Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lord, Teach Me To Pray

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 11:1-13:

I love power tools. I can’t say that I’m amazingly handy with them, but I think that one of the greatest inventions is the cordless drill and screw driver. I love this thing. Normally I’m a Dewalt man, but my 14.4 volt, Black and Decker drill is great. But because I don’t use it all the time, sometimes when I go out to the garage to get it to use, this is what I find (drill does not have enough power to run)… and then I have to do it the old fashioned way, (try to screw in just turning it) and I know that I am not the only person in here to do that.

But sometimes this is what our spiritual lives are like as well. We want them to be running at 100%, we want to use all 14.4 volts of power, but instead everything gets set aside and as a result we get run down, we can’t do the things that we are supposed to be doing or do the things we are called to do by God, because we don’t have the power to do. Our batteries are depleted and we need to be recharged, or even better we need to find a way to keep them charged all the time and one of the ways we do that is through prayer.

Prayer is at the heart of Christianity. When you join the United Methodist Church, you pledge your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness. The order is not insignificant. I do believe that prayer is first because it is the most important. Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan monk in Albuquerque, says that “The church that does not teach its people to pray has virtually lost its reason for existence.” Let me say that again to make sure you heard them, “the church that does not teach its people to pray has virtually lost its reason for existence.”

But, prayer is one of those difficult things for many Christians. I suspect that even with the quote I just read that few of us have actually ever been taught how to pray, at least formally. I’m sure that few of us have ever taken a class or even been offered a class on how to pray. Even though it’s vital to who we are, to what we do, and to deepening our relationship with God we don’t spend a lot of time learning how to do it, even in seminary there were no classes on prayer. Today’s scripture passage should give us some heart because even the disciples are unsure what to do, and so they go to Jesus and say, “Lord teach us how to pray.”

Now prayer is very important for Luke. He talks more about prayer than any of the other gospel writers, and he has Jesus praying all over the place for lots of different things, but apparently to the disciples, whatever it is that Jesus is doing does not look like or feel like what they have been doing. Jesus seems to be like the old EF Hutton commercial, “when Jesus talks, God listens.” Comparing themselves to Jesus, they must have been feeling a little inadequate, so they begin to think that maybe they are not praying correctly. Maybe they felt like someone who has been doing paint by number their entire life when they see a masterpiece by Monet or Rembrandt, and they feel like everything they have been doing is wrong, or that they don’t even know what to do or where to begin.

I know that prayer can be a difficult thing. I’ve struggled with it for a long time, and often still struggle. It’s even worse if you are new to prayer, because it feels uncomfortable, it feels strange, it feels like you should know what you are supposed to be doing and you don’t, and you want to say to Jesus, just like the disciples did, “Lord teach me how to pray.” I remember as a child sitting in worship one day with my mother, and we got to the point in time in the service when we all recited the Lord’s prayer, and this was the time in which everyone was assumed to know it and so it wasn’t printed in the bulletin, a standard we can no longer expect, and so I turned to my mother and asked her how she knew the prayer, and she told me it was just something you learned by going to church.

That is my earliest memory about prayer, and being taught about prayer and what it meant to pray. But, how I really learned how to pray was by sort of being pushed into the deep end and being told to swim, which is what happened as soon as I said that I was going to enter the ministry, then I became the designated prayer at seemingly every event, from family meals to church meetings.

I know that you all have experiences about prayer that have impacted how you pray. So I want you to think for a few moments about your earliest memories of prayer, maybe it was at church, maybe it was a prayer before a meal, or your parents or grandparents praying with you before you went to bed, or maybe it was people not praying, or saying it could only be done by one person, not all of our memories will be good, some will have negative connotations which also affect how or if we pray. So take a few moments and try and recall some of your earliest memories or experiences of prayers.

As it turns out we all know something about prayer. We are not starting out with a completely blank slate, for nearly all of us we have indeed been taught about prayer throughout our lives simply from the prayer that has surrounded us, and some have even argued that our knowledge of prayer goes farther back then that. In language studies of infants, what researchers have found is that all babies make the same sounds. It doesn’t matter if the language their parents speak is Swahili or Mandarin or English, all babies make exactly the same sounds.

This has caused some theologians to propose that we come into the world knowing the language of God, and that is what these sounds represent, but that we lose it over time, and so the work is to recapture that connection, that language that is a part of our very nature, after all we are made in the image of God, to reclaim the language of prayer that God has put into our hearts, and to a large degree that means for some of us trying to put aside many of the rules that we have learned in order to free ourselves to connect with God in prayer, and to also broaden our understanding of what prayer is.

There are no magic words or actions that make our prayers any better, because God already knows what is on our hearts and what we need. Notice that Jesus does not say that you need to be kneeling or sitting a certain way, there is no specific way to hold your head or your arms, in fact there are no specific directions given about the body in relation to how to pray. All the rules we have come from other places. There is no specific posture physically you need to take nor is there any special place you need to be in order to pray. You can pray at home, at school, at work, even in your car, and sometimes it’s very helpful to say a prayer while in the car. What we are doing with our bodies or even what we say during prayer is not nearly as important as where our heart is.

There was once a monk who was renowned for his spiritual practices. He was so famous that other monks would come from all over Europe to study at his feet. One day the monk found that the mice in his cell had become such a nuisance that he was becoming too distracted to be able to pray. So he went out and got a cat, and the cat would circle around him while he was praying, and would occasionally sit in his lap while he was meditating and the monk would cheerfully rub his ears. But the monk did not tell anyone else why he had gotten the cat. Shortly after seeing this, all of the other monks in the abbey went out and got cats too, because not knowing the real reason they all thought that having a cat around would help them come into a deeper relationship with God.

Prayer is not about asking for something from God; it is about establishing a relationship with God. And most importantly it is about opening ourselves up to the possibility of change and of being willing to listen to God. The theologian Soren Kierkegaard once observed “a man prayed, and at first thought that prayer was about talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”

We work and work to make prayer so complicated and then we wonder why it doesn’t work for us, why it has become so burdensome and why we get nothing from it. Prayer is simply about deepening our relationship with God by being willing to interact with the divine, and God will always meet us where we are and move us slowly into deeper things. Dancing, gardening, cooking, cleaning, writing, singing, working, everything in our lives can in fact become a form of prayer, if we have the intentionality to make it so.

Recognizing that reality is really the starting point of any prayer life, because prayer is not simply about giving thanks and then asking for things. Prayer is about conversation. Prayer is about listening. Prayer is about engaging with the almighty in a meaningful way the same way that we would be with our friends and family. Prayer brings us into a perpetual communion with God and through that brings us into greater relationship and opens us to possibilities and realities that we would never know existed without prayer.

Now I know some of you are saying that’s all nice and good John, but I hear people praying, and I read written prayers, and they are brilliant, but when I pray I don’t sound anything like that and I really don’t know what to say and therefore I don’t do it. But that’s why Jesus discussion about prayer is so vital.

We often get confused about what is truly important about prayer and think that if only we could come up with the right words, or if only we could find a comfortable place to pray, or if only we could pray like someone else, or if only we had the magic cat, then we would be okay. We become so wrapped in the externalities of prayer that we end up missing what is truly important about prayer: Being honest and open with God and engaging in a conversation with God about what is going on in our lives, both the good and the bad. God does not choose whether to listen to our prayers because of the words we use, the posture we have or where we are praying.

