Archive for September, 2009

The Lord’s Prayer–Session 1

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

The Lord’s Prayer–Session 1
Steve Hammond

For our study we are using the resource call “Living Our Lord’s Prayer: A Devotional Guide” by Bill Moore. I got it from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. The resource is very good and is available for $2 at bpfna.org.

These are sketchy notes from the study. Your comments and insights are invited and encouraged.

We began the session by reading from Matthew 6 and Luke 11 where versions or the Lord’s Prayer are found. I think it is important to get a little more context than the prayer itself.

I asked about how the Lord’s Prayer functions in people’s lives and here are some of the responses…

“Keeps me from getting off on a tangent.”

“I like to add my own elements to the prayer” (I think that might include things like who exactly needs daily bread, ways God’s Realm needs to be revealed, who we need to forgive, etc.)

“Prayer of security, especially when I am on an airplane.”

“It’s an inclusive prayer.”

“The Lord’s Prayer used to make me feel included. Now the language puts me off.” (Later in the session we had more discussion about the ‘Father’ language. And there will still be more discussion about that in the next session).

“It’s very direct. This is what Jesus taught us to pray.”

“We have to act first. Forgive us our sins, because we forgive others.”

“Trespasses and debts don’t matter. Thy and your does matter.” (That led to what I thought was a fascinating comment. Ellen Broadwell said that using ‘thy kingdom come’ rather than ‘your kingdom come’ is preferable for her because ‘thy’ reflects usage in German which is more informal. And that holds up the idea that the prayer is a much more intimate approach to God than people were used to in Jesus’s time. But, for people who only deal with English, ‘your’ is the less formal way of addressing God).

The next topic we talked about is who is the ‘Our’ when we begin the prayer.

“Everyone. Maybe even all sentient beings.”

“Anyone who acknowledges God.”

“Our church.”

“You can focus on different aspects of who ‘our’ means, according to what the particular need is.”

“The ‘our’ can be a variety of circles of communities.” (I think that meant the ‘our’ can include the people you are praying with at that moment, the various communities all of us a connected to, other churches and communities of faith (including churches that are a lot different than ours, the whole world).

Some of the questions in the study guide dealt with how community functions in local congregations. We talked about how important it is to learn each others stories. We mentioned in larger congregations how the emphasis is on getting people in small groups so they can get that sense of community. We also talked about how in a small church, it can be hard for new people to feel included because we are already so involved in each other’s lives. Any community large or small, we said, can hurt people’s feelings, ignore each other, etc.

We moved on to the second word of the prayer ‘Father.’ Some people are deeply resistant to the use of masculine language for God, others don’t understand what the fuss is about (I’m talking more about the larger church in general, though some of that was evident in our conversation on Sunday).

Some expressed that since they had good relationships with their fathers, calling God ‘Father’ is not the issue for them that others might have with that language. It seems to me that the issue is much deeper than our own personal experiences with our own fathers and/or mothers and even more complex than those relationships with our own parents can be. I think that gets us back to the ‘our’ discussion, and that struggle of acknowledging the great comfort that the word father offers to some, and the inadequacy, unhelpfulness, and even pain it has for others.

I think it was Kristen who pointed out that even though we want to honor why people like using the word ‘Father’ in this prayer, there is also the matter of what we want to teach our children. We surely want to expand their understanding and concepts and language about God. She also mentioned that it was pointed out in the study guide that Jesus used the word ‘Father’ here not to make any points about gender related issues, but to express the intimacy Jesus uses to approach God in prayer. You could use the word Daddy here, rather than Father.

That got us thinking about other images of God and how we can lift those up. The Parkers mentioned the hymn we sang last week in church “Bring Many Names” which talks about ‘Strong Mother God, and ‘Warm Father God.’ I talked about how struck I am by discussion of images of God where God comes off as the ideal grandmother. People talked about how ‘Creator God’ is much more meaningful to them than God as Father or Mother. Others talked about how you wish you could use the word ‘Parent’ but it lacks intimacy.

Diana Steele, who had initially mentioned that she used to find the Lord’s Prayer something that made her feel included, but now that language puts her off, talked about an insight she got on all of this in Guatemala. In native languages there, words are much more gender neutral, but when they get translated into Spanish or English they begin to carry the weight of our gender biases. I didn’t write down all she was talking about with that so I hope she can chime in here or others can help with that.

Diana also talked about how at her church in Chicago, the pastor always started the prayer with ‘Mother/Father God in heaven.’ Without using ‘Our?’

There are other language issues here, including the fact that we call it the Lord’s Prayer, and you don’t want to get me started on my thoughts about the use of the word Lord in 21st century USA. Then there are is the word ‘kingdom’ which we will confront in sessions ahead. There are other language issues too, that will most likely come up.

