Monday, October 31, 2016

Who Moved My Church?

John 8
Reformation Sunday
October 10, 2016

Do you know this book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”
Apparently everyone in the world read this book in 1998,
but I hadn’t read it until Beth told me to in our Mutual Ministry meeting.

The book is basically a fable or a parable,
There are lots of lessons in it,
but the basic story is simple:
There are four creatures living in a laboratory cheese maze. 
Two are mice and two are kind of little humanoid,
I’m not sure why.

Their job was to find the cheese in the maze.
For a very long time, the cheese would always show up
in Cheese Station C. They would find their way there,
get their cheese, eat their fill,
and come back when they needed more.
The cheese was always there.
It went on for, it seemed like forever.
They got used to it.

Then one day, they woke up and went to Cheese Station C,
and the cheese wasn’t there.
It just wasn’t there.
Then they went back the next day,
it wasn’t there again.
When it didn’t show up the second day,
the two mousy creatures decided
that they needed to go looking for more cheese.

The maze was big and scary and there were parts
they hadn’t been to in a long time since
they found the cheese in Cheese Station C,
but they knew they needed to just go.

But the two humanoid creatures,
they just sat there. And they sat there.
They came back to Cheese Station C every day,
and they cried and they yelled and they complained.

They longed for the days
that they would just come to their place,
Cheese Station C and they would just find it.
They wished those days would come back.
The cheese never showed up again,
But they wouldn’t go anywhere else.
They just kept coming to Cheese station C.

They said they had been doing it so long
that they deserved it, they were entitled to it,
and how dare they (whoever “they” were)
not bring cheese to Cheese Station C.
But they wouldn’t move
and they were getting more and more hungry
and weak and sad and depressed every day.
Just sitting around asking “Who moved my cheese.”

Eventually, one of the humanoids wises up
and decides to go and leave Cheese Station C.
While he’s looking for the cheese he learns a lot
of valuable lessons, until he finally arrives at
Cheese Station N and he finds that’s where the
cheese has been moved to.

He found that the two mousy creatures
had found it a long time ago and had been enjoying it.
We never find out what happened to the
last humanoid, he could have been looking,
or he could just still be sitting there
complaining, waiting and starving.

I bring up this story, because it’s Reformation Day.
Obviously, you see the connection, right?
This is a day that we celebrate the beginning of the
church changing drastically 500 years ago
when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door.

At the time of the Reformation, the church was thriving,
it was more than thriving, it was actually
the most powerful institution in the world then.
But in its power, it was causing people pain,
and dividing people from God instead of bringing them closer.
So much so that Martin Luther, a pastor in the church,
couldn’t stand it, and did something about it.

And today, we are poised for another Reformation,
another big change is afoot in the life of the Christian Church.
But this time, there’s no Martin Luther nailing something to a door
But this time, we all know that something is wrong.
Because the church we know is dying.

I don’t want to overstate that too much.
There are still millions of people engaged in Christianity,
Millions still attend church every week,
the church is still growing huge in Africa and
other countries outside of the US and Europe.
And I don’t want you to think that Christ’s
church message will ever die, or that Jesus is going away.

But the institution we know, the church we’ve known, is dying.
The church that we understand and love
and expected would be there forever
feels like it’s slipping away.
In other words, they have moved our cheese.
(See the connection now?)

At one time the church that had
unquestionable influence in modern western society.
At one time, we just assumed every church would be filled every week,
There were days when you could build a church in a new
suburb and know that it would succeed in a few months.

Just a couple of generations ago,
It was assumed that most everyone you met would
know the stories in the bible, know the story of Jesus
and that most people in America would commit their
Sunday morning to coming to church building and worshipping.
And we assumed that the next generation would just
do the same thing that we had been doing.
Those assumptions are dying, that church is dying.
We’re watching it happen.

We’re seeing more and more churches closing,
less and less people going into the ministry.
Seminaries are closing or restructuring.

