Friday, May 20, 2011

the 23rd psalm

Jesus was Jewish and he read and prayed the scriptures of his tradition, and especially, it seems, the Psalms. In John 10, we encounter the teaching of Jesus and the way he identified himself: “I am the good shepherd.” In Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage, in The Message, Jesus defines the mission of the shepherd: “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”

A famous preacher, William Sloane Coffin, once noted that just as there is finally only one hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, there is only one Psalm, the 23rd. Perhaps you would choose a different hymn, but most likely the Psalm that is on the hearts and lips of most believers is the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is My Shepherd”.

As an aside, 2011 is also the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. I was called by a reporter who was developing a story about the King James Version, and he asked how often I used this version. I have learned to be very careful about whatever I say to a reporter, but what I realized, in our conversation, is that the King James is most meaningful to me, now, in its translation of the Psalms. And I cannot think of this particular psalm apart from the King James Version.

Why does this Psalm speak to us, why do its words go down into the deepest places in our hearts, why does it continue to sing of God’s presence to us? I am not sure, but I know that there is a power in this psalm. It is one of the passages of scripture that is most often read at memorial services, and most often it can be read, recited and shared by those present from memory. There is something about this brief writing that resonates within us, at our time of greatest need. It is profound.

But the 23rd Psalm speaks of more than death; it also speaks of life, and especially of the One who is the Lord of life, the Good Shepherd (John 10). It begins: “The Lord is my shepherd”. It is one of those ancient phrases that no longer connect with the way most of us live---most of us, and much of the world’s population has moved to the city---but it continues to have relevance.

“The Lord is my shepherd” carries with it an important implication: God provides for us. We know this. But sometimes we forget. Those who prayed these psalms remembered their history: in forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel lacked nothing. God provided enough each day for that day.

Do we know what life will be like tomorrow? No. But we know that there are provisions for today. The Lord, our shepherd, will see to that. Scholars teach us that the term shepherd was often a reference to royalty, and the rod and the staff were the signs of office. Rulers, kings are supposed to shepherd and care for their people. Because the Lord is our shepherd, we have all that we need. God provides.

In the worship services we celebrate the sacraments of the Holy Communion and Baptism. When we come forward to receive the bread and the cup, we are reminded again, in a tangible way, that God will sustain us, just as an ordinary meal gives us the strength to make it through a day’s work. When a child is baptized, the water is a reminder of God’s life in the midst of death, of refreshment and renewal, and our prayer is that this child will be surrounded by all of the resources that she or he will need in life.

The Lord is my shepherd. God provides for us.

There is a second affirmation: Thou art with me. We need to know that we are not alone in this life’s journey. It helps to sense that someone walks beside us, even, at times, in the words of the familiar “footprints in the sand” saying, that someone carries us. And this psalm voices that truth. Do you hear it? It teaches us that:

Even in the dangerous places, we are not alone
Even in the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone
Even as we are being carted into surgery, we are not alone
Even as we are taking that long walk to the graveside, we are not alone
Even as we watch the slow deterioration of a loved one’s faculties, we are not alone
Even as we send our children away to school, we are not alone
Even as we face economic uncertainty, we are not alone
Even as we get used to life in a new place, we are not alone.

We can pray with Christians and Jews throughout the ages: Thou art with me.

A third affirmation: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Here we see a shift in the psalm: God is no longer the shepherd to the sheep. God is now the Host, and we are the guests. Those hearing and praying this psalm would have known about the desert rule of hospitality. If I were in danger, and enemies were pursuing me, I would come to your door, and according to the desert rule of hospitality, you would be required to take me in for two nights and a day in between, and my enemies would have to stay outside the circle of light cast by the fire.

The Lord prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. The Lord provides a place of safety. Sometimes I will take a few minutes and watch the evening news, maybe at eleven o’clock. The clear message---the world is not a safe place. The world is often a dangerous place: Abuse and addiction, rage and robbery, terrorism and torture. And the setting can be our neighborhood or a nation across the planet.

In a dangerous world, people search for sanctuary.