We were getting on to an hour and 15 minutes so we had to call time and will pick up with language issues in our next session which will be after church on October 11. (Communion Lunch is next week). People can read the next section, but we still didn’t cover the ‘in heaven’ part from this one.

So, it appears this study will take a lot longer than I imagined it would. But, if our first week is any indication for the future, it will be well worth the time we take. Feel free to dip in and out of the study on Sunday mornings, and do add your comments to the blog, even if you can’t come to a session (or any sessions) and don’t have the study guide. There is a lot we can learn from each other, if you are willing to offer your input. If you would like the study guide I can get it to you. It’s a pretty good resource.

We closed by praying the Lord’s Prayer together, however people wanted to pray it. And it was prayed in a lot of different ways, which reinforced for me, that very first word, ‘Our.’

The Help We Seek and the God We Find

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

THE HELP WE SEEK AND THE GOD WE FIND
Psalm 124
September 27, 2009
Mary Hammond

I am a slow learner when it comes to the spiritual life at times. It is one thing to wrap my mind around God’s love for all Creation, for everyone on earth–that seems like a theological statement, a belief. But then to wrap my mind around God’s love for Mary Hammond, God’s care for this particular person with her great mixture of weaknesses and strengths, sins and graces–it often feels like a whole different leap of faith. Do any of you ever feel that way?

“You are too hard on yourself!” Steve often says to me as I relate some situation to him where I felt my response was less than stellar, or a missed opportunity that I noticed after-the-fact. I am a slow learner when it comes to comprehending, even in part, the great love God has for one known as me.

And then God comes along with statements like “a little child shall lead them…” or “You must become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven…” God comes along with babies like Sofia Carolina Ramirez Hammond or Rosabella Margaret Street, Mariana or Eliza Jane, or any of our children, and we are thrown into a whole new training school on the love of God. Sometimes I feel that one of the reasons Sofia is in Columbus and I am only two hours away is so I can learn some of the lessons about God’s love wherein I am such a slow learner.

That lesson of God’s love is wrapped up in a baby blanket, rocking back and forth, falling asleep to harp lullabies, napping on my body– taking what I call a “Grammie nap.” Ever since Sofia was a premature baby, body heat was extra important. She loved to fall asleep, cuddled up in a little bundle on any willing adult. At first, Sofia weighed under 5 pounds, and I could easily balance her on my shoulder with one hand. Now, a lanky toddler, she weighs over 26 pounds and sprawls in every imaginable position, all over my body. How she can sleep so soundly in such a variety of positions is beyond my comprehension! Sometimes my arm or hand will fall asleep or my back will get a bit uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t miss a minute of this sheer joy.

“Grammie naps” are both gift and metaphor for me. The metaphor doesn’t ‘tap me on the shoulder;’ it wallops me in the face in the form of a sleeping child. God holds each one of us as firmly as I hold that little girl. If I squiggle, squirm, and re-position myself, God is still holding me. Underneath my life is that profound Divine embrace. And the love! Oh, the love! My love is for Sofia is just a drop in the ocean of God’s love for me. Can I learn this in a new way through a little child?

Such reflections connect me with today’s primary text, Psalm 124. Although Israel faces a radically different scenario than a tender “Grammie nap” on God’s lap, the psalmist proclaims the same deep affirmation of Divine Presence and Holy Solidarity that I sense when I hold this sleeping baby in my arms.

A “psalm of ascent” or “pilgrim song,” Psalm 124 addresses the fears and faith of the Israelites as they make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, their spiritual home. In ancient times, such journeys are filled with many risks–weather-related calamities, attacks by wild animals, threats from criminal elements, and even the dangers posed by the enemies of Israel, whether Babylonians, Assyrians, or others tribes.

The psalm is a communal song. There is no first person singular used anywhere in the text, no “I” and “me.” From its opening strophe to its closing refrain, the song is a communal celebration of divine deliverance. “If God hadn’t been for us…” it begins, and “God’s strong name is our help…,” it concludes.

In our individualized western culture, it is hard to wrap our minds around the depth of community cohesion inherent in this song. The people of God, together, resist oppression, violence, the dangers of travel, and other threats to their continued existence.

In his book, The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann suggests that water symbolism in the psalms serves as a metaphor for a massive, irresistible, overwhelming threat. The pilgrims respond to such danger as people generally do–with great fear. Listen with your heart, not just your mind, to the words of the psalmist describing the fears of the pilgrims: “swallowed alive,” “swept away,” “drowned,” “lost our lives,” “wild, raging water,” “defenseless,” “helpless,” “traps,” and “grip.” What images or thoughts are evoked for you as you hear such words in succession? [Congregational responses: “holocaust,” “fear,” “being overwhelmed”].

