Sunday, October 28, 2012

October 28, 2012 - Proper 25B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in him.” That verse from today’s Psalm is well known and is fitting for our final Sunday of our financial stewardship campaign. This month has been a great one in terms of community involvement in the mission and ministries of St. Francis. We have heard stories of ways that pledging enables ministry and we have read inspiring testimonies in the bulletins. I want to thank you all for participating in being a blessing through your financial stewardship. And of course, I want to thank the Stewardship Committee for its wonderful leadership in putting such a strong program together. They’ve really worked to frame stewardship not as a fundraising campaign, but rather as a way of responding to God’s blessings bestowed up on us. And in this sermon, I’d like to build upon that idea, suggesting that filling out your pledge card, while being important in following Jesus, is just one step in that journey.
            This morning I’d like to consider the first verse of our Psalm in detail- “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.” Notice what the Psalmist doesn’t say. They did not say “I will bless the Lord when I feel good, or when I am happy, or when I remember to, or when I can make time in my busy schedule.”  It seems rather easy, rather cliché. The WWJD?, or what would Jesus do?, movement became popular in the 1990s. Followers of Jesus could wear a bracelet. For centuries, people have worn cross necklaces are reminders of their discipleship. Even the latest polling data suggests that many Americans self-identify as Christians. It seems that we have a lot of people who would check off the box next to “do you bless the Lord at all times?”
            But you and I know that isn’t the truth. For a country full of people who say that we are One Body in Christ, we seem to have a division that runs right down the middle. According to estimates, there are nearly 2,000 homeless children in Greensboro. Racism, though it is supposedly illegal, still runs through our civil discourse. Our government spends more on war and defense than it does on healthcare and education. That doesn’t sound like a group of people who follow the Prince of Peace to me.
            The point is this: it’s really easy to say that you’re a follower of Jesus, but it’s another thing to be a racial disciple who does it. The problem is the emergence of cultural Christianity, which in itself is an oxymoron since everything about Jesus was counter-cultural. In the same way that when you meet someone who is Jewish, it is acceptable to wonder if they are practicing or simply ethnically Jewish, Christianity has moved into that realm. And this isn’t about judging people or condemning them by saying that they’re not really a Christian, but it is about Christian accountability, or as St. Paul puts it “speaking the truth in love.”
            We have perverted the meaning of discipleship, we’ve lost sight of Jesus on the road, and we have confused the meaning of the word “believe.” Today, if I ask if you believe in God, you probably think that I’m asking you where you stand on the intellectual proposition of there being a creative force in the universe. Ask a Christian if they believe in Jesus and they’ll say yes, while holding social views which are simply unchristian. How does this happen?
            The word “believe” historically has always connoted dedication, love, and trust. Belief has very little to do with the brain, and much to do with the heart and hands. But in our reversal of these meanings, we’ve lost a sense of following Jesus and instead are too comfortable with just thinking about him. And this is really what stewardship is about, this is why pledging is such a sign of faith. It isn’t just saying that you go to St. Francis and support our ministry, it is, rather literally, putting your money where your mouth is.
            At clergy conference earlier this month we had a speaker who has a powerful story. Her name is the Rev. Sarah Jobe, a Baptism minister. She told the story of being at Duke Divinity School with a passion for Jesus. But she, like many of us, lived a busy life. Her schedule was full, but her passion for the Gospel drove her to do some church work. And she made it clear that this wasn’t just a few hours a week, she was at church several days a week, serving those in need. And one day she realized how tiring it was to be a Christian.
And I think we can all sympathize with this. Between work, the gym, cooking dinner, getting kids ready at night, maybe a few church meetings, and swim meets, there really isn’t much time left for doing anything else. Even if we think feeding the hungry is important, when do we find the time to do it? I’m sure we’d all like to read Scripture daily, but not if it’s stressful just to make the time for it.
Then one day, she had an epiphany. She realized that she didn’t have time to be a Christian in her spare time anymore; there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. So she decided to be a Christian all the time. She asked herself, what difference does it make that I’m a Christian in my life? What difference does it make to my family? To my community? To my church? To my bank account? She couldn’t find time to do 20 hours a week of church volunteering, but there was plenty of time to be a Christian 24x7. And in being a Christian first and foremost instead of in her spare time, she found it easier to reorient her life. Daily practices of prayer and Scripture reading weren’t hard to fit in because she had a Christian life, not a life and then put other stuff in as able. She commented that she doesn’t do ministry, but she lives a life. It just so happens that she does a lot of ministry in her life.
