Saturday, June 28, 2008

Cold Water Worship

You don't have to be a sports fan to know that a common celebratory act by the winning team of an important game or championship is top out cold water on the coach. It happened again at the end of the NBA Finals when Boston Celtic star player Paul Pierce grabbed the cooler of Gatorade and dumped it on coach Doc Rivers as the final seconds ticked off in their blowout win over the Lakers. The picture of the orange liquid splashing over Rivers made the papers for the next couple of days and the clip was repeated on tv for a while.

The tradition started, I believe with football, not basketball. And, to my mind at least, it made more sense there. Football is played outside, often on grass, where dumping large containers of water or other liquids won't cause such a big mess. Basketball is played indoors, on a wood surface, highly polished and sealed so as to not allow liquids to soak in! Plus the basketball coaches usually dress better than football coaches. Mind you, football champions win in the winter time, outside and so a cold shower of water would be more shocking than one poured on those in a hot sweaty gym.

OK, enough analysis of this little sports ritual. My point is there are occasions when cold water is an act of celebration and congratulations. And it fits in nicely with Jesus' reference to cold water as an act of hospitality. Remember?

Matthew 10:40 - 42 "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."

Short and sweet, straightforward and to the point. Except that we've got to take another look and figure out just what is going on here. But you knew that, right? You knew it couldn't be as easy as it looked on the surface. One of the speakers at my conference last month was Bishop William Willimon, who told of a class that he took while he was in seminary on Marcel Proust. He snuck over from the theology department and took a literature course, with permission of course. The first day of class the professor introduced his subject by saying that "there are very few people who have ever read Proust, and many of those who claim to have read him are lying and many of those who actually did read it didn't understand much of what they read. Proust is some of the hardest reading that there is, it is incredibly dense, multilayered and almost obscure. Most of you," he told the class, "will have great difficulty understanding what you read. Except for Mr. Willimon, because he has read scripture."

Make you feel any better? Let's take a look at what is in here.First, we need to remember the context. It follows on the Gospel reading from last Sunday when we read the previous verses about shouting and whispering, about peace and swords, about sparrows and the numbers of the hairs on your head. Remember all that? Well, this is the conclusion of that speech.

Jesus is preparing his disciples to go out and tell the good news. It is their first mission trip. But instead of driving nails and cleaning up disaster areas, they are to knock on doors and ask if it would be alright to talk about Jesus. Actually, the particular instructions on how to conduct themselves on this mission are scanty at best. I guess they had to figure out that part on their own. Instead Jesus wants to set the context, to give them the framework within which the mission is to take place. The "how to's" are left up to us.

But he concludes with these words about welcoming. Now they read as though they are the responsibility of the others. "Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me." It is up to them to get that. This is, it appears, an escape clause for the disciples. If it doesn't work then, that is their problem. No one can force any one to listen and all of that. It is up to the recipient to get the response right. It is up to the convert, or the potential convert to figure out how to respond. And if they miss it, too bad for them. We'll just move on. They don't want what we're selling, well, tough luck.

It is true that we can't force positive responses to Christ. And that in the end, free will means the freedom to say no as well as the freedom to say yes. And that each person has to bear the ultimate responsibility for their own soul. But there is too much in what Jesus says and does to allow us to get away with the "take it or leave it" approach to evangelism. Too many examples of the responsibility of the community to care for one another, too many times when Jesus points out that our salvation is wrapped up in the salvation of our neighbor.

Which means we need to read it again to see what Jesus is really telling the disciples, and us, about this sharing of the faith thing, this spreading of the gospel challenge that is before us. "Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." What if the burden is not really on the one who responds (the one who "welcomes you") but on the one who seeks to present Christ to the world? What if Jesus is not giving the disciples a free pass on this hospitality thing, but is in fact significantly raising the bar? Your task, he says, is not just to go out and mumble some sort of invitation – like "You don't really want to come to church with me, do you? Didn't think so. I'm leaving now." But instead your task is to be Christ, is to represent God as you meet and greet and engage in conversations with all and sundry.

Well, we think, that isn `t my job, it is the job of the professional Christians - the pastors and evangelists. They are the ones charged with representing Christ. Am I right? Nope. That is why Jesus goes on to itemize in this passage: whoever welcomes a prophet...whoever welcomes a righteous one... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones... Scholars have debated the differentiation in this passage, some concluding one thing and others another. But it seems to me that Jesus is trying to get us to forget this idea that there are those who are charged with being Christ all the time and the rest of us only have to worry about it for an hour or so once a week! Prophets could be the called out ones, the pastors and teachers set aside by the community for a task. For Paul the prophet was a traveling preacher who didn't settle in a area but came through to stir things up and then move on. Righteous ones could be the leaders in the life of the church, the ones whose lives were examples of the faith and whose wisdom was sought out before any decision was made.

But the little ones? That was everyone else. Everyone. New Christians and lifelong saints. Young people and elders. We are to be the means by which those outside come to know who Christ is. We are to be the face of Christ to the stranger, to our neighbor, to our family.

