Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Luke 6:20-49: All Saints, Bloodline; Life Blood, the Heart and heart beat of the Faith

This sunday is the observation of All Saints Day. All Saints is a relatively new holiday or feast day for United Methodist to observe as well as other American Protestant traditions. It has long been a tradition of the Apostolic churches, i.e Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, but for most main line protestants in America who hail from the WWII generation as well as the Boomers, its a new practice, along with Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Midnight Mass (Christmas Eve Communion). It's an important and valuable practice that helps to instruct Christians of all ages in the truth that, like Rome, the church was not built in a day, but was built by the generations of Witnesses that gave, worked and even died for the faith. All Saints is our opportunity to remember them and it is also our chance to remember each other.

Hebrews doesn't simply remind us of the hero's thats come before, but also the hero's to our left and to our right. Together these are the great cloud of witnesses that surround us and that encourage and support us as we struggle to be Christ-bearers to a new generation.So with that, one must ask what is at the heart of this faith that makes it so worth giving for.

Everything, mechanical, technological, organic and biological has a center or core... heart if you will. The church is a body and like any body there must be a heart and a blood stream, a way to transport oxygenated blood from the heart to the extremities. Without this pumping system the body dies. So what then is at the heart of our faith and what, or better yet, who is it's life blood?

The sermon on the plain, notice I said plain and not mount. Why? Because in Luke's account the sermon was preached on a plain, a grassy meadow in stead of a mount or hill. What else is significant about this account of Jesus' most popular sermon is the audience. In Luke's account Jesus is speaking directly to the 12 and any other listeners are simply coincidental. In this passage Jesus is teaching the 12 what is at the heart of this new faith. At the heart is a love, a compassion and an acceptance of those whom society has deemed unworthy, inadmissible, unclean and unaccepted. At the heart of this teaching is a way of life that passively resist the evil around it. At the heart of this new way is a life that embraces everyone, even ones enemies and one that does not judge and a life that is built upon an eternal foundation of hope. This is the heart of Christianity and the bloodline, the life blood of this new faith that pumps from the heart is the disciples, both the 12 and every disciple that has come after them.

So many have come before us, pumping and working and striving to continue to keep that heart beating and All Saints day is a specific day to remember them. We also need to remember that we, the saints alive, are a vital part of the blood system and that it is our job now to continue feeding that heart and drawing life from that heart to dying church. We often ask ourselves at Charge Conferences, Annual conference and General Conference, why are we dying? The answer...the body simply it's getting enough blood from the heart. We have forgotten whats at the heart, we have forsaken the sacrifice and commitment of those who came before us.Will you continue to be part the bloodline, will you up hold the heritage, will you further the cause?

A prayer for All Saints

We give you thanks, O God, for all the saints who ever worshiped you

Whether in brush arbors or cathedrals,
Weathered wooden churches or crumbling cement meeting houses
Where your name was lifted and adored.
We give you thanks, O God, for hands lifted in praise:
Manicured hands and hands stained with grease or soil,
Strong hands and those gnarled with age
Holy hands
Used as wave offerings across the land.
We thank you, God, for hardworking saints;
Whether hard-hatted or steel-booted,
Head ragged or aproned,
Blue-collared or three-piece-suited
They left their mark on the earth for you, for us, for our children to come.
Thank you, God, for the tremendous sacrifices made by those who have gone before us.
Bless the memories of your saints, God.
May we learn how to walk wisely from their examples of faith, dedication, worship, and love.
Safiyah Fosua

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hebrews 7:23-35, Self-help vs. God-trust: Why the bible is not a self-help manual

The most well stocked and stacked section at your local Barns and Nobles or any book store for that matter would be the self-help section. We are obsessed with self-help and self reliance, its a carry over from one generation to another of the "pull yourself up by your own boot traps" american way. Just look at the self help section and you'll find books on do it yourself tax code, web design, computer programing, veterinarian science and of course finding true love. We pride ourselves as a nation of "do it yourselfers" and "self made men...and women" its not the most biblical way to live, but it's an accepted way.

What's most interesting about self help is the way we go about seeking it out. Really the idea of self help is a bit of an oxymoron, I mean the idea of self help, meaning helping yourself without any outside influence is a bit ludicrous especially when we are actually seeking expert advice via reading or video and the most ludicrous idea is the idea of the self help group!!! (nuf said). When we do seek out self help we pick and chose which part of ourselves we are going to prim and prune instead of holistically seeking to be better. Some people treat the bible like a self-help book, a list of does and don't for quality and successful living, which it's not. If you truly live the life prescribed in the scripture there are plenty of hardships awaiting you.