At its best, a Christian church is a sanctuary: it is a place where people are treated with dignity. In the early Methodist movement, two hundred and fifty years ago, members agreed to follow three simple rules, which began with “first, do no harm”. Why? Because every person is created in the image of God.

And so we search for sanctuary in order to find God. We are also looking for a community that embodies the qualities of the Shepherd who watches over, protects, provides for, creates a safe place for those under his care.

Is the church always a safe place? Is the church always a sanctuary? No. And here the media, with laser-like focus, locates our faults, our sins, saying, in effect, “you are not who you proclaim yourself to be” when you abuse children or mirror the political divisions or judge your neighbor.

In life we will experience stress, adversity, danger. And so we are given these words:

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

A fourth and final affirmation: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. The 23rd Psalm is a psalm about our destiny. There is a truism about small groups that says that we feel most confident and least anxious when we know where we are going. The psalmist cries out: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. Now the “house of the Lord” has several meanings: for those who originally prayed this psalm, it meant the temple, in Jerusalem. I have stood at the wall of that temple. It is the sacred place that our chancel choir so often sings about in their setting of the 84th Psalm, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place”.

Most of us will never journey to the temple in Jerusalem, but we are drawn to some other holy place: it could be in the natural world---the coast, or the mountains; it could be an old home place, where you grew up; it could be here, in this sanctuary.

This is the house of the Lord.

It is where we come, again and again, to repair some brokenness in our lives,
it where we come, again and again, to renew some deficit of energy or spirit,
it is where we come, again and again, to listen for some voice that will guide our feet,
it is where we come, again and again, to be still and know that he is God.

But “house of the Lord” carries an additional meaning for the Christian who prays it: God has a destiny for us, echoed in the words of Jesus, “I go to prepare a place for you” (see John 14. 1-3)---I will actually preach about that phrase next Sunday. The shepherd guides us safely to a home not made with hands, whose builder and maker is God. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land that he had been promised…For he looked to that city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11. 8-10).

What does this Psalm say to us? Some of us listen to the psalm and we are wondering about how we are going to find the resources—material, spiritual, financial, psychological—to make it through the next week. And if we find ourselves in that place we can believe the good news: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Some of us listen to the psalm, and we sense that we are all alone in the world. Maybe we feel all alone in our homes, all alone in our struggles, without a sense that we truly matter to any other person. And if we find ourselves in that place we can believe the good news: Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Some of us are gripped by a fear that will not go away, and we need to draw a circle around ourselves or our families or those we love that will keep out violence or drugs or danger or stress. If we find ourselves in this place we can believe the good news: Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.

And some of us are anxious about the future, and we have lived long enough to know that there is more to life than this life, that heaven is a reality for which we pray and to which we find ourselves being drawn. And if we discover ourselves in this place, we can believe the good news: I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

If there are a few core teachings in our faith, and here I am thinking of the Lord’ s Prayer and the Beatitudes, surely the 23rd Psalm is one of them. It was formational for Jesus and it can be formational for each of us. It was his way and it is our way to “real and eternal life, more life and a better life than we have ever dreamed of.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lesslie Newbigin on John 14. 6

"We do not know the destination. We have no map of what lies beyond the curtain, though theologians---and others---often use language to suggest that we have. We do not know the limits of the possibilities for our personal lives or for the life of the world. We do not know, and cannot know, all that God has prepared for those who love him. It is beyond the highest power of our imagination (1 Corinthians 2. 9).

"We do not know the destination; but we do know the way. That is the heart of the matter...He himself is the way, and therefore it is only by being made a part of his humanity that we are on the way and know that we are not lost even though we do not see the destination…To follow this way is, in fact, the only way to the Father. This is not to say that God has left no witness to himself in the rest of the life of the world. We have in fact been told that Jesus is the light that lightens every man and woman. What is being said here, as in the whole of the Gospel, is that Jesus is in fact the presence of God’s truth and God’s life in the world, and to know the Father means to follow the way which Jesus is, and which he has opened through the curtain of his living, his dying, and his rising from the dead.

