TAXES, AND THEN [a poem]

March 31, 2007

 

I rendered to Caesar the image

today, what Jesus said belonged to him, or

to the Treasury of the United States,

taxes, and then, ever so slowly slipped

into a trance.  Shaken by tremors

no longer measured from one to ten,

debris compressed and leaned heavily, very

Heavily, upon my income and my deductions

and the digits, barely legible, became

a laminated display in the museum

of some highly evolved species.  Like

the ancient Greek boys, who sat at Philo’s feet, these

six-winged creatures gazed at mummified contributions

to charity.   And then by process of inductive reasoning

the Teacher used me as data, my gifts as facts, upon

which they might draw conclusions and judge history

since, after all, history can’t judge.

 

us-treasury.jpg

 

 

It’s hard to believe that it all comes down to words.   It’s hard to believe that what we say out loud can either haunt or heal us.  It’s hard to believe that clichés can actually hinder our relationships.  It’s hard to believe that mere human speech can actually be heard and heeded by the Sovereign Lord of the Universe so that we see worlds change.  All this is hard to believe.  But if there’s anyone who thinks that words are worth something, it’s the prophet Jeremiah.  And if there’s anyone who speaks out of the abundance of his good heart, it’s the itinerate teacher, Jesus. 

Jeremiah and Jesus are word-crafters.  They express themselves carefully and creatively.  And this morning, I’m simply wondering if that kind of care and creativity is really necessary among us.   “What do you read, my lord?” says Polonius in Act Two of Hamlet.  And the prince’s response might be repeated five centuries later by anyone, surfing the Internet:  “Words, words, words…”  Just think for a moment about the exponential explosion of neon signs, chat rooms, text messaging—and this does not even begin to touch upon the translations of the Bible and the words we use in church.  So, again, I’m wondering about Jeremiah 7:3—“Thus says the Lord of hosts…”    Is that something that we also get to speak to one another on days like this one? 

I’m just wondering and hoping.   cinderellas_castle.jpgMy entire family went to Disney World several years ago, and during our visit to the Magic
Kingdom we went for a ride on the Haunted House.  The Haunted House is one of the oldest attractions at the park, and as we boarded the vehicles that would take us around, I noticed some cracks in the walls that were not there by design.  At any rate, throughout that dark tour there were lots of ghosts and monsters who spoke to us mechanically.   We could tell that they were all make-believe, and we laughed and laughed.  But then came this abrupt halt to all the frightful sounds and all the recorded voices of goblins.  The small vehicle in which we rode also froze on its metallic tracks.  There was nothing but silence… and then a real-live human voice which said, “We are experiencing technical difficulties.  Please remain in your seats while we make repairs.”   Well, I’ll tell you, it was the scariest part of the entire Haunted House.  And the reason I’m bringing it to your attention is that some speech refers to the real thing and some speech does not.  Some words cut through all the rhetoric and propaganda, and some words just add to the heap of verbiage that piles up on a daily basis.   
   

Today, when Jeremiah 7 says, “Thus says the Lord,” that’s the sign or the signal that a real word is finally being spoken.   Moreover, it’s also an indication that many of the religious words and terms which swirl around us are false and phony.   That is, many words about God come from those who’ve been trained to keep the show going.  But what happens when the institution breaks down?

“Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (v. 4).  

  

You see, something’s going on here that makes us want to stop and really listen.   Walter Brueggemann says that the phrase, ‘the temple of the Lord,’ is probably part of the ancient liturgy.  People who approach the majestic building have become familiar and even comfortable with its cadence.  And yet, here’s the prophet grinding the whole worship mechanism to a halt.   Why?

Well, it all has to do with words.  I know that may be hard to believe.  But, based upon the text in Jeremiah, that much is clear.  And I’m going to suggest this morning three ways in which we abuse, misuse and confuse the words that God has given us.   First, with our words, we memorialize.   Second, we advertise.  And third, we ghettoize.   Moreover, when I say, WE, I’m referring to those addressed by Jeremiah originally, and perhaps to those who have ears to hear at Manito Presbyterian Church. 

First, we memorialize, which is to say that we enjoy listening to smooth talking masters of ceremonies, but do not even imagine that some words are meant to heard and obeyed.  Again, verse four says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”  And at first glance it’s tough to see how this simple phrase can be so deceptive.  But let’s put it another way.  

Suppose we compare the entire institution of church to an elaborate house on the beach in Southern California.  At one time, people were drowning in the wild surf and so a group of gifted folks decided to band together as life guards.  They lived ruggedly, sleeping in the dunes and when someone got caught in the undertow, the lifeguards worked together to pull that dying person to shore.  It was all very hands-on and utterly breathtaking, and many stories were told around the campfires at night.  But then, after a few years, the life guards thought it would be a good idea to build a nice shack for all of their gear.   They did that, and now their responsibilities included the  rescue of distressed swimmers and the regular maintenance on the shack.   A few years later, the Life Guard Council voted unanimously to erect the First Memorial Life Guard Lounge and Spa.   Dedicated to one of the Council’s most heroic swimmers, the facility would include a large screen T.V., and a simulated, digitally-enhanced video game, which depicted the life guards competing to rescue people from a pseudo-ocean, which did not exist anywhere except on the screen.  At any rate, you can guess what happened next.   As the waves and the tide took men, women and children out to sea, the life guards were too pre-occupied to go outside of their beautiful beach house to perform any actual rescues.  It was just too comfortable.  And it was just too risky.  But, you see, the words etched in stone masonry memorialized all that needed to be said:  “We Are Safe.”   And that brings us coincidentally to verse ten. 

Jeremiah 7:10 takes us into a new realm of words—words which don’t merely memorialize, but also advertize.  Backing up to verse nine we read: 

“Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, AND THEN come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We Are Safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?”

