Sunday, June 17, 2012

Beside Ourselves for God

Beside Ourselves for God

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
2 Corinthians 5:6-21
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time: June 17, 2012

The sermon has two parts, matching two themes in this reading from 2nd Corinthians. The first part has to do with craziness, the second, with reconciliation. Our job is to find out how these two go together.
Part 1: Craziness
Paul said, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God.” Now what do you suppose is going on there in that sentence? I know that phrase, to be beside oneself, and I think you do too. We use it in common, everyday story-telling with each other. “My daughter didn’t come in ‘till 2:30 in the morning. I was beside myself with worry!” The dictionary says that to be “beside oneself” is to be “in a state of extreme excitement.” I think I would add more than that. It can mean exceptionally worried, or exceptionally happy, or exceptionally frantic. In any case, the sense of it is to be at the top of our emotional spectrum. One notch higher and we would be in orbit. It is to be in a superlative state of our emotional lives, whether high or low.
Another way of looking at it is to say that it means to be a little crazy, a little unlike our normal selves, to be “beside” the self that we usually are. One other place where this same Greek word is used in the New Testament is in Mark 3, where the family of Jesus, worried about his newly launched ministry, “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”[1] Clearly, this is serious business.
Do Christians appear to the world to be a little crazy? Paul was enthusiastic for his faith. I can imagine that sometimes when he preached he got carried away, that he pounded the pulpit a bit, if he had a pulpit. And in Greek society, this would have appeared a bit out-of-control, like almost any professional basketball player when the referee calls a foul on him when he was twenty feet from the ball, minding his own business. They get a little beside themselves, don’t they? They act a little out of the normal, may storm around for a while, may have a technical foul called on them, may even be thrown out of the game. But if they were that way every day, all the time, we would say they were just plain crazy, not a little “beside themselves.”
So Paul said, “if we are beside ourselves, it is for God.”
We might say, “I am so enthusiastic for the work of the Lord, so worked up over the need to get the message about Jesus out to the world, sometimes to the outside world, it appears I am beside myself. But it is all for God.” Paul knew that it sometimes might appear just a step beyond sanity. He went on to say, “…if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”
Why did Paul get so worked up over his message? He said, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all.” That’s it, in a nutshell. Paul saw a whole world filled with people for whom Christ had died, yet who did not know him or the good news that this represented. Sure he was a little beside himself, he had a large job getting that saving word out to an entire world!
Which brings us to…
Part 2: Reconciliation
What was Jesus up to that got Paul so excited? Paul said, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself ... and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
God had a plan, it was brought into existence through the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and then God entrusted “the message of reconciliation to us.” Wow! The great big God who created the world and all that is in it has entrusted the most important message the world will ever hear to us: weak, fallible, ambiguous creatures.
The late John Baillie, theologian and leader of the World Council of Churches, once quoted this portion of our passage, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself,” and then went on to ask, “Would the people who see you daily and with whom you have the most to do, be able to guess, even if you had not told them, that you believed this?”
The dictionary definition of “reconciliation” is “the bringing together of two opposing parties or points of view.” The truth of the matter, as Paul addresses it, is that since creation, God has remained the same. It is human beings who have taken up the opposing point of view. So it is we who must be brought back.[2] This effort has been entrusted to Christian believers. Do we live so that those who see us know we believe that “in Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself”?
The additional truth about God’s desire for reconciliation with us is inescapably true. We cannot be reconciled to God unless we are reconciled and at peace with those around us. We cannot paint the face of Jesus for an evil world, in either metaphor or in concrete deeds, unless we first have this spirit within us. That, more than any other reason, is why the Christian church, since its very foundation, has sent folks into mission beyond the comfort of the world they know. By our actions, we become living symbols of God’s reconciliation.
Part 3: Mission
I think I misled you about the number of parts to this sermon. Perhaps I was a little beside myself. It turns out there is a third part. It has to do with missionary efforts in which Christine and I have been involved in the past, but not only with that. It also has to do with the whole Christian missionary enterprise, in which we all participate, whether financially or through prayer, or by actual travel to places to carry out mission.
I once read an account about a woman who, several years ago, came to see the pastor of a large and influential congregation in New York City, to talk with him about a rally which her group was sponsoring in regard to a particular social justice issue. I don’t recall every detail of the story, but I remember that the conversation went something like this:
The woman wanted the pastor to be at the rally to lend his influence to her cause by his presence. He looked over his calendar and realized that he had a conflict, and so, as politely as possible, he declined. Not to be deterred, the woman accosted him with the sort of guilt-inducing conversation that people think should work especially well on pastors, of all people. She said, “How can you say you are a faithful pastor when you will not set some time aside to come and march with our group for a cause which you yourself have agreed is just?”
The pastor thought this over and, perhaps appearing beside himself for a moment, said to her, “Ma’am, have you made any efforts toward starting a hospital in Nigeria?”
Somewhat put-off by the unexpected, subject-changing question, she stammered, “Well, no, but...”
He went on, “And have you taken part or helped organize volunteers for the ready-to-read program in our near-by low-income elementary school?”
“Again, no, but...”
“And how about our denomination’s extensive efforts to eliminate hunger in parts of Asia, have you been taking part in that effort?”
“No, no I haven’t, but that is beside the point!...”
“Ma’am,” the pastor said, “that is precisely the point. You did not invent good causes. We both know no one can be present to support every good cause on earth. For my part, I can only do what I can do. I must choose. The rest I leave to God. No one of us, nor any single church, will ever solve all the problems of humanity. That is a job for God’s own timing according to God’s own plan. The way this will be done is quite beyond our imagining. But long before you were born, people of the Church of Jesus Christ were hard at work eliminating poverty, fighting disease, battling illiteracy, crusading against injustice. And the Church of Jesus Christ will continue in this way long after both of us are gone. So, no, I cannot come to your rally, but I wish you well, and I will pray for you, and I trust that God will bless it if it is meant to prosper by God’s hand.”
As Christine and I have contributed our own small part in mission efforts in Mexico and in Kenya over the years, we clearly realized that our efforts would not eliminate all the problems in those places. So the effort could appear, to cynical eyes, to be doomed from the start. What is the point? There will still be plenty of poverty, malnutrition, poor health and bad housing even after short-term missionary efforts are over.
But of course, the purpose of any mission is not just housing, or healthcare, or providing food, and never was. Otherwise, people would be correct in thinking we are a bit “beside ourselves” for going anywhere to do our little bit. The point moves beyond utilitarian do-goodism to the good word from God through Christ: As Paul declared, God reconciled himself to us through Christ, and has entrusted to us that message of reconciliation. We carry the word where we go and where we build that God loves people, and will stop at nothing to get that word communicated, even to the point of sending Jesus to die for us.
So, even as we prayed over our growing Churches in Partnership garden last Sunday, or as we celebrate the small efforts we can make to be of service to others here in Vancouver, or in places we may never see, we recall, as Paul said, that we are still ambassadors, allowing God to work God’s own message through us. I remember vividly a mission in which I was involved several years ago in Mexico, when a couple of men stopped their truck outside our worksite and spoke to me in 3/4 Spanish, 1/4 English to ask what we were doing. I told them, in the best Spanglish that I could muster, that we were building a house. One of them looked at me, looked at our crew of unskilled youth and adult volunteers, our complete lack of power tools. It didn’t add up in his mind, you could tell. He probably thought, borrowing Paul’s term, that we must be “beside ourselves” to think we could accomplish anything useful with our pitiful crew. “¿Por quĂ©? (Why?)” he asked. I said, simply, “Para el amor de Dios (for the love of God).” Then he nodded his head up and down. The reconciling word was something he understood, and they went on their way.
Beside ourselves for God. It’s a good place to be.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder

[1] Mark 3:21
[2] Thanks to Dr. Art Sundstrom’s sermon, “Speaking the Unutterable Word,” for ideas on reconciliation.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Looking At What You Can’t See

Looking At What You Can’t See

© copyright 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: June 10, 2012

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1               

One of my professors in seminary – long since gone to his full reward – used to say that every pastor should preach one sermon about the subject of death at least once a year. I have come to learn that since most pastors are involved in several funerals a year, we have more opportunities than that. Still, I think he was suggesting that it is important for us to reflect on death now and then when we are not gathered for a funeral but for a regular Sunday service on the Lord’s day. Our hearts may not be captured then by immediate sorrow and grief, but by a desire to gain fuller understanding. I have a vague memory of Garrison Keillor – on his Prairie Home Companion radio program – telling a story of a pastor who, at the end of funeral services, was given to saying, “And to whichever one of you is next, may God grant you safe journey and peace at the last.”

It’s a bit startling, that benediction, isn’t it? Even though we come face to face with death at funerals or memorial services, still it is someone else’s death with which we are face to face. The idea that one of us is next is a little unnerving. But true.

Ours today is one of those passages which we might just as soon wish we did not have to consider, with lines about the “wasting away,” the “momentary afflictions,” the destruction of our “earthly tent.” What disturbing images! There is no doubt that in this passage Paul was writing to people who were concerned about impending death – if not their own, then of others close to them – and the meaning that had for their lives of faith. We know how it was for them. The death of anyone close to us always calls to mind the deepest questions of doubt and faith.

