Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22, 2009 - "Clear"

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Two young boys were spending the night at their grandparents.
At bedtime, the two boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers when the youngest one began praying at the top of his lungs, "I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE. I PRAY FOR A NEW PLAYSTATION. I PRAY FOR A NEW DVD..."
His older brother leaned over and nudged the younger brother and said, "Why are you shouting your prayers? God isn't deaf."
To which the little brother replied, "No, but Gramma is!"

That little boy knew exactly what he was doing.
He was crystal clear in purpose.
He wanted Gramma to hear what he wanted.

Clarity is a good thing.

Can we be clear?

About a few things … we have to be very clear.

To be a Christian, to be the church of Jesus Christ … to be a Presbyterian congregation … to be Covenant on the Corner …

To embody within ourselves something of Christ … his purpose and his passion, his grace and his goodness.


Such things must characterize the life of the church that bears his name … each of us must embody these things, in some form or fashion, because we are, as Paul describes us, ambassadors of Jesus Christ.


As for purpose: simple! To the point and on target!
It’s all about love.

Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.
Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
Don’t judge one another.
Get the log out of your own eye before you mess around with the speck in your neighbor’s eye.
Forgive one another, and forgive one another many times over.

Pay attention to one another – see people around you: the woman at the well, Zacchaeus up a tree, blind Bartimaeus by the side of the road – there’s a world of hurt out there, a world of sorrow and pain, and we can do something about it; so pay attention; don’t be in such a hurry that you pass by one another with little heed and skimpy regard.
Honor God – God is, and God will always be, the guarantee of a life larger than life itself.
We’re all tempted to live small lives.
Life reduced to want and need.
Reduced to “my comfort and my consolation.”
But God won’t allow that to happen … at least not the God of Isaiah, Hosea and Amos; the God of Peter, James and John – a very large God, and when we let God into our heart, God begins remodeling – old walls torn down; little rooms expanded; additions made – the house of our mind and the rooms of heart grow large, to make space for a very large love!

When the disciples shoo away the children, Jesus invites the children to sit on his lap.
When the disciples want to call down fire from heaven and burn up a few towns, Jesus cautions them to show love and kindness instead.
When the disciples don’t get it, Jesus chides them, because Jesus knows full well how easily we pretend ignorance, how easily we let old ideas prevail; how we feign confusion.  When in fact we really DO understand, but would rather not.

I hear Jesus saying, “You DO understand. You know full well what all of this means and where it’s all going. Don’t feign ignorance.”

It’s all about love … and sometimes, tough love.

Religious systems self-absorbed; Jesus overturns the tables.
The uppity self-righteous; he tweaks their nose.
The powerful showing off their authority; he ignores them and shows them something better.

It’s all about love – that’s his purpose; and it has to be our purpose, too!

The next word is passion
Full-out engagement!
Christianity is no armchair philosophy, but a life lived in the love of God for the sake of the world!

Jesus always calls for our engagement.
Jesus requires a piece of our life!
Sacrifice … not all the time, but some of the time.
Jesus wasn’t born with the cross on his back, but he carried the cross when needed, and when needed, he didn’t run away!

Sometimes the cross is needed.
That critical moment when someone has to speak up … stand in the breach and bear the burden of faith, hope and love.

A prophetic voice:
To trouble the kings and queens of the land.
Those who live in the power and glory of self-made importance – they need to hear a clear reprimand and a reminder of what life really means!
The subtle and not-so-subtle racism that still plagues our land … every form of exclusion and discrimination … anything that closes a door and deprives people of a fair and honest chance to make something of themselves.

Someone has to shine the spotlight of God’s love on these dark corners – these stinky places, as Jesus puts it– whitewashed tombs – all clean and pretty on the outside, but full of corruption within.
Bernard Madoff’s 50 billion dollar scam.
Allen Stanford’s banks and homes.
Millions spent lobbying Congress.
Over-the-top CEO salaries, protected by self-serving boards of directors, manipulated by fast-talking money-managers … too many MBAs looking to make a fast buck rather than make a living.
I suspect Madoff and Stanford are just the tip of the iceberg …
By the way, philosopher and all-around curmudgeon, W. C. Fields said: “You can fool some of the people some of the time - and that's enough to make a decent living.”

