Sunday, January 30, 2011

happiness (matthew 5. 1-12)

In the dead of winter it helps to think about summer, right? Last summer Pam and I enjoyed a few days in New England. Good friends from Maine had invited us to stay with them at their cabin beside a pond. It was glorious. Then we drove down to Boston, and spent a few days there. I saw a game at Fenway Park; although I am not a Red Sox fan, it was pretty amazing. Some of you know I am on Facebook---they say people my age get connected to Facebook because they want to see pictures of their children, and it is true---and so on Facebook, I commented that we were in Boston for a few days, that we had just finished lunch at the Union Oyster House, and were walking the Freedom Trail.

I immediately received a text message from one of my best friends in high school. He could not believe that I was there. He lived not far away, he said; we had to get together, he would show us around. Now as close as Scott and I had been in high school, I had not seen him in thirty-five years.

So Pam and I met Scott the next day, at an outdoor café in Harvard Square. It was awkward at first. He probably never imagined that I would have become a minister, and he asked about that---“how did it happen?”. I caught up with him. Since Pam did not share our history it was probably interesting for her to see a side of things that I had not talked very much about. He showed us around Harvard, and then MIT, where he had gone to school. His brother in law teaches there and got us into the Media Labs, where they have invented a number of things---the Smart Car, the Kindle, Guitar Hero. Designed by the architect I.M. Pei, the building is all glass, and it is remarkable. Late in the afternoon he drove us back to our apartment.

In many ways it was an extraordinary day: a surprise reunion; a connection with an old friend; the discovery of a new place; the appreciation for intellect and creativity. And it had all come as a gift. I have asked people all week to think about experiences of happiness. When are you happiest? When have you been happiest? The responses have been amazing: some have been related to places---whenever my feet are in the ocean, one friend said; whenever school is cancelled because of snow, another friend commented. Some talked about simplifying their lives. Some talked about following their children’s pursuits. Some talked about a favorite movie. Some talked about serving. Some talked about particular scenes in movies. Some talked about travel.

Happiness is a hot topic in current conversation and research. One of Oprah’s shows last week was about happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, about how she takes a year to focus on all of this, will soon become a television show. Why the interest in happiness? Maybe it is New Year’s Resolutions---remember those? Or it could be that our lives are constantly in the process of change and we have to figure it out again. Nothing made me happier a few years ago than waiting for a youth symphony concert to begin: one of our daughters played the viola. Or attending high school volleyball matches all over Charlotte: one of our daughters was a middle hitter. But time passes, life changes, and I rarely attend the youth symphony or a volleyball match. So what replaces that? We have to come again and again to the question, “when am I happiest?”, because time passes, life changes. And so we look for broader measures of happiness.

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, was convinced that there was no relation between happiness and wealth. He felt however that people were motivated by the pursuit of happiness (he wrote about all of this in 1776…recall the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”), and so we had to believe that the production of wealth would make us happy in order for economies to flourish. This was a delusion, he knew, but it really is the basis for our consumer culture. You really will be happy if you win that Visa Contest and get to go the Super Bowl the rest of your life….or if you win the Lottery, and so on. Maybe not!

Instead of Adam Smith and the next commercial that comes across our television, we might listen to an ancient rabbi, who, it turns out, had a few ideas about happiness too. The Common English Bible is a new translation that some in our congregation have been working with. It translates the Greek word, macarios, blessed in many of our English translations, as happy. While the KJV, 400 years ago this year translated macarios as blessed, the very first English translation, the Tyndale version , 100 years before the KJV, expressed it as “happy”.

It is interesting that Jesus begins perhaps his most important teaching, the sermon on the mount, with a series of blessings, or statements about happiness. There are a series of nine beatitudes. Scholars remind us that these are descriptions, not prescriptions. They are not telling us how we have to live; they are pointing out the ways in which the blessed and happy life breaks in upon us. They are not commandments, but promises, not goals to be achieved but gifts.

