Sunday, May 27, 2012

Old Men.....Dreaming

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21

       I unashamedly admit one of my favorite American writers is Cormac McCarthy.  Early on he wrote classics such as All the Pretty Horses and Twin Cities of the Plain.  These were stories about young men dreaming about things they could hardly understand.  As McCarthy got older, and darker, he wrote No Country for Old Men, followed by his masterpiece, The Road.  My favorite quote by McCarthy is, “Where all is known, no narrative is possible.”  I suspect that quote says everything about my love of the Bible. McCarthy speaks to our text this morning when he writes, “When you dream of some world that never was or will never be, you have given up.  Therefore dream of what was and of what might be again.”
       I place a high value on dreams.  I am not referring to the stuff that happens in your sub-consciousness as you sleep.  I am talking about an active imagination that remembers yesterday and celebrates the possibility of tomorrow. 
       Ezekiel was a dreamer.  He was also a priest to a helpless and hopeless people who had lost their homes and families.  One might easily forgive Ezekiel if he had spent his entire ministry doing crisis counseling.  That is something the exiles in Babylon could have certainly used. A lament that fell from the lips of this inconsolable people was,
              Our bones are dried up,
              Our hope is lost,
              We are cut off completely.

       Ezekiel’s fellow exiles were at the bottom of the well.  They were living but as good as dead.  Words of reassurance could not cut through their despair. They could not imagine anything good evolving from their experience.  Ezekiel invited them to view reality through the eyes of God. They were asked to believe that life was about to be transformed from death. In the midst of the darkest moment in their history Ezekiel wanted his people to discover the ever shining, ever inspiring, light of God.
       The vision began in the valley of death.  Ever been there?  Of course you have.  While today is Pentecost, tomorrow is Memorial Day.  I remember as if it were yesterday, the first time I visited the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington.  I had heard about the impact The Wall had on folks, but I thought I was beyond the memories and feelings that conflict stirred within me.   I went to the directory and looked up the names of a couple friends from college.  Then I proceeded to the section where I hoped to find their names.  As I started down the slight incline, my legs become heavy as I was overwhelmed by the mass of humanity on that granite wall.  On reaching the mid-point, emotions I thought I had long ago been resolved overwhelmed me and my only desire was to reach the end of the memorial.  As I started up, it was as if I was trying to escape quicksand.  The harder I struggled the deeper I sank.  Eventually I stepped off the path, sat down in the grass and wept. I was filled with uncontrollable remorse and overcome with emptiness.  I had visited the valley of death and it had left me barren…. void …..of all life.
       We have all experienced such a wall.  Nothing that anyone could say or do has much of an impact when we are in our personal valley of death.  At yet, when we are ready, each person, each generation, needs to hear that the bones in our valley can live again.  The people of Judah were no exception.  While they were void inside, when they looked into God’s eyes, they experienced a truth that turned loss into hope.
       “Speak to the breath, speak, and say to the breath, “Breathe on these slain that they might live.”  The breath of God…. the wind or spirit of God…… the creating power of God has never been limited by worldly vision.  The author of that magnificent poem in Genesis wrote, “The earth was chaotic and darkness covered the face of the deep yet the wind of God swept through the waters and there was light.”  Ezekiel believed the holy wind that creates can also become the sacred wind that restores.  Ezekiel proclaimed that this wind, this spirit of God could transform even the dead bones of Israel into a living, breathing, liberated people.  And he was proven right.
       Of Course today we are not here to celebrate the restoration of Israel but rather the day of Pentecost.  It is hard not to notice the parallels. The disciples were completely void of life following the death of Jesus.  Their leader was gone, their hope non-existent.  Discouraged and uninspired, they gathered in the Upper Room, their own Valley of Death, to say their good-byes and return to their former lives.   In the midst of a stillness that was not to be confused with tranquility, their bereavement was interrupted by the wind, the very breathe of God, penetrating the walls of their closed quarters.  The darkness that pressed into every corner of their empty souls was exposed and then expunged by a flame that burned with the eternal truth, “You are not alone.  Your God lives.”
       This sudden emergence of holy fire must have almost given them a coronary.  Folks can get comfortable in their grief.  It can lead to a complacency that excuses us from further engagements in this life’s complex endeavors.   We spend our entire existence on the playing field and suddenly, torn by circumstances out of our control, we find comfort on the sidelines.  We watch, rather than participate.  We complain rather than becoming agents for change.  Some even welcome their own demise, actually embracing the Valley of Death.  Into this darkness, into this lifeless existence, the Holy Wind dares enter in an act of defiance that reminds us God is always in the process of creating life even in the midst of our chaos.
       Most of us are, how to I politely say this,  mature enough to remember when Paul Simon pinned these words:
              When you are weary, feeling small,
              When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
              I’m on your side.
              When times get rough and friends can’t be found,
              Like a bridge over troubled water,
              I‘ll lay me down.

