Wednesday, August 31, 2005

PENTECOST 16; The RCL Texts for Sept. 4, 2005

FIRST LESSON: Ezekiel 33:7-11
verse 9-10: "If I say to the wicked, "Wicked man, wicked woman, you're on the fast track to death!" and you don't speak up and warn the wicked to change their ways, the wicked will die unwarned in their sins and I'll hold you responsible for their bloodshed. But if you warn the wicked to change their ways and they don't do it, they'll die in their sins well-warned and at least you will have saved your own life" (Eugene Peterson's THE MESSAGE translation)

This text has done a lot of damage in the last couple of hundred years, especially amongst the "pure and righteous" who do not hesitate to point out to the lowly sinners their faults. the problem comes in a failure to recognize the difference between sins of power and sins of weakness. Sins of power must be pointed out vigorously and must be opposed strongly. Standing up for the oppressed and against the oppresser is THE TRUE prophetic call.

Sins of weakness call for a priest, not a prophet; for tender loving care, not harch recriminition.

Too often in American Christianity, we ignore or prop up the sins of power while castigating and pointing the finger at those caught in the web of the sins of weakness. And too often, we feel good doing it.

C.S. Lewis, in MERE CHRISTIANITY, referred to them as sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit and went on to say: "The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing, . . . the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute."

SECOND LESSON: Romans 13: 8-14
Some lines from Peterson's translation:
"Don't run up debts, except the debt of love you owe each other."
"The law code - . . . , finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can't go wrong when you love others."
"When you add everything up in the law code, the sum total is love."

That's all very well and good, except we have a tendency to forget what LOVE really means or is.

In our culture we confuse it with either SEX or AFFECTION. (In Biblical terms EROS or PHILEA) when what the text calls for is AGAPE, selfless concern and action for the other.

In Christian communites, the major problem is confusing AGAPE with AFFECTION.
We think when Jesus and then Paul tell us to Love one another, they mean we must make ourselves like each other a lot. That's impossible. The affections are not responsive to nor controllable by the will. You can't make yourself like someone or something you don't like.
I hate hot dogs. Always have. Always will. (Apparently. I'm 51, not many years left to change)
I like Pinto Beans and Corn Bread. A lot. Always have. Probably always will. Neither of those likes and dislikes did I decide upon.

But loving one another is different. It is an act of the will. A choice to behave in the other's best interest whether we feel like it or not. To act loving toward them before the feeling of affection arises.

And the paradoxical thing is, one will eventually find oneself liking, perhaps liking a lot, those persons one has treated with respect and compassion. And, even if the one loved continues to be a pinhead, neither Jesus not Paul said anything about moving in with them or loaning them money!

Verse 15: "If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one." (NRSV)

John Ortberg devotes one whole chapter in his book EVERYBODY'S NORMAL TILL YOU GET TO KNOW THEM to this one verse. The chapter's title is: Community is Worth Fighting For: Conflict.

There's the nub, isn't it. We make nice in order to avoid conflict; meanwhile carrying around grudges and talking to those who will be sympathetic instead of to the one who has hurt or wronged us. Our lack of emotional courage robs us of the true community to which God calls us.

Ortberg deals with this short text under seven headings:

1 - If there is conflict. We must acknowledge that conflict exists, something many of us are
unwilling to do, for if there is conflict we must deal with it. We would much rather keep
on playing nice like good little boys and girls.

2 - You. I must own my responsibility for the problem. Sitting around waiting for someone else
to figure out that they wronged you and how and need to give you an apology is a fool's
errand. The oblivious, who didn't mean to wrong you will never figure it out; and the
guilty, who meant to hurt you, will seldom acknowledge the need to apologize without
being confronted.

3. Go. Approach, don't avoid, the person you are in conflict with. Take action. So something.

4. To the Person. No third parties. Oftentimes at the office or at school or at home or at church
everybody else knows we're angry and why before the person we're in conflict with knows.
This is not only wrong, it's useless. The only people who can fix the problem are the people
involved, not everyone else on the planet.