Regardless of time and era, there's always been self-help. In ancient Rome there was self help. In fact there was a lot of similarities between us and the Romans. They like to sit around on Sunday afternoons and watch brutish men beat up on each other for sport while enjoying their favorite snacks. The difference is their brutish men (gladiators) fought to the the death, while ours only fight until the end of the fourth and sometimes in OT and their favorite snack was Dormice, which was little field mice, dehired, dried, cook, rolled in sesame seeds and dipped in honey. Ours...well, isn't quite that .... exotic? It's usually pizza or potato chips, maybe cheet'os and beer....never mice, but you get the idea. For self help they inquired from the dice oracle, which would predict the future path of their children, of which 1 of 3 were predicted to die in some tragic way or another. They sought out the advice of diviners, future tellers, kinda like us calling psychic hotline. They also would seek the direction of a prophet or philosopher (two very different people by the way). Either way humanity has always tried to...help ourselves. How has that worked for us?

Our passage this week addresses this self-help phenomenon, by making it clear that we cannot help ourselves when it comes to the most basic and drastic problem we all face...the sin problem. The author of Hebrews (not sure who he...or she is) uses an old image to help explain an new message. The image of the priest ministering before the Lord day and night on behalf of the people. Daily sacrifices, festivals and atonement rituals all were a regular part of the priests work and the author of Hebrews knows this as does the audience. The author speaks of a new priesthood, actually an old one that is being renewed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the order of the Priesthood of Melchizedek. Mel, as I'll call him so that I don't have to keep typing out MELCHIZEDEK, was both a priest and a king. He was the king of Salem and the Priest of the LORD most high. He is mentioned in one other place, in Genesis where Abraham offers a sacrifice to the LORD through the Priest Mel. In the Mosaic law it was forbidden for a man to hold both the office of priest and king, the two where seperated. The Levites, the sons of Aaron were priest while the Sons of Judah and Benjamin were Kings. Whats so cool about this passage is with the advent of a new Priesthood comes also the advent of a new law. The law of Moses has been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ! Therefore you and I are no longer under the law of Moses, a law that was proven to be no good in dealing with the sin problem, but we are now bound only to the law of love...love God, love each other. In these two commands are the whole law summed up.

One other thing this passage does is prove to us theres no such thing as self-help when it come so sin. Only Jesus can stand blameless before God and it is through faith in Jesus that we are forgiven. There is no amount of work, good deeds, means of grace (communion, bible study, prayer, fasting) that we can do that will fix our sin problem. Only faith, only trust in God will solve the sin problem. So how about it, no more self-help...no more pulling on boot traps, only trust in God. Author John Kavanaough writes about a visit he had to the outreach of Mother Teresa in India. When he met the saintly old women she asked him what she could do for him, he said "pray for me." She said "for what shall I pray?" He responded by asking for her to pray for claity. Mother Teresa refused to pray for clarity for John, she said, "clarity is the last thing you are holding on to." John objected and said, "but you seem to have so much clarity." Mother Teresa responded with a laugh and said, "I've never had clarity, only trust. For you I will pray for trust, that you will learn to trust God." Will you trust God today?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mark 10:35-45, "Welcome to Last United Methodist Church, we're glad you came to worship with us this morning." :Our commitment to Jesus' Omega Project

Drive through any town USA, big or small and you are bound to see a First United Methodist Church, or a First Presbyterian Church or First Baptist and so on. What you will rarely see is a Second UMC or Third Presbyterian or certainly never a Twelfth Luthern Church. Why? Because who wants to be 2nd, 3rd, and who in the world wants to be twelfth? We have a natural human desire to be first and that human nature often bleeds into our church life too. After 1st Church is established churches tend to give up on the number system, though I have seen some 2nd Baptist, especially in Black communities, who when there is a desire to establish preeminence, tend to use terms like greater and more greater Church.  In one community I lived in the two baptist churches couldn't decided who was really first so one was 1st Baptist and the other was 1st Baptist South (gotta love them Baptist!)

As unusual as it is to see 2nd, 3rd, and 4th church, it is even weirder to see Last Church. No one wants to be last at anything! Last means that your not simply just out of the race, it means the people in front don't even realize you're still running! This is hard for us American folks to accept. We are born into a competition to be greater that the last generation and we are weened on the milk of "pick yourself up by your own boot straps" society. It's hard to be last, it's embarrassing to be last,  and come in last often enough, you'll simply give up and not even try. So why in our passage this week does Jesus instruct the Disciples to embrace an identity of lastness?