There is an incredible amount of vulnerability that we must overcome to be completely open and honest in any relationship, but especially one with God. But we must be willing to be open and honest. Laugh with God, cry with God, be angry with God. Yelling at God is just as much a form of prayer as prayers of thanksgiving. But, we also need to be prepared for God to be honest with us as well. We too often think of prayer as a monologue, of us talking to God, but prayer is a dialogue. It is about interacting with God and inviting God to interact with us. But the most important thing about prayer is simply to do it.

We learn to pray the same way we learn other things, first we observe, then we imitate. We don’t learn to drive simply by watching others do it. Instead we get out there and do it. I know when I was learning to drive I always wanted to be the one driving. I never said to my parents, “I’m not good at driving, so why don’t you drive and I’ll just sit here and watch.” I always wanted to be the one doing it, and from the nodding of heads I can see that that was either also true with you or your children, and as I’ve already said, praying in the car can be a very good thing.

If you feel uncomfortable creating your own prayers, then use printed prayers, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and to help you as you leave the sanctuary today I invite you to pick up one of these prayer cubes, and use this as your starting point, or if you were not here when we discussed baptism and didn’t get this baptismal prayer tag for your shower, then you can also pick one of these up. Each morning when I am in the shower I say this prayer, and then it leads me into other prayers, and that has become part of my morning ritual.

Now I know that many of you ultimately wonder whether God in fact answers prayers. Some people will say that God answers all prayers, and the answers are either yes, nor or maybe. But then we sometimes even thank God for unanswered prayers. Christian Scientists do not go to doctors because they believe that all diseases can be cured through prayer.

The minister who married Linda and I received a pamphlet when his wife was pregnant with their first child that said that any problems during pregnancy, any birth defects and even pain during childbirth could all be cured with prayer. Of course the corollary to that is that if you did have complications, if your child was born with a birth defect or if you did have pain during childbirth, imagine such a thing, then that must mean that you therefore did not pray well enough or hard enough for God to help you.

Now I have lots of trouble in believing in the sort of capricious God that these theologies sometimes imply, but with all that being said I believe strongly in the power of prayer and it is found in something that we are missing from today’s passage that is lost in the translation. The Greek text does not really say “ask and you will receive.” Instead, it says something like, ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking. The verb implies ongoing action. This is not a onetime event, it is a constant activity. So go right up to that door and keep on knocking on it, for in reality God answers all our prayers, which is what the last line of today’s scripture tells us.

Will we get everything that we ask for? We know that’s not true, for if it were every little girl and boy would be out riding their own pony or perhaps playing catch with Tim Tebow or Tom Brady. In fact, pay attention to the Lord ’s Prayer, we pray not for “my kingdom come, my will be done,” but instead for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done. God does not give us everything we ask for, but, and here is the most important part, if you get nothing else from this message, remember this, when we pray, we get God.

When we pray for something, anything, God gives us the Holy Spirit. Through prayer we are infused with the Holy Spirit and are brought into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. We are infused with the Holy Spirit so that we might have the strength and endurance and go on, the vigor to keep fighting, the enthusiasm to share God with others, and the love and joy that can only be found in a relationship with Christ. That is the power of prayer; it is the power to invite God into our lives, to say to God “I want to be in relationship with you,” it is to turn ourselves over to God and not only to talk but more importantly to listen. It is to engage in a conversation about our lives, our joys, our struggle, our triumphs and our tragedies, our strengths and our weaknesses, and it is to seek God’s guidance in undertaking everything we do in life.

In a book entitled Grace All the Way Home, Mark trotter writes, “Throw anything up there. Stumble, use bad grammar, have long embarrassing pauses, split your infinitives and even dangle your participles. It doesn’t matter. Just groan or sigh if that’s all you can do, because God’s hearing your prayer does not depend upon your eloquence, but on God’s grace, which is already at work in your life.” If you do nothing else as a daily spiritual practice, you should be praying and then reading scripture.

Prayer is seminal to having a relationship with God; just as we must ask and seek and knock, God also asks, seeks and knocks and does not stop. And what you will find when you engage your prayer life is that instead of going around with a battery that doesn’t work, that is drained down, or worse missing altogether, that because of the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit given to us because of prayer, that you will in fact be energized and empowered to do God’s work in the world. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 8:27-38, and completed our series (for the moment) on what Christians believe and the Trinity.

One day Jesus and Satan were having an argument about who was better with technology. This was a continuing argument and God the father was tired of hearing all of the bickering and so decided to set up test. So Jesus and Satan sat at the keyboards and typed away. They created spreadsheets, they did HTML coding, they did research, they wrote Wikipedia entries about themselves, they did some genealogy reports, they did everything they could. But just a few minutes before the time limit was up, lightening flashed across the sky, the thunder rolled, the rains came down and of course the electricity went off.

Satan was furious. He fumed and fussed and he ranted and raved, all to no avail. The electricity stayed off. But after a bit, the rains stopped and the electricity came back on. Satan screamed, "I lost it all when the power went off. What am I going to do? What happened to Jesus' work?" Jesus just sat and smiled. Again Satan asked about the work that Jesus had done. As Jesus turned his computer back on the screen glowed, all his files reappeared, it was all there. "How did he do it?" Satan asked. And God said, "It’s easy, Jesus Saves.”

Today we continue and complete our three part look at the trinity. Two weeks ago we looked at the formulation of the trinity itself, and the complex notion that 1 plus 1 plus 1 does not in fact equal three, but instead equals one, and is ultimately one of the great mysteries of the faith. Last week we looked at who and what the Holy Spirit is as the third person of the trinity and what she does in our lives. And so we finish by looking at Jesus as the second person of the trinity by trying to answer the question that Jesus poses to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

As I begin each confirmation class that I teach I begin by asking what the most important thing is that distinguishes us as Christians, or more directly, what makes us Christians? But every time I ask this the youth never articulate the fact that we are followers of Christ. They nibble around the edges and talk about beliefs and practices, but never actually name Jesus. But Jesus is at the center of who we are because we believe that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Christians are those who “call upon the name of the Lord.” (Rom 10:13, 1 Cor 1:2) This separates us from other religions.

Just compare this claim to that of Judaism and Islam, the two religions closest to us since we all claim descent from Abraham, but for them the Torah or the Quran are the decisive revelation of God. But while the Bible is obviously important, it is not the foundation of our faith, Jesus is the divine revelation of God for us. In 1 Corinthians Paul says “no one can lay a foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Our foundation, our decisive revelation of God comes in a person, and that makes us uniquely different. In other language, Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith upon which everything else is built.

Indeed the entire reason that the Trinity as a concept was developed was because of our understanding of who Jesus is and how we are to reconcile that with our belief that there is only one God. In Deuteronomy we hear the Shema, the prayer that Jews pray three times a day, which says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” But after Jesus’ death and resurrection the disciples came to believe that they had encountered God in the person of Christ. But if there is only one God and if we are to only worship that God and we understand Jesus to be divine then how does that work?

Dr. Jerry Grey, a professor at St. Paul School of Theology, says that the trinity is the “way for Christians to explain the uniqueness of their revelation of God,” that God is three and God is one. It was this idea of the Trinity which led and guided the church in its understanding of God and of Jesus for more than 1200 years. But with the rise of the Enlightenment, people began to question whether the Trinity was rational or even if it was scriptural.

Thomas Jefferson, speaking for many, termed the idea of three in one the “incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic.” In response, the church began to downplay or ignore the idea of the Trinity all together. In addition, with individualism coming with the rise of the Enlightenment, the idea of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” of having a personal conversion experience, also became important but this tended to downgrade or diminish the other parts of the trinity to such a point that many people could not even say what the other parts did or why they were important.

