Sunday, December 30, 2007

All Creation's Praise

All Creation’s Praise
A Communion Meditation

copyright 2007 © Robert J. Elder
all rights reserved
Psalm 148
First Sunday of Christmas: December 30, 2007

Praise the LORD from the heavens...
Praise the LORD from the earth

Fifteen years ago I wrote an article in a magazine for preachers1 about the different voices of preaching. It had occurred to me that preachers can make use of a variety of voices in our preaching to bring the Word alive for those who are called to listen. Now, I don’t mean ventriloquist voices, but rather the voices of speech: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and so on. As I thought about it, I realized that most of the preaching we hear is made up of declarative sentences, like this one. Declarative sentences simply state things as if they were true, and it is up the the listener to decide if they are or not. But preaching made up entirely and invariably of declarative sentences tends to make listeners either rabid skeptics who begin to question everything, or like passive omlette pans who come to church empty, but are not to be filled too deeply nor left on the burner for too long.

Interrogative sentences in preaching come few and far between, don’t they? I wonder why that is, don’t you? Do you suppose it is because they wear on us rather fast? Don’t they begin to make everything the preacher says sound like an equivocation, a waffling? Wouldn’t you tire of twenty minutes of this? Aren’t you tired of it already?

One of the seldom-used voices of preaching in the rational and common sense based Scots/Presbyterian tradition is the imperative. If you’ve ever been in the military, you know the sort of voice this is: Listen to imperatives and learn. You are the church of Jesus Christ, so get off your duff and get on the ball for the kingdom! If your eye offends you, pluck it out! If this speaking voice offends you, imagine how it would feel after twenty minutes! The imperative voice is seldom used by preachers, and while I’m not entirely sure why that is, I suspect it is because most of us are reluctant to command listeners to do this or think that. We specialize in persuasion, not the rapping out of orders to be followed, demands for obedience.

There are other voices, but I am sure you get the picture. Some voices should be used mostly for emphasis, such as an exclamation: “Hallelujah!” Other voices, such as the declarative, are the stock and trade of preaching, and will always have the majority interest in almost any sermon.

Knowing all this, imagine what goes through a preacher’s mind upon encountering a sermon text like Psalm 148. A rough count of the sentences and phrases in the psalm tells me there are eight imperative sentences commanding praise for God, supported by three declarative sentences providing a tad of information to remind all who are commanded to praise why it is appropriate that they do so.

One really intriguing feature about Psalm 148 is that, with all these imperatives floating around, the psalm only gets around to commanding human beings to engage in praise in the 11th verse! Prior to that, everything else under the sun, and the moon as well, receives the joy-filled command to make praise.

It strikes me that almost anything that could be said about this psalm would come in a distant second in importance simply to obeying its command. There is a sense in which the creation of God is simply a given, and our call to praise flows as naturally from that as the thank-you note follows the wedding gift. Still, modern people could expand on the awareness of the psalm’s original writer because we know so much more about God’s creation than the ancients did. The psalmist commands praise from everyone from angels to caterpillars, from sea monsters to weather patterns, from mountains to macaws, from the inanimate as well as the animate world. No wonder Jesus thought the stones might shout as he made his way down the road to Jerusalem!

Imagine how many more would receive the psalmist’s command to praise if he had known about molecules, elephants, electricity, redwood trees, the solar system, quantum physics, or microorganisms! In modern times some have assumed that advances in science have resulted in a roughly equal reduction in the need for religious faith. This psalm reminds us how entirely wrong-headed this idea was and is.

Explaining how things work, or numbering how many things there are never comes close to answering the most basic religious question, which is, “Why are there those things in the first place?” The mechanics of things themselves almost never reveal intention. A man sitting in a shed with thousands of pounds of fertilizer may be a farmer preparing to feed his crop, or a crazed bomber preparing to level a city block. Someone exploring the intricacies of DNA may have in mind new healing possibilities or creating a master race.

As any attentive parent can tell us, a response to a child’s “why” question that addresses only “how” can always be followed with yet another “why” question:

“Mommy, why does it have to get dark every night?”
“Because the earth turns around once every 24 hours.”
“Because as it travels through space, there isn’t anything strong enough to make it stop spinning.”
“Because there is no friction to make it stop.”
“Ummmm. Time to go to sleep.”

The child asks “why” yet the parent persistently answers “how.” I think that on a deep level the child wants to know something else we all want to know: Is there any reason for the spinning of the earth apart from a mechanical one? As darkness comes over us every night, is someone still committed to the light which will greet us tomorrow? Is that coming light on its way in any sense for our sakes, according to some purpose? Annie Dillard, in an award-winning book, once asked, “The question from agnosticism is Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?”2

Once having made a turn in our thinking toward the goodness of a Creator, once having learned that the answer to the ultimate “why” question is “the love of the One who made you,” we can set aside our partial knowledge on some days and simply answer the command to praise. God’s loving kindness toward us has resulted in intricate details about us which even the smartest scientist will never know. I once learned there are 100 trillion cells in each human body, and each one caries all the genetically coded information necessary for the make-up of the entire body, as well as the special instructions for the proper functioning of every individual cell. It occurs to me that this would require some advance planning. Let’s see, if there are around 6 billion people on earth, each carrying their own 100 trillion cells, then that would mean... I’m not sure of the total, let alone what it would mean if we knew it!

Karl Barth, the great reformed theologian, once wrote about the music of Mozart: “Mozart’s music is not, in contrast to that of Bach, a message, and in contrast to that of Beethoven, a personal confession. He does not reveal in his music any doctrine and certainly not himself ... Mozart does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” Barth also wrote, “The miracle is not that there is a God. The miracle is that there is a world.”

The time comes, now and then, to set down our speculations and partial explanations and just give voice to our praise for the One whose care for us reaches into such intricate detail, doesn’t it? It is out of this praise that all our theology comes at its best.

So, dear friends, here is another set of imperatives straight out of scripture: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Praise him all creatures here below! Praise him above, you heavenly host!

1. “Stand and Deliver: Preaching in the Nineties,” by Rob Elder in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1993, p. 39.
2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, (New York: Harper and Row, 1974, Bantam Books, 1975), pp. 147-8.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Proclamation

Christmas Proclamation

© copyright 2007, Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Christmas Eve: December 24, 2007

Comedian George Carlin said he once entered a bookstore and approached the clerk to ask where the self-help books were located. The clerk responded, “If we told you, it would defeat the purpose.”1 The implication being, of course, that in the end, the only one we can really count on to help us is ourselves, we are in this business of living alone.

After all is said and done, Christmas is a sort of divine declaration that self-help won’t/can’t do the whole job, will never get us where we need to be. There is no question that anyone can work on personal issues, personal improvement is always a worthy goal, but the gift of a Savior — which is what this night represents after all — is a powerful declaration about the very nature of God, that God recognizes our innate inability to rescue ourselves from everything that life has done to us, and that we have done to one another. We need help. We need a Savior.

One of the most ancient Advent carols, with words dating clear back to the 4th century, offers these words to people seeking the child who will be the salvation of us all. The first line of this song was sung by the choir from the rear of the church at my home church almost every Sunday of the year during my childhood and youth, as the choral call to worship. I can hear it today, reverberating through the gothic stone sanctuary:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;

Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,

Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;

He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,

As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,

That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

Let’s think for a moment about this ancient affirmation, how it describes what the Christ child comes to do for us, and the unique way in which he does it. The first stanza declares that Christ comes to us — the carol says he descends, as from the sky perhaps, but you are free to imagine him coming to you across a windswept meadow or from the other side of a crowded parking lot, the effect is the same. He fixes his gaze on us, and he comes to us. Without our having known it fully, we stood in need of a Savior, and one was provided, entirely apart from our ability or inclination to conjure one up. This is the caring love of God, expressed the same way one feeds their own children, without regard to questions of their deserving or not deserving food, we come to them and we feed them. It is the way we move to warn someone who is about to step off a curb into the path of an oncoming bus. They didn’t know they needed saving, but that made their plight no less desperate, and we come to them nonetheless.

