Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pentecost 2A

Where was Sarah? That’s what I want to know. Where was Isaac’s mom when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

Did Abraham even consult his wife before taking their son - their miracle child - to Mount Moriah, to stab him until he bled to death, before throwing his body in to the fire to be roasted and then eaten. After all, that’s what a sacrifice was; a holy barbecue where the sacrificial victim was served as dinner.

Did Sarah even know what Abraham was up to?

Many people, including some of the biblical writers say that God was testing Abraham’s obedience. And some say that Abraham passed the test.

He was willing to destroy the person he loved the most on this planet to show his loyalty to God. He was willing to kill, burn, and eat his own son because he believed that’s what God wanted him to do; an act which apparently showed God that Abraham was the right choice to father a nation.

But I’m not entirely convinced that’s what happened, because I’m not convinced that was God’s test. And I don’t know if Abraham passed the test or failed it. 

If killing, burning, and eating your own child was a test of obedience to God, then I’m not sure that such a test was God’s intention.

Was God trying to see how far Abraham could be pushed? Was God trying to show Abraham something about himself? Was God showing Abraham something about God’s OWN self?

When make this test all about Abraham and turn him into a hero for his willingness to commit such an unspeakable act, we forget about the collateral damage, namely Isaac and Sarah. We applaud Abraham’s obedience, but ignore the innocent victims. Abraham’s obedience would have devastated others.

It makes me wonder if we need to reflect on the cost OUR obedience has on others. Does our obedience hurt others, or help them?

Is the desire to be in obedience to God and God’s Word bringing life to the world, or causing pain to innocent victims?

Does our desire to be obedient to biblical teaching inflict unholy suffering on someone? And if so, then is that what God even wants from us?

Are we willing to sacrifice others on the altar of our obedience? And if so, who? And does obedience equal faithfulness?

One of the great young conductors of our time is a 30-year-old Venezuelan kid named Gustavo Dudamel aka “The Dude.” He’s the music director of the LA Philharmonic, and was given that job at the annoying age of 26.

I downloaded a bunch of his recordings from iTunes because he wakes up tired old classics. In his hands Beethoven breathes new life, and Mozart is made alive again.

I also watch to a lot of his concerts on YouTube. He’s a delight to observe. He’s a very emotional conductor but he also has flawless technique. He evokes both a devoted following and a chorus of critics.

On the YouTube version of the final movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, someone posted a comment about Dudamel’s conducting technique which I found astonishing. And as we all know, YouTube comments are ALWAYS a source of edification and inspiration.

This person said, “He’s too young, too emotional to understand such profound music. It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music. He’s forgotten that music is made up of notes, not emotional sounds that hang in the air.”

“It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music.” Wow.

Having spent the first half of my life as a musician I can say that the best conductors and finest performers play the music not merely the notes. They know that the notes are a gateway to sound, not the end.

The best conductors and performers I’ve seen and worked with are the ones who seem to get lost in the music, who appear to embody what they’re playing, it’s as if their very selves get lost in the sounds that they’re making. It’s as if they become the music, it’s as if they are the music made flesh.

And, by contrast, the most boring ones are those who are technically competent, but emotionally absent. The play the notes, but not the music. It’s as if they believe that playing the notes perfectly is all that matters and the aesthetic experience is irrelevant.

Often I worry that we as Christians worry too much about playing the notes of the bible, the notes of obedience, that we forget to play the music of the gospel.

We spend too much time and energy worrying about the words of scripture, the intricacies of the law’s demands, the individual moral admonitions, the details of personal codes of behavior.

So I wonder that if by being obedient to the notes of the bible, we can be disobedient to the music of the gospel; the deep strains of freedom, the flowing melodies of peace, the harmonizing chords of forgiveness, the colorful orchestrations of joy, the counterpoint of justice, and the triumphant fanfare of eternity. That’s the music of the gospel. And when we make the scribblings on the page the focus of our Christian life together, we miss the music that God is singing through those notes.

When we make decisions for our congregation or for our national church, when we discern together the direction the Holy Spirit is leading us, when we ask our leaders where they are taking us, when we look to the future of our faith community, the question we ask is “Are we playing the notes of obedience, or singing the music of the gospel?”

I wonder if that’s a lesson Abraham learned the hard way. Who knows what went through his head as they climbed the mountain? Who can say what Abraham was thinking as he wrestled with his squirming son, tying him down on the altar? 

We can only guess Abraham’s thoughts as he raised his knife, and began to thrust it in the direction of his son’s heart.

What did Abraham think about his own obedience? What did he think about a God who would ask him to commit such a horrific act?

If he had questioning thoughts they didn’t affect his actions. Abraham was obedient. A loyal foot soldier of the Lord. A steadfast servant.