Theologian Karl Rhaner said that with this de-emphasis on the Trinity that we became “almost mere monotheists,” paying lip service to the trinity in theory, but ignoring it in practice. “We must be willing to admit,” he said, “that should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” I think that the book The Shack does a pretty good job of highlighting this dilemma. Although I do have a couple of issues with the Trinitarian formulation that Paul Young represents in the book, regardless of what you might have heard there is nothing heretical in it and I would recommend it, but the main character says that he has always been okay with a relationship with Jesus but he could never get the other two parts. God the father could be this sort of scary God who punishes people, not someone we always want to know or have around, and the Holy Spirit was totally unknown, and so he sort of ignored them in his faith. He became a true monotheist in that Jesus was the only part. But the very very significant problem we run into when we deconstruct or ignore the trinity is answering the question of who Jesus is.

If Jesus is not a part of the godhead, of the three in one, then several things can happen. The first is that Jesus can be moved considerably down the scale of importance. Rather than being the divine revelation of God, instead he simply becomes an extraordinary man that we look up to, admire and follow the teachings of, but is really no different than others like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. There are churches that believe this, the Unitarians for example rejected the trinity and in doing so also rejected the divinity of Christ.

But, if Jesus is not divine, then what do we do with his teachings, do they hold any true significance for us 2000 years later? What about worship? How do we worship Jesus and not violate the first commandment? We certainly could not sing many of the songs that we will sing today. But more importantly, how do we understand the cross? Does it hold any meaning any longer? Even the resurrection must be questioned, because if Jesus wasn’t divine then he must have died again at some point. He becomes simply like Lazarus, or Jairus’ daughter, both people that Jesus brought back from the dead, but neither of them are alive today. People have claimed to have seen Elvis still walking around, but not Lazarus. But the earliest witnesses to Jesus rejected this understanding. They said that Jesus was more than just a man.

When the disciples saw Jesus walk on the water they say “You really are the son of God.” The Roman centurion watching the crucifixion says “surely this man was the son of God,” and when Thomas encounters the risen Christ, he bows at his feet and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” The very name Lord plays multiple roles in this proclamation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word commonly referred to as Yahweh, which is known as the tetragrammaton (YHWH), is used only to refer to the God that the Jewish people worshipped. When the scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek, this word was translated using the Greek word kyrios, which means Lord. Of the 6,823 times that the tetragrammaton appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, 6,156 of those times it is translated as kyrios, Lord.

Thus Lord was the term used exclusively to name God by Jewish people of the first century. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish people refused to call the Roman emperor kyrios, Lord, because it was used only for God. And yet that is the word that became commonplace amongst the earliest disciples. It was a clear proclamation of who Jesus was, that he was divine and would have clearly been understood by the earliest disciples. We still proclaim today that Jesus is Lord, and although it may have lost some of its significance for us today it is still a statement that is both a political, that our allegiance is with God not with the rulers of the world, and also theological, that Jesus is God.

So in looking at the earliest witness about who Jesus was the other alternative was that rather than denying the divinity of Christ and saying that he was only a man they instead proclaimed that he was not human, but was instead wholly divine. One of the earliest heresies in the church said that Jesus was the literal Son of God, that he was God, but not God in the flesh because he wasn’t in fact human, he only appeared to be human. This is known as docetism, and even though it is a heresy, it is still very prevalent today. But, like the alternative we just looked at this too causes significant problems.

If Jesus was not human then what purpose does he have for us? How can he bring salvation and reconciliation for our brokenness if he doesn’t understand what it means to be tempted? Indeed how do we understand his being led into the wilderness to be tempted if he was only just a divine being? How do we understand his cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” if he was only divine? What about when he cried, ate with people, or grew tired and irritable? People who take this position would say that he did these just to keep up appearances as it were, but that he didn’t really need to do any of these things, and that he never felt any of the emotions that we do they were only for show.

I think we might agree that just like Jesus being only human, that Jesus being only divine is also ultimately unsatisfying, and that it also does not match with the scriptural witness that we have. These two positions, and several others were the real problems that the early church ran into in trying to explain who Jesus was and they are the reason that there were so many arguments and councils in order to try and come to some conclusions. Now these might seem like sort of esoteric arguments, or trying to see how many angles we can fit on the head of a pin, but that is because we are so far removed from them. They were very important to forming the faith that we know, but really these arguments still continue in many different forms.

If you read the book or saw the movie The DaVinci Code then you’ve heard some of these arguments still being discussed in that the main character, Robert Langdon purports that the church pushed the idea that Jesus was divine in a conspiracy to cover up Jesus’ humanity, and in particular his marriage to Mary Magdalene. But in fact Dan Brown gets the points completely wrong. He is a great suspense writer, but he is a terrible historian and an even worse theologian. He claims that the non-canonical gospels, that is books written that purport to tell the story of Jesus that are not included in the Bible, portray an image of Jesus that is all about his humanity. That statement alone says that Brown has not read these gospels, because almost without exception rather than portraying Jesus as human they in fact portray him as fully divine and downplay or discard his humanity entirely.

Now what eventually became the orthodox position of the church was that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Like the trinity this becomes sort of a paradoxical position, but it was the one that the church agreed upon because of the arguments that were being made on both sides. It is in some ways the compromise position, but that is not to say that it is also not the right one, or the scriptural one. Instead it is position in which there is tension, but what we find is that this is true of a lot of Christianity, that there are two opposites that need to be held in tension, and if we go too far to one end then we begin to miss something.

Last week when we talked about the Holy Spirit we talked about combining the intellectual with the experiential, the head with the heart. These are positions that need to be held in tension with each other. When one position becomes dominant then things begin to go wrong. We see the same thing when we approach scripture. When we treat scripture as simply being metaphorical then we lose something, but when we treat everything as literal then we also lose something, instead we have to keep these poles in tension with each other, and then the same is true with Jesus. When we see him only as divine, then we lose meaning for us here, of why he existed and what he means for us as Christians, just as we do when we see him only as human and not divine. These are the paradoxes we have to deal with and keep in tension with each other. But all that being said, we return to the original question of answering Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?”

Bobby Jo Reed is a recovering drug addict who was also a prostitute working the streets of Kansas City. She kept trying to get clean and to get off the streets but every time she tried she kept falling back and ended up in the same spot. But then someone told her about God and about Jesus, and with the help of others began to move away from her old life and began a new way of living. As she was making this new journey her mother died and left her with an inheritance, and so Bobby Jo began thinking about her old life and her friends who she knew were still out there, and so she bought an old home and rehabbed into a place to help women like her get off the streets and begin a new life. Her home, called the Healing House, now has five locations in Kansas City serving 75 women and 30 men, offering them Christ and literally turning their lives around.

Every year at Christmas the people living at Healing House take up a collection amongst themselves and then go out and buy Christmas presents and then deliver them to those who are still living and working the streets, to tell them that they are loved and that there is hope because of Jesus Christ. One Christmas day while they were out delivering they stopped to get gas, and a police car pulled in behind them to see what was going on. One of the officers walked up to the window and then realized that he knew the driver and said, “hey didn’t you used to work the corner of” and then named her old grounds, and she said she did, and he said, “I thought you were dead.” And then he looked into the van and saw more faces, and said I remember you I thought you were dead to, and so it was for many of the people in the car and he had to call his partner over to show them that they were all still alive. But in fact they were dead to their old selves, they had died and been reborn in Jesus Christ.

