Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wait for the Lord

[A sermon based on Psalm 27 for the Second Sunday in Lent]

The early 17th century scientist Galileo held, contrary to the scientific and religious beliefs of his day, that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around. He was forced by the Roman Catholic powers to recant his belief. According to a long-held legend, at some point following that recanting the great scientist muttered, “But it does move,” meaning that regardless of what anyone said, the Earth did in fact orbit the sun. Galileo was right, of course, because facts are facts. Facts are facts no matter what opinions are; facts are facts no matter what appearances are. Anybody can see that the sun comes up in the morning and sets in the evening—only it doesn’t. Anybody with any sense would believe that the Earth is the center of the solar system—only it isn’t.

Psalm 27 opens with some of the surest of all sure facts: “The LORD is my light and my salvation” and “The LORD is the stronghold of my life” along with two strong related assertions in question form: “whom shall I fear?” and “of whom shall I be afraid?”

One fact is the fact of the Lord. The Lord is. God is the fact on which all else is based. Moreover, the God who is has revealed God’s self to be a God whose most defining characteristic is love, an assertion that seems to go beyond the affirmation of the Psalm—but not really, because of the second fact.

That second fact is that the Lord is the source of our help. The psalmist uses three terms to name God as our help. First, the Lord is our light; when we are beset by spiritual, emotional, and other kinds of personal darkness, the Lord dispels it. Second, the Lord is our salvation; when we are lost and wandering, the Lord finds us, rescues us, and puts on the safe way. Third, the Lord is our stronghold; when we are under attack, the Lord provides shelter, refuge, and protection for us.

A third fact is that we can have great trust in the Lord. That fact is found in the assertions “whom shall I fear?” and “of whom shall I be afraid?” Because God is and because God is the source of our help, we don’t have to be afraid.

Those are the facts regardless of opinions and appearances to the contrary.

And that’s good news, because there is a lot of which to be afraid, most of which can be summarized in the word “people.” Now, to be fair and honest, we are often our own worst enemy. In the words of that great Okefenokee philosopher Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” During Lent we spend time thinking about the danger we can be to ourselves and about the grace of God that delivers us from our own foolishness and meanness. But in this psalm the writer talks about the threats that come from the foolishness and meanness of other people, whom he calls “evildoers,” “adversaries,” “foes” (v. 2), and “enemies” (v. 11).

When the psalmist gets specific about the danger these adversaries pose, he says “false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (v. 12). In other words, people were threatening him with words.

Make no mistake: words can injure badly. Many if not most of us carry with us the echoes of some unkind or untrue words that someone said about us along the way, words they spoke out of their own weakness or to further their own agenda. In these days of social media it is way too easy for someone to be maligned without substantiation; it is also way too easy to pile on someone through cyber-bullying. The point is that words can do real damage to a person.

For example, the words of others can be a great threat to our reputation even if we are innocent. You may have heard the news last week that Atlanta has been invited to consider becoming a contender to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. When I heard that, my mind naturally went back to the 1996 Olympics and then to the Olympic Park bombing to which Eric Rudolph, who had also bombed an abortion clinic in Birmingham, eventually pled guilty. But many of you will remember with me the name of Richard Jewell, the security guard who spotted the backpack that contained the bomb, alerted police, and moved people away from it, likely saving many lives. Jewell became a suspect and was considered such for months; his name was in the news in that negative way for a long time, even though he had nothing to do with the bombing and in fact was a hero. Richard Jewell died, by the way, in 2007 at the age of 44.

Such threats—threats posed to us by the hurtful words of others—cannot harm the person who trusts in God, the psalmist declares.

But it sure does seem like it sometimes. The threat sure does seem mighty real sometimes. It sure does seem like God has abandoned us to our adversaries sometimes as they speak against us with seeming impunity. And the psalmist affirms those truths, too: “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. … Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (vv. 7-9a, 12).

We all know that history and fiction are filled with stories of impregnable fortifications that fell. We wonder if the onslaught of words might bring us down, if someone’s efforts to take verbal bites out of us might finally lead to our being devoured.

The Psalmist believes in the end, though, despite his doubts along the way, that God will deliver him. He says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (v. 13). While it is tempting to us to interpret that line in light of the reality of heaven, the psalmist mean that he would see the goodness of the Lord in this life. God loves us and God will help us in this life.

When I know that I am under attack, I live in the belief that God will deliver me. When we know that we are under attack, let us live in the belief that God will deliver us.

