October 2nd 2011
Have you ever played a board game with a very young child, a child too young to master the rules of the game? Very quickly the game becomes boring, chaotic, and meaningless. Without the rules, you can't really move around the board in any meaningful way. The game falls apart, and while the two-year-old might be enjoying herself, anyone older than that has to abandon the normal flow of the game.
Board games make sense because of rules, and in a similar way, rules make sense of life. But as any teenager can tell you, too many rules can stifle you, kill your creativity, and shut down joy. The rules that worked for one generation don’t always seem relevant to the next one. And the rules that parents believe will keep their children safe, can feel painfully restrictive to those same children.
One writer tells about “a casual evening meal, during which two families had a lively discussion about laws. Should children be required to wear bicycle helmets? Do you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, when no other traffic is in sight? Should people be allowed to smoke cigarettes around their own children? It was very interesting how each person, young or old, experienced rules very differently. What for some appeared as necessary structure for an orderly society, seemed to others a rigid legalism, or even oppression.”
If you think of the Ten Commandments as basic laws set out by God for all time, you begin to see the challenges God faced. Make them too strict, and people will resent you, and rebel against your rules. Make them too lenient, and human community won’t hold together. Everything falls apart. People get hurt.
Some of us think the world would be much better off, if we all took the Ten Commandments more seriously. There’s a bumper sticker that says: They Are Not The Ten Suggestions. And some of us have tried so hard to be good all our lives, and have been guided by “shoulds and “oughts” to the point that we are worn out, unable to feel joy. For some of us, finding the right relationship with God involves letting go of obligation, and finding a way to grace. We want to get close to God through pathways of the heart, not by following rules.
The Ten Commandments may, however, actually speak to both types of us. Let’s consider, for a few minutes a variety of ways we might approach these ancient words.
As our children’s message put it, the Ten commandments are “God’s loving way.” They offer us patterns that, broadly followed, lead to life-giving relationships with God and within our families and our communities.
The traditional form of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not.” But the great reformer Martin Luther taught that every negative in this list implies a positive. For example, “do not kill” implies “support the living.” The commandments offer a vision of the world that God promises to bring to fulfillment. Try reframing each commandment in positive terms and see where that leads you.
Here is then, another way to think about the Ten Commandments: Instead of a list of do’s and don’ts, they reflect God's vision of the world as it could be. Faith invites us to aim towards this vision, partnering with God to bring about Shalom, peace, harmony with all creation.
In a world where there is no consensus on common values, the Ten Commandments set a minimum standard for ethical living. They remind us, that for at least 3,000 years, God's people have linked faith with ethics. What we do matters. It matters to God, and it matters to the way we live together. We cannot always rely on our desires to lead us in the right direction. The Ten Commandments are immensely helpful in reminding us to do the right thing, even when we don’t feel like it.
Yet it is also true that the commandments can be used as weapons that wound --when these same life-giving commandments are applied with too much judgment, when we focus on the speck in our neighbor’s eye, and fail to see the log in our own eyes.
For there is not one of us, in this room today, who will succeed in fulfilling even this short list of ten commands. We are all doomed to fail. If we add the 600+ additional commandments of the Jewish Law, or as a Christian, add the teachings of Jesus, which go above and beyond the Ten Commandments, then we’re really in trouble.
Yet somehow, we continue to see these commandments of Moses, and the teachings of Jesus, not as an impossible burden, but as an immense gift. They form for us a life-giving structure that points us in the right direction. They are like a car navigation system, that when we get lost, when we make a wrong turn, calmly announces: “recalibrating your route. Turn left here.” No matter where we end up, they can lead us back to God and to life in blessed community.
So love them, follow them, question them, reframe them, lean on them, return to them. Words of life and beauty, words of faith and duty.
Ten words. Wonderful words of life. Amen.
Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9
October 9th ,2011
Do you think that Simon Cowell would be able to answer this question? What’s the difference between a sacrament and an idol? In theological terms, a sacrament is a physical and finite object that points to the overarching reality of God. An idol is a physical and finite object that pretends to be God.