Let’s turn to Bartimaeus and today’s gospel reading, as he gets it. So he’s a blind beggar, and somehow he’s heard the legend of Jesus, that he restores sight to the blind. So when Jesus passes by, he screams out. People tell him to be quiet, so he screams louder. You might say that praise was ever in his mouth. Jesus calls him over, and he immediately gets up and throws off his cloak, which as a bold move. He knew that something special was about to happen because if he still expected to be a blind beggar after encountering Jesus, he would have needed his only cloak to keep warm. But he casts it aside, confident that Jesus will help him. And it plays out the way he hoped for, he can see again. But then the important part of the story, “and then he followed Jesus on the way.”
“The way” was a termed used to describe those who followed Jesus in the years after his crucifixion. To be a member of The Way was to be a disciple. And think back to the past few Sundays in Mark. Jesus has been talking for several weeks about the last being first and taking up our crosses and his impending execution. Everyone knows where Jesus is going and where his way will lead, but Bartimaeus believes in Jesus, he loves him, trusts him, is dedicated to him. So he follows him to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus will die. The Bible doesn’t ever again mention Bartimaeus, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he was active in the early church.
            His actions recall the tone of that great spiritual hymn: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” It’s about following Jesus all the way, about going all-in, about blessing the Lord at all times. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis tells the story of a demon who is coaching another demon on how to tempt humans and lead them to hell. The teacher says, “If you can get him to the point of thinking ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all- and more amusing.”
            It’s a trap that we all fall into, thinking that “Christianity is all good up to a point.” We rationalize tough texts telling ourselves, “surely Jesus didn’t really tell that man to sell all of his possession. Jesus doesn’t really want me to take up my cross, I’m too important doing his work. If I go crazy for Jesus, people will discredit me, and then I won’t be an effective witness in the world, so I better stay in the middle.” But Bartimaeus didn’t seem to say these things, neither did Jesus, nor the Psalmist.
            The solution to cultural Christianity, the way to fill that void in our hearts, the means to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven is in the simple to understand but challenging to live words of our psalm- “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Yes, this is radical, it might seem uncomfortable and even crazy, yet we follow a Messiah who was executed for being too far off the deep end. The way for the vine to grow the strongest is to have its roots grow deep within us. It is the call of our Baptisms, and it is our hope for the world. Reconciliation, redemption, and salvation come when we fling the doors of our hearts and lives open to God.
            As I sat there, being inspired by Sarah’s testimony of following Jesus, I felt a really strong desire to deepen my own discipleship. But I honestly had no clue where to start. Part of me really toyed with the idea of selling it all, or at least most of it. So I talked to one of the other presenters who had a similar story. And he reminded me of that wonderful psalm that says “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The thing about this metaphor is that a lamp only illuminates a few steps in front of you. If we are to be like Bartimaeus, following Jesus, we don’t necessarily need to know where we end up, but we simply need to believe, or trust, that that Jesus will be with us along the journey. We don’t need a map, just faith.
            There is a comic strip that runs online called “Coffee with Jesus,” and about a week ago there was a good one where a man says to Jesus “I like being a believer in you, Jesus. You’re a good friend.” Jesus says “And I like that you’re a believer, but I’d prefer you be a disciple.” The man replies “What’s the difference?” And Jesus says “discipline.” The way to following Jesus, the means to praise God at all times isn’t in having some grand plan, it isn’t in being as virtuous as St. Francis, but it is in the thousands of decisions we make every day and how we practice discipline.
            How will I react to that slow waitress? Do I flip off that driver that cut me off? Do I tell the clerk that they gave me a $10 bill instead of $5? After as stressful day at work, do I take it out on my spouse by having a short temper? Do I practice stewardship by giving some of God’s blessings to those in need? Do I lend a helping hand to my coworker in need? Do I comfort those who mourn, or do I ignore them? Do I stand up for those without of voice, or do I remain polite and not talk about religion or politics? Do I tell the bullies to leave that other kid alone, or do I laugh at him? How do I handle adversity, with hope or with despair? Do I have the discipline of living into my Baptismal vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Do I love God? Do I trust God? Do I dedicate all of my life and being to God’s Kingdom?