We have unleashed the horses of greed and desire …
We have worshipped at the alters of excess and glamour …
Everything bigger and everything better … on the backs of workers and at the expense of our nation’s health, and the impoverishment of millions of children.

Someone has to speak up:

For a living wage for LAX hotel workers.
For healthcare.
For better schools and a more equitable tax system, where everyone really pays their fair share!
For a way of life that’s more restrained and thoughtful, rather than driven by want and acquisition.
For politicians who are transparent and global in outlook, rather than secretive and nationalistic.
For business leaders who care for their employees and tell Wall Street to take a hike.
For religious leaders who build bridges rather than big buildings, who proclaim inclusion and welcome rather than separation and judgment.

There are those moments in life when we have to speak up and join together for the life imagined by Jesus – a world that’s true and right, good and fair.

“But preacher,” you say, “that’s impractical.”

Is Jesus impractical?

If anything is impractical, it’s our present world!

Look at the results; immeasurable suffering … wars and rumors of war … death, sorrow and sadness on every hand – the scorecard is in – our present world and the values we live are not practical at all.

Jesus is practical!
Jesus is the most practical reality in all the world.

His world and his way are the truth and the life.
It’s not that Christ has been tried and found wanting; rather Christ has been tried, and found to be hard!

But why so hard for us?
Why so hard to make the change?
We’re smack dab up against a sorrowful mystery.
The Bible calls it sin – the unyielding spirit of self-interest!
An even deeper mystery:
A world perishing will often choose to perish rather than live … blinded by the gods of this world, as Paul says.

If the church is to be of any real value at all, we have to offer an image of something better!
Look, we’re all in this together, and we’re not going to build Utopia – but can we do better?
After all Jesus prays, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Can we lift up for the world an image of justice and peace?
Can we link arms with folks of faith all around the world?

It’s not a matter of “if we can.”
I think it’s a matter of “we have to!”

And if you leave here today with only one idea firmly fixed in your heart: let it be this:
Jesus is the most practical reality in our world … 

And it’s our pleasure, our joy, our task, our burden, to embody his purpose, and to live his passion!

And sometimes carry the cross.

Now comes grace … amazing grace we all it!
A friend of mine said, “We call it amazing, because it’s such a rarity, but for God, grace is standard operating procedure.”

Can we make grace a little less amazing, and a little more common?
Religion can easily and often become anything but gracious.
In the last forty years, we’ve seen a hard brand of fundamentalism emerge from the backwoods of our nation to main street attraction – a hard-faced evangelicalism … a conservative movement harsh and unyielding in its denunciation and its judgments – tailor-made for TV and the fast-paced world of religious publishing.
We’ve seen the rise of what I call “bedroom religion” with a sexual fixation, anti-choice bias and a swift and certain condemnation of gays and lesbians …
A fundamentalism associated with wealth and power, big numbers and expensive ministries.
“My Bible verse is bigger and better than your Bible verse.”

How different the works of Jesus.
Of big buildings and expensive ministries, Jesus says, “None of them will last.”
But your love for one another – that’s what counts … 
Grace is the power of God to make all things new.

Grace abounding, says Paul.
Grace for the masses, for the lost and the lonely.
A place at the table for everyone.
Especially for those rejected by the usual suspects of power, wealth and religion.
The grace of our LORD Jesus Christ … and to work all the harder for grace – to make grace less amazing and much more common – a day-to-day thing in our life, the way we think and talk, the way we deal with one another – grace, plain old grace, to welcome and to accept, to encourage and to help – grace for the moment, and grace for the long-haul … grace today and more grace tomorrow – standard operating procedure.

The last piece - goodness.
To be good …

Micah put it well: God has shown us what is good: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.

To be faithful to something other than ourselves …
To grow constantly and grow beyond ourselves.
To pray often and pray deeply.
To be content and patient.
To be faithful in hard times and even more faithful in good times.
To search the soul diligently and seek the love of God.
To speak out and to speak up.
To defend the cause of the widow, the orphan and the stranger at the gate.
To be sure that the balance scales are accurate and there are no bribes in the land – that kings and queens govern with kindness, relying less on military prowess and more on economic justice.

Can we be clear about such things?
Of course we can … we have to be clear.

In the name of our LORD Jesus. Amen and Amen!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15, 2009 - "Evolution?"

