Monday, October 26, 2009

"What Do You Want...?"

Sheepscott Community Church October 25, 2009

Job 42: 1-6; 10-17

Hebrews 7: 23-28

Mark 10: 46-52

“What Do You Want...?”

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus in this morning’s gospel. If you recall, he asked the same question of the apostles James and John in last week’s gospel. I dare say, he asks us the same question as well: “What do you want me to do for you?” That’s a big question, a big issue right at the outset of this message, but so be it. Time is of the essence, and we have to deal with what our options are. Here our option is Jesus’ question and what our answer might be.

If we were to answer this question honestly, we would have to go through a period of self-examination, whether that would be a few minutes of the examination of conscience, a concept some of us learned at our parents’ knee, or a matter of years of struggle to become our authentic selves. Whatever the period of self-examination, and whatever the form that self-examination might take, we could then stand before Jesus and say, This, this is what I want from you.

Like Bartimaeus did. There was no question about what he was after. He wanted his sight. His response to Jesus was immediate and enthusiastic. He was up like a shot when Jesus called for him, and the reason Jesus did call for him was his noisy perseverance, shouting at the passing parade from where he sat. Those around Jesus and Bartimaeus were trying to quiet him because they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for Passover, and at this point was in Jericho, about 15 miles from the city. It was a common practice for renowned teachers, or rabbis of the period to teach as they walked. Their followers, and all those who had gathered along the road to wish the Jerusalem-bound pilgrims godspeed––picture the Boston Marathon, especially Heartbreak Hill––would be hanging on the rabbi’s words, so it’s not hard to imagine how annoyed they would be with Bartimaeus’s persistent hollering that would make it difficult to hear the rabbi’s words.

But as I say, it was just that hollering that got Jesus’s attention, and so Bartimaeus ran to Jesus when Jesus called for him. He was persistent and immediately responsive. And he knew exactly what he wanted. His was not some vague sentimental wish but a clear, urgent desire: “Rabbi, I want to see.” There was no exclamation point in the text, but I could feel one. If, when we respond to Jesus’ question about what we want of him, if we are as focused and single-minded, as passionately desirous of what we want as Bartimaeus was, things will happen.

What happened with Bartimaeus was based on his faith. Like James and John last week, his theology was off kilter when he addressed Jesus as Son of David. That title carries the weight of the dynasty of the great King David, from whose line Jesus was descended, as we can read in the first chapter of Matthew. It is a messianic title, but it conjures a messiah who would lead Israel in a military sense––like David––to national greatness by freeing them from the Roman yoke. Like James and John, this blind man in the countryside was looking for that kind of a messiah and had not a clue what the messiah would be like, even though that very one was standing there before him with healing in his wings.

But that healing is and was based not on Bartimaeus’s politics or theology, but on his faith in Jesus, as with James and John last week. If you recall, even though their conception of Jesus as a conquering messiah on whose left and right hands they asked to be seated when he came into his kingdom, even with that, as with Bartimaeus, their faith, his faith, was great. His heart, their hearts were in the right place. They recognized Jesus but not the full meaning of why he had come or who he was. How could they? How can we? We need the inoculation of our imaginations by nothing and no one less than the Spirit of God, who provides an infusion of understanding about the things of God, the life of God, as revealed in Jesus the Christ.

“What do you want of me? What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus continually asks us. His life as he lived it on earth and his life as he continues to live it now is always asking the same thing because he chose to lay down that life for the fulfillment of God’s purposes. If you recall, last week I talked about the meaning of atonement and asked us to consider, not to think in terms of a god who demands every bit of blood from the body of Jesus in order to satisfy a justice that is steeped in blood for its meaning, but to think in terms of a God who lays himself down, makes himself a bridge to pass over. While the cross is the focus of the sacrifice, I plead in that same court of justice for that different, or wider understanding, for a different, other image of the God Jesus called Father. We do know that Jesus freely chose––not happily, but freely––to go through with what had become inevitable, given his earlier choices. In last week’s reading from Hebrews, Jan read that “During the days of Jesus’s life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”

I can imagine those loud cries and tears in Gethsemane. I know they were tired, but it still surprises me that Peter, James and John were able to sleep through it. But we know from today’s reading from Hebrews, that though his cries and tears were heard, a supernatural rescue was not in the offing, and Jesus acquiesced to the inevitable outcome. As it is written, “He sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself.” In other words, he said, Okay, I’ll do it, but not before he had pled that it be otherwise.

