Thursday, May 25, 2006

EASTER SEVEN: RCL texts for May 28, 2006

Easter 7, May 28, 2006
Texts: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Secular Context: Memorial Day weekend

“they do not belong to the world. . . .As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

For most of us, Memorial Day is simply the excuse for the first long weekend of the summer; a chance to take a little trip, to get a head start on being in a summertime sort of mood. Go to the beach or the lake, grill out and chill out.

A few years ago, a writer in the Nashville paper complained that churches don’t celebrate Memorial Day anymore, by which he meant, I presume, the playing of patriotic music, etc. A pastor wrote back saying that the Church has a higher agenda than a secular holiday, that the church is obligated to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ above all else.

I found myself agreeing with each of them. As the son of a man who served and suffered in Europe in WWII and as the nephew of a man who died in the Pacific at the age of 19 fighting the Japanese, I too lament our turning a “Holy-Day” intended to show respect for their sacrifice into an excuse for a long week end.

On the other hand, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can not take second place to any other agenda in the life of the church. And, I kept thinking about Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson, about not being of the world, but being sent to the world.

How can we talk about this subject in the church without either dishonoring the dead or glorifying war?

True story. Small Southern town. Town Council asked a young
architect and landscape artist to crate a Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial out of a narrow vacant lot downtown.

He landscaped the lot into a grassy knoll with winding walkways, flower beds and park benches. He created a “triptych” monument, moderately sized, out of local granite. On the two side panels were listed the locals who had served and died in Vietnam. In the center he designed an etching of one weary soldier carrying a wounded buddy on his shoulders. It was cruciform without being a cross. It was meant to evoke service and sacrifice and “no greater love”.

The Town Council approved and applauded everything but the etching. They didn’t like it. It was “defeatist”, and “negative”; not “upbeat” and “positive”. So that got a stone cutter at the quarry to etch in the scene of raising the flay at Iwo Jima instead. They even painted the Red, White and Blue on the Flag.
Wrong symbol from the wrong war, but that didn’t matter to them. American honor was all that mattered.
(You can go to Mt. Airy NC and see that statue. It’s across the street from the Post Office. The young architect was my brother.)

That story can serve as a parable of our ambiguous attitudes toward war. On the one hand, we lament the loss of life, we honestly mourn those of our families and communities who died, we carry a deep sorrow for their pain and suffering. We mean it. We are not hypocrites.

But, on the other hand, we sometimes get carried away with our pride in America’s military might, with its “win-loss” record if you will. By replacing the cruciform symbol of service, sacrifice and suffering with one of victory and triumph, the town council said to the Vietnam Veterans,

We want to remember that you served and that some of you died. We just don’t want to remember that you, we, lost and that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

As Christians, we must always shy away from the glorification of war. War is mean, nasty and ugly. It is the result of the failure of humanity to settle issues of economics and ethnic tensions peacefully. War is the eruption of our inherent sinfulness on a national and global scale. War occurs when Pride and Materialism and Greed and Hatred of the Other overcome the Divine call to peace with justice. For Christians, War comes when we forget that we are not of this world, but are sent into this world by the Prince of Peace, to spread the Gospel of Peace.

Memorial Day is an opportunity to prayerfully remember those who have suffered and died because of the world’s inability to live love and justice on an international scale.

One of my childhood pastor’s explained Original Sin this way:

Original Sin means that there is something in us that just can’t wait to mess up a good thing.

The longer I live, the more right he seems. At the beginning of the 20th Century, much was written about how the World was on the cusp of its greatest Golden Age. Science, Technology, Learning were leaping ahead at a record pace. The end of war and disease and poverty were practically in sight, or so it was thought.

A look back at the last 100 years shows a much different picture. We have seen 2 world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the use of weapons of mass destruction, new diseases and behaviour related health problems. We are trying to destroy the earth and sea and all that is in them. What happened? Well we did. We, the human race. We, all of us. Original Sin erupted and continues to erupt in our persistent proclivity for messing up a good thing.

What we do on Memorial Day is weep for those who lost their innocence and perhaps their lives in the service of their country.

My Daddy lived until he was 80. Until he went to the hospital a week or so before he died, he lived in the house he was born in.

The only time he spent any real time away from there was when he was in Europe in WWII. He never told us much about it. Until the last year of his life, and then in bits and pieces. Buddies who were there and then blown up, little French and German children stepping on mines or begging for food. As I sat at that kitchen table, listening to him talk, coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other, I began to understand his years of staring into the distance, the emotional distance, the stoic devotion to duty.

And as he began to weep, his 80 year old shoulders going up and down, as he cried for someone named Willie from Oklahoma, I cried for Willie and Daddy and millions of others, American and English and French, Korean and Vietnamese and Iraqi and Afghan and all those caught up in the senselessness and pain.

On Memorial Day, we remember and weep and commit ourselves anew to going into the world with the light and love of Christ.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Sixth Sunday of Easter: RCL texts for May 21, 2006

Acts10:44-48, I JOhn 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

On Monday, May 8, 2006, USA Today published a column by Presbyterian Pastor Henry G. Brinton of Fairfax, Virginia. In his article, Brinton makes a helpful "two kinds of Christians" argument. Or rather, he argues that each of us carries two, often contradictory, religious impulses: 1) obligation-keeping and 2) liberation-seeking.