Genesis 1:1-8, 26-31; Hebrews 11:1-3

Happy Evolution Week!
Did you throw any parties?
Fill some balloons and invite guests over?
Well, not exactly, but this is Evolution Weekend, a movement put together by scientists and clergy in an effort to build good bridges between faith and science, the faith we hold – this is God’s world – the scientific evidence of evolution and an earth of great age.

By the way, Donna claims I’m living proof of evolution … in a backward sort of way.
She often says to me, “Tom, you’re making a monkey out of yourself.”

On a more practical level, I had two wisdom teeth excised when I was in college.
“Two” you say? “What happened to the other two?”

The dentist said I was an evolutionary product – some time in the distant future, as our jaws grow smaller, we won’t have wisdom teeth – and why are they called wisdom teeth anyway? And why do we extract them, if they’re wisdom teeth?
Ha! That may explain a few things.

So what’s up with evolution?
On the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, why are we still wrangling about it?
School boards argue whether or not to include “creation science,” “intelligent design” alongside the “theory of evolution.”

In 1925, the State of Tennessee passed the Butler Act which made it unlawful for public school teachers, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
The law did not forbid an evolutionary approach to plants and animals, but only to human origin.

And by the way, one has to ask the question, why has this been an issue predominantly driven by fundamentalism, and primarily southern fundamentalism?
Hold that question for moment – because location is vital: where something happens is just as important, maybe even more important, than what happens.

After the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union financed a test case, where a Dayton, Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes intentionally violated the Act.
Scopes was charged on May 5, 1925 with teaching evolution from a textbook chapter developed upon the ideas set out in Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species.
The trial pitted two preeminent legal minds: three-time presidential candidate, Congressman and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and trial attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense.
The famous trial was made infamous by the fictionalized accounts given in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, the 1960 Hollywood motion picture and the 1965, 1988 and 1999 television films of the same name.
Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.
It was not until 1967 that Tennessee repealed the Butler Act, and in 1968, the US Supreme Court ruled that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious.

When I was a student at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, my Bible professor, Dr. John Bratt, introduced to us an intriguing term that I’ve used ever since: theistic evolution.

Theistic – meaning of God.
Evolution – the process, observed by scientists from the fossil record and other such studies, by which our world has come to be over a period of billions of years.
Theistic evolution – behind the myriad of life-forms, behind the billions of years, in geography and genomes, in gnats and bats, in you and me, the hand of God.

Genesis 2 says poetically that God took a handful of dirt and fashioned a form, and then blew into it the breath of life, and it became a living being.
That’s poetry with a point: We are from the earth … 
This body of mine: my flesh and bone, my blood and brain – from the earth.
Human DNA varies less than 10% from chimpanzees …

We’re all in this together.
Every creature, great and small.

For centuries, the church taught that you and I were utterly unique on the face of this earth, distinct and separate from all other forms of life.
We just arrived here by divine fiat – once we were not; and then we were - just like that, and that’s how God did it.
Ultimately this notion of distinctiveness grew insidious, with the classification of the races - that the white race was distinct unto itself, superior in all regards, and people of color a species less than human.
You can see where this is all going.
The claim of white racial supremacy was at the heart and soul of the British slave trade – buttressed by the teachings of seminary professors and pastors.

Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary writes:
This is where all the trouble arises. The idea that human life is continuous with other creatures and indeed with the whole planet is a profoundly destabilizing idea for religious and political practices of dominance and control.
This whole struggle, she writes, is more about politics than it is about abstract issues like religious faith and secularism. In the 200 years since Charles Darwin's birth, this has changed very little.
Darwin knew well … how controversial his ideas … would be. In fact, his ideas might be thought to be more than controversial, they could be regarded as treason. People in Darwin's time could go to prison for heresy because it was seditious, undermining the divine origin of the monarchy.

In the world of kings and queens, bishops and priests, Victorian wealth and upper-class dominance, it was comforting to know that such was all firmly fixed by God himself – that God created the heavens and the earth – and God created the kings and queens, and bishops and priests, and wealth and dominance and racial privilege.

Evolution suggested an entirely different kind of world – a world wherein all species, all life, all human beings, were related.
That life was changing – a frightening concept to kings and queens fighting the revolutionary ideas of change coming from the American and French Revolutions.

