Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Unknown God

Is God unknown to us?

When Paul visited Athens -- a place where every new idea was the latest rage, and yet where the old gods still reigned -- he had what was possibly one of the most intriguing opening lines in a defense.

But first, you have to understand that the Areopagus was not just a soap box for anyone who wanted to talk.  It was court.  Actually, its primary function was to try murder and corruption cases, but it seems also to have been a place for folks to demand an accounting from public speakers.  So court, but not exactly court.

Anyway, Paul was only too happy to speak.  And he started out with flattery.  "My, what religious people you are!"  At first, I thought Paul was being ironic, especially when he said, "You're so religious, you even have an altar to an unknown god."  I figured he was playing on the Athenians' famous penchant for worshiping anything that came along.

But as you look at it, I suspect he was meeting the people where they were, because then he says, in essence, "I'm going to tell you about this god you don't know, and boy is it going to be great."  Paul was not speaking to Jews here -- so his approach fit them beautifully.

But when you thing about it, Paul might use the same line on us -- maybe not here at St. James', but in our world, in our society today.

Because so many don't know God.  They don't hear him speak, don't see him, don't feel his presence and love.  Rather, what they do experience through television or unfortunate encounters with some religious people can make them believe that -- if there is a God, he is certainly choosing to remain unknown.

I confess that as I read today's gospel, I wondered if perhaps THIS Jesus was unknown to me as well.  Think about it:  Here is Jesus nearing the end of his time with the disciples, and what does he say?  "If you love me, you'll do what I want."

I dated a girl once who liked to begin statements with, "If you love me…"  It didn't take me long to run in the opposite direction.  Who wants to be manipulated like that?  Often enough, people use that sort of coercion to control their partners or  force them into things they don't want to do.  No thanks.

But as with Paul, there's a different way of reading this line.  Jesus is not saying, "Do this for me or I won't love you."   As you read it again, you notice that what he's telling his disciples -- those who are preparing to carry on after Jesus leaves -- is, "This is what loving me looks like."  And what does it look like?

Over the course of the gospels, we know that those commandments are very few.  Love God completely.  Love your neighbor as yourself -- which implies loving yourself.  Baptize and break bread together.  That's it.

This is the Christ I know after all.  And in knowing Christ, I know the Father.  God is love, not manipulative but pure and self-giving.

This is the God we seek to make known to the world -- and we do so by being the Body of Christ -- by following his commands.

So, two misunderstood statements -- on my part at least -- lead to a new appreciation of not only who God is, but where God is in our lives today.  May we all look at this troubled world -- it's been troubled always -- and know in our hearts that even if we don't know what God is up to at the moment, God is there.

In our actions, in our hearts, in our desire to meet people where they are and to love them -- as God loves us.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day

Welcome to Earth Day, 2008.  

I am finding myself not particularly active in it today -- I spent my morning in meetings, and now I have pastoral calls to make.  Yes, I am going to drive my car because it'd be late at night before I got home if I rode my bike.

But it's not just one day that we have to try to reduce our impact on the environment.  It's not just one day when we remember that God gave us this land to care for not to dominate and exploit. 

The sad thing about our current climate instability is that most of it is unnecessary.  It's a result of corporate farming, of unchecked industrialization, of conspicuous consumption.    We have many things, but we could live a pretty comfortable life without many of them.  There's a good chance that we will live without them if our usage doesn't moderate itself soon.

Of course, I'm writing this on a laptop computer as I'm sipping my coffee (grown in Ethiopia and shipped here via polluting ships).  Which means that I have a lot of work to do, too.  There are so many things I don't even notice myself doing but which add to the degredation of the environment.

So my first step?  Just to pay attention.  To notice what I'm doing.  To think of new ways to do things rather than plod along in the same old way as it makes me and those around me ever unhealthier.

Awareness is a good first step.  What will yours be?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Long Farewell

In the Gospel today, we see Jesus in the early stages of what scholars call "The Farewell Discourse."  Now, if you had a bible in front of you, you could notice that this is chapter 14 in a book that has 21 chapters.  The Farewell Discourse actually runs from 13:31--17:26.  That's a long farewell.

And yet, this is not just saying goodbye.  This is the night before the crucifixion.  Jesus wants to teach and prepare his disciples in this long discussion.  He wants to give them instructions for a time when he won't be there, and he wants to give them hope.

Which is why he starts out with "Don't let your hearts be troubled."

Don't let your hearts be troubled?  Believe me, the disciples' hearts were troubled.  They didn't understand his foreboding talk of death.  They didn't understand why he had just washed their feet.  

And they didn't understand the confusing words in this passage.  "In my father's house are many rooms."  "I'm going to prepare a place for you."  "I am in the Father and the Father is in me." "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."  And the kicker:  "If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."

