Monday, August 27, 2012

Faith Countdown: One!

Scripture can be found here and here...

So, if you’re me, and you’re writing a sermon with the title “One,” the first thing that is going to happen is this: songs are going to go through your head. First, U2:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should

One life
With each other

One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

And then, Sondheim and Bernstein:

Make of our hands one hand
Make of our hearts one heart
Make of our vows one last vow
Only death will part us now.

Make of our lives one life
Day after day one life
Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart
Even death won’t part us now.

And finally, Ed Kleban and the late, great Marvin Hamlisch:

One singular sensation, every little step she takes
One thrilling combination, every move that she makes
One smile and suddenly nobody else will do
You know you'll never be lonely with you-know-who

One moment in her presence and you can forget the rest
For the girl is second best to none, son
Oooh! Sigh! Give her your attention
Do I really have to mention she's the one.

One. Love songs, songs about the struggle to love or the joy of loving, inevitably come to this. You are the only one for me. We are separate but we are one—somehow, we share one soul. And strange as it may seem, there is actually much in there that does indeed connect with the sense of “One” that we find in today’s readings.

Tradition holds that Deuteronomy conveys to us the words of Moses, and sees the whole of this book as his deathbed memoir, written or dictated on just the other side of the divide between the wilderness and the land of promise. Perhaps we can think of Deuteronomy as Moses’ love song to God… and to God’s people. And the passage we have read this morning is a particularly memorable verse of that song.

It is hard—in fact, it’s just about impossible—to overstate the importance of this verse. Author Lauren Winner writes about it from a unique perspective. Raised in a Jewish family with somewhat secular leanings, she embraced Orthodox Judaism while an undergraduate at Columbia University, and converted to Christianity in her twenties. In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Winner reflects on Jewish practices that still resonate within the context of her newfound faith. This is from the chapter titled, “Mezuzot/ Doorposts.”

The practice of affixing a mezuzah to one’s door finds its origin in a passage from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words…which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart… You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

You shall write them on the doorposts of your house: In obedience to that verse, Jews purchase special tiny scrolls of parchment on which are calligraphed fifteen verses from the sixth and eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy (the verses in which the command to inscribe them on your doorposts is found). The parchment is hidden inside a decorative case or tube. Both the parchment itself and the plastic or ceramic or silver or wooden case are called a mezuzah… These are the boxes you see outside the doors on Jewish homes.[i]

Winner goes on to tell of the many varieties and designs of mezuzot (that’s the plural form),  and she notes that, while it’s not unusual to see them on the doors of apartments in Manhattan, with its large Jewish community, it is a much rarer thing in Charlottesville, VA, where she grew up. She writes:

The mezuzah, which interrupts the smooth line of the doorframe and juts into your line of vision, is a proclamation. A mezuzah—like the Chanukah menorahs, which Jews are enjoined not only to light, but to set in their windows—is a real, visible, public witness, a declaration to anyone who would walk by that this is a Jewish home. The people who live here are Jewish, and they are proud of it.[ii]

In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious world, it is still a somewhat startling notion to proclaim, with a little box or tube attached to the doorpost of your house, “He’s the One”—the God of Israel is the God whom we, in this household, worship, the One, alone.

How do we Christians make this proclamation, or, if you will, sing that love song: that the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Miriam, and Jesus and Mary, is the One God whom we worship? Orthodox Judaism offers its adherents many tangible, visible ways to make that proclamation, from the manner of dress to the types of foods that are eaten to the mezuzah on the doorpost. How do we Christians do it?

In the early days of the church, during the time of persecution by the Roman Empire, the sign of the fish was used to indicate Christian meeting places and to distinguish friends from enemies. The word fish in Greek is Ichthys, and the Greek letters, Iota, Chi, Theta, Ypsilon, and Sigma, form an acrostic for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ God’s Son, Savior.” Here’s how it worked: “…when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company.”[iii] Beginning in the 1970’s the use of the sign of the fish saw resurgence among Christians, the most notable (and the most often poked fun at) being the omnipresent plastic car fish. Think of it as a kind of whimsical love song to the Savior: One moment in his presence, and you can forget the rest, for the man is second best to none, son. He’s the one!

