Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pentecost 16 - Year A

An oddity to be sure. A glow in the distance. A fire in the mountain. A burning bush that it not consumed. What would YOU think it was?

Moses had more curiosity than sense. He abandoned his sheep in the valley to go snooping around on God’s holy mountain.

Maybe it would help if you visualize who Moses was and what he was doing. You might be picturing Charlton Heston striding confidently up the mountain with a decisive hunger in his eyes, his booming baritone belying any fear he might have said to possess. With his chiseled jaw and determined gait he marches purposefully up the side of the cliffs, preparing to meet his God.

After all, his climb is an ascent to his destiny where he will receive his sacred mandate to free God’s people from slavery to lead them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey; a divine charge that they would have to pry from his cold dead hands.

It’s a scene only Cecil B DeMille’s grandiose imagination could create. The Ten Commandments is no mere movie. It’s an event. An experience. The ultimate triumph of good over evil, righteousness over tyranny, and faithfulness over idolatry. Four hours of unadulterated edification, best to be seen without commercial interruptions.

But scrub that picture from your eyes. That’s not the story the bible tells. When you read the story from Exodus you’ll notice that the storyteller is no Cecil B DeMille and Moses is no Charlton Heston.

Moses, after all, was a coward. He was no gun-totin’ Republican. John McCain would not seek his endorsement. The NRA would never elect him their president.

Moses was a fugitive from justice. A murderer. He fled to the desert to hide. Among the sand dunes he met a Midianite woman whom he married.

Presumably, he was planning to spend the rest of his life raising both sheep and a family, but lowering his head every time he heard a voice with an Egyptian accent. Moses was no hero. Moses was human. Which makes this story all the more remarkable.

Moses takes some time off during the work day to chase a curiosity. A strange glow in the mountains. A burning bush that doesn’t crumble into ash.

Moses runs into the wilderness and climbs the mount called “Horeb.” Horeb was no majestic mountain. You wouldn’t vacation there. Horeb was no Waterton National Park.

Horeb was a wasteland. Dark. Lifeless. Empty. If it weren’t for the burning bush Moses probably wouldn’t have had any reason – EVER – to step foot in that forsaken wilderness.

But that’s where Moses found God. That’s where God was waiting for him. And where God asked Moses to leave his shoes at the door, for he was “standing on holy ground.”

At the beginning of worship I invited you to take off your shoes because we are convening “on holy ground.” For our Muslim friends, this is nothing new. Each time they enter their worship space they take off their shoes in deference and reverence to God.

But I get wondering about that. They take off their shoes even when they’re not praying or worshipping. They go shoeless even when they’re coming in to change the light bulbs or to vacuum the carpet. What do they see in their worship space that they don’t see elsewhere? What makes one room in God’s planet more holy than another?

They might point to today’s OT reading. God is in the Holy Place and asks that Moses take off his muddy old boots to meet the divine.

And there’s some logic to that. We take off our shoes when we arrive home and when we visit someone at their house. Doesn’t it then makes sense that we should take off our shoes when we arrive in God’s house?

That might be true if this worship space were God’s primary residence. If God were confined to these four walls, imprisoned by religious expectations, then we might be more inclined to go barefoot in the presence of the Almighty.

But as Moses found out, God’s lodging is both bigger AND smaller than we may realize.

A friend once invited me to his prayer group. Having nothing else to do that morning I shuffled over to a storefront in downtown Kitchener where his church met.

These were your garden variety holy-rollers. They prayed with hands in the air. They wept as they cried out to God. They danced spontaneously as a sort of prayer. I kept glancing at my watch trying to think of a plausible excuse for a quick escape.

After an hour (or three) of praise songs and weepy prayer, I was handed a brown paper shopping bag.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“To hand out to people,” I was told.

Afraid that this might be filled with evangelistic pamphlets or bibles, I looked inside. I didn’t want to be that guy hassling people on the street with unwanted religious literature.

But inside the bag were sandwiches that the group had made the night before. We were going to a downtown hotel (if you can call it that) and knock on doors and hand out food. For many of its residents this “hotel” was the last stop before a homeless shelter or jail.

“I can do that,” I said.

Apparently this little prayer group had been doing this for some time because they knew everyone’s names and visa versa

“Hey Phil, how’d your knee surgery go?”

“It feels great!” he said, unwrapping his turkey sandwich and showing off his new knee. “Aren’t you going to pray for me?”

Some folks from the group gathered around Phil, laid hands on his head and shoulders and prayed for Phil’s health and for his salvation.