It's all troubling.

But what Jesus is saying in short is that they will be able to carry on after his departure -- both after the crucifixion and more importantly (as we know, but they didn't) after his ascension.  They CAN broaden the ministry that Jesus began.  They can know the Father because they know the son.  They can trust that Jesus will always be in their work as long as it is the work Jesus would have them do.

And so can we.  Of course, that means making sure the work we do is Jesus' work and not ours.  We can't make up our minds that WE want something and then say it's going to happen because we decide to use the name of Jesus.  You know, "In the name of Jesus, let the Rangers win the Stanley Cup."  Uh uh.

No.  Jesus assures that he is with us, but also that he is the only way -- which is to say, Jesus is the path, and Jesus is the embodiment of God, and God is Love.  So our path is love.

NOW, to take a quick digression, let's remember that Earth Day is this week.  That is to say a celebration and call to care for the Creation -- God's gift to us.  Depending on who you listen to, either we haven't done as good a job as God intended us to do, or it doesn't matter what we do to the planet because our actions have no consequences.  

Despite the preponderance of scientific studies asserting that global warming is real and that it has very real and negative consequences for all of life on this planet, there are many who refuse to hear or believe.  They say Global Warming -- or as has been suggested to me as more accurate, Global Climate Change -- is a hoax.

I have two quick questions in response to the hoax theory.  First of all, although I can understand why companies that pollute would want to call Global Climate Change a hoax, I'd like to know what gain the vast majority of scientists get from saying that Global Climate Change exists.  Second, what if we are wrong about global warming?  I mean, if those who say it is real are wrong, and we spend all this time and money taking better care of the earth, what are the negative consequences?  A healthier planet?  

But if those who say it is a hoax are wrong -- and we do nothing to change our destructive ways -- what are those consequences?  What harm is done then to the millions of poor in countries that suffer increased drought and flooding and all those things we've been blessed to avoid so far.  I'm not much of a gambling man, but I think I know where I'd place my bets.

Now, you might ask, "How did Chuck get from Jesus to climate change?"  Through the Farewell discourse and Jesus' words, "Don't let your hearts be troubled."

If, as scripture tells us, the care of all creation is given to us by God, then the earth itself is part of our mission.  God does not ONLY tell us to go out and convert people to Christianity.  Our work is to care for creation just as surely as it is to share the Good News of Christ, so we can apply to our work the words from Jesus Farewell Discourse.

Namely, "Don't let your hearts be troubled."  

It's easy to be troubled when you think of what CAN happen to this planet which is the only one we've got.  We've already seen the extinction of countless species, the death of the coral reefs, the destruction of the rain forest (for example).  It can be disheartening.  I mean, there may be many dwelling places in God's house, but there's only one earth.

But Jesus reminds us just as he reminded his disciples right before the crucifixion that he is with us.  What we ask for in Jesus' Name -- that is, if it is in keeping with Jesus' will -- he will do.  Even though it sometimes seems we've done irreparable harm to this earth, there is hope.  In Christ we can do all things, and we can repair much of the damage even in our time.

In this long farewell, Jesus says that curious line about being the way, the truth, and the life.  For him, that means that living as he did -- selfless, loving, always looking to the Father -- is the only way to live.  For us, in our daily life, in our evangelism, and in our care for creation, it is the same.  Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bloggers Unite

I am joining up with a group called "Bloggers Unite for Human Rights."  I don't think it will change the world overnight, but I also don't think it will have no impact.  

What I think it will do is join my voice with those of many others around the country -- and world -- to remind us that we are accountable for each other.  If a Christian bothers to inform him-or-herself about their faith, they will learn that they are responsible for all of their brothers and sisters -- "the least of these," as Jesus said.  

One of the initiatives this group will undertake is to have all its members -- bloggers from every corner and of every sort -- write about some aspect of the work toward basic human rights on the same day.  That day is May 15.  

I will do my tiny bit that day.  If you want to learn more about it, go to unite.blogcatalog.com.  

See you then.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Us as Extraterrestrials

I was listening to an interview with a college student who's working on projects to help the environment.  She noted that she works not simply from an environmental motive but also from a sense of justice since the few in rich nations affect by their excesses the lives of the many in poorer nations.

It reminded me of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where a man's house is destroyed by an uncaring governmental bureaucracy just before a planet (ours) is destroyed by an uncaring intergallactic bureaucracy -- both just happened to be in the way of progress.

I took the impact of those statements seriously.  We in the rich nations truly are hurting others by our actions and we can do something about it.  Eating less meat (the production of which contributes more to global warming than even our cars), driving more responsibly, reducing, etcetera.  All important things to keep in mind as we approach Earth Day.