You see, if we listen to the phrase, ‘We Are Safe,’ long enough we begin to recognize a possible slogan.  Safety is the fast formula for success in a variety of today’s industries.   The assurance of being safe sells.  Moreover, if you happen to be in the religion racket, why not commericialize the security of the temple, or the cathedral?    

Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of a clown, who is sent to tell the people in a crowded theatre about a fire.  The fire is real and an obviously threat to everyone who is enjoying the entertainment.  But, in his clown make-up and costume, no one really believes that the word, “Fire,” refers to something real.   And so, the more animated the clown becomes in his clown suit, the more the spectators giggle and howl with laughter.  But nobody moves or acts upon the word.  

“Will you… stand before me in this house, which is called by name, and say, ‘We Are Safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?”    

So, let’s think about this verse as it pertains to the words that we mention in the life of the church.   Words like sin and forgiveness.  Despair and hope.  ‘The Peace of Christ Be With You Always.’   ‘In Jesus Christ We Are Forgiven.’  Do we imagine that we are safe by merely saying the words?  

Finally, the third way that we abuse our words is by not letting them leave town alive.   With our words, we ghettoize.  I don’t mean ghetto in terms of the bad section of the neighborhood.  But ghetto may also refer to an enclosed subculture, a special place where only certain people know the language, the customs and the lay of the land.  When we ghettoize our faith vocabulary we don’t bother to translate to those who aren’t one of us. In Jeremiah 7:12, therefore, the prophet invites us to take a trip to Shiloh.  Shiloh is the location of a shrine about eighteen miles to the north of
Jerusalem.   It’s the special site from which the Israelites had brought the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 4.  Shiloh had been a privileged bastion of belief, but look at it now.  Look at it now, Jeremiah seems to say.  Shiloh lies in ruins and the same thing can happen to Jerusalem.  The same thing can happen to any church that refuses to let the word get out and be a blessing to the world.  

  

Now, in closing, I’d like to offer you a word that we need to handle with care.  LATAH is a Nez Perce word that has often been usurped by the designation HANGMAN.   But allow me to tell you what LATAH means.  Lah refers to the place of the pines, and likewise the second syllable, Tah, conjures up memories of native people who found stones upon which to grind up roots.  LATAH is then all about life.  And so, if you don’t mind, use caution when you’re driving down Hatch Road .  Look with reverence over the edge of High Drive.  Words are slippery, and God is about to do something new with everything we say and hear. 

Amen. 

BUYING PROPERTY

March 19, 2007

The purchase of property is often a scary endeavor. 

My only experience thus far has been in the haggling with realtors and assorted loan officers over the downpayment on my personal family abode.  Every month now I make a mortgage payment, and all’s right with the world.  Home ownership is one of the paragon blessings of the American Dream, at least among Post-World War Two dreamers.   Cocooning in one’s private suburban lair has even become an artform, with Home Depot reaping the profits.  But what if the property in which one aspires to invest is for a community of faith?

If we search the Bible for allusions to property, or to the purchase of property for the first century church, we search in vain.   Most of the ekklesia or called out ones, met in the homes of individual believers (Acts 10:27; Romans 16:5)  or in the public courtyard, adjacent to the Jerusalem temple.   Moreover, to the extent that the members of the newly forming Christian community pooled their resources in any organized fashion, they did not buy land so much as sell it (see story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5).  The churches of the New Testament are not institutional landmarks, or cultural fixtures; they are movements.  They are contagion, infecting urban centers and spreading through word and hands-on deed for miles and miles around.  Churches, in this sense, don’t need to own acreage in order to be viable and effective.   They require a space to gather consistently for worship and for prayer.  But then, just as consistently, those ekklesia–called out of the world–will scatter back to it.

Yes, in making these observations, I am speculating about the future of those who call themselves Christians today.  Will we survive and thrive as property owners?  Will we, who obsess over maintenance and upkeep and dusting off the pews, understand the dynamics of the Spirit in the twenty-first century? 

Before answering these fateful questions, it’s appropriate to look at one more text: 

Jeremiah 32:6–15.  

This is a remarkable passage, especially considering the shrill comments of the prophet earlier in the book.  For one thing, Jeremiah spends much caustic energy in a effort to strip Jerusalem and Judea of its comfortable blanket of false peace.  He writes of God’s judgment, “I am going to bring upon you a nation from far away, O house of Israel… They shall eat up your harvest and your food; they shall eat up your songs and your daughters… they shall destroy with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust” (Jeremiah 5:15–17).   For another thing, the prophet later will encourage those who have been taken into Babylonian exile to relax and get used to their distant accomodations.  “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf…” (Jeremiah 29:7).   And so, when we arrive at chapter 32, it’s awkward to learn that Jeremiah himself has made an investment, and not an investment in Babylon or Babylonian commerce…  No–in the face of the overwhelming reality, which has marginalized the people of faith–Jeremiah buys a field in Judah.  He signs the deed, seals it, gets witnesses to his signature and weighs out the cool, hard coinage (32:10).

Now, I am in no position to act like Jeremiah.  But if LATAH VALLEY were to purchase some 16 acres of land in the near future, we would be doing it with the maverick attitude and the  prophetic zeal of this ancient exchange.   That is, in a world that is hell-bent on buying and selling with the goal of getting ahead or digging a bunker, LATAH VALLEY will linger on the land like a butterfly.   Think about it.  We will gather to cross-pollinate, and then scatter with the Wind.

butterfly_cartoon_4.jpg

Peace,

Scott 

  

Take some time this morning to consider what you want.  It may be something as simple as a sunny day.  It may be a new pair of sneakers.  It may be beauty.  It may be truth.  It may be world peace.  Take some time this morning to consider what you really want, but then also consider who has influenced you to really want it.   

