Friday, October 28, 2022

R2D2...

 


“R2D2”

 

Luke 19:1-10
19:1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it.

19:2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.

19:3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

19:4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

19:5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

19:6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

19:7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."

19:8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."

19:9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.

19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

 

 

Two big things happened in my life in 1977. In that year—which seems like long ago and far, far away—the movie “Star Wars,” by director George Lucas, debuted in theaters across America, and I got married to a woman I had idolized since childhood. Both were epic events: one turned the world upside down, and the other was just a movie…well, it turned MY world upside down! 

 

Just a couple of weeks after our wedding on May 28 of that year, beautiful Dara and I went to see “Star Wars” at the Drake Theater in Oil City (we were living in Rocky Grove at the time). A couple things to know here: one, Dara is not a “movie buff,” and takes serious convincing to go to any movie that costs money to see; and two, “Star Wars” was a big unknown, but sounding like science fiction, it was definitely out of Dara’s “wheelhouse.” I had only seen a couple of the early TV trailers for the film, and honestly, they made it look like a kids’ film. They certainly did not persuade me to want to see the film. However, the Monday night after the film debuted, I followed my normal evening ritual and tuned in the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson (most of America did, too, back then). In their typical “what did you do over the weekend” banter between host, Carson, and “co-pilot,” Ed McMahon, Carson stated that he had gone to see “that new George Lucas film, ‘Star Wars’.” McMahon responded, “Isn’t that a KIDS’ film?,” to which Carson enthusiastically answered, “OH NO! It’s incredible! It’s going to be big! BIG!” When Carson “puffed” something, back then, you could be assured it WAS “big,” and that it would be quality. So, I convinced the bride to go with me, as one of our early adventures.

 

Now, I know I’m writing to several generations that know full well that “Star Wars” became QUITE “BIG!” In fact, it is still in vogue to make FUN of anyone who confesses to having never SEEN the series of films under this banner, but most especially the first one, which is now dubbed “Episode IV,” as Lucas went on to make the three “prequels.” But I can tell you that seeing that first “Star Wars” film was like nothing any of us had seen before. One literally “floated” out of the theater into “our” reality, feeling like one had been actually transported to another time “a long time ago” and “a galaxy far, far away.” It was magical. I would not experience that kind of “willing suspension of disbelief” (the dictionary definition of drama) until years later, when my college student daughter whisked us off to see “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first of the legendary “Harry Potter” movies. 

 

The big surprise—and a welcome one, at that—was that the beautiful princess Dara loved it! She like the story, the rapid pace, the “spiritual” overtones, but absolutely fell in LOVE with the “Droids,” and especially the little trash-can-inspired R2D2, with his fweeps, bleeps, and flashing lights. The creative genius George Lucas, when asked where he came up with the name for the chubby, diminutive robot, said that he was in the midst of writing the script for “Star Wars,” when he wandered into the sound editing suite where his team was finishing his earlier film, “American Graffiti.”  As Lucas sat there pondering, the chief sound editor asked the tape guy to cue up “R2D2.” Lucas said, “Wait—what is that?” The editor said, “Reel 2, Dialogue 2—R2D2.” A robot name was born! 

 

Now that may be more than you wanted to know, both about “Star Wars” and my early marriage, but I DO have a point here! As I was studying the famous “Zacchaeus” passage from Luke—one of the lectionary selections for this weekend—all I could think of was R2D2, the little droid that stole my young wife’s affections. It seems that R2D2 and Zacchaeus may have a lot in common.

 

In the first “Star Wars” film, the droids, C3PO and R2D2 are introduced to the audience as a kind of “Laurel and Hardy” comic relief. But before the end of the movie, they are heroes, and especially the little silver and blue little guy, who bears the secret plans for the “Death Star,” that makes possible its demise by hero Luke Skywalker, who is a “Christ figure” in anybody’s book. (Why, just take the name of storyteller Lucas’s favorite Gospel writer from his Methodist roots, and stick it with a Native American euphemism for the Great Spirit, and there you have it!) Fact is, now that we have the benefit of all nine films, we know that the two droids are the only characters who appear in ALL of the films. They are the “narration tools” or talismans that carry forth the legend from movie to movie, and R2D2’s special alliance with the whole corpus of the Skywalker motif give him prominence in the “droid world.” Now, C3PO is important, too, as he is the “foil” for R2D2, but he is also his “mouthpiece,” able to communication with all of the machine world, including interpreting R2D2’s electronic signals. That makes him a kind of “Peter” figure in the story, for even with all of his fears and flaws, the story just wouldn’t have gone forward without him. But that is another sermon for another time…

 

Zacchaeus, we are told by Luke, is a “chief tax collector” and is “rich.” He is also short, which was probably just as big a social handicap in his day as it is today, spoken by the shortest Sterling male in my family lineage. He couldn’t even see Jesus, so he climbs a tree to overcome his “short-sightedness.” Of course, this may have also put him square in Jesus’ line-of-sight, hence his story joins the stuff of legend, but I’m not so sure Jesus wouldn’t have found him, anyway. You see, Jesus liked tax collectors, fishermen, and “sinners,” according to the Pharisees. Matthew was a tax collector, and Judas may have been one, too, given he is made treasurer by the disciples. Tax collectors knew how to handle money—it was their job. And here we have Jesus making an important connection with Zacchaeus, another tax collector. Even as fishermen would have known how to “communicate” with the blue-collar culture of First Century Palestine, so would tax collectors understand the “hoity-toity” world of the rich and “high society.” And since Jesus talked more about money than any other subject, probably because it holds so much sway over everyone, he needed followers who knew about it and had a history with it. Tax collectors were often seen as “unredeemable” by the culture of that time, and so in redeeming so many of them, Jesus offered hope for all, and built a “base” out of their knowledge and power. 