The Christ that Bobby Jo Reed and the others encountered was not just some man who lived 2000 years ago, this was a risen and living presence in their lives. Someone who was making a difference for them in the here and the now. Someone who was offering them hope, someone who was offering them a new way of being, someone who was offering them abundant life, this was God present for them in their life. But this Christ was also someone who understood their struggles and their failures, their pain and their brokenness, their triumphs and their sorrows, who understood the cry of despair when they cried out from the depths of their misery, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He understood because he had been there to, and he could make a difference because he was fully human and fully divine. This was the Jesus who was offering them new life, a resurrection story, because he too had died and been resurrected and offered them and us the promise of salvation.

Theologian Alister McGrath says “the incarnation is the climax of Christian reflection upon the mystery of Christ – the recognition that Jesus Christ reveals God; that he represents God; that he speaks as God and for God; that he acts as God and for God; that he is God.” Or as the Gospel of John says, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God, and the word became flesh and dwelled amongst us.

This week we enter into the season of lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, as we begin to make our way to the cross and the despair of Good Friday and then to the celebration of Easter Morning. Paul says that what we as Christians do is to proclaim Christ, and him crucified, but in order to do that we must first answer for ourselves when Jesus asks us, “who do you say that I am?” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Do Our Announcements Say

I was reading something recently, although I don't remember what it was, that was talking about announcements in church. The question they asked is what they would illustrate to someone who was a first time guest. Would they understand them? Are they about the way we are serving the community, or are they geared only at people who are already in the church? What would the announcements leave them thinking about who the church is and what we are doing?

They got me really thinking about the things I announce each week, most of which is geared at us, not about the things that we are doing in the community. We don't talk that often about our youth center (which is not in the church but is instead on the main street), about our food pantry (again at an offsite location), about the work we do supporting our volunteer firefighters and EMTs, or how we lift the people who work at the schools up in prayer each week.

These are just some of the ways we are involved in the life of our small town, but instead of highlighting these we talk about choir practice and prayer group, upcoming meetings, and Christian ed classes. Now these are all important things, but are they more important that what we do outside our walls? I don't think so.

Clearly people in the congregation need to know about these things but how do we reach a balance so that we also talk about other things so that those who are visiting don't think that everything we do is about us?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Good Samaritans

This morning while taking my daughter into preschool I got a flat tire, and so I pulled over to the side of the road to fix it. Because we live in a very rural area, we were on the outskirts of the next town but still about 5-10 minutes from anywhere. I was there probably about twenty minutes as I changed the tire, and in that time two people stopped to offer me assistance.

I have to say that I was honestly surprised by that, and maybe that says more about me than the current state of society, but I was also very happy about that. Maybe they did it because we were in the middle of nowhere, maybe they did it because it's a minivan, maybe they did it because they thought it was the right thing to do, or maybe they did it because of all those reasons and more.

I was grateful that they stopped, although I did tell them I was okay, and I have begun thinking about my own efforts of helping others who are in need which I think is lacking. So thanks to all those who reach out to assist people in need for no other reason then they know it is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Breath of God

Here is my sermon from Sunday on the Holy Spirit. The text was John 16:12-15:

Last week when we looked at the Trinity I said that most preachers never want to have to deal with it because we don’t know what to say about it or how to explain it, not that that always stops us. But fortunately I think most of you want to avoid it because I’ve never actually had someone ask me to explain the Trinity, at least not directly. But two of the most common questions I do get about the faith are about parts of the trinity, and that is to explain the Holy Spirit and also to answer who Jesus is, whether Jesus was God or not and how we are to understand him as the Son of God. And so this week we look at the Holy Spirit, who is the third part of the Trinity, and then next week we will look at Jesus, the second part of the Trinity.

Now for those of you who grew up using the King James Bible, or liturgies based on the King James, you probably know of the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost. That is still the language we sing as part of the doxology each week after the offering is received (praise Father Son and Holy Ghost). The term was changed for several reasons. The first is that our understanding of ghost is a little different from that of the 17th century, and we don’t want people either thinking of something scary or even something nice, like Caspar the friendly Ghost. The second reason is that Spirit is sort of a closer approximation to the Greek and the Hebrew terms that it is being used.

One of the reasons we don’t understand the Holy Spirit is because the church has not always been very clear about it. In the Nicene Creed, which was the church’s formalization of Trinitarian theology and which we read last week, it originally said “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” That is what is still contained in the Apostle’s Creed, but that doesn’t really give us any information. Later at the Council of Constantinople in 381, this was added to so that it included, “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”

In the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, we state that we believe in “The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.” Those are a little fuller statement, but they have more to do with the Spirit’s relation in the Trinity rather than about what the Spirit does or how we experience it. So after looking at the doctrines of the church we are still left to ask who or what the Holy Spirit is and how we experience it in our lives?

Although the Gospel of John says that the Spirit comes after Jesus has left the earth, the presence of the Spirit can be found throughout the scriptures. In the first creation story, we are told that the wind, or breath, or Spirit of God swept across the waters. In the second creation story, and yes there are two very different stories of the creation, God breathes life into Adam. We are told that Joshua, Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Saul, and David were all said to have received the Spirit of God, and David’s last words even begin, “the Spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” (1 Sam 23:2) Of course that is what the prophets also tell us, that they have received the Spirit of God, that the words they speak are not their own but God’s. The Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures, along with participating in creation, leads and guides God’s people.

Before I begin writing each sermon, and before each worship service, I ask for God to fill me with the Spirit, to guide and lead me so that what I proclaim might be what God needs for us to hear. Sometimes this is successful and sometimes it’s not. There are times when I can clearly feel like I am being inspired by the Spirit in what I am doing. There are times in which I want to say one thing, but I am instead being drawn to go in another direction. When I let go of where I want to go, and instead allow that other force do the work, those have been some of my best sermons.

After one of those messages a member of my congregation asked me for a copy so she could pass it on to her children. Normally that’s not a problem since I am a manuscript preacher, but I told her that I couldn’t gave her a full text because I had gone off the script, to which she said, “I could tell you were off script because it was really good.” That was a better response then another that I’ve gotten, which is if you’ve told me that I had a good sermon, my usual response was that the credit should go to God or the Spirit, to which after I said that to one person they responded, “well it wasn’t that good.”

If you’ve ever been reading scripture, or thinking about something else, and have suddenly come to an understanding that you had never seen or thought of before, that is the movement of the Holy Spirit. When we pray each week for guidance in leading us and showing us what God is calling us to do and to be, this is this aspect of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Because the New Testament is written in Greek, rather than Hebrew, the word they used for Spirit is neuma. Because Greek and Hebrew are both gendered languages, that is the words have genders assigned to them, neuma is masculine, which is why in today’s passage the Spirit is referred to as he. But in Hebrew, ruach is feminine, and so there has been some arguments about how to refer to the Spirit. Some use exclusively masculine language and call the Spirit he, others use non-gendered and simply refer to the Spirit as it, but traditionally the Spirit has been referred to as she. The Spirit has taken the feminine. I know that will probably be shocking to some of you, and we’ll actually explore this a little more in a few weeks when we get into prayer, but let me give you another analogy. French is another language that is gendered, and so a waste basket is feminine, but if you were to write a sentence in English would you refer to a garbage can as she or as it? That’s right, as it, because English is a non-gendered language. So just because a word takes one gender over another does not mean that the object itself is that gender. So you will hear the Holy Spirit referred to using male, female and gender neutral language, and all of them are appropriate and yet inappropriate at the same time.

