Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mind Games

If you’ve been around Aldersgate for a while, you might remember that a year ago, during the season of Lent, I used African American spirituals as a theme for worship. I then took that theme to Choir School in the summer of 2010. It worked really well, as they got into singing some of those songs - as did the Aldersgate congregation, I must admit. I love that music, as it speaks so profoundly of deep human experiences and significant spiritual realities, and it has a good beat and you can dance to it. Sorry, American Bandstand has a lot to answer for.

Anyway, since there are only five Sundays in Lent, but eleven preaching opportunities at Choir School, I had to find some more songs to fill the week. And of the ones that seems to capture everyone’s attention that summer was one titled “Woke Up This Morning.” The first line goes “Woke up this mornin’ with my mind...”

Now, of course we took all kinds of liberties with the song from that point. “Woke up this mornin with my mind.” Well, good for you! We were wondering. Doesn’t say much about yesterday, or tomorrow for that matter. You know, that sort of thing. It’s a good thing, don’t you think, to wake up with your mind? Considering the alternative.

But in fact this isn’t a hymn about mental health. It is an invitation to think like Christ. The song, while it pauses at the end of the first line, goes on to make a very profound statement: “Woke up this mornin with my mind ... and it was stayed on Jesus.” Or some versions simply say with my mind stayin on Jesus.

It’s an early morning act of faith. It is claiming Christ first thing. Claiming that living the day that lay ahead in the way that we claim we want to live it is only possible by focusing on the mind of Christ. Which is exactly what Paul says in our lesson for this weekend. Take a look:

Philippians 2:1-13 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul seems very concerned about thinking. In the first few verses of this passage he is telling us that we ought to think alike and that we ought to think like Christ. Right? Well, sort of. Being of the same mind doesn’t stifle creativity or even differences of opinion. He is not trying to remove all the differences in the body of Christ. It is those differences that make us the rich tapestry that we are. And finding new perspectives, new ways of looking at the same things is a part of the excitement of living in community.

So, what does he mean about having the same mind? And how can a diverse collection of humanity - like the church - ever hope to achieve that unanimity of thought? We are too different, have too many variant experiences and backgrounds, too many diverse abilities to ever hope that we would think alike on any issue of substance. Don’t you think? Or do you?

Paul has a solution. Wake up in the morning with your mind stayed on Christ. He wants us to think like Christ. And the thought process he is particularly interested in is one of humility. Set yourself aside. Set aside your need to be right. Set aside your need to have it your way. Set aside ... Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those who claimed to be followers of Christ - in business, in politics, in the church - would set their minds on Christ, embrace that humility, that self-sacrifice, that desire for unity and for hope?

Some do, I know. But most don’t. Or most of us don’t all the time. That’s why we need daily reminders. Woke up THIS morning...

The same mind doesn’t mean the same thoughts, but the same goals. It means that love always trumps prejudice. It means that sacrifice always wins over selfishness. It means that giving always triumphs over hoarding. It means ... well, you get the idea. How we go about becoming more like Christ, having that mind of Christ, may be different as each of us are different. But we all seek the same Christ, the same Kingdom, the same hope.

That’s what brings Paul to break into song in the last verses of our passage. That hope that one day we won’t have to wonder what Jesus would do, because we would all be doing it. Not because we were forced to, or coerced into, but because it was what we all wanted to do. It was the natural response to any situation - the loving response, the caring and giving response. The Christlike response.

Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.

At least that’s my hope. How about you?


Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Is It?

“What are you hungry for when you don’t know what your hungry for?” Anyone remember that one? Boy, is my head full of useless trivia serving absolutely no good purpose. Except to win Trivial Pursuit (usually) and to start sermons and bible studies. Hence my question:

What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you are hungry for? It was a commercial many years ago, for a snack cracker, and the line was spoken by Matlock. No wait, by, um, what was his name? You know. Andy Griffith. That’s the guy. He’s the one asking the question. And the best part was he gave us the answer. What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for? Something on a cracker.

