Archive for November, 2009

Brave New World

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Brave New World
Mark 13:1-8
November 15, 2009
Steve Hammond

Jesus was right. The Temple’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time. Centuries. It’s hardly even a ruin in Jerusalem these days. A bit of the wall is all that’s left. And there is some debate if that was even really ever a part of the Temple.

But when Jesus said this, the disciples never imagined it would meet such a fate. You could see the sun shining off of it’s gold facade from a great distance.

And besides, all the nations of the world were to come streaming to Mt. Zion, to the Temple. Rome would be defeated. All of God’s, and Israel’s, enemies destroyed. The Messiah would descend. Israel would be not only the new Imperial power, but it would be the only power ever again. And it would all center around this magnificent Temple, the true dwelling place of God. This is what had been promised to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, their wives and families and all the rest of Israel. God would reign forever and ever. From right there on Temple Mount.

The disciples were caught up in their own end times theology. The first century equivalent of the Left Behind series had laid it all out. So who was Jesus to even suggest they could be wrong? There was no way the Temple would be destroyed. It had to be there forever. Didn’t he believe the Bible?

Afterwards, they got up their courage and asked him what was going on? And what they wanted to know most of all, if what they had been told wasn’t right, then what was? If these aren’t the end times Jesus, when will they be? We need to know.

Ever since then there has been in the church, in my humble opinion, this obsession with the end times. Whether it was the first century, the fifth century, the 15th century, the 20th or 21st centuries, or in any other century, large parts of the church have developed as precise and minute a blueprint for the end times that have been developed for ours. Even though it was the accepted teaching that those Christians of all those past times were living in the end times, and that was what all Bible believing Christians believed, they all, of course, were wrong.

Guess what? All those Christians over the centuries got it wrong, but this current batch of end timers claims to have gotten it right. And in a whole lot of churches in the 21st century USA, it’s taken for gospel truth that these are the end times.

It’s kind of weird, though, that this current fascination with the end times reached its height in the 1960’s and has stayed there ever since. Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth started this round off. And even though he got is so wrong in that book, it didn’t deter the fervor.

Some of you here, who are old enough, may remember how our mailboxes were flooded with the little booklet called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will Happen in 1988. They did try to redeem themselves with the corrected version the following year with 89 Reasons the Rapture will Happen in 1989. I guess they couldn’t come up with 90 reasons, or funding, for the following year, so they sort of faded away.

The end times preachers didn’t though. And despite the fact that the LeHaye’s and Haggee’s and Lindsay’s have been revamping their predictions for 50 years now, which by most definitions that I can think of would be proof in itself that these aren’t the end times, they are more popular and wealthier than ever. None of their predictions have quite panned out. The Soviet Union was going to try to wipe out Israel and thus initiate Armageddon. When the Soviet Union disappeared, the end times preachers didn’t miss a beat and they said it was Saddam Hussain who was going to bring about Armageddon. But he’s dead now.

When there was first talk of a European Union they said that as soon as ten countries joined it, that would bring about the rise of the anti-Christ and his world wide dictatorship. I think there are 24 countries in the EU now. Despite how wrong they have been, end times theology is not only alive and well in many churches, but it is thriving.

There are probably all kinds of reasons for this fascination with the end times. No matter what period of history, times can be tough. Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. All manner of catastrophe, personal as well as societal. So we want an end to it all. We want God to make things right once and for all and forever. The sooner God rules from the Temple, and establishes that everlasting Kingdom, the better. And if you are familiar with the end times scenarios, a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem is key to all of them.

And then, of course, the culmination of the age, of all that God is doing, we are sure, has to involve us.

It turns out, though, that Jesus was much more interested in another kind of Kingdom. He said that God’s Realm wasn’t something we wait for, but we go find. It is something to be sought because it is in our midst. We don’t have to have elaborate charts and time lines. We follow Jesus. We take him and his ways seriously, loving God with as much of ourselves as we can and loving each other. Those were the signs Jesus was looking for, his followers helping God’s Kingdom to come, helping God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Why, Jesus must have wondered, were we waiting for God to make things right, when we could be joining God in making things right along the way.

The Temple was destroyed in around 70a.d. Really destroyed. The Romans, tired of Jewish intransigence, did turn every stone over. It was nothing but rubble by time they got done. And by then, the first Christians had long lost their fascination with the Temple since they were so unwelcomed there. And the gospel, the good news Jesus proclaimed of God’s Realm, was spreading to people outside of Israel who had never cared about the Temple in Jerusalem.

These first Christians, though, were discovering another kind of temple, one built with their lives. As 1 Peter says, “You are living stones, being built into a spiritual temple… called out of darkness into the marvelous light of God.”