 

Even as we have turned Zacchaeus’s story into a “children’s yarn” and a cute little song, so we miss the power of how George Lucas uses R2D2 and the droids to carry his narrative and build an “empire” of story. Jesus was quite intentional about weaving the tax collectors and “C3POs” (fishermen) into his story, knowing they would carry the day. They understood the language of the target audience and how to connect with it. Just as with George Lucas’s droids, there is a universalism about the tax collectors and fishermen. And just as the “evil forces” of the Empire were empowered by technology, the two feisty droids countermand that technological advantage with their technology, woven together with the cleverness of the “good guys” and the power of story. In our gospel tale, Jesus, the “Jedi Master,” gathers a band of loyal commoners who bring passion, knowledge of the sitz im leben of the day, and a poignant “ignorance” that fed a desire to “learn from the master.” Luke Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi (and later Yoda, HIS master); Darth Vader (Satan), meet your match, drawn from the common “dirt” of the creation! 

 

Look again at the story of our first century “R2D2” stand-in, Zacchaeus. He was living in the house of luxury and power before his chance meeting with Jesus, which changed his life forever. Being “short of stature” may have been about more than his height, but may also be seen as an assessment of how “short” he was of what he truly wanted to be. Wealth and power not only can corrupt, but they are ultimately very unfulfilling. Ask Darth Vader. From what he had heard about Jesus, Zacchaeus want so much more out of his existence, and believed Jesus may be the key. Sound familiar to YOUR story? He climbs a Sycamore tree to get a better view, possibly signaling the “view” Jesus would later get from the tree he “climbed” for us all. Oh, by the way, the Sycamore tree is the pretty agreed upon identity of what has come to be known as the “Tree of Life.” This imagery of the little tax collector hanging in the Tree of Life in order to get a good look at Jesus was certainly not lost on Jesus. Their meeting is akin to young Mr. Skywalker having his first meeting with R2D2, who plays a message that will change Luke’s life forever. In the Bible story, the message flows in the other direction, but the effect is quite the same. Salvation comes to the “house” of Zacchaeus, meaning his entire world—including the future of his family, for this is what “house” included—was about to be changed by it. 

 

Of course, being a good Wesleyan, Zacchaeus pledges to turn his new-found redemption into a life of generosity, a complete reordering of his priorities, and service to God and others. He pledges to make right the wrongs of his life. This commitment always seems to impress Jesus in the gospels. That little robot R2D2 could have kept that hidden message to himself, never stepped into that escape pod, and might never have gone looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi. He would have missed his destiny by never crossing paths with Luke Skywalker. And we would never had heard the saga of it all. Again, sound familiar? Curious tax collectors and disaffected fishermen are the stuff Kingdoms are made up of, at least for Jesus.

 

I don’t know which characters in the “Star Wars” series you may have identified with, but almost all of them have biblical origins, as do most memorable literary or cinematic persona. I suppose one could make a case for Han Solo being a composite of the Woman at the Well and the Apostle Paul, but that, too, is a sermon for another time. I locked on to R2D2 as I reviewed the story of Zacchaeus because the characteristic they first shared was that they were short. In both stories, they turn out to stand taller than almost anyone else in the narrative, and they are fulcrum characters, par excellence. Thanks to R2D2, the evil Empire is vanquished. Thanks to Zacchaeus, all of us who think we have it all together, and yet are somehow unsatisfied with life, have a hope for salvation. In Jesus Christ, both “trees” become the Tree of Life for us all. 

 

If you have found the Master, keep your lights flashing and your fweeps and boops signaling your continued hunger for following him and knowing him more deeply. If you are still in the pre-tree-climbing mode of Zacchaeus, keep seeking a better view, and the Lord of the Tree of Life will seek YOU out. These are the great signs of hope and love we get from this marvelous Bible story of a “wee little man.” And if you are a “Star Wars” fan, watch it again for the plethora of parallels between its protagonists and our Bible heroes. And never be like the religious leaders who missed the magic because they criticized Jesus for “going to the house” of tax collectors and “sinners,” instead of realizing they were the world that was his parish. And they would become the “rock” upon which he would build his church. Amen!

 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

IRS Righteousness...

 


“IRS Righteousness”

 

Luke 18:9-14
18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

18:10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'

18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'

18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

 

Seems like the church is rife today with debates over who is “righteous” and who isn’t. Most of those engaged in the debate tend to substitute the word “right” for “righteous,” making the debate over who is right and who is wrong. It has become, at least on the surface, a theological debate. But that’s just on the surface. In reality it is more of a “urination” contest, with each side wanting to “win.” Unlike past “urination” contests, which have been featured throughout the history of the church, and most of which just result in bad PR that chases away “seekers,” this one looks like it is leading toward a schism, at least for the Methodists. Of course a better definition of “righteous” is “right-living,” not right-thinking. When Jesus uses the word “righteous,” he tends to think toward the former, and today’s parable from Luke 18 is aimed at those who “trust in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Is audience is the “right-thinkers,” or at least those who thought they were, and the “regarded others with contempt” is important here. This is what turns a debate into a “urination” contest.

 

As far as the individual Christian is concerned, our definition of “righteous” matters, too. In my years in ministry, if I were to ask parishioners if they were “righteous,” most would hem-haw around a bit before saying they want to be, and to live a life pleasing to God, but generally would judge themselves as falling short. Interestingly, this response revealed several things about them, including that they understood Jesus’ definition of “righteous” as “right-living,” and that the person they tended to “regard with contempt” was themselves, or more accurately, their relative failure at living as a follower of Jesus. As their pastor, it was my job to teach them about grace, and the love, forgiveness, and acceptance it offers to all in the name of Jesus, and then to offer life lessons (Bible study) in living for Christ. We clergy have apparently been failures ourselves in this endeavor, given the number of our people who miss the grace and beat themselves up with self-contempt. Unfortunately, this is the land where so many of our parishioners live—the world of the “tax collector” in Jesus’ parable.

 

The good news is that this humility is admirable, as demonstrated in the parable. The Pharisee is quite proud of whatever he does (or doesn’t do) that makes him “righteous,” at least in his own mind. He feels good about himself, his standing in the religious community, and believes his theology is correct and appropriately “honors” God. What makes him feel better is comparing himself to others he views as inferior, including “that tax collector.” He doesn’t need to seek mercy, as he has arrived at full-blown SELF-righteousness. The tax collector, on the other hand, fully understands his need for God’s mercy, and asks for it. And as we know, good things come to those who ask.

