Monday, October 31, 2016

Reformation, canon, etc. - Sunday's Sermon

Psalm 46
Luke 19:1-10

               Today is reformation Sunday when we celebrate and remember how we became the protestant church.  But I thought I would start by answering another of the many questions that came to us in our theological panel conversations and that is about the Canon in particular.  The Old Testament had been set for some time by Jewish practice, tradition and decisions.  But the Western Christian Canon (which includes different books than what is included by the Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christian sects, was decided over time.  In the early church, the letters or Epistles circulated around as distinct letters but by the end of the 1st century were in some form of collection.  The first suggestion of a Christian Canon came about 140AD by Marcion.  However, for about 250 years after that there was a great deal of arguing over what should be considered canon and which books would be considered heresy. Origen of Alexandria pretty much used the same 27 books that we now consider the New Testament.  So by the year 200, the major writings that we still consider canon today were the central books being used by most Christians.  But the first really big and definitive decision about that was made in 393 at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa.  St. Augustine headed this council as well as two others that followed it and considered the canon pretty much closed at that point.  The book of revelation was the most contested book and in the end, the belief that it was genuinely written by John seems to be at least one of the predominant reason it was included in the Canon.  As we know though, with the Protestant reformation, the canon was reevaluated.  For example, Luther moved some books that the Catholic church included in their canon into what we now call the Apocrypha which is not considered part of the Protestant canon.  What is interesting though is that as a result of the Protestant Reformation, various denominations, including the Catholic church, revisited what was considered Canon.  Council of Trent in 1546 decided canon for the Roman Catholic church.  Presbyterians decided it around 1647.  The response, again, to why some books were included and some weren’t is a long one, each book considered and included or excluded for different reasons, but the main reasons for why a book was included or excluded were centered around three major things: practice, or what had been used most frequently and liturgically, theology and politics.  For example: Luther wanted to remove from canon several books that included specifically Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.  The reason was these books seem to argue against the basic protestant reformation ideas of sola scriptura and sola fide (Scripture alone and faith alone for salvation).  Luther wanted them removed for these theological reasons.  But for political reasons, namely that he could not get support on this from his followers for excluding these books, as well as practice – these books were well used, well loved and strongly appreciated, he was not able to remove these books even into the Apocrypha.  For Protestants, the stated criteria for inclusion in the canon were the following:   
1.       They needed to be of Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the teachings of the first-generation apostles (or people close to them).
2.       They needed to have Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities towards the end of the 4th century (as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities for the Old Testament).
3.       They needed to be in regular Liturgical Use — read publicly and in worship with some consistency.
4.      They needed to have a Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.
               The parishioner who asked about canon asked very specifically about the gospel of Thomas and why it was not included in the Canon (and it has been excluded from early on). It was not included for several reasons: First, most scholars question its authorship and don’t believe it actually was written by the disciple Thomas.  Second, it is a list of sayings rather than a story like the other gospels.  Third, many of the sayings are gnostic in their theology, which was considered a big heresy at the time canon was being discussed.  And finally, most scholars believe many of the sayings written were things unlikely to have been said by a Jewish Rabbi at the time, in particular, again, the sayings that have a gnostic aspect to them.  If you are unsure what Gnosticism is and are curious about it, we can discuss it at another time.
               The point here is that there were many writings about faith.  There still are.  And so criteria were set for what would be considered scripture and what would not, and these criteria were based again on practice, theology, origin, and, realistically, politics. 
               So that’s the answer to the question that came in.  But what does this have to do with the reformation?  Or today’s scriptures? 
               What it has to do with the reformation is that a big and important piece of the reformation was an intense look once again at what was to be considered canon.  What it has to do with today’s lesson is that the reformation is a reminder, as were the long debates about what was canon, that we are imperfect people on an imperfect but holy path.  We search for wholeness, we seek to follow Jesus.  But the best we can hope is that in community we do better than as individuals, and that through time the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us and continues to move us into deeper wisdom, understanding and closeness with God.
               Jesus came for the lost. He said this again and again, but he also showed it in his choice of people he picked to visit, to be with, to heal, to transform.  People were unhappy that he took the time to be with Zacchaeus.  And people are unhappy that our churches are not yet perfect and are not make of perfect people.  But that is who Jesus came to be with.  Real people, on a journey of creating community that strives to follow Christ: US. That does mean, however, that we can’t stop being people striving to do better.  Reformed and always reforming.  Or rather, protesting and always protesting.  The Protestant reformation was about protesting, about changing what is.  It was about standing up against the status quo of the time and insisting on justice for those who are poorer, for those who are underprivileged, for those being used and abused, in the church but also beyond these walls.  To quote Rev. Michael Piazza, “The church always has been at its best when it has acted as Jesus did, consistently and persistently, using our energy and strength on behalf of the poor and those who have been pushed to the margins of life. Now, you may agree that this is what the church should do and that it is a great idea to spend the next year protesting, but what about YOU?”  Are we still doing what it is we are called to do?  Sometimes I wonder if the decline of the church in the United States (and as I’ve mentioned before, this is not a small decline.  It is sharp, it is strong, and if predictions are correct, there won’t be a Presbyterian church in another 15 years) is not a condemnation from God on our stuckness again.  The prophets warned against this again and again, challenging us to be more loving and more giving and warning that if we weren’t, we would become irrelevant and would therefore die.  The Protestant reformation challenged what was happening in the Catholic church at the time because it was becoming corrupt.  What is interesting is that while it ended with a split, it also changed the Catholic Church.  It reformed them as well as the church came to see its own sin of the time and realized it had to change.  The larger Christian church is dying again, and I think it, too, is an indictment in many ways on how internally focused we have become once again.  We have become once again about serving each other.  But that is not what we have been called to do.  And I believe the only way the church will survive is for us to go back to what the protestant reformation was about, or to go back farther to what the prophets preached about, and once again confront the injustice of caring for ourselves over others. 
