Sunday, July 22, 2012

If He Is Here, They Will Come

If He Is Here, They Will Come
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 22, 2012

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56            

And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
Some of us likely will remember the Kevin Costner film of 20-some years ago: Field of Dreams. One key line in that movie, which became one of those cultural bywords that stayed around for quite awhile, was, “If you build it, they will come.” I can tell you that far too many businesses as well as churches have learned the error of that thinking, that people will come just because there is a nice facility. In the end, it’s the hearts that live inside the people in a building that attract or repel others.
Mark tells us that “they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” But not for long. Every pastor can tell stories of dinners interrupted, conversations stopped short, attempts to dash home for a quick dinner frustrated by the insistent demands of people who come to the church looking for the help they think Jesus is going to make available to them. And if they spot you before they run into Jesus, well, that’s just how it goes.
I remember once reading about a pastor who “resigned from a suburban parish where relentless demands on his time and energy were beginning to wear him down. He left to become a missionary, on the coast of Maine, of all places. In his new position he visited small clusters of Christians in remote locations. He reported that in many ways his ministry was the same as it always had been: he preached, taught, visited the sick. But there was this difference: between ports of call he traveled long distances by boat. Between sermons he could listen to the wind. Before teaching another class he could study the horizon. After visiting the sick he was anointed with sea spray. Interspersed with his demanding pastoral duties he took a watery “road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”[1] I have heard from one pastor who takes a week every year to hike in the mountains alone. He asks his wife to save all the newspapers that have come during the week of his absence. Upon returning, he reads each newspaper. That way he can remind himself how readily the world and the people in it are able to continue on without him.
Mark declared that “…they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” Doesn’t that sound good? In Mark's Gospel, Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee so many times that it is difficult to discern the pattern and motive behind the itinerary. Difficult, that is, until the sixth chapter, when the reason for the crossings becomes clear: the disciples needed a break.[2] Following the teeming demands of ministry, the exhausted disciples were due for a retreat to charge their batteries. Sociologists sometimes call this “compassion fatigue.” Just prior to this, remember, “...many were coming and going, and (the disciples) had no leisure even to eat.” Before the first spoonful of food had reached their mouths, here came the tap on the shoulder and the request, please, just this once, please help, won’t you help? So it was time for a discipleship retreat, and off they went to a deserted place. What a great plan. But no sooner had they tied up at the dock than “...many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.”
If Jesus is there, people will come. That’s how it has always been. Try any replacement for that name “Jesus” in that statement, anything that points to something other than Jesus, and the church ceases being a church. It is, at the last, the true test of a church. Over time, if Jesus is not present there, no one will come. Oh, it might take a long while for some who are just in the habit of coming around to stop, but over time it will happen.
I remember reading about a once-wealthy church in Pittsburgh. It was a large stone edifice, built in what we might think of as a sort of Presbyterian version of an English gothic style. It had huge, vaulted ceilings, and at one time was one of the largest open spaces under one roof of any building in the city. The lettering over the entrance where the arched Byzantine doors once stood now welcomes not worshipers, but people seeking a parking place: “Southside Parking Garage,” says the sign over the opening. With a straight face, the developer of the project said, “It was an ideal space for conversion.”[3]
Apparently this had been a church where people had parked for years: parked their money but not their bodies, parked their children but not their cars, and eventually the children grew up and nothing was parked there any more at all other than the left-over money of dead people, which kept the facility going on life support long after the heart had quit beating on its own. With the sort of funds they had, you could continue to offer programs for years without having to be bothered with a congregation. But in the end, the aging trustees, who were all that was left of the church, closed it anyway, since parking was all it was good for. Now it is truly a drive-in church.