But when Abraham felt the angel’s hand on the knife in mid thrust, then saw the ram that God provided for him, something probably clicked, a light turned on inside him, and he realized that, yes, he was obedient, but was he obedient in the right way?

When Isaac asked where the sacrificial lamb was, we think that probably Abraham lied to his son. “God will provide one,” he said. But his eyes weren’t open for a lost baby sheep, ambling up the mountain. Abraham had every intention of murdering his son as a radical, and horrific act of obedience to God.

But at the last possible moment, God grabbed Abraham’s wrist, and pulled the knife from his hand.

And when Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket by its horns, he knew that he both passed and failed the test. He sang the notes of obedience, but not the music of the gospel.

That’s when God unveiled the promise to Abraham; the promise that he and his wife Sarah would give birth to a mighty nation. Now Abraham was ready to receive that promise. Now Abraham’s eyes were open to God’s vast vision for the world. Now Abraham could grasp what God was doing.

Abraham finally understood that God did not demand a fearful fealty, slavishly attending to the notes of obedience, but God desired a total immersion in the music of God’s kingdom.

By sacrificing his son on the altar of his obedience, Abraham discovered that he could be obedient to yet still faithless. Abraham learned that what he understood as an act of personal submission toward God, could cause pain and death to others. Abraham realized that he could play the notes of obedience perfectly, yet miss the music of God.

It was at that moment that Abraham finally knew and understood this God we serve.

It was at that moment that he finally knew and understood that we don’t serve a god of destructive obedience. We serve a God of faithful freedom.

It was at that moment that Abraham finally knew and understood that we serve a God of LIFE, NOT a god of DEATH. We serve a God who creates, not a god who destroys.

We serve a God who raises a son from the dead, not a god who sends him to his grave. We serve a God who makes all things new, who builds a human family, whose people number among the stars lighting up the dark night sky.

Abraham finally knew and understood that his job was not to cower in compliant subservience in the presence of divine power. His job was to shine, his job was to light up the universe with God’s love, his job was to be a beacon of God’s kindness and God’s favour.

With his wife Sarah, Abraham’s job was to give birth to a new people, a new reality, a new way of living.

Together, God empowered Abraham and Sarah to create a nation, a nation that would be God’s light to ALL nations, where God’s vision of love, forgiveness, peace, mercy, justice, and grace, intertwined in a melody of freedom for the whole world.

Their job was to sing the music of God’s glorious realm.

And our job is to continue the song that we learned from our Father Abraham and Mother Sarah.

Our job is to shine. Our job is to light up the dark places of the world with God’s love. Our job is to sing God’s gospel song, a song not of our own composing, but a song placed on our lips.

It’s God who opens our mouths to sing God music of forgiveness. It’s God who gives us strength to sing God’s song of freedom. It’s God who teaches us to sing God’s song of justice, God’s song of mercy, God’s song of peace.

So now we look out at the night sky and see our future, which is God’s future for us, where the stars - too numerous to count - shine with the brightness of God’s love, as we continue to sing God’s song of life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trinity Sunday

I’m guessing that the folks who put the lectionary together chose the first reading from Genesis because of a certain word.

You probably read this passage so often that you might have passed right over it. I know I did the first 1000 times I read this passage.

But when I read this passage with Trinitarian eyes, I can’t help but lock in on the fact that God speaks of God’s self in first person plural.

“Let US make humankind in OUR image...” God says. And this is not a typo. It’s in the original Hebrew. It’s like the lectionary folks wanted to remind us that God is a tiny community - and always has been, right from the beginning, if God can ever be said to have a beginning.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this Genesis passage, but that’s what it says to me. God may be “One” but we don’t know how God self-identifies that “Oneness.” Especially when God is a relational God. God is never alone because God can’t be. That’s not who God is.

And since we’re created in God’s image, we can’t run from the fact we TOO are relational creatures. We are made to engage and interact. Our very being demands that we we remain connected to others, that the path of faith and life is not a lonely walk, that we can’t be who we are without each other. No matter how much we try.

“I’d like you to baptize my baby,” she said, on the other end of the phone.

“I’d be glad to,” I replied.

“What’s involved?” she asked

“Well, I’d like to meet with you and we can talk about how we can get your child baptized.

“When can you meet?” I asked

“How’s Sunday at 1:00?” she said.

“How about you come to church and see what we’re all about then we’ll meet in my office after worship,” I suggested.

“, I don’t think so,” she responded. “How about you come to my place at 1:00.”

“Okay,” I responded.

I arrived at her house armed with a hymnal marked to the baptism service, as well as a copy of Baptized We Live, a sort of comic book version of what we believe as Lutherans.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked her. I ask this question, not to jam parents into a corner, and I’m NOT looking for a “correct” answer. But because I’m genuinely interested in what parents believe about baptism.

