Friday, July 27, 2012

Living Sacrifice

My feet hurt.  But it’s a good hurt.  At least it should be.  It is my head and I’m trying to convince my feet about that.  I’ll keep you updated on the progress.

I’m still at Choir School here at Anderson University.  I’m in a bit of a lull.  I finished my ninth worship service, ninth sermon, this morning at 8am (yeah, we get started early around here), and I don’t have to preach again until my tenth sermon of the week tomorrow morning.  Four days this week I preached morning and evening services, but tonight is the Sacred Concert (7pm Friday July 27th, Central Christian Church, downtown Anderson, if you choose to skip or DVR the opening of the Olympics and want to check it out). 
So, I had time on my hands and decided to turn to my 11th sermon since last Sunday morning at Aldersgate and get this bible study done early.  Saturday morning is closing worship at Choir School and then we lunch with some of those who hang around long enough to follow Maddie’s instructions to the Olive Garden.  In years past this post choir school meal was always a problem because no one would make a decision as to where we should go to eat.  Thank God Maddie started coming a few years ago, she always has an opinion about where to eat.  So, she has become the official eating place chooser - with great power comes great responsibility, you know.

There is a lot of adrenalin in preparation for the final concert, but you can tell that folks are tired.  We’ve been pushing hard this week, and none of us are as young as we used to be.  Even the young people aren’t as young as they used to be!  But it is a good tired.

I used to hear that designation and scoff.  Tired is tired, you know.  Energy expended, muscles strained, sleep in shorter supply, tired is tired.  And yet we know when that energy is expended in an activity that gives such joy, when muscles are strained working together in a community that loves and cares for one another, when is sleep is lost because time needs to spent catching up on friends you only see once a year at this thing called Choir School and the only time left to do that (because of rehearsals and worship and classes and meals and programs) is late into the night when we can laugh with one another into the wee hours that we don’t even know are passing until someone spies and clock and we gasp, and scurry off to our beds for whatever remains of the night.

Sure it is a sacrifice, of time and schedules, energy and effort, but it is a sacrifice worth making.  Some sacrifices are like that.  Worth the pain of the sacrifice, because if it is a sacrifice it will hurt, it is the nature of the thing.  But it is a hurt you are willing to bear.  Because of love.

Paul writes about this odd concept.  We are responding to the “question” from our congregation: “I want to know more about the book of Romans.”  OK, not really a question but you get the idea.  On Sunday I’ll include talk about the whole book in addition to focusing on the passage I chose to represent that book, or that letter since that is what it is.  But for this effort let’s just look at the verses I chose to sum up the Epistle to the Romans.

Romans 12:1-8   I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.  3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,  5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.  6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;  7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;  8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Actually some really good verses follow these eight, so feel free to keep reading.  Or to back up and get a flavor of the whole book.  But I liked these verses because it contains two of the important ideas from the Epistle. 

The first idea Paul presents is that God wants all of us.  Each of us, yes, but all of each of us.  All of you, all of me.  God wants it all.  So, present your bodies!  Paul means literally that, present them.  Offer your whole being to God for service, for worship, for transformation, for all of it.  And don’t get caught up in serving like the world does, serve like Christ does, not for return, not for gain, but for love.

A labor of love is how many folks here at Choir School describe this event.  Work yes, but work we love.  With people we love.  Appreciating the gifts and abilities, the talents of those we love.  And since no one can do everything, we need to share those responsibilities and efforts.

That’s the second idea that Paul returns to again and again.  We have gifts that differ, he says in this passage.  We all are different parts, he says in other places.  But we give them and share them, these gifts.  We give them away for the joy of others, for laughter and for tears.  We serve together as a part of a community.  We grow together, learning from one another and helping one another to learn.  We sing and we worship together, we break bread and tell stories together, we let one another into our lives in sometimes surprising depth for a week long event.  Many of us have been coming for years (I started in 1996, some way back in the 50's and 60's if you can imagine) and we are family. 