In a recent biography on Darwin, we learn how deeply he and his family despised the slave trade … and worked tirelessly to end it.
And how sugar cane growers in the West Indies and American cotton planters supported slavery with the claim that slaves were not human beings.
Darwin’s conclusions – that all life forms are connected was a blow at the heart of the slave trade … and a blow to the arrogance of the white races.

To suggest commonality among all life forms casts a different light on the human venture and our relationship to elephants and dolphins, ants and beetles.
Far too often, humankind has done enormous violence to the natural world, as if we could do no wrong, and who cares anyway, because nature is only a brute force to be tamed and manipulated for our comfort, and the animals that inhabit the world are themselves only dumb brutes, without cognition or emotion – they exist only for food and for sport.

Darwin himself was a dedicated shooter – as were all the upper class in Victorian England … the hunt was a festive occasion, but ultimately, Darwin gave up the hunt – upon finding a dying bird left behind, life suddenly struck him full force.
Never a vegetarian, and never suggesting such, Darwin, nonetheless, began to see life as sacred – all life, whatever it is – and all from the hand of God.

Though Darwin has been vilified and denounced by many, he’s not a monster – but a sensitive man with a fine mind, and when he set out on his shipboard adventure on The Beagle, he wasn’t the first to see the marvels of the world, and the possibility of evolution – others were propounding the theory as well, but it was Darwin’s book, The Origin of the Species that clarified it and brought it to the forefront.

From the moment, I heard my Bible professor use the term theistic evolution, I have seen the two forever linked as partners – faith and science – as Francis Bacon put it: the Works of God and the Word of God!

But it’s by faith that we believe.
Not fact, but faith!

The writer to the Hebrews says:
… by faith, we believe … … a conviction of things not seen.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

The material world neither proves nor disproves the existence of God.
A thundering waterfall, or the whir of a hummingbird’s wing, amazing though they be, cannot prove that God made any of it!

Psalm 19 says:
    The heavens are telling the glory of God;
      and the firmament  proclaims his handiwork.
      Day to day pours forth speech,
      and night to night declares knowledge.
      There is no speech, nor are there words;
      their voice is not heard.

The natural world is silent witness to the glory of God.
It’s faith that hears, it’s faith that sees.

That’s the nature of faith – faith wells up from within – it’s not a self-generated process, nor a process produced by proof, but a gift from God.
Faith arises from the work of the Holy Spirit.
Faith is a gift from God.

And why is it a gift?

So that people of faith cannot boast – faith is not our doing, but a gift from God, to be lived and shared in this world of ours.

Paul writes [Ephesians 2]:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Nor should a person of faith ever scold someone who has a different take on things … who sees and lives by some other creed … or, for that matter, even a Richard Dawkins, a self-avowed atheist … who steadfastly declares that the universe is a self-generating system without purpose or moral value – that God is a fiction, and a rather useless one at that, if not pernicious, what with all the evil and suffering perpetrated in God’s name.

Until such time as God would move upon his heart, Richard Dawkins will continue to see the world as he sees it … and that’s a gift to the world of faith.
God sees to it that faith never fully triumphs in this world, because a triumphant faith would kill faith … faith needs doubt, faith needs to be challenged … faith needs to be prodded and poked … questioned and queried!
Thank God for Richard Dawkins and others who trumpet the horn of atheism.
They are not the enemy.
Our own pride and fear are the enemies.
The pride of our faith, and the fear that we may not have all the answers.
Like Pogo said many years ago, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

To be a person of faith – it’s a gift from God, and like any gift, to be shared humbly and gratefully.

Our task is small.
To be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
These are modest metaphors – a small oil lamp on the shore of Galiee’s sea can be seen in the night for miles – it doesn’t take much light at all.
And for salt, only a little … too much, and the soup is spoiled – just right, a hidden presence, and the soup is good for body and soul.

Our task is small:
Not world domination.
No mighty army going out to conquer the heathen world.
But a gentle presence.
A reforming presence that calls into question human pretension and religious foolishness!

To live as best we can by our faith:
To believe and to live:
The world is fashioned by the hand of God.
Life is a divine gift.
Life has purpose and destiny.
Good and evil have an ultimate reference point in the heart of God.
Love is better than hatred.
Welcome is better than rejection.
Forgiveness is better than grudge-holding.

