Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On What Do We Stake Our Lives?

Bible portions read on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost include Isaiah 65:17-25; II Thessalonians 3:6-13; and Luke 21:5-19

As Christians, we stake our lives on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

But something about that claim seems limited if it’s put in a past tense, and if we claim it’s only for and about us. Isn’t it truer, worthier, and more exciting to stake our lives on what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit?

Next Sunday will be Christ the King Sunday, when the Church contemplates and celebrates the reign of Jesus Christ on earth. A King? What sort of king is he? A King? Such an antique title. But there it is, throughout the New Testament: the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, announced, preached as a new ordering of life that is near, but not yet here.

Today the prophet Isaiah helps us anticipate this question, What is God doing for the world? “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” The promised king, the promised kingdom, and what it means to be citizens of that kingdom are all about joy.

Isaiah shows us why. Justice. Mercy. Lovingkindness. Peace. Of all these powers is God’s kingdom built. In that kingdom fully realized, these powers will show themselves tangibly in the incidence of infant mortality (zero), the extension of life expectancy (to one hundred), affordable and sustainable housing and agriculture safe from foreclosure and the depredation of enemies. Enjoyable work with meaningful purpose, children’s futures secure from the ravages of war, peace so pervasive that nature is no longer red in tooth and claw. And the relationship between God and people so open that nothing gets in the way of calling and answering, speaking and hearing.

Oh, sign us up!

No, no, don’t analyze it, don’t critique it—imagine it! Can you sketch a finer version of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? Sure, it sounds unmanageable on a limited planet—but listen to the mind of the Maker, at least according to the prophet Isaiah.

The experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America seemed barely imaginable or manageable, just more than two centuries ago. Now we know it’s only unmanageable.

All the more reason, then, to listen to the mind of the Maker. If we’re going to experience unmanageability, let’s do it for the highest good. If we’re going to take any passage in the Bible literally, why not this one from Isaiah?

And as the report from a bipartisan committee on abolishing our national debt dramatizes our unmanageability, let it also remind us that creating a new order is God’s work. At least to the extent that our vision for national and international life is to serve God’s passionate purposes of justice, mercy, and peace; at least to the extent that we want our national and international life to implement God’s agenda published by the prophet Isaiah, we can be working hand in hand with God.

So I’d better bridge the two testaments, and make clear my case that what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ is that reordering of life into a new creation that Isaiah sketches. You will recall that it is often Isaiah whom Jesus quotes, as in his very first sermon (“for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free…”) Such is the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and preached, the kingdom he could best describe and recruit for by means of parables that got people wondering and imagining what it meant to them, what it required of them. Such is the kingdom Jesus realized by healing sick people’s bodies and minds; consorting with and promoting poor people, uneducated people, children; confronting the arrogant and the narrow-minded; provoking the backward-looking; stimulating hope among the neglected and the nearly-disappeared. Such is the kingdom he died for, to root it for all time in the ground of our being and to free it for all times and places by putting its seed into the hands of ordinary women and men and children, calling them to sow that seed by humble potent acts of faith and hope and love, always multiplied by the divine Spirit that dwells within and hovers over the whole creation.

As Christians, we stake our lives on what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. We accept and honor and try to meet God’s call to sow the seeds of the kingdom by humble potent acts of faith and hope and love. God’s new creation must be the Church’s first and constant passion. The Church must not mistake itself for that new creation, or that kingdom, but must be its servant in the world. The Church must not assume it is the only theater in which God is acting, for the world belongs to God, and all that is within it. And the Church must not rely on money, or professionals, or real estate, or committees, or canon law, or tribal customs, or magic, or the same people all the time to meet God’s call to serve, and to sow the seeds of the kingdom in the world.

“Unless the LORD builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” Those are lyrics to a song sung in ancient Israel several hundred years before Christ, and they mark the truth of the Church.

Meanwhile, the Church is going through a whole lot of deconstruction. Even familiar houses of prayer are closing, right and left.

The Methodist congregations in North Adams and Williamstown have voted to merge, and have put both church buildings on the market, intending some day to build on the border between towns a flexible, sustainable church center.

St. Mark’s in Adams and St. John’s in North Adams have begun two weekends of voting on a proposal to merge. Their approach will be to retain one of their two buildings, and let go of the other.

