creation, and justice.
We were invited to a party, but we failed to read the fine print on the invitation. You see, we were invited to bring our whole selves to this party. We were invited to put on garments of righteousness for this party, but instead we showed up in the finest suits of injustice. Why should we be surprised to find ourselves out on the curb?
The point is, God invites us to bring our whole selves to the party – our whole selves that have been created in God’s own image for God’s purposes.
Too often, we can’t muster more than a faint trace of that image and instead of our whole selves we offer only a fragment from an original that has been shattered by our own histories of brokenness. It’s true what they say, “broken people break people.”
It’s also true what my children say: “we broke the planet.” They say this every time conversation turns to the latest climate catastrophe. Broken people break people, and, together, we break creation itself.
That’s where the judgment lies. Not that God sits on high and punishes us for our selfishness, greed, and short-sightedness, but, rather, that God gives us this magnificent and horrible freedom: freedom to create incredible, heart-breaking beauty; and freedom to destroy it such that we live as those cast out of the great banquet.
Moreover, in sovereign love, God invites us all to this great banquet – the table at the center of the beloved community where all are welcome, all are honored, all are richly fed in body, mind, and spirit.
The invitation itself is enough to change a person, but, the parable tells us, some folks refuse to change. They are invited into the light, but insist on wearing the darkness.
This is, of course, all parable and metaphor. So let’s make it real. Here are some real “garments of darkness” that we wear. Not each of us wears all of them, but all of us wear some of them: we put on the cloak of crippling fear that keeps us from risking anything of value on behalf of someone else; we wear the dress of deep-seated consumerism that drives us to spend our money on that which does not feed – ourselves or our communities; we don the mask of unquestioning militarism that too easily confuses and conflates the values of the American empire with those of the kindom of God; we pullover it all a propensity for violence – of word, of thought, of action – that defies the image of God in others and defiles that same image in ourselves.
Is it any wonder that the judgment of God is upon the nation? Is it any wonder that the streets resound with weeping and wailing, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth? If you doubt any of this, then simply recall the place names: Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Aleppo, Orlando, Houston …. The litany of names of places of violence or climate catastrophe is long, but not nearly so long as the scrolling images of faces of those directly affected.
So where is there any good news in all of this? Surely this parable of judgment is not the final word.
It’s a slim reed, but the final word, I believe, comes in the singular word, “called.” Many are called. Indeed, I will insist, all are called. That is God’s doing. God’s voice calls. The “chosenness,” on the other hand, is up to us. We choose how to respond to the call of God, and we choose it in how we live our lives.
That is why Paul, writing from a prison cell to the small community of Jesus-followers in Philippi, encourages them, “finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Keep on doing these things – these things that make for justice, these things that make for peace, these things that make for beauty, these things that make for love. Keep on doing these things. These things that feed people, these things the reconcile people, these things that heal people – keep on doing these things. These things that teach people, these things that comfort people, these things that inspire people – keep on doing these things.
Though the journey is long, and the way is rocky, keep on doing these things.
Though the world be harsh and it sometimes feels hopeless, keep on doing these things.
Though the principalities be powerful and we will wear scars, keep on doing these things.
Keep on doing these things, and together we can create a great banquet where all are welcome to sit down together at the table of plenty in the center of the beloved community. Keep on doing these things. Amen.

