Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Sabbath

A mixed bag for my personal Sabbath:

StrongOpinions left for home after spending a week with us. It was good to see her, but it was too short a trip (even though it is shocking how much stuff one 23 year old girl can spread around the house in a week). Her buddy D come down from NoVA to hang with us, and he drove her to the airport at 4:30 am.

Yes, I was awake, and not only because I needed to lock the door behind her. I really, really needed to give her a hug before she left, because I don't get enough of them these days.

Last evening was the usual chaos of trying to get stuff done prior to her trip, namely sewing three shirts for her (one black, one white, one ecru lace), washing laundry, picking up some items that are only available here...I was pretty fried after a long day going back and forth to meetings an hour away, and cooking for supper and such, but it was actually good to do this kind of stuff rather than the usual living in my monkey mind.

After she left this morning I dozed off for a bit, then got up, had a blessedly silent time of tea and the paper, then went off to spend an hour with my spiritual director.

And then I went to Bizarre Bazaar. Sort of a Southern-style craft fair on steroids. I saw a whole lot of personalized polka dot items, from dog dresses (yes, you read that right), to neoprene purses designed to hold your own personal six-back nice and chilled, to powdered dip mixes, to some of the trashiest jewelry since Dolly Parton had a bad dream, to stuff meant to evoke a trip to "The Rivah" (folks go down to their place on the rivah, meaning the Rappahannock River, in the summertime round heah). Best item of the day, which I did NOT buy: a sleep t-shirt that read "My sex life isn't dead, but vultures are circling overhead." I doubt PH would have thought it was all that cute.

I restrained myself from purchasing personalized rubber garden boots and simply found two solid color pashminas to add to the collection (aqua and cerulean), a pair of dogwood earrings and a calligraphed picture that will be a gift to someone getting ordained in June.

How tasteful of me.

I did, however, try a little taste of every damn thing that they were offering in the food vendors (fudge, of course; toffee; powdered mixes that you mush up with olive oil or cream cheese or sour cream to make party dips). I did not calculate the Weight Watcher points for all these tastes, since it is my sabbath...

thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, March 25, 2012 Jer 31:31-34, John 12:20-33 "Write It On Their Hearts"

A student went to his rabbi and said, "Why is it that the Lord says 'I will write my Law upon their hearts?' Shouldn't it be 'IN their hearts'?"

"Ah," the rabbi said. "The Lord understood how difficult would be for us to understand his great Word. He knew that the only way would be for us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. So He wrote his word on our hearts. It is only when our hearts break that those words can fall INTO our hearts, treasured forever."

When the prophet Jeremiah wrote the passage we just heard, he was facing a people who had for a long time been estranged from their God. They had failed in the relationship.

Jeremiah could have simply said "you guys have messed up, yet again." In point of fact, Jeremiah did say that on a regular basis. But God gave him a different message to share with these wayward people.

It was a message of forgiveness, of faithful love, of promise for a changed future.

What does Jeremiah say God's message is?

"We're going to change the ground rules in this relationship. We're going to craft a new contract between us. The old one didn't work. You got overwhelmed by rules that no longer made sense. So we are going to keep it very simple in this new contract. The slate is wiped clean. I'm not going to beat you over the head about past mistakes. Suffice it to say, mistakes were made. But this isn't about the past, it's about the future. So no more rules. It will not be about rabbis and scribes teaching those complicated rules. It will be about you and me. Only you and me. You will feel me in your heart, no middleman. That's because I love you, and Ihink you love me, too."

That was an odd thing for a prophet to pass along to God's people...aren't prophets always about telling people to obey the rules to ensure a good relationship with God?

But here was Jeremiah, saying that God's messsage was that the old model hadn't worked, that there needed to be a new covenant. The word would be upon them...but how would they feel it, how would they realize what was happening?

Perhaps, as the rabbi said, their hearts would have to be broken open to fully experience what God was putting upon them.

Perhaps our hearts have to be broken open to fully experience what God is putting upon them.

This prophecy foreshadows the bearer of the New Covenant - Jesus Christ. The evangelist John makes clear that Jesus is that Word, written on our hearts. He begins his gospel account that way: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

And by the time we get to the point of today's story in John's gospel, Jesus is clearly understood to be the one who brings that new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied. But simply bringing the word is not enough. How do we start to feel the love that the word brings in our hearts?

