Enduring Change

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more Vegetarians?

There’s plenty of science that’s proven that we’re healthiest when we’re active, and when we eat lots of fruits and vegetables, right?

Ever since I can remember, teachers have been telling me that I should eat a balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and get plenty of exercise if I want to be healthy.

We’ve even just heard a good, biblical basis for eating only vegetables and water.

So why aren’t there more Vegetarians?

It’s better for you, you’ll lose weight, and according to Daniel, you’ll be healthier, better looking, and more fit!  Who wouldn’t want these benefits?

Me, apparently!

When I go to the doctor, one of the things he usually says is that I should probably lose some weight.

It’s not that we don’t know what we need to know about things like diet and exercise to be healthier people.

It’s that change is hard.

We like meat, and most of us are comfortable eating the kind of food we’ve always eaten.

Most of us won’t change something as basic as ‘how we eat’ until we’re forced to.

So there are two types of change I’d like to talk about this morning, and both are summed up in my sermon title “Enduring Change”.

…(I love words that end in “ing”, because for the most part, they can be used as either verbs or adjectives.  And this time I meant both when I chose my sermon title.)

The first kind of change I wanted to talk about is the kind of change you endure.

It’s the kind of change you ‘grin and bear’…you’d rather not go through with something, but it’s really not up to you, so you endure it.  And often it will lead to the second kind, which is “enduring change” as in the kind of change that lasts…that endures.

And Daniel is a really good place to start with this, because it’s a book about exile.

And if anything symbolizes change that is both endured and enduring…it’s exile.

…The first two verses of this chapter set the scene…only they don’t give a whole lot of detail.

Basically, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon beseiged Jerusalem.
This was back in the day when cities had walls around them for protection.

Jerusalem had this wall that went around the city, and there would have been gates here and there so people could come and go during peaceful times, and they could be closed during an attack to protect the inhabitants.

So what happened during a seige, was that an army like Babylon could come against a city, and they would attack the city, and then they would just camp out all around the city, and wait.
There was more to it than that…obviously…but when a city was under seige, you were a lot better off being outside the wall than inside.

You were a lot better off laying seige…rather than being seiged.
Because while you were inside the city walls, food would eventually start to run out, disease might start to spread, and there was literally nowhere to run.

The wall that had been meant to protect you, it could be used against you just as easily.

Meanwhile, the army that was beseiging your city; they were healthy and strong.  They could hunt for food, they could train, and they could rest.

They could build seigeworks…there are stories about these earthen ramps being built outside a city…instead of breaking down a wall, they would just mound dirt up to the top of the wall until they could walk right over it.  A seige could last for months or even years.

When the Bible talks about being surrounded by your enemies…it was a very literal thing; a very scary thing.

And what Nebuchadnezzar did after the seige, was carry off the population.

Not all of them, but definitely the best and the brightest, he carried off to Babylon in a couple of waves.

Daniel was among these captive people who had witnessed their wall being used against them.

He was forced to accept this change of events, and he was carried off to Babylon.

Jerusalem; the city that defined these people…was laid waste.
The religion that sustained them; that had given them hope to lean on throughout so much of their history…it had vanished when it seemed they needed it most.

Nebuchadnezzar defiled not only their land; but also their religion.

He took the temple vessels…the instruments that guided their very worship…and put them in his palace, in the treasury devoted to his gods.

Other gods.

More powerful gods.

Surely if there was a God to be mocked, it was the God of Israel…the God of Daniel.

For he couldn’t turn away the seige.

He did not provide for his people.

He did not protect them.

Babylon was stronger than this cult and its God.

Can you start to see what an unwelcome change this marked in the life of Israel?

Land and Religion…in most of the world today, just like in ancient times, those two things are all that really matter in life.
The land sustains the body.  The religion sustains the rest.
Land and Religion are the two most important things any community could ever possess.

Identity, livelihood, protection, motivation…culture, art, you name it.

Chances are, land and religion have influenced it.

And in one fell swoop, the people…Israel…had lost it all.

They were no longer in the promised land.  They no longer had a temple.

All they had was their memories and their songs.

So it comes as no surprise to hear the Psalmist say “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

So…that covers the first two verses!

But I haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet!  

See, we’ve all got these walls that we build.  We can call them ‘boundaries’ if that makes it feel better.

We’ve all got clearly defined edges…who’s in and who’s out.  How we know friend and foe.

We have walls as individuals and we have them as a community of faith, too.

And these walls, or boundaries…they’re not bad!

If there’s one thing they teach you when you study social work like I did…it’s that you need clear boundaries when you’re working with people.  It’s a lesson that’s been helpful for pastoring, too.

Being clear about who gets into your life and who doesn’t is a good thing.  Being clear about our boundaries as a church; what’s acceptable behavior, what’s expected from people, and all that kind of stuff…these are boundaries that we set.

Some of them are formal, some aren’t…but every group of people has boundaries, and every individual has boundaries as well.

They’re like lines that define who you are, and who you are not.
But as good and useful as walls are…they can also trap us, both as individuals and as a community.

See, when we care more about maintaining our walls than we do about the God who led us out of captivity in the first place…when we care more about a last name than a first name when we greet someone new…when our sense of comfort and convenience and security outweigh our sense of God’s will in a given situation…these are signs that maintaining our wall has become too important.