When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, my mother and father took me to the Super Saver grocery store.   I loved going to the market because if I whined enough my mother would usually buy me whatever I wanted.  Anyway, I can’t remember why my Dad came with us that particular day.  But he did, and I can picture him now, with his hands in his pockets, walking up the aisle with the fresh fruits and vegetables.  With my mother, off to the side, squeezing a loaf of bread, I then observed him casually approaching a display of grapes, which were on sale by the bunch.  Anyway, without any warning whatsoever, my father was preparing to do something in that moment which would change my life and mark me to this day; he doesn’t ask; he doesn’t buy; he doesn’t say to his wife, ‘Hey honey, these grapes look good.’  Nothing like that.  Instead, he reaches and takes  a single, green, moist grape, breaks it off the vine and pops it into his mouth.  I couldn’t believe my eyes…  Fast forward now a few months later.  I have walked to the same Super Saver with my friend, Bruce.  The grapes are no longer on sale.  But there’s a huge bin of caramel candies just asking for someone to reach out and take one.

grapes1.jpg

Now, in this morning’s passage from Matthew 20, nothing like that personal experience of my childhood happens.  No one, in the company of Jesus, steals a grape.  No one takes anything.  But pay attention to what “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” wants in verse 20.  True, she doesn’t want it for herself.  And, true, at least she asks as if it would be a favor.  But when we hear the words of this manipulative matriarch, it certainly sounds like an ambitious request: 

“Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

You see, this is a remarkable thing to ask, even of Jesus!   Evidently James and John don’t have the bravado to lobby themselves.  They know how he responded to their last request of calling down fire upon the Samaritan village (Luke 9:54).  And we know from that episode, among others, that “the brothers of thunder” don’t take rejection very well.  But, you see, if Mom wants to take the initiative and if Mom wants to get special permission from Jesus, who are they to argue?   Isn’t that what The Prayer of Jabez  and other books are all about—expanding one’s territory and influence, asserting oneself for the sake of God and God’s kingdom—taking charge?    

“You do not know what you are asking,” says the Super Saver of the Universe.   Who has influenced you to ask for front court sits in the kingdom?   Do you know?

“You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”   

 Last week, I attended the Spokane Jazz Orchestra at the Bing Crosby Theatre.  It was a fantastic night of amazing music.  But during the intermission I ease-dropped on a conversation between my friend and a young, wealthy couple.  The woman was talking about her son, and how he had been reading about this high-brow, palatial Italian villa—you know the kind of place that resembles the set of a James Bond movie.  Anyway, like a good mother, this woman proudly relayed that her son did not think that he could or would ever own such a house.  The son thought that an Italian villa would always be beyond his means and out of his reach.  But here’s the interesting twist to the conversation; the mother then shares how she reprimanded the boy for not believing in his dreams.  She said that he had just found out about Santa Claus, but she would not hear of him giving up on the Italian villa.  He should perhaps ask God for it. 

And Jesus says,

“’You do not know what you are asking?  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’   

They said to him, ‘We are able…”

Now, I am not here this morning to lecture any parent or anybody about what dreams they or their children may or may not achieve in this lifetime.  I’ve seen the commercials on television, with Dennis Hopper, and I understand all about surrounding yourself with investment bankers who believe in your dreams.   But, based upon the scriptures, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, what kind of dreams are we encouraging?  That’s the question for people of faith.

In Matthew 20, it’s no coincidence that the request of the mother runs parallel with another request.  Did you hear it?   Juxtaposed to James and John sitting on the right and on the left hand of Jesus in the kingdom we have the blind men of verses 29—34.   Think about this.  Jesus asks them the same question that he had asked earlier of Salome:  What do you want me to do?    

Unlike verse 21, however, in verse 30, we have this underwhelming response.  The blind men of Matthew 20:30 know what to ask for—and they don’t need their mothers to ask for them.  They cannot see, and therefore don’t have any interest in asking for a beautiful house, or a beautiful family, or even a beautiful vision of the future.  Even if Jesus granted any of those highly visible requests, they couldn’t see them.   So, all these unfortunate beggars want is the ability to see the world that God has made, and perhaps to see Jesus.  The rest will come.  The rest will not be what they ask for… but it will come:

“Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes.  Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.”

  

In her book, Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner talks about growing up in a large, affluent home, and how she lived for years in North Carolina with a menorah next to her Christmas tree.   She writes,

“I made up a prayer, and said it every night in bed, after lights were out… first one section of ‘thank yous,’ and then a section of ‘what I’m going to try to do better,’ followed by a list of things I wanted…”  (p. 38).      This kind of prayer conversation with God lasted for a while.  But then, one night came the dream.  It was a the dream about being kidnapped by mermaids.  And these mermaids kept Lauren and her friend underwater for about a year.  They were quite nice about it, allowing them to go to movies and to read books.  They just weren’t free to go to shore.   But, she writes,

“After a year underwater, group of men came on a rescue mission.  Most were graying, paunchy, fifty-something men…  But one was this beautiful, thirtyish, dark Daniel Day-Lewis like man.  And I knew that he had come to rescue me… I was the reason he’d come” (p. 55).   

Now, in case you missed it, this dream is the dream of Lauren Winner’s conversion to Jesus Christ.  And like her, many, semi-religious young men and young women are able to dream just like that.  What’s different, however, is, after that dream, Winner knew what to ask for.  She asked for the truth about the mysterious man in the center of the dream.  She asked to be able to see the significance of Jesus during her waking hours, and she knew that if she could see, she would follow.  She would follow even though it meant leaving the comfortable world of simply going to movies and reading books, and actually entering into the suffering of the world.  

So, Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, I’m here this morning to tell you about 15,000 people who are still asleep in the Latah Valley.  Soon enough they will wake up.  Soon enough they will rub their eyes and ask for something to eat.   Maybe they will go to the grocery store and just take what they feel like is theirs anyway.  Maybe they’ll work with their financial guys about getting an Italian Villa someday.   Or maybe, maybe, with your help, Latah Valley will ask see Jesus.

Amen.

###

BRACKETOLOGY BOASTING

March 15, 2007

BRACKETOLOGY 

Who will be the top seed in the west?   Will Gonzaga or WSU make it to the final four?  

I recently read about the proliferation of brackets that happens to coincide with the NCAA basketball tournament (otherwise known as March Madness), and that thousands of neophyte prognosticators use to pick their favorite teams.  Brackets don’t simply pit Miami of Ohio against Oregon, however.  According to the newly released book, The Enlightened Bracketologist; The Final Four of Everything, the process of sorting out winners and losers may be easily applied to a whole spectrum of interests:

“Bracketology—the practice of parsing people, places, and things into discrete one-on-one matchups to determine which of the two is superior or preferable—works because it is simple. What could be simpler then breaking down a choice into either/or, black or white, this one or that one?”

 

bracketologist.jpg

The “this one or that one” mentality has a nice ring to it.  Which historic event has more significance—the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the 9/11 Terrorist Tragedy?   Venturing an answer might even give one a certain satisfaction and sense of control.   I can choose.  From the instant the question is posed, my opinion will cut through the plethora of information and propaganda.  My opinion will clarify and determine the next series of match-ups.  My preferences, whether they are well-formed, ill-formed, malformed, will select the on-going tiers of influential events.  Will it be Hurricane Katrina versus the War in Iraq?  Will it be Global Warming that takes on the Rising Costs of Health Insurance?   Sooner or later, the nice ring in our ears has turned into an dissonant drone.   The jacket of the book promises “the foolproof system” for determining what we really love or hate—and why,” but after a while, I wish “we” would just shut up. 

#####*****###### 

The reason I’m being so rude is that it may take a momentary lack of civility to shock us into a new awareness.   We—individual human beings—cannot get clear perspective on this stuff.  We are involved in history, and we are intimately wrapped up in the very events, which we are so eager to evaluate.  Think, for example, about painting your porch steps.  Now imagine painting those steps when you have no place to stand but upon those very steps.  You can’t stand there long enough to wait for the first coat to dry.  You are therefore messily involved in the process.  Similarly, a truly enlightened bracketology would not pretend to hover above the multiplicity of cultures and the complexity of the time/space continuum.   It would finally acknowledge and admit that we ourselves occupy a line or two on one of those bracketed tiers.  We ourselves occupy it bodily, physically–in a sloppily arranged corporeal place!

 

 

In the book of Job, chapter 40, the main character arrives at the ultimate match-up.   Job has demanded his day in court (or on the court) with God.  To be sure, this tormented man has had good reason to argue and to wrestle with the Almighty…  But in verses four and five we hear this whimper:  “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you.  I lay my hand on my mouth.  I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” 

 

You see, in this cosmic round, there’s no amount of prognostication that will matter.   No “fool proof system” will make sense of the mysterious encounter with God.  For that we only have opened-ended and unfathomable questions. 

And now for my pick:    Penn State in the next hundred years…

So how much do you make?  (Don’t answer that.)  How much you make is nobody’s business but your own.  Think about it.  You’ve worked hard.  You’ve put in many hours, many days, weeks, months and years.  You’ve gone through the regiment of requisite classes and specialized training.  You’ve given up vacation days.  You’ve jeopardized healthy family relationships.  You’ve endured all kinds of gossip at the water cooler.  And how much you are compensated for all that is nobody’s business.  Right? 

Well, actually, it is also someone else’s business, isn’t it?  You have to admit that the person or persons who do the hiring and firing, the man, the woman, the employer, who pays the salary—that authority figure—knows how much you make.  And I suppose that’s how it should be.  In a market-driven, consumer-oriented world, that’s how it has to be.   Except, of course, in the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1—16.   

In that story of the landowner and the vineyard workers, everyone who’s hired gets paid the same wage—and by the end of the story they all will know what that wage is.   It was a coin, known as a denarius, and if you sweated under the hot sun for the entire day, this single piece of currency seemed fair.  The problem, of course, is that some of the grunts in the field only work a half day.  Some work three hours and some work one hour.   Can this be right? 

I have two children.  Ian is 15 years old, and Philip is 12 years old.  Each one does various chores around our house, and each one is deeply concerned about fairness.  Is it fair?   Is it fair to have Ian chop the firewood and to have Philip clean out the fireplace?  Is it fair to have Philip empty the dishwasher and to have Ian fill it up when he’s done?   And what kind of allowance should each adolescent receive for their labor?   On a monthly basis we have decided to give Ian more than Philip because Ian is older.  But Philip feels that this accounting is unjust.  We tell him that when he’s fifteen he will receive the same amount as Ian does now…  And on and on we go, fixating on what’s fair and equitable…    

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?” 