It takes discipline to make all of these small decisions, but they add up to a life of discipleship. It has become too common to equate Christianity with belief in facts about God instead of living a life fully dedicated to God. Focusing on the blessing of discipleship has been our focus for this stewardship campaign, but it won’t end today. Stewardship is a lifestyle. Like Bartimaeus, may we be confident in Jesus and follow him on the way of life, one step at a time. Let us take the words of Psalm 34 with us, that we might bless the Lord at all times, with God’s praise ever being in our mouths. Let our prayer today be in the wonderful words of the classic hymn, God of grace and God of glory: Save us from weak resignation, to the evils we deplore. Let the search for thy salvation, be our glory evermore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

October 14, 2012 - Proper 23B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Well, there are pledge cards in the pews in front of you, and Jesus encounters a man asking for advice on discipleship and he tells him “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” So this, unsurprisingly, is a financial stewardship sermon. Now before you tune me out for the next 15 minutes, before you start feeling anticipatory guilt, before you cover your wallet let’s give Jesus a chance to speak. This isn’t my message, its Jesus’. I know that this is a tough passage. It challenges me every time I read it. And let us remember, this story is found in the Gospel according to Mark- so at its heart, this story testifies to the Good News.
            In preparing for this sermon I ran across a commentary that noted that people misread this passage in one of two ways. Either they say that this passage is just an allegory and it isn’t really about money, or they say that this passage is only speaking about money. Both of these misunderstandings limit the impact of Jesus’ teaching. So I’ll use that as the structure for this sermon- addressing those that say this isn’t about money first, and then those that say it’s only about money.
            So we start by addressing those that say this passage isn’t about money. No sense in sugar coating it, they’re wrong. This passage is about money. The historical context for the story is important. Whether it’s the 99% ganging up on the 1%, the cry for higher taxes on the wealthy, or the distrust of Wall Street, there are strong feelings against those who are rich. People who earn a healthy living are often distrusted because it is assumed that they cheated or exploited others to get that money. This isn’t at all though what Jesus would have thought about the rich man whom he encounters.
            To be rich in Jesus’ time was to be blessed. If you had wealth, it was because God was happy with you and gave you these good things. Being rich was a sign of honor. We though live in a different context, and we understand that being rich doesn’t mean that God loves you any more than anyone else. But the context of this passage reminds us that God doesn’t love the rich any less either. We do God, and the rich, an injustice when we condemn them for being rich.
            What Jesus does speak against though is consumerism. This man comes to Jesus with a first-world sort of problem. We know that he’s well off because he comes not asking for healing, because he can afford medical care; not for food, because he isn’t hungry; but instead he comes asking how to inherit, a financial term, eternal life. He’s enjoying this life so much; he wants to make sure that it continues forever.
            He has become used to earning things through his wealth or prestige. Money has a way of making us feel entitled to things. I was listening to a story last weekend on the radio about poverty in America. They were speaking with a family of 6 that lives on $500 a month. I don’t think of myself as the rich man in this story, but in hearing their story I realized that I might as well be. And with that, I’ve bought into consumerism. There are things that I feel entitled to because I have a steady paycheck. If I want to go out for a nice dinner every once in a while, I do it. I tell myself that I work hard and that I deserve it. And in a similar way, this man came to Jesus thinking “I’m blessed because God is happy with me, I deserve the chance to get eternal life.”
            Consumerism places our emphasis on the economy of the world instead of the economy of God. In the world’s economy, there are fiscal cliffs, uncontrollable debt, and scarcity. But in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone. One scholar defines consumerism as “the glorification of individual choice.” But the message that Jesus continually goes back to is “it’s about the Kingdom of God.” Consumerism puts our interests on profits and our own comfort rather than making sure that every person can live with dignity. The Kingdom of God isn’t for sale, nor is eternal life. The man learns this lesson when Jesus tells him to sell all of his things and give the money to the poor. The man came to Jesus, perhaps hoping that Jesus would tell him to give his money to the poor, not to become poor.
            He couldn’t imagine doing this. And neither can I. Sell everything? I trust God, but I’m not sure that I could do this. Even many monks struggle with this. They take a vow of poverty, yet they all own things, often even owning property. But yet, Jesus calls us to give it all away. CS Lewis said that “nothing you have not given away will ever really be yours.” If we hang onto it so tightly that we can’t give it away, then it owns us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If you can’t give your money away, it controls you instead of you controlling it.