But then my thoughts took another, more whimsical turn.  What if there is no intergallactic bureaucracy?  What if there aren't going to be any extraterrestrial visitors any time soon -- not because there aren't other life forms out there, even intelligent ones, but because they just aren't intelligent enough.  Not yet anyway.  What if we are the most advanced world out there?  What if we're as good as it gets?

Kind of frightening, isn't it?  

It begs several questions.  For example, will we ever visit the others?  How will we find them?  Why will we go?  

More importantly, what would we do when we got there?  Would we do to their worlds what we've done to our own?  Wouldn't it be better, in that case, to stay home in quarantine?  

I imagine Native Americans might think that, as well -- why didn't you guys just stay home?  But if we travelled, would we be wiser this time?  Would we be more respectful?

I would hate to think we would come in thinking we know better and try to make them believe the way we do -- God will have probably already spoken to them in God's on and inimitable way.

Either way, as far as we know, we're as good as it gets on this earth -- so we would do well to be respectful and wise right here and right now.  

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Strange Shepherding - A Sermon

So, here we are, the sheep of Christ following the shepherd.  But what a strange shepherd we follow.  No, I'm serious.  The places this guy takes us are not usually places we want to go.  I mean those green pastures and still water that the 23rd Psalm talk about?  Hah!

To be honest, if Christ were a physical shepherd and we were actual sheep, he would have an easier time.  Because sheep don't actually think about where they're going.  They just follow the voice.  They just hang out together thinking, "Grass is good.  Mmm.  Good grass.  Oh, there's the voice, let's follow it.  Mmmm.  More grass."  That sort of thing.

But us?  We think, "I don't want to go there.  It's not nice."  And to be honest, there's nothing that says we have to follow.

Follow or not, however, that shepherd of ours keeps going into the strangest places.  Just look at the reading in Acts.  There the community of sheep start off trying to follow pretty closely.  "All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

That having all things in common bit really meant sharing all their possessions with each other.  It meant they tried to live as a family --even though they kept their own homes.  This did not last, of course, because it became unwieldy.  Even monastic orders which still live that way to some degree have difficulty sharing all their possessions the way this was invisioned.  Yet the shepherd keeps walking in that direction.

Or look at Peter's letter.  Here's our shepherd leading us in another strange direction -- suffering.  Not just suffering but suffering injustice -- without revenge.  Suffering without bitterness.  Suffering for something the sake of that shepherd.  

So now, we have our shepherd leading us to a place where we don't own our own possessions and where there's a good chance we're going to get hurt, and we're not going to do anything to defend ourselves.  And now we, the sheep are in a quandry.

Because if we follow this guy, the others around us are going to think, "What weirdos."  They are going to think, "These people are are corrupting our way of life because our society teaches that you should own as much as you can.  More is better.  And don't let anyone push you around.  We're number one."

So, we sheep hear these voices.  And we hear the voice of our strange shepherd who says, "If any would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."  Which voice sounds more appealing?  

Let's review:  THEM:  "Get all you want and be number one."

JESUS:  "Take up your cross, give away all your wealth to the poor, turn the other cheek."

So, why on earth would we keep following that shepherd.  It doesn't sound fun.

Still, we follow.  Because we learn that having all the stuff doesn't give us life.  We learn that locking ourselves away from pain and suffering does not make us any more alive.  We learn that in the voice of this strange shepherd, we find purpose and meaning.  We find acceptance not for what we have done for anyone, not because we're more beautiful or stronger, but simply because we are.

And that voice rings true while the voices of greed and dominance and revenge sound hollow.

We follow a strange shepherd.  About the only thing that would seem stranger would be not following him.  Amen.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Teenager Beating

Eight teenagers beat sixteen-year-old.

That's the big thing on YouTube.  It's bad.  Eight teenagers invited a girl to a house -- apparently, she thought one of them was a friend -- and then they beat her mercilessly, even waiting for her to regain consciousness so they could pick up where they left off.  Stupidly, they videotaped their crime and posted it on YouTube.

What was that about?

Well, you could call it attempted murder, and maybe it is.  You could say the perpetrators should be tried as adults, and maybe they should.

But what can the church say about it?  And what would Jesus say about it?  

I don't think anyone needs to make excuses for the kids who did this terrible thing.  They did it.  They planned it.  They had evil intent, and they should indeed be punished appropriately.

But, do we believe we should kill them?  Or, as Philip DeFranco advised on the The Philip DeFranco Show (on YouTube), put them in a room with a hundred angry people with baseball bats and have them beat the bejeezus out of them as they did to her?  