But the problem with any symbol, whether it is a fish on the car or a little box affixed to the doorpost, is that the symbol can lose its meaning by virtue of its very omnipresence. We can become dulled to the truth behind the symbol if we see it everywhere, or even cynical about symbols if those who bear them don’t live up to the ideals the symbols seem to promise.

Paul, who wrote to the church in Galatia, offers another insight into just how we might sing a love song to our God who is “the One”: by virtue of our baptism into the life of Christ, we too are made one. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28). Bringing new meanings into an old love song, the life of Christ makes of our hands one hand, and makes of our hearts one heart, and makes of our lives one life.

This is a much harder love song to sing, this is a much more challenging proclamation to make, than simply placing a symbol of our faith on the car or in the doorway or around our necks. To be one in the Spirit, one in the Lord, as the song goes… that is the mark of Christianity as it was both lived and witnessed in the earliest days of the church. And the truth of the matter is, we are not always at ease being asked to consider ourselves “one” with… well, with whomever it is that pushes our buttons, or makes our skin crawl, or simply makes us mad. People we don’t like. People we don’t get. And, especially, people we don’t know. Our one faith in our one God and God’s one son Jesus call upon us to join in that oneness, and that, my friends, has to be the very hardest thing we are asked to do in the life of faith.

We are one… with people whose features and skin are different from ours.

We are one… with people who love differently than we do.

We are one… with people whose politics are different from ours.

We are one… with people whose financial security is different from ours.

We are one… with people who think about God and Jesus differently than we do.

We are one… with people who pray differently than we pray.

One life with each other, sisters, brothers… One life but we're not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other…

We are one… and if we cannot sing this song, if we cannot live into this proclamation of the oneness of God and the oneness of life in Christ, we will be like that church that made the news this week because, and I’m quoting directly here, it closed its food bank because it attracted too many poor people.

Hear, O Union Presbyterians. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. The Lord our God, the Lord is one—one singular sensation, every little step God takes. One thrilling combination, every move that God makes. One moment in God’s presence, and we can forget the rest. And so there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. There is no longer poor or rich, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, for God has made of our hands one hand, made of our hearts one heart, made of our lives one life. Now it begins. Now we start. One hand. One heart. One life. All of us, singing God’s love song as One. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003), 131-132.
[ii] Ibid., 137.
[iii] Elesha Coffman, “Ask the Editors,” Christianity Today, October 26, 2001.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Behold! We are doing a new thing....

Courtesy of Ryan DeLap, Union Presbyterian Member and techno whiz, we now have-- ta da!!!-- digital sermon recordings. Because, it's 2012, darn it!

Scripture can be found here.

Herewith, the first recording, of last Sunday's sermon. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Faith Countdown: Two!

Scripture can be found here...

Yes or No. Black or White. Right or Wrong. Up or Down. One of the first lessons we learn as children has to do with understanding opposites. Dark or Light. Happy or Sad. Dirty or Clean. Good or Bad.

Some of those opposite pairs come with hard lessons attached. Gentle or Rough. Kind or Mean. Winner or Loser. Living or Dead. And sooner, rather than later, most of us, at a very young age, learn which of those is preferable, like my next door neighbor, who learned, to the eternal consternation of his mother, that Dirty was definitely preferable to Clean, because it usually meant he’d been having more fun playing at the beach or running through the marshes.

The number two seems inevitably to be the number of  “Either/ Or.” It seems to represent a “this way or that way.” Two presents us with a choice. Two is the number of difference or division.

Let’s take, for example, the election season, which is now upon us, much like an outbreak of the plague. I know that you know that I have my political opinions. It has ever thus been so. And I know that you have your political opinions. And my guess is that some of us agree with one another in lots of areas, but disagree in others. And some of us agree on nearly everything, or perhaps disagree on nearly everything. And yet… here we are on a summer morning, when we might instead be out on the links or sleeping in or enjoying a tasty brunch somewhere. We are able to come together to sing, to pray, to worship God, because it is meet and right so to do. We are able to gather as one, despite our political differences.

And such togetherness does not require church to make it happen. On Thursday evening three hundred or so people of many ages, and, I imagine, many faiths, and many political persuasions, too, gathered at Arnold Park to hear a concert by the Vestal Community Band, a truly lovely and consummately American pastime. And as we enjoyed the strains of music by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, we came together as one.

