Sunday, October 26, 2014

Difficult Questions

Matthew 22:34-46; Deut. 30:15-20


        I was driving through Amherst County last week and saw a billboard which in huge letters proclaimed, “Choose Life – Deuteronomy 30:19”.  Under the heading was the picture of an unborn fetus. Nothing else needed to be said.

        The billboard reminded me of an incident many years ago. Everyone was home, we had finished dinner and the kids were working on their school assignments. The door bell rang. The late night visitor was a nineteen year old woman who was very active in our church. Jennifer had entered college but never had her heart into it. Now she stood at my door, weeping. Jennifer told me she was pregnant.  Her father wanted to drive her to Midland for an abortion. His intention was to keep everything quiet and not make a scene. The mother was hysterical and had been ranting about how much this would destroy the reputation of the family. Her younger sister was horrified that an abortion was being considered.

        I sat on the couch and witnessed the pain of this young woman as she grappled with a future she never imagined possible. I took her hand said something stupid like “As your minister, how can I help you?”

        Through her tears she blurted out, “I don’t need God. What I really need is a friend.”

        As much as we try to simplify this thing called faith, our broad strokes concerning the will of God often take us further and further away from that which is relevant. Jesus understood the complexities of the human condition. When confronted with questions for which there seemed to be only one right answer, he always engaged his audience in a conversation that pressed beyond the obvious.  In this morning’s scripture the Pharisees asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. The Pharisees always led with an easy question before following with a second designed to erode the authority of Jesus.

        Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” Before the Pharisees could respond with a second question Jesus added, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

        In the gospel of Luke the follow-up question was, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, which turned out to be a lot more information about existing social mores than they cared to hear. In our reading this morning, Jesus took to the offensive by asking his own unanswerable question. It was as if Jesus was saying, “Let’s not engage in Bible drills unless you want to seriously grapple with the complexity of God’s word.”

        Choosing Life is serious business. The concept of Life created and Life sustained is at the very center of our understanding of God. This is closely followed by the maintenance of life, a process not to be attempted in a vacuum. Being a neighbor, or a friend, can hardly be reduced to simplistic or inflammatory statements found on billboards or car bumpers. It is real life stuff, with real life decisions resulting in real life consequences involving more than just our isolated circle of acquaintances.

Serious dialogues must go further than slogans and rhetoric. Biblically speaking, what exactly does  it mean to Choose Life? Two sincere, devout Christians can read the Bible, pray earnestly, yet come to opposite conclusions Some, such as our well meaning friends in Amherst County, would insist this is the answer to anyone who might be considering an abortion. But what would happen if I were to engage with our Amherst friends in other pro-life discussions such as the abolishment of capital punishment, or any discussion concerning death of civilians in war, or euthanasia, or perhaps even the death of our planet due to our thirst for industrialization or our desire to be independent of foreign sources of energy? How open or consistent would any of us be in these discussions? Can we be pro-life on one issue and favor death in another? How are these discussions influenced by our faith? How are we informed by the Biblical text? Might it be safer to keep God out issues which easily turn political? And of course the white elephant in the room is misuse of the Bible in order to support conclusions we have already reached. I suspect we have all been guilty of that.

What did the author of the book of Deuteronomy have in mind when he placed the words “Choose Life” on the lips of Moses? Perhaps the best way to find out is to go back to the text.  Moses was preaching his last sermon. The sermon was being offered to a people who are preparing to reenter the Promised Land. Note I said re-enter. This text was first heard by exiles in Babylon preparing to return to Jerusalem. The question which most concerned the exiles was why Jerusalem was destroyed. Their rabbis accused their ancestors of putting their  self-desires and appetites ahead of what was good for the community. In other words, they forgot the commandments. This amnesia led to the death of a nation.

Critical questions concerning priorities were put to a people preparing to leave Babylon. “Will you choose life or death? Will you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself? Will you give thanks to God in and outside of worship? Will you acknowledge your desire to be self-serving? Will you exhibit justice and fairness toward the weak and the poor? Will you honor your elders? Will you respect your neighbors? Will you lead your people with energy, intelligence, and imagination? Will you help the friendless and those in need? This is God’s way. Will you choose God’s path?”                     (stop)

Each week I go to the Charlottesville Prison and listen to a young man who has blown multiple chances to live a productive life. How do I assess all the complications that led to his bad choices? As a friend, what hope do I offer?

I go to the nursing homes and hospitals and listen to folks in the last days of their lives. Each person and each situation is radically dissimilar. I know each person understands the concept of life differently. How can I begin to know what to say when I conclude our visit with prayer?

Last week I had the chance to sit with a professor of missions who shared his last two years living with Palestinian just outside Jerusalem. He spoke of the daycare attended by his three year old and how she fondly remembers her friends named Mohammed and Joseph. One is Muslim, one is Christian, both are Israeli by law and Palestinian by birth. Neither will grow up with the rights of their Jewish neighbors.  Where is the justice in that?

If I love God with my heart, soul, and mind, who is my neighbor? The simple answers I desire quickly become complicated in the light of Godly expectations. Then, just when I think I have it all figured out, the door bell rings, and once again I find myself sitting on the couch.

