Sunday, February 24, 2013

Confession in the Midst of Confusion

Psalm 91

A month or so ago the first service choir began working on a piece of music based on the 91st Psalm.  Being brash and full of myself, I volunteered to preach a sermon on Psalm 91 on the Sunday they wanted to perform the piece. I figured, give me a scripture and I can preach on it. So for the past month the choir’s version of Psalm 91 has been going through my head.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.

The early church theologian Athanasius wrote, “If you desire to know what confidence in God is, recite the 91st Psalm.” I must say, for the better part of a week, I completely agreed with Athanasius…………but then my mind began to wrap itself around the words.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, no evil shall befall you; no scourge will come near your tent. God will command angels to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

If you have not noticed, there is a bit of a skeptic in me. Sometimes I read or hear something that leaves me shaking my head. Is this Psalm suggesting if I daily call on the name of the Lord, I will always be protected? Or perhaps if I wear the Psalm around my neck like a cross, all harm and illness will be warded off.   Quoting James Weldon Johnson, “I know my arms are too short to box with God”, and yet confusions clouds my brain when I consider these words. Actually confusion is not strong enough. I am alarmed by this kind of blind allegiance.  It begins with a gesture on a football field giving God the glory after a touchdown is scored. Did the guy who missed the tackle forget to pray before the game? It moves to someone winning a lottery ticket and giving God the glory. Do we really believe Las Vegas is actually heaven? On a more serious note I have sat with folks in a hospital and someone has had the audacity to say, “Your father is going to be fine. I prayed for his complete recovery.” Then when the father dies the same person says to me, “His faith must not have been that strong.”
How often have family members, or neighbors, or folks from a different part of the county, or even different country, gone to war with each other completely convinced they are doing the will of God and therefore are protected by God from misfortune falling upon them. I saw a picture taken at the Battle of the Bulge where two young combatants literally died in each other’s arms. One was German, the other American. The belt buckle of the German read, “In God we Trust”. The same phrase was etched on the helmet cover of the young American.
I am well aware of theologians such as Calvin who go so far as to say the purposes of God can be advanced through evil and suffering. But my short arms and small brain find it difficult to make the case that God’s purpose can be furthered through murder or discrimination or exploitation or even poor religious practices. I know we live in a dangerous world in which horrible things happen. I am equally aware sometimes people hide behind their faith as a way of ignoring the sinfulness of their actions. And I find that disturbing.
I believe with all my heart that God damns war and hate and hypocrisy and lies and tyranny and exploitation and murder.
I believe with all my heart that God blesses peace and honesty and truth and freedom and cooperation and dignity.
I believe that God works patiently and mercifully to change those things God damns into those things God blesses.
What I am trying to keep is my faith and my sanity while God is in the process of working all this stuff out.
                               Let’s return to the Psalm.
When you call, I will answer. I will be with you in time of trouble.

