Sunday, May 25, 2014

You'd Do it for Randolph Scott

I Peter 3:13-22

Why do people suffer? Is suffering redemptive? Does suffering for a holy cause make us holy? Is there a definitive answer to these questions in scripture?
Our text this morning states, “If you suffer for doing what is right you will be blessed, for Christ suffered in order to bring you to God.” While I revere the Bible, I have also been taught to approach each text with a degree of hermeneutical suspicion. It is irresponsible, even dangerous, to take one text and suggest it contains the answer to any question. Not every text is universal. Scripture should be examined contextually or in other words understood within the parameters from which they were written.
A number of years ago Billy Graham was holding a revival in Las Vegas. He booked a major hotel/convention center for the entire week. Shortly after the conclusion of the revival, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. When Graham was asked about the significance of the fire, his response was, “All of our suffering, including death itself, is a result of our rebellion against God.” Is this the same answer he would have given to a close friend diagnosed with cancer?
I do not believe there is one definitive answer to cover all the questions that arise concerning the dilemma of human suffering. Furthermore, to offer only one is quite dangerous. Human suffering is often the results of human iniquity, but the sufferer is not always the sinner.
Last week we began looking at this little letter we call First Peter. The writer applauded his audience as members of a royal priesthood. That is high praise for anyone and was particularly significant for the writer’s original audience. He was lifting the spirits of a people who may have never been told they were more than sub-human. His audience was slaves and married woman. This letter was written in response to the abuse the members of this church received every day. They were not being persecuted because of their faith. They had the misfortune of living in a culture where woman and slaves had no rights. To rebel could mean expulsion or death. Their suffering was real. Perhaps they longed for a word of hope. Perhaps they desired an explanation concerning their misfortune. I wonder how they responded to the words they received.
Imagine someone who is being abused by a spouse coming by my office for advice or comfort. Imagine what they would think if I said to them, “Don’t resist. Joyfully surrender to the abuse you are receiving. This will not only unite you with Christ, it will transform your husband as he begins to wonder why you are so submissive.”
In this day in age that kind of advice would be criminal. The husband and I both should be dragged to court. But when First Peter was written, no court system would have acknowledged any woman had the right to question the actions of her husband. She was his property. The advice to be submissively Christ-like was perhaps the only option the writer could offer. But is this advice relevant outside of that particular cultural situation?  We know better.
The subject of this text raises the serious question of how we are to approach suffering theologically. Our biblical tradition correctly observes that some suffering can be transformational. Often it is through suffering that we come to realize our hidden strengths and potentials. Many of us who engaged in sports remember the phrase, “No pain, no gain.” In the process of expanding our physical, intellectual and moral growth, often a degree of suffering is involved.
From birth many of us have been taught that Christ died for the sins of the world. To deny this death involved suffering would be to deny the humanness of Jesus. Christ, by identifying himself with us in our temptations, trials, hopelessness, and death, paid an immeasurably costly price. One can see how redemptive suffering, both on the part of an innocent God and a guilty creation, would become a critical component in the development of our faith.  Furthermore, as we become intimate with God in our suffering, it hopefully would follow that we would become equally intimate with humanity and discover a greater meaning to life outside our deeply seated narcissistic orientation. Suffering can make one sensitive to the pain in this world, increasing our desire to be involved in selfless acts of righteousness and reconciliation.
