Sunday, October 30, 2011

Finding our integrity, by Greg.

Here we are at the end of October, well into fall with winter not far off. Already Denver and New England have seen substantial snowfall and Occupy Wall Street is getting its first taste of winter weather.

Summer seems a distant memory, but I’m indulging for a moment in recollections of several occasions last summer when we watched summer waves crashing on the shore ... on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even though I’m more a mountain person than an ocean person, I find there to be something utterly spellbinding about the constancy and the power of the ocean and its waves as they come to shore.

I’m thinking for a moment of how waves are formed ... that the rolling energy of the sea, which is nothing more than a bump and a swell in the open water, as it moves toward the upward slope of the shore, mounts up on the rising ocean bottom until it heaves itself onto the shoreline.

We are working at the end of Matthew’s gospel ... the 23rd of 28 chapters. It is, as we noted last week, the last week of Jesus’ life. His life is moving inexorably toward the limits of his time of earth. And even if no one else wants to acknowledge that fact, Jesus is keenly aware that his “life waters” are forming a cresting wave that is about to crash onto the shoreline of history.

It seems to me that this is a fair explanation for the sharp “uptick” in the intensity of Jesus’ words and actions. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there was always great passion and intensity of purpose in Jesus, but in this last week, like a placid swell that is turning into a wave as it mounts the shore, Jesus words and actions are reaching a crescendo. Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem amidst shouting crowds ... he strides into the temple angrily and confronts religion that has turned itself into a seedy marketplace ... he curses a leafy fig tree that bears no fruit, and in so doing he is cursing the faith of his own upbringing and the leaders of that faith ... he tells story after confrontive story in public that judges and condemns the teachers and leaders and “calls them out” in a way that can only bring more trouble and shorten what is already a brief and tumultuous week. The strong, but placid swell of Jesus’ life and love and ministry is becoming a thunderous crashing wave.

What is helpful to remember is that Jesus does not see himself as having come to take away the “bad, old religion” and replace it with a “new, good religion.” He says, in essence, that the “old religion” simply needs fulfilling and living out with integrity. It’s like the classic quote by G. K. Chesterton that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”

In our Tuesday morning Bible study we have spoken of the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law” ... that there is a “spirit” and an “intention” that is implicit in the religious laws and codes ... the spirit of all of Israel’s religion was to draw Israel closer and closer to the God who called them and loved and cared for them ... and in being drawn closer to God, they were to draw closer to one another in mutual care and concern. The greatest law or command of the religion of Israel, summarized in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 was to love God with all of one’s heart and mind and soul and strength. And, Jesus said: Here is another one that is just like the greatest commandment and cannot be separated from it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God ... love neighbor ... all the rest, as they say, is commentary.

This is one of the reasons that I like being involved in Logos ... every Wednesday in the heart of my work week I get a simple, but powerful reminder of the heart of my faith: “Love God ... love neighbor.” And in simple ways we try to live out those two utterly basic commands ... as we play together ... as we interact with one another ... as we sing songs and learn stories of the Bible ... as we share a meal around the “family table” ... all the while trying to live out love of God and love of neighbor. Even as a pastor, I need it broken down that simply ... that plainly ... and that regularly.

It is a simple truth, I think, that we people of faith need continual “care and feeding” ... we’re not like a kitchen gadget that we can “set and forget” ... we need reminders of who we are and who we are called to be ... we need continual reminders of the natural tendency to “drift” from our highest ideals and highest calling. There is a tendency to slowly allow words to become a substitute for action ... to speak well of our high ideals, but to not live out our high ideals ... to “talk the walk” without actually walking the walk.

Anyone who has ever gotten behind the wheel of a car knows that you can’t lock your steering wheel into one position as you drive down the road. The road turns, the wheels and the steering linkage shift slightly ... rigidly holding the wheel in one position means you’ll eventually drift off the road and crash. To avoid going off the road, the driver must continuously adjust the steering wheel ... sometimes in tiny increments and sometimes in dramatic hand over hand turns.

This tendency to drift and this need for reminders is why we do the Purple Hand Pledge and the First Rule of Logos every Wednesday afternoon and evening when our kids gather ... and if you ever join us for Logos you’ll note that the adults share in reciting the pledges with the children ... each of us adults who is gathered there needs the reminders of these basic rules of conduct as much as any one of the children. “I will not use my hands or my words to harm myself or others.” “Everyone is to treat everyone else as a Child of God. No one has the right to treat anyone else as if they do not matter.” Love God. Love your neighbor.

We all need reminders of what is essential about life and faith, of where our priorities lie as people of God and followers of Jesus. And we all need encouragement to bring our lives and actions into alignment with truths we easily declare, but find more difficult to work out in our day to day lives.

And it is in that “gap” between intention and action where Jesus’ frustrations burst forth ... Jesus rails against those who teach truthfully and well, but do not practice their own teachings ... and he rails against those who create burdens and obstacles that make lives that are already burdened and difficult even more burdensome ... and he rails against those who like the appearance of their faith more than the simple actions of their faith. The strong, but placid swell is becoming a thunderous, crashing wave.

Soon Jesus will ratchet it up even another notch, vehemently chastising the scribes and Pharisees as “blind guides”, “whitewashed tombs”, “snakes” and a “brood of vipers”. As someone has said: “No one wants to be at the other end of this pointed finger!”

Wise commentators caution us from too easily joining Jesus in his railing and fingerpointing ... “What a ROTTEN bunch those Pharisees were ...” ... as though people of our generation had graciously evolved beyond the sin of hypocrisy. As though our words and actions are in complete alignment ... as though our highest ideals have been completely fulfilled.

John Dominic Crossan is one of the best known interpreters of the life of Jesus. He’s written several books that come remarkably close to acquainting us with the real person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived and ministered and died on a Roman cross some 2000 years ago. In the prologue of one of his books, Crossan imagines a conversation with Jesus that puts a fine point on the gap between intention and action:

"I've read your book, Dominic," Crossan’s Jesus begins," and it's quite good. So you're now ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?"