Am I responsible for my friend’s choices? Or am I only responsible for my response to her choices?

Sometimes God’s word provides us with a powerful answer to difficult question.

Sometimes God’s spirit provokes us to examine even deeper questions.

Sometimes God’s silence compels us to quietly sit on the couch and listen…….. just like we would with any friend.   


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Whatever Is

Philippians 4:4-9


        A month ago I was asked to make a presentation on The Book of Confessions. I was delighted to help out some of my fellow ministers in their officer training and looked forward to having a meaningful discussion on both the historical setting and theological significance of the eleven statements of faith found in this document. Last week the same person wrote to ask if I would switch topics. Instead of The Book of Confessions, Albert wanted to know if I might cover the essential tenets of the Reform Faith. 

        Anyone who had been elected to the office of elder might remember a series of questions posed to each candidate. The one I find most troubling and the one to which I am to speak about this evening is, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expectations of what scripture leads us to believe and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

        I would hope before anyone would answer this question they might ask, “What are the essential tenets of the reformed faith?” I suspect if I were having this discussion here, the answer received would be somewhat different than the answer I will receive this evening. This congregation celebrates a variety of religious experiences and doctrines. That has certainly helped us listen to an assortment of truths, some which are spelled with a capital T and others which are no less important but might not be universally held. The creedal statements we find in our Book of Confessions include declarations from six different denominations written over a period of 1700 years. While the Hammurabi Code, The Magna Charta, and the Declaration of Independence each agree on the importance of the human experiment, each differently defines the essential concept of human liberty.       So why should we be surprised that a church 2,000 old might differ on which tenets/critical beliefs should be held as infallible.

        As a Christians we share with all other Christian denominations the mystery of a triune God. Just the mention of the word Trinity creates a discussion over terminology ranging from Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to more modern language such as Creator, Reconciler and Sustainer. However the language used does not lessen our faith in the mysterious ways in which God reveals God’s self.

        Second, as a universal church, we celebrate the incarnation of the eternal word of God in Jesus Christ. We are not alone. God, Emmanuel, is with us.

        But then a divide begins which separates us into different expressions of understanding the actions of this mysterious God we claim.  First, as Protestants we acknowledge we are justified by Grace. We cannot save ourselves but are dependent on God’s love in Jesus Christ to draw us back to God and fulfill God’s command to love God and our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

        Second, universally Protestant denominations claim the authority of scripture. We see The Bible as the lens through which we know God and discover ourselves. The Bible points us to truth.

        Even as I have tried to carefully craft those words there are folks here who wished I would have made stronger statements concerning God, incarnation, salvation and the Bible. Others might have felt the language chosen was much too definitive and left no room for disagreement or discussion. Such is the nature of the beast when we choose to talk about the essentials of what we believe.

        As you might have guessed, each of the denominations from which we originate has definitive statements which further define the essence of what we believe. Those statements are both significant and debatable.  Hopefully each of us is open to the Holy Spirit in determining what is good, acceptable, and perfect.

        Like our ancestors who came by different boats and trails to claim citizenship within this great nation, we each have traveled distinctive theological road. Some of us crave discussions concerning transubstantiation, the trinity or atonement and the like. But thanks be to God most of you are more interested in how God expects us to live together.   

        In the past few weeks we have been peeping in on the congregation at the church in Philippi. Many of the discussions within that congregation centered on who was God, who was Jesus, how might the Jewish Torah help in their understanding, what can be retain from their existing culture and what has to be given up.  The most difficult question concerned the leadership needed to fill Paul’s void.

        Paul wasn’t coming back. It was going to be up to the members of the church in Philippi to develop their own leadership. More important they would have to establish faith statements which would both drive and inform their discussions. They did not have a copy of The Book of Confessions or The New Testament. Those had yet to be written. All they had was what they had heard from Paul and the early Apostles. 

        When Paul sat down to write, he knew of the tension that was beginning to cause this little congregation to implode. Each discussion evolved into passion, anger and accusations. These were friends being torn apart by multiple   versions of what each considered to be the truth.

        Paul could have ended his letter when some great theological statement telling them to get their house in order. Instead he wrote these words:

        Rejoice in the Lord always. Let your gentleness be known. Turn to God in prayer. God will hear your supplications. Know that the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.

        My friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, do these things and the God of peace will be with you. Greet each others as saints in Christ Jesus knowing that the grace of God is with you.


        As I said before, tonight I go to Charlottesville to give a talk and answer questions on the Tenets of the Reformed Faith. Only some folks aren’t going to ask me questions. They are going to make declarations concerning the church and accusations concerning the church’s loss of belief. There will be allegations directed at the Presbytery of the James and beyond. Each statement will be spoken sincerely but will be heard by some as sanctimonious. Depending on how tired people are when they arrive will probably determine when I get to leave. But at some point a prayer will be said, the parking lot will empty and I will point my car home. But before I turn on my CD player I will thanks to God for allowing me to serve this church, a diverse and complex people, who love each other, respect each other, listen to each other, and together praises God for bringing us all here.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Communion Meditation

Philippians 3:4b-14; Exodus 20:1-20


        When is the last time you updated your résumé? Those of you who have retired are probably thinking my last update WAS my last update. The Apostle Paul might suggest you not be so hasty.