Umm. No. Doesn’t do it for me. All due deference to crackers with stuff on them. But, except in a momentary superficial kind of way, that won’t satisfy the hunger. Not the real hunger. The hunger that even us overfed modern day pilgrims lost in the wilderness have. Because when we stop to think about it, we’re hungry too.

And we can’t help grumbling about it a little bit. We don’t want to make a scene. But we feel like we’ve been shortchanged somewhere along the line. We thought this faith thing was supposed to bring us satisfaction. And yet, when we admit it to ourselves, our stomachs are still rumbling out here in the wilderness. And our secret fear is that this is all there is. We were brought out here in this wilderness to die, hungry and hurting, lost and alone.

Kind of makes you sympathetic for the Children of Israel, doesn’t it? Oh, I know most of the time I and preachers like me make fun of these folks wandering there in the wilderness. Complaining at the drop of a hat. Even Moses gets fed up with them, let alone God. We shake our heads at their blindness. We roll our eyes at their wandering ways. What a bunch of losers, we can’t help thinking. If we were there it would have been different. I mean the divided sea thing was pretty impressive. The pillar of fire and covering cloud must have been significant. Surely we would have paid more attention. Surely we would have trusted. Surely we wouldn’t have complained. At least until our stomachs rumbled again.

It’s hard to be faithful when you are hungry. Maybe we ought to listen again with a little more sympathy. Maybe we ought to listen for our own voices in this story.

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?" 8 And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him-- what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD." 9 Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'" 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. 11 The LORD spoke to Moses and said, 12 "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'" 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.

What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for? They were six weeks in and pretty hungry. OK, six weeks into a forty year journey doesn’t sound like much. But six weeks eating what you brought with you and what you could find along the way is a long time. They were hungry. And they weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from. And they didn’t have a clue where they were going. Sure, pillars of fire and clouds are great, but a good mapquest itinerary with points of interest highlighted in color would have come in handy. A good pecan roll from Stuckeys would have gone down a treat. (Do they still have those? Or just the signs?)

But nothing was on the horizon. At least what they could see clearly. So they raised a ruckus. Probably the worst part of their complaint was that where they had been was starting to look better than where they were.

Ah, the good old days. How we long for them when the wilderness seems to dark and too scary. Even though at least a part of us knows that the good old days were anything but good. In our memories they seem so much better than what we have today. They were looking longingly back on slavery and oppression and suddenly, because they were hungry, it began to look good. They seemed to remember it like it was some sort of resort (“we sat by pots of meat and piles of bread,” they said, conveniently forgetting that they weren’t lounging by some pool dining on overladen buffets, but were slaves, living by the whims of the powers that be.)

Their faulty memories almost cause them to want to settle. Not settle as in live there in the wilderness. But settle as in settle for less. Less than what was in store for them. Less than what God had intended for them. Their hunger almost caused them to settle for less. To go back to live as slaves because there at least they could eat, instead of living in this freedom that is too scary, too wild, too dangerous.

That seems to be the options open to us - slavery or wilderness. Giving in or being uncertain. Giving up or struggling every day. Wow, isn’t there a third option? Well, no and yes. No, because we are living in a cloud, living in difficult times, living with too many choices and no clear direction as to which to choose. So, we give up and live enslaved by the sin and despair that always seems within reach. Or we keep searching, keep marching through the wilderness trusting that there is a pillar of fire somewhere in the darkness.

And to keep us moving forward, to keep us fed on our journey we have the manna. Which we are told in our passage today is really a question. “What is it?” in Hebrew is man hu. Manna in the wilderness. What is it? So, we are to be sustained by a question? Hardly seems adequate, don’t you think? I suppose. Unless it is the right question. “What is it that God is doing in our midst?” Now that’s a question that can keep us moving.

What is it that God is doing in your wilderness? We think we are hungry for answers. But just maybe we are hungry for the right question.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

If We Live

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road / Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go / So make the best of this test, and don't ask why / It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time. / It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right. / I hope you had the time of your life.”

