Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Losing Your Head

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18:

As I was preparing for this last sermon in our series on Paul this week, Linda said to me that she didn’t want me to be finalizing the writing on Saturday night like I normally do, since Saturday is technically my only day off.  She said she wanted me to have it done by Thursday and so I set that as my goal, and I came pretty close.  I had six pages written, and normally I’m around 8, so I thought I would finish it off and Friday morning and everything would be great.  And then I woke up Friday and turned on my computer to hear of the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and watched with horror not only at the scene but at the sort of uncontained glee with which the news, all of the news reported it.  As they say “if it bleeds it leads”, and this one certainly bled, and I realized I couldn’t preach exactly what I had been planning on and so scrapped what I had written and began all over again.

But it wasn’t just the shooting in Aurora, it was also the news on Friday from the Los Angeles Police Department reporting that they have someone who is stabbing homeless men and then leaving death warrants with their bodies, an act that is very similar to another series of murders of homeless men in LA in which the accused murderer said that he wanted to kill them because they were worthless, because they were taking from society without giving anything, that they were a blight to the community, and so they should all die.  It is the continuing fallout from the scandal at Penn State with the release of the investigation conducted by Louis Freeh indicting the administration, including football coach Joe Paterno, whose motto of victory with honor came crashing down with the realization that he and others covered up for a known sexual predator allowing his reign of terror to continue for at least 11 more years

But it wasn’t just Friday.  Stories like this seem to surround us on a daily basis. Nor are we surprised at the posturing being done by some about the shooting: it’s the videogames, or violent movies, or objectional music, or the lack of gun control.  Everyone has some reason, based solely on what they believe, for why things like this happen, and I haven’t even begun to discuss what’s going on in the political world and the vicious, demeaning, derogatory attacks that surround us on an everyday basis and are only going to continue to get worse as we get closer to November.  It seems that in this country we no longer can actually sit down and approach anything in a wholistic way because we can never admit that another group might be right about something, or even budge just a little bit from our own position.  You’re either with us, or you’re against us.  Either good or evil.  Either red or blue. Either this or that.  We want to try and make everything black or white, right or wrong, and of course we are the ones who are right and everyone else is wrong, after all, we can’t be wrong can we?

Recently the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization for catholic nuns, was rebuked by the Vatican for their positions. In an interview on NPR this week, Sister Pat Farrell, who is head of the group, said “there are issues about which we think there is need for genuine dialogue and there does not seem to be a climate of that in the church right now.”  What she could just as easily have said is that the level of intolerance, the inability or unwillingness to listen to other opinions and beliefs with which we differ, makes genuine conversation and dialogue in the church impossible, and if we can’t get along in the church how could we possibly ever imagine that things would be different in society in general?

In today’s passage from 2 Timothy, Paul is reportedly writing from prison while awaiting his death, a death which is caused by and then comes at the hands of an angry mob who believe they are right and that Paul is wrong.  This really brings us full circle to where we began with Paul who as a zealous persecutor of Christians oversaw the stoning of Stephen who becomes the first Martyr of the church.  Paul was righteous before the law, righteous before God because, after all, he was absolutely convinced beyond even the shadow of a doubt that he was right that he was killing someone God would want killed, because God had to be just as opposed to the followers of Christ as Paul was, it had to be so because if it wasn’t then Paul would be wrong, and Paul simply couldn’t be wrong, after all he could find all of his justification in the scriptures, so it had to be true, Paul had to be right.  Except that he wasn’t. “Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me,” Jesus asks?

Last week we left with Paul completing his third missionary journey ending in Corinth from where he writes his letter to the Romans, which is Paul’s theological masterpiece, to let the Christian community in Rome know, among many things, that he is intending to come to Rome before traveling on to Spain to proclaim the gospel message there.  But before he can go to Rome he must return to Jerusalem in order to deliver the offering that he has collected from other churches to help support them because they were a poor community.  Notice that they didn’t claim that the Jerusalem community should support themselves, that if they couldn’t it was because they were too lzay or undeserving, I think there’s a sermon in there somewhere.  So Paul traveled back to Jerusalem with this offering where he was met by James, the brother of Jesus who was also the bishop of Jerusalem who told him that some Jews had been railing against Paul claiming that he was abandoning Moses, and worse encouraging others to abandon Moses, and so he, along with five other men, should go through a purification rite to prove his fidelity to the faith.