Amid the profound anxiety of these travelers, there is a grounded trust in the Lord of History, who has walked with the people before and walks with them now. Deliverance is not just a concept or vague hope. In this most desperate of circumstances, it becomes a reality. God’s action is so decisive that the community moves from a position of helplessness and terror to the freedom of a bird in flight–a carefree, joyous release, beyond the fray of what happens here on the earth. Such rescue cannot help but evoke gratitude and a deepening trust in the God who is There.

In this instance, God seemingly delivers the pilgrims not just from their fears but also from the situations they fear. But what does “help” look like, when the crisis we face remains at a standstill or worsens? What does “help” look like, when a situation continues to evoke fear and anxiety? At such times, “help” looks a lot like the steadfast presence of Grammie during a long “Grammie nap.” No matter the movement, no matter the situation, no matter the discomfort–we ‘little ones’ remain cradled in the great, Divine Embrace.

The psalmist brings to this song a vivid consciousness of God’s all- sustaining, guiding power. His prayer moves beyond mere petition and internal monologue to an intimate dialogue and communal encounter with God. The members of the community participate together in this encounter. While each person experiences it in a unique way, it is nonetheless a shared experience, much as our worship together today is a shared experience.

“God is our help” is the great confession of this psalm. It is a lived confession, an experienced confession, a learned confession.

Phyllis and I had the opportunity to hear Father Neil Kookoothe, a Catholic priest and lawyer, speak on campus this week about the Death Penalty. Since around 1998, he has befriended several men on Ohio’s Death Row and has personally witnessed 34 executions. He spoke about those men who ‘find God’ while sitting on Death Row. “People mistrust and disbelieve these conversions,” he told us, “but why shouldn’t they be believable?” he asked. “When a man has nothing left, no future, no life, no friends, no support, why should it surprise us if he turns to God for help?” he asked.

And yesterday, at our Regional Meeting for the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region, I spoke with a pastor whose church is undergoing a rebirth of ministry after the church nearly died. She said, “It was such a traumatic experience for the church to come so close to death, but I’m actually sort of glad, because the congregation is now ready to take new risks in ministry that it would not have taken before.”

“Near-death experiences are generally reported to lead to a greater appreciation of life–whether they occur in individuals or churches!” I replied. We both laughed in thanksgiving for witnessing such miracles in our congregations’ histories.

“Our help is in the name of the Lord, Creator of heaven and earth,” the psalmist declares. Life tests this confession, and the more we make it, the more we learn its truth.

The psalmist has a story. We, too, have stories. In closing, I want to provide an opportunity for personal reflection on our own songs of help and deliverance as Glenn Gall sings, “Lord of the Troubled Sea.” I have accompanied this song on the piano dozens of times during the past three decades. Its text never fails to evoke for me strong images of my own frailties and God’s mighty deliverance. I invite you into Ken Medema’s gift of words and Glenn Gall’s gift of song, that God might offer you here, today, words of help and deliverance, of hope and possibility, words that can bring new strength, new hope, and new life to your soul. Amen.

Jesus thinks you should be in People Magazine. Maybe even on the cover.

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Jesus thinks you should be in People Magazine.
Mark 9:30-37
September 20, 2009
Steve Hammond

It didn’t have to be a little kid, you know. We love this story. The big, burly disciples put in their place by that little girl Jesus stood before them. And it reassures us about Jesus. He liked kids and played with them on the beach and blessed their teddy bears.

For the people who were there, though, this was not a comforting story. It was a horrifying one. As Kate Huey put it in Weekly Seeds, the online resource from the United Church of Christ, “instead of a sweet, sentimental moment, the disciples are experiencing one more paradox, one more boat-rocking, one more radical upending of the way they think things ought to be, and hope they will be, when Jesus comes into their idea of glory.”

In first century Palestine, children didn’t count for much. They were at the bottom of the social rung along with the old, the sick, handicapped, illiterate, and the unclean. The unclean included peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, the unemployed, foreigners, immigrants, and the homeless.

If Jesus would have stood any of those people in front of him rather than that little girl, it would have had the same impact on the disciples. In their minds, as well as everyone else’s in their society, a child’s status and worth in the community was the same as a prisoner. A child was the same as an illegal immigrant. A child was the same as the homeless guy sprawled on the bench in the park. They had nothing to offer because they had no standing in society. And the disciples were looking for standing.

This little scene would not have inspired the warm fuzzies amongst the disciples that it does for us. It would have stunned them. Shocked them. Even repelled them. For them the whole thing would have been ugly and awful, an affront to the very way that God has ordained things in this world.

When Jesus sat down with the disciples, and sitting down was the sign that he had something very important to say and grabbed that child, his point wasn’t that the disciples could learn a lot from children. We talk about the wisdom of children, but that’s not what Jesus was talking about here. He was talking about the disciples and how wrong they were, how wrong everybody was about power and status, about worth. He was turning everything upside down. Again.