In today’s story, it was not enough for Zacchaeus to just talk with Jesus.  His is a story of transformation as all of our stories must be.  And it was not just the transformation of Zacchaeus.  The man others knew only as “the tax collector” or “the sinner” was called by name, and he was changed by it.  But his change did not stop with himself.  Because he returned the money, because his behavior changed, his transformation meant the transformation of the larger community as well.  Those who had been oppressed by him, used by him, taken advantage by him were now freed too.  Our transformation has to look like this as well. 
               The question is, always, when we come to see who Jesus is, are we willing to change our lives?  To change what feels “comfortable and easy”?  Are we willing to let go of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and instead to be open to the path Jesus wants us to go, to follow in the way, in the path of a man who ends up dead before he ends up resurrected?  Does our faith, does our encounter with the living Christ make a difference for us?  The question on Reformation Sunday is: are we willing to give up what is comfortable and easy as a church and as individuals to truly follow Jesus?  Are we willing to step out to hear what the people of God, God’s children, all of God’s people really need to experience God’s love, God’s grace and God’s presence in this place at this time?
               The debates over canon, the protestant reformation, the current church crisis: these are times ripe for challenge of who we are and who we are called to be.  Who does God call us to be?  That is the question that we are constantly called to ask as we continue to seek to be a church that is reformed and always reforming.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Humility

2 Timothy 4:6-8
Micah 5:8
Luke 18:9-14

               One of our sports champs was in his prime and as he was about to take off on an airplane flight, the stewardess reminded him to fasten his seat belt.  He came back with “Superman don’t need no seat belt.”  The stewardess quickly responded, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”  The champ fastened his belt.
               How do we count our blessings?  How do we give thanks for the gifts we are given that make us who we are?  Well, often I think we do it in relationship to others.  That’s how we understand the world; relatively.  We thank God that we have enough to eat, knowing there are others who do not.  We thank God that we have nice places to live, knowing there are others who live in much meaner accommodations.  And then, we thank God for the talents and situations we were raised in that have allowed us to lead successful lives, knowing others have not been so fortunate.  We thank God that we are relatively healthy in both body and mind: that we don’t have THAT issue - the one over there that Susie has.  We thank God that we have a church community and are faithful Christians and ..... because look at all those poor people over there who don’t. 
Like I said, I think this way of relating to the world is pretty normal.  I mean, how do we know what blessings we have except in relationship to others?  I think it can be harder to remember to be thankful for those things that everyone is given: air to breath, sun to keep our planet warm enough for life to exist, the company of other people and creatures, water...but even then we can start thinking relatively again: not everyone has clean water or enough water all the time: thank God that we do.  Not everyone lives in warm climates, not everyone has GOOD company in the people around them.  Again, this way of thinking is normal.  We understand our world in comparisons.  We understand our culture and our community in terms of how it is different from others, and we understand our unique selves often in terms of how we are different from those around us.
Yet, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus challenges this way of thinking.  He does so in terms of those who give thanks for their piety, their dedication to God over others.  This is truly self-righteous behavior.  “God, thank you that I am not like these other people: thieves, abusers, adulterers, or even this person with a terrible job who is despised by others.  Thank God that I am able to tithe and fast and do everything I can to be in good relationship with God.” etc.  It is easier for us, I think, to agree with Jesus if we see this passage only in terms of this obviously self-righteous behavior.  But why were those Jesus critiqued thanking God in this way?  Because they knew that faith is a gift, like any other.  And they believed that this gift of faith was leading them to a better life than those who were unable to be as faithful.  When we look into their reasoning, the separation between those who compare themselves to others because of piety and those who compare themselves to others because of other “blessings” - that separation diminishes and even disappears.  Why do we compare ourselves?  Because we know we have gifts that others don’t.  We know that we have blessings that others don’t that enrich our lives in ways that others don’t experience.  Isn’t it right to be thankful for those blessings?  For those gifts?