Idolatry is such an old-fashioned word-- it’s hard to define in our modern world. The most common association we have with the word “idol” is the ten-year smash success TV show, in which incredibly talented amateur performers submit themselves to the ridicule or acclaim of sharp-tongued judges like Cowell. The winners become superstars, and the losers go back to waiting tables in Midwestern towns.
There is something in human nature that gravitates towards idols; something in us that fashions an idol if we don’t already have one right in front of us. The challenge and beauty of monotheism is that God is One, infinite, not reducible to an object. God is always beyond our grasp, beyond our definition, and most importantly, beyond our control. Idols, on the other hand, can be tacked to your wall—as in a Justin Bieber poster, or placed on your mantle, as in a golden calf, or made to conform to whatever it is that you need. On some level (let’s admit it), we are not comfortable, not satisfied, with our God being so big. It is easier to fixate on something closer, smaller, and more like us.
Kathleen Norris writes of her early life:
For most of us, the idolatry of our devotions takes a mild form. At the age of eleven I wrote a passionate fan letter to Sandra Dee…. It is difficult to grow into a mature self- possession so that one has a proper sense of devotion; that is, so one can begin to see what it is good to dedicate oneself to, and what is unhealthy or even evil. All too often, romantic love and fanatic devotion to celebrities are an attempt to escape the self, to ask another to be yourself because the burden has become too much for you. That the certainly the case with me and Sandra Dee. She was blond cute, popular, and I was not.”
When life is difficult, when we are feeling inadequate, we gravitate towards the manufacture of idols. In this, perhaps we are not so different after all from the ancient Israelites. It is so easy to make fun of them, as we read how they took off their earrings and melted them down, and poured the gold into a mold shaped like a calf. The story is told with an ironic, mocking tone; we are meant to notice how silly they are. But there is also something true in this story, underneath the ridiculousness.
What do you do when God is absent? What do you do, when you are anxious and in some kind of wilderness, and your leader has disappeared, or you don’t trust him any more? What do you do, when you aren’t sure if there even is a God, or if there is one, whether this Holy One cares about you? The impulse towards idolatry comes, I believe, from the discomfort that afflicts all of us from time to time, when God seems absent.
And to soothe ourselves, to reassure ourselves, we turn to anything that will distract us or make us feel like we are in control. We watch American Idol or CSI and live our lives vicariously through fantasy. We focus on financial wealth as the source of our safety net. We redecorate our houses, or we go shopping. We chase the idols of fitness and beauty.
As the ancient Israelites crisscrossed through the desert for forty years, it turns out they were not alone. They interacted with the people already living there, Canaanites who worshiped gods other than Jahweh. Their gods most often took the form of statues-- bulls or calves made of gold. These totem objects symbolized fertility and strength, and the Canaanites believed that if they honored them and made sacrifices to them, they would in return get a share of their attributes: fertility and strength.
You see, we think chasing after sex and power is something new, but it’s as old as the Canaanites! We may not melt down our jewelry in the form of livestock, but we spend billions on health and beauty products. We spend even more on military defense and weapons systems. And we measure our worth as human beings by the balance sheet of our net worth. Sex and power. Fertility and strength.
But gold is not God, no matter what shape we mold it into. No physical object, no matter how beautiful, can contain the power and freedom of God. This is why Protestant reformers removed most of the religious art from their churches after the Reformation. They feared that the icons, the paintings, the statues, the golden chalices, and the priests’ fancy vestments were all giving people the wrong idea. Ordinary people had come to believe that these holy objects contained God's power.
“No,” said the Reformers: “God is absolutely other, non-physical, not something we can ever control or represent by golden objects.” Some of them took this impulse to its extreme form, even removing the crosses from the walls of their churches, so that no object could be mistaken for the infinite God.
The Reformers remind us that holiness happens through prayer, and through God's initiative, not because we have assembled the right costly ecclesiastical paraphernalia. I grew up in the tradition of plain, unadorned Congregational churches, with clear windows, no stained glass, no banners, and just a plain cross on the wall above the communion table. Now, I appreciate the color and liveliness of liturgical art. But I still value the reformers’ insight that things can never substitute for the living, limitless God.