The suffering is reminiscent of Job’s story, which we’ve been hearing for the past weeks, the last installment today. While Job was immersed in suffering, his friends gathered around him, wisely silent for a period of time. But then all began to hold forth about what Job had done to deserve this or what he should do to get out from under it. With friends like this, etcetera. But here at the end of the book of Job, after his encounter with God, after he has seen God, viz., understood who he himself, Job, was before God, he repented in dust and ashes. Then God called for a sacrifice from the friends and a prayer for them from Job, considering their unacceptable understanding of who God is, their “folly” as God calls it. So Job did pray for his friends and God accepted his prayer...

...even as Jesus prayed for those who were actually killing him. In Luke it is written that he asked God to forgive them as they did not know what they were doing. Certainly that includes us as we bumble and bluster along. Jesus, our high priest, as he is titled in Hebrews, intercedes for us at all times through all time eloquently, embodying in himself the full free offering of his life to God on our behalf. I can’t overemphasize that: that he gave the gift of his life freely, and he invites us to do the same. I remind you, I remind us, as I did last week, that the magnitude of our sacrifice will not be so great as that of Jesus, but that whatever we have to offer back to God, in union with Jesus in his sacrificial offering, will be acceptable to God because of him, just as the prayers of Job, who had seen God, just as his prayers were acceptable to God on behalf of his friends.

One contemporary example of a life offered is that of Jerzy Popieluszko. He was a Polish priest who gave his life for the Polish workers of the Solidarity movement in 1984, when he was just 39 years of age. Some of you may remember the event. This past week marked the 25th anniversary of his death. Like most Poles, Father P., as I’ll call him, had a disdain for the communist system under which the country operated, but he had never been a political activist. When the Gdansk shipworkers went on strike in August 1980, the steelworkers in Warsaw joined them in solidarity. They asked for a priest to come and celebrate Mass for them, and Father P. volunteered.

He had an epiphany at that Mass, when he realized that the workers’ struggle for justice and freedom was truly a spiritual struggle. He subsequently became a chaplain to the striking workers. The government declared martial law and thousands of Solidarity workers and their supporters were arrested. Father P. was harassed, threatened, and interrogated over and over. His response when a bomb was hurled into his apartment was, “The only thing we should fear is the betrayal of Christ for a few silver pieces of meaningless peace.”

Father P. understood the risks in what he was doing and chose to stay with the workers rather than leave for the safety of a country in the West. In the early morning hours of October 20, 1984, three men, acting for the government that wanted to silence the priest, abducted Father P. beat him, tied him up, and weighted his body with stones before throwing him alive into a reservoir. Five years later the first free postwar elections were held in Poland, and the people voted out the communist regime and elected a Solidarity government.

I find it interesting that in this context two men––the worker/politician/activist Lech Valensa, and the priest Jerzy Popieluszko––both responded to the call for justice in their time in their home country. They laid down their gifts, which were part and parcel with their lives, for a cause greater than their individual selves. The shipworker Valensa became the first freely elected president of Poland, and the other––not by his wish for it but by his willingness to be it––became an actual martyr for the cause. There are many such examples of self-sacrifice in Christianity.

As I have earlier noted, most likely we will not be asked to sacrifice on such a grand scale, that is, to give up our actual physical lives, but we are challenged to sacrifice on a scale that is commensurate with the lives we live.

Let us return to today’s gospel for a few minutes, to the story of blind Bartimaeus. Jesus’s response to him is an open and full one. Speaking out of himself as a man, all of who he was and had come to know himself to be, Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus did not presume anything. He honored his interlocutor with complete freedom to respond. His honoring of the man’s will opened a way for the man’s faith to be the foundation of what happened. But he was asking the question out of the knowledge of who he, Jesus was, and what was possible for the one who had faith in him. How exciting is that. What a moment. And each of us can stand in the place of Bartimaeus and imagine Jesus saying to us: “What do you want me to do for you?”

We all know that major block or little niggling habit or thing that never goes away. Sometimes we have a wave of longing to be rid of a habit, to purify our life of some wrong thing, to give ourselves more completely to Jesus. But we do not act on it in the moment and the chance is gone. Remember Bartimaeus jumping up and casting off his cloak so it didn’t hinder him in his rushing to get to Jesus. Let us remember him and his full-hearted and immediate response to Jesus’ call.