Crossan says: "I don't think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn't I, and the method was especially good, wasn't it?" Ever the brilliant scholar, is John Dominic Crossan.

Jesus says: "Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suite your own incapacity. That at least is something."

"Is it enough, Jesus?"

"No, Dominic, it is not."

Matthew’s Jesus fairly spits out these words: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. (Mt. 23:23)

Matthew’s Jesus spews venom at the Pharisees of his day, but we modern readers need to let some of the venom land on us ... and not just “us Christians” in this room ... but all people who fail to create a sturdy bridge between their noble and well-articulated ideals and the compassionate fulfillment of those ideals. In that failure we all are vulnerable to the “wince-worthy” charge of “hypocrites” ...

I’ve spoken of my dear crusty saint of a friend to whom I was a pastor in my earliest years of ministry. Dear Frances Carter—her real name—used to love to tell of her encounters with people who defended their non-church going ways by complaining of all the hypocrites in the church ... to which Frances always shot back: “Well, there’s always room for one more.” And then she would cackle like a Halloween witch.

Yes ... there are hypocrites both inside and outside of God’s church ... hypocrites in every faith ... every walk of life. And if you want to sniff out some hypocrisy, go to where there are high ideals and yet a puzzling number of problems.

Along with you, I continue to puzzle over the extraordinary problem of homelessness in this nation. In three weeks of travel this summer on the other side of the Atlantic, I didn’t see as many homeless people as I can see in 3 minutes in San Francisco ... or Berkeley. And in three hours in our leafy, genteel ‘burbs, I can see more homeless folk than I’d be likely to see in three months in other similarly well-heeled parts of this world.

In this nation, we think of ourselves as highly civilized, thoughtful, rational, kindly, generous, principled folk. But a stroll down Market Street or Telegraph Avenue tells us that our high-minded thoughts don’t translate neatly into kind-hearted actions. The number of people in this nation who dwell at the brink of poverty is horrific, to say nothing of those who’ve already fallen into that abyss ... and the number of families and children who have to throw themselves at the mercy of public hospitals to receive basic medical care is horrific. And I think that if you want to try to get to the heart of all of the “Occupy” protests, it is that the protests are aimed at this nation’s hypocrisy ... the wide and growing gap between intention and action ... the wide and growing gap between those with and those without ... without means ... without medical care ... without meaningful employment or opportunity.

And I think that a case could be made that the unrest in the middle East that has been called the “Arab spring” is rooted in gaps like these ... and the urban riots that have torn apart European cities is rooted in gaps like these.

When the burdens of life become too much to bear, what can you do but cry out? When conditions become too revolting, can revolution be far behind?

I love modern civilization ... I love life as I experience it ... but I fear—as prophets of old and more modern prophets have feared—I fear a slow eating away at the foundations of civilization because we have not tended to the gap between our intentions and our actions. I fear the result of avoiding the gaps instead of dwelling and ministering in the gaps.

While a growing number of folk are “occupying” public squares and street corners—I suppose you could say they’re “standing in the gap”, others are more quietly trying to experience the challenges that others face. In so doing, they will bring their faith into the gap where so many live and find new strength for building bridges across the gaps.

Religious leaders and members of Congress this week are getting a firsthand taste of what it’s like to eat on $4.50 a day as part of the “Food Stamp Challenge.”

In the challenge, participants try to live for a week on the average amount received by people who use food stamps, now known as the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

“We do need to put ourselves sometimes in other people’s shoes so we can really feel what they have to go through every day,” said Donna Christensen, a Democrat who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands as a nonvoting delegate.

The Food Stamp Challenge is part of Fighting Poverty with Faith, an annual interfaith initiative endorsed by 50 national religious organizations.

This year is a particularly critical one for the cause, faith leaders said, because Congress is considering significant cuts to the more than $64 billion program.

On this past Thursday, religious and political leaders teamed up with current SNAP recipients to shop at a Safeway grocery store near Capitol Hill.

One of them was one of my Facebook friends, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches and a former adviser to the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Several decades ago, unable to find a job after leaving a seminary program, Chemberlin signed up for food stamps. But she had forgotten what it was like to shop on such a tight budget.

“No soda, no magazines, no coffee,” said Chemberlin as she pushed her cart by each item. She tried not to look at the donuts, croissants and Doritos.

“Absolutely no specialty items,” she said.

Chemberlin shopped a 72 year old local resident whose only sources of income are Social Security payments and SNAP. As they shopped together, many difficult choices had to be made with such limited means available:

Chemberlin said she wished the woman could have bought more fruits and vegetables, “because it’s clear she’s very oriented toward eating healthily, but we had to choose between fruits and vegetables and protein.”

Our own Bay Area Representative, Barbara Lee, who once received food stamps as a single mother, says: “The health risks are terrible, when you look at sugar, sodium and fats in the foods you must buy on $4.50 a day.”

Since the beginning of the recession the number of those on SNAP nationally rose from 27 million to 44 million, and nearly half are children.

And so, with such a meaningful opportunity to get in touch with those in such need as they prepare to enact laws that will have a profound effect on these folk, how many of the 485 members of congress have chosen to take the “Food Stamp Challenge”? All of ... eight members of Congress, all Democrats, have agreed to take the Food Stamp Challenge.

Dear friends, the God of Israel whose first name is love and whose last name is Shalom seeks to occupy our hearts and our lives and our churches and the public square in which we live and move.

God wants to pitch God’s tent among us so that we hear again the call to love God and love neighbor.

God wants to so fully occupy us and occupy all that God’s love and mercy and justice and hope can do nothing but pour forth from us and from all ... like divine waves rising out of the divine love and crashing on shores of injustice and greed and uncaring.

Let all who will, shrug off the burdensome name of “hypocrite”, and take on, instead, the bearable yoke of Christ’s own loving challenge: to be lovers of God and neighbor, and lovers of peace with justice.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Called to Fruitfulness : Radical Hospitality

One of my favorite comedians is Brian Regan. He talks about the childhood horrors of daunting and complicated spelling rules. His teacher pulls him out of a daydream and asks him:

"Brian, what's the “I” before “e” rule?"