How much more bluntly could Paul have put it? His words simply call to our attention what anyone who has observed the human scene will already know to be true: With age comes increasing disability until, in the end, our bodily tents collapse. Rather than telling us about some mythic Fountain of Youth – which we all know does not exist – Paul is here engaged is helping us learn to drink gracefully from the Fountain of Age. It is a considerable gift, one granted to us in any grace-filled death in which someone passes with blessing in their last breath or forgiveness on their lips for those who had may have wronged them, believing that a greater, better reality awaits them.

In his day, for people with first-hand experience of nomadic lifestyles, the contrasting images Paul used between tents and permanent houses was telling. Tents are, by their very nature, temporary. I am an old Boy Scout and I have had a long association with tents. I also remember living in a small tent for a week every summer, for several summers, during house-building mission trips in Mexico. My little tent folded up into a bag not quite the size of a briefcase. Not much substance there! That is the earthly reality about us, Paul says. Not much substance. Houses on the other hand, built on substantial foundations, are much more permanent, substantial, like the eternal dwelling God has in mind for us. Paul chose the metaphor of dwelling places to describe the plan and purpose God has for us beyond the life we know.

And he made some stunning declarations in this short passage :

The one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus. This is such a broad and encouraging promise! It is entirely possible to have thought that while God might well have wanted to raise Jesus to new life – Jesus, the perfect healer, teacher, and servant – it does not necessarily follow that God would want to do the same for us – imperfect healers, flawed teachers, too self-absorbed ever to be mistaken for perfect servants. And yet God does desire to raise us in Christ.

Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed. This requires a leap of faith for any who have had to stand by on the long watch that precedes the death of loved ones. While evidence for the wasting is plentiful – loss of abilities, loss of weight, loss of strength, even loss of mental function – we pray for evidence of the renewal that Paul says is under way. Not seeing any physical sign of that, we are reminded by the apostle that “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen.” We look to what is eternal rather than what is passing away. Paul suggests that this has more to do with what is true about us than all the physical evidence we can muster.

How do you suppose our inner nature is being renewed? By our efforts? Paul’s sentence doesn’t really read that way. It has a sort of present imperfect feeling, something is being done. By whom? The implication is that renewal is under way, and we are carried along by it as an act of the grace of God. This doesn’t preclude the contributions we make by our own efforts, but the good news is that it doesn’t seem to depend on what we do. Our inner renewal is more than a personal improvement project, it is part of the very plan and purpose of God. In the end, we can rest in that truth.

Remember when Yogi Berra – famous baseball player and manager who was almost as well know for such malapropisms as “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” as he was for his baseball skills – once said “You can observe a lot by watching”? I think of Yogi when I read Paul’s words about “looking at what you can’t see.” This apparent Yogi Berra-ism is a sort of oxymoron which Paul uses to explain that we hope in something beyond our limited perception, but not far beyond it. It is only just out of sight, just around the bend, near enough to be seen in the next instant for what it is. Someone once said that the distance traveled from the life we know to life eternal is not far, it is just around the corner, awaiting us just over there. All this contributes to our sense of peace that God will be as fully in control of our destiny there as he was when we were first brought into this miracle of physical existence. It is important that we not lose sight of this, that we continue to “look at what cannot be seen.”

I once read about a small village in northern Italy where the residents of the community built a series of chapels ascending up a hillside. With life-size terra-cotta figures, each chapel depicts one of the scenes of Jesus’ passion. If you have visited an abbey at places like Mount Angel and elsewhere, probably you will have noticed a similar series of tiny chapels ascending the hill along the path toward the abbey: Jesus before Pilate, Jesus shouldering the cross, and so on as you proceed up the hill. Near the top of the hill above that Italian village is a chapel depicting the crucifixion. To this point the path linking the chapels is well worn. Many pilgrims have come in pilgrimage during Lent to remember Jesus’ suffering and death.

An observant visitor to those chapels would notice, though, that the path does not end at the chapel of the crucifixion, it continues up the hillside toward the summit, though one cannot see the summit from there. Beyond the chapel of the crucifixion the path is almost overgrown with grass and weeds. There have not been many visitors to the top of that hill. The curious will discover, though, that at the summit there is another chapel, depicting the resurrection. Those who built the chapels did not forget that Jesus was raised from the tomb. But most of the pilgrims, like the authors of the 1970s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, come to pay homage to the Jesus of the crucifixion, heading back down the hill without looking further upward at what cannot be seen, the eternal weight of glory in the resurrection of Jesus. Like much of our culture, it is easier for them to accept death than to contemplate the day-by-day renewal of our “inner nature.”

