Saturday, July 22, 2006

Brief Hiatus: Study Leave

Though I'm not sure how many people regularly check in with this site for sermon help, or just for low level entertainment, I do feel like there are enough of you that I should keep you apprised of changes in schedule. I'm hopping a plane in Atlanta this afternoon, flying to England to attend Oxford University's Summer Programme in Theology. I'll be there a couple of weeks and will return in early August, so I will post again for Sunday August 13. In the meantime, if you get desperate, reread my old posts. There is probably something back there you can shoehorn in sideways that will suffice for a summer crowd. ;-) peace, delmo

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

PENTECOST 6:RCL texts for July 16, 2006

One day last week I was driving around town, running from one thing to another, when I pulled into a convenience store to buy a bottle of water. I was in a hurry and I pulled up to the door at an awkward angle. When I came back to the car, a woman driving a UPS truck was pulling in behind me. She leaned out the window and asked, “Are you going forward or backing up?”

It took me a minute to figure out her question and why she was asking it. If I was pulling forward, it was safe for her to park behind me; if I was backing up, she needed to move. After I got back on the road, I continued to meditate on her question. Being a preacher, and of a naturally abstract cast of mind, I took her question far beyond its original, pragmatic meaning. “Am I,” I thought, “going forward or backing up in my life?”

The question stayed with me all day, as I applied it to my self and my personal spiritual life goals, and to my relationships and to my family and to my church. Am I going forward or backing up? Am I making progress or going backward? Is my church making progress of backing up? It’s a good question to ponder, isn’t it?

In our gospel lesson, King Herod has a dilemma about what to do with John the Baptist. He has more than a political decision to make here; the text reveals that he was struggling with a deep spiritual question, a question he only barely perceived or acknowledges, but one which was more important than any other question he would ever face. What would he do about John’s call to repentance and the coming Kingdom of God? Would he go forward of back up?

As the story begins, Herod has begun to hear about the preaching and teaching and healing of Jesus. People are speculating as to who Jesus is. Herod leaps to a ridiculous conclusion, based on his own guilt and fear; he decides Jesus is John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, reincarnated to haunt him. Therein lies a tale.

When John the Baptist was alive, he was fearless in preaching truth as he saw it. Herod had married his brother’s wife, a questionable arrangement, both morally and legally. John was not hesitant in telling the King that he was a sinner bound for Hell. Not surprisingly, Herod’s wife was unhappy with a popular preacher calling her an adulterer in public, so she pressured Herod to shut him up.

Now, Herod could have killed John right away, but something stopped him. It was fear and perplexity and the minute stirrings of the soul. Listen to the way Mark says it in verse 20:

“. . .for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man,
and he protected him. When he heard him he was greatly perplexed,
and yet he liked to listen to him.”

Herod was perplexed. He was confused. He couldn’t decide whether to go forward or back up. He knew what politics and self-protection dictated; and he was a consummate politician; and yet something kept him from doing the politically right thing. Something deep inside, be it religion or superstition, kept him from doing away with John. So he kept him in prison, locked away, kept John from interfering with his daily life, and yet, and yet, he liked to listen to him.

Is that perhaps the way some of us live our spiritual lives? Most days, in most ways, we follow the customs of our time, the dictates of the so-called real world, making decisions based on pragmatic necessity; keeping our religiosity locked away in a convenient spiritual prison, where we can listen to it when we have time and when it won’t cause us any trouble.

That’s what happens when we try to live our lives by two contradictory and competing standards. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti tells the story of his decision to pursue a music career full-time. He took voice lessons from a professional tenor while also attending a teacher’s college. At graduation, he said to his father, “What shall I do, be a singer or a teacher?”

His father said, “Luciano, if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.” Luciano chose singing.

Amos used the symbol of the plumb line, a simple builder’s tool, a string with a weight at the end. Hold it to the top of the hall and it hangs straight down, showing you if your wall is built correctly.

Amos says that God’s word and God’s way are to be our plumb lines, that by which we measure our lives to see if we are straight and true. Herod’s problem is that he has too many plumb lines working, plumb lines with different gravitational pulls.

One is John’s preaching, a plumb line that judge’s Herod’s life and finds it wanting.
Another is Herod’s wife, who is pressuring him to follow her will. Another is public opinion, another is the will of his political friends and another is the will of his political enemies. No wonder Herod is perplexed, his plumb lines are getting tangled, calling him to differing standards of truth. Herod can’t decide what to do, so he tries to get away with doing nothing.

Herod’s hand is forced when the plumb lines come together and he can no longer delay. There is a party, he drinks too much, he makes a rash promise. His wife seizes her moment and demands the death of John; and there Herod sits, again perplexed bothered. Will he do the right thing? Or will he cave in to the pressures of prestige and pride? In his struggle to sit between two chairs, Herod falls. In his choice between going forward into God’s Kingdom or falling back into his old ways, Herod chooses badly and calls for the head of John the Baptist. He has picked the wrong plumb line by which to measure his life.

In his novel about early Christianity, THE ROBE, Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of what happened to Jesus’ robe, the one the soldiers gambled for at the foot of the cross. In Douglas story, it continually changes hands, and its owners are faced with a choice about how to respond to the story of the Robe, the story of the crucified Jewish peasant.

One who responds is a Roman soldier named Marcellus. He hears the Gospel story, he receives Christ into his life, he becomes a Christian. He writes his lover, Diana, back in Rome, telling her the story of the Robe, the story of Jesus. She writes back, “It’s a lovely story . . . .We don’t have to do anything about it do we?

Diana, like King Herod before her, has hit upon the dilemma of hearing the Gospel. It is a beautiful, frightening, perplexing story, one people like to listen to. And if you listen carefully, you will realize that it is calling you to change, to become different. And most of us don’t want to. Like Diana, we cry out, “We don’t have to do anything about it, do we?”