"I before e... ALWAYS."

"What are you, an idiot, Brian?"


The teacher explains it to her drifty pupil:

"”I” before “e” except after “c” and when sounding like “a” as in neighbor and weigh, and on weekends and holidays and all throughout May, and you'll always be wrong no matter what you say!"

Regan says: "That's a hard rule. That's a— that's a rough rule."

Hard rules and rough rules. I want to suggest that Jesus set the bar pretty high when it came to some rules. It’s common to think of Jesus as a carpenter ... his father, Joseph was a carpenter, and we sort of assume Jesus was, too. But if he was, he was also a farmer ... a gardener ... because he spoke frequently of farms and farmworkers ... of sowing seed and gathering the harvest. One particular event in Jesus’ life shows that he was a pretty hard-headed gardener ... a pretty “stern” gardener. There were some hard rules ... some rough rules for working in the “fields of the Lord.”

Jesus entered Jerusalem in the event that we remember on Palm Sunday. It was the first day of the last week of his life. It’s now the following day in the morning. Jesus walked back into Jerusalem with his disciples. He was hungry and walked by a fig tree hoping to get some figs to eat. But where there should have been abundant fruit, there were only leaves. The tree had stopped bearing fruit ... and while it may have been a lovely tree, it no longer served the purpose for which it was intended. And so Jesus curses the tree and it instantly withers and dies. Now Jesus wasn’t being a gardening brute as much as he was making a statement, and the statement was this: “Bear fruit or go out of business.” Now be sure of this: the fig tree was not just a fig tree. For Jesus and his disciples, the tree symbolized the faith of Jesus’ upbringing ... and in his mind, that faith had stopped bearing fruit and had, in effect, put itself out of business. Jesus simply stated the obvious ... he named what was already true. The tree ... his faith ... had stopped bearing fruit and had effectively ceased to be in the business for which it was intended. These are “hard rules” ... they’re rough rules ... but they are “true” rules.

For the next five weeks we will be engaged in all kinds of ways in learning some of the essentials of being a “fruitful congregation”. And one of the fundamental underpinnings of all we say and learn and do is that congregations ... churches that bear no fruit beyond themselves whatsoever are functionally dead ... like the leafy, but fruitless fig tree. These are “hard rules” ... they’re rough rules ... but they are “true” rules.

Now, I want to assure you that I don’t think the judgment of “fruitlessness” is one that can be applied to Shell Ridge Church. But it is always fair to ask about the quantity and the quality of the fruit we bear.

At my home in my back yard is a peach tree and an apricot tree. One year about four summers ago they each bore so much fruit that some of the branches were literally torn from the tree by the weight of the fruit. Since that summer the sum total of fruit from both trees wouldn’t fill a small grocery bag. Those under-fruiting trees ought to be worried about their future. To the extent that we identify any under-fruiting tendencies in ourselves, we should be worried because the “natural law” of churches is that under-fruiting churches suffer and slowly die. It’s a hard rule ... it’s a rough rule ... but it’s a “true” rules.

Starting today and ending on Thanksgiving Sunday we will consider five practices of fruitful congregations. Congregations that are faithful in attending to these basic practices and deepening these practices will never have to worry about the quality and the quantity of the fruit they bear. The five practices are: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity. Let me say again: congregations that are faithful in attending to these basic practices and deepening these practices will never have to worry about the quality and the quantity of the fruit they bear. Each Sunday we will lift up one of these five practices. In sermon and song and even the commitments we are invited to make, we will bolster our fruitfulness. But it won’t end there as the church’s coordinating council and ministry teams and various church committees will also consider these practices and their profound implications for bearing fruit in the world around us. We’ve heard the hard rules, the rough rules ... here’s a good rule ... a generous rule: a church and its membership that takes these five practices quite seriously and weaves them into its life at every level can expect to thrive and grow and minister compassionately well beyond its walls and even beyond what might be thought possible. That’s a good rule ... that’s a generous rule.

At this time, I invite you to take the apple out of your bulletin. Very likely it was hard to keep your apple IN your bulletin. That almost juicy red apple represents the first practice of fruitful congregations which is “radical hospitality.” What you’ll notice with this first practice is true of all of the practices. Something that most congregations might do modestly well is taken to the next level or well beyond the next level. Simple hospitality is something we do relatively well at Shell Ridge ... or so we might think. We have a fairly barrier free facility, we offer warm greetings and welcome to visitors, we sing songs like “Part of the Family”, we provide childcare and large print bulletins and even Sunday sermons carefully translated into other languages. That’s a little joke because Isabella knows that Google is the sermon translater and it does a crude enough job that she has to work even harder than you do to understand what the heck is being said from this pulpit on any given Sunday. So that’s a little of what hospitality is ... it is our sense of a warm and kindly welcome to any that might come our way. Now, even before we add the word “radical” though, we would do well to remember that that is OUR sense of our hospitality. We’d be wise to acknowledge that what we, who have been around a while, see and experience is sometimes almost completely unrelated to what a complete newcomer sees and experiences. For years the “curbside” views of this property and our buildings has been ... dismal. Landscaping in disarray ... tilting fences ... crumbling retaining walls ... peeling paint. Any of you here this morning who still think of yourselves as “new” came to us and joined with us in spite of that dismal “curb appeal” ... and we thank God that you did ... but imagine how many others have driven as far as the church driveway and then said ... hmm ... I wonder what the Unitarians are doing this Sunday?

The author of the book we’re using as our primary resource these five weeks says this about the message that something as simple and basic as our facilities say about us: “Facilities speak a message to people about what church members think of themselves, how importantly they take their mission, and how confidently they see the future of their church.”

