Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stories, not arguments, change lives

Acts 11:1-9; John 13:34-35

        The Apostle Peter was not only a great disciple, he was a pretty good Jew. Both religiously and culturally, he was observant of Jewish Law. Peter was a perfect example of how religious and cultural beliefs are often homogenized to create dangerous habits which we bless as holy.
        For some very good reasons, the cultures of the Middle East followed similar food laws. Even today, one would not offer a ham sandwich to a Jew or a Muslim. The reason for this was a dietary reality which evolved into a religious custom. Spoiled meat makes one sick. In ancient times, most folks in the Middle East had not developed the technique to preserve certain meats such as pork. Therefore it was believed if pork made you sick it must be sinful to eat it. The fact that the Greeks and Romans had learned to correctly cure pork had very little bearing on this ancient Jewish custom. They were gentiles. What could they possibly know anything about the mind of God?
        Another curiosity concerning the Jews is all males were circumcised at birth. This was done to properly identify the child as a member of God’s community. There were no exceptions. In order to be a Jew, one must be circumcised. This action was understood to have been commanded by God but  perhaps this “command” came with a great deal of cultural pressure. Unlike Christians, who are commanded by Christ to baptize the world, Jews have never aggressively involved themselves in evangelism. Courting gentiles was seen as a detriment to the purity of their culture. Besides, how many non-Jews would want to go through this initiation?
        Peter, a circumcised, non-pork eating Jew, was struggling with both the commandment of Jesus to evangelize the world and his cultural upbringing which suggested such as action would be against the will of God. Members of the church in Jerusalem debated the nature of this new movement. Would they become an extension of their Jewish faith? Were they creating something altogether different? Could they be followers of Christ and still remain Jews? What about the uncircumcised who were joining their movement? The debates raged into the night. The new convert Paul seemed determined to take his story of conversion to Jews living in the Gentile world. What was to stop Greeks and Romans from desiring to hear Paul’s good news?  Where on earth was the church headed?
        In order to escape the debate, Peter made a trip to Joppa. There he had an amazing dream. He saw heaven being opened up and a feast being laid before him. Only the food offered was not lox and bagels. God offered a banquet of pork and all other kinds of unclean meats. Peter protested, only to hear God say, “What God made clean, you must not profane.”
        Peter awoke greatly puzzled by the dream. The answer soon appeared before his eyes. Men appeared at his door claiming they had been sent to ask Peter if he would follow them to Caesarea and meet with a prominent Roman who wanted to know about Jesus. Ignoring his traditions, Peter followed the men, met with Cornelius, and testified to him about Christ. That day Cornelius asked that his whole family be baptized. Peter, remembering his dream, baptized the uncircumcised gentile along with the rest of his family.
Then Peter made a bee line to Jerusalem and found the council still engaged in debate over the mission to those who were not Jews. Peter quieted the crowd and told them his story. He ended it by saying, “Who was I to hinder God?”
A hush fell over the crowd and then they praised God saying, “God has given life even to the Gentiles.”    (stop)
I believe, more often than not, stories, not arguments, change lives. Every culture has the habit of forming their beliefs out of their traditions. That is why conversion is so hard. To be converted to God’s new way of thinking, we have to struggle mightily with what we have been told God believes. We have all the facts and sometimes even the bible verses to support our cultural conclusions. And then we have a dream or hear a story that makes us reconsider is what holy.
Some of you are old enough to remember when only men could be ordained as ministers in the Presbyterian Church.  In 1965, the old Hanover Presbytery of the Southern Presbyterian Church ordained Rachel Henderlite as a minister of Word and Sacrament. I remember being a bit outraged over the fact that a woman could be a preacher. I asked my father what qualified her to be a minister. He started out with her the qualifications. “She is a graduate of Agnus Scott. She received a Masters from New York Theological Seminary. She has a Ph.D from Yale. She teaches Applied Christianity at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and has written five books.”
I interrupted him, “But she is still a woman!”
“And so is your Aunt Evelyn.”
My dad did not need to repeat the story of my aunt becoming the first woman elder in her Presbytery. He did not have to remind me of the difficulties she encountered once she was awarded this distinction.  I knew my aunt well. I knew her as an intelligent, faith filled woman who was a blessing to her church. In my eyes no one was more qualified to be an elder than my Aunt Evelyn. I stepped back from my previous position, convinced it was OK for Rachel Henderlite to follow in the footsteps of my aunt.