       While I love those words, they do not adequately describe the transforming Spirit of God.  The Pentecost explosion, the Pentecost outbreak did not occur because God built a bridge over the world’s waters of discontent.  God jumps right into the currents of our lives. God steps within our raging souls. God takes our pain, our confusion, our discord and even our disbelief and says, “You are not alone.”
       What else could have inspired Peter to walk into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim, “Your young will have visions and your old men will dream dreams.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”   It took Peter a lot more than courage to kick-start Christianity.  It took a holy wind, a holy spirit, a holy word that promised God would not send him into the darkness alone.  My friends:
       The God of creation,
               the God of resurrection,
                     Walks in and out of our Valley of Death.
       The God of dreams,
              The God of visions,
                     Fashions hope out of nightmares.
       The God of Easter,
              The God of Pentecost,
                                  But never conforms,
                                         To deaths limited imagination.
We might be old,
       We might be on our last legs,
              But we who can still hope,
Remember what was,
       and what might be again.
We remember creation,
       We remember Easter,
              We remember Pentecost.
And because we remember,
       Because we believe,
              We dream,
                     Of God’s Holy Wind,
              We dream,
                     Of God’s Holy Spirit,
               We dream,               
                     Of God’s Covenantal Words,
                           FEAR NOT;
                                  I AM WITH YOU;
       Take that promise.
              Bury it in your personal valley of death.
                     Put on something red. 
                           Then listen for the wind of God. 
       Trust me,
              The Spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place.

To God be the glory.                                 Amen

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Prayer of Christ

John 17
Mohandas Gandhi, the nonviolent liberator of India, and a great admirer of Jesus once said, “If it were not for the behavior of Christians, I believe I would have become one of them.” You would not believe the number of times in my life as a minister someone has said to me, “I can not believe the way so and so acts. And they are an elder in our church.” Of course to be fair I am certain that some of you have already thought to yourself, “I wish Louie acted more like a preacher!” Living up to the standard of what others think we as a Christian, or an elder, or a preacher should be is really tough. But then I might suggest the standard of the world, or our neighbor, is no where near as tough as the standard set by Christ. The good news is Christ knows the bar is set high. In the 17th chapter of John, Christ prayed for all disciples, present and future, that they might understand the call to discipleship and trust God to lead them in the way everlasting.

The 17th chapter of John is known as the high priestly prayer of Jesus. I encourage you to read it in its entirety when you get home. The first thing that impresses me about this prayer is that “eternal life” is not a future hope but a present reality. If we believe in Christ, we know God. If we know God we have no other option but to live life as an obedient response to God’s power and love. Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, “When you hear and respond to my word, you are a part of my kingdom.” Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, “When you know me, you are invited to live my life, a life filled with both joys and dangers.” Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, “When you know me, you will find the answer to the universal hunger of the human heart. God’s reality will become your reality. God’s vision will become your vision. God’s desire for life will become your desire.”

I am not sure we are ready for that. Seeing life through my own eyes is tough enough. Can we even begin to imagine what God must see, let alone think, when God looks upon us? I can guarantee that God does not overlook all that we ignore. I feel for certain that God must feel incredible disappointment at all that God witnesses. Responding to the world as seen through God’s eyes could make our lives somewhat precarious. The good news is, Jesus anticipated this. He prayed that those who know him be protected and sanctified.