“Pretty bold prayer,” I thought to myself. They asked everyone if they wanted prayer.

On the way out I asked one of the group members how they got mixed up in this kind of ministry.

“Ken used to live here,” the man said pointing to a grey haired fellow.

“His room was just down the hall. He got us started. After he came to faith and got his life back together he felt God calling him back to minister to his old drinking buddies. He said he found God in this hotel and he wanted to show others that God hasn’t left.

“He’s shown us how to talk to these folks. Most of us are pretty white-bread middle-class types, and we’ve been blessed by this ministry. Without Ken bringing us down here and introducing us to people, we would’ve never have had this opportunity to serve this way. We’ve seen God do some pretty amazing things. Sometimes when God’s presence is so powerful here I feel like I need to take off my shoes.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, so we figured we’re supposed to do the same thing. We’ve learned that God is hiding in places like this. And if it wasn’t for Ken bringing us down here, we would have missed out on a lot of what God is doing.”

I think the biggest mistake that the movie made was casting Charlton Heston as Moses. The Moses of the movie was insufferably earnest, unbearably pious, and nauseatingly fit.

The Moses of the bible, however, killed someone in cold blood and fled. He argued with God until God grudgingly compromised. The Moses of scripture was not well spoken. He stuttered. He couldn’t hold a crowd. No one really listened to him.

I think that’s why God chose him to lead God’s people out of slavery. No one else could have.

Like Ken who knew how to talk to his old drinking buddies, Moses’ royal pedigree gave him special insight into Pharaoh’s thinking.

Like those holy-roller Christians who ministered to both body and soul in the halls of that crumbling hotel, Moses learned that he could find God at Horeb – the wasteland – because that’s where God hides.

Moses learned that the wasteland was holy, not because that’s where God’s mail gets delivered, but because God said it was holy.

And that little church group learned that holiness is not something we achieve but something we find, a gift we are given. And from that unexpected holiness we minister – like Moses – to those who need God’s presence in their lives.

Where is your Mount Horeb? Where is your wasteland? Where do you meet God? From where do you minister to others?

It could be the death of a spouse or even a child. The terrible break up of your marriage. A teenager you can’t control – or maybe you were that teenager. The bottle you couldn’t put down. The cancer you beat but left you scarred. Everyone finds themselves on Mount Horeb at some point in their lives.

Conventional wisdom says that we should build on our gifts and strengths, use our skills and passion to impact the world.

But I wonder if God’s wisdom asks us to minister out of our weaknesses, from our wounds. I wonder if God is asking us to meet God in the wasteland of our lives, and from that wasteland we greet the world, our faces shining with God’s glory and love, speaking words of truth and compassion, bringing God’s message of life and salvation to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

God’s bush is still burning in the darkness, calling us to mission for the life of the world. It will never be consumed as long as faithful people answer God’s call to speak God’s words, even with a stutter.

So shine. It is God’s light that illuminates your life and your work.

May God’s radiance shine through you into the dark wastelands of our world. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pentecost 14 - Year A

How do you think God works in the world? Does God limit divine options by choosing to work only through those clearly identified as “Christian”?

Many preachers and theologians have said the church is God’s “Plan A” for the world. And that God has no “Plan B.” They’ve said that God limits God’s saving work only to those visibly and unmistakably in a covenant relationship with their creator. That we – God’s people – are the first, last, ONLY way that God intervenes in peoples’ lives and worldly affairs. We are IT. We are God’s hands and voice in a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world. God is relying on us. So is the world.

I used to believe that. I don’t anymore.

But if you read the whole of Romans chapter 11 instead of the bits the lectionary flings at us, then you might be inclined to agree with those preachers and theologians who see us as the only tools in God’s tool belt.

Paul talks about the “remnant.” Meaning a small group of believers who keep the faith pure against so much ungodliness in the world. After the community of believers had been so thoroughly corrupted by the world, Paul identified that little tiny church in Rome, probably no larger than 10 or 12 believers, as the remnant who will keep the faith alive, a tiny light in the vast darkness of the world, a candle glowing in the night, a drop of clean, undiluted godliness in a poisoned planet.

But I wonder what Paul would have said about today’s first reading from Genesis. In this story, known as the “Joseph saga” (Most of you know it better as “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) the line between the world and God’s people mists over to the point of being indistinguishable. This story seems to suggest that God isn’t limited to those who claim to be God’s people. God seems freer than what we might initially perceive.