I’ve been in other defunct churches. They always strike me as a sort of sad testimony, no matter how cheery – even inevitable – their transformation into some other kind of business. Neighborhoods change, people come and people go. But if the heart of Jesus had been celebrated and worshiped there, couldn’t the church have changed along with the neighborhood? This is what I always wonder. Often they are transformed into restaurants, another unintended symbol of the body of Christ, which had once been gathered in those places around the communion table. I know of another church in New Jersey, founded by people who were angry with their former church, so they gathered in anger and separation. Ultimately, the next generations forgot what the fight had been about, and since fighting was the glue that had held it together, the church came apart. Literally, it’s beams and timbers were dismantled and reused in what are now many fine homes in the area.
I once wrote to my former congregation about my visit to a small country parish in Wales during a vacation there. A sort of Stephen King cemetery surrounds this ancient building which exudes local history from every stone. And that may be part of the problem. It stands more like an artifact than a congregation. Sunday worship when we were there numbered 12, 4 of which were our party of not-very-competent Presbyterian-cum-Anglicans. The idea that a small church is a better place to become acquainted and feel at home was given the lie in this place.
But the very next week found us in London at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the 11:00 AM “sung mass.” It was high church at its best, and the Spirit was alive in the place, clearly a place of worship where all were welcomed and encouraged to take part. Jesus was there, and they came.
“They went away to a deserted place by themselves.” Sometimes this sounds like the very thing we need, to get away, to be alone. And sometimes we do. I know that many folks in congregations who don’t disappear in the winter for Palm Desert or similar warmer climes may be likely to be gone some time now during the summer. But such separation and self-tending is meant always to function as a servant of ministry, not as its main point. The disciples and Jesus were allowed precious little time to themselves in deserted places. The need of the world to be near Jesus was just too overpoweringly great.
“Mark says that Jesus and his disciples had come willingly to this deserted place. They were exhausted from ministry among the needy multitudes. They were seeking rest, retreat, a July vacation from the rigors of their work. Yet when they got to the deserted place, it was quickly filled with more multitudes who came clamoring after Jesus. The crowds did not come, like the disciples, in order to get away from life; they followed Jesus here because they were desperate to survive life. Jesus looked on them and quickly saw that they were harassed and helpless, ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ Here were the oppressed, the hurting and the poor, come out to this desert hoping for a blessing from Jesus.”[4]
When Jesus got to the shore on the other side of the lake he saw that the great throng had anticipated his next move and was waiting there for him. When he looked out on them and had compassion on them because they looked to him for all the world like a bunch of bleating lambs whose shepherd had left them alone in the wilderness, he realized that this sorry gathering of people had been paying rent to absent theological landlords for far too long. He decided that he would teach them something right then and there about what it means to have a real shepherd. If we had been there, we would probably have been like the rest of the crowd, anticipating a free meal, or at least a healing or some other miracle. But Jesus didn’t do that, not yet. He first did what the Shepherd was called to do for his people. He “began to teach them many things.”
There is but one true teacher. The rest that we who have followed him have to add is but commentary. The ministry of the church is not in the hands of pastors, nor even boards and committees. Not now any more than it ever has been. It rests largely in your hands; your able, fallible, caring, failing, tentative, willing, reluctant hands. My long-time friend, Jim Wharton, who taught at the seminary at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, once pointed out that in the biblical story, God is singularly unimpressed by the differences between clergy and lay people on points of competence, fitness, equipment, credentials, or status. On one occasion, (in the book of Joshua) a rather harried prostitute named Rahab was able to minister to Israel; on another, a humble shepherd boy named David became minister to a king (I Samuel 16:14 ff); on another, a famous prophet named Elijah endured the indignity of receiving the ministry of a cackling flock of crows (I Kings 17:4 ff). The possibility of ministry is as near for any of God’s people as the next human being.[5]
Which brings me to this thought:
Hospitality is among the highest marks of the presence of Jesus in a place, the New Testament is filled with testimonies to this fact. Over 38 years if ministry I have been through the mill with transients who drop in on the church, all pastors have. I have dealt with the con artists, the demanding ones that try to make you feel guilty, the ones who have a knack for showing up as you prepare to leave for a well-deserved hour at home before returning for an evening round of meetings. But sometimes, it is different, not a hand-out, as the ads used to say, but a hand.
So Mark’s gospel causes us to consider this today, this presence of our Lord in this place. Because we know that if the needy and the harassed and the helpless ones are among us in our community, our church and even our homes, surely Jesus cannot be far away. If they come, he is here, giving us the opportunity to be a blessing even as we seek to be blessed. Amen.