Jesus never said following him was going to be easy. As he prayed for his disciples he was anticipating his own death. As he prayed for his disciples, he was well aware that much hardship and in some cases a horrible death awaited them. He knew that there would always be folks begging his disciples to take an easier road. He knew that they would always have folks sweet talking them or threatening them. I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t pray that the disciples be protected from bodily harm. He prayed that they would be protected from being entrapped by the snares of those who would deter their way. He prayed that their unity might be preserved and their joy be complete in the realization that in the end they would be one with God. Keep that in mind the next time you feel you are being unfairly judged because of your faith.

Second, Jesus prayed that his disciples might be sanctified. That is a word we don’t hear very often. In common language it means “to make them holy” or to “set them apart.” Jesus knew that setting his disciples loose on the world would be difficult. He prayed that they be set apart from the rest of the world. He prayed that they be held to a different standard, a different truth. Thoreau would say that the disciples were called to listen to the beat of a different drummer.

The good news, or perhaps the disturbing news of the gospel this morning is that this prayer is also for us. Jesus prays that as we live the truth of the gospel we will be protected from sirens speaking a different word. Jesus prays that we will be sanctified, set apart, and given a holy vision.

Third, Jesus prays that our faith, our task of serving God, will be performed joyfully. Have you ever worked with someone who hated their job? They spend the whole day watching the clock. They complain, they gripe, they talk more about their next job than the one in front to them. In other words their whole life is about “them”. Jesus prayed not only that God would give us joy, but that in all that we do we would give God joy. That makes perfectly good sense. The Psalms continue to declare that we are to glorify God. Sometimes we forget that the way we live should be a response to God’s gift of grace.

Fourth, Jesus prayed that while we live in this world but are called to live differently than the standard the world has set. Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It is not hard to be contaminated by the world’s darkness. It is not hard to be consumed by the negative thoughts that surround us. It would be so much easier if we could just encircle ourselves with a moat, come here, do our own thing and forget about everyone else. But that is not the way of Christ. We are called to plunge into the waters. We are called to share our message of joy, reconciliation and hope to a world confused by too many images of hate and fear.

All of that sounds really good. If we lived in a vacuum maybe it would be possible. But life is hard. We get turned sideways. Sometimes we turn on each other. Bottom line is we are not Christ and God knows we can’t live like Christ. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t called to try.

In the last section of the prayer Jesus asked God to help the disciples live a life worthy of their calling. He asked God to supply them with four essential ingredients for being the church.

He begins with PRAYER. What if we considered ourselves not so much an institution but rather a community for whom Christ prays and a community that prays for each other. Every Sunday morning, in the middle of our worship, we lift up our joys and concerns. We listen to what is on the hearts of another. And then we pray together for that person. We pray for our sick, our homebound. We pray for folks traveling. We pray for folks we might not even know. I pray out loud and you pray silently. We are doing the holy business of the Church. We are praying for each other, for our community, for God’s world. We are praying because we believe that when we pray, healing begins.

Second, Jesus prays that we will love each other as God has always loved us. The love of God is the centerpiece of the gospel of John. As children we learned the words, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son.” We talk about love all the time but how does the church reflect that love. Allow me to suggest that in order for an individual or a church to love as Christ would have us love, that love must be sacrificial. I love the song, Have thine on way Lord. Have thine on way. Thou art the potter I am the clay. Mold me and make me after they will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.” Have often has our song been, “Have my own way Lord, Have my own way. Mold them and make them after my will.” Sacrificial love moves beyond our demands, our desires, and our comfort zone. Sacrificial love listens to the voice of one who confronts our egos, challenges our history, and suggests occasionally giving in does not mean giving up. It means rising to a new level of understanding.

Third, Jesus prays that we will be mission minded. If we know Christ, how can we keep the gospel to ourselves? Truth is, being the Church is not about us. Being the church is about telling the story of God’s love to people who are living in a world of darkness. Being the church is about tearing down the walls that divide us. Being the church is about declaring to everyone we meet, “God love’s you, and so do I.” If all the church does is just taking care of its own, how does that make the church any different from a garden club, a country club, or any other club that we might care to join? God so loved the world! Where is the exclusivity in that statement? God so loved the world! Who is left out of that beloved proclamation? God so loved the world! Who has been given the task of getting that word out? You guessed it, those of us who are bold enough to call ourselves children of God.