 

Jesus ends this little story with one of his famous “great reversals”: “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Pharisee does all the right things, but for the wrong reasons. His “right-living” is done to keep God off his back and allow him to inhabit his little, religiously supplied bubble. From its safety and security, he bolsters his ego by comparing himself to those who are NOT “right-living” folk. However, in the reversal, it is folk like these “nots”—specifically the tax collector—who humbles himself before God and is “exalted” by going to his home “justified.” 

 

Rejoicing that we are “not like those people” is not an endorsed activity, at least by Jesus Christ. And if we spend any of our time drawing borders as to who “those people” are and why we are NOT “those people,” we are doing the most UN-Jesus-like thing we can do. The good news of the Good News is that, if we discover the error of these judgmental ways and ask for God’s mercy to change, we may enter the realm of the justified, like the tax collector. If, however, we work at fine-tuning our judging skills, instead, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of the great reversal. 

 

Of course, we only see the humility of the tax collector. Hopefully, if we saw “the rest of the story,” as the late Paul Harvey might have said, we would not see the justified tax collector allowing his ego to be stroked by the grace he has received and begin to draw some lines of judgment, himself. “Thank God I am not like that OTHER tax collector over there!” would be a bad response to grace. This error can happen on the macro scale, as well. If those in the church who crusade for the inclusion of all of God’s people, act like they are “more right” or even more “righteous” than the self-righteous judgers, they, too, will cross over into the wrong side of the great reversal. This happens. We can become such strong advocates for those we feel are being oppressed that we “take up the offense” of these “victims” and harshly or even severely judge the oppressors, when the ultimate goal of grace is reconciliation of the two parties. Reconciliation is truly the “rest of the story.”

 

One of the other lectionary passages for this weekend is from II Timothy 4. It is well known, and is often quoted at the funeral service of a beloved servant/saint: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Wouldn’t we all want that said of us? Living rightly, according to the teachings of Jesus, in accordance with the “spirit” of the law of God? Glorifying God with our everyday response to the life challenges dealt us? Sure we would! The “race” is not a sprint, but a marathon. The “good fight” is not a boxing match, but a stand against evil and injustice, “turning the other cheek,” and offering grace when a reciprocal punch would be much more personally satisfying! The “tax collector” fights the good fight and “finishes the race,” in this weekend’s parable. The Pharisee plays the game of “King of the Hill” and shoves inferior challengers to the prize off the mountain. Marathons are really hard, and usually are notable by the differing “turf” they put before the runner. The Pittsburgh Marathon, for example, is famous for its hills. Paul’s race had him challenged by the pagans and the gentiles on the “evangelism” side, and by the Jerusalem Council and the “genuine believers” on the “friendly” side. Which was worse? Paul would probably say the church officials—sound familiar? We are living in a time when large numbers of Methodists are saying the church is “wrong,” and should be left behind by a two-thirds vote. But this is the church many of us were baptized into, confirmed into, and some of us even ordained to serve. That it is both challenged by and challenging in terms of what we believe, what is “biblical,” and what is in accordance with the teachings of Jesus is normal, if you follow the writings of Paul the Apostle. Equating the pending schism with Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways over John Mark seems like a monumental overreach. “Fighting the good fight” is not really about whose “good,” nor is it meant to be a real “fight.” It’s a metaphor for persevering in the face of monumental challenges.” People are lining up to fire at each other for very, very unrighteous reasons. The humble tax collector may teach us all lessons, indeed.

 

The church would be much better off today if there was more beating of breasts and looking up to heaven going on, rather than the judgmental “tsk, tsking” by those finding fault with others and making that their mission. For the individual Christian disciple, the call of God is to faithfulness, being a genuine witness for the love and grace of Christ, and understanding that the “race” is a lifetime long journey, is the goal. When John Wesley urged his preachers to “offer them Christ,” he was sending them into a marathon, not a sprint. His understanding of “the offer” was simple forgiveness and acceptance, for a simple, humble people. Let us not turn it into a Pharisaical, theological puzzle that only some people are able to solve. May we all beg for it like the tax collector and offer it like a beggar helping another beggar find bread. Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Beyond Sour Grapes...


 “Beyond Sour Grapes”

Jeremiah 31:27-34

31:27 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals.

31:28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD.

31:29 In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."

31:30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.


31:31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

31:32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.

31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

31:34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Psalm 119:97-104
119:97 Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.

119:98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.

119:99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.

119:100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.

119:101 I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.

119:102 I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.

119:103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

119:104 Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

Genesis 32:22-31
32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

32:25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

32:26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."

32:27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."

32:28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."

32:29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.

32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."

32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Psalm 121
121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come?

121:2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

121:3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

121:4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

121:5 The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.

121:6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

121:7 The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

121:8 The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,

3:15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

3:17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:

4:2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

4:3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,

4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

4:5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Luke 18:1-8
18:1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

18:2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.

18:3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.'

18:4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,

18:5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'"

18:6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.

18:7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

18:8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

 

Sour grapes. Most of us know this phrase from a fable by Aesop. A fox sees some grapes that look really good, but upon finding them unattainable, he rationalizes this by suspecting that the grapes were sour, anyway. 

 

This weekend’s lectionary passages are an eclectic bunch, but all of them have some kind of “bitch” (sour grapes) that God desires to turn around, because God loves God’s people. Here’s your “minute commentary” on them:

 

Jeremiah 31:27-34 – God’s judgment can be harsh; if parents eat “sour grapes,” then the kids will have to eat them, too. Meaning? The sins of the parents are visited upon the children. Fix? God’s promised (eschatological?) “new covenant” will turn this around.

 

Psalm 119:97-104 – The loyal “servant” of the Most High keeps God’s commandments because it is the “right” thing to do. The “sour grapes” implied is that keeping God’s commands may require giving up personal freedoms, but this is seen by the psalmist as better than being smited by God.

