Tuesday, March 6, 2012

People get ready...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 11, 2012 - the Third Sunday in Lent. They are part three of my series on the Statement of Faith in the United Church of Christ.

“Where do YOU experience God?”  That’s a foundational question for us on the third Sunday of Lent.  Because, you see, I suspect that there is a significant difference in our various understandings of where we go to meet God, to experience God and to participate with God in the Lord's ongoing work and how we understand most of the rest of our time, ok?

·         Many people – in our Reformed tradition as well as Roman Catholics, Anglicans and those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” – sense something of the Lord in the awe and beauty of nature, right?

·         Can you name some of those places out loud – places where you have sensed and experienced something of God’s awesome power and ravishing beauty?

Nature is clearly one of the places some of us taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  Where else does this happen for you?  (Invite the people to share their insights…)

Now tell me your reaction to this statement:  Research in the United States suggests that while many – maybe even most – Americans have experienced something of the awe and beauty of God somewhere at some time in their lives, most of us don’t make a connection between those experiences and our everyday, ordinary walking around lives. In fact, if the research is to be trusted, despite our authentic encounters with the holy, for most of us there is very little correlation between how we spend our time or money – how we talk to one another or act at work – and our breath-taking encounters with the sacred.

·         When asked “how do you live out your faith in your everyday life” most Americans think this is a question about how often do you go to worship, or, how often do you evangelize others?

·         Sometimes we interpret “living out your faith” to mean being a “good or ethical person,” but rarely – in fact, almost never – do North Americans recognize how our lived experience with God touches the remaining 167 hours of the week that aren’t spent in Sunday morning worship.

So what do you think about that:  reactions?

So what do we DO about this disconnect – this gap between our experience of God’s awesome power and ravishing beauty - and our ordinary lives? Well, first of all, let’s be honest:  this isn’t the first time God’s people have faced this challenge, ok?  Not to diminish the problem, but this has always been a part of the challenge of being faithful since the beginning of time – so we’re in good company in our confusion.

I’m not kidding:  isn’t that part of what is at play in this morning’s lessons? We begin with the 10 Commandments: 

·         They open with the words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. No other gods, only me. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don't bow down to them and don't serve them…

·         And close saying:  All the people, experiencing the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the smoking mountain, were afraid—they pulled back and stood at a distance…  So Moses spoke to the people: "Don't be afraid. God has come to test you and instill a deep and reverent awe within you so that you won't sin."

In other words: You have been awed… so that you may turn away from sin.  God has come and shared with you a covenant… so that you might make the connection between God’s love and how you live publically and privately in a new and reverent way.

St. Paul speaks to that, too when he tells us: the Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written, I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head and I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots…

And just so that we don’t miss the point, the gospel has Jesus chasing people OUT of the Temple and into the streets with a whip! What’s more, this outrageous act of civil disobedience is the Lord’s “inaugural public appearance” in the words of St. John. The Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests that it is as if John is telling us that the whole point of Christ’s coming is to show us how God is everywhere: in the Temple as well as the streets.
In our corporate board rooms and banks as well as our bedrooms and acts of intimacy – in our public behavior and our private thoughts.  How does today’s Psalm put it?

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… The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together. The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy.

And so, we say in the United Church of Christ in our Statement of Faith:  Lord, you judge human beings and nations according to your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles. 

·         This is telling us something about God:  God is not just in the Temple – or the Church – or in our so-called sacred duties, but God is in the world and the streets and everywhere.

·         What’s more, God is a judge – and let’s take a little time to go deeper with this – because while some religious traditions begin and end with this truth – God is a judge – ours celebrates a more nuanced and liberating truth, ok?

You see, it is not coincidental that our theology celebrates a belief that God seeks to save us from aimlessness and sin first through holy love before we ever talk about judgment.  Remember how the Apostle Paul put it in the prophetic poetry of I Corinthians 13?

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

And if you want to know why that is an important distinction, just substitute the word “God” for love in this biblical poem and you will begin to grasp the very heart of the Lord:  God never gives up… God cares more for others than for self… God doesn’t keep score of the sings of others, doesn’t revel with others grovel… and all the rest.  Are you with me?  That is where we start in our tradition – with love – but that is not the totality of our experience or understanding of the Lord.

For we go on to say that our Loving God also judges us and all of creation by his righteous will – and let me share two thoughts with you about the word righteous so that we might appreciate why this matters.  Throughout the Bible the word righteous is NEVER about self-righteousness, ok?  What do you think of when you hear SELF-righteous?

·         Arrogant – judgmental – holier than thou…

·         And that is NOT what scripture teaches about God’s righteousness will:  for God’s righteousness is rooted in grace and justice.

It is a relational word describing both God’s responsibility to us in love and our responsibility to others because of that love.  In Hebrew it is the word tzedek – justice bearer – and in Greek it is dikaios – the seeker of holy love in all things.  So in both the Old and New Testaments the goal of justice and grace is right relations between God’s people.  In fact, in Romans 12 the Apostle Paul writes that right relations between God’s people is what our holy worship is all about!

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

·         That’s at the heart of the 10 Commandments, right?  Live with one another according to the love God has already shared with you?

·         God rested after creation – you and your neighbors needs a rest, too.  God is about creating life, so no murder.  God is about faithful relationships, so knock off the adultery.

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.

What I am trying to say is that it is God’s righteous will – the Lord’s commitment to both justice and grace – that becomes the foundation of judgment for us.  Not someone else’s prejudice or limited vision – not an imperfect judicial system – not the capricious whim of a petty political tyrant.  For God judges people and nations according to the standards of holy grace and justice:  is that clear?