I could teach or preach a series of sermons on the Beatitudes, and I realize that a few minutes today is not time to do justice to them. The first beatitude has to do with poverty of spirit. What does that mean? Luke recorded the beatitude in a simpler form, blessed are the poor. According to Eduard Schweizer, Jesus “probably has in mind people whose outward circumstances force them to look to God for everything, but also to receive from God the gift of the spirit (faith) to look to him for everything”. Eugene Peterson translates this verse in an interesting way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. When there is less of you, there is more of God and his rule”.

Unhappiness is a life turned in on itself. Happiness is life turned outward and upward toward a higher power, toward God. Happiness happens not only or always when we are filled, successful, prospering and winning, but when we are empty, struggling, even ground down. In adversity we discover resources we would have missed otherwise.

I asked you this week about when you had been happiest and why? A friend from another city, who leads a construction business responded in this way:

In the last couple of years, I've found I am most unhappy when I'm focused on myself. Worry, fear and trouble overtake me. My antidote to this downward spiral is to think of others. Prison ministry, working for the homeless, praying for the needs of others lifts me from my focus on self and brings me closer to God. My burdens are then lifted and I am open to feelings of gratitude and happiness for God's provision.”

This is probably not a lesson he would have chosen…and yet he has discovered happiness. If there are other recurring themes in the Beatitudes, they are the relation between the present and the future and the inner life and the external world. We take a step toward happiness, and often for us it must be a choice, as claim God’s promises for the future. Happy are the people who grieve, for they will be made glad…Happy are people who are humble, for they will inherit the earth. Jesus is teaching us that happiness is having a vision and hope for the future.

The beatitudes, like much of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), also remind us of the importance of the inner life in relation to the external world. As I listened to some of your responses to the question of happiness and faith, I realized that much of this has to do with taking the time to reflect. One friend shared this:

Some of the happiest moments of my life happened at sidewalk cafes in Belgium. The happiness was in the simplicity of these moments. Good coffee. Solitude. People watching. Old world. No hurry…I suppose happiness happens for me in those rare moments when things slow down . . way, way down.”

The world most of us live in is filled with activity, being somewhere at a certain time, meeting a particular goal. So much of our conception of happiness is external: if I look a certain way, if I can hang a particular diploma on my wall, if I can get the presentation just right. I am not disparaging this. But it is not the sum total of who we are, and sometimes our lives become out of balance. And so Jesus teaches us not only to hunger and thirst, but to hunger and thirst for righteousness. To reflect is to see what is all around us, but it is to see in a different way: it is to see with the heart.

When you ask someone to reflect on what has made them happy, you have immediately transitioned into the sphere of the heart. One of the beatitudes reads, simply, “happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God”. To see God, for a Christian, is about the life to come, to be sure, but it is also about this life. Jesus says, in John 14, “if you have seen me you have seen the Father”. To see with the heart is to look for Jesus in everyday life; it is striking that my friend talked about finding happiness, in an economic downturn, in ministries with the homeless and the imprisoned. We remember Matthew 25, and the dialogue at the Great Judgment: “When did we see you?”, they ask Jesus and he responds, “when you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

A pure heart is a life that resists the distortions of what is often presented to us as happiness, a pure heart looks beneath the surface. And in the beatitudes we also learn that followers of Jesus will be misunderstood, harassed, insulted, spoken badly of. Happiness is not determined in a focus group or by a popularity contest, Jesus insists. Your reward is in heaven.

As we read the Beatitudes and pray them, we are drawn more deeply toward each other and God. We should not be surprised to discover that the happiest people we know are those who are living this way, and we are happiest when we are living this way….finding comfort in our grief, showing mercy instead of carrying bitterness, making peace instead of retaliating, seeing with the heart, finding our worth not in possessions but in relationships.

I realize there is some risk in preaching a sermon about happiness. Christians tend to be serious, somber, religious people, and we don’t often associate all of that with happiness. Or we think of some distortions of the gospel, like positive thinking or possibility thinking that did not have the weight of Christian teaching to anchor them. The bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral, this fall, seemed to symbolize all of that. The risk, however, should not prevent us from seeking to connect faith and happiness. Jesus was doing this very thing in the Beatitudes. These nine sayings are a simple and profound meditation on life as connection, discovery and gift.

Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us to pray as children dependent on our heavenly Father. Children are constantly connecting, discovering, receiving life as a gift. I am reminded of the wisdom of the novelist Tom Robbins, who said, “
it is never too late to have a happy childhood”.