That might have been my first conversion, but it was not my last. Being a proud white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I am not ashamed of my heritage. I am not a racist. None of us are, at least in our own eyes, but when I was a kid I did go so far as to proudly hang my Stars and Bars out my bedroom window on the high holy days of the South. Logically I knew all men and women were created equal. But deep down I knew God had created me a cut above anyone else.  The proof of my ignorance came at church where everyone looked just like me.
In college I developed a relationship with a fellow student named Ballard Lee. Ballard had completed two years of college before being drafted. After two years in the Army, including a tour in Viet Nam, Ballard enrolled as a junior at King. Ballard was 6’7’’ and weighed around 240 pounds. He played power forward on King’s basketball team. Having become somewhat enlightened in my racial stereotyping, I was delighted when Ballard came to King because now we had two blacks starting on our team. I went to all the games, home and away, as the Tornadoes ran through its conference schedule. One day on our way to class I said to Ballard, “You are a man among boys on the basketball court.” He stopped, placed his huge black hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “I’ve always been a man, boy. I think you are the one who needs to grow up.”
Those words were not spoken out of anger or resentment. They were words of truth spoken in love by someone who understood God a whole lot better than I. Ballard  knew if I was going to travel the road God had set before me, I needed to revisit some of my presumed truths.
Jesus said to the disciples, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Karen Armstrong in her book The Spiral Staircase notes that in most religious traditions faith is not about belief but about practices. There are so many things that we practice as Christians that might not have anything at all to do with Christ. Being a good Christian I once questioned the credibility of folks who didn’t happen to be male or white. I judged rather than loved, causing me to say and think some rather foolish things. I give thanks for stories that cleansed and corrected our souls.
I suspect we all have our cultural idiosyncrasies that keep us from fully embracing our neighbors with the love of God. While our denomination continues to be embroiled in arguments concerning sexual orientation, this congregation has a story that has helped to define you as the Church of Jesus Christ. Rather than being compromised by a shallow reading of a Levitical law, you embraced the command to love one another.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of identifying folks as “gentiles” we could encounter them as Christ has always encountered us? Imagine greeting each other without prejudgment, without cultural bias, without suspicions.  Imagine simply greeting others with the peace of Christ.
I know we live in a dangerous world. There are a lot of crazy folks out there. But sometimes it is our preconceived godly practices that lights the fuse of anger and hate. Or in the words of my friend, “Sometimes we are the ones who need to grow up.”
For the life of me I can’t remember Jesus saying, “They will know you are Christians if you believe the right things.” I seem to remember what Jesus said was, “Love each other, as I have loved you, and everyone will know you are my disciples.”                                     
                                                 To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tell Us Plainly

John 10:22-30; Psalm 23

        I was in a Barnes and Nobles a few weeks ago. Book stores are comfort food for me. I like to walk down the aisles, visiting old friends, and then venturing out to experience a writer I have heard of but never embraced. Barnes and Nobles have those great chairs where you can sit and taste before deciding if you want to pay the price of entering someone else’s world. I admit I buy most of my books from on-line used book stores, but I still enjoy the non-virtual experience.       
A line of books that has rapidly increased in popularity over the past few years is a collection of awkward sized yellow paperbacks that offer hope to those like myself who suffer from limited intelligence in particular areas.  I assume you are familiar with this collection.  It began in the 1990’s with Crosswords for Dummies. The book gave simple lessons in how to master the crossword puzzle in your local newspaper. This was followed with Chess for Dummies. It was such a success the company ventured into SAT’s, foreign languages, household task, and almost anything and everything imaginable. Since my proficiency is limited to the three B’s, Bible, Baseball and Blasphemy, I found the Dummies Collection strangely charming. Notice I used the past tense. My infatuation with their adventure ended when they published The Bible for Dummies.
In my thirty two years of ordination, I think the request I hear most often concerning the Biblical text is, “Tell me plainly. Tell me what the Bible means so I can understand it. Don’t confuse me with metaphors. Just simply lay it out. Let me know what I am supposed to believe and I will take it from there.”
Regardless what anyone has told you, the Bible is not for Dummies. It is not something you get by osmosis. It is not something that is easily understandable and it is certainly not a book written exclusively for children. It is an adult read, with adult themes. It is complex and frustrating, written in a primitive culture that had no concept that the earth was round, women were human beings, and pork was healthy. But the Bible never claimed to know anything about science or food processing.  It is a multifaceted work centering on God’s divine revelation and how those revelations continue to impact and shape those of us who are part of God’s creation.