            But giving money away still isn’t easy. What does that mean to do with less? Anne Frank said “no one has ever become poor by giving.” And she’s right, but she also had a bit more courage than most of us. There is a William Faulkner play in which one of the poor characters is talking to a rich many about money and he says “I ain’t rich, I don’t need no money. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we just had a little bit more money the financial stress would go away. But we all know that somehow, expenses always rise to meet income. If getting money, even if it’s for retirement or savings, is our goal, we’ll never have enough. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, we might soon forget that we are, at every moment, dependent on God.
            And though we may never have enough, there are too many people that aren’t even close to having enough. Too many people die of starvation and preventable disease. Too many animals are abused and too few children are given education. As I said in my last sermon, “God only wins when we lose.” When we lose money by helping those in need, God’s justice and love wins. So maybe giving money away means not getting a big vacation every year, but if that means those in need are less needy, then I think we’re all okay with that.
            Jesus didn’t mince his words on this; there’s no getting around it. He said sell all that you have and give it away. As we’re in our financial stewardship season, this is a tough message. We’d be ecstatic if everyone gave 10%, but Jesus seems to be calling us to give 100%.  But how do we do this responsibly? If I sold my house, clothes, and car, how would I eat? Even Jesus knew that money was necessary because one of the disciples was the treasurer. Now, yes, this was Judas; but still, he carried the money because sometimes you need to buy things.
            If this reading is about money, how do we respond? Do we sell it all and start living in a commune? This is where we need to move into the second half the sermon, addressing those that say this passage is only about money, because, they too, are wrong. This passage is about a lot more than money.
            About a year ago I was talking with Bishop Curry about preaching during stewardship season. And he commented that the readings that we often get during October aren’t as much about money as they are about the Kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t a financial planner; he is the Messiah. He didn’t come to preach about finances, he came to preach about the Kingdom. And he tells us that the “Kingdom of God is among you.” And if the Kingdom is a present reality, we need to live in that Kingdom, working to build it instead of work against it. And how we use our money will determine whether we are working for or against the Kingdom. So this passage is indeed about something much larger than money.
            The way that Jesus responds to this man is easy to miss. Before he tells him to sell his possessions, he looks at him and loves him. Jesus didn’t chastise him for being rich, he didn’t condemn him for being selfish, he didn’t challenge him for attempting to buy eternal life. Instead, he simply loved him. Jesus genuinely wants this man to have eternal life. Jesus sees that he is ripe for true conversion. He yearns to do the will of God, and he’s been trying by keeping the commandments. He just quite hasn’t gotten over the hump of living in the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world. This wonderful addition reminds us that in our life of discipleship, we are loved and supported. It reminds us of those great words from our reading from Hebrews today: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
            We can have boldness to act as disciples. Jesus has walked this plight of suffering for the sake of the cross. Our Lord knows what it means to live without, and he knows what it means to rise from the deaths that plague us. We can be bold enough to live in total commitment to Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
            The man in this passage is often called the “rich man.” He has been defined by his wealth, and Jesus confronts him to give up his wealth, because that is what prevents him from entering the Kingdom of God. What defines you? What prevents you from going “all in” for the Kingdom of God? Maybe it’s an addiction, pride, an old grudge, a sense of entitlement? If you encountered Jesus, what name would you get? Would you be the man with a short temper? The woman with control issues? Are we overly devoted to our jobs, or even to our families? Do we exercise more than we serve others? What could Jesus tell you to give up that would shock you and send you away grieving? The message this morning is clear: whatever defines you, Jesus calls us to give it up for the sake of following him in living for the present Kingdom of God.
            There has been a lot of talk recently about politics and whether or not “you built that” or whether the government helped you to build it. That’s a fine debate to have in a presidential debate, but it’s not even a question for the Christian. Whether you built it or not, give it to God. Your family, your business, your wealth, your reputation, your life- they aren’t yours to clutch onto. Instead, they’re God’s blessings bestowed upon you. Whether or not you built it really doesn’t matter, so long as what we’re seeking first is to build is the Kingdom of God. This passage would actually be a lot easier to deal with if it was just about money, but it isn’t that simple.
            But let us not lose sight of the fact that this is Good News. It is Good News that the last will be first. It is Good News that God is with us when we choose to be the last. It is Good News that for God, all things are possible. It might be impossible for us to put a camel through the eye of a needle, and in a similar way, it might be impossible to come up with the courage to live fully for God, to give up what is most dear to us for God’s Kingdom. But it is Good News that through God these things are indeed possible.
