Theology 101: Idolatry

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

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Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table. You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in. But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

Perhaps this is because my mother is a good southern woman who was raised to keep conversation polite.  Here’s what I think: it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument. Because we don’t all think the same things, do we? In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to Republicans, sitting next to whatever Bernie Sanders people are calling themselves these days. So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion. Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties. Because let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about. In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties. One of those parties that didn’t exactly go as planned. Because Jesus showed up.

Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town. Maybe he figured this new guy would play it safe, stick to the rule-book, not ruffle the feathers.

Maybe he figured that, just like we do, Jesus knew what the rules were and cared about them. Because that is what we all really want right?  When I have a dinner party, I expect people to behave. And when I go to a party and don’t know everyone there, then I try my best to behave too. I stand quietly in the social area. Maybe I say hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, we stick to “safe” conversation: “What do you do?”” Where do you live?” “Tell me about your kids.” You get the picture.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

A-Woman-With-DropsyIt all starts with a sick man. There is a man at the party with Dropsy. Anyone know what dropsy is? It is severe edema. Probably caused by severe heart failure. The man is swollen up like a balloon. Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath. He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath? What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done. He just can’t help himself. He moves on to the guests themselves. All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists. He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party. Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules. Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite. He is going to speak truth. To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

And what is the truth that needs to be said?

Perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.

Let me explain. A friend of mine was sharing this week that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status. For her, this just seems wrong. Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time. If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median.

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Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us. That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter. That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me recently that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family. So he did. He got a job, and he lived at his job. Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for. He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control. We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick. Can’t you just get a job? Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself? How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control. We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that. For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party. All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house. If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters. And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue. What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together. What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by.

And guess who we worship?

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Not money.

Not comfort.

Not power.

All of those are false idols. False promises of a secure life.

We worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus.

And that is enough.

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Theology 101: Sanctification

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

12549095_1192425460786857_4723051213432493191_n.jpgWe had a great conversation in Pub Theology recently–we were talking about God, and who God is, and what it means to us when we talk about God.

Now, one person mentioned during our conversation that they thought of God as perfect. They didn’t know what perfect looks like, but that was something that they understood as fundamental to who God is.

Another person struggled with perfection as a definition for God—“look at the world around us,” they said. “Can you really say that God is perfect?” They were looking at the way God’s creation has consistently screwed up, and they struggled to see how creating fallible, sinful, broken people could have possibly been the intention of a perfect God.

Does God make mistakes? Are we a mistake?

Really this is a question about Free Will—what does it mean that we have free will?

Jeremiah gives us one answer: in our text this morning, we learn from the prophet that God is perfect, that God believes that we are perfectly made, that we are just the way we were meant to be. That God formed us in the womb. God gave us everything we need to flourish.

But there is one thing that God didn’t give us: he didn’t create us to be machines, robotically doing God’s bidding. Instead, God gave us freedom to move around in the world.

Which creates problems, of course. Wouldn’t we all prefer that the people and animals under our control were perfectly obedient all the time? Wouldn’t it be great if our kids never fought with us, our friends always laughed at our jokes, and we never stuck our foot in it? Wouldn’t it be awesome if your dog never chewed up your favorite shoes and your cat never peed in your suitcase?

Wouldn’t it be great if we were always completely confident that we could achieve whatever goal was set before us?

Of course, we aren’t. And the reality is that, while we might prefer that the world bend to our will, when it comes to us individually, we treasure our freedom. There are very few people in this world who enjoy having every decision made for them. And God made us like that on purpose. For all of its confusion, that, too is a gift from God for the people of God.

Because it means that we have the freedom to choose God back. We have the freedom, like the prophet Jeremiah, to find the words to speak. The freedom to discover that, for all of our weakness and vulnerability, God has the capacity to fill us with a life of purpose and meaning that we can choose. The freedom to walk the path of justice and mercy because we wish to, not because we have to.

That freedom—the freedom to choose—is expressed in our tradition as sanctification. Sanctification is the practice of choosing holiness, and as followers of Jesus, that means using our freedom in ways that bless not just ourselves but the world that God has made. Choosing kindness, and mercy, and justice, the things of God for the people of God, over everything else that calls to us.

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There is a great example of what this might look like in an ancient story called the Odyssey. The Odyssey follows the journey of its hero, Odysseus, as he fights his way home to his family. This is his only goal. And there is this one point in his story where he must pass by a stretch of the ocean that is known for shipwrecking captains. Here, the irresistible song of the sirens lures men into the waters and the rocky shores, where they inevitably perish. And so Odysseus, who wants to go home, directs his men to plug their ears with beeswax, and to tie him to the mast. No matter what he says or how loud he begs, he remains on that mast. Until they are safe. Until he can remember what is truly important.