 

Genesis 32:22-31 – Jacob “wrestles” with God and wins; he gets his way. Jacob, the conniver, always seems to get his way, eventually. Only Laban, his father-in-law, gets one over on him, but only for a brief while. Jacob leaves a trail of “sour grapes” wherever he goes. His seed, Israel, is pretty much an extension of both his perseverance and goodness, and his selfish manipulating.

 

Psalm 121 – A beautiful and popular Psalm, the “sour grapes” here are that one who keeps her eyes on the hills gets a stiff neck, and waiting for God’s deliverance can be a test of patience, given “God’s time is not our time.” 

 

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 – The famous “all scripture is inspired by God…” passage; of course, many who appeal to this verse today forget that in Paul’s day, what he was WRITING was not yet canonical, and the “scripture” available to his audience was the Torah and the Writings. Even the Gospels weren’t yet “in print.” The “sour grapes” was that there were people with “itchy ears” who would not “put up with” sound doctrine. Again, we are left to question what “doctrines,” apart from Judaism, were in circulation? The church was so new that the doctrines Paul may have been referring to were ones HE or the Jerusalem Council had prescribed. To lift the “all scripture is inspired by God…” verses and say that today they mean we should take the Bible literally is a far, far reach at least, and ludicrous, at most.

 

Luke 18:1-8 – This is Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. The woman sought justice “against her opponent,” presumably in a court of law, but the judge couldn’t be bothered, probably because she was just a woman, and one whose husband had rejected her and kicked her out (many of the “widows” of that day were in this state). The “sour grapes” is that this woman had to keep pestering and pestering to get justice in this system, and only her badgering this idiot of a judge was she able to overcome the prejudice inherent in it, and find the justice that should have been afforded her by law. Sound familiar? What year is this? 2022? 

 

Every one of this weekend’s passages could be the text for a message entitled “sour grapes,” but more from the perspective of how the term is used by the prophet, and not the storyteller, Aesop. There are many ways to look at the Jeremiah text. Overall, it is a prophetic “promise” that a “new covenant” is coming from God for God’s people. This hopeful prophecy says that no longer will the ”sour grapes” (sins) committed by the parents will be passed on to their children as a kind of curse. Do we hear what Jeremiah is saying about God’s new covenant? It will result in the total dismissal of “original sin.” The only sins people will be responsible for in the future will be the ones they, personally, will commit. AND, God will forgive these sins and “remember them no more.” 

 

Jeremiah just didn’t get the “evangelical” doctrine of needing to feel sorry for sin, repent of it, confess it to God, have it forgiven by the “blood of Jesus,” and live life like it may bite them in the backside again, soon. No, the word God gave to Jeremiah to speak to the people of God was that ALL of them would “know God” in this new covenant, have their sins wiped out by an ever-flowing wash of grace, and would be able to “read” the law of God from off the renewed hearts God would put in each of them. Jeremiah foresaw a much larger Jesus than is preached from evangelical pulpits today. Jesus himself saw his role as much more than a “piece of meat” burning on the altar (or hanging on a cross), although this “substitutionary” act somehow became of primary importance to these evangelicals. Jesus’ main aim was to institute this “new covenant” and through his teachings, “write the law of God” onto our redeemed hearts. The “evangelical process” that has evolved and that is labeled as “salvation” today works for some people, but is failing to connect with so many others, especially as humans and society evolve. Some in the evangelical community believe it is just “sour grapes” if persons refuse to engage in the “I’m a sinner”—confess my sin—apply the blood of Jesus—“Now I’m saved” rubric. They tend to see this exclusive, contrived doctrine of “how to be saved” as the “narrow way” Jesus talked about. After all, “broad is the way that leads to destruction.” But what if Jeremiah is right? The “broad way” that leads to destruction are doctrines like the passing of the sin curse (“sour grapes”) from the parents to the children—original sin—and the requirement that persons must be “saved” by a specific rubric of “accepting Christ.” What if Jeremiah is right that in the “new covenant” of God, ALL people will eventually “know God,” from the “least to the greatest”? The “narrow way” is the “escape hatch” from such rigid, “religious” practices to a place where God does the heavy lifting and God’s grace and love are made readily available to all.

 

Some in the evangelical community fear that this more inclusive “way” may give way, in the least, to licentiousness, and to an eternity in hell, at the worst. Jeremiah’s prophecy allows the difficult task of redemption up to God, and the praxis of righteous living up to us, as we unpack the “law of God” written on our hearts. Each generation suffers not from “original sin,” but from bad parenting, bad choices, or both. Unfortunately, so many are born into circumstances that put them at such a steep disadvantage they have to climb a tall ladder to see the first glimpses of the guiding light. Still, Jeremiah prophesies that even these folk will not be forgotten by God. And when Jesus comes on the scene, he makes a beeline for these people. 

 

The best advertisement for the New Covenant instituted by Jesus is a functioning, peaceful, and justice-seeking faith community. The evangelical movement thinks it’s a “saved soul” with a “powerful” testimony. Again, sometimes this formula works, but less and less so. People today too easily dispatch such an individual witness as “well, glad that worked for you,” while not seeing its application for their lives. And when the evangelical community espouses doctrines that erode the ”all people” new covenant promise of Jeremiah’s--such as excluding the LGBTQ community or condemning those who found themselves in the difficult circumstance of having to choose an abortion of a pregnancy—the “power” of the individual testimony gets lost in the toxicity. Jeremiah’s God, and the Jesus of the New Covenant, is much bigger than this.

 

Let me push this “sour grapes” argument one step further. What of those who are dedicated adherents to other faiths? Does the “narrow way” theology mean they are condemned unless they enter the “evangelical process” of “coming to Christ,” they will be condemned at the judgment? Or does Jeremiah’s “new covenant” and the “New Covenant” of Jesus see the narrow way as a God-built “birth canal” into forgiveness, acceptance, and the beloved community of the redeemed? 