How many of you have seen the movie, Trading Places?  Well for those of you who haven’t, Winthorpe is a very successful business man.  He hangs around with the elite of the elite and is very self-righteous about it.  He despises and looks down on all below him.  In contrast, Billy Ray is an African American man who grew up in the ghetto.  He sells drugs, lives on the street and is poor and desperate.  Winthorpe’s bosses decide, out of their own unfeeling curiosity and sense of unlimited power to force these men to trade places and see what happens to them.  So they plant drugs on Winthorpe and strip him of his money, his power, his rights.  They take Billy Ray and offer him Winthorpe’s position: his job including training for that job, and all the money and luxuries that accompany such a high power position.  Without spending too much time on the details of the movie, Winthorpe’s experience in particular is fascinating.  He must go from one who looked down on and despised anyone not in an elite position to a person who can only get help from a prostitute.  In that position of desperation and need, he begins to get to know people in these “lower” classes.  As he gets to know the prostitute who helps him, he also grows to love her.  But more than that, his desperation, his need and dependency on people that he used to judge, getting to know these people as people rather than as inferiors, this actually enriches his life.  In the end, even after he has gotten revenge and has his wealth, his “blessings” back, he is a changed man.  He is a man who is able to love.  He is a man who is enriched by people of all different standings.  He is a man of depth and substance where before he was one-dimensional and poor in that snobbery.  Now given, this is a movie, and a comedy at that.  It is harder, I think for those of us in the real world to really let go of our prejudices and classism.  But that is exactly what Jesus asks us to do.  Jesus asks us to stop comparing ourselves to those around us, those different than us, those in positions of less power, wealth or education and to stand with them instead.  To get to know them.  To learn from them.  To see them as the brothers and sisters they are.  Micah and the passages from Timothy and Proverbs take this a step further and call us into humility, into a recognition that all that we have, including our intelligence, our parents, our talents, our faith – ALL that we have is a gift from God.  Therefore to have conceit around it, to think we are better than others because of it is a grave problem.  It is a spiritual problem because it is failing to honor GOD for what we have and what we are and instead is claiming this as our own.
C.S. Lewis recounts that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.  But after a time, he said, ”I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then I realized that I wasn’t fit to clean those boots.  It got me out of my solitary conceit.”  When we see people, really see other people, we cannot remain in our self-righteousness, even if that is thankful self-righteousness.  Instead, we find ourselves challenged to be humble. 
C.S. Lewis’ main character in the second of his space trilogy, Peralandra, says, “Don’t imagine I’ve been selected for (this task) because I’m anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not ‘til long afterwards, why ANY one was selected for ANY job.  And when one des it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly it is never for what the (person) him ( or her-) self would have regarded as their chief qualifications.”  We may have opportunities that others don’t.  But to me, those are higher tests of our faith.  Will we really use the multitude of resources that we have been given for the good of others?  Will we be able to pass the test of using our wealth, our talents, our gifts to serve God and other people?  It is a very, very hard test.  Many are unable to do it.  They increase their resources only for themselves or their families and have a very hard time passing that on to those really in need.
So in light of this, maybe the real question for all of us is: how, then, can we be thankful, properly thankful, for the good gifts in our lives, without doing it comparatively, without looking down on what others have as “less-than?”  How can we be truly humble?
First, we must pray and WORK to increase equity: to help share the gifts that we have rather than just hoarding them and being thankful.  Sometimes that is easier than others.  If people lack work or housing or money, there are concrete steps that can be taken to help them.  It is harder to see the steps needed to help someone who is suffering for health reasons: physically, emotionally or mentally.  But still there are steps we can take: we can still pray for them.  We can help them obtain medical and psychiatric care.  But in those cases where there just isn’t enough to bring justice and wholeness to them there are other things we can do:
Second, we need to strive to be aware that though others have different experiences, their gifts are just that - different.  Even when it looks like they have “less” sometimes that less gives them a different challenge that is good: others may not have the same material wealth that we have, for example, but they may be very gifted in their relationships or friendships.  We do not know all of the gifts that others experience.
Third, we must remember that we all fall short.  We are all in need of God, no matter how well off we seem, how many blessings we have, how self-sufficient and complete in ourselves we feel.  We are all in need of continued spiritual growth.  None of us have “made it” on our journey with God.  It is a journey and one that needs continued re-dedication, self-reflection, and commitment.
Fourth, and I think this is key:  we need to remember that when we separate ourselves from others, even by the simple prayer “thank God I am not like so and so” we have separated ourselves from God as well.  God is in the poorest of the poor.  God is in the “least of these” as Jesus tells us.  That is where we meet God.  That is where God meets us as well.
Finally, we also need to remember the message of the prophets, of Mary, Jesus’ mother when she prayed the Magnificat, really the message of the entire Bible, “By God the high are brought down and the lowly exalted”.  Today’s gospel story gives us another example of that.  Do not be too proud in what you have, because God is a God of reversals.  Mary’s speech, the Magnificat is in the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  As such it is a statement about the message of the whole gospel.  As Mary says, “God... has performed mighty deeds with his arm: he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”  This is Jesus’ promise as shown in today’s gospel lesson as well.  The righteous man has been found unrighteous.  The rejected, sinner man has been made righteous and whole in God’s eyes.  We cannot be too cocky in our gifts because God is a God of reversals.
Through all of these ways, we remember that God called us to relationship with our brothers and sisters.  We are all equals under God.  We are all loved by God.  And we are called to care for one another as family.  We don’t do that when we compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters.  We are not helping or being loving when we separate ourselves from one another with comparison.  Of course we are called to be thankful.  Thankful for all we are, all we have, all we experience and all we do.  But that thankfulness must be from a place of humility, and recognition that our life is just that: our life; with its own issues, own gifts, own challenges.  Thank God for your life and its gifts.  But do so in humble recognition that we are all just children of God, making our way in this life as everyone else with blessings and with challenges.