In fact, a healthy suspicion of religious objects, leads to the insight that even things connected to faith can become idols. For some people, devotion to the Bible or some particular interpretation of the Bible, can actually substitute for a relationship with God. For some people, a rigid identification with a particular liturgy or a particular denomination can substitute for a relationship with the living God. Just as religious objects can become idols, so can religious practices become idols.
While the Israelites in the camp were wearing down Aaron and melting down their earrings, Moses was up on the mountain arguing with God. It’s amusing the way God keeps calling the Israelites “your people”, as if their shortcomings were Moses’ fault. But when Moses replies to God, he puts the ball back in God’s court, calling them “your people.”
God is so angry that he is thinking about sending another flood. He wants to make Moses the new Noah. God plans to wipe the slate clean and start all over again, but Moses keeps coming up with reasons why God should hang in there with these silly Israelites. Moses first asks God to consider his reputation. “What will the Egyptians think, if you went to all the trouble of bringing these people out of slavery, only to kill them off in the desert?” And when that doesn’t seem to convince God, Moses makes the final appeal: “You promised! You said you would be our God and we would be your people! … an everlasting covenant.”
The lively give-and-take between God and Moses models a key dimension of faith. Faith is a dynamic relationship, in which both parties are open to change. By contrast, an idol is a static thing—it just sits there gleaming. Or, like Sandra Dee or Justin Bieber, it receives our projected desires but cannot reciprocate. Real faith, on the other hand, keeps bringing us back into relationship, into learning and growth. God invites us-- like Moses-- to argue, to ask questions, and to remind God of the promises that were made long ago.
What do you do when God seems absent? You tell the stories of faith, how we were brought up out of the land of Egypt, freed from slavery. You tell the stories of Jesus, how he shared our human body, and ate and drank with his friends, how he laid down his life in love, and refused to return evil for evil. How he overcame death, and offered new life to all who follow him. You invite the restless wind of the Holy Spirit to sweep away your fear and your isolation and your boredom. You roll up your sleeves, and go find someone to help or a way to serve. You accept that the God whom we meet in the pages of the Bible is BIG, complex and contradictory, and faith does not always keep us safe.
What do you do when God seems absent? You don’t settle for an idol; something that will fill you up for a moment, but disappoint you in the end. When God seems absent, you ask your friends to pray for you. You go to church, even if you don’t feel like it. You wait, you listen, you trust. You hold onto the promises of the One who led the Israelites through the wilderness--- promises of guidance, protection, belonging, relationship, forgiveness, eternal life, daily bread, blessing.
Let us close with a prayer written by Anthony Robinson:
Holy God, grant that I may fear you enough that I need fear nothing else at all; that I love you so much that I love nothing else too much. Amen.
Deut. 34:1-12, Psalm 90
October 23rd, 2011
What makes someone’s story real and worth telling? One person says: “It’s not how well you succeed in the end, but how many times you fall and get back up”. Another suggests: “When we come to the end of our lives, God will not examine our diplomas and medals, but our scars.” And a third posits: “Faith is the affirmation that love will win eventually, but it might be 51 to 50 in triple overtime.”
The Bible is full of real life failures and do-overs. The heroes of the Bible have lots of scars. And often in the Bible dramas, it is not all clear that love will win in the end. Some interpreters try to smooth over the contradictions and ambiguities of the Bible, but they are there, if you read carefully. Here’s LIFE in all its complexity— and in the midst of it, here is God, linking our lives to the old, old story that goes all the way back to creation.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Vermont Ministers Convocation with Greg Mobley of Andover Newton Theological School. He gave a series of wonderful lectures on the Bible as story, and I will borrow many of his insights today.
