Sunday, September 26, 2010

September 26, 2010 "Thy Kingdom Come"

Luke 16:19-31

Our story this morning is basic and clear …
Three central characters:
A man totally self-absorbed.
A broken human being at the gate.
And Father Abraham!

The thrust of the story is simple enough.
The rich man has it all, and then he dies.
His soul in Hades.
The beggarman dies, too.
And angels carry him off to the side of Abraham.

"Lazarus Begging Crumbs from the Rich Man's Table"
Heinrich Aldegrever - German, 1552 - Pen and brown ink,
brown wash, traces of black chalk, 3 1/16 x 4 1/4 in.
At the heart of the story, a simple detail.
A detail about names.
It’s the beggarman who has a name.
The rich man remains nameless.
How odd!

In our world, it’s the rich who have names.
Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet and Paris Hilton – we know them all … their names and stories are in the news and tabloids every day … we follow their adventures and misadventures with interest.

The rich and the famous have names in the kingdoms of the world.
But the kingdom of God trades differently.
It’s the name of the raggedy man that we know.
And his name is Lazarus.

The story ends with a question:
What does it take to awaken a human being?
Would someone coming back from the dead be enough?

The story ends on a dismal note.
Abraham says to the rich man:
Your family already has everything it needs to make better choices.
Your family has Moses and the Prophets.
And if they turn a deaf ear to Moses and the Prophets, what makes you think they’ll listen to someone come back from the dead?

But did you catch the golden thread?

The resources for life are at hand.
We have Moses and the Prophets.

Let’s take a look at Moses.

We all know the story.
The Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt.
Pharaoh issues an edict: “When a male child is born, kill him.”
When Moses is born, his mother puts him in a papyrus basket waterproofed with pitch and places the basket among the reeds of the Nile River, hoping he’ll be safe.
The basket is seens by Pharaoh’s daughter who has come to the river to bath.
She claims the child, and unknowingly hires the child’s mother to nurse and raise the boy, and when he’s of age, to bring him to the palace, and there the princess adopts him as her own son, and bestows upon him the name Moses, because she drew him out of the water!

Moses, a man of two cultures.
Knowing the comfort of the palace and the sorrow of his people.

A great spirit in Moses.
A spirit aroused by the suffering of others.
He comes to the defense of a kinsman being beaten by an Egyptian overlord.
He kills the Egyptian in a fit of anger, and flees for his life to the land of Midian.
In Midian, he comes to the defense of seven sisters who are drawing water, and are attacked by other shepherds.
You can read all about this in Exodus, Chapter 2 … and maybe you can do that today!

In the land of Midian, Moses settles down.
He gains a wife and a child.
A life and a career.
End of the story?

One day, while tending his flocks and minding his own business, Moses sees an odd phenomenon – a burning bush, that burns without consumption …
Moses steps aside to look more closely at the bush enflamed.
And we all know what killed the cat, right?
Curiosity brings Moses into the presence of God.
Before he knows what’s up, God says, Take off your shoes; you’re on holy ground.

And with that, a commission.
To return to the Land of Egypt.
To challenge Pharaoh:
Let my people go.
Not me, says Moses.
Yes, you, says God.

Ten plagues later, Pharaoh relents and lets the people go.
And off they go to the Promised Land.
But Pharaoh has second thoughts, and sends his army in hot pursuit, to the shores of the sea …
Think now if you want, Charleton Heston.
Arms raised, mighty voice commanding the sea.
The waters part.
The people cross safely to the other side, on dry land.
Pharaoh’s chariots furiously following.
But the waters that parted to make way for the people suddenly close in and sweep Pharaoh’s army away.

Within months, the people come to the Promised Land.
It’s theirs for the taking.
But the people balk – fear wins the day.
So it’s back to the wilderness!
Forty years of wandering.
An entire generation.
Until a new generation is born.
Tough enough to take the land.

And through it all, Moses,
Weary and wise.
Impatient and long-suffering.
Full of vision and sometimes ready to give up.

They have Moses, said Abraham.
And we do, too.