That’s the temple we should be concerned about, not some Temple built with stones and wood. Jesus calls us to build something with each other where the presence of God is found. And that is quite a calling. What we are doing with each other is building a place where people can find God. It puts a whole different spin on this thing we call church.

It’s not that Jesus didn’t believe that God was going to establish a new heaven and a new earth. He lived his life with that vision in mind. He was an eschatological kind of guy, but he had such a different vision. He believed what was to come in the new age wasn’t limited to the new age. We could discover in along the way to it’s being fulfilled.

So much of of other end times theology is about despair and destruction. But Jesus wanted things built up not torn down, including our lives. Though things were so dark and hard for him, personally, he was filled with hope. He knew that God was creating something for this world that offered so much more than a Temple in Jerusalem. Why would God want that rebuilt, when there is much more that can be built out of our lives as we follow Jesus with each other?

We can build hope. We can build this living temple with each other that will make a difference in our lives, and the lives of others. Our call is not to believe in the end times, but to believe in Jesus, and let God take care of the end of the age.

I can understand wanting a new world. But I can’t understand waiting for it. We may not be much, but we are the living stones, the building blocks of what God is building in this world, now. So that Temple in Jerusalem may have been big and beautiful. The disciples were rightly impressed. They had never seen anything like it. But it would pale to the beauty of what Jesus had in mind, what we can bring to this world as God builds our lives together into a living temple, the dwelling place of God.

The Seasons of the Spirit Among Us

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

The Seasons of the Spirit Among Us
Psalm 127, Matthew 11:28-30
November 8, 2009
Mary Hammond

When our daughter, Sarah, was about 5 years old, Steve and I used to call her “no hands Hammond” because she loved to hang upside down from the side bar of the swing set in our back yard. One day, while hanging upside down, she said to Steve, “You know what I like, dad?

“What is that?” he asked.

“Faster, higher, and louder,” she replied.

This is a child’s world, and there was genuine energy and joy in her proclamation. And yet, after many years of “faster, higher, and louder,” we often grow weary and long for at least a measure of slower, steadier, and quieter.

Contemporary life seems to move at two speeds: “fast forward” and hyper-drive. People are working harder and harder, “running in place,” as the saying goes. And yet I cannot forget my mother’s life as a walker-dependent widow, yearning for more stimulation, organizing every cabinet and drawer of her apartment to keep her mind active and her arthritic hands busy. What a paradoxical reality we face in American culture!

As I’ve tried to discern the church’s needs and ‘lifestage’ the last year or so, I have been asking the question, “What are these times in the life of this congregation?” The message I keep getting echoes the words of contemplative monk, Thomas Merton in A Book of Hours: “Take more time; cover less ground.”

Our needs are changing. Night study groups and other events are less frequent, as many of the regular attenders of past years go out less often at night. Some, like Enid Buckland and Jere Bruner, have passed away. While the Peace & Conflict Studies Group in which several church folks are active is still moving ahead, its focus has shifted somewhat, now that a Peace & Conflict Studies Concentration has begun at Oberlin College.

With the recent passing of 96-year old Wilma McDole, the end of one church generation has arrived. Mary Caroniti, 20 years Wilma’s junior, picks up the mantle as the only church member still alive from June, 1979, when Steve and I landed in Oberlin with our two little girls.

Ministries are shifting. For a variety of reasons, there are additional transportation needs within the congregation. Several folks are facing emerging or advancing health concerns. Some are retiring or scaling back work hours in anticipation of retirement; others are working two jobs or scrambling for whatever money they can make. Babies are here, at Cleveland Metro Hospital, or visiting from Columbus.

Life is always changing for us at Peace Community Church. June 2010 will mark the 10th anniversary of the church name change. That bold and prayerful decision has helped many new people walk through the church’s doors. If you have never been part of this church when it was called First Baptist, and are not a visitor, could you raise your hand? Look around. See what God has wrought among us in names, faces, gifts, passions, and blessings! Before you know it, a whole decade of Peace Potlucks will belong to the annals of Church–and community–History!

As we approach our Annual Meeting today, the opening strophe of Psalm 127 stands as a poignant reminder of whose work we are really about and how we must approach it during these changing seasons of our life together.
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.

It is critical to constantly remember who is building this house–not the bricks and mortar or the handicapped lift of 44 E. Lorain Street–but the community of faith that is PCC. This is God’s work, not our own. It is God’s Spirit who moves through us, within us, around us, and beyond us. This ministry is not our project, idea, vision, or creation. It is God’s–and it will continue to be God’s through whatever challenges, transitions, blessings, and trials come our way.