On the surface this looks like a story of hard work paying off, with a little forgiveness and reconciliation thrown in to jerk a few theological tears. The stuff of good movies and snappy musicals.

Joseph was the guy you hated in High School. You know the one I mean. The Golden Boy, the Favoured One, who seemed good at everything. He was captain of the football team and he dated the head cheerleader. He won math awards, wrote for the school newspaper, played Hamlet in community theatre, sang solos at Christmas, volunteered in a homeless shelter, and couldn’t decide whether he’d be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist when he grew up, so he thought he’d be both. And you just knew he could pull it off.

You couldn’t stand him. Not just because he was better at everything than you were. You didn’t like him because he liked himself so much. His arrogance was breathtaking.

And he enjoyed showing off. His Emotional I.Q. hovered in George Bush realms.

He was oblivious to his brothers’ scowls. He didn’t notice their clenched jaws and furrowed brows. He simply didn’t see how badly his arrogance made his brothers want to tear out their ear hair.

It’s no wonder that his brothers wanted to get rid of him. He made them look bad. Really bad. And he flashed his egotistical white teeth while doing so.

You couldn’t accuse Joseph of putting on a show. He knew himself. He knew he was talented. He knew that he could succeed at anything he put his mind to.

Even his dreams stroked his ego. He was a dreamer. Some said it was God’s dreams that lived inside him. Others believed he simply dreamt what he wanted his life to be. Maybe it was both.

But Joseph also knew what his values were. He may have been a conceited jerk but he knew what was expected of him.

When his brothers sold him into slavery, he worked hard in his master’s house, being promoted again and again until he ran the whole household, landing a fancy-schmancy new royal suit to wear. As far as slaves go, he reached the top.

But he knew that success in an imperial household meant less than the values his parents taught him about God.

When his master’s wife tried to seduce him, grasping for him out of her place of power, she can only grab his royal clothes, ripping them from his body, but leaving empty-handed. The clothes do not make this man. It is God’s dream living inside him that makes him who he is. And no earthly power can take that from him.

When he’s thrown in jail on the trumped-up charge of adultery he takes charge of the prison, tending to other prisoners’ needs, telling them God’s future for their lives. Good and ill.

When Pharaoh’s nightmares mock him, displaying a vision of both abundance and famine, his own imperial priests are stymied. So Pharaoh was forced to turn to the prisoner Joseph to tell him God’s future. Joseph told Pharaoh what the dream meant: that there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine.

I guess Pharaoh was impressed. The criminal becomes the ruler. Second in command. Only Pharaoh is greater. He is no longer Joseph. His name is now Zaphenath – paneah meaning “revealer of secrets” Or some say it means “God speaks: he lives!”

Zaphenath – paneah gets a shiny new chariot and a wife out of the deal. Not to mention a really cool job: saving the world’s only remaining superpower from starving to death.

This is where the line between God’s people and others blurs. Joseph doesn’t just get a great job with excellent benefits. He joins the inner-circle of the power elite. He exchanges a Hebrew name for an Egyptian one. And to keep his job he at least needs to pay lip service to Pharaoh being some kind of divine being, if not a god. A definite no-no he learned in Canaanite Sunday School.

When Pharaoh’s dream comes true, Joseph’s brothers come looking for food. Those who’ve seen the musical know what happens next. Without revealing his identity, Joseph accuses his brothers of spying. He demands to see his younger brother. Whom they produce.

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, it’s interesting what he DOESN’T say. He doesn’t say “I am Zaphenath – paneah. The prince formerly known as Joseph.” He doesn’t say, I used to be one of you puny little people. Now look at me. You’ll suffer for what you did to me.”

Joseph isn’t hung up on titles or royalty. He knows who he REALLY is. And royalty means nothing to him. He’s bigger than that.

To identify himself he simply uses his plain, bare, Hebrew name. “I am Joseph,” he says. They thought he was dead. But he’s alive and giving life to the world through his work in Egypt.

I spent a good chunk of the week reading bible commentaries because I wondered why this story is included in the book of Genesis. There had to be a better reason other than it giving a reason as to how the Hebrews found their way to Egypt, then, somehow becoming slaves.

The funny thing is that each and every scholar came to the same conclusion as I did (shocker!). This story is not so much about forgiveness and reconciliation, although that’s part of it. Nor is this story about how hard work and determination are the building blocks of success, as if Joseph were the consummate capitalist.

This is a story about God’s freedom to work in any way God chooses. This is a story of God’s unpredictability, God’s unwillingness to play by the rules.

