Archive for March, 2009

Another Last Temptation of Christ (ours, too)

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

John 12:20-36
March 29, 2009
Steve Hammond

Evidently Jesus never talked to those Greeks. You know the ones who came looking for him in that story we just read. I guess they thought since Philip and Andrew had Greek names, they would be able to set something up for them with Jesus. But it didn’t happen.

Some people call this another last temptation of Christ, the traditional last temptation being the one to come off the cross. This one is about not ending up on the cross at all. It seems that the Greeks were there to offer a better deal than Jesus was getting from the Jewish leaders. Israel had become a pretty dangerous place for Jesus and everybody knew where it was headed if somebody didn’t intervene and bring a new dynamic to the situation.

If Jesus went with the Greeks back up to Galilee and those regions around it that were populated by all kinds of Gentiles and Jewish free thinkers, he could be free to preach whatever he wanted without all the opposition he was getting from the Jewish leaders. The Greeks would accept him with open arms. He could heal to his heart’s content, no matter what day of the week it was without all the outrage and accusations. His message of God’s Kingdom would find willing hearts and minds there.

And everybody could save face. The leaders in Jerusalem could say they ran him off to Gentile territory where he belonged. Jesus could say he had to leave them behind and go somewhere where people really cared about the word of God. This looming conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment could be defused. All Jesus had to do was hear the Greeks out and make a graceful exit.

The Greeks, though, never got to make their offer, an offer that Philip, Andrew, Mary and Martha, and all the rest would have liked him accept. So, instead of answering the question about whether he will meet with the Greeks, Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “I’ve got to go ahead with the plan. It’s like a grain of wheat that gets buried in the ground. Out of it comes something a thousand times more than what it was. I could go with the Greeks. We could all be safe. And we could have a good time. There is probably a lot we could accomplish. But something much more important and significant is about to take place. I’ve got to face these guys in Jerusalem head on. They think I am walking into their trap. But it’s going to spring on them. And the whole world is going to change. I need you to believe me about this. I promise you that life is going to be won in the struggle in Jerusalem, against the Jews, our own people, not with the Gentiles even though they are on our side. If we are going to find life, we have to take the risk of death.”

It’s not like Jesus wanted die. He makes that clear in this story. But you see, Jesus did not give into his temptation. The religious leaders did, however, give into theirs. They fell into the temptation that threatens all leaders, the temptation to believe that violence and death and destruction can solve the problem. If nothing else, the people in power believe they can rely on brute force. The innocent may suffer and even be killed along the way, but order is maintained, security is restored. And isn’t that what the people want, anyway? Promise them safety from the enemy and they will let you get away with anything.

Jesus said there was something else people wanted, a way out of the mess we have made of this world. “If you lift me up, if you crucify me I will draw the whole world to myself.” You see, the cross is humanity’s indictment. It shows us at our worst and how we are willing to let the innocent suffer for the sake of power, safety, the promise of security, and obedience to the rulers of this world. We are drawn to the cross because Jesus is the most glaring example of what we do to the innocent. People of other faiths, people of no faith at all, look at the crucifixion of Jesus and realize something has gone wrong with humanity. How could we have done that to him, of all people. It shows us how rampant sin is and what it does to us. We weren’t meant to do this kind of thing to each other. We weren’t meant to live in this way. Hanging a good man like Jesus on a cross, and not only letting them get away with it, but demanding it? “Crucify him, crucify him?” How have we come to this?

Thankfully, Jesus knew he was taking us someplace else. He was about to turn everything upside down so we could live another way. Sin doesn’t have to keep hold of us like this. Do you remember when Jesus cried out from his cross, “It is finished?” It was his victory cry. He had held fast to the end. He did not take the safe route to Galilee, but walked the way of the cross, and everything did change. As one writer put it, it’s not Jesus who was rejected on the cross but, “the ruler of this world who faces the final rejection, loses his sphere of influence, becomes powerless over those who look up in faith to the crucified Jesus and let themselves be drawn to him.”