Well, yes we do. We cannot sit on two chairs, for we will surely fall between them.
We cannot live our lives by a variety of standards, we cannot measure ourselves by contradictory plumb lines, for they will surely get tangled, and our house of faith will fall.

We cannot sit still in the parking lot of life; we must go forward or back up.
We cannot keep God and Christ locked away in a private prison of our own devising, bringing them out to look at and listen to at our convenience.
We must decide, we must do something about the story of Jesus.

Our calling today is to measure our lives by the plumb line of God’s love. That plumb line was established on the cross, where Jesus gave his life, his all, for us.

Our calling is to conform our lives to his, to love with his love, to forgive with his grace, to move with Christ into the fulfillment of the Kingdom.

So, I ask you, as I ask myself, “Are you going forward, or are you backing up?”



Friday, July 07, 2006

PENTECOST 5: Gospel lesson: Mark 6:1-13

A few years ago a woman in Denver went into a jewelry store to buy a cross as a gift for her soon to be confirmed god-daughter. When she made her request the clerk inquired, "Do you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?"

Those of us in the church are appalled at the clerk's ignorance, but we must be careful here. As the story of Jesus preaching in Nazereth shows, it is entirely possible that the people who think they know Jesus best are the very ones who know him least of all.

Remember, Nazereth was a small town. Jesus had lived there most of his life. He was already 30 years old when he left home. Life in such a place is lived very publicly. Everybody knows everybody, and almost everything there is to know about everybody. We can speculate that many of the people gathered in the synagogue that day had in their homes furniture made by Jesus, they plowed their fields and did their work with tools shaped by his hands in his carpenter's shop.

They had done business with him, worshipped with him, gone fishing with him, stood around the town square in the early evening gossping with him. They knew Jesus very well, yet, in the end, it was shown that they didn't really know him at all.

There is a danger that we in the church know Jesus so well that we, like the people of Nazereth, really don't know him at all.

It's easy to assume that we know Jesus because we know about Jesus. And that is a very dangerous assumption indeed. For, "familiarity breeds contempt", or, if not contempt, then something which may be spiritually worse, a spirit of indifference. A blase', "I know all about that Jesus stuff" attitude. One of the great witnesses of Scripture is that God and Jesus are always more than we expected or dreamed.

In order to get in touch with that "something more", we must always approach the Christ with open minds and open hearts, ready and willing to be surprised and changed and moved from where we are to where God wants us to be.

Just knowing the identity of the little man on the cross only puts us one tiny baby step ahead of the the jewelry store clerk. In order for that "little man" to make a difference in our lives, we must make a step of faith and allow our identity to become tied up in Christ's identity.

In the village of Stepanavan, Armenia, there is a woman known locally as "Palasan's wife." In 1988, a devastating earthquake struck Armenia. It was nearly noon and Palasan rushed from his little shop tot he elementary school where his son was a student.

He discovered the front of the school had begun to crumble. Palasan entered the school and began shoving the children out to safety. He stood in a doorway and held the door jamb up with his back whild 28 children crawled through into the open air.
Suddenly, an aftershock hit and Palasan perished in the collapsing building. To honor the deeds and memory of Palasan, the people refered to the widow as "Palasan's wife"

The relationship of Christians to Christ is somewhat like that of "Palasan's wife" to Palasan. To call oneself a Christian is to say that our lives are intimately tied up with the life of Christ. Who we are is determined by who Christ is.

The difference is that Palasan's memory lives on in his wife, but Christ himself lives on in us, the church. All to often we are all too much like Palasan's wife,
living MEMORIALS to Christ rather than the living BODY of Christ.

Jesus did not say, "Go be me" or ""Go be like me" Jesus said, "Go forth in my name and I am with ou always." The Christian is one in whom the life of Christ lives on. The Christian is one through whom Christ continues to serve the world.
The Christian is one in whom Christ continues to speak and comfort and heal.
The Christian is one with whom Christ carries on his work of saving the world.

In the second part of our lesson, Jesus sends out the 12 2x2. And to whom did he send them? He sent them out to the first century equivalent of people who talk about "the little man on the cross", people aware of the reality of the spiritual, but just barely, people in desperate need of a living, real, life-changing encounter with a loving and active God. He sent them to people whose lives had grown stale and sterile, to people who had begun to lose sight of the fact that there is more to life than just getting though each day until retirement. He sent them out to people just like us, people with restless hearts, hearts with holes in them, a hole only God can fill.

And, just as he sent them, he sends us. It is not by accident or mere "formal" tradition that our worship unfolds the way it does. Our worship is designed to imitate the ebb and flow of the Christian life. We come into God's Presence, we experience forgiveness, we hear God's word of love and promise, we respond with faith and prayers and offerings, we enter into God's living presence in the Sacrament of the Table, and then we go out to serve and bring others to the table,into the presence of God.

Go in Peace, Serve the Lord! are the last words we hear each Sunday, for that is what our real lives, out there, are about.

Our lives are lived on the Frontier between the presence of God and that so-called "real world". We are called to stand perilously balanced between two worlds, without falling too deeply into either. As the old songs says, we must not become "so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good," but yet, if we plunge so deeply into the world and its problems that we lose touch with God, we will lose the only power we have to deal with the world's problems.

We are called, like the disciples, to move back and forth between these two worlds, just as Jesus' disciples were called to go out from Jesus on their mission and to return to him for prayer and support.

It seems to me that our calling here is a simple one. We are called to point to the cross and identify to the world the little man who hangs there. Who he was, what he did, and especially what he has meant in our lives. That's it. That's all God asks of us. And like the disciples going out without a lot of provisions, we have to trust that what God has given us, that simple story, is enough.