5. In private. Use sensitivity. Don't call somebody out in front of a crowd. Give them a chance
to explain or apologize without the embarassment of everybody else knowing.

6. And Discuss the Problem. Use direct communication. Talk about the issue, not the other
person. But don't use euphemism and indirect. Say exactly what happened and exactly
how it hurt you.

7. For the purpose of reconciliation, or regaining a relationship. What happens when we don't
follow this type of procedure is that relationships wither and die for lack of warmth, or get
scorched from too much heat. Instead of practicing reconciliation; we give cold shoulders
or hot words; neither of which is calculated to achive peace and concord.

And now a true but funny story. Near here I grew up was a Pentecostal Holiness Church. I used to attend there sometimes with my friend Ricky. I especially liked the part where women got excited and danced and rolled in the aisles, but that's another anecdote.

Anyway, Daddy dais that back in the 20's and 30's the Pastor and Deacons of that church enforced the Church Rules which prohibited "trafficking in tobacco". So every spring, when the famers set out the tobacco crop, the Preacher would go personally and privately to each one, invoking Mt. 18:15-20, and tell them they were sinning. The farmers would thank the Preacher for coming and say they were going to "traffic in tobacco" anyway.

Next, following the text, the deacons would go with the same result, then one Sunday, the Preacher would read out all the men's names in church (about 80% of the male membership)
and their wives and children and Mothers would vote them out of the church.

In the fall, after the crop was sold, the men would recommit their lives to the LORD at the Fall revival and be reinstated to membership, just in time to make a big contribution to balance the budget.

I'm pretty sure that was not what Jeus had in mine. I'm also pretty sure he thought it was mostly harmless and a clever way to get around the rules.



Friday, August 26, 2005

Pentecost 15: RCL Gospel Lesson for August 28, 2005

THE GOSPEL: Matthew 16:21-28 "Get Thee Behind Me Satan."
Those of us of a certain generation can never forget Flip Wilson's comic character Geraldine.
One day Geraldine came home with a new dress. Geraldine's husband/boyfriend/whatever KILLER, asked, "Why did you get a new dress? You know we can't afford it?" Geraldine replied with her comic catchphrase, "The Devil made me do it." Killer said, "Why didn't you say, Get behind me Satan?" Geraldine replied, "I did, but he said it looked good from back there, too."

I'm not sure that's usable in a sermon, but it is funny.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter is not ready to hear the hard part of the Good News, Peter is not ready to participate in the downside of building up the kingdom of God. He's ready to do the part he likes: the preaching, the teaching, the healing, the adulation of the crowds.

He's not ready to do the part he doesn't like; the rejection, the fear, the abuse, the sheer terror and loneliness and threat of death.

In spite of his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Peter is not ready to deny himself, take us his cross and follow wherever the Messiah, The LORD, the Son of the Living God may lead.

Like Peter, all too often we give lip service to high ideals without really being willing to follow through. And the thing that stops us is the same thing that stopped Peter; we want the gain without the pain, the glory without the cross.

We are addicted to our own enjoyments and pleasures and are unwilling to risk giving them up for the sake of others. That which keeps millions of the people in the world in poverty and hunger is not their laziness or incompetence; it is the rich people, the rich nations (that's us)
being unwilling to give up some of what we have for those in need, for equality and fairness.

The Rev. Mark Buchanan calls it a contest between God and the pig-God. He says that most of us are captive to the Cult of the Next Thing and the pig-God is our God. We want what we want more than we want God.

The only way out is through conversion, through turning our lives around and away from the tempting allure of the pursuit of happiness and placing our lives and our futures at the service of the pursuit of holiness.

Jesus has laid before us a simple clear choice in his words to Peter. No, I don't mean the famous three-part line: deny self, take up cross and follow."

I mean the blunt GET BEHIND ME SATAN!

Jesus did not say to Peter - get out of the way.

Jesus did not say - stop bothering me.

Jesus did not say - you're evil and I cast you into outer darkness.