It’s the ruler of this world and the rulers of this world that were finished that day. They walked into their own trap. When they nailed Jesus’ wrists and ankles to the cross they were driving the stakes into their own evil. The religious and political leaders came together to give Jesus their best shot and he took it, and they were the ones who ended up abandoned. They were unmasked that day when Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death, by facing death head on with the life of God.

Jesus could have only gone to Galilee if he believed that death was stronger than life, that we could not be delivered from the sin. He could have gone if he believed that the only thing you could do about death was run and hide and try to make the best of things until it found you. But he didn’t go to Galilee. He went to Jerusalem. Not to run from death, but to run over it. He knew that with his dying would be his rising, and that God’s promise was sure. He walked away from the temptation of Galilee believing the cross would give way to resurrection.

While Jesus was talking to people about all of this and why he had to go to Jerusalem, rather than Galilee, there was some kind of racket going on. Some said it was an angel speaking to Jesus, others said it was nothing more than thunder.

What are we hearing when we look at Jesus lifted up on the cross? Is it the voice that says it’s just one of those things that happens, like thunder? Did Jesus just get caught up in something and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time? It’s all so sad, the good dying young like that. But it happens all the time. Nothing new here, the voice says. There is no divine significance to it.

Or do we hear the voice of God in what was happening on that cross? Do we walk by shaking our heads at the tragedy of it all, or are we drawn to him?

You know, Galilee is always our temptation, too. We can avoid conflict with the religious authorities and the powers of this world by just going off and not getting in their way. As long as our message doesn’t interfere in what they are trying to do, and we keep it personal we can all find a way to work things out, thank you. We’ll just go off to Galilee.

If we are drawn to that cross of Jesus, however, if we hear God in the midst of all of this dealing a death blow to the ways of this world then Galilee is no longer an option for us. We can no longer justify or sanctify their violence and death, no matter how safe and secure they promise it will make us. The cross, the weapon they used has become a boomerang and is what will defeat them. We are no longer willing to believe their lies. We are no longer willing to believe that this is just the way things are. We can no longer believe that sin has more power in our lives than God does.

That’s why there is no Galilee option. It’s easier, but there’s no cross there. If it’s Jesus we are looking for, if we want to find grace and forgiveness, find the possibility of new life, of a new way of living with God and each other in this world, then Jerusalem is the place we have to go. “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.”

There’s a reading in the bulletin I would like us to use to finish the sermon.

What Little We Fathom

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

John 3:1-4, 16-21
March 22, 2009
Mary Hammond

Two life experiences among many particularly stand out in helping me fathom the depths of the love of God. The first occurred nearly two decades ago when I most feared I would sacrifice my firstborn child to the ravages of anorexia. The second happens every time I hold my grandchild as she naps all over the lap of her “Grammie” to the music of harp lullabies and familiar hymn tunes lovingly downloaded to a CD by her grandpa.

Why such different experiences glimpsing the love of God–one journeying through the seemingly endless dark night of the soul, the other feasting on the joyful tenderness of deep familial bonds?

Within these sharply contrasting moments, a child is cradled in the arms of God–one in the threat of life unraveling, the other in the promise of life unfolding. One is cradled in the aching silence of God when no answers come, and all is agony and surrender. The other is cradled in the gentle silence of God, when answers are not necessary, and all is peace and wonder. In both experiences, there is this pulling, this tugging, this reaching of the soul towards its Maker. In both, there is the presence of the Holy One—whether in the silence that batters the heart or the silence that soothes the soul. In both is found the love of which our closing hymn speaks—a love “that will not let us go.”

In the dead of night, Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader of the sect of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus. A legal scholar as far as the Jewish law is concerned, Nicodemus is obviously paying close attention to the Jesus movement. “No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in it,” he confesses (John 3:2).

As the two men get talking, Nicodemus is quickly confounded by the theological categories within which Jesus operates. He keeps trying to fit Jesus’ explanations into his old theological boxes, but they don’t belong there. It takes a plunge in a whole new direction for Nicodemus to get where he needs to go.

Jesus juxtaposes contrast after contrast: biological birth and the ‘new birth from above’, nature’s wind and the wind of the spirit, living in darkness or walking in the light, choosing denial or embracing truth. Over against a God of judgment and condemnation, Jesus invites Nicodemus to experience a God of love and welcome. Further, Jesus places himself in the center of this struggle between the titanic forces of evil and the overwhelming victory of a generous, compassionate God.