Fewer people deciding to go to church.
More people identifying themselves with no religion at all.
We’re seeing more people outside the institution of the church
dismiss the church’s relevance to the rest of society.
The church as we know it is dying.

And a lot of people in the church seem to be
sitting around and saying “Who moved my cheese?”
We’re complaining about other people,
“why don’t they come to church regularly like they used to?
Why isn’t the church a priority in their lives?
Why can’t it be like the old days?
Why don’t the young people like and value
what I like and value?
You have no right,
Who moved my church?”
And like the humanoids in the maze,
we’re also hoping, if we just sit here
and do the same thing that we’ve been doing
maybe do a little cosmetic work,
Get more comfortable lounge chairs,
Add a banjo and maracas on Sunday morning,
and update the worship service,
maybe it will all come back to be like it once was.
Just stay constant and the world will catch up again.

We keep blaming society, and wishing that society
would change and  go back to the way it was,
But society never “goes back.” Does it?

So either all is lost, and we’ll never find the cheese again,
Or maybe this dying is the work of the Spirit.
Maybe everything is not working like it once was,
so that we have to get off our keisters and
do something different.

Maybe God wants us sniffing
around the maze again so that we can find
our purpose, find our meaning,
find our relevancy again,
be forced to listen to the people we’re hoping to reach,
and find Jesus gospel again for the next generation.
Maybe God wants a new Reformation.

I’m reading this book by Brian McClaren,
one of the most influential theologians of our time.
It’s called “Everything Must Change”
In it he talks about taking a trip in 2004 to
Burundi and Rwanda in East Africa to talk to a bunch of pastors.
This was just after the time of the time of the terrible civil wars
between two warring tribes the Tutsi and Hutus
which had gone on for 4 decades.
Neighbors and families were killing each other
with any weapon they had, garden tools, knives, hammers.
in 1994, 800,000 people were killed in a 100 day period
and at the time he went, random fighting was still happening.

They brought about 50 pastors and church people from all
tribes together to talk about this.
And the host pastor said to the group,
“I’ve been part of the church here since I was born,
my father was a pastor, so I would go to church up to
5 times a week and in over 50 years,
I’ve heard one basic sermon:
You are a sinner, you need to repent in this life
and believe in Jesus or you’re going to hell after you die.”

Everyone laughed in recognition that this was the only sermon
they ever heard either, it was all about what would happen after death.
He said that his whole life had been lived against
the realities of hatred, distrust, poverty, suffering, corruption, injustice,
He knew Jesus had a lot to say about that,
but he had never heard a sermon that
addressed those realities.

He asked the crowd, “have you ever heard a sermon that told
Tutsi people to love and reconcile with Hutu people?
or for Hutu people to love and reconcile with Tutsi?”
Only two new Anglican pastors raised their hands
and they were the ones to preach the sermons.

Jesus does have a lot to say about enemies loving each other,
and about poverty, distrust, hatred, suffering, and corruption.
And how much could the church have done in those places
to change and alleviate the situation?
But they were stuck on that one message.
“Believe so you don’t go to hell.”

The main idea of the Reformation,
that we are justified by God’s grace alone and not our works
was an amazing and earth-shattering revelation in 1500.
It literally changed the world when Luther brought it out.

The idea that God loves us no matter what we do or don’t do
is still astounding, it’s still good news, it has freed us to take risks
and do great things for God and for others.
but we can’t just stop at what was amazing 500 years ago.

That was the Reformation the 1500’s needed.
In Luther’s times, most people were worried about
whether they were going to hell and purgatory after they died.
These days, hardly anyone is worried about that,
but sometimes we’re still just responding with the same answer,
and basically doing church the same way they were then.

We have a world that is screaming out from poverty and violence,
from disconnection and isolation,
lack of meaning, fear, distrust, anger . . .
and we have a savior with a story
that speaks to all of these things.
But how will anyone know unless we tell them?