[1] “Watching from the Boat,” by Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, June 29, 1994.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thanks to my friend, Dr. George Chorba, for sharing stories of “converted” churches.
[4] “The Loving Shepherd,” a sermon by William Willimon, Duke University Chapel, 7/20/97.
[5] Biblical Basis for Ministry, Earl E. Shelp et. al., Westminster Press, 1981, p. 61.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Steady On

 Steady On
2 Samuel 6:1-15         
2 Corinthians 8:7-15         
Vancouver, Washington, July 8, 2012
Our Old Testament text is hard to read. I don’t mean that the names are difficult to pronounce, though they are. I mean it is hard to read because it appears to be a story we might wish wasn’t there in the first place. We have come to believe in a gospel about a God who wouldn’t do capricious things like tossing lightning bolts at someone who just casually touched a religious object. Presbyterians emerged from a Puritan type of tradition, so we don’t put too much stock in the religious significance of inanimate objects in the first place. Come on up here any time you like, touch the communion table, dabble your fingers in the water on the baptismal; you will not need to fear being smitten by God in the chancel of First Presbyterian Church for touching any of the furniture! So what was this Old Testament story in 2 Samuel about, anyway?
To answer, we have to begin by remembering that one of the problems with Sunday readings of little snippets of scripture at a time is that often we may miss, or be unaware of, the context, the background of the stories. The 2nd Samuel reading is an excellent case in point. The little portion we read seems to be a narrative account about moving the Ark of the Covenant – a religious artifact once famously (but rather grotesquely) celebrated in one of the Indiana Jones movies – from a temporary resting place to David’s new capital city of Jerusalem. On the way, an unfortunate but well-intentioned man gets himself killed by touching a sacred object. The story is bigger than it appears. It turns out not to be a story about how innocent people used to suffer in Old Testament times before God decided to become loving, but rather a story about the ways in which the headstrong political maneuverings of people can get them into deep trouble even when they least expect it.
David, having recently become king, decided that if he was going to unite his kingdom into a single people, the way other kingdoms around them were united, he needed to find a city in which to establish unquestioned political authority, a capital city. Some people were not so excited about the idea. One morning he awoke with a thought: What about the old Ark of the Covenant? It had been neglected, languishing, almost forgotten, out behind Abinadab’s carport for about 20 years. The old traditionalists still remembered it and all it represented since the time of Moses.
In the old days, the one who possessed the Ark of the Covenant could lay claim to an authority over the people that was sanctioned by God. What a brilliant move it would be to go get the old box, and carry it to the new capital! In one deft maneuver, David would capture the imagination of the progressives who wanted to be more like the other nations with a king and a capital city, and the loyalty of the traditionalists, the conservatives who wanted nothing more than the religious reminder of the good old days dating back to Moses.
As political symbols go, it was as brilliant as wrapping yourself in an American flag, kissing babies, and then sitting down to a big piece of apple pie. It was a surefire public relations winner. I remember from my brief study of Oklahoma history as a youngster growing up in that lovely state, that one dark night in 1910 the city fathers in Oklahoma City sneaked up the road to the new state capital in Guthrie, purloined the state seal, and took it away to protective custody in Oklahoma City. These days we might think that would have little to do with the location of a state capital, but in those pioneer days, without the official state seal, Guthrie couldn’t function as the capital, and with it, Oklahoma City could. The capital has been in Oklahoma City ever since. The ark of the covenant functioned a bit like that for David, and his initial intention in acquiring it for Jerusalem may have been as cool and calculating as the motives behind that midnight raid to Guthrie, Oklahoma.
One of the mistakes we make when we read this story is to assume that the human motives behind all the action were pure. Anyone who has studied David and his followers even a little should know better, but we forget. David’s faith was continually tested by a temptation to try to be God rather than to serve God.
