Sunday, January 26, 2014

Then There was Paul

I Corinthians 1:10-18

        Last week, following both services, a number of you came up and expressed joy over my suggestion that the disciples were a less than competent bunch. The typical response was, “Wow, looking at the disciples in that light, I feel much better about myself. Maybe I came take my limited talents, and with the help of God, accomplish things I never felt possible.”
        Keep that thought in mind. Do not let anything I say in the next few minutes distract you from attempting something you once felt impossible. If incompetence is your inspiration, by golly there is plenty of that to go around.
Today incompetence is not the issue. Instead, we are going to venture into those dangerous and controversial waters surrounding the Apostle Paul.
I am well aware just the mention of Paul’s name causes some of you to wish you had stayed in bed. Isn’t this the guy who said, “Wives be subject to your husbands?” If Paul wrote Ephesians, which by the way is questionable, he is guilty of those words. Paul certainly gets credit for writing the Book of Romans were he placed gays and lesbians in the same paragraph with folks who were guilty of wickedness, envy, murder, faithlessness, and ruthlessness. It amazes me that the last half of the first chapter of Romans gets quoted more often at Presbytery meetings than Paul’s later proclamation, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” But then that’s just the way it is with Paul. Controversy follows him like flies attraction to fly paper.
Who was this guy? Unlike the disciples, he had quite an impressive resume. He was trained from birth to be a scholar of the Old Testament text. We are told that he was a highly respected Pharisee which meant he was well versed in Hebrew Law. Paul also had one other thing which made his situation a bit unique. He was born in the city of Tarsus, a coastal town in present day Turkey. Paul was born a citizen of the Roman Empire, a caveat that proved quite useful later in life. Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen and quickly rose up the ranks of those who were appointed by the Sanhedrin to persecute the followers of Jesus. His conversion came following amazing event along the road to Damascus. While blind he saw the text he had known from birth in a whole new light. From there he not only took Christianity beyond Jerusalem, he was the chief architect of the new movement’s theological understanding of the man Jesus. Central to his belief was the cross, which Paul claimed to be, “Foolishness for those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
Those are strong words. This week I took off the better part of Wednesday to ski with a friend who had been the clerk of Session at Bow Creek Presbyterian when I was the minister there in the late 1980’s. Ken was reminding me of the statement of faith that I had presented to the search committee. Paraphrasing Paul, I had somewhat dramatically suggested God called us to be fools for the gospel and I was ready to accept that role.     Ken said he argued against my coming to Bow Creek because, to quote Ken, “He had seen enough ministers make fools of themselves and didn’t care to meet someone who actively bragged about it.”
All kidding aside, how does one approach Paul’s statement concerning the cross? There are those among you who wish we sang more songs like “The Old Rugged Cross”. Others of you cringe when the words, “Blood of the Cross” are spoken. Is there common ground on our understanding of the “Power of the Cross”?  Probably not, and yet the Cross remains the one unique symbol which distinguishes us from other expressions of faith.
Paul was the first theologian of the church. His writings preceded all of the Gospels. One could argue the letters of Paul set the groundwork for the writing of the gospels. The writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke are heavily influenced by the theology of Paul. John’s gospel often finds itself in interesting conversation with the conclusions drawn by Paul.  In the first three Gospels all roads lead to the Cross. In John the resurrection becomes the climax emphasizing the living Word, who was with God in the beginning and continued to be the source of all life. John’s Gospel celebrated a life and a God that could not be overcome by darkness and death. Paul, while grasping the significance of the resurrection, stressed the paradox of cross of Christ.
Paul insists we remember the death of Jesus as an act of humiliation. It would have never occurred to any “sane” individual in the first century to transform the cross into a religious symbol. The cross represented the most shameful form of execution and was used by the Roman justice system primarily to discourage slaves and political insurgents from testing the waters of liberation.  The purpose of cross was to humiliate the dying and frighten the living. During the Jewish wars of 66-77 A.D., thousands of Jews were crucified. From the standpoint of Roman justice, it was proof that resistance was futile.
But instead of being horrified by the cross, Paul wants us to embrace it. Paul preached Christ crucified was not the failure of God’s love but the holiest demonstration of God’s power. In his letter to the Philippians Paul claimed, “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death in order that God could exalt him and give Christ the name that is above every other name.” Instead of being horrified by the cross, Paul both claimed and embraced it, an action that shocked and embarrassed folks intelligent enough to see the failure of his thinking. But Paul did not concern himself with logic, but based his arguments on his faith in a God who had a history of defying human expectations.
Today, among many of my friends and colleagues, the idea of the cross as necessary for the salvation of humankind has fallen on hard times. I was having a conversation with a person under 30 who said his generation sees the church as a place of social action and community restoration. He believes in the grace of God but the details of how that happens aren’t all that important to him. He remarked, “If God can create the world, then why can’t salvation happen without the violence of the cross?” Then he smiled and said, “But then non-violence would be so out of character with the history of the church.”
Ah the subtle sarcasm of youth. To my young friend the cross is both foolishness and a stumbling block in his acceptance of the dogma of the church. But it has not hindered his relationship with God.
I know I am saved by the grace of God. Must that salvation depend on the blood of the cross? Paul, who was initially an orthodox Jew, believed forgiveness came after a sacrifice. It was only logical that Paul would see Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God.  But to my young friend, that image is not only hideous but has become a stumbling block. Is it the theology of Paul or the theology developed by the church’s understanding of Paul that has led to his disillusionment?  I am not sure, but I shall be open enough to continue our conversations.                           Amen