 

I’m writing this message on the “at sea” day toward the end of our Royal Caribbean cruise to New England and Newfoundland. I’ve heard a lot of “sour grape” stories from Royal Caribbean cruise veterans on this trip as to how things “just ain’t what they used to be.” The service, in their view, has been far less than stellar, the food inferior, the logistics at ports of call botched, and the entertainment sub-standard. While I must confess to being upset at the poorly-handled “customs and immigration” process in Boston as we returned from St. John, Newfoundland (it resulted in an inordinately long wait on the boat before disembarking into Boston and missing a meeting with friends there, in our case), I can’t share these other “sour grapes” of this cruise. First of all, we felt the food was plentiful and decent. Since this is only our third cruise, I don’t have much with which to compare it, but I’m guessing that if there is a slight quality issue, it is probably related to the 35% rise in food costs that could not be passed on to passengers who paid for the cruise over a year ago. The logistics were most likely affected by the fact that this is an entirely new crew for this cruise, and also due to the hiring difficulties most businesses are having, post-COVID. Still, EVERY member of this crew has been friendly, accommodating, and apologetic, when things don’t go well. Entertainment? We’re on a big boat with great ports of call, perfect weather, good company, and lots of choices of things to do. (Since I like boats and the sea, we spend a lot of time on deck, watching the world go by. I’m not too affected by a lousy vocalist or a bad comedian.) If you eavesdrop on a few conversations, you will hear a broad assessment of how the cruise line is doing. Some are going to write nasty letters to the management; others (like us) have already booked our next cruise. Does this sound like the church? One person’s “sour grapes” is the next person’s blessing. How did we get here from God’s desire to include and bless all?

 

Is there any better covenant than “I will be their God and they will be my people”? The life, ministry, death and resurrection, and efficacy of Jesus Christ became God’s “signature” on this covenant, and assured that the definition of “God” was broadened beyond the ancient one to include differing theological “angles” on our desire to define the Divine. AND Jesus assured that “my people” would be greatly broadened to include anyone who WANTED to be included. 

Regardless of which definition of “sour grapes” you use (Aesops’ fox using the term to devalue the unattainable, Jeremiah’s using it as the “sins of the parents,” or the way it is often used in contemporary language as a doppelganger for “gripe”), all of the lectionary texts today—and especially Jeremiah—are trying to get us beyond the “grapes” to both receive and rejoice in the rescuing promises of God. Why is it so hard for us to “loosen up and let love in”? Why are we so often compelled to turn a “new covenant” into a “rigid doctrine” of how it works and to whom it applies? Are we not happy as humans unless SOMEBODY is left outside the camp? It seems to me that what the Bible is trying to tell us is that the only people “left out” of God’s promises are the few who absolutely and resolutely WANT to be left out, and to this end, they will have to persist at this willful rejection for the totality of their days on earth, as the “Hound of Heaven,” the Holy Spirit, will keep at their hearts with her “softening agent” of grace and her soothing balm of divine love.

 

It’s time to get beyond “sour grapes.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Expecto Patronum...


 “Expecto Patronum” 

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.

5:2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife.

5:3 She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy."

5:7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

5:8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel."

5:9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house.

5:10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."

5:11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!

5:12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage.

5:13 But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?"

5:14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

5:15c Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."

 

 

In the James Bond film (sorry, I’ve been a James Bond fan since childhood, when we could get in to see a movie matinee at the Latonia theater on Saturdays by just bringing a can of food for the local food pantry…), Goldfinger, our hero Mr. Bond was handcuffed to an atomic bomb at the movie’s climax, and was feverishly trying to figure out how to disarm the beast before it vaporized him and the entire U.S. gold repository at Fort Knox. He looked over the complicated mass of spinning things, flashing lights, multi-colored wires, and whirring sounds typical of giant movie bombs, and kept second-guessing which wire to yank, knowing that the wrong one would mean bye-bye Bond. Then, with a second or so to spare, a “good guy” scientist arrives and simply throws a toggle switch to “off,” and the bomb is silenced. It may be one of the few times in the whole Bond corpus where he is made to look pretty foolish, but the joke works so well on Sean Connery. AND, the joke works so well because, like all secret spies, the expectation is that defusing an atomic bomb would require an incredible intellect, cat-like reflexes, and the precision of a surgeon. Nope. Just a switch.

 

Fast forward to more modern times, and arrive in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Think of all of those “spells” these adolescents try with a flick of their “magic wands.” Some, like “little Hermione,” are presciently adept at choosing the right spell for the right job, and executing it posthaste. Others, like Ron, who waves a cracked “Weasley” wand and always seems to clear his throat before speaking the magic words, usually fails. Then there is the kid—I think he is Seamus?—who usually manages to blow things up, including his eyebrows. Spells, wands, and magic, it turns out are complicated things, something like a Bond bomb. No spell is more difficult, and yet important, as the “Patronus Charm.” Here’s a narrative about it from a Harry Potter fan site, maintained by a bunch of people with way too much time on their hands:

 

The Patronus Charm (Expecto Patronum) was the most famous and one of the most powerful defensive charms known to wizard-kind. It was an immensely complicated and extremely difficult spell, that channeled the caster's positive emotions into a powerful protection and evoked a partially-tangible positive energy force known as a Patronusor spirit guardian. It was the primary protection against Dementors and Lethifolds, against which there were no other defenses.