But not all suffering leads to a spiritual transformation. We have known this forever but perhaps it is only within the last century that some of our leading theological minds have had the courage to scream out that the rape of a woman, the abuse of a child, or the malnourishment of an infant is neither transformational nor redemptive. Sometimes we have to witness a tragedy beyond our imagination before we will engage in questioning some of our deep-seated notions concerning the mind of God.  German theologian Dorothee Soelle speaks of her discovery of the Holocaust as a teenager. She writes, “It was an unspeakable evil and so we did not speak of it. It was as if silence would eliminate the horror that played out before our eyes. But silence only made us willing participants with those responsible for the atrocities. Silence led to our apathy and our conformity.”
Our attempts to understand such tragedies as the holocaust, stretches our acceptance of the simplistic notion that “all our suffering stems from our rebellion from God.” Too often suffering is the results of another’s behavior, leaving the innocent victimized. Such was the case of the slaves and women who received and read I Peter.  But slavery has been in abolished in most parts of the world and thankfully so has the immoral restraints a man might place on his wife. Yet, as the church grew institutionally, its perceived survival became tragically linked in an unholy alliance with those in power.  Too often the message of Church suggested suffering on behalf of the rulers in this world guaranteed you would find tranquility in heaven.
I am reminded of the story of Hatuey, a chieftain on the island we now call Cuba. In the early 1500’s a group of missionaries and conquistadors were busying themselves in the modernization of the original inhabitants of the island. Hatuey and his people proved to be quite illusive and conducted a successful guerrilla campaign against the Spaniards.  Eventually some tribesman were captured and tortured, giving up vital information concerning Hatuey before they died. Once apprehended, the great chief was sentenced to death. Before his execution, Hatuey was given an audience with a Franciscan monk who promised if the chief would accept Christ, he would spend eternity in heaven. Hatuey replied, “If this is where you and your friends are going when you die, I would rather not spend eternity with such a cruel people.” I am certain the monk must have been stunned, much as we are stunned when some of our contemporaries might suggest suffering in silence is little more than an unholy alliance with the Empire.
        Do you remember one of the classic fables of the old west? The town of Rock Ridge was about to be demolished by the railroad. There seemed to be no way to preserve the tranquility of that small town until the Sheriff, Black Bart, devised a scheme well beyond the imagination of most creative minds. The town folks, viewing the plan with a large dose of hermeneutical suspicion, immediately rejected it. But the sheriff, pulling on heart strings that defy logic and common sense replied, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott.”
        There is nothing romantic about human suffering. Yet throughout history, in the name of God and Randolph Scott, we have marched into hell for some very unheavenly causes. The rape of a woman has nothing to do with redemption. The enslavement of another, both physically and emotionally, has nothing to do with God. The abuse of a child or a nation of children can never be morally or theologically justified. If there is to be redemption here and now, it will only come when the people of God work toward the completion of God’s holy creation. Since God has suffered for us, we must be willing to suffer for those who have already suffered. Since God has suffered for us, with great suspicion, we must encounter the schemes of empires and the dreams of those whom empires enslave. Since God has suffered for us, we must work to change the conditions under which profitable suffering is deemed acceptable.  
        With open hearts and ears we must listen for the silent screams of those who are seldom heard. God is with them because God has always been with the slave, the down trodden, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan.  Now it is our turn.  You’d do it for Randolph Scott. Will you do it for those whose silent suffering cries out to be exposed?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Once You Were Not a People