It’s hard to practice even basic hospitality when the property and the buildings are scaring people away or making them wonder about the future of the congregation that worships here. Now be sure of it ... that’s an overstatement ... but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say, at the other end of the spectrum, that the enormous amount of work that has been accomplished over the last five to six months speaks volumes about this congregation ... what we think of ourselves, how importantly we take our mission, and how confidently we see the future of our church.

Hospitality not only takes into account the kind of welcome that people receive when they come to us and our church, but the degree to which we are willing to take our faith and our church to them. Have I told you about my Vitamix blender that is changing my life? Did I mention to you what a spectacular book or movie or restaurant I recently read, watched or ate at? Many of us are natural evangelists and spectacular promoters when it comes to many things in life ... but when it comes to our church and our faith we can become very quiet. In the months ahead, with the help of our Outreach and Growth Ministry Team, we’ll be working to help all of us—including your pastor—to naturally “give away” our church ... and the grace and love and meaning and purpose that we find here together.

Simple hospitality should be a fundamental practice of any congregation already. But RADICAL hospitality means that hospitality gets worked into the bloodstream of everything we do together, every committee and team, every meeting and gathering, every public event, every conversation and decision. Think with me in your minds eye all of the new changes that have taken place on this property, not just over the last five-six months, but the last couple of years ... the refurbished classrooms, their new murals, the new roof, new landscaping, new retaining walls, etc., etc., etc.

Now ... imagine that we don’t stop with the physical property, but continue into all of the decisions we make and all of our practices as a church ... continue into everything we say and do as it relates to the new members we already have as well as the new members we haven’t met yet. How will that change what we do and how we do it? Radical hospitality is hospitality that goes deeper and deeper and deeper into our congregational bloodstream ... nothing we do will fail to consider the stranger who might yet be our friend and our companion in this glorious journey of life and faith and compassionate ministry.

And now, in the Spirit of the call to “Be Fruitful”, let us take our apples representing our commitment to Radical Hospitality and “hang” them on our “Tree of Fruitfulness.”


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Church: Faithful and Bold in Times of Trial

The late Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara said, quite famously: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Has anyone been persecuted lately?

Persecution ... it’s one of those odd, old-fashioned Biblical words that doesn’t get a lot of use any more. It seems to come from a time when early Christians were being thrown to the lions by Roman empererors.

But we know that the suffering and tribulations of the early church were very real ... until the time of Emperor Constantine in the 300’s, Christianity was thought of as a cult ... a nuisance at least, but possible a dangerous cult. And if the persecution of Christians within the Roman empire ended when Constantine converted to Christianity, we know that the persecution of Christians and other people of faith continues into this very day. Mosques and synagogues continue to suffer the indignities of vandalism or the pure crime of arson. The young white supremacist that was arrested in Yuba City in recent weeks was coming to California to see how many Jews he could kill.

Persecution is described as “the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group. The most common forms are religious persecution, ethnic persecution, and political persecution, though there is naturally some overlap between these terms. The inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation, imprisonment, fear, or pain are all factors that may establish persecution.”

Sometimes, persecution comes simply because of who we are … our “difference” … our unique culture, or ways of observing our faith. Muslim women wearing head-scarves or Sikh men in their turbans are likely to suffer verbal abuse or worse in places where these are not common.

But sometimes, persecution comes about as a result of engaging in the struggle against injustice … speaking out against unjust systems … standing with the oppressed … aligning oneself with the poor and against those that make them that way. Even expressing your solidarity with others who are persecuted can make you a target for persecution.

In the 1990’s, a conflict was escalating among American Baptists, as well as most other Christian denominations, around the painfully delicate topic of human sexuality. The conflict centered around just who was worthy of a full place at Christ’s table. And the conflict was about those churches that offered a full place at Christ’s table without condemnation to all who came. It’s like what I heard one of the Glide Memorial Church pastors say once: “If God made you, we want you.”

The region in which we belonged had other thoughts about the relative wideness of God’s mercy and decided to kick out four churches that took the wideness of God’s mercy a little too literally. If, as we’ve heard, persecution is, among other things, “The inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation ...” well, this qualifies as persecution.

Now interestingly Shell Ridge was not among those kicked out ... we were flying a bit below the radar at that time and only “came out” as a welcoming and affirming congregation some years later. We were not silent in the struggle by any means, but our solidarity was limited to our voices and our presence. Only much later did we risk our membership in a region where we clearly no longer belonged.

Persecution comes in many degrees when one struggles against injustice. A child in elementary school who befriends an outcast may get ostracized by her classmates—a heavy cost at that tender age. But an Archbishop who stands up against his entire government as it oppresses and slaughters its own people will pay with his life. This is the story of martyred El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. His is a story that has been told many times in many ways from this pulpit.

It is interesting to note that for most of his career, Oscar Romero was a “go along to get along” kind of priest. He was fairly conservative and traditional. When Romero was chosen to be the new Archbishop of San Salvador, more progressive Catholics and friends of the campesinos were horrified. Campesinos are the working rural poor against whom the U.S. supported El Salvadoran government was waging a brutal war. The Catholic church in these kinds of conflicts too often sided with the powers that be ... they implicitly and sometimes explicitly supported the oppressive government.

If Romero began that way, it was witnessing the assassination of one of his dearest friends that turned him around. Progressive Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was helping to organize self-reliance groups among the campesinos when he was shot down by government death squads. Romero went to the little village to mourn his friend and he said: "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path'". This was only a month after Romero had been appointed archbishop.

Walking the same path for Archbishop Romero meant supporting the poor in their campaign for justice and fairness and an end to the violence against them. Walking the same path for Oscar Romero meant, as he surely knew when he spoke those words, receiving the same fate as his martyred friend. Just three years into his outspoken solidarity with the poor, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while celebrating communion. Shot down as he lifted up the cup of Christ’s blood poured out for all. On the 30th anniversary of his death, just last year, the government formally apologized for its role in Romero’s martyrdom.

In that time of bitter struggle in El Salvador, it wasn’t only the Catholic priests who were targets for persecution. One of the stories that has become interwoven into our own Shell Ridge stories is of Baptists in El Salvador who were also being bullied and threatened and persecuted because of their concern for the poor and their opposition to government sponsored oppression and violence.