You see, irrespective of the age group, or the economic class, or the ethnic and racial categories that we all know very well, the question of what’s fair fascinates us.   Fairness fascinates because we assume that we’d do a better job.  And, far more than the generous gifts that we’ve received, how much we make defines our status in society.   Do you believe it?  Do you buy what I’m saying?  To admit that we ourselves are addicted to fairness is no shame.  What would be a shame is to hear the parable of Jesus, which compares the landowner to the kingdom of heaven and then keep grumbling like the vineyard worker in verses 12:

 “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 

And, you see, what would be a shame is for the institutional church to grumble—to grumble about how hard we are working… 

In Walker Percy’s novel, The Second Coming, there is a young woman who has recently escaped from an asylum, a psychiatric facility.  Allison has some sort of amnesia due to electric shock therapy, and therefore she can’t quite remember who she is, and in the work-a-day world she’s idle in the city park at noon.   Another woman with a big smile and a big satchel bag of pamphlets approaches.  Allison has the sense that this happy, confident person knows her.  The woman hands her a pamphlet and begins to talk.  The sentences on the pamphlet read as follows:

 “Are you lonely?  Do you want to make a new start?  Have you ever had a personal encounter with our Lord and Savior?” 

Allison reads the material and actually ponders the answers, which is unlike all the other jaded people in the public square.   But the woman (apparently doing some street evangelism for a local church) keeps smiling and talking, not really giving Allison a chance to think.  Was she supposed to listen or read? 

 “Why don’t you come to a little get-together we’re having tonight?  I have a feeling a person like yourself might get a lot out of it…” (p. 33). With words like these, Allison is steered to the side.  The smiling woman then busily moves on to the next idle person in the park. 

Now, the reason that I’m mentioning this episode is that I’m terribly afraid of the way the institutional church often works.  It’s as if we trying to sell a product.  It’s as if Jesus has become something that we have in our possession and that we’re trying to package and reproduce for all those idle folks out there.  

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  I am the organizing pastor of LATAH VALLEY, a newly forming congregation that’s going to happen by the grace of God.  And it’s going to take a lot of hard work.  However, I am increasingly aware of the fact that the non-Christians, whom we’re trying to reach, have something to say to us.   Allison actually wants to answer the questions.  She wants to think about her life, and if we’re so eager to sell our product we’ll miss it. 

“Why are you standing here idle all day?” 

This is a compelling question because if the landowner represents the Spirit of God, it doesn’t seem as if the idle people at 5 o’clock are being judged at all.  Rather, they’re being questioned incredulously, compassionately.  Why hasn’t anyone valued who you are, or what you have to offer?  And you see, a question like that demands to be asked beyond Matthew 20:6.  A question like that may be what God  is now asking an entire generation of men and women who’ve been alienated and turned off by church.  No one has hired them.  No one has called them, with all of their raw ideas and feelings, to work in God’s vineyard.  And you know why.  Because then the church would have to change and to change radically. 

 “I’ve been a member of this church for thirty years, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let these young yahoos turn my church into a rock ‘n roll concert!” 

No, that’s not what the passage this morning is saying.  No young yahoo is going to take your church from you.  That wouldn’t be fair, would it?  It wouldn’t be fair to value what the person on the street has to offer more than all our work on Session. 

 But, by the grace of God, this has never been your church, has it?  Congregations like Northwood belong to the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and if that Spirit wants to call formerly idle, yahoos into the vineyard, and to appreciate and to encourage what they have to say and do—well then, thanks be to God. Aiden Mathews tells the story about an idle fourteen year old young man, named Freddie, and a suspicious, hard-working priest, named Father Leo.  Freddie, as he lingers in the sanctuary, strikes up a casual conversation with the crucified Christ-figure who also seems to be idle and without work.  Noticing his pained expression, Freddie says to him, ‘Why were you crying when I came in?’   crucifix.jpg

“There was a little silence… and then, ‘a child in a suburb of
Stockholm was struck for no reason so that her ear-drum burst and bled.  Seconds before you arrived…”
 

“That was awful,’ Freddie said. “In a stony field on theisland of
Inishbofin, a fieldmouse is having her baby.  Her tiny face is full of concentration.  She can think of nothing else.  And the planets circle her silently.  They know their place” (The Human Poetry of Faith, p. 113).
  

After this conversation, Freddie offers to ease the suffering of the Christ figure by removing one of the nails in his feet.  He does it; and just then, Father Leo enters the scene and scolds the boy.  He takes the nail from Freddie and hammers it back into the feet of Jesus.  “It would take a miracle to move that now,” says the priest.   Just think about the irony of that line coming from that devout leader. It would take a miracle to move that now.  And maybe that’s what we’re really praying for on days like today, in Lent. 

We’re praying for the church to move in such a way that we welcome the imagination, the questions, the playfulness and the work of those who have not yet put in their time and energy.   We’re praying for the church to truly value the gifts of the latecomer or the late bloomer. 

And in Christ, we’ll be all make about the same thing, which is how much God’s incredible grace will make of all of us. 

Amen.         

Desire.  Desire is one of those words that we might associate more with a Harlequin Romance than a passage from the Bible.  Desire is what burns in a lover’s heart.  Desire is illicit, the gateway to uncontrollable passion, the kind of selfish stuff from which respectable people ought to stay away.   On the other hand, the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, once wrote that “All [people] by nature desire knowledge,” which is obviously more sedate and more easily controlled.  But is that all we desire?   C.S. Lewis makes this interesting proposal: 

“If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy…we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world” (Mere Christianity). 

 And this is where we need to begin this morning.  Not with a belief in another world, however beautiful, but with the discovery of a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy.   Have you been suppressing that kind of desire?  Have you allowed yourself to feel it?  Have you dared to act upon it?    In today’s text, among other things, Jesus tells us about a desire that he’s discovered on many occasions.   Here it is in verse 34:“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather…” 

Now if we stopped reading right in mid-sentence, we wouldn’t know much about HOW Jesus wants to gather.  We wouldn’t know much about WHOM Jesus wants to gather.  And we wouldn’t know much about what prevents Jesus from fulfilling his stated wish.  But, even if we stopped at the word, gather, we’d know the intensity with which he feels and painfully embraces this desire.