God is always reaching out to envelop us in God’s strong arms. Those arms are long and they will reach us. They are worth waiting for …

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Preaching Toward the Ellipsis

One does not preach for forty years without undergoing some changes in the ways one preaches. At least one shouldn’t.

I have recently noticed a change in the way that I end sermons. I put it that way because I don’t think I planned it.

For thirty-nine or so of my forty preaching years I ended all of my sermons with a period, an exclamation point, or a question mark.

I ended with a period if the sermon closed with a declarative statement. So a Lent sermon ended like this: “On our way to the Cross, let’s remember that it is the Lord Jesus—and not the institution of the church—that we worship, because it is his crucifixion and resurrection that have made all the difference.”

I ended with an exclamation point if the sermon closed with a thought that seemed to call for a little extra emphasis. So a Christmas season sermon ended like this: “Jesus, then, took on our life with all its suffering and pain and struggle—and he did that throughout his life, not just at the end. He did so as one of us but he also did so as God; in Jesus Christ God entered into and defeated the troubles that threaten to defeat us. Thanks be to God!”

I ended with a question mark if the sermon closed, of course, with a question. So a sermon I preached on the Trinity ended this way: “We are loved by God in God’s fullness. We are saved by God in God’s fullness. We are indwelled by God in God’s fullness. How can that not make a tremendous difference in our lives?”

All of those types of endings are fine and effective in their own way.

I have noticed, though, that most of my recent sermons are ending with an ellipsis, which is the punctuation mark consisting of three dots (…) that is most often used to indicate that words have been left out of quotation; for example, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth … a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

An ellipsis can also be used at the end of a sentence to indicate that a thought is trailing off …

So my most recent sermon, preached on Transfiguration Sunday, closed like this: “Jesus is the Messiah and his way is our way. The Spirit of God is working in us to form us into the image of God. We can make a little progress every day. As we grow in grace and love we will grow in serving and giving and sacrificing. Let’s be grateful for all the ways in which that is happening in us. Let’s be grateful for how it is going to continue to happen …”

And a sermon that I preached during the season after Epiphany ended this way: “Be very glad for the joy and fulfillment you have in Christ. Be very, very glad that you can share it with others, whether they have prepared for it or not …”

I think one of the factors contributing to this change in the way I end my sermons is my activity on Facebook and Twitter. Somewhere along the way I began to end most of my posts and comments with an ellipsis because, given that such statements are necessarily brief, there is always more to be said that is not said.

So it is with my sermons; so it is with anyone’s sermons.

There are always words left out that could have been said.

There is always much more that could have been said.

Another couple of factors are in play, too.

First, the story goes on and on and on; in fact, it will go on forever so, properly speaking, it has no end and our sermons need to indicate that truth.

Second, one purpose of preaching is to help our listeners to be drawn into the sermon. Having the sermon trail off (something that we can indicate with our voice inflection) can help to create that dynamic.

I have found it valuable to preach toward the ellipsis. Perhaps you will, too …

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

We Have God to Talk About

In March of 1973, just two months after his first album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. was released, the first major article on Bruce Springsteen was published in Crawdaddy! magazine. Here is an excerpt from the article in which Springsteen is talking about his songwriting.

He had stopped picking, and he looked up and smiled. "It's exciting to me! It's very weird, you know. I'm happy and the music is exciting to me." He looked for an explanation, his eyes glazing over for a moment. "It's like I'll write a song and I'll think back on some of the lines, and they get me off!" He was so pleased a grin almost shone. "As an observor, you know.

"'Cause in my mind, my mind was thinking, 'Hmmm, need something to rhyme with night, need something to rhyme with...all night.' And it works like that; it focuses it in. 'Well, you got the universe to think about but you need something that rhymes with night!'"

Springsteen's words got me to thinking about preaching. We have God to think about but we need something that goes with...well, with whatever it needs to go with.

There is a warning for us here: let's not forget that it is God that we have to think about and to talk about--and to help other people think about and talk about. Somehow our preaching, if it is really to be preaching, needs to help to create space in which Almighty God can be experienced. That is necessarily difficult to articulate.

God is the reality with whom we are dealing and about whom we are talking.

There is another but related reality with which we are dealing, though: the real need to communicate. Springsteen said that he had "the universe to think about" but when it came down to it he needed "something that rhymes with night." We do have to come up with words to say that sound right together and that, taken together, say something that people can hang onto and take away with them.

Perhaps our real challenge is to come up with plain, simple, and memorable words that somehow carry the reality of God with them.