Of course, Odysseus isn’t the only ancient person who sought to protect his freedom by binding his options. This is what the law of Moses was and is intended to do—it creates limits around the people of God so that they can honor their choice to follow God. Like Odysseus, the Jewish people bind themselves, in this case, to a covenant that governs their behavior and ensures that everyone is taken care of.

Except for when they aren’t. It turned out that sometimes, the rules and the values come into conflict. In Jewish tradition, these conflicts are explored in something called the Midrash—in midrash, great rabbis like Rashi and Akiva try to resolve the problems. And in our Gospel today, Jesus steps right into the middle of that conversation: if the rules are meant to help us follow God, what do we do when it seems like God is asking us to break the rules to help another person? Jesus answer is that there is no conflict—freeing a crippled woman from her bondage on the Sabbath, a day of freedom for God’s people, is precisely the intention of Sabbath to begin with. But not everyone agrees.

Because they have a different vision of holiness.

I can relate to that. Don’t we all, if we are honest, have an idea in our minds of what perfection looks like? If we could have the perfect life, your idea of what that looks like would probably not look the same as mine.  Some of us might bring to mind a place that seems perfect, or people that we would surround ourselves with. Because we all have different ideas of perfection.  Just like the people in the bible.

But here’s the thing. Jesus is asking us to consider the possibility that holiness, that perfection, isn’t about you or me or what any one person thinks. It is about us. It is about the community, and we aren’t perfect until all of us are free. We aren’t perfect until the lame can walk, the blind can see, the sick are healed, the widow and the orphan are provided for, the prisoner is visited, and the lonely are embraced. Only then are we perfect. And so he heals on the Sabbath. He breaks a rule. Because he has looked at the bigger picture—God’s Dream of the Kingdom of God—and he saw this woman left behind. Not all rules are the same. (it may surprise you to learn, by the way, that most rabbis agree with him).

So if you are asking yourself—what does this mean for me? Perhaps you would do well to hear what Jesus often says to those who pose that question: “Go and do likewise.” We who would call ourselves Christians are called to respond to Christ by seeking to be like him.

To refuse to settle for a shallow faith. To look for the big picture : ask yourself, “Does my life make room for others? Have I remembered the poor, the sick, the lame, the lonely as much as I have remembered myself? Have I used my freedom for the glory of God? Or only for myself?

Unknown.jpegOur tradition has another name for this. John Calvin called it “putting on God spectacles” so that you can see the world the way that God sees it.   Because when we really listen to what God is saying in the Scriptures, it changes our vision. We see the world differently. And that can make all the difference.

 

 

Theology 101: Faith

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!


Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

IMG_6087.JPGA gardener decided to plant a garden.

She started the fall before, picking the perfect spot—for days, she watched the suns daily movement across her land, until she knew the pattern of light well enough to know that that patch, over there, past the oak tree, near the dam, would get the best morning and afternoon light. She tested the soil and squealed with delight to find it rich and nourishing, perfect for what she had planned.

Only then did she set to work—tilling the soil within her plot, pulling out stones, removing the roots of distant trees snaking beneath the soil, digging up those intrepid volunteer weeds that would not be able to share this space with what she had planned.

And then, because she knew there were plenty of foragers who might be tempted by her garden, she laid a fence. No scavengers or menaces would be welcomed here. She buried it a foot into the ground to keep out the groundhogs and rabbits, and hoped that the four feet would be enough to deter the deer that year.

As the winter frosts set in and the sun retreated earlier and earlier into the night sky, she began to plan—poring over seed catalogues, planning out the garden of her dreams on paper, plotting each plant to ensure the best possible yield. She ordered seeds—tomatoes and corn, beans and lettuce, beets, potatoes, cabbage and celery, herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS—And then she waited for the mailman to bring her treasures to her front door.

In February, her garden lay frozen beyond the oak tree, but she continued to work for her garden, starting the tiny little seeds in unassuming flats of soil on shelves in her basement. Every morning, she checked the grow lamp, water levels, tended to her babies as though they were her most precious possession. She counted the days until the final frost had passed, sowing carrots, peas, beets and lettuce in neat rows of dark, damp loam.

In the mornings, she began to sip her coffee on the porch and laughed at the rabbits as they hopped around the fence, unable to find their way in.