Thank God for Darwin and millions of thinkers and scientists who love this world and seek to understand it.
Thank God for thoughtful women and men who continue to challenge Christians and put us to the test.
Thank God for Christians who are bridge builders –
And thank God for my professor, Dr. John Bratt, who gave me the term, theistic evolution.

And thank God for God – He’s got the world in his hands!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 8, 2009 - "Purposeful"

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

The pastor announced: "There will be a brief meeting of the Board immediately after the service by the west door.
After the close of the service, the group gathered by the west door for the announced meeting. But there was a stranger standing with them.
A visitor who had never attended their church before.
"My friend," asked the pastor, did you understand that this is a meeting of the Board?" "Yes," said the visitor, "and after that sermon of yours, I'm about as bored as you can get!"

Well, with a little effort, dear friends, I hope we won’t be bored this morning.

What’s our task in life?

We’re apparently the only life-form on the face of the earth to ask that question.
Because we have choices … an endless array of options … variations on a theme.

Dogs and cats don’t have such options.
Neither do cows and Mallard Ducks … but for us, it’s more complicated.

In some ways, we never finish the process … life is always unfolding - a new challenge, a new chapter, a new twist in the road; a turn in the story.

This morning, here at Covenant on the Corner, gathered for worship, followers of Jesus, what’s our task in life?

The most basic level of our task is simply getting up in the morning up - to face the day that comes our way – to make the best of it, to love and be loved, to help someone along the way; to remember God and be faithful to one another.

Let’s see if we can put a little more meat on the bone … What is our task?”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question One, asks, “What is the chief end of humankind?” and offers an answer that still makes a sense to me: The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever!

I like the way it’s phrased: “chief end” – not the only end, but the chief end, the central purpose, the heart of the matter, the deciding factor that flavors everything else we might ever undertake – to glorify God!

But what does that mean?

For me, it means to pay attention to God, significant and sustained attention!
I pay attention to Donna, sometimes!
I pay attention to my children, and to my friends.
The payment of attention – we recognize and celebrate the value and the importance of people in our lives.
To pay attention to God:
To acknowledge the importance of God.
Our reliance upon God.
The goodness and mercy of God.
Moment-by-moment, guided and guarded by God.
We need God to finish the deal – God, and God alone, can compliment and complete the puzzle of our life.

The Psalmist writes:

 How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
      All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
      They feast on the abundance of your house,
      and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
      For with you is the fountain of life;
      in your light we see light
[Psalm 36:7-9].

To live a God-attentive life … with God, for God, by God!
As we would live attentively with anyone we love … 

A God-attentive life …

And God sees to it that we have help along the way:
We have the Bible …
We have Moses and the Prophets …
We have the Apostolic witness of the early church …
We have the Holy Spirit …
We have great women and men to inspire us …
We have prayer and fellowship …
We have the gathered wisdom of the ages …
We have one another …
And we have Jesus!

We don’t have to do any of this alone!
We are not independent operators …
We are not a protoplasmic accident cast helplessly upon the lonely shore of some universe.
We are not alone …
We are children of God … children of our heavenly Father.
Brothers and sisters to one another through our elder brother, Jesus of Nazareth!

Dear friends in Christ, our first task in life is pretty basic:
To glorify God.
Pay significant and sustained attention to God, and in the light of God’s pure love, discover who we are, because in God’s light, we see the light.

We need God to hold it all together!
Now what do I mean by that?

There are two essentials forms of love:
Love of God and love of neighbor.
Twin vectors … vertical and horizontal.
Put them together; they form a cross … with Jesus at the center!

Jesus holds it all together.
Because it threatens to fly apart all the time for me …
And maybe for you, too.
How easily my love is scattered, my focus on God blurred by a thousand other interests and distractions.
My concern for the neighbor, so easily diluted, so easily diverted!

I’m not strong enough to hold it all together … I need Jesus at the center … at the intersection of love … to hold it all together for me.

And it’s not easy, even for Jesus.
He dies on that cross, ten thousand times a day to hold it all together … but his dying does something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves … he gives to the world a purity and a passion, a purpose and a power, beyond our capacities – from beyond this world … we need Jesus at the center of the cross.

Our first task in life: to glorify God … to give sustained attention to God.
And therein we discover who we are in the light of God’s love … 

Our soul is shaped.
A way of life emerges …

The second piece of all of this: craft our life!
Consistent with the love of God!