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians wrote:

“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins....If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[1]

Paul saw clearly what we all know to be true if we only stop to think about it. We are a fellowship of the resurrection. It is because of the resurrection that we gather on a Sunday sabbath – rather than observing the Saturday sabbath of our Jewish forebears. It is because of resurrection that 12 frightened apostles set out to win a world for Christ, until, by this day, one third of the people of the world claim the name of Christ. More than anything else that is true about us, we are a people, a fellowship, of the resurrection. It is the central promise around which we gather. For those who press on to the chapel at the top of the hill, through the wasting away of our outer nature, the destruction of the earthly tent, there is more than hope awaiting us. There is renewal of our inner nature. There is resurrection.

© copyright 2012, Robert J. Elder

[1] I Corinthians 15:17, 19.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Abba: It Wasn’t Just the Name of a Band

Abba: It Wasn’t Just the Name of a Band

Romans 8:12-17

First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012

When we cry, “Abba! Father!”

I am pretty sure I am showing my age when I come up with a title like the one for today’s sermon; that is, until I opened the New York Times not long ago and read an article titled, “While in Surgery, Do You Prefer ABBA or Verdi?”[1] Not that it’s all that pertinent to today’s message, but the article discussed the differing musical tastes of physicians populating operating theaters. For those among us who don’t connect the name ABBA with music, they were a Scandinavian band whose disco-style music was on the pop charts for an impressive 10 years from 1972-1982. They have been called the most popular musical group ever to come from Scandinavia, though I have to say, I don’t think there’s a crowded roster of contenders, no offense intended.

Now, if you still can’t recall who ABBA was or what their music sounded like, that could well be an advantage in understanding today’s scripture without getting distracted. I recall struggling through Bible studies and cofirmation classes with young people in the churches I served during the years of ABBA’s popularity. In those days, when we came to this word abba that both Paul and Jesus used for our Heavenly Father, the discussion inevitably would take a wrong-turn and there was no rescuing it from animated conversation about this or that song from what was then a popular band.

So, I want you to know, if the word abba in Paul’s letter to the Romans distracts you with thoughts of a glittering disco dance floor, please remember that the name of the band was simply made up of the first letters of the first names of each of the four people in the band. Paul’s use of abba refers to an Aramaic word that Jesus employed when speaking of God. It was also a word that Jewish children would have used to address their fathers in a familial way, it could as well be translated “Daddy” as “Father.”

When someone says to us, “We plan to treat you just like family,” would we be likely to respond, “Fine, do you mind if we drop by your attorney’s office in the morning to make sure that your estate planning has provision for me along with the rest of the family members”? Not likely! When someone wants us to make ourselves at home, it’s just a figure of speech, a manner of telling us they want us to be comfortable, to relax. There is little chance that they literally hope to adopt us into their family, to make us heirs along with their own children.

At the beginning of today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul called us brothers and sisters, which, after all these centuries, seems a natural enough way for church members to refer to each other. I remember a funeral director in Port Arthur, Texas who always referred to me as “Brother Elder,” as in, “Let’s have Brother Elder stand over here by the flowers.” And he wasn’t even a standard issue Southern Baptist, but a Lutheran, albeit a Texas Lutheran. “Brothers and sisters in Christ,” seems a gentle enough way to refer to those who are related to each other through their common church affiliation.

Even so, Paul was just getting warmed up with the family metaphor when he began by addressing us a siblings. He goes on to say that all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. I recall many Sundays throughout the course of my ministry when I have held a child up before the congregation, saying, “See how God loves us, that we should be called ‘children of God.’” It is a powerful claim to make, that we are the very children of our creator. I remember one little tike I baptized over 25 years ago who grew to 6’7”, and played collegiate basketball. I would definitely need help holding him up in front of a congregation today, but he is no less a child of God for that!

Logically enough, this idea that we are God’s children leads Paul to the affirmation that if we are brothers and sisters, and children of God in the Spirit, then God is our abba, the old Aramaic word for “Daddy.” He tosses in the word, “adoption,” and then reasons that those who have been claimed as adopted sons or daughters can lay claim to the status of heirs. This means that somehow we have been entitled to an inheritance, since that is what being an heir is all about.

Finally, comes the crowning declaration of this escalating use of familial language: “and if [we are] children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

This, then, caps the passage. Christ, whom we declare to be the only son of God, has effected our adoption so that we stand not under him, or near him, or slightly behind him on faith’s family tree, but right alongside, joint heirs, truly brothers and sisters not only with each other but with Jesus. Amazing! Christ has gone beyond our most fabulous experiences of human hospitality, treating us as family, as heirs on a par with those who are verifiable members of the family. Now there is someone who treats us like members of the family!

