Saturday, April 28, 2018

These Are the Creatures

I came home from the memorial service with a load.  It’s not an uncommon thing, really.  To come back from a funeral or memorial service carrying packages, bags, containers of various kinds.  Food, that’s what I’m talking about.  The funeral dinner leftovers.  There was plenty, as usual.  Our church ladies know how to make sure no one goes home hungry.   Well, that and the fact that no one knows how many folks will actually come to a funeral these days.  So a large crowd was prepared for and the small crowd that attended got to take home extras, if they wanted.  And I did.  Well, just being polite you know.  

In a previous church I started a leadership group of laity in the church.  It was a strategic planning group of sorts.  And we couldn’t find a convenient meeting time, so we met early in the morning, before work.  Then we decided that in order to make sure everyone attended we needed to fix breakfast.  So, the members took turns preparing these wonderful breakfasts to aid our study and thinking together, and to get a good start on the day.  One day I was offered some leftovers to take home to the family.  Then when I reported how much the kids loved that special breakfast, the habit became for the group to always prepare enough for me to take home.  My kids were in early elementary then.  It was the one day we didn’t have to struggle to get them out of bed and ready for school.  They looked forward to those great breakfasts provided by their church family.

It’s a family thing to do, to gather to eat.  Bring folks in from far and wide, the ones you don’t see every day, and to bring the food they are famous for.  Grandma’s green bean casserole, Aunt Suzi’s seven layer salad, Uncle Dave’s smoked brisket, you know.  You have your list.  The foods you only got when the family got together.  The recipes that were guarded like gold in Fort Knox, secrets passed down only to the favorite grandchild and only when they were ready to respect it.  

One of the most important parts of a memorial service is the meal afterwards.  It is the time to sit and be together, to weep and to laugh in equal measure, because that is how we grieve.  At least how we do it together.  And sitting around a table, eating food that someone else prepared feels like a blessing on a difficult day.  Feels like a gift given when something precious has been taken away.  I have often said that the women who prepare and serve and clean up the funeral dinner do more pastoral care in that afternoon than I do a week’s time.  

Eating together is a declaration that life goes on.  That there is such a thing as eternity.  That while the void is real, the loss is real in this world, life is bigger than this world, bigger than our eyes can see.  Just like that second slice of pie is the result of eyes bigger than our stomachs.  Eating is one of the precious gifts of living, a gift of God.  God didn’t create a dull, bland world of simple sustenance.  God created a colorful world with flavors and tastes and experiences aplenty. So, celebrate, and enjoy the tastiness of this world in which we are blessed to live.

Celebrate food.  Sunday, April 29th is National Shrimp Scampi Day.  I had no idea.  I don’t have my Shrimp cards ready, or the Scampi tree up in the family room yet.  I’m not ready.  But then, how does one celebrate National Shrimp Scampi Day?  Besides the obvious, I mean.  Eating it.  Well, I’m not sure it’s on the menu for this Sunday.  Hmmm, maybe we’ll have to pretend.  Or we could just claim to be Jewish.

Yeah, that’s where I was going with this.  As soon as I saw that it was Shrimp Scampi Day I remembered that it was forbidden.  For the Jews anyway.  No shrimp, scampi or otherwise.  Why not?  Because it’s on the list.  You know.

Leviticus 11:1-12 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: 2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. 3 Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud-- such you may eat. 4 But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 5 The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 6 The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you. 9 These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams-- such you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters-- they are detestable to you 11 and detestable they shall remain. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall regard as detestable. 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.

Detestable.  Wow, no pulling of punches here.  No trying to spare the feeling of the cook who brought you that lobster bisque.  No, oh, I’m sorry, I’d rather not.  No, goodness that looks delicious but I had a big breakfast, or some other social lie we tell so as not to hurt feelings.  Instead it is “Take it away!  It is detestable!” 