St. James’ in Great Barrington has left its historic buildings, after the collapse of a wall behind the altar. A non-profit corporation headed by a parishioner has purchased the property with the goal of creating a multi-use center, with the repaired sanctuary someday available again to the congregation on a leased basis, the congregation (it may be) a tenant with the landlord among its own.

And all across the land Roman Catholic churches that were for generations fix- tures in their communities have gone through mergings and closings.

Imagine how Christians who are experiencing such deconstruction may hear today’s Gospel: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

I expect that none of us would rush to join their numbers, and that each of us would find it painful to lose a house of prayer and friendship that has come to mean so much over the years. Such letting-go would put us on a sharp learning curve.

Put differently, the fact that so many of our neighbors are rising on that curve tells us that we must learn what they are learning.

And the lesson most worth learning is that as Christians, we stake our lives not on having a church building, or a professional staff, or a beautiful liturgy, or fabulous stained glass windows. We stake our lives on what God has done for us—and is doing for the world-- in Jesus Christ, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. And we open ourselves to God’s call to serve the new creation in the world, where God is at work, and where we are needed to sow seeds of the kingdom by humble potent acts of faith, hope, and love.

That call does not require a building, but that call must be heard in this place, and often. That call to serve in the world, in our own neighborhoods and workplaces, must be heard in our liturgy here so that a greater worshiping of God may be offered beyond this place, including such sweet harmony as must please God when marriages and families and friendships and relationships in workplace and campus life are recognized as sanctuaries where what is holy and what is human are treasured, strengthened, and renewed.

Defining and Revering

Scripture appointed for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes Haggai 1:15b-2:9; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; and Luke 20:27-38

Those Sadducees irritate me. I can understand their need for rational religion, if that’s what caused them to argue that there is no resurrection. But when they construct a test case and build it out of the very belief they insist they don’t hold, they’re demeaning other people’s religion—as they do here, suggesting that belief in resurrection is absurd.

In this, they are like the anti-God writers today (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) who tell their readers that only idiots believe in God.

Well, they have a point. The God they demolish in their books is a pretty silly cartoon of the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity. He is an old white man with a great long beard, alternately sappy and peevish, a figure like Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore in Harry Potter, but without his intelligence, his integrity, and his dry wit. The God Dawkins and Hitchens don’t believe in, I don’t either. They aim way too low, and write as if they haven’t read much theology.

In a like way, Sadducees and Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament all appear to have been trained in religious law, but to have no appetite for religious mystery. This encounter some of them have with Jesus today is just one more example of how narrow minds were persistent in the effort to trap Jesus, to catch him saying something that could be held against him in a court of law, or at least used against him as sound bytes in public debates and sabbath day sermons.

Don’t feel bad on Jesus’s behalf, however. He’s always up for a good theological brawl. And we’d never have heard of Saduccees and Pharisess and scribes if their presence in the Gospels didn’t advance the cause of Gospel-writers. These narrow legalistic minds are the perfect foils, sometimes just the right catalysts, for Jesus’s revelation of God.

The law mentioned by Sadducees today allowed a practice called levirate marriage, from the Latin “levir”, brother-in-law. Imagine a man who died without children. His brother was obligated by this law to take his brother’s wife and have children by her. Providing children in this way ensured the flow of property within the family, including security for the brother’s widow. You can find this law in chapter 25 of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, and while you might not be motivated to look that up, you might find it interesting to read what the consequences were if the brother-in-law refused.

But let’s get ourselves out of the first century and back to the present. What might we make of this Gospel?

You might say that this little case study shows how absurd it can be, in any culture, to define a person by her or his relationship to someone else.

“In the resurrection… whose wife will the woman be? For the seven brothers had married her.” And if you were acting this as a skit, that last line would go on to include, “Har, har har!” Which is another reason these Saduccees irritate us, as they demean this woman, and for that matter these several brothers-in-law.

But don’t we have our own struggles defining ourselves and our nearest and dearest? Possessiveness is one form of struggle, and we see it when spouses try to clip one another’s wings or undercut one another’s growth, and when parents fail to cut the strings they’ve attached to their growing children’s freedom (and sometimes when grown children collude and don’t want those strings cut).

Another form of struggle is ours when change redefines relationship. A married person is suddenly single because of the death of a partner. In another couple, each becomes gradually single through separation and divorce. We may react to the demeaning priorities of the Sadducees, but divorce in contemporary America creates custody battles that treat children as if they were property.

