Saturday, August 19, 2006

Candidacy Committee

Yesterday I put on my old High school debate power-suit, went to Denver with my dad (I was so nervous for this meeting that I forgot my shoes and had to duck into a Goodwill once we got to Denver to find a pair of shoes) and was re-interviewed by my Candidacy Committee. They thought I’d worked through my "issues" related to my heart surgeries and some other things really well. That said they felt like my going to Cambridge to do an M.Phil. was a really weird way of telling them I’m serious about ordination. So they told me to go to Cambridge, throw myself into academia and suck the life out of it, and, if I still feel called to be a Pastor the door will still be open for another interview next August 18th.
I’m a little disappointed, but the Bishop and the rest of the Committee handled things with tact and dignity, so I’m going to go ahead and take their advice and push all thoughts of Parish Ministry out of my head for a year… I’m a little worried that will be like a polar bear convincing itself that eating tofu is natural, but we’ll see.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sermon: In Christ there is always hope

In Christ There is Always Hope
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight O LORD
Today Elijah is in despair. He has found himself in a shallow middle place between a powerful past and a glorious future, and is sinking down in despair to the point of death.
YESTERDAY he stood in contest with the prophets of Ba’al. He watched as that whole angry host danced for their deity, mutilated themselves for their deity, worked themselves into a frenzy for their deity, and failed. Then he asked God for an answer and a sign to come to the people in the form of flame. And the LORD did that mighty work there, and the prophets of Ba’al were dispatched.
TOMORROW he will climb the mountain and be in the presence of God. The LORD will pass by him. A great wind will tear at the mountain making it a mound of pebbles. An earthquake will agitate those pebbles, grinding them to dust. A fire will come and lap at that dust until it is ash. But as it says in scripture God will not be in the wind, in the earthquake, in the fire. God will at last come to Elijah in the Still Small Voice. And there Elijah will find his calling and his help.
But we’re not talking about yesterday, or tomorrow. We’re talking about today, and today Elijah is in despair. Today he is living with the perplexing fact that his God has won, the people have seen that the LORD is the true God. Yet, Elijah, now a proven prophet, is still persecuted and hunted. Jezebel wants him dead. Elijah, in his moment of victory, is faced with death.
So Elijah, weighted down by the disturbing problem of sweet success tainted by bitter failure, throws in the towel. He slumps down against a tree and asks God to end his life. He believes that the best days are behind him/ that the path he is on is a road to oblivion/ that the status quo is here to say. He is a man without hope.
But as we see in today’s Psalm ours is a God who “answers, hears, saves, delivers, and is a refuge.” God comes to this shallow spot Elijah is in and raises him up. God sends help to the hopeless in the form of an angel who provides him sustenance not once, but twice, that he may make his journey.
This disconnect that Elijah feels is nothing new. Simply look around. This Garden God gave us was, at least in blueprint form, perfect, paradise, Eden as they say… Yet things are all messed up. There is strife in the garden; there is murder in the garden. The garden is sick with pollutants and man is polluted with the sickness of sin. And because of this disconnect we become cynical. We don’t heed the voices of the visionaries and the prophets of the ages. Zechariah tells us to look forward to a day when every bell will ring out the words “Holy to the LORD,” and every scrubbing pot will be a holy vessel of worship, but we hear only the dull clanging of pots. John the author of Revelation tells us, “There shall no more be anything accursed,” and all we can do is let out an expletive. Isaiah tells us, as is recorded in today’s gospel, that “They shall all be taught by God,” yet too often God’s instruction does not touch our ears or our heart.
Of course it seems like it would have been so much easier to put our trust in these words in Jesus’ day. Each heavy footstep he took from Galilee to Jerusalem left a footprint of prophecy. If the rocks and stones themselves could sing why not bells? If this Holy man could touch a menstruating woman how could anything be called accursed?
And this Jesus who fed the 5,000 and walked on water said that he is the bread of life. He in fact attached the name I AM to himself. This name is the name God identified Himself with to Moses in the desert when He appeared to him in the burning bush. This name is a paradoxical name. It is a name that suggests that God does not need a name to put in relation to reality, for the act of reality itself is of God. And this Jesus who taught before them, who claimed heavenly descent, said, “I AM the bread of life.” He called himself by the name that the high priest could only whisper once a year inside the Holy of Holies, the centre of the LORD’s temple.
