Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Memorial Day and Pentecost

This Sunday is Pentecost and Memorial Day weekend, which creates a tension that puts many pastors in a tough spot. After a year of ministry, I am able to think more realistically and pastorally about civil religion in the local Church. Yet, I cannot bring myself to preach or make reference to this holiday on Pentecost.

The climax of late spring and early summer in the Church is Pentecost Sunday. We have reached the end of Easter, celebrated the Ascension of our Lord, and now receive the fullness of God’s promises as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit among us.  This is the height of our resurrection story! But Memorial Day throws a stick in our spokes and brings a halt to our celebration as our country stops to remember those who have died in the military.  Remembering our loved ones surely is not a bad thing in and of itself. Still, it strikes me that Memorial Day will confuse our worship in a few ways—I’ll share two of them.

First, it’s confusing because we remember death, but we do not remember resurrection.  This reminds me of the confusion created by the military ritual inside of the Christian service of death and resurrection. Don’t get me wrong; the military rituals are a nice gesture. The trumpets blow, the guns are fired, and the flag is folded.  There is a sense of honor, pride, and even thankfulness. But the ritual ultimately falls short. It creates a shocking message: our country can ask you to die, but it cannot raise you from the grave.  This creates a hopeless contradiction in the funeral—a kind of Stoic acceptance of death as a result of a courageously lived life. Is this really what we need to hear? I find myself patiently waiting to hear “Amazing Grace” played on the bagpipes.  Conversely, Jesus asks us to die to ourselves that we might one day be raised.  Pentecost should be joyfully proclaimed as the pinnacle of Jesus’ promise of resurrection and the recreation of the entire world.

Second, the nationalism inherent in Memorial Day gestures toward a negation of Pentecost. At the birth of the Church the Spirit descended and a multitude of nationalities were able to hear in their own language. This was a beautiful joining of differences.  Pentecost is a time to celebrate our boundary-crossing faith that brings together ethnic/cultural/and socio differences. This Sunday we will celebrate that the Church did not force anyone into a specific mold or keep out differences. True worship takes place when our differences are joined together as when the God-man, Jesus Christ, joined humankind. Pentecost is certainly not a time for the Church to receive its identity from the state. But Memorial Day is a time to remember United States soldiers. How could we lift up and celebrate one nationality on this Sunday? I do not want to do anything that will move toward an “us—them” attitude on Pentecost.

In would be a nice gesture to remember our soldiers this Sunday, but it will ultimately fall short. We have the opportunity to proclaim that Jesus has ascended to the Father, but that Jesus has also keeps his promises.  The Spirit is among us! The Spirit has descended upon us and is reversing the calamity of the Tower of Babel so that we may no longer be confused by our differences. There is trust instead of fear. There is clarity instead of confusion. There is peace instead of war. One day the Spirit will accomplish something that war cannot as our “dry-bones” rise from the grave.

I hope that my omission of Memorial Day will not be perceived as an insult, but as a means to create theological clarity in the context of worship on Pentecost Sunday. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What Does Jesus Pray For?

Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday
A Sermon on
John 17: 6-20

Have you ever heard a conversation that you felt like you were not supposed to heard?  You know, one of those intimate conversations that felt like a sin to listen to.  My sister and I used to listen to our older brother talk to girls on the phone when he was in high school.  We overheard all of the giggles and, of course, all of the mushy “I love yous.” This probably was a sin, by the way. Or, two years ago I was asked to take pictures when one of my best friends asked his fiancĂ© to marry him. He gave me access to one of the most intimate conversations of his life.  I wonder if you have ever heard a conversation like that. In our Gospel lesson, we are given access to a very intimate prayer between Jesus and God.

This conversation takes place on the night before Jesus was crucified. Imagine the setting. Jesus knows that he will be leaving the earth soon; he will be ascending to the Father. And so Jesus approaches his father in the midst of betrayal and persecution and prays. What does Jesus say to the Father? We hear phrases like, “I am ascending to you, protect them in your name.” “Unify them, sanctify them, and give them joy.”  We discover that Jesus is not talking about himself; Jesus is talking to his Father about human beings.

Really?  That’s what’s on your mind right now? “Jesus, did you forget that you are going to be crucified tomorrow? You are being betrayed.” If we read a little further, Jesus goes on to pray for all of those who will believe. That’s us. We are those who “will believe.” You are worried about us?  You are praying for me?” 