Tom Long tells about staying at a hotel in a big city, where he didn’t know many people.  He said that in the elevator of this large, luxury high-rise, someone had placed a sign that read as follows:Party Tonight in Room 214.  Everyone Invited.

He saw that sign and laughed about the kind of people who might be desperate enough to show up at a party like that, and then it occurred to him that he himself might like to go. He imagined lonely businessmen, on the road for too many nights.  He pictured families with children, the young, the elderly, the middle-aged…  He saw all kinds of skin colors, heard all kinds of languages, smelled all kinds of exotic fragrances.  And then, just as quickly as he imagined this wildly inclusive gathering, a phone call came from the front desk.  It had all been a prank.  And the guests in Room 214 would appreciate it if people would not disturb their privacy.     The desire to gather, you see, is probably something that we share with Jesus and with the whole of creation. 

Commenting on his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein wrote that “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space.”   But sadly, it’s unrealistic to think that we could ever host a gathering of the whole Universe.   So, of course, we settle.  We adjust our expectations.  And when we desire to gather, it’s usually as an extended family at Christmas, or while on vacation.  Politicians gather in legislative bodies to conduct public debates, which are in our national interests.  Even Star Trek enthusiasts gather on an annual basis, dressing up as Captain James T. Kirk and Lt. Ohora.   So, when it comes to having a passionate desire to gather—we are like Jesus!  It’s just that we often limit the size of our party, and who could blame us!  But among the questions that remain buried in Luke 13:34 is HOW.  How did Jesus desire to gather?   Was there a special technique or gimmick or style that he put to use?   

Rick Warren, in his famous book, The Purpose Driven Church, devotes an entire chapter to this, when he explains how Jesus purposely attracted large crowds, and he did it, according to Warren, by meeting their felt needs.   Felt needs include basic needs that we have for food, clothing, shelter and security, but also other needs for entertainment, financial advice, retirement planning, marriage counseling and wine tasting.  And, of course, a case can be made that Jesus did in fact meet such needs on a consistent basis.  On the other hand, what Warren’s book fails to mention is that the kind of needy people whom Jesus desired to gather were usually the sick, the lame, the loser, the sinner and the outcast.  Not the kind of folk who live in Orange County, California.  Rick Warren prides himself on gathering 25,000 people at Saddleback Community Church—and in this respect he claims to be imitating Jesus’ own desire to gather.  But it should be noted that the place where Rick Warren planted this new church in no way resembles first century Judea or Jerusalem.  Jerusalem!  Jerusalem!  For one thing, in places like Jerusalem a Venti French Vanilla Triple Latté with non-fat milk is not a pressing priority.  

So, you see, the question of HOW Jesus desires to gather is still an open one.   Yet, if we’d like to get closer to an answer, John 6:66 and Mark 10:22 offer two examples of situations in which Jesus let people walk away without meeting their felt needs.   In one case, it was because the teaching seemed too hard, and in the other case, it was because the teaching seemed too simple, just sell everything you own and follow me… But the point I’m striving to make is that Jesus, while initially attracting crowds, did not do so on purpose; and  ultimately Jesus desired to gather those who are vulnerable enough to be gathered.  And if you’d like a picture of what that looks like, here’s the end of verse 34: …as a hen who gathers her brood under her wings…” 

This is the way Jesus desires to gather:  not like the eagle, with its sharp talons, flying high above the earth; the Roman Empire in fact already had the image of the eagle emblazoned on their shields and embroidered on their flags.  Jesus did not want to gather like Rome.   And neither did he want to gather like a fox.  A fox is his cynical metaphor for Herod Antipas, who came from a prominent Jewish family and ruled the region as Rome’s proxy.   No, when Jesus describes how he desires to gather, he compares himself to a domesticated bird, with warm feathery wings that can’t get off the ground, and to a female version of that species.    A hen gathers in a way that’s peculiar and instinctual to most mothers everywhere.  And Jesus, in today’s text, compares his desire to gather to that kind of maternal passion.  

I have this vivid memory of my mother doing this kind of thing with our family growing up.   There we are having a nice dinner in the screened in front porch.  ‘Somebody pass the iced tea…’ And then, wham!  My father has my older brother in a head lock.  He pushes him against the door jam.   Both of them are shouting, cursing at one another.  It turned out later that my brother had been using drugs and that my father had been trying to recover from alcoholism.  Anyway, as a young child, while all that commotion is going on, my mother gathers me… You see, this is HOW Jesus desires to gather—not like an army recruiter and not like glad-handing politician, but like a mother.  And yet, as we turn to the question of WHOM Jesus would like to gather, it’s critical that we not become fixated on literal children, or literal chickens.  Yes, Jesus has great affection for children (Mark 10:14).  And yes, he probably would like all animals, including chickens, to be treated well, or at least well done.  But, in this poetic allusion, Jesus refers to Jerusalem’s children, and how those vulnerable people will be protected in the midst of the violence and confusion.   In Luke 13, Jesus connects “children”

1.    to those who strive to enter the narrow door (verse 24),

2.    to those who cling to the hopeful imagination of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (verse 28),

3.    to some who are last now, but will be first (verse 30). 

These children are historically very unwilling, but eventually they appreciate the desire of Jesus to gather them and shout this phrase: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”Glenn McDonald, in his book, The Disciple Making Church, tells the story about a similar transformation, when his in-laws invited his entire family to go on a cruise.  It was their fiftieth wedding anniversary and a beautiful gesture to have the entire family gather.     But, in the midst of this special gathering around the pool and the dinner table, a disembodied voice came over the intercom:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain… We have an unconfirmed report that a passenger has fallen overboard.  We have already turned the ship around and initiated a search…  Please go to your room if you are not there at this time, and account for everyone in your party.  If anyone is missing, please report their name to the purser’s desk immediately” (p. 22). 