To laugh easily and laugh deeply …
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children.
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends.
To appreciate beauty and always have time to say Thank you!
To watch the sun rise and take the time to listen to others.
To see the best in them, and help them discover their best.
To leave behind an improved social condition.
To spend a little less, save a little more, and give a lot more away!
To pay attention to God, and to love our neighbor.
[the above thoughts are inspired by Harry Emerson Fosdick and his definition of success].

Micah the Prophet [6:8] says it well:
  He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
      and what does the LORD require of you
      but to do justice, and to love kindness,
      and to walk humbly with your God?

The third piece of this is a little darker … 
To restrain the relentless impulse of self-interest.

This is the heart of Paul’s message to the Corinthian Church, a church filled with self-interest, all dressed up in religious garb … they talked the talk, but they didn’t walk the walk … they failed to do justice, they didn’t love kindness, and they couldn’t walk humbly with God!

Time and again, Paul reminds them: think often and think profoundly about your neighbor.
You have rights, says Paul, so do I.

But I’ve chosen to set aside my rights for something greater, something bigger – You!

We live in a time when everyone is scrambling for their rights … and for many, this is a matter of justice: the child in a crumbling school, the man who can’t find work, renters evicted because the landlord is in foreclosure, LAX hotel workers who are paid less than $10.00 an hour for back-breaking work – they are lots of folks who have few if any rights, and they have a right to speak up, and we’re under obligation to help!

And that’s the point of Paul’s message … for the sake of others, we restrain our own inner impulse for self-interest, for the sake of the something bigger and better.

Paul refrains from exercising his rights …
Paul refuses to throw his weight around …
Paul doesn’t try to get the upper hand …

He wants the same for the Corinthians who are very much into one-upsmanship … claiming rights over one another … trying to outdo one another in some sort of bizarre competition: I’m more spiritual than you are. I’m a graduate school Christian; you’re a kindergarten Christian.

The relentless impulse of self-centeredness, self-importance.
As some pundit put it years ago: there’s no smaller package in the all the world than a man all wrapped up in himself.
And wrapped up in ourselves is the relentless impulse of self-interest!

I know of nothing in this world that handles this impulse better then the love of God.
This relentless impulse in us – call it sin – requires grace  … divine intervention, if you will …
Jesus says well:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. [John 14:27].

Dear friends, the world can only give so much!
And what we need is more than the world can give.
The grace we need is the grace of God …
What God gives cannot be replicated in this world … there is no generic grace that we can manufacture to replace the purity and the originality of God’s grace.
Grace alone restrains the relentless impulse of self-interest.

We need divine intervention … 

We need God … we need Jesus … we need what he does on that cross every day of our life:
To restrain the relentless impulse of self-interest.
To craft a life that leaves this a better world.
To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

February 1, 2009 - "Thoughtful"

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Prior to giving this message, a fair amount of time was given to an exegetical overview of this passage. While few of us deal with "meat offered to idols," we all deal with issues of sensitivity and thoughtfulness about others. At the heart of this passage: while we may have knowledge, it's never about what we know but how much we love. Hence, Paul's reminder that those "who think they know" have not yet arrived at real knowledge.


Her name is Mary … for as long as Donna and I have known her, she’s sent us Christmas cards, Thanksgiving cards, Easter cards, birthday and anniversary cards. She never forgets; she always remembers … she’s thoughtful, mindful … every time Donna and I receive a card from her, we’re reminded of something good, something important … Love builds up!

Her name is Catrina … she had, and still has, her problems – personal and family; she has a lot on her plate, but time-and-again, she sends an email or a card – just last week, remembering my 39th ordination anniversary … her card touched me deeply … Love builds up!

His name is David … he and I went to Haiti in 1992 … it was my first, and to this day, my last mission trip, but not for David …

In a recent email to David, I wrote:

I remember wading across the river ... wondering about the water ...
One of the guys with us volunteered to carry us across ... but I couldn't do that.
What a trip that was ... you've continued, but I haven't.
~ Tom

David wrote back:

Well, can't say it was my choice - God called me to mission and you called me to bible study, two things that have certainly been blessings in my life.  Haiti was the eye-opener for a middle-class city kid.  Now, about 24 trips later, it's still hard to put into words.

 Still hard to put into words …

David said to me dozens of times: if anyone had told me I’d be doing what I’m doing, I would have told them they’re nuts!