 

The wolfman professor (“Lupine?”) teaches it to Harry, and it becomes a big thing as the Potter saga unfolds. Oh, just for fun, here’s a little Harry Potter commentary from this fan of the series…(this is for free, not part of the sermon, per se)…

 

Many “Christians” have decried the Harry Potter books and movies as “demonic.” Really? Actually, I think J.K. Rowling brilliantly “rescues” Medieval “wizards tales” from the ash-heap of history and revitalizes their typically “biblical” elements they once symbolized. Dumbledore is the God-figure in the stories. Ron is the stumble-bum disciple, Peter. Hermione is a composite of the curious, yet clearly superiorly-thinking women who follow Jesus. Neville Longbottom is Thomas, whose post-resurrection legend just grew and grew, historically. Judas? Clearly Draco Malfoy. The mysterious young blond girl who happens into the story—Luna—may be the disciple John, who seems to truly “get” who Jesus is. I’ve been playing with the idea that Hagrid may be the doppelganger for the Holy Spirit, as he always seems “present” to Harry Potter in each phase of his life. No one needs help to figure out who plays Satan in the story, do they? Unless, of course, you never “did” any Potter. OK, the devil is Voldemort. Duh! And, of course, our dear Harry Potter is Jesus, himself. Oh, come on, you didn’t figure THAT out? “Harry” is as common an English name as was “Jesus” in the first century. And “Potter” (as in “Thou art the POTTER, I am the clay…”) invokes the divine connection, even as “Christ” does. Both are supremely NOW and apocalyptic, at the same time. Harry fights evil, struggles mightily between his humanity and his “wizard-ness,” passionately embraces his friends, takes on all of evil to protect his beloved community, dies that evil might be rendered powerless, and experiences a resurrection, as ultimate good triumphs over evil. What about the three parts of the ”key” to the story, the “Deathly Hallows”? They are: the “cloak of invisibility,” which sure seems to be an analogue for the incarnation of the Divine in Jesus Christ, allowing God to walk around the creation “undetected”; the “Elder Wand,” representing the miracle-working power of Jesus that both enables his crowd-gathering ability, but often gets in the way of his prime message; and the “Resurrection Stone,” that, well, you get it. Even the ending of the final film, when the aged Potter “kids” bring their offspring to Platform 9 ¾ to head off to Hogwarts, is a kind of “launching of the church” and sending the new disciples forth. 

 

If you think this is a bit contrived, you never had a literature course in college, or had a high school English teacher explain the symbolism behind Beowulf

 

Back to the Bible…most of us are quite familiar with this story of Naaman, his bout of leprosy, and the possibility of a healing via the prophet of God, Elisha. Leprosy was a horrible disease back in the day, and often fatal, so the fear it induced would be akin to a serious cancer diagnosis in our day. When told by and errand boy of Elisha that he would be healed if he obediently went and washed seven times in the Jordan River, the commander of the armies of Aram became indignant. I don’t know whether Naaman was a narcissist or just dramatic, but he loses it to think that Elisha doesn’t show up and invoke some kind of magic, impressive Petronus Charm to affect the healing. There should be a rhyming, alliterative spell pronounced, and a lot of wand-swishing! And it should be done in person by the great “Man of God,” for after all, NAAMAN WAS AN IMPORTANT PERSON! If it hadn’t been for his servants, the “great commander” might have succumbed to his leprosy.

 

As in many good stories, “servants to the rescue” was the order of the day, though. They brought Naaman to the place we would later see the Centurion in the New Testament occupy—a confident humility that if Jesus were to just “say the word,” his servant back home would be healed. Appealing to this “chain of command” element of the military mind, Naaman’s servants persuade him to take the bath, AND he is immediately healed. No Petronus Charm, no pyrotechnics, no flicking of the wand, not even the presence of a prophet. To his credit, Naaman gives both praise and credit to the “God of Israel.” By the way, in case anyone ever tries to tell you that there was nothing “supernatural” in Naaman’s healing, and that it was this “washing” in the Jordan that actually cleansed his wounds and healed his leprosy, just ask them if they have ever been to the Jordan. That river is a cesspool. I’d worry profoundly more about what I brought OUT of it rather than what I left IN it, were I to “bathe” in it!

 

I’m like Naaman sometimes. No, not the keen, military mind, as I’ve never served, nor been trained at the Army War College. I’m talking about too often wanting to see the “Hollywood FX” manifested when I pray and ask God for something. Mostly it’s because such a display would let me know the prayer got through, and that God was on the job. Oh, there might be a slight whimper of entitlement present, given I’ve been a “practicing Christian” for so many years, and after all, I DID answer a call to ministry and served churches for 36 years! Have you ever tried to “Naaman out” on God, refusing to do the simple, mundane things the Holy Spirit prompts you to do to help remedy a difficult situation? Have you ever wanted the fireworks, or an angel to show up, just so you know “Your call is important to us, so please stay on the line…”? While these expectations are not necessarily sinful, they may be childish. And they may get in the way of God’s imparted wisdom, which is most often “the droid you are looking for,” as they say. When you pray, never ignore that “still, small voice,” in favor of the booming shout from the heavens. God may just “flip a switch” instead of make a dramatic “save.”

 

Even in the Harry Potter genre, simpler things are usually the “fix,” not the wands and spells. Friendship and loyalty holds the whole story together and wins in the end. I loved the ending of the very first film, when Dumbledore is talking bedside to Harry, who is recuperating from a truly “Hollywood” encounter with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. What was the secret to his defeating evil at this juncture, according to the great wizard? “Love, Harry, LOVE!” Sounds like a very Jesus-like lesson to me.

 

So, to the Naaman in all of us, I say “Love, Harry, LOVE!” For God SO LOVED the world that God gave God’s only Son...and don’t let your membership in the greater “whosoever believes” get in the way of knowing you are special in God’s eyes. Just don’t think that means you get a Petronus showing up every time you are in need. And listen in prayer for the “servant commands” the Holy Spirit may offer to help you navigate out of the “life leprosy” you may find yourself immersed in. Amen!

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Floaters...

 


“Floaters”

 

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?

1:3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

1:4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

2:2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.

2:3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.


2:4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

 

I will never forget the week that Dr. Donald Gowan, my Hebrew Bible professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, taught on this one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. As he was writing the name of the prophet (and his book, of course) on the blackboard, one wiseacre at the back of the class asked if we would lose points if we didn’t spell it correctly on the test. Dr. Gowan said, “Yes, you will,” to which the class sighed collectively out loud. Dr. Gowan turned around with a surprised look on this face and said, “Oh, come on now, it’s one of the easiest books of the Bible to spell (class swoons again)…It’s an H and an A, a B and an A, a K and a K, and a U and a K!”

 

H-A-B-A-K-K-U-K!

 

No one ever forgot how to spell it after that!