And of course that brings us the final request by Jesus. He prays for unity. How will the world believe our message if it cannot see the love of God in the messenger? Jesus prays that “we might all be one.” Instead of me proving to you that I am right, or vise versa, wouldn’t it be refreshing to look at each other and think, “How do I see Christ in that person?” Now I know this may sound crazy, but if I think folks are judging me solely on how I reflect Christ, how is that going to change my attitude, my body language, even the way I speak to you should our paths cross.

God calls us to live “in Christ” in a world that does not always act Christ-like. John 17 gives us God’s formula for success. Pray the faith, love the faith, proclaim the faith, live the faith.

May the love of God be seen in each of us. Amen

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love is not Burdensome

John 15:9-17; I John 5:1-6

        The writer of First John makes an incredible statement that each of you who is a mother or father completely understands.  As confusing and contrary as children can be, loving them  is not a burden. From the moment our first child was born we realized that our lives were never going to be the same.  Personal freedom was understood differently. Budgets were radically changed.  This bundle of joy, this precious and venerable life gave new meaning to who we were and who we had the possibility of becoming.
        Bare with me on this Mother’s day while I tell you the story of a father who was a dear friend of mine.  Monty was a giant among men.  As a young man he excelled in athletics.  On finishing high school he joined the Army and eventually was placed in charge of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.  No ordinary man is given that honor. After his enlistment was up Monty married Floridel and became the foreman at his father-in-laws saw mill.  He worked hard, raised a family and became a member of the local Presbyterian Church.  A real outdoorsman, Monty loved to fish and play golf.  More than once he told me of the week-end he shot 71-69 to win his club championship at the age of 51.  Most of the players in contention were twenty years younger than he.  Monty eventually took over the saw mill, spent 30 years as the clerk of session his church, fished and played golf when time allowed but most importantly Monty raised his children.  The first two were no more trouble than any other pair of kids.  But Christi was born after Floridel and Monty had turned 40.  To complicate matters, Christi was born with Down’s syndrome.  Monty and Floridel were certainly not the first parents in their 40’s to give birth to a Down’s baby.  Their care and love of Christi was no better than any other parents facing this situation.  Every parent who wants to be a good parent makes sacrifices.  Christi’s birth completely turned their lives around.  Monty the sportsman became Monty the connoisseur of art as each day he and Christi would color pictures from one of Christi’s favorite coloring books.  Monty the gamesman became Monty the card shark as he and Christi played their own particular brand of solitaire for 40 years.  Most of us live for the day when our children sprout wings and fly, hopefully with the intention of bringing us grandchildren that we can spoil.  Christi is now in her late 40’s.  She still has the mind of a child.  She still lives at home.  When I first met Monty, he told me he and Floridel had given their Down’s child the name Christi because each day she would remind them of the love of Christ.  He then said, “I am not sure of much but I know this, raising Christi has never been a burden.  It has only been a joy.” 
        When I read the 15th chapter of John and come across the words, “No one has greater lover than this than to lay down one’s life for a friend” I used to never think about folks like Monty and Floridel Bristow.  My mind would be immediately drawn to the great martyrs’ of the faith.  I would think of Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Lutheran minister who was executed in a Nazi prison just days before the end of the war.  I would think of Martin Luther King being shot outside his motel on that April morning in Memphis before going out to walk with sanitation workers.  I would think of Oscar Romero being assassinated as he was celebrating communion on Easter Sunday with the poor in San Salvador.   I know we all have images of a hero who gave up his or her life for a noble cause.  Their act of heroism lifts them beyond the ordinary, into a realm that we assume none of us will be called to occupy.  I would suggest this morning while we need to celebrate the sacrifice of folks like Bonheoffer, King and Romero, it is just as important that we remember that most acts of sacrifice are preformed by ordinary folks like Monty and Floridel Bristow and by folks like you and me.    