“For God so loved the world, that God gave the only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should have life and life eternal…for God sent not the Son to condemn the world, but that the world might have life through him.”

This famous verse, John 3:16, is plastered on T-shirts, memorized in Vacation Bible Schools, and taught to new converts. But, how often is it tethered to the late night seeking of religious leader, Nicodemus? Are his prejudices about others too hardened to encompass a God who welcomes “whosoever” believes? Is his view of the Divine too small to embrace a God that isn’t out to condemn the world but yearns to save it? Is his theology too rigid to welcome the wind of the Spirit, who births the seeker into new life, who blows in all directions, and whose movement will not be constrained by human imagination? We do not know the end of Nicodemus’ story.

I’d like to think I’m not as thick-headed as Nicodemus initially seemed to be in that late-night encounter with Jesus. I’m in Jesus’ corner. I am open to new life. I know I need it. I’m ready to expand my religious horizons beyond familiar territory. But, wait! Am I that ready, really? Are you that ready, really?

Two particular contrasts in Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus keep nibbling at the edges of my heart—condemnation vs. welcome, and darkness vs. light. I go through deep, difficult spells where condemnation is my bedfellow, so to speak, and I know some of the rest of us do as well. We might be facing old messages from childhood experiences or more recent disappointments in ourselves. We let someone down; we let ourselves down; we let God down.

In these moments, the proclamation of the Gospel continues to be welcome, not condemnation. “Come, come and find rest for your souls!” Jesus invites us. This doesn’t mean we are innocent (far from it!), or that we don’t need to make amends (we often must!). Scripture requires us to be honest and truthful and repair the damage we may have done as much as possible. Yet, sometimes what is in deepest need of repair is our own fragile and disconnected selves.

The second contrast is that of darkness vs. light. If we profess to be made new in Christ, we have to confront the places where darkness still has a hold of us. Recently I was having a difficult day when negativity seemed bent on enveloping me. As I prayed and wrote in my journal, the image of a yellow umbrella came to me. I pictured sheets of negativity raining from the sky. It felt like that. Yet, I held up that umbrella, and it caught every bit of that internal storm.

I drew a picture of a stick-figure girl (that’s me!) in my journal with her yellow umbrella and the negativity rainstorm. It may have been pouring, but that stick-figure girl was shielded from the storm raging all around her. I held that image all day in my heart. The day was saved. I was saved.

My beautiful grandbaby, Sofia, sleeps with a night light, so that when she wakes up and all is dark around her, there is a flicker of light which can comfort her. I think that God’s love is like that, too. In those moments when we feel most devoid of that connection, there can be–we can reach for–that flicker of light, and it is all we need to go on.

God’s gift in Christ is radical surgery for the sake of the human race and the whole creation itself. It’s something God does for us, not something we do for God. I’ve been thinking a lot about radical surgery lately, as we’ve been dealing with the health of our nearly 8-year old dog who had life-threatening surgery at 10 months of age. It was painful and difficult, but her future depended on its success.

So it is with God’s great, outreaching love in Christ. Our lives depend on embracing the light, being born again, listening for the wind of the Spirit. Our lives depend on saying “yes” to God and no to denial and illusion, no to vanity and self-loathing, no to emptiness and deceit, and a thousand other temptations.

Whether in the dark night of the soul, amid the tenderness of earthly affection, or in the ordinary challenges of daily life, we catch glimpses of the great gift given extravagantly and freely in Christ. Throughout Lent we often focus on the cross, and Christ’s suffering for us, but let us also focus on his life and his living for us. Let us focus on his teaching, and his lessons for us. Let us focus on his compassion, and his welcome for us. Let us remember him in all ways, and rejoice… Amen.

Green Beans–A Letter to Ellen Broadwell from Peggy Malone

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Dear Ellen,

Your dish of green beans was so perfect and so welcome to the IHN guests today. I heard one mother, as she dished them onto the plate of her man-sized 14 year-old son and encouraged him to eat. “Try these. You’ll like them. They’re not canned. They’re fresh—Look! They have tomatoes, too, and pieces of chopped garlic.”