God wasn’t afraid to use Joseph to help save pagan Egypt from famine, and through Egypt, the whole world known to them. God wasn’t afraid to let Joseph become everything God despised to make it happen.

God wasn’t afraid of the cruelty of betrayal or the injustice of false imprisonment.

God wasn’t afraid of the pompousness of royalty, the abuses of empire, or the idolatry of paganism.

God was only interested in rescuing people from being destroyed. God trusted Joseph because that’s who God chose to do that job.

And God trusts YOU. When you do your work, God trusts that you know who you are, and that you’ll be able to use your gifts for the life of the world. God trusts that God’s dream lives inside you.

Me, I’ve got it easy. I can always hide behind my collar and people know what to expect from me. Whenever I’m tempted by the world I can simply put on my church clothes as a shield against those things that threaten to diminish me as a Christian.

You don’t have that option. You are Joseph. Yours is the greater witness. You’ve got the hard job. You have to walk the fine line between working with culture and not letting it decide who you are. You have to work in a “me-first” world without submitting to its selfish temptations.

And it’s not easy. Sometimes that misty line between God and world disappears completely.

I read in a Christian newsletter this week that one of the swimmers who won a gold medal was a Christian (!), meaning…what, exactly? How many non-Christians won medals?

I recently stopped listening to a certain ministry podcast because they started interviewing almost exclusively celebrities and CEO’s, and not necessarily Christian, just famous people who’d been financially “successful,” as if that were evidence of…what precisely?

But while you get to live in the tension between God’s world and our world, you also get to see where God is doing things, you get to see where life, joy, beauty, justice, and compassion are lived and celebrated. You get to see where the free, active, God is working outside the safety of church walls.

You are Joseph. Like Joseph, you have God’s dreams living inside you. Like Joseph, God trusts you.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pentecost 13 - Year A

What causes you to doubt your faith? What causes you to stop trusting God? What causes you to think that faith is merely as Alice in Wonderland story we tell ourselves when life starts to hurt?

Or DO you doubt? Do you question your faith? Do you question God?

I know that, for many of you, faith comes easy. You see God in action as clearly as you see the shine on my head. God’s handiwork is everywhere your eyes turn. And when you close your eyes, you hear God talking to you. You can’t “prove” its God chatting with you. But you wouldn’t mistake God’s milky voice for anything else.

For others of you, God is a rumour that you hope is true. You’ve caught glimpses of God here and there. Shadows. Memories. Stories half heard, songs less understood. But you’ve heard enough to trust that God is – somehow – doing something in the world. And you figure that, even if there’s a 95 percent chance you’re wrong, you’ll still believe. Because the stories half heard and songs less understood are too beautiful to toss away.

And for others, faith might sound like a cruel joke. A tall tale told by an idiot. Sound and fury signifying nothing. Maybe you’ve seen the world’s ugliness first hand and no amount of worship will scrub your eyes clean. Maybe you’ve felt grief so horrific that your soul has been ripped to shreds. Maybe you’ve prayed until your knees are bloodied and knuckles bruised, and still – nothing – God hasn’t returned the call.

Or maybe you’re back and forth, up and down, between all of this. Maybe some days your faith is as strong as God’s holy mountain, and other days, you can’t see your faith through a microscope. Maybe you’re wishing you could believe like other people.

And if you are, look around. You’re in good company.

Jesus sent the disciples across the lake. Like Environment Canada, they didn’t notice the black clouds gathering just on this side of the horizon. They were fishermen, they knew better than to go into the water and a darkening sky.

Perhaps they were still giddy from the loaves and fishes thing – the miracle that Jesus just performed that evening.

But soon they found their way in the middle of the lake, the waves throwing temper tantrums against their boat. And in out of the darkness comes Jesus walking towards them with. They freak. They think it’s a ghost. And why wouldn’t they? Why WOULD they be expecting Jesus to take a stroll across a storm beaten sea?

Impetuous Peter leaps out of the boat thinking he can do what Jesus did. And of course, he can. He actually takes a couple steps until it dawns on him that he’s actually walking on water. That’s when the trouble starts.

“Help Lord! Save me!” he shouts.

Jesus reaches out his hand and rescues impulsive Peter.

“Why did you doubt?” Jesus reprimands the drowning disciple, “Just believe.”

Wish it were that easy, don’t you? Jesus’ question “Why did you doubt?” is always the one we don’t want to answer. Faith is loaded with questions.

