Archive for February, 2009

Back to the Basics

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Lent is not a season of the Church Year that I focus on as much as others times of the year. But I did go to a couple of Ash Wednesday Services yesterday and I am glad I did. I have some things to think about for the next days, weeks, months, whether they qualify as actual Lenten devotional practices or not.

David Hill, the Pastor of First Church (UCC), led the Wednesday morning hymn sing, which coincided, of course, with Ash Wednesday. It was a very simple and helpful service (is spite of the construction racket that was taking place somewhere nearby). He read what is the classic Psalm for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 51, and particularly lifted up what is perhaps the best known verse in that Psalm, v.10 which reads “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” David pointed out how that verse keys into the very basic desire all of us have who want to live our lives more in accordance with God’s purposes and ways.

During the day I thought about how basic Psalm 51:10 is to the Christian life, and how maybe it wouldn’t hurt any of us during these days of Lent, or simply in the days ahead, to think about some of the other basics. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength and your neighbor as yourself.” “You are his witnesses.” The Beatitudes begin (and the Sermon on the Mount) in Matthew 5  with, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God,” and they outline more of the basics that come with following Jesus. “You are the body of Christ.” “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God: everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” “Be kind and tender hearted to one another, forgiving each other as God has forgiven you in Jesus Christ.” “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” “He is alive!” “Follow me.”

Then there were some hymns I was thinking about, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me.” “Come and fill out hearts with your peace, you alone, O God, are holy.” And the one we sang in yesterday morning’s service, “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”

There are a couple of prayers that also point us to the basics. “Our father/mother in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your Kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive us our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for yours is the kingdom, the power, the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

And I’ve been thinking about St. Francis a lot since coming back from the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Italy. What more basic prayer than “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood and to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.”

So it’s kind of a back to the basics for me during Lent. And I know there are a lot more basics out there. I also know that basic doesn’t mean simple. I’m going to put this meditation on our web site. If you have comments or thoughts you would like to contribute just go to pccoberlin.org and click on The Sermonator Page. Find the Back to the Basics post and post your own comments. It’s easy to do and others would benefit.

I also know that during Lent and the days ahead, people will be working on a variety of missions and ministries, including visiting those who are sick, feeding and caring for the vulnerable, working to end the death penalty in Ohio, hauling and inviting folk to church, sharing your faith, working to help gay and lesbian people enjoy the same blessings of marriage that others of us receive, teaching youth about peacemaking, and a dizzying cornucopia of ways you are being the living presence of the living Jesus and proclaiming his gospel of peace. That is all the stuff of the basic Christian life that we like to know about.

By the way, thanks to all of you (Mary Hammond, Susan, Justin, Phyllis, Kristen, Franklin, Linda, Roger, and whoever else I have forgotten) who made the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper possible. It was a wonderful time, and a good start to Lent. And also my thanks to Anna, Tim, Bethany, Greg, Brian and whoever else planned and helped with the Noon Ash Wednesday Service. My stomach and spirit have been filled these past couple of days…

This is What We Came For

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
I Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39
Glenn Loafmann
8 February 2009

Be not afraid:

It hasn’t been an easy week for the righteous; it’s been kind of icky and tedious at its best.

But the lectionary reminds us God has an agenda that may not coincide with ours at every point. The psalm for today says:

Sing to GOD a thanksgiving hymn,
play music on your instruments to God,
Who fills the sky with clouds,
preparing rain for the earth (Psalm 147:7)

We give thanks, not only if we feel like it, but because God is taking care of the bigger agenda – “preparing the rain” – which is out of our control. God’s purposes and moods don’t make ours unworthy or unholy, but the two agendas persist against each other – sometimes in agreement, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in opposition. We have to take God seriously, take the world seriously, hear God’s invitation to rejoice, even when it doesn’t square with our feeling this week, because God takes us seriously, too, notices our cries and our efforts to amend the larger divine and cosmic agenda.

The lesson from Isaiah is probably familiar:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?

It is the Lord who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
.. .
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and why speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?

The Lord gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk, and not faint. (from NRSV, adapted)

We could use those words this week! But they were written about the time Israel came back from exile in Babylon in 539 B.C., and, like the Psalm, they celebrate the theme of restoration-after-loss, after brokenness. But there is a “scolding” tone here – “have you not known? have you not heard?” “Didn’t you think I really meant it when I said I was a faithful God who would never abandon you?…,” followed by a mildly remonstrative assurance: “Maker of the ends of the earth…more powerful than princes, …able to leap tall kingdoms with a single bound, …… lift you up on eagle’s wings…”

The rather casual translation of The Message brings out the flavor:

Haven’t you been listening?
You’ve heard these stories all your life –
Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?