I wondered what all the fuss was till I heard her story about what it’s like to go to the food bank to get the small blue plastic bag of food allotted to your family for the month. You’re grateful for that bag of food, grateful for the persons who donated it, and as the month wanes and there are 2 more weeks left in the month and only cans of green beans remaining, you find that although you’re grateful for the beans, you’re less fond of them— especially when they’ve become breakfast, lunch, and supper for you and your son.

Her appreciation for the beans you brought kept showing. She and he ate their meal, enjoying all of it, but there was just something special about the beans. A while later, after mother and son had finished eating, she was in the kitchen beginning dishes when another mother with 2 children arrived. (They were late because she’d been trying to get her car fixed. She needs the car to hold on to her job, and had just heard what the cost of repairing it will be. Will she ever be able to afford a house if things like this keep happening? The sadness and worry showed on her face even when she tried to stay strong for her boys.)

“Try the beans,” the first mother encouraged the second mother as she came to the serving table. “They’re fresh—not canned. They have tomatoes in them, and bits of garlic, too.”

I saw the look on the face of the second mother as she spooned the green beans on her plate. “Garlic! Bits of real garlic, not garlic powder,” she said softly, hardly believing all the goodness that your dish held. “When my family has a house again, I’m going to be able to cook for my family again. Beans! I’ll make fresh green beans like these!”

So, Ellen, I thank you for contributing to the IHN dinner’s bounty tonight. Your beans, Phyllis’s scalloped potatoes, Judy Riggle’s salad, Donna William’s roast beef, and Kelly Moe’s cupcakes — what gifts you shared!

Thank you.

Peggy

It’s not always a good thing when Jesus comes to church. But it can be.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

John 2:13-25
March 15, 2009
Steve Hammond

The disciples were with Jesus when he decided right before the Passover to go up to Jerusalem for services. They thought they were just going to church, or to the Temple that is. But it didn’t turn out to be that simple.

When they got to the Temple courtyard, things were just like usual. Big crowds. Money changers. Children running around. Merchants selling their wares. There were the animals that were being sold for the sacrifices. People talking and joking. Children laughing. Cows mooing. Lambs baaing. Doves and pigeons fluttering their wings in their cages. Merchants were shouting, trying to be heard above all the noise. And then, all of the sudden, Jesus goes off like a madman. He’s overturning tables, driving sheep and cattle and their owners out of the gates, and opening bird cages along the way.

People are running for cover. Money changers are scrambling for coins that have been spilled all over the place. Merchants are grabbing their merchandise. People are chasing their livestock. There’s a lot of shouting and cussing going on. Some of it by Jesus who can’t believe what they have made out of the Temple. Instead of a house of God, it has become a religious marketplace.

It all must have been quite a shock to the disciples and, at first, they probably tried to calm Jesus down. Then maybe restrain him. And then run for cover themselves because the Temple Guard and their Roman overseers would turn up pretty quickly. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but oftentimes things with Jesus weren’t what they were expecting. But this had the potential to be big trouble.

Some folk are very uncomfortable with this story. It really explodes the idea of Jesus meek and mild. He’s lost his temper. Instead of carrying a lamb over his shoulder, he’s tossing it out into the streets. He’s chasing people with whip in hand. He’s throwing stuff and yelling. He was mad. We know we’re not supposed to get mad, especially in public. But look at Jesus.

What was he mad about? I don’t think it was only about what the Temple had become, a religious marketplace. But also about the potential they had missed. The Temple was supposed to be the dwelling place of God. This was the place where the poor and dispossessed, the struggling, the people hoping for a word from God came to know God’s presence. They came to be included not excluded. But how could anybody find God in this place?

In all the other gospel stories Jesus clears out the Temple grounds at the end of his ministry. In John’s Gospel, though, this story takes place right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As the commentator Mark Bredin puts it, “The Jesus in John’s Gospel is zealous, and this is expressed in the centre of the abuse: Jerusalem and the Temple. He does not hide out in Galilee but gets right to the heart of the matter at the beginning of his ministry.”