Some of us have medical conditions that we accept but in which we wish we had less pain, perhaps, or less fear around our mortality. We have children we sometimes agonize about, even though we know they are independent and have their own lives and can make their own choices. But love suffers with. Others of us have younger children we are responsible for and wonder how we can provide for them with all their needs, especially their emotional needs when we’re so busy trying to provide food and clothing and educational opportunities. Some of us have parents or partners for whom we are responsible and for the fulfillment of which responsibilities we sometimes feel inadequate to the task. Some of us have lost family and friends to death through illness or accident or suicide, and we just can’t seem to get past our sorrow. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed.

So we stand before Jesus who can make a complete difference in these situations. I can’t predict how, but I know, not just believe, I know that there will be a difference if we ask him for what we want in relation to these or other situations when we ask with our whole heart. Again, think of Bartimaeus. The man was blind! He said what he wanted and said it clearly: I want to see. And he saw. Notably, in that miraculous moment, Bartimaeus gave us a model of how to respond––with gratitude. He didn’t just go on his way, having gotten what he wanted. He followed Jesus up the road toward Jerusalem. He began with a need––I want to see––followed by gratitude when he did see, and finishing with loyalty: a perfect summary of the stages of discipleship.

Let him, let her who has ears, hear. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Perfect Love Can Cast Out Fear

Sheepscott Community Church October 18, 2009

Job 38: 1-7

Hebrews 5: 1-10

Mark 10: 35-45

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

The contrast between the figure of God as imaged in this morning’s reading from Job and what Jesus, the Christ, calls for in the gospel could not be greater. Jesus is quoted as saying, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” And what did we hear in Job? The story of this afflicted man has God asking, demanding really, from the quivering Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?” God goes on and on, and Job diminishes and diminishes before the majesty and power of the Creator’s monologue, which continues in that vein, a basic, Who do you think you are?

Surely that posture of the demanding All-Powerful One over the powerless man is in contrast with what Jesus is saying to his disciples in this gospel. They would actually be quite familiar and comfortable with the God presented in the Job story, as long as they and he were on the same side. Why, they might even be his henchmen, his favored ones to whom he would turn for companionship and understanding. James and John could probably have worked up quite a scenario. And Jesus would be their ace in the hole, their guarantor at the throne of grace.

But Jesus is a new revelation of the Divine in the world, and that revelation is based on serving rather than being served or cowered before. Today’s gospel story is itself revealing on a number of levels: It tells us something about Mark, about James and John and about Jesus’ standard for greatness. What it tells us about Mark, contrasted with the writer of the gospel of Matthew, is that the writer of Mark is honest. In Matthew’s account, which would have used Mark as a source, Mark being the earliest gospel, in Matthew’s account, the writer had Salome, the mother of James and John, petition Jesus for the right of her sons to sit at his right and left hands. We know Jesus told her that that was not his place to decide and assign.

By contrast, Mark has the apostles James and John themselves ask the favor of Jesus. The writer of Matthew might have thought such ambition unworthy of the apostles, so he ascribed the request to their mother, who would be expected to have ambition for her sons. Not so, Mark. He shows the disciples for what they were––not a company of saints but a group of ordinary men, to whom we ordinary people can relate with our shortcomings and our own deep-seated ambitions.

James and John may have overestimated their importance because they, with Peter, had been singled out for special revelations––think Transfiguration, among other events. Besides their ambition, it is clear that they had fundamentally failed to understand who Jesus was and what he was trying to accomplish. What amazes is not so much the repetition of this theme of ambition, but where it occurs this time. If you recall, they are on the way to Jerusalem, and Jesus has just told them––yet again––what was going to happen when they got there. “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, will flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” It can’t be stated much more baldly than that, do you think?

So, it is just after he has told them this that James and John make their request. It’s like, hell-o-o. It’s clear that they did not hear or more likely refused to hear and understand what Jesus was saying to them. They can’t think of the Messiah in any other terms than those of power and glory. It finally took them living through the experience of the cross to show and convince them that this is what Messiahship meant: being utterly spilled out in service.

All that said, with James and John’s non-understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach them, their almost total benightedness, yet they believed in him. Their hearts were in the right place, and they trusted that because Jesus was Jesus, things would eventually work out. Their hearts were in the right place. We have to believe that that is what finally matters to God. Otherwise we would despair, when we look at ourselves in the light of God’s radiance.

