Sunday, August 20, 2006

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20)

This past week I was asked a difficult question. If I were packing my bags for a shipwreck on a desert island, what one book would I bring along to keep me company? I assume that the distributors of the Gideon Bibles already have desert islands stocked with King James versions of the Holy Scriptures, so I racked my brain for a second-most important book to bring along on my hypothetical marooning. After briefly considering my complete Shakespeare anthology that would take me a good decade to get through, I realized that the one book I couldn’t do without is also tucked into each of your pews: The Chalice Hymnal. Hundreds of faithful melodies rest between the red covers of that weighty volume. As much as I love literature, there isn’t a single book that contains as much depth and breadth as a collection of songs for Christian worship.

As the years circle by, we return again and again to the summer songs of seed and grain, the Christmas carols of love and peace, the Lenten lamentations for the pain of the cross. The songs that carry us through the Christian year bear witness to the glory and the agony of God’s beloved world. Hymns connect us to our spiritual forebears, as we learn the same tunes our ancestors sang to praise the Lord. They teach us the language of our faith. As we worship God in congregational song, we do not only learn profound truths; we learn profound truths that can be hummed. And just as we can get these canticles stuck in our heads, they also have a way of getting lodged within our hearts.

In the New Testament passage that we consider this morning, Paul continues to teach the Ephesians what it means to be a Christian. When we commit ourselves to Christ, our lives take on a distinct shape. We no longer live for ourselves, but for the One who has redeemed us with his love. We are, as Paul says, to be careful how we live. Our lives are to be filled with care, in light of the grace we experience through Jesus Christ.

And we are to live in this hopeful and purposeful way not only when all is well. Paul encourages us to make the most of our time because the days are evil. We generally use that turn of phrase—“to make the most of our time”—to manage our time well enough to fit a lot of business into the hours. According to the wisdom of the world, we make the most of our time when we resist our Sabbath rest to knock every item off our to-do lists.

But I don’t think this is what Paul is getting at. “Making the most of our time” can also be translated to mean that we should transform our time, so that even when the days are evil, our lives bear witness to the goodness of God. Transforming our time is an act of resistance. When we transform our time in light of Christ’s love, we are open to the presence of the Holy Spirit in God’s beloved world.

And to make the most of our time— to live in transformed time—is to be engaged in the foundational Christian practice of worship. Time and space alike are transformed when we worship. The dingiest storefront church becomes a cathedral when the men and women within gather their voices together to praise the Heavenly Father.

I used to sing in the gospel choir at Kent State University. Even though we followed all the appropriate legal guidelines to separate church and state, when we started singing, it didn’t matter if we were in the student center or a candle-lit sanctuary. The Holy Spirit could not be disinvited to the gospel festival. With the electric bass thrumming, the soloist trilling, and all our hands raised in adoration, the air around us was transformed into a tabernacle of praise.

Time is transformed, and used for the best, when we pray, offer thanksgivings, and use our breath for worshipping God in song.

Time is transformed even when the days seem so evil that we can hardly bear to sing.

The days are evil, says Paul. And try as I might to find a way to disagree, I cannot. The days really do seem to be infused with altogether too much fear, too much pain, too much grief. It’s nothing new, really; our days are no more or less evil than Paul’s days. Creation is still broken, still breaking.

A friend of mine wrote recently about her experience of planning a worshipful response to the foiled terrorist plot that would have sent shockwaves of suffering throughout this country and the world. “I truly believe that gathering in worship is one of the most faithful responses we can have to events such as we faced last week. Opening ourselves to the healing presence of God at times of our greatest vulnerability can truly transform this world. God longs for our reconciliation, for the whole cosmos, for the end of strife and terror and abuse.”

We have to do something to endure suffering. All too often we settle for a temporary respite. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is concerned with those who use alcohol to escape their pain. Their abuse of the drug gives them a momentary flash of happiness, but it is a fleeting and foolish diversion. Paul’s judgment here is less about alcohol and more about the fruitlessness of spiritual substitutes. We’ll have no better luck if we seek redemption and relief in mindless television or excessive shopping sprees. I might enjoy the minutes I spend laughing at the antics of a comedian, but those moments are not transformed time.

We need this humble hour, set aside for such a strange and wonderful purpose. At ten-thirty on the dot, this place becomes a church, for we file in and center our hearts on God. Here, we engage in the Christian art of making the most of our time through prayer and praise. We rehearse the postures and practices that make time sacred. We learn to pray, trusting that the compassionate presence of God is embracing us in our weeping and our rejoicing.