What has to happen? Our hearts have to be broken open. And how are they broken?

A thousand different ways.

The theologian in me reflects on Jesus' death, a story that we will relive through the next two weeks very closely. Every time I read the passion story, it breaks my heart. I see this tired and aching man, with black and blue marks on his face, with whip marks visible through his tattered robe, with a thin stream of blood running down the side of his face, with stupid but powerful people asking stupid but damning questions. I see him, and my heart breaks.

The ex-politician in me reflects on the discourse in the political arena in recent weeks, with people using their religious beliefs as weapons against those with whom they disagree - a gross misuse of God's Word - and my heart breaks.

The pastor in me reads the story of the shooting of a young man by a local watch vigilante, not in self-defense but simply because he didn't want him walking through his neighborhood, and I think of all the times that Jesus was in places where he shouldn't have been...and my heart breaks.

And when my heart breaks, I feel God's word falling into it, Jesus saying "I will draw all people - ALL PEOPLE - to myself."

And I feel the healing of those words around the torn edges of my heart.

Jesus tells us that he is about to do something that will break his heart,and our hearts. He reminds us that he does it not because he walks with joy toward his death, but with great trepidation. He also reminds us that he does it for a reason - pure love for us.

Every day, we face bad news. It's on our computers, on the nightly news, on the radio. Every day our heart breaks. But if, through our heartbreak, we become vulnerable to God's love, it is worth the pain.

This is why Jesus is willing to walk toward the cross, to the horrific death of his human body. To Jesus, it is worth the pain to open up our hearts to feel God's redeeming love.

So in these next two weeks, as we approach the glory of the resurrection, we should not be afraid to let our hearts once again be broken. That is how God's Word, God's love, God's grace, comes into us in this season of Lent and beyond.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sermon for Sunday,. March 18, 2012 Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21 “Snakes, It Had to be Snakes.”

As Indiana Jones said in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” You remember the story from the movie: the archeologist Indiana Jones is on the trail of the lost Ark of the Covenant. While searching for it in Egypt, he digs down to a hidden chamber called the Well of Souls. When he holds a torch down to see what is in the chamber, the floor is a mass of writhing snakes. Indy is afraid of snakes, but he has to leap down to get the next clue as to the location of the ark. Thus his quote about the snakes. He has to face that which he fears to accomplish his goal.

Moses and his Israelites had a difficult goal, too.

Moses was leading those difficult, complaining people through the desert. They were experts at the art of complaining, and now their expertise had reached high art. They had worked their way up the scale from cranky to petulant to peevish to vile whining nit-pickers. Nothing that Moses did seemed to satisfy them.

Not only was Moses tired of their ill temper, God was, too. They were so aggravating that God sent a plague of poisonous snakes their way. The snakes did what snakes were best at, namely biting those who were annoying, so many of the Israelites died. Most likely some of the Israelites echoed the Indiana Jones

That got the Israelites’ attention. A plague of snakes usually does. So they got down on their knees – a risky choice, since that put them closer to the snakes – and begged Moses to get God to save them from the snakes. So Moses prayed, and God did a very odd thing. He told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole. Any Israelites who would be bitten by poisonous snakes could look at this artificial snake on a pole and live.

So Moses followed God’s instruction and crafted a snake of bronze and put it on a pole, and, sure enough, it solved the snakebite problem.

God got their attention with those snakes. And he solved their problem – death by snakebite – and his problem – a bunch of complainers who forgot all God had done for them – in one fell swoop.

In a way, he solved their problem with their problem. He fixed the snake problem with a snake. They had to face their fear of snakes but getting up close and personal with that bronze snake.

Now, before I go any further, I want to talk a little bit about snakes in the Old testament, because we lose some of the nuance in the English translation. Snakes feature prominently in the Old Testament. The real biggie in snake stories in the Old Testament is of course the snake in the Garden of Eden. He’s identified as the craftiest creature in the garden. Its name in Hebrew is nahash, and it is one of only two animals in the old testament that have the power of speech. The nahash is clever and troublesome, and is often interpreted as Satan, the great tempter. When we get to the story we hear in our Old Testament reading today, Moses and the poisonous serpents, it’s those same nahashot, those crafty clever poisonous animals whom God cursed in Genesis. But when Moses follows God’s orders and crafts that bronze snake, that creature is a saraph, a fiery creature…a serpent, like a fire-breathing dragon, the same word that has evolved into the name we give one of the classes of angels, the seraphim. Fiery protectors and avenging angels, those seraphim. On the face of it, when we hear the story in English, it sounds like Moses and God are solving the problem of snakes with a snake. But it’s more complicated than that. The bronze serpent is something different. Maybe it’s a serpent in form, but its purpose is very different, even holy. It is a serpent on a divine mission of healing, rather than serpents whose purpose is to destroy.