When that happens, it has to come down.

And often, the only way a wall like that comes down is when it’s attacked.

You or I…we’re never going to dismantle the walls we’ve spent our whole lives building and maintaining.

We have too much invested.

So…if they need to come down, they need to be attacked.

Daniel was one of many who were carried off to Babylon in one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history.  They lost everything that was important to them.

But the amazing thing is, that God was in Babylon.  He is not tied to the land like we are.

I think that’s what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, saying “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  For God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us!

For wherever we are; we are ambassadors of Christ!  God is making his appeal through us…even in Babylon…even to us THROUGH Babylon!

Sometimes it takes the stranger, the alien…the enemy…in order for us to encounter our own monstrosity.  We wish exile upon no-one…but at the same time, we know we are in it.

For this is not our home.

Seek the peace of this city…this world…for we are citizens of the New Jerusalem; the Heavenly city of God, we are ambassadors for change in this foreign land, and we have the message of the Love of God, expressed through Christ, and these fragile jars of clay in which to carry it.

May you receive this benediction as I close;

May your walls come down…as peaceably as possible.

May the Loving, Merciful, and Compassionate God emerge victorious as He lays seige to the defenses you have erected.

And may you surrender to the enduring change that comes
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Amen.  

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Breaking With Tradition

August 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

Breaking with Tradition          Matthew 15:1-20      August 19, 2012

I’d like to start this morning by taking a brief poll.

You don’t have to participate, but it would help me out if you’re willing to share a little bit of personal information by simply raising your hand, and keeping it up until we’re done…(it won’t be long).

How many of you, before coming to church this morning…consumed the news…either by reading a physical newspaper or watching TV, or using an internet news site?  

How many of you ate breakfast?  (keep your hands up)

How many of you have had a cup of coffee or tea so far this morning?

Fed the dog or cat or other type of animal?

(here’s the controversial one)
How many of you took a shower before you came to church this morning?

Thank you for participating!

Most of us have these little rituals that we do as part of our morning routines.

I’ve heard of some people who just have to have a Starbucks coffee to get going, or I know some other people who might take walks or go running as part of our routine…some of us might read some scripture or a devotional in the mornings before we get going for the day…some of us might even hit up Wal-Mart or Rhodes for a sugar fix before church.

I’ve even heard rumors that there’s one group that hits up Jitters instead of coming to Sunday School as part of their routine!   

Whatever the routine is that you have…it helps you ‘get ready’ for the day, right?

We all have these little rituals that we perform that help us put the day in perspective.

In other words, having a cup of coffee in the morning is more than just a shot of caffeine.

For many of us, it’s a whole experience that kind of ‘grounds’ us in reality (no pun intended).

Have you ever heard someone say something like “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee”?  I can almost guarantee that it’s not just the caffeine that they’re needing.

There’s more to it.

See, Reality is a very fragile thing.

And over thousands of years of developing something called civilization, we’ve come up with ways to trick ourselves into thinking that it really isn’t all that fragile.

We prefer to believe that the reality we know is predictable, stable, and enduring.

So we develop routines that help create that story.

My making coffee in the morning is actually a ritual that says ‘this coffee and everything I need to make it is here this morning, just like it was yesterday morning, and just like it will be tomorrow’.

Our routines tell the stories we want to be true.

Over time, some routines turn into traditions.

Think of the birthday traditions you grew up with, or that you observe now.

For example, the tradition of giving gifts.  It’s a tradition, that tells the story that the person having the birthday is worth something.  They matter, they’re life matters, and it’s worth marking the occasion by giving them a gift.

It’s an act of celebration, but it’s rooted in a tradition.
Without the tradition of gathering together and enjoying a feast, the most Thanksgiving has to offer is just a day off of work.

Without traditions, Christmas loses some of its meaning.

Our rituals and our traditions tell the stories we want to be true.

Are you with me?

The tradition of giving an engagement ring to the one you love…you’re trying to enact a story of love between two people.

The tradition of shaking hands when you meet someone…you’re hoping to enact a relationship of trust and open-handedness between you.

Many of our most cherished traditions have stood the test of time, and they’re woven tightly into the fabric of our community.

The problem is, traditions can just as easily tear a community apart rather than building it up.

And I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in the passage we’re looking at this morning.

As we heard already, Some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus and asked him “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

We don’t have to guess as to what this tradition was.

If you turn to Mark chapter 7, verses 3 and 4, you’ll find a description of this tradition that the Pharisees were concerned about.

Matthew was probably looking at Mark’s book when he was writing this, and he probably chose to omit this description because his audience was different than Mark’s.  Matthew’s audience was pretty Jewish, so they were probably already familiar with the tradition that’s being questioned…the washing of hands.

We’re not Jewish, so it’s helpful to see that Mark’s description.
He basically says that the Pharisees would not eat unless they gave their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.

And he goes on to list a few other traditions they had that were similar in intent…things like washing themselves after being at the market, washing cups, pitchers and kettles.

None of that seems all that unusual, right?

In fact, these seem like healthy, sanitary practices that would be good for the general health of the community.