As Jesus and the authorities engaged in what must have been a shouting match after Jesus cleared out the Temple grounds, Jesus says something very strange, something it took quite a while for the disciples to begin to understand. The authorities asked Jesus where on earth (or in heaven) he got his authority to judge what the Temple was about. Who was he to figuratively and literally turn over the tables of centuries of religious belief and practice? Jesus’ response was “Tear down this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.”

Well that didn’t make sense, at the time, to the priests, the disciples, nor anybody else. “What do you mean rebuild it in three days? It took 46 years to build this Temple.”

Jesus wasn’t talking about any Temple built by hands, however. And after the fact, after the fact of the resurrection, the disciples got what Jesus was talking about. Himself.

Jesus had the audacity to proclaim that God was at work in a new way in this world, and that work centered in Jesus. He told the religious leaders that day that his credentials would be the resurrection. But even before then, as our story today indicates, he was offering himself as an alternative to the Temple. “Many people saw the signs Jesus was displaying and, seeing they pointed right to him, entrusted their lives to him.”

Jesus was telling them that God was communicating with humanity in a different way. It was no longer about sacrificial systems that centered around priests in the temple who knew all the esoterica and exotica of religious rite and ritual. The dwelling place of God was somewhere else; in those who loved God, and were coming to life in God.

In those few minutes of chaos in the Temple grounds Jesus sent a shockwave through the religious system of his day. What about ours? How would Jesus respond to the religious systems we have set up in his name? Start throwing things? Over turning communion tables? Ripping banners from the wall? Maybe. Especially if we have let ourselves imagine that these structures, the figurative and real ones we call church, are little boxes where we get to define God, keep God to ourselves, and only let in the people we feel are deserving catch a glimpse.

It may be, though, that Jesus isn’t looking to come into our churches and set things right. Maybe he is trusting us to do that, trusting us to be willing to challenge the status quo, or, as Jim Taylor writes in the electronic magazine Rumors “to kick tables and butts, to free doves and prisoners, to dump ill-gotten gains and outdated dogmas. Even if it makes some people cower in the corners.”

It’s not surprising that we in the church could lose our way. We aren’t perfect. But Jesus has to hope that when we do lose our way, we will find our way back even if we have throw a Bible or two, or drive some customs and assumptions out the doors.

The worst thing we can do is end up making it harder for people to be in relationship with God than easier. And Jesus came to make it easier. It was simply all about him. All about resurrection. As John writes at the start of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

If our structures, our teaching, our rituals, or our doctrines serve to make us like the priests of old who claim to have God to ourselves, make religion our own commodity, we better be looking over our shoulders, because Jesus might just be coming at us, with whip in hand. He can only take it for so long, as the disciples learned that day.

But if we have faith in Jesus that is based on resurrection, based on our commitment to a God of life, that testifies to Word made flesh, then Jesus just might be happy to wander into church. That is, of course, if it is a place where he and everyone else in welcome, no matter their station in life. If people can walk into a church and discover a Jesus who is life and light, I imagine Jesus might just come on in and enjoy himself.

He would love to sing a hymn or two, ask for prayer, listen to the choir, watch the kids run up to Children’s Church. You might see him sign a petition or two, throw a couple of shekels in the offering plate, listen to the sermon, and hang out after wards for snacks and coffee (in the Snackuary as Jere Bruner often said) with good people who love God and each other, and are trying to figure out how to be the Body of Christ, the living presence of the living Jesus in this world. Resurrection. That’s what Jesus is looking for when he goes to church and what he didn’t see that day at the Temple when he not so gently asked some of those folk to leave and take their notion of religion for profit with them.

All he was looking for was signs of life. And that’s still what he is doing.

On Empire, The Cross, and Discipleship

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Mark 8:31-38, Matthew 5:3-12
March 8, 2009
Mary Hammond

I saw more crosses in two weeks in Italy than I’ve probably viewed in a lifetime. They are everywhere, in frescoes and on ceilings. They decorate burial vaults. They are grasped in the hands of popes, kings, saints, and patrons memorialized as statues found in museums, churches, and even on bridges. The cross is often the centerpiece of an altar, and many bear the form of a dead or dying Jesus upon them. After days filled with crosses, I began yearning for other symbols of the Christian faith, most particularly symbols of paradise–of the garden untouched and unsullied by the machinations of sinful humanity.