Grace Abounds

Matthew 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11
September 24, 2017
Water – as everyone knows from that first liquid dynamics class or from making a back-yard dam after a summer rain – water seeks its level. Because of this fundamental fact of nature, the same ocean that shapes the shores of the Carolinas rolls also into the coast of Africa. As Pete Seeger used to sing, “one blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shores ….”
It doesn’t matter if you get to the beach at sun-up or if you are the last to arrive as the sun goes down, there’s going to be plenty of water when you go down to the shoreline, or when you come to the font.
If baptism is a sign and seal of God’s grace – and that is the claim at the heart of the sacrament – then it is also a sign and seal of this truth: the water never runs dry.
“Water is life,” the water protectors at Standing Rock reminded us. It’s true. Where there is no water, life as we know it is impossible.
Where there is no grace, life as we know it is unliveable.
That’s the lesson in both the text from Matthew and the story of Jonah. Where there is no grace, life is unliveable. Indeed, where there is no grace life is unimaginable – it is beyond imagination, or, perhaps, it is before imagination.
Jonah, that most self-centered and reluctant of prophets – which is to say, that most human of prophets – finally does what God asks of him and then complains about the results. Jonah, who runs away from the call of God just as surely as did the citizens of Nineveh, doesn’t mind when God spares his own life, but he’s grievously wounded when God spares Nineveh; just like the workers who arrive in the morning are aggrieved that the latecomers get the same pay they did. Jonah simply cannot imagine a world in which God is not an angry, merciless, harsh judge blindly exchanging one eye for another. Neither can the first batch of workers.
Jealousy, it seems, is pretty much universal. Imagination, on the other hand, is too often in too short supply. Indeed, while the workers hired in the morning were jealous of the workers hired in the afternoon, the workers hired in the afternoon were probably pretty jealous of the ones who got jobs first thing in the morning, too. Neither group can imagine anything beyond an economy of scarcity – scarcity of money, scarcity of time, scarcity of work. Indeed, if you’ve ever been unemployed chances are you felt pangs of jealousy for those who had jobs. As my dad, who spent decades in youth employment work, was fond of saying, “finding a job is the hardest job you’ll ever have.”
Now it may – or may not – be true that “time is money,” but it’s clearly true that both time and money are fairly easy to count. Meanwhile, these two texts rest on a truth that scripture insists upon often: not everything that counts can be counted. Indeed, the things that can most easily be counted may count for very little in the eyes of God, while the things that we cannot measure well at all seem to count, well, immeasurably in the economy of the kindom of God. God’s imagination is clearly infinitely greater than our own.
Take baptism, for example. How do we measure this sacramental moment? We do not believe what the church for so long insisted upon: that eternal salvation – whatever that means – is dependent upon being baptized. God is bigger than that, and is God not allowed to do what God chooses with all that belongs to God?
We baptize Ellie as a visible sign of an invisible grace that is there whether or not someone has put water on a baby’s brow. Moreover, we also baptize adults who didn’t get baptized as infants. Should those adults be jealous of others who were baptized as infants?
Grace is limitless. It flows out in all directions. Like water, it is life giving and life sustaining. It is there at our borning cry. It will be with us throughout our life’s journey whatever shore we wash up on. It will be with us to the day we die, and beyond that day into the time beyond time – into the immeasurable beyond the imaginable.
Friends, grace abounds. Imagine that! Amen.  