And that means, beloved, that God’s judgment is NOT a matter of our personal conscience.  Not only is personal conscience all too often shaped by popular culture at the lowest common denominator, but it is too slippery to be trusted all by itself. Think of the current controversy the comedian, Rush Limbaugh, has created calling a young woman concerned about contraception a slut and a whore.

Notice that I call him a comedian: he is an entertainer, first and foremost, even if his approach is vile and his material political. He is not a public intellectual or a man of moral conviction:  he sells soap – and he uses controversy to stir up an audience. And shame on us all for listening and treating his mean-spirited rants as anything but bread and circus for those who love to go slumming.

·       So why now is Rush being spanked publically and corporate advertising fleeing his broadcast like rats jumping off a sinking ship? Not because of the market place – not because of popular culture – and certainly not because of his conscience!

·         No, Brother Limbaugh is being judged according to the righteous will of God as made clear in the prophets and apostles:  people of faith all over America are saying how does this filth jive with the call to love our neighbor as our self?  Jews, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists – Republicans and Democrats, too – are saying out loud what we’ve known in our hearts for too long:  thou shall NOT lie.

Our Statement of Faith teaches that we have to turn to the Hebrew prophets, just as Jesus did before us, for some clues about what a holy and sacred grace and justice look like.  One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentors – Rabbi Abraham Heschel – explains what we can learn from the prophets.

To the prophet… God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. God does not simply command and expect obedience. The Lord is also moved and affected by what happens in the world and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in God joy and sorrow, pleasure or wrath.  For God is concerned about the world and shares its fate.

Eugene Peterson amplifies this saying: (The prophets) told kings that their power was nothing compared to God’s. They told the people that trust in military might and wealth alone was no assurance of security. And above all, they condemned religion when it became a way to evade God’s demands for right relations. Think of the herdsman Amos who said, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals and take no delight in solemn assemblies… so let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and every flowing stream in the desert.”  Why?  Another prophet, Hosea, tells us:  Because the Lord our God desires steadfast love not empty ritual – intimate knowledge of the Lord that results in right relationships not just burnt offerings.

And that’s what Jesus is putting into practice in today’s gospel:  his throwing the merchants out of the Temple and driving the people into the street is an act of civil disobedience born of a long and uncomfortable history among the prophets. Jeremiah, a priest of the Temple called to challenge the status quo, once stood in front of the Jerusalem temple in about 626 BCE and said:

Listen, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship God. The Lord says that the time has come to clean up your act—the way you live, the things you do—so I can make my home with you in this place. Don't for a minute believe the lies being spoken here. 'Get smart! Your leaders are handing you a pack of lies, and you're swallowing them! Use your heads! Do you think you can rob and murder, have sex with the neighborhood wives, tell lies nonstop, worship the local gods, and buy every novel religious commodity on the market—and then march into this Temple, set apart for my worship, and say, "We're safe!" thinking that the place itself gives you a license to go on with all this outrageous sacrilege? A cave full of criminals! Do you think you can turn this Temple, set apart for my worship, into something like that? Well, think again. I've got eyes in my head. I can see what's going on.

Are you still with me?  I know I’ve thrown a lot of Bible at you today, but it is important:  we need to know that God’s judgment is shaped by grace and justice – love and right relations between people – not our own prejudices or even our own conscience. So we look to the prophets for clues – and also the apostles.

And I think the reason we’re advised to consider both the prophets and apostles is so that we grow up – mature – and ripen in our faith.  God doesn’t need more children running around – in just our life time there’s already been a population explosion of childish behavior – rather what God asks of us is that we grow up in faith so that everyday our  lives give shape and form to the way of Jesus.

Outside in the awesome beauty of nature – inside in our homes and families. Outside in the realm of finance and politics – inside with our checkbooks and smart phone calendars.  And let me bring this home right now by reminding you that lives are at stake in how we understand judgment - real lives - your lives and my life and lives we may never see but lives that are just as precious to the Lord as are your and my own children. 

There is a hatred and a fear alive in America - it has always been there - but it is way out in the open these days and it is angry and viscious and loves to strike out at the most vulnerable among us.  So if we don't have a sacred standard by which to be judged - a holy standard bigger than our fears and shadows - we will find ourselves swallowed up by evil and wound those Jesus loves.  One of my former pastors, Jim Forbes, once of Riverside Church in NYC and my professor of homelitcs once put it like this in discussing his own maturation in judgment.  In speaking about himself he told Bill Moyers:

I discovered that the Pentecostal tradition as I had been nurtured in it had a problem for me.  And that problem was that I, for all of my understanding of the Spirit, did not speak in tongues. I had never spoken in tongues and now I was pastoring a Pentecostal church... And people were saying, "Well, he's just the pastor because his daddy is the bishop and gave him a church so how can he help us get the blessing when he doesn't have it himself?'  And that experience has had more to do with who I have become - and how I understand judgment - than anything else.  And let me tell you how.  It got me ready for my ministry because this is what religious folk do all the time: they go around judging other people by their own standards and are not prepared to believe that people have to find their own creative relationship with the Lord...

So over and over again I have had to learn about God's judgment - not mine - not the culture's - but God's judgment... and I have come to see that the God that Jesus reveals to me would prefer that attention be given to those children and people who are different especially if that difference has occasioned rejection, humiliation and ostracism.

Can I hear an: AMEN?!?  So let us be clear that we confess that God judges us all – human beings and nations – by his righteous will as declared through prophets and apostles: and this is GOOD news.

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