Most of the returning exiles knew about Jerusalem, but had never been there, knew God and history only from stories they had been told – never worshiped in the Temple. Notice, though, that it is not only the oppression of exile that is burdensome. These people were on the way home, they were free. The road from Jerusalem into exile and from Babylon into freedom runs through the same desert, and the road is hot and dry no matter which way you are going. Isaiah spoke to the hardships of a free people.

The burden is not over when the exile ends, when you win the election.

Didn’t you know that? the Lord says, It’s all one story. I’m not the God-of-Liberation, you grasshoppers, I’m the God-of-everything-that-is. Haven’t you been paying attention…? Don’t you know how you got to Babylon? I didn’t just keep you alive in exile – I put you in exile. That’s part of the story! That didn’t happen because the Babylonians were so mighty – they’re like ants to me – I didn’t forget you or lose you or neglect you; you went into exile because you can’t hide from me!

The same God that brought you out put you in – I Am, the Ruler of all things.

We need to hear those words as we come out of our exile: God asking, “how do you think you got there? and don’t try to blame the Babylonians.”

We take cheer at the promise before this nation, but we need to understand all that Isaiah’s words mean – review our whole story.

Our country is renewing its promise of justice, restoring its “Temple,” you might say – renewing its covenant and its defining values. We’re already closing Guantanamo – “with all deliberate speed,” though that’s a cautionary phrase, too – and that reaffirmation of the piety of due process is a step on our journey from Babylon: we’re not home yet, but we’ve started, and we know the goal.

So we rejoice, and we celebrate with Isaiah: God has not forgotten us, after all.

We know the goal, but we need to prepare for the road, and Isaiah’s words help:

Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?

We need to understand what our exile has been about, need to listen for God’s lessons in the orders of the oppressor as well as in the articles of emancipation.

Our president has reminded us we are all in this together, and that was the situation of Israel, too. The afflictions of Israel in Babylon were not reserved for “sinners,” or for “evil” leaders or parties or groups. The prophets talked about the sins of the nation, not just the kings or the bankers or the CEOs, and the punishment – the exile – didn’t filter its victims: everybody was devastated. We’re all in this together – in exile and in liberation.

Not everybody came home from Babylon when Cyrus released the captives, but everybody was free to come home – not just the descendents of the pious, but the descendents of the idolaters, too, even the bankers are part of the nation; and everybody is free to come home. We’re all in this together.

Those who returned to Jerusalem had work to do. Maybe they thought they’d go home, go to Temple services, pick up the tools and cookware their grandparents had left behind 50 years before, and carry on.

The prophet Haggai reports a more arduous reality of liberation. Twenty years after the return, the Temple was still in ruins; the economy was still a shambles; the people were eking out a living in a devastated land. It is work to recover the soul of the nation – they had to re-learn the language of their covenant.

And they had to do it together. They had to deal with people they didn’t like. There were non-Jews who came “back” to Jerusalem – converts coming to a promised land they had never left. There were eunuchs, who in the old days would have been banished from the Temple, stoned for participating in worship. But in the restored Jerusalem, Isaiah notes

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will … separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
… all who hold fast my covenant –
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts…,
I will gather others to them,
besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:3-8, nrsv)

We’re in this together. One of the conditions of return is that we have to get along with people we didn’t get along with before. It’s not only the “bad guys” who have to change. Just as it wasn’t only the sinners who went to Babylon in the first place, it’s not only the good guys who are free to come home.

It’s a lot of work restoring a national covenant, a big, long, daunting project – winning a war is more than winning a battle. There are stimulus packages that work or don’t, legislation that passes or does not, betrayals of trust and disappointments and frustrations, and political allies who can’t seem to find their way to a capable tax accountant. Israel went through all that, too, or something like. More than one of us is going to throw up the hands in despair and say, “what’ll we do!? How can we get this country back on track?! Where do we start?! Is there any hope?!”

“Sing to God a thanksgiving hymn;” God has not forgotten us. God may be on a different page, of a different agenda, but we have our own responsibilities, our own homecoming to attend to:
Directly on leaving the meeting place, they came to Simon and Andrew’s house,…. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed, burning up with fever. They told Jesus. He went to her, took her hand, and raised her up.
No sooner had the fever left than she was up fixing dinner for them.
That evening, after the sun was down, they brought sick and evil-afflicted people to him, the whole city lined up at his door! He cured their sick bodies and tormented spirits. Because the demons knew his true identity, he didn’t let them say a word.

While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him. They found him and said, “Everybody’s looking for you.”
Jesus said, “Let’s go to the rest of the villages so I can preach there also. This is why I’ve come.” He went to their meeting places all through Galilee, preaching and throwing out the demons.

It’s not easy, spreading the gospel of re-birth: it requires working with people we don’t like, people that let us down, people who don’t get it, doing jobs that don’t seem big or important. But that’s what we came for, that’s why we’re here. That’s how the God of everything that is works.

Amen.

If your religion doesn’t send the demons packing, what good is it?

