Archive for July, 2009

Ask or Imagine

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Ask or Imagine

II Kings 4:42-44 Peace Community Church
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21 Glenn Loafmann
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12) 26 July 2009
Commissioning of Emily Boston
Be not afraid:
You know the story of Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand? (“The Multiplication,” it’s called in Catholic theology. Since it’s about feeding people, maybe you could call it “The Multiplication Table.”)

The lesson from the Old Testament is like that story, except it’s Elisha Feeding the One Hundred. Not so much a major league miracle, a kind of “Triple-A” miracle. I chose that passage to read instead of the Gospel lesson because it’s simpler than the Multiplication – it gets right to the point – “just do it.”

But, you gotta remember in this biblical stuff, there’s almost always more going on that we notice at first. It’s sort of like… life in that way: where there’s always more going on than we notice at first. So let’s start with the story of the miracle – and then look at Ephesians, because it helps us see what’s going on.

The hundred people fed by Elisha’s miracle were all “prophets.” Prophets at that time were a little different than the image that comes to mind when we hear the word. I know I tend to think of a guy with a beard, wearing a robe, standing on a street corner with a sign that says, “the end is near.” That would be a “prophet of doom” – or Paul Krugman – and the image is based on some Old Testament prophets – guys like Amos and Jeremiah and Hosea, who stood on the corner and denounced the nation and the king and rich merchants for putting too much trust in weapons and for cheating customers and failing to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and care for the helpless. There’s still a certain appeal in that message, a certain currency.

Those later prophets basically said, “God will get you for that – the end is near.” There’s a certain appeal in that, too. They were like “Rolling Stone” or Jim Wall. But in Elisha’s day, two or three hundred years before Amos, prophets went around in bunches, groups – “companies,” the New Revised Standard translation puts it, or “communities,” perhaps, like Emily’s l’ Arche community. It was sort of the “International Brotherhood of Prophets, Proclaimers, Dervishes, Miracle-Workers, and Kvetches, Local #201,” with Elisha as maybe the steward or something – the Dave Beck of the Prophets Union. There were different groups of prophets – different “schools of thought” – they travelled together, they had a common way of looking at things, like “socialists” or “Chicago School” economists. It was like a denomination, almost, or a “think-tank:” the Rand Corporation of Prophetic Analysis. Anyway, there were different groups of prophets, and there are accounts of differences between them – even rumbles.

Elisha had been away on prophetic business – presumably not to Argentina – and he came back to Gilgal and found Local #201 was starving: “there was a famine in the land.” (II Kings 4:38)

Gilgal was a big religious site in Israel, with an altar, and possibly a temple commemorating the twelve tribes who had crossed the Jordan River there when they came into the Promised Land for the first time. It made a lot of sense for a “company of prophets” to have headquarters at an important religious site, like lobbyists and unions and think-tanks have offices in Washington.

But there was a recession: a famine in the land. So Elisha got back from his fact-finding mission and sent people out to find food. What they found wasn’t very good, but they cooked it, and made some bad vegetable stew and a good story which we’ll skip. (One of the key lines in that story is “O man of God, there is death in the pot” [v. 40], and there was general unhappiness in the camp.)

At that point, Elisha’s servant showed up from Baal-shalishah, which is not a person or an idol, but a place which sounds a bit like “Salisaw,” (Oklahoma), but isn’t. This servant brought “food from the first fruits” (v. 42) – perhaps a “first fruits” offering: gifts placed on the altar at Baal-shalishah as part of worship and then given to the priests, or in this case, to the Order of Prophets, for their use.

(I’m speculating that the followers of various prophetic “schools” – or orders – may have devoted offerings to support “their” group of prophets. Like union dues, or donations to church or whatever.) Anyway, the servant showed up with food, something that sounds very much like a tithe.

If you made a movie of this, the script is direct: short, simple, clean.

Servant: “Here’s some food.”
Elisha: “Then feed the people.”
Servant: “There’s not enough.”
Elisha: “Yes, there is. God said so.”
Servant: “OK”
Narrator: “And there was some left over.”

A Reader’s Digest condensed miracle.

Except. There’s almost always more going on than we notice at first.

It’s like Emily going off to Tacoma. That’s very direct:

Voice (or Thought): “Here’s something needs to be done.”
Emily: “Yeah?!”
Voice (or Thought): “Go do it.”
Emily: “OK.”
Peace Church: “Can we help? Do something? Cheer you on? Pray?”

