Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pentecost 13/ Lectionary 22

A sermon preached at Peace Lutheran Church, Spring Hill, TN
August 30, 2009
Pentecost 13
Text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

True Story - you can't make stuff like this up. Charlotte, NC. Man bought a box of very expensive cigars. He protected his investment by taking out an insurance policy on the cigars. He insured them against; "decay, spoilage, theft and FIRE."

In the next few weeks he proceeded to smoke all of the cigars in the box.

THEN - he filed a claim with his insurance company, stating that the cigars were lost in a series of small - - -fires.

Of course, the insurance company rejected the claim, which ended up in civil court.
Even though the man admitted smoking the cigars, he won the case because, . . ."the company declared the cigars insurable property, and did insure them against fire, and the Company failed to specify what sort of fire was excluded, therefore the claim is legitimate." The man collected $15,000.

As he was leaving the courthouse, the man was arrested and charged with 24 counts of arson.

After all, he had confessed to setting ". . . the series of small fires . ." which had
caused his loss of property. He was convicted and sentenced to 24 months in jail and was fined $24,000.

Ever since God handed Moses the Ten Commandments on top of the mountain, we human beings have had a long standing debate concerning the letter and the spirit of the law. Both our text and my little cigar story point out the danger of following the letter of the LAW as a way of violating its intent.

As we think about the Gospel lesson, it is important for us to remember that Jesus was a Jew, an observant Jew, a Jew who treasured the Law of God. Jesus took the Pharisees to task for following the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.

We Christians tend to forget that the Law was given to the children of Israel as a gift, not a burden. Thomas Cahill, in his wonderful book The Gifts of the Jews, reminds us of that fact;
. . . in the prescriptions of Jewish Law we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred.

This was something new, something unheard of in the ancient world, something that had not been seen in other religions or other codes of law. Jewish Law was a gift to the Jews and to the world; a gift to remind us that our lives are sacred and so are the lives of everyone else.

The problem that Jesus confronts in this text is that the Pharisees chose to obey the rules without remembering the relationships that lie beneath the rules.

If we are honest, we will admit that this is sometimes true of us as well.

We make religious rules that are intended to help us live together as Godly people.
Then, over time, we forget that the rules are there to help us, not to hurt us, in our relationships with each other in the community of Christ.

It's been a while since I was over at the Car Collectors Museum in Nashville. There used to be a 1918 Dodge Touring Car on display there. Its little placard told an interesting story.

In 1918, the father of Albert Hillyard bought this car for $785. In 1921, Albert and his brother got into an argument over who got to drive the car into town on Saturday Night. Their father drove the car into the garage and shut the door. There the car remained until found 38 years later, covered with dirt and chicken manure, with only 1800 miles on the Odometer."

I've thought about Mr. Hillyard and his Dodge touring Car many times over the years. He attempted to heal the breach between his children by making a rule when what was needed was reconciliation.

Papa Hillyard said, Okay, neither one of you gets too drive it!

but I'm willing to bet that the boys just went on to argue about something else, and then about something else, and then about something else. The car wasn't the problem. The problem was the jealousy and strife that lived in that family and in those brother's hearts.

So it is with all of us. Since our problem lies within our hearts the healing must also start there.

Jesus calls us to understand that it's not about the rules; it's about the relationships; the relationship between us and God; and the relationships between us and each other.

That's why Jesus says that, the things that come out are what defile.
And later for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.

Along these lines, St. Augustine said that, there is a hole in our hearts that only God can fill and also that our hearts are restless O Lord, until they rest in thee.

No amount of rules and regulations and guidelines can change our hearts. Only Gad can do that. Only God's Spirit can move us that way. Only the Cross of Christ; the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus can break our hearts enough that we will let the love of God in to change and reshape us.

Believe it or not, my first real job besides working on the farm with my family was as a daycare worker. I worked at the Community School for People Under Six in
Chapel Hill NC. Besides supervising the playground and changing diapers and serving lunch I had the great pleasure of watching Sesame Street every afternoon from four to five o'clock. Seriously, it was a great pleasure; I really liked it.

One night recently I saw a documentary on the making of Sesame Street.
Someone asked the producer about the reaction of the child actors to working with the Muppets, who are, after all, puppets with a human being crouched on the floor holding them up with one arm.

The producer said the kids don't pay any attention to the humans; they just talk to the Muppets. In fact, he said, there was one child who saw BIG BIRD take off his top half and an actor step out.

The child stared and then yelled to his mother: MOM, MOM, do you think Big Bird knows he has a man inside?

The goal of the Law is to remind us that we have a human being inside, in our hearts, in our souls, in our center of being; in that part of us that makes us something other than a thinking animal.

It is also to remind us that other people have that hidden humanity, that heart, soul, mind; that center that belongs to God, as well.

Our calling is to remember that broken center in our dealings with each other.

It is our calling to remember that we are called to transcend the rules in the name of love.

It is our calling to remember that not only did Jesus die for us, but Jesus died for everybody so that we could all be reconciled to God and to one another.

It is our calling to spread this gracious Good News throughout the world, beginning with our own hearts.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

lectionary 20, Pentecost 11

It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe. (John 6:63b-64)

Again this week I have no place to preach but I have a couple of "anecdotes?" "illustrations?" "whatevers?" Here goes.