He said, Get Behind Me. Follow me, follow me in serving the poor, follow me in tending the sick, follow me in telling the truth, follow me in serving the world, ifnecessary, follow me into death. Get behind me Satan, and if you do, follow me into selfless service, you, too, will have been saved.


Delmo Dorite

Friday, August 19, 2005

PENTECOST 14: RCL texts for August 21, 2005

FIRST READING: Isaiah 51:1-6
"Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug."

i grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Besides being the hometown of Andy Griffith and the supposed model for the town of Mayerry, Mt. Airy is also barely famous as "the home of the world's largest open-air granite quarry." No lie, they really do keep track of stuff like that and no lie Mt. Airy's is the world's largest. "Open Air" that is. Because there are bigger one's underground, deep in the earth.

This rock is so big, they call the neighborhoos's it's in "Flatrock." I finished 8th grade at Flatrock Elementary, which had been Flatrock High when my Daddy got his diploma there. Mt. Aiy High School's team are the "Granite Bears", though I'm not sure there is such a thing.

Anyway, when I read this this text, I thought of how big that Quarry really is. It's one huge, flat, rock of Granite and the 100 plus years of sawing off chunks has not diminished it much.
when I was in high school, a girl and I slipped in the gate and walked around on a full moon night. We walked for a long time and didn't get over much of it.

The text calls us to remember the immenisty of the rock from which we came, the quarry from which we were dug. I'm not sure if that means our ancestry of faith, kind of like Hebrew's "great cloud of witnesses" or if it refers to God; either way it reminds us that to be in touch with the holy is to be involved with something bigger than ourselves, something which goes beond our personal needs and preferences to encompass all of humanity and the creator's dealings with us.

It does not preclude the personal though. As a certain, nameless and no longer young lady could attest, kissing in the moonlight on a faux moonscape is kinda cool.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds."
I spent many many years thinking religion was about conforming. Conforming to the social mores and tought patterns of a rural, fundamentalist church. I had difficulty separating the liberating word of the Gospel from the confining and limiting word of "do this" and "don't do that"

I thought to be Christian was to cut your hair short, wear conservative clothes, never say cuss words, never think about girls, never drink, never get angry . . .in other words, to act just like my little old lady, semi-victorian Sunday School teachers thought nicde little boys should act.
Believe it or not, I was a proto-feminist; I believed God was a woman; the problem was I had the wrong God, or the wrong woman, or both.

The whole woman, sexuality thing is not a bad metaphor here. Failed romances are based in the attempt to conform to what another person wants you to be so that you can "win" their love.
Frankly, that never works, not really. Oh, sometimes you will speand a lifetime connected to the person won this way, a lifetime unhappily pretending to be something you're not in order to have a relationship with someone you think you want to be with.

On the other hand, true love is transformative. People in love do change in the relationship, but they change as a result of the relationship, not in order to create the relationship. One changes in response to the love of that special someone, one 's life unfolds like a beautiful flower in the warm sunshine of the other's love. (any similarity between the author's own 31 year marriage and the above dscription is purely accidental. This is poetics, not real life, after all. Or is it. ;-)

Anyway, God does not seek for us to conform to the world, but to have a different sort of love, a love in which the amazing Grace of God transforms who we are into who we could be as naturally as the sun brings blants out of the ground and nto full bloom.

GOSPEL: Matthew 16:13-20
" . . .you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church."
I have oftened wondered why Jesus decided to tag "Simon Bar Jona" with the nickname Rocky.
Most of the Rocky's I've known have been like Rocky Marciano of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. Rocky doen't seem to fit Simon Bar Jona, to me.

For this Rocky, this Peter, is, to put it very bluntly, not very dependable. He was hot one minute, cold the next.

Help Me!!! I'm Sinking!"

Jesus?, Never heard of him.

Hm. Jesus is dead? I think I'll go fishing.

In picking someone like Simon bar Jona to be the cornerstone of the church, Jesus picked someone remarkably like us. For we are probably more like Peter than we would like to admit. We grow hot and cold in our enthusiasm for God, we are often confused as to what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and we continually stumble on the way to Jerusalem.