The Way of Peace: A Community Conversation

Psalm 146; Micah 4:1-5

September 17, 2017
This Thursday is the International Day of Peace, and our readings today are actually the ones that are intended for that occasion.
The day was designated by the United Nations in 1981. I seriously doubt whether most folks know about it. I only learned of it about ten years ago when a friend who worked for On Earth Peace, a faith-based nonprofit peacemaking group, asked me to write a prayer for something they were doing to mark the day.
It isn’t really a Hallmark holiday. After all, what’s the appropriate gift for the day? Does anybody really need one more plowshare or another pruning hook?
But what if the International Day of Peace was a Hallmark holiday – you know, one of those days for which there are standard greeting cards? What would such cards say? What pithy advice might they offer?
I started down this line of thinking pretty much for the laugh lines, but it got me to thinking about some deeper questions that I want to set out and talk together about.
So, instead of “pithy advice,” what small bits of wisdom might such cards offer to a world that is weary of violence?
I have a poster of Dr. King in my study, and he looks out over my desk when I’m writing. So I’ll offer his well-known definition of peace, inscribed on that poster, as a starting place: “true peace is not the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”
If that is what we’re aiming for – true peace, the presence of justice, the beloved community – then what are the ways to peace? What are the practices that move us in that direction?
·      Let’s start at a hyper-local level, and frame the question this way: what makes for peace within a family?
·      Let’s move out to a slightly larger field: what makes for peace in a neighborhood?
·      Widening the lens even further: what makes for peace in a city?
·      How about at a national level?
·      At the widest level, what makes for peace internationally?
·      What did you notice about our responses? Are there common themes about what makes for peace across various levels of human relationships?
I’m going to close our conversation this morning giving the final word to the late Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer who served in the Dutch army as a young man, and wrestled throughout his life with Christian peacemaking convictions ranging from Just War Theory advocacy to Christian pacifism. In an essay that he wrote in the context of Cold War tensions in the 1980s, Nouwen articulated a challenge to the church that continues to ring with power and resonance in our time:
“[…] peacemaking can no longer be regarded as peripheral to being a Christian. It is not something like joining the parish choir. [You can be a follower of Jesus without singing in the choir, although we welcome every voice!] Nobody can be a Christian without being a peacemaker. The issue is not that we have the occasional obligation to give some of our attention to war prevention, or even that we should be willing to give some of our free time to activities in the service of peace. What we are called to is a life of peacemaking in which all that we do, say, think, or dream is part of our concern to bring peace to this world. Just as Jesus’ command to love one another cannot be seen as a part-time obligation, but requires our total investment and dedication, so too Jesus’ call to peacemaking is unconditional, unlimited, and uncompromising. None of us is excused!”[1]
What would our families, our neighborhoods, our city, our nation, our world look like if every follower of Jesus lived into this called day by day?

[1] Peacework, Henri Nouwen (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005) 16-17.