I’m speculating, because I haven’t talked to Emily about this, but it’s probably close. Simple. Direct. Except. Here’s what’s going on…

“Now to [God] . . . be glory.” (Eph. 3:20-21, nrsv)

We may get distracted by the poetry of this passage – the power of the words – and not quite pare it down to see where the light focuses. When we do, though, we get the shivers:

I bow my knees before the Father {of our Lord Jesus Christ}, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. (Eph. 3:14-18, nrsv)

Planted, maybe? “Rooted and grounded.”

It’s a prayer of intercession and blessing – or sounds so – crafted and woven from a complex of images and ideas and feelings which are familiar, but which resonate with one another, harmonize in new and exalting ways. Consider: “father,” “family,” “Spirit;” “power,” “faith,” “love;” “inner being,” “the riches of his glory” – all packed together in a few lines.

“I pray . . . that you may be strengthened. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth – and to know – the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:18-19, nrsv, adapted)

The language reaches its limits here, trying to express what is inexpressible, overwhelming: “Filled with the fullness of God.” Think about that!

“The breadth and length and height and depth . . . of the love of Christ.” “To know . . . [what] surpasses knowledge.” “My cup overflows,” the psalmist said. (Ps. 23:5) That’s what Ephesians is talking about – life.

Describing the life overflowing in the presence of God, the love of Christ. Language fails. And then we are at the center, at the focus of the light.

Now to [the One] who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish [extra abundantly] far more than all we can ask or imagine, to [God] be glory (Eph. 3:20-21, nrsv, adapted).

You see? That’s it. This is not about “success” or “sufficiency.” This is all about, all an expression of, a realization of, the glory of God.

To [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, [to ages of ages]. Amen.

And where is the “glory of God?” How is it known? How is it seen?

“… by the power at work within us.”

And how measured?

“… able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

And where?

“… in the church, and in Christ Jesus.”

This church, our church, you.

“to the ages.”

It’s an internship, a year maybe. There are some needs to be met, some things to be done. And limits on that! A community of disabled adults, and five, six volunteers to live on not enough money.

And one youngish person to do those things, with the blessing and good wishes and prayers of one smallish church without a lot of bread, half a country away: “twenty barley loaves and a few sacks of grain.”

But at the heart of it, revealed and offered “by the power at work within you” – the glory of God, beyond abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine.

Amen.

Whose Sheep are You?

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Whose Sheep are You?

Jeremiah 23:1-6 Peace Community Church
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Glenn Loafmann
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost 19 July 2009

Be not afraid:

The epistle to the Ephesians, no less than the 23rd Psalm, is an image of the Kingdom of God. It has been described as “both a liturgy and a letter.” That would mean the lesson is something we’re both saying and hearing – both reading to someone and hearing directed to ourselves.

So we are to remember that “at one time you Gentiles by birth . . . were . . . without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph 2:11-12, nrsv)

On the one hand, that’s us speaking. We are the “insiders” (like Paul in this letter), speaking to the “outsiders” (the “strangers and aliens”), about what Christ has done to overthrow the walls of division between us.

The situation of the church at Ephesus was that they had been outcasts, Gentiles, outside the beloved community – hopelessly alienated, strangers. (Remember this is a liturgy, so when Paul says it to the Ephesians, we read it to those who are distant from us, but we also say it to ourselves, hear it about ourselves.)

Fortunately, the letter goes on.

“But now . . . you who were far off have been brought near. . . . [Christ] has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law . . . that he might create . . . one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . .” (vss. 13-15)

Well, that’s familiar vocabulary: reconciliation, unity, peace – we’re comfortable with that. But the letter goes on.

“So [Christ] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for . . . both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. “So then you are. . . also members of the household of God . . . In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together . . .” (vss 17-21)

The harmony of God’s kingdom – the harmony of the reconciled human condition – is that we and they – are reconciled to God and to our adversaries (that’s the hard part!) by the abolition of “the law with all its commandments and ordinances” (v. 15), and we are redeemed – (“we” and “they” alike!) – by the grace of God. Not by some “new, improved” law of righteousness more suited to our taste. Outcasts and casters-out, oppressed and oppressors alike are reconciled under the same roof.