In fact, faith makes the questions become more real. Faith is marked by humility. There can be no arrogant Christians because faith is not certainty.

Certainty is measured and mapped, tested and proven, calculated and quantified. It can be predicted, demonstrated, and replicated.

Faith, conversely, is a fumble in the dark, stubbing-your-toe-on-your-dresser-as-you-blindly-look-for-the-light-switch sort of life. It hears whispers and chases shadows. Faith may not always be pretty, but it is definitely honest.

But more to the point, I think faith is a life lived in holy defiance; reaching out for God’s light in defiance of the powers of darkness of this world.

Faith is when the romance has gone out from the marriage but you stay together determined to make the relationship work. You’ve made a commitment. And you’ll see it through.

Faith is grieving the loss of a child, yet still finding a way to minister to the world out that pain.

Faith is looking out upon a planet swallowed up in war and greed and chaos, but still trusting God’s promises for peace saying, “I will live the New Creation that God wants for the world.”

But doubt is something that either we keep well hidden in the back of our closet for fear that someone more pious might find out and raise an eyebrow in our direction. Or doubt is paraded as a public virtue; the sign of an active mind.

I think doubt is neither something to be proud of nor something to be ashamed of. Doubt is just part of our human makeup.

Or sometimes we live our faith whether we know it or not. Like Peter running out into the lake without really thinking about what he’s doing, sometimes faith the result of a lack of foresight, or it’s just plain ignorance. We don’t know we’ve stepped out of the boat until our shoes fill up with water.

A few years ago I told you about the funeral I “accidentally” presided over for a mafia family. I say “accidentally” because, had I known who was lay the casket, images of Tony Soprano’s patented piano wire may have tainted, softened, my message. Jesus may have been a friend of sinners but Peter sank when he clued in to what he was doing. And, that day, I might have gotten wet as well.

So, that day, unbeknownst to me, St. Peter-of-the-lake became my patron saint.

Your experiences may not involve crime families, but I’m sure you’ve done some things for God that, afterward, you wonder where you got the strength from.

Or if you knew what you have gotten yourself into, if it dawned on you what you were doing, you would have felt water slosh around in your shoes.

But what if Peter had not sunk? What if he had jumped out of the boat without a second’s hesitation brimming with perfect confidence, landed feet first in the water and ran to Jesus, smiling with arms wide open? What if the other disciples followed him out of the boat, and ran together while the storm raged and the winds beat against the sails?

It would be a pretty cool story, wouldn’t it? But it wouldn’t be our story. Our story is a little more complicated and a lot more human. Our story - and the disciples’ story - is about how we obey and how we fail, how we believe and we how doubt, how we run and how we sink. Our story is about a family of contradictions living snugly together, sharing the same bed.

So, I ask again, what causes you to doubt? Or better yet, what causes you to BELIEVE? That might be more interesting. That may say more about you, and about God.

After all, given all the evidence to the contrary, given the tragedies most people live with, given the grief in our lives, given our failure rate, I wonder if believing is more of a miracle than we give it credit.

For those of us who have trouble believing, for those of us who sink, for those of us clutching both hands to the side of the boat, we know that this isn’t a story about great, unshakable faith, but a story of failure. It’s a story of disappointment. It’s a deeply human story.

And since it’s a human story it shows us what we don’t often see in ourselves. When Jesus asked, “Why did you doubt? Just believe.” Who was he referring to? Was he referring to himself and how Peter needed to believe in him harder?

Or was Jesus tossing the question back at Peter? Was Jesus saying “Why did you doubt…yourself? Why did you doubt what you’re capable of? Believe in what God has put inside you. Trust that you can do more than you think.

Expect more from yourself. Expect that God has is doing more for you than what your eyeballs can see. Expect that God is doing more in you than your brain can envision. See what you just did; you DID take a few splashy steps onto the lake before you sank.”

So, maybe it wasn’t as much an admonishment as an encouragement. When Jesus asks us not to doubt he’s asking us to believe that there’s more to us and to God than we realize, that there’s more residing in our hearts than we can grasp, that our muscles and brains have more power than we can see.

Jesus didn’t lay a guilt trip on Peter. Jesus just wanted Peter and the disciples to see in themselves what Jesus saw in them.

And Jesus wants us to see in ourselves and each other what God sees in us – the vast power to change and heal the world, the power to do great things for others, power given to us by God.

So believe. Trust. Expect that God will do great things through you. Have faith in Jesus. Jesus has faith in you.

Jesus is just asking for a simple walk across the lake.

May this be so among us. Amen.