We human beings are storytellers. It is part of our DNA. It turns out that the physical structures that made human speech possible evolved about a million years ago! Of course, no one knows exactly when humans began to use language, or what those first languages were like. But we know that about 35 thousand years ago, people were making cave paintings. They were using symbols and pictures to tell stories. And we know that the first alphabets were invented only about 35 hundred years ago. So from all the time between a million years ago and 3,500 years ago, we can assume that people were telling stories, with no way of writing them down.
For something like 900,000 years, they told stories to celebrate having survived a flood or an encounter with a wild animal. They told stories about finding a mate and naming their family identity. They made meaning out of everyday habits and objects and rituals by weaving them into stories. They described their encounters with mystery and pain and light and wonder; in other words, they talked about God. For all those millennia, human beings tried to make sense of their world by storytelling, and by remembering and passing on the stories their ancestors had told them.
Greg Mobley suggests that the Bible is basically a repository for the best of those old, old stories. The Hebrew Bible along with Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are humanity’s earliest long-form texts, written down not long after the invention of the alphabet. According to Mobley, when we read the Bible today, we are piecing together “a trans-generational community quilt of meaning–making” that has been in the works for more than 3,000 years. For something like 150 generations, people have heard these same stories and retold them. We recognize ourselves in the characters and situations from so long ago. The Bible echoes our own cries of loss and sorrow, or our own joy and delight in the world God has made. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” wrote the Psalmist.
Today’s slice of the Biblical drama concerns Moses. Moses was, as you know, the superhero of the Hebrew people. He led them out of slavery in Egypt, stood up to Pharaoh, provided wise guidance through the Exodus for forty years in the desert. Moses spoke with God face to face, and brought the Ten Commandments and the foundation of the Law to the people. Moses kept alive for them the dream that one day they would have a land of their own, a land flowing with milk and honey.
And now at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God takes Moses up on a high hill overlooking the Jordan River and says, “There it is: the Promised Land. And this is as far as you go, buddy.” Moses’ story, so intertwined with God's story, will come to an end, but God's story will go on and on.
There is something deeply sad about Moses getting so close, and not receiving the prize. We want him to experience the reward, the completion of the journey, by settling into a happy old age on the other side of the Jordan. But life is not like that. No matter how illustrious or accomplished we are, our stories come to an end. We pass on the reins of leadership to the next generation. We take satisfaction in knowing that the things we stood for, and the work we have done will continue on. We let go of whatever control we have had, and return the world into God’s care. We bless those who will follow us.
One commentator put it this way: In Moses’ dying, the significance of his life became clear—what it was and what it was not. ….Moses’ life comes to an end, but then continues as sacred story into the next era of God’s creativity.
Our stories will all come to an end. But God’s story always goes on, with new chapters written in each generation. And in the brief span of our lives, what the Psalmist calls threescore and ten, or if we are strong, fourscore, we add our own chapters to the sacred story.
Moses, of course, was a big deal, a towering figure, and we are just ordinary people. It’s hard to imagine that our lives will ever have the kind of significance that people will be talking about generations from now. But the Bible encourages us to think this way—to ask, “How is God nudging me to move my community from slavery to freedom? How is Jesus inspiring me to forgive instead of retaliate? How do I rise to the challenges of my own time and place? How do I share the blessings and the talents God has given me?” As we answer these questions, we are constructing for ourselves a narrative of faith, a spiritual autobiography.
Mobley reminded us that for all of us, the most interesting story in the world is “the song of myself”, (in other words, our own story). And this is actually nothing to be ashamed of, if we are people of faith. When we close our eyes and pray, or when we reflect on our lives through the lens of faith, we imagine that there is a Divine Listener, who is passionately interested in hearing our story. Theology takes “the song of myself” and connects it with the biggest story we can imagine—the stories that flows through our sacred scripture.
It may seem narcissistic to believe that our personal struggles and achievements matter at all in the course of the universe. But it is actually an act of bold faith to believe that our story matters—to God and to the universe.
Life can so often seem random and chaotic. The stories in the Bible tell us that there are laws of cause and effect, and that our actions can hurt or heal. The Bible stories tell us that even when it seems that evil has all the power, God has secret weapons of love and mercy, even more powerful. The Bible tells us that God is passionately interested in human economics, and justice, and freedom, and that God needs our help to build a world of peace.