        In our gospel text, Jesus is confronted by a group of religious leaders. They have listened intently as Jesus described himself as the good shepherd. This metaphorical language, this speaking in images, prompts the listeners to challenge Jesus. “If you are the Messiah, spit it out. Use plain language. Talk so we can understand you.” As Jesus knew and as many of you knows, the problem of talking plainly about God is that the revelations of God are anything but plain. When a person begins speaking with unequivocal certainty about God, I take this as a sure sign that the person hasn’t got a clue. One speaks with certainty about that which ones mind can grasp.  To claim to fully understand God does nothing more than to expose one’s limited imagination. On the other hand, the Bible invites us to experience and participate in rich stories with multiple meanings. The Bible is not a series of coded messages that are meant to be cracked.  It is filled with metaphors and allegories which take us into the elusive mysteries of faith.
        Who is God? Do you remember the story of Moses in the wilderness? The poor guy had been out in the desert for years tending sheep. One day he came across a bush apparently being consumed by fire. As Moses got closer to the bush he noticed the most remarkable thing. The bush was burning but it remained intact. Moses took a swig of water, wiped his eyes and assumed the heat was playing tricks on his mind. Courageously, he took a closer look and that is when the bush began to speak. Eventually, in the course of this conversation between bush and man, Moses discovered he was hearing the voice of God. Feeling he had nothing to lose Moses frantically asked, “Who are you? Tell me your name?”
        The bush replied, “I am who I am.”
Can you imagine what happened when Moses returned home and sat down with the family for dinner? In the midst of the normal family conversations Moses was asked, “So, anything interesting happen to you today?”
How do you rationally grasp, “I am who I am?” What kind of clarification would The Bible for Dummies give? Frankly, I could care less. It is not my job to grasp God, but rather surrender to the belief that God is in the business of grasping me.
Perhaps the most familiar metaphor of God is found in the 23rd Psalm which begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Does that representation of God really work for us today? Think about it. If God is the Shepherd, then I must be the sheep. That thought does not exactly excite me. Having lived in West Texas, I have been around sheep. With the possible exception of turkeys, sheep must be the dumbest animals in all creation. Sheep seemingly begin each day with one objective, to get lost.  If there is a hole in the fence, they are through it. If there is a steep ravine, they stumble down it. If there is a bog, they get stuck in it. Once lost, they make very little effort to escape their predicament. They wait, hoping the shepherd will drag them back to safety. Do you, as a member of the human race feel comfortable with this association?
If thinking of humans as sheep is a bit demeaning imagine what God must think when assigned the title of Shepherd. And yet, at the time, perhaps it was the best analogy the psalmist could imagine. The term “shepherd” was a rich and complex notion in Israel’s culture. The shepherd pastured the flock, led them in the right way, fended off predators, and was responsible for their welfare and safety. In the ancient Middle East the role of shepherd was also used to describe a king. The kings of Israel were judged by their ability to guide and protect the nation. To say, “The Lord is my shepherd” invokes both theological and political images. It speaks to what God has done and therefore what the king is supposed to do. The statement is a confession. It declares commitment and trust. The psalm entrusts the guidance and protection of life to the one whose name is the Lord.   
Who do we trust? Where do we dare place our faith? The tragedy experienced in Boston this week mirrors the tragedies all over the world any day of any week. Do we really believe the Lord is our Shepherd? Do we actually lack for nothing? A literal reading of the Psalm quickly disintegrates when it encounters the complexities of our modern world. And yet, as metaphor, the Psalm displays an image of God through which our hearts evoke memories and our souls dream of new possibilities.
One of my teachers, James Mays, claims the language of the 23rd Psalm is Israel’s testimony to its salvation history.
During the forty years in the wilderness Israel lacked for nothing. God restored the life of the exiles and lead them in paths of righteousness. When they were hungry God prepared a feast. When they were thirsty, water sprang forth from the rocks. In the presence of their enemies, God was with them and this God, this “I Am Who I Am”, led them to the land of promise where they dwelled the rest of their lives.