Christian Herter was running hard for reelection as governor of Massachusetts, and one day he arrived late at a barbecue.  He’d had no breakfast or lunch, and he was famished.  As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate and received one piece of chicken.  The governor said to the serving lady, “Excuse me, do you mind if I get another piece of chicken.  I’m very hungry.”  The woman replied, “Sorry, I’m supposed to give one piece to each person.”  He repeated, “But I’m starved,” and again she said: “Only one to a customer.”  Herter was normally a modest man, but he decided this was the time to use the weight of his office and said, “Madam, do you know how I am?  I am the governor of this state.”  She answered, “Do you know who I am?  I’m the lady in charge of chicken.  Move along, mister.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Prayer and Instruction

2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5
Psalm 119:97-104
Luke 18:1-8

A High-School English teacher was well known for being a fair, but hard, grader. One day Tim received a B minus on a theme paper. In hopes of bettering his grade and in the spirit of the valentine season, he sent her an extravagant heart-shaped box of chocolates with the pre-printed inscription: "Be Mine."  The following day, he received in return a valentine from the teacher. It read: "Thank you, but it's still Be Mine-Us."
               Instruction and persistent prayer.  Those are the focuses of today’s scriptures.  We need to follow God’s instructions.  And we need to be persistent in our praying.  But the question that all of this raises is simply, “why”?  Why do we need to follow God’s instruction?  And why do we need to be persistent in our praying?  Is it because God wants us to prove that we are faithful?  Is it because God needs to test our faith by seeing how often we are willing to think about, and engage God by following the Bible or by praying?  Is it because the instructions God gives are simply the right thing to do? 
               The psalm passage we read for today tells us that it is through following God’s instructions, doing what we learn to be right from scripture and study, that we come to know God, to understand God, who God is and God’s ways.  Reading scripture brings us into spending time with God, learning what God asks us to do and making an effort to follow that path, leads us closer to understanding God, praying opens our hearts and souls to hearing God and being led by God in new ways. 
               In 12-step programs people are encouraged to pray good things for those who have hurt them.  It is a hard practice, to pray everything good for someone who has hurt you, angered you, betrayed you.  A friend of mine, whom I will call Jane, grew up in an abusive household.  After several years in a 12-step group, she decided to undertake the very hard task of praying good things for her abusive mother in particular.  She found it so hard to do at first that she set herself the task to pray for 30 seconds a day for her mom good things.  At first, she did not feel the prayers she was praying.  She prayed for health for her mother and found anger rising within herself about her mother’s failure to care for Jane physically.  She prayed for her mother’s happiness, and found herself internally raging at her mother for making her childhood a living hell.  But she kept at it.  Within a week she found she could extend her prayer time for her mom to a minute, though she still didn’t really feel the prayers she was offering.  Within a month, she extended the prayer time to 10 minutes a day and actually began to genuinely wish good things for her mom.  By the end of six months, she found herself able to forgive her, to let go of her anger and pain, and even to find compassion within herself for what her mom had suffered that had caused her to be a less than ideal mother.
Jane found herself changed.  Changed enough that she was able to volunteer helping out with other abused children, not from a place of anger, but from a place of compassion and strength.  Her prayers changed her.  Taking time with God daily gave her the strength to deal with her pain with her mother, it gave her the courage to heal and face her childhood.  It gave her the power to do something about a situation dear to her heart, to be part of the solution for other children suffering abuse and neglect in their homes.  She has become God’s hands in a small corner of the world, affecting and caring for God’s children - because of her prayers and the commitment she made to spend that daily time with God.  C.S. Lewis says, “I do not pray so that I may change God.  I pray that God may change me.”
If we are serious about our prayers, about our study time with God, and about following God’s instruction, we have to allow those prayers, that study and that instruction to change us, to move us into action, to move us deeper into understanding to relating more fully to God.  I saw this bumper sticker once that said, “Nothing fails like prayer.”  And I found myself reflecting on it a great deal.  I believe prayers work for many, many reasons.  I believe that God does answer and respond to our prayers, though maybe not in the way we expect.  But I also think that if prayer for us is just one-directional talking to God and then waiting around for God to do what we ask, then we are not using prayer the way God calls us to.  God, after all, is not Santa Claus, there simply to fulfill our wishes if we are good.  If, on the other hand, we take seriously that praying, studying scripture, and following in God’s ways are all steps towards being in relationship with God, if we are open to allowing our study, our faithful devotion to God’s ways, and our prayers to change us and make us active agents for the changes in the world, then nothing succeeds like prayer.  As the psalmist tells us, it is through following in God’s ways, doing what God asks us to do, that we come to understand, relate to and see God. 
               Today’s passages all unite in this way.  The Psalms passage tells us that in following God’s instructions, we come to know God, to understand God.  The Timothy passage tells us that the lessons we learn from scripture equip us for doing God’s work.  And the Luke passage tells us that when we are in relationship with God, when we are persistent in our prayers, God will answer us because God loves us. 
               The bottom line in each of these is that God wants relationship with us.  Taking the time to read scripture, to work to follow God brings us into deeper relationship with God.  Taking time to pray, daily, to God takes us into deeper relationship with God.