The chapter goes on, of course.  Forty-seven verses of what you can and what you can’t eat.  And then it is repeated in Deuteronomy, with a slightly different list - no conflict, I hasten to say.  Just some additions.  Some different emphases.  But mostly the same.  This is good, holy, worthy.  That is bad, detestable, trief.  That’s the word they use for food that is unclean.  Trief.  It means torn.  Some say it means torn by other animals and therefore not worthy.  Others say torn from the list.  Detestable.  An abomination, in older translations.  Everything, in the Old Covenant, declared unclean is an abomination.

But why?  That’s the inevitable question.  Why are these unclean and those clean?  No shrimp but tuna is OK.  No rabbit but goat is OK.  Why?  Well, no one knows exactly.  Some have tried to tie it all into hygiene.  God, who knew better than ancient humans, determined that something would make them sick given the primitive means of preparation.  Pork has trichinosis unless properly prepared, so put it on the detestable list.  OK, maybe.  But some things don’t quite fit that explanation.  There has to be more.  Others note that many of the things on the abomination list are scavengers, certain birds of prey, scaleless fish that reside in the muddy river bottom could be considered unclean because they feed on dead things, which was also an abomination.

Well, perhaps.  But if you read the rabbis throughout history, they will say that things are on the list because they are on the list.  This is the “because I said so” argument that every parent has used.  We’re to avoid these things, they say, because God told us to avoid these things.  We don’t need any more of a reason than that.  We don’t need a why, we just need to obey.  Holiness comes from obedience.  What God is trying to tell us is that there is no part of our lives exempt from this obedience.  No aspect of our lives that God isn’t interested in.  No activity in which we engage that we can’t at the same time honor God in doing it.

The food laws, or “Kashrut” (from which we get Kosher), were a way of separating out the people of God, but also of bringing them together.  They were different from the world around them, but they were a family who ate together.  Sometimes I wonder if we have lost something when we did away with them.  Oh, like everything God gives us they can lead to abuse, to pharisaical devotion to the law while neglecting the holiness behind it.  That’s why Jesus wanted us to pay attention to what the laws were for.  In Mark’s gospel, chapter 7, He talks about what really makes us unclean, and says it isn’t the food going in but the words, the life coming out.  Mark adds an editorial comment saying that in so doing He was declaring all foods clean.  I’m not sure that was Jesus’ intent, but that was the effect.  And then Peter and his vision on the roof top (Acts 10), one he had to three times until he got it, sealed the deal.  But then Paul comes along and says that even in our eating we can give glory to God (I Corinthians 10:31).  

That’s what was really behind the kashrut laws.  Giving glory to God.  There may have been some health benefits to a kosher diet, but that was just a bonus.  The real key was paying attention to every detail of our lives as God’s people, and asking how does this give glory to God?  So, praise the Lord and pass the Shrimp Scampi!


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Creation Has Been Groaning

We woke the neighbors today.  Well, I don’t know for sure that we woke them.  It wasn’t crack of dawn early.  But early ish.  On a Saturday.  We had asked at church is anyone had a wood chipper.  We had a growing pile of sticks that came from the old trees in our yard, every time the wind blew there were more and more, sticks.  Branches, limbs, sticks, everywhere.  We picked them up from time to time.  Put them in a pile in the back yard.  On the firepit, actually.  Thinking that we would burn them.  But the pile kept building, getting bigger and bigger.  Now it was bonfire size, threaten the neighboring dwellings size.  We thought it might not be a good idea to burn it.  So, we asked about a chipper.  

Turns out someone had one, and was willing to bring it by, and stay for the chipping party we had in the back yard this morning.  It was a loud party.  Grinding those sticks and twigs and branches makes a bit of noise.  A bit.  OK, a lot of noise. Gnawing, grinding, coughing, chewing and spitting out sticks and branches and twigs.  Making mulch to spread on flower gardens and lawn edges, but also not adding to the stuff in the air that we breathe by burning all that pile.  But then it was a gas powered chipper, the little bit of gas that we burned smelled worse than the wood smoke would have smelled.  But was it worse?  Did it do more damage to a fragile environment than a bonfire in the back yard?  Sigh.  You can’t win it seems.