            It might be Good News, but perhaps it isn’t welcome news. Our passage from Job today shows us of the great power of lament and complaining to God. At the end of Job, the text literally says that God restored all the fortunes to Job because he talked to God. If this is a hard message, talk to God about it. Tell God that you don’t like giving until it hurts. Tell God that you’ve worked hard to get where you are and you don’t think it’s fair to give it up. Tell God that you want to trust God enough to do this, but you need help taking that first step. Take the prayer of St. Augustine before God- “give me the grace to do as you command, and the command to do what you will.”
            This isn’t supposed to be easy. A lot of people assume that this rich man went away and didn’t sell his possessions. But maybe he did. Perhaps as soon as Jesus told him to do so, he realized that he must. So he walked home, thinking of all that he’d have to sell, and he mourned the loss. Jesus didn’t say “sell all that you have and be happy about it.” This is tough stuff. Faith isn’t always easy. But God is with us. God’s Kingdom is present. We can do this together.
            It’s a tough passage to get in the midst of a financial stewardship campaign. We are reminded that this passage is about money, challenging us to consider how we use it. And this is a passage about much more than money. We are invited to consider how we define ourselves and then give up those attachment that bind us to the kingdoms of this world instead of the Kingdom of God. Though it is difficult news, this is Good News. It is Good News when Jesus says “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or family or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…and in the age to come eternal life.” So we pray and struggle to give it away, knowing that we will be blessed to be a blessing in sharing God’s blessings.
I know, the children, the mortgage, aging parents, bills, the uncertain economy, the future. I know. I struggle with this too. There are days when threading a needle with a camel seems easier than following Jesus. So what hope do we have? And who is brave enough to do all this? The question hasn’t changed much over years, and neither has the answer. For us, it is impossible, but for not for God. For God, all things are possible. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

October 7, 2012 - St. Francis Day

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
            Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis, our patron saint. We all know the stories of Francis. He lived from 1181-1226, spending most of his time in Assisi. He is remembered for his great care of the earth and animals. Francis was born into a wealthy family, but rejected his birthright in favor of living more freely for God. We also remember him for developing the usage of crèches or nativity sets. He also founded the order of the Franciscans and received the stigmata during prayer. And we remember him in our community for his ideals of simplicity, compassion, and hope. Today, I want to focus on reading these lessons through the lens of Franciscan spirituality.
            Our readings today center on what some scholars call the Great Invitation, referring to Jesus inviting his audience to “come to me, all of you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” Often it is used to give comfort to those in a tough situation, but it’s a rather ironic passage.
            Jesus says that those who are weary should take his yoke upon them, because it is easy and light. The way this saying is often applied, you’d think Jesus was talking about some sort of relaxing massage technique for your shoulders. But yokes are used for work animals, for hard labor, or to detain prisoners. It is ironic that Jesus uses an instrument of hard work as a metaphor for getting rest. Yokes are about submission and labor, no one hearing Jesus would have thought a yoke was restful. But yet Jesus suggests that his yoke is about liberation, freedom, and rest.
Francis understood this irony. He said that true joy comes not from success, but from rejection and suffering, which causes us to think of Jesus’ suffering. He wasn’t saying that suffering is good, but rather is that it is natural and God is present in all situations, the good and the bad. And it is often in those tough situations that we come closest to God. And for that, Francis embraced suffering. Francis lived this irony of finding rest in the yoke of service.
We’ll start with the yoke as a burden before turning to its rest. It is interesting that Jesus speaks about his yoke being easy just a few weeks before his crucifixion. Many of the disciples will also be crucified for following Jesus. That doesn’t seem very light to me. This yoke isn’t a free pass. Francis certainly understood this when he chose to leave his wealthy family for the poverty of serving others.
The work of Francis was about simplicity- working with a single-minded focus on loving and serving those in need. He focused on what was important. He didn’t concern himself with wealth, or prestige, or power because he understood that those are distractions. As we are in the midst of a financial stewardship campaign, this is a good reminder for us to focus on simplicity. Deciding what matters most in life, and aligning our budgets to match accordingly.