And yet, Jesus gets a little bit testy when his followers are questioned for not doing these things.

So what are supposed to think?  Are we worshipping a slob?

Aren’t these first disciples worried about hygiene?

I’m kind of with the Pharisees on this one.

I might as well tell you, Christine and I have a tradition of our own that’s very similar…we wash our hands good after we get home from church each Sunday!

Nothing against any of you…we just don’t like being sick, so we take the precaution before we eat Sunday lunch and wash our hands good (and we encourage you to do the same!).

I’m getting off topic though.

I don’t think Jesus was a slob.

I don’t think he or his disciples had anything against washing hands.

These Pharisees and the Teachers of the law, they were pretty sure Jesus and his group were missing the mark.

See, they were students of scripture…they knew the law, they knew about God, and they had been as faithful as they could be to the traditions that had been handed down for centuries.

I think they were honestly concerned about things like how to maintain their distinctively religious identity in a pagan culture, and how to stay ‘clean’, or ceremonially pure so that they could continue to enjoy God’s blessing, and continue to perform the rites of the religious institution they were part of.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad we never think like that.

I’m sure glad we don’t deal with identity issues as the culture changes around us.

I’m glad we never have to worry about how to procure God’s blessing, or how to maintain a religious institution in a world where loyalties are divided and commitments are conflicting.

I’m glad we have the science to back up our washing of hands.
But Jesus isn’t interested in that conversation.

They want to talk about washing hands.  

We might want to talk about Romney or Obama.

But just like Jesus usually does, he doesn’t take the bait!

They want to talk about hand-washing, and he replies with this whole thing about how to honor your parents your whole life long!

See, Leviticus is the book that the Pharisees were getting these traditions from.

There’s a fairly long list in Leviticus that starts around chapter 10, and stretches into the 20’s.

It’s full of ritual laws, like how to avoid defilement, and the importance of washing away defilement as soon as it occurs in order to stay true to God.

It’s a list that urges the people of God to distinguish “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Lev. 10:10).

This was important stuff.  You could say it was foundational stuff in the religious life of Israel.

Jesus and his followers weren’t staying clean.

That’s just as true metaphorically as it is literally.

They were guilty.  They were dirty.  They were defiled, according to Leviticus.

But look at what came out of their mouths!  Hope!  And Healing!  And Blessing!!!

It is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean.

It might make them sick…but not ‘unclean’.

It’s what comes out of their mouth…That’s what makes them ‘unclean’.

I’ve worked with some seriously foul-mouthed people.

I’m not talking about the occasional cussword here and there…I’m talking about a gut-level, soul-wrenching, downright disturbing use of language.

So I can tell you, as you probably already know…that what Jesus is naming here is almost common sense.

And the language we choose reflects the reality we live in.

And the reality we live in is even more powerful than the traditions that tell the story we hope comes true.

In other words, the Pharisees want to talk about Leviticus.
But Jesus points back to the Exodus.

He points back to the Ten Commandments…the Big Ten.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one he mentions is about honoring your father and mother.

There’s a sort of parallel passage in John chapter 8, where a fiery Jesus goes so far as to tell the Pharisees that they belong to their father the devil, and they want to carry out their father’s desires.

He doesn’t really mince words.

Let me say it like this.

There was this system in the temple where basically I could wash my hands of caring for my parents by devoting myself and my income to the temple.  Then I could just say “sorry mom and dad…whatever help I could have given you as you grow older is tied up for God”.

God wants nothing to do with that kind of thing.

That’s one point that Jesus was making.

But I think there’s a point behind the point.

Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment.  It’s one of the big ten, so we should probably care about it as we go about our business here on earth.

But we can also think about this in terms of our heavenly lineage.

Remember…out of all the sermons I’ve preached over the past 5 years…remember that we are first and foremost beloved children of God.

Not just us though…the guy or the girl using that gut-wrenching language…they’re children of God too. 

Until we get that in our heads, in our hearts, and reflected in our lives…our witness and our faith are ineffective.

We are first and foremost beloved children of God, not rule-makers and not rule-breakers.  Sometimes we’re both of those things…but never first.

It is not what goes into us that makes us clean or unclean.

It’s what comes out of our mouths…for the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.

May the word of God fill each of our hearts to overflowing.

Amen. 

Homeland Security

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Philippians 3:17-4:1          Homeland Security        August 12, 2012
As Christine and I were reading the scriptures from the bulletin last week, I was reminded of an article that I found in a book a number of months ago.  

And as is often the case with things that interest me, I started trying to work it into my sermon for this morning.  

It’s from a magazine called “Homes and Gardens”, in their November issue from a few years back, and the subject is a well-known public political figure whom I think we all know.  

See if you can guess who it’s about.  

The reporter was a guest in the home of our mystery man, and wrote the following article based on his observations while he was there.  It’s quite revealing.  (here we go)…

“There is nothing pretentious about the little estate.  It is one that any merchant…might possess in these lovely hills…Meals are often served on the terrace on little tables shaded by big canvas umbrellas…[the owner] delights in the society of brilliant foreigners, especially painters, musicians and singers.  (he must have a taste for the arts).