We usually think of faith as the faith we have in God. As I think about God trusting a bunch of Rocky's like us with the keys to the Kingdom, I am overwehlmed at the faith God has in us, his little flock, his church, his fallen creatures.


Delmo Dorite

Thursday, August 11, 2005

PENTECOST 13; RCL texts for August 14, 2005

FIRST READING: Isaiah 56:1,6-8

"A house of prayer for all peoples" Remember the catchphrase in the movie Field of Dreams?,
"Build it and they will come. Not necessarily true.

What if you built a house of prayer for all pwoples, and nobody wanted to come?

Today's USA TODAY carried a front page article on the decline of the church in Europe, as if this were sudden and breaking news. I knew August was a slow news month but come on, the Church in Europe has been in decline since the Enlightenment at least.

Be that as it may, two things in the article struck me.

One was the author's implication that prosperity was the culprit. That people who had plenty and no longer feared death no longer felt a need for God.

Well, yes and no. The implication underneath that analysis was that religion was for superstitious folk who did not feel in control of their own lives, and so they resorted to magical thinking and ritual to appease and supplicate the Gods. That's the one I'm saying NO to.
Some people are religious in that way, but relative prosperity and sophistication are not the determining factors.

I think a more important factor is that increased prosperity creates more demands on one's time and one hasn't the time for religion anymore. Henry David Throeau once said that the vast majority of men(sic) [people] go through life with their houses on their backs. By this he meant that our material goods have to be tended to.

The more we have, the more we want, the more we want, the more we work. The more we work, the more we need to play, the more we play, the more we need expensive toys with which to play; it becomes a vicious cycle.

I am real clear that my cars and my house and my computer and my VCR and DVD player and my CD player and, and, and insulate me from being in community, including the community of the church. They become if not my Gods, at least my idols.

My Daddy was not a traditional churchman. He harbored serious doubts about many of the basic tenets of the standard Southern Evangelical faith. But he was in church every Sunday, with his wife and 5 kids. I never saw him reading the Bible at home, he didn't say grace over meals, he didn't sing in the choir or teach Sunday School or usher or anything like that. He mowed the grass when his turn came. he helped build the Sunday School wing. He put up the Christmas tree and gave out the Christmas gifts to the "underpriviledged".

When I got old enough, I finally ask him why he went. He said two things, "To show people whose side I'm on." and, "I'm a part of the community."

Which leads me to the second thing that struck me about the article. They interviewed a young Irishman, a Counseling student, who said "I am a Spiritual person. I talk to a life force I call God and I get answers. If I can do that without the Church, why go to Church?"

The answer to that is Community. We all need Community. And we are starving ourselves of the benefits of community by demanding that it be exactly like we want it to be, believe things the way we think they should be believed, and meet our personal needs."

SECOND LESSON: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

"For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable."

A few years ago a not-to-be-named large Protestant denomination declared a strategy for evangelizing the Jews. I was then pastor of a church on a major avenue in a major Southern city.

There were a multitude of "mainline" protestant churches on this strip, and there were three synagogus: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

A friend at the Methodist Church wrote a letter to the editor about how the Jews didn't need evangelizing, which provoked a torrent of contrary letters. Then the rest of the clergy on the strip combined in a letter which, using the above text as its basis, supported our firend and our Jewish colleagues.

Since my church address was the address given for the letter, I got the letters. WHEW EEE!
(that's Southern idiom for the Norwegian expression Uff Dah! You get the drift.)

Only thing I can say is, after reading the sentiments of my fellow Christians, I almost decided to convert to Reform Judaism, except that half the year the Braves are on TV on Friday night, and you know how it is, a man's got to keep his priorities straight.


Jesus said "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to dogs."

There is no way to read this story without concluding that Jesus insulted this woman by calling her a dog, by treating a non-Jewish person as less than worthy of God's attention. This just ain't right! It's not the way Jesus acts.

And there are a lot of questions for us here:

Did Jesus have an authentic CONVERSION here? a conversion which changed his understanding of his mission to one which went beyond Israel to the world?