Which brings to my mind the second stanza of the carol. “King of kings, yet born of Mary...” The sheer incongruity of the image of the highest king our minds can conceive, brought to birth by the merest peasant girl; this combined with “He will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food.” He comes in the most inconspicuous way, and in coming, delivers himself entirely into our deepest place of need, making available his very body, the very blood of his veins, everything he has and is. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper we remember this one who comes to us, unbidden, rescuing us, devoting on our behalf the very essence of his life to our well-being. It’s an astounding thought if we stop to think about it.

The third stanza takes Christ back to heaven, but not without his having changed what happens on earth for all time. “Light of light,” he causes the brooding powers of all that is evil to recede in his light, and clears out the darkness the way a housekeeper removes the dusty bed sheets covering the beautiful furniture in a long-neglected home before it is restored to its old glory.

Why does the Christ child come to us? “That the powers of hell may vanish.” Anyone who lives in this world knows there is plenty more vanishing that needs to be done before that task of the Christ child is accomplished. Still, the Christmas celebration of his first arrival reminds us that the work of Christ is underway at this very moment in every nation on every continent. The King of glory comes to us this night. Let all mortal flesh — which is everyone here and anywhere the word is proclaimed — let us all offer our full homage to the King of kings.

1. Publishers Weekly, October 18, 2004.
2. From Liturgy of St. James, 4th century.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
Sermons are made available in print and on the web for readers only.
Any further publication or use of sermons must be with written permission of the author.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Names Come First

Names Come First

This sermon is also available in audio at:

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 23, 2007

Something I notice about Matthew’s description of the arrangements surrounding the birth of Jesus is the way it differs from Luke’s. While Luke reported the visit of an angel to Mary, Matthew described Joseph’s angelic dream-visitor bearing God’s message to him. Then Luke reported Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and her extended and exquisite song often called the Magnificat. By the time Luke got to the actual birth story, he provided little with which to make up a picture of Joseph, except perhaps that he went with Mary to Bethlehem, and was present for the open house with the shepherds. Luke presented that familiar roll call of important but now obscure first century figures and places which pass in review like a sort of parade of factoids: Caesar Augustus; Quirinius, governor of Syria; enrollment; Nazareth in Galilee; Judea; Bethlehem; the house and family of David... We wonder if it is possible to understand any of this apart from the assistance of a World Atlas and a copy of a “Who’s Who” of important first century people.

Matthew — as we heard in our reading — has none of that, or at least very little. It is as if the Holy Spirit chose two gospel writers to report the story of the birth, one observing from Mary’s point of view, the other taking Joseph’s. In Matthew, it is Joseph who appears to have the important deciding to do: should he remain true to his faith and set aside his engagement with an apparently unfaithful Mary, as gently as possible? It is to Joseph that the meaning of the name of the child is given: “you shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And, as Mary acquiesced to the angel’s request in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, so in Matthew did Joseph do as the angel commanded him, marrying as planned and when the baby was born, naming him Jesus.

Significantly, Jesus was a fairly common name then, as it remains today. It is the Greek/Latin form of the Hebrew name Joshua, and Joshua was one of those brave characters from scripture whose story inspired many people to name their sons after him, the way children today might be named after famous athletes. The full form of the name was Yehoshuah, and as with all biblical names, it has a meaning, which is, “The Lord will save.” That’s why, when Joseph was instructed to name him Jesus or Joshua, that particular name was chosen, because this child would be the means by which the Lord would save his people from their sins.

The naming is important. In some cultures, the choosing of a name might have been delayed until the child had grown enough to demonstrate some characteristic to which his name could point, like “Lefty” or “Shorty.” Isaac — whose name means “laughter,” was so named because his elderly mother laughed when she heard it suggested that she would give birth in her old age.1 Even later in life, significant life experience could call for a change in name, as when Abram became Abraham, and Saul the persecutor of the church became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.2 In Joseph’s case, the choice of the name was absolutely perfect.

There are three significant aspects of this story which bring its power to life, all of which are derived from that name.3 The first is the conviction that God moves decisively toward people to save them. This is the uniform reality about God from one end of the scripture to the other. God moved toward enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to save them, moved toward exiled people in Babylon to save them, and here moves toward people estranged from their own faith and tradition to save them. Beyond that day, Jesus would be the means by which God would move toward all people the world over, even toward us. The arena of God’s salvation is with people, as much now as it was then.

The second significant aspect of this story is that while God moves decisively toward us, it is still up to us to respond to his initiative. Joseph could certainly have awakened from his dream, shaken out the cobwebs, figured the dream was just a result of indigestion, and proceeded with his plan to divorce Mary quietly. To take the path he took meant risk and the chance of ridicule. It was necessary that following God’s move toward Joseph here — and toward Mary in Luke’s account of the story — that each of those people make a choice to open themselves to God’s initiative. That Joseph proceeded with marriage plans and named the child as he was instructed meant that he responded to God affirmatively, trustingly.

The third significant aspect of the story is that it has application well beyond the confines of the story itself. We all may respond to God’s initiative through our own personal experience of that initiative. We just have to know it when we see it.

A pastor friend of mine recently reflected on the fact that even with the power of modern technology, there are moments when the Spirit has a difficult time getting through to us. Early on a Sunday morning, he was madly rushing about his church building preparing for worship, setting up for a class he was to teach, and so on. As he made a pass by the fax machine, it began to ring. If the machine at his church is anything like ours, the only thing that comes across it on a Sunday morning will be something like an automated fax ad from some company trying to sell vacation packages to the Bahamas — a particularly cruel sort of thing to fax into a minister’s office on a dark, wintry Sunday morning. Of course, it is often simply a wrong number.

Rather than let it ring, my friend picked up the receiver on the fax machine and said, “You’ve got a wrong number,” and hung up. As he went about his busy business, it rang again, and he didn’t have time to get to it. As he passed it by on his way to his class, he discovered that, in fact, there was a fax waiting there, and it was a message from a long-time friend in California asking him to pray for a mutual friend who had been stricken with a life-threatening illness. My friend stopped in his tracks as he realized how often his own busy-ness becomes an excuse for not paying attention, not looking for God’s movement toward us. There just could be times when a wrong number is really a right number, when what at first seemed like an interruption to our pre-arranged plans is really the work of the Spirit, moving toward us to save us.

Have you noticed that when a nativity scene is within easy reach, children seem to gravitate to it? They rearrange the figures, they seem to want to climb into the story, to put on a shepherd’s cloak or hold Joseph’s staff and become part of the story. And part of this childhood fascination with the nativity scene expresses itself in naming the characters. Ask any child of seven, they will know exactly which character is Mary, which is Joseph, which are the shepherds, and which is baby Jesus. They name them. It is a comfort to know that these people carry names, have a part to play as we do.

And, as with adults, so with children, they sometimes read a line from Luke’s story about this in a way that one of my graduate school speech professors cautioned us never to do. They read that the shepherds came to the barn and “found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger,” as if it were an extra large manger, built to accommodate two adults and one child.

So we were warned to be careful to include the punctuation in our reading, to place a comma after Mary and Joseph, and a pause before “and the babe lying in a manger...” so as not to communicate the impression that it was a manger for three. But in a way there is something strangely appropriate about placing the whole cast of characters in that manger. At the very least, they all belong around it. They are all held together by this bit of barn furnishing in this most familiar of stories, and each year we add our names to theirs as we sit or stand or kneel alongside the manger in our living rooms or on the front lawn, or in the department store. We are not just looking at a painting, we contemplate a human scene, we have arrived on the scene too, that we might add our own adoration to that which comes from those original characters. We complete the circle, and in the process we too are named among those for whom he was named: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Someone once asked Dale Carnegie how a person could best make it in the world, and his advice was “Remember the name of everybody you meet.” It is good advice, though far from an easy task. But for us there is one name in particular to remember, the name of the one whom Joseph determined to claim yet who ultimately claimed Joseph and all those others who once gathered around his manger and crib, as well as all people everywhere for all time. One name summed up both his life and his salvation-purchasing death. “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1. Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7.
2. Acts 13:1-3, 9
3. Thanks to Dr. George Chorba and his unpublished paper presented to the Homiletical Feast in January, 1998.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Making a Name

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2007
Matthew 11:2-11

Probably you will remember the old joke which asks, “What do Kermit the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, and John the Baptist have in common?”