Gerson and Carlos Sanchez became a part of this congregation a half dozen or so years ago. And we learned that, like me, they are children of a Baptist minister ... this one a longtime pastor from San Salvador, the same city where Oscar Romero was archbishop. Pastor Carlos Sanchez Sr. has witnessed the struggle for basic human rights and has become aligned enough with that struggle so that he too became a target.

We are deeply privileged to be able to welcome Carlos and Gerson’s father among us today to speak a little about his own experience with persecution and what it means to live and minister with hope in the midst of difficulties that come our way as a result of commitments we have made.

Questions for Pastor Sanchez:


· The background and context for this conversation is this morning’s sermon-text from First Thessalonians where Paul praises the Thessalonian church for being an extraordinary light and example of the gospel in spite of the persecution they had faced and endured.

· I feel like I know enough (but not a lot) about Primera Iglesia Bautista de San Salvador to believe that its experience--and your experience, Pastor Sanchez-- approximates the Thessalonian church in some ways. You and your congregation have been a bright light and example of the gospel of Christ in spite of the persecution you have faced and endured.


· Describe the circumstances of your “persecution” as a church and a pastor … How have you and your congregation persisted and flourished and stayed faithful in the midst of your challenges/persecution?

· What word(s) do the North American churches/Christians need to hear that grows out of today's text, your and your church's experience, and your perceptions of our world and its many needs? How might we live out the gospel message/example of Jesus more faithfully, fearlessly and fruitfully?

This morning we’ve been given an opportunity to hear a voice from beyond our walls … and beyond our borders. Persons and churches are always wise to hear and attend carefully to the loving observations of others. Even as we acknowledge the ways in which we participate in the slow birthing of God’s Shalom on earth, we know that more is needed and more is expected. It’s in our Christian DNA. It’s who are we and it’s what we are to be about.

We live in a culture which has a tendency to stifle and smother prophetic instincts and action. We live in a culture where we are encouraged at nearly every step to “go along to get along.” And in this culture where so many “small gods” capture the utter loyalty of so many, including many of us to a large degree, we have to work hard to overcome culture’s demands on us to not stand out—even if the need to stand out in the face of injustice is right before us.

And as true as it may be in our own time, it’s not a new truth. Early Christian father, St. Augustine said: "For evil to triumph, the good have only to remain silent." Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King echoed these words of Augustine when he wrote, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

A dozen or so years ago we were privileged to have Alan Boesak preach at Micky Holmes’ ordination. Boesak is a South African pastor and one of the leading lights in the movement to dismantle apartheid and bring a new era of truth and reconciliation to South Africa. In his sermon Boesak spoke of the ultimate danger of any quietism and appalling silences that the modern church might be guilty of. Boesak said: "We will go before God to be judged, and God will ask us: 'Where are your wounds?' and we will say, 'We have no wounds.' And God will ask, 'Was nothing worth fighting for?'”

As we watch the occupation of Wall Street and many other streets … as we observe the enormous inequities persist among this planet’s peoples … as we watch the degradation of our environment … as we consider the continuous struggle and mostly failure to create a just and lasting peace … it is worth looking in that proverbial mirror and asking ourselves: “Where are our wounds? And … what is worth fighting for?”

As we approach and enter our time of prayer, let us also be reminded of the joyous and redemptive communities of faith in Thessalonika of Paul’s time and in San Salvador in our time. The work of healing and peace not only does not need to be grim, joyless work by a grim, joyless people … it is that very work that can strip away our grimness and return joy where it has become a stranger to us. And the work of healing and peace, performed as we live and work and walk in the ways of Jesus, has the power to bring a deep and lasting joy to all.

Let us be called to this time of prayer and reflection as we sing together our call to prayer, “Santo, Santo, Santo” …

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Clothed in Christ, Clothed in Love

Over the past few weeks we've been bouncing back and forth between Paul's letter to the Philippians and Jesus' parables in Matthew 21 and 22.

The heart of Paul's letter, you may recall, lifts up Jesus as the model of self-emptying, self-sacrificing servanthood. “Here is the one you are following and whom God has exalted,” Paul says … “keep being like him.”

If Paul's letters offer warm, loving affirmation to the Christians in Philippi, Jesus' parables, which are addressed primarily to the religious authorities of his time and his faith, are anything but. In three consecutive parables, Jesus puts a sharp stick in the eyes of the chief priests and Pharisees. “You have had your chance,” Jesus says, “to welcome the new thing God is doing … and now someone else is going to get a chance … a whole LOT of someones.

Today's parable is the final one in this series of three. Like the other two parables, it's an allegory that isn't too hard to figure out. A king, meaning God, is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. The wedding banquet is God's heavenly reign and the son is Jesus. Invitations had already been delivered and the slaves are sent to escort the honored guests to the celebration. Israel and its religious leaders are the honored guests who are expected to help celebrate the culmination of God's dream for creation in Jesus: God's love incarnate … God’s love in the flesh. But one after another, the guests make excuses and back out. In a final instance, the escorting slaves are mistreated and killed. In a fit of rage, the King orders the ungrateful guests killed and their city destroyed. Because it is Matthew, the gospel writer, who is adapting Jesus' parable—and perhaps expanding it from its original telling, this part of the allegory refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple—which was the center and heart of Israel and its faith.

And it is, in fact, the destruction of the Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem that drives a huge wedge between Judaism and Christianity … the ancient, venerable faith and the younger upstart faith which had co-existed with reasonable peace for 40 years, now are set adrift from each other and the antagonism between the two now fully separate faiths becomes deadly. Increasingly, there was no middle ground between the two, and if you had a foot in each camp, you had to make a choice ... there was no room for “Mr. In-between.” Families and communities were divided in this deepening conflict. And the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities in Matthew’s gospel is a reflection of that tension.

