21 November 2010

More Than a Carpenter

So I was at a retreat with a group of college students at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center in downtown Richmond. It was back when I was in campus ministry and I had taken a group of students who were living together in intentional Christian community to see how another intentional Christian community lived. Richmond Hill is in an old Catholic monastery high on the top of Church Hill in Richmond. The nuns moved out about 25 years ago and an ecumenical group has run it ever since.

If you go there, they will put you up in some of the old cells that the nuns used to use. Over the doors there are the stenciled names of Catholic saints. There’s the Ignatius room, the Augustine room. Well, I was staying in a very small room at the end of the hallway. The only furnishings in the room were a desk, a chair, and a small twin bed. I fell asleep with the chair right up against the bed.

In the middle of the night I woke up with a start. I had a very strange feeling that someone was watching me. I opened my eyes and there, straddling the chair and looking at me, was the King. That’s right. You know who I mean. Elvis was sitting on that chair. It was such a vivid image that when I actually woke up awhile later I had a hard time convincing myself that it was only a dream. And who knows?

I don’t know what that vision meant. At the time I took it to mean that I was really hungry for some evidence of God’s power and my brain did that crazy thing brains do in dreams and gave me a king. But it was during a low period in my life and, strange as it was, it did tell me that God was present.

Today, though, we talk about the real king. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year. Next week we begin Advent, which is the first Sunday of a new Christian cycle, and we will start moving toward Christmas. The scripture lessons will take us back to the promises of the Messiah’s coming and then to the beginning of Jesus’ story in a manger.

The Christian year always ends with this day, though. We may start with a baby. We may walk with Jesus through the sufferings and the trials of his life and death. But we end the year with this image of kingship and we ask ourselves what it means to call Jesus, not just our friend, not just our brother, not just a carpenter, not just a great human being, but the one who will reign forever.

This is not an easy thing for us to hear. Our world doesn’t make it easy for us to talk about who Jesus is for us. There are all kinds of competing claims out there. All kinds of messages. All kinds of options. We might pay lip service to the idea that Jesus is king, but it’s hard for us to live it out.

Last year the Pew Forum came out with a study on how Americans think about their faith and what they found is that most of us use a kind of cafeteria style to put together a set of beliefs. We take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, throw it together and come up with beliefs that are individual as we are. For instance, almost 40% of Americans attend worship regularly at multiple places, 28% at worship of different faiths. 22% of Christians say that they believe in reincarnation, which is about the same percentage as in the general population, and even though the Christian story, centered on Jesus, has a very different message about what happens to us after death. Other people say that they mix their beliefs in Christianity with astrology or crystals or nature worship.[i]

This doesn’t surprise me. It tells me that we are a spiritually confused and spiritually hungry people. We see people who have experienced powerful mystical experiences and we are attracted to that. Like Julia Roberts discovering Hinduism in Eat, Pray, Love. We like the idea of something new. And maybe we have heard about Jesus for so long that we think we know him. Maybe he’s become so thoroughly domesticated that we can’t see him as wild and holy anymore. He’s like the sweater Grandma knitted us when we were teenagers. It’s warm. It’s comfortable. But we’re a little embarrassed to wear it out in public because we’re not sure how stylish it is.

There are dangers to being confused, though. I have talked in several sermons recently about the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Christian theologian working through the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and into World War II. Bonhoeffer watched as the Christians around him began to compromise their beliefs in order to conform to the pronouncements of the Nazis. When the Nazis said that Jewish Christian converts shouldn’t worship with German Christians, the main Christian church agreed. When the Nazis said that clergy ought to pledge an oath to Hitler in addition to committing themselves to serving God, the Christians agreed. When the Nazis said that the Old Testament was degenerate and the cross was a bad symbol because it revealed weakness, the church got rid of both.

Bonhoeffer looked at all of this and he could only conclude that Christianity as a religion had failed. If a thousand years and more of Christian teaching in Germany had produced people who couldn’t put up any more resistance than that, then perhaps the religion needed to die. If Christians were able to hear the gospel message and then go on and do whatever they wanted, including doing things that were directly contrary to the gospel, what good was the title Christian? What Bonhoeffer said from his prison cell in the darkest days of the war was this: “We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”[ii]

Bonhoeffer feels far ahead of his time in talking like this. Or maybe it’s just that our culture today feels a lot like his, not because we have Nazis challenging the Christian message but because we have so many other ways in which that message is being challenged. If we use Christianity as our grounding, it seems to be only in the bumper sticker sense.

Colossians has a much larger vision of who Jesus is. Remember that the early church grew up in a Roman Empire that was also a place of many competing religions. The Christians in Colossae would have been very tempted to be just like we Americans are, picking and choosing from a menu of religious options. What made Judaism and Christianity so threatening to the Empire, though, was their insistence on making these outrageous claims for a single God.

The letter to the Colossians says that Jesus was not just a great person within this world, he was also the one who liberated us from the power of darkness and transferred us into a new kingdom. We may have been a people marred by sin and stuck in our tired stories of failure, but we do not have to be that any longer. We have been forgiven and freed for new life with a new ruler who is not like any other ruler in the world.