And for family you will work yourself down to the last bit of strength and energy.  You’ll present your bodies as living sacrifices to those you love.  One sermon a week seems strenuous to me at times, ten in one week seems impossible, but I’ve been doing it almost non-stop since 1996 - I did miss two years in that time, so this is my 15th anniversary of preaching at choir school.  I amazes even me. But I love it and it has been good for me to do this in a difficult year.  I feel renewed and ready to come back to work at Aldersgate. Once I get a nap that is.

Present your bodies, pour out your energy, your whole self in service to God, be a living sacrifice.  And play your part, do what you’ve been given to do, whether it is preach or sing, or administer or serve, whether it is comfort and heal or challenge and push, do what is within you to do with all that is within you, don’t hold back.  And you will reap the rewards of love and joy, satisfaction and hope.

And be really, really tired.  And have sore feet.  And a smile on your face.


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Body Issue

My older brother has been a subscriber to Sports Illustrated for many years.  Every so often, because he knows I am a sports addict also (but too cheap to get my own subscription), he bundles up a stack of issues and gives them to me.  And I devour them, catching up on month’s old sporting news that I missed and reading about events that I saw but didn’t read quite enough analysis (if that is even possible - if there is one thing that is over analyzed in our country it is sports on all levels.  But I digress.)

For the purposes of this Bible Study, however, I mention this only to make this one observation, in all the years of handing me stacks and stacks of Sports Illustrated magazines, he has never once passed on the Swimsuit Issue.

For those who don’t know, every year sometime in February Sports Illustrated publishes the famous (or infamous) Swimsuit Issue.  Page after page of nubile young women, posed in exotic locals, wearing tiny bits of cloth (or not wearing tiny bits of cloth) that are presented as this year’s designs of bathing attire that won’t be worn by human beings anywhere on the planet - unless you are a model for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.  Because they aren’t designed to be worn by 99.9% of the bodies in the world.  There is even information given as to the makers of the suits and the costs and where you can buy them, but won’t in all likelihood. 

Which, of course, begs the question as to why such an issue is even published by this mainstay of sports reporting.  If they aren’t selling swimsuits then they must be selling ... um ... magazines.  The issue is one of their biggest sellers, but it elicits a variety of responses.  Some subscribers write in about how much they love it and look forward to the issue on a cold February day. Others write in to complain about the issue saying it amounts to pornography or at the very least tackiness. And lest I go any longer impugning my brother’s reputation, I suspect that the reason he has never passed on a copy of the Swimsuit Issue is because he doesn’t get one.  Sports Illustrated lets you opt out of that issue when you subscribe, and knowing my brother I am sure that is what he has done.

ESPN the Magazine has gone one further and publishes yearly what they call “The Body Issue.”  Athletes from a variety of sports, both men and women, are chosen to pose naked or nearly so, artfully arranged so as to cover specific parts.  Again, the response to such a pictorial is wide-ranging to put it mildly.  Some are offended, others compare the photographs to ancient art like Michelangelo’s David, still others are titillated by the hint of hidden flesh.

The body issue.  There are those that argue that the church has a body issue.  But rather than displaying them, we hide them, or are embarrassed by them, or simply ignore them.  Bodies, and what you do with them, just isn’t something that you are supposed to talk about in church, right?  We are of a much more spiritual bent, or so we like to believe.  Besides there was Paul with all this “flesh vs spirit” stuff, which certainly gives the impression that bodies are bad, or at least less important than spirit - whatever that is.

And that’s the thing, we can point to bodies, but we have a harder time identifying spirits.  It is something ethereal, something disconnected from where we live and breathe and have our daily being.  Which is a part of what contributes to the idea that our faith is not really very useful in the real world.  Let’s face it, when we do talk about bodies it is in the negative.  Don’t do this with your body, don’t let your body do that, don’t, stop, quit.  For shame.