Answer: They all have the same middle name.

Now, silly as this is, in a way it does touch on our gospel passage for today. Some folks become known to us on a first-name basis because we know of them with a connecting middle “the,” followed by a descriptive term or phrase: Alexander the Great, Atilla the Hun, Louis the XIV, Vlad the Impaler, John the Baptist...see what I mean? A friend of mine once said there was a woman in his church who swore people thought of her as “Catherine the casserole maker” because that was what she was always asked to bring to church suppers.

For us, John the Baptist had a connecting middle name and he found himself in prison at the whim of the tyrannical King Herod (This was Herod Antipas, not to be confused with his daddy, who had that famous middle name, Herod the Great, because Antipas really wasn’t ever all that great). John wanted to know if his cousin Jesus was going to turn out to be another person with a connecting middle name as he had supposed. That is, would he continue to be “Jesus of Nazareth,” or were people going to begin thinking of him as “Jesus the Messiah?” For John, it was like waiting on the curb at the airport in a strange city for a friend who promised to pick you up. One car after another goes by. Did he say he would be driving a blue Subaru or a teal Oldsmobile? These new cars are so hard to tell apart, especially in the dark. You peer into the windows as each goes by. You wonder, “Are you the one, or must I wait for another?”

When John had baptized Jesus, he had been more sure: “I need to be baptized by you,”1 he had declared. But now he found himself in prison, alone with his thoughts, some of which were becoming those uncomfortable second thoughts. His mind, once so crystal clear about the person of Jesus, began to lose its focus. “Is he the one?” he began to wonder. It reminds me of the two pastors visiting with each other, when one says “I was going to preach on commitment, but now I’m not sure...”

William Muehl once told a story of a visit he made to an old, old home in Connecticut, a colonial-era house, which dripped with history. The home was owned and occupied by the last living descendent of the original owner, an ancient woman. Dr. Muehl noticed an old rifle hanging over the fireplace in the main room and, admiring its craftsmanship, reached up to fetch it down for a better look. “Please don’t touch it!” the woman exclaimed, “it might go off!” Sensing his curiosity, she told Dr. Muehl that her great-great-great grandfather had loaded the gun and placed it above the mantle for the day when he might strike a blow for freedom. But it had never been fired, so Dr. Muehl wondered, “Did he die before the revolution?” “No,” the old woman responded, “he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1817 — but he just never seemed able to generate much enthusiasm for General Washington’s rebellion.”2

Grandpa may have received a connecting middle name along with a surname, something like “Grandpa the Indecisive — or not.” John the Baptist knew how he felt. Surely Jesus was the one, destined to be Jesus the Messiah. He just knew it. But then, but then...

Apparently Jesus did not meet all the pre-formed ideas of what a Messiah should be. Think of it from John’s perspective. He came from a fierce and zealous tradition of desert asceticism. He and his followers eschewed the civilized life in favor of a life lived close to the wilderness, on the edge, away from civilization, a life pretty much devoid of comforts, dedicated to purity and separation from anything or anyone impure. They remained in the desert. Meantime, Jesus and his followers were constantly to be found with the common people, even the unclean people like Samaritans and lepers. Rather than seek separation, they seemed to glory in being close, and especially did Jesus seem to seek out the sinners, the unclean, the sick and the troubled. They went from town to town where the people were, not to the desert where they could avoid having contaminating contact with other people. It was even rumored following the wedding celebration at Cana that Jesus and his crowd were wine-bibbers who didn’t mind a bit going into even a tax-collector’s house and eating with him. This did not meet many of the contemporary definitions of the way a Messiah was supposed to be, especially not the standards of a desert hermit like John. No wonder John sent his disciples to ask if perhaps they had been wrong in taking Jesus to be God’s chosen one, someone with a connecting middle “the” in his name, Jesus the Messiah.

We can be just like this, can’t we? Sadly it is truthfully said that through history, when the church couldn’t have the Jesus it wanted, it has often recreated him in a more acceptable form, often in its own image. 19th century social gospel theologians went looking for the Jesus of history, and, lo and behold, discovered an “historical” Jesus who looked for all the world like a 19th century social gospel theologian. In our own time, the “Jesus Seminar,” has for many years now taken ballots on whether certain sayings attributed in the Bible to Jesus were really uttered by Jesus. In the process there has begun to emerge — surprise! — a Jesus who could pretty comfortably be a member of the Jesus Seminar!

If the Jesus we meet in scripture or in the life of his body in the church doesn’t meet our previous expectations of him, we are so tempted to look into the window of the gospel seeking a mirror reflection of ourselves. We claim God’s purpose in our lives in ways that we believe should be suitable for God when really they are ways that we find to be suitable for ourselves. The psalmist said, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”3 And it turns out to be an earnest prayer, needed by every believing person, including John the Baptist, and including us. When God fails to meet our expectations, perhaps it is our expectations that must need change, not God. Much as we wish it were otherwise, when we insist on having our lives according to our own purposes with only a nod in God’s direction, we have ourselves for the messiah, but we cannot sustain the role, we must look for another.

Then, of course, we may be offended when God chooses his own unpredictable, obscure way of fulfilling his purposes and promises. We send delegations, hold conferences, pore over scripture asking, “Are you the One or must we await another?”

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” We may too quickly say, “Why, I don’t take offense at you, Lord!” Yet there have been times when we been offended, or at least dumbfounded, that God’s grace comes as a free gift to those who are unworthy of it, that God chose this means to bring us a Messiah.

I am particularly convicted when I read Jesus’ response to John’s question. When asked if he is or isn’t the Messiah, Jesus didn’t respond, “Why yes, I’m the Messiah, how can you think otherwise?” No, Jesus did not point to himself, never did, really. Instead he pointed to the effects of his presence among them. People healed, dead people raised, even poor folks receive a good-news message. Jesus’ movement through time left a wake, like a large ship moving through a small passage. Along the inland passage to Alaska, if you were to come out of the woods in time to see great waves lapping at the shore, you could deduce that a large cruiser would have just disappeared around the bend, leaving behind in its wake the stirred-up waters. This is apparently what it was like for those around Jesus. It may not have been comfortable, it may not have been what they expected, but they certainly knew he had been there once he had passed by!

Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Life-giver, Jesus the Good-news preacher, Jesus the Emmanuel, Jesus does not come to confirm our pre-formed expectations of a Messiah but to overturn them! You and I may have in mind what we want for our own healing and comfort, but a true Messiah comes bringing not what we want but what we need.

T.S. Elliot wrote, in The Four Quartets:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking valuation of where we’ve been.

In the end, if we desire to make a name for ourselves — Clayton the Forgiving, Tammy the Comforter, Rachael the Courageous — we may do so only inasmuch as we are naming ourselves in deference to the One who carries the name above all names.

Is he the One, or must we wait for another? Only our lives of faith in response to his call can answer for us and for him.
1 Matthew 3:14.
2 William Muehl, All the Damned Angels, Pilgrim Press, 1972, p. 52.
3 Psalm 119:37.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Pointing in a New Direction

Pointing in a New Direction

This sermon is also available in audio at:

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 3:1-12
Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2007

In recent years I have discovered that when I turn on a televised professional sports contest, it is more for background noise than because I am really interested. More often than not, I watch through closed eyelids. There are reasons for this. Players have no incentive to develop loyalty to any team in particular or their fans, and it is not unusual for players to play for three, four, even five different franchises during their short careers. What a shock it would be to hear of a player turning down the lure of millions of dollars from another team because of a desire to remain with their friends and teammates on their present team. Sometimes with conflicts between owners and players bringing things to a standstill, cheering for this or that professional sports franchise becomes about as inspiring and fun as cheering for, say, Microsoft over Citibank, or vice versa, how can anyone really care?