McDonald then describes how through the window of their cabin they could see searchlights sweeping across the swells of black water…  After thirty minutes, another announcement notifies the 1,700 guests and 700 crew members about two missing people:  John Garcia and Eric Armstrong.  John Garcia is eventually discovered on board, but Eric Armstrong is not.  Eric Armstrong in fact had  fallen over board, and as people gathered for breakfast, the captain is pleased to report that the twenty-year old had been rescued by the Coast Guard.  This is great news, which should set the minds of the 1,700 folks at ease.  But somehow those parties around the ship have been transformed.    “Every passenger now knew:  I’m sailing with someone who would turn this ship around in the middle of the night and come looking for me.”   Moreover, during those intense hours of search and rescue, everyone on board had been “called to surrender their own agendas and to orient our lives around the captain’s concerns” (p. 23)—which had been to find that one stranger, who had apparently had too much to drink and tried to imitate that King of the World scene from Titanic.   titanic.jpg

Now, this morning, I’d like to compare Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church to a Carnival Cruise.  Next week is your fiftieth wedding anniversary.  You would not be here if you did not find the experience of gathering enjoyable.  But listen to this.  A cosmic announcement has been broadcast for nearly two thousand years.  Someone’s missing.  Even today.  Even now.  Someone who should be gathered up with Jesus is not here.  Emerging generations, who perhaps now behave as if they are the kings and queens of the world, will be falling overboard.  Would you like to help gather them?  I know it sounds impossible and unlikely that people like us could gather like Jesus.  But the good news is that he’s has already turned the church around.  Search lights are sweeping across the dark sea of humanity.   Warm wings are stretched out across the horizon, across Latah Valley.  Will you join that kind of gathering?   Isn’t that your true desire?  Amen.

Those who listen to sermons are in a tough position.  Prior to the preacher’s pontifications, you may have had a sudden attack of indigestion.  You may have not been able to sleep very much, or very well, during the night before.  [For more on this phenomena and what can happen to you, read Acts 20:9.]  You may be utterly distracted by the delightful child, coloring on the pew, next to you.  Your senses may be assaulted with the whines and whimpers of a cranky child.  Teenagers may be passing notes, or counting how many times the speaker says the word, actually, which might actually be as many as 38 (now 39) times.  Or, more to the point, you—the listening congregant—may not like the message, or the messenger, ever a little bit.  And this, as I suggest, is a a tough position in which to find yourself. 

 

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What can you do?  Walk out?  Tune out?   Do you take the time to itemize your income taxes?  Do you do what Homer Simpson did in one episode of the fabled Fox program—do you listen to the football game on your radio head-set and shout “It’s good” when the Seahawks kick the winning field goal?  Do you remain at home, or find excuses to do other things, anywhere else, than in that sanctuary at that time?  This, in fact, might be an option except for Hebrews 10:24—25, which exhorts believing Christians to “provoke one another to good deeds” and to “not neglect gathering together.”    Moreover, since the days of synagogue worship, in which Jesus preached in Capernaum (Luke 4:16—30), interpretative comments on the Bible have been customary and even crucial to faith development.  So, what can you do?

 

 

What can you do if you discover your aching body in a mode of passivity, on the receiving end of a boring, or otherwise, displeasing sermon?  Well, at this point, my only response is that preaching a message is an interactive, communal enterprise.  Contrary to popular opinion, a homily is not the performance of an individual.   It is rather an EVENT in which one gifted, at least designated person, rises to speak on behalf of the community of faith.  The preacher, in this respect, is similar to a witness at a trial.  He gives testimony.  He declares This is what the Spirit of God has said and perhaps is saying today.  She says, This is what I see in this passage, and This is what I see and feel and experience in the world.   But, this is what the listening congregation ought to know… 

  

The listening congregation—comprised of real-life human beings, with faces—ought to know that the preacher can see you.  You are seen.  Your smile, your frown, your gaping mouth sends a message back to the one who stands and speaks in front of you.  You are seen, and you are heard.  According to Andre Resner, a preacher at Princeton University (Edmund Stemle) was once interrupted by a heckler who said that he Stemle was a “false prophet.”  Stemle replied very calmly, “That very well may be.  But hear me out and we’ll see.”  Stemle said later that he never had a more attentive congregation (Preacher And Cross).  And this experience, which I have shared spontaneously, in unplanned moments, brings us to this point.  It’s a point that I will divulge on behalf of all who have been called to serve as preachers as well as all who are called to pay attention to their preachers:  If the sermon is truly an interactive and communal event, you—the listener—must do your best to follow the maze of thinking and the stream of emotion.  You must do your “utmost” (to quote Oswald Chambers), and trust that on that day, at that hour, the preacher is doing her or his “utmost.”   And if the aforementioned, hypothetical preacher is not offering the best of what he’s been given, God will be the judge.  God will judge the efforts of the pastor or the priest or the lay commissioned guru, who doesn’t do her homework.   However, you—the listener—must recognize the energy that you exude with your very presence.  You have the capacity to encourage or to discourage.  You also bear responsibility for a public presentation  of the gospel of Jesus Christ which ultimately is intended to please God, and to be effective only by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what I think that you ought to know. 

“Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”  (Mark 4:9).

No one has ever given me the full story.  I’m not sure anyone ever can.  What I have, however, are snippets, fleeting glimpses, images, metaphors, symbols of the more complete narrative that eludes my consciousness. 