And here, as a congregation, we sing. We convert the breath rumbling around in our chests into melody, rhythm, and song. We remake our lungs into instruments of praise. We merge our individual voices into a chorus of thanksgiving. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, we transform every second of every minute of every hour into a vessel of God’s grace.

We worship, and God is glorified. We sing, and God hears. We hope, and God prevails. May it be so.


Sunday, August 13

The bible isn’t always the most practical book around. For instance, I have never known how to incorporate certain passages from the book of Leviticus into my spiritual journey. While it is historically fascinating to know that God required the Israelites to sacrifice an unblemished female goat to atone for unintentional sins, I don’t rush home to open up the book of Leviticus when I’m experiencing remorse. On the other hand, the book’s detailed instructions for detecting leprosy were of the utmost practicality for the Israelite tribes. But other biblical passages were never intended to offer practical advice; they were written to help us understand our collective identity as children of God. The stories of the bible, full of heroes and anti-heroes, illuminate what it means to be human, what it means to be created in the image of God, what it means to be alienated from our Creator. We don’t read the book of Jonah to get trained for mission work; we read the book of Jonah to ponder the awesome call of God, to recall that we may as well be swallowed up by a great fish if we disregard God’s intentions for our lives.

All of this is to say that the passage from Ephesians which we’re contemplating this morning strikes me as one of the most beautifully practical nuggets of scripture in the diverse collection of writings that make up our holy scriptures. If you’re looking for a passage to memorize, might I suggest a few lines from the fourth section of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. Here we encounter a lesson on human relationships, a little “do’s” and “don’ts” list for the Christian community. There isn’t a whole lot of theology in this passage. We are reminded that we are forgiven by God through Christ, and that means we are charged to imitate the sacrificial love and forgiveness of source of our salvation. But the crux of this text is the matter of how we treat our brothers and sisters, and so, along with a small reminder of Christ’s large sacrifice, we are instructed not to go to bed angry.

This very useful passage is included in the scriptures because our relationships with one another should be informed by our faith. Our confession of faith in Christ Jesus should have bearing on the way we think, speak, and act.

The fact of the matter is that just because we are Christians, doesn’t mean we are any nicer to one another than any other group of human beings. And this is sad. Many people have walked away from the Christian faith because they have witnessed shameful behavior among the members of Christian congregations. We want to believe that they will know we are Christians by our love, but that isn’t always the case. The Ephesian Christians received this letter because they were clearly struggling in the human relationships department. They knew that they had been clothed with new life in Christ, but they hadn’t yet figured out that this new life came with new expectations, new responsibilities. They hadn’t yet discerned how to translate the love and forgiveness they experienced through Jesus Christ into their daily lives and interactions. Their struggle is the struggle of every Christian person throughout the centuries—the struggle to embody the sacrificial love of our Lord and Savior, not only in theory, but in practice.

And so today I want to take this scripture very, very seriously, and consider how we can be ever more faithful and loving in our interactions with our sisters and brothers, our husbands and wives, our friends, our parents, our children. Know that if I sound preachy, I’m preaching to myself first. I stand before you as a person who wants to be kinder, more tenderhearted, and more forgiving of the people I love.

The author of this letter is clear about what behaviors are befitting the Kingdom community, and which behaviors should be edited from new life in Christ. Lying is definitely out. Giving into rage and anger is another sinful action. We are to reject stealing and undue temptation. Paul further coaches the Christians to eradicate bitterness, wrath, shouting, cursing, and malice from their relationships.

Isn’t this all easier said than done? Even if our closets are free of the most egregious skeletons, we all have our moral clutter: leftover grudges, quick tempers, tendencies toward gossip, or a dependence on the little white lies that pacify the ones to whom we are accountable. Even if the little things we do and say that do not align with the Kingdom of God cause us remorse, turning away from them still requires emotional and spiritual effort.

I do not think many of us would roll our eyes at Paul’s list of vices to avoid and see simply a moralistic code that serves only to illuminate our guilt. Paul is, after all, one of the greatest proponents of the amazing grace of God. This is not a man who believed that we can save ourselves by our own virtue. Yet Paul clearly sees practicing virtuous behavior as essential to the Body of Christ, the necessary and natural response to new life.

John Calvin, one of the theological minds behind the Protestant reformation, was notoriously strict on moral matters. He not only kept a close watch on his own behavior, but he set forth Ordinances for the supervision of church members and seminarians. For instance, he mandated that “If anyone sings songs that are unworthy, dissolute or outrageous, or spin wildly round in the dance, or the like, he is to be imprisoned for three days, and then sent on to the consistory.” Even though his theology stuck, his moral legislation did not, as he and his severe punishments were thrown out of Geneva.