You will also see or hear many different metaphors used for the Holy Spirit. The two most prevalent are the dove and fire. At Jesus’ baptism we are told that the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him. The dove symbolizes the peace of the Spirit. At Pentecost, when the disciples were filled with the Spirit and began speaking in tongues, it was represented not only as wind, another metaphor we have already discussed, but also as tongues of fire. In the cross and flame, which is the United Methodist logo, the flame represents the Holy Spirit. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often used this metaphor and talked about setting himself on fire with the Holy Spirit in order to spread the message. The Spirit has also been shown as water, especially in relation to the water of baptism, remembering that we are reborn by water and the Spirit. The Spirit is also sometimes represented with a cloud and light. At the transfiguration, the cloud descends on Jesus and some of the disciples on the mountaintop. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

So the Holy Spirit is found throughout both testaments, but the church still had to identify all the roles she played in people’s lives. As was already mentioned, one of those roles is that of mediator, of giving wisdom and the words of God. But the Spirit also beckons. It calls us to be in relationship with God long before we are ever aware of such a need. Within Methodism this is called prevenient grace, the grace that goes before. It is the movement of the Spirit which makes us aware of God’s desire to be in relationship. In addition, the Spirit beckons us in other ways as well. If you have ever had an experience in which you thought that you needed to call or see someone, or that you needed to be somewhere, and at the end you thought “God was involved in that,” that was the power of the Holy Spirit moving in our lives. In the story of Simeon which we heard just after Christmas, Simeon is beckoned by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple so that he can encounter Jesus as a baby.

A colleague recounted a time early in his ministry when he was working in his office and he kept getting this feeling that he needed to go see one of his parishioners who was a shut-in. He kept putting it aside, but finally decided he needed to follow through, and when he got to the house he knocked on the door, and heard the woman say “Come in David the door’s unlocked.” There was no way she could have seen him come because she was in her bedroom, and he hadn’t called before going over, so his first question to her was how she knew it was him, and she said “Because I’ve been praying for you to come for three days.” Of course the reason she wanted him is even better. She told him that the light bulb in her bedroom had burned out, and he was the youngest person she knew who could replace it, and so that is why she had been praying. Now if you need me, please just call, because I will be honest my Holy Spirit radar does not always pick up all the messages that are sent to me, but the Spirit beckons us.

The second thing the Spirit does is to convict us of our need for God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, leading us to justification. If you’ve ever felt sometime that the word of God was being driven into your heart that is this movement of the Spirit. If you’ve ever been in worship, or someplace else, and felt as if everything was directed just to you and that you were hearing exactly what you needed to hear, that is the power of the Spirit. Now hopefully in every worship service we will feel the movement of the Spirit. Of course it doesn’t always happen, but that is one of the goals, to feel God’s presence and to identify it as the Spirit.

The third thing it does is to transform us. One of the things that baptism does is to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. After we baptize someone we lay hands on them and pray that for the power of the Holy Spirit to enter into their lives and to live with them throughout their days, and when we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives then the Spirit moves us to sanctification, that is to living each day more and more like Christ. The Holy Spirit transforms us and allows us to do and to be things that we would not be able to do by ourselves.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. (Gal. 5:22-23) Those are certainly things we should be striving for, or at least I hope we are, but we receive them not through our actions but through the work of the Holy Spirit. In addition, in 1 Corinthians, Romans and Ephesians, Paul highlights other gifts of the Spirit, which are not exhaustive, but include wisdom and knowledge, healing, prophecy, the speaking of tongues and its interpretation, ministering, teaching, giving, leading, and compassion (Rom 12, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4).

But what is crucial to understand, and this also applies to the passage from John we heard today, these gifts are not for us but for the good of the community. So the Holy Spirit beckons us convicts us, transforms us. Paul says “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God… (Rom 12:2).

The Spirit also comforts us. She acts as our advocate, consoles us, encourages us, and uplifts us. One of the words John uses in reference to the work of the Spirit is paraclete, which literally means “called to one’s side.” If you remember the old poem called footprints in the sand, in which someone has a dream in which they see footprints in the sand representing their lives and there are two sets of prints, one the persons and the other God’s, but the notice that in the most difficult times that there is only one set of prints, and they wonder why. And what is the response? Because it was in the most difficult times that God carried us. Well that is the Holy Spirit, it is the paraclete the one who is called to our side who walks with us every day, who comforts us and guides us, who leads us and carries us. Again, when we pray for God’s guidance it is the Holy Spirit who says “this is the way to go, this is God’s will for your life.” The Holy Spirit beckons us convicts us, transforms and sanctifies us, advocates for us and comforts us, and next the Holy Spirit equips us.

God has a will and a plan for our lives, but we are not called to do or to be anything that God does not give us the gifts and graces to do. As was just mentioned, the Holy Spirit gives us the fruits of the Spirit in order to accomplish the tasks that are set for us. We are not told “Go do this” and then left completely alone. Instead when we accept God’s will in our lives then we will begin to notice that what we have been called to do we can accomplish not because we are amazing individuals, although we certainly are, but instead because God through the Holy Spirit has equipped us to carry out those tasks. Now deciding what the fruits that we have been given are can be difficult, and later this year we will take time to discuss the fruits of the Spirit and how we come to understand what God has called us to do, because the Holy Spirit equips us to do God’s will in the world.

Finally, the Holy Spirit empowers us. When Jesus ascends into heaven he tells the disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 2:8). The word for power here is dynamus, from which we get the word dynamic and dynamite. It is a power that makes a difference, not just in our lives but in the world. You've never said of someone who is sitting in the corner that they are a dynamic person. Dynamus is a power which cannot be contained or controlled and must be shared, or exploded as the case me be, which Jesus says we do by being witnesses to the ends of the earth.

So the Holy Spirit beckons, convicts, transforms and sanctifies, comforts and advocates, and equips and empowers us. When we talk about God in our lives, of feeling God’s presence, and being directed God, or being comforted by God, this is through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we are reborn in baptism that is the power of the Holy Spirit. When we talk about Christ being present for us during Communion, that is the power of the Holy Spirit. But, outside of Pentecostal and charismatic churches who talk about invoking the Holy Spirit in their lives, most of us don’t want to be soaked in the Holy Spirit, this is the time in which we say a sprinkling will be just fine, thank you very much.

We don’t want to be immersed in the Spirit, because quite frankly it scares us, it leaves us feeling a little bit out of control. We’ve seen some of the things that happen among Pentecostals, who proclaim the power of the Holy Spirit, and we think it’s a little weird and we think, well if that is what it means to have the Holy Spirit then I think I’ll do without, or maybe just take a side portion don’t give me the whole thing, because I like being in control of my life and having a say.

But to accept the power, the dynamus, of the Holy Spirit does not mean that we have to become Pentecostal. John Wesley would tell us that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not the goal of our life with God, as many Pentecostals would say, but is instead merely the beginning. Religion cannot be merely a thing that takes place in our heads, because that is an empty religion, it must be experienced and lived out, which is what the Pentecostal movement was seeking. They wanted an experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives, but a religion that is only experience is empty as well. Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with what? All of our hearts, and all of our souls and all of our strength and all of our minds.