We learn from Moses that it’s okay to be human.
It’s the only choice we have.
And our humanity is good enough for God.
We learn from Moses the power of patience.
And the power of prayer.

We learn from Moses that a godly vision is the best vision of all …

We learn from Moses the Ten Commandments – You shall have no other gods before me … for I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
When Jesus was asked to summarize the law, Jesus draws from the Five Books of Moses:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind.
And a second is just like the first, says Jesus:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

From Moses, we learn about the limits of life:
At the end of his life, Moses stands on a mountain just outside the Promised Land; he can only see it from afar.
Even a man as great as Moses can go only so far, and then the torch of leadership is passed to Joshua.
It’s Joshua who crosses the Jordan into the Promised Land.

They have Moses, says Abraham.
And we do, too.

 And they have the Prophets, says Abraham.
And we do, too.

Elijah and Elisha, who challenge kings and queens.
Isaiah and Jeremiah, with their vision of a just and compassionate society.
Hosea, Joel and Amos, and their unrelenting exposé of dysfunctional religion and social breakdown.
Their honest assessment of crooked judges and corrupt priests and greedy merchants.
Their ceaseless defense of widows and orphans and aliens.
Their tears … their passion … their love of God!
There universality and their inclusivity, anticipating John 3:16, For God so loved the world …

Kathleen Norris writes of her 18 months in a monastery … how the monks read Scripture, morning and night …

Norris writes:
“The most remarkable experience of all was plunging into the prophet Jeremiah at morning prayer in late September one year, and staying with him through mid-November. We began with chapter 1, and read straight through, ending at chapter 22:17. Listening to Jeremiah is one [heck] of a way to get your blood going in the morning; it puts caffeine to shame [The Cloister Walk. P.31].

 “A prophet’s task,” writes Norris, “is to reveal the fault lines hidden beneath the comfortable surface of the worlds we invent for ourselves, the national myths as well the little lies and delusions of control and security that get us through the day” [p.34].

They have Moses and the Prophets, says Abraham.
We do, too … and yes, we have more than that.
We have Christ at the center!

But Christ himself calls us to Moses and the Prophets.
When Jesus preaches to the hometown crowd, Jesus quotes from Isaiah – Jesus defines his work by Isaiah’s words.
We have to know Moses and the Prophets in order to know Jesus …

To know Jesus is our joy, our task, and our calling.
But to know Jesus as Jesus knows himself.
Guided by Moses and the Prophets!
Their spiritual DNA runs deep in the soul of Jesus.
If we want to follow Jesus, we need some gene therapy on the spiritual side of things … an infusion of the spiritual DNA of Moses and the Prophets.
Moses and Elijah
On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah stand with Christ in the bright shining cloud. Moses and Elijah are his companions and his encouragement.

Dear friends in Christ,
We have what’s needed to correct our course and guide our lives.
We have what’s needed to shape the mission and purpose of Covenant on the Corner.
We have what’s needed to change lives and to change the world.

We have Christ.

When the bright shining clouds cleared on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah had stepped back.
Christ remains.
Christ eternal.
Christ at the center.
But Christ only as Christ would have it.
Christ himself with the DNA of Moses and the Prophets.

On the other side of the resurrection, one of the most compelling stories … Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and there he meets two disciples who were on their way home, ready to give up and call it quits.
Jesus walks with them, and talks with them along life’s weary way.
They don’t understand anything.
Jesus says to them:
Oh, how foolish you are,
And how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interprets to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Christ himself calls attention to Moses and the Prophets.

Putting it personally.
We all want to finish our lives well.
To look back with thanksgiving and satisfaction.
That we did well for the best things of life.
We can do no better than follow Abraham’s advice: learn from Moses and the Prophets … and then Christ will shine in our hearts and empower our lives.

We do well to heed the words of Father Abraham: You have Moses and the Prophets.
Moses and the Prophets, who teach us about the kingdom of God, the kingdom Christ proclaimed, the kingdom for which Christ gave his life, the kingdom that is without end, because Christ rose from the dead.