Most good stories are linear. They begin by introducing a few characters, they continue with the characters facing a set of challenges, and they end with the characters meeting the challenge in some way. When we look back at our own lives, we often see patterns we did not notice at the time. We realize that if we had made different choices, we would not have met the one we love; we would not have ended up in the job we have, or in the community where we now live. Sometimes we regret these twists and turns in our histories, and sometimes we cherish them. Often the parts of the story that are most painful for us to remember have taught us essential life lessons.
Faith invites us to look for the traces of God in our personal narratives. Faith invites us to see all of life as a gift. Even the hard times may be seen as opportunities for God to get our attention and take our hand as we walk through the wilderness.
Greg Mobley reminded us that for the Hebrews, God's true name is never spoken aloud. It is too powerful, too sacred. Yet there are in the Jewish tradition, 99 other names for God, each of them conveying a different aspect of the divine fullness. Our English word for “God” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word which means “good.” Here, says Mobley, is the shortest story of all—a one word story. “Good.” Life is good. Love will win in the end, even if it is 51 to 50 in triple overtime. It takes faith to live our lives according to this story. It takes faith, like Moses, to let go of our own legacy, and be a part of the long chain of God's faithful actors and storytellers.
Will you take this story as your own? Will you let this story be told in you? You are already doing it, every time you gather here on Sunday mornings, every time you hand out food, or sing the songs of faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Take Me To Your Leader: Three Profiles
Joshua 3:7-17, Matthew 23:1-12, I Thess. 2:9-13
October 30th, 2011
1. 1234 BC. At first I was not sure about Joshua, as a leader, but now I know that the hand of God is upon him. Moses (our leader for a whole generation) was dead. We were afraid and excited, there on the shores of the Jordan River, looking across into the Promised Land. Could Joshua really fill the shoes of our great liberator? Our month of mourning was over, and it was time to move on, but honestly, Joshua looked a little hesitant, as if he didn't know how to begin. But then he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and began to speak:
“Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God,” he said. “Among you is the living God.” Joshua named each of our enemies, and told us that God was stronger than all of them. His voice was not as deep as Moses’, but he spoke with quiet authority, asking us to select twelve leaders, one from each of the tribes of Israel. It was a smart move, for it signaled that he would share leadership with each of the twelve tribes, valuing their wisdom. He then instructed twelve priests to lift the Ark of the Covenant, that portable shrine that contained our most sacred objects. He asked them to step into the water at the river’s edge. At that time of year, there were strong currents, and we all watched, wondering what would happen next. Would they be swept away? Would the Ark fall into the water?
Joshua spoke again, and his voice carried over the sound of the moving water. He told us that our future and our past were one continuous line, and that we could trace the loving protection of God from beginning to end. As he spoke, we all remembered the crossing of the Red Sea, that miracle of a day when the waters parted and we walked on dry land, while our enemies drowned behind us!
Then history repeated itself as we re-enacted the ritual of the Red Sea. The waters flowing from above stood still, and while the priests stood there on dry ground, all of us -- men, women and children --crossed over safely into Jordan.
At first I was not sure about Joshua, but now I can see the hand of God is upon him. He reminds us that God is powerful and near. In battle, in sacred ritual, and in the building of our new land, he is the one who will show us God’s way.
2. 26 AD. At first I was not sure about Jesus, as a leader, but now I know that the hand of God is upon him. There are plenty of leaders in Roman-occupied Palestine. We may not have political freedom, but we do have a certain amount of religious autonomy, And there are hundreds of priests and scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees, all claiming to speak for God, all telling us what to do. These men are pious, smart, and subtle, and often quite intimidating. As a regular person, I try to listen to all of them, but when they argue the finer points of the Law, it makes my head hurt. Sometimes I just want to know how to love God and my neighbor in a simple way. Sometimes I wonder if all these leaders are really bringing us closer to God.