Francis also lived compassionately. A quick word study will remind us that compassion is a compound word which literally means to suffer with. Francis certainly bore this yoke of suffering with people and animals. There are stories of him reaching out to lepers and other outcasts. And by serving them, he too became an outcast. Francis often reflected on the suffering of Christ on the cross and strove to compassionately suffer with all those in need for the sake of building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
And Francis had hope. We often think of hope as a nice, uplifting feeling. And that’s not a completely inaccurate view of hope. But hope is hard work. In the prayer of St. Francis, we see that he really had to work to find light, joy, faith, and pardon where there was darkness, sadness, doubt, and injury. As a bishop once remarked “we Christians are called to be a people of miraculous expectation; our ministry is the miracle of our hope.” Hope is what allows us to take on the burden of Jesus’ yoke, even though we know that the cross is on the horizon.
            These virtues of simplicity, compassion, and hope seem wonderful, and they are, but they are also full of hard work. Francis put a lot of emphasis on Creation, because he saw it as the labor of God. I’ve always been partial to the theology of continuing creation- the idea that God didn’t just create everything and then took a leave of absence, but rather that Creation is ongoing. And this makes sense. If the story of Genesis is based on the idea of a week, it only makes sense that the next week starts after the first. Creation is continually being recreated by God. It is not that God was the Creator, but that God is the Creator. God’s work continues today.
Even in the wording of Creation, “let there be…” there is a sense of growing into being. In the Hebrew, the verb for “let there be” is in the imperfect tense, giving a nuance of an uncompleted or ongoing action. God created the light, but he didn’t flip the light switch. Think of it more as a dimmer switch; the light is continually growing brighter. Francis saw his work in Creation as working to continue the Creation to more fully reflect the love and majesty of God.
As we’ve seen in the life of Francis, there is a lot of work to do in taking Jesus’ yoke upon us.  So how is it that all of this work of being yoked to Jesus leads to rest, a rest which we so desperately need? When Jesus says “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” he was likely referring to a double-yoke. This was a common technique where two animals would have been linked together to do harder labor, but to split it evenly to make it possible. There are some tasks that we simply can’t do alone- the task of discipleship is a two-person job. But, ironically, in working with Jesus, we are given a sense of rest, despite our labors.
            This rest comes from the idea of Sabbath found in Genesis. To understand this passage, we must take a critical look at it. I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but this story from Genesis is not a literal one, but it is very theological. This Creation story was very likely written in the 6th century BC, during the time of the Exile in Babylon. The Hebrew people were facing an identity crisis; their world no longer made sense. And so this story began to circulate: that the God of Israel was the Creator of the world. This was an important story for them to tell, because their Babylonian captors claimed that it was Marduk, a Babylonia god, who created the world. But this story insists that it was Yahweh that did the creating, and continues to do so.
            The story was a reminder that God can be trusted, even against the contemporary data of being in Exile. And the same is true for us. Though we might live in the exiles of disease, poverty, doubt, abandonment, unemployment, or war, this Creation story proclaims that God is present and in charge of all that is.
Genesis was never intended to explain how the world was created, but rather the method of its creation, and this was through the words and will of God. The Hebrews would have been comforted by this story of God creating out of chaos, because they lived in chaos. At its core, this is a story of hope.
            It is with this background that we can understand the idea of Sabbath rest. The Sabbath rest was a radical act of faith against the Babylonians. Jews would have been identifiable by their not-working on the Sabbath, by their Sabbath prayers. To be Jewish was to practice the Sabbath. And this is something that we’ve really lost sight of. As a people of faith, we need to reclaim the Sabbath. And I say this not only because we need some downtime, because we do; but I say this because part of being faithful disciples is in our ability to partake in God’s work and God’s rest.
            The reason why the Sabbath was so radical is because God rested. The God of Israel had the ability to rest from creating, not because it was so tiring and God needed a break, but because God was satisfied with Creation, calling it very good. God was confident enough to rest. Unlike the gods of Babylonia, our God spent an entire day in serenity and peace.
            In practicing Sabbath, we, like God, realize that life doesn’t depend on our feverish activity of trying to do it all, but knowing that there can be a pause where life is simply a gift. To practice to Sabbath is to practice confidence and hope. There is no such thing as a life without stress or tasks. We can work our fingers to the bone and still have more work to do. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that not observing Sabbath will actually get us any closer to our goals.