The most important reasons to pray and to follow instruction have to do with our personal connection with God.  God does not just want for you to be in awe of God.  God does not just want for you to be treating God, again, like a big Santa Claus.  God does not just want you to be grateful and faithful and caring.  God does want you to be grateful, faithful and caring.  But not just that.  God wants to be in relationship with you.  Every relationship requires time together, requires communication, requires sharing.  God wants to know how you are, from you, in your words, with your intention of speaking with God.  God wants to hear from you your pain, your joys, your hopes, your fears and your thoughts.  God also wants to talk or communicate with you.  When our minds are filled with the noise and business of daily life, it can be hard to hear God’s voice.  Prayer and Bible study, reflection and spending time working to follow God’s instruction gives us time to talk, to be, to reflect.  It gives us time to listen.  It gives us time with God, focused on God and God’s will for our lives.
               A minister, responsible for the religious education in a school once visited one of the classes, to check out the education level. He asked the students: "Please tell me, who destroyed the walls of Jericho?"
One of the students stood up and said: "It was not me, Sir!"
The minister thought the kids were making fun of him, so he turned to the teacher and asked: "Is this the way students normally behave here?"
The teacher was puzzled and answered: "I think this student is very honest and I really don't believe he could do such a thing".
Confused, the minister went to his assistant and explained to him what had happened. The assistant replied: "I know this guy very well, as well as his teacher, so I am absolutely sure none of them is guilty of destroying that wall".
When the minister heard this, he made a formal complaint before the Christian Education Commission. The answer he received from them was the following:
"Dear Sir, let us not make a big issue out of this. We will pay for the damages caused, accounting for them as current school repairs. Whatever the losses are, our insurance will cover them."

               Do we know the stories?  Do we know who God is?  Do we know what God asks of us and do we make efforts to follow in God’s ways?  Do we pray and engage God in relationship?  Those are the things that matter.  Those are the actions that make life worthwhile.  Those are the choices that will fill us with understanding and connection to the Divine Being, and will lead us to LIFE, here and evermore.  Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Sunday's Sermon: Predestination?

Romans 8:28-30
Ephesians 1:3-11
Mark 4:1-20

One of the questions that came from our theological panel day was this: Please discuss predestination.  What is this church’s position on that subject?
As strange as it may seem to start with the second part of the question first, that is what I’m going to do today. While in the larger Christian community there is a strong misunderstanding that says that what it means to be a Presbyterian is to be a person who believes in predestination, I do not know one single PCUSA pastor or even member who believes in Predestination in the way the rest of the Christian community describes it. Granted, I am mostly connected with the more progressive end of the Presbyterian spectrum. But given many of the changes that have recently happened in the PCUSA, those of us who remain in the denomination are those more progressive members and pastors.  So let me say that again: PCUSA folk, with probably rare exceptions, do not believe in the classical idea of predestination.  It is also true that a number of fundamentalists of other denominations DO, however believe in Predestination.
Backing up, however, I do know where folk in the larger Christian community (especially, frankly, those who want to explain why they are not Presbyterian) get the idea that this is a Presbyterian belief. First, it is in great part coming from other denominations’ very differing theology of leadership.  Presbyterians believe, as a very central tenant, that the ministers are all the people, that all people are called, that all people are elected for a particular task and service to God. Because we believe in the equality of God’s people, pastors are not appointed, but instead they apply for jobs like most people in the secular community apply for jobs.  They are chosen by a subcommittee but ultimately the congregation votes on a pastor’s call.  The congregation chooses a person, not deciding whether that person is called by God (because we all are), but deciding whether that person is called by God to serve their particular congregation at a particular point in time in a specific position.  We have people who serve in “higher” positions or places of authority, but they are elected to those positions for a specific period of time. They also are not all pastors, but half of them are elders as well; people who are regular members, like most of you, who have chosen to serve in the leadership of the church. Unlike the Pope, our church leaders are not seen as superior or more Godly or more connected to God.  They are seen as being called to a specific task for a specific time. However, most other denominations run differently.  Pastors, bishops and higher level folk are appointed in most other denominations, by other pastors higher up in the hierarchy, and there very much IS a hierarchy.          This system also means that when a person at the highest level makes a statement of belief, those in the denomination are expected to believe it, to hold to it.  When the pope, for example, says something about faith or about the church, the Catholic church is expected to follow that understanding and that belief.  Calvin and Zwingli were the Presbyterian founding fathers.  Non-Presbyterians therefore assume that if Calvin and Zwingli said it, all Presbyterians must believe it.  If Calvin said it, it must be part of the Presbyterian Creeds and Dogma.  If Zwingli said it, it becomes, many assume, tantamount to the Bible in terms of what Presbyterians must think and believe.  But again, not only is this false in terms of how we function, who we are and what we believe, it is also blatantly against two statements that define who we are as Presbyterians.
The first statement comes from our Book of Order, or the book that is half of our constitution as a denomination.  F-3.01 says  “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of (people) which are in anything contrary to (God’s) Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”  In other words, our relationship with God is a matter of how we as individuals read and understand scripture.  People cannot tell us what to believe.  God, God-self tells us what to believe through our conscience and through scripture.