The story also tells us clearly what Jesus’ standard of greatness is. When he asks James and John if they can drink from the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism as he, they quickly agree that they can. Ignorance is bliss. Forward into the fray, and all that. When Jesus speaks of the cup, he is speaking of the experience allotted to humanbeings by God. When he speaks of the baptism, he is not speaking of the technical sacramental baptism as we understand it. He is speaking figuratively and asking the disciples, Can you go through the terrible experience that I have to go through? Can you face being submerged in hatred and pain and death? They said they could and in fact did eventually endure much for the sake of Jesus’ name. James was beheaded in the persecution under Herod Agrippa, and John suffered much for the Lord.

Jesus told James and John and the others that the ultimate outcome of things belonged to God; it was not his to declare or promise. Jesus never usurped the place of God. His whole life was one long act of submission to God’s will, discerned through listening prayer, and he knew that in the end that will was supreme. And that, fellow travelers, is our example. Can we handle submission at that level?

Needless to say the rest of the apostles were ticked off when they heard what James and John had been up to, and the ongoing controversy about who was to be the greatest raged again. Jesus took the opportunity to tell them again what mattered––that does seem to be the most frequently occurring adverb from week to week: again. We all need to hear these teachings of Jesus again and again in the hope that finally we might get what he is trying to say, a piece of it anyway; get who he is, at least in a limited way.

As Ted was saying last week, we hear the same stories, albeit presented in slightly and sometimes very different ways in the four gospels, year after year. When we are ready for a story to come alive and act in us, change us, it will, but not before. Like James and John, who didn’t seem to have even heard what Jesus said about the death and resurrection that lay before him, but then understanding it well and soon enough after the fact. At that point they had to accept the witness of their own eyes and experience. Readiness is all.

Jesus took the opportunity to contrast what the world considers great and what God considers great. The standard of greatness in the kingdoms of the world was and is power. How big is your army? How many people do you have control over? In the Kingdom of God, by contrast, the standard was and is that of service. The test was not what service can I get from others, but what service can I give.

The problem is that people want to do as little as possible and get as much as possible back. It’s only when they begin to want to put more into life than they take out, that life for themselves and others becomes more worthwhile. The world needs people whose ideal is service, who “get” what Jesus taught, what he is about. To underline his teaching about this to the disciples, he used the example of his own life. He had come, as he said, to give his life as a ransom for the many. This comment was widely misconstrued by early theologians who tried to make a theology of atonement out of it, bending and twisting and splitting infinitives to make it serve their purpose of drawing up the specter of the God who spoke out of the whirlwind to Job, and who might have looked and sounded a lot like the Wizard of Oz whom Dorothy and her friends encountered.

It is preferable to keep people in a state of fear, if you would control them, but that is not what Jesus was about. He, as I have just said, was about laying down his life in service, not in inducing fear in his followers, but in fact freeing them from fear. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.“ John 8:32. He had identified himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. So, knowing him they would be free, not bound in fear of a God who demands blood sacrifice, blood atonement. God sent Jesus to teach us that this is what God is like: the One who lays himself down, who makes his back a bridge we can pass over. The One who is perfect love, and as we know, perfect love casts out fear. God, incarnated in Jesus, is the One who loves to that immeasurable degree, not the One who measures teaspoon by teaspoon the blood of a Savior until the prerequisite level of satisfaction has been achieved, the red line on the measuring cup of atonement reached.

What kind of a God would measure in such a way? A God of whom men can be afraid. One who can model control through fear, as we read and marvel at in the Book of Job. Now? Now we have a different model which we experience in Jesus. How can we do that? By following Jesus’ direction: to be great in the kingdom of God we must lay down our lives in service. As John F. Kennedy famously said at his inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I appropriate those words today, making country into church and community: Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church, and for your community, remembering Jesus’ admonition about the greatest in the kingdom being the least, and the last being the first. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”

I’d like to say a bit more about the idea of atonement, on which more than one strand of Christianity bases its understanding of the life of Jesus. It’s a very important idea. So many lives have been affected by the application of that idea. As I mentioned earlier, Jesus came as he himself said in today’s gospel to give his life as a ransom for the many. Most of the traditional theologizing around that statement has Jesus paying the price to someone, usually the devil. That approach does not recognize the role of figurative language. If Jesus paid the price, it does not necessarily mean that some sum or an equivalent action was laid in the hand of another, be it that of God or Satan or any other figure employed to complete anyone’s theology.