But to read the newspaper, or to listen to the radio or TV news or, heaven forbid, to get a taste of politics as it is manifested online, in places like Facebook and Twitter, one would have to believe the political divide of this country is an infinitely large chasm between the two major parties, a gap that nothing can bridge. To choose one candidate is Right and the other is Wrong. One candidate is Hitler and the other is Jesus returned. One candidate is the Everyman, and the other is Hopelessly Elitist. Or even, one candidate is on the side of the Rich and the other is on the side of Everyone Else—the 1% versus 99%.

In our reading from the gospel of Mark, Jesus seems to be highlighting this particular divide.

“Beware of the scribes,” he says, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation”  [Mark 12:38-40].

Beware, Jesus says. Beware those who get a little too excited about the fancy clothes they’re wearing. Beware of those who get a little too pleased with themselves when John and Jane Q. Public recognize them on the street. Beware those people who always get the choicest tables at the fancy restaurants, just because of who they are and the power and influence they wield. They are not just eating the good veal; they’re eating the poor for supper (metaphorically speaking). God is not pleased.

Then Jesus positions himself where he can watch people making their financial offerings to the temple. And many people place large amounts of money in the treasury. Just then a woman walks up to the offering box and places in it two copper coins, valued at precisely one penny. She is described as a poor widow. “Poor”: we know what that means. She doesn’t have enough to live on. That’s what it is to be poor: to not have enough. As for “Widow”: In the biblical era, to be a widow means to be cut loose from the protection of the extended family unit. A woman’s value in that era resided primarily in her connection to a man, whether her father or her husband or even her son. A woman who is described as a widow is outside that system. She has no one.

Here is how Jesus describes the woman’s gift to the temple treasury:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” [Mark 12:43-44].

In a gesture that might, to us, seem foolhardy, an act that, frankly, I would discourage anyone in this congregation from making, the poor widow has given away money that she needs. We are used to interpreting Jesus’ words about her as being high praise. Look, we think Jesus says. How generous. Be more like her. But in good conscience, I have to tell you that not all scripture scholars interpret what Jesus says here positively. Some hear in his words anger that this woman is bankrupting herself in the presence of those who are giving so extravagantly. The sale of a fancy item out of one of their closets could feed her for a year.

I think it’s important to hear exactly what Jesus says here. He gives no evaluation of the widow’s gift, good or bad. He simply states a fact: She has given more than the others, because what she has given costs her more personally. Her gift is a sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t say whether that’s good or bad. He just describes what he sees.

Still, it’s hard to hear these verses all together—the condemnation of the scribes side by side with the description of what the poor widow gives—without drawing some conclusions. And we’re back to division. The Rich versus the Poor, the 1% and the 99%.  Can the number two possibly get us out of this bind? Can we, somehow, get beyond this Either/ Or scheme of things? Remember that lovely evening in Arnold Park? Can’t we all just get along?

As it happens, the number two has two main meanings. Either it means division and difference. Or, it refers to the double portion.

The double portion shows up in scripture in all sorts of ways. The double portion was the typical inheritance of the oldest male child. Then there is the double call—“Moses, Moses,” [Exodus 3:4], or “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” [Acts 9:4]; God making sure we hear the divine voice.

And the double portion shows up in Ecclesiastes:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” [Eccl. 4:9-11]

But the double portion is most significant in the familiar story of the manna. When God’s people were wandering in the wilderness, and they had no food, God sent them manna to eat, a flaky substance whose name in Hebrew seems to mean, “What is that stuff”? It’s described as being “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” [Exodus 16:31]. Elsewhere it is described, simply, as bread from heaven. And to ensure that the people did no work on the Sabbath, on the day before the Sabbath God sent a double portion of the manna—they could gather what they needed for two days on that day. But if they gathered a double portion any other day, the manna spoiled and rotted [Exodus 16:1-36].

I think these stories are connected.

The poor widow puts in two copper coins, and they carry with them layers and layers of meaning. They signify her poverty, yes. But they remind us of her trust as well. They tell us that what looks to us like a paltry offering is, in fact, a sign of her trust that God will provide, just as God rained bread from heaven in double portions for her ancestors. The two coins signify division—the Rich versus the Poor, the Self-Aggrandizing versus the Self-Emptying. But they also remind us that two are better than one, because if one falls, the other will lift her up. They remind us that we are better together than we are apart.