           The other is the catch phrase of all reformed churches which is “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” (also present in our Book of Order: F-2.02) which is translated variously, “the church reformed and always reforming” or “The church reformed and always being reformed.”  Either way it means that we are constantly in motion, constantly re-evaluating our positions and our beliefs based on what we hear from the Holy Spirit as we listen in community and individually together.  That means the Presbyterian church today does not look like it did 200 years ago.  It just doesn’t.  Calvin and Zwingli would not recognize the church we have today, with our ordained women, our ordained people who are divorced, our ordination of LGBTQ folk.  They would also be shocked that we have instruments in church: Calvin especially condemned any musical instruments in worship.  The point is, we listen to the Spirit and we grow and we change.  Old understandings, old doctrines and beliefs and theologies grow and change as we mature with a new listening and hearing and reading of the Word.
         Returning to the first part of the question then, What is predestination and what does it mean?  The classic idea of predestination is that God has determined before time began who would be destined for heaven and who for hell.  Both Zwingli and Calvin, again the Presbyterian founding fathers, do discuss this, though Zwingli discusses it only from the positive point of view.  In other words, Zwingli talks about how God has chosen people or elected people for salvation and for service.  He does not discuss, ever, the other side of this – the idea that maybe God has chosen some, therefore, for damnation.  In contrast, Calvin does.  He believed that Jesus’ sacrifice was only for some, not for all.  Still, there is some indication that both of them in the end became universalists – coming to believe that God had in fact chosen ALL people for salvation and service.  The greater idea behind the theology of both Calvin and Zwingli though is that nothing happens by accident, that everything is under God’s control, that this is what it means to be God, to be omnipotent and to be all controlling.  Calvin and Zwingli (among others) stood on scriptures such as I quoted today: “In God we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of the one who works all things according to the counsel of God’s will,” and “For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, in order that Christ might be the firstborn among many siblings.”  Even the story that we heard about from Mark tells that it is the sower who decides where the seeds will be planted and those that are planted in the appropriate places will grow well, while those who aren’t will fall into ruins.
          However, these Biblical verses, or their interpretation are contradicted by other Biblical verses and by an overall theme in the Bible and especially in the gospels towards evangelism, towards healing, towards increasing closeness with God and with one another.  Why would we bother to work on our relationship with God, or strive for anything if it is all mapped out for us ahead of time?  Why share our joy in God with others or the love of God with others if it has been decided ahead of time who is good and who is not, who will be saved and who won’t, who will have faith and who won’t?  And again, there are other scriptures that give us a very different vision of God’s interaction with us than the ones we read for today.  Some examples: 2 Peter 3:9  “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”  In the Lord’s prayer we say every week, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Why pray this if it has already been predetermined that it will (or won’t) be done?  There are admonitions throughout scripture about how we should behave and why.  If all our actions are mapped out ahead of time, and if some are simply chosen from the beginning to be damned, why give us any instructions at all?  Additionally there are many verses in the gospels that begin with the phrase, “whosoever” as in Romans 10:11: “whosoever has faith in him will not be put to shame.”  And 1 John 4:15 “whosoever confesses that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in them and they remain in God.” And Acts 2:21, “Whosever calls on the name of God will be saved.”  In other words, anyone who makes these choices, has faith, confesses, chooses to follow Christ is with God, is part of the “elect”.  There are also many verses that talk about Jesus coming for everyone:  Romans 5:18: “Even so by the righteousness of Christ, the free gift came to all people of justification of life.” 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of God constrains us because we have concluded this; one died for the sake of all…He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.”  And 1 Corinthians 5:19, “God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself.”  1 Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and people, Jesus Christ who gave himself a ransom for ALL.”  1 Timothy 4:10: “For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach because we trust in the living God who is the savior of ALL people, especially those who believe.” (but not ONLY those who believe!!).  And finally, my favorite: Romans 14:11: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.”
       The point is that if God had predestined that some should be elected to go to hell, none of these scriptures make sense.
It is very clear to me that God created us for genuine relationship.  God called us into being because God wanted that relationship with each of us.  A genuine relationship requires that people have choices, act of their own volition, are in the relationship not because they HAVE to be, but because they choose to be.  Therefore the idea that God has somehow decided who we are before we are born is problematic.  And again, that belief is reflected in our own book of order’s statement that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
       There are little gems of understanding in the principle of predestination.  The first is a belief that while there is no predestination, there is a foreknowledge of how people will move through their faith journeys. The idea here is that while God does not CONTROL everything, God stands outside of time and therefore has clear sight about what we will choose on our journeys because God sees all of time at the same time.
        More importantly, perhaps, Presbyterians do believe that the faith of people is a response to a call from God, and that faith itself is a gift of God.  In other words, we are here at God’s initiation.  God’s call to us to be here.  We are in relationship with God because God first created us for that relationship.  And I believe we pray to God as a response to God’s talking first to us and calling us into that conversation.  But I believe, very deeply, that God initiates that conversation with everyone, and wants that relationship with everyone. Free will means some say “no”, at least at this moment in time, but I still believe God wants that with each of us.