Two years ago at Peace Camp, I learned from feminist scholar Rita Nakashima Brock, author of Saving Paradise, that the cross did not become the pre-dominant symbol of Christianity until the Crusades, which began in the late 11th century. Before that time, the primary symbol of Christian faith was paradise–the lush garden, the fruit, the vine, the richness of Creation.

So, I began yearning to see paradise, to move beyond the focus on death and suffering surrounding me. While embracing the cross, I yearned to return also to a theology of life.

On our final night at the Global Baptist Peace Conference, we worshiped in the first Protestant Church founded in Rome, a Waldesian Church. In the free time during the afternoon, Steve and I decided to locate this place where we would be meeting that evening. The sunlight, so rare during this rainy season in Italy, was streaming through every stained glass window.

I was immediately drawn to a cross. It was nothing like the crosses I had seen for the previous two weeks. Grape vines twisted and turned around its base. Growing, growing, they scaled the vertical beam and then wrapped around the horizontal beams. Hanging down from these beams dangled luscious, full clusters of purple grapes. The verse describing the picture, written in Italian beneath the cross, came from the Gospel of John. Without any knowledge of the language, I knew what the allusion had to be…”I am the vine, you are the branches…go and bear fruit, the kind of fruit that endures…”

This simple stained glass window, with the sun streaming in on the cross, the vines, and the grapes, touched the deepest places of my heart. The cross of Jesus Christ is inextricably linked to paradise. It is not to be remembered solely in the context of shame, suffering, and death. Its victory lies in life, growth, fruit-bearing, and transformation. This is the fullness of the story. Yes, indeed, yes.

Our text today speaks of taking up our crosses and following Jesus. Jesus is very clear, scandalously clear, that he is journeying toward persecution and death. But he doesn’t stop there. “In three days I will arise…,” he tells his disciples. They completely miss that part, but they also miss the weight of the rest of his words. They are still looking for that conquering king, too much like the multitudes of kings whose statues still today dot the City of Rome.

Feminist theologian, Joanna Dewey, in her article for the Biblical Theology Bulletin (2004), unpacks this passage by peering into the social world of Jesus’ day as well as Mark’s thematic content. As a contemporary woman scholar, she is very aware of the ways passages like this have been used over the centuries to hold women down, keep them submissive, and reinforce the belief that suffering in and of itself is the pathway to human redemption.

Dewey refutes such theology. First, she reminds us that the first century world had no real concept of individualism as we experience it in 21st century America. Instead, the kinship group or family was the main unit of society. Jesus enjoins his disciples to leave their kinship group to find life in the community of his followers. That often engenders both friction and cost.

Secondly, Dewey reminds us that crosses were not uncommon to the first century Roman Empire. They were covered, not with statues or artwork, but with real people–dying in a torturous way or already dead. The role of the cross was to pacify the citizens of the Empire. ‘Watch out, or this could happen to you!’

Jesus uses the phrase to “take up one’s cross” as a reminder that, like himself, his followers have to resist the Empire and remain faithful to the Reign of God in the face of persecution, even execution, by the political authorities. This became a very pressing reality for the early church and for many in subsequent centuries.

Whenever I think about persecution, I feel like a flabby Christian. Do you know what I mean? At the Global Peace Conference, I was drawn to workshops related to religious persecution in India. In 2002, more than 3000 Muslims were killed. No one has yet been tried in these killings. In the area of Orissa, horrendous Hindu persecution of Christians has occurred in the past two years. There is a movement underfoot among militant groups to re-make India, a burgeoning democracy, into a Hindu nation. In 1967, legislation was passed in Orissa that Hindus cannot convert to Christianity unless they go to court and a judge changes their religion. Consider how that would be for you or me.