If we say sorrows are the price of love, we mean that love cannot exist without the possibility of sorrow, but we never even think of trying to explain to whom that price is paid. What Jesus said was simply a way of saying that it cost the life of Jesus to bring men back from sin and into the love of God. It means that the cost of our salvation, the price, was the cross of Christ. Beyond that we cannot go and beyond that we need not go. We know only that something happened on the cross that opened for us a way to God. People have tried to erect a theology of atonement on what is really a saying about love.

What about the God of Job? The One who speaks from the whirlwind and who inspires dread? You have heard me say enough times that the inherent sovereignty and sheer unknownness of that One whom we call God, and which is traditionally associated with the First Person of the Trinity, or the Father, recognition of that One and our nothingness before that One is the beginning of wisdom. To assign a hairsplitting avenger status to that God, one who demands blood sacrifice, and the sacrifice of his own Son, is taking too many liberties, I think, making God into the image of our own idea of vengeful justice.

I thought of Boo Radley in this context, the anti-hero of Harper Lee’s classic tale To Kill a Mockingbird, about justice for a black American man in the post-bellum South. Scout Finch, the child narrator and protagonist of the book, and her brother Jem had made Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbor who lived by himself in a falling-down house, into the scariest of men. Like the Wizard of Oz himself, Boo proves to be the gentlest and kindest and most helpful of men in a crisis. That’s how I like to think of the God of the Hebrew Bible. Our odd need to be frightened of an authority figure, rather than loved by a tender caretaker, is God allowing the reflection of our own growth in understanding about who that One is.

If Jesus gave his life as a ransom for the many, then that is a challenge to us as his followers, as it was to the apostles, to offer our lives, insofar as we reasonably can at any given time, for God’s purposes. Because we are one with Jesus, our lives are acceptable as a ransom for the many. Act and pray with consciousness, offering all of it to God, and therein we too will be ransoming back the world and its people for God. Too ambitious, you say? Too presumptuous? I don’t think so. I think that speaks volumes about what it means to be a follower of Christ. Who knows? We may be the means to ransom back the whole village of Sheepscott into the sheepfold, where they will have plenty of company with their kind, will be safe and where there will be plenty of good green grass.

May God’s patience hold with us, and may our patience hold with one another as we try to live out the life that Jesus modeled, sharing, giving of our own lives in conjunction with him and his to the One he called Father. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Are You a Foot? A hand? An Eye?

Sheepscott Community Church October 11, 2009

Job 23: 1-13

1 Cor. 12: 12-27

Mark 10: 17-31

Are You a Foot? A Hand? An Eye?

For those of you who weren’t here last Sunday, and , well, for those of you who were for that matter, we as a congregation experienced the embodiment of the teaching I hope to get across today. It was dedication day for the new piano, which Karin Swanson donated to the church. A beautiful, perfectly tuned sound, thanks to Paul Rice the piano tuner, and things were going along beautifully. During the anthem, Carroll’s music slipped to the floor. Without skipping a beat, the choir continued to sing, and Bev Sperry came forward and picked up the music.

I only saw all this out the corner of my eye––bad right eye, limited peripheral vision––and misinterpreted and thought that with the silent piano Carroll was simply giving the choir an opportunity to shine a cappella and that Bev was only getting up to come into the main body of the church before the sign of peace during the communion service. It was only after the service that I heard the full tale. For my money, that was the Body of Christ in action. Bev saw something that needed to be done and she did it, without fanfare. It was a small thing, and you can see another way if you want, but that’s what works for me, howwe are the body of Christ...

...especially in relation to the readings this morning. I only stepped aside slightly from the assigned lectionary readings for the day to include the 1 Corinthians reading about the Body of Christ, because it so eloquently illustrates what I want to say today. This is, if you have been following the program for the last several weeks, the third in a very informal series considering the question, Why Do I Come to Church? And particularly this church.

Further on in the message, I’ll be inviting Ted Smith to come up and share for a few minutes about why he comes here, why he has become so involved in the relatively short time he and Carroll have been attending Sheepscott Community Church. I’d be delighted and I’m sure the congregation would be edified if anyone else would be willing to get up and offer his or her view or reasons about why they come here to church. Why bother with this exercise? As I mentioned last week, I think that such shared information, that expression of our life together at church is an effective way of building community, of encouraging one another as we all try to live our lives as effective witnesses of the truths Christ taught, of the truth Christ is.