        Of course ordinary folks don’t make the headlines. Ordinary folks do the things that are seldom noticed and certainly not newsworthy.  I heard the other day that Terrell Owens, soon to be Hall of Fame football player, can not pay child support for his five out of wedlock children.  He is being sued by the four mothers.  T.O. was an extraordinary football player but somehow I imagine each of those children would trade all of his awards for just an ordinary dad.  Ordinary folks make sacrifices.  Ordinary folks are seldom celebrities.  Ordinary folks make ordinary decisions, lead ordinary lives and end up having extraordinary children, at least in their eyes. 
        I believe that is why God loves the church.  God seems to make it a habit to choose ordinary folks to do the important things in this life, such as raising children, keeping one’s word, and treating neighbors as if they were one of the family.  Perhaps that is why Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” 
        Once upon a time, when sports were still a game and not a pipe dream to greater opportunities, children used to gather in fields and choose sides for which ever athletic endeavor was in season.  You didn’t get to pick your team.  The captain would decide.  In a painstaking process in which friendship and abilities were often pitted against each other, the captain had the task of picking a team capable of demolishing the foe.  The first picks were easy.  But when the skill players had been selected it came down to choosing which person would be less of a liability.  These folks were carefully selected because while it was well documented each afternoon that the stars would shine, the games were often won and lost based on the skills of the ordinary players.  Who would step up?  Who would prove not to be a burden?  Who would play for just the love of the game?
        Jesus said to his disciples and to us, “I choose you.  I choose you ordinary folks to do an extraordinary task.  I choose you to make love the centerpiece of your life.”
        Remember when we were all young and stupid and thought love only meant one thing.  I look at young folks today playing the dating game and I feel for them.  I am sure the process is no less awkward that it was when I was their age.  But then we got older and wiser and learned love had a multitude of meanings.  Some really smart folks even attached three different Greek words to better define what we were experiencing.  Eros defined young lovers, philia described the relationship of friends and agape was that spiritual ability to completely give yourself to another freely, without restraint or regret.  We began to understand that love is the most powerful and the most powerfulness of all emotions.   Love is powerful enough to conquer another human heart.   Love is humble enough to do nothing except by consent. 
        Then, as age took its toll and the romantic flame in us began to flicker, love once again has one primary definition.  Love is no longer a warm fuzzy emotion but a deliberate act of our will.  Love now is defined by the way we love our neighbor.  Love is defined as our willingness to lay down our lives for each other.  Love is loving each other as God continues to love us.
        I like to think that is the legacy that each of us leaves on this earth.  How do we ordinary, run of the mill folk love our neighbor.  Or perhaps even more important, how do we ordinary, run of the mill folks love people we don’t even particularly like. 
        I remember that old 60’s anthem written by Peter Scholtes. You probably remember the chorus, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  I was always impressed with the verse.  “We will walk with each other,
        we will work with each other,
                we will guard each others dignity
                        and save others pride.” 
                Because we are one in the spirit.      
                Because we are ordinary people chosen by God.
                Because somewhere along the way we discovered loving as God would have us love is never a burden.
                And that makes us extraordinary.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