Bangladesh is a country that is 90% Muslim, where Islam is the official religion. The government has stopped allowing the printing of bibles inside the nation as well as the transport of bibles from the outside. An anti-conversion law there was prevented from being enacted after Christians loudly protested. Recently, though, the government has begun to tax Christian schools and hospitals even though the law says that non-profits cannot be taxed. Every day, around 500 minorities leave Bangladesh.

On June 19, 2000, Christians in an Indonesian village faced a tragic day of killing by their Muslim neighbors. As they buried their dead, they coined a phrase to deal with the trauma: “Do not waste our struggle.” Every June 19th since 2001, the remaining Christians in that village pray and fast, with everyone breaking the fast by eating in their own homes. At 7:30 p.m., they gather in the courtyard of the church. There, they tell their stories. They do this to remind themselves of the dangers of religious violence. “It will happen again and again if we do not sow peace,” they reason, as they reach out to their Muslim neighbors.

These are just stories about violence or oppression perpetrated in predominantly Hindu or Muslim nations. We dare not forget to mention the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of the Christian God.

I was so aware at the Global Conference how the American Empire seeps into every nook and cranny of the world. We so often miss that, here, but our global neighbors never can. Not counting secret bases, the Pentagon lists 865 military base sites outside the United States in more than 150 countries. The Roman Empire, at its height around 117 A.D., had 37 major bases stretching across the territory it ruled.

In the light of these stories and realities, what does it mean for us here in the West to ‘pick up our crosses’ and follow Jesus? Let’s open this up for some congregational sharing.

God offers us the call to live as counter-signs in this place many around the world experience as the American Empire. God invites us to bear fruit that endures as we walk the way of Jesus.

By your grace, O Lord, may it be so. Amen.

Can We Believe We Can Believe?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

This picture, like most pictures of Noah’s Ark is really cute. And we have our own pretty cool version of Noah and the ark right below us in the Nursery. Our ark may not be 300 cubits long, but it is pretty big and we’ve got that great mural on the nursery walls of the animals coming into the Ark. And on a day when we are dedicating Sofia, it seems so appropriate that the lectionary would include the story of Noah’s Ark. And it is, indeed, appropriate, but in a different way than you are probably thinking as you look at this picture.

The story of Noah and the Ark, if you think about it for just a little bit, is not a cute story. It’s quite ugly, in fact. Do you remember why God had Noah build the ark? (Genesis 6) “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry to have made the human race in the first place; it broke God’s heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them.” And then a few verses later (there are two Noah stories that are kind of woven together or maybe more like cut and paste). “God said to Noah, ‘It’s all over. It’s the end of the human race. The violence is everywhere; I’m making a clean sweep. Go build an Ark.’”

That is not the only ugliness to the story, of course. Noah and his family and all of those animals may have been safely in the Ark, but they were floating in the same waters as the bloated, rotting bodies of every other animal and human being, including men, women, and children who had died in the flood.

It’s so ugly, in fact, that when Noah and his family and the animals come out of the Ark, God says to them, “I’m never going to do anything like that again.” And that’s the part of the story we read this morning. God makes a covenant, not only with Noah but all of creation, and seals it with a rainbow. (Genesis 9)‘“From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will flood waters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.’” And God said, “’This is the sign of the covenant that I’ve set up between me and everything living on the Earth.’”

As much as we love the part about all the happy animals piling into the Ark, the point of the Noah story is about covenant, about the promises God has made to us, and how that covenant shapes our lives. And that’s why it is appropriate to look at this story when a child is being dedicated to God, like we have done today.

In fact, and I hope we made it clear earlier this morning, this dedication service is way more about Juan Carlos and Rachel and all the rest of us than it is about Sofia. What we have done here this morning is make a covenant with Sofia. Her parents, and all the rest of us are making a deal with Sofia that she will know the ways of Jesus in us. That is our covenant with her.

That’s not a covenant we just make with our kids, though, it’s the covenant we are always making with God and each other. What we have done this morning is kind of like our own rainbow, our reminder that to be a community of faith with each other means we are here to help each other grow in the ways of Jesus Christ.

As just about everyone here knows, Mary and I got back nearly two weeks ago from the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Rome. There were people from 59 countries there, including some very hard countries to live in these days like Zimbabwe, Angola, Columbia, Palestine, and El Salvador.