That’s where we end up.  For shame.  Bodies are sources of shame.  So cover them up, hide them away, consign them to the darkness, let us never talk about this again.  Which brings up the question in your mind, no doubt, why did I bring all this up?  What in the world could this have to do with any part of the bible?  Well, funny you should ask.  The question I chose to respond to this week was from the section titled “I would like to know more about____” And someone, don’t blame me, wrote in “Song of Solomon.” 

Ah, you are thinking to yourself, that explains it.  That’s the book we used to sneak looks at when we were kids.  The one that actually mentions a variety of body parts that don’t often appear in sermons.  Well, I grabbed a few verses to read and chose, call me coward, to pick a few of the more tame verses to read on Sunday morning.  But it is really the whole book that is up for examination during worship.  Take a look:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13  The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.  10 My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;  11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. ... Song of Solomon 8:6-7   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.  7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.

Not so bad there, was it?  There are a couple of fascinating things about Song of Songs (which is the title I prefer, which actually translates at The Best Song, or The Greatest Song) or Canticles (which is another title, which means song or chant of praise - in this case in praise of love, or even of bodies).  One of those fascinating facts is that it is the only book in the whole bible that is told largely from a woman’s perspective.  The verses in a woman’s voice outnumber those in the man’s voice.  The second thing is that like Esther, this book never mentions God.

Or does it?  Historically, commentators have insisted that this isn’t about human love at all, it only appears to be so.  It is really about the love between God and God’s people, or from the Christian point of view, between Christ and the Church.  Or, since it is mostly from the woman’s point of view, it would be the love the church has for Christ.  Now that’s interesting isn’t it?

But I can’t buy the allegorical interpretation completely.  Certainly it is about God and God’s people, but it is also about bodies, about human love expressed with joy and with mutuality, in intimacy and passion, within the context of covenental relationships.  Yes, I realize that last clause changes everything.  It calls into proper question the display of bodies for monetary gain, or purposes of seduction, or objectification.  It honors a relationship sealed and blessed by God.  But within that there is a celebration of the physical expression of love.  Or the physical dimension of love, because expression sounds somehow less than profound.  Love is physical as much as spiritual or mental or emotional.  We can’t say to be in love if we never act lovingly.

A key understanding needed to appreciate the Song of Songs is that in Jewish thought, we don’t inhabit bodies, we are bodies.  Soul and body aren’t so separable in Jewish teaching.  So maybe we just need to get over our body issues.  We are made, it says in Genesis, in the image of God.  I know that doesn’t mean God looks like you, or, heaven forbid, like me.  But it does mean that we carry in our bodies something divine.  Maybe that is worth celebrating, worth paying attention to, worth taking care.  Worth singing a song of praise.  The body issue.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Are You The One?

Can you hear me now?  I’ve been out of touch, out of reach recently.  Well, no place is out of reach these days.  But if you cross international boundaries and don’t want to pay international roaming charges on your cell service and so decide to turn off all devices (which was tantamount to severing oxygen tubes on their deep sea diving suits as far as the teenagers were concerned), you are out of touch.

Re-entry was interesting, phones came on and Facebook posts ensued.  It was like not having had anything to say for a while, we had to shout to the world.  OK, truth be told there was wireless access in the hotel in Canada, and Facebook posts happened regularly.  But it wasn’t on the phone, you know?  It wasn’t in the pocket.  You own personal megaphone ready to record your experiences as they happened and shout them to a noisy world.  We wandered the streets of Stratford actually looking at the scenes around us, instead of heads down, fingers scrolling through a cyber world of virtual reality.  And while we had comments to make, opinions to share, we had to keep them to ourselves instead of proclaiming them to a world that wasn’t listening anyway.

That’s the thing, the air is full of opinions and attitudes and proclamations, so full that most folks aren’t really listening anymore, just waiting for their turn to talk, their own faces captured by the screens in their hands.  It is like shouting in the wilderness, really.  Like proclaiming from rooftops and not being able to raise an eyebrow, let alone a spot on TMZ or a reTweet on Twitter.  It’s not easy being a prophet.