It sounds like a strangely endearing little tale from another time and place, nothing like what happens in our world, in our time, but that may not be true.

What are our snakes? Not literal snakes, but the things that bite us and make us feel the life ebbing from our hearts. What are the things that frighten us, that bedevil us, that cause us to feel our own mortality, our own powerlessness?

Don’t we all whine and complain and talk about all that troubles us? Don’t we wonder where God is, and why he doesn’t seem to pay attention to our whining? We are snakebit by a thousand different things around us, and we struggle to fight against them. But fighting them seems to make them stronger. We need something else to take away the venom of those snakes in our lives.

And God hears us in our pain, in the place where we wander in our own personal deserts, and he comes us with something that we can grab onto, something that will remind us that he is with us and that he will heal our hurting hearts.

It’s not a bronze serpent on a pole, that ancient talisman. It is something more important, more real, more powerful, than that snake on a stick that Moses made.

But it has a strange kinship with Moses’ talisman – there is an image of divine power mounted on a high, visible place. God gives us his own Son, lifted high on the cross. The Gospel of John tells us about this, that God gave his the Son of Man lifted up high. It isn’t a mere talisman, a magical symbol. It’s God with us. His power is so great that it not only cures those snakebites, but gives us eternal life.

The snake that poisons us and hurts us is simply that – a hurtful creature. The bronze snake on the pole is a symbol of God’s fiery power to help his people.

But the man who is God on the cross, that is not merely a symbol. It is real. It is God, in all God’s power, saving his people. We have moved from a place where we need to see a talisman to where we can see God’s ultimate gift of love to us.

But here’s the hard part: to see the power and feel the power of the God who is willing to die on a cross for us, we have to face down our snakes of doubt and brokenness and fear and anger. We have to look at them and then recognize there is something that takes all their power away. And once we do that, we can see beyond them to that which is stronger than those snakes…the God who saves us from them all.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2012 Lent III John 2:13-22 “Form Follows Function”

Form follows function. So wrote the modernist architect Louis Sullivan at the turn of the 20th century. Sullivan, whose work largely consisted of tall simple skyscrapers, believed that the shape of the thing should be determined by how it was going to be used. Anything else, anything that was part of the building simply for aesthetic purposes, was superfluous. And so we’ve got these tall boring office buildings, devoid of elegance, simply matchboxes set on their end, because Sullivan, and other modernist architects through the 20th century, decided that the shape of the thing should be determined only by what would be done in it.

There is something in our hearts that fights this notion. We like beautiful design, whether as part of a sculpture or painting, or a stained glass window, or a clever tool. We troop to places like Biltmore in Asheville to see ornament on top of ornament, made with skill and at incredible cost, and we marvel at it. And the bulk of that ornament is extraneous to the function of the thing it decorates.

We here in Richmond seem to have a particular fondness for design that is only marginally related to function…why else would we take such pleasure in Barry Flanagan’s “Large Leaping Hare,” that gilded rabbit that seems to float across space at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts? Why else would we so love places like Maymont’s Japanese Gardens or the children’s treehouse at Lewis Ginter? We do like beautiful things, and that is not a bad thing in design.

But I’d submit that Christianity is a faith of form following function, despite the Gothic cathedrals that we have built and the exquisite art and music that have been created to the glory of God.

At its best our faith is a stripped down kind of thing, that takes away the things that distract us from focusing on God, and repositions our field of view toward the divine.

That seems to be what motivates God in giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. The wayward Israelites, wandering around the desert in search of the place where they belong after escaping Egypt, seem to be getting off track. They need a little shaping up, and Moses is exhausted and frustrated trying to do it alone. So God sends him back down from the mountain with a pretty straightforward set of rules designed to turn them away from the things that get them into trouble, and turn them back toward the God who brought them out of Egypt.