So when we pray, we pray with heart and mind, soul and strength … we say what we mean, and we mean what say: Thy kingdom come!

Amen and Amen!

Monday, September 13, 2010

September 12, 2010, "As It Is in Heaven"

Luke 15:1-10

Good Morning Covenant Presbyterian Church … Welcome Back … summer is done, and we’re home from our travels … the kids are back in school, and if we have a garden, we’ve got tomatoes … so many tomatoes, we put them in a bushel basket, bring them to a neighbor’s front porch, ring the doorbell, and run!

Good Morning Covenant Presbyterian Church … Welcome Back … welcome to a new season of ministry … welcome to all the things that make for a church – Sunday School and Session meetings … church budgets and Stewardship Campaigns … fellowship dinners and mission trips … projects and propositions and possibilities.

Good Morning Covenant Presbyterian Church … Welcome Back …

Things that sustain us in our walk with Christ - prayer and study and fellowship and worship …

The Christian life needs tending …
Like a garden needs weeding …
Like a lawn needs mowing …
The Christian life needs tending …
We help each other with that …
We help each other stay focused …
Focused on our task, the high calling of Christ: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Thy will …
On earth …
As it is … in heaven.

We all live with standards of excellence.

When we cook a dinner, we know what it should look like and what it should taste like …
We use a ruler to measure a piece of drapery, so that it fits the window.
The carpenter uses a level when building the shelf.
The engineer uses sophisticated software to run the computations again and again, to be sure it’s right.
The physician has her textbooks and the latest medical journals.
And Christians have heaven … thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us heaven.
The level for the shelf.
The tape measure for the drapery.
The textbook for the surgery.

An image of life …
Life intended by God …
Life as it should be …

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …

Life guided by high purpose …
Life guided by faith, hope, and love …
Life guided by grace, mercy and peace.

As it is in heaven.

And how is it in heaven?
And how shall it be on earth?

In heaven, there are no lost causes.
In heaven, God never gives up.

A sheep is lost?
God sets out to find it.

A coin misplaced?
God lights a lamp and sweeps the floor.

The intensity of God’s love.

There is never a lost cause.
The sheep is found and returned to the flock.
The coin recovered and all is well.

As it is in heaven …

Angels rejoice.
Heaven throws a party.
Kick up your heels and pop a cork.
Throw a steak on the grill, and invite the neighbors.

Donna and I attended a groundbreaking yesterday for a new Habitat for Humanity project … three new homes in Lynwood …
Three families soon to have a place of their own … safe and comfortable.
Lynwood’s mayor was there … a city councilman … the families approved for the project …
And a bunch of Presbyterians …
We all donned hardhats and grabbed a shovel … with cameras rolling, folks clapping, the first dirt was turned on this new project.

As it is in heaven.

God doesn’t sit around wringing God’s hands and complaining about lost sheep and misplaced coins … the sheep isn’t scolded … nor the coin condemned.

God just goes to work.
Because there’s always a way.
It may take awhile.
It may take days and months and years … and setbacks and disappointments … to rebuild New Orleans … to rebuild lives shattered by an exploding gas line in San Bruno … none of this is easy; all of it hard.
It takes a heap of livin’ to make a life.
Love and marriage … gay or straight …
Children and family …
Illness and mortgages …
It takes awhile, and the work can be hard.

The shepherd must have said, I know where the sheep is; I know where to look … but the lost sheep wasn’t there … and on to the next place, and the sheep wasn’t there either … but the shepherd doesn’t give up … the shepherd keeps on looking … until the lost sheep is found.

Heaven possess confidence …
Lost sheep are found …
Lost coins recovered …

Homes are built.
Communities transformed.
Lives changed.

As it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us heaven so that we can live well …
On earth as if it were heaven.

To remember:
There are no lost causes.

To remember:
There is always a way.

To remember:
Moaning and groaning never solve the puzzle.
Just stay with it …
No matter how many disappointments.
Keep on looking.
Keep on praying.
Keep on loving.