A large part of Matthew's overall message in his gospel is to convince his Jewish listeners that Jesus really is the fulfillment of the words of the prophets and stands squarely in the shoes of Israel's great deliverer, Moses. Another word that Matthew is seeking to communicate is that Israel's leaders and authorities have come to the end of the game. God is moving on … all that God needs to say and reveal has been said and revealed in Jesus … and it's a universal message of hope and welcome … and that's just not a message that the old guard of Israel are willing to embrace … or even CAN embrace.

My vision, God seems to be saying, is an infinitely expandable vision … I mean to embrace all people, all creatures, all creation … I have shared this vision many times through many messengers, and, most fully of all, in this one Jesus who is of my own being.

This is a vibrant new wine in a rigidly inflexible old wineskin. Every time we read parables that pit the new wine of Jesus against the old wineskins of his foes we should ask ourselves where we have become rigid and inflexible ... where we struggle to adapt to the new things that God continues to do around us and seek to do through us.

We know that the brittle wineskins of many Protestant denominations have struggled to stretch to the limits of God’s own circle of welcome when it comes to welcoming and finally affirming people of all sexual orientations. When my parents were children, the church had the same struggles around people of different races and women in church leadership. When an institution as resistant to change as the U.S. military beats much of the Christian church to the punch with its repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, you know the church risks the same judgment as the religion of Jesus’ upbringing. I don’t think God has given up on us ... but I’m sure that our reluctance to change through the years has made her a little grumpy.

What seems to be at stake in this parable and much of Matthew’s gospel is, to use an old cliché I don’t think I’ve ever used before, that God’s chosen people have become God’s frozen people. They are frozen in a time and a mode where strict observance of the ancient minutiae of the law takes precedence over simple mercy and compassion and kindness. I don’t know that the Chief Priests and Pharisees, as individual human beings, were cruel people, but they were a part of a faith that had lost its breath ... that is, the living spirit of God’s own heart. Much of the Law of Ancient Israel was intended to define Israel over against their neighbors ... neighboring nations and faiths. By setting them apart, God could enter a covenant relationship with God’s own people and could shape them into a people of God’s own heart, God’s own spirit of Justice and Love. But you can see, in the dreams of the prophets, inklings that God’s heart could never be forever bound to only one people, only one nation, only one faith.

Jesus’ parables are littered with characters who represent Israel’s refusal to share its table and its inheritance with the impure and the unworthy. The elder son in the parable of the prodigal son is a well-known example of this refusal. Sinners and foreigners and other unworthy newcomers are simply not welcome at the table of the faith of Jesus’ upbringing.

And so, the expanding heart of God, unfortunately depicted rather violently in today’s parable, tears up the old guest list and throws open the heavenly wedding banquet to ALL ... all people of every possible kind ... the parable even goes so far as to note that “the good and the bad” alike are to be found in God’s wedding banquet.

I would guess that a part of the reluctance of the “first invited” to come to the banquet was their suspicion that in God’s generosity, they would not be the only ones there. It’s a little like the old joke about the Catholics who’ve just gotten to heaven who are told to duck down while passing the wall where the Baptists are because the Baptists think they’re the only ones there. As I’ve heard Doug Holmes say many times, “we’re all going to be very surprised when we get to heaven and find out who’s there.”

When we were in England and Wales this past summer, one of the recurring themes among native Brits was the “problem of immigration”. Nearly every conversation we had ended up with a grumble over the challenges England is experiencing with its immigrant populations. When we first arrived in London, we stayed way out in Wembley because we couldn’t find anything we could afford closer in. When we would share where we’d stayed with British folk, they would always look shocked and ask “Why?” Wembley, like many parts of greater London, is like a mini—or not so mini—United Nations. It’s a melting pot of the many immigrants who’ve found their way to that land of opportunity. Sadly, the towns we drove through as we left London, after a few days in Wembley, were torn apart by racial rioting only a few weeks after we’d been there.

You can hear in the words and voices of established populations anywhere a yearning for “the good old days” ... simpler times when, in the immortal words of Archie Bunker, “girls were girls and men were men.” And minorities knew their place. And women could only dream about voting. And slave-owners were honest, god-fearing, upstanding citizens who made the best presidents.

We could note with irony that this is “Columbus Day weekend” ... it was Columbus’ “discovery” of this land that soon would the natives of this land yearning for the good old days.

But you can’t go back. People can’t be faulted, I suppose, for their selective memories of “the good old days”, but we not only know that they weren’t “good” for everybody, but we also know that once a circle of inclusion is expanded, it can rarely go back to its original shape ... nor should it.

Wherever we find immigrant populations that are causing the natives to grumble, we might ask ourselves what conditions have caused the immigrants to seek new opportunities in new places. The long, painful shadow of colonialism is one of the lingering realities that have stunted the people and the economies of the old colonies. Old injustices and cruelties always pay a long, slow, lingering dividend and it’s too easy and not fair to be blind or indifferent to those old, and not entirely healed wounds and the lives that are still affected by them.

In the past, our government has helped overthrow democratically elected leaders whose politics we didn’t like and in their place we propped up leaders who brutalized the poor and destroyed their ability to be free and self-sufficient. One way or another, this story has been repeated all over the planet since the time of Christopher Columbus and ever since ... ever since, the hens have been coming home to roost in the colonizing nations.

So when a teacher struggles with his students who neither speak English nor whose family seems to “get” our passion for competitive education, it would be fair, and perhaps wise, for the teacher to “step back” just a bit and try for a moment to grasp the larger picture of why any civilization in this day and age will, by necessity, be a melting pot of cultures and languages and faiths. Why the poor will seek a better way of life among wealthier neighbors.

Grasping the larger picture will not make the challenges of immigration go away, but perhaps it will make us all a bit more patient with the challenges and a bit more determined to heal the wounds of the past and help create a world of more nearly equal opportunity.