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why did Jesus Pick Those Guys?

John 1:35-42; Isaiah 49:1-7

                A few weeks ago we ordained a new class of elders. Three of the four folks in the class of 2016 have never been elders before. Each of the three during the past few months expressed the concern that they might not be worthy of the task before them.  I responded by telling them no one is worthy of this honor, but they will be surprised by the opportunities for inspiration.
Anyone who has been ordained remembers the installation service. When the hands of years of experience touch your shoulder during the prayer of ordination it is an empowering moment. It is also the moment you realize you will now fill the shoes of someone you greatly admire. That is when reality sets in and that is when you ask yourself, “Why on earth did I agree to become an elder?”
        I might suggest that feeling is not exclusive to those who have been ordained. Anytime we step forward to lead a committee, teach a Bible Study class, supply refreshments, make a visit, serve on a committee or just greet folks in the hallway, there is be a bit of hesitation. Am I worthy enough to represent the body of Christ? Let me remind you of the qualifications of the first 12 guys that eventually became the embodiment of Christ.
        Does anyone remember the names of all twelve disciples? I suspect not. For the record their names were Peter, Andrew, James, John, Phillip, Bartholomew (Nathaniel), Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon, Thaddeus and Judas.  What do we know about these men?
        Peter was the leader. He was a fisherman. Of course if we use the scripture as our only guide he must not have been very good. Every time the text mentions Peter doing what he does best, he fails to catch a single fish.
        Matthew was a tax collector, a less than honorable trade during the time of Roman occupation. No one liked or trusted members of Matthew’s profession.
        James and Andrew were brothers and referred to themselves as the Sons of Thunder. I am not sure if this was a reflection on the father or the sons.
        John is known as the disciple that Jesus loved.  This description is found exclusively in John’s Gospel which makes me wonder if John might have had a bit of an inferiority complex.
Phillip the disciple is often confused with Phillip the evangelist. Phillip the evangelist spoke Greek and was responsible for baptizing a gentile in the book of Acts. We really know very little about Phillip the disciple.
        We all know Thomas as the one who doubted Jesus. I am sure he wishes he was known for something else.
And then there is Judas Iscariot. While Judas did manage to get the starring role in Jesus Christ Superstar, he pretty much spent the first 2,000 years as the most despised character in the Christian tradition.
 The other four disciples are only known by their names.
One might ask, “Why did Jesus pick these guys?”  There was not a biblical scholar in the bunch. No scribe or rabbi; no lawyer or doctor. They only seemed to have one thing in common. They all were looking for something.
That tells me two really important things about those twelve men. First, they were not finished products. They were very rough around the edges and had a lot to learn and even more to experience.
Second, while they always seemed in constant denial about who Jesus was and who they could become, they stayed the course. At some point along the way, each must have wanted to go home, and yet eleven of the original twelve made it to Pentecost. You might not remember all their names but we are a product of what they started.
What were they looking for? We could dismiss the question by simply saying “They were looking for the Messiah.” But the answer is much more complex.  I think they were looking for an answer to the question which has confounded most humans of any age, “Who am I?”
I remember a few years ago my son, a recent graduate from college, made the decision to spend a year in Peru. In a private conversation I expressed my pride and my jealousy that he was able to take a break from life and run off to another part of the world. He said, “Dad, I am not doing anything heroic. I am just trying to find myself.”
All kidding aside, I have come to believe death occurs the day we stop looking toward tomorrow. Perhaps I am na├»ve but I believe when life becomes static, when there is really no reason to get up in the morning, why should we? We don’t have to spend a year in Peru, but we do need something to motivate us in order to see tomorrow as full of new and unique possibilities.   My mother has a shirt which she proudly wears which says, “So many books and not enough days.”  That attitude gives her life.
Tomorrow could mean a new book, a new project, or a new grandchild. Tomorrow could be spring football or the next episode of Downton Abbey. I didn’t say it had to be important. It just has to be something to motivate us and give us life.
Perhaps the disciples, those stumbling and bumbling fools, weren’t much different than us. Perhaps they were looking for something new, something meaningful, something provocative, something out of the ordinary, something that would take them beyond their boats and their limited imaginations. Perhaps they were trying to rediscover or jump start their lives. Perhaps they were bored. Perhaps they were curious. Perhaps they were tired of seeing life the same way and wanted to try something different. Perhaps they believed God wanted them to move forward because they believed God is always moving forward. All we know is when Jesus asked what they were looking for, they couldn’t answer his question. But they did see a door opening to a multitude of new possibilities. And strangely enough, the opening of that door gave them the courage to ask the question disciples yesterday and today must eventually ask,
That is probably not the question you were expecting. Some of you might suggest that is not a question we should be raising. It leads us to ask if God is an active God, both in the world and in our lives.  It is the type of questions which causes us to stop and ponder if God IS active perhaps God could be a little more active on some of the things that really matter.
What is God looking for? Do you think it was an accident that Jesus just happened to run into Andrew? Remember this is the gospel of John. In John’s gospel nothing happens accidentally. The meeting was intentional. Jesus planned all along to enlist Andrew and Peter and all those other bungling suspects we now honor with the title of Apostle. Jesus knew his role. He knew no one else could do what he was about to do. But Jesus also knew there was work to be done once he was gone. Who better than a band of misfits to accomplish what no one imagined possible?
Teresa of Avilia, a sixteenth century mystic, wrote this to her fellow nuns shortly before her death.
        Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
        No hands but yours,
        No feet but yours.
        Yours are the eyes through which to see Christ’s
                compassion for the world.
        Yours are the feet to which Christ
                is to go about doing good.
        Yours are the hands with which Christ
                is to bless others.