How can our little words reflect the God of the Universe about whom we are talking when we preach?

[The article is Peter Knobler with Greg Mitchell, "Who is Bruce Springsteen and Why Are We Saying All These Wonderful Things about Him?" Crawdaddy!, March 1973. I read it in June Skinner Sawyers, ed., Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader (New York: Penguin, 2004), 29-39.]

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Transfiguration and Transformation

(A sermon based on Luke 9:28-36 & 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 for Transfiguration Sunday)

Anne Lamott has written a book about prayer that we all should read; it’s called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In a blog post, Lamott noted with appreciation that her book was #9 on last Sunday’s New York Times Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous Best-Sellers List. She further observed that numbers 1-8 were diet books, number 10 was a recipe book, and numbers 11-15 were also diet books. That’s right—thirteen of the top fifteen books were diet books! Lamott went on to say that she should retitle her book Hips Thighs Waist: Three Essential Diet Tips for Emaciation and Wealth.

It says something about our culture’s obsession with personal transformation, doesn’t it? If we could only change something about ourselves—our weight or our shape, for examples—then we would at least feel better about ourselves and—who knows?—we might even become a better version of ourselves.

There is a fine line, though, between a healthy awareness of imperfection and an unhealthy attitude of self-loathing.

I’m fascinated by the 13-1 diet books to prayer book ratio on the bestsellers list; I wonder if even we Christians give thirteen times more attention to trying to change ourselves than we do to letting God work God’s work of transformation in us?

The Apostle Paul said that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Listen to how The Message puts it: “Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”

But it’s only about us insofar as we are connected with Christ. It takes time. It’s not easy. It’s not magic. It’s not pie in the sky by and by. It’s real change in real life.

One day Jesus was with his disciples when he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They shared what they had heard. Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “The Messiah of God.” Jesus told them not to tell anyone who he was and then he set about telling them what it meant to be who he was. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:18-22).

He then proceeded to tell his followers what it meant to be connected to a Messiah like that. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

The next story in Luke’s narrative, set eight days later, is the story of the Transfiguration. Perhaps the only honest way to explain the Transfiguration is to say that we can’t explain it. What is clear is that it was an awe-inspiring event in which Jesus underwent a transformation, perhaps into a state similar to his coming resurrection state, and in that state he was visited by Elijah and Moses, representatives of the prophets and the law, who talked with him about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus in his glory and saw the other two men, also.

While Peter spat out something about building some booths to memorialize and concretize the experience, a cloud—biblically speaking, a cloud indicated the presence of God—came over them and a voice from the cloud—the voice of God—said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” “Listen to him say what?” we might well ask. We should listen to anything that the Messiah has to say. But taken in context, we should understand that they were and we are to listen to what Jesus has to say about what kind of Messiah he was and what kind of followers of his they were and we are to be.

What kind of Messiah was he? The kind that loved. The kind that gave. The kind that served. The kind that sacrificed. The kind that died.

What kind of followers are we to be? The kind that love. The kind that give. The kind that serve. The kind that sacrifice. The kind that die.

Seventy years ago this past week, on February 3, 1943, the transport ship Dorchester was sailing in the North Atlantic carrying some 900 men who were to serve in the European Theater in World War II. In the middle of the night, a German submarine torpedoed the ship and as it sank, men rushed in the bedlam to find lifeboats and life jackets. Over 600 of them would die but around 230 were rescued. Encouraging and helping the man were four chaplains: Father John Washington, who was Catholic; the Rev. Clark Poling, who was ordained in the Reformed Church in America; Rabbi Alexander Goode, who was Jewish; and the Rev. George Fox, who was Methodist. When it became clear that there were not enough life jackets to go around, the four chaplains gave theirs to other men. The last thing some of the survivors saw was those four chaplains, their arms linked as they prayed together as the ship went down.

You don’t get that way overnight. It takes a lifetime of being open to what the Spirit of the crucified and resurrected Christ is doing in your life.

I know that we get frustrated. I know that we take three steps forward and two steps back. I know that we try and fail. I know that we are human. Those are facts. But the greater facts are that God is transforming us into who we are supposed to be, that God is moving us one step at a time “from glory to glory,” and that God is moving us toward reclaiming the image of God.

Jesus is the Messiah and his way is our way. The Spirit of God is working in us to form us into the image of God. We can make a little progress every day. As we grow in grace and love we will grow in serving and giving and sacrificing.

Let’s be grateful for all the ways in which that is happening in us. Let’s be grateful for how it is going to continue to happen…