This week John and James, the Sons of Zebedee, essentially shake Jesus down. They say "Hey, do what we say!" "We want to be first, let us be first!" James and John believed that it was only fitting for them to be first, after all they are loyal followers of the Messiah and ought to get to sit next to the Messiah at the Messianic Homecoming Banquet, but Jesus has something else for them, something I'm sure they did not expect. Jesus told them that they ought to desire to be last, thus turning the natural and accepted world order upside down on it's head (as Jesus often did!). Jesus told John and James as well as the other 10 who where there that they ought to embrace servanthood...CRAZY!

When I was a kid, we traveled a lot. I was fortunate to have traveled to 12 different countries as a young person, both with family and with the church as a missionary. My father traveled a lot as well, far more than I of course, but his travel was normally for work. He as been to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, China, Germany, and England to name a few. Wether he was traveling alone or we were traveling as a family one of the "cool" thing to do was to get the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt from where ever it was we went. I have Hard Rock Cafe t-shrits from, Ciro, Moscow, London, Paris, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and so on. The Hard Rock Cafe was once a cultural icon, it was a trendy little place with good food, nice staff and loads of Rock memorabilia. The Hard Rock Cafe has been struggling over the past decade or so. What was once a "neat" little memory on any trip now has become a franchise with one thing in mind, the bottom line. The new owners of the Hard Rock Cafe, the Cherokee Nation, has mounted a bit of a come back. Not only are they working on the restaurant chain, but they are also building hotels in many cities around the world, none more famous than their Vegas site. What's changed? Well, their motto, their out look, their perspective. They have adopted a motto that embodies their priorities, "Love all, Serve All." And with this new motto they are once again excelling as a "must eat" destination.

Now there's another restaurant in Cannon Beach, Oregon. It's a small "ma and pa" kinda place. I had a friend who was driving from B.C (British Columbia)  to L.A and was in search of a caffeine fix and stopped at the Cannon Beach Cafe. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and has he approached the cafe door he saw a note that said, "Out to Lunch, will return later." Not believing his own eyes we walked around the property and sure enough, no one was there. He says about a year later he drove through that community again and saw that the cafe was closed and had a for sale sign in the window.

It's no surprise that the little community cafe was closed right? After all what kind of business practice is that? To close when you are most likely to get the majority of your customers is silly at best! The difference between the Hard Rock Cafe and the little community cafe, other than budget :), was priorities. The owners of the Hard Rock Cafe are committed to service to others, while the little cafe was committed to service to self. Did you that 75% of all main-line denomination churches are "going out of business"? They are closing their doors because no one comes to church. Why? Priorities. The church has forgotten to put people first.

This issue of being last is a real important thing to Jesus. I can think of several passages in scripture beside this on where Jesus tells his disciples and others that it's good to be last, but why? It's because it goes against every ounce of what our nature has become as a result of the fall. It's just so contradictory to the world we live in and it was particularly controdictory to the world Jesus lived in; a world of defined roles and hierarchies.

So Whats the scriptures saying to us today? More of the same. A call to be last. To be the last one to leave the bed of a sick person, to be the last one to ignore the homeless, to be the last one to give up on a troubled young person, to be last to give up hope. In being last we are demonstrating our willingness to be servants. This my friends it what I call the Omega Project. It's a project, or better yet a way of living that Jesus started that calls believers to be last and in being last, in being servants, in being the lowest guest on the list, we are accepting our place as the first to be regenerated an reborn in the likeness of God.

Please join me and committee to Jesus' Omega project

Monday, October 8, 2012

"EAT ME."- Jesus: Partaking in the life everlasting.

Last Sunday I was "out of pocket", on retreat with some friends of mine in the great state of Indiana. Unfortunately that Sunday was also World Communion Sunday. I did find a church to worship at, the Congress Street United Methodist Church of Lafayette, IN...which they are doing some very "groovy" things in order to reach their community with the Good News. Since I missed WCS last week with my own charge, we will be celebrating this week.

When I consider all the passages that could possibly be used for WCS, such as the Syrophenican women, the feeding of the 5,000, the account of the Last Supper and Paul's instruction to the Church in Corinth, one specifically comes to mind. That would be the famous words of Jesus in the book of John, "EAT ME". Ok, perhaps it sounds a bit crude and might be a rude and nasty american colloquialism, but it's true, Jesus really did say, "EAT ME." Jesus also was not being suggestive or trying his hand at a Comedy Central special, Jesus really meant, "eat me." What Jesus was saying was to "partake of me."