That really was part of the genius of John Wesley and the foundation of the Methodist movement was to be able to combine the heart and the head, the experiential and the intellectual. That is our heritage. We have gone astray at times but we are called to understand religion intellectually and at the same time to be able to immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit who beckons, convicts, transforms, comforts, guides, equips and empowers us, to be able to set ourselves on fire so that others might come to watch us burn. The Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God in our lives, and through that power we come to know Christ, to accept Christ, to live like Christ and to be empowered to proclaim Christ to the ends of the earth. May it be so in our lives my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Church, State and Contraception

I have been debating for a while whether I wanted to tackle the Obama administration's decision regarding insurance coverage for contraception or not on this blog, but since the issue was raised yesterday during prayers and concerns I decided to go ahead and have my say.

There are lots of great ironies in this situation. The first is that the very same group of people who are saying that there is no such thing as a separation of church and state and that the two should be connected, are now saying that the federal government has overstepped this constitutional boundary and are now meddling in the affairs of the church.

I think that argument is a stretch, but the problem with combining the church and the state was never really the fear of what the church will do to the government, although that is a concern, but instead what the government would do to the church. If you have ever worked with someplace that receives federal funding in any form then you know what the requirements, stipulations and restrictions are.

So I guess this is exposing the reality that those who want to tie church and state together want the church to interfere with the government but not vice versa. Of course then this sets up situations where religious "law" will trump governmental law (you know sort of like what people are afraid of with Muslims)

One way to look at these issues is to extend them to their logical conclusions (not to extremes as some are doing) or to look at it and ask what you would think if someone you disliked was doing it. I remembering going to a speech by Lynne Cheney in which she was attacking the new history standards that had been put into place by the Clinton administration. The problem was that she was the one responsible for beginning the process, it's just that Bush was voted out of office and so she didn't get the finish it. So she wasn't opposed to the standards, just as long as she was the one who got to decide what they were. Unfortunately the world does not work that way, so let's take a look at some logical questions.

An attorney for the US Council of Bishops has said that their opposition is about more than just the church, that if he opened a Taco Bell that he should be exempt as well since as a Catholic he is opposed to birth control. So let's extend that to others:

Scientologists do not believe that mental health problems actually exist, so by the standard being discussed they would not need to provide any mental health coverage, including prescription coverage for drugs, like Prozac. And, since I don't know of a single Christian or Jewish denomination that says that sex outside of marriage is okay, does that mean I can provide coverage that only allows birth control for married couples (which the UMC is okay with), but not for single people?

What about other medical procedures involved with reproduction? Will vasectomies or tubal ligation be covered or not since they are radical forms of birth control? What about hysterectomies? Covered or not? What about if the hysterectomy is needed? A nun in Phoenix was defrocked because she allowed an abortion to take place in a Catholic hospital in order to save the mother's life, so I'm thinking not. What about Viagra for men who are married to women who can no longer have children? Since that would then encompass sex that cannot lead to procreation I’m guessing not.

The committee advising Paul VI said not to include contraception in the Humanae Vitae. The man who invented the pill, John Rock was a devout Catholic who believed that it was within church teaching, and actually created it in a way that was totally unnecessary and maybe harmful to women in order to make it fall within Catholic teachings (here is a great story on this). Plus, 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control and the majority of Catholic hospitals and schools already have insurance policies which cover birth control, including for single females.

Twenty-Eight states, including New Mexico, already have laws on the books requiring that large institutions like hospitals and schools cover this regardless of religious convictions (and for those not good at math that is more than half), and 8 of those states, including the liberal bastions of Georgia and Iowa, require local churches to provide birth control coverage in their insurance without exemption. Finally, Republicans proposed a bill in both the House and the Senate in 2001 which would have done exactly what is now being proposed. They were for it then but are opposed to it now that it's being done by a Democrat, much like Lynne Cheney.

What you also need to pay attention to is who is advocating opposition to the administrations position on television shows. It is more than 2 to 1 in favor of men, except for Fox which was 10 to 1. The two groups most strongly in opposition are the Roman Catholic church and Southern Baptists, both groups who deny leadership and other roles to women. I, and others, can't help but guess that if women were involved at the table in which these and other theological decisions were made, that their results might be very different.

To tell you how strange the arguments around these issues have become for the Catholic church, I attended a Catholic university for a year and there was a student organization supporting gay rights but another organization pushing women’s rights issues was not allowed to form because they would also be pro-choice. So homosexuality was okay, but abortion was not. Of course this decision was made by men, celibate men, some of whom were open about their own sexuality.

One of the problems that I see the Roman Catholic church falling into is the fact that they are turning themselves into a one-issue church. It's all about contraception, and nothing else seems to matter. They are supposedly just as opposed to the death penalty as they are to abortion, but how often do you hear anything about that? When was the last time you heard of a politician who supported the death penalty, which strangely enough are also those who say they want to protect the “sanctity of life” but also are pro-war, being denied communion?

If the Catholic church is going to make this the position on which they are going to make their stand, and it is a position which is uniformly opposed not only by the general populace but also by their own members, at what point do people stop listening them all together?

The church does need to make stands on things, but many people are asking why the bishops were not just as outraged about the clergy abuses taking place in their dioceses as they are about this issue.

And what's worse is that some are beginning to backtrack on that issue. Cardinal Egan recently recanted an apology he had offered to his diocese when interviewed by the Connecticut Magazine:

CT Magazine: In 2002, you wrote a letter to parishioners in which you said, “If in hindsight we discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”

EGAN: First of all, I should never have said that. I did say if we did anything wrong, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we did anything wrong. But I hate to go back over this. I think there’s more to life than that one issue, especially when I had no cases. (Emphasis in original)

I guess what that means is that contraception is the one issue that want to make an fuss over, but the abuse of children is not.

Finally, I would agree with others that this really has little to do with government restrictions on religion, but instead is much much deeper. It is about the right of people to use birth control. Rick Santorum himself has said “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country.... Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

He then went on to say that he worries that sex is being “deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure.” Of course what these positions want to do is to deconstruct marriages to that they are simply all about sex and procreation. I certainly hope that Mr. Santorum's marriage is about more than sex, because mine is as is those of my friends.

He has also said he would like to see Griswold v. Connecticut, which gave married couples the right to possess and use contraception, overturned. This was a case in which the majority said "Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship." Apparently not for some.

Here is the position of the United Methodist Church (edited for space):

Each couple has the right and the duty prayerfully and responsibly to control conception according to their circumstances. They are, in our view, free to use those means of birth control considered medically safe. As developing technologies have moved conception and reproduction more and more out of the category of a chance happening and more closely to the realm of responsible choice, the decision whether or not to give birth to children must include acceptance of the responsibility to provide for their mental, physical, and spiritual growth, as well as consideration of the possible effect on quality of life for family and society.

To support the sacred dimensions of personhood, all possible efforts should be made by parents and the community to ensure that each child enters the world with a healthy body and is born into an environment conducive to the realization of his or her full potential....

We therefore encourage our churches and common society to.... Make information and materials available so all can exercise responsible choice in the area of conception controls. We support the free flow of information about reputable, efficient, and safe nonprescription contraceptive techniques through educational programs and through periodicals, radio, television, and other advertising media. We support adequate public funding and increased participation in family planning services by public and private agencies, including church-related institutions, with the goal of making such services accessible to all, regardless of economic status or geographic location.

In addition, Bishop Shamana, the head of the General Board of Church and Society, has said: "Basic to the values we hold as United Methodists is the belief that women are capable decision makers regarding their bodies and the gift of childbirth."