Like the title of McClaren’s book:
Everything must change.
The message that Christianity emphasizes
the way we’re sharing the message,
The way we do church, the way we reach people,
the way we share the good news of Jesus.
Those are the things we have to think about.
The world has changed and we need to change too.

Maybe the best thing that could happen to us is that
Our cheese is moved, then we have to leave the comforts
of our church and go out and find out what happened to it.
Maybe the best thing that can happen to us is dying
so that we can rise again.

Today we are in the middle of a new Reformation.
You can feel it.
God is doing something new in our world.
Don’t dread it, don’t complain about it.
Just get in on it!

Now here are the things that will never change:
God loves us unconditionally.
And Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead
just to reveal that love to us.
These are constant.
The church may come and go.
The church as we know it may die.
Our cheese may be moved or look completely different
but we don’t have to fear.
God’s love is everlasting.
Christ has saved us,
and the Holy Spirit will lead us where we need to go.

Monday, October 24, 2016

We're Better Than That

Luke 18:9-14
October 23, 2016

“Oh Lord, I thank you for not making me like the Pharisee,
all self-righteous and proud of himself.
I thank you that I am humble
and Christ-like in all I say and do.”

It’s hard not to end up putting ourselves
above the Pharisee when we hear this parable.
I mean it’s easy to get that the point of the parable
is that the Pharisee was wrong because he was
not humble about his righteousness.
So if we could just have more humility
The Pharisee and the Publican
James Tissot, 1894
then we will be better than the Pharisee..

So being humble is just another task in the check list.
One more thing that we can remember to do
as part of our religious practice to make us
the best Christians ever.

Now, if all Jesus was talking about was check lists
then the Pharisee would win with or without
being the trophy for most humble.

Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees in the New Testament,
but they didn’t actually do bad things.
By religious standards, they were very good.
They were not fundamentalists,
They were not horribly authoritarian.
They had dedicated their lives to God.
They were enthusiastic for teaching the Word of God.
If they were Christians,
they would be considered “Good Christians”.
Good, dedicated church leaders.
Actually models of the Jewish community.
And Jesus doesn’t say that this Pharisee
was lying to God when he enumerated
his own good deeds: fasting, tithing.
Those were all extra-credit items on the check list.
Just to make sure.

On the other hand,
Tax collectors were not good guys – religiously or otherwise.
They weren’t just IRS workers who had an unpopular job to do.
Tax collectors were Jews who
were employed by the Roman government.
And their job was to get money from
other Jewish people.

They only made money when they got more
than what was required of the taxes,
so they did it by extortion, offering protection.
They were like the Mafia going around
making offers you can’t refuse.
They were the slimiest of slime balls of the time.
Terrible by any stretch of the religious imagination.
And this one probably didn’t tithe and fast.

And yet, he is the hero of this parable.
Jesus is not saying, Be a good person,
but be humble about it.

The problem with the Pharisee is not something he does.
it’s his whole mindset.
Yes, he is trying to sell himself and his good deeds
before God (which is kind of pointless when you think about it
because doesn’t God know everything?)
He’s trying to say that he’s done enough to earn God’s love.
That is obvious.

But the real problem is the result of that.
In the process of selling himself,
he feels the need to put down other people.
He claims his righteousness by giving demerits
to those that do less than he does.
“I thank you that I am better than those
Thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors.”

This is the inevitable by-product of lifting your
accomplishments up, you compare yourself to others.

Now, we all do this whether we like to admit it or not.
It’s a very human thing to compare yourself to others,
and build yourself up by putting someone else down.
We may do it in subtle  ways, we may not say it out loud.
And maybe we’re not using words like thieves and rogues,
but maybe we’re thinking,
“at least I’m not that spoiled rich kid,
or at least I’m not racist like that person.
or at least I’m not person who over dosed with her kids in the car.”

We know a lot about this now in this election time,
Candidates make an art of building themselves up
by tearing down their opponents.
It creates a divide that seeps into the rhetoric of their supporters too.
“At least I’m not like those democrats,
at least I’m not like those republicans,
at least I’m not like those republicans or democrats,
because I’m an independent voter.”