It was the Thursday morning preacher who was never introduced, so I don’t exactly know who he was, that asked a couple of questions that continue to stay with me. He asked whose vision for this world are we going to believe, God’s vision or the vision that is transmitted on TV in the newscasts and entertainment that focuses on violence, corruption, war, and the sexualization of individuals.

He asked if we are going to let the media dominate the vision of this world, or we are going to make God’s vision known, a vision of hope and reconciliation, of peace and justice, and the dignity of all of creation.

He built the whole service around the idea of water and how important water is in this world, and all the injustices that center around water. And he talked about Jesus being the water of life.

He also talked about the importance of our words, challenging those who dismiss God’s vision for this world as nice, but empty words. But he said words matter. For God spoke this world into existence. And the gospel writer reminds us that “in the beginning was the word.” You see, that is what our covenant with Sofia and each other is about. We are promising her and each other that we can believe, that we can believe in God’s vision for this world, even though she and all the rest of us will inundated daily with a far different vision. We follow the word made flesh, who showed God to us. And our words make a difference for Sofia and each other.

Then he asked the most intriguing question I heard all week. Do we believe we can believe? Can we take the gospel of Jesus Christ and really believe in it, really believe it is what will save our lives and this world?

Or to put it another way, as Ken Sehested did in our Friday night worship service in the Waldesian church in Rome–are we, as a part of the covenant we are making with Sofia, and the covenant we have with each other, willing to risk faith? Are we able to take a stand for the gospel of peace that we have learned from Jesus.

In that sermon Ken tapped what I think many Christians around the world are asking about the faith of Christians in North America. What are we willing to risk for the sake of God’s vision for this world? As Ken put it, how uncomfortable are we willing to get to follow Jesus? He used the illustration of a climber who has all her gear on and is getting ready to descend the slope. The point comes when we have to put our foot over the edge and believe that the rope is going to hold.

As I listened to Ken’s sermon and thought about what we talked about in Thursday morning’s service, I thought about designer spirituality, or designer Christianity that is so popular in North America. That’s the approach that says, “I’m looking for a faith that I am comfortable with.” But Jesus never suggested following him what about being comfortable. Just the opposite, in fact.

He expected that our faith in him would make things very uncomfortable for us. It got him and most of the apostles killed.

When Mary and I were in Rome we went to the Colosseum, one of the more recognizable ruins there.  In fact, it’s one of the ugliest things I have ever seen. Lots of Christians died here because they believed in God’s vision for this world, a vision that was so contrary to the Empire’s vision for this world.

They were the entertainment for the 80,000 people of all classes of society who would cheer from the stands when they were fed to the lions who were starved so they would really tear into the Christians. They did not hold out for a comfortable faith, something that wouldn’t put them at odds with their friends or family or peers or society. They believed they could believe.

When we were in Assisi where St. Francis grew up. There is a stained glass window in his father’s home that depicts Francis giving up his wealth as the son of a cloth merchant, because he believed that God’s vision for this world was not the vision his father, or the church of the 13th century had. It was not a comfortable faith. But it was life giving and changed the world. He believed he could believe.

We make a covenant with Sofia and each other because we believe we can believe. We believe we can be followers of Jesus Christ, and the Body of Christ with each other in this world, just like those folks held in the cells beneath the floor of the Colosseum were the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in the world. We make a covenant like Francis did to be the living presence of the living Jesus in this world, even if The Empire, our family, our church, or our culture doesn’t get it.

I don’t think it was a comfortable thing to spend all that time in an ark, with all the stench on the inside and the outside. The cuteness must end pretty quickly after the last hippo has lumbered aboard. But it’s not comfort we are looking for. We are looking for God’s vision for this world where we risk making peace in the name of Jesus, practicing forgiveness because we have been forgiven, turning from violence, trusting in God rather  than ourselves or our financial portfolios, crossing borders and boundaries, living more simply and justly.

But here’s what God’s post ark covenant reminds us of. We are all in the same boat together. We can believe. We can make covenants with each, make promises because of God’s promises to us. And it’s God’s vision for this world we are promising to make known to Sofia, to each other, and to all the world.