The song sung by the choir did not include this phrase. I wish it had because I believe verse 15 is critical. Process theologian Burton Cooper describes God as “boundless, yet limited.” I suspect that is not what some of you wanted to hear. Yet I find it helpful. I believe God lives in relationship with us and our world.  At the same time I believe God chooses to be limited in determining how particular events will end. That said, I also believe God’s self-imposed limitations does not affect God’s presence.
Once I was captured by verse 15, I began to see the rest of the poem differently. My reading returned to the third verse where the Psalmist said, “My refuge, my God in whom I trust.”
Let’s take a quick recap of my journey. My earlier reading of the Psalm seemed to imply that if I call on God, regardless of the danger, God will rescue me. The skeptic in me refused to be satisfied with this relationship.  Is God to be driven or motivated by my desires, my whims, or my battles? If God does not respond, is this evidence of lack of faith or even God’s lack of authority?
By week three I began to focus on the idea that regardless of the circumstances of my life, God will be with me. This revelation was inspired by one word, “trust”.
I suspect that trust is not something easily given. Trust has to be earned.  When you say you trust someone, this trust comes from experience. It comes from being in places that were not always perfect. Sometimes the places were even dark but the one that you trusted was there, regardless.
The more I read Psalm 91 the more I want to link it with two more familiar Psalms. Remember the words, “Even though I walk through valley of death, you are with me.” The writer of the 23rd Psalm was not writing about something that might happen but rather was writing from something that had already happened. Likewise in Psalm 27 we read, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” From experience, from trust, the Psalmist ends this wonderful poem by saying, “Wait for the Lord; let your heart have courage; wait for the Lord!”
Neither of these Psalms offers a direction as to how God should make the universe run or how our problems will be solved. But both trust that in the midst of life, in the midst of heart ache, in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of chaos, even in the midst of death, God is there.
Last week, as I was preparing a sermon on Jesus’ time in the Wilderness I noticed one of the lines attributed to Satan was from Psalm 91. The devil took Jesus to the top of the Temple and encouraged Jesus to jump. Quoting Psalm 91 the devil said, “God will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will bear you up.” Jesus responded, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
I now believe the focus of the writer of Psalm 91 was not about testing but rather trust. Jesus said to his adversary, “Don’t play lightly with God.” When we call on God in prayer and speak of a loved one facing a difficult situation, I hope we are praying for God’s presence, God’s healing in ways we might not have imagined rather than some test to prove God’s existence.
Many of us raised children. Before they were born we made preparations as to how we would raise the child. Once the child was born we selected particular foods, baby proofed the house. We made sure they couldn’t wander into the street or stick their fingers in electrical outlets. We talked to them about right and wrong behavior. We coached them, we pleaded with them and sometimes we even punished them to keep them on a less harmful path.  Then they reached the age of 16 and we placed a set a keys in their hands. We warned them about the dangers of an automobile, of speeding, of alcohol, of other drivers, but I am going to guess, without exception, we sent them out to the one place more harm comes to teenagers than any other place in this land. We sent them out on the American highways. We sent them trusting they would remember our lessons. We trusted they would make good decisions and would be better drivers than we were when we were their age. We could not guarantee their safety, but what we could promise was, should something happen, we could be trusted to be there for them.
God has placed in our hands a manual for living. God has placed folks in our path that have been examples of how God would have us live. God has even made the ultimate sacrifice for us in the death of Jesus. Finally God promised to be with us, regardless of the choices that might jeopardize our well being. Then God placed the steering wheel in our hands. Sometimes we go too fast. Sometimes we negotiate curves in ways that endanger others. Sometimes we even crash. God does not keep that from happening. But God is always there, regardless of the situation we or others might have created.
The bottom line is, after a month of consternation and confrontation; after a month of realizing my arms are too short to box with God; after of month of trying to place a round peg in a square hole, I had to come back to this ancient text on this side of the resurrection, and this led me to the conclusion the Psalmist had already made:
God was there yesterday………..God is there today ………
God will be there tomorrow.
Does this protect me from the terror of the night? Does it guarantee me from the arrow that flies by day? Does this justify any action I might take as Godly?
The answer to each question is a resounding no!
All I am left with is this. Right or wrong, justified or guilty as charged, God will not leave me now or forever. 
And that’s enough.       That’s enough.              Amen.    

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Memory as the Beginning of Resurrections