The question for this week is “Who was the greatest prophet and why?”  An appropriate question for an American Idol culture. “If you want Ezekiel to make it the next round cast your votes America, phone in right after the show 866-DEM-BONES to vote for Ezekiel.  Or perhaps, for the sports minded, “and the Gold medal for Axehead floating goes to Elisha! As he climbs the podium you can hear the national anthem of ... wait, what’s that?  Every nation turned him down because of all the terrible things he’s said?  Oh.”

Tough being a prophet.  You are not without honor, except in your home country, or something like that.  Which means that the only way to get people to like you is to keep your distance.  So, I guess it is a good thing that we ponder “greatest” in prophet circles for a little while this week.

In worship we will play with the idea for a while, thinking about categories for greatness.  The buzz word for the church these days is effectiveness.  So, if that is the measure then the greatest would have to be Jonah whose six word sermon saved many tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Ninevites from apocalyptic doom. 
Some would argue that output would be a more lasting measure.   The written word survives long after the action has been completed, long after the pronouncement has been spoken.  In which case Isaiah has to win the prize as his 66 chapters outnumber Jeremiah’s 52 (or 57 if you add in the 5 from Lamentations) and Ezekiel’s 48 and after that, well, they don’t call them minor prophets for nothing!

Then of course there is cultural impact.  Who has the most quotes?  Who was the most musical pieces written off of your work?  Handel loved Isaiah, can’t argue with that.  Matthew quotes extensively from him too, but a few others as well.  Mendelssohn wrote an oratorio about Elijah.  Most quoted lines would have to include Micah: “What does the Lord require of you?”  Probably lots more that aren’t coming to mind today.  That category would be hard to measure, I suppose.

What about a non-human category?  Jesus tells us to pay attention to birds or air and lilies of the field.  They have something to tell us, he argues.  Jeremiah was interested in cracked pots and rotting cloth.  What about Balaam’s Ass?  OK, Balaam did the prophecy, but the few lines from the donkey have to rank him right up there somewhere, don’t they?

OK, getting a little silly, I suppose.   Maybe we ought to move to the scripture and slant that I decided to take this question.  It is a New Testament passage, oddly enough.  When you think of prophets you think Old Testament.  So, I’m throwing a curve and taking a look at some of Jesus words about a prophet of his acquaintance.  Take a look:

Matthew 11:1-19   Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.  2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples  3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:  5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." 
    7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?  8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  10 This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'  11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.  13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came;  14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.  15 Let anyone with ears listen! 
    16 "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,  17 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'  18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon';  19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

Did you catch it?  No, not what you think.  Yes, Jesus talks about John as a prophet’s prophet.  And then he proceeds to discuss the difficulties of the prophetic task.  There are no palaces and soft clothing to warm you, there is no relying on polling data to determine your opinions, there is just a job to do, a road to prepare and then an exit to make.  Get out of the way so that God’s purposes can be fulfilled.

But then Jesus says something curious.  John was great, maybe greatest in one way of measuring, but “the least in the kingdom is greater than he.”  Wait.  What?  Greatness, says Jesus, has more to do with being where God wants you to be and doing what God wants you to do than it does with achievements of all sorts.  It has to do with submission, with surrender, not with power and wisdom. 

Which means, I guess, I think, is that the greatest prophet just might be you.  Or me.  Or both of us and all of us, any of us who steps up.  Are you the one, as John’s disciples asked. In the eyes of the one who matters, this question doesn’t compute.  Greatest?  All of them, the ones folks listened to and changed their lives and the ones that shouted until they were blue in the face and might as well have been talking to brick walls, all of them were greatest.  All of you who keep my Word and proclaim it with your lives.  Live out loud, we are told, let the Word come forth from us.  That is where greatness comes from.

Can you hear me now?