…The guest bedrooms are hung with old engravings.  But more interesting than any of these to the visitor are [the owner’s] own water-colour sketches…none measures more than about eight inches square, and each is signed by [the host] himself…

The gardens are laid out simply enough.  Lawns at different levels are planted with flowering shrubs as well as roses and other blooms in due season.  The [host], I may add, has a passion about cut flowers in his home, as well as for music.  

Every morning at nine he goes out for a talk with the gardeners about their day’s work.  These men… are not so much servants as loyal friends.  

A life-long vegetarian…, [our host’s] kitchen plots are both varied and heavy on produce.”  (he must be concerned about his physical health).

I won’t go on.  

The article goes on to describe the mystery man’s love for dog breeding, his love for children, and the graciousness he shows his community in periodically opening up his home for an elaborate ‘fun fair’, complete with cake, fruit, and sweets for the children to enjoy as they frolic around his sprawling, well-kept, and beautiful grounds.

It closes with some parting words from the host as he stands and takes in the estate with the reporter beside him.  

“This place is mine” he says, simply.  “I built it with money that I earned.”  

Any guesses as to who it might be?

Based on this article, he’s an artistic guy who loves music and seeks to surround himself with beauty.  He cares about his physical well-being, and He has a soft spot for children and pets.  He sounds like a gracious host with a good work ethic, who opens his home freely.

Any guesses?

It was Adolph Hitler.    

The article appears in Homes and Gardens magazine, in the November issue from 1938.

…OK…

…so what are we supposed to think?  

Have the history books gotten the story wrong?  

If we knew Hitler personally, if we would have been a guest on his estate, would we think differently of him today?  

Is it any easier to forgive the atrocities he committed, knowing that he was such a lover of the arts and such a gracious host?  

Of course not.  

If anything, reading this article exposing the ‘softer side’ of Hitler makes the dilemma that much more complex.  

And at least for me, it makes reading the Bible that much more interesting…because if anyone in the world can be considered “wicked” through and through…I’d make the case that it was Adolph Hitler.  

We love to hate Hitler.  His name alone has become symbolic of some of the worst evil our world has ever seen.  

And yet, it’s evident that He told himself, his close friends, and the readers of “Homes and Gardens” magazine a story that’s not all that different than the story I tell about myself….a story I’m guessing you tell about yourselves, too.  

The story is some version of this:  “This place is mine.  I built it with money that I earned.”  

As true as that story might be…as proud of that story as we might be…

It’s not the story that’s going to endure.  

It’s not going to last.  

Paul writes to the Philippians about what will last…and that’s our citizenship in heaven.  

Everything else will pass away.  

So, what are you building right now?  

We live in the age of information, a culture of self-hype.  

It’s never been easier than it is right now, to present the world with a version of ourselves that’s been airbrushed to perfection.  

But the question we’ve got to ask, is how long is it going to last?  

Ten years after you die, Nobody is going to care about your facebook profile, or the story you’re currently telling about yourself.  

Eternity starts now.  

But the question is not how to be remembered well.  

The question is the same as it’s always been…Who is your God?  

Your actions always speak louder than your words…so who is your God?  

It’s interesting, somebody once told me that if  you really want to gauge someone’s character, you should look at how they treat the poor, the lame, the needy…the people who can’t do anything for them in return.  

It’s true of Character, but it’s also true if you want to see someone’s God.  

When we abandon God, we abandon the people on the margins.  

When we abandon God, we’re left with no god but our stomach, as Paul puts it.  We glory in our shame and our destiny is destruction.  

When Earth is our homeland, we begin to exchange God’s Truth for lies…lies about creation, lies about ourselves… when we abandon God, we begin to exchange the glorious mystery of life for easy answers and a bunch of hype about ‘Homeland Security’.  

And that term makes it clear who’s in and who’s out.  

But this is not our home.  

Our citizenship is in heaven.  

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.  

I have to believe that even Hitler was not beyond the reach of God.  

I have to believe that even Hitler could have been redeemed by the transformative touch and love of God, because if we’re not holding on to the hope that people can change…that God can transform even the most wicked person…then our faith is worthless and we have no hope.  

But the Truth of a person is always bigger than what we can see.  

We can judge a tree by it’s fruit…don’t hear me wrong.  

We can judge a person’s character by the deeds that they do.  

But hope and judgement are two different things.  

Hope is our job.  

Judgment is God’s.  

That’s why Paul writes to the Philippians, saying “Let us live up to what we have already attained.  Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.”  

Live by example.  

Have role models.  

The surest way to change your character is to change your behavior.  

Seek out good role models.  

Find a mentor.  

Look around, find someone you want to be like…and imitate them.  

Then take it a step further, and listen to what people have to say to you.  Listen to the story other people tell concerning your life.  

It’s hard to hear if it comes in the form of criticism…but it’s important to hear, nonetheless.  

Our actions in this world have eternal consequences.  

And Eternity begins today.  

There is the potential for righteousness and wickedness in each one of us.  
We live in the tension between good and evil.  

The challenge for today, if you should choose to accept it, is this.  

Find someone who will tell you what you need to hear.  

And listen to them.  

You’ll be transformed from this encounter far more than you ever will from a sermon.  

Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself “what’s going to last in my life”?  

What kind of difference is there between the story I’m telling about myself, and the story others are telling?  

What are the poor saying about me?

What are those on the margins saying about who I am?

God’s story is bigger than any of ours…but how is it being told in your life?  

Press on.  Stand firm in God.  Do not exchange God’s Truth for the lie that this is all there is…for this is not our homeland, and our citizenship is in heaven.  

Keep These Words

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

August 5, 2012 “Keep These Words” Deuteronomy 6:4-9
This is the first Sunday in a series I’ve called “Building Endurance”.

I’ve been thinking about things like commitment and endurance a lot lately.

It might be because there have been a number of events in our community lately that provide the opportunity for people to test their own strength, speed, and endurance.

A few weeks ago there was the first ever Holmes County Triathlon, yesterday there was the run for relief; and there are even a few of us who are just starting to get ready to run the first ever Holmes County Half Marathon in Berlin on Thanksgiving weekend later this year.

(if you’re interested in joining us, you’re more than welcome to do that)

I think it’s a positive thing that these kinds of things are happening more frequently these days, right in our own backyard!

It’s almost like we’re hosting the Olympics right here in Holmes County!

…So thinking about all these events, combined with some of the coverage I’ve seen about the Olympics…it’s all gotten me thinking about the spiritual equivalent of endurance athletics.

How can we train our spiritual muscles in the same way athletes build their physical muscles?

Now, let me say real clear that I’m not one who makes a real clear distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world.

I think what happens in one impacts the other more often than we care to admit.

But, that doesn’t mean we can just focus on one and hope the other follows suit.

Just because you can run a great distance, doesn’t mean you’re spiritually fit.

Likewise, if you’re daily devotions aren’t impacting your physical world…what you eat, what you do, how you treat people…then something is off.

So, I was thinking about all this, and I came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea, to spend some time in church trying to learn how to build our spiritual endurance.

The end goal is to become more spiritually fit than you are right now.

All of us can grow. It doesn’t matter if you’re brand new to the faith, or if you’ve worn through three Bibles already…all of us can grow in faith, love, and understanding.

All of us can become more spiritually fit.

Any Olympian would tell you that practicing once a week isn’t going to do much for you.

So you’ll notice, for the month of August…actually, starting in last week’s bulletin, there is a list of daily scripture readings for the coming week. Each week, the daily readings will be in preparation for the next week’s Sermon. They’ll share a common theme…for example, if you were following along last week in preparation for this morning, you might have noticed they all had to do with the Word of God in one way or another, which I think is a good place to start.

So, the passage I chose this morning comes from Deuteronomy…the book of the Bible which many believe is the “lost scroll” that was found during Josiah’s reign, when he commanded the restoration of the temple.

You can find that story in 2 Chronicles chapter 34.

The gist of it is that as the workers were cleaning out and repairing the temple, they found this scroll, which had long been neglected in the archives of the temple.
They took it to the king, and when he heard it, he tore his robes because it was clear they were in trouble.

The way the Chronicler puts it, the king says “The wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us is great, because our ancestors did not keep the word of the LORD, to act in accordance with all that is written in this book.”

It’s an interesting comment for a king to make.

Politicians generally seek to avoid responsibility, right?
Especially when they can claim ignorance or innocence…both of which Josiah could have rightfully claimed.

He didn’t know the book even existed. Whoever was at fault for misplacing it generations ago…it wasn’t Josiah.

He could have washed his hands of it as easily as we wash our hands of our country’s land-grab at the expense of the native cultures that occupied it before us.

He could have washed his hands of it as easily as my generation and those younger can wash our hands of things like institutional racism…after all, it wasn’t us who made the unjust laws, and the civil rights movement was before our time.

Josiah could have easily washed his hands.

But he tears his robes instead.

And I think there’s something important there.

Tearing your robe…it’s a symbol of grief.

It’s an ancient symbol of laying open the pain you feel–laying open your grief-stricken heart to whoever looks your way. Tearing your robe was a way of making a statement without saying a word.

It’s like a physical proclamation that all is not well…that you’re feeling things on a deeper level than what you can express.

The discovery of this lost book…it drives Josiah to tear his robes.

And that’s troubling. That’s troubling, because there’s something that seems downright “un-American” about accepting responsibility for something that happened generations ago.

It’s hard enough to take responsibility for the bad choices we’ve made…much less the choices of our ancestors, people we never met.

So that’s a little bit of background about the book of Deuteronomy.

It’s discovery in the temple kind of paved the way for Josiah to make a whole bunch of reforms according to what he found in the book…that’s all described in 2 Chronicles 34.

And that’s the meat of my message this morning.
See, words can be forgotten.

Books, letters, and scrolls can be misplaced.

They can be laid aside and shut away for too long…for so long that the message is at first missed, then forgotten, and finally it altogether ceases to form the people for whom it was intended.

As you drive around Holmes County, you can sometimes see a sign by a mailbox, or at the edge of someone’s property that says “The Word of the Lord Shall Stand Forever” or something similar.

In the King James version, it might say “endureth” forever.