And the division doesn’t just end in words.
This week, there was a Republican campaign office
that was firebombed in the middle of the night in North Carolina.
And last week, in Virginia, there was a Trump supporter
who stood outside a Democratic campaign office
with a shotgun for 12 hours trying to intimidate workers.
And we can’t say:
at least I’m not like those violent people.
That just adds to the division.
They’re just playing out our division to its conclusion.

For humanity, the route between
“at least I’m not them”
and violence has been pretty short.

And throughout the ages, religion has been
a reflection of this rivalry.
There is a right way and a wrong way and the right way
is the way that we have been taught to do it and
and if everyone would just get on board with our way,
it will all be fine and beautiful and God will reward us.
Any other way is impure and wrong and downright dangerous.

In Christianity, it happened right away
in the rivalry between Paul and Peter and other factions,
We saw it in the battles in the early church
around the creeds and condemning heretics.
And we saw it in the church’s treatment of Martin Luther
(and Martin Luther’s treatment of other factions, by the way.)

When religion is mixed in,
our rivals become the enemies of God.
it becomes about the purity of the faith,
your lack of orthodoxy or commitment is
a threat to me and to my relationship with God.
if we can’t convert them, we best get rid of them.

Extremism starts with the statement,
“At least I’m not like that one over there.”
The Inquisition, The Holocaust, Slavery
all started with comparison and division.
Building ourselves up by tearing others down.
But Jesus says in this parable:
We don’t earn points with God by giving
demerits to everyone else in the world.
What Jesus is proposing
is not about earning points with God at all.

When the tax collector prayed, he said,
“God, be merciful to me a sinner”

It wasn’t the content of the Tax Collector’s prayer
that Jesus was praising in this parable.
It was the content of his heart that Jesus praised.
He knew that he was not better than another person
he was sorely aware of his shortcomings and sins
and he went to God for forgiveness.

For all his terrible doings as a tax collector,
this man did not look down on rogues or thieves,
he knew he was no better than them.
With this prayer, he would not be comparing
his acts of righteousness
with his neighbors, he would not be
judging the orthodoxy of another person.

The tax collector opens himself up to God’s mercy.
Completely revealed and vulnerable,
and honest, completely trusting in God and not himself.
He doesn’t need to put down thieves and rogues and Pharisees.
For all the bad he’s done, he doesn’t create a divine
division between him and anyone else.

The hero of this story is not the religious figure in the story.
Jesus tells us now that the model of our faith -
the one we should look up to and honor and emulate
is the slimiest of slime balls, the tax collector.

The hero of the story is not the religious figure
because Jesus did not come here to
bring us another religion, another set of tasks
in order to bring us closer to God.

Jesus is actually trying to pull our whole
religious rug out from under us with this parable.
Jesus is trying to take the do’s and don’ts
of all our old time religion away from us
because it really hasn’t been working to God’s ends.

Jesus didn’t come to us to bring us religion.
Jesus came here to reveal to us a God
who loves us, who will never leave us,
not one we have to prove ourselves to.

And he came to heal the divisions between us,
to stop rivalry and leave us
without scorn for our brother or sister,
no matter who they might be.

Jesus didn’t just come to bring us new rituals and rites of worship,
He came to show us that we are all joined
to the tax collector and to the Pharisee
in so many different ways.

Jesus didn’t come to create a new religion,
Jesus came to create the kingdom of God.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Wrestling Matches

Genesis 32:22-31
October 16, 2016
Jacob Wrestles With Esau's Angel
Yoram Raanan

In our Old Testament story,
We hear about Jacob wrestling with
a strange figure out of nowhere in the
middle of the night.
I would venture to say that this is not
a normal occurrence for anyone,
even thousands of years ago
in the time of Genesis.