Even so, I confess there was one professional football game several years ago now that still stands out in high relief in my memory. It was not the Superbowl which, I admit, I can hardly remember at all from last year or any other. It was a playoff game between the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets. During the course of the game, one of the players was knocked unconscious on the field, and when the trainers reached him, they discovered he had stopped breathing.1 It turned out his neck was fractured. I remember his motionless body lying there in the midst of frantic activity by trainers and doctors as they labored to save his life and minimize his injuries.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by. Thousands of fans in the stands fell eerily silent. The announcers departed from their customarily manic sports-jargon blathering and began speaking with the hushed tones that I remember from television coverage the day President Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The cameras focused repeatedly on the shocked faces of players, on groups of players kneeling in prayer, players from either team joining each other on their knees, players looking heavenward in tears, and on that motionless body on the field. An NFL game had suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a prayer service. The player did recover later, but it was touch and go for a very long while.

And of course the game itself was no longer the point. The TV coverage was no longer pointing to the game. Vince Lombardi, it turns out, was wrong, at least on that day. Winning is not the only thing. While no announcer named the name above all names, clearly that quarter hour in the midst of a game was now pointing in a different direction. Important as it had seemed to them when they started, all the players and fans there knew that something more important had taken precedence.

When John the Baptist came out of the desert preaching a message of repentance, he did not arrive in a vacuum. He came at a time when people were going through the motions of their lives, but theirs was an occupied country, they were a people without a prophet, a people who had lost track of something important. So John came, dressed in rough camel leather, eating a subsistence diet that the desert provided him. He came, he spoke, he challenged the people. It was unexpected, it was shocking, and apparently it was also riveting in its impact on them. Folks streamed out of the city up in the mountains, came down to the floor of the Jordan Valley to hear John and receive his baptism of repentance.

John told them he was there among them as a sort of a signpost. He was, in a way, like the signpost on the freeway ramp that says in bold letters on a bright red background, “WRONG WAY.” If we see one of those signs facing us, we know we had better turn around immediately, that to continue in the present direction will bring catastrophe.

Matthew summed up John’s whole message in a sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He went on to call the synagogue leaders a bunch of poisonous snakes, saying things that would get most preachers fired, if not killed. But he was God’s man, a prophet, fearless.

Repent. It’s not a word we use much any more in our everyday conversation. We may say, “I’m sorry.” We hear a lot from people who are sorry. A whole school yard full of children gunned down by two other children, and they say they are sorry, as are parents or grandparents who leave potent weapons within such easy reach of children. People convicted of crimes that are heinous and those crimes that merely affect their approval ratings in the polls, from these we often hear those now familiar words, sometimes read in front of the courthouse for the benefit of TV cameras: “I’m sorry for whatever pain I have caused.” We hear it from carnivorous boxers, from tantrum-prone baseball, basketball, football, hockey players, from politicians, presidents, from celebrities.

There has been a lot of this, perhaps more than a lot, perhaps way too much. Public relations departments now have specialists who can counsel their clients on exactly the amount of time needed for the public psyche to become distracted. Turns out it is about a month. They give advice to their clients on the appropriate timing and content for that all-important date with the cameras where one can say “I’m sorry for the pain I have caused.”

I remember Garrison Keillor’s short story in the New Yorker magazine from a few years ago, the fictional first-person account of a person claiming to be “a professional Remorse Officer for the New York Department of Human Services.”2 His job? To find people who are doing bad things and tell them they should stop. Why does this strike me as funny? Could it be because we have had an epidemic of “I’m sorries” in our culture, but precious little real remorse, hardly any repentance, few people telling transgressors they should stop and turn their lives in a new direction?

The word repentance doesn’t mean to be sorry so much as it means to turn around, to face a new direction, to recognize that what we are doing now is taking us the wrong way and that we need to stop and turn another way. Repentance helps us focus our lives beyond our own plans, beyond our own maneuverings for whatever self-serving goals we may be pursuing.

Repentance is not a destination, it is a point of departure, a fresh start, a new vision, a new realm of possibilities opened by a God who never seems to tire of making all things new, and it happens just where before we thought there were only the closed doors of our own imagined and limited choices.

John says something really true about repentance when he addresses the religious authorities who also came out to the Jordan. He said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Repentance is not merely a magical incantation of some words that will distract others from our transgressions, that will wipe away what we have done wrong so we can continue on with our lives as though nothing has happened. Repentance bears fruit of changed lives, repentance recognizes possibilities beyond those we had seen before we handed ourselves over to the man in the camel hair outfit on the river bank. Repentance doesn’t just accomplish today’s forgiveness, it has consequences into the future.

In the end, and this is the seasonal truth of all this, repentance makes us ready to receive the One who is coming, the One whose sandals John was not worthy to carry. Without repentance, we cannot face the Messiah. Without turning from those things which ever turn our lives inward, without this we cannot receive him. This is the reason for a season like Advent, arriving just before Christmas. It is meant to help us prepare, to repent/turn from those things that separate us from him so that when the day comes that we celebrate the arrival of Jesus, we may join in the festivities, we may see him when he comes, like shepherds and wise men, and not miss him, like Herod, hunkered down in our palaces, pointing to ourselves.

Probably most people today still recognize the name of Albert Schweitzer as the German physician who took his medical skills to a mission station in Africa for the major portion of his adult life, a sort of Mother Theresa of his generation. Fewer will remember that Schweitzer was also a trained theologian who wrote the hottest book in the theological world at the turn of the 20th century, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Even fewer will know that he was an accomplished organist.

When he was a young theological student, Fred Craddock3 heard that Schweitzer was coming to Cleveland, Ohio to play a dedicatory concert on a new organ in a large church. Dr. Craddock is now a retired preaching professor, but at that time he was young, filled with himself, eager to show his stuff. He had written a critical paper about Schweitzer’s book, his professor had given him an “A.” He took a bus to Cleveland, and planted himself in the front row in the fellowship hall for the question and answer session after the concert. He was ready, loaded with a page of smart questions, prepared to put the aging old doctor on the spot.

But Dr. Schweitzer didn’t begin with, “Are there any questions?” He got up and said, “I thank you for your hospitality, for your gracious reception of me, but I have to go back to Lambarene in Africa. My people there are dying. They are sick and they are hungry. If any of you have in you the love of Jesus, come help me.” Dr. Craddock’s smarty-pants questions turned to ashes right there in his hands. His life was pointed in a new direction.

John the Baptist can appear at any time, pointing the way, calling us to repentance, challenging us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It is the season we are in. I hope we are paying attention.

1 Rise and Walk: the Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd, by Dennis Byrd with Michael D'Orso. N.Y., N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1993.
2 “The Current Crisis in Remorse,” in We Are Still Married, by Garrison Keillor, Random House, 1992.
3 Thanks to Fred Craddock for sharing this story in “What We Did Not Know,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1998 p. 36.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Nobody Knows, But Some People Guess

Nobody Knows, But Some People Guess
A Communion Meditation

© Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 24:36-44
First Sunday of Advent: December 2, 2007

One of my favorite editorial cartoons of all time was drawn by Jules Feiffer back in the early 1970’s, a decade that more or less introduced our culture’s now well-developed devotion to self-absorption. In the first frame we see a young man and young woman seated at a table in a restaurant. The young man, earnest in his desire to begin communication with his new friend, utters a tentative and expressive “Me...” In the next frame, he begins to warm up to his subject, saying, “Me, me, me, me...” The young lady remains attentive, so by the third frame, the space is entirely filled with his words: “Me, me, me, me, me, me, me...” In the fourth frame, the young woman tries out her own tentative, “Me...”, to which the young man reacts with a gape-jawed “Yawn...!”

Our era in history is dominated by the sort of individualistic presumption which believes that if I can’t know it, it not only doesn’t matter, it probably doesn’t exist. This makes it exceptionally difficult for us to hear the opening line of our passage for today without difficulty: “...about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son...”

What day? What hour? And if Jesus, the Son of Man, doesn’t know about it, what use is there in it for me?