Oh, you can say they deserve it.  But here's the problem.  Jesus doesn't allow for that kind of revenge.  Jesus says, "Turn the other cheek."  Not once, not twice, but over and over.  Paul tells us to bless those who curse us, pray for those who hurt us.  It simply is not open to a Christian to "get even."  

Regardless of what DeFranco says, "An eye for an eye," is NOT acceptable behavior for Christians at least.  He scoffs at Ghandi's notion that "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."  Regardless of his rant, all it really does is make us pretty much the same as those who commit the crimes in the first place.  For those who say, "They deserve it," what makes you so sure YOU don't deserve it?  After all, Jesus says those who retain anger against another are liable the punishment of murderers (Matthew 5:21-22).

When we get our righteous indignation going, we make ourselves foolish.  Beating these criminals up will not "teach them a lesson."  It will neither make an example of them nor make the world a safer place.  It will not make us more virtuous, and it will not erase the scars that the unfortunate victim will carry for the rest of her life.  All it will do is satisfy our blood lust.  Which is what those criminals were doing.

So, what do we do with such savage criminals?  Well, in our society, about the best you can manage is prison -- which is a given in their case.  Keep them away from everyone else and be done with it.  Probably, however, all prison will do is turn them into more efficient criminals.  But that's a story for another day.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Breaking Bread - A Sermon

Last night we had a wonderful Spaghetti Dinner to raise funds for our Towel Camp trip to Appalachia.  To be honest, the turnout far exceeded my expectations -- oh ye of little faith.  To watch friends from different circles, different churches, different walks of life come together -- and eat together -- was a joy.

But it wasn't the money raised that filled my heart.  It wasn't even the full parish hall, even though I was thrilled when we had to set up an extra table.  What made me know all was well was watching the kids and several dedicated adults working and laughing together, hours before the dinner began.  And then, afterward, watching them sit and eat together.

You could see Christ at work in all that food.  

Which brings us to the gospel.

You know the story of the Walk to Emmaus.  Two disciples (why only Cleopas gets named, I don't know) are walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus when they are joined by a stranger who asks what they're talking about.  They are amazed that he doesn't know.  As one of our bible study participants put it this week, they might have been tempted to ask, "Have you been under a rock or something?"  But then Jesus could have answered, "Well, yes, actually."

Anyway, Jesus, whose identity remains hidden from them, begins to explain what the crucifixion meant, how it was inevitable, and how the resurrection was just as real as the report those two disciples had heard.  Finally, they reach their destination and invite the stranger to stay with them because it's late.  And there, when Jesus breaks bread with them, they recognize him for who he is.

One question you might ask is, how could these guys not recognize Jesus?  There are several responses.  First of all, we all know how meeting someone out of context can be confusing.  More than once, I've been in my jeans and a t-shirt and run into parishioners or folks from the nursery school who look at me, and you can see in it in their eyes:  "I think I've met this guy before, but who is he?"  When you consider that Jesus was supposed to be dead, you can forgive these disciples for not catching on right away.

But it's equally likely that they don't recognize Jesus because he was changed -- this isn't the first story where a close disciple doesn't recognize him after the resurrection.  We could spend a lot of time wondering just how Jesus changed.

But what's more important is how they recognized him.  It wasn't in the teaching he gave them on the road.  It wasn't in his appearance.  It was in the breaking of bread.

Why would that be?

Context.  They recognize him through the blessing and sharing.  There is something about Jesus and feeding.  Like the feeding of the 5,000 or the less famous feeding of the 4,000 story.  Or like the last supper when Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to the disciples saying, Take, eat.  This is my Body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me."

Only after he does this do all of Jesus' words make sense.  Only after he breaks bread can they see again the well-known contours of his face.  Jesus is the bread of heaven, and in the breaking of bread.

This sharing bread has one other feature that you should know.  It shows these disciples that he is real, no mere ghost.  As if to prove it, after the two run back to Jerusalem -- and remember, it's dark now -- and meet the other disciples to tell them their experience, Jesus appears before them all.  And what does he do?  He says, "You got anything to eat?  Because ghosts don't eat."

He is real.  He is risen.

This story in which the disciples know him in the breaking of the bread is also important to us because it emphasizes the power of one of Jesus' final commands to the disciples before he was arrested.  Take, eat.  This is my Body.

The bread we share in the Eucharist,  the bread we break together -- it is Christ's body.  And in break it together, we can recognize him.  Just like those two on the road to Emmaus, we may not recognize him in all the words we hear (even in scintilating sermons) or in the faces of everyone around us.  But when we share the Body of Christ in the breaking of bread, we can indeed recognize him.  This bread, this common food, this sharing is Jesus'  context.  

I rejoice in our common meals, be they spaghetti or eucharist, because in them I see the face of Christ.  And I give thanks.  Amen.