I Peter 2:9-10

It is the middle of May, that time of year when graduates from schools all over the country put on their robes and walk across a stage to receive their diplomas. Graduate schools, Colleges, High Schools, even pre-schools are in the process of setting the stage for this prestigious event. On more than one occasion I have been given the honor of presenting the graduation address. On each occasion I was probably selected because the first ten choices had declined, but I was happy to be there. How often does someone the other side of middle age get to speak to a captive audience of folks under 20?
Is there anyone here who has not sat through the obligatory graduation address? Can you remember anything worthwhile being said? I remember a few years ago Generation X was reintroduced to Kurt Vonnegut when he suggested the most important thing he had learned in life was to wear sunscreen. The phrase went viral as the speech lit up the internet. Vonnegut later remarked he didn’t even remember making the remark.
My favorite speech of late was given by David McCullough Jr. who dared to stand before a group of high school seniors and suggest they were not all that special. He courageously said, “Your planet is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center, therefore you cannot be it.” The parents, many who had bought homes inside the Wellesley district, were stunned.
There is a gift in knowing how to say the right word to the right people at the right time. The writer of the letter we know as I Peter was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who were living outside the land of Israel. Most of the folks to whom Paul wrote were raised in a culture heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. But this community still had its Jewish roots. This gave the writer an incredible advantage. He could draw from the Old Testament.
It has always been a concern of mine that we do not spend enough time in the Old Testament. Too many folks believe the Old Testament to be background music played while we wait for the feature film to start. Nothing could be further from the truth. The essentials of the Gospel message are first revealed in the Old Testament. Like its successor, the Old Testament reveals the grace and mercy of God in the midst of the human endeavor. Christ does not make sense when experienced without the voices of the Old Testament text.  It is like singing a song and beginning with the third verse. The critical cohesion is missing.
The writer of I Peter, much like the writers of the letters of The Hebrews, James, and Jude, had an incredible advantage over the letters written by Paul and his disciples.  The folks receiving these letters know the first two verses of the song. They had known the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah from birth. When the writer of I Peter addresses the graduating class of this small Jewish/Christian congregation, he is speaking to folks who are well versed in covenant language. 
He writes, “God is laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone chosen and precious.” This image is straight out of the writings of Isaiah. He continues, “The very stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone.” This is taken from Psalm 118, a Psalm that praises the steadfast love and mercy of God.  Then from Isaiah 8 he wrote, “The stone you have chosen will make you stumble, it will make you fall.” In other words, it is human nature to walk away from the goodness of God and choose another path. But the consequence of that choice might lead to exile from God.
Much like Kurt Vonnegut telling the victims of too many spring breaks to use suntan lotion, or David McCullough Jr. reminding high schools seniors there is more to life than collecting a box full of trophies for just showing up, the words of the writer of I Peter rang true with this dispersed community of Jewish refugees. Using the words of their ancient text they heard this promise, “Despite who you are, God’s covenant remains the same. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people. Proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.” 
I can imagine crowd went crazy when they heard those words. The graduates had heard everything they had hoped to hear. They were ready to hand out the diplomas so the party could begin. But then one last phrase was added. “Once you were not my people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The crowd sat in silence, stunned, as the story of Hosea reentered their collective consciousness. They remembered, and they wept, for their hearts were overcome with joy.
Anyone who mistakenly believes the God of the Old Testament lacks love, compassion and mercy has never read the Book of Hosea. It is twelve pages long and can easily be read in a couple of minutes. But it can never be read just once. To suggest Hosea is just another book of the Old Testament is like suggesting John 3:16 is just another verse. The audience hearing I Peter’s letter knew the story and the writer was fully aware of it. It is the only reason he would have used the phrase, “Loammi”, “Not my people”. 
As many of you know, the story of Hosea is a parable representing the relationship between God and Israel. In the story, Hosea/God, marries a prostitute, Gomer/Israel. They have three children. They first is named Loammi. The marriage ends in tragedy with Gomer returning to her former life. This represents Israel’s propensity of always turning from Yahweh and seeking different gods. But Hosea will not be deterred by Gomer’s sinfulness. He seeks her out and buys her back from the men who now own her. In the later part of the book a question is raised as to why those who chose not be be God’s people are showered with mercy. Allow me to bless you with this reading from Hosea 11. “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called the more they went from me. They turned to offering sacrifices to idols. Yet it was I who taught Israel how to walk. I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness. Like a mother I lifted them up and fed them. How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me. My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, for I am not a mortal, I am God, and I will not be overcome by my wrath.”    (Pause)
The recipients of that graduation address heard and remembered the creedal statement that abounds throughout the Old Testament. “God is gracious, God is merciful, God is slow to anger, and God is abounding with steadfast love.”
How quickly we forget that creedal statement. How quickly we elevate ourselves to a God-like status.  To the glory of God, children are kidnapped in Nigeria.  In the memory of Valdamir the Great, the Czar who Christianized Russia, Putkin threatens the Ukraine. In the name of God people, wrap themselves in their national flag and call for the expulsion of anyone who dares to disagree.  But why we should be surprised? When one becomes the center of their world, there is never room for grace, or mercy or restraint or steadfast love.
Might I suggest, when we are outraged by radically offensive behavior in the name of God, we remember two things. First, no matter how much those folks celebrate their inflated status, they are not the center of anyone’s universe.
And secondly, neither are we.
To God and God alone be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

If The Lord is My Shepherd, What Then?