This passage, and others like it, belong to a type of New Testament writing called “apocalyptic.” It simply refers to a time when God’s desire and goal for this world will be accomplished. It is a sort of declaration that a good future is coming which should have an impact on our lives in the present. If I believe that I will be giving a dinner party on Thursday, that future promise works on the present day in all my preparation: I call my friends, I purchase food for the party, I clean up the house, I set my stereo to play music that my friends will enjoy. All this I do because I believe that a future promise will become reality by Thursday, and so it affects my behavior today. I prepare for the consummation of the promised day.

Now, about the apocalyptic words concerning the future in the New Testament, there are two common responses.


There is no particular plan or purpose to the universe. The only thing real in the world is my experience of it. (Me, me, me, me, me...) I have heard this expressed even by pastors in a sort of oblique way when, as we may be sitting, having informal theological discussion on some difficult bit of scripture - you know the sort, the kind of thing that is difficult for modern ears to hear - someone will say, “But that does not fit with my experience of God.” I am always struck by comments which begin this way, because of the observation that if it is God we believe in, we are not called nor capable to make our experience of him the measure of God; instead, God will rather insistently be the measure of us. If his word is difficult for us to accommodate, we cannot claim that it is God who has erroneously taken the measure of us.


The future will not change from the present we know. Each day will come and go pretty much like the last, day by day, week by week. As in the days of Noah, when — though the biggest rainstorm of all time was brewing — the people continued as though their lives would go on forever, eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage. It’s easy to be fooled as we sit in this beautiful building which seems so substantial. It’s not crazy to assume that it will stand here for 100 years more. The Christmas lights we will struggle to untangle again this year are the same lights we put up last year and will likely be the very same lights we will be struggling to untangle again next year. Eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, we walk from day to day as if nothing changes, the passage of time is more circular than linear, what goes around comes around. We live as though all the normal things of life will continue on indefinitely, as if there were no future in God’s plan with which we will have to reckon.

But when we go to the twentieth or fiftieth class reunion, does everyone look the same? Flattering comments to the contrary notwithstanding, we recognize that everyone does not. Who are we kidding? To live every day as if there will always be another tomorrow is to live the life of a fool. Yet it continues to be true that a minority of people die having made even a simple will. Life changes as we move along, nothing is a given, each sunrise represents another new statement of faith from the Creator. Life is not lived in circles, each day matters, and each unique day is irretrievably significant. What we do or fail to do in this day has import. If God has a plan for the universe, then God has a plan for this day, for this hour, for this moment in which we sit and listen to words about his plan.


Jesus says this to those who call themselves believers: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. What is such watchfulness? It is remembering that we are not the measure of all things, it is a reminder that even if, as each day passes, it appears to us to be pretty much like the previous one and likely to be much like the one to come, every day is not the same, every opportunity to be a man or woman for God is an opportunity that will not come again, that what we do in this day and at this time matters, and it matters in an eternal way.

Jesus’ call to be ready is not meant to cause sleepless nights. It is meant to encourage watchful days where we search out ways to be his disciples in the world, the advance guard of a future that is surely coming. In church it is tempting to begin today to sing Christmas carols and pretend that the baby Jesus is on the way automatically, like clockwork, as they are doing over at the mall, as Noah’s neighbors might well have done had they been in our place. But we do not do that, because we celebrate the Lord’s Supper today not only as a reminiscence of a long-ago birthday, but as a statement of faith in the future which God is bringing to pass. We don’t know the day or the hour when the Lord will accomplish all he has in mind. We only know that this is the day and the hour when we may be part of God’s future, or part of a dying past. Therefore we must be ready.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Holding Together

Holding Together

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Jeremiah 23:1-6 — Luke 23:32-43
November 25, 2007

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying,

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Driving along the road, I have occasionally seen those crude signs, we all probably have, that simply declare, “Jesus is Lord.” “Lord” is really just another word for royalty, another way of saying that this simple peasant Jesus whom we come to worship is also his Majesty, Lord Jesus. The typical roadside location of such a sign is disingenuous in its own way. It rarely appears atop a tall building, or on large, well-lighted highway billboards or on Times Square. It is a type of sign pretty much confined to the small sort of cardboard-on-a-stake poster that can be pounded into the ground among the weeds along the roadside, or slathered in crude whitewash on the side of a building or a bridge abutment. Hardly the stuff of Madison Avenue ads for liquor or cars, and made all the more ridiculous for its low self-esteem as advertising goes.

I don’t know why, but as I drove from Seattle to Salem a few months back, I noticed a restaurant along the way with its name, Whimpie’s, emblazoned on a sign out front, and underneath the name a signboard displayed a series of three words. But the effect was in seeing them all together, the disjunction, when you read, “Whimpie’s: strong, proud, united.”

“Whimpy” and “strong, proud and united.” Those are things that are hard to hold together in the same frame.

Think on kings for a moment. Think on Pharaohs, on Ramses I, on Emperor Julius Caesar, on King Louis XIV, on King George III, on Henry VIII, on Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, on Catherine the Great, Czar Nicholas I, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, on Alexander the Great and the Emperor Napoleon. All that glitters may not be gold, but when we think of royalty, we think of unfettered power and gilded glory.

Then take another moment to think on a different cast of characters. Think on Corey Hamilton, Roy Pippin, Chris Newton, Kenneth Parr, Clifford Kimmel, Lonnie Johnson, John Hightower. These names, by the sound of them, could be a list of corporate CEOs, or outstanding athletes, or scholarship winners. But they are not. Few of us would have recognized that as a roster of a few of the 42 people executed by the end of September in the USA, 26 of them in Texas.

How little the one list has to do with the other, a role call of history’s well-known and celebrated alongside a roll-call of the despised and forgotten. A Sunday set aside to honor Christ the king sends me into this sort of reflection on incongruities and unlikelihoods.

What does it mean to worship a king who rules from atop a cross, a sovereign whose realm is substantiated by his own execution, whose courtiers are no more than two others who share the same crucified fate? John’s account of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion has it that Pilate directed the sign to be made to place over Jesus’ head, declaring him to be “king of the Jews.” All the gospels agree there was some such sign on the cross. It’s difficult to tell who would have been mocked more by this, the pathetic figure dying on the cross, or the Jews themselves, a people so enfeebled politically that their king might as well have been an executed criminal. Their hopes for empire were as good as dead, as much as the figure before them on the cross was only hours from from drawing his last breath.

There is so much to know about the theology of the cross of Christ, and also there is a great deal to be explored about the image of kingship in both Old and New Testaments, but this day on the church’s calendar brings together both cross and crown in a way that makes it difficult to ignore either one, and yet they seem so impossible to hold together in the same thought. A crucified king. A crowned enemy of the state. An executed monarch who reigns.

Sending a king who rules through his own death and resurrection, God makes an important statement to the world about power, who has it and to what ends and by what means it is exercised. This is the foundational stuff of our faith. Clearly, if the crucified Jesus is a king, he rules over some other kind of kingdom than the sort to which we are most accustomed. If the world is ever to understand Jesus as king, it cannot do so without also holding up, together with his royal image, the image of the crucified one. He is crowned, but with thorns. He is enthroned, but on a cross. He gazes down on his subjects, but from the very instrument of his execution. The crucified king. He is both, always.

A close friend of mine said of the executed Messiah, “He never lost sight of who he was.” Meantime, we have such difficulty holding together these two aspects of Jesus, the crucified Messiah. It is the crux of his royalty: power and powerlessness wrapped up in one person.

It is Jesus, the supreme authority who questions authority. Scripture suggests that while we should obey those in authority, we also ought not take them too seriously. One student of these things reminded his readers that Jesus told his followers to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but he never spelled out exactly what belonged to Caesar (Matthew 22:21). Paul said we should obey political authorities because their authority derives from God (Romans 13:1-6). But neither Jesus nor Paul hesitated to act on their faith in ways that were bound to draw the displeasure of the authorities.1

William Wilberforce is a name too little known in contemporary times, yet his work of almost two centuries ago changed the world forever. In the mid 18th century, he was a young, wealthy, wild, carefree English aristocrat. Then he found himself at a Wesleyan revival meeting where he set all that aside and decided to exercise his faith by entering ... politics. That’s right, politics. When he felt the call of God, this wealthy young man felt it drawing him into the world of government. He was elected to Parliament and for 40 years he was England’s leading crusader against slavery. In 1787, when he began his crusade, European slave ships carried 100,000 newly captured slaves to the Americas each year. England led the way, carrying half of this number. The British economy had prospered and, some would say, grown dependent on this trade. There were those, like our own Thomas Jefferson, who lamented the “peculiar institution,” but who never lifted a finger to stop it. Jefferson died without freeing his slaves, and Washington freed his only upon his death.