At the end of that time, Paul and the men make their way to Temple where Paul is spotted by some of his opponents from Ephesus who see him with the other men and assume that they are Greek converts to the faith and by having brought them into the court of the Israelites that he has defiled the Temple and broken the law, which was punishable by death, and so they seize Paul and are preparing to kill him when Paul is rescued by Roman soldiers who take him into captivity, and very long story short, several plots against Paul’s life are made, he is transferred to Caesarea which is the Roman capital of Palestine where he spends two years, before he appeals to be presented to the emperor for trail, as is his right as a Roman citizen, and then he is transferred to Rome where he lives under house arrest for another two years.  That is a very abbreviated story and if you have been following the daily Bible readings for this week you’ve covered a portion of it and will finish this week, but if not you can find it all contained in the book of Acts, chapters 21-28.

What happened after Paul’s two years in Rome we don’t know for sure, as that is where Acts ends.  Some speculate that he was killed in the year 62 at the end of that imprisonment, but others believe that was released and in fact made another missionary journey.  Around the year 96, Clement who was either the second or third bishop of Rome wrote a letter in which he said that Paul “reached the farthest limits of the west,” which would mean that he had made his trip to Spain as he planned to do when he wrote his letter to the Romans.  Sometime after that he returned to Rome and was again arrested and executed under the persecutions of the emperor Nero who blamed the Christians for starting the fire that burned Rome to the ground.  Few people actually believed that the Christians had started the fire, but they sure made for good scapegoats and the people were just as happy to see them eaten by lions, burned, or tortured in other ways and tradition holds that Paul was beheaded by Nero as part of this persecution probably around the year 66.

I’ve always wondered if Paul appreciated the irony that surrounds the end of his life.  Paul was absolutely convinced that he was right and justified in his persecution of Christians and in the killing of Stephen.  Those in the Temple were absolutely convinced that they were right in seizing Paul and trying to kill him.  The Emperor Nero, and his followers, were absolutely convinced that they were justified in scapegoating the Christians because after all who cares about them, no one is going to defend them or protect them, they were evil, they were the other, they are not like us.  How easy it is to justify our own beliefs and actions, after all if we are doing it or thinking it then it must be right, because we would never believe anything that was wrong would we?

A few years ago, Mitch Albom, who wrote Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, wrote about Abigail, who at the time was a five-year-old who had recently been kicked out of her kindergarten class at the Capital Christian School in Sacramento, California.  Now we might think that for a five-year-old to be kicked out of kindergarten that she had to have done something pretty bad, but as it turns out Abigail did nothing wrong.  Instead it was something her mother had done, or more correctly was doing, because Abigail’s mom worked as a topless dancer.  Christina, who was twenty-four and a single mom, said dancing was the only way she could make enough money to support her and Abigail, and most importantly to be able to afford to send her to a private Christian school.  When Albom called Pastor Rick Cole about what was happening, pastor Cole said “God’s word instructs me what my responsibility is.  We can’t let [Abigail or her mother] adversely affect the morale of the church.”  He can’t be wrong, after all scripture tells him what he has to do, he says, and so Abigail was expelled from the school.  When Albom asked about other parents and what they may do, such as maybe those who lie, or who don’t honor their mothers or fathers, or who covet their neighbor’s belongings, or worse their spouses, all violations of the ten commandments, Pastor Cole said “We don’t get into everyone’s life.”

Now we might certainly understand where Pastor Cole is coming from.  He doesn’t want this woman’s profession to be held up as acceptable, we can get that, but shouldn’t she at least be  praised and supported in the fact that she wants her daughter to receive a Christian education?  Why not counsel her, help her find another job, give her free tuition so she doesn’t need as much money to support her family, help her get an education so she can get a better job?  Instead they kicked Abigail out.  What do you think Abigail, let alone her mother, now think about the church and about Jesus Christ?  I really doubt that when Jesus sat down with prostitutes and tax collected that he was worried that others would enter into prostitution or tax collection because of that, or that people would suddenly think that these professions were acceptable.