“Well, I got done, my parents got done, and I should have my baby done,” she said. Her answer was pretty typical from what I get from parents. At least she was honest.

I opened the hymnal and turned to the liturgy for Holy Baptism, and I pointed out the section where she would be making some pretty heavy duty promises on behalf of her child:

“As you bring your child to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:

to live with her among God’s faithful people,
bring her to the Word of God and the Holy Supper
teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in her hands the holy scriptures,
nurture her in faith and prayer,
so that your child may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.

Do you promise to help your child grow in the Christian faith and life?”

I couldn’t get through the rest of my spiel because she immediately burst out crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to do any of that,” she said.

“I don’t understand, what’s your concern?” I asked.

“I don’t want to force any religion on my baby. I’m not going to bring her to church because I want her to make her own choice when she grows up. I don’t believe in church. I don’t believe you have to go to a building to worship God,” she said.

“It’s not the building that’s important, it’s where God’s people gather to worship,” I replied.

“I don’t care!” she said, and stormed out of the room.

I always find it interesting that many parents see faith and spirituality as areas where they can raise their children with little or no guidance, yet still assume their children will make good choices about these when they grow up.

And I often wonder if she told her friends about the mean ol’ pastor who wouldn’t baptize her baby. But then I realized it wasn’t me who said “No” to her child’s baptism, it was her.

At an earlier point in my ministry I would have been furious at this encounter. I would have thought “How dare she treat the sacrament of Holy Baptism with such cavalier consumerism, as if I’m in the religious service industry! This is God’s activity in her child’s life, not the Sears portrait studio!”

But after a few years into this job I realize that she’s just doing what the culture taught her to do, to define life and faith on her own terms, rather than seek the wisdom of a community who lived and breathed their faith for thousands of years.

She was making it up as she went along, dogmatically asserting the infallibility of personal choice and inerrancy individual spiritual preferences. She’s so deeply immersed in the waters of consumerism, believing that she is swimming upstream, against the religious current, that she can’t see that most other people are floating in the same direction.

She is not as unique and radical as she probably believes herself to be.

She was probably worried that I was trying to jam her into a religious box that was not her own making, where she would gasp for air, rather than providing a doorway into new and abundant life that God wants for her and her child, offering her and her daughter an opportunity for participate in the world’s salvation.

And she was right about one thing. You don’t have to go to a building to worship God. But you can’t be a Christian without others. We need the support, encouragement, fellowship, and prayers of others to grow into our faith. There cannot be any individual Christians, because there is no individual God.

God is a community. Three-in-one and one-in-three. Don’t ask me how this all works because I haven’t a clue. No one really knows.

But what I do know is that God is profoundly relational. God-is-with-us because that’s who God is. And that’s who God wants us to be. We can’t be Christians without each other.

Some say that such a perspective coming from a guy like me, doing what I do, is just the theological justification for keeping my job, and it’s the religious rationale for propping up the church institution.

I won’t deny that you folks coming to church helps pay my rent and puts shoes on my kids’ feet. After all, a guy’s gotta eat. And I really like my job.

But there are easier ways to make money than being a pastor. And more of it.

So when we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we baptize into a community - God’s community - where we are never alone.

As I thought about what that mom said I realized that at least she had the integrity to NOT go through with a ritual that she didn’t believe in. And it could be said that she saying “No” to her child’s baptism respected us and what we believe.

But still, I never say No to a baptism because God never says No. Even when the parents clearly have no desire to follow through on the promises they make on behalf of their child at baptism, I still do the baptism, because God DOES follow through on God’s promises at baptism.

Our challenge - as a church - is learning how to live our promises in world that doesn’t believe in them, in a world that tries to make up faith and spirituality as it goes along, in a world that’s - rightly or wrongly - suspicious of formalized faith.

But whether we live up to that challenge or if we fail, God who is Trinity will remain faithful to us and to the world, because that’s who God is.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Day of Pentecost

What I find troubling about the Christian church is that we too often seem to be facing in the wrong direction. We look backwards in history rather than forward in hope. We look to the past for inspiration rather than to the future with expectation.

This is especially true when we talk about our beliefs. We trip over ourselves trying to prove that what we believe is the same thing as what people believed 2000 years ago, or even longer.

We say that God is unchanging, which may be true, but we don’t know the whole of who God is. So we take our thoughts about God, freeze them in time, and present them as if by their very nature, their un-embodied truths will speak to all people in every time and every place.

It’s as if we think that the glory days of the church were “back then” when the faith was fresh and the Spirit spoke with awesome clarity. It’s as if we believe that today’s expression of church is a pale imitation of what God has done in previous generations.

I hear this all the time. People wax poetic about the primitive church, and how the early Christians were filled with fiery zeal, upon which we have poured cold institutional water.