Now there are two different responses to this passage, it seems to me. One is to become bearers of cold water. Because Jesus raises hospitality to eternal significance, we now take the task of hospitality more seriously. We re-examine our structures at church and ask how are we doing, we enlist more and more people in the taskof welcoming, until the church understands that it is everyone's responsibility. We take hospitality as seriously as Jesus did.

The other response is to receive hospitality like Jesus tells us to.The scripture literally is about receiving hospitality. So, how do we accept the cups of cold water that are given to us? Can Christ be seen in our gratitude as well as our generosity? Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, says Jesus.

So coach, how did you like that? Thanks be to God for cold showers on hot days!


Monday, June 23, 2008

Whistling in the Dark

Dad served a church in Logansport called Wheatland Avenue United Methodist Church. As an aside I always wonder about the choice to name a church after a place rather than a statement of faith or history. I noticed in Anderson that the Church of God always names their churches after a place, you will never see Faith Church of God, or Trinity Church of God. It is always a place. Here we are! This is us. We are located here.
Well, Wheatland Avenue UMC was on Wheatland Avenue, duh. But I remember that church more for the trauma it induced in me than almost anything else. Every now and then, dad would send me to the church for something, late at night, in the dark. Creepy dark. Old churches are spooky places in the dark, did you ever notice that? There are all sorts of creaky sounds, that might be someone sneaking up behind you. All sorts of the wheezy sounds that might be the hot breath of some creature looking for a meal. All sorts of shadows, no matter how many lights you turn on, that might be demonic presences or rats scurrying out of the glare into the darkness. It was a troubling place for someone with an overactive imagination, like me.
So, I did what any self-respecting Christian boy would do in that situation. I came into the church singing hymns at the top of my lungs and didn’t stop until I was back outside again. "Amazing Grace" has a power that the creatures of the night can’t defeat! I know this. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is just the antidote to feeling alone and vulnerable. "Up From the Grave He Arose" strikes fear in the legions of undead looking for throats to bite. So, I knew I was safe as long as I could sing the hymns of faith. And upon the completion of my mission, I would pause before entering the house to catch my breath and make sure no one knew either of my fear or my singing!
We call it whistling in the dark. It is that activity that keeps the fears from overwhelming you and enables you to continue to function, to complete the mission at hand. Some complain that it is a process whereby we ignore just how serious the problems really are – "you’re just whistling in the dark!" But I would like to submit that it is something more than that. It is calling on a power that helps you face those fears. It is acknowledging the severity of the problems, but choosing to live in hope anyway.
At least I think that is what Jesus is trying to help us do in our Gospel passage for this week. Jesus is never one to say "Oh, this will be easy! Don’t worry." He is almost frighteningly honest about the kind of opposition we might be facing. But he gives us our mission anyway. And a simple mission it is - be like Him.
Matthew 10:24-38 "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to
linethe earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
This passage begins and ends with that missional call to be Christ in the world. "It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher," he tells us, and "whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Like he did. Be like me, he says. And then proceeds to tell us how difficult it is. "They’ll call you names," he says. This refers back and forward to an encounter with the religious establishment who tried to claim that he had power over demons because he was one himself! Even when you are doing good, you get attacked! Thanks for that, Jesus. And the other end of the conversation here is even more serious. Not just name calling, but a willingness to give our whole lives away – just like Him.
And then, to compound the call, he tells us that even those closest to us are likely to think we’ve gone crazy. Just like Him. Remember when his family showed up to take him away because they thought he was nuts? Well, it might happen to us too. There is no guarantee that when you decide to live your life for Christ that everyone around you is going to cheer you on. He’s asking us to choose sides, even if it means choosing against parents or children. Wow, tough stuff.
Throw us a bone here, Jesus. It can’t all be loneliness and fear. It can’t be us against the world, we aren’t strong enough. Are you ready? Here is the word of comfort: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 10:28 Um, OK, thanks Jesus. But wait, keep listening. He tells us that this power, this ultimate power beyond the universe is leaning in our direction. "You are of more value than many sparrows!" What a blessing! Seriously. If God, this God who has power of life and death and eternity cares about sparrows, for heaven’s sake, then we truly have nothing to fear.
This is the point that Jesus wants us to hear. It is not about the shadows that make us jump, it is about the light that brings us comfort. It is not about the enemies that lurk, it is about the Friend that stands with us. It is not about the unknown that causes our knees to tremble, it is about the faith in the One who shores us up. God is on our side - not in a I’m right and you are wrong kind of way. God is on our side in a there is nothing we cannot do for the Kingdom if we try kind of way. God is on our side in a life is deeper and richer and more satisfying despite the risks kind of way. God is on our side in a whistling in the dark, shouting from the rooftops kind of way.
So, start shouting. "What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops." 10:27 Jesus tell us that even though we feel like we don’t have all the answers, we can go on as though we do. Because we know where the answers are. Even though we don’t know how it will all work out, we know it will work out in God’s time. Even though we only have glimpses of truth, we can proclaim what we have heard with confidence. We live in the dark but we proclaim the light. We only hear whispers, but we shout with our whole lives our faith in the one who loves us with a love beyond description.
Those old hymns do have power, it is the power to remind us of our faith in God through Jesus the Christ. Keep singing.
Derek C. Weber