And if we’re cataloging changes, the Great Recession keeps them coming, rippling into the future, as lost jobs, lost homes, lost illusions, and lost luxuries redefine who people are. Shift up (or down) from economics to politics, and wonder how the elections of 2010 may redefine who we are as a nation. Or may not.

In common to many of our definings and our redefinings is that, deeper within us than all our gainings and all our losings, is the core of who we truly are. With the memory of last Sunday’s baptisms still fresh, let’s remember that there is no purer sense of that core identity than what we discover at the font, where we stand revealed as children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God; where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever; and where we receive the astonishing call to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ, with the help of all his people.

In the light of all that, hear a slightly tweaked version of what Jesus said to the Sadducees: “Those who belong to this age define who they are in terms of their relationship to husband or wife or parents or children, job or profession, schools attended, political party or religious affiliation—all those empty spaces you fill in on an application. But those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection—those who know they’ve been accepted and can stop filling out the application—they aren’t owned, except by God, and they aren’t afraid of change, because they’ve done their dying, realizing they can’t own anyone, can’t control the lives of others however near and dear, heck, can’t control their own lives, and instead choose to entrust themselves and all whom they love into the care and keeping and transforming love of God.”

You may have noticed that Jesus ends his encounter with the Sadducees by pivoting and sinking a shot from half-court.

“And the fact that the dead are raised is shown by Moses himself, the great law-giver, in the story about the bush. That would be the burning bush, and I’ll bet that story isn’t your favorite because it’s so, well, non-rational. But there Moses faced the sheer mystery of who God is, and how God calls a person to grow. Telling the story, Moses speaks of God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—not defining God in terms of a bunch of dead people, but revealing how the dead are alive to God.

“And just as important in that story: when Moses tries to get God to define God’s self with a name, God answers, “I am who I am.”

And that’s not a bad model of self-definition for us all.

It requires reverence in response to the sheer otherness of God. And the role that reverence plays in our love of God teaches us, invites us, to respect the distinct otherness of each person we love.

And to recognize our own: that each of us is other than the multiple ways we are defined by our relationships. And it is there, at our core, that we encounter God in prayer, in silence, in conscience, and in reflection on our actual experience as children of God who are called to grow, and to revere that inner life that has less to do with law, more with mystery and grace.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What Are You Going to Be?

Bible passages appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost include Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4; II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; and Luke 19:1-10

It’s not often that we go to church on Hallowe’en. I know, Hallowe’en isn’t until tonight: its name means the evening before All Hallows Day, and All Hallows is a very old name for tomorrow, All Saints Day. On All Saints Day we remember all the people who have helped us see and know and love God, all the people whose examples have hallowed God’s name. We use that very old word in one form of the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be your name.” Our saints have shown us the holiness of God.

So, is anyone here going trick or treating tonight as a saint?

No? Why is that? Isn’t it more fun to pretend that you’re something dangerous and scarey? (What are you going to be, when you go out tonight?)

What happens when you put on a costume? It fills your imagination, doesn’t it? You reach to become something you were not, before you put it on. Your costume invites you to act as if you really were what you want people to believe you’re trying to be.

Now that gets me thinking about Zacchaeus. We learned several things about him in our Gospel today. He was the chief tax collector. He was rich. And he was not a tall man. And a fourth thing: he was not afraid to climb a tree. And a fifth: he wasn’t what people thought he was. A generous man lived behind the mask of a greedy tax collector.

I don’t know whether a chief tax collector wore an official costume as part of his job, but he might as well have. Everyone knew, everyone could see, what Zacchaeus did for a living. He took a lot of their money and handed it over to the hated Roman Empire that controlled their country. He was a ratfink. And nothing he could do would ever pretty that up and make people feel differently about him. You can’t make a leopard change his spots, people would have said about him. He’s definitely a ratfink.

If you’re under the age of eighteen, chances are good that you live in a world, Mondays through Fridays, where unpopular people don’t get treated very well. It doesn’t take much to become unpopular, does it? Look a little different, have a sweet and gentle spirit, have zero interest in sports, have not very much money, and poof, you’re at risk of being unpopular, and made fun of, even bullied. Interestingly, some of those same characteristics can contribute to creating a bully.