Years ago La Donna came to one of my bible studies because the members had heard me talk about all the things we do or don’t do in order to be “green”, to be ecological.  So she came and made a presentation about the choices we make on a daily basis, the homework we have to do on companies and their impact on the environment and which ones we should support and which ones we should avoid.  There were weights and counterweights, balances and trade-offs, choices around every turn.  Finally after some time sharing all of this, members of the class said, “this is hard!  Maybe too hard.” 

Why should we bother? Worrying about our impact on the environment, reducing our carbon footprint, reduce - reuse - recycle?  Surely my little bit isn’t going to make the much of a difference.  And are things really all that bad? Aren’t we being alarmist?  Aren’t there conflicting views of the human impact on climate and the planet as a whole?  Can’t we just wait and see?  Go about our business and trust that it will all come out ok?  And if not, if worst comes to worst, aren’t we as Christians not really all that worried about this world anyway?   It’s just temporary, we’re just passing through, right?  It’ll all get swept away and the new heaven be established, better than this one by far.  Right?

Who better to look beyond this world to the next one than Paul?  Who better to get our priorities straight, our vision properly focused, our eyes on the prize.  We’re straining forward, he tells us, for the finish line, the goal that lies ahead.  Surely, he won’t be concerned about this world, his whole focus is on the next one.  Right?

Romans 8:18-25  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Well, now that’s a bit of a surprise.  The whole creation, he writes.  Groaning in labor pains, hurting because of what it wants to birth, what it wants to bring forth.  Of course, we say, he’s talking spiritually, he’s talking metaphorically, about spiritual matters not physical ones.  Or is he?  It seems like Paul is hinting that our salvation is tied up with the bondage and decay of all of creation.  The fate of the world, the fate of the planet is woven into our fate, into our future and our hope.  

Not only that, but all that God has made relies on us.  Not just us, but our better selves, our true selves, our lives as the sons and daughters of God.  Which is a round about way of saying that we treat our world as though it was a part of God, and a part of us.  

It is not God, that’s an important distinction to make.  We don’t worship the creation.  We aren’t tree worshipers and mountain disciples, we’re not grass gurus (any kind of grass, for that matter!) or flora and fauna followers.  No, we are followers of Jesus the Christ, worshipers of the Creator of all that we see and all that we are.  Creation is not God.  Yet, we get a glimpse of the Creator when we comprehend the creation.  We know the artist when we examine and protect the work of art.  We commune with the author when we spend time in the writing.  

Psalm 8:1-9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

In order to approach God, we need a better sense of ourselves.  We need a proper perspective on who we are.  One of the places to grasp that perspective is in the contemplation of nature.  You can’t stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and not be humbled by the grandeur and the beauty of the place, overwhelmed by the forces of time and nature that carved such a structure, a natural wonder.  You can’t walk the beach of any ocean and watch the pounding of the surf and the power of the currents and not feel small and helpless despite our ability to fashion machinery and dwellings we think can withstand this power, until the storm surge comes and our efforts are swept away in a few tumultuous seconds.  You can’t contemplate the vastness of the universe and feel more significant than a speck of dust.  And yet, the psalmist tells us, God loves us.  Cares for us.  Blesses us. Honors us.  And gives us dominion.