Confident in our labors …
Confident in God’s love at work in all things …
Confident that love prevails over hatred …

Confident that for every Terry Jones who wants to burn the Quran and fuel the fires of hatred, there are millions who choose the better angel … who build bridges rather than dig chasms … who extend the olive branch rather than the sword …

Confident that folks like Terry Jones haven’t a clue …
And if we want clues about life …
We have a cloud of witnesses surrounding us.

Folks at Habitat for Humanity know the truth …
People bagging groceries at LAX Food Pantry know the truth …
Folks at a downtown soup kitchen ladling out beans and rice know the truth.
People who go to Nicaragua and build bridges of understanding know the truth …
Folks who come faithfully to worship … who sing and teach … who write the checks and give of themselves a thousand times over – these are the folks who know the truth.

A man like Terry Jones wants us to remember backwards … always looking backwards … to the moment the Towers fell … remembering only the horror and the pain … stoking the fires of anger and vengeance …

But it’s a poor memory that only works backward.
There is a memory that claims the future.
A memory that leans forward.

On ABC this weekend … a remarkable story about some of the 9/11 children who lost a father … the children were but infants at the time, so all they have now is their father’s eyes, or his smile … and the mementoes of a man they never knew.
The children grieve as only children do.
Purity in their tears.
Innocence in their hearts.
A holy innocence.
An innocence that we’ve got to protect!

Men like Terry Jones tread upon these children with dirty shoes …
The American landscape right now is full of people with dirty shoes … preachers and politicians and pundits who want us to remember backwards … to remember the pain and cuddle the spirit of vengeance.

Preachers who bemoan the day, and claim that America is going down the tubes.
Pundits who want to “restore America’s honor” they say.
Politicians who want us to look backward … “to a better day,” they say.
But better days are ahead of us, dear friends.
Better days, different days, to be sure.
Nothing stays the same.
The world changes.
We can’t hold on to yesterday.
So why even try?

A memory that works backward is a poor memory indeed.

But in places like this, our memory works forward.
We have something coming toward us that leads us onward.
The kingdom of heaven.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I can see a new day … a new day soon to be.

Welcome back, dear friends, welcome back.
We start anew.
We start again.
We strain ahead to the high calling of Christ.
Our eyes are on the prize.
As it is in heaven.

Dear friends in Christ:
There are no lost causes.
God never gives up.
God goes to work.
God shoulders the cross.
Because the work ain’t easy.
And we shoulder the cross, too.
Because there is no Christ without a cross.
There is no faith without a lot of hard work.

But this we know.
This we believe.
Sheep are found.
Lost coins reclaimed.

Thy will be done on earth … as it is in heaven.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

September 5, 2010, "Becoming You"

Luke 14:25-33

Jesus said to the disciples:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Well, that’s right to the point, isn’t it?

What did Jesus mean?
Doesn’t the Bible tell us to honor our father and our mother?

Indeed, it does!
So what is Jesus getting at?

Jesus is preparing his disciples for the work of the kingdom.
Jesus knew that the times were perilous.
Rome was in charge, and the religious leaders of Jerusalem had god all figured out.
It was a dangerous time.
And Jesus well knew that in such times, hard decisions were required.

Like an expedition leader crossing over a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring relief supplies to a remote village.
The leader says to everyone helping, “If you want to go any further, you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on out, the path is steep and dangerous, and it’s too hard to carry all your stuff, so just leave it here, beside the trail. And we’re not likely to pass this way again, so you may not ever see it again. And if you have any postcards to send home, do it now at the next village, because some of us may not make it back home” [from Tom Wright’s commentary on Luke].

Let me offer a few ideas on this passage from Karl Barth, but, first, let me tell you a little bit about Barth himself.

Born in 1886 in a Swiss parsonage, Barth grew up to become one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century.

Barth was teaching theology in Bonn, Germany, 1932, when Hitler and his Brown Shirts marched into power.

Barth was an early critic of German nationalism sweeping across the nation … the juggernaut of propaganda weaving together god and country, religion an race … Germany first, Germany best of all, Germany uber alles … and God is on our side.