It is easy to trust the words, “you shall be taught by God” when He feeds you and 4,999 of our closest friends, arrives from the sea by foot, and proceeds to teach you.
But we’re not talking about yesterday; we’re talking about today. In the words of Luther since the first Easter we have been, and are, living in “The Already Not Yet.” Christ has already came; The I AM was manifest, but he has not yet returned. To use an imperfect analogy the difference between the already and the not yet is like the difference between D day in World War 2 and VE day that ended the war in Europe. Jesus’ resurrection created a permanent beachhead, but sin still thrives.
This paradox that pulls at the heart of the Church can be seen since its inception. In the earliest Christian writing, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, we see it’s author wrestling with the problem of “the already not yet.” In this case Thessalonian Christians were worried by the fact that some of the people of their community have died before Jesus had returned.
As long as we live in the “already not yet” we will have to deal with the same insecurities and hardships, the same paradox and perplexity, and the same despair, that Elijah did. We will ask the same questions. And they are hard questions to answer.
The Church over in England is struggling with these questions as it sees itself becoming irrelevant to the society it finds itself in and emptied of members. Only 4 percent of English children attend church. Only 25% of UK citizens are members of a world religion. 55% of Britains do not believe in a higher being.
Hard facts, a definite discontinuity between the triumph of Easter and the present situation they find themselves in. Yet everywhere I go I hear the same trusting words. They say, “When the church ignored the poor God sent Francis of Assisi. When the Church needed reform God sent Martin Luther. When the church became too disconnected from the common people God sent John Westley. When the Church became blind to racial injustice God sent Dr. King and Bishop Tutu. And now again we have lost our way, and now again God will act, again God will do something with his church, again God will send someone.”
I believe these churches, in their dark twilight hour have blindly struck up against something fundamental to the Christian faith. They have realized that God himself searches out for those who are in need and loves them. They have found hope.
And really this should be no surprise. Is this not the heart of the Gospel? This “bread of life” was first a grain that had to be buried to become a shoot of wheat. The wheat had to be crushed, to be made into bread. The bread had to be broken, to be shared and multiplied.
Therefore we have hope in the great I AM. We have hope in the Bread of Life. And in response to all this we live in hope. We hope for resurrection while being swallowed up by death, deliverance in fear, a voice in poverty, salvation in trouble.
And when we cling to hope we live into our calling as Children of God. As imitators of God we try to live a life of kindness, we try to be tenderhearted, we try to forgive, to be full of truth, to be charitable, and most of all as imitators of God, as Children of God, we love.
In doing this, in joining with God in His creative act of redemption, we may even reverse the disconnect that Elijah, and Paul, and all of creation, feel. We may truly begin to be lifted up by the wings of angels and travel forward from the deep swampy middle that we find ourselves in and continue on our journey up the great and glorious mountain. We will stop our paralyzed line of questioning where we constantly ask Eden why it is as it is? Instead Eden will start to ask us why we are as we are?
By this I do not mean that we take an immolating leap into the diabolical machine that is “the world” and stop its mad motion by forcing it to crush our bodies. No! Creation is of God, and so imitation of God involves embracing creation with love and hope. Our work is not that of a mechanic martyr, but that of a nurturing gardener.
And when we do this we can listen with fresh ears to the words of hope that we have. Every bell WILL ring out the words “Holy to the LORD” every scrubbing pot WILL be a holy vessel. “There WILL no more be anything accursed,” and “we WILL all be taught by God.”
There was a time during this last year of mission when I was asking myself why I was in England. Frankly I was homesick. And then one Sunday at Abbey Lane United Reformed Church I heard some distinctively America… more than that distinctively southern, voices. After the service the English folk were ecstatic at being able to introduce me to some Americans who were visiting the church. I was introduced to Bev and Jack, who instantly treated me like a grandson. At one point Bev gave me a collection of American poems as a way to combat my homesickness. One of those poems, Lift Every Voice and Sing, by James Weldon Johnson exemplifies the nature of the hope we have in Christ.
Lift every voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.
There is anguish yes, after all we do live in these in between times, yet there is also hope; in Christ there is always hope! And we will faithfully preserver. A+A