It also seems to be what is motivating Jesus in the Gospel of John. In John’s version of the story, unlike that of the other Gospels, this event occurs early in Jesus’ active ministry. He has just turned water in to wine at the wedding feast at Cana, something of a sneak preview to the disciples of what will follow. He comes to the temple in Jerusalem so that he can celebrate the Passover, and he finds the outer precincts of the temple full of people selling animals for ritual sacrifice and changing Roman coin – forbidden in the Temple – for Temple coinage. It’s probably pretty ripe-smelling, given all that livestock in an enclosed area, and it’s probably also pretty noisy, with merchants calling out to prospective customers and offering them the best price. Not exactly the holy temple of God, at least in that section of the building.

At first glance, it might seem to us that these merchants are following that dictum “form follows function.” After all, if the law says you need animals to be given for burnt or blood offerings, if you need to get rid of the Roman coin which had a picture of the Roman emperor lauded as a god on it, doesn’t it make sense that you need space dedicated to that function? These merchants are simply helping the worshippers at Herod’s temple to adhere to the law, right? So why does Jesus get so incensed?

And now we turn back to that phrase of “form follows function.” What is the function of the Temple? To be a place where the faithful can worship God. That is the sole function of the Temple. So if form follows function, of course Jesus would remove those extraneous things that distract from the primary function, the worship of God.

So Jesus starts doing the spring cleaning to end all spring cleaning. He goes after the merchants with a whip, driving them out of the temple, overturning the money-changing tables. He is going to clean this place so that it can be a place solely for worship again.

And this is, in fact not too surprising at the time of Passover, when the Israelites would clean their houses from top to bottom, removing the slightest trace of yeast or old food so they could be just the same as their ancestors who left Egypt in such a rush that they didn’t even have time to let the bread rise. Jesus is cleaning his house, just as his mother was probably cleaning out the family home back in Nazareth.

But he does get some pushback from the Jewish leaders, who may have gotten some sort of percentage of the profits those merchants made. They ask him, “what gives you the right to do this thing?” And Jesus responds with a phrase that is so modernist, so stripped down of explanatory ornament, that they don’t know what to make of it: “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They are shocked. This is Herod’s great temple. It is enormous and highly decorated and has taken 46 years to build…is he blaspheming? But as I said, they’ve missed out on the point. He isn’t talking about the building. He is talking about himself. He will be destroyed, but he will rise again in three days.

Here’s the remarkable thing about Jesus, about this passage: he is the ultimate embodiment of “form follows function.” What was his function? To bring us back into a relationship of love and worship and praise and respect with God. To do that, he would have to come among us and teach us in a way we human beings could understand. He would have to serve as the one who could redeem us from our brokenness. That function, that mission, required that he take on human form. It required that he should teach us and heal us and then die for us on the cross. Only then would we be saved, and only then would we know how much God loves us.

So let’s take away the artwork with the gorgeous soft-eyed Jesus with the halo around his head. Let’s take away the worry about whether we are doing our worship right, whether somebody else is doing it better. Let’s take away layers of stuff that we have encrusted upon Jesus and the church over the centuries, and take it to its simplest “form follows function” best.”

What does God expect from us? The ten commandments tell us. Love God, and no other gods. Spend some time in prayer and worship with God. Respect God by not using his name to curse others. Translate the love of God into love and care for others. That is the function of each one of us as people of faith, nothing more, nothing less. And the form is equally clear: pray, worship, share, love. Nothing more, nothing less.

Form follows function in faith as well as architecture. Let us live it.


Sunday, March 04, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2012 Mark 8:31-38 “Be Careful What You Wish For”

Up until the moment of today’s gospel passage, the evangelist Mark lays out a picture of a powerful Jesus, preaching and teaching and healing all over the Galilee. No wonder, then, that just before this passage, Peter responds to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am,” by responding “You are the Messiah.” Of course he is the Messiah. Who else could do what Jesus has done?

And this sense that Jesus was the Messiah was not just something that Jesus’ disciples were pondering – the news of his miracles had spread throughout the area and beyond. How the people of Israel must have been excited by the news of this Rabbi and his shocking words and gifts for healing! They must have thought “Finally we get the one we’ve wished for, the one we’ve prayed for, the one who can rescue us from our miserable lives, oppressed by the Roman emperor who considered himself a god, confused by the different religious leaders who are just as political as the Roman emperor. At last, someone who can save us.”