In the first reading from Job, the beleaguered man says of God, “If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! / But if I go to the east, he is not there;/ if I go to the west, I do not find him./ When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he goes to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”

If I had Job’s ear, I would encourage him to come to Sheepscott Community Church. There he would find God. God cannot be fully expressed, even though we all try bumblingly to do that from time to time. God cannot be expressed; God can only be experienced. The simple gesture of picking up the dropped music without any thought of it, just because it was the decent and loving thing to do is the experience of God. Brie Wajer did virtually the same thing when Mary Chase played piano for us last January. The pages wouldn’t stay in the clips, and Mary was having difficulty. Brie came up from her seat and held the pages for Mary. I believe that was an experience of God, not spoken but acted out. So simple? Yes, so simple. The kind of gesture that Jesus would call us as disciples to pay attention to if he saw it happening, no doubt with the exhortation, Look at that. Learn from that. This is who God is.

Other examples that show clearly that it’s all of us together that constitute the Body of Christ abound in this community. I’ll give only a few. The long considered ramp finally came together fairly quickly when Herb Sperry spotted an unused ramp leaning against the Moorhouses’ house. They had no use for it, and donated it, and Herb made arrangements to have it trucked down to church. Bill and Sonnie worked on layout and design for the walkway; Karin Swanson supplied a son, Matt Dorsey, who helped with everything related to construction and design and put us on to Leroy Ellinwood, who did the excavation work. Terry Sutherburg, Bill Robb and Bill Mook turned up to help, and others did as well. Jon Robbins coordinated it all.

The cookbook is another example. Alex Wajer agreed to chair the project, which had been languishing in the back drawer of future projects for some time. As soon as she took the helm, it began to come together. Mother Chrissy and Aunt Cindy helped with the gathering of recipes and were the actual designers of the book. Jan Kilburn contributed her perfect watercolors to make the book that much more of a collector’s item. Sonnie was in the background helping with every phase of the production and being head cheerleader. Dede Heath proofread, and Sonnie, Lily, Sylvia, Bill Ussery, and other individuals in the church sold books, and more books, and more books. There yet remain more books to sell, so don’t be shy about taking a few––or 25––home.

Ted Smith assumed leadership of the piano committee. And if I say, Look. There’s the new piano and it was on time for the first service of the season at the Valley Church, I think I will have said it all, except to say he didn’t do it alone.

Every project needs someone to say, Okay, I’ll head that up, as with the piano. Jon told me that the parking lot project called out to him and also the walkway because that was where Clara was injured. This life together at church means identifying what has to be done, someone assuming responsibility for heading up a given project, and then calling on the membership of the church to help. We are a volunteer organization, and that’s how the work gets done.

But we are more than that. We are a believing community, and because of how we come together to pray and worship in our shared beliefs, and how we come together to worship and pray in our disparate beliefs, because of this, we are enabled to function as a community of service, in service to the each other and to the larger community. We are still learning how to do that together, and we have a ways to go. But our intentions, our desire to become one with God, who works in our spirits to make us in the image of the Holy One, Jesus, our intentions and desire carry the day. No, we’re not there yet, but we’re working at it. Is there anyone in the church today who has an idea, a vision for the church, something you want to see done? I invite you to present your idea to me, to someone else in the church, to a Board member or the whole Board.

(Ted, Jon and Tony witness why they come to church.)

In the gospel today, Jesus says to his disciples that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields––and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

One thing that’s clear in this passage is that Jesus is being honest with his disciples by adding those few words, “and persecutions.” Those words take away the idea of material reward for a material sacrifice, and they make clear that this new way he is showing them will be a costly thing. Jesus never bribed anyone to follow him. He was clear with the rich young man when he told him that if he wanted to be perfect, he would have to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and then he should come and follow Jesus. There was the challenge, not a bribe, but a challenge. As we know from the story, the rich young man went away sad because he had many possessions and wasn’’t ready to meet Jesus’ challenge. Jesus presents the question, the challenge, where we live. He speaks right into what is important to us, as he did with the rich young man.

Are we ready to meet the challenge to be willing to let God have God’s way in our lives? It always comes back to a matter of the will: You can have this much, we say to God, but only this much. Don’t ask too much of me; don’t ask me to change. Are we the rich young man who turns away because we aren’t willing to give up our worldly goods, or perhaps a habit that means more to us than anything else, maybe even including our loved ones? Do we hoard our time in the delusion that our time is our own? What is the best way to spend what we consider our time? The time we have on this planet? What does God ask of us?