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

When Jesus called his first disciples, the writer of Mark’s Gospel says, “They didn’t ask questions. They dropped their nets and followed.”

In today’s story, Jesus gets questions, not from his disciples, but from demons. “What business do you have with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you are up to: you’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us.” And so in Mark’s story, it’s a demon, not one of the disciples, who first acknowledges that Jesus is the Holy One of God. And the demon is not pleased.

Demons? What do you do with that stuff? Some of you may be familiar with those religious groups who take demons very, very seriously, and not just Christian groups. But for most people, including most Christians, this whole business of demons is something that is relegated to the superstitious leanings of pre-Enlightenment times. This whole talk about demons fits nowhere in the modern scientific mentality.

So we try to work around it. It’s not really demons Jesus is dealing with but mental illness or something like epilepsy. Or some assume that Jesus never really encountered demons at all, but stories like this have been included in the gospels to show the readers just how special Jesus was.

I don’t know what to do with all this talk about demons than anyone else does, but when I look at this story it’s not the thing about Jesus and demons that most catches my attention. It’s the response of the crowd.

Maybe they weren’t as unenlightened as we imagine. And even though they may have seen wandering preachers casting out demons before and been a bit skeptical, this time they were very impressed. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up demons and sends them packing.”

We may live in a very different world than first century Palestinians, but I think the same rule applies. If your religion doesn’t send the demons packing, what good is it?

We may not be accustomed to the idea of demons, but the demonic is not something unfamiliar at all. The demons are out there. We talk about people’s personal demons; their addictions, their fears, their self-destruction, their prejudices, the violence they do to themselves and others. And we also know about the demonic forces that grip our societies; the demons of militarism, racism, sexism, nationalism, economic exploitation, oppression, homophobia, and the violence our nations and institutions commit daily.

What the folk listening to Jesus knew, and what we know, is that something gets hold of us that is of the devil. And for religion to mean anything it has to set us free from our demons, make something different of us and our world. The people of Jesus’ day weren’t interested in a religion that fed the demons, that empowered them. They wanted Jesus to send them over the cliff, like he did with those demons in another story.

In his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers sees this story as a direct attack on a religious system that was more the effect of the demonic than a challenge to it. What excited the crowd most, Myers and others argue, is the authority they saw in Jesus. Not authoritarianism, but authority. In Jesus they saw someone who had the authority to speak for God, who made God known in a much different way than the religious leaders they were accustomed to.

In Jesus they saw someone who really could cast out the demons. And that authority may also help explain why we see the disciples responding so readily to his call without asking questions.

Whether we quietly drop our nets and follow or come kicking and screaming, throughout the New Testament, the Church is referred to as the Body of Christ. The Church is called to be the living presence of the resurrected Jesus. For better or worse, Jesus made it clear that the way people will get to know him is through his followers. I guess what we need to ask ourselves is if people see the authority Jesus had in us. Do we have the demons on the run? Or do they still have hold of us?

This story, like so many other stories in the New Testament is a direct challenge to the Church. The sad fact is that too many churches have taken the side of demons rather than Jesus. We have churches that support violence, that feed prejudice, that sanction nationalism, racism and sexism. There are churches that foster self-loathing and self-doubt, that cripple the wounded, break the broken, and try to make the healthy sick.

I could make a long list of places like Rwanda where Christian clergy took part in mass executions or in this country where the Church has played a key role in supporting segregation, patriarchy, and discrimination against gay and lesbian people. Too often when Jesus has cried out for peace the Church has sanctioned war. Too often when Jesus has offered forgiveness, the Church has condemned. Too often when Jesus has given us an amazing vision of God’s love, the Church has been blinded by hate and prejudice.

That’s a pretty bleak picture of the church, of us who are called to be the Body of Christ in places like Rwanda, the United States, Oberlin, or Elyria. But it’s not the only picture. People are looking for something else, and I think what gripped the crowd in that synagogue that morning was the possibility of what could happen in their lives because of Jesus.

We may have all kinds of problems with all kinds of people out there, including others who live out their commitments to follow Jesus differently than we do. But the thing we all need to know, and perhaps what the crowd understood that morning, is that Jesus can save us from ourselves. He can deal with the demons in our lives instead of them simply dealing with us.

It seems if we really are going to be the Body of Christ in the way Jesus wants us to be, in the way we want to be, we need to be as taken with the authority of Jesus as the crowd was that morning. “What’s going on here? A teaching that does what it says.” If we can send the demons packing, offer people the hope those folk saw on that Sabbath morning, by taking Jesus seriously, the demons will have the same problem with us they had with Jesus.

“What’s this you are doing? Loving each other. Trusting God. Putting your hope in who Jesus is and what he says. You can’t be serious. Are you really trying to change things. Have you come to destroy us?”

“Yes, we have. Now be quiet and get going. We’ve got work to do. You aren’t welcome here any longer.”