Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Pentecost 19/ Lectionary 28

Oct. 11, 2009
Christ Lutheran Church, Fairfield Glade, TN.
Text: Mark 10: 17-31

When I was a graduate student at Duke University, I had the opportunity to be pastor of three little country Methodist churches.

It was a relatively easy gig. I lived in the parsonage and preached on Sundays and handled weddings and funerals and emergencies. I spent most of my time thirty-five miles away in the Duke Divinity School library.

There was one thing I sometimes had to do that I wasn't crazy about. All the Baptist churches in the county had fall and spring revival meetings.

To help work up a crowd they invited the choirs of the neighborhood to come one night and do the "special singing." When my choir went somewhere to sing I felt obliged to go along to lend them support.

One night I slipped into the back row of a small country church a few minutes late. After my choir had sung, I tried to catch up on my Church History assigned reading. I had the history textbook hidden in a big leather zip-up bible case and I hoped everyone would think I was deep into the Word.

The preacher was a traveling evangelist and he put on quite an exhibition; shouting and hollering and stomping his feet and breaking into song and denouncing sins, some of which I had never heard of.

After a while I gave up reading and watched the show; both his theatrics and the crowd's reactions. One little boy in particular caught my eye.

While his grandmother tried to pay attention,
he kicked the pew in front of him, he laid down,
he slid off the pew into the floor,
he drew in the back of the hymnal with that stubby little pencil you can usually find in a pew rack,
he loudly chewed gum and he sucked on a mint,
he played with Grandma's car-keys,
and he asked if it was time to go,
oh, about every two minutes.

Finally, as the Preacher launched into a fire-breathing altar call,
with the congregation standing, every head bowed, every eye closed,

I saw him stand on tip-toe and the pew and whisper loudly into Grandma's ear, ARE YOU SURE THIS IS THE ONLY WAY TO GEET TO HEAVEN?

This is the question that, in one way or another, all of us get around to asking eventually.

The man in our Gospel lesson asked, "What must I do to inherit Eternal Life?"

When Jesus tells the disciples that rich people are going to have a hard time getting in, they ask, "Well, who can be saved then?'

"What must I do to be saved?" says one.
"How can I get right with God?" says another.

There are secular, non-religious versions of the question: "What is the meaning of life?" "How can I be fulfilled?" "What does success look like for me?" to me, it's all a part of the same question.

In our Gospel lesson, a man came up and knelt in front of Jesus. We have traditionally referred to him as the "Rich Young Ruler." This is a composite name from three Gospel writers. Matthew calls him "young," Luke calls him a "ruler," and all three say he's "rich."

The man came asking a question to which he thought he already knew the answer. He's like the wicked witch in Snow White talking to the mirror. "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all."

The rich Young ruler believes he is, and comes to Jesus for affirmation, not information.

He wants Jesus to give him a benediction, a good word. He wants the JESUS OF NAZERETH, PROPHET AND TEACHER, seal of approval on his life. And much to his surprise he doesn't get it; not in the way he had expected.

You see, he had rested his claim on the Kingdom of God on the Twin Pillars of righteousness and riches.

Obey the Ten Commandments and enjoy worldly success.
And worldly success is an outward and visible sign of God's inward and visible blessing.

So the young man believed. And honestly, so did everyone else in that time and place.

That very debate was part of what the book of Job was about.

Do we love God because we're blessed with material things; or are we blessed with material things because we love God?

If we're not blessed, does that mean we're bad?

And if we're clearly good, and we have nothing, does that mean God's not fair?

The people in Jesus' world, including his disciples, believed that morality and material blessing went hand in hand. If you were good, God would bless you with riches and comforts in this world.

So, when Jesus said to the young man, "You lack one thing, go and sell all and give it to the poor. . ."

it wasn't just the giving up of his money and stuff that bumfuzzled him; the rich young ruler's whole world view, his entire way of looking at how the world works, has been turned upside down and inside out.

Remember the little boy at the revival meeting.