"The word “God” has had and still has an almost infinite number of meanings. Here we are invited to accept the affirmation that there is but one way to come to the living God and know him as Father, and that is by being made one with this meek and humble man who goes to the cross carrying the sin of the world.”

The Light Has Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pages 182-183

Saturday, May 14, 2011

change the world

This weekend United Methodists across the planet are coming together around a common purpose: to change the world. This initiative, whose origins are in the visionary leadership of United Methodist Communications (UMCOM) and Larry Hollon, is both denominational and grassroots. It is an example of how a denomination can empower ministry and mission at the local level. And it is a movement that calls forth the gifts of ordinary Christians and connects them with human hurts and hopes.

Last fall a number of our leaders traveled to the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City to learn from Adam Hamilton and that extraordinary group of people. We had been focusing on our strengths in a strategic planning process which used Appreciative Inquiry as a theoretical framework. We were also intrigued by their model of seeing Christmas Eve as a beginning, rather than an ending, and as a way to help people get started in the Christian life (or at least to invite them back for a series that matched a need or interest).

We connected that congregation's strategy (seeing Christmas Eve as a beginning for new people) with the Change the World initiative and our own congregation's strengths. Providence UMC is large church, though not a mega-church. Among our strengths are risk-taking mission and service, to use the language of Bishop Robert Schnase. We have also noticed that many of our newest members have been attracted to us for missional reasons: how we are present in our own community, especially the homeless, and how we have been engaged with the needs of Haiti.

And so we made the decision to have "Change the World" as our Christmas Eve focus. I reflected on Howard Thurman's moving prayer/poem, "The Work of Christmas". We talked about Christmas as a time of new birth, new life and new creation, not only for us but for all people. We held candlelight in our hands and imagined a world illumined by the presence and people of God. We remembered the truth and the ongoing imperative of the incarnation.

We had planned a six week series, in January and early February, around the question, "How can you change the world?" We began with a study of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), and encouraged individuals to read through the Sermon on the Mount during these weeks. I remembered the title of a book: "they like Jesus, but not the church." We focused on Jesus.

We then presented a different topic each week, related to risk-taking mission and service: Jim Gulley of the United Methodist Church and Lauren James, one of our members and a staff person with UMCOR, talked about Haiti: practical needs and hands-on testimonies of help and healing. A friend in our community talked about racial reconciliation; she and I had met at Duke Divinity School's Center for Reconciliation the spring before, and an African-American member of our congregation also shared. One of our staff members and a leader in the community talked about standing alongside the working poor in our community as they moved toward permanent housing. A missionary couple reflected on the reality of human trafficking in southeast Asia and, increasingly, in the United States. And one of our leaders led a session on hunger in our city, and the church's role in providing food.

These sessions were educational, in that they were descriptive of present realities in our world, in relation to human needs and what God was already doing through the church. We wanted to help people move beyond a passive perspective (watching the poor on television or seeing them as statistics) to an active engagement (both in terms of practice and policy). At times the conversations had an edge to them, as we recognized our own complicity in a world that privileges some and not others.

The theme, Change the World, tapped into a deep calling that many Christians sense: to make a difference, to share their faith in tangible ways, to exercise their gifts, passions and expertise. Hundreds of our members have been in relationships with homeless men and women in our community, ranging from a shelter that exists within our church to a public/private partnership with homeless youth aging out of foster care. Over one hundred of our members have made the journey to Haiti, and a number of Haitians have made the corresponding pilgrimage to us; there has been a mutual sharing of gifts in the development of a clinic, a school and a microcredit enterprise.

We know that we have not arrived, as a church; in Howard Thurman's words, "The Work of Christmas" goes on. In particular, we could do a great deal more in relation to the public schools of our city; we would rather serve the poor, at times, than have them attend our schools, or attend theirs. But God is with us, and God is not finished with us, or the world.

I am grateful for this initiative----to change the world. I am proud, in this particular moment, to be a United Methodist. At our best, we are engaged with the world, and we have been since Wesley's establishment of the Kingswood Schools in 18th century England. A connectional church is ideally positioned to join in God's dream of changing the world. When the focus is beyond us, all of our resources----and I have mentioned here a mega-church, a theological school, and two general agencies----can be channeled toward a common cause--the beloved community.