To be realistic about it, we aren’t usually asked to give up everything to follow the will of God as revealed in Jesus, but I God is looking for our willingness to do that. If we aren’t yet willing, then at least a desire to be willing. As the author of human hearts, God knows how we are made and is mercifully patient for our sakes.

From all of this today, hear a clear invitation to be involved members of the Body of Christ as that body is living in the spirit of each of us and desiring union with us and with all, a holy union to make the body one, thereby blessing the community where that body lives, and worships and serves, and giving glory to God in the process. Remember, the God whom Job could not find in the east, in the west, in the north or the south, can be found right here on the King’s Highway in Sheepscott, Maine. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

That's Not Fair!

Sheepscott Community Church October 4, 2009

Job 1: 1; 2: 1-10

Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12

Mark 10: 2-16

That’s Not Fair!

I think all of us are familiar with the figure of Job, the character from the Hebrew bible who embodies the idea of unmerited suffering. As the story goes, in a deal struck between Satan, the accuser, and God, Satan is allowed to push Job to the limit in order to test the limits of Job’s love for God when under the lash of suffering. Sure, when things are going well, Job will praise God and rejoice in his blessings, but what happens when he loses everything? Will he still praise God? Will he accept suffering as readily as he accepted blessing? There’s the situation, but that is not the conundrum. The conundrum is how a supposedly loving God can allow, even make a deal on the suffering of the innocent? How can we trust such a God? The deeper question that reaches out from the story of Job is, if God is a God of love, why does God allow evil in the world, and again, why do the innocent suffer?

Who can read the story of Job and not cry out repeatedly, “Hey, that’s not fair!” He didn’t deserve that. How much more might we cry out in the face of the suffering Christ, “That’s not fair!” He did no evil; he only did good. Why should he suffer? Note well that there is no recorded place in the New Testament where Jesus complains that he didn’t sign on for this or that. He prepared for years for his public life and took each step into that life only after prayer, and I’ve pointed out again and again, he was always retiring to this mountain or that hillside or this desert place to commune with the One he called Father, Abba. His ascent or descent to Jerusalem for the last days of his life was a result of his prayerful choices. He acquiesced in the face of suffering, not necessarily having known from the very beginning that this is the way it would go.

Besides not complaining about what became inevitable for him, he in fact taught his disciples a lesson through a passage in Luke 13, where he talks about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus said, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” Likewise, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them––do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” We only have to look around our own area, in our own neighborhoods, our own families, to come up with our own stories about what seems patently unfair. Why do the just suffer? Why is there suffering at all if God is indeed a loving God?

Sorry, everyone. There is no ready or easy answer. There is only radical trust in the will and wisdom of God and the consolation of his Spirit in the suffering. How can I possibly get to that point in my spiritual life that undergirds my daily life and activities to be able to trust at that level? And why should I? It’s not right what happens to people. What’s the matter with God, anyway? Where’s the famous compassion that God is supposedly known for? I wonder sometimes if I have more compassion that God does. How can someone, some airy Being out there in the universe, know what it’s like to try to feed a family when money is tight, or not there, without descending into discouragement that can sink lower to depression? How can Someone like that relate to how tired I get when I work and work and don’t seem to get ahead? How can such a One know what it’s like to be as angry as I feel sometimes––and I think I’m justified––as a result of other people’s bad choices that I have to live with? How and why should I trust such a One?

Well, there is an answer to all of this: Jesus. You knew that was coming, didn’t you? That airy Being whom Jesus called Father is called Father because he begot Jesus. I’m not interested today in the how of the begetting but in the fact of it. Here we have a man of flesh and blood, who, as the writer of Hebrews describes him in this morning’s reading, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” An exact representation of his being. I believe that refers to the spiritual being, not to the bodily form.

The spiritual being of Jesus was completely surrendered in trust to the Father. In the choices he made toward Jerusalem in his life, he showed us the way. How we could prepare for any outcome, whether or not it’s one we prefer. As I say almost every week, Jesus did not want to die, but finally, if that’s what it took to fulfill the call of his life, he was willing to do it. He said his yes in Gethsemane, the night before he died, when he realized it had to happen that way. As painful as the rest of it was, physically, emotionally, spiritually, he was surrendered to it, and as the scripture says in Isaiah, “He was oppressed and afflicted,/ yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,/ and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,/so he did not open his mouth.”