In this already fairly poisonous political season, it is easy to fall into the belief that what divides us is more important than what brings us together, that it really is Either/ Or. Republican or Democrat. Liberal or Conservative. Rich or Poor. I hope that we can thoughtfully examine that belief. I hope that we can carefully weigh what we say. We can choose to speak and to act, even across that mythically large political divide, in a way that either brings us closer together or a way that drives even more and larger wedges between us.

One way to bridge the divide is to seek with sincerity to understand one another better. There’s a new book called, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and it offers some insights into, not simply the positions, held by different groups, but the essential values underpinning those positions. Author Jonathan Haidt makes the case that liberals hold dear the essential values of fairness, caring for the weak, and liberty. Conservatives share these values, though they are nuanced slightly differently, but they also highly value respect for authority, loyalty and sanctity. And here’s the part that excites me: the author finds that people are able to speak across divides and build bridges to understanding when they start to recognize and respect those motivating core beliefs.[i]

Our God has created a world of stunning and amazing diversity and distinctiveness. To believe that we can only see ourselves and one another as “Either This Or That” is to ignore the resplendent beauty of God’s creation, and, frankly, to ask very little of ourselves. We can be both distinctively who we are as individuals, and we can come together as one, to worship our almighty and all-generous God, or to hear the strains of music as they float through the soft air of a summer night. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Politics, Odors and Soap,” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, March 21, 2012.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Faith Countdown: Three!

Scripture passages can be found here (John 18:15-18, 25-27) and here (John 21:12-17)...

Did it ever seem to you as if the stories of your childhood were filled with threes? Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. Three Blind Mice. Any number of stories featuring three wishes. Growing up in Italy, children learn the tales of the Three Oranges and the Three Fairies; in Norway, the Three Aunts and the Three Princesses of Whiteland; in Germany, the Three Dogs and the Three Little Birds.

And of course, when I posed the question to friends, what do you think this sermon on three will be about, I got everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. People wondered whether I would be preaching on Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or Peter, James and John, or Matthew, Mark and Luke, or on the Trinity. On the other hand, they wondered whether we would be reflecting together on the three Musketeers, or Olga, Masha, and Irina, the three sisters from the Chekhov play, or perhaps that other literary trinity, Larry, Moe and Curley. I even had the suggestion: A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…

The number three is just the right number. And scripture is filled with threes. In the Hebrew scriptures, there are three great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in Genesis chapter 18, three “men” appear to Abraham to inform him that Sarah will bear a son within the year… but as the story progresses, they are no longer referred to as “three men,” but rather, as “the Lord.” And flying in the face of the idea that the God of Hebrew scripture is a God of wrath and judgment, the three attributes most often ascribed to God there are graciousness, compassion, and loving-kindness. In the New Testament, the gospel of John tells us that the ministry of Jesus lasted three years. And then there are the three-day episodes: Jonah in the belly of the great fish; Jesus as a boy, lost/separated from his parents; Saul blinded, Jesus rising from the dead on the third day. The cardinal New Testament virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity (or love), though a Facebook friend did propose a sermon on Faith, Hope and Chocolate.

Instead of all these, we turn today to the late chapters of John’s gospel, and hear the story of the three-fold denial of Jesus by Simon Peter. As Jesus is being led through his arrest and trials, Simon and another unnamed disciple are trying to follow and at the same time keep a low profile. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind what the stakes are here. Jesus is likely to die. And if he dies, anyone who is associated with him is in danger of the same.

Peter is asked three times whether he knows Jesus. The first two times, he is asked whether he is a disciple, a follower of Jesus, a word that literally means, “learner.” The third time he is asked, simply, whether he was in the garden with Jesus at the time of his arrest. Each time Peter says no. And as he is saying his third denial, a cock crows—which tells Simon Peter something devastating. It reminds him that for all his love, for all his learning, for all his following Jesus, still, Jesus knew that this moment would come. At a moment of danger, Simon Peter would turn away.

