Archive for January, 2012

Smacked Upside the Head with Glory

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Mark 1:14-20
January 22, 2012
Steve Hammond

Some of you may well have heard me say that this is probably my favorite story in the Bible. It’s got, at least, two things going for it that are real important to me. The first is that it reminds us that Jesus’ primary concern, what his whole life and ministry hung on was this thing that most Bible translators call the Kingdom of God. It was the most important thing to Jesus, even though in many church circles it remains unheard of. And where it does get mentioned it often seems to be reduced to or confused with heaven. But that’s not what the Kingdom of God is about at all.

Part of the problem is that word kingdom. Not only are there the inclusive language issues, but there’s the fact that kingdoms meant something to people, lets say in England in the 1600’s, but not hardly anything to us now. We need a better word. That’s why I like what the folk who appreciate the work of Renee Girard have come up with, The Culture of God, or even my own much simpler take, The Stuff of God, the way God wants this world to be.

So Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus began proclaiming; not just talking about, not just mentioning, not just saying, but proclaiming the Culture of God, the Stuff of God. And he walked right up to two pairs of fishermen and said “Come follow me.” And they did. That’s the second part of this story that I like.

Jesus didn’t preach to them. He didn’t go over a religious tract with them. He didn’t make them sign a statement of faith or say anything about getting themselves saved and into heaven. He didn’t tell them anything. All he said was “Follow me.”

Simon and Andrew dropped their nets, and James and John looked at their Dad, the hired hands, and the boat, and went with Jesus. It’s an amazing story. And it’s not hard to kind of wonder how you would do if Jesus came along while you were at work or school or sitting on the front porch with family and friends and said, “Hey, come with me.” Or maybe it’s not hard to figure out at all. Probably stay just where you were. How the disciples were able to do that, I just don’t know.

Rev. Kate Huey, who writes for the United Church of Christ’s Sermon Seeds blog says that comparing and contrasting ourselves with those first disciples may not be the best way to look at this story. She points us to a sermon “Home Another Way” where Barbara Brown Taylor for an alternative viewpoint.

“Taylor,” Huey writes, “says that this is not a story about the disciples, but a story about God.” And Huey writes,“to focus on what the disciples gave up (and whether we could do the same), is for Taylor ‘to put the accent on the wrong syllable’. This ‘miracle story,’ as Taylor calls it, is really about ‘the power of God – to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before.”

Taylor also writes “What we may have lost along the way is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.”

I agree this is a better way of looking at this story. The focus is not what would we do in such a situation, but what God might do with us if we just up and followed Jesus.

Jesus never told those first disciples where they were going. But we know it’s going to have something to do with the Culture of God, or the Stuff of God. And we also know if the disciples, as inept as they were, can go on that journey with Jesus, we can too.

When I think about the Culture of God I go right back to the creation story in Genesis. When God was creating the world we read that by the sixth day, God was really getting into it. God looks at everything and says, “It’s good.” And then after creating humankind in God’s own image, and finishing up with the details of creating the world, the narrator says God was right, “it was very good.”

Jesus knew that the world that God created was very good. Obviously, we have managed to bring some things into this world that are not so good. But I think Jesus’ invitation to follow him is to discover the world that God made, to discover that Culture of God. That’s not an easy thing to do. Jesus, and almost all of those first 12 disciples, plus many other folk along the way, were killed for seeking the Culture of God. But Jesus knew that as chancy as the whole enterprise was, they could trust God to be with them on that journey to wherever they were going, because Jesus trusted that God is a God of life.

If we are going to discover that world that God sees as good, even very good, there are some words we need to keep in mind. These really are, I think, words to live by as we follow Jesus and seek the Culture of God. They come up in the Gospel and all through the Bible; words like kindness, gentleness, mercy, forgiveness, love, peace, compassion, hope, faith, trust, goodness.

Have you all heard about the Kansas legislator who is telling people he is praying for Barack Obama’s death and wants others to join him? I may not know everything the Culture of God is, but I know some of what it is not, no matter how well such rants are received in some churches. That is not the proclamation, the good words of the Culture of God. It’s the ugliness that Jesus wants his followers to counter.

When those guys went fishing, they didn’t take their fishing rods and pluck a fish here and there out of the water. They threw their nets in and went for a lot of fish. Much of what is seen as evangelism is the fishing rod method, plucking people here and there out of the muck of the world and landing them in heaven. But Jesus was calling those first disciples to cast the nets and start a movement, the God Movement, which isn’t simply about saving a person here and there, but discovering the goodness of this world that God made. That movement is the path to salvation.

This is an amazing story, those guys dropping their nets and following Jesus, especially when you read the rest of the story and see how clueless they were so much of the time. Jesus, obviously, didn’t invite them to follow him because they got it, because they were so spiritual.

Like us, like our own stories, they were, though, the raw material that Jesus knew God could work with. This actual first miracle Jesus performed by the lake that day still continues in us, even if Jesus has to smack us upside the head.

Who knows where this journey with Jesus is going to take us? But it will be the pathway of life. And even if things get hard there is going to be kindness, gentleness, mercy, forgiveness, love, peace, compassion, hope, faith, trust, and goodness; the things of the Culture of God along the way. And God is going to look at what we who have been smacked upside the head are creating with Jesus and say, “Yes, that’s very, very good.”