Now there’s a word that needs another look: dominion.  It’s a word that has gotten us into trouble, I believe.  Because we only look at one side.  The power side.  The authority side.  “You have made them” – people, that is, you and me – “a little lower than God.”  “You have crowned them with glory and honor.”  Woo hoo.  I don’t know the Hebrew for woo hoo, frankly.  And even if I did, I wouldn’t find it in this psalm.  It’s not there.  This isn’t about power.  This isn’t about dominating, about using, exploiting, abusing and casting aside.  No, it is about caring for, like God cares for creation.  It is being mindful of the planet where we live.  It is caring for creatures and habitats like God cares for us.  Don’t think creation deserves that care?  Do we?  The psalm begins and ends with a doublet about God.  In our translation it reads “O Lord, our Sovereign.”  Older translations read: “O Lord, our Lord.”  It is a reminder that all of our “dominion” is the power to care like God cares, to be mindful - to be woke! - like God is mindful of all of creation.  Including us.

Yeah, it’s hard. It takes effort and energy.  It takes planning and going out of your way to be mindful, to be caring.  But it’s worth it.  Because it’s our home, and it is the world that is dying to be born again.  Groaning to be fulfilled as God intended.  Groaning in hope.  I see more sticks fell today.  Sigh.   


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Render Unto Caesar

Let me tell you how it will be / There's one for you, nineteen for me / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman.  It’s April 15th, tax day.  The day we have to justify our existence to our country for the privilege of living in the already great country.  Although, because April 15 falls on a Sunday this year we get an extra couple of days. Not sure why a couple, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.  We’ll take it and run.  Before writing those checks.  Should five per cent appear too small / Be thankful I don't take it all / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman.  Some say the Beatles wrote this song in protest of the tax rate for entertainers in the UK at the time.  Which were and still are frighteningly high.  But though we pay a lower rate, we still grumble, we still chafe, we still wonder if it is worth it.  A tax cut sounds good to everyone, except when it benefits everyone but us.  If you drive a car, I'll tax the street, / If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat. / If you get too cold I'll tax the heat, / If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet.  We just can’t win. So we grit our teeth and pay what’s due.  Whether all at once or a bit a time from each pay check.  If the latter, we think we’re coming out ahead when we get our refund, until we realize it was our money all along.  Don't ask me what I want it for / If you don't want to pay some more / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman.  And we don’t question, we can’t because we can’t figure out what we’re paying for anyway.  Every attempt to “simplify” the tax code only adds more lines and more pages and we’re already lost in the face of the forms.  We’re overwhelmed, oppressed, yet dutiful, responsible, respectful citizens and will pay our taxes because that’s what we do.  Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes / 'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman / And you're working for no one but me.  

OK, there’s where we have to draw the line, “Taxman.”  We don’t work for you.  I know it feels like it.  I know that’s the attitude that comes over us at tax time, that we’re working for The Man, the government, the machinery of politics as usual (and don’t let the advertisement fool you, it happens to everyone we send, no one is immune to the “way things get done” on that level - state or nation.  Everyone we send thinks they can make a difference, can drain the swamp.  Well, we may have changed some of the inhabitants, but the swamp still thrives.)  But despite our feelings, we don’t work for the taxman.  We don’t work for the nation, in the concrete or the abstract.  Our allegiance is not ultimately to our country, as great as it is.  We have a higher allegiance.  We work for Another.

Mark 12:13-17 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?" But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it." 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." 17 Jesus said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were utterly amazed at him.