Notice, by the way, it says nothing about other people changing, or repenting. It doesn’t say the world will be better when they let the outcasts in; it says the world is better, because Christ has let us outcasts in – “we” and “they” alike.

In our zeal to save the world from the sins and sinners who capture our imagination, we sometimes forget we’re in this together, and “they” can’t be reconciled to justice, harmony, peace, righteousness, and recycling unless “we” are reconciled to “them.” We can’t make the world a better place by badmouthing our companions, even the people who make it a bad place. “Righteousness” and “peace” are not competitive sports. “Liberal” or “conservative” or “progressive” or “traditional” or whatever we fancy to call ourselves, we don’t have to score more “righteous-points” than somebody else.

Part B:

Anybody remember where you were 40 years ago today?

Anybody remember where you were 40 years ago tomorrow?

How ‘bout if I remind you 40 years ago tomorrow was the day of the Lunar Landing? Where were you?

{time to share}

See? It was a memorable event. There’s a power in that, and a reconciling grace.

There are all kinds of judgments and analyses about it – about the Apollo Program and the space program and technology and all. Reality is complex, no single judgment or characterization of the moon landing or the nation is thoroughly adequate. It has been extolled and scorned as the fulfillment of a human dream, as a triumph of technology, as an exercise in national pride and arrogance, as a colossal and cold-hearted waste of money and resources stolen away from social efforts that might have improved the quality of life in this country and the world.

“All of the above.” Reality is complex. In spite of our ideologies and values, reality eludes simplistic judgments. Not everybody looks at the moon landing in a positive light, but it was a memorable event, and a lot of people are able to look at it again. [That’s a fact of grace.]

Last Tuesday’s Science Section of the New York Times was devoted entirely to the lunar mission, and the review reminds us we were in an arms race, an ego race with the Soviet Union, and that powered our efforts, along with politics and commercial interests – the usual suspects. It was not just slipping the “surly bonds of earth.”

Fortunately, the story goes on.

Apollo was not just a distraction either, not just a way to avoid racism or sexism or poverty or disease or human need, any more than the Cathedral of Notre Dame is just a pile of stones. It was more than any one person could see through his or her viewing window – and far broader than the scope of any one set of personal priorities. It may not have been valuable to me, it may not have dealt with the issues I find important, but that doesn’t mean it was evil.

There is no reason, after all, for Apollo or anything else, to be limited by my values or my priorities. No obligation that the country or the world should do only what I approve, only what I consider important. I can wish that all that money had gone for eliminating poverty, say, or creating better housing or providing better healthcare, but it would be overwhelmingly selfish and arrogant for me to be angry that the world didn’t obey me, didn’t carry out my personal agenda.

There were a lot of stories in the Times last Tuesday by famous people about where they were on July 20, 1969: Freeman Dyson, Janis Ian, Tom Seaver, Ann Druyan, and a lot of others.

Tracy Kidder, whom you may know as the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, had come home from Viet Nam “disaffected,” as he said. “I hated the Army and its vulgarity, . . . When I heard we had gone and landed on the Moon, I thought this was yet another depredation. This seemed like part of the technology of war, which it wasn’t.” (Second looks can give rise to second thoughts!)

He wrote that he remembered “being in the back of a very nice young woman’s VW bug and hearing on the car radio that we had landed on the Moon. ‘Why don’t those ******* leave the Moon alone!’” he exclaimed.

“She said: ‘I think it’s great. What’s the matter with you?’

“I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.”

(That’s a distinctively Christian, distinctively faithful enterprise – to try to answer the question, “What’s the matter with me?” Not “what’s the matter with the world?” or “what’s the matter with ‘them’? but “what’s the matter with me?”)

Sometimes we get all righteous and indignant about this or that – wasteful spending, callous indifference to human need, etc. It’s fashionable to complain that all that money lavished on the Moon Landing could have been given to the poor. (Jesus’ financial manager raised the same issue.)

Sometimes we criticize when we might celebrate. Sometimes we sound a little like that old description of Fundamentalism. H. L. Mencken or somebody once said a Fundamentalist was a person who had the nagging fear that somebody, somewhere, was having a good time. [But] It is not only Fundamentalists who get so all-fired “righteous” that we’re afraid of joy, and resent the breadth of God’s grace.

So, was Apollo an expression of American triumphalism and so forth?