This Psalm was etched on the heart of each generation that emerged from the wilderness. This memory was transformed into a belief that the Shepherd of the wilderness could also be the Shepherd of each high-way and bi-way that intersects our lives. This is the One who restores our souls. This is the One who leads us toward righteousness. This is the One who accompanies us through danger. This is the One who spreads a Holy Supper before us. This is the One who pursues us with love and grace our entire life. This is the One we cling to in death as the perception of “I shall not want” is fully revealed.   (Stop)
This poem, memorized by many of us as children is also the poem most often heard around the grave. As our loved ones grasped for their last breath, we grasp for the assurance that God’s abode is forever. We celebrate that God is life. We trust that God has defeated death. We pray that the One called, “I am”, will shepherd us through life and death. This is no conversation for dummies.  It is a life long journey in which we dare to confront our frailty and God’s grace.                

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Circle of Life

John 21:1-17

        I have been led to believe that the disciple Peter was a great fisherman.  I don’t have any proof of that, but I seem to remember my Sunday School teachers telling me that when Peter left the Sea of Galilee, he gave up everything to follow Jesus.  We know he had his own boat and nets.  We believe the other fisherman worked under him. So for the sake of argument, let me suggest that Peter was very good at what he did.  On the other hand you could make a very fine argument that if we only rely on the biblical text, Peter should have been a farmer.  I mean every time he goes fishing he comes home with empty nets.  Remember his first and last encounter with Jesus.  They are very similar.  The first time Peter was out on the water with his crew.  They had put in a hard nights work but had nothing to show for it.  Jesus stood on the shore and shouted to them, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat.”  Even though he had no idea who this man was, Peter did as he was told and the nets were full of fish.  Peter jumps out of the boat, wades ashore and was greeted with, “Will you follow me?”
 Immediately Peter responded, “Yes Lord, you know I will follow you.”  Jesus replied, “I will make you a fisher of men.”
        For three years Peter underwent instruction and examples of how he should conduct his life.  He has seen Jesus standing beside Moses and witnessed countless miracles.  Peter has been named both “The Rock” and “The Denier”.  He experienced the trial, the death and the resurrection of his beloved.  And in the end, what does Peter do?  He goes fishing.  He gets the gang together and they go out to catch a few fish for breakfast.  Only once again, the fish are not biting.  There didn’t seem to be a single fish in the whole lake.  Then, almost as if it is déjà vu all over again, Jesus appeared on the beach and shouted, “Try the other side of the boat”.  Instantly the nets were filled. The disciple jumped into the water, waded ashore and was greeted with, “Peter, do you love me?”  The words struck like a knife to the heart. “Lord, you know I love you.”  Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”
        “Follow me!”  “Feed my sheep.”  For those of us who claim Christ, these words complete the circle of our spiritual life.  What is it that Christ would have us do?  Follow him and feed his sheep.
        What motivated Peter to follow Jesus?  The answer seems obvious.  Peter suffered from Empty Net Syndrome.  I suspect this had nothing to do with his occupation and everything to do with his life.  T.S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea and the reality, between the notion and the act, falls the shadow.”  It seems one of the oldest problems of human existence is the frustration of our efforts falling short of our noblest intent.  Left alone, no matter how heroic our labors, they often seem inadequate.  Somehow our vision of what could be and what is becomes blurred.  This is most obvious when trying to attain a sense of self-fulfillment.  How do we become whole?  How do we live complete lives?  Peter was a successful fisherman.  There is no doubt that he was a highly respected member of his community.  And yet, with one word, he left everything and ventured into the unknown.  He was willing to leave that which was comfortable, that which was safe in order to search for the divine.  Peter understood in order to become whole one must first encounter the Holy.  Perhaps this is the shadow, the mystery, to which Eliot speaks.
        In this age of individualism we are apt to make the mistake of believing we can discover this holiness within ourselves.  We often refer to the mystery of God as some hidden spark buried in our soul waiting to be discovered.  We forget that Moses encountered God in the middle of the wilderness.  Elijah discovered God outside a cave high in the mountains.  In contrast to many the spiritual guru’s of our day, I question if the search for God begins or ends by simply looking inward.  In the first chapter of the gospel of Mark we read, “Early in the morning, long before daylight, Jesus got up and went away from them to a lonely spot.  And there he began to pray.”  Even Jesus recognized the Holiness of God as something for which we must search.  The spiritual nets of Peter were empty.  Perhaps that is why he dropped everything and followed Jesus.