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23

        I doubt there is any better known Psalm than the one that begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  Our hymnbook has nine songs based on that Psalm.  Many of us know the 23rd Psalm by heart.  I would suggest that if you attend any funeral in the next few weeks there is a very good chance you will hear this poem.  It offers hope, comfort and the reassurance that God is with us no matter the circumstances. We are the sheep, God is the shepherd.  So what are the demands of being a sheep?  In other words, if the Lord is my shepherd, what then?
        I figure there is no greater example of a people responding to God’s promises than the one set by the early church in the days directly after reports of the resurrection.  You know the story.  The spirit of God descends upon the Apostles.  They find incredible courage and begin to preach the gospel of Christ in the streets of Jerusalem.  People responded to this message of hope and redemption.  Thousands proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and savior.  And why not?  The preaching of the Peter and John mirrored the message of the Psalm.  “The Lord is your shepherd.  You shall not want. God will restore your soul.  God will lead down the right path.  When your way grows dark, you need not fear. God will be with you.  Even here in Jerusalem, in the midst of those who killed Jesus, God will prepare a holy feast.  You will be anointed as a child of God.  Goodness and mercy will follow you and you shall praise God for evermore.”  People heard this word of promise and they responded.  Against the reality of persecution and death, people flocked to hear the Apostles.  They openly professed Jesus as their savior.  They lived as if claiming Jesus as their shepherd meant really something.  
        This is the question that baffles me this morning. What does it mean to profess Jesus as Lord and Savior?  That seems like such an easy question.  Let me ask it differently. What does Christ want of us?  More and more I keep hearing folks only talk about faith in terms of it being the key to eternal life.  It seems to all boil down to the simple question, “Do you believe in Jesus?”  If the answer is yes, you get to go to heaven. If you are not sure, you might need fire insurance because those who don’t claim Christ have a future that is going to get awful hot.  Everything seems to hinge on the eternal question.  But is that all there is to faith?  Do we claim Christ only as an eternal insurance policy?  Isn’t there something else?  Shouldn’t the way we live our lives be a reflection of the trust we have placed in God? Shouldn’t our lives mirror how Jesus lived?  If the Lord is our Shepherd, shouldn’t we become a guide to the lost, the lonely, the confused and those who have lost hope?    
        How did Christianity evolve from a movement concerned with community to an institution focused on the individual?  A number of years ago I was doing volunteer work for an organization ministering to folks who had Aids.  In a period of three years I performed a funeral service nearly every month for young gay men.  Quite often the mother and father of the deceased would sit at the back of the sanctuary, too ashamed to be seated with the “family”.  After the service, they would catch me in the parking lot, always asking the same question.  “Did my son repent and accept Christ before he died?” 
        To avoid a difficult discussion in the midst of grief, I always answered, “Yes he did.”  Of course what I wanted to say was, “Why didn’t you ask him yourself?  Why did you treat him like a leper?  Why did you never visit him in the hospital? Why were you ashamed to claim him as your own?  Are you now willing to repent and live as Christ would have you live?  I am certainly willing to hear your confession before you die.”   Of course I never said that.  It would have been impolite, improper, rude.
        The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  But the problem is we do want.  We want to live without fear.  We want to be loved and/or respected.  We want good health, good neighbors, good children and grand children.  We want to reap the benefits of our labor.  We want life to be uncomplicated, void of drama, free of stress.  And sometimes we want everyone else to be just like us.  We want so much.  But have you ever stopped to consider what the shepherd wants of us? Again the answer seems so simple.  God wants our hearts. God wants our souls.  God wants our very being.  Nothing very complicated about that.  Why would we be here this morning if we didn’t love God?   But is that all the Lord requires?
        Imagine owning a large company.  You have built the company from ground level and the success of the company hinges on the people you hire.  An important position has opened and you have spent the better part of the month trying to find the right person.  What would you want of this new employee?  I suspect high on the priority list would be loyalty.  I suspect you would want this new person to be excited about the product produced.  I suspect you would expect the new employee to put in a full days work for the compensation offered.
        Is God any different?   What does God require of us?  For those of you who value the lessons of the Old Testament, the answer to that question is found in Micah.  God wants us to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God and our neighbor.  As I read the book of Acts, it seems that this is the way the early church responded to the resurrection of Christ.  We read, “They distributed what they had to all who had need; they worshiped together, broke bread together; they praised God with generous hearts.”     
        The early church celebrated the resurrection by discovering the wonders of Christian Fellowship.  We are told they went out, had a big garage sale and joined together as a community of faith.  They sacrificed their time and possessions for a cause greater than themselves.  They believed that God’s gift of freedom from death also meant a freedom from a lot of the earthly obligations that enslaved them.  They discovered the joy of community, the love that folks of a common mind can share, and the spirit that surrounds us when we live Godly lives.
        When I was a child, my home Church had a group called the Barnabas Club. Meetings were very sporadic.  We met after worship and the meetings weren’t announced until before the benediction.  There were no officers, no minutes, in fact, while I was a member of the club, I could only guess the names of the other members.  Every person who belonged to the Church was invited to join.  I am not sure how many did.  All I know is that if a meeting of the Barnabas Club was announced, my father would give me a couple of dollars and I would walk into the designated room, put the money in a basket, and leave.
        Where did the money go?  Only the minister knew.  When a situation developed during the week where someone in the community or the church family had a need, the Barnabas Club met.  Some needs were greater than others and occasionally the club would have to meet two weeks in a row.  Nothing was ever reported; receipts for tax purposes were never received; no names were ever mentioned but this small church felt blessed to have the opportunity to insure that a member of their greater community had been assisted.
        We as children of the living God have been given the gift of life today and life forever more.  We have also been given the opportunity to live this life as representatives of Christ.  The apostle Paul reminds us as God’s chosen we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  We are to bear with one another, forgive each other, love each other as Christ has loved and forgiven us.  We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our heart. Paul concludes by saying, “In all that you do, live life as a thanksgiving to God.”
        The opportunity to be someone’s shepherd is always there.  There are so many broken hearts waiting to be healed.  They are so many lonely hearts waiting to be recognized.  Our job is not to heal folks.  We are called to sit and pray with them until the healer arrives.  And Christ will come, often in a variety of disguises.  He comes as a shepherd.  He comes through a word of encouragement. He comes as we open our arms to the ones who have gone astray, and show them the way back home.
        The Lord is my shepherd. This is a declaration of praise and an acceptance of an invitation to be engaged in a holy vision. Take hold of God’s staff. Fear no evil. Wade in the redemptive waters of God’s grace……. today, tomorrow, and forever more.