Did Jesus already know his mission extended beyond Israel to the whole world and just used this encounter as a brilliantly ad-libbed teachable moment?


But I do know three things

1) From this point on in Luke's Gospel, it is clear that Jesus saw his mission as to the whole world, not just Israel.

2) I also know that the text as it stands shows Jesus having a conversion moment, and as a result it is important to think our own lives and our conversion moments.

and 3) I know that I have been converted many times.

I count my first conversion as from racism, in an incident that is too embarassing and shaming for me to repeat except to say that I was in High School and I hurt a friend very deeply and in the process learned the depths of the evil of which I was capable and also the fact that only God's love could put it right and it did.

Since that time I have had conversions about Liberals and Conservatives and Communists and Asians and Hispanics and Jewish People and women and Yankees and intellectuals and rednecks and homosexuals, etc. etc. etc.

Everytime I have come to a place where I think I'm okay; God confronts me with another area in which I am trying to limit God's mercy and Grace, another place where I am trying to draw the line of God's love to include only people like me, and one more time I have to go through the process of being broken down and rebuilt through God's love and redemptive power.

It's like the clip-on sunglasses I bought in Daytona in April. For weeks I fiddled with them because they didn't fit right. finally I discovered it wasn't the clip-ons; it was my glasses that were crooked.

It's like that with God's word of inclusivity in our lives. We continually fiddle around with God's word, trying to bend it to the shape of our lives. Conversion comes when we begin to allow our lives to be bent by God's Word, to be shaped by God's word, "to conform our lives to His" as the Lutheran liturgy says.



Thursday, August 04, 2005


FIRST READING: I Kings 19:9-18 "". . .but the LORD was not in the wind; . . but the LORD was not in the earthquake; . . .but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it . . "

What is the sound of sheer silence? And how does one hear it?

There is a lot of noise in the world today, competing voices shouting for our attention and response. A lot of those voices calim to speak for God. Pardon me if I have to say that many of them remind me of Lightning and Wind and Fire; a lot of "sound and fury signifying nothing" especially not signifying God.

When I was younger I talked to God a lot. Filled The Divine One in on what was going on down here and my oh so humble opinion as to what he/she/it should do about it. I was very passionate on both counts.

I also spent a significant amount of time seeking an experience of God, a moving, soul-shattering experience; something that would jazz me up and send me out to conquer the world (or at least my little church) for Christ.

I don't talk much to God anymore. I spend a whole lot more time in prayer, but, as I said, I don't talk much anymore.

In his book SPIRITUALITY FOR MINISTRY, the late Urban Holmes used a homey image that
works pretty well for me now that I have been married to my High School sweetheart for over 30 years. He talked about how he and his long-time wife could sit in the car or in the Living Room for hours comfortably quiet in each other's presence. In the early years couples talk a lot,
communicate honestly as the Marriage gurus say. But after a while, there can be such a thing as a comfortable silence of relationship and trust.

A maturing relationship with God comes to grips with the silence. Both God's silence and our inability to speak clearly either about ourselves or about who God is. Sometimes that silence is the awkward silence of doubt and distrust, of a disquieting not-knowing. Other times it is a hard won silence of not-knowing but still trusting and still listening.

And the only way to move from one to the other is to spend some serious time in the lonely cave of solitude, filtering through the competing voices to hear the silence that signals the presence of the Holy.

Over the past weekend I saw on the Saturday Religion Page of a Small Town Newspaper in the Piedmont of North Carolina that a Lutheran Church was having a Special Service with an Elvis Impersonator as the Musical Guest. Here in Hayesville, the First Freewill Baptist Church has signs all over town about their Vacation Bible School. The biggest thing on the sign is the announcement WE HAVE SPACEWALK,

And so one could say, God does not come in the noise and clatter of the Elvis Impersonator or the Spacewalks, but in the silence when we quiet down enough to hear.

SECOND READING: Romans 10:5-15
" . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is LORD and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Verse 9
" . . . How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!"