         Again, I believe at the very core of my being that God’s grace is extended to all.  It is given to all, offered to all.  But it is harder for some people to accept that grace in than it is for others.  I don’t believe that is EVER because God has taken it away from people or refused it to anyone, or that God has chosen some to be elected not to be offered grace.  But God calls us to be ourselves, calls us into relationships and those relationships require giving us a freedom to be who we are, who we strive to be, and who we work to become. That freedom and the choices we make do determine what our lives will be like, whether we walk them with God or whether we don’t (which, by the way, is a separate question than what happens after we die.  If by salvation you are talking about something that happens after death, well, that is another sermon for another time).  In this moment, in this time, I think we choose to accept that grace of God or not.  And each moment we make that choice anew.  That means that there are moments in this life that we choose to be in hell, or, to say it differently, when we choose to be separate from God. And hopefully, there are many more moments when we choose to live in grace, in God’s light, in the peace of Christ that surpasses understanding. We are freed to make that choice, we can push God away, and push God out.  But I also stand on the book of Jonah, which, as you may have guessed from the fact that I named my son after the book, is one of my favorite theological stories.  Because the story is, again and again, that God does not just let us go, even when we would run.  Jonah sought to escape God by running.  Then Jonah thought to escape God by being thrown into the sea.  And then Jonah thought to escape God by staying in the big fish.  But God never gave up on Jonah.  God caught Jonah, followed Jonah with a storm, with a big fish, stood with Jonah consistently.  God allowed Jonah to choose – Jonah chose to get on the boat, to be thrown out of the boat, to stay in the fish.  But God also never left.  That is how much God loves you.  That is how consistently God will stay with you.  God does not give up on us, but extends that grace in every moment, again and again and again.  If we were predestined to either go to heaven or hell, why would God spend so much energy trying to engage us in relationship?
        Because God alone is Lord of the conscience, you are free to disagree with me.  But this is my answer to what predestination is, and where we stand in our understanding of it as Presbyterians, as a congregation, as a church.
        The bottom line, though, with all theological questions is that God loves us despite what we believe.  We aren’t going to get it all right.  But I know there is no litmus test on our dogmas and creeds.  God loves you.  And that is the most important theological statement that can be made.  Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Faith and Lamentation

Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137
Luke 17:5-10

           The Israelites with money and power, the elites of Israel were sent into exile because of the way they treated their poor and outcast, according to the prophets as well as books such as the psalms and lamentations.  In the first two of today’s passages then, the exiled are expressing deep sorrow and lament.  The passage from Lamentations says, “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress….Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.”  In lamentations the pain of exile is expressed in the third person.  In the psalm, it is more personal – expressed in the first person, the psalmist laments, cries out, or expresses the pain of the exile.
          According to the psalmist, those who have captured and exiled the elite Israelites, the Babylonians, are now asking the exiled Israelites to share with the Babylonians their music, to entertain them with the songs that define who they are, their values, their beliefs, their culture, their heritage.  The psalmist is crying out that the very request is deeply painful for it shows how little understood is the depth of their despair at being taken from their home.  The pain is intense.  It is real.  It is deep and profound to the core. The Babylonians may have been mocking them in this very request. The Israelites have been uprooted, all that mattered to them demolished.  This destruction included the temple and because at that time it was believed that God resided in the temple, the destruction of the temple meant for the people that God had left, abandoned them, at least during this time while they are in exile.
         While the prophets declare that this exile is nothing more than justice for the way they have treated the poor and outcast in their midst, the Israelites in this psalm are not expressing guilt.  They are not repenting of their behavior.  They are also not living in the promise that God will return and then return them to their home.  In this psalm, and in the passage from lamentations, they are expressing the pure pain of being in exile, the pure hope for revenge, the pure anguish of lives changed, lost, uprooted.  They are expressing anger, stopping the circle of violence by not acting it out but sharing it with God.  They trust they can express all of their pain, anger and wish for revenge to God knowing God will still love them and that God will be the one to serve justice.  Through their expression, through this writing in the psalms and in lamentations, they have likewise given us permission to express our pain, our sense of loss, our anger, grief, and despair at times when we, too, have experienced this kind of pain.  So I want to start today be asking you, have any of you ever experienced this kind of pain?  This sense of being in exile?
         For African Americans and other people captured and enslaved, for refugees escaping for their lives, for people who feel they have no other choice but to leave, these passages of lament voice a deep and very real experience.  But most of us have not experienced exile in these ways.  Still, I would guess that some if not many of you have felt that you were uprooted in a way or to a place you had no desire to go – sent away or made to move from a place you loved?
          A friend of mine was sharing with a group of us about a time when her husband took a job overseas in a country in Asia.  This friend did not want to go, made it clear that she did not want to go, but there was no choice for her and for three years she lived, as she said, as one in exile.  One of the other members of our group confronted this perception saying to her that she could have chosen not to go with him, and that this is very different from the exiled Jews who had no choice but to go and who had lost everything in the going.  But for my friend, the choice felt extreme.  She could have chosen to stay behind and forfeit all the things in her life that were meaningful to her – her husband, her family, her financial support, or she could leave her home and go with her husband into what felt alien and distant and against her wishes.  She felt exiled.  And for her these passages of lament spoke to her of her experience.  While she could not attribute the exile to God’s justice or to a sense of prophetic fulfillment, she could feel the abandonment, the anger, the anguish of being a stranger in a foreign place in a way that felt against her will.
       For those of us to whom even this kind of exile is foreign, I imagine that still, we have, at one time or another, felt some kind of psychological exile: a time when we were in a group where we felt we did not belong, in a culture that was not our own and in which we felt completely “different” or other.  Maybe this takes you back to high school or even grade school and a time when you were left out or made fun of. If you have ever been the center of public critique, that, too, may feel like a place of exile, where those who would condemn you do not really know you but would judge you anyway.