        It seems the point of the gospel is, in order to follow Jesus you have got to be willing to go someplace.  I am not suggesting you leave your family or your job. But maybe we need to move beyond the familiar to encounter the unknown. If we desire our spiritual nets to be filled, we need to travel toward the holiness of God and risk being made whole by the encounter. 
I suspect each of you has a story, a moment when your spiritual nets were empty.  I suggest you need to mentally go back to that place. Remember what it was like to suddenly let go of reality and hold on to God.  Stay in that place for a while. Allow these Godly thoughts to not only recharge your memories of yesterday, allow it to reignite the possibilities for today. Allow your soul to be fully charged with God’s energy. Then remember two things. First, your conversion to holiness was not the end but rather the beginning of your journey.  Second if we are converted to the holiness of God, sooner or later God will also convert us to a radical new understanding of who we were meant to be.
        Peter returned to his spot. In the midst of his grief and confusion, Peter went fishing.  It was three years, and three days since his last excursion.  It was post crucifixion, post-resurrection and post-appearance. But Peter remained confused as to what he was to do next.  He could not move beyond the realization that he had been in the presence of God.   It was his time to become a fisher of men, but the Peter could not visualize himself in that role. He returned to the familiar. He went out on the sea; he cast the nets; and came up empty.  Then, once again he encountered God.
        Believing in God is really no big deal.  I suspect if a poll were taken any place in the United States, 95% of the folks interviewed would claim some kind of faith.  Even in Europe, where organized religion barely has a heart beat, I suspect a high percentage of folks would acknowledge the existence of a mystery, a power, beyond their comprehension.  Almost everyone has some understanding of God.  But how many folks are willing to respond to God?  Jesus said to Peter, “Twice I have filled your nets.  Now go feed my sheep.”
        Last Monday Deb and I had the rare opportunity to walk the hallowed grounds of Augusta National with my 87 year old father and our 29 year old son. For me it was a really big deal. Once we got our bearings, I decided we should attempt to walk the back side. We made our way below the tenth tee about the time Bubba Watson and Rickey Fowler teed off. As the reigning Master’s Champion and one of the up and coming stars strolled by I thought life could not get any better than this. I was wrong.
        Our foursome slowly made our way toward the tenth green. We stopped often to take pictures and insure the walk did not overwhelm my father.  The twosome following Watson and Fowler was a fourteen year old amateur from China, Tianlang Guan and two time Master’s Champion Ben Crenshaw.  It was truly an odd couple. Crenshaw, a beloved champion, acknowledged the crowd and often stepped outside the ropes to pose for a picture or two. Guan seemed older than his years but I can’t imagine what must have been going on in his head.
        No one knows the greens of Augusta like Ben Crenshaw.  I watched as he would stand on each green, rolling the ball to different spots that later in the week would represent each official pin setting.  Then he would take his putter and encourage the young Chinese boy to putt at the imaginary holes.  A priceless lesson was being offered by one of the greatest putters golf has ever known. I shut my eyes and imagined the great teacher Harvey Pennick working with Crenshaw as an eighteen year old at the University of Texas.  I imagined Pennick watching Crenshaw roll a few and then going up to the freshmen and saying, “Try this.” And then years later I can imagine Pennick saying to Crenshaw, “Do you love me?”
I am certain Crenshaw looked at him and said, “Coach, you know I love you.”
Pennick responded, “Pass along what I have taught you to someone else.” 
None of us are ever going to qualify to play the Masters, but almost every day each of us will have the opportunity to offer a hand or a word of encouragement to someone else. When the opportunity comes we can choose one of two options.  The first is to say, “I wish I could help but as you can see my own nets are empty.  As soon as I get back on my feet you will be the first person I come and see.”  Or we can take option number two.  We can remember God loves us, and has given us the opportunity to show that love to someone else.
 Is there anyone sitting here this morning who can honestly say you have not been blessed? Our nets are full.  The question is, are we willing to follow the one we love? It begins by answering this simple question, “Do you love Jesus?”  It is not a complicated.   Either you do or you don’t. 
        Let me try again. “Do you love Jesus?”  Of course you do. So let‘s find ways, through labor, through words of encouragement, through prayer, through anything imaginable feed God’s sheep.   
        I am not naïve enough to suggest a 14 year old amateur is going to win the Masters after a few putting tips.   But those gentle words were a small step in completing Crenshaw’s circle of life.
I suspect each one of you is capable of a similar act of grace. Embrace God’s boundless generosity. Then become the giver as well as the receiver of the love of God.                            Amen.