In meeting my friend Scott that day, I did come away seeing my life from a different perspective. Time passes, life changes. Could it really have been 35 years? And how could I have imagined it happening the way it has, all of it coming as something of a surprise? Going to seminary, meeting Pam, a life in the ministry, the births of two children, traveling around the world, writing books, having the privilege of entering into people’s lives at some of the most amazing intersections---weddings, funerals, deaths, births, decisions, frustrations, celebrations.

I have often found myself, even in chaotic, uncertain and challenging times, knowing that I am blessed, and, yes, happy. That day I knew it again.

Sources: Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According To Matthew. Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage. Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project. Percy Ainsworth, “The Vision of a Clean Heart”, Weavings, November/December, 1996. Common English Bible.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

happiness: gathering up the leftover fragments

I have been working on a sermon on the subject of happiness this week, taken from the beatitudes (Matthew 5. 1-12) and the prophetic summary of Micah (6. 6-8). I have asked friends and congregation members to write about their experiences of happiness and the responses have been amazing in their depth and diversity. All of this has led me to reflect on the same question---what is most personal is also most universal---and so I record here a few experiences of happiness. Set aside, for a moment the distinctions between happiness and blessing, and simply go to some of your own places of happiness. These have been some of mine, in no particular order:

1. The births of our children
2. Discovering a great restaurant: lately, Bistro le Bon, on Central Avenue in Charlotte
3. The annual Joke Show on A Prairie Home Companion
4. Making coffee for my wife each morning
5. An annual Academy Awards party with one set of good friends; an annual Groundhog Day party with another
6. Placing a prayer in the crevice of the Western Wall in Jerusalem
7. Finding a good doctor and a good dentist
8. Seeing really good people move into positions of influence: for example a friend who has been a Judge and will be again
9. The Office (my younger daughter got me into this) and Modern Family (ditto)
10. Waking up in the cool mountain air of our cabin in Western North Carolina
11. Holding the first book that I wrote in my hands
12. Attending the Phi Beta Kappa induction of our older daughter and a conference volleyball championship to watch our younger daughter
13. Meeting Nanci Griffith, Darius Rucker, Elvis Costello and Darrell Scott
14. Being ordained as an Elder, and participating in the laying on of hands of a number of friends over the years
15. Anytime I am watching a Coen Brothers movie.
16. Sitting in the open skies at Merlefest
17. Walking around the lake at Junaluska
18. Preaching at Duke Chapel, Marsh Chapel at Boston U, and the Upper Room Chapel
19. Walking on the Great Wall of China
20. Eating at Country's BBQ with my family in Columbus
21. Seeing friends at Annual Conference every year
22. Watching a Braves game in Atlanta; bonus, eating at the Varsity beforehand
23. A lectionary group that met at Wolf Laurel above Asheville the week before Labor Day each year
24. Picking blueberries on top of a mountain in Maine last summer
25. Anticipating the graduation of Jacques Lamour from Huntingdon College this May, particularly the vision of him walking across the stage
26. Participating in a panel discussion with Paul Farmer and in a lunch conversation with Elie Wiesel
27. Celebrating my 30th wedding anniversary earlier this month
28. The thrill of preaching on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday
29. Memories of silent retreats at Dayspring
30. Receiving an honorary doctorate at the United Methodist University of Liberia
31. Grilling in our backyard
32. The first time I ever participated in a Day of Service, at St. Timothy's
33. The Rabbis I have known, especially Mel and Murray
34. A few close friends with whom I talk almost every week
35. Building an outdoor cement soccer field in Cochabamba, Bolivia
36. A writer's workshop with Eugene Peterson at a monastery in Minnesota
37. A seminar in Maryland with Ed Friedman, of blessed memory
38. SEC football and ACC basketball
39. Committed and joyful members of churches all along the way
40. To be continued...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

facing a decision (jeremiah 6. 16)

"Thus says the Lord, stand at the crossroads and look.
And ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies;
and walk in it, and find rest for your souls."

Like many verses in the Bible, this brief thought is filled with practical wisdom. I invite you to read it again, slowly.