Those words are an allusion to a verse in 1 Peter, who probably got his imagery from Isaiah chapter 40.
It’s a biblical concept, I’m not saying it’s not.
…But sometimes when I see those signs, I wonder which “Word” the family has in mind.

That is, the Word on the Page, or the Word made Flesh.
The words written in ink, or the words inscribed upon our hearts.

I think about how Deuteronomy was misplaced and forgotten, and then I think about my own Bibles, and how seldom they seem to really affect my own life. Can you relate?
The power of the written word…it’s easy to overestimate.
Words come at us on all sides these days.

Long ago, there were very few people who could wield a pen, or understand the marks it made.

Literacy was reserved for a very special group of people…the Bible calls them scribes.

In such a culture, the value and the power of a book or a scroll was very high, because the special knowledge it took to make them or use them was very rare.

Today the opposite is true.

We’re saturated with knowledge. We’re overwhelmed by information, and we think of it as normal.
Instant information has become a way of life, so the value and the power of the written word has faded, precisely because there is just. so. much of it.

Which is why the words from Deuteronomy are still so relevant. “Keep these words.”

Guard them.

Protect them.

Incorporate them into your life in such a way that your head, your hands, and even the doorposts and gates to your house are affected by these words.

Keep them as you would your own life…keep them in your heart. Recite them, internalize them, and they will keep you as you keep them, for these are the words of eternal life.

In a world that’s filled with noise, we need to make choices about our intake.

We need to decide which words are worth keeping, and which ones aren’t.

We all traffic in words…but are the words you keep words of hope?

Or words of condemnation?

The gospel of John tells us about the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Creative word that forged our existence, and the Sustaining Word that continues to create, define, and expand all that we know.

This morning we’re talking about the Word that took on Flesh, The Word that dwelt among us, the inspired word, alive and active and sharper than any double-edged sword.
The word we keep penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

It’s a lot more than just the words on the page.

“Keep These Words”…and they’ll keep you, too.

Paul wrote to the Romans, saying “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

Hope.

Not condemnation.

Jesus is our hope! He is the Living Word that endures forever!

It’s just too bad that’s not good enough for most of us, right?

We have the Living Word of God wrapped up in our flesh!
And we still try to turn faith into a rulebook.

Like Josiah, we might end up tearing our robes because we see how far off course we’ve gotten.

May we, like Josiah, have the courage to tear our robes instead of washing our hands when God’s word confronts us.

When it comes to church, and to practicing our faith, too often we come to wash our hands rather than tear our robes.

We want to be absolved of responsibility, absolved of guilt, absolved of the inconvenience that commitment invariably sends our way.

But keeping this word…seeking to wrap it in our own flesh and blood so that it cannot be lost…it is not clean work.

Consider this as we take communion in just a few minutes. The symbolism of the bread and the cup is very fitting. We eat and we drink this new covenant, forged by the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus who is the final word of God in response to evil.

And as we eat it, it becomes part of us. It dwells in us, the fantastic, beautiful, magnificent creations that we are.

We dare not wash our hands of this experience…would we rather not, like Josiah, tear open our robes to expose the painful work that God is doing in that most holy of places?

Keep. These. Words.

Keep. This. Word.

Amen.

Coffee in the Cup

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

When you stop to think about it, reality is a very fragile thing.  

The human mind exists in an incredibly delicate balance.  Various chemicals, cells, and processes combine to somehow achieve an unbelievable state of balance (and I know from experience that it doesn’t take much to upset that balance).  When someone’s mind gets ‘off balance’…there are any number of ways that the imbalance shows up.  For myself, it was a series of debilitating anxiety attacks (panic attacks) for a brief period in the year 2001.  Through the temporary use of medication and changes in lifestyle, I haven’t had a recurrence in over 10 years.  

But if the human mind is that delicate…if the complexity of the organ that controls all the other organs is that fragile…then what can we say about the fragile state of being we call ‘reality’?  (which, when all else is boiled away, is simply a construct of our collective, fragile, and delicate minds).  We pool our resources, and the result is a fairly continuous, mostly agreed-upon story.  

You could call it (as Peter Berger has) the social construction of reality.  

Whether we believe in God or not, we all of us have rituals that make the world make sense.  
Simply enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning provides a lot more for our individual and group psyche than a simple caffeine fix.  It’s a ritual that goes much deeper than that.  

My morning coffee sends the signal (not only to me) that what was there yesterday is there today, and it will probably be there tomorrow.  The coffee in the cup  provides us all with a kind of legitimization of our world.  It roots us in the past while providing hope for the future.  Coffee in the cup enacts a particular version of a story we’re all desperately trying to believe.  Namely, that reality can be depended on, that the world is a stable place that makes sense (even if all hell is breaking loose across the planet).  

Yessir…as long as I’ve got some coffee in the cup, my world makes sense.  We could say the same thing about working out, or showering, or reading the news, or watching TV, or playing with the dog…there’s an endless list of rituals we enact precisely because we need the reminder that our story will continue tomorrow much like it did yesterday.  

Religion (and I would include the absence of religion as a religion unto itself) plays an important role in this process of legitimization.  Our Sacred Story remains in place as long as the pillars of ritual, tradition, belief, and devotion stand unchallenged.  