In 1866, a small group of people gathered for prayer, fellowship, and dreaming. They formed the First Baptist Church of Oberlin. On November 8, 2009, a mere 143 years later, an entirely different set of people gather for prayer, fellowship and dreaming. We call ourselves Peace Community Church. Amid countless changes, like bread broken and blessed, this little congregation has continued to offer both its beauty and vulnerability as a blessing to this world.
It is in vain that you rise up early,
to go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil…

The Psalmist–in this case the ancient Hebrew King, Solomon–proceeds to reflect on “anxious toil” and its futility, a topic he takes up in more depth in the unique philosophical reflections of the Book of Ecclesiastes. He also encourages us to find enjoyment in our labors, whatever they may be, and to cultivate a merry heart, as much as lies within us.
It is vain that you rise up early,
to go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil,
for God gives to God’s beloved rest.

Note the contrast here between “anxious toil” and the gift of rest, or the energy regained from a good night’s sleep. “Sleep” is the preferred older translation of the word “rest.”

Toil, we will. Toil, we must. It is part of life. But futility and oppression characterize “anxious toil.” To “eat the bread” of “anxious toil” is to feed on it, to make it our work diet. Can we toil in the constant realization that the church we build, the truck we drive, the paper we write, the volunteer work we perform all belong to God and not to us? By God’s grace, the fruits of our labors are scattered beyond both our knowledge and control.

Then there is rest. In the first chapter of the bible, Genesis 1, God institutes a rhythm of work and rest. It is no secret that contemporary American life conspires against any such balance, and the challenges of the current recession exacerbate this reality. I think of this as the “more bricks with less straw” syndrome, remembering Pharaoh’s demand in the Book of Exodus that the Israelites make more and more bricks with less and less straw for building material. “Faster, higher, louder!” is our culture’s battle-cry.

In spite of the demands placed on our lives, we are hard-wired for a rhythm of work and rest–not “anxious toil and more anxious toil,” compounded with the fear that everything depends on us. It would help a lot to avoid the pitfalls of “anxious toil” if universal health care was a right, not a privilege of the fully employed and/or healthy. It would help a lot to avoid the pitfalls of “anxious toil” if bank accounts weren’t shrinking and all workers could earn a living wage. It would help a lot to avoid the pitfalls of “anxious toil” if young people weren’t saddled with thousands of dollars of educational debt after
completing college or graduate degrees.

Within my interior dialogue, I often speak to, argue with, and challenge “anxious toil.” Sometimes it gets the best of me. Culturally speaking, there are so many legitimate reasons to eat the bread of “anxious toil.” Spiritually speaking, “anxious toil” is challenged at its root. God’s vision and our calling is to live counter-culturally–to carve out oases of rest, play, and delight in a fast-paced world or a slow-paced apartment; to toil diligently and faithfully while leaving the results in the hands of the Holy One.

Here we are, today, in November 2009, gathered as Peace Community Church of Oberlin, Ohio. Generations of pilgrims have preceded us, walking together through the creations of the automobile, the lightbulb, the airplane, the computer, and the atomic bomb. They have been church with one another through the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, seeing countless Democratic and Republican administrations come and go, facing church splits and changing fortunes. The sanctuary has been nearly full, almost empty, and everything in between.

Children have grown up here and old folks have passed on. Marriages, memorial services, study groups, potluck dinners, worship services, baptisms, film series, peace events–all have taken place in this sacred space among the generations who have graced this place. Oberlin College graduates have scattered throughout the country and around the globe, in Paraguay, Nicaragua, Japan, and Guatemala right now, in Turkmenistan not too long ago.

And here we are, flesh of God’s flesh and bone of God’s bone, people of faith together in community, looking not to ourselves but to the Unseen Hand who meets us in love and invigorates our hearts.

The Law of Love?

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

The Law of Love?
Mark 12:28-34
November 1, 2009
Steve Hammond

“This is the new commandment that I give you. Love one another just as I have loved you.”

Is it still love if it’s something that is commanded of us? How does that work? If all the law, all the rules and regulations, hinge on loving God and loving our neighbors then is love nothing more than the prime directive, God’s ultimate rule?

I can understand “don’t steal.” “Don’t commit adultery.” “Don’t say those words.” “Honor the Sabbath.” They all offer me choices. I can live by those commands, or not. I can make the decision. But can I decide to love God or my neighbor?

I didn’t decide to love Mary. It just happened. The same with our children and the folk in this church. Lesbian and gay people have been pointing out to us for a long time that we don’t choose who we love. That’s not new news to any of us is it?

I don’t often do this for a sermon, but I decided to look up love in the encyclopedia. Here is what it said. “Love is a basic dimension of human experience that manifests itself in feelings, emotion, behavior, thoughts, perception and attitude. It influences, underlies and defines major patterns in interpersonal relationships and self-identification. Love is variously conveyed as a sense of tender affection, an intense attraction, the foundation of intimacy and good interpersonal chemistry, willing self-sacrifice on behalf of another, and as an ineffable sense of affinity or connection to nature, other living beings, or even that which is unseen.”