Change the World is a day, a weekend, an event, and for this I give thanks. But I also want you to reflect on how today, this weekend, might also be a beginning. In this way we might become disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the discovery of faith: a confirmation sermon (john 20)

It was evening on the first day of the week, which is to say, it was still Sunday, it was still Easter. No one had removed the flowers, the brass musicians had not yet left, the butterflies are still in the air. The disciples were still singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”. They were still singing “Up From The Grave He Arose”. They were still singing “Thine Be The Glory, Risen Conquering Son.”

Last Sunday we talked about what it meant to be the Easter people. One implication is that we have passed from fear to joy. The angel said, to the women at the tomb, “Do not be afraid.” And yet, later that day they have locked themselves inside the house, for fear of the Jewish authorities. Why were they afraid? Some think the Jewish authorities might have sent the police to persecute them, as had been the experience of Jesus. Others wonder if might have been accused of removing the body of Jesus. We don’t know the precise cause of the fear, but it was real.

The good news is that the risen Lord comes to stand among them, and says, “peace be with you.” He will say these words, “peace be with you”, three times (verses 19, 21, 26). Some see a parallel with the three times that Peter denies that he is a disciple of Jesus, earlier in the gospels.

Then Jesus shows them his hands and his side. The resurrection does not replace the crucifixion. Easter does erase the memory of Good Friday. And here good theology has implications for our everyday lives: faithful Christians will endure sufferings, and they will know the peace that surpasses understanding, evening as they know their woundedness. The victory that Jesus wins on the cross does not eliminate the battle scars. The risen Lord shows the disciples his hands and his side, and they rejoice.

So we are still talking about Easter, one week later. John the evangelist was teaching us that Easter is not a moment in time, not something we experience and check off the list, been there, done that. It is the way God changes the world, and how we pass from darkness to light, fear to joy, hatred to love, anxiety to peace.

The story of Jesus, the empty tomb, the women who discover it, their witness, flows into a gathering of his disciples later that day. This was the very ground of our hope, and the first followers of Jesus passed this remembrance on so that it would be preserved and celebrated. But the church remembered this story, and continues to tell it, for another reason, and that was the experience of Thomas.

The Sunday following Easter is sometimes called “low Sunday”. On Easter Sunday you can’t get a seat; on the Sunday after Easter there are often many seats to choose from! In the rhythm of life among God’s people, it is the calm after the storm. In the lectionary, a three year cycle of reading through the whole Bible, this passage from John, and the story of Thomas, is always the gospel for the Sunday following Easter.

Over the years I have come to love this Sunday, because it was here that I became acquainted with this disciple named Thomas. In the Eastern Church this day is sometimes referred to as St. Thomas Sunday, in relation to the gospel reading. The tradition has Thomas taking the gospel to India, in the first century, after the resurrection. Of course the stereotype among many of us is of “doubting Thomas”, but our Orthodox friends choose instead to remember his confession of faith (“my Lord and my God”). Earlier in John’s gospel, Thomas had asked Jesus, upon his impending departure, “We do not know where you are going? How can we know the way?” And Jesus had responded, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Thomas is the one who is in conversation with Jesus about the faith, and included in that faith is struggle and doubt. If the women are the first evangelists, we might designate Thomas as the first seeker! Thankfully, the disciples allowed Thomas his quest. And in his skepticism he represents all of us who come to faith and continue in faith with perseverance and struggle.

We make our way forward in the pilgrimage as we search for assurance, some basis for faith and hope. In the midst of perseverance, struggle and doubt, we look for signs. John the Evangelist was a master at telling us about the good news through the signs of Jesus: turning water into wine, feeding the hungry multitudes, giving sight to the blind. Jesus is the word, but the word becomes flesh, something we can sense. Thomas is located near the source of a long tradition of seekers, those looking for signs. And thus his honest affirmation of faith: “I will not believe unless I see in his hands the nail prints, and place my finger in his wounds”. In other words, he wants to experience it himself.