To practice Sabbath is to say “I trust God enough to get out of the rat race and take a few moments to enjoy life.” Sabbath reminds us that the world is in God’s hands, not ours. If we take a day off, believe it or not, the world will keep on going. After we die, Creation will continue. We can stop and take a break because the world isn’t dependent on us. Instead, the world is dependent on God. So Sabbath rest is a bold declaration of this faith. And in being freed from being over burdened, we are free to be yoked with Jesus.
            I’m not necessarily saying that this means that we need to stay away from the grocery store and soccer fields on Sundays, though that would be a good place to start. If you’re stressed on the Sabbath, then you’re not keeping the Sabbath. If our Sunday activities preclude us from worshipping God in community, then we’ve lost sight of the very reason for the Sabbath. For the Hebrews, taking a day off made them stick out like a thumb in Babylonian culture, and that was just the point. Let’s make the Sabbath radical in our lives. Let’s make sure we take a day to enjoy Creation, to rest from the labors of the week, to abound in God’s providence.
            And it is with this understanding of Sabbath rest that we can begin to understand what Jesus meant by the irony of saying that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. There is a certain freedom that we are granted in practicing Sabbath, in trusting God as our yoke-mate. In being able to rest, we are able take up Jesus’ yoke. The saying is that the hardest burden to carry is having no burden to carry, and Jesus gives us a yoke to carry which blesses us with purpose and meaning.
            Jesus’ yoke is built upon our confidence of God’s providence and continuing care for all of Creation. It is easy to take Jesus’ yoke upon us because it is easier to love than to hate, because forgiveness is a lighter load than carrying around vengeance, compassion is lighter to carry than anger. The word that Jesus uses for “easy” might be better translated as “having a good fit.” Walking the way of Jesus and practicing the radical act of Sabbath is not easy in the sense that we can do it with little effort, but that it will give us harmony by being a good fit for living the life of faith.
            Though it is ironic, the work of being yoked with Jesus leads to our Sabbath rest. St. Francis lived this reality by submitting himself to the work of God, and in doing so, was given rest and the freedom to live simply, compassionately, and hopefully. He lived in the spirit of the wisdom of this creation story from Genesis, knowing that the Sabbath is a radical act of faith that testifies to our confidence in God. We, too, can be confident that God is delighted in Creation, and we are invited to take some time each week to rest in this delight. By spending time in Sabbath rest, we are free to carry the burden of Jesus’ yoke.
            I’d like to close with the fourfold blessing of Francis, which speaks of this ironic relationship between rest and work:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Gospel in Seven Words

Christian Century's cover article a few issues ago was entitled "The Gospel in Seven Words." It's a great idea- state the message of the faith in seven words. Doing so forces us to not worry about doctrinal fights, frees us from having to write a thesis, and encourages us to deeply consider our faith and what the Good News is to us. I am reminded of the words of St. Peter "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). I'll share a few of the responses from the article, add a few of my own, but I'd really like to hear from you, dear reader.

"In Christ, God's yes defeats our no." -Beverly Roberts Gaventa
"Love your neighbor as yourself." -Bill McKibben
"God gets the last word." -Martin Copenhaver
"God was born. We can be reborn." -Carol Howard Merritt

And a few of mine:

"The Kingdom of God is among you." -This is a quote of Luke 17:21 and really unpins my whole theology. The Kingdom isn't about the afterlife, God's graces aren't reserved for the death, but this life we live is the place to thrive and flourish in God's love and opportunity. It is also a reminder that we have work to do, namely building up that Kingdom so that it might come on Earth as it is in Heaven.

"The LORD is Risen! Alleluia!" -This is a familiar victory of Easter morning. YHWH (Yahweh, or God's personal name given to Moses in Exodus 3 is often translated as LORD, which is YHWH in Hebrew) was incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and overcame the oppression systems of the day, including death. The shout "alleluia" reminds us to "praise God" for this and all the blessings of life.

"God loves- so love God, neighbor, self." -The foundation of all is God's love, and we respond to that love by loving God through prayer, adoration, and service. That love extends to our neighbors, including all of Creation, and stems from our knowledge that we are the beloved of God.

"God is loving, creating, forgiving, building, present." -This is a sort of combination of the previous statements. God loves. God created, and continually creates new opportunities for grace. God forgives us in our shortcomings. God is building us and the Kingdom. And God is Emmanuel (God with us);ever present.

How would you put the Gospel into seven words?