Wilberforce knew this trade was a sin against God. He and his allies prayed three hours a day over the many obstacles in their way. Though his opponents insisted that abolition of the slave trade would ruin the British economy, he insisted that righteousness is more important than money. After 20 years, the British abolished the slave trade in 1807. In 1833, the very year Wilberforce died, the Parliament abolished slavery altogether, the culmination of the work of a lifetime, of a person now largely forgotten, but with implications that continue to stretch from his time to our own. Eventually, over time, the rest of the world followed his example so that today slavery is an almost universally despised institution, though it most certainly still exists in several forms in the modern world.

William Wilberforce was able to accomplish this because he believed in the crucified King, that Jesus is Lord of politics as well as of our hearts.

The words Jesus spoke from his cross of death are the most startling incongruity of all. Looking to his side, where one of the thieves crucified with him had asked simply to be remembered in his kingdom — “What kingdom?” the bystanders must have wanted to ask of this pathetic man whose near-death delirium was clearly causing hallucinations — to him Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” One writer said the guards themselves might “have felt something like embarrassment and turned away from the sheer lunacy of the scene.”2 Yet today it is Christ we remember as king, not Herod, not Caesar, not Napoleon.

Jesus, the suffering one, Christ the king. How do we hold together these two seemingly contradictory thoughts? Paul wrote to the Colossians, “.. in him all things hold together.”3 The fact is, we don’t have to hold anything together. It is Christ who holds the world together, it is in his own person that crucifixion and majesty reside. We cannot alter it either through better understanding of it or worse. It is so because it is who he is.

Christ the King Sunday always turns up on the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, a week before we begin to consider Jesus’ advent, his birth and then his ministry in the world. It is an important reminder as we think about entering the season of the Bethlehem baby that he would come one day to rule, not from a throne, but from a cross.

What do we give to such a king who suffers for our sakes? How do we honor him? We can offer him something only when we offer someone else something, a cup of cold water to “one of the least,” perhaps; a life committed to leaving the world better for Christ’s sake, as did William Wilberforce; a commitment to maintaining a state and country in which the freedom of all places obligations on the liberty of each.

All hail Jesus, the crucified King who reigns forever!
1 William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World, InterVarsity Press.
2 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, Seabury Press, 1969, p. 63.
3 Colossians 1:17.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Welcome to the Hotel California

Welcome to the Hotel California

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Isaiah 65:17-25 November 18, 2007

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

The title for this sermon comes from a song by the band called the Eagles from a couple of decades ago. The song’s title line is set in a rather persistent melody and tends to stay in your head, which is probably why it has stayed in mine if not yours. If you are not familiar with the song, just take my word for it, no need to rush out and buy it. The refrain declares:

“Welcome to the Hotel California.”

And then in the final line from the song, a line that tends to stay with you:

“ can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

This song came to my mind when I began thinking about the context of the first recipients of the hope-filled message of Isaiah in the reading we shared today. In the beginning of the chapter from which we read, God declared,

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.

Apparently, the folks in Israel had become accustomed to God’s absence. At least they had become accustomed to thinking of God as absent. I remember playing hide and seek when I was a youngster, the sort of memory that many of you will likely share. There was always the danger of hiding yourself away too well, of being ready to be sought out by those who do not seek, of finally needing to cry out, “Here I am!” to those who had either accidentally or purposefully overlooked us. Perhaps that is the way God felt about his chosen people.

The end of Isaiah’s prophecy addresses a people in the thrall of futility and depression. They had been to Babylon in its heyday. They knew what a major empire looked like. Now they were home again, and their capital city looked more like an abandoned rock quarry than the seat of empire.

Yet like the losing coach on the sideline, who alone among the heavy shouldered figures on the field knows that there will be a better day in the future, Isaiah’s prophecy declared that it is precisely in the midst of spiritual depression and futility that people of faith must remain faithful. Judah had been characterized as a people who followed “their own devices,” serving as a law unto themselves. This sounds familiar to anyone in our own time who tries to establish community norms for behavior while the popular ethic of the day declares that individualism is the highest philosophical good and that no one can tell us what to do.

In 587 B.C., the people had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians and removed from Judah into Babylon, what is now Iraq. There they remained for more than a generation, the best and brightest of the chosen people walking the narrow byways of a Jewish ghetto in Babylon until, in 538 B.C., the Persians became the dominant empire in the Fertile Crescent and by edict of the Emperor Cyrus1, exiled peoples were all returned to their original homelands. For those 40 years in captivity, it must have seemed as if they had checked into the “Hotel California,” where you could “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

And though they had been eager to get back to the homeland their parents and grandparents had told them so much about, things didn’t change all that much from their Spartan living conditions in Babylon. They arrived back in the homeland their forebears had left 40 years before — having heard all those stories around the fires of a beautiful land, a fertile land, a glorious Temple — only to find the land a shambles, the Temple reduced to a pile of rocks, ruin everywhere they looked. A new Temple was slapped together, but it was a shabby structure when compared with the Temple of Solomon. Where were the cedar timbers? Where were the gold fittings? Gone, all gone. Then, after 40 or 50 years of struggle to make a new life in the old homeland, it must have seemed as if they had come to a place where you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

So, you have people trapped in an existence which is grueling at best, a future that looked like nothing but more of the same, a past which, as long as anyone alive could remember, was pretty much like the present they now knew. All that remained of the glory of God’s chosen people now were stories from their great grandparents, stories of other times when Israel was great. Their remembered stories of the beauties of Mount Zion, now seen with their own eyes, seemed a fairy tale.

Then came Isaiah with his lofty and extravagant vision of a whole creation made new, an end to tears, a new beginning. Did they think he was crazy? Apparently they did not, at least not ultimately, as they preserved his words for us to share today. It is seers like Isaiah who provide humanity with a view of what can be when humanity’s vision has become limited and earth-bound. When we are overwhelmed with the feeling that things are not the way they are supposed to be, Isaiah tells us of the way things will be in the kingdom of a God who never forgets that he loves his people.

How would that look in our present world? One scholar said that if we tried on as fantastic a vision for our times as Isaiah presented to his we would find “nations and races in this brave new world would treasure differences in other nations and races as attractive, important, complementary...Government officials would still take office...but, to nobody’s surprise, they would tell the truth and freely praise the virtues of other public officials. Public telephone books would be left intact. Highway overpasses would be graffiti-free...motorists would be serene on city streets, secure in the knowledge that...former gang members are now all in law school...Business associates would rejoice in each others’ promotions...Newspapers would be filled with well-written accounts of acts of great moral beauty.”2

If any of this makes us smile knowingly, recognizing as we do that this is the stuff of dreams, not reality, then we are likely in company with those who first received this prophecy from Isaiah.

But how is it that we know when things are wrong in our world? How do we know for sure that it is not right to abuse one another, to live for self only, to pocket the public’s money? We only know these things to be wrong not because there is a perfect nation or state somewhere to which we compare our own faulty one, but because we know together an ideal, a vision of the way things are supposed to be. No matter how the world is, all of us carry inside us a dream or a picture of the way things should be. We may like to play the cynic sometimes, but we only know ourselves to be cynical in those moments because we have a feel for the truth of the world that God intended to bring into being.