I am delighted that we are reading the story of Thomas on a day when we confirm a new group of young people into our church, on the day in which they will make their professions of faith and become members of this body. I am grateful to Teresa Dunn and the adult leaders in our youth ministry, who have mentored them. Bill Jeffries and have I met with all of the young people over the past few weeks and listened to them talk about their faith. In these personal conversations we asked questions, they answered some of the questions, and they asked their own questions. Each year I have also gone to the confirmation retreat at Lake Junaluska, and in one of the sessions, usually an hour or two, I have attempted to answer their questions: what happens after we die? What about my Jewish friend? Is Jesus the only way? How does creation relate to evolution?

Really easy questions to answer…

I have also known that many of these students have had more than their share of life experience: the illness of parents, the death of friends, seeing violence first hand. They are seeking something, searching for something.

It is always an experience that fills me with hope about the future…not that these are such wonderful young people, although they are…but hope in the possibility that they are coming to believe all of this, some of them are skeptics, and in the coming years they will test all of this out, and ask the questions of Thomas, in their own ways: “is this true? Is this real?”

Thomas had heard others talking about all of this, but he said, “I will not believe unless I see in his hands the nail prints, and place my finger in his wounds.” In other words, Thomas was asking, “is this true? Is this real?”

Many have suggested that we have moved from a modern to a post-modern world. In a modern world we can argued into the truth, debated into belief in a truth. It is a mostly rational process. But in a post-modern world, truth is different. We have to experience truth. It must come to life. Many are also suggesting that post-modernism is closer to the ancient world than modernism. The big truth in John’s gospel, from the very beginning, was that the word had become flesh, and lived among us, that God is real and alive, not the most brilliant and abstract theory of the universe but flesh and blood, a real presence among us. This is announced in the very first words of John’ s Gospel, the word became flesh, and it is confirmed at the very end, where Thomas says, in so many words, the word must become flesh. I will not believe unless I see in his hands the nail prints, and place my finger in his wounds.”

When I first began to hear the story of Thomas, at about the age of these confirmands, we were critical of him, but I know now that we are more like Thomas than we realize: as Christians, we are always trying to connect our faith with our experience. Someone has said that we remember 20% of what we are told but 80% of what we discover for ourselves.

It is essential that we confess that Easter is more than positive thinking or the thrill of victory, because we left the sanctuary last Sunday with our same griefs, our same doubts, our same struggles, right? After the resurrection, we look for the signs, by faith. Maybe we no longer hear the strong and clear soprano voices singing the alleluia descants, soaring above it all. The enthusiasm wanes, the crowds disperse, life goes on. On a “low Sunday” if we are listening, we might recall the words of Thomas: “We do not know where you (Christ), and thus, by extension, where we, where all of this is going? How can we know the way?”

The Risen Jesus shows them his hands and his side. I communicated this week with a friend, Kelly, a classmate of Pam and mine in Divinity School and a pastor in north Alabama. Years ago a tornado passed through their church in Goshen, Alabama on Palm Sunday. Twenty members of the worshipping congregation were killed that morning, among them their four year old daughter, Hannah. I asked her this week how we might help their community, passing through the storm again and she gave me a couple of practical ideas. I thought again about how all of this happened and happens right in the midst of Easter, and yet that is precisely the point. The resurrection does not replace the crucifixion, it incorporates it. He stands among us and offers us the gift of peace. The gospel for today has helped me to reflect on all of this.

On this day we also think closely about how the faith is passed on from generation to generation. I love the words of the great British Methodist composer of hymns, Fred Pratt Green:

The church of Christ in every age
Beset by change but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead. (589, UMH)

These young people are going to grow up, and if the past is any predictor of the future, they are going to pass through a few storms. This faith that we are all discovering together will be tested in the crucible of their lives. And they are going to have to keep exploring, keep questioning, and they will have to keep professing their faith. They are going to want to see this with their eyes and touch this with their hands, in order to know if it is true, if it is real. If they are prone to skepticism, I hope they will remember their older brother, Thomas, who speaks for all of us who come to faith and continue in faith with perseverance and struggle.