In late spring, she brought her little babies out of the basement and set them on the porch—seeds that had become tomatoes and eggplants, peppers and cabbage, herbes upon herbs and FLOWERS—and she laid them in their plots. She put cages around the tomatoes and built trellises for the beans and the cucumbers, piled the dirt upon the beginnings of potatoes and corn, and when all was finished, she sat back on her porch, tired and satisfied, and waited for it to grow.

She waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In June, she started to get worried. The plants were growing, alright, but they weren’t setting any fruit. Her carrots were spindly, and her lettuce was as pokey as could be. What was wrong with the garden that she had planted? There were no pests to be found—the rabbits, the groundhogs, even the bugs had left her patch to itself. Only the bees zipped around, seeking in vain for the flowers that refused to emerge.

In July, she got angry—not even the hint of an eggplant or a tomato to be seen. All of that labor was threatening to yield nothing more than a few sparse salad greens and whole lot of frustration. She had a stern talking to her plants, and then retreated to her porch, stewing as the sun set in the sky.

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What then, do you suppose she should do in August, when nothing has changed? She has done everything right, and these plants she had tended lovingly, they have refused to do the one thing that ought to come naturally to them—they have refused to bear fruit. Would we blame her if, in her frustration, she gave up entirely? Ripped out the plants, the fence, the trellis and the tomato cages, plowed under the garden and let the grass overtake it once more?

I can relate to her—for years now, I have been tending the roses in the back yard of the manse, willing them to flower. And I have done everything I could for these plants that I did not even choose—when we moved here, Sean Pope helped us cut down the weed trees that choked out the light. We weeded, we mulched, we fertilized. When Japanese beetles and rose slugs and aphids emerged, I picked them off, sprayed them with garden soap, smothered them in a bucket of soapy water. Most of the roses have responded gratefully, and this spring their blooms were overwhelming and received with joy.

Except for one. One sickly, spindly, leggy rose in the corner by the nursery has flat out refused to flourish. Despite my best efforts, it has produced little more than a handful of pale pink blossoms on the end of sickly, leggy, stalks. Nothing I have done for it has worked.

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And so, it will go. This fall, three summers into this rescue mission, it will go the way of all ungrateful plants, and make room for something that will do something with the plot of land that it has been given. There just isn’t room in our yard to be wasted on roses that refuse to bloom.

Am I sad? Of course. I didn’t plant that rose, but I tended to it like it was my own. It received the same attention and care that I gave to everything else—the dahlias and Echinacea, tomatoes and tulips that grace the earth. But unlike them, it didn’t seem to care how much time or attention I gave it. And so, I will save my efforts for those corners of my garden that show promise. They haven’t given up on me, and I won’t give up on them.

Of course, this was never really about a garden, was it? In our first lesson this morning, Isaiah speaks in metaphors—and when he speaks of the garden, we know that what he means is the people of God. That God is like a gardener who planted his people, who gave them everything they needed to flourish. And in our text today, perhaps we find ourselves threatened as God tears down the walls and leaves his garden to perish. Or perhaps we are intimated by Paul’s list of all of the faithful gardens of the past, whose examples seem impossible to follow.

But there is another way to read these lessons. Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge that God has given us absolutely everything that we need to flourish. That if we are God’s garden, we have amazing potential. We have been given the same care and attention that God gave to the Israelites in the desert, to the judges and the kings, the prophets and the martyrs, who at the end of the day were ordinary people who trusted that the Gardener would stand with them in extraordinary times.

The truth is that the garden that is Ivyland Presbyterian Church could produce the most amazing fruit—enough to feed everyone. And like any good garden of the people, we have so many different gifts to share. Spiritual tomatoes and corn, potatoes and eggplant, peppers and celery, herbs upon herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS! And none of us isn’t important. We all have a purpose. Remember, the tomato and the corn may seem like the king of the garden, but they are stronger for the carrots and marigolds and beans that provide additional nourishment, deter pests, and encourage the bees to take a visit. And the herbs—they provide so much flavor to our communal life with so little.

I could beat this metaphor into the ground, of course, but the point is this: when we see ourselves as the garden that God made us to be, then we see that what comes naturally, what we would call faith, is the work of learning to live together. That what comes naturally is supporting one another, encouraging one another, loving one another, because together we are far better than we are alone. Together, we have everything we need. Together, we make the most beautiful garden you have ever seen. A garden of justice, of mercy, of kindness, and righteousness.

And that, my friends, is what faith looks like. It looks like a garden of people, planted by God, filled with the goodness and promise of harvest. People doing what they were made to do, because they trust in the Gardener who made them and who tends them still. And that, brothers and sisters, is pleasing to God.