The story here isn’t what we can learn from children, but what we can learn when the controlling paradigm for our lives is welcome rather than rejection, sharing power with everyone rather than taking it. So much of human interaction, church included, if not, indeed, leading the way, is built on who you keep out and who you let in, who you send away and who you invite in, who you assign to the bottom and who you assign to the top, who you empower, who you strip power from.

That’s not what, according to Jesus, God is looking for in this world. Rather it’s the last becoming first, and the first last. This is why it’s called good news to the poor.

There was nothing special about that little girl being a child. There are lots of children out there. And she may not have been all that wise. I could get my nearly two year old granddaughter Sofia in here this morning and just let her run amok in the congregation. She would dump your purses. Demand that you hand over you cell phones so she could push the buttons. Grab whatever looks interesting from your backpacks and refuse to give it back. She might well rip pages out of your Bible and checkbook. I wonder how cute and special we would think little children were at that point.

The actual specialness of that little girl Jesus placed before the disciples that day was that she was a human being, created in God’s image, loved by God just like everyone else on this planet. That was revolutionary news to his hearers. Power is about who counts. But Jesus said she counts. All kids count. Just like gentiles and their kids count. Just like women count. Just like everybody counts, no matter what they have to offer.

You all know People Magazine. Did anyone bring one with them today? We are fascinated with those with power, prestige, money, fame. And some of them are despicable people. But we get caught up in their stories.

I think Jesus would say we all ought to have our stories in People Magazine with the picture spreads, the sidebars, everything. Why Tom Cruise when it could be Ellen Broadwell? Or some kid from Oberlin trying to make it through high school rather than Miley Cyrus? Why not all of us?

That’s what horrified the disciples when they heard this story and would horrify us if we could get the cute little kid thing out of our minds. Jesus is challenging it all. Calling all of our notions of who counts into question. Calling us to empower everyone, challenging us to include others rather than exclude, to put everybody on the cover of People Magazine. That doesn’t happen in the nations of this world, but Jesus says, it happens in God’s realm, the Paradise that is in our midst.

When our daughter Grace was looking for churches when she moved out West she said it was important to her to find a church that welcomed gay and lesbian people. It’s not because she is a lesbian, but she said it is bad enough if they weren’t welcoming to gay and lesbian people. But she had to wonder who else wasn’t welcome.

Who a church doesn’t welcome should not be the first questions on someone’s mind. But, unfortunately, it is a question that you need to ask. We can get all hung up in our doctrinal stances, our rituals and rites. But for me the thing that is most telling is whether that community of faith has taken Jesus seriously enough that they are moving from rejection to welcome, from exclusion to inclusion. Do we love Jesus enough to take the chance to look at power and so many other things in new ways? Are we willing and able to believe what he believed?

Do you know who else that little girl was? She was Jesus. He was a bottom runger with her. He was rejected, pushed aside, ignored, killed. It was easy to do. Nobody cared. ‘When you have welcomed a little one like her, you have welcomed me.’

We all want to be welcomed. Jesus knew that. He wanted to be welcomed. Do you know what happens when the first are last and the last are first? There aren’t any more first and last. There are just folk who all deserve a spread in People Magazine. Surely we’ve got a story at least as good as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or I hope so, anyway.

And I’m not sure the disciples quite ever got it. Their struggles for power continued, they kept trying to figure out who among them counted the most. But, thankfully, there was more to them than that. Grace happens along the way on that journey as we follow Jesus.

So it turns out this story of Jesus standing that little girl in front of the disciples was awful to those who heard it. It threatened everything they understood about power and how the world works. It was the kind of thing that caused many to reject Jesus, and make it easier to crucify him. He was too much of a threat. But as crucifixion leads to resurrection, Jesus is telling us here that we can die to old ways and come alive with him. We can discover the power that comes when you see our lives are connected to everyone else, not just a few others.

Now that’s a story to bring tears to your eyes.

The Languages of God

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

THE LANGUAGES OF GOD
Psalm 19, Mark 8:36-37
September 13, 2009
Mary Hammond

Throughout my undergraduate years as a piano major, visiting performing artists often came to campus to hold Master Classes. Several of us were selected to perform for the guest, who then offered feedback on our performances.

“Ah, wasn’t he or she brilliant! Amazing! I learned so much!” we students would exclaim about the visiting artist. What we failed to notice was this: more often than not, what we learned from the visitor, our piano professor had already been pointing out at our lessons! Somehow, hearing the same musical insight in a different way, in a different setting, from a different voice made it clear. Ears that once could not quite hear were opened. Eyes that once could not quite see were illuminated.

Psalm 19 takes us through a similar journey, but within the realm of faith. David, the Psalmist, is an accomplished musician and poet. When he meditates on the handiwork of God and prayerfully peers deep within his own heart, his reflections bear witness to an artist’s touch. Although King of Israel and remembered over the centuries as one of the great kings of Israel, his background is that of a simple shepherd boy. And if there is one thing shepherd boys experience, it is tending the sheep outdoors, in every kind of weather.