He was human, but Jesus was also the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, which means he was there at the beginning of all creation. Everything was created thorough him. He is the head of the body, the church. He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end. He was God. And he was God in a way you never expected. He was God in a way that went to the cross and died and made a way through his blood to peace and life.

Now if you believe that, it means that it challenges every other way of thinking. If you believe that, it means that you can’t live in the world in the same way. If you believe that, it may make you uncomfortable sometimes. But it may also make you understand the greatest power the world has known.

Robert Capon writes that when we Americans think of a powerful Jesus, since we don’t have kings anymore, we think of Jesus as Superman.

“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus -- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides -- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It's got it all -- including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.[iii]

Yet the way that Jesus saves is so much different than that of a superhero. He is thoroughly human and the life he calls us to is to be thoroughly human ourselves. If we follow this Jesus we will encounter each other in deeply personal ways and we will experience a new way of being human.

There is a popular story that tells about a person walking down the beach. She sees a man standing at the water’s edge and flinging starfish into the ocean. She also sees that the beach is covered with starfish and that even if the man stayed there all day he would never be able to make a dent in the number of beached starfish. So she goes and says to the man, “Isn’t this a little silly? You’ll never be able to save all these starfish. There are just too many.”

The man pauses for a moment, then picks up one more starfish and tosses it into the water. “I saved that one.”

Living in this world as a Christian can seem like a silly and pointless thing at times. Following Jesus can seem like a waste. “What good are we to the world?” we might be tempted to ask. Why should we live differently than this world does? But we follow one who says, “I desire that those whom you have given me will be where I am.” Jesus comes to lose no one and invites us to discover what it means to reign with him. Thanks be to God.

Colossians 1:11-20 (NRSV)

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

[i] “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 9 December 2009, http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/Many-Americans-Mix-Multiple-Faiths.aspx.

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethke, April 1944, quoted in “Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity” on the blog Experimental Theology, 10 Oct 2007, http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2007/10/bonhoeffers-religionless-christianity.html.

[iii] Robert Capon, from the website CrossWalks Christian Resources, Brian P. Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke23x33.htm.

07 November 2010

Remember When?

They’re getting a little tired now, but I used to get a kick out of those old light bulb jokes. You know, the ones like, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.” Or “How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb? None, because they use candles.” Or, one of my favorites, “How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to change the light bulb and four more to talk about how good the old one was.”

Well, today’s scripture passage invites us to do like the Virginians reminiscing about the old days. Today we’re going to talk about a prophet we rarely ever hear from. We’re going to hear from Haggai.

As we do this I want you to imagine a Temple. The finest Temple you can imagine. It sits on the top of a hill and it is made of the most excellent materials available. Cedars from Lebanon. Gold and silver. Elaborate drapes. Tall pillars rising to the sky. It’s the Temple that Solomon built in the days when Israel was at the height of its power. It’s the Temple the pilgrims longed for when they made their way to Jerusalem, marching to Zion. It’s the Temple Isaiah stood in when he saw the vision of God sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of God’s garments filling the Temple below.

The Temple is where God was supposed to dwell. The Temple is where sacrifices were offered to God continually. The Temple is where the heart of the nation was. And the Temple is what was lost when Jerusalem fell in 587 BC.

The Babylonians finally sacked the city in that year. They dragged many of the people off across the eastern desert. Others fled for Egypt. The king, Jehoiakin, was imprisoned and then invited to sit at the table of the royal family in Babylon with all of the other conquered kings. The great Temple, built to mark the presence of Israel’s God with the people Israel, was destroyed and all of its wealth carted off.

For almost 70 years the people lived in exile. The people who had been promised a land had no land. The people who had been promised a descendant of King David upon the throne had no king. The people who had been a nation had no nation. The memory of Solomon’s great Temple began to fade.

Then deliverance came from an unlikely place. Cyrus, the king of a new power, Persia, came and conquered the Babylonians and released the Jews from captivity. Later his successor, Darius allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and to begin rebuilding the city, rebuilding their lives, and rebuilding the Temple.

Zerubbabel, grandson of the last king, began the work. Working with whomever he could find among the remnant of the people, he started clearing the blocks, clearing the site, building again. Only this time there were no cedars of Lebanon. This time there was no gold and no silver. No ivory. Twenty-eight days in the disillusionment had begun. This was not going to be like the old days. This Temple was not going to have the glory of the old one.

Then the prophet came around again. Haggai, who had been so convinced that the people had to build this building. Haggai speaks again over the blocks of the ruins of the old Temple and the pitiful mud and sticks that were supposed to become the new Temple. “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?” he asks. Nobody. Seventy years later? There must have been hardly anyone left who had seen the old Temple in its glory. “How does it look to you now?” Pathetic. That’s how it looked to them now.

Haggai keeps talking. “Take courage, Zerubbabel. Take courage, Joshua, son of the high priest. Take courage, all you people. Work, because I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts. I promised when you came out of Egypt. My spirit is with you. Don’t you be afraid now.”