What are you looking for? What is God looking for? Maybe it is the same thing.. Imagine living to fulfill that for which Jesus died.  Imagine……and follow.      Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Beginning

Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 85:10-11

        Except for the occasional mishap when both I and the child’s parents are kidnapped by well meaning but theologically misguided grandparents, I find baptisms to be a glorious event. I am already looking forward to February 16th when I have graciously been allowed to participate in the baptism of my soon to be born granddaughter. In the presence of both her traditional and church family, Siddalee will experience the water of God’s new creation as it cascades down her forehead and into her soul.
        What exactly is Baptism? As Presbyterians we only recognize two sacraments, the other being the Lord’s Supper. That in itself makes Baptism rather significant. As Presbyterians we practice two types of baptism. The first, which is universally accepted by all Christians, is called Believers Baptism. This occurs when a person offers their own profession of faith and proclaims allegiance to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for a response through their faithfulness.
        The second form of Baptism, the baptism of children, is not universally accepted by all denominations. Believing that Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s faithfulness, we baptize children signifying that God’s love claims people before they are able to respond in faith.  In believers Baptism it becomes the responsibility of the congregation to nurture and educate the newly baptized. In the case of an infant it falls to the parent(s) and the congregation to prepare the child for that moment when the he or she is able to make a profession of faith.
        As Presbyterians we believe in one body and one Baptism. We rejoice in Baptism regardless when or how it was administered. Any Baptism administered by another Christian church is recognized by our denomination.
        That explains how we administer Baptism but it really doesn’t explain what Baptism is. Our Book of Order claims “Baptism is the sign and seal of incorporation into Christ. Jesus through his own baptism identified himself with sinners in order to fulfill all righteousness.” This definition of baptism leans heavily on the account of Jesus’ baptism as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. How did I come to that conclusion? Matthew is the only gospel writer to include the word “righteousness” in his account. The significance of the inclusion and exclusion of that word speaks volumes to each gospel writers understanding of who Jesus was and is. Perhaps our Sunday School class is a better forum for that discussion.  But I do believe right now is an opportune teaching moment concerning this particular word and how it is so important to our fulfillment of our baptismal rites.  
        What does it mean to be righteous? Let’s face it; everyone is right in their own mind. Some folks who lean toward the political right enjoy speaking of their adversaries as being “political wrong”. Truth is we could argue all day long over what is right and wrong and might only come to one possible conclusion, the right to disagree. And even that assumption is a bit uncertain. But what happens when we expand the word “right” into “righteous”? I suspect that creates a whole new discussion.
        How many folks would you honor with the title of righteous? Webster defines righteous as “Acting in accord with the divine or moral law.” Webster goes a dangerous second step by stating “A righteous person is free from guilt or sin.” Who among us wants to claim that distinction?   