It is, first, a word from the Lord, and as in all communication, there is one who speaks and one who listens, and so it is important that we listen. Thus says the Lord. God is speaking to a time and a place, and Jeremiah, one of the great prophets of God recorded this. The temple is destroyed, he is in an adversarial relationship with the King, and he moves to Egypt, where he lives out his days in exile. God wants to speak, but the people will not listen, they ridicule the word of God, they are greedy, they do not speak or act truthfully, and they cover over all of this with a veneer that says “all is well”. To compound all of this, they have become so comfortable in their evil that they no longer blush about it. Jeremiah is speaking to a culture in ruins, to a demoralized people. He senses that some of the adversity has come from their enemies, but he also knows that some they have brought on themselves.

It is a challenging time and place. Now, 586 before Christ is not the same world as 2011 AD, or maybe it is? And so God spoke and God continues to speak. We are not left without a word, without guidance. Thus says the Lord, stand at the crossroads. What are the crossroads? The crossroads are those moments and places of decision. It was early Thursday morning, I am an early morning person but this was really early, and I was driving one of our daughters to catch Amtrak, she was headed for Washington D.C. and had a ticket. We were on time, but did not have a great deal of cushion. So we are headed north on 277 and I remembered that the Amtrak exit is not marked. We came upon an exit, and I wondered, “is this it?” No, we will take the next one, we did and drove a mile maybe, took the exit and then realized, “this is not the right place.” Now I know, a guy keeps driving, right? But it did not look familiar, so we turned around. It is early in the morning, it is dark, it is cold, and not much is open, not many people are moving around.

Soon we come upon a stop light and a couple of guys are standing there. Can you tell us how to get to Amtrak from here? They told us to turn around, make an immediate left, and then another immediate left and we would be there. We thanked them and followed their instructions, and soon, we were there, in time to catch the train.

We were at a crossroads, wondering which way to turn. We were at a place and a moment of decision. To stand at the crossroads is to survey all of the possible options, and it can be bewildering. Barry Schwartz teaches psychology at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia and he was written a wonderful book entitled The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. He argues that the increasing numbers of choices, options do not make us more content; in fact, they can be overwhelming. From shampoo to cheese, from the right college to the right retirement community, from where to live to how many children, abundance of choices actually makes us less happy and more stressed.

Every day we all stand at a crossroads. Of course this goes beyond consumer behavior, employment and family to other matters: the moral decisions we make, what we value, our ethical and spiritual lives.

Stand at the crossroads and look, or, as the rabbis said, consider. This is an invitation to see what is going on all around us. If we have ears to hear what the Lord is saying to us, our eyes are open to see what is happening in our lives and in our world. Stand at the crossroads and look:

Life is passing you by and in the meantime you wonder: How are you spending your time? Where is it going? What is concerning you, worrying you? What are you missing? What direction has your life taken the last year, two years? Is it the road you want to be on? Or do you seem lost, like we were on Thursday morning?

Look around. Consider. The seeing and reflecting may lead us to ask the question: am I going in the right direction? Is this what I want from life? We can rely on our own counsel, or the guidance of friends. And if faith is a part of our lives, we can imagine that God is speaking to us.

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths. What is the ancient path? Well, it is not the next thing, not always the relevant thing, the newest gadget or program or guru. For a Christian, there is a well traveled ancient path. It began three thousand years ago, as God called Abraham and Sarah and then Moses. The path led the people from slavery to freedom. Last Sunday I talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. When he stood at a crossroads and looked around, at Montgomery and Selma, he discovered the ancient path, the very one that Moses had walked before him. The path led God’s people to remarkable heights of success---the kingdoms of David and Solomon, the building of the temple, and utter valleys of despair----exile to Assyrian and Babylon, and the destruction of the temple.

Through it all God gave us prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, to steer us back toward that path. They were like the men we met early in the morning, last week, who helped us on the way to where we needed to be, who realized we were lost. Finally the ancient path was identified by John the Baptist in the wilderness, and Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. Eugene Peterson has commented that the way is the most frequently avoided metaphor among Christians of our time. The way means “to do it the way Jesus did it, by becoming absolutely needy and dependent on the Father”. The ancient path is summarized in a well known proverb: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths (Proverbs 3. 5-6).