Luke 4:1-13; Deut. 26:1-11

        “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  This was the starting place for many a story told around campfires, late at night in the fields outside Bethlehem, and later Prague, perhaps even Berlin and now once again in Jerusalem.  It is not a story told by my ancestors.  It is the story told by those who claimed a family tree that went all the way back to Abraham.  The Aramean referred to is the grandson of Abraham, the semi-nomadic Jacob who eventually followed his son Joseph into Egypt.  And there the adventure began.  It was a story that involved slavery, liberation, the Law, the wilderness and finally the Promised Land.   It was the story of Moses, Aaron,  Miriam, Caleb and Joshua. It was a story that every Jewish child learned as a reminder that Yahweh is greater than Pharaoh, the Red Sea, the Wilderness, the sinfulness of a disheartened people and even the walls of Jericho.  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” offered hope, redemption and resolve.  It rolled off the tongue of a Jewish child as easily as,  “I pledge allegiance to the flag”, rolls off the tongues of our children.  It was more than a history lesson.  It evoked memories of God’s everlasting covenant.
Every family has stories.  I keep those stories, those pictures of another time firmly embedded in my memory.  I can’t visualize my grandfather Gober’s face but I can remember his words of encouragement as we fished together on the lake near his cabin.  Likewise, life lessons shared by my parents helped mold my spirit and my soul.  I don’t need a picture to remind me of the first time I saw my daughter or son.  I imagine the same is true of you.  I know we record or photograph everything from the first step to the final resting place.  But the real memories are the stories we tell over and over around the table at family gatherings.  It is the clay that molds who we were and who we will become. These stories are our past and future lifelines.
You may have never heard the verse, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”, but you know the power and the hope that evolves from telling stories.  Memories are often the beginning of resurrections.  How often have you found yourself in a difficult spot and your memory of a past story or holy word saved you from making a horrible, life changing decision.  We need search no further than our New Testament text to be reminded of how memory is often our last defense against the power of evil.
Today’s text is a story that we encounter once a year.   It marks the beginning of our Lenten experience.  It is the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark and Luke share similar accounts of the 40 days.  Each affirms the power of memory to overcome the temptation of ungodly behavior.
Luke’s account informs us that Jesus had eaten nothing for forty days.  Sometimes I find it difficult to go forty minutes without eating.  Here is Jesus, absolutely famished, surrounded by nothing but sand and rocks and the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command one of these stones to become a loaf of bread.”  Soon Jesus will be filling up empty nets with fish.  Soon Jesus will be feeding 5,000 people from crumbs.  There is no doubt that Jesus had the power to produce a meal out of nothing.  And that is exactly the point.  We are never tempted to do what we can not do.  We are only tempted by what is within our power.    Children are tempted to steal cupcakes from the kitchen because those cupcakes are within their reach.  Young people are tempted to experiment with alcohol because someone places it in their hands.  Adults are tempted to play with power because we think it defines who we are.  Jesus was tempted to something he was perfectly capable of doing in order to impress his host.  But instead of showing off his power, he shows off his memory, “One does not live by bread alone.”
The devil was impressed but not convinced.  The devil took Jesus up into the mountains and pointed out all the kingdoms of the world.  “I know that you have come to save all these people.  I know that you have an agenda that will certainly make life easier for them.  I am even convinced that you will make a good ruler.  You seem to have what it takes.  But convincing all those folks that you are the real deal is going to take an awful long time.  They hardly agree on anything.  No sooner have you made one group happy then you will have upset someone else.  But they listen to me.  I not only have their ear, I have their hearts and souls.  You want to rule these people, do it in my name.  If you are willing to worship me, these people will follow you.”
How many politicians have made their personal deals with the devil?  I suspect the devil comes in many disguises.  He may be a political action group or a lobbyist.  He may be a powerful voice already entrenched in the halls of power.  Whatever the disguise, the temptation is always the same, the keys to the kingdom in exchange for a critical vote at a specific moment.  But Jesus could not be bought.  His response to becoming a fixture within the belt way was, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Disappointed, but not defeated, the devil reached for his trump card.  He took Jesus to Jerusalem, to the top of the Temple and said, “You don’t have to prove anything to me.  I know who you are and I respect what you believe you need to do.  But trust me, you are about to play to a very tough audience.  They will turn on you in a moment.  They want miracles; they want great displays of power.  Why go through all the misery of trying to win these folks over.  I’ll gather a crowd of thousands of people.  I’ll make sure the high priest and the Roman Governor are looking your way.  All you have to do is jump.  God will not let you die.  He has too much invested in you.  Just jump.  Before you have fallen twenty feet, a band of angels will appear.  You will be whisked to the ground before your adoring fans.  They will know that you are the Son of God.  Caiaphas will flee to the Temple; Pilate will retreat to Rome.  Jerusalem will once again become the Holy City.”  
Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord God to the test”.  And with that the devil departed from him.
Let’s look at what Jesus turned down.  In the initial temptation, one might suggest Jesus ignored the chance to rid the world of hunger.  Can you imagine what might happen if every piece of loose concrete in Haiti was suddenly turned into food?  How could that be considered anything but good?  Secondly, Jesus was offered the chance to be King of the world.  Think of it, with Jesus as King, his agenda would be peace, righteousness, ridding the world of hunger and disease. It would literally become a new heaven and earth.  Finally, Jesus could have avoided death by displaying his supernatural powers.  People would have believed.  The chant Jesus is Lord would have been on his lips.  What could have been wrong with this?
Temptation is always deceptive.  Jesus was not being asked to compete with the devil.  Jesus was being tempted to compete with God.  If he had done so the devil would have won.  What greater sin can there be than to consider oneself to be God?
In the face of all that he was offered, Jesus remembered the story he had been taught as a child, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  Oh maybe those words did not pop into his brain but the training that followed from that story was there.  As he learned the story of his ancestors, he learned and remembered the creed of their ancestors.
Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone.”
Deuteronomy 6:13, “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone.”
Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
What do we remember in our times of temptation?  Perhaps even more importantly, what will our children remember in their times of temptation.  I suspect more often than we like to admit, it is not the temptation to do wicked things that ruins us.  It is the temptation to believe that we are God.  Once we do that, we can justify anything.
Imagine remembering “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  Imagine remembering, “Thou shall have only one God”.  Imagine remembering, “For God so loved the world.”  Imagine our memories as the beginning of our resurrections.
To God be the glory.                                            Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The One Who Makes Us Radiant