Peter got it right. The people who heard of the miracles were right. Jesus was indeed the promised one, the Messiah. They got their wish.

But the old saying is right: be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Yes, this was the promised Messiah, this carpenter’s son from Nazareth. A wish, a prayer, fulfilled.

But what did Jesus promise? No sooner than Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah, than Jesus told him, and the rest of the disciples what that really meant.

It meant that Jesus would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the Jewish religious leaders, and be killed, and then rise again after three days.

Not quite what the disciples expected.

I wonder if those disciples thought that Jesus would banish the Romans, crush them as he had crushed the physical and mental ailments of so many, out-argue the religious leaders, sit on a throne of glory, and they would be his princes, sitting by him and enjoying riches and power and pleasure beyond anything they could imagine.

Instead Jesus was telling them that he was destined to die an ignominious death, broken, scorned. No king of earthly glory. No princehoods. No thumbing their noses at the Romans and the Pharisees and all those who made life difficult in first century Israel. Not a glorious King, but a broken body, bleeding, on a wooden cross.

Was this what they had left their families, their fishing boats, their relatively comfortable lives for? It seemed incomprehensible. How could the man who could drive out demons, heal unimaginable disease and even death, who could win an argument with those scribes and Pharisees, how could this man be killed? It was ridiculous…but this was what he was saying.

His message was plain: if you want to follow me, you have to be prepared for what will come. It will not be princehoods. It will not be earthly glory or wealth. It will mean pain and loss and death.

Not what would encourage them, to be sure, but an important message. They needed to know what they were getting themselves into, and perhaps all the healings and such had distracted them from the work at hand. Perhaps they thought that this would all be about the adulation of the crowd.

They would have to do what he did, to commit to following no matter what the cost – and there would be a cost – and it might well end badly.

And yet, there was also a promise of something wonderful, just not the kind of thing that they had been thinking of. There would be glory, but it would not be an earthly glory, and it would not be immediate.

Deferred gratification. I doubt the disciples were any better at it than we are.

Be careful what you wish for – you might get it. The disciples wished for a king, a messiah. They got it. But the Messiah they got was not necessarily what they expected. Sure, he had the power to heal the sick and to outpreach anyone anywhere. But the work that he was on earth to do was not about getting crowns of laurels here on earth…no, he was intended to wear a crown of thorns here on earth. The crown of crowns wouldn’t come until later.

Yes, Jesus was quite clear about the cost of discipleship: you follow me, you risk all, because this is about your soul, not about your personal aggrandizement. But the corollary is an equally important one for us to remember: you follow Jesus, you don’t get a free ride from the troubles of this earth.

I think of this often when I am with someone who is suffering. Occasionally a relative may say “Why is my loved one suffering so? He has always been such a good Christian. It doesn’t seem fair…why do good people have to suffer?”

And once again, I hear Jesus’ words: “take up your cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

We are not promised a trouble-free life if we are followers of Christ. In fact, we are promised our earthly life will not be easy. Christians don’t get a free ride. Sounds like bad news, doesn’t it? But along with the suffering comes a second promise: follow Christ, and you will be blessed by him when he comes “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Those of us who suffer are not being punished, we are walking with Christ. As he walks along the way of the cross, we too are walking along that painful road. And most important, he is walking with us.

We wish for a king that will take away our suffering and pain, our doubts and our brokenness…and we have gotten what we wished for. We are getting that king. But this king’s own journey of pain and death before resurrection reminds us that while we get what we wished for, it may not yield exactly the result we anticipate. This king did not avoid earthly pain and suffering, he took it on and went through it. That pain, that suffering, was part of a plan of redemption for our sins. He would not rise in glory, perfectly healed of his suffering, until he suffered. He would not be seated on his king’s throne until another time beyond time and another place beyond our own vision. So, too, will we. This is Jesus’ promise to those who take up the cross and follow him. We have gotten what we wished for. We have our Messiah. He will be with us always, and we will be with him, in a place that is beyond our imaginings, in due time. In the meantime, take up that cross. Follow him. That is the way to the end of the struggle, to the end of sufferings, by going through those sufferings to the place he promises.

So wish for it. You will get what you wish for, and then some. Take up your cross. It takes you to the fulfillment of the promise, at the side of the one who never left your side.