When Christmas Gets Ugly

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Matthew 2
January 8, 2012
Steve Hammond

The baby crying in the silence of the night of Bethlehem. The babies and their parents crying as the soldiers batter down the doors of their homes and run their swords through every baby who looks like a boy under the age of 3. Jesus and his family escape Herod’s carnage to become illegal aliens in Egypt. There, perhaps, they got a warmer welcome than if they had come across those from our own country who would have sent them back to Herod in the name of protecting our borders.

This is where the Christmas story gets ugly. And it helps me to understand the appeal of a theology that is primarily concerned about getting ourselves saved and into heaven, rather than deal with the mess of this earth. And I think it is fair to say that the story of Herod’s slaughter of all those babies seems more like the world we know than the wonder of Bethlehem.

You don’t have to look very far to see how hard things can be for so many in this world. I was watching TV the other night and saw this story about the consequences of the eradication of the poppy plants in Afghanistan. Raising poppies is about the only avenue that many people have in Afghanistan to make a living that will support their families.

Those poppies are, of course, are turned into opium, and end up driving the illegal drug trade throughout the world, including North America.

When those crops are destroyed, the farmers have no way to pay back the money they have borrowed from the Taliban, so they are required to give their young daughters to the Taliban as repayment. That is one of the ways we continue to slaughter the innocents in our world today. And to make the story even worse, the funds that are supposed to go to the farmers to help them replace poppies with other agricultural products never get to them. They end up funding the new homes and cars and jewelry and travels of the governmental officials who are supposed to be distributing those funds. Herods are everywhere.

The Herod on the throne when Jesus was born was a piece of work, as they say. This was not the first time he had children killed. He ordered the death of two of his own sons because he thought they were plotting against him. Then there was the wife he had killed. He also ordered the deaths of 300 public servants who he suspected of plotting some conspiracy against him. Who knows how many babies he had killed in his hunt for Jesus? He was willing to do awful things just to hold on to power and bleed the people of whatever money he could in this tiny little nation of no real importance in the geopolitics of his day. It sounds all to familiar to our own day and time.

We could go on and on this morning telling stories about the hard and horrible things that are happening in our world and our own lives. The wars, the famines, the corrupt governments, the greed that is destroying the environment with the help of our political leaders. The children who are being slaughtered today through a variety of means and Herods. Mary and I just buried our daughter Sarah, Karl his farther, and Jeannie her brother. It’s enough to make you throw up you hands and join the Left Behinders and others who have no hope for this world, and say that the sooner God destroys it the better.

Thankfully, we have people like Howard Thurman, the late theologian, pastor, (including a stint at Mt. Zion Baptist Church here in Oberlin), and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted advisors to help us get some perspective on all of this. This is one of his poems, it’s called “I Will Light Candles This Christmas.”

Candles of joy, despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope, where despair keeps watch,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

An in one place he wrote this “The true meaning of Christmas is expressed in the sharing of one’s graces in a world in which it is so easy to become callous, insensitive, and hard. Once this spirit, this true meaning of Christmas, becomes part of a person’s life, every day is Christmas, and every night is freighted with anticipation of fresh, and perhaps, holy, adventure.”

And there were lots of holy adventures in the Christmas story itself. Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, the Wisemen, and the holy adventure Jesus himself had by coming into this world in the first place.

If we take incarnation seriously, Word becoming flesh, we realize that God entered into this world knowing exactly how things can be. God knows that it’s not all Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright. There are too many Herods, there is plenty of darkness that is trying to overcome the light. The Holy adventure Jesus invited us to take is to become ourselves light that shines in the darkness, healers that bring hope and life into this land of shadows.

There is plenty of darkness, there are still plenty of Herods afoot. But there are plenty of people making peace, feeding hungry people, plenty of people offering love, help, and support. There are plenty of people who trust what Jesus said and are busy building a new world. Incarnation not only honestly confronts the darkness, but proclaims the light. Mary and I, like so many others know how dark it can get, but we also have learned in a very real way that the darkness can never overcome the light. The light has come into the world and it has lit up people like you.

The Wisemen weren’t as smart as we might think. But they were willing to learn. It just seemed obvious to them that if you are going to greet the new born king of Israel, you go to Jerusalem. They nearly ruined everything by doing so. But they were able to see that this king wasn’t like any king ever before. He wasn’t found in a palace in Jerusalem, but in a home or maybe more like a shack, in Bethlehem. They realized this story was no longer simply about Israel, but everybody. And they were willing to risk their own lives by defying Herod and going home another way, so Herod couldn’t get his hands on the baby. Talk about a holy adventure.

Like with the Wisemen, who could have taken the easy way out and gone back to Herod we can surrender to the darkness and just give up on this world. Or we can go home another way, a more risky way. It’s the way of Jesus who is not looking so much to get us into heaven, but get heaven into us, and heaven into this world.

I’m going to close with the more well known poem by Howard Thurman. We manage somehow to get it in nearly every year, but it is something we need to remember every year.

The Work of Christmas.

When the songs of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with the flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.