It has always fascinated me as to how quickly we turn Good News into Bad. The ways I always heard verse 9 about confessing and believeing was as a LAW OF SALVATION, something you had to do to be saved, a mental bridge to be crosssed and a verbal act to be taken, etc.

Its interesting how much my visceral reactions to this verse are tied up with adolesence. Of course I was a teenager when I was subjected to the Evangelical Preachers' admonitions to quit my mean-ness and join the church. This verse was one of the proof texts they used for conversionist salvation. I didn't have much trouble with the believe in your heart part, it was the confess with your lips, trotting down to the front of the church with all the emotional yellers and cryers that scared the beJesus out of me.

My son just finished a Community College class in Public Speaking today. I asked him if he learned anything. He said he learned that older people were better at it than young people.
He was referring to the people in their 40's and 50's versus those in their early 20's.

I have thought about that for a while. I think it has to do with self-consciousness, the natural shyness that comes from people who aren't real secure in their own skin yet, people who are too concerned with what others are thinking about them to know what they themselves think.
and if you don't know what you think you certainly can't make a speech, or confess reasonably with your lips.

Anyway, for me the idea of confessing Christ was anything but Good News. it was a burden and a threat. Which is not what the Good News is?

And the thing is, we're always making rules about how people are saved, turning the good news of freedom into the bad news of performance measurement. Are people smart enough, liberal enough, tolerant enough, principled enough, value-centered enough, liberated enough, productive enough, bohemian enough, left enough, right enough, religious enough, cynical enough, etc. to pass our particluar okay muster?

And the Good News is, none of that matters, once we grasp the wonderfully paradoxical nature of God's relationship with us, in that God expects nothing from us, not even our understanding or our belief; and God desires everything from us, especially our care and compassion for each other.

The language about descending to the pit or climbing to heaven is Paul's way of satirizing our continual desire to make following God into an obstacle race.

And what "confess and believe" means has nothing to do with a public service of worship or a minimal dogmatic litmus test. He says this is that which sets you free. If Jesus is LORD, then nothing else is, no system or government or other institution can define you. And if God raised him from the dead, then the worst the world can do to you, i.e. kill you, no longer threatens, and you are indeed free.

If you are aware that these things are true, then you are FREE. (or saved, if you will).

GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 14:22-33
"He went up the mountain by himself to pray"

Okay, I'm not avoiding the walking on the water thing, it's just that it's kind of boring. You can't prove it or disprove it. It comes down to your philosophical presuppositions. If you believe that miracles occur, and that Jesus is the Son of God and was capable of supernatural acts, then it's no big deal. He walked across the water because he could, Peter tried it, and failed because he lost faith. End of story. And you'll preach about having Faith in Christ, and keeping your eyes on Jesus and stuff like that there.

If you don't believe that miracles occur, if you assume that Jesus was the Son of God in some metaphorical sense, and that the early church created these stories to bolster their claims of divinity about Jesus, then you don't believe it happened and you'll preach genericly about having faith in. . .well faith I guess.

So, pay your money and take your choice.

I'm more interested in Jesus going off on the mountain by himself to pray.

We in the modern world talk a lot about spirituality, about our need for a deeper spiritual life.
We also complain a lot about not having enough time for that spiritual life.

The last time I checked, a week was still 7 days, a day was still 24 hours.

The problem is not the time we have. It's what we chose to do within that time. How we apportion it out. I believe that our calendars are our most Holy Books, for that to which we give time is that which we value. If we want a deeper spiritual life, there is only one way to get it; we must put aside the time to alone witht he Mystery.

When my son David was 6 he called me at the office and asked when I would be home. It was around 4 pm. I told him a little after 5. Then I asked him why he wanted to know. He said he really wanted me home. "What for?" I asked. So I can sit in your lap. "Are you scared?" I asked. No, he said, I just like sitting in your lap and I can't do it if your lap isn't here. Then he said, "If you're going to have a kid, you have to make accomodations."

He had a big vocabulary for a 6 year old. Darn it.

Peace, Delmo