And if you’re over the age of eighteen, your world isn’t quite as brutal, but unpopularity is still a curse. There’s always pressure to conform, to do what others do and be like others are. On one hand, we talk a lot about respecting diversity. On the other hand, we tend to stay with our own kind, to not cross lines that separate our kind from other kinds, and to react to personal difference with blame and even hatred.

Zacchaeus was deeply unpopular. And he’s the one Jesus seeks out. Oh, that Jesus: he’s full of surprises!

Put this little story on the stage, and you’ll need a whole bunch of extra’s, people who were hoping, even expecting, that Jesus would come to their houses for dinner. Influential people, professional people, religious people, proper people… “Surely, he’ll want to spend the evening with me!” people. Popular people.

And to help us catch the message even better, St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was short in stature. “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not…”

Children will find this easy to appreciate. Here in church, there’s always some bigger-than-life adult in front of you, whom you can’t see through. Go to read a lesson at the lectern, and you have to find a stool to stand on.

Wednesday, I read this Gospel at the eucharist at Sweet Brook Care Center. Every person in that congregation was in a wheelchair. They appreciated Zacchaeus’s perspective.

He took his situation in hand and climbed a sycamore tree. Appreciate what he did: In those days, it was considered undignified for a grown man to run in public, and a man of his importance would never climb a tree. Already unpopular, this man made himself a laughingstock, just to see Jesus.

And Jesus appreciated this. Jesus knew just what he was seeing. Jesus went and stood with the man everyone was ridiculing. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This Jesus is full of surprises! He took that situation and turned it on its head, sending all those self-important people home empty-handed and grumbling, while he instead chose to make one new disciple.

When you listen to what Zacchaeus says to Jesus, you appreciate how God has been working on him for some time. “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor…” Who else ever says that in the Bible? Kings, actually, two or three I can think of, expressing such extravagant love for their queens that they pledge half their kingdom. By his generosity Zacchaeus expresses love and devotion, both to God and to neighbor. He gets it. He shows that he gets what it means to fulfill the law and the prophets.

“And if I have defrauded anyone of anything…”—and there’s a good chance he has; tax collectors in those days earned their reputation—“I will pay back four times as much.”

There’s an example for Wall Street.

An example of holy change, the hallowing of a life, one person’s salvation making life better for many people around him. That’s how righteousness works. No one had ever called Zacchaeus a righteous man, but that’s what he’s becoming through this new attitude to money (and to people), and what Jesus hears and sees is proof of what the prophet Habakkuk said, “The righteous live by their faith.” Faith is being born, faith is being shown, in Zacchaeus’s choices.

If he hadn’t made the choice to take those social risks, climbing that sycamore tree, would he and Jesus have found each other? Making that choice positioned him to grow in faith, in stature, in relationship with God and with his world.

So what kind of climbing and reaching do you need to do? I asked that question in a roomful of Sweet Brook residents, wondering if I wasn’t pushing the story a little too hard.

“Believe in God,” answered Owen from the back row. I told him I thought that was a great answer. “Go to church,” he said, moments later. Owen was on a roll.

In just a few moments, it will be your turn to answer. Pay attention to the baptismal covenant, appreciate how each answer you make to each of these questions I will ask is a tree worth climbing in order to grow in faith, in stature, and in relationship with God and with God’s reign of respect, lovingkindness, peace, and justice in this world.

It isn’t often that we gather in church on Hallowe’en. It isn’t often that one is baptized on Hallowe’en, and today three of our children will take that step. ZoĆ«, Ava, and Benedict will become members of a family larger than their first families. Like their original families, their church family is blessed with people who will help them see and know and love God, people whose examples keep hallowing God’s name, saints we call them.

And as these children grow in their discovery of how God loves them, how Jesus stands with them, how the Spirit of God moves through them in love, they will find power to make choices in their sometimes brutal world, choices that can turn their world upside down and make it turn around right, like choosing to sit at lunch with a child who is alone, and choosing to confront bullying when they see it, and not giving in when the price of popularity is just too much to pay.

When the church was young, many centuries ago, long before there was a Hallowe’en, each newly baptized person would be given a plain white garment to wear. It was meant to remind them that when they were baptized, they put on the Lord Jesus Christ like a magnificent cloak, wearing his love in the world—sort of like Harry Potter’s cloak, but not to make them invisible; rather, to make Jesus’s love visible, the kind of costume that fills the imagination and invites one to become who he or she truly is.