The problem with Calvin’s moral program was that it misunderstood the relationship between freedom and virtue. As heirs of new life in Christ, we inherit a profound freedom. We are no longer saddled by sin and shame. I’ve heard about a sermon that Pastor Alan preached about the delete button. God’s forgiveness deletes our sin. Christ’s love cuts away the guilt of our vices. The last thing we need is to gain a new set of shackles in the form of moral codes we can never fully obey. Yes, we are called to be tenderhearted, but failing to do so cannot catapult us back to a prison of guilt and shame.

Dan Clendenin, a pastor whose biblical commentary offers genuine spiritual sustenance, puts it this way: “Instead of reading Paul's exhortations as legalistic commands that restrict my freedom, I think of them as promises that will transform my life, or as gifts to receive instead of goals to achieve. Imagine a politician who "put off" predictable rhetoric and "put on" truth-telling (4:25), a parent who moved from compulsive anger to gentleness (4:26), a corporate criminal who made restitution and shared generously with others (4:28), or a musician who realized how badly raunchy lyrics degrade our communities (4:29). Who would not long to live in a society where "bitterness, rage, anger, slander and every form of malice" were rare exceptions, and where "kindness, compassion, and forgiveness" ruled the day (4:31–32)? On the journey with Jesus such dreams can become reality, at least in part. I dare say you can find examples in your local church.”

“Gifts to receive instead of goals to achieve.” This is a language of virtue, an approach to faithful Christian living, that takes seriously that we are free in Christ, that we are recipients of forgiveness and grace, not simply slaves to a new master.

Paul ends this particular exhortation with a seemingly impossible command: be imitators of God. If we take this literally, John Calvin would send us all to jail and throw away the key. Yet if we understand Paul’s passionate call for virtue as a gift to receive, we can rest in God’s grace.

St. Irenaeus wrote that the glory of God is “human being fully alive.” And so to be imitators of God is not to attempt an impossible project; it is to accept the joy and responsibility that we are created in the very image of God. To imitate God is not to become intolerable perfectionists or sanctimonious slaves to the law. To imitate God is to become more authentically human, free enough to live in Christ’s love.

I don’t know if I have succeeded in my attempt to be practical; tossing John Calvin into the fray isn’t always a good indicator of practicality. But I do know that as much as we need guidelines for how to love and live well, Christian morality is much more than a behavioral code. We are Kingdom people, a living witness to God’s glory and love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, July 30, 2006

I love bread—any kind. I’m happy with a loaf of enriched white Wonderbread, although I love bakery bread even more: cibatta, pumpernickel, and especially foccacia. Bread is a hearty and comforting food, worthy of its reputation as the staff of life. It is made of ingredients that come from the earth, and by eating it, we are nourished and strengthened to live another day. Bread is also one of the most significant and lasting symbols in the Christian church. Although we are identified most clearly with the cross, it is bread that shapes our communal life. Every time we gather for worship, a loaf of bread is blessed and broken to be shared with all those present. The ordinary bread that we consume together is just that—ordinary. The product of flour and eggs and yeast. What makes this bread the Bread of Heaven? What is the difference between a basket of bread passed around the table at a soup kitchen, and the bread we will share together today?

In the gospel reading today, a crowd of people are hard at work trying to sort out the message that Jesus and his disciples are preaching. Earlier in the chapter, John gives his account of Jesus feeding five-thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. This is one of the great miracle stories of the bible. It is both heartwarming and inspiring to think about Jesus simply feeding people, especially in our current context of widespread hunger and malnutrition throughout the world. Yet Jesus was deeply troubled by the episode. The people who had been fed began to believe in him immediately. After all, Jesus had performed a miracle that directly affected their lives: he had met one of their most basic physical needs. It is no wonder their hunger was transposed to faith.

Yet, John tells us, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain by himself.” Jesus did not want to buy their faith with food. When he returns from the mountain, Jesus tells them that they aren’t seeking him out because they understand who he is, but because they “ate their fill of the loaves.” He tells them that perishable bread is secondary, and that they should seek out bread from Heaven. “I am the bread of Life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The message is clear, relatively speaking. Jesus fed them with ordinary bread—albeit ordinary bread that he cooked up in a miracle, not an oven. The point is that the people were hungry, and Jesus fed them, and they believed. But Jesus wanted them to go further with their faith—to crave that other kind of bread, the Bread of Life.