But love took hold of David’s life, and love always builds up … it’s a strange thing, as David says, still hard to put into words.

Frederick Buechner writes:

I entered Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 1954. If anyone had told me as little as a year or so earlier that I was going to do such a thing, I would have been no less surprised than if I had been told I was going to enter the Indianapolis 500. The preceding year I had become in some sense a Christian though the chances are I would have hesitated to put it like that, and I find something in that way of expressing it which even now makes me feel uncomfortable. “To become a Christian” sounds like an achievement, like becoming a millionaire. I thought of it rather and think of it still more as a lucky break, a step in the right direction. Though I was brought up in a family where church played virtually no role at all, through a series of events from childhood on I was moved, for the most part without any inkling of it, closer and closer to a feeling for the Mystery out of which the church arose in the first place until, finally, the Mystery itself came to have a face for me, and the face it came to have for me was the face of Christ. It was a slow, obscure process … and the result of it was that I ended up being so moved by what I felt that I found it inadequate simply to keep it inside myself like a secret but had to do something about it [Feb. 1 – reading, Listening to Your Life].

Love builds up.

I remember Aunt Lala … her name was Sylvia, but as a toddler, I could never say it – somehow or other, Sylvia came out as Lala, and for the rest of her life, I called her Lala, and so did everyone else.
She was as poor as a church mouse … her husband a dreamer … she worked hard all of her life, and for years, they lived with her parents, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, my hometown.
Aunt Lala was an amazing person … every time I visited her, she made me feel like I was on the top of the world. Looking back now, I wonder if she knew about my sorrows – how her sister, my mother, was burdened with some bitter darkness … I don’t know what she knew, but she knew how to make a child feel like a million bucks.

Love builds up.

Love is powerful …
Love empowers us to take some chances and step out of the little box in which we all tend to live so much of our life.
Love pulls up the shades so we can look out on the world around us … and the light comes flooding into all the little corners of our life … and the light is nothing less than Christ, the light of the world.
Compassion, mercy, hope and peace.
Love opens a door, and we step out of ourselves.
Love takes us to Haiti,
To Nicaragua,
To the streets in front of the LAX Hilton.

Love takes us places reason would avoid.

If reason had held sway, Jesus would have beaten a hasty retreat back to Galilee, gotten married and settled down.
But reason, as good as it is, isn’t good enough for some things … reason only goes so far, and sometimes there’s plenty of reason to back off, to retreat, to call it a day and wash our hands of it.
Pilate was a reasonable man – so he washed his hands of it – that was a reasonable thing to do …
But love goes on when reason fails.
Love takes the next step.

Jesus didn’t beat a hasty retreat …
Love took Jesus by the hand,
And hand-in-hand, they went to the City on the Hill,
They overturned the tables,
And challenged the rulers.
When questioned by Pilate,
Jesus stands in silence, the power of silence: Pilate, you have no authority over me – you would not, and could not, understand who I am, for you understand only the power of the state, the power of wealth and command, the weakest forms of power, a power that isn’t power at all.

I suspect Pilate was tempted for a few moments,
But in the end, Pilate could only be Pilate.
And for Pilate, and for all the Pilates of the world,
And that includes you and me, too,
Jesus died …
Because that’s what love does …
Love takes up a cross …
Love gives.
And that’s why love builds up.

Sure, it’s costly.

Every one of us in this room has paid the price of love.

We forgive someone, only to have it hurled back into our face a thousand times over.
We signed on for a great project, only to have it ripped from our hands by some mean-spirited person.
We vowed to be kindlier and gentler, only to have ridicule heaped upon us.
We decided to go to church, and our family laughed at us.
We took a chance and took a stand for fair play, and we were demoted or even fired.
We know what needs to be done, but the system says “do it this way,” so we go home at night crushed, knowing that we’ve betrayed not only those we love, but we’ve betrayed ourselves, and that’s the worst betrayal of all.

It was no big deal for Judas to betray Jesus.
You see, Judas betrayed himself.
The greatest betrayal of all.

If only Judas has given God a chance to heal him.

But Judas chose the price of self-interest rather than the selfless price of love, and in the end, the betrayal was more than he could bear, a price more than he could pay.