The crowd that gathered to hear Jesus speak that day had just experienced a food miracle. In John there is no "Last Supper" moment, what there is, is a truly eucharistic moment. In John the feeding of the 5,000 takes the place of the last supper followed by this discourse in which Jesus says "eat me." John is a much younger gospel than the other three and has a much more developed Christology than the others. The  issue isn't who Jesus is, or what Jesus did and the issue isn't what is the last supper, but rather how do we understand it as followers of the way of Jesus. Jesus's dialogue with the crowd followed the the greatest food miracle ever, where everyone who was hungry got their fill. This crowd was back for more and what Jesus had to give to them was not bread and fish this time, but rather himself. "EAT me." Jesus beckons, "I am the bread of heaven. Your ancestors ate mana, but died. If you EAT ME, you will never go hungry, you will live forever." Jesus knew the history, the background of a people who experienced the miracle of food out of nothing (mana) Jesus even repeated the miracle for them, and yet they were not satisfied.

What will it take for the world to be satisfied? What will it take for bellies to be full...not just sometimes,  but all the time? The answer is Jesus. The great thing about how Jesus left everything is this, he left us his spirit, which in turn makes us his body. When we gather as the church on Sunday morning, there is the gathered body of the risen Christ, the same Christ who admonishes us to feed the hungry. In John, the Eucharist is about social justice, feeding the hungry, not once, but always. What makes that meal of bread and wine so special is what God does in it and in us. It's a sacrament, a work of God, sanctifying his people. Jesus is making himself present, as he did at so many meals, transforming us and sending us out as his resurrected body to feed the hungry, with with spiritual food and real food. He is reminding us that we are broken, we are community, we are healed, we are forgiven.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Waxing Philosophical with Loki: Why freedom is a lie.

Why freedom makes us slaves

I recently re-watched the new Avengers movie with my sons. This is the fall blockbuster from last year that pulled together into one movie Marvels Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America movies, which have been released over the past 5 or 6 years. It was funny, action packed and pretty clean, which I would expect being a "kids" movie and all. Despite the action and adventure genre it was part of it had some rather deep philosophical and religious themes. Perhaps my seminary training, which taught me to reflect religiously on even the most simple things, is getting the best of me, but in my opinion there was one really deep idea that we can glean from this movie. 

It came from none other than Loki, the main antagonist in the plot. He was the ultimate bad guy and embodied everything we find evil in our world. What's interesting is that with our Judeo-Christian worldview we view Loki as a satanic figure, even when we consider the Norris god tradition of which Loki and Thor come from. We view Loki as the bad god, or as the Satan figure, the embodiment of evil, the opposite of god, the enemy of god, but within the world view of those who believed in Loki, he was not evil, only chaotic and mischievous...things that were necessary for there to be balance in the world. We do the same thing with the Satan figure in the OT. Within Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) culture the Satan figure or figures were not evil or enemies of the ruling deity, they were important parts of the royal court of the divine rulers or "gods". In ANE culture Satan was a prosecutor, the enemy of man, not an absolute evil that was in competition with God for the souls of humanity. This idea of the Devil vs. God came to us as a mid-evil Christian doctrine; a way to scare the people into submission and it has stuck. So as a result of this western idea, Loki has become the "Devil" in Norris religious lore.

Ok, now time to get to the point. There's a moment in the movie where Loki is in Germany and is holding a large crowd captive and he insist that they bow before him and that this posture is their natural posture and that freedom is a lie and is the great instigator of war and hate in our world. What Loki says isn't to far off from the truth. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a mid 20th century German Theologian, who was martyred by the Nazi's during WWII argued the same idea, but from a theological perspective.  Bonheoffer believed that the illusion of freedom, the lie of a life free from boundaries was the great lie of the serpent in the garden Eden, and I tend to agree. 

We believe that we are free and that freedom is what we all want and need, but in reality the only freedom God gave us was a freedom for each other and a freedom to serve God. When we long to be free, when we push against the boundaries which God has established we are enslaved by sin, yet we call that freedom in our fallen state. True freedom is living within the boundaries of God, true freedom is actually servant hood and true freedom is not living for yourself, but living for each other. The sooner we learn this the sooner we will truly be free. So in a sense Loki was right, subjection is our natural state, or at least our original state. We were created to be subject to God and to each other in service and love and when we try to break free from that subjection, we find ourselves enslaved to hate, greed, selfishness and even violence. So let freedom reign, but in service of God, in a life lived for each other, bound by love and hope.