In her preface to the American edition of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," (a surprisingly funny book about punctuation) Lynne Truss writes:

By far the oddest and most demoralizing response to my book, however, took place at a bookshop event in Piccadilly. It is a story that, if nothing else, proves the truth of that depressing adage about taking a horse to water. I was signing copies of my book when a rather bedraggled woman came up and said, despairingly, "Oh, I'd love to learn about punctuation." Spotting a sure thing (you know how it is), I said with a little laugh, "Then this is the book for you, madam!" I believe my pen actually hovered above the dedication page, as I waited for her to tell me her name.

"No, I mean it," she insisted -- as if I had disagreed with her. "I really would love to know how to do it. I mean, I did learn it at school, but I've forgotten it now, and it's awful. I put all my commas in the wrong place, and as for the apostrophe . . .!" I nodded, still smiling. This all seemed familiar enough. "So, shall I sign it to anyone in particular?" I said. "And I'm a teacher," she went on. "And I'm quite ashamed really, not knowing about grammar and all that; so I'd love to know about punctuation, but the trouble is, there's just nowhere you can turn, is there?"

This was quite unsettling. She shrugged, defeated, and I hoped she would go away. I said again that the book really did explain many basic things about punctuation; she said again that the basic things of punctuation were exactly what nobody was ever prepared to explain to an adult person. . . .

. . .Throughout the encounter, I kept smiling at her and nodding at the book, but she never took the hint. In the end, thank goodness, she slid away, leaving me to put my coat over my head and scream.
(Eats, Shoots and Leaves Lynne Truss, Gotham Books, 2003, pp. xxi-xxii)

About 15 years ago my family moved to Nashville. We lived in a three room apartment on a hill above a strip mall with a grocery store. Friday night was family night and we went to the grocery to pick out items for home made pizza and desert. This was pre-Blockbuster and the grocery store had a video section where the boys and I picked out the evening's entertainment.

One night I noticed the World War I epic "All quiet on the Western Front," shelved among the WESTERNS. I helpfully took it off the shelf and carried it up to the bored teen-ager at the counter and said, "It's an understandable mistake, but this movie isn't a western. It's about WWI and should be shelved among the dramas." And the kid took it from me and said, "Thank you very much," and placed it under the counter.

The next Friday night, and the next, and the next, this little scenario played itself out. After the third time I gave up thinking anything would change. I continued to do it for the somewhat perverse pleasure of it and as an experiment to see if anything ever would change. After 15 months we bought a house and changed grocery stores. And All Quiet on the Western Front was still nestled among the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Biblical lost and foundness

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in a while. this is because I haven't preached in a couple of weeks, nor will I for a couple more weeks. So I am posting this article I wrote for the synod e-news, apropos of nothing exactly and everything in general.

"Biblical Lost and Foundness"

Back in March I lost my Bible. Well not really a Bible; a New Testament with Psalms. Black, about the size of a Reader's Digest magazine, held together with clear shipping tape on the pages and Duck tape on the spine, it has gone everywhere with me since 1993. Hospital rooms and Confirmation Camp; airplane rides and hotel rooms; Oxford University for Summer School of Theology and Moody's Funeral Home for my daddy's funeral; where I was it was there with me.

And then it was gone. Disappeared, vanished into thin air, or so it seemed. I had been on a two-day road trip in East Tennessee: great food from the ladies at Salem in Parrotsville as I met with the area Holston Heritage clergy, a visit to an ailing retired pastor and his wife, a meeting with Good Shepherd, Morristown and then a meeting with the council at Christ, Fairfield Glade, and then a drive through the night to home.

The next morning I sat in my home office and reached in my briefcase to get it to look up Sunday's lessons and IT WASN'T THERE. A massive hunt ensued. Dumped out the briefcase, turned out my suit coat pockets, searched the trunk and under the seats of the car. Nothing. Called all the places I'd been. I asked them to look around for it. Good Shepherd, Morristown had located my pocket edition ELW (which I could have easily lived without) but no Bible. The search reminded me of the shepherd and search for the Lost Sheep or, more exactly, the housewife searching for the Lost Coin. (Luke 15:3-10)

I did all I could. Finally I gave it up. It's not like I didn't have other Bibles, I have a whole shelf full of them. (Eighteen to be exact; I just counted.) But there was something personal about this Bible. Over the years it had become a physical symbol, almost a sacrament, of my faith life and personal struggles, and now it was gone.

I moved on as they say. I bought another small Bible to fit in my briefcase and my pocket. It's a little thicker because it has the Old Testament, but there are other reasons why it's just not the same. It's new, it's unmarked, it's a stranger; not an enemy but not yet a friend.

This experience has helped me be more sympathetic with people who resist change in the church. I confess I have often been identified as the agent of change is some congregations, "and not in a good way," as my son would say. People have resisted, some have gotten angry. They have grown attached to the old ways as I had grown attached to my old Bible. People don't adjust overnight, it takes time.

But we do change, don't we? We do adjust. We learn to cope with new realities. Because we understand that within the new wrappings is the old Gospel; just as a new and unfamiliar Bible contained the same precious words that were in my old one.

And once I had learned that lesson, God gave me my old Bible back. Donna Hoglund from Christ Church in Fairfield Glade was straightening up the library there and found it on a shelf. Someone had found it on the table where I left it and had shelved it with the other Bibles. She emailed me and then mailed it to me, and it's back in my briefcase. Thank you, Donna. And thank you, God, for old gifts in new and exciting wrappings.