Many nights during David’s youth are surely spent sleeping on an earthen bed, eyes riveted on the brilliant night sky. His ears are trained to listen for the distant howl of a predator and to distinguish the subtle nuances of a sheep’s bleating. This is the classroom of his childhood.

“God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.

Their words aren’t heard,
their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth,
unspoken truth is everywhere.”

So proclaims the shepherd-turned-King of Israel. Schooled in the voiceless sign language of God from his youngest days, David sees nature’s glory not as the happenstance of circumstance, but as a Word from God and a Word of God. It is a word that blazes in color, that sings in silence, that everywhere bears witness to the Creator.

David’s experience of the heavens and earth remind me of one of the final days of my first week-long quiet retreat in June 2008. I have often heard that when one cannot see or hear, the other senses become more acute. This was true of our first dog, Bo, who was deaf from birth. A similar process occurs when speech isn’t a continual part of one’s day.

There is a tiny, retreat-like third floor porch that looks out on the retreat center grounds. It has all the amenities of being outdoors, only without the bugs. One day, I was sitting on the porch, gazing at the fullness of the trees, the lushness of the grass, the glory of the skies, and I found myself on virtual visual overload. If another flower shouted out its glory, or another tree sang its beauty, I couldn’t take it in. All I could do was let another sense be stripped away. I closed my eyes and just listened to the rustling of the trees in the wind, the twitter of passing birds, and the sounds of silence for a very long time.

So it seems for David as he meditates on the sign language of God, inherent in Creation’s song. It is text; it is Word; it is gift of God.

But this is just the beginning of the Psalm. David continues by reveling in the speech of God that comes through words rather than nature. For him, God’s speech is revealed in Torah, the books of the law. We know these as the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch. Here the Word of God written and proclaimed is revealed. It is found in God’s ordinances, instructions, precepts, promises, and warnings. This speech of God provides both revelation and direction. It points the way toward life and away from death. How do we live a life that is life indeed? How do we avoid a life that deadens the spirit, soul, and heart, that moves us away from God rather than toward God?

Many Christians today refer to the Bible as “God’s Word.” Since I forgot to have the time of Congregational Reflection earlier in the service, let’s have it now. What do you think about when you hear the phrase, “God’s Word”? [Various responses are generated from the congregation, including “the times when God actually speaks to people in the Bible,” “the love of God, Jesus, the Word made flesh as in John’s Gospel,” “the ongoing revelation of God throughout history,” and “I get nervous because some people use this phrase when what they mean actually seems to me to be the opposite of ‘God’s Word’”].

It is interesting that the hesitancy about this phrase is expressed by my pastor-husband, Steve. Maybe this is a preacher’s agony! Yet, having spent so many years in ministry with the dechurched–those who have left the church or lost their faith due to significant wounding in the church–I, like Steve, often struggle with how this phrase is often used.

Among many of the dechurched, the scriptures have functioned as weapons to maim and destroy rather than words of life to heal and transform. The current epidemic of religious violence across religious traditions testifies to the use of various sacred texts in this way. A flood of skepticism and cynicism about religion naturally follows. This is a great tragedy that I lament every single day.

Last year, a Religion Major at the college came to interview me for a Winter Term project on women in ministry. She began sharing her personal struggles with scripture, and I told her, “I, too, struggle with scripture, but it all comes down to the fact that this is the book of my faith. This is the revelation that we have been given.”

Lately I have been reading and re-reading Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Bible. I have discovered untold riches there, even though I’ve read it other times and it has not spoken to me like this. And the book of Job—it is the book of my faith, when I can read nothing else. Sometimes in my life I have come running to Job, sometimes crawling, sometimes resistant but knowing I need to park my life there for awhile. The teachings of Jesus, the apostle Paul’s vision of a living church, tales of life wrestled out of the ravages of death from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures–we need it all; we learn from every bit.

There are things I constantly wish were in the Bible that are not—the real voices of women, of mothers and daughters (there is only one mother and daughter story in the bible!)–not as side bars, but as main characters. I wish for explicit challenges to slavery—so explicit that the church could never have been complicit in its perpetuation. I wish for explicit challenges to homophobia–so explicit that the church could not, in 2009, continue its complicity in demonizing people made in the image of God. I wish for more books like Job (maybe one by a woman!), such profound psychological portraits which plumb the depths of both the divine mystery and the human struggle to stay faithful amid great suffering.

Ah, there is so much I long for! And yet, and yet, and yet…this is the book of my faith, the one I am given, through which I must continue what pastor and theologian, William Sloane Coffin, calls “a lover’s quarrel” with God.