In Jesus’ parable, there is a way in which those who finally accept the invitation and show up at the wedding banquet are those that grasp the larger picture of God’s ever-widening inclusion and generosity. The description of the guests as including both “good and bad” may be intended a bit ironically ... that those are their old designations placed upon them by others who judged them that way. Whether once thought of as good or bad, the guests in attendance are those whose lives reflect God’s “open banquet” policy. And they are those whose lives reflect the generous and merciful and kindly spirit of the one who invited them.

And we’ve long puzzled over the poor soul who shows up only to discover that he didn’t get the memo about the proper wedding attire. He is simply one of the old invitees who thought he could crash the heavenly wedding banquet without changing out of his old tattered robe of prejudices and hostilities.

Paul, who wrote this morning’s letter to the Philippians, was once a Pharisee of the highest order as likely was the old invitee who gets bounced from the banquet. But that was the old self that Paul left behind to follow and live into the likeness of the suffering servant, Jesus.

Paul understood well that the old skin of the old ways needed to be shed and the new skin or the new clothing of Christ needed to be put on. It was this new wedding-worthy robe that the speechless guest who had crashed the banquet had refused to put on. And by his refusal, he self-selected a place far from the colorful joy and warmth of God’s great feast for all people. And yet ... and yet I’d like to think that the story might go on to tell how God goes out into that darkness full of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and blesses and heals the unrepentant one and finally welcomes him and all like him into the great heavenly feast for all.

Here, says Paul, the former Pharisee, here is the new garment, the new cloak, that attendees of God’s great banquet for all will wear. He writes these words to the Christians in the Colossian church:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

Put on that outfit, that outfit of heavenly love, and wear it into the classroom ... and wear up to and over the Mexican border ... and wear it into the teeming suburbs of any European city ... and, finally, into the divine banquet whose music and dancing and feasting are a foretaste of heaven ... on earth ... according to the great, expanding heart of God whose name is LOVE.

Wear that garment of love, and the peace of Christ WILL rule in your hearts ... and you will be thankful. And all will be thankful.


Sunday, October 02, 2011

Fruitful vineyards

One of the great joys of any vacation—especially when you travel far from home—is getting to break bread in other parts of the world. One Sunday, when we were in a romantic corner on the island of Sicily, we found ourselves in a tiny English-speaking Anglican church where fewer than a dozen of us had gathered to practice the familiar rituals of our faith and share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Breaking bread among strangers in unfamiliar places is a healthy practice for our humanity and our faith and is consistent with the intents of our practice of World Communion Sunday where we seek to understand our common identity with other members of the Christian family.

Learning to come around a common table with anyone who isn’t a part of our normal “inner circle” helps us to expand our sense of our common humanity with all of earth’s people. Sitting at a table of welcome and kindness and generosity—whether we are guests or hosts—can deepen our understanding of the need to serve each other and to share our lives and the things we have with those around us.

“Table fellowship” is a term that is critical to understanding Jesus and his ministry and his values. It seems to me that there are things that can happen around a “dinner table” that can happen nowhere else. Thursday night we had our Worship Ministry Team meeting over a meal ... around a dinner table. We had lots of catching up to do and lots of business to discuss and cover, but we started with a meal and the fellowship that is natural when breaking bread together. Every meeting of SALT, our Social Action Leadership Team, begins with a light meal. My best staff meetings are always over breakfast of lunch—but especially breakfast.

Sociologists who specialize in studying families speak of the critical importance of not forsaking meals together as a family. It’s the place where our scattered lives are brought back together ... where the most honest sharing can occur ... where love and affection can be fed and rekindled.

In our modern “Fast Food nation” culture, where a drive-through meal too often substitutes for a dinner table, we have a hard time understanding the full depth of meaning of “table fellowship” as practiced in the time of Jesus. The family table was utterly central to family life and the home in Jewish culture. And to break bread at a common table with others meant that you welcomed them fully into your life and your home ... it was a kind of “what’s mine is yours” kind of gesture. No walls or barriers or separation stood in the way any longer ... it was “communion” in the fullest sense of the word. Whoever was welcomed to your table or any table to which you were welcomed ... this was “family”. At the common table, there was a spirit of loving generosity and kindness and welcome that was more important than the food, even, absolutely essential to one’s life and wellbeing.

We know that some of the harshest conflicts Jesus had with his opponents centered on his practice of eating with “sinners” ... outcasts of all kinds ... prostitutes and tax collectors among others. Proper religious folk of Jesus’ time wouldn’t have dared to pollute the common table with such folk ... keeping clear lines of separation ... clear boundaries ... was a critical part of one’s daily life and practice of faith. For Jesus, the sad fact was that the “proper practice of faith” was leading to a kind of spiritual “stinginess” and selfishness that divided people, one from another ... and a spiritual stinginess cannot help but lead to a material stinginess. Refusing to share at a common table, in many ways, symbolized a wider refusal to share at all.

We have this morning, as our focus text, another farm story ... another parable woven out of the common elements that the listeners to the story would understand. If Jesus were here and spoke in parables today, he would speak in the language of technology or modern investment principles or modern entertainment. “A man had two sons ... one of the sons came to him and said: “Father, you know I have long been a user of PC’s and windows-based computer platforms, but now I’d like to have my portion of the inheritance so I can purchase an Apple i-mac.” The parable ends there, because the father, played in this instance by Doug Holmes, freezes into a catatonic state from which he never returns.

Jesus speaks in the language of his listeners and tells of an absentee landlord who has handed over his vineyard to tenants who will do the farming, collect the produce and hand over a portion of what they harvest. It was a common practice and one that we could easily criticize because it was one of the means by which the richer got richer and kept the poor in their destitute condition. It’s possible that a story like this was originally told to entertain and satisfy poor listeners ... when the rich landowner tries to take the lion’s share of the harvest from the poor tenants, they rise up and resist and finally claim the land by killing the landowner’s son.

Jesus, however, isn’t telling the story to poor tenant farmers, but to the religious powerbrokers of his day. The listeners are the ones who have considerable control over the social economic order of the day. In many ways they help determine “who’s in and who’s out” ... who gets to come to the common table, and who gets pushed away. In such a system, the poor often remain that way or get even poorer. And the impure—by whatever means they’ve become that way—are separated from family and community and even their faith ... their God.