 

Habakkuk was a MINOR PROPHET but with MAJOR WORDS for Israel. Minor prophets were dubbed “minor prophets,” by the way, just because they wrote less than the “major prophets” like Isaiah and Jeremiah. 

 

The message of Habakkuk can be summed up in the confession of faith that culminates this week’s lesson:  “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The challenge of preaching Habakkuk is unfolding the meaning of this confession. And the shape of the whole of the book provides an argument that defines who the righteous are and what faith in the one, living, true God looks like.

 

--As the scholar Jerome Creach (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) has convincingly argued, the term “righteous” is not first-and-foremost a moral term.  Rather, it is first of all a relational term.  The righteous are those who are dependent on God…

 

Habakkuk ARGUES with God, because God is going to send a judgment on God’s people for YET AGAIN not living “righteously,” or depending on God. He accuses God of doing a BIGGER INJUSTICE than what Israel was guilty of, namely harshly judging them and punishing them. It’s important to remember that prophets were called by God to bring messages to God’s people, and typically an “advance warning” that something BAD was about to befall them because of something they had done in opposition to God’s commands, or at least against God’s “best wishes” for them. Selfishness and a desire to maintain “local control” were the usual reasons for this bad behavior, both of which could seriously erode, if not destroy, the strong community God was trying to build among God’s people, knowing that if this wasn’t the case, Israel would always be most vulnerable to outside enemies. Prophets spoke in jarring, clear language most of the time, hoping to get Israel’s attention—kind of like the old joke of the farmer hitting his mule on the nose with a board to “get his attention.” 

 

When Habakkuk—not unlike Moses—puts forth an “argument” to God that the severity of the proposed “punishment” is too great for the “crime,” in this case, God instead offers to cast a positive vision for Israel.

The basic elements of this promise were:

 

To live as one of God’s righteous people means to live as those who have been promised a vision, but who have not yet received it.  

 

Do not give up. Keep the faith. 

 

Even if the vision is slow to come, the righteous (those who rely on God) should trust that the vision will come.

 

VISIONS are important to accomplishing any major goal, whether for a people or the individual person. They help set the course, kind of like a travel plan. Years ago, long before GPS and Google Maps, our family would decide on where we wanted to go on vacation, and then my wife would make a trip to the American Auto Association, or “Triple A,” as we knew it. She would come home with a bound book called a travel guide for the state or states where we would be traveling, and a tall, skinny, spiral-bound booklet called a “Triptik,” which mapped out the best route for our travel. This served as the “vision” for our trip. The Triptik was a simple map that gave us the roads and turns to get to our destination, and the travel guides told us where the best “approved” hotels were, along with the best restaurants, and the “Gems,” or the best-reviewed sights to see along the way.

 

A clear vision for a person or an organization can keep you moving toward your goal, keep you from getting lost, and help you not miss important milestones—or lessons—along the way. It may also provide motivation, especially when things happen that make the goal seem impossible. As I mentioned in a recent sermon, Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist, was interred in a German concentration camp during World War II. He developed a “vision” that he would like to come to America after the war and teach psychology in a university. Each day, when he awoke, he would close his eyes and imagine himself standing at a university classroom full of students. This goal and his daily revisiting of this personal vision gave him the will to not surrender to the horrid environment of the camp and the spirit-busting persecution of the German camp guards. It kept him healthy enough to survive the camp, and even to focus on helping the other Jewish prisoners. He chronicled this life-saving, vision-based journey in a famous book entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning.


Many years ago, our Western Pennsylvania Conference churches were “required” to formulate a vision for their ministry. This may have been more successful had churches not simply been required to do so, but instead motivated by stories like we hear from the prophets, and from modern prophets like Frankl. Perhaps if churches were given a better understanding of WHY vision was important to their tasks of ministry, they would have “bought in” more strongly to the process. Some simply jotted down a scripture verse or contrived a quick vision to meet the requirement, while others took this process seriously, studied the Bible on what it taught us about the power of vision, surveyed the congregation for their hopes and dreams for their church, and wrote a vision that captured these important elements. Their context (community) was also taken into consideration in these effective, “visionary” churches. I served as an associate pastor on the staff at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park during this time, and our lead pastor, Dr. Ron Hoellein, led us through a wonderful process to write a vision for that congregation. That vision guided the ministries and growth of that church for over 18 years, and when I was appointed as lead pastor, following Dr. Hoellein, we began the process anew. The late Faith Geer, who was an outstanding Conference leader and our Administrative Director at St. Paul’s, was invaluable in guiding this process of “revisioning.” We employed a survey method called “Appreciative Inquiry” to hear afresh the hopes and dreams of the people of St. Paul’s, and then began polling every class, group, and ministry team at the church. This new visioning process took us the better part of three years, but as St. Paul’s has always been guided by its vision, it was important that a new one had full “buy in” by its people and leaders. Interestingly, the “old” vision was early on judged to have been so effective that it had BECOME the Mission Statement of the church, meaning it was now our shared identity—the vision had become “who we were.” 

 

The new vision statement now being called upon to “pull us into the future” was approved by the Church Conference, and was put into effect. All publications including the weekly church bulletin would carry the Mission and Vision statements, as would the stationary. All groups would be asked to do a brief “study” of it, and decide how their group or team saw themselves as helping to fulfill it. Here it is:

 

St. Paul’s will be a diverse, inclusive church, loving others according to the teachings of Jesus, and working for justice and peace in our world.

 

This continues to serve as the vision for a congregation that desires to become fully inclusive of all persons, and desires to become diverse, especially since it has historically been mostly a white, suburban congregation. The “working for justice” part of the vision has already given birth to a ministry team that actually CALLS itself “Working for Justice.” This team has begun working with a Black church in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, has developed backpack and feeding ministries with that congregation, and has offered a number of opportunities for the people of St. Paul’s to engage in justice ministries. This weekend they erected a “T-Shirt” memorial on the church’s front lawn for all of the people who lost their lives by gun violence in Allegheny County this year. 