It was about more than a Ham Sandwich

Acts 10:1-28

        Peter had a problem.  All his life he had lived one way, with one set of rules.  Up until this very moment Peter could always count on knowing what was right and what was wrong.  Beef was good, pork was not.  Folks from his tribe were good, others were not.  If Peter had a problem he would flip through the Levitical laws and find a solution.  He might not like what he found but he was sure he knew what God expected.
        Then one night Peter had a vision, or to be more exact, a nightmare.  A sheet was lifted down from heaven.  On the sheet were all the foods that Peter knew he should never consume.  There was pork, shell fish and other delicacies that had never made there way into Peter’s palate. He was repulsed by both the sight and smell.  Then God sat down at the table with a rack of ribs in one hand and a napkin in the other to wipe off the sauce that was dripping off his chin.  “Peter, pull up a chair.  You won’t believe how good this is.  Grab some of that barbeque over there and slap it on a bun.  It comes from a place called North Carolina.  You have not lived until you’ve tasted the sauce.” 
        Peter protested.  “God, I can’t eat this stuff.  I would be breaking the law.  It is just not right.”
        God grabbed a tooth pick and started to work on a strand of pulled pork that was lodged in his teeth.  “Peter, one of these days you are going to have learn sometimes there is a difference between what is right and what is righteous.”
        “But God, Your Word makes it quite clear that pork is not one of the recommended selections on the menu.”
        “Peter, sometimes you are way too literal.  Besides, this conversation is not about a ham sandwich, it is about a man named Cornelius.”
        Peter’s handbook, The Torah, or what we now refer to as the Old Testament is an incredible collection of 39 books that lay out a complex understanding of each writers understanding of God.  The Old Testament is filled with stories, poems and songs.  It centers on the travels and travails of a particular group of people who had the audacity to refer to themselves as the children of God.  What makes the Old Testament amazingly unique is each time we open those ancient pages we risk the possibility of being overwhelmed by a fresh, radical passion that brands our souls.  Peter grew up understanding the Torah as a rule book.  Somewhere he missed out on those writers who wrote about the God of the Wilderness, the God who marches through the waters of chaos, the God who preaches of mercy and grace, the God who places righteousness above everything else.  Peter was about to have a panic attack because God was offering him a ham sandwich while the real crisis was downstairs.  Cornelius was about to knock on Peter’s door.   
        Can you imagine what the neighbors were thinking?  Cornelius was a Greek.  There was nothing kosher about this guy.  He was a goy, a foreigner, an outsider.  The neighbors were pulling down the shades, locking the doors and calling Peter by cell phone to ask him if he knew what was headed his way.  But it was too late.  Peter had just tasted the imagination of his transcendent God and there was no going back. imagine what Peter thought as he took that first bite of ham?  “This is different…….. this is good…… I’ll have seconds.
        Of all the things that I don’t understand about the history of the church the toughest is we seem to have our biggest fights over who is invited to God’s party.  In the beginning, only Jews could be Christians.  Then we included Cornelius and his family.  Paul traveled to Greece and Rome.  The church moved all over Europe and then sent missionaries throughout the world.  But there was always something odd about the early missionary movement.  For centuries we sent missionaries to Africa and Asia but seldom invited black folks to church.  If you weren’t white, you weren’t right.    Then somewhere along the way God reminded us it was not about being right, it was about being righteous.  It wasn’t about being a particular family, it was about becoming one diverse family, filled with all kind of flavors, filled with  new and creative ways of celebrating God.
        Do you remember the mess the auto company Ford was in a couple decades ago?  The once proud auto producer was being blown out of the water by Honda and Toyota.  The Ford executives, the same guys that had given us the Pinto and the Edsel, put their creative minds together and came to two observations.  First, every one in the room thought alike. Second, this one way of thinking was sinking the company.  So they went out and brought in a bunch of new folks to design their next car.  Only these folks weren’t just engineers.  Most of them were ordinary folks off the street.  They had never designed a car.  None of them drove a Ford, and they had no desire to begin driving one.  Ford asked this group of teachers, soccer moms, policemen and farmers what they wanted in a car.  They responded. Each time a prototype was built it had to be inspected by this original group.  If something didn’t work, it was dropped.  Finally the car was built and placed in the market.  They called it the Taurus.   I never owned one but I know it singlehandedly put Ford back on the map.  Five years later Ford decided to build the Taurus II.  A bunch of Ford engineers designed it.  None of the original group was consulted.  Anyone remember the Taurus II?  Exactly!!!
        Peter was one of the great saints of the church.  But the Church was going no where without Cornelius and those other creative folks who had new ways of praising and understanding God. I contend what has allowed the church to survive for 2,000 years is not our sameness but our diversity.  What a shame it would be if everyone in this church only listened to classical music, or for that matter folk.  What a tragedy it would be we all read the same books, liked the same movies or had the same hobbies.  Think how dull it would be if in November every one at Rockfish voted for Obama……. or Romney.   Think how disastrous it would be if membership into this church required everyone think the same way.   Our love of God’s incredible imagination and our respect for each other’s vision is the glue that holds us together.   
        Open your minds…..Open your hearts….to God’s banquet.