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In 1996, just weeks before the first worship celebration of the Crossroads Presbyterian Church (where I last served in Limerick, Pennsylvania), my father died of complications, associated with an aneurysm.  The fact and the memory of his death constitute neither the beginning, nor the ending of the story that unfolds around me.  And yet, it is an unresolved story, whose terrific tensions and mythic moments still inform my hopes and dreams of doing ministry in Jesus’ name…

 

 

To his high school yearbook friends, Robert Allen Pyle was known as ‘Smiling Bob.’  I also experience that charming grin and that playful sense of humor.  But the most vivid image that I carry of my father is a pair of grease-stained, callused hands—the hands of an automobile mechanic. For over forty years, he worked the family business, PYLE’S AUTO SERVICE, on Chester Pike, in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.  He worked, diagnosing metallic maladies, extracting and replacing broken fan belts, running emissions tests and re-building carburetors.  As a laborer, manager and entrepreneur, he was the quintessential product of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Post World War Two economic boom.  He knew the system and as he told me often, ‘I love cars.’ 

And yet, to me—the youngest of his five children—my Dad seemed frustrated and disillusioned.  Over time, the faulty spark plugs and overheating transmissions took their toll, depleted his passion and usurped his smile.  And I think I understand why.

 

 

Picture him now at his father’s garage around 1941:  he’s twelve years old, dressed in dingy overalls and cleaning out ‘the pit’ over which cars would be driven or towed for repair.  This was the age before the hydraulic lift, when mechanics would stand in the pit and tinker with the chassis of the automobile.  And then, at the end of the day, someone like my twelve-year-old Dad would clean out the oily cavern with a gasoline-soaked rag.  That’s what he was doing, around 1941, when a random spark ignited the gasoline into a fireball.  Then, as the story goes, my father’s father leaped into the flames and heaved his son to safety.   

 

 

But, you see, nothing’s been the same since.  Unfortunately, as a result of the mishap, my grandfather suffered severe burns and later died in the hospital.  My Dad survived, nursing this acute sense of guilt and remorse.  And I have inherited that family tale as a way of explaining my father’s fading love of automobiles.  He could fix them—fix them better than most mechanics at the time.  But he couldn’t fix what happened.  And that realization, more than anything I’ve read or studied along the way, that single realization is what drives me today.  

I may not be able to fix what happened—or what happens.  But I can tell the story.   

And perhaps there’s more.

NINE FINGERS

March 2, 2007

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Nine Fingers is my personal image for the frailty of the church of Jesus Christ and for the tenacious way by which God still uses the frustrated efforts of persons who cope with loss and limitation.  I know this first hand. 

In early June of 2002, I hoisted my 225-pound bag of bones and fat and under-exercised muscles onto the crossbar of a soccer net.   It was about 8:15 on a Saturday morning, and a bunch of eight-year old boys were milling around, during a water break at the West-Mont Travel Try-Outs.   As a former player from seventh grade through my sophomore year in college, I brought my son and offered my services as a potential coach.  The thick twine on one of the eight-foot high by twelve-foot wide frames had become detached.   Noticing the balls flying through the gapping hole, I pulled myself onto the metallic beam, and braced my forearms on the top, with my legs dangling toward the turf below.  Grabbing the loose netting with one hand, I tried to re-attach it to the steel rod that ran parallel to the crossbar.  In the process, my grunts and exasperated sighs were telling me to let go and abandon the effort entirely.   I may have played soccer as a child, teen and young adult, but that didn’t qualify me as equipment manager of a disheveled soccer net.   A woman, in brightly colored running garb, jogged slowly around the macadam track that encircled the fields.  I glanced at her bouncing form briefly before letting myself drop to the ground.   And then…Then, it was as if someone grabbed my left hand from above.   My feet hit the moistened sod with the sound of a large twig snapping.  Confused by the split-second sensation, I brought my hand to my face, expecting to see a slight abrasion of skin, maybe a little pinprick of blood, as if my ring finger had been stuck by the thorn in a rosebush.  Instead, the ring and the finger were gone!   In fact, the very finger through which I had felt the pinch and the pang had been de-gloved.   It was not a clean severing.   The flesh and the nerve endings (I later learned) had been ripped away to the knuckle.   All that remained was bone and a messy hemorrhage that left me simultaneously terrified and embarrassed. 

That’s right:  embarrassed.   My first thought was not the brute physicality of the accident, but the trauma of having this happen when I was trying to take charge of a group of eight-year-olds.   Actually I wasn’t in charge.  I was just there to help.  I was just one parent, among many.  But I had worn my soccer shoes and my loose-fitting shorts.   My t-shirt displayed the logo of a prominent athletic merchandiser.  And now this:  a blood soaked stub of a digit, a demoted fist, a less-than-perfect palm.   I would never be whole again.  Then, clutching all the members of my mutant left hand with my right, I walked calmly to the official coaches who had, by now, gathered the kids back together.  I announced that there had been an “emergency,” and that I had to go.   Todd, a friend from church, said that he would take care of my son, Philip, who squinted curiously in the sunlight.  He saw that it was serious.  Another man, named Sean, said that he would drive me to the hospital.   And then came the walk by the parents, who continued to chat in the stainless steel bleachers; I tried desperately to keep my composure.  Once in the passenger seat of Sean’s compact car, I asked him to return to the field and search for my wallet, my wedding ring and my finger in that order.   He did what I asked.   My wallet, of course, contained my driver’s license and insurance information cards.   But if anyone had really been interested in my identity at that moment, this was all that nurse or that doctor would need to know:  a twisted band of gold, the symbol of my randomly flung fidelity, and a zip-lock baggie that preserved my finger like a left-over piece of liverwurst.   That was me.   Sean said that when he went to pick it up off the playing field, some parents speculated that a dog must have done his business there.  O, Lord God.  Let’s go.