I don’t know which is worse, letting down someone we love or letting ourselves down. Each comes with its own particular peril. Not too long ago I was reminded of an episode from my childhood by means of a diary from the year I was in eighth grade. In January of that year, after a series of falls, my mother was diagnosed with a progressive degenerative disease of the nerves in her legs. A doctor at a large Philadelphia research hospital told her she would be in a wheelchair within five years; she was 53 at the time.

She reached out to me, asked for help around the house. I can empathize, now, with how terrified she must have been, the thought of losing her mobility at such a young age. I must have seriously disappointed her, because I kept, tucked in this diary, a letter she wrote to me, filled with her frustration and anger and disappointment. Reading it almost forty years later was still a kick in the gut. I don’t think I was a particularly bad kid. But I know I must have been pretty self-involved. I let my mother down, and in so doing, I learned something about myself that was uncomfortable, even shameful, but it was the truth.

For Peter, I imagine the sound of that rooster signaling morning was a wakeup call of devastating proportions. He learned something about himself, about the depths or shallowness of his devotion, in that moment, to Jesus.

And then, we’re in chapter 21, and the world has turned upside down, and up right again. Jesus was killed. And then Jesus was raised from the dead. And in the aftermath, as a kind of epilogue, we have this scene on the beach that starts with disciples back in their fishing boats, back to the beginning, almost as if the “Jesus event” had never even occurred.  You remember the story. Simon Peter announces, “I am going fishing,” and four others join him. They are out all night in the boat, but catch nothing. In the morning, Jesus gives them a suggestion about placement of the net, and they haul in 153 fish (a number scholars absolutely cannot agree about, symbolically or otherwise). Simon recognizes Jesus and jumps into the water to get to him as quickly as he can.

They have a barbecue on the beach, a fish fry. After their weary bodies have been fed, Jesus asks: Simon, so of John, do you love me? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you, Simon Peter answers. Feed my lambs, Jesus replies.

And this happens again. Simon, do you love me? Yes Lord, you know I do. Tend my sheep.

And again. Do you love me? And now—Simon is hurt. Maybe because someone asking something three times is an excruciating reminder. It is kick in the gut time. Again. And Simon Peter is just the tiniest bit defensive now. Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you. Feed my sheep.

In scripture, three is another of the perfect numbers—it is the number of divine perfection. And it represents everything that is real, solid, substantial, and complete.

So Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus is real, solid, substantial, and complete.

Just as Simon Peter’s affirmation of loving Jesus is real, solid, substantial, and complete.

And here is the real, solid, substantial, and complete truth about human nature. We are broken. We fail. We let one another down. We hurt one another, we deny one another. We don’t show up. A pastor was at a Christian rock concert in Austin, Texas, talking to a man who was a self-described Jesus freak, “just living in the joy of the Lord, reading his Bible every day and praying to Jesus and… playing Christian rock on his stereo.” And this pastor asked the man whether he went to church or not, and he said that he’d had a hard time finding a congregation where he really felt at home and inspired, where he fit in. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s just so boring!”

The pastor asked him, “Do you love Jesus?”

“Yes, I do. I love him with all my heart.”

“Would you die for him?”

“Yes, I would.”

“You would die for him, but you won't be bored for him?”[i]

This is the real, solid, substantial and complete truth, about every single one of us. We are broken and partial and incomplete. We let one another down. We don’t make the bed or fold the laundry or side with the person who is being bullied or denied his rights or killed.

And this is the real, solid, substantial and complete truth about God: God sits us down at a table or on a beach and feeds our weary bodies and souls, and then offers us second chances and third chances and one hundred and thirty third chances, chances without limit.  Beloved child, do you love me? Yes, you know I do.

And that is the place of pure joy. That is the place where we are invited, day by day, in this life of faith. We are invited to sit at the table where we will be fed with the very life of God. And that life includes looking around to see what we can do to make someone else’s life a little better, a little less lonely or filled with hurt or fear. Feed my sheep… an invitation that has about three trillion possible applications, the need is so great and the so-called sheep are so many.

And so we gather around this table, knowing the real, solid, substantial and complete truth about ourselves and about God. And the truth about God is so overwhelming, that it simply swallows up the truth about us, in a great sea of grace and blessing and joy. God will supply our need. We will be blessed. We will turn and bless God’s world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brian Stoffregen, “John 21:1-9, Third Sunday of Easter, Year C,” at (