Pilgrims have walked this ancient path for the last thirty centuries. There are patterns of living related to the Sabbath and rest that are three thousand years old. There are patterns of hospitality given to us by the Benedictines that are 1600 years old. There are patterns of spiritual discernment given to us by the Jesuits that are 500 years old. There are patterns of holy living given to us by the early Methodists that are 250 years old. There are patterns of conversion of the heart given to us by the revival preachers that are 150 years old. There are patterns of reform of the nation given to us by the social gospel that are 100 years old. All of this forms the ancient path. It is all a part of hearing the gospel invitation of Jesus, who said, and says, “Follow me”.

When you are looking around, when you are getting ready to take the next step, look for, consider the ancient path, where the good way lies. This path has always been the way of happiness and blessing, it has always been the way that God has been closest to his people, it has always been the practical way of being in his will. It can be a hard road, and a narrow road, Jesus said, but God is with us.

Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it. In other words, Christianity is a journey and not only a destination, a process and not only a status. The ancient path is the good way, it is the way that leads to life. The Sabbath, if we practice it, is for our healing. Spiritual Discernment, if we practice it, is for our guidance. Holiness, if we practice it, is for our maturing and well-being.

To walk in it is to stay with it. It is, in the words again of Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction.” To walk somewhere is to have the intention to make one choice and not another, to arrive in one place and not another. The ancient path, the good way, rules out lots of other paths, and some of these are mentioned in today’s scripture from Jeremiah.

To walk in this way is to find rest for our souls. If our ears are open, if our eyes are open, most of us confess a desire for this: rest for our souls. Our work becomes harder. We experience health challenges. There is tension within families. Often, making it through the schedule of a day can seem complex. And then there is the culture around us: infrastructures in need of repair, services that are constricting, angry and strident opinions and some of all of this spills over into violence. The financial markets remain turbulent, and unemployment is high.

All of this does something to the spirit, to the soul. This is not about nostalgia, about wishing life was like it was back in the day. We are standing at the crossroads, and we will go in one direction or another, and it will be the future. Paradoxically, the best way to walk into the future is to take the ancient path. About eleven years ago, on the eve of Y2K many were connecting the Book of Revelation with the end of the millennium. A magazine asked different Christian leaders to write letters to the churches of the present day, along the lines of the letters to the churches in Revelation. Eugene Peterson was asked to write a letter to the Suburban Church of North America. After some critique of the church, which most letters included, Peterson concluded with this guidance, written from the Voice of God to his people:

“Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to start off the new millennium by purging your imagination of your suburban assumptions. I want you to do it by spending the next couple of years reading carefully and repeatedly the 16 Hebrew Prophets, Isaiah to Malachi (Jeremiah would be in this group). I have used these prophets over and over again through the centuries to separate my people from the cultures in which they lived. They are one of my standard ways of putting my people back on the path of simple faith and obedience and worship in defiance of all that the world admires and rewards. My Spirit continues to use these prophets to train my people in discerning the difference between the ways of the world and the ways of the gospel. He wants to use them with you.

The letter ends with a simple passage, which captures, for me, what rest for our souls might look like. “To the church that not only believes what I say, but follows me in the way that I do it, I’ll give a simple, uncluttered life that is hospitable to the wanderers and misguided, the hurried and harried men and women of this world. I want to give them a taste of Sabbath and heaven. Are you listening? Really listening?”

Source: Eugene Peterson, “Letter to the Suburban Church of North America”, Christianity Today, October 25, 1999. Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

remembering martin at the end of a violent week

I was eleven years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Some people can remember where they were when John Kennedy was assassinated; I remember where I was when Martin Luther King was shot. I grew up in what I call the “deep south”, in Columbus, Georgia, the midpoint between Montgomery, Alabama, where King served Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, his first pastorate, and Atlanta, where he was born and where he returned after Montgomery.

In early April baseball season was beginning, we had received our uniforms, and were planning to attend a program where every player would walk across the stage, in his uniform, with his name being called out. I had the additional honor of walking our team’s “queen”, a young girl, across the stage. However, at the time I was more embarrassed and scared than anything else.