But Jesus is a different kind of leader. First of all, he isn’t a priest, or even a rabbi, although he can hold his own in discussions with any of them. Second, he doesn’t just hang around the temple and talk with the big shots. He spends time in the countryside. I heard he had a long discussion about God with a Samaritan woman at a village well. The temple priests would never in a million years do that!
Jesus also has gathered a group around him, and they are certainly a mixed company. …Fishermen, tax collectors, farmers, along with a few women, and some curious Pharisees. They travel together, without any of the usual distinctions between rich and poor, well-educated and those who labor with their hands. I have seen them laughing, walking down dusty roads deep in conversation, their arms draped over one another’s shoulders.
Something new is going on here, and it all has to do with Jesus. He is a different kind of leader. He invites people to find God in ordinary things, like seeds planted in the ground, dough rising in the kitchen, sheep coming into the barn at night. He tells stories, instead of reciting laws. He makes people think, he makes them laugh, and he somehow gets them to befriend one another. Now you might think, since everyone seems to love him the moment they meet him, that he is never angry or sharp. But get him started on the poor, and they way they are treated, and you will see a fierce anger.
Today I followed him into one of the outer courtyards of the temple. There were scribes and Pharisees coming and going, their white robes blinding in the strong sunlight, the fringes of their prayer shawls long and proud, their noses held high in the air.
Jesus said, “Look at them! They spend their whole day debating the Law; they tell everyone else what they must do to please God. Meanwhile, the poor suffer under taxes that bankrupt them, and dietary laws that leave them hungry. These so-called leaders substitute ritual for righteousness, and intellect for justice. They love their positions of honor more than they love God.”
I was afraid, when I heard him say that, because these men have the power to hurt someone like Jesus. But his disciples did not seem frightened. “Tell us more, Rabbi,” they said. Then Jesus spoke again, and his voice carried over the hustle and bustle of the courtyard. “Call no one Rabbi, not even me, for we are all beginners in faith. We all stand at the feet of God learning and growing. Not one of us has arrived. And not one of them has arrived either at the righteousness God desires. But they don’t know it.
He went on: “Don’t get me wrong. The Law is good; it’s a blessing from God, and you should follow it as much as you can. But do not emulate these men with their pride and their power. Be a servant, if you want to please God. Be humble, not stuck-up. God will love you for it.”
He is a different kind of leader alright. At first I was not sure about Jesus, but now I think I’m going to follow him, for as long as he will have me.
3. 50 AD As first I was not sure about Paul, but now I can see that the hand of God is upon him. He’s not much to look at: short, bald, and shaped like a barrel. When he first came to Thessalonica, he taught in the synagogue. Passionately and patiently, he outlined the story of Jesus, and told us what it meant. We have a new way to follow God, to be holy, to find freedom, faith and joy. Through Paul, many of us came to believe in the Christ. We became brothers and sisters to one another, and he was like a father to us.
Now our community is separated from the synagogue, and we are trying to figure out who we are, if we are no longer Jewish. It’s all very confusing. Some people in our community think that Paul has led us astray. We have been arguing, and it’s not pretty.
But Paul’s most recent letter has brought us back to unity. He reminds us that he has never asked us to do anything that he himself would not willingly do. While he was here among us, he preached and taught every night. But every day he worked with his hands, earning his own keep. With Paul, beliefs, words, and actions all fit together.
He is both a Roman citizen and an educated Jew. He could easily hold himself above our mixed company of laborers and Gentiles, servants and craftsmen. But he calls us sister and brother. He eats in our homes, prays over our children, and treats each believer as an equal in Christ.
Paul’s a strong character—which you will discover if you ever try to win an argument with him—but he loves with the same intensity that he fights. He talks all the time about Jesus, about the Law, about the new form of community life that is being invented among us in these days. His words are spell-binding and persuasive, but words are not what make him a great leader. Paul “walks his talk.” He not only tells us, he also shows what following Jesus looks like.
At first I was not sure about Paul, but now I can see the hand of God is upon him.
Walk the talk. Lead by example. Correct people only after they know you really love them; you are really with them. This is what I have learned about leadership from Paul.