        The gift of righteousness is not something with which we are born. I fear the road to righteousness is traveled much less than any path Robert Frost ever imagined. The writer of Psalm 85 writes the results of God’s forgiveness is, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.” What a glorious image!  Unfortunately I fear righteousness is a quality too often missing even among those who claim to be the people of God.
        When John the Baptist spotted Jesus among those lining up to be baptized in the muddy waters of the Jordan, John saw a righteous man. John recognized the amalgamation of steadfast love and faithfulness.  The one sent to testify to the infidelity of a generation fell silent with the emergence of Jesus. Isn’t that how righteousness should affect us? Shouldn’t we fall silent with both respect and curiosity? Shouldn’t our ears hunger for the words that might fall from the lips of such a person of faith?
        John somehow knew who stood before him. He wanted to fall face first into the water and have Jesus rescue him from all that confused his troubled soul. John wanted just an ounce of the righteousness that radiated from the man before him. But that is not what happened. Jesus said, “I need you to unleash me into the world. I need you to place me into this water of those who have bathed before me. I need to submit myself to the uncleanliness of this moment in order that I might begin to walk toward a day when righteousness and peace will kiss.”
        For Jesus, Baptism was the beginning. It was the introduction into all that is good and not so good about life. It was pre-temptation, pre-Sermon on the Mount, pre-parables, pre-healings, pre-death, pre-resurrection, pre-anything and everything that identified the Jesus we find in the Gospel of Matthew as the Son of God.
        Our Baptism is a beginning. It is an invitation to begin to choose to be righteous. This doesn’t happen by osmosis. When we were baptized, regardless if we were a baby or an adult, there was a congregation who pledged to tell us the story of salvation and place us on the road to righteousness.
Because someone told us the story, amidst our temptations we remember the Sermon on the Mount.
Because some told us the story, when we face difficult trials, we relate to a parable.
Because someone told us the story, when our spirit is wounded, we know there is always the opportunity to be healed.
Because someone told us the story, even in the face of death, we believe there is new life.
From the moment of our Baptism we have been told the story of a righteous man. We have been told his priorities were steadfast love and faithfulness to God.  We celebrate his graciousness and we marvel at his ability to forgive. We are a people, baptized into a community of believers who strive to be righteous, strive to be steadfast in love, strive to be faithful to God and strive to forgive others and ourselves should either fail short of Christ’s example.
I don’t remember the actual day I was baptized but each day I remember my baptism. It was the beginning of my journey toward righteousness. I still have a long way to go but I shall never stop trying because I have the voices of saints past and saints present who have given and still give me a glimpse of what it means to be fully human. Hopefully, like you, I have become a voice in someone else’s journey.
Together, in the light of Christ’s stories let us celebrate the intersection of steadfast love and faithfulness.
Together, let us rejoice in the wonder of God’s grace as virtue and peace kiss.
Together, let us embrace the cleansing and creative waters of our baptism.    
Together, let us remember our baptism and continue that road less traveled, the road to God’s righteousness.