 

A vision DOES make a difference as Habakkuk reminds Israel and us! Oh, at the same time churches were given the assignment of writing a vision, our ordained ministers were asked to do one personally. After much prayer and thought, I wrote a personal vision that indeed guided my ministry over 36 years:

 

As an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, I will serve the Lord Jesus Christ and His church, utilizing my gifts and graces to their fullest, and will be a pastor of quality and integrity, exceeding the expectations of the congregations I serve.

 

Habakkuk’s vision for Israel can be summed up thusly:

 

The RIGHTEOUS shall live by their faith in Yahweh.

 

The problem with vision is that a number of things can get in the way to CLOUD our vision! Let’s talk a moment about floaters. A couple of years ago, I was sitting in my office at St. Paul’s, writing my sermon for that next Sunday on my computer. Suddenly, something weird popped into the field of view in my right eye. This black “glob” looked like a spider web, and when I looked at the computer screen, this new development was clearly disrupting my view of it. WHAT in the world is THIS, I thought. There was no pain associated with its sudden appearance. I remember that I kept blinking, expecting it to just go away. Now, I had experience, as we all have, with those transient little strings of dead cells floating across our eyeballs, usually made visible by the bright, morning light entering our bedroom windows. But this thing was huge, and it really scared me. Since I was in no other distress, other than this obscuring blob in my eye, I did what I usually do when I have questions—I Googled it!

 

I was surprised to see how many entries there were about what are called floaters. Turns out, they are very common, particularly as we age, and since I was approaching 66, I was in that category. I read several articles on sites like WebMD and “ToYourHealth.com.” They all said that such floaters were nothing to be alarmed about. I read over the things that it could be that WERE indications of larger medical issues, but my new spider web was none of those. I remember thinking, “How will I work with this thing in my right eye?” Being that photography was a hobby of mine, and I had just bought a nice telescope to use in retirement, I was quite concerned about my right eye, as it is my dominant one. I thought about this all the way home that day, and while the floater was always there, and moved up and down in front of my field of vision in that eye, it really didn’t hamper my driving. Once home, Dara reminded me that I had an optometrist appointment early the following week, so I could inquire about both the advent of the floater and what I had read over the Internet.

 

My eye doctor did a thorough examination of my eyes, and said all was well. I told her about the new floater, and she seemed unalarmed, and even nonplussed. She affirmed pretty much what I had read my self—the viscous fluid in the eye begins to thicken as we age, and “filaments” of it occasionally “break off” and become floaters. They never really go away, which is the bad news, and may even increase for us as the years go by. The good news? The amazing brains we all have begin to adapt to them, fashion “work arounds,” and before long, we won’t even notice them. I heard that from the optometrist, I had read numerous articles about it, but I found it hard to believe my mind could just ignore this spider blob of mine. The other good news is that, over the next few weeks, this is exactly what happened. And now, as I type this message, I have to make a conscious effort to even FIND the thing floating there, even as I stare at the bright, white page on my computer screen! Oh, I can find it if I want, but it takes an actual EFFORT to do so. If I don’t think about it, it just doesn’t “exist.”

 

What a metaphor for the things that get in the way of our spiritual “vision”! Life will throw up all kinds of such floaters to obscure our vision, and one might even believe some of these “spider webs of darkness” may be a device of the devil, who loves to create deceptions to keep God’s people from having a life-changing plan or “vision” of their future. In the church, such floaters may take the form of naysaying parishioners, short-sighted pastoral leaders, temporary financial challenges, or unexpected circumstances. Like eye floaters, none of these things has the power to totally block the church’s vision, but if one fixates on any of them, progress toward fulfilling the vision may grind to a halt. Even as our minds are able to brilliantly work around and even totally ignore our personal eye floaters, so God’s Holy Spirit is able to help us push past the momentary challenges to God’s vision for the church—or for our own lives.

 

Believe me, when these floaters first appear, they can be frightening. But with a little accurate information about what they are, and some expert guidance from a professional source, they usually fade into the background and allow the power of vision re-emerge. The good news for the Christian disciple, and for the church, is that we have access to all kinds of accurate information (think of Wesley’s Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason) and “professional” or “expert” guidance—God and God’s Spirit. Why, Jesus taught us much about “light” and “vision,” such as when he reminded us to take the “log” out of our OWN eye before criticizing the “speck” in another’s eye. Floaters are like that, too. They cause us to lose perspective, at least at first.

 

As a pastor, when I would be assessing a new church appointment as to where their challenges were, I would often hear stories about things that happened—or didn’t happen—in the past as reasons why the church was struggling, or why it couldn’t accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God. These are just floaters. Like Habakkuk told Israel, the way to get beyond these setbacks is to formulate a positive vision of the future, and to again become “dependent” upon God—the righteous shall live by faith! Dependence upon God and reliance upon faith causes our spiritual “eyes” to move beyond the floaters, ignore them, and restore sharp eyesight forward. 

 

THINK OF ALL OF THE FORWARD-LOOKING VISIONS Jesus gave his disciples and US:

 

*”Tear this temple down and I will rebuild it in three days”

 

*”Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”

 

*”Peter, do you love me? FEED MY SHEEP”

 

* “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

 

* “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

 

Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, we will again share the meal Jesus commanded us to take. Jesus could see a whole patch of nasty, spidery, dark floatersheading the way of his disciples and the future church. So he gave us a meal to always remember him by, to receive a regular, fresh “dose” of God’s grace, and to recapture the larger vision of taking the Good News to all the earth and building the Kingdom of God on earth. No floater can obscure the extravagant simplicity of the broken bread and the cup of Christ’s blood, shared by the People of God. The phrase “Do this in remembrance of me” is the “fresh vision” version of “The righteous shall live by faith.” 

 

So, Dear Ones, what are the floaters that have at least temporarily obscured YOUR vision? Whatever they are, today, put them under the subjection of Christ’s great gift to us:

 

14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves, 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

 

Floaters, BEGONE! Dear Lord Jesus, restore for us and for your church an exciting, fresh vision of what we are called to be and shall be! Amen.

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