A couple years ago, I rescued an old bible of Steve’s when he replaced it. It was literally falling apart, but who can throw away a bible? I decided to make it my “lover’s quarrel” bible. As I read and study the scriptures, this old, worn out bible is the place I record my questions about the text, my experiences of its use, my arguments, and my longings. In the Hebrew tradition, such wrestling with God is encouraged, supported, and becomes part of the learning process. Christians are much too polite for such rough-housing with God! We need to learn something from Jewish tradition on this front.

After extolling God’s sign language and speech, David looks inward. To meditate on both nature and text cannot help but lead us into the deep, at times contradictory terrain of our hearts and minds. David’s prayer is to be cleansed from secret faults and foolish ways. His yearning is for both the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart to be acceptable to God.

Nature and text stoke David’s hunger for God, leading him into prayer. His prayer in this psalm is not for either the kingdom he rules or the military battles he fights. It is a humble, simple prayer for himself as he lives his own life of faith amid his many weaknesses and failures. If you are one of those people who thinks it is wrong to pray for yourself, read the psalms. They might convince you otherwise.

David holds together the importance of both God’s sign language and speech. Each points to God and reflects the truth of God, but neither is God. In contemporary times, there are many who would ignore text and look for the divine in nature (“Who needs the bible, church, or any of that stuff? I find God in the great outdoors!”). There are others who ignore nature and insist that God is found only in the text (“Who cares about global warming? Jesus is coming soon to rescue us from this world!”). However, David holds the two together in an unbroken cord.

Both God’s sign language and speech find their apex in the Word made flesh, in Jesus Christ. He is both Sign and Speech. He challenges the religious experts with his understanding of God. He heals the sick and wounded. He welcomes the outcast and downtrodden. He teaches a radical Way of compassion, trust, and love. He offers a servant life, dies a brutal death, and rises to die no more.

We have only brushed the surface in speaking about God’s sign language and speech. A lively discussion about this topic would yield rich insights and greater awareness of all the ways that we meet God in Word and words, both spoken and unspoken. I invite you to spend time with Psalm 19, or any of the psalms this week. Turn your moments with nature into living psalms of praise! Pray for yourself! Embrace the richness of an ongoing ‘lover’s quarrel’ with God! Learn from the true Master Professor, Jesus, the Word made flesh. Amen.

A table in the presence of my enemies or: the gates of Hell will not prevail against you (been to Paradise lately?)

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

A Table in the presence of my enemies or:
The gates of Hell will not prevail against you.
(Been to Paradise lately?)
Matthew 16:13-20
September 6, 2009
Steve Hammond

One morning, laying in bed, it just came into my mind. “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.” Of course. I get it. We’re not supposed to be on the defensive.

It does seem, though, that the gates of Hell have been on the march. There are some pretty hellish things going on. All you’ve got to do is pick up the newspaper. There’s the hunger, the poverty, the war. Sexual intimacy has been cast aside for hook-ups. There’s corruption in high places. Women are kept under wraps, literally in some parts of the world, and figuratively in other parts, including this part. Children are turned into soldiers. Rape has become a tactic in war. Our country has openly and proudly proclaimed it tortures its prisoners. We legislate by shouting. Christianity is ridiculed, and the saddest part is that it in too many cases it is well deserved. People have no idea that there could be a God, much less a God who loves them and has a call in their lives. We’ve turned this beautiful world God made into a trash can and there are people on TV denying there is such a thing as global warming.

Then there’s the lost jobs and lost homes. Bank accounts emptied to pay for health care. Parents alienated from their children. People burying their spouses, their friends, their children. People caught up in their addictions. Victims of domestic violence. Victims of discrimination. Old people being swindled. People caught in hurricanes and fires. Bombs dropping on children or blowing them to pieces as they ride the bus to school.

There is a lot of hellish stuff going on. It’s like Hell is storming the gates. But Jesus didn’t say your gates will prevail against the assaults of Hell, but that the gates of Hell would be knocked down by you. Jesus said we’re supposed to be on the offensive.

And it’s not like he was naive. Jesus lived in some pretty hellish times himself. But his solution wasn’t to dig in and hope for the best. It wasn’t for us to fortify the walls the best we could and hope we could fend off the attack until the ‘Son of Man comes in his glory.’ Instead, he saw his mission as putting the heat on Hell. Storming its walls.

I kind of wish I could have heard Jesus talking about all of this to Peter. Because it seems to me it could have gone something like “You? Peter? You’re a rock? And I’m going to build my church on you? The gates of Hell are not going to prevail against you?” But that’s not how it went. Instead it was “You. Peter. You’re the rock. And I’m going to build my church on you. And the gates of Hell are not going to prevail against you!” Nobody could have been more shocked than Peter.