As the ark was being carried on its new cart toward Jerusalem, a man named Uzzah, casually reached out his hand to steady it the way you might steady a ladder for a friend heading up to the roof. We would read that as a straightforward gesture, but in doing so we fail to read the religious significance that lies behind even casual actions. Uzzah’s gesture was an impulsive confession of faith in the power of human beings. The ark of the covenant was treated just like a regular box, calculatingly included among plans for political consolidation without sufficient thought as to God’s hopes for Israel. It was being handled with a familiarity that suggested that David and his supporters had begun to consider God to be their God, belonging to them, more than they saw themselves as God’s people who belong to God. Israel was forever getting the covenant turned around that way, and that is what this story is really about.
God’s graciousness toward Israel was really God’s own graciousness, not some commodity they could elicit on command and use to further their own ends. We are not meant to use God for our purposes, God intends to use us for God’s purposes, and when we have that straight, we are much more likely to live in an appropriate relationship with God.
Uzzah’s gesture represented that too-familiar attempt to manipulate God to serve human purposes. The result of Uzzah’s death was that David was forced to reconsider what he was doing, he had to send the ark to another storage site for three months while he got the proper order of things straight again. “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” he finally asked himself. If it was to come, it must come through a power not entirely his own, and he would have to give heed to that reality. The renewed procession into Jerusalem took on a whole new spirit when David remembered that he had been anointed to serve rather than to be served.
The last word was and is to be the power of God’s graciousness, not the human ability to seize what it wants. God’s grace, not our grip, is our central source of authority. This isn’t a bad thing to remember on the Sunday following our biggest national holiday.
Paul reminded the Corinthians of this grace of God in a wonderful way. The 7th verse of our 2nd Corinthians reading used to be translated: “You excel in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness...” When we hear lists of things like this, what we expect to hear next is, “Since you excel in this, this, and this, why not excel in this?” And that’s the way the verse used to end, does in fact end in older translations of the Bible. But having taken a more considered look at an ancient Greek text, the New Revised Standard Version gives us what makes more theological sense. Now the passage reads, “You excel in faith, in speech, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you.” Our love for you? How can you excel in the fact that someone else loves you? The new translation makes so much more sense. The final word in the phrase is now grace. You excel in these things that you do, but you also excel in our love for you, that is, in something which is in no way beholden to your own effort.
We always need reminders that the gospel of Christ is not about doing good things, but about doing grace-filled things, walking the extra mile, giving a shirt as well as the cloak, turning the other cheek, offering what is not expected because the power under which we operate is not of our own devising. We are free to respond at the Spirit’s direction rather than by the counsel of human calculation, because the freedom of Christ has set us free.

© 2012 Robert J. Elder 1st Presbyterian Church

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death and Taxes

Death and Taxes
Romans 13:1-7; Acts 4:1-20

© 2012, Robert J. Elder
Sunday, July 1, 2012

I recall once, a few years ago, reading an article called “Bumper-sticker theology,”[1] about the difficulties of preaching from the biblical book of Proverbs, then making up our own bumper sticker phrases to capsulize some important belief in a single phrase. It’s not as easy as it looks. Everyone should try summing up something of their whole philosophy of life in six to eight words. There are lots of these gracing reader boards outside churches that, like ours, have reader boards. I have a friend who collects them and sends them to me, phrases like:

Give Satan an inch and he will become your ruler,

and this friendly one that might ride on a bumper you’d do well to avoid:
 “Go to God or go to hell.”