Granted, that was an online encyclopedia. But I think it’s pretty hard for anyone to define love. That short entry covered a lot of ground, but what definition is going to come close to expressing what love is. That’s why we have poets and songwriters who are often good at giving us images of what love is and even better of what love isn’t. Any of you got a good definition for love?

It’s hard to come up with a definition for love that is satisfying, yet love is the super commandment, the thing that Jesus said that God wants us to do above all other things. In today’s story we are told that it’s more important than our rituals. More important than our doctrines. More important than our traditions. But we can’t even come up with a good definition.

Maybe I’m over thinking this thing. Some might take it as pretty obvious that all Jesus was trying to say is that we need to act lovingly toward each other. Granted, that is far better than acting unlovingly toward each other. But he didn’t say act lovingly toward each other, he said love each other. And I doubt that we would argue that Jesus would be satisfied with us acting lovingly toward God. “Love God with all your mind, all you heart, all your soul, all yourself.”

You might be catching on to the idea that I’m raising a whole lot more questions this morning than I am prepared to answer. I hope that’s alright with you.

What I do know is that love was important to Jesus. And he was always trying to get the disciples and others who were with him to begin by realizing that God loved them, and everybody else. God loves us with all God’s strength, heart, mind, and soul, and loves our neighbors as much as us. God started the whole thing we call love. As the writer of the First Letter of John put it, “we love because God loved us first.”

God is love. That for Jesus is the foundation. It was the first step of faith for Jesus, believing God is a God of love. Jesus couldn’t have done what he did, lived the way he lived, died the way he died, placed his hope in the God who would raise him from the dead, if he didn’t believe that God loved him.

We, of course, live in a much different time and place. We live in a culture where plenty of people don’t even believe that God exists, much less that we are loved by the God who created heaven and earth. But for some of us, though, things never change. There are plenty who believe God is there, but struggle, at best, with the idea that God could actually love them. Other people, maybe. But not them. They are really more like the disciples were when Jesus first found them. They see God as pretty judgmental, waiting and watching to come down hard on us. So the best they can do is try to find ways to appease God. That’s why having some rules and regulations to live by can be so appealing.

Jesus tells the disciples, though, to give up on all of that. If you need rules, he told them, here’s the only one you need. Love God with every bit of the capability that you have, and love those with whom you share your lives and this planet. But none of that can happen, he kept telling them, if you don’t really believe that God started this whole circle of love by loving us first.

Love is that indefinable essence of who God is. We are created in God’s image. Therefore, love is our indefinable essence. Love, this thing we can’t define, but we know what it is, is what gets us back to the garden. So that’s why I’m thinking that love is not so much a commandment, but a path.

Maybe Jesus is telling us the way we get on that path is those loving acts. You know. Loving our enemies. Turning the other cheek. Forgiving others. Refusing to answer harsh words with more harsh words. Giving up on our prejudices. Taking steps toward others rather than away. Refusing to respond to violence with violence. Stopping to help the person who has been waylaid along whatever road they have been traveling. Opening ourselves to God’s presence in our lives.

Those acts of love aren’t simply for those to whom they are being offered. They do something for us. They make us more loving people, not just in deed, but in creed.

This is, of course, All Saints Day. Think about the saints living and dead who have made God known to you. Was it because they were or are so good at figuring out the rules and regulations, or because they were so good at love? Both receiving it and giving it.

If we can keep stoking the fires of love that others have lit for us, their love for God, their love for their neighbors, their confidence in the love God had for them, we will not only have done them well, but we will be operating in the territory where Jesus operated.

So is it that love is not a new commandment, but a new kind of commandment? Maybe that’s why everybody fell silent at the end of today’s story. Did they realize that Jesus wasn’t simply offering a better commandment, but something better than a commandment? Is this a paradigm shift, a whole new of looking at things, where Jesus is leading us past the law and the commandments and offering a new way of relating to God and to each other.

The Apostle Paul, who thought deeply about many things talked about the commands written down not on tablets of stone but on our hearts. He had his own definition of love. “Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings and of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal. Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about God. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all. Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.

Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not want what belongs to others. It does not brag. It is not proud. It is not rude. It does not look out for its own interests. It does not easily become angry. It does not keep track of other people’s wrongs.

Love is not happy with evil. But it is full of joy when the truth is spoken. It always protects. It always trusts. It always hopes. Love never gives up.”

The communion table is one of the places where we are invited to remember what Jesus believed love could make of us and that God’s love, indeed, never gives up, on us or anybody else. It’s no wonder love tops all the commands.