        Paul sent the Philippi church his faith résumé. On paper it was impeccable. Allow me to share it with you.   Paul was circumcised on the eight day; he was a member of the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. He was a Pharisee who had proved his zeal by persecuting members of the early church. As for righteousness, according to the law, Paul was blameless.

        What else could Paul say? In terms of his past, he had done everything right. He was intelligent, loyal, diligent, and trustworthy. Yet his résumé was woefully lacking. It said nothing of his future.

        Résumés are often nothing more than a stepping stone to your next job. It lists who you have been, not who you are becoming.   When I was interviewed by your PNC they asked a few questions about what I done in the past but they were more interested in who I might become and who you might become if I was offered the opportunity to serve you. I had the credentials, the track record and a bunch of great references.  But none of these guaranteed I had the energy and drive to take on a new adventure. Résumés don’t include your future, just your past.

        In Philippians 3 Paul took a long hard look at his past and declared, “Whatever gains I had, I now regard as loss.” This personal catharsis might be good for the soul but it would seem to be counterproductive in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the good church members in Philippi. But I think something else was on Paul’s mind.

        The folks in Philippi knew Paul. They knew his history. They were aware he had persecuted Christians but now all was forgiven. Paul had proven himself to be the leader of the Christian community. He was a hero and his story was celebrated. But Paul feared his success was overshadowing his message.

        In an absolutely brilliant move, Paul undermines his own résumé by insisting everything before Christ was based on his total misunderstanding of the purpose of the law.

        The centerpiece of the Hebrew faith is the Torah. The very essence of the Jewish law is comprised in those statements we call the Ten Commandments. As a boy Paul learned that strict obedience of these commandments was the key to living a life that was acceptable to God. What Paul, and I might suggest we have forgotten, is that these principals were never meant to be static and prohibitive. This sacred code was birthed in liberation.

         The people of Israel were led by God out of Egypt, out of slavery, into the desert. In the wilderness they were challenged to examine their souls and create something they had never known; a community based on faith in God and faith in each other. The critical piece of this declaration, this Torah, this law, was, “I am the Lord your God.” But the bridge that held the relationship of God and community together was the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath”.

        For a people enslaved and forced to work seven days a week, the Sabbath was a gift, a liberation from that which enslaves them. But as the Hebrew people moved from the wilderness into their own community, observance of the Sabbath became more restrictive. Rule upon rule was created to enforce every action that was acceptable on the Day of Rest. Once the Sabbath was shackled, the observance of the other laws became prohibitive rather than liberating.  The law became something to be observed rather than celebrated. The law, not God, became the center of this religious institution. Policy replaced faith, observances replaced imagination, and worst of all regulations replaced poetry. To correct this corruption, God reentered the world.

        It is amazing how often Jesus was engaged with the Pharisees over interpretation of the law. In the Book of Matthew they seem to be arguing on every other page.  The teachers of the law wanted to hold Jesus to those strict interpretations that had been “perfected” for centuries. Jesus wants to return to the original text which served to liberate a community from its shackles. The final solution became the death of the liberator. Or so they thought.

        Paul’s résumé was based on a strict observance of this tarnished code.  Paul’s actions, under this corrupted law, mirrored perfection, but they were not Godly.

        Paul needed to be liberated ………… and he was.

        Paul needed to be exonerated ………. and he was.

        Paul needed to forget the past and live in the light of the grace of God …… and he did……………. and so can we.

        One of the radical assertions of the Christian faith is that history is linear not circular. How can that be? Everyone who took Western Civilization 101 will tell you those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. In other words, what goes around comes around.

Let me welcome you to Bible 101. From the beginning our Biblical text affirms that God has always been in the habit of doing a new thing, an astounding thing, a liberating thing. Paul witnessed this liberation in the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul saw this event, this cosmic interruption of history, as something that had never happened before and would never happen again. God became flesh and walked among us once, and for all time.  Paul no longer saw himself legitimized because he kept a stagnant law. Rather he saw himself glorified because he believed in the risen Lord. What Paul had done in the past was trumped by what God was now doing in the future. And Paul wanted to be part of this new adventure. He writes, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of God in Christ Jesus.”

        Do know what the most dangerous words spoken in a church are? I won’t hold you in suspense. It is when someone says, “I’ve fought the good fight.  I’ve done my part. It’s time to let someone else take my place.” 

I have never read any place in the Bible where it says God is finished with us.

        God is always moving forward. God is always in the process of doing something new. That is why the word of God continues to be radically liberating. I know we get tired, I know we get discouraged, I know there are some things we can’t do anymore. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other rivers to swim and other hills to climb.

        God is not interested in what you have done. God is only interested in what you are about to do. God is not interested in where you have been. God is only interested in where you are going. Liberation can never be stagnant. When you live in the light of the resurrection of Christ, each new day is the beginning not the end of your journey. When you dare to approach life with that restored attitude, it changes everything.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Paul.      Amen.