Jesus does not pray for what we would imagine him to pray for. Jesus knows what the world needs—what we need—and he prays for our needs. Let’s look a little closer at Jesus’ prayer for us. He makes it clear, after all, that there are a couple of things he is not praying for.

Jesus doesn’t pray that God will take us out of the world. Here, he says to the father very clearly, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world.”  Jesus does not want to rescue us from earth and transport us into heaven. His purposes are bigger than that.

Last week, my little a friend told me that she felt like life is just about “waiting.” She said, “You know, you wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and wait to go to work. Then you go to work and wait for lunch. Then, you wait for work to get over. You go home and wait for dinner. Then you wait to go to bed.” She told me, “Ultimately, we are all just waiting to die.”  I said, “That was real depressing.  Way to be a Debbie Downer.” No, Jesus does not pray for us to just spend our time waiting.  Jesus does not pray for us to be taken away from the world. God has a lot in store for us here on earth.   Jesus prays that we might remain in the world.

It’s also clear that Jesus is not praying that our lives will be easy. After all, Jesus knows that life is not easy. He was a poor carpenter from Nazareth; born out of wedlock. After his first sermon, the congregation tried to push him off of a cliff.  He was betrayed by his best friends and ended up dying on a cross.  Jesus knows that life is not going to be easy because he offers an alternative reality that ends up making a lot of people mad.  Pray for enemies? Give away possessions? Rely on God?  Jesus never prayed for our life to be easy.

So what does Jesus pray for?  He doesn’t pray for us to leave the world. Instead, he prays that we might live in the world.  And he doesn’t pray for our lives to be easy, but he prays for our protection.

 “Be in the world, but don’t be of the world,” he says. The Greek word for church is ecclesia, which literally means “called out.” Jesus is really calling for us to be made separate—to be set apart—and to be holy.  It might mean that we are called out of the world to look different from the world, or at the least, think differently. That’s a difficult job. Try not to take more than you need. Try to only buy food that comes from farmers who are paid fairly. Try to spend your time with strangers.  Try not to go to war. It is no wonder that Jesus is praying for us. This is not work we can do on our own.

Every so often the Church actually gets it right.  Think of old nuns and monks, who have spent their lives praying and serving.  These individuals have separated themselves from the world to spend their time in prayer, counseling, and spiritual formation. By the world’s standards, they have wasted their lives. They do not have possessions; there are no houses, or cars, and there is no retirement. A life spent praising God is useless by the world’s standards. But for them, enjoying God is the most important thing they can do. They are in the world, but they are not of the world. It would probably be a good thing for monks and nuns to start rubbing off on us.

“Be in the world, not of the world,” Jesus prays. Let me share another example.  Sometime ago, the United States bombed military and civilian targets in Libya, which created a lot of discussion about morality.  Some thought it was immoral, others thought it was moral. At one point, a student approached a former teacher of mine and asked, “well preacher, what do you think?”

My former teacher said that he could never support bombing of civilians as an ethical act. The student sarcastically replied, “What would the Christian response be?”  He responded, “A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning the United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is fertile field for the Gospel.  That is at least a traditional Christian response.”

At this point, the student started getting a little angry. “You can’t do that. It’s illegal to travel to Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there.”

“No! That’s not right,” my teacher said. “I’ll admit that we can’t go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold.”  (Resident Aliens).

We no longer have a people who act differently from the rest of the world.

Here is the bad news: Jesus is not praying that our lives will be easy or that we will not receive any suffering. Christians are in the world, not to condemn the world, but to love the world.  This is hard work. But when there is bad news there is usually good news, too. The good news is that Jesus really is praying for us.  Not a second goes by when we are not on his mind.

You know, Jesus also prays for our joy and support in this passage. Joy does not come from an easy life without suffering.  Joy does not come from being consumed by the desires of the world. Joy is becoming a little more like the faithful monks and nuns who are not defined by what they own.  Joy comes from being called-out and made more like Jesus Christ.

So consider this question: how can Jesus pray for you this morning? Is it patience to be a better friend? Is it encouragement during a difficult time ? Is it joy in the face of loss? Is it companionship at a time of loneliness? Do you need prayer to be a better servant? Is it courage to talk to a friend about God? Is it forgiveness...or the ability to forgive another? What? What do you want—what do we want—Jesus to know about and pray for? (Working Preacher).