The scripture says it’s a “Man”
but the man comes so mysteriously
and without cause and provides a blessing
that some have called it an angel.
Maybe it’s God Jacob is wrestling with,
maybe it’s his own conscious,
Maybe it is just a mysterious stranger who’s up for a fight.

It probably would probably be helpful to review
the rest of the story of Jacob and his brother
to know what’s going on with this wrestling match.

Genesis is the first book of the bible,
as the name insinuates.
It tells the stories of origins. The genesis of things,
the beginnings of things,
the beginning of creation, sin, murder,
the beginning of knowing God.

These are really wonderful stories and they’re also are metaphors
about humans, human societies, people,
and how all these things have come to know God,
and have grown together with God.

At the end of the wrestling match,
the man blesses Jacob and tells him
that he is no longer called Jacob,
he is called Israel.

Jacob is the story of Israel,
God’s people, God’s chosen ones,
a story that is shared with us
through our relationship to Jesus.
Even though Jacob’s story is unique,
there are elements in it that we
can all relate to as God’s people.

Jacob and Esau were twins.
They were the children of Isaac and Rebecca.
And the grand children of Abraham and Sara.
Esau came out of the womb first,
with Jacob holding onto his heel,
trying to grab him and come out first.
Jacob is actually Yacob,
which means “heel holder”.

Esau was an outdoorsman and was a favorite of his father Isaac.
Jacob was a quiet, indoor guy and was a favorite of Rebeka.
But Jacob spends his life wanting what his brother had.
Chasing after him fascinated by him,
maybe wishing that he were Esau.

This is human. To idolize and envy. To want what someone else has.
The writers of Genesis knew this thousands of years ago.
Rivalries are the source of hatred, family squabbles, feuds, and even wars.
wanting what someone else has.
The story of Esau and Jacob is the
story of the birth of rivalry between nations who fear God.

The one thing that Jacob was most jealous
of was Esau’s birthright.
As the first born, Esau held the birthright of his family.
A birthright was the privilege that came with
being the first born, but it also had a spiritual component,
The one with the birthright was the one who God’s covenant
with Abraham would work through.
Esau had it because he was oldest, and Jacob wanted it.

One day, Esau came in from hunting and he was hungry
Jacob was cooking a pot of stew and Esau asked for some.
Jacob said he could have some if he traded his birthright for it.
Esau said, “well I’ll probably die soon anyway, so sure”.
And he traded his birthright away for one meal.

Now, maybe Esau was not so smart.
Or maybe we could feel sorry for Esau.
But maybe his birthright didn’t mean very much to him.
Apparently, not much more to him than a bowl of stew.
Maybe he didn’t take it as seriously as Jacob did.
Maybe Jacob actually deserved it more.

Some might say, that in spite of the huge obstacle
put in front of Jacob which couldn’t be changed,
like the order of his birth,
that it didn’t stop God from choosing him to work through.
Maybe we could even say that God loves
the challenge of working thorough the underdog.

After that event, even when he had Esau’s birthright,
that wasn’t enough.
When Isaac was about to die,
He was ready to give Esau a blessing,
Basically passing his family mantle
and the promises of God to him.
Egged on by his mother Rebeka,
Jacob decided that he needed that to seal the deal.

Isaac couldn’t see very well.
Esau was a hairy man and Jacob was not,
so Jacob put on a hairy coat
he disguised himself as Esau
and Isaac blessed Jacob instead of Esau
He said:

“May God give you of the dew of heaven,
    and of the fatness of the earth,
    and plenty of grain and wine.
 Let peoples serve you,
    and nations bow down to you.

Be lord over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
    and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

Esau came in a minute later looking for
his father’s final blessing.
But Isaac said that he had already given it
to his brother.

Esau was furious and he vowed to kill Jacob.
So Jacob went off away from his homeland
and family to escape.
The first night he was on the run,
He laid down to sleep and had a dream.
He dreamed there was a ladder stretching to heaven
and the angels of God were on it.
And God appeared right in front of him and spoke to him.
”I am with you”, God said,
“I will keep you wherever you go,
and I will not leave you.”
And Jacob said that the Lord would be his God.