Certainly others worried about it, others complained about it, others railed and attacked him for it, but what did he say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repenance” (Luke 5:31-32)  Jesus associated with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, fishermen because those are who needed what Jesus had to offer.  The simple truth is we are all sinners in need of redemption, we all fall short in the eyes of God each and every one of us, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from looking at others and judging them, of making claims and statements that we are right and they are wrong.  It is the belief that makes us wonder if you can be a republican and still be a Christian?  I know that’s not many of you, but it’s the same for those who wonder, can you be a democrat and be a Christian?  Can you drive a BMW and be a Christian, or a Honda or a Ford?  Can you really belong to that church and still be a Christian?

Jesus says go out and make disciples, not go out go out and brutalize your neighbors and the world, either physically, emotionally or verbally because they are not like you. He does not say go out and tell everyone how wrong they are, that if only they lived exactly like us, thought exactly like us, acted exactly like us, dressed exactly like us, and looked exactly like us then everything would be okay.  He did not say go use the scripture as a tool of violence to attack and demonize, to assault and scapegoat.  Jesus did not say go out and attack your opponents because you know you are right and they are wrong so anything you do therefore is justified.

Instead, what does he say?  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are the meek.  Turn the other cheek.  Give to everyone who begs from you.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Let those without sin cast the first stone.  Before you remove the log from your neighbor’s eye remove the splinter from your own.  Forgive others as your Lord forgives you.

It was intolerance, scapegoating, fear, ignorance, it was an ability to see the humanity in others, an unwillingness to take a step back and say “what if I am wrong?” that lead to the death of Stephen, and of Paul and of Jesus.  (Frankie Schaeffer) what if I am wrong?  We have become so polarized in this country that that is a position which neither side is willing to even consider let alone recognize.  I am not blaming anyone in particular, I am blaming everyone, because we are all guilty of the sins of commission and the sin of omission.

Now one of the biggest problems when we talk about something like this is that we know it’s a problem, we know we want to do something about it, but we don’t know where to start.  But the solution begins with us.  Twice this year I gave out these baptismal reminder tags to hang in your shower to pray.  It’s one I pray every day, it says “Lord as I enter the water to bathe I remember my baptism.  Wash me by your grace.  Fill me with your spirit.  Renew my soul.” And then what I think is the most important part, “I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do.”  If all of us, everyone one of us, went through every day asking all the time, “is this honoring God” what difference would that make in the world?  If all of us were to ask ourselves when we feel justified about something, “what if I’m wrong?” what difference might that make in the world?

It is time for the church to begin to set a new example, and it begins with us.  It is time for us to say that we are not going to accept this intolerance anymore.  That we can sit down with others, even those with whom we disagree and we can disagree without being disagreeable.  That we are going to turn off the hate that’s spewed at us every day, whether from the right or the left.  That we are not going to support candidates who demonize their opponents or make scapegoats of groups of people.  That we are going to show to the world a different way of being.  How is the world changed?  It’s changed one person at a time through simple actions that we undertake.  St. Francis famously prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love.  Where there is injury, pardon.  Where there is doubt, faith.  Where there is despair, hope.  Where there is darkness, light.  Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive.  It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

If we want the world to change, we have to change.  If we want the world to be better, we have to be better.  If we want the world to be at peace, we must be at peace.  If we want the world not to hate, we must not hate.  If we want the world not to be violent, we must not be violent.  If we want to be heard, we must listen.  If we want to be understood, we must understand.  If we want to be respected, we must respect.  If we want to be loved, we must love.  If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive.  If we want the world to accept Jesus, then we must be like Jesus to the world.

Since this concludes, at least for the moment, our look at Paul, let me give him the last words from his 1 letter to the Corinthians, which as you may remember is largely a rebuke of the community for all the things they are doing wrong Paul tells them “If I speak in the tongues of morals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”  If we want the world to be a better place it begins with us and we are called to love the world as God has loved us.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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