Never thought I would quote a song by Green Day in this space would you? Me neither. But there it is. The song is titled “Good Riddance,” oddly enough. And I can’t decide if it is supposed to be ironic or not. “I hope you had the time of your life” doesn’t seem like a good riddance kind of statement. But it is about moments and memories and ones you want to hang on to and ones you’d rather let go. And some experiences which might be something of both.

Like 9/11. Ten years ago the world, or at least our corner of it, was a different place than it is today. I know that seems like a “duh” kind of statement. In ten years all kinds of things have changed. It’s a fact of life and history. Still, it is not often that we can look back and identify those forks stuck in the road, those times when time grabs you by the wrist and directs you where to go.

The question I have heard asked over and over in the past few weeks in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of the events we have come to call 9/11, is are we safer now than we were then? The answers, as you might suspect are varied and hedged. Some argue that we are more alert to the threats and the dangers than we were before those events. Others point out that our protective forces and intelligence gathering sources are more sharply focused. Still others argue that we are chasing shadows and dealing with worlds and cultures we barely understand and are causing more damage with each passing uninformed foreign policy decision.

Which means “who knows?” But maybe that is the wrong question. Maybe our national, communal question should be about safety first. Maybe instead of “Are we safer?” the question ought to be “Are we more like who we want to be than we were ten years ago?”

At least I think that is Paul’s question from our passage for this week. Or one of his questions anyway.

Romans 14:1-12 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." 12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

OK, you are forgiven for wondering what this has to do with 9/11. The short answer is nothing, really. The longer answer is maybe everything. Paul is telling the church in Rome how to be the church. He is telling them that they shouldn’t make distinctions between those who live outside in and those who live inside out. Wait, what?

I don’t know why Paul uses the terms “strong” and “weak” when it comes to these different dimensions of faith. I really wish he hadn’t. Maybe he was just picking on the language that was being used by others - maybe it was sarcasm and we lost the “air quotes” in the translation. Or maybe he is revealing a bias here and from his perspective one method is evidence of a stronger reliance on faith than the other.

But if you look closely at what he says he is talking about the debate between those who live out their faith in observable ways, eating certain things or observing certain days and those who believe that faith is an inner reality and not an external one. Even though he uses the terms strong and weak, if you carefully he is saying there should be no hierarchy, no “better than” attitudes displayed. He is saying we are all one in Christ Jesus. He is saying in Christ there is now Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free, He is saying this looking down, or measuring up does not fit in the Kingdom of God and therefore does not fit in the church.

Then he tells us why. “If we live, we live to the Lord.” If we live. I don’t know how you can get a more all encompassing statement than that. If we live. Not, if we live right. Or if we choose to live in certain ways. No, he says, if we live. That kinda puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? There simply isn’t anything that should cause us to love less than Christ loved. There is no circumstance that gives us permission to treat another human being with contempt. There is no event that allows us to respond out of hatred or a desire for revenge. If we live, we live to the Lord.” We have given ourselves to Him, we are no longer free to react the way that feels good to us.

Which brings me back to the question I think this passage wants us to ask in the shadow of 9/11: Are we more like we want to be than we were ten years ago? Are we living as though we were the Lord’s? Have our choices and our attitudes, our prejudices and our fears reflected that light living within us? Or is there something else at work?

The truth is, says Paul, we get to choose. We don’t have to succumb to emotions and to fears. We don’t have to follow the crowd and check our brains at the door. We can choose how we might treat those around us, weaker and stronger. We can be hospitable, because Christ was hospitable. We can be trusting because Christ is with us. This could be the time of our lives

That’s what I hear in the Green Day song. A choice. An opportunity to be more, to love more, to live more. This fork in the road, this time that grabs us by the wrist, doesn’t have to control us. Doesn’t have to make us less than we are in Christ. It’s our choice. “So make the best of this test, and don't ask why / It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time. / It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right. / I hope you had the time of your life.”

I don’t know that there are very many commentators who would say that remembering 9/11 is about celebrating the time of our lives. But then I’ve read Paul’s other writings, when he said that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Not that all things are good. There was nothing good about 9/11. But that we can choose to work for good even in this. Because if we live, we live to the Lord.