Luke 9:28-36; Exodus 34:29-35

        My favorite hour of the entire week might be 10:00 on Sunday Morning.  A handful of us gather around tables in the fellowship hall and take a closer look at the scriptures which are being used to guide us through worship on that particular day.  It is not an exclusive group. Everyone is invited. We can easily expand to accommodate more folks.  It is not necessary that you have been there before.  Each lesson is an independent adventure and each adventure leads us to new ground for discussion. It is a group that encourages dialogue and a group that respects dissenting opinions. Most of all it is a group that seldom finds itself in complete accord with each other, leading us to discover new unopened doors in our faith journey.
        A question that always seems to skip along the perimeter of any of our lessons is, “Who is Jesus?” At first glance that does not seem problematic. It goes without saying everyone knows who Jesus is. But then when that question is asked to a room of fifteen or so independent thinkers, the conversation is complicated by a variety of interesting responses.
        We are in good company. The ninth chapter of Luke centers on this very question. It begins with Jesus gathering the twelve together and giving them the power and authority to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. Then Jesus sends them out on sort of a test run. And the disciples are a hit! Luke tells us that they preached and healed wherever they went. In fact they were so successful word got back to King Herod and he was perplexed. He asked his advisors who this Jesus of Nazareth might be. Some claimed he was Elijah. Others suggested he was John the Baptist resurrected. From the poorest fisherman to the King himself people wanted to know who Jesus really was.
        So it should come as no surprise that even the disciples became a bit curious. Jesus and the disciples gathered together in a secluded place and had a conversation. First Jesus asked, “Who are people saying that I am?” Again the name of Elijah and John the Baptist surfaced. The Jesus said, “Who do you think I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” And then Jesus asked, “Do you have any idea what that means?”
        The disciples looked at each other, shook their heads and then were astonished when Jesus said, “It means I must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed. But on the third day God will raise me up.” Before the disciples could respond he added, “If you want to know me, you must take up your cross. Those who lose their lives for my sake will save it.” This statement caused a bigger power outage than we witnessed last Sunday night at the Super Bowl. Those words completely deflated the spirits and the faith of the disciples.  How do I know this? Luke does not record another healing by a disciple until after the resurrection.  They were on a roll. And then everything came to a screeching halt.  For a whole year the disciples wanted to be just like Jesus. Then, all of a sudden, they weren’t so sure. To further complicate things, a week later Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the mountain top.
        Ever been to the mountain top? I’m not talking about hiking up Humpback and standing at that glorious spot where you can look into both valleys. I’m talking about going to a retreat as a kid where the speaker gets you so pumped up you want to go home and talk the minister into having graham crackers and coke for communion. Or perhaps as an adult you went to a place like Massanetta and heard someone like Fred Craddock or Otis Moss and wondered why your preacher can’t fire you up like that.  Those speakers take us to the mountain top and give us Christ’s vision of who we can become. They are uplifting experiences, lasting until reality brings us back to earth.
        Jesus took three disciples to the mountain top. And while they were there they were joined by two more figures, Elijah and Moses. Then out of the clouds the voice of God spoke, “This is my son! Listen to him!” The disciples were terrified as I suspect any of us would have been. They had witnessed the radiance of God.   The important question is, “How were they affected?”