When we got home that evening we learned that King had been shot. And the response, in Columbus, Georgia, was one of ambivalence. You can imagine the comments that were voiced among white people who were not enthusiastic admirers of King. In the months ahead, and especially the summer, the response would become one of rage, bringing early curfews, and, for a young boy, fear and chaos.

Years later, I was required to read one of King’s books in a seminary class. It was a slim volume entitled “Why We Can’t Wait”. In its pages I encountered a different Martin Luther King than I had expected, or perhaps I was different. King had grown up in an enclave of middle class blacks in a very segregated section of Atlanta. He had the advantages within this community of heritage, personal charisma, rhetorical greatness and a superior mind. All of these gifts came together in him. He had both a national forum, among blacks and whites, he had had something to say, and he said it.

King had wrestled with the implications of the black struggle---he met Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of the bus in that first pastorate, in Montgomery---and he came out on the side of non-violence. During his life, he was pursued by the FBI and local sheriffs, ridiculed by those who wanted to retaliate, and dismissed by Malcolm X as not being tough enough. He was all about non-violence, which he saw as an implication of a greater reality, the love of God and neighbor and the call to follow Jesus.

I am also convinced that King was committed to non-violence because he had been given an enlarged vision of the Kingdom of God, which he called, in his early sermons, the beloved community. He understood that blacks and whites in this nation, that blacks and whites in the church had a common destiny. Martin Luther King, like each of us and like so many of the biblical characters was flawed and very human. But he perceived a vision for the church and the nation, and he was willing to work, and to suffer toward that end. In a speech he made the point clear:

The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.”

In the gospel lesson John the Baptist greets Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Most likely Jesus is linked in this passage to the suffering servant of Isaiah, who was compared “to a lamb led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53). God’s spirit had been placed upon the suffering servant, who would bring forth justice to the nation (42. 1), who would represent the mission of Israel not only to the tribes of Jacob, but who would call them forth as a light to the nations (49. 6), that the salvation of God might reach to the ends of the earth.

We know that Jesus interpreted his mission in light of these suffering servant passages of Isaiah. Jesus is the suffering servant for the world, the sacrificial savior, the bearer of God’s universal offer of salvation, who ushers in a new age of righteousness, and takes upon himself our sin and guilt. Jesus comes to make all things new. Jesus comes to be our peace. Jesus is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God in our world.

So this morning we might ask: What might all of this mean for those of us who live in an increasingly violent and polarized world, where the Lion and Lamb do not lie down together?

As the scripture says, this will be a sign for you. Over the last days we have witnessed the horror of a murder on the public stage, a federal judge and nine year old girl dead, along with others, the attempted assassination (the words of the shooter) of a member of the congress. Is it possible for us to see this, think about this as Christians, and not only as liberals (who want to link this with tea party) or conservatives (who want to talk about mental illness)? Is it possible for us to see this, think about this as Christians, and not only as liberals or conservatives who are worried about some political advantage or loss?

Could we not ask a different set of questions: are we not our brother's keeper, which means not only that we care for the most disturbed among us (which would mean more and not less treatment for the mentally ill) but that we hold them accountable, which means we do not allow an ordinary citizen to purchase a weapon that can kill a dozen people in a matter of seconds? Are we on our own, or can we recognize the mentally ill flooding our streets, our shelters, some returning from war, some long term unemployed? Do we recognize the cost of the violence that staying on the sidelines of all of this entails for us?

And can we go deeper into it all? Can we not agree, at a more fundamental level, that the way of Jesus is non-violent, can we not remember in his sermon on the mount that he blessed the peacemakers and called them children of God? Can we not recall, going back further, that he did not retaliate against his enemies but saw in Isaiah's prophecy a different and higher way, through suffering that was redemptive? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

There has been a great deal of focus, curiosity, analysis this week about the young man who planned and executed the murders this week in Arizona. It helps us to see him as odd, unusual, extremist. I was reminded that, in his lifetime, Martin Luther King, in a different way, was regarded as an agitator, a troublemaker, an extremist. In his Letter From the Birmingham Jail, he offered this response:

Though I was initially disappointed in being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love? “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you”. Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”

"Was not Martin Luther an extremist? “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

It is interesting that Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually born as Michael Luther King. His father was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and after several years of ministry, which included helping to keep the church open during the Depression, the church as a reward sent him one summer to Israel, the Holy Land, and Germany, the home of the Reformation. Upon his return he changed his name, and his son’s name from Michael Luther King, Sr. and Jr. to Martin Luther King, and he rebaptized his son.