Jesus was, obviously, a person of great faith. He had to be if he could look at Peter and that scraggly group of men and women he had collected and the trust the work of his life, the work he was going to die for, to them. And he believed the same thing about the ones who would come after them, including people like us. The keys to the realm of God Jesus has willingly and, perhaps, even joyfully placed in our hands. Think about it. Jesus said you have the power to set people free, and the power to lock up the ugly and awful stuff that would drag this world into Hell.

But how did Jesus imagine we would ever prevail against the gates of Hell? Well, because he kept showing us how to do it. Love your enemies. Welcome the stranger. Make peace. Love God with every bit of your being. Risk compassion. Tear down the walls that divide. Pray. Build the church. Forgive those who have sinned against you. Think of everyone as a neighbor. Reject violence. Cast down the idols of nationalism, militarism, racism, and sexism. Expect to learn something about God from the most unexpected of people. Make the last first and the first last. Heal and be healed. Trust in God’s love, not just in God’s love for the world, but God’s love for you. Stand with the poor. Believe in the God he believed in.

That’s how we storm the gates of Hell. And they can not prevail against us. They have to crumble, Jesus believed, if we are willing to take him seriously, willing to follow him down this crazy road he’s traveling, willing to believe that in him is life, and that life is the light for all humanity. Willing to believe that life changes us.

Jesus was a Paradise kind of guy. Just like God’s Realm, he knew that it is in our midst. I am more and more convinced about Paradise. But as Rita Brock has told us at a couple of Baptist Peace Fellowship Peace Camps now, Paradise is not somewhere in the great beyond, on the other side of Jordan’s chilly waters. Rather, it’s waters are lapping at our feet.

Jesus came and reminded us about Paradise, telling us it’s right around the corner and it’s ours to seize. The gates of Hell have to recede against Paradise because this world isn’t big enough for the both of them. Jesus says we have to decide. Are we going to uncover Paradise, plunge into it, or are we going to resign ourselves to Hell on earth?

You all know the Paradise Psalm, the 23rd Psalm? Most of us think about it as the funeral Psalm. We always read it at funerals so we reinforce this idea that the 23rd Psalm not about this world, but that Paradise can only be found in the great beyond. You got to die to get there. That’s wrong.

Reimagine the 23rd Psalm with me. God is my shepherd who is leading me through Paradise. That’s why there is no want. Because Paradise is about abundance. It’s about beauty and life and passion overflowing. There’s rest in those green pastures of Paradise as the still waters well up into an everlasting stream that restores our souls, that bit of God that is in us, that is in everyone. God has the naming rights for Paradise, and has made it a place of right living.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, with the gates of hell towering overhead, I am not afraid. Those gates are coming down because there is no place for them in Paradise. As I watch God hammer on those gates with that rod and staff, I feel a whole lot better, and I start pounding on the gates myself.

God is so sure about this, that a feast has been set up right there in the presence of my enemies who think they can steal Paradise, or at least steal Paradise from me. But there is too much of God here, there’s just too much. It’s pouring out everywhere, overflowing. We’ve got the anointing that goes all the way back to the garden.

The goodness and mercy of Paradise are ours. Paradise is right there at our heels, and it’s where we are going to pitch our tents for the long haul.

You see a lot of the 23rd Psalm in the gospels, especially in those stories where Jesus was feasting in the presence of his enemies. Sometimes they were right there at the table, and other times they were literally or metaphorically at the door. But Jesus kept on feasting, because Paradise is about feasting.

So on that night before he died he called those women and men who were that little community of faith, somewhat questionable faith, to another feast. And it wouldn’t be the last one. Jesus told them to keep on feasting no matter what happened, because Hell could be stopped and Paradise couldn’t. And he told them to remember that he always feasted in the presence of his enemies and he wasn’t about to stop now.

There’s that story at the very end of John’s gospel when the disciples are out fishing and they see Jesus on the shore? Do you remember what Jesus was doing when they came scrambling back? Cooking breakfast. Feasting.

Feasting is important to Jesus. Eating with other friends, families, the people you love, new people you have just met, even sharing a meal with an enemy is a sign of Paradise. So we do this thing we call the Lord’s Supper which doesn’t look very much at all like a supper, much less a feast. But today, anyway, it’s going to be more of a feast, that will hopefully help us remember Jesus and how he always had his eyes on Paradise.

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Jesus didn’t seem to think so.

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Jesus didn’t seem to think so.
Mark 7
August 30, 2009
Steve Hammond

So here’s Jesus and the disciples sitting down to supper. You know what it’s like to have a good meal with family and friends. You talk and you joke. You catch up on the news of the day and the gossip. We do it down stairs all the time.

Jesus and his gang had much to celebrate and be thankful for as they sat around the table that day. God was at work in their lives. People were being healed. Hungry people were being fed. People were starting to pay more attention to Jesus. The story right before this one is about Jesus walking on the water in that storm. These amazing things were happening. They, indeed, had reason to eat with glad and joyful hearts.