I would like to propose that Christ steps into this fragile world of our construction more like Samson than David.  That is to say, the “Christ” in “Christian” throws down those pillars rather than supporting them.  The structures that to us seem so permanent, so steady, so predictable…in the hands of our God (who is not us) they are undone.  

I read a book recently where the author makes the point that we all indeed do have a ‘God Shaped Hole’.  This sounds like conventional wisdom…the kind of thing we’ve heard before.  But then the author goes on to say the hole is not a vacancy that only God can fill…rather, it’s the hole in our life left in the aftermath of an experience with the divine.  It’s the kind of hole that drives us to seek, to knock, and to search.  It’s not the kind of hole that can be filled with a God-shaped object.  

And just like my wife is never closer to me than when she is absent (and I miss her, awaiting her return), so it is with God.  

We are mistaken to think that our social construction of reality is Real.  It’s all we have, for sure…but it is incredibly fragile, not unlike life itself.  There’s a story behind the story.  It’s like Paul wrote to the Romans, saying ‘now we see but dimly, as if in a mirror’.  It’s like Plato’s allegory of the cave.  It’s like any story any parent has ever used to teach their child a lesson.  

In this ontology, Faith becomes not a way to access a transcendent state of being, but rather more of a way to peel back this ‘sacred canopy’ for a peek at the Divine… a glimpse of something Real.  

I think I need more coffee.  

[True] Change we can Believe in

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

[True] Change we can Believe in

I’ve got friends who are Republican, friends who are Democrat, independent friends, and friends who abstain from voting.  

I’ve got friends who connect their faith and theology to the political process, and I’ve got other friends who see no need to do so.

Some of these friends are close friends, and others are more like acquaintances.  Some are part of my faith tradition, some have chosen other denominational loyalties, and still others just aren’t sure.

But my friend Mark had this idea that I am supportive of, and I think my friends are too.

A bunch of us are planning to celebrate communion together on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.  So far, most of us are leaders of Mennonite churches, which are like circles of friends who distrust the political process to effect true and lasting change.  Most of us are also tired of the polarized nature of our political discourse, and we are seeking to demonstrate that we can disagree with each other–even on political issues–and still come to Christ’s table as brothers and sisters who love each other more than the issue at hand.

I hope you check back in over the next several months as Election Day Communion draws near.  If you are a pastor or other church leader, please see how you can be involved.  If you would like your church to be involved, please pass the word along!

Here’s to True change we can believe in!

http://www.electiondaycommunion.org

Of Shepherds and Showdowns July 15, 2012 Amos 7:7-15

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Amos 7:7-15 Of Shepherds and Showdowns   July 15, 2012


My dad used to paint houses and farm buildings for people in the summers.  He was a social worker within the school system, so he’d use his summer vacation as a way to supplement his income a little bit by painting.  

His painting business was also a natural way for us kids to stay busy over the summer months.  My first job was learning how to paint with my dad and my brothers in the hot summer sun.  

I won’t lie…it was miserable work at times.  

But I picked up a valuable skill in how to put paint on a wall, and more importantly I learned a good work ethic…probably not a great work ethic…but at least a good work ethic.  🙂  

As you can imagine, with three brothers working together, we got creative with how we spent our breaks.  We would take a 15 minute break around 10:00 in the morning, a half hour at lunch time, and another 15 minute break around 2:30 in the afternoon.  

One game we brothers came up with was seeing who could climb the highest on a ladder that was standing straight up in the air.  

Anybody can climb a ladder that’s leaned up against a wall…but we were desperately trying to prove our masculinity or something.  So we came up with this game.  

It’s easiest to climb such a ladder at the bottom, when your center of gravity is closest to the ground.  
But the higher you go, the easier it is to get off-balance.  It’s fairly easy for me even now, to stay on the bottom rung of a ladder to nowhere without too much effort.  

But if you climb high enough, your center of gravity gets harder to manage.  

We each had our own approach; my brother would try to climb as quickly as he could, just trying to make distance before he got off-balance.  

I tried that, and I also tried taking more time, trying to maintain steady balance with each step up.  
I don’t remember which approach worked the best…I just remember the key was the ability to stay within your center of gravity.  

We’ve all got a center of gravity.  

Any science teacher here could talk about this a lot better than I can…but the way I understand it, gravity is the force that works upon us to keep us in proper relation to the Earth beneath our feet.  

And we can think of our sense of balance in relation to that center of gravity.  

If we get out of line…that is, if we get off balance, we might fall down, or stumble, or otherwise relate to the earth in a way that was never intended.   

Have you ever thought of sitting, or standing, or walking as relating to the earth?  

Every movement we make…is in relation to this invisible force called gravity.  

And any construction worker here could talk about this a lot better than I can…but the way I understand it, what a plumb line does, is it makes the force of gravity visible.  

A plumb line is basically a string with a weight attached to one end.  

I’ve created my own version of a plumb line this morning by attaching a key to a string we had at home.  In ancient times they might have used a rock or something similar.  

Once you fasten one end of the string to an object and let the weight come to rest, the force of gravity pulls the weight straight down.  

The resulting line is an accurate, or true, or “plumb” line.

That is, it’s perfectly vertical (or at least close enough to perfect for construction purposes).  