Gloria Steinem recalled proudly she had been one of two “dissenting” voices interviewed on CBS that evening, but she also recognized that the deep legacy of Apollo 11 “was seeing and sharing this … Spaceship Earth.”

Years afterward, Barry Goldwater and Rev. Jesse Jackson jointly made a public service ad extolling the benefits of aerospace technology for all humanity, and urging public support for the space program.

Michael Collins, one of the people on the scene, recalled that on the subsequent World Tour, “people [we] met felt they had participated in the landing, too.”

People, instead of saying, “Well, you Americans did it,” everywhere they said: “We did it! We, humankind, we, the human race, we, people did it!”

“The inclusiveness of the experience was remarkable,” the Times article goes on, “given the space race’s origins in an atmosphere of fear and belligerence.”

Somewhere along the way, it changed the atmosphere – gave people a glimpse of being one.

So I caution us, who like to consider ourselves progressive and inclusive, to remember we are insiders (having been made so by God’s grace) who sometimes grow fond of thinking we are outsiders, “with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto,” among which privileges is the right to badmouth people we don’t want to be reconciled with. We become like the brother of the prodigal, and refuse to join the party when celebration is in order.

[But the epistle lesson asserts that] Grace has cast down the walls that divide us – the verbs are past tense – we must open our arms and be one with those to whom we have been reconciled.

Charley Brown, the juvenile Woody Allen in the “Peanuts” comic strip, the “everyman” we all are in some way: he can’t win a ball game, he can’t fly a kite, he can’t strike up a lunch-hour conversation with the little red-haired girl of his dreams. Nobody respects him; he struggles to keep hope alive. He struggles with the barriers in his heart.

“There’s the Little Red Haired Girl over there,” he says, in one strip, “I think I’ll just get up and go over and sit down beside her.”

“Yes, that’s what I think I’m going to do,” “I think I’m just going to pick up my sandwich, and just walk across the lunch room, and just sit down beside the Little Red Haired Girl, and we’ll just have lunch.”

And in the last panel of the strip, he sits alone, head bowed, staring at the insurmountable barrier of his own shyness: “I think I’ll just flap my arms and fly to the moon.”

Forty years ago tomorrow, we flapped our arms and flew to the moon. The good news proclaimed from there was consistent with the lesson in this epistle, and, like that lesson, was declared in the past perfect, the “accomplished” tense:

“Hello, Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Where were you?

And will you join the celebration?

Amen.

So what do you think, Mr. John the Baptist? Is dancing a sin after all?

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

So what do you think, Mr. John the Baptist? Is dancing a sin after all?
Mark 6:14-29
July 5, 2009
Steve Hammond

There are a lot of soap opera stories in the Bible, and today’s is surely one of them. You know that old warning about not losing your head over something. Well I think that came from this story. But even though it is John the Baptist who loses his head literally, King Herod, it turns out, lost his head in the more figurative sense of the word.

This story starts out with more than a little confusion and it needs a flashback to help clear things up, which is again common in soap operas. People are trying to figure out who Jesus is. His fame is spreading. He’s healing people and casting out demons just like John the Baptist did. And he is saying the same thing. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

But he couldn’t be John the Baptist come back to life could he? Or maybe one of the prophets of old? Herod had no doubts. This was John all right. Herod had had him killed and John was back to haunt him.

Over the centuries this story has become a polemic against adultery or even dancing. Given the news that has captivated the media about the Governor of South Carolina maybe it’s appropriate. We’ve learned much more than we need to about how adultery can impact a family and even presidential aspirations. Herod was not the first and far from the last political leader to get caught with his pants down, so to speak.

Governor Sanford simply joins an ever growing list of politicians like Senators Engle and Vittner, and John Edwards, another former Senator and presidential aspirant who hope, as public figures, they can get away with adultery even while some of them berate others for their lack of family values.

Adultery doesn’t have to lead to someone getting beheaded, but there is a morality lesson going on in this story that continues to play itself out in many, many shattered lives that never end up on TV.

Now as far as the dancing part goes; if you have watched any music videos lately or read about the dances in Middle and High Schools that would make the cast of Dirty Dancing blush, maybe those old foggies who condemned dancing on religious grounds may well have been on to something.