* cartoon from the Naked Pastor.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Race and Athletes

Forbes just came out with their newest list of the ten most dislikes athletes, and once again what is most glaring to me is the issue of race (although gender could certainly come in as well). Here is the list:

1. Michael Vick, 60% dislike
2. Tiger Woods, 60% dislike
3. Plaxico Burress, 56% dislike
4. Ndamukong Suh, 51% dislike
5. Kris Humphries, 50% dislike
6. LeBron James, 48% dislike
7. Kobe Bryant, 45% dislike
8. Terrell Owens, 45% dislike
9. Alex Rodriguez, 44% dislike
10. Kurt Busch, 42% dislike

Of the ten, only two are white, and Kris Humphries is of mixed ancestry (aren't we all), as his father is half African-American, half white, which by laws still on the books in many states would make him African-American. So it might be argued that only Kurt Busch is white. Of the others all are African-American except for Alex Rodriguez.

I have written about this in the past, but why is Michael Vick at the top? I know what he did was despicable and cannot be defended, but Ben Roethlisberger has twice been accused of rape (never been indited or gone to trial). Is cruelty to animals worse than violence against women? My guess is that one of the reasons that Kobe Bryant is on this list is because of his own rape charge, so, again, why is Kobe tarnished but Ben is not?

Lots of people dislike LeBron James for the way he left Cleveland and the way he handled it, but was it any worse than Bret Favre's behavior with his own free agency? Why isn't Brett on this list?

I can't help but also think that Tiger is on this list because people expected him to be "more," whatever that means, and were disappointed, but more importantly because he was an African-American male who was married to a white woman and who was committing adultery with other white women. This is still a major taboo in our culture, we only need to look back to a Senate race a few years ago to see that this still carries significant weight.

While African-Americans do dominate in some sports, they clearly do not make up 80% of professional athletes, especially when golf, Nascar and the NHL are added in, and yet they consistently dominate the list of most dislike athletes. I suspect that old racial stereotypes all come into play and they get wrapped up in our feelings about these men, and they are all men which also says something. They are seen as getting too "uppity" or, even worse, trying to explore their own power and privilege, something that was always trouble in the past.

While many would have us believe that we live in a post-racial America, these polls, along with other incidents continue to show us that we are not. Just a few days ago at a high school basketball game, it is reported that fans of one school, predominantly white, yelled racial slurs and danced around in banana costumes to taunt the players of another school, predominantly African-American.

As a white, and for all whites, we have a position of privilege and advantage that minorities simply do not have. Many will overlook what Favre and Roethlisberger do because we see them as individuals behaving badly, whereas Vick and Woods and others are categorized by their race and then judged accordingly.

As whites we don't assume that color is an issue because for us it is not. Our society has a preference for whiteness (and maleness), but race definitely plays a role for others. I can't help but believe that for most of these athletes, had they been white their issues would have been overlooked or forgiven a long time ago.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Super Bowl Reflections

Well we are now three days out from the Super Bowl and I finally have some time to focus on a recap of the most important things. I am a Pats fan, so will basically leave the game alone. No question that the Giants were the better team going in, but the Pats still should have won the game.

Betting spreads: Going into the game everyone was asking how Vegas could possibly have the Patriots as the favorites when the Giants were not only a better team but were playing better. I agree with both points, but those who were spouting such ideas have no idea, apparently, how point spreads are created. Vegas is not concerned with who will win the game. They don't actually care. What they want to do is to get equal bets on both sides, so that in the end they don't lose money, but in fact make money. That is why the betting line will move as the event gets closer. If the bets are not coming in 50-50 then they will correct for it. I know that most "analysts" know this information but don't talk about it because they think it makes for good television. It doesn't, it just makes them look ignorant and makes me want to throw my remote at the screen. (And the United Methodist Church is opposed to gambling in all its forms, so don't do it.)

Commercials: The commercials this year did not live up to past years in any way shape or form. In fact most were just bad. There were a couple of good ones, but they were by far the exception to the rule. Even the Budweiser ads were bad. The one commercial that most people are now talking about was the "Half-time in America" ad featuring Clint Eastwood. I will address this specifically at another time, but I didn't really get it. If it's half-time, I guess that means there is only another 30 minutes left for America?

Half-Time Show: In an interview before the game began, Madonna said she did not think she was chosen because she had become mainstream. If she is not mainstream, then who is? It was also obvious that at 53 she can no longer do the dance moves she used to do. I watched the show but completely missed M.I.A. giving the finger, obviously I was not paying close enough attention, probably because I had no idea who she was. But seemingly every year there is something that happens that gets people upset. I think they actually like this because we are still talking about it. But here are two simple solutions to solve the problem.

First, put a decency clause in the performers contracts that says if they do anything indecent (like showing a nipple or flipping the bird) they will be fined an insane amount of money. I'm thinking in the $2-$5 million dollar range, with the money to be given to a charity in the host city (and not an NFL run group). The second thing is to just get rid of the whole thing all together. A normal half-time is 12 minutes. Why can't the Super Bowl half-time be the same. Show us the talking heads and then let's get back to the game. Why do we need a "spectacular"? And if we do somehow need this do it before or after the game. That would ultimately solve their problems.

Pregame: Why is it that the pregame is four times as long as the game itself? There is not that much to talk about. If they do need something this long, they could do some really interesting things (see my suggestion below under analysts) that would truly help.

Analysts: This is more to ESPN then others, but why do I have to continue listening to failed NFL coaches talk about strategy. Eric Mangini, or the "mangenius," was only a genius when he was on Bill Belichik's staff. He was 33-47 as a head coach, so why do I have to hear him talk?

Second, please make sure the people calling the game understand the rules. Al Michaels seemed general shocked that an intentional grounding in the endzone results in a safety. Did he not know this?

Third, and this could be a perfect thing to do during the pregame blather, the Super Bowl is the one time during the year when you know there will be lots and lots and lots of people watching who know absolutely nothing about football. So, it would seem to me this is the perfect time to do some education, do a football 101 during the telecast (like saying what a safety is and what that means) so that those who don't know the game can learn something, and maybe then want to watch more because they actually are actually learning the game. Or maybe coordinate with Lifetime or the O channel, and do a show specifically targeted as women so they can know what's happening and become better fans. I know it's thinking outside the box. The NFL thinks they will always be popular and they don't need to educate or attract new fans. Just ask the MLB, or the church for that matter, how that works.

Strategy: Okay, so here is a bit of football. I liked Belichick's decision to let the Giants score. The question is why he didn't do it as soon as they reached the 7, rather than waiting until second down. In the infamous 4th and 2 decision against the Colts several years ago, I wrote that he should have let the Colts score right away rather than trying to stop them. He did make a crucial error in his challenging a play, but letting them score was exactly the right move.

Heckling: Gisele Bundchen is receiving some flack for calling out the Patriot receivers by saying that they were dropping balls they should have caught after someone heckled her on the way out of the stadium. First, she is correct in her statement. I said immediately after the game that Manning's receivers helped him out, and Brady's didn't. But, second, and more importantly, why is no one commenting on how uncalled for heckling the family members of players is? Heckle the players all you want, they are being paid (although this sometimes goes over the top as well). But families should be totally out of bounds. When did this become acceptable behavior?

Timing: Finally, can someone explain to me why the game is on Sunday? I know that traditionally NFL games are on Sunday, but now they are on Thursday night, and also on Saturday, especially during the playoffs, so why not move the game? Doing so would also allow people to be able to recover before going back to work on Monday.

Now we move into several weeks when football is over and baseball has yet to begin. These are the worst sports weeks of the year.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Unity

Here is my sermon from Sunday on the trinity. The text was 2 Corinthians 13:11-13:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples answered, "Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

And Jesus answered and said, “But who do you say that I am?