After church I was standing in the parking lot talking to my choir members when she came marching him out the door; hat squarely on her head, suitcase-size pocketbook on her arm, holding him by the neck with one hand and swatting at this behind with the other.

He danced ahead of her with that pelvis-forward, swat-avoiding, Michael Jackson moon walk we've all seen. He yelled back at her, "What you hittin' me for? I ain't done nothing."

The rich young ruler hasn't done anything either, and that's just the point. Though he has lived a fastidiously moral life, ("All these I have kept from my youth"), he had never learned that there is more to the moral life, to life in the Kingdom of God, than being good and safe and not wrong.

He had never learned to go the extra mile, to take a risk, to boldly go where he has never gone before.

Jesus looked upon him with love and spoke to him out of that love when he said to him, "You lack one thing."

Because Jesus then tells him to get rid of his wealth and give it to the poor, we can become confused about what Jesus sees as missing in his life.

The man doesn't lack generosity,
he doesn't lack compassion for others,
he doesn't lack doesn't lack morality;
he doesn't lack an awareness of call of God on the Jews to hospitality to the stranger.

This man lacks faith.

He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future.

He lacks a confident and joyous reliance upon the love and generosity of God.

He is relying upon his goodness and his goods to get him through this life and into the next, and Jesus says, "Friend, that's just not good enough."

Why is it hard for a rich person to get into heaven, harder than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle?

Because when you're rich, it's really hard to realize how much you need God and other people.

Being rich is not evil; it is just exceptionally dangerous to your spiritual health.
The question for us today is this: what are we depending on in our relationship with God?

Are we depending on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions?

Are we depending on our righteousness, on our goodness, on our obedience to the
Ten Commandments?

What is it that keeps us trusting ourselves and not fully trusting God?

What is the one thing that we lack, the one thing that keeps us from totally and completely committing ourselves to God's will and God's way.

What keeps us from doing wild and wonderful right things in the name of the Living Christ?

The Good News is that Jesus has come to transform the impossible into the possible.

Jesus has come to release us from our bondage of serving our selves and our things.

Jesus has come to take us by the scruff of the neck and to drag us kicking and screaming through the eye of that needle, into the center of God's love.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Lectionary 27, Pentecost 18

Oct. 4, 2009
Sermon preached at the re-dedication of the building at Cross of Life Lutheran Church, Roswell, Ga.

Text: Hebrews 1:1-4, 5:5-12
Title: But, We Do See Jesus

"As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . ."

Almost every Saturday afternoon, I listen to the opera on the Public Radio station.

Now Fred, don't look so surprised. I like opera. Not as much as I like Lynard Skynard or ZZ Topp, but I like Opera.

Well, okay, I don't. Not really, but I like the IDEA of liking opera.

Deep down inside, I feel like I OUGHT to like opera, that a well educated person SHOULD like opera, and so. . .

On Saturday afternoon's I listen to opera.

This is kind of like the theory my wife used in trying to feed our two teen-aged sons liver and broccoli.

She thought if she put it in front of them often enough eventually they would walk in the house one day and say, "Gee Mom, what's for supper? I could sure go for some liver and broccoli right about now."

Not gonna happen. No Way. No how. But, you know; hope springs eternal in the human breast and all that.

Anyway, I listen to opera in the vague hope that someday, somehow, I'll start to like it and can then count myself as a genuinely educated and cultured person.

Every once in a great while I find myself kind of liking a piece, nodding my head and humming along and I think,

Gee, I'm starting to like this opera stuff after all.

But then I realize that the opera pieces I like are the ones they used as soundtracks for the Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons I watched as a child and I'm back to square one. It's not music appreciation; it's just nostalgia for my childhood.

I'm still listening, and I'm still hoping, but I'm 55. I don't think this plan is working.

As it is, we do not see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .

Many people in our world today are seeking Spiritual Enlightenment. In recent public opinion polls, more people are willing to claim being "spiritual," than are willing to say that they are "religious."