As I look at Isaiah’s vision for the world I recognize that I am struck by the total newness of it. It opens with God’s declaration, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth...” and concludes with a line about “the serpent—its food shall be dust.”3 To speak of a new heaven and earth is to speak of a new creation and the suffering that followed upon the very first act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. It is to peel back the history of humanity’s suffering through its sins, beyond the wrong-doing of the present generation, or even Isaiah’s generation, back to “the original point of rupture between God and his people.”4 For the former things to be put away for good, God must begin again. As another song of the late 70’s put it, “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Problem is, we can’t get back there ourselves. To do that, we need an act of God.

Don’t let go of that vision because it is God’s business to bring it to pass instead of ours. Cherish it. It is not false or wrong simply because it has not yet come fully to fruition, any more than the inventions coming in this 21st century are false or wrong because we have not invented them yet. They are out there. They will be discovered.

Remember the verse from the beginning of Isaiah with which we began this sermon?

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.

In light of that, one promise in Isaiah’s vision stands out more than all the rest:

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.

This is the gift that a community of faith has to offer the world. The gift of hope, hope grounded in a God who is bigger than our most profound perceptions of him yet who is so ready to respond to us that his answer precedes our asking. The community of faith — as it celebrates its baptism into the kingdom of God — gives to the world a vision of God’s coming purpose for creation in which wolves and lambs will feed together, where harm and destruction will no longer characterize our existence. That such a day is coming is our confession, and the vision of it rules our actions and our lives in the time in between that day and this.


1. Whom the Lord names as “my anointed” in Isaiah 45:1.
2. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Not the Way It’s S’pposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” Theology Today, July, 1993, p. 183
3. Genesis 3:14.
4. New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, Abingdon, 2001, p. 544.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Working for Peanuts

“Working for Peanuts”
© Copyright 2007, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
II Thessalonians 3:6-13
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 11, 2007

When Paul began detailing the ways in which some of the folks in that early church in the city of Thessalonica were not pulling their weight, I can imagine that many in that little fellowship cringed to hear the truth-telling, no matter how true it was. “For we hear, ” Paul wrote in his letter, which was surely read in the middle of the gathering of that little church, since New Testament letters were designed to edify the whole church, and few could read them on their own anyway, “that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”

True as such things may be, we often create elaborate ways to avoid such truth, especially in church, because to face it means to have to do something about it. A study of any dysfunctional family will turn up many methods by which all the family members carry on their elaborate charades to avoid confrontation with truth. But not the apostle, not Paul. His hard words of truth remind me of a short modern parable I read several years ago, entitled, “The Day Rev. Henderson Bumped His Head.” [by William Willimon, in Leadership, Spring, 1998, pp. 39-41.] I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts with you:
Leaning down toward the bottom shelf to retrieve his trusty Strong’s Concordance to pursue “new moon” through both testaments, the Reverend Henry Henderson, pastor of Sword of Truth Presbyterian Church, bumped his head,

“Darn,” he exclaimed, grabbing his forehead.

This he followed immediately with [a stronger expletive] which was muttered with atypical candor. The rather non-ministerial ejaculation surprised Henderson. He could hardly believe he said it. [Then] he heard himself say [it] again. “This hurts.”

That, so far as the Reverend Henderson could tell, was how it all began—an accidental blow to the brain while reaching for a concordance.

Moments later, the phone rang.

“Pastor,” whined a nasal voice at the other end, “are you busy?”

“Not at all...” said Henderson out of habit. Then, from nowhere Henderson said, “I’m sitting here in my study just dying for someone like you to call and make my day! No, I am busy. I was working on my sermon for next Sunday. What is it?”

His words paralyzed him. They must also have stunned the whiny voice at the other end of the line, for there was a long, awkward silence followed by “Er, well, I’ll call you at home tonight after work, Pastor.”

“No,” said Henderson firmly, alien words forming in his mouth as if not by his own devising, “call me during office hours on any day other than Friday. Thank you. Good-bye.”

The receiver dropped from his hand and into the telephone cradle. He felt odd. Yes, quite odd. His head no longer throbbed. Yet he felt odd.

Emerging from his study, he encountered Jane Smith, come to church for her usual Friday duties for the altar guild. “As usual, just me,” she said to Henderson. “They all say they’ll be on the guild, that they don’t mind helping out the church. Yet, when it comes time for the work, where are they?”

“I think you know very well why they are not here,” said Henderson. “You gave them only a half-hearted invitation. Everyone knows you love playing the martyr. Their absence helps bolster your holier-than-thou attitude.”

Smith nearly dropped the offering plate she was holding, along with the polishing cloth and the Brasso™.

“Pastor! How dare you accuse me of being a complainer! You know how hard I’ve worked to get the altar guild going! If you gave us volunteers the kind of support we ought to...”
Henderson wasn’t listening. He staggered down the hall as Jane Smith continued her complaint. He was feeling dizzy, unsteady...

...He was a pastor in peril.

Henderson at the hospital that afternoon, Room 344: “So the doctor tells you your heart problems are congenital? That so? Are you sure the doctor didn’t mention anything about (by my reckoning) eighty pounds of excess fat?”

And in Room 204: “Really? So this is the strain of emphysema that is not caused by smoking? Give me a break! Two packs a day for thirty years, and you wonder why you’re sucking on an oxygen tank for dear life?”...

...That fateful Sunday service, after a pastoral prayer in which Henderson admitted to God that “Most of us didn’t really want to hear anything truthful you have to reveal to us,” an emergency meeting of the Pastor/Parish Committee was called...

You can probably fill in the end of the story.

It was Flannery O’Conner, I think, who once reworded a familiar Bible phrase by adding a new twist, saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Paul never needed a blow to the head to inspire him to declare what was true, but I am certain that more than once his unwillingness to soften the truth of the gospel must have made him a bit odd to those on the receiving end of truth they had made a practice of hiding. I can imagine there were a few sluggards in the Thessalonian congregation who dreaded to see an envelope arrive at the church with a return address bearing Paul’s name.

Their error wasn’t mere sloth, a simple laziness that afflicted some of the believers in Thessalonica. The fact is, there were some in that congregation who had decided that Jesus was going to return very shortly, so soon, in fact, that they determined that they might as well stop work. Why work when Jesus would soon be there to set everything right? By believing as they did, they became a burden on the others in their fellowship. Who was supposed to keep these blissful non-workers and their families from starving?

We may find this a bit quaint, even odd, but I have to say, we have not yet begun to hear the end of the end-of-the-world prophets who seem to find ever more fascination with people who declare the end or beginning of all manner of things is just around the next corner. Just remember, this is nothing new, and don’t quit your day job. Around 200 A.D., in a region in what is now northern Turkey, a church leader reported to his followers that he had dreams that the final judgment was coming at the end of the year. Many Christian believers in the area abandoned their fields and sold their personal possessions in anticipation of a day which did not come by the end of the year, indeed, which has not yet come. It has been happening ever since. Remember all the dire end-of world predictions before the dawn of the new century? Where are those prognosticators now? So-called spiritual leaders have been taking the gullible for a ride for centuries. Just remember Paul’s word: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you...but with toil and labor we worked night and day...”

This is not to say that such a “Day of the Lord” is never coming. The Bible seems clearly to suggest that it is. It is to say that we have plenty of word from that same Bible about what we should be doing in anticipation, and none of it suggests we should simply stop doing the good work of God and sit by the side of the road to wait for the end. Paul said, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

It is a truth, even though it is one that may be hard to hear. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul said, “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” This goes for the righteous, industrious ones who do more than their share as well as the idle ones who do little, if anything. The hard workers must not take the example of the slothful as their excuse to despair in their task, and the slothful ones must not be left to their sin, as if it doesn’t matter.

This passage seems like an appropriate reminder of the nobility of work, of committing ourselves to doing some small, useful work, even though we know that other great things may be underway in the world.

In his one of his Bible commentaries , 16th century reformer John Calvin said, “In vain do persons who are delighted with an easy, indolent life, and with exemption from the cross, undertake a profession of Christianity.” He went on: “The true self-denial which the Lord demands...does not consist so much in outward conduct as in the affections; so that every one must employ the time which is passing over him without allowing the objects which he directs by his hand to hold a place in his heart.”