As Brinton points out, this is not as easy as RED state and BLUE State, Conservative and Liberal. Many Red State Conservatives seek to liberate people from oppressive regimes while many Blue State Liberals oppose war on the grounds that Christians have an obligation to be non-violent. As Billy Pilgrim says "And so it goes."

I have found this a helpful dialectical tool. I have begun to ask myself: "Which of my religious notions is based in obligation-keeping and which are rooted in liberation-seeking?" Pro-life or Pro-choice, Peace-activist or Military defender, Gender choices, Capitalism versus Socialism, Science and Religion; which impulse rules in what areas?

This week's lessons pose an interesting opportunity to play with this dialectic.
In both the Second Reading from I John and the Gospel from John 15, we get a lot of obligation keeping language, "I command" and "obey his commandments" "You are my friends if you do what I command you."

On the other hand, the Acts lesson is about all kinds of liberation: Peter becomes liberated from his notions about the Gentiles and their need to follow certain rules and regulations in order to be acccepted by God. He discovers that God pours out the Spirit on whom God chooses, regardless of our sense of their readiness.

And Peter shifts from obligation-keeping mode to liberation-seeking mode when he says "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"

The tricky thing is balancing somewhere on the tightrope between obligation keeping and liberation seeking. As you know, pure obligation keeping leads to oppressive, regimented legalism with blinders on, communities of faith unable and unwilling to repond either to the world or to God's new movements of the spirit.

On the other hand, pure liberation-seeking leads to "tossing to and fro on the winds of doctrine", seeking the next new thing, whatever it is, which will loose one from whatever restrictions one wishes to be released from; antinomianism in theological terms.

The command to love is probably as good a balancing point as any. My Mama told me once that Jesus had to command love, because love is not easy sometimes. If it were easy, no commands, no orders would be necessary. As it is, there are times we need the command to keep us loving, even when we don't feel like it. Thanks Mama.

G.K. Chesterton said somewhere, "Jesus told us to love our neighbours. In another place, he told us to love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people." Same point.

I recommend what AA calls a fearless inventory of our religious positions, our opinions and prejudices on a variety of issues, an inventory which uses two basic questions: 1) is this obligation-keeping or liberation-seeking and for whom?
and 2) Is this the most loving thing I can do here?

And now this, just for fun. This past week at a Pastor's Spirituality Retreat in Durham, NC, I heard a new description of the minister's life.

"A Pastor is like a stray dog at a whistler's convention." (the ones who have ears to hear, let them hear)



Friday, May 12, 2006

Fifth Sunday of Easter

I'm back! Sorry for the last two weeks. My day job got over busy.

TEXT: I John 4:7-21, Gospel of John 15:1-8

My subject today is HOLY HELIOTROPSIS or
The Ministry of Plant Rotation. Let me explain:

There are two women in my life: my mother and my wife;
BOTH are inveterate gardeners in the English mold that I call
“out piddling in the yard”. My earliest memories are of my mother dragging her hose around the house to water her various bushes and flowers. My boys tell me that their main memory of their pre-school days is of Deborah, with sun-hat and gloves and
little plastic gardening wagon puttering around the yard.

I am not a gardener, but I have paid attention to their gardening; in particular to the methodology of plant formation.

*Some plants are tied to stakes to force them to grow in a certain way: Pea vines and Rose bushes and tomato plants and certain other flowers and vegetables.

*Other plants are planted in pots and are rotated in the Sun,
and grow in the direction of the light. They are shaped by being pulled toward the light. Their growth in a certain direction is not forced, it is encouraged.

Conformity to the world eventually becomes what the Prayer of Confession in the Lutheran liturgy calls “bondage to sin”
To be conformed to the world is to be staked out on the altar of popularity; it is to lose your soul in the effort to live what is called “the good life”. You will live, but you will not be free, far from it, you will find yourself a slave to will and the way of the world.

On the other hand, to be Transformed is the result of being bathed in the light of God’s love; of daily turning your face toward the Source of Life itself.

Martin Luther said that in Sin the human will became bent,
turned away from God and toward evil. In their powerful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon make reference to this when they say, The Lord’s Prayer is a lifelong act of bending our lives toward God in the way that God has offered –“thy will be done, thy kingdom come.”

One reason that all the Reformers, including John Wesley, desired that Holy Communion be celebrated weekly, was that they recognized that we need constant exposure to the physical signs of the presence of the Holy in our lives so that we may be continually drawn into the light of God’s love.

One of the great dangers of Church Leadership is that we will try to make folks conform to our ideas of what they ought to be doing. We sometimes try to tie them to the stake of our preconceived ideas of how THEY should respond to the Gospel.

Our Calling today is to the ministry of HELIOTROPSIS, of exposing ourselves and others to the light of CHRIST, of moving things around a bit so that the light of God’s Love continually draws us to it, makes us prosper on the vine and helps us bring forth good fruit.