If Haggai had stopped there, this little passage might not be so disturbing. If he had left it at “God is with us” it might have been a nifty, little pep talk for people who were trying to just get by. But Haggai doesn’t leave well enough alone. It’s not enough to just promise a struggling people that God is there; he goes on to promise something fantastical.

“Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and dry land, and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor…The gold is mine. The silver is mine. This house will be even greater than the old house because in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord.”

Oh, Haggai, what are you promising? Is this what it’s about? Silver and gold and prosperity? Why do you get their hopes up like that? They’re a poor and desperate people, barely getting by. They will always live on the edge of empires that are not their own. They will always be at the mercy of strong powers. They will eke out a meager existence for a few more centuries and then be scattered to the four winds. Jerusalem will once again lie in ruins. The Temple will once again be brought down. What is the promise?

There are preachers who preach this, you know. There are grand sanctuaries from coast to coast that boast the best and the boldest and the greatest. I’ve seen them. I used to live in Dallas and believe me there are some great, prosperous churches there. First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas has just imploded four of their buildings so that they can build a new $115 million dollar campus that will include a fountain plaza. It’s the largest renovation by a Protestant church ever.

The promise is not about the building, though. It’s not about how great an edifice we can construct. It’s not about how marvelous we can make it. The promise of prosperity is that the people can see the glory of God. The promise of prosperity is that all the work, all the effort, all the money, all the resources we put into the church is so that we can see the true promise which is that God is with us.

Our United Methodist bishops met this week. They gathered from all over the world in Panama to hear the report of a group called A Call to Action. The church has got problems. Like many other mainline denominations, we don’t have the financial resources we used to. But we also have stopped growing. There are growing churches and there are areas of the world, like the Congo, where Methodism is exploding, but in North America as a whole, we have been losing money.

So the Call to Action says we have to stop doing what we’ve been doing. We have to restructure our national and international boards and agencies so that they can focus on the mission of the church and the mission of the church is to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And where does that happen most effectively? In vital congregations. It happens in other places. It happens in campus ministries. It happens in church camps. It happens in church-related community centers. I’ve been a part of all of these. But unless we’re making disciples for Jesus Christ in places like this, we will continue to meander and falter and slow and lose our way.

What do vital congregations look like? The Call to Action group looked at data from over 32,000 congregations and it showed that high-vitality churches consistently share a few common things:
• Effective pastoral leadership including inspirational preaching, mentoring laity, and effective management
• Multiple small groups and programs for children and youth
• A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services, and
• A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles

We’ve got a lot of those factors at work here at Franktown. God has been at work here and there have been a lot of faithful people who have followed a vision of what could be. People looked around at this place and said, “It could be more.” And they worked, not only to build a house, a place where more ministry could take place, they worked on a dream.

That’s what Haggai is about. Having a dream from God of what could be and living life out of that. These are hard times in our country. We look around us at what’s going on and we hear a lot of voices that say, “We can’t.” It’s part of what the frustration in last week’s elections was about. We can’t fix our economy. We can’t fix our government. We can’t produce jobs. We can’t give our children a standard of living better than ours. We can’t compete in the global marketplace. Isn’t that how it seems?

Sometimes that “can’t do” attitude hits us as individuals, too. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we wonder what became of the person we used to be. Where did that hair go? Where did my dreams go? Where is the person I thought I was? We hear the faint echo of Haggai talking to those builders of the Temple. “Who among you is left who remembers this house, this country, this body in its former glory?” A black mood starts to creep in. To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet, “I wake and feel the fell of dark.”

The other day in the paper there was a story about bay scallops. VIMS and the UVA research center down in Oyster are working together on a project to reestablish bay scallops on the seaside. When the youth went on their mini-retreat last summer we went to Wachapreague and Mark Luckenbach showed us some of these scallops in one of the water tables.

The bay scallops were wiped out right around 1933 when the big hurricane that took out the community on Hog Island hit. Sand and mud and silt killed off all the eelgrass behind the barrier islands and when the eelgrass went so did the scallops. But these guys have a vision for what could be. Mark says it will never be like it was. They’re not going to have a major commercial fishery for bay scallops. “We’re basically starting from scratch,” he says. But they know what could be. They live out of what will be. And they do the things they need to do to build towards a day when bay scallops will once again be a part of the marine ecology of the seaside.

That’s what we’re about, as Christians. We live out of hope. We do what we do out a belief that God is going to transform the world. We don’t just lay back and wait for it to happen, though. We don’t wait for the gold and silver to arrive at our feet. We work - one mud brick at a time. One small act of witness. One small act of service. One visit at a time. One shared tear at a time. One small celebration at a time. One more prayer. One more meal. One more moment with a child. One more difficult, wonderful journey with a youth (or a parent). One more time. Until the kingdom comes.

Remember when God was with us? Remember when? God is still with us. So, in the words of Hopkins once again, “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.” Let Christ easter in you. It’s a verb. And it takes all the way home. Thanks be to God.

Haggai 2:1-9 [NRSV]
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying:

Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, ‘Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel’, says the LORD; ‘take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land’, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.

For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.