I want to do something a little different this morning. In just a minute, I want us to answer the question: how can Jesus pray for us? Spend the next couple of minutes thinking of one word that captures your needs today. I have placed notecards in your pew.  Write that word down if you want.  Write the word on a notecard and keep it with you.  Maybe you can put it in your pocket or in your purse this week and pull it out from time to time to remember that Jesus is thinking about you.

Jesus has given us a daunting task.  He has called us out to become His very own body. But Jesus is heaven, right now, praying for us to become the Church. And we need all the prayer we can get.  Take a few moments. Amen. 

Notes: Hauerwas and Willimon Resident Aliens and David Lose, "The Other Lord's Prayer" http://www.workingpreacher.org.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Abiding in Jesus after General Conference

General Conference was frustrating for many Methodists. There are also enough blogs commenting upon the futility of the two week Conference in Tampa, Florida. I have nothing unique to add to these discussions. Conversely, I was struck by the Gospel text for tomorrow.

We receive an important text after General Conference. John 15 is probably the most famous chapter in John and one of the most well known chapters in all of Scripture. Jesus speaks, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear much fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches and apart from me you can do nothing.” What does it mean to abide in Jesus? In the Message, Eugene Peterson translates these verses to read: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” Isn’t that beautiful?

A few verses later in John 15, Jesus proclaims, “I no longer call you servants , but I have called you friends.” We are friends of our Creator. Do you suppose that Jesus calls to each of us and says, “Abide in me. Live in me. Remain in me. Talk to me. Work with me. Sacrifice for me. Become my companion."

Most Methodists across the world wil celebrate Holy Communion tomorrow. The word companion literally means “one who shares bread.”It makes me wonder if Communion is really just about friendship. When we break the bread of Jesus Christ, all of the components of friendship come together—there is intimacy, there is trust and sacrifice, and there is love. As we eat the elements of bread and wine we are allowing the Holy Spirit to reform our bodies into a home for our God. Communion is abiding in God and allowing God to abide in you. We come to the table to strengthen our connection to the vine, make our home in Jesus, and finally, to become Jesus’ companion.

Let me end where I started. A friend, mentor, and delegate to General Conference told me not to worry about the outcome of Conference right before he left. He told me to worry about pastoring my own Church, to worry about fostering a community of discipleship, and to worry about being a "vital" congregation (whatever that means). His point was that one General Conference was not going to instantaneously change the world, but individual congregations can when we abide in Jesus.

Individual congregations engaged in mission and love can accomplish what General Conference did not accomplish. What will our next steps be as individual congregations across the world? Will we fully abide in God? Will we talk to God? Will we work with God and re-create the world? Let's start with being Jesus' friends; let's start with Communion.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gently Led

Growing up I always heard that sheep were the dumbest of animals.  I once heard that God created sheep in order to make chickens look smart. In Scripture, sheep are noted for their tendency to wander off.  They are notorious, usually, for simply being lost.  It’s odd that we do not take offense to this passage more often.  Scripture consistently calls us sheep—an animal whose purposes consist of being shaved over and over and then slaughtered. Why aren’t we offended?  We aren’t that dumb are we?

God could have called us a number of animals, but God called us sheep.  Thanks a lot for the compliment, God. Maybe we are prone to wander—prone to get lost—after all.

In the book Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds herself completely lost and approaches the Cheshire Cat. Alice asked, "Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?" The Cheshire Cat replies, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” "I don't much care," said Alice. To which the cat replied, "Then it doesn't matter which way you go."

Alice is a wandering sheep; Alice is also all too familiar. Sometimes I feel just like Alice.  I wonder if you do too.  Often, we don’t know which way to go nor do we even know where our destination might be. Many in our country are going through a crisis as our homes are foreclosed and we are denied healthcare. Our jobs are shipped overseas.  Many of us don’t know what to do with our lives; some of us don’t know what to do after graduation.  Some of us have lost loved ones recently.  There is certainly no clear destination when we wander through the valley of death.

Or, maybe the cause of our wandering is spiritual. The recent UM General Conference made the case that we might be wandering.  The Methodist Church appears to be dying in a number of ways—we are losing members every year, more and more churches are shutting their doors, and soon we are not even going to have enough clergy to fill pulpits in our Churches. Alice says, “Which way do I go?”/“What’s my destination?” Maybe that whole “wandering sheep” image is dead on.