How many of us go to bed every night having betrayed ourselves one more time … having sold our soul to the system … and the soul grows smaller and smaller … sort of like a wine reduction – but it’s not good wine, but a bitter wine, and the smaller the soul grows, the more bitter it becomes, until it’s just lost … and all the goodies of the world can’t make up for it …

Folks get to the top of the heap,
And then see that’s it just a heap of sorrow and sadness.

The economic crisis of the world – we have worshipped at the alter of wealth and have reaped the whirlwind … 

When self is at the center, even if charity be practiced, we buy off the conscience at great price – Jesus says it well, What good does it do for someone to gain the world and lose the soul.
When self dominates, the soul shrinks … but love builds up.

Love is powerful.

Love sustained Nelson Mandela in prison for 27 years … love kept the dream alive, a dream for his beloved South Africa – to one day be free of Apartheid.

Love convinced Dietrich Bonhoeffer to sacrifice his own principles and join the plot to kill Hitler. Eventually discovered when the plot failed, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned, and just days before the Allies liberated the prison camp, he was hanged. But love sustained him to the end. 

Love took Martin Luther King, Jr. by the hand and walked him into the storm of Civil Rights – a preacher by profession and love, King had no inclination to take up the cross of justice, but love left him no options.

Love led Mother Teresa through the streets of Calcutta, caring for the least of these, in spite of her own inner doubts and contradictions, and plenty of spiritual darkness, she gave and gave and gave some more.

And on the most basic level of all – the day-to-day stuff of our lives … look, most of us will never have a paragraph in history, our stories known only to our family and friends, and even then, time will wash it away … but our story, if we have one at all, is known and loved by God …
The simple stories we live out every day of our life.
The faith we keep.
The grace we give.
The mercy we practice.
The kindness we live.

To refuse the meanness of our world.
The lust for wealth and the insanity of excess.
To know that the clothing on our bodies is nothing compared to how our soul is dressed.
To keep our eyes on God and thoughtful for one another.

Love builds up.

For some 35 years, Presbyterians been engaged in a fierce debate over the place of homosexuals in our church – I’ve been a pastor for 39 years, so most of my career has been in and around the conflict.
For a long time, I avoided the conflict. I had my feelings, my thoughts, but I kept them to myself.
But the strident voices of those who would close the door to ordination for homosexuals disturbed me … How do they know and why are they so convinced?

They quote the Bible with such conviction, but then, so did those who opposed the ordination of women … those who favored slavery had all kinds of Bible verses to offer, and those who claimed that inter-racial marriage was contrary to the laws of God – they all used the bible and quoted it as if they knew the very mind of God … but time and love proved them all wrong.

Paul’s point for the Corinthians captures it well: Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.

It’s not about knowing, it’s all about loving.
Knowledge puffs, love builds.
We have learned, sadly so, that all the MBAs of the world have brought us to the brink of ruin … and we have learned as well, that all of our theology, all of our books, can take us only so far … when knowledge alone takes us down the wrong path, or takes us as far as it can, then we need something more … something better …

Knowledge puffs, but love builds.
It’s not that love shuns knowledge; it’s just that love goes where knowledge can’t go.
Love relies on and uses knowledge, but only love can conquer the mountains of pride heaped up by those who rely on knowledge alone!
The MBAs of the world, and so many of our hard-charging theologians have forgotten the essentials of life – it’s love that builds, and nothing else, and what love builds, endures … things comes and things go, but love remains - the only monument you and I can build, that will stand the test of time and last throughout eternity – the love we have for one another.

Over a period of years, a lot of study and reflection and prayer, I made my decision: love opens door; love doesn’t close doors.
I became and remain an advocate for the ordination and full-inclusion of gays and lesbians in our church. The time for saying No must come to an end; the time for Yes is here.

Love welcomes and embraces.
Love builds bridges and tears down walls.
Love trusts and makes for peace.
Love transcends personal opinion and gets us out of the little boxes we all build.
Love is humility before the wonder and the mystery of another human being.
Love never pretends to walk in anyone else’s shoes, but only encourages them to keep on walking as best they can.
Love knows very well the limits of knowledge – at best, we only know partially – we see in a mirror dimly … knowledge isn’t good enough for such things; but love is more than good enough.

Paul says it well a few chapters later:

Turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 13 – let’s read that chapter together …

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Love builds up!

Amen and Amen!