Hey, that’s not fair. In our book of justice, it is not fair, but we did not write the book of divine justice or divine mercy, and we would do well to keep our mouths shut before the shearer as well.

Some of us will say, the heck with that. I want no part of a God who, even if Job is only a story, it’s a teaching story. I want no part of a God who makes a deal with Satan to test me or anyone else. What could possibly be adorable about that Being?

Well, let’s think about this for a bit. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet, speaking for God, raises the question to the people Israel, Will the pot complain to the potter? As it is written, “You turn things upside down,/ as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!/ Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me.’/ Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing.’?” We can object and reject all we want, but finally we are simply the clay in the potter’s hand, like it or not.

That’s not fair! we object again. Fair or not fair, that’s the way it is, and we have been shown a way to deal with apparently unwarranted suffering through the examples of Jesus and the figure of Job. Accepting our circumstances––not to say we don’t try to better them––but accepting things we cannot change with a sweet spirit, the spirit of Jesus, what is irremediably wrong or even evil in our thinking can be transmuted into good in ways we simply cannot imagine unless we are enlightened by the Holy Spirit of God.

The suffering that we all endure in its different forms becomes more bearable when it’s shared with others. On September 20 I talked with you about why we come to church, and I want to go on in that vein for a bit. The suffering that we all endure in its different forms becomes more bearable when we share it in community. How do we share it? Simply by talking about it, with even one person. The cause of the suffering doesn’t necessarily go away, but when we talk about it to another human being, how relieved we feel, how heard, and that is a kind of palliative care.

I spoke with a member of this congregation after that service on the 20th, and she told me why she came to church. Her friends of many years were no longer available to her, and she felt very much alone. Because of the way she was feeling, she knew that she needed to do something about that or she would be in trouble, and so she began to attend church with us. Lucky us! It was just the balm she needed. She feels hope again and feels less alone and we are the far better for her company.

We all have reasons why we come to church, and next Sunday, we will have a mini sharing from anyone who is willing to stand up and say why they come to church, this church. I think this is valuable because it increases our sense of community. We gat to know each other in deeper ways that can be mutually inspiring. One person I know who will speak for a few minutes next week is Ted Smith. He has his Irish setter pup out on field trials this weekend, but he wanted to address this question: Why do I come to church? Please consider whether you too would be willing to speak. If so, let me know after the service on the way out, or give me a call or an email during the week. We’re building a house together, you and I. And we ourselves are the boards, the nails, the siding, the windows and so forth. And God has the plans. We just have to show up. As Ted has said to me, “Showing up is 95% of it.”

If showing up is 95%, sharing is perhaps the other 5%. We have the preeminent opportunity for sharing this morning, as it is Communion Sunday. Sharing a meal before God, as we will do today, makes everything, including inevitable suffering that enters everyone’s life, makes everything including suffering more bearable.

One caution: Go in fear of judgment on another, especially as you prepare for communion today. Let us abandon ourselves to God, as Jesus did, not trusting to our own understanding, but offering our limited understanding to God. This is a gesture of humble renunciation, which contains within it an admission that finally we don’t know all we think we know, and there are some things we can’t change to line up with our idea of how things should be. Submitting our idea of how things should be to Divine Wisdom, who is by definition how things are and inherently should be, is the way to know the vision of the good, the divine community, realized even here on earth.

In our grasping after power, whether or not we see it that way, we would make the world with its communities––especially our own communities––over into our image. What folly. What presumption against the vision God holds. Let us abandon our vision in favor of God’s vision of us in our lives, in our communities––especially this community of Sheepscott Community Church––and approach the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with humility, gratitude and a willingness to learn something new, to see with new eyes, with the veil lifted. Amen.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Choir to Sing at St. Patrick's

On Sunday, October 4, 2009, at 2 p.m., the choir of Sheepscott Community Church will join other area choirs for an ecumenical concert at St. Patrick's Church on Academy Hill, Newcastle.

The choir is second in the lineup of eight choirs, so, come early, stay late. Let's support Carroll Smith, choir director and organist; and Karin Swanson, Clara Fagan, Tony Kilburn, and occasional member, Linda Blomquist. Choir members Dede Heath and Jan Kilburn are in Europe and unable to lend their voices on this special day.