        My favorite image of the Transfiguration is captured on canvas by the Italian painter Raphael. As you might imagine, the scene on the top of the mountain is in resplendent in glory. But down below, in the real world, something not so glorious is taking place. A huge crowd and the rest of the disciples have gathered around a young boy. The frustration of the crowd is obvious as the disciples are unable to cure the sick child. They have lost their faith and their power to heal. Two figures at the foot of the mountain point at the transfigured Jesus. They are begging Jesus to come down the mountain and heal the boy.
        In the text that follows the transfiguration, Jesus does come down and does heal the boy. But in the process he looks at the disciples and said, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be with you?”
        What on earth is going on here? One minute Jesus blesses the disciples and they go out performing miracles. But the disciples get a little nervous when Herod gets curious about Jesus. Their discomfort increases when Jesus talks bluntly about death. Then the disciples begin to lose their faith, their healing powers, and the shine around their faces.  Trying to be Jesus is hard, perhaps even impossible, especially when confronted with God’s holy expectations.
        But we keep trying.  Like those disciples we have those glimpses of truth, those moments of clarity when we seem to grasp the possibility of being all that Jesus would have us be. But then we stumble. Maybe it is fear of Herod, or death or just life itself. Whatever it is, we are like those disciples at the bottom of the mountain who became less than their potential in the eyes of God.  Truth is, I suspect we would like to be the light. We would like to think we could walk hand in hand with Jesus. I would even dare to say that possibility exists, at least in the mind of God. But the potential for perfection and the reality of perfection seems beyond our limited imagination.   That is why I am grateful for our text this morning from Exodus. One of the two figures that stood with Jesus on that mountain was Moses. What Moses and Elijah had in common was they had both experienced a theophany, an encounter with the face of God and survived.   In the 34th chapter of Exodus Moses goes to Sinai a second time. You might remember the first he came down from the mountain; Moses stumbled into a wild party with the Israelites worshipping their man-made god of gold. In disgust Moses threw the first addition of the commandments to the ground. He went back up to Sinai and engaged in a remarkable conversation with God in which Moses had the audacity to ask, “Reveal yourself. Tell me who you are?”
        Yahweh said to Moses, “You tell your people I am the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Moses quickly bowed his head and worshipped. And then he listened as God’s mercy, graciousness and love was revealed. When Moses came off the mountain his face was shinning so brightly that the Israelites could not look upon him. They knew the words of Moses were a reflection of the word of God.
        Perhaps that is attainable. If we cannot imagine ourselves being Jesus, perhaps we can at least work harder to become a reflection of God.  Karl Barth reminds us, “Jesus is the one who makes us radiant. When we look to him, we cannot prevent our face from shining.” I suspect the only way to do this is to intentionally get close to God, allowing the radiance of God to mold who we are.
        Iris Dement, another one of those quirky song writers I adore sings,
                It was a long time ago,
                I was a girl but twelve years old,
                On my back staring up into the dark summer sky.
                When I said, “God, tomorrow I can’t see,
                But I’ll stick close to you if you’ll stick close to me.
                All night I prayed, “Keep me Lord, Keep me Lord.”

        Perhaps our holiness does not come from who we are but rather the company we keep. And perhaps it is not our works that purify us but rather the one who makes our works radiant.
        Keep me Lord.
Keep me Lord.