Peter answered and said, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple."

And Jesus looked at Peter and said, "What?"

Today we tackle the subject that most clergy never want to talk about, the trinity. Even though the trinity is at the heart of the faith, it is a topic that most of us don’t want to have to talk about because we don’t know what to say about it. Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, but who was also an Anglican priest, in his writing on the Trinity, which was quoted by John Wesley, said that anyone who endeavors to explain the trinity, has utterly lost their way; they have, above all other persons hurt the cause which they intend to promote. Of course as all good preachers do he then spent fifteen single spaced pages trying to explain it. One of my favorite lines about today’s passage from 2 Corinthians comes from New Testament scholar David Skinner who said “Many preachers will focus sermons solely on this text so as to [it] to launch a doctrinal sermon on Trinitarian theology. I beg you not to do that.” But this morning I am going to disregard Dr. Skinner’s otherwise very wise advice.

The trinity is one of those things that is central to the faith but is hard to describe and about which there is a lot of confusion. This week in the run-up to the super bowl, Jason Pierre-Paul, who plays for the New York Giants said, about Tom Brady, “He is not God. He might be Jesus, but he’s not God.” Now I am not going to comment on whether Tom Brady’s is divine or not, but what I can say is that the player does not understand the trinity, because what the trinity says is that Jesus is in fact God. One of the reasons the trinity was formulated was to explain the divinity of Christ. I am going to try and make it as easy to understand as possible, but it’s not and so I expect that at the end some of you will probably want to say, “that was great John, but I still don’t understand,” and my response to you will be to go home and pray about it, and then when you come to understand the trinity please come explain it to me.

Dr. Jerry Grey, a professor at St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary says that the trinity is the “way for Christians to explain the uniqueness of their revelation of God.” After Jesus’ death and resurrection the disciples came to believe that they had encountered God in the person of Christ. As Jews three times a day they were reciting the Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, and says “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” So if there is only one God, how could Jesus be a part of God? They had to find a way to explain this paradox. So what they began to do was to look to scripture, always a good place to start, and what they found was that God in the Hebrew scriptures was already described in two different ways, because there was a transcendent God, that is the God who creates who is out there in the universe, but there was also an imminent God, that is a God who was involved in our lives.

In addition, they saw mentions of the Spirit as a personification of God. In one of readings we heard in preparation for Christmas, Isaiah says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” in the first creation account from Genesis, which you will find in your scripture insert today, we are told that the “wind of God swept over the waters” which is also sometimes translated as Spirit, and then we are also told that when God made mankind that God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” What does that mean, let us make mankind in our image? Early Christians saw in scripture this idea that while there is only one God, that there are multiple ways in which God is present to us, and so they came to a new understanding of God’s oneness and that even the Hebrew Scriptures understood this idea of multiplicity within the one.

Now what would have been best, and what would have also saved the church centuries of arguing, was if Jesus had simply laid out for us how the trinity worked, but unfortunately he didn’t, nor did the writers of the New Testament. While the parts of the trinity are mentioned throughout, there are only two passages that have a sort of Trinitarian formulation. The first is the passage we heard from 2 Corinthians today, and the second is the great commission given in Matthew in which we are told to go and make disciples of all the nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But this does not say how the trinity works, how the three are one, or how the three parts relate to each other.

So the early church had to figure out how to explain the fact that we could worship just one God, and yet have multiple parts of that God. One of the earliest formulations of the trinity is called modalism, and it says that God existed in the beginning as the creator, then God came as the Christ, then after the resurrection that God became the Spirit. So there is just one God known through different modes, but only one mode exists at a time. That worked for some people, and you can still hear this discussed as a way to explain the trinity, but modalism doesn’t really explain things when compared against scripture. For example, at Jesus’ baptism we are told that after Jesus came out of the water that a voice from heaven, said “this is my Son” and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, also descended onto Jesus. So if God is only in one mode, how could all three seem to be present at the same time. In addition, Jesus prays to the Father, but if Jesus is the Father, just in a different mode, then how would that work? Modalism was rejected because while it was clear that God was known in three different forms, they were different from each other, and they all existed at the same time, it wasn’t simply that God transitioned from one into another.

So then the question became how could this be, how could God be three and yet one. How do we deal with the presence of Christ, understanding him as divine, the presence of the Holy Spirit, also as a manifestation of God, and also the understand God the Father, and have them all be one? This really is the great mystery. To condense 300 years of arguments into one sentence, everything came to a conclusion, for the most part, at the Council of Nicea in 325 which created the Nicene Creed, which we read this morning. This creed states that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one, and yet three, that they are all preexistent with the creation, that all are of the same substance, and that all three are equal, one is not more important than another.

Now I know that this is still very confusing, so let me give two illustrations to try and describe it. The first is this diagram which I first saw in a stained glass window in a Catholic church and it certainly gave me some grounding to begin to understand. What you see is that what is called the Godhead is at the center. Then you have the persons of the trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit on the outside. When we hear the word person we think of a body, that we are persons, but that is not how the word was originally understood. Instead, a better understanding is that of a persona. In Greek theater, an actor would put on a mask and that would be their persona, of how they were known and seen by the world. So Christ is one persona of God, while still remaining God and not dividing the completeness of God. But, notice that the Son is God, but the Son is not the Father. This is often where people get confused about the trinity, is in trying to make all the persons of the trinity related or doing the same things. They are all God, but each part of the trinity is also unique.

One other way is to try and understand through analogy, and maybe one of the best is the molecule H2O, which is of course water. Water has three distinct and separate forms. While we can conceptualize as an abstract the idea of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, we only experience it in its forms. There is the liquid form which has its own unique characteristics and properties. But if you take water below 32̊ F, then it freezes. It becomes something else and you can’t do the things you can when it is in liquid form. It’s almost like it’s something else entirely, and yet it is still just the compound h2o. But then if you take it and put it above 212̊ F, then it becomes steam, and once again it is something totally different from either liquid or a solid, and yet it’s still just h2o. Three different forms in one molecule. It is three in one. Now is that the perfect analogy? No because if you take it far enough it begins to fall apart. But really that is true of the nature of all language we use to express about God. God is ultimately ineffable, that is God’s nature cannot be fully comprehended or understood. God is beyond all nature, all words all understanding.

Even though St. Augustine once said “If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God,” a story is told about him that he was desperate to understand the nature of God and of the trinity. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he saw a little child on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “My child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, “And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” and with that the child disappeared.

Ultimately the trinity is a mystery, because it seeks to convey the nature of God which is ultimately impossible to do. The doctrine of the trinity is concerned about explaining the nature of salvation and the complex human experience of redemption in Christ. What the trinity helps us to understand, as much as we possibly can, is that God is not solitary, because God is relational. God is relational in God’s self, and God is relational with us. God is one, and yet God is three and each part is fully and completely God in a way that does not exclude or divide but invites and relates.

In a few moments when we partake of communion, we will again proclaim words from Isaiah and say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might…” we will remember, in the words of Catherine LaCugna, that the trinity marks the “pattern of redemption; everything comes from God [the Father], is made known and redeemed through Jesus Christ, and is consummated by the power of the Holy Spirit.” God is the one through who we live and move and have our being, and that God is one and that one is three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Happy Birthday

February 5, 2006 was Super Bowl Sunday and fortunately I didn't care about either of the teams playing because I spent the afternoon, evening and early morning hours in a delivery room at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and at 4:30 in the morning on January 6, my first daughter was born. Happy Birthday my Bear!