We stand now in the glow of Easter.  This is a season for running.  For leaping.  For dancing.  This is a season for laughter and for living.  We walked the stony path of repentance, the way of the cross.  We followed in stunned silence as He poured out His life for us.  We waved our Palms as He rode into town, our town, our neighborhood, on the skittish little donkey that looked as bewildered as we felt.  But we shouted with the best of them.  Hosanna, save us, King Jesus, Prince of Peace, Son of our ancestor David.  Then we watched as He turned over the tables of our comfortable worship and drove out those who were in it for themselves instead for God and Father of us all.  And we wondered if we were next.  If that whip of cords He made was going to be used for more than setting pigeons free and sending lambs to their mothers.  Then we sat at table with Him and at the meal that we had shared a hundred times, except this time it was different, He made it different.  We squirmed uncomfortably in our seats as He washed our dusty feet.  We sat uncomprehendingly as He turned bread into flesh and wine into blood.  And He told us to remember.  How could we forget? But that wasn’t all He said.  He told us we would betray Him, we would deny Him, we would run to save our own skin when push came to shove.  We shouted Him down for that, told Him off, said He offended us with His low opinion of us.  Then we fell asleep in the garden, and woke to a riot.  Flashing lights and badges and weapons of all sorts. And they took Him and we ran.  For our lives we ran.  But we watched.  From a distance we watched as they tore Him to pieces, as they ripped His body and shed His blood.  We shouted with the worst of them, who screamed for His death.  And then we watched as they marched Him out to that trash heap of a hill, and with ruthless efficiency they removed the problem and washed their hands of the whole affair.  We watched as the world grew dark.  Darker than we had ever seen.  Darker than we could even imagine.  A darkness only broken by the sound of tearing, like a curtain somewhere, like a heart we knew.  And we sat in the darkness.  A darkness we thought would never end.  

Here at Southport UMC we walked in that darkness by remembering grace.  The Way to Heaven, the life of grace that we followers are called to live, to walk, to be every single day.  It’s the only way through the darkness, the only way to come into the light again.  The way to heaven includes a promise.  A hope.  The light that conquers darkness.  Life that conquers death.  We’ve been remembering God’s grace as the means by which we can walk in this world, when we embrace the light and when we are overcome by darkness.  The way to heaven ends with the promise of glory.

So now what?  We have come through our Lenten re-enactment, our journey to the cross and beyond.  We now embrace the light again, grab hold with both hands, with joy that sets our feet to dancing.  So now what?  Now we live.  Now we dance.  Now we walk.  We walk in the way.  

Our new sermon series that begins this weekend is called Walking in the Way.  It’s the so what after Lent.  OK, so let’s assume we understand grace (and I realize that’s a huge assumption – let’s say we have an inkling, a glimpse of grace).  But what do we do now?  We walk in that grace.  We live in that grace.  So for next month and half we’re going to explore some test cases, some case studies about how to walk in the way.  Some serious, some funny, some a little out there.  But all of them a slice of life as people of grace.

Which brings us back to tax day.  If we were hoping Jesus was going to give us permission to skip paying taxes, then we’re going to be disappointed.  He gives the questioners a slip by answering and not answering the question at the same time.  First of all it isn’t a sincere question, despite their flattery about sincerity at the beginning.  They just want to trap Him.  He can’t answer this one, they think, either way they’ve got Him.  If He says “yes, pay the tax”, then the people, who hate the tax will rebel.  If He says “no, don’t pay the tax”, then they can turn Him in as a traitor to Rome, preaching sedition.  (And in fact, this is one of the false accusations against Him later - “He forbade us to pay taxes to the Emperor!”  A case of yet another person who doesn’t listen to the sermon.)  

But He doesn’t say yes and He doesn’t say no.  He says what world do you live in?  He says where are your priorities, where is your security, where is your hope?  That’s what He says.  If you are going to invest in government, then you’ve got to pay for it.  If you’re going to use the benefits of a nation, then you’ve got to support it.  If you are beholden to Washington, if you voted thinking you were getting a savior, then cough it up.  If you think I’m being a bit harsh, that He was just being nice and drawing a line between church and state, then notice how it starts.  “Show me a coin.”  He doesn’t have one.  He doesn’t carry one.  He asks them and they reach in their pockets.  Give to Caesar, render to Caesar the old versions said.  Render.  Like surrender, like give up, give in, give all to that which you think will save you.  That’s the choice. 

See, we do enjoy the benefits of living in this nation and therefore owe our fair share.  But we don’t work for the Taxman, despite George Harrison’s compelling lyrics.  We don’t.  We work for God.  We live for God.  We love for God.  So our true allegiance and our debt and our joy to give is to God.  We can surrender to the state if we want, but as for me and my house ...