A couple more demonstrate other points of view:
“I'm for the separation of church and hate,”

and this, that takes more time to think about than is usually provided at a red light:
“If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.”

In 1816, a few years before he would die in one of those brainless nineteenth century “honor” duels of the type that took Alexander Hamilton’s life, a handsome naval hero named Stephen Decatur coined one of the more famous bumper sticker phrases of all time, even though there were no bumpers – or stickers – at the time. That doesn’t mean we can’t find his famous words sticking to some bumpers even today. He spoke his famous phrase at a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, ending a toast by saying “...our country, right or wrong.”[2] Everyone you speak with is likely to know the quote, few will know its origin. I had to look it up in the Oxford Book of Quotations.

But most who hear it will recognize right away an ethical or even theological problem inherent in the statement. Its implication is that the actions of my country, no matter what they may be, are the highest moral standard to which we need make our allegiance, that there is no ethical authority higher than that which benefits my country.

56 years later, in 1872, in an address to the US Senate, a German immigrant and Civil War hero named Carl Schurz refined Decatur’s words, unfortunately in a sentence too long to fit on anything but the bumper on a Humvee or a Greyhound Bus, but it is well put nonetheless: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right!”

The implication of this is that there exists some authority, some higher standard by which we may judge all human actions, and seek to put right the ones that are in the wrong by that standard. This is something that surely transcends our common ways of looking at matters before our nation, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican. But we do often appeal to one another with the idea that we ought to be thinking about our national life in terms of values, and of course, this suggests that whether we call ourselves conservative or liberal, we recognize that many issues before us are fundamentally moral in nature. Are right and wrong measured by something higher than national interest? I know you probably will have an inkling how I would respond to that question, and how you might, but, as a friend of mine said to his congregation, “You know how anybody who believes in a God worthy of the name has to answer that question. In blunt poker language, God trumps nation, even my nation.”[3]

Our Bible passages today speak to the sometimes heated dialogue between “our country right or wrong” and “our country ... kept right or set right.” On the one hand, there have been more than a few who have used Paul’s words in our text from Romans as some sort of apostolic injunction to give blind obedience to governing authorities no matter how wicked or wrong-headed they may be:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-3 NRSV)

This text was popular with the slave-holders of the nineteenth century as they tried to argue from the Bible for the continuation of that peculiar institution.

On the other hand, our passage from Acts seems to provide an equally strong case for resistance to authorities who misuse their power in order to stifle expressions of faith.

“While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them ... they arrested them and put them in custody ... The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem ... they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:1-20, selections NRSV)

It is the sort of passage to which the American patriots of 1776, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and others appealed when subjected to persecution at the hands of unjust governing authorities.

Setting these two passages side by side strikes our minds like watching a juggler handle five baseballs. At first it might seem easy enough, but when we observe closely, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Put Paul's words in Romans – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” – next to Peter’s response to the command of the Jerusalem authorities that they keep quiet about Jesus – “... we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” – and we have all the makings of an animated discussion in the earliest days of the church’s existence about its relationship to governing power, the sometimes cosey, sometimes hostile relationship between church and state, a discussion which has continued from that time to the present.

Thinking on these things on Independence Day weekend, a friend of mine concluded, “these two passages are ... like a pair of goal posts for Christians to aim between as they bring their faith to bear on politics. To the one side, ‘Yes, Paul, we are subject to the authority of the state, and must value the good of the commonwealth.’ And to the other side, ‘Yes, Peter and John, when push comes to shove and you have to choose, God is the higher authority.’”[4]

In just a few minutes you and I, no matter where we agree or disagree politically on the issues of the day, will come together to take the bread and the cup offered in the name of Jesus Christ and thereby reaffirm our ultimate personal and corporate loyalty to his kingdom, his reign, his Lordship, above all other lords.
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 43.
[2] Brought to my attention in a sermon, “Can Religion and Politics Mix?” by Michael Lindvall, delivered at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.