Martin would grow into this name. Like the reformers before him, he rediscovered something that had been hidden, suppressed, ignored, even in the Bible Belt. And he did this primarily as a preacher of the gospel. He once said, of himself, “In my essence, I am a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage, for I am the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great grandson of a Baptist preacher.” He was a radical reformer in the sense that he went back to the roots, the scriptures, the prophets, the sermon on the mount and our nation’s founding documents and he held them up for us, and would not let us turn our eyes away.

In a meeting with students in Albany, Georgia, early in his ministry, he listened as a young woman student opened the worship service with prayer. There was a continuing refrain in her words: “I have a dream, I have a dream, I have a dream”. Like all preachers, King would borrow those words and make them his own, and our own. And so when he stood up before the nation to speak, and announced, “I have a dream”, he was tapping into the deep undercurrent in the hearts and minds of many, many people, who longed for a better and different world, and who were willing to suffer toward that end.

I have been to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery. It is a block on the main street leading to the State Capital, formerly the capital of the Confederacy, which would be prime real estate in most cities, until one learns that it was a slave pen, before it was a sanctuary.

That is a vivid image of the gospel that Martin came to announce. Jesus comes to save us, to redeem us, to set us free. That is an extreme act of an extremist God. And if we are his people, we are called to be extremists in a violent and polarized world, to envision a kingdom that is not of this world, and yet to work to change the world, even as we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

At his core, in his essence, Martin was a preacher of the gospel: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. And yet he wanted us to respond to the gospel, and so he asked and asks the question that is echoed in the hymn, a hymn that would have been sung in many of the services that he led, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone”---and they understood the cross as pain, injustice, frustration, despair, suffering---“must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free?”


There’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”

Sources: Richard Lischer, The Preacher King. “Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone”, United Methodist Hymnal; Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait.

Friday, January 07, 2011

guide us to thy perfect light: the new year as a spiritual journey (matthew 2. 1-12)

We begin the new calendar year with the very end of the Christmas story, which for the church coincides with the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany is a word that simply means the perception or intuition we have of an experience. The gospel for Epiphany is always Matthew 2. 1-12, the journey of the Wise Men, or Magi, who come from the East to offer their gifts to the Christ Child.

We are so familiar with this story that we often miss the scandal of it. I was visiting with my family in Georgia this week and we were having dinner, my mother, sister, nephew and my sister’s grandson, who is two. He had played the role of a magi in their church’s Christmas drama. We are familiar with this story because we have seen the play, or performed as a character in it. The scandal, according to Matthew, is that the visitors come from the east, biblical scholars tell us most likely from present day Iraq, they were more like astrologers than wise men, and so their horoscope told them to go in a particular direction, and they did. For a good Jew, waiting for the coming of the Messiah, this was not very kosher at all.

So here we are, with this old story and a brand new year. I find it to be an endlessly compelling story and actually perfectly suited to the confluence of all that is happening on this weekend, the calendars roll over, maybe we have taken the tree down, maybe not, the feel still of a holiday weekend, family coming and going. It is all perfectly captured for me in W. H. Auden’s poem, For the Time Being:

Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -
Not that we have much appetite, having …[ ]
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully -
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

Of course, the gospel for today gives us hope that we have not sent him away, that we are actually considering the possibility of moving toward him. A new year gives us that possibility. Matthew’s story of the magi is one of movement, ordinary people moving from one place to another, on a journey. Along the way they and we ask questions: what is my purpose here? Where are we going?

On New Year’s Eve we watched some of the coverage of the evening, the ball dropping,… We had ordered Chinese food, but we forgot to open the fortune cookie, that might have given us a hint of what lies ahead. The commentators offered analysis of where we had been, where we were going, some trying to find a kind of soft secular hope in the middle of it all.