People go looking for "spirituality," the way I have gone looking for "culture and sophistication," and with about the same level of success.

People explore the latest prayer techniques and different churches and praise bands and labyrinth walks and Alpha bible Studies and the Wild Women of the Bible Weekends and Seeking Your Inner Child Men's Drum Circle Sweat Lodge and I don't know what all.

And whatever it is they think they're looking for, if it isn't where they are, well, it must it over the hill or around the corner or in the next place they look or the next.

As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .

The author of the book of Hebrews is, in this text, dealing with the fact that while the biblical witness is that God is in charge of the world; when we look around us, it is difficult to see the evidence that God, or God's angels (them), are actually in charge of much of anything.

As one of my unbelieving college professors put it, "If God is really in charge, he, she or it is doing a lousy job."

War, drugs, disease, natural disaster, economic collapse, starvation; need I go on? Does this look like "everything in subjection. . ." to God?

And let's be honest with one another today. The church, the place those of us gathered here have traditionally looked for hope and meaning is in a confusing place right now.

Not just our ELCA with its debates over sexuality and biblical interpretation and theological thinking; but other denominational families as well.

It is a time of change and uncertainty and discomfort.

It is a time when people are searching for what a prayer in the Lutheran Funeral Service calls a "Sure and certain hope."

That little word "yet," is vital to understanding not only this text, but also the promise of the Gospel to us at times like these.

As it is,we do no yet see . .

As much as we yearn for and look for and yes, do battle for, certainty and security, the Bible constantly reminds us of what Luther referred to as the "Hidden-ness of God."

It is sometimes referred to as the "already-but-not-yet" Kingdom of God.

As we look around the world for God, God is often difficult to see, difficult to pin down.

And sometimes, just when we think we have the holy in our hands, it slips away as we realize we were mistaken; as I was when I thought I liked opera but it turned out to be cartoons I liked.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are to look to Jesus to see what God is doing in the world.

We are to look particularly at the fact that Jesus gave up his place at the right hand of God to become human like us. Who for a little while became lower than the angels, the text says.

And that as a result of this coming into humanity with us, Jesus suffered and died and "tasted death for everyone."

NO, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus.

We are here today re-dedicating a church facility. My younger brother is an architect. He has taught me to always remember the mantra, "form follows function."

That is to say, How you shape a building should be dependent on what you want to do in that building.

That which is true of buildings is true of church communities. How we shape ourselves depends on what we believe our purpose in the world to be.

It is my simple contention today that our purpose as a community is to remind the world to look to Christ and the Cross in the midst of the "not-yet" of our lives, and it is the purpose of this building to help us do that.

A few years ago, the Barna Research Group did a poll asking this simple question: What are the most important words you've ever heard? That's it. What are the three most important words you've ever heard?

Family feud style, #1 answer didn't surprise anyone: I love you.

#2 didn't surprise anyone either: I forgive you.

But # 3 dropped a few jaws; Dinner's ready, come eat.

That is the Gospel we proclaim, that is the function of this building and its form tells the tale.

The cross that looms over everything reminds us all of how much God loves us, that "by the grace of God Jesus tasted death for everyone."

The font in the middle of the aisle reminds us of God's forgiveness and our forgiveness of others each time we enter this room, it calls us back to the waters of our baptism and propels us into the world with a hope grounded in the knowledge that we have been freed from the bondage to our faults and failures, that we have been loosed from our to go confidently into the future.

And here, front and center is the altar. Here we, and the whole world, are invited to come forward to receive the sacrament of the table. My wife is an Episcopalian. When I get to go to church with her I love it when I'm kneeling at the altar and the pastor gives me the bread and says,

This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Take it in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart with thanksgiving.

At the altar we shout out to the world, Dinner's ready, come eat.

In this place, we offer Jesus to the world. We say to everyone, "We know the world does not yet reveal that God is in charge, but here, I this place, you can see Jesus; on the cross, in the water, at the table; God cries out to us; I love you, I forgive you; dinner's ready, come eat."

Amen and amen.