Are we just a bunch of lost sheep who are destined to fall in a ditch or are we headed straight for the wolves? Psalm 23 actually illustrates the opposite:

God, my shepherd,
I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows.
You find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word
You let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley
I'm not afraid when you walk by my side.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I'm back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.  (The Message, Eugene Peterson)

As I prepared for this sermon, I came across a pleasant surprise while reading some of Barbara Brown Taylor’s work (The Preaching Life). Apparently, the cattle ranchers are responsible for spreading the whole “sheep are dumb” rumors because sheep do not behave like cattle. Cows are herded together from the rear with shouts and cracking whips. If you stand behind sheep and do the same, you will find yourself chasing after scared sheep.  Sheep prefer to be led.  “You push cows. You lead sheep,” she says.  “They will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first—namely their shepherd—who always leads the way.”

Sheep are not necessarily dumb, but they do need to be led.  And Sheep need to be led gently by a Shepherd. An intimate bond develops between sheep and Shepherd.   They consider their leader to be a part of their family; even, a part of their own fold. The leader and the sheep develop their own language—“a click of the tongue may mean food, or a two-note song means that it is time to go home.” Sheep are led to greener pastures when they hear the soothing voice of their Shepherd. Sheep are not dumb, but they need to be gently led.

Our Gospel lesson, John 10, calls Jesus the good shepherd. The one who owns the sheep and takes care of them, even when the wolves come and scatter the flock.  I wonder what kind of Shepherd Jesus is? Certainly Jesus is a Shepherd who didn’t find it sufficient to guide us from heaven, but one who came down to earth to lead us. Maybe it means that Jesus is shepherding us even when we do not hear his voice or understand where we are going. Or that it means that we are not forced to do anything but we are gently guided.    After all, Shepherds do not shout directions at their sensitive sheep, lest the sheep run astray. Our Shepherd is not always explicit with his sheep, but he prefers to sing softly as we walk through the pastures.  Still, this great Shepherd cares passionately for the sheep, carries us to waters, heals us when we are afflicted, he retrieves us when we are lost. He’s a Shepherd who will pick us up when we fall, feed our famished bodies with a click of the tongue, and take us home with a two-note song.

 To be led gently means that Jesus is the one who will never leave us.  Precisely, in the middle of the Psalm, the King James version says, “For thou art with me.” Jesus is alongside of us—guiding, protecting, and even carrying his oblivious sheep. John Wesley’s dying words were, “And the best of all is, God is with us.”

But the Gospel of John does not merely note that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, it also says that he is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life.  Psalm 23 is not only our prayer; it was also Jesus’ prayer. It was Jesus’ prayer when he walked through the darkest valley of death. Psalm 23 was the prayer of Jesus’ shadows of betrayal, denial, suffering and crucifixion. It was Christ’s prayer in the shadow of death. His Shepherd, God the Father, walked with him along the lonesome valley.

His rod and his staff guide us perfectly, because at one time he stumbled in the darkness. We no longer wander in death because the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us that we might receive life.   Jesus Christ, the anointed one now anoints us and his cup overflows into ours. And so when we wander in our darkest valleys, we know that Christ has already been there. We can pray, “For thou are with me” and really believe it. Our Shepherd promises to lead us with a tender nudge and a gentle voice that says, “Come. Let’s go this way.  The pastures are greener over here. The water is flowing on this side. Follow me.”

The Lord is our shepherd. This must mean that we are being led, even if we do not understand what our shepherd is doing.  We are being led, even when we feel like we are wandering in the wilderness.   We are being led, even if the destination is unclear.  If the Lord is our Shepherd, then what do we lack?

I’ll share a final story.  The author Anne Lamott, in her insightful and humorous book, Traveling Mercies, shares a true story that her minister told in a sermon. When the minister was seven years old, her best friend got lost one day. “The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman and then she told him firmly, ‘You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from there.’”

Anne Lamott then adds the following: “No matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the church I can always find my way home.”

Scripture calls us sheep.  And it’s not because we are dumb, but it’s because we are cared for and looked after; we are led.  And God, of course, is our Shepherd—God makes sure none of us are lost, or left behind, and he carries us until we can get back on our two feet. Today, in this Church, our Shepherd has come to find us so that we can hear his voice and follow him beside still waters, to rest in the pastures of green grass, to restore our souls, and to find our way home.