Then the Pharisees come along and start complaining because Jesus and the others hadn’t washed their hands. And it wasn’t about how they hadn’t remembered what their mothers had always told them.

The Pharisees had something much different in mind than the spread of germs. The reason you were supposed to wash your hands before you ate was you might have touched something unclean like a Gentile, or a woman, a leper, a dead animal, or any number of things that would contaminate you before God. You had to wash all of that stuff off before it got on your hands and in your food, and then into your body. You had to be clean. Clean fingernails clean. Clean behind the ears clean. Clean underwear clean. You had to have all that dirty stuff off of you or God would regard you as dirty.

Did you ever hear the thing about cleanliness being next to Godliness? Or is that just Indiana? When I was a kid I thought it was in the Bible. But for from it, actually, or at least in the New Testament.

As a recent podcast I listened to from the CBC pointed out, washing and bathing rituals play a big part in the ceremonies and rituals of most of the religions of the world except Christianity. Sure most Christians make a big deal out of baptism. And foot washing is mentioned in the New Testament and has been picked up here and there in Christianity. But neither of those rituals have to do with cleaning the muck and contamination of others off of our bodies so we will be acceptable to God.

You see in the story we just read what Jesus thought about all of this clean stuff. The Pharisees expressed their disgust, and Jesus let them have it. “You pious SOB’s. You make such a fuss about your religious rituals and what goes into you, but you pay no attention to the grime and the crud that comes out of you, the injustice, the greed, the hypocrisy. You think you are the ones who know everything about God with all your prayers, your lists of rules and regulations, your doctrines, all your religious ceremonies. But if God walked in the door right now you wouldn’t recognize who it was. Just go away and let us eat in peace. We were having a good time until you showed up.”

We know Jesus is right. But how often do we do the same thing in the life of the church? We get so caught up in the hand washing stuff that we miss the celebration of God’s Realm unfolding right in front of us.

I just read a story the other day in the National Catholic Reporter about the new liturgical regulations that may or may not be under consideration in the Vatican. It’s all very secret. The guy who reported the story says it is true, the Vatican says he’s overstating the case.

Anyway, one of the issues that has supposedly undergone a study by several commissions and councils within the Vatican is whether to revert to the old liturgical standard where the priest turns his back to the congregation when he blesses the host.

That is hand washing stuff. And as one of the comments posted to this article so succinctly put it, “Do you actually think that God really cares?”

And it’s not just the Catholic church that does this kind of stuff. We all do. But it’s also the Catholic Church that has led the way in dealing with much more substantial issues like cultivating a deepening spirituality, caring for the poor, standing with the oppressed, calling kings and presidents and parliaments, and congresses to task for feeding the war machine rather than the hungry. They know better then to get caught up in the hand washing. We all know better. So why do we still do it?

A couple of reasons come quickly to mind. One is that hand washing is a nice diversion. If we weren’t spending our time and energy on matters like exactly how you do communion and who you do it with, then we would have to be working on things Jesus told us to work on. Things like loving our enemies, giving up on violence, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, standing with the poor against the powerful, or just putting more trust in God.

Another reason we get caught up in the hand washing stuff it that it gives us more control over God and our salvation. It’s just hard for us to believe that Jesus was telling the truth when he said God really, really loves us, even though we know we’re supposed to believe it. So we have to come up with ways to earn that elusive love of God. And the rituals are easy.

We may say that grace amazes us, but we are suspicious of grace. Grace can’t really be true can it? We know how dirty we are. We must somehow need to earn our salvation, figure out how to clean ourselves up before God is going to pay any attention to us.

And besides, if we can’t earn God’s love, how is God going to know that we’re really better people than a lot of those other people. We do the hand washing. We do all the stuff you’re supposed to do. We believe the right things. They don’t. So why would God love them as much as God loves us? We’re cleaner!

Think about it, though. How many people do you love who, if you really thought about it, it makes no sense to love? They hurt you. They take you for granted. They do stupid stuff. But you love them anyway. Even with all that metaphorical dirt under their fingernails and behind their ears. You see something more in them than other people see. God’s no different. We all do stupid stuff. We take God for granted. But God loves us, dirty fingernails and all.

All Jesus was saying to us it that when we open ourselves to that love of God we can change.

The right things aren’t the rituals like hand washing or holding to the right set of doctrines. The right things, Jesus said, are loving God with all our hearts and minds and souls and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For me, it always gets back to Jesus. He’s the one I want to follow. He’s the one who saves me. I want to get caught up in the stuff he got caught up in, not all this other stuff. I want to believe in the God Jesus believed in, who doesn’t care so much about dirty hands but willing hearts that will put lives and lifestyles on the line for faith. Then we can get down the real issues that matter, like time around the table celebrating the amazing work of God in our lives.