Others point to the great church reformers, and the heroism that was shown in restoring a corrupt faith to the purity of the original.

Even the father of our Lutheran Church, Martin Luther went to great pains to demonstrate that he is not an original thinker, that he was just a mouthpiece for an ancient proclamation. Theological innovation in the church, we are told, is heresy.

So we ponder the drama of the Reformation story, and are inspired by the Christian heroes who stood up against the enemies of the gospel, and we think, THOSE -THOSE - were the glory days of the church.

Still others look to the recent past with memories of full churches and crowded Sunday School classrooms. They and we remember when committees had more members then they needed, when new church buildings were being constructed weekly, and the budget kept growing, and we say “Those were the church’s glory days.”

We think that God set the standard thousands of years ago, and we are not to deviate from iota from what we say God has created. It’s as if we’re saying that, the more ancient the expression of faith, the more pure it is, since it hasn’t yet been stained by the messy fingerprints of human history.

And when we say that we are not totally wrong. We just don’t see the whole story.

The Day of Pentecost starts telling the rest of the story. When the Spirit descended upon the disciples there was no going back to where they started. For those whose eyes were fixed on their glorious past, the Day of Pentecost must have seemed horribly chaotic.

It must have seemed like everything they knew to be true and good was crumbling around their ankles.

It must have looked like their ancient faith was being trampled upon, pushed aside in favour a dangerously innovative religious expression.

They were taught that salvation was reserved for God’s chosen people - Israel. Now people from all over the world were receiving God’s mercy and grace.

They were taught that a series of national laws and religious disciplines made them unique in their faith. Now those laws and disciplines were being replaced by new practices.

They were told they had to offer sacrifices in the temple and worship in the synagogue, Now people were praying in the streets and meeting in homes.

They were taught that people could come to God only through the mediation of a priest, that they couldn’t understand the bible, that women had no place in leadership.

Now people prayed without the help of religious professionals, they could study the scriptures for themselves, and women took their place at the head of the table.

Those invested in an unchanging religious tradition must have met the Day of Pentecost will unyielding scorn. It must have sent them into a panic. It must have seemed like the world was ending.

And they would be right. Their world was ending. But out of something old and dying, something new arose.

For those who trust in a God that makes all things new, Pentecost must have been the blast of fresh air they were waiting for. Something new had begun.

The Word of God was now spoken in all languages. God’s message of mercy and grace was now for everyone. People from all over the known world fell down and worshipped the God of Israel. Now, all people were invited to God’s table.

Church folks like to call Pentecost Sunday “The Birthday of the Church.” And what do we celebrate on birthdays? The fact that a new person has arrived on this planet. We celebrate a birth, a new age of possibility.

I guess the danger and the worry is that people will diminish or dismiss the past as if what happened before us is irrelevant or unimportant. That the hard work of those who came before us will be lost in the dust of history. That we need to honour those who dedicated their lives to building Christ’s church.

And that’s an appropriate fear. We DO need to honour what God has done in and through those whose names are now written in the Book of Life. It’s important that we remember the saints of the past whose sweat and toil has built Christ’s church and whose voices still echo in our collective proclamation.

But forgetting the hard work of past Christians is not the danger I see. The danger I see is that we cling too closely to the church of the past that we miss the opportunities for ministry that God has placed today on our doorstep, opportunities that will take us into a faithful future. A bigger danger is believing that our glory days are behind us, and in front of us is a ministry boulder that we’re being asked to roll uphill.

And to think like that is tempting. VERY tempting. Especially when we’re honest about the challenges we face as a church.

But today, this Pentecost Sunday, this day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit into the church and the world, God is telling us that the glory days of the church are NOW. TODAY!

Whenever the Spirit speaks words of mercy and grace through Christians just like you and me, those are the church’s glory days.

Whenever God is praised either with a smile or through tears, those are the glory days of the church.

Whenever the captives are set free, people’s eyes are opened to new possibilities, and the poor receive good news, THOSE are the church’s Glory Days.

Whenever the lonely find friendship, when the grieving are comforted, when the dying receive and believe the promise of new and everlasting life, those are the glory days of the church.

Whenever the people of God gather to hear good news, to receive the holy sacrament, and go out into the world bearing witness to God vision of peace, justice, mercy, forgiveness, love, and grace, those are the Glory Days of the church.

In other words, TODAY - TODAY is the Glory Day of the church. Right here. Right now. In this place.

Tomorrow is the Glory Day of the church. Whenever the Spirit ignites faith, when the gospel is proclaimed in every language, whenever a sinner receives forgiveness, whenever the waters of baptism is poured over a child’s head, that is the church in its glory because God is glorified in what we do.

May this be so among us. Amen.