Millions of Christians signed on with Hitler.
They thought that Hitler’s morality was just the ticket to restore a failing nation.
Hitler opposed abortion.
Hitler opposed pornography.
Hitler despised gays.
And he didn’t like aliens.
A message that appealed to millions of Germans.

But it was a confused message.
God and country and faith and flag and morality, all wrapped up into a package that led Germany nation down a darkening way …
All that glitters isn’t gold.
Behind this strange message of god and country, a deeper, darker message of world-conquest and the systematic seizure of Jewish assets and the eventual elimination of the Jewish race.
Hitler’s “morality” was a screen for a darker purpose.
And it worked.

Barth called it for what it all was – false gods, holding a cup of wrath in their hands … a cup filled with hatred … hatred for gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, communists and all non-Aryans … a cup poured out upon Germany and the entire world.
Barth saw it coming!
And made his decision.

All university professors were ordered to begin their lectures with Heil Hitler … Barth refused.
All university professors were required to sign a loyalty oath of absolute allegiance to the Fuhrer … Barth refused.

As a result, Barth was removed from his teaching position and ordered to have no further public appearances.
Thankfully, Barth was able to return home to Switzerland and in Basle, resume teaching and writing.
Others had no such recourse.
Some of Barth’s friends paid with their lives for their allegiance to Jesus Christ … 

When Barth speaks about decision-making, we can pay attention.

Barth says of this passage:
The biblical word for hate is not “emotional aversion.”
It’s not hostility, contempt or repugnance.
It does not apply personally to a mother or a father, but to the ties they embody and represent.
The disciple must be free of all such ties … because the way ahead may be very difficult.
And profound decisions may be necessary.

Not that a disciple would ever neglect the biological or social obligations of family … not at all, but a readiness to set the heart upon God [Church Dogmatics, 3.4.262].

Barth says this decision might even be reached agreeably by the whole family …

I can only think of Barth and his family - the heart-wrenching discussions they had in threatening times of Nazi Germany … and many families like them, in desperate times, as they thought about Christ, and what it means to follow him.

Jesus tells us the truth about discipleship.
We wouldn’t want it any other way, would we?
And we shouldn’t tone it down.
Nor sugarcoat it.
Jesus wants us to be clear.

He’s not recruiting us for a committee …
We’ve all been asked to serve on a committee a time or two.
We know the drill.
We ask about the responsibilities, and we’re told: “Oh, it won’t be much at all … a monthly meeting … maybe some paperwork now and then … but don’t worry about it.”
So we sign on.
And then, “Surprise!”
The monthly meeting turns into three or four.
The paperwork turns into a mountain of correspondence.

When it comes to Jesus,
We’re not buying a pig in a poke.
Jesus is upfront and honest.
There may be times when push comes to shove …
When the chips are down …
No more wiggle room …
You have to decide …
You have to choose …

Jesus tells us the truth:
It may be a costly business, following me.
Sacrifice may be required.
So pay attention.
Think about it.
Don’t start out on this course until you’re ready to go the distance.
Count the cost of the tower you want to build before you lay the first stone.
The price of the fight you want to fight.

As Barth wrote about this passage, I can only imagine him thinking back to the fateful days of the Thirties … the decisions he made … the decisions others made, too … 
Decisions that separated loved ones and families.
Decisions of faith that ended in death for many.

Few of us will ever have to make such momentous decisions.

A friend of mine, an sporting-goods executive, was ordered by his boss to fire 300 employees of a company recently taken over. My friend refused … and resigned his job because of it. He talked with me about it – he was married, but no children. But a home, a career …
Sometimes the road with Christ gets difficult.

Most of our decisions for Christ are on a smaller scale.
But even small-scale decisions are difficult sometimes.
I think small decisions for Christ can be difficult, as well.

We’ve all made decisions for Christ.
And sometimes they’ve been costly!

What e’er the cost we might pay.
It is far less than the price Jesus paid.
However heavy our cross may be,
It is far lighter than the burdens Jesus carried.
To redeem our souls and set us free.
To become who we are best of all: daughters and sons of God.

For that is who we are, and that is who we are becoming!

Amen and Amen.