Now, before the level was invented, plumb lines were a pretty common way for builders to make sure they were making straight walls.  

It’s like it gives a visual cue to guide the work that’s being done.  

Now, it doesn’t matter how heavy or light the weight at the end is.  As long as you have something like a weight attached to a string, you can create a line that points to the center of planet Earth!  

It’s a measuring device, for sure…but it’s also a reminder that there is always a dependable force working in the world; a force keeping it all together, a force that allows us to find balance…and lose balance…as we relate to it.  

It’s important to stay centered in order to maintain our balance.  

Amos prophesied to a people who had lost their balance.  

Their center of gravity was way off from where it should have been.  

It was like they had been climbing a ladder to nowhere…and had somehow reached the top.  The people at the top were enjoying a brief and precarious balance…but there was literally nowhere to go but down.  

Whether you’re at the top of the ladder or at the bottom; you’re still subject to gravity.  

And whether the ladder in question is social, economic, or religious… you’re still subject to the Righteousness of God.  

Many commentators have run a little wild with this imagery of God using the plumb line as a tool of judgment against Israel.  

They’re right to do so, don’t hear me wrong.  

Verse 9 alone gives more than enough justification for that interpretation, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, plumb lines are used as a kind of measuring stick; a way of finding fault in a people and a justification to punish them for their sins.  

But what’s frustrating to me is when people simply stop there, as if that’s all we need to know.  

I’m a firm believer that we’re too easily pacified when a text wants to be wrestled with.  

We rob ourselves when we read about something like this plumb line that God uses to judge his people and just let it stop there…as if that’s all there is to it.

There are two main uses that a plumb line can be useful for.  

One is establishing a level.  I’m not exactly sure how, but skilled builders for centuries could use a plumb line to make sure what they were building was level (horizontally) from one point to another.  

When the level was invented, that particular use of the plumb line became obsolete.  

But the other use of the plumb line, the biggest use we still have for them today, is when we need to transfer points from one level to another and it needs to be perfectly perpendicular.  

One example of a job like this is when we build elevator shafts in skyscrapers and need to ensure that the center is the center from the first to the hundred-and-first floor.  

At least according to Wikipedia, they use modern (and enormous) plumb lines in such situations (they put the weight in a barrel of oil to dampen the movements and stretch the line as far up as they need it to go!).  

It’s this use that I think is most helpful when reading Amos chapter 7.  

See, if God is holding the plumb line in Amos’s vision, we can assume he’s holding it where it needs to be.  
The rest is just gravity doing what gravity does.  

That is, showing the people how far they’ve strayed from the center of God’s will.  

It’s only A few hundred years after this vision, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…thy kingdom come, thy will be done On Earth As It Is In Heaven.”  !!

 
May the center of our attention here on earth be the same as the center of what has your attention in heaven.  

May there be a plumb line between the kingdom of Heaven and your people on earth!  

May the center transfer…may we see it represented and measure our own progress.  

May our ladder go somewhere instead of nowhere.  
Isn’t that still our prayer?  That the ladder we’re on goes somewhere?  

There’s a mixed message in this passage.  

Amos the shepherd confronts not just the priest of Bethel…he’s really confronting the whole northern kingdom.  

And I think it’s easy to cast ourselves in the role of Amos.  

It’s easy to watch the news and just get plain mad at some of the stuff you see.  

It’s easy to grow indignant at how people are treated today and feel the fire of God burn in our bellies as we long for justice.  

In some ways, it’s even easy for us to speak words like Amos spoke.  It’s easy to speak Judgment against the system and call for divine punishment upon the evildoers.

But in reality we are the evildoers.  We are the system.  

And we have to know that when the ladder goes down, we’ll be sitting pretty close to the top.

These words that Amos spoke were meant for a people who were climbing a ladder to nowhere. They were trodding on the poor and the needy.  They were treating the migrants, the widows and the orphans as rungs on a ladder to higher ground.  

People are not rungs on a ladder.  

People are part of a beloved creation; images cast in the likeness of God.  

The One True God defines the center of his people; stretches his plumb line from heaven to earth and calls his people towards that center will not be mocked in doing so.  

Amos brings a call to repentance; a re-centering of our attention and our lives, for just as then, we have been far too off balance for far too long.  

Where is your ladder going?  

Where is your center of gravity?  

How is your sense of balance?  

You can only fight the unseen forces for so long before the consequences catch up to you.  

It’s clear what was important to Amos the prophet.  
It’s also clear what was important to Amaziah the priest of Bethel.  

Amos was driven by the Spirit of God at his center.  

Amaziah doesn’t even mention God in this passage, did you notice that?  

He’s concerned about his king, Jeroboam, and the ongoing security and prosperity that the kingdom had been enjoying.  

What’s needed is repentance, but none comes. 

 
Maybe it’s because Amos is a simple shepherd without religious credentials…or maybe it’s because Amaziah was in the system so deep that it was impossible to see the need for correction.  


Regardless of the reason, Amos was not heard.  And he wasn’t invited back.  


Israel fell.  The northern kingdom fell.  


Be careful who you disregard.  


God speaks through shepherds! 

 
Will you pray with me as I close:
Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…

Where Am I?

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