We are not, though, going to spend the rest of our time this morning on adultery and dancing, as interesting as that might be. Rather we are going to think about something much more interesting, about prophets and power and what this story has to do with Jesus, and maybe even us. It might even has something to say about our Peace Garden and the good old USA.

So we have a flashback in this story. Herod has taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodius, for his own. That doesn’t sit well with John the Baptist, that crazy guy running around the wilderness calling for repentance.

Oftentimes repentance can be a code word in the Bible for a critique of power. And those in power don’t like it. John and Jesus weren’t the only prophets to die at the hands of rulers. The prophets in the Old Testament, and prophets since have often found themselves at odds with rulers and religious authorities. But they all had the same message John and Jesus did. “What you are doing is wrong. You know it’s wrong. Everybody knows it wrong. And most importantly, God knows it wrong. Stop hurting and oppressing people. “

John’s problems with Herod were not limited to Herod’s marital status, however. John believed that the rulers of Israel ought to actually rule the way God intends. And if they weren’t, they needed to realign themselves with the ways of God, to get right with God.

That’s easier said than done. The prophets tell us that the reason people in power don’t respond to that call is not because they are stupid, but because they are corrupt. The prophets call it sin. And like all prophets, John and Jesus put their lives on the line to deliver that message. And speaking such truth to power got them both killed.

This story about John and Herod, though, raises difficult questions for any community of faith. Did John have to do this, confront Herod so publically? Couldn’t he have kept his objections to himself or, at least, just around the fire at night when he was sitting with his disciples? Did he think his criticism would actually change things? Should he have kept silent, or was that the cowardly thing to do? Isn’t there something to self-preservation?

And notice that it is John who is in jail. Maybe this is one of the reasons John sent his emissaries to Jesus that time to ask if Jesus really was who John thought he was. It wasn’t Jesus sitting in prison waiting for the ax to fall because he had been willing to take on Herod..

And what about Herod? He is the king, but the least free and the least powerful in this story. Everything he does is in response to what other people are doing. He doesn’t want John dead, he’s fascinated by him. But Herodius wants him dead and Herod can’t go back on his word in front of all those people. What does it mean to be fueled by lust and liquor and power?

This story is also obviously a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus. Remember how Pilate ends up losing control of that situation himself? He didn’t want Jesus dead. But, at least, he had his wife on his side. She warned Pilate. “Don’t lay a finger on him.” But the crowd was more powerful than the man in power.

So maybe there is more than just another soap opera and Salome doing her dance of the veils. There are surely some hard questions, which the Bible seems to be so good at offering, but not quite so promiscuous with the answers.

But this story does help us see Jesus’ take on power. John the Baptist, the guy who got his head cut off brought a power that Herod could never imagine. The same for Pilate and Jesus. Herod and Pilate are now simply supporting characters in the much more significant stories of John the Baptist and Jesus. And Herod and Pilate had the Emperor and the Roman Legions on their side. Who did John and Jesus have? Just a hand full of rag tag followers and God.

So what does it mean for us to be followers of Jesus, to speak his truth to power? Well, here’s a thought. This country has been celebrating it’s birth, the 4th of July this weekend. But like all births, it was born in blood; the blood brought about by British troops, the blood of natives driven from their land, the blood of slaves kidnaped from their homes and dragged to the land of the free.

That violence still shapes us, it’s in our national DNA. Herod and Pilate would recognize it right away. But I think this country wants something else and we need to help it find it. We’re followers of Jesus, after all. We stand in the line of the prophets. But when and how do we speak? And when is silence prudence and when is it cowardly? How do we show them the power of Jesus?

We are going to dedicate our Peace Garden in a few moments because we believe that peace is among the words Jesus wants us to speak to power, even if they don’t like it. What if we make it a birthday present to our nation? And with that gift we are promising our fellow citizens that in the name of Jesus we are going to try to live at peace with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with all we share this planet with.

Maybe our country doesn’t want such a present. It does take a bit of audacity to present such a gift. But what kind of audacity does it take for someone to stand up and call the king and adulterer? It may not get our heads chopped off, but peace is still not an easy message for some to hear.

Whether standing at the gates of the palace or in the garden, though, it’s the same message of Jesus and John. God wants something better for us and we all know it. Something better for our own lives, something better for our country and world. Maybe repentance might happen and we can get right with God, starting with ourselves. You never know what might grow in that garden we have planted for Herod’s sake, for all of us.