Jesus knew the weakness of humankind; he knew that the belief people developed after being fed might have been rich with gratitude, but it was not rich with genuine faith. He wanted people to believe in him because what he said was true, not because he had the ability to multiply loaves. It is challenging to desire Heavenly Bread when there is no earthly bread to be found. But it can also be challenging to desire Heavenly Bread when our cupboards are so full we forget to be grateful.

During my freshman year of college, I was assigned to read The Brothers Karamazov, a really, really, really long novel written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Even though I loved reading, I was not enthused at the prospect of getting through that enormous Russian novel, let alone figuring out what it meant enough to write a thesis about it. At first I carried it around like a paperback cross, but as I read I became completely immersed in the story.

Through the character of Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky explores the paradox of the two breads. Ivan is a brooding character, full of equal parts faith and doubt. Ivan tells a story that takes place in the sixteenth century, during the Inquisition. In the tale, Jesus returns—though not with the fanfare of the second coming. Even though he is quiet and unassuming, the people recognize him immediately; Ivan recounts, “The sun of love burns in his heart, light and power shine from his eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love.” Just as you might expect, within hours of appearing on earth again, Jesus raises a young girl from the dead. The crowd is delighted; but the local cardinal, who is affectionately called the Grand Inquisitor, is furious. He orders that Jesus be arrested and thrown into prison.

The Grand Inquisitor then visits Jesus’ cell and explains at length why Jesus and the message he brings must be suppressed. In the mind of the Grand Inquisitor, who literally represents the church, Jesus made things too hard for humanity. It all comes down to bread. Jesus had the ability to turn stones into bread, and feed the throngs of hungry people. But he did not give into that temptation; instead of giving the people the bread of earth, he gave them freedom to choose a life of faith, and the promise of the Bread of Heaven. According to the Grand Inquisitor, the Bread of Heaven could not compete with earthly bread in the eyes of weak and hungry humanity. Maybe a few strong-willed folks could withstand earthly hunger for the promise of eternal life, but what about the hapless weak ones? In other words, the Grand Inquisitor thought that Jesus’ refusal to buy faith with offerings of bread was a mistake.

Furthermore, the Grand Inquisitor states, because the church loves its people, the church would work to “CORRECT” Jesus’ teachings. The church would continue to feed people and quell their earthly suffering, all the while keeping that other kind of bread, the Bread of Life, a secret.

Dostoevsky offers a pretty searing critique of the church in this fable. He likens a respected religious leader to a intentional heretic. When I was eighteen and saw the church as a hypocritical institution, I thought it was so cool that Dostoevsky was pointing out how far from Jesus’ message the church had strayed. But now I understand something I missed: Dostoevsky was a faithful member of the church. His satirical treatment of the church’s inability to embody the teachings of Christ was an attempt to remind the church that we are most deeply sustained by the Bread of Heaven.

In the scriptures, Jesus struggles to balance the need for both the bread of heaven and the breath of earth. The world needs both kinds of bread: the bread that fills our bodies, and the bread that fills our souls. Earthly bread is a matter of justice. Today in the reading from the Psalms, we were reminded to Praise God because God is a God who executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. Every time we eat a piece of bread, we are to thank God for providing us with this most basic need. Likewise, as responsible Christians, we are charged with the task of providing food for the hungry. Literally. If we do not feed our hungry brothers and sisters, we do not feed Christ.

But we need that other bread, too. Desperately. The Bread of Heaven is the symbol of our salvation as a people. I know how important receiving communion is to each one of you. The broken bread is a sign of forgiveness, love, hope. It reminds us that God is ever present in our lives: even through something so ordinary as a piece of bread. We are given life through this simple ritual. Our voices join the voices of the crowd in saying to Jesus, “GIVE US THIS BREAD ALWAYS.”

The God who created us understands our needs. May our bodies be filled with the Bread of Earth. May our souls be filled with the Bread of Heaven. And may our hearts be filled with gratitude and the desire to share this message of Justice and Salvation so that all the world might taste such goodness.

Sunday, July 16

Children are often asked a question on their birthdays, after the presents are open and the candles extinguished. —“so do you feel older?” It always seemed like a silly inquiry. Even on those big birthdays—crossing over to double-digits, or becoming a teenager, or hitting any number ending in zero—you don’t usually wake up on the morning of your birthday feeling any different than the day before. Well, given the content of the past seven days, I did wake up my birthday feeling as though I had aged at least a year. What a week it has been. On Friday, many members and friends of this congregation gathered to remember with thanksgiving the life of Laura Lee. Yesterday, I officiated at my first wedding. The preparations that went into those events were significant. I’m not always the most organized and detail-oriented person, and these qualities are needed in exponential quantities for weddings.