Whether we work for peanuts or for millions, scripture is clear in its declaration that we are to work for the betterment of all until that time when the Best of all comes, lays our work aside, and says, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Scandal in the Suburbs

Here is an item from Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac"

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Poem: "A Scandal in the Suburbs" by X.J. Kennedy, from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955–2007. © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

A Scandal in the Suburbs

We had to have him put away,
For what if he'd grown vicious?
To play faith healer, give away
Stale bread and stinking fishes!
His soapbox preaching set the tongues
Of all the neighbors going.
Odd stuff: how lilies never spin
And birds don't bother sowing.
Why, bums were coming to the door—
His pockets had no bottom—
And then-the foot-wash from that whore!
We signed. They came and got him.

Hope, Riches, Greatness, and Other All-American Values

Hope, Riches, Greatness,
and Other All-American Values

Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Thirty—first Sunday in Ordinary Time: November 4, 2007

Ephesians 1:11—23

As remainders and waistline reminders of the candy stash of last week linger in homes and offices, today, as some of us may be all too prone to forget, is not “the Sunday after Halloween.” Oh, of course, it is that, but in terms of the church calendar, that is not the name of the day. Halloween began its life as a sort of tag—along holiday, the eve — the “een” in Halloween is a shortened form of “even” or “evening.” Just as Christmas Eve derives its importance only from being the evening before the actual holy day, Christmas, “All Hallow’s Even” simply preceded the day the church considered important, a day which for centuries has been important across all cultures as a sort of ecclesiastical Memorial Day: All Saints Day. It was a day to remember the saints of God who have carried the gospel from the first century to this one, from one generation to the next to the next and to the next until it has reached our own ears, now virtually lost in the culture amid the clutter of costumes and candy, spooks and goblins.

Presbyterians — like many of the other children of the Reformation — don't know exactly what to do with a holy day like All Saints. For one thing, like Christmas, it stays on the same day every year, November 1st, and we only find ourselves in church for that day every six or seven years. Not many of us were here last Thursday to celebrate All Saints. Additionally, we don't really recognize saints in the sense that our Roman Catholic friends do. We may talk about Saint Matthew or Saint Frances or Saint Nicholas, but we don't canonize a few especially holy people as official saints of the church and name holidays after them. Of course, through time, not even all saints named by the Roman church have become household names. A few are quite obscure and some for good reason. For instance, how many recall

  • Saint Brigid (c. 450—525), who was said to have hung her wet laundry on sunbeams, taught a fox to dance, and — perhaps as patron saint of micro-breweries — changed her dirty bath water into beer so that visiting clergymen would have something to drink;
  • Two saints who were in the running for patron saint of incandescence, Saint Fillian (8th century) whose left arm was said to have glowed so brightly he could read from it at night; and Saint Martin de Porres (1579—1639) who was said to glow in the dark when he prayed;
  • And then there was one who must have become the patron saint of veterinarians, Saint Eligius (c. 590 — c. 660) who tried to nail a horseshoe on the hoof of a restless horse, but the animal was so fidgety that he had to saw off its leg to do it. He reattached the leg afterwards by making the sign of the cross over it.

Given the discomfort that egalitarian Protestants have with the idea of saints, it might be surprising to discover that many carry around questions about the topic nonetheless. I have been asked many times through the years concerning what we are supposed to think about saints. I have come up with a definition for the saints of God that satisfies me. Before I share it with you, we'll need to walk through a bit of language to see what the word “saint” was actually meant to represent.

Saintliness is a real life issue in the Bible, where Paul said,

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers...” and, “...with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints...”

In Ephesians, the word we translate as “saint” is agious which in its shortest definition means simply “holy.” And holiness in both Old and New Testaments has to do with being set apart. God is holy to us because, among other reasons, God is not like us, God is different, something other than just another human being. God is set apart from us the way a painter is not a part of his painting or a sculptor a part of her sculpture. The sacrifices in the temple were said to be holy because they were set apart from their common use — that is, as food — and dedicated for use as a means of worshiping God.

So what is it that can be said to make people holy, “sainted?” We can follow the lead provided by the phrase, “holy sacrifice.” In the Old Testament, an animal offered in the temple as a sacrifice may not have been flawless, but it was to be the best that its owner could possibly find and afford, and it was to be offered up in its entirety. Following that line of thinking, when our lives are offered up in service to others, it has a sanctifying — and “holy—making” — effect on us, and more importantly, on the world around us.

Saints — and here comes my definition — the word “saints” may signify nothing more complicated than those who are exceptionally willing to set their lives aside for others. Their lives are made holy because they have set them apart, holy sacrifices that move from concern with self to concern with others.

Isn't that what lies at the heart of saintliness in our own life's experiences? Who is a saint you most remember for having had a positive impact on your life? If you are thinking of a person right now, as I am, isn't it true that one of the reasons they are holy to you is that they were set aside for you, that they had a willingness in your own experience to set their life aside for you?

Every church has them, but they don't have a holiday in their honor, most of them, nor would they seek one. This church is blessed with saints aplenty, I have been observing them going about their sainted work every day since I arrived here.

In my former congregation, a member of the church forwarded an e-mail to me which she had received from her college daughter, who, through her college, was engaged in an international experience in India. While both she and her family would reject any connection with saintliness — a bona fide characteristic of all true saints — I believe the e-mail gave evidence of a saint in the making in the New Testament sense of setting self aside for others. Here is what she wrote to her mother and father:

Hey guys! [OK, she takes a minute to warm up the saintly language...] Wow, what a day. I'm in India right now...

...Well I just got back from Mother Theresa’s Orphanage and it was such an amazing experience. I’m not so good with words and don't really know how to describe it. We walked from the YMCA to the place and the streets we walked through were really what I imagined India to be like: dirty, overpopulated, many different unpleasant smells and poor families living on the side of the road under plastic tarps. But when we got to Mother Theresa's place it seemed surprisingly secluded and clean. We got a tour and found out that many people lived there: abandoned children, elderly men and women and aids patients. Each had different wards. The people were super friendly and eagerly shook our hands and put their hands together in the Hindu prayer position.

We got into the children’s ward and were told that we could do whatever we wanted so most of us just played with the kids. They were kids around the ages of 3 to 8 or so. I immediately noticed a little boy around the age of 4. His face was extremely deformed and I had a hard time looking at him without disgust. He had eyes but he was blind. His forehead caved in, and nose and lips very screwed up. They were being fed lunch and no one was helping him so I started feeding him. At first I thought I’d just be nice and feed him for awhile. I ended up sitting with him for over an hour. It was such an amazing experience....some of these kids just need love and attention. I was hesitant at first about touching him and I can’t believe how shallow that was. So I tried to grab his hand. He didn’t seem to like it at first. I wonder if he really had ever been touched before. After a few attempts to just let me hold his hand I started stroking his little hand while I fed him mouthfuls of the yellow mush. After a while he started reciprocating the stroking into my hand. By that time I had started crying. What a lifelong memory this will be. A little later while his hand was still in mine and I was still feeding him tears started running down his cheeks. He had such a hard time crying because of his eyes’ deformity but managed a few tears. Then he had a big smile on his face. He had been so non-expressive before. I'm sorry I'm not very good at describing this situation but I feel like this was such a powerful experience, I don't know how it will change me. I’m so glad I'm on [this program] so I can have similar experiences to this. There's so much to see in this world...

Well I hope this wasn’t too sappy. I love you guys and hope you're well. As usual (and I know I write this in every letter) thanks for your support of me as I’m on this program. It’s so amazing here. I love you!

Well, no, it wasn't too sappy, if anything it was brutally straightforward. Apparently, opportunities for elevation to sainthood — for setting self aside in favor of taking up the need of others — exist everywhere: on street corners, in offices, behind the front doors of our neighbors' homes, in care centers and hospitals, at community food bank facilities, at the market, in elementary and secondary schools, in the college dorm... I would say that there is hardly a direction one could look without finding some opportunity for the fast track to sainthood. It just might not be the sort of privileged position we might have had in mind.

But it is the means by which we can discover that we have received the hope, riches and glory of which Paul spoke when he wrote to the Ephesians all those centuries ago.