All that Simple

Romans 13:8-10
September 10, 2017
Here’s a song I wrote a long time ago. I think you’ll recognize some words in the chorus.
It’s All That Easy
First off, I need to give credit to Bruce Reyes-Chow. I heard Bruce use a variation on “it’s all that simple, and all that hard” in a benediction at a youth ministry conference back in the 20th century. It struck me as profound in its simplicity and clarity, and I’ve used variations on it ever since. And, well, wrote a song around it.
If you set Romans 13:8-10 to music, you could use Bruce’s benediction as the refrain. All those commandments – the big ten and the whole of the Levitical codes and all the law and the prophets come down to this: “love your neighbor as yourself.” It really is all that simple.
And, of course, all that hard.
The news daily reminds us of just how hard.
Love your neighbor? You mean the resident alien? The undocumented one? The Dreamer? Love your neighbor until it’s time to produce papers.
Love your neighbor? You mean the transgender one? The gay one? The queer one? Well, judging from the statement they released from Nashville last month, our conservative evangelical Christian friends are as far away as ever from even beginning to understand human sexuality in any way other than the most hidebound binary heterosexist terms, and given the name of the committee out of which that Nashville Statement emerged – the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood -- it’s also pretty clear that those same folks probably haven’t grown beyond a first-century view of gender roles at all. Love your neighbor … until your neighbor threatens the patriarchy.
Oh, and then there’s the president’s ban on transgender persons serving in the military. Love your neighbor, indeed.
The whole complicated question of American military might and policy certainly ought to have us wondering about love of neighbors, too. Love our North Korean neighbor? Our neighbor on the other side of the interminable war in Afghanistan? Our neighbor in Iran? Syria? Russia?
The list of such “neighbors” goes on and on, doesn’t it. Love your neighbor, until the neighbor becomes an enemy of the empire.
And yet, the heart of scripture puts no limits, no fences, no square quotes around the definition of neighbor. Indeed, over and over and over again, God knocks down every wall that some people put up to keep other people outside of safe and comfortable definitions of neighbor.
“Who is my neighbor?” That’s the question that prompts Jesus to tell the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. The Samaritan – the ultimate outsider to Jesus’ listeners – is the one who understands neighborliness.
Luke might well have written the story like this: An expert in immigration law asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responded saying, “the weather forecast was frightening. A massive storm was bearing down on Houston. Catastrophic flooding was forecast. Most folks – including most good church folks – were content to watch the news on TV or read the stories on line. Most folks kept their hands clean. The biggest church in town at first locked its doors to keep those messy flood victims out.
Alonso Guillén’s father begged him to behave like most folks and not to go out in the storm. But the 31-year-old immigrant from Mexico made the 120-mile trek to the Houston area to help rescue those stranded in the floodwaters.[1] Alonso – who came to the United States as a teenager and was one of 800,000 people living in the U.S. under DACA – was determined to help. He and a group of friends took boats to the area and entered the floodwaters to rescue people. The boat Alonso was in crashed into a highway overpass on the way to rescue people stranded in an apartment building. Alonso and a friend were tossed overboard. They died trying to save flood victims. Now which of these behaved as a neighbor to the people in the floodwaters?”
We all like to think of ourselves as the one who is neighborly. We all want to think of ourselves as the one who will help out, who will stand up, who will speak out. But life itself tends often to testify against us.
All too often we are the ones who walk by on the other side of the road to avoid the smelly beggar. All too often we are the ones who close the doors on those in dire need who might mess up our lovely and ordered lives and spaces. All too often we are the ones who remain silent when folks not like us are under attack. I am pretty sure that I could give you examples of each of these kinds of actions out of my own life during the past month or so: street people I’ve avoided; messy situations I’ve sidestepped; justice actions I found too inconvenient to show up to.
Love your neighbor as yourself. It really is all that simple. Yeah, right.
So, first off, let’s acknowledge that it is pretty simple, and, let’s confess that it is also pretty hard.
It’s pretty simple to see that we’re called to help those whose lives are disrupted by disasters or wars or economic circumstance. It’s often pretty hard to figure out how to do it.
It’s pretty simple to see that we’re called to speak out when white supremacists threaten people of color. It’s often pretty hard to figure out how to do so, especially when our own complicity and privilege get in the way.
It’s pretty simple to see that we’re called to stand alongside the immigrant, the stranger, the marginalized, and the outsider. It’s often pretty hard to figure out how to do so effectively and consistently.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Pretty simple; awful hard.
Over the years I have come to three conclusions about this tension that lies at the heart of the calling to follow the way of Jesus:
First, we are challenged to discern our particular part of the calling. In other words, we’re called to figure out our several callings – to sort out what it is that is mine to do and what belongs to others. And we are called to honesty in that sorting – honesty about gifts, about time, about money.
Second, we are called, as well, to confession about our fear in letting go of those things. The cross serves the church as the great reminder of God’s limitless grace in the face of our fears and failures. We spent the summer transforming, through various prayers and acts of worship, this cross into a butterfly – taking a symbol of death and creating from it a symbol of new life. The cross should remind us that we are a resurrection people and it should remind us, further, of the lengths to which God is willing to go to bring forth new life.
Third, we are invited into a community of just such new life. That is to say, Jesus invited people to follow him into a new way of life together, as a new community that came to be called the church. The tension at the heart of the calling to follow Jesus really demands of us that we respond as community if for no other reason than the simple one: we cannot, any of us, do all of this alone. We can’t all go into floodwaters to rescue people, but we can support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and so we will. We can’t all provide food for the hungry or shelter for those experiencing homelessness, but we can make bag meals for A-SPAN and so we will. We can’t change immigration policy, but we can host a naturalization workshop and so we will.
We cannot save the world. Indeed, that is God’s task, for it is too big for us.
But, together, as the followers of Jesus – indeed, as the body of Christ in the world – we can be each other’s neighbors, and, together, we can be neighbor to the world. Love your neighbor. It really is all that simple. Amen.  

[1] Samantha Schmidt, Washington Post, Sept. 5, 2017