And Jacob made a good life for himself
sometimes using deceit,
sometimes being deceived himself.

This is a story of God’s people and God
and if there’s anything that this story tells us,
it’s that God’s people are complicated.
And the relationship between God
and God’s people is never simple.

It’s full bumps and bruises,
Not just pure and innocent.

God’s people are all things:
we are sometimes jealous, and ambitious,
sometimes crafty and unrighteous
And yet God is still there, God is still with us.
God has still kept God’s promise.
And this story is also kind of a spiritual
coming of age story.
Jacob has a yearning and longing,
He wants Esau’s birthright, he wants what Esau has.

And to get what he desires, in his young age,
He pretends to be something he is not.
He pretends to be Esau.
He trades away his real self for the things he wants.
In the process, he loses his home, his family, his history.
In his ambition, he loses his own identity.
And his journey with God is about getting that back.

After his dream, Jacob goes to Haran and
has a two wives and many children
and lots of wealth – which meant land and livestock.
He is prosperous as promised.

But as the years go on God tells Jacob that he needs to
go back to the land of his father and face Esau.
So he takes his wives and his children and livestock
and goes back to where he came from.
On the way, he heard that his brother Esau
was coming to meet him with 400 men, and Jacob prayed.He prayed to God that Esau wouldn’t destroy him and his children.
He sent servants ahead with gifts of hundreds of livestock: goats, and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys
o give to Esau as a peace offering.
Then Jacob sent his wives and children to the other side of the river.
And he stayed alone.
And it is at this time
This time alone, at a pivotal point in his life
that the mysterious evening wrestling match happens.

It goes on for the whole night and
there was no clear winner,
but the man wrenches Jacob’s hip from his socket,
leaving him with a limp.
The man wants to go because it’s day time,
but Jacob says he won’t let him go unless he gives him a blessing.
But before he blesses him,
the man wants to know his name. Finally, who is he?
And he tells him, “Jacob.” 
The second born, who took his brother’s birthright.
And the wrestling man renames Jacob as Israel,
because he had wrestled with God and humans
and has come out the other side.

Jacob has spent his early life chasing his
ambition, losing his identity, taking
what he wanted and not caring about his brother.
But now is the time when his past is catching up with him.

These are the times, when we come face to face
with our own pasts, our own regrets and shortcomings, our own sins,
and these are the times when God has the
ability to come closest with us.
In the night time of our souls.
But these visits are not always a pleasant experience.

We don’t always get a nice warm, comforting hug from God,
Sometimes it’s a wrestling match.
And we don’t leave unchanged and unwounded from
the experience, Jacob leaves his with a limp.

And all the wrestler seemed to come for
was for Jacob to tell him his name.
And when he finally does, he is not Esau, he is not first born.
He is Jacob.
He knows his own identity,

And now that he knows who he is,
he is baptized Israel,  The transferred birthright still stands.
He is the father of the people of God.

To end the story,
When Jacob finally meets up with Esau,
Esau does not try to kill him,
the gifts of livestock were a sign to Esau of Jacob’s repentance.
Esau falls on his neck and he kisses him,
happy to finally be reunited with him.

Then Esau sees Jacob’s wives and his children
and the livestock and Jacob tells
Esau that this is what God has blessed him with.

And the his children and his wives
all come to Esau and bow down before him.
And Jacob said that they were all there
just to find favor with Esau and to serve him.

And they travel on as brothers.

This is the story of the people of God.
We are not perfect, not innocent,
but God has promised to be with us all the same
and God will not leave us.

We may lose our identity
we may forfeit our best-selves
to our ambition and desires,
The world may only see us for
the worst we’ve been and tell us we are only
cheats, losers, failures, unworthy, irresponsible
But God is still with us.

God has come closest to us than anyone.
And God still sees through those names,
and knows our real identity
as leaders, as brave disciples,

as Children of God.