Jesus story is commonly understood to be simple allegory ... and in his telling, the absent landowner is God, the vineyard is Israel and Judaism, the tenants are the religious leaders of Israel, the prophets of old are God’s messengers and representatives, and Jesus, himself, is the heir, last sent, killed and cast out. As a result of the tenant farmers’ boorish behavior and their violence to the landowner’s representatives, even great violence will be done to them ... the vineyard will be taken from them and given to more responsible tenants.

The allegory is a fairly simple one ... so simple, in fact, that the intended audience, Matthew tells us, gets the message. Matthew writes: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they realized he was speaking about them.” It was this parable and the others that Jesus told that helped solidify the opposition to Jesus. And had not Jesus still enjoyed great popularity with the common folk who flocked to him, the religious leaders would have immediately had Jesus arrested.

How do you respond when someone points out your faults? Do you ... thank them? Offer them a tip for their good service? Or do you call the police? Officer, this man is telling the painful and obvious truth and I want him ARRESTED.

The truth can hurt and when someone we don’t much like is the bearer of the truth, it can lead us to wish unpleasant things for that person. I doubt, though, that we’re a whole lot more kindly disposed to those we care for who yet speak painful truths to us. “Your drinking is threatening our relationship.” “Your anger scares me.” “You’re ignoring your children.” “That behavior is risky.” “You seem to love your job more than me.” “We never eat meals together any more.”

One commentator likened Jesus’ parables to a drill ... he says that “the intent of Jesus’ story is to drill down through layers of denial to the level of recognition ...”. We might say that Jesus’ parable is less like a drill and more like dynamite ... because there’s a lot of violence in the story ... not only are the tenants prone to violence toward any who would threaten their denial, but when Jesus asks his audience how they violent tenants should be dealt with by the absent vineyard, they respond—perhaps not surprisingly—with more violence.

At the end of the story, Jesus asks the Chief Priests and Pharisees: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’” They said to Jesus, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’”

It is, as Martin Luther King said so sadly: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Jesus says to these who seem to understand the truth of his words, but have not the spiritual moral will to change: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Now ... by the time Matthew wrote these words, weaving this story Jesus told into his gospel, the Chief Priests and Pharisees were relics from Jesus’ time ... and how much more so in our reading. If we are to “find ourselves” in Jesus’ parable—and this is the challenge of all parables and all scripture ... if we are to find ourselves in this story, then perhaps we do well to start at the end and ask ourselves: “What is the vineyard and are we being “fruitful”.

To be faithful to this sermon and to this parable, you will of course, have to continue asking yourself these questions. You must allow the story to continue to linger within you and probe you.

In a time when life is no less endangered and precarious than in Jesus’ own time, and in a time when the injustices of life are as plainly evident as in Jesus’ own time, we do well to ask ourselves about our own “stewardship” over the things with which we have been entrusted. This earth ... it’s natural resources ... it’s human resources—our brothers and sisters who share the planet with us ... our inheritances of life and substance from our families of upbringing ... even the gift of the air we breathe and the gift of each new day in which we are privileged to live. Each of these I’ve named and many more are the “vineyard” with which we have each been entrusted. And the plain truth of Jesus’ story is “use it wisely and generously or lose it.”

More of you than I can count or recall have recounted to me times in your doctor’s office where one bit or another of medical evidence has been for you a “wake up” call ... your blood pressure ... your weight ... your cholesterol level ... the condition of your liver. Your body is telling you: It’s time to listen to the message, time to wake up, time to change. Because if you don’t change, your body will return to the dust from which it came a lot sooner than you think or you’d like. Some of us heed these wake up messages ... and some of us don’t. The ball is certainly in our court when the truth is spoken to us. What does it take to get us to hear the truth? And what does it take for us to heed the truth and to discover the will to change?

The commentator who likened Jesus’ parables to a denial penetrating drill says that if you drill down through enough layers of denial, you may reach a new level of recognition and at that new level you can tap “a deep vein of contrition that can finally well up to water new life that is ‘fruitful’ in gospel terms.”

Bad news that leads to good news. Hmm. That might be one way of saying it. You may remember that Alfred Nobel is the scientist for whom the Nobel peace prize is named. But the bad news for Alfred Nobel was that he read a premature obituary of his life that described him as a purveyor of death because he was inventor of dynamite. Seeing his life summed up so grimly made Nobel determine that he would “invent” something else for which he’d rather be known: a prize for those who were purveyors of life and peace. Bad news that leads to good news. Maybe so.

Now back to Sicily for a moment. The day after we worshipped in that little Anglican church, Jan and I went to tea with the priest that presided over the Lord’s Supper. John Price is his name. John had just retired from his parish in a town north of London. It is a town that struggles with every possible blight that any of our communities here might struggle with. For six years, John worked tirelessly to turn bad news into good news. His congregation was beset by the challenges of immigrant populations washing over the community ... and so they became a profoundly multi-cultural church, embracing the unfamiliar languages and customs of Christians from other parts of the world. When John assumed the leadership of his church, the church grounds had become severely overgrown and had become a haven for drug dealers and users. The cut back the overgrowth and cleaned up the grounds. Over 1500 hypodermic needles were collected amidst the clutter. Today the cleaned up grounds serves the community as does the church in new ways that it might never had envisioned had it not faced up to the bad news and determined to bring good news from it.

This earth and these lives and any abundance we might enjoy ... they are all extraordinary gifts ... and the word to us today is that they are not to be hoarded and defended and fought over, but are for us and for all to enjoy and share. The good news is that there is within us all—all of us here, all Christians, all people on this earth ... there is a vein of “God-given goodness” that can be tapped and that can rise up like waters of new life and new fruitfulness.

Let us give proof of that goodness by hearing and heeding the call to make of our lives and of this world a watered garden, a fruitful vineyard, and a table whose generosity and welcome knows no bounds. Amen.