This has been a big week for the world, too. I’m sure many of you have been following the headlines regarding the surge of violence in Israel and Lebanon. The conflict in that region usually hovers just below the boiling point, but once again an episode of mutual retaliation has broken the relative quiet. The global community is still on edge from the North Korean missile testing that occurred a short time ago. The unrest in Iraq and Sudan continues on. The G8 summit gathered for their annual meeting, and the globally popular World Cup finished up in Germany. My favorite headline of the week was by far a story that came out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A Christian minister has started a successful program to reduce the number of guns in the country. People have been lining up to trade weapons for bicycles and roofing material.

Sometimes weeks like this come and go, and I absorb all the headlines, and all the joys and sorrows of ministry, without having the presence of mind to reflect on where God is in all this. But every so often in the midst of these weeks of life and death, violence and love, I am reminded of the one thing I need to know to be able to handle all this, as a pastor and as a person: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

We belong to God. This beautiful and broken Creation belongs to God. And keeping mindful of this profoundly changes the way we live and move and have our being. We are delivered from fear and anxiety when we trust that all things, seen and unseen, are resting within the arms of a loving and merciful God. God embraces us, and the life of faith means mustering the courage and the confidence to return his embrace, to hold onto what saves us.

A little over a year ago, when Ben and I were spending some time in Ohio before we returned to California to move into the Parsonage and begin our new life here, we went Whitewater rafting with a friend. As it turned out, we did not have an experienced raft guide. He seemed confident as he went over the basics on land, but soon after leaving for our expedition, we learned that he was leading his very first rafting trip. On the very first series of rapids, he panicked. Our raft spun out of control as we passed through a narrow channel between rocks. Even though my head was literally spinning, I can remember clear as day that he kept repeating hold on, hold on. And I remember thinking, dude, I’m holding onto an oar. How is that going to help?

Sure enough, I flew out of that raft and into the river, still holding onto my oar with a death grip. And I’d like to believe that one sign of my calling as a preacher is this: even as I was at the mercy of a quickly moving current, drifting away from my raft and toward a very large rock, I thought: boy, is this ever a sermon illustration.

I did what the apprentice raft guide said; I held on. But I was holding onto something that couldn’t keep me safe. I was holding onto something that was as unmoored as I was. It was a tool to steer us away from danger, but it could not be trusted for anything more. The guide had failed to remind me that to stay in a raft, you have to wedge your feet tightly into the side of the boat. Only then are you safely lodged in the only thing between you and the chaotic waters. Holding onto the oar doesn’t work, a lesson the raft guide learned when he himself was thrown from the craft—along with Ben— on the next major rapid.

We have to be sure that we are grasping on to what grasps us, that what we hold in times of celebration and hardship— and everything in between— is what holds us.

It is all too easy to forget that we belong to God, and that our best move in any situation is to reach for our Heavenly Father. Whether our lives are in a state of humdrum or hubbub, peace or strife, the words of that Psalm are true as ever. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. We are God’s, God holds us, God is intimately involved in every breath we take. This is true for each one of us, and this is true for all the nations.

I hope you’ll understand that today I will close with borrowed words. I have run out of words this week, and am content to rest in God’s gracious arms, and to simply entreat you to do the same. I found a poem that speaks to me in weeks like this, a poem that rehearses the faithfulness of the Psalms in contemporary language. The author is Bruce Prewer, a Christian pastor who lives and ministers in Australia.


This is God’s world, and it is not aimless.

Time has a purpose and God is its steward.

Loving God, I believe, scatter my unbelief.

It is not possible that greed and injustice are forever.

It is not possible that the meek will stay dispossessed.

It is not possible that peacemakers must inevitably fail.

It is not possible that nations will always make war.

It is not possible that the merciful will be always be scorned.

It is not possible that forgiveness will at last dry up.

It is not possible that the weak are doomed to be down trodden.

It is not possible that the hungry will always go unsatisfied.

It is not possible that sincere hearts will always be exploited.

It is not possible that laughter shall finally be stilled.

It is not possible that fear will always outwit love.

It is not possible that the cynics will always be right.

It is not possible that goodness will have flowered in vain.

It is not possible that death will render all things futile.

It is not possible that Jesus will ever be forgotten.

It is not possible that faith will die out on earth.

Christ holds God’s secret in open, wounded hands,

Christ is our future and all will be redeemed.

Loving God I believe, scatter my unbelief.

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Thanks be to God!