I like to return again to this story, one we all know, some of us have actually been a part of its drama, and reflect on it in relation to a new year. What is my purpose? Where are we going? Is it luck? It is fate? Or is there a God out there, guiding our steps, actually walking with us from one place to another. The good news of Matthew’s scandalous gospel is that God can work with anyone, even people a great distance away, and bring them to a place of epiphany, perception, discovery, even joy.

To bring the question into even sharper focus, this is a biblical story not only about moving from one place to another; it is about moving in a purposeful direction, toward the light, toward Christ. And so we could ask the questions not only “what is my purpose here?” and “where am I going?”, but “where do I discover Christ?” I grew up in a culture where you met Christ, once, and that was enough, that settled the matter, but as I grow older, as these calendar years seem to move by faster and faster, I sense that I must meet him again and again, and each time the meeting is different because I am not the same person, and the world is a very different world.

Where do we discover Christ? In a personal relationship? In a spiritual practice? Among a small group of trusted friends? In a decision to forgive? In the experience of being forgiven? In the poor? In setting aside my own agendas and preconceptions and seeking to discern his?

Something like that is going on with these wise men. On their journey they see star in the sky and it leads them to the place of discovery, and they are overwhelmed with joy. A child is always a gift, the Christ Child is always a gift, an experience of God is always a gift. Like the wise men we can make the journey, we can follow the star, and all in the hopes that we will find God or better than God will find us.

One of the earliest ministers of Providence was a man named Doug Corriher. His picture hangs in the hallway outside my office here and I see it most every day. I knew Doug Corriher when I was in my late twenties, which was a few years ago! He had also been the minister of the church where I was serving as an associate minister, Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro, and he was active in that congregation . He would die during my time there. The only people on Providence who ever spoke about him in detail with me about Doug were Walter Nelson, of blessed memory, and his wife Carolyn, who now resides at Aldersgate.

Doug Corriher was a man on a spiritual journey, and he took groups of pilgrims on retreats to Dayspring, in rural Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. I would go to Dayspring later, and would take a number of groups there myself. One of my most valuable possessions is a newsletter article Doug wrote in 1976, thirty five years ago. How many newsletter articles do you save for that long, really? But this one I have. I want to read it to you. Listen for his words about journey:

“Twelve [of us] made a journey over last weekend to Dayspring, near Germantown, Maryland the retreat center of the Church of the Saviour. It was a journey to make retreat, an effort to re-establish vital connections in our spiritual lives, seek (during 48 hours of silence) to rediscover the urgency of God’s call in our souls and to strengthen the emphasis on devotional disciplines without which our own commitments weaken and eventually die.

“To drive 700 miles to find “the Lord within” could seem a little foolish on a Monday morning---could, that is, if one were to permit himself to forget what life is all about. Life is relationships---not business, not education, not wealth, not power---and the seeking soul would be willing to go to the moon to find the God-in-Christ in a new clarity and closeness. We had better begin soon to identify the “far country” and make a judgment on where we are; for it may turn out that each of us needs to “come to himself” and go back to the Father who waits with open arms.

“Dayspring is a Mecca of Christian hopes and discoveries. You know it by the quiet confidence of the Retreat master, who stands in a long tradition of wisdom, gleaned from years of making the inward journey/outward journey. …You know it as you soak up the atmosphere of Gods’ beautiful earth, sky, trees, birds, etc. You know it as you awaken in the night to meditate on the Lord’s word to you in your dreams. You know it as you watch your friends permit their real selves to surface and reach out to you in a fellowship that is eternal.

“Everybody needs to make this journey---not necessarily to Dayspring, but everybody needs to journey to where the Lord Jesus Christ is, and there to fall in step with Him whose big intention is to lead us into life, and life to the full.”

Christmas does linger, and with it the possibility that we have not sent him away, that we continue to struggle with the questions, “what is my purpose”, “where are we going?”

As we come to receive Holy Communion this morning we have the promise that God meets us, in this place. May we be, literally, overwhelmed with joy, and may we offer our gifts---the gifts of ourselves, all that we are and all that we have---to the Lord Jesus Christ. And may all of it lead us to life.

Let us pray:

Star of wonder,
star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading,
still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Source: W. H. Auden, For The Time Being. "We Three Kings", United Methodist Hymnal, 254.