Now, to back up a bit, what do you suppose Paul meant when he said we are children of God as we are led “by the Spirit of God”? How are we made into a family, exactly? This is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar, which is the traditional day for preachers to try to help their congregations make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s assuming preachers have made sense of it for themselves, which might be a pretty big assumption for some of us!

Probably, most Christians are happy to talk about God having redeemed us through Jesus Christ and leave it at that. But Paul claims that the work of the Spirit brings us into the family of faith. God as Father, Son, Spirit, it gets confusing. Why can’t we just say God or Jesus and leave it at that?  I recall the memorable words of one theologian on this complicated matter of the Trinity: “We need to respond to God as [God has chosen to be revealed] – not invent simple ideas of God which, although much easier to believe, do not actually correspond to God.”[2]

It may be easier to believe in a God “up there,” and leave it at that. But if we do that for very long, while we may wind up with something religious-sounding, it certainly won’t be Christianity. The most basic of Christian affirmations is that God became human, became a person named Jesus, lived among us, and after he was crucified and raised from death, his followers continued to sense the presence and ministry of God among them. A God who is “up there,” beyond space and time cannot know us or become self-disclosing. We certainly cannot be said to be the children of such a God in any way. This would be a God who created but cannot redeem, bearing no resemblance to “the God who [is made] known to us through scripture, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through Christian experience [in the continuing presence of the Spirit] – in short, [no resemblance] to the God of ordinary Christian piety and simple faith!”[3]

When we talk about God, who are we actually talking about? The God about whom we share, week after week in this church, is the God who created the world we know, the God who claimed a people who came to know themselves as Israel, a God who helped to rescue them from enslavement in Egypt, who moved with them to a land of promise amid signs and wonders, a God who accompanied these people when they went into terrible and painful exile in Babylon, who inspired prophets to map the course of return to covenant faithfulness for them, a God whose messenger angel visited young Mary one night with the news that she was to give birth to a son, to name him Joshua – or Jesus, which meant “God saves,” because that is what Jesus would do. It is the God who then raised this Jesus from death when he was murdered. And announced the purpose in doing so, for “God so loved the world that God sent the only son...”[4] This same God has raised up in each generation new believers to carry the good news of the gospel, and in the process, lives have been changed, hospitals built, universities established, missions carried out, all in the name of the God about whom we speak.

Now, when we talk about God, who are we talking about? When we say, “God,” hasn’t it become a shorthand way of saying all that we believe God has done for and among us? For Christians, isn’t the word “God” shorthand for “the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,”[5] and made preachers out of fishermen at Pentecost, but including all the rest, from “the one who brought Israel out of Egypt,” down to “the one who gives us strength to hope in life after death, even after we have watched death take away the ones we love”?

When we say we believe in God the Abba, Son, and Holy Spirit, it is a shorthand way of summarizing the high points of salvation history, of God’s dealings with his people, of God’s mad lover’s quest for us.

·    If God were just a deity in heaven, we might be likely to think of God as a distant and far-removed creator of the world, like a general directing the front-line troops from the safety of a far-off bomb-proof bunker. But Christians know God isn’t like that. Christians believe in a God who is involved in our lives.
·    If God were just a “son,” a man namded Jesus, we would have to think of God as identical with a single human being. We would have to think of the eternal God as concentrated in a single person, like a billion gallons in a one quart jar. But Christians know that God just isn’t like that. Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he prayed. The New Testament is most careful to insist upon a distinction between the Abba God and the Son.
·    If God were just “Spirit,” we would have to think of God as contained in our own experiences of the world. The Spirit inspires us, but beyond our own experience of the Spirit, and that of others we know or know of, we can’t say we know. To believe in a God beyond our own experience of him, we must believe in a creator, in God the Abba. And so, we cycle back to the beginning of the Trinity.

Paul has affirmed that it is the Spirit of God that moves us to become fellow heirs with Christ. All three persons of the Trinity in one passage, at work in making us members of the family of faith, children of the God who created us. Understand the Trinity? We may never fully understand it, but then most families don’t fully understand each other. They just live together in love. As Augustine once wrote, “Wherever there is love there is a Trinity: a love, a beloved, and a spirit of love.”

Dear brothers and sisters, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We’re all children of God. Welcome home!

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “While in Surgery, Do You Prefer Abba or Verdi?”, by Daniel Wakin, The New York Times, June 10, 2006.

[2]  “Making Sense of the Trinity,”  by Alister McGrath, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 2/91, p. 2.
[3] Ibid.
[4] John 3:16.
[5] Romans 4:24.