           The theme of exile, being outcast and seeking restoration, reconnection, seeking to come home – this is one of the great meta-narratives or broad themes that speak to us throughout the Bible. There are three basic metanarratives in scripture:  Being a slave freed from slavery, being an exile returned home and being caught by sin and forgiven for it.  We don’t focus as much on this particular metanarrative but it is a very important theme throughout scripture. The story reflects a universal experience of being taken from home, of searching for home, of feeling that it is very hard, if not impossible to find home, to get home.   For many poets and theologians, exile and these passages have spoken to them of the experience of feeling that being here on earth is a kind of exile, a time of being away from a true and deep sense of home.
          While it may seem odd that we would focus on this theme on World Communion and Peacemaking Sunday, it is in fact not only appropriate but important that we look at this theme on such a day as today.  On World Communion Sunday we celebrate the universality of our human experience, which is one of brokenness seeking wholeness.  Today we focus on the universality of exile, of lament, of crying out to God.  This universal experience of depression, of being lost, of searching for home, is part of what makes us human.  We are united in the common experience of distance from home and even from God, and we are called in our unity to be part, through our peacemaking efforts, through our faith, of bringing every person home from exile, of bringing every person into community, of restoring right relationships both between all people, and between ourselves and God.
           This is not just a hypothetical or distant injunction.  We are called, we are commanded, to love neighbor and even enemy as self – to not be part of the exiling or exclusion of others, but to be part of the restoration, the bringing home of the exiled, the creating of community and “home” for all who are lost.  Part of the way in which we do this first and foremost is by eating with one another.  We, in this congregation, are a people who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We know that we will eat, often, perhaps too often and enough, often more than enough.  So those words that Jesus spoke, “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  These words promising bread that will enable Jesus’ hearers to eat, to not go hungry, to live – these words don’t have the same impact on we who are comfortable and who have enough to eat as they did for those who were not always assured of where their next meal was coming from.
For people who were hungry, these words were promising another day of living; but more, they were promising a life freed from the anxiety of worrying about their next meal, or the next or the next.  It promises a life that brings us home, a life of abundance, without hunger, without craving, without emptiness, without exile, and without fear.  We understand these words to be about something much bigger than fulfilling hunger. We understand that the life Jesus was promising was not the daily life that we live.  Still, in a place, within an experience, where life is so fragile, so precarious, so short, and so full of the fear, loneliness and reality of hunger, a promise of everlasting bread spoke to Jesus’ hearers so much more than it possibly could for any who have not suffered shortage of food.
         Sarah Miles, in her book Take this Bread, said, “it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away.  For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.”  That is what is offered in communion, in this last supper in the sacrament of this meal.  We are offered food, yes, but more we are offered life, we are offered Jesus himself – his body, his blood, his presence here in this meal.  Sarah Miles continued, “What Jesus offered was a radical…love that accompanied people in the most ordinary actions – eating, drinking, walking, and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.”  She connects all of this with Jesus call and command to Peter…She said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about another (Biblical) story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him:  ‘Feed my sheep.’  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”  Peter fussed, “Of course I love you.’  “Feed my sheep.”  Peter fussed some more.  “Do you love me?” asked Jesus again.  “Then feed my sheep.”  It seemed pretty clear.  If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.”
                      Feeding, eating together, these are ways in which we find home, in which we make home. Those who are fed by God, not by daily food, necessarily, but by God, those people, no matter how poor they are themselves, those people find within them the strength and gift of feeding others. Greg Mortensen begins his book, The Three Cups of Tea by recounting his story of finding himself in an impoverished Pakistan village after a failed attempt to climb K2.  He was exhausted, he was sick, and yet these poor strangers fed him, cared for him.  The story continues, “(Mortensen) took a bite of warm chapatti dunked in lassi, wolfed all that he’d been served, and washed it down with sugary tea.  Sakina laughed appreciatively and brought him more.  If Mortensen had known how scarce and precious sugar was to the Balti, how rarely they used it themselves, he would have refused the second cup of tea.”  The story goes on to explain how he had also been given by them their best blankets, their best food, their best everything, things they had so little of, things they did not use for themselves.  They found in the midst of their physical poverty, but their spiritual wealth, that they had this to share.  And they began it all with “communion” – with sharing the food of life with this stranger.  Those who find their fulfillment from God always find that they have something to share, no matter what they lack. We are called to serve in the same way.  But first to see those we are most called to serve.  And that must start with an understanding of what it is to be exiled, to feel cast away from home.
      On this world Communion and peacemaking Sunday, we are called first to remember the experience of being cast out, and to remember Jesus’ experience of exile and rejection, to remember that he, too, stood with the outcast and rejected even as he experienced being one of them.  Second, we are called to unite with the exiled, to eat together, to create home and community with all who would join together on this day, to eat together, to make food together.  The hymn that we will be singing in a moment calls us to remember and to experience again the universal sense of lament.  I invite you to allow yourself to sit with the words, to be in the words, and to hear God’s voice calling us to solidarity with